A Visit to Beit Jala

by Jim Forest

Beit Jala, with its population of 12,350, stands on the eastern slopes of Ras Jala, which rises 920 meters above sea level, one of the highest mountains in the Judean Hills. The town is famous for its olives and olive oil, apricots and skilled stone-cutters. Viewed from a distance, Beit Jala — “carpet of grass” in Aramaic– is simply the western side of Bethlehem, only on higher ground. The border between the two towns is the road that runs south from Jerusalem to Hebron. The main street connecting Bethlehem and Beit Jala — part of it a stairway — is a busy pedestrian artery named in honor of Pope Paul VI. Along the way there are many posters honoring Palestinians who had died in the intifada, from infants killed by accident to suicide bombers. The buildings are two or three storeys high with shops on the ground floor. In ancient times, Beit Jala may have been the Biblical town of Gallim, mentioned by the Prophet Isaiah in relation to the Assyrian invasion in the eighth century before Christ, a time of even greater suffering.

Beit Jala is also one of the main Palestinian centers of Christianity. Approximately 70 percent of the community are Orthodox Christians, 20 percent Catholic, and the rest Muslim. There are three Orthodox churches, a Catholic church and seminary, and a mosque.

Beit Jala is also one of the Palestinian places most damaged by Israeli firepower since the current intifada began in September 2000, just after Sharon’s infamous visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Hundreds of houses have been damaged, many destroyed or made uninhabitable. No one goes to sleep without taking care to be in the safest possible location.

I visited the town in the eleventh month of the current conflict, often referred to both in Israel and Palestine as “the situation.”

In conversation with a taxi driver in the town center, I had the good luck to meet someone not only welcoming but remarkably open and articulate. I will refer to him as Michael, not using his actual name.

I asked if anyone in his family had been hurt in the conflict.

“No, thank God, but we have had some very close calls. There has been serious damage in the upper part of our house but no one was injured, at least not physically. Only one of my daughters — she is seven — has been having terrible nightmares and headaches. My wife and I also have trouble sleeping. But luckily we are not in the area of houses closest to Gilo. For now we are trying to stay in our house.”

Michael gave me a gift — a long, heavy, missile-shaped slug which still had its sharp point. It had shattered a window in his home before being stopped inside a living room couch. It’s a souvenir I didn’t bring back home with me — it’s not the kind of object I would want to explain to a security agent at Ben Gurion Airport — but I have a photo of it in the taxi-driver’s hand.

I mentioned to him that I knew Gilo from the period in 1985 when I was teaching at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute, a place in the immediate neighborhood both of Beit Jala and Gilo, the one community southwest of us, the other west. At the time, Anne was still a baby and Gilo — a young town itself, only fifteen years old — was the one place in walking distance where disposable diapers were for sale in those days. These were sold at an American-style supermarket, but Nancy preferred to do most of our food shopping at traditional open-air Arab markets along the roads to Bethlehem and Beit Jala. Gilo — as new as the nearby Palestinian towns were ancient — was built on land confiscated from Beit Jala and the adjacent village of Beit Safafa. It’s one of the belt of fortress-like settlements Israel has established that circle East Jerusalem. Another substantial settlement, Har Homa, is now under construction on another confiscated hilltop immediately north of Bethlehem.

“Doesn’t anybody care about us?” Michael asked. These were words I heard over and over again from Palestinians in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and then Beit Jala. “Not many of us wish any harm to the Israelis. We want to live side-by-side with them and raise our children in peace. For us who are Christian, it is especially hard — radical Israelis on one side, radical Muslims on the other. These fanatics will be our death. Fanatics are a minority but more and more they seem to be the ones in charge. I pray every day for God to protect us and also ask St. Nicholas to help us.”

The oldest Christian church in Beit Jala is named in honor of St. Nicholas. I had already been in the church for a visit. There were icons of Nicholas everywhere I turned, including one carved from red stone on a pillar in the crypt.

“We Christians are only two percent of the Palestinian population. Our only hope of survival is to live in peace with all our neighbors, whether Jewish or Muslim. Jesus killed no one. He hated no one. He gives us the example of peace.”

I asked if anyone was helping the local people rebuild damaged houses.

“Thank God, the Vatican is helping us, but I am sorry to say we experience no support from our own Orthodox Church. Do Orthodox Christians in other countries not care about their brothers in the land where Christ was born? I am happy you came and only wish many more would come. Perhaps if they saw how we are living, what is happening to us, they would try to help. Perhaps they can have some influence on their governments. What can we do to stop the war? Only people in Europe and America can do that. Who else will the Israelis listen to? For them a Palestinian is hardly more than an animal. But we are human beings who only want to live in peace. We cannot live without the Israelis and they cannot live without us.”

I pointed out that news reports indicate that Israeli forces normally doesn’t shoot first at Beit Jala but open fire only in retaliation. Michael shook his head and lit a cigarette.

“I have to admit the Israelis are not our only problem. There are Palestinian radicals who shoot at Gilo and the army post that protects Gilo. The Palestinian Authority has issued orders that no one should attract fire on populated areas and peaceful homes but such orders have little effect. These men keep shooting — not every day but often. Sometimes they shoot from inside cars. Their only achievement is giving the Israelis an excuse to destroy our homes. I no longer can remember how many times we have been attacked in the last eleven months — thousands of bullets, also rockets and bombs, and who knows what is still to come? We are used to helicopter gunships over our houses. Perhaps next it will be tanks.”

I asked why anyone would shoot at Gilo if the real harm is done not to Gilo but to Beit Jala.

“We don’t think any of the people who fire shots from Beit Jala live here. They use Beit Jala because it is so close to Gilo. They use Beit Jala — and Gilo — to make Israel angry, to make the fire hotter. They think they are doing something brave, something for the liberation of Palestine, but all they do is give Israel an excuse to destroy Palestinian homes and cause more Palestinians to flee to other countries. There are fewer and fewer Christians in the Holy Land.”

I asked if he had ever visited Gilo or knew anyone from that town. That morning the taxi driver who brought me to the military checkpoint to the north of Bethlehem was from Gilo, a man whose parents had come to Israel from the Jewish community in Iraq.

“I was in Gilo when it was mainly olive groves — I gathered olives there with my family — but I wouldn’t dare to go there today, especially right now. Another place I would not dare enter is Har Gilo, a smaller settlement on the western edge of Beit Jala — you can walk there easily from here, only you have to pass through a military checkpoint. Har Gilo was created on Beit Jala land in 1976.”

I asked if he had any hope for better times in the future.

“Some days I have no hope at all and other days I thank God that we are still alive and that it is mainly our houses rather than our people which are destroyed. On those days I feel God is close and it gives me hope.”

His home is near the Church of the Virgin Mary, one of the largest churches in the Holy Land, built of cream white stone in the Byzantine style. “The bell tower is 31 meters high,” Michael said. “You can see Jerusalem from it, and the Jordanian desert.

The conversation with Michael was providential. A planned meeting with the senior Orthodox priest, Fr. George Shawan, came next and was the day’s main event.

A man with a close-clipped, greying beard, Fr. George is living in large house on Virgin Mary Street next to Beit Jala’s only mosque. Also in the house were his wife, mother and children, four of whom I met — Heidi, Christina, Natasha, and Stephanos, who is less than a year old. Also taking part in the visit was Dr. Solomon Nour, headmaster of Hope School, and Rose Saga, a member of his parish whom I knew through a mutual friend.

After lemonade was served, Fr. George told me why the town’s oldest church is named in honor of St. Nicholas.

“For us he is not Santa Claus but like our great great grandfather. We feel we know him personally. In the year 305, several monks from Anatolia in Asia Minor came here and established a small monastery with a church named in honor of the Great Martyr George. This was before St. Sava’s Monastery was founded in the desert east of Bethlehem on the Kidron Gorge near the Dead Sea. The monks in Beit Jala had a few caves and several houses. In the years 312-315, St. Nicholas was here. He came as a pilgrim to visit shrines in the Holy Land. A text written in his own hand is still in the care of the Patriarchate in Jerusalem. It was in his prayers that St. Nicholas heard the Holy Spirit call him back to Asia Minor, to Myra, where soon after his return — in 317 — he was consecrated bishop. We was among the bishops taking part in the first Ecumenical Council.”

I asked about the age of the present church.

“The ancient church was destroyed by the Persians in 614 but another was raised in its place and later also destroyed. It has been built and rebuilt several times, but our local people are very skilled stone workers and never let a church stay in ruins for long. It is said that the people of Beit Jala can make the stone talk!

“But now we are facing another period of destruction. In the past 20 years much of our land has been confiscated and thousands of olive trees destroyed. Many people have been displaced. The Israeli town of Gilo, immediately to the north, is built entirely on land taken from Beit Jala and another Palestinian village, Beit Safafa.”

His views about the violence of the past eleven months were similar to what I had been told by Michael the taxi driver.

“Radical gunmen — not local people — have used Beit Jala in order to fire shots at Gilo. Israel responds with bullets, rockets and bombs. So far 300 homes have been heavily damaged, 50 completely destroyed. Many more have been damaged less severely — broken windows, damage to the furnishings inside. When you think how much damage has been done, how many times Beit Jala has been attacked, it is a miracle there have been so few casualties!”

I asked where people who have been forced from their homes either by destruction or danger are staying.

“Sometimes they stay for a night or two in our churches. In most cases they find places away from the main lines of fire. The most dangerous area is in direct sight of Gilo, the north edge of town.”

Does he see a solution for the conflict?

“We continue to hope that the resolutions of the UN Security Council can be applied and that the way can be found for the Holy Land to be shared and all the people living here to respect and safeguard each other, but it seems to us that Israel’s wishes are quite different. Israel wants everything and controls everything. Israel closes every road. I am afraid to go anywhere. Often it is impossible to visit people who are ill or close to death and need a priest. Even our school, a 20-minute walk from here, is on the other side of a checkpoint.”

I asked if the local people continue in Beit Jala under such circumstances.

“Beit Jala has been a center of Christian life in the Holy land for nearly 2000 years and has survived many catastrophes, but now our Christian community is shrinking, partly because of the violence, but mainly because of our severe economic problems. The most urgent thing for our people is to find jobs and, in the case of newly married couples, to have a place to live. Because of the economic situation, young couples are unable to rent or buy a home or apartment. This is one of the reasons so many of our young people are leaving for America or Jordan or other countries.”

But is housing a question for the Church?

“The Church cannot say this is their problem, not our problem. The Church begins with the family. Without it, there is no Church. We are not a religion of individuals but of families.”

I asked if the Church had the funds for building.

“Our hope is that we can find friends in other countries who can help with long-term, low-interest loans. We have two projects in mind. The first is a housing project especially for young couples. The Church owns the land — it is only a question of putting up the buildings. Our plan is to put up several building with a total 40 apartments costing $50,000 each. Thus we need to borrow $2,000,000. The couples will pay back the loans over a 30-year period.”

The headmaster of the Hope School, Dr. Nour, described one other plan. He has been at the school for 31 years.

“We want to add an additional floor to Hope School and make it a college, adding business administration and computer courses, also new language courses such as Greek. Until now it has been a secondary school with 125 students, 20 of whom are residential because they are orphans. The ages range from twelve to eighteen. Our local Arab Orthodox Benevolent Society owns the building but we have not been able to run it ourselves because we didn’t have enough money. The school has gradually been moving in a more Orthodox direction. The Mennonites who have been responsible for the school are willing that it be taken over by the local community — but we can only do so with outside help, though we are raising part of the school’s costs with self-support and work-study projects like our chicken farm, which raises three to five percent of the budget.”

“We are often given small gifts by caring people from other countries — food and clothing,” said Fr. George, “but what we really need is help in strengthening the structures of community. We can do a lot with our own hands, anything that does not require a lot of money. The future of the people of Beit Jala depends on such help! Without it the day will come when pilgrims will come here and find our churches buildings but not our believing people.”

I promised to make the projects known and can only hope that support can be found. Fr. George will soon be sending me detailed proposals to make available to anyone who will try to help. The sums of money needed are so tiny compared to the costs of war.

Fr. George was suddenly called away to visit a sick member of the parish. Dr. Nour excused himself as he had to return to the school. In their absence, Fr. George’s mother took charge, serving us stuffed eggplant and tomato soup.

While the meal was being eaten the sad news came that a suicide bomber had killed himself and at least twelve others — the next day the number was fifteen — at a pizza restaurant in west Jerusalem, not far from the guest house where I was staying.

“It is terrible news,” Rose Saga said. “It is the first bomb in Jerusalem since the intifada started. The Israelis will certainly respond heavily. It’s not safe in Beit Jala. You had better leave.” This meant putting off till a future time a visit planned for that day with her family.

Rose accompanied me to the square where the taxi stand is located. There would be one taxi with green plates to take me as far as the checkpoint near Tantur, then a walk across the border with my western passport, then another taxi with yellow plates into Jerusalem.

I told Rose on parting how much the visit had meant to me.

“No one comes here without his life being changed,” she replied.

* * *

addendum:

Shortly after midnight on August 28, just 18 days after my visit, Israeli forces entered Beit Jala, taking up positions in various buildings, including the Church of the Virgin Mary, the Arab Orthodox Club, a Lutheran-sponsored orphanage, a girls’ school, and several homes. One Palestinian policeman was killed and ten Palestinians wounded. The occupation followed sniper fire from Beit Jala aimed at nearby Gilo. Israel radio said 31 apartments were damaged. Israeli troops responded with heavy machine gun and tank fire, then sent in tanks, armored personnel carriers and bulldozers.”

Israelis imprisoned more than 40 people in houses that were used as bases.

As the Israelis blasted away with machine guns from the upper stories of his lavish home, Sami Shehadeh, 27, a lawyer, was held under guard for two days in a bedroom with relatives, half of them children. “It was really frightening because the shooting was coming from inside our house. We were flat on our bellies, and had no way of knowing what was going on around us.”

In her house, 12-year-old Razan Rabiyeh said she held a Bible and a small wooden cross during the attack “in order to feel protected.”

Reached by mobile phone during the attack, Father George Shawan said he was speaking not from his home but a tiny dwelling which in recent days had been crammed with children as young as two, hiding from gun battles. “If President Bush read the Bible well, he would not be sending missiles and bombs to fall on us.”

The Independent, a British newspaper, reported that “while life continued as normal in the Gilo, the Arabs in the old villas across the valley — many of them middle-class professionals who used to work with Israelis — did not seek this conflict and have long resented the Palestinian gunmen who have been coming in to fire at settlers.”

“The takeover is a tragedy for residents of Beit Jala … the least likely people to take arms against Israel,” another British daily, The Telegraph reported. It quoted a Beit Jala resident saying: “We cannot tell the [Palestinian] gunmen to go away. They do not listen. They tell us that Beit Jala is no better than anywhere else, and we should share the suffering of the struggle.”

The occupation ended on its third day.

— JF

published in the summer 2001 issue of In Communion / addendum re Beit Jala’s occupation added 25 August 2001

Becoming Orthodox

by Jim Forest

I am sometimes asked how the son of atheist parents ended up not only a Christian but a member of the Orthodox Church.

In fact it wasn’t so big a leap as it sounds. For starters my parents weren’t people for whom atheism was a religion unto itself. Their atheism seemed to mainly to do with being on the Left. Their real interest was in the down-and-out — people who were being treated like beasts, underpaid or jobless, trapped in slums, without health care, etc. When I was growing up, they were both Communists. It was part of Marxist dogma that there was no god. For them it was not so much a question of agreeing with that tenet of Marxism as not disagreeing. In fact both of them had been shaped and inspired by their religious roots. Mother was a Methodist Communist, my father a Catholic Communist. Mother’s parents, both devout Methodists, raised their children to take Christianity seriously, and with an eye to its social implications. Dad, a fervent Catholic in his youth, had once looked forward to becoming a priest.

I was born in November 1941 in the Vatican of Mormonism, Salt Lake City, Utah. At the time my Father was working as regional organizer for the Communist Party and my Mother was a social worker. When I asked about Mormons later in life, Mother spoke with respect of the ways Mormons helped each other when anyone was out of work or facing other troubles. However, she tended to judge religion by how attentive its members were not just to each other but to the woes of the world. On that score, the Mormons didn’t impress her.

During the several years that followed, I have only splinters of memory. There is a photo of me when I was about a year old, standing upright while my mother, wearing a beret and smoking a cigarette, is sitting on a park bench in a Chicago park. Later we lived in Denver, where my brother, Richard, was born in 1943. Dad was in the Army part of the Second World War, stationed in Hawaii. In 1944 Dad fell in love with a Communist Party co-worker and filed for divorce. During the next decade, he was an occasional visitor whose home was far away. Remarkably, divorce didn’t seem to embitter Mother. I cannot recall her ever speaking ill of Dad.

Following the divorce, my mother, brother and I moved to Red Bank, New Jersey. This was the town where Mother had grown up in. While her parents by then had both died, her sister and brother-in-law were living there. It took some good will and squeezing, but we lived with them until we had a house of our own. Mother’s identification with people on the other side of the tracks brought us to buy a bungalow on the other side of the tracks, a small house in a mainly black neighborhood where indoor plumbing, such as we had, was still the exception. Many local roads were unpaved. One neighbor, Libby, nearly a century old and black as coal, had been born in slavery days in Tennessee, where my grandmother had been raised. Earlier in Libby’s life she had worked in my grandparents’ house.

Radical music was part of our upbringing. Mother hadn’t much of a voice, but from time to time sang such songs as “This Land is Your Land,” “Joe Hill” and “The Internationale” with its line, “Arise ye prisoners of starvation, arise ye wretched of the earth, for justice thunders condemnation, a better’s world’s in birth.” These were, for Mother, not so much songs as hymns to be sung with Methodist enthusiasm. On our wind-up 78 rpm record player, we played records of Paul Robeson, the Weavers, Burl Ives and Pete Seeger, all singers whose voices tilted to the Left. From these I learned a number of spirituals — songs about baptism, salvation, laying down my sword and shield, crossing the River Jordan with angelic chariots swinging low. The music of the black Christianity was the one of the few acceptable sources of religion for American radicals. I also sometimes heard spirituals being sung when I walked past the nearby African Methodist Episcopal Church.

In her youth, while a student at Smith College, Mother had reached the conclusion that religion was mythology, yet I doubt she ever fully abandoned belief in God. She never said a critical word about religious faith. When I was eight or so, I asked her if there was a God and was impressed by the regret in her voice when she said she didn’t think so. Even more than her answer, her sadness remained with me. Why such sorrow? Clearly she missed the Methodist Church she had grown up in. Especially at Easter and Christmas, religious homesickness got the better of her and so we attended Methodist services, sitting up in the balcony. One year she sent my brother and me to the church’s summer school. While this was a help for her as a working mother (she was a psychiatric social worker on the staff of a state mental hospital in Marlboro), I have no doubt she hoped my brother and I would soak up the kind of information about the deeper meaning of life that she had received as a child.

The minister of the church, Roger Squire, was an exceptional man whose qualities included a gift for noticing people in balconies and connecting with children. His occasional visits to our house were delightful events for my brother and me. Only as an adult did it cross my mind how remarkable it was, with the Cold War in full swing, that he would make it a point to come into our unglamourous neighborhood to knock on the kitchen door of a home that contained a Communist and her two sons.

One of the incidents that marked me as a child was the hospitality of the Squire family to two young women from Hiroshima and Nagasaki who had survived the nuclear bombing but were badly scarred. American religious peace groups had brought them and others to the United States for plastic surgery and found them temporary homes in and near New York City — not an easy undertaking for hosts in the fifties when the word “peace” was regarded by many as a synonym for Communist sympathies and when many people had no desire to think about, not to say see with their own eyes, what American nuclear bombs had done to actual people. In fact, I could only guess at the results myself, as the faces of the two women were draped with veils of silk. Through them, I learned about the human cost of war and the effects of nuclear weapons, and through the Squire family I had a sturdy idea of what it meant to conform one’s life to the Gospel rather than to politics and the opinions of neighbors.

Yet the Methodist Church as such didn’t excite me. While I was always glad to see Rev. Squire and enjoyed the stories and jokes he sprinkled in sermons to underline his points, long-time sitting is hard work for a child. I felt no urge to be baptized. Neither was I won over by the nearby Dutch Reformed Church which, due to a neighbor’s invitation, I attended for a few weeks and which I remember best for its unsuccessful attempt to get me to memorize the Ten Commandments.

The big event in my religious development as a child was thanks to a school friend inviting me Christ Episcopal Church in nearby Shrewsbury. It was among the oldest buildings in our region, its white clapboard scarred with musket balls fired in the Revolutionary war. The blood of dying soldiers had stained the church’s pews and floor, and though the stains could no longer be seen, it stirred me to think about what had happened there.

What engaged me still more was the form of worship, which was altar- rather than pulpit-centered. It was an Episcopal parish in which sacraments and ritual activity were the main events. (Being a parent has helped me realize that ritual is something that children naturally like. For all the experiments we make as children, we are born conservatives who want our parents to operate in predictable, patterned, reliable ways. We want meals to be on the table at a certain time and in a specific way, and in general like to know what to expect. We want the ordinary events of life to have what now I think of as a liturgical shape.)

I didn’t know it at the time, but the parish would have been described by many Episcopalians as “high church” — vestments, acolytes, candles, processions, incense, liturgical seasons with their special colors, much of the service in plain chant, communion every Sunday. The result was that I got a taste of a more ancient form of Christianity than I had found among Methodists or other Protestants. For the first time in my life, I wanted to be part of it. It was in this church that, age ten, I was baptized. I became an acolyte (thus getting to wear a bright red robe with crisp white surplice) and learned to assist the pastor, Father Theodore La Van, at the altar. His baptismal gift to me was an ancient Byzantine coin that bore a relief image of Christ on one side.

I learned much of the Book of Common Prayer by heart and rang a bell when the bread and wine were being consecrated. In Sunday school after the service I learned something of the history of Christianity, its sources and traditions, with much attention to Greek words. I remember Father La Van writing “Eucharist” on the blackboard in both English and Greek, explaining it meant thanksgiving, and that it was made up of smaller Greek words that meant “well” and “grace.” The Eucharist was a well of grace. Such lessons put the ancient world in reaching distance.

But the friendship which had brought me to the church in the first place fell apart later that year and Father La Van was dismissed. Years later I was told some in the parish thought he drank too much. I found other things to do with my Sundays than go to church. My religious interest went into recess. Within a year or two I was trying to make up my mind whether I was an atheist or an agnostic. I decided on the latter, because I couldn’t dismiss the sense I often had of God being real. Like my parents, I loved nature and wilderness, and these suggested to me the existence of God. Wherever I looked, whether at ants with a magnifying glass or at the moon with a telescope, everything in the natural order was awe-inspiring, and awe is a religious state of mind. Creation made it impossible for me to dismiss God, even if it was a rather impersonal God — God as prime mover rather than God among us.

It wasn’t until 1959, when I was turning 18, that I began to think more deeply about religion and what God might mean in my life. By then I had dropped out of high school and joined the Navy. Lately out of boot camp, I was studying meteorology at the Navy Weather School at the Naval Air Base in Lakehurst, New Jersey.

At the turning point in his life, St. Paul was struck blind on the road to Damascus. The equivalent moment in my own life is linked to a more prosaic setting: Saturday night at the movies. The film at the base theater that night happened to be “The Nun’s Story,” based on the autobiography of a Belgian woman who entered a convent and later worked at a missionary hospital in the African Congo. In the end, the nun (played by Audrey Hepburn) became an ex-nun. Conscience was at the heart of the story: conscience leading a young woman into the convent and eventually leading her elsewhere, but never away from her faith. I later discovered the film was much criticized in the Catholic press for its portrayal both of loneliness and of the abuse of authority in religious community.

If it had been Hollywood’s usual religious movie of “The Bells of St. Mary’s” variety, it would have had no impact on my life. But this was a true story, well-acted and honestly told, and without a happy ending, though in the woman’s apparent failure as a nun one found both integrity and faith. Against the rough surface of the story, I had a compelling glimpse of the Catholic Church with its rich and complex structures of worship, community and service.

After the film I went for a walk, heading away from the buildings and sidewalks. It was a clear August evening. Gazing at the stars, I felt an overwhelming happiness such as I had never known. This seemed to rise up through the grass and to shower down on me in the starlight. I felt I was floating on God’s love like a leaf on water. I was deeply aware that everything that is or was or ever will be is joined together in God. For the first time in my life, the blackness beyond the stars wasn’t terrifying.

I didn’t think much about the film itself that night, except for a few words of Jesus that had been read to the novices during their first period of formation and which seemed to recite themselves within me as I walked: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you have, and give it to the poor, and you will have great treasure in heaven, and come, follow me.” I had nothing to sell but the words “follow me” landed in the core of my being.

I went to sleep that night eager to go to Mass. I knew I wanted to return to Christianity and was strongly drawn to Catholicism.

The next morning I went to a nearby Catholic church but found the Mass disappointing. I felt like an anthropologist observing a strange tribal rite. I had only a vague idea what was happening. There seemed little connection between the priest and the congregation. Most of the worship was in mumbled, hurried, often inaudible Latin. As for the sermon, probably I would have preferred it had it been in Latin. People in the pews seemed either bored or were concentrating on their rosaries. At least they knew when to sit, stand, and kneel. I struggled awkwardly to keep up with them. At the end of Mass, there was no exchange of greetings or further contact between people who had been praying together. Catholic worship seemed to have all the intimacy of people waiting in a bus station.

I started looking for a church where there was engagement and beauty and at least something of what I had hoped to find in Catholicism. The Anglo-Catholic segment of the Episcopal Church, which I had begun to know as a child, seemed the obvious choice, and it happened that another sailor at the Weather School had grown up in such a parish. He shared his Book of Common Prayer with me and, in the weeks that followed, we occasionally read its services of morning and evening prayer together.

After graduating, I spent a two-week Christmas leave in an Episcopal monastery — Holy Cross — on the Hudson River not far from West Point, a joyous experience in which I thought I had found everything I was hoping for in the Catholic Church: liturgy, the sacraments, and a religious community that combined prayer, study and service to others. Having been assigned to a Navy unit at the Weather Bureau in Washington, D.C., I joined a local Episcopal parish, St. Paul’s, which the monks at Holy Cross had told me about.

Those months were full of grace. So why am I not writing an essay on “Why I am an Episcopalian”? Perhaps the main item was that I had never quite let go of the Catholic Church. I could never walk past a Catholic church without stopping in to pray. A hallmark of the Catholic Church was that the Blessed Sacrament was reserved on or near the altar awaiting anyone who came in. Its presence meant this wasn’t just a room that came to life from time to time when Mass was being celebrated, but a place where many of the curtains that usually hide God were lifted, even if you were the only person present. In those days, the doors of Catholic churches always seemed open.

Another factor were many excellent books that found their way into my hands — among these, Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man, and The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement.

There were negative elements as well. One of these was an experience at the Episcopal monastery I had first visited at Christmas. Back in the Spring for Easter, on the last day of my stay one of the monks asked to see me in the visitors’ room. Once there, he embraced and kissed me. With some difficulty, I struggled free and later that day returned by bus to Washington. From there I wrote to the prior of the community, telling him what had happened. His reply wasn’t helpful. He might have pointed out that monks, like everyone else, sometimes suffer loneliness and may sexual longings of one sort or another and sometimes don’t manage them very well. Rather he said that homosexuality was often an indication of a monastic vocation. As my own sexual orientation was of the more common variety, I wondered if the prior meant I wasn’t the right sort of person to be visiting. After his letter, I had no desire to return. The experience added to my growing doubts about remaining in the Episcopal Church, uncomfortably divided as it was into high, low and middle liturgical strata.

Yet I still had reservations about becoming Catholic and so began to explore the varieties of Christianity in Washington, visiting every sort of church, black and white, high and low. Among them was a Greek Orthodox cathedral, but I sensed one had to be Greek to be a part of it. I returned several times to the black church on the campus of Howard University, a friendly place with wonderful singing, but felt that, as a white person, I would always be an outsider. If I could have changed skin color by wishing, I would have been tempted to turn black in the Howard chapel.

As the weeks went by I came to realize that the Catholic churches I so often stopped in to pray were places in which I felt an at-homeness I hadn’t found anywhere else. On November 26,1960, after several months of instruction, I was received into the Catholic Church.

What had most attracted me to Catholicism was the Liturgy, in its basics the same no matter where one was. Though in some parishes it was a dry, mechanical affair, there were other parishes where the care taken in every aspect of worship was profound. While for some people, worship in an ancient language is a barrier, in my own case I came to love the Latin. Luckily I had studied Latin in high school. I was happy to be participating in a language of worship that was being used simultaneously in every part of the world and which also was a bridge of connection with past generations. I learned many Latin prayers by heart, especially anything that could be sung. “To sing is to pray twice,” one of the Church Fathers says. How true!

In the mid-sixties, in the early stages of liturgical change following the Second Vatican Council, I felt a complex mixture of expectation, gratitude and anxiety. Despite my private love of Latin, I could hardly disagree with the compelling arguments put forward for scrapping it. I didn’t want to hang onto what clearly got in the way for others. Unfortunately, the Englishing of the Liturgy was not carried out by poets. We ended up with the English language in its flattest state. In the process we lost not only Latin but Gregorian chant, a great pity. Most of the music that took its place was pedestrian. The body language of prayer was in retreat. The holy water fonts inside church entrances were often dry.

Yet, like most Catholics, I uttered few words of complaint. I knew that change is not a comfortable experience. And I thought of myself as a modern person. I was embarrassed by my difficulties adjusting to change. Also I had no sense of connection with those who were protesting the changes. These tended to be the rigid Catholics of the sort who were more papal than the Pope and politically on the far right. (I had never been attracted to that icy wing of Catholicism that argued one must be a Catholic, and a most obedient Catholic, in order to be saved.)

All this said, there was a positive side to Catholicism that in many ways compensated for what was missing in the Liturgy. For all its problems, which no church is without, the Catholic Church has the strength of being a world community in which many members see themselves as being on the same footing as fellow Catholics on the other side of the globe, in contrast with many Christians who see their church first of all as a national institution. The Catholic Church also possesses a strong sense of co-responsibility for the social order, and a relatively high degree of independence from all political and economic structures.

This aspect of the Catholic Church finds many expressions. I had joined one of them, the Catholic Worker movement, after being discharged from the Navy as a conscientious objector in the spring of 1961. Founded by Dorothy Day in 1933, the Catholic Worker is best known for its houses of hospitality — places of welcome mainly in run-down urban areas where those in need can receive food, clothing, and shelter. It is a movement in some ways similar to the early Franciscans, attempting to live out the Gospels in a simple, literal way. It is basic Christianity to have as little as possible — what Dorothy Day called voluntary poverty. Jesus said to do good to and pray for those who curse you, to love your enemies, to put away the sword; and Catholic Workers try to do this as well, refusing to take part in war or to sanction violence. The Catholic Worker view of the world is no less critical than that of the Prophets and the New Testament.

I also found in the Catholic Worker movement a remarkable interest in the writings of the Church Fathers. One often encountered quotations from St. John Chrysostom, Saint Basil, St. Gregory Nazianzen and other voices of the early Church in movement’s widely read publication, The Catholic Worker.

One of the surprises in getting to know Dorothy Day was her special love for Russian literature, most of all the work of Dostoevsky. At times she recited passages from The Brothers Karamazov that had shaped her understanding of Christianity. Mainly these had to do with the saintly staretz Father Zosima and his teaching on active love — “love in action is often a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.” Dorothy all but demanded that I read Dostoevsky. She also had a deep appreciation of the liturgical life of the Eastern Church. It was Dorothy who first took me into a Russian Orthodox Church, a cathedral in upper Manhattan where I met a priest who, many years later, I was to meet again in Moscow, Father Matvay Stadniuk. (In 1988 he organized the first public project of voluntary service by Church members since Soviet power had launched its war on religion.) At a Liturgy Dorothy took me to, I first learned the Old Slavonic words Gospodi pomiloi (Lord have mercy), the most often repeated prayer in Orthodox worship services.

One evening Dorothy brought me to a Manhattan apartment for a meeting of the Third Hour, a Christian ecumenical discussion group founded by a Russian émigré, Helene Iswolsky. Participants that evening included the Orthodox theologian, Father Alexander Schmemann, the poet W.H. Auden, and Alexander Kerensky, who had been prime minister of Russia after the abdication of Czar Nicholas II and before the Bolshevik coup led by Lenin. As I recall, the conversation that evening was in part about the Russian word for spirituality, dukhovnost. The Russian understanding of spiritual life, it was explained, not only suggests a relationship between the praying person and God, but has profound social content: moral capacity, social responsibility, courage, wisdom, mercy, a readiness to forgive, a way of life centered in love. While much of the discussion flew over my head, I recall talk about iurodivi, the “holy fools” who revealed Christ in ways that would be regarded as insanity in the West, and stralniki, those who wandered Russia in endless pilgrimage, begging for bread and silently reciting with every breath and step the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Life at the Catholic Worker was never without surprises. One of them was the discovery of Dorothy’s friendship with the Trappist monk and author, Thomas Merton, whose autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, had been a factor in my becoming a Catholic. Thanks to Dorothy’s encouragement, I came to be one of Merton’s correspondents and later his guest at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Following that first visit, he and I exchanged letters frequently — a seven-year conversation by mail that ended only with his death in 1968.

I also found in Merton a special interest in Eastern Christianity. Merton occasionally sent me photographs of Russian and Byzantine icons. As I was to discover in writing a biography of him, icons had played an important part in his conversion to Christianity and remained significant to the end of his life.

Thanks mainly to Merton and Dorothy Day, I was more aware than many Western Christians of the Eastern Church, but I had no more thought about becoming Orthodox than a visitor to the zoo thinks about becoming a flamingo. Orthodoxy seemed to me more an ethnic club than a place for an American whose roots were mainly Dutch and Irish. What eventually converted my mainly academic interest to something more intimate and compelling was actual encounter with the Orthodox Church in Russia.

Once again, a turning point in my life was triggered by a movie. In the Fall of 1982, I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts to give a lecture at the Harvard Divinity School. One evening I joined my friend Robert Ellsberg in going to a local cinema to see “Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears,” a Soviet film that had just received an Academy Award. It was a story set in the Brezhnev years that follows three women who met by chance as roommates in a Moscow residence for women. The film follows their struggles to build careers and families. Despite differences in temperament and ambition, they create enduring friendships. The stories told are comic, tragic, convincing and socially revealing. Muscovites became quite three-dimensional and not simply cardboard figures living in the grey world of Communism.

What was so important to me at the time about this entirely non-political film was the window it opened on ordinary Russian life. Walking out of the theater, I realized I had spent a large part of my life trying to prevent war between the US and the Soviet Union — I had been secretary of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, then been part of the staff of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and now was General Secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, working at its headquarters in Holland — yet had never been to Russia or even thought of going. The awful truth was that I knew more about American weapons than about the people at whom they were aimed. The same was true of everyone I knew who was involved in peace work. It was a shocking realization.

I wondered how we could regard what we were doing as peace work if it mainly had to do with informing people what nuclear war would do to the planet we live on and its population? I recalled of Thomas Merton’s insight: “The root of war is fear.” If that was true, would it not be better if we who sought peace in the world focused on building bridges rather than selling nightmares? After all, the weapons of mass destruction and the missiles that delivered them were chiefly the result of fear and ignorance.

That evening at the movies in Cambridge set me on a different course. A substantial part of my work for the International Fellowship of Reconciliation in the years that followed had to do with trying to open East-West doors that had long been locked on both sides. On the Russian side, there was a lot of worry about letting people into the country whom they knew opposed Russia’s war in Afghanistan (then in the middle of its decade-long run) and who were highly critical of the Soviet repressive political system. No doubt they worried, should we be allowed in, that we would demonstrate on Red Square.

It took a year of persistent effort to arrange a three-day conference (the theme was violence, nonviolence and liberation) organized by my own organization, the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, and hosted by the Russian Orthodox Church. It was probably the first such event in Russia since the Bolshevik overthrow of the Russian government in 1917. Our small conference helped pave the way for many organizations, academic bodies and businesses to develop their own contacts and arrange their own events and programs in Soviet Russia. What happened in the years that followed helped create a climate for greatly improved relations between the U.S. and Russia, which in turn led to still more face-to-face contact. Thousands of people from the U.S. and its Western allies began to visit Russia for business, cultural and purely touristic reasons, and more and more Russians came to the West. Eventually, in the Gorbachev-Reagan period, there were inter-governmental breakthroughs resulting in treaties that significantly reduced the number of nuclear weapons and missiles.

That first meeting in Moscow would have been useful no matter where it had happened, but for me it had an unexpected spiritual impact thanks to the event being in Russia. The first night I was there, too excited to sleep, I took a post-midnight walk from the hotel where I was staying all the way to Red Square and back. I felt as if I were exploring the dark side of the moon.

In the days that followed, visiting some of the city’s churches, I experienced a strong sense of connection with Russian Orthodox believers. The vitality of religious life, despite decades of severe repression and the martyrdom of many, far outstripped my expectations. This was not a Church on the brink of the extinction Lenin and Stalin had planned.

That first trip in the USSR was something like riding through the Louvre on a bicycle. I saw wonderful things, but too fast to take them in and with far too little understanding of Russian and Soviet history to make much sense of even those things which weren’t a blur. But the trip was enough for me to know that I wanted to come back, see things more slowly, and talk with Russians. I had a particular sense of connection with the Russian Orthodox Church and longed to have the chance to meet believers informally and face to face.

Back in Holland, I wrote to the bishop who headed of the publishing department of the Moscow Patriarchate, asking if I might have the cooperation of his department in writing a book about the Orthodox Church in Russia. It would not be, I said, an academic work. Others had done such books and in any event I was not qualified. But I had spent much of my adult life doing interviews for peace and church magazines, worked for various newspapers and press services, had written two biographies and many essays. I felt I could write a book about Russian believers, if the church could provide a translator and help me visit centers of Orthodoxy large and small. Thus began work on Pilgrim to the Russian Church, a book that would be published in 1988.

Not many months later, I was back in Moscow as a guest of the Russian Orthodox Church for another small conference. This time I had arranged for a three-day private visit ahead of the meeting. I was met at the airport by Tatiana Tchernikova, a devout Christian, an expert on Russian history and culture plus a gifted translator who was on the staff of the Church’s Department for External Affairs. Together we visited churches, monasteries, the one seminary near Moscow and art museums which housed icons as well as more modern works of religious art.

There were many high points, but perhaps the most significant was taking part in the Liturgy at the Epiphany Cathedral. This wasn’t one of Moscow’s oldest or most beautiful churches, though it has an outstanding choir. The icons, coming from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were a far cry from the work of such iconographers as Rublev and Theofan the Greek. Yet being in that throng of devout worshipers was a more illuminating experience than I had had in far more beautiful churches.

It was an ordinary Sunday, but the church was as crowded as a church in the West would be only on Christmas or Easter. As is usual in the Russian Orthodox Church, there were no pews, just a few benches and chairs along the walls for those who needed them, but I found it freeing to be on my feet. Though at times it was uncomfortable to be standing for so long, being upright made me more attentive. It was like a move from the bleachers to the field. (I’d love to know how chairs and benches made their way into churches. My guess is that it was connected with the Reformation’s re-centering of services around the pulpit rather than the altar. Gradually chairs and then pews became a normal fixture of church architecture.)

I was fascinated by the linking of spiritual and physical activity. Making the sign of the cross was a major element of prayer — Orthodox believers seemed to cross themselves and bow almost continually. As I watched the rippling of bowing heads in the tightly packed congregation, I was reminded of the patterns the wind makes blowing across afield of wheat. At first I stood like a statue, though wanting to do what those around me were doing. It seemed so appropriate for an incarnational religion to link body and soul through these simple gestures. It must have taken me most of an hour before I began to pray in the Russian style.

All the while two choirs, in balconies on either side of the cupola, were singing. For the Creed and Our Father, the congregation joined with the choirs, singing with great force.

The sense of people being deeply at prayer was as solid and tangible as Russian black bread. I felt that, if the walls and pillars of the church were taken away, the roof would rest securely on the prayers of the congregation below. I have rarely experienced this kind of intense spiritual presence.

In the course of my many trips in Russia, I came to love the unhurried tradition of worship in Orthodoxy, deeply appreciating its absent-mindedness about the clock. The Liturgy rarely started on time, never ended on time, and lasted two or three hours, still longer on major feasts. I discovered that Orthodox believers are willing to give to worship the kind of time and devotion that Italians give to their evening meals.

At first somewhat scandalized by the fact that many adults in church did not receive communion, I gradually became aware of how deep and mindful is Orthodox preparation for communion, with stress on forgiveness of others as a precondition for reception of the sacrament.

Receiving communion was often linked with confession the night or morning before. It was impressive watching confession in Orthodox churches. The penitent and priest weren’t tucked away in a closet but stood in the open, within sight of on the iconostasis, their faces inclined toward each other, nearly touching. There is a tenderness about it that never ceases to amaze me.

I quickly came to appreciate Orthodoxy for taking literally Jesus’ teaching, “Let the children come to me and hinder them not.” In our Catholic parish in Holland, our daughter Anne had gone from confusion and hurt to pain and anger after her many futile attempts to receive communion along with Nancy and me. The problem, priests and others tried to explain, was that she hadn’t reached “the age of reason” (who has?) and therefore couldn’t receive the instruction considered a prerequisite to post-baptismal sacramental life. In Orthodox parishes, all children, once baptized, are at the front of the line to receive communion.

I came to esteem the married clergy of Orthodoxy. It changes the climate of parish life. While there are many Orthodox monks and nuns, with celibacy an honored state, it seemed to me marriage was more valued in Orthodoxy than Catholicism. While chastity is for everyone, celibacy is not regarded as a higher state or a short-cut to heaven.

Praying with icons was an aspect of Orthodox spirituality that had begun opening its doors for my wife and me even before we became Orthodox. During a three-month sabbatical in 1985, while living near Jerusalem and teaching at the Ecumenical Institute, we bought a Russian “Vladimirskaya” icon of Mary and Jesus and began praying before it. That small icon, possibly brought to Jerusalem by a Russian pilgrim in the 19th century, became a school of prayer. We learned much about prayer by simply standing in front of it.

By the end of 1987, both Nancy and I had gotten to know the Church in Russia first hand, to the point that we envied those who belonged to it despite the many political and social problems Russian Christians faced. Oddly enough, it didn’t occur to me that there might be a similar quality of worship in Orthodox churches in the West. I thought that Orthodoxy was like certain wines that are best drunk at the vineyard.

Meanwhile, we were searching for a Catholic parish that would be a good fit. Because of our work, Holland had become our home. We lived in Alkmaar, a city northwest of Amsterdam which had nine Catholic parishes. Each had its own distinct identity. On the one hand there were parishes that seemed linked to the larger Church only by frayed threads. One parish we were part of for a time never used the Creed and one Sunday replaced the Gospel reading with a children’s story. It was very social but on its own path liturgically. The parish we next joined was, in its ritual life, clearly part of the Catholic Church, but here we experienced no sense of welcome or warmth. The only words anyone said to us occurred when we received communion: “the Body of Christ.” Finally we became part of a parish that struck us as both liturgically healthy and welcoming. This time we joined the choir in order to be more a part of a church community, but we were easily the youngest members of the choir and felt isolated. During the coffee break at choir rehearsal, the main topic of conversation was how much more vital the parish had been in earlier years. As before, Anne continued to be upset about her exclusion from communion.

Then in January 1988, we received an from Father Alexis Voogd, pastor of the St. Nicholas of Myra Church in Amsterdam, to participate in a special ecumenical service to mark the beginning of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Millennium celebration: a thousand years since the baptism of the citizens of Kiev in 988. He also teased me: “You have visited practically very Orthodox church in Russia but never visited the Russian Orthodox parish nearest to you!” For several years Father Alexis had been one of the people giving me advice about people to meet and places to visit in Russia.

Soon after Nancy and I were part of a gathering of Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Christians attending a service that was a hodge-podge of speeches by clergy from various local churches (the Catholic bishop of Haarlem, also the head of the Dutch Council of Churches) interspersed with Orthodox hymns sung by the parish choir and some comments about the Baptism of Russia from Father Alexis.

If it was just that ecumenical service, perhaps we might not have returned, but at the reception in the parish hall that followed we were startled to experience a kind of interaction that I had rarely found in any church in any country. Walking to the train station afterward, we decided to come back to see what the Liturgy was like.

The following Sunday we discovered that the Orthodox Liturgy in Amsterdam was every bit as remarkable as it in Russia. And that was that. We managed only once or twice to return to Mass in our former Catholic parish in Alkmaar. Before a month had passed we realized that a prayer we had been living with along time had been answered in an unexpected way: we had found a church we wholeheartedly could belong to and in fact couldn’t bear not going to, even if it meant getting out of bed early and traveling by train to Amsterdam every Sunday. On Palm Sunday 1988, I was received into the Orthodox Church. Nancy made the same step on Pentecost.

In many ways it wasn’t such a big step from where we had been. Orthodoxy and Catholicism have so much in common: sacraments, apostolic succession, similar calendars of feasts and fasts, devotion to the Mother of God, and much more. Yet in Orthodoxy we found an even deeper sense of connection with the early Church and a far more vital form of liturgical life. Much that has been neglected in Catholicism and abandoned in Protestant churches, including confession and fasting, remain central in Orthodox life. We quickly found what positive, life-renewing gifts they were, and saw that they were faring better in a climate that was less legalistic but in many ways more demanding.

Yet we have never thought of ourselves as ex-Catholics. I occasionally describe myself as being a cobblestone on the bridge linking the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

A friend once asked me to describe the difference between the two churches. I said it’s something like the difference one might see in two parallel highways. The first impression is that they are identical, but after a little while, you notice that the traffic on one of the highways is going much slower and that, in contrast to the other, there are no police cars.

Postscript

The religious movement in my life, which from the beginning was influenced by my parents, also influenced them. While neither followed me into Catholicism or Orthodoxy, in the early sixties my mother — after reading Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain — returned to the Methodist Church and remained much a part of the local church to the end of her life. Despite her age and failing eyesight, she continued in her struggle for the poor, much to the consternation of local politicians and bureaucrats. Though it’s not clear whether or not my father ever left the Communist Party, he eventually became a Unitarian. He enjoyed the joke about Unitarians believing at most in one God. In the last two decades of his life he was especially active in developing low-income and inter-racial housing projects in California. A cooperative he helped found in Santa Rosa was singled out for several honors, including the Certificate of National Merit from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Always deeply supportive of my religious commitment, I recall with particular happiness hearing him reading aloud to my step-mother from my book, Pilgrim to the Russian Church. In the spring of 1990, very weakened by cancer, he borrowed the crucifix I normally wear around my neck. It was in his hands when he died.

* * *

Saint Nicholas and the Nine Gold Coins

St Nicholas cover (small)[Copyright 2014. This text may not be re-printed, linked or posted to other sites without my permission. The book was published by St Vladimir’s Seminary Press in April 2015.]

by Jim Forest

Once upon a time there was a boy named Nicholas. Today we call him Saint Nicholas, but when he was growing up everyone called him Nick.

Nick lived in a town called Patara where ships came and went every day. You should have seen them! They were made of brightly painted wood with tall masts that seemed to touch the sky and had sails of every color.

The men who made up the crews had an endless supply of tales to tell of their close encounters with fabulous creatures, from sea monsters big as islands to mermaids whose voices could pull a sailor beneath the waves.

The sailors also filled Nick’s imagination with visions of distant ports and great cities — Alexandria, Antioch, Sidon, Tripoli, Carthage, Rome, Syracuse, Ravenna…. Such beautiful names, so many places, all so far away, but at the same time as close as the masts of any ship floating in Patara’s harbor.

It was Nick’s dream to become a sailor and travel to all the far-away ports that were beyond the horizon yet shared the same sea in which he and his friends so often swam. In the meantime, he asked every sailor he met, “Where have you been? What was it like?”

Nick’s uncle was an important man in Patara — the bishop — but for Nick he was also both father and mother as Nick’s own parents had died early in his life. It was his uncle who had taught him to read and write.

It pleased Nick that he had been named after his uncle. Everyone respected the bishop, not only because he helped each person who came to him in need but also for his faith and courage. As a young man, the bishop had been beaten and imprisoned just for being a Christian.

The two of them often went for walks together. His uncle enjoyed listening to Nick retell stories he had heard from the sailors. He had stories to tell as well, some from the Gospel, some from his own experiences as bishop. “You don’t have to go to sea to have adventures,” he told Nick. “I promise you, whoever lives according to the Gospel will have greater adventures than meeting sea monsters or hearing mermaids sing.”

For Nick, just being with his uncle was an adventure and an education. Nearly every day his uncle found time to visit the sick. Nick was often at his side. “It’s a never-ending journey getting to know people,” said Nick’s uncle. “Everyone has a story and no two stories are alike.”

Nick thought of Mark, a neighbor who had lost a leg in an accident on-board ship. His uncle not only changed Mark’s bandages day after day but he also changed Mark’s mind. After his accident, Mark had wanted to die. “My life is over,” he said. “There is nothing for me to do.” By finding a job for Mark mending nets, Nick’s uncle helped him want to stay alive. “Restoring hope can be a resurrection,” his uncle had told him.

Nick also noticed how his uncle would sometimes quietly leave a coin as he was saying goodbye to those he visited. “You know what Jesus said,” his uncle explained. “‘Sell what you have and give it to the poor.’”

Nick knew that in his uncle’s house there was a special chest where his uncle kept a sack of gold coins that had been left for him by his parents — Nick’s inheritance. “Should I give the coins to the poor?” he asked his uncle. “It’s good that you think about these things,” his uncle replied, “but you’re too young to make such decisions.”

By the time Nick was fourteen, he still had his dream of being a sailor but he was also haunted by the example of his uncle’s life. Perhaps the voyages God wanted him to take in life weren’t by ship to distant ports but to people nearby.

Had it not been for the needs of a family living only a few doors away, perhaps Nick would have joined the crew of one of the ships in the harbor. But walking past their front door one evening, Nick heard the mother weeping. This was the home of a husband and wife whose three daughters were old enough to marry — but not one had married yet.

Nick knew about their problem. The family had no money. In those days it was the custom that a father whose daughter was getting married had to provide money or property to help the couple set up the new household. This was called a dowry. But because they were so poor, it seemed none of the daughters would ever be able to marry and start a family of their own.

Nick wondered if he shouldn’t tell his uncle? Perhaps he would find a way to help. But it seemed to Nick that God had put this problem in his hands and no one else’s. His uncle had given him an example of what to do.

Nick made a secret decision. He knew where the key was to the chest where his uncle kept the gold coins left for him by his parents, and he had discovered that three gold coins would be enough for a dowry. Just three coins would make it possible for the oldest daughter, Sophia, to marry. How happy she would be!

One night when his uncle was away, Nick opened the chest, found the bag with his inheritance, took three coins, put them in a cloth sack and tied it closed. In the dark of night, he threw the sack through an open window into his neighbor’s house, then slipped away as quiet as a cat.

Days later the news swept through the town that Sophia was to going to marry Antony, a friend of Nick’s. It was a good match, everyone said — two fine young people, perfect for each other. Sophia’s parents said it was a miracle — a sack of gold coins had been thrown into their home while they were sleeping! “Perhaps an angel sent it,” said Sophia’s mother, her face wet with tears.

It was hard to keep from telling his uncle what he had done, but hadn’t he often said that giving is most pleasing to God when only God knows the giver? “Don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing,” his uncle often said, quoting the Gospel. “Let God be the only witness.”

The problem was that there were still two unmarried sisters, Macrina and Zoe. It had been easy giving three coins, but six more gold coins would mean that very little of his inheritance would remain safely locked up in the chest.

It took three months, but at last Nick found the courage to throw a second sack with three coins into his neighbor’s house. Not long afterward Macrina married Paul — and still no one knew where the money had come from.

There was still Zoe, the youngest daughter. Must he help her as well? Hadn’t he done enough? Shouldn’t he keep the money left in the chest for his own future needs?

One day he happened to see Zoe walking home from the market and noticed the sadness in her eyes. What right had he to worry about his own future when Zoe’s needs were here and now? Hadn’t Jesus said, “Don’t worry about tomorrow?”

That night he took three more coins from the chest. With only the light of the moon to guide him, Nick tossed the last sack through the window.

But this time someone spotted him. Zoe’s father had been waiting in the shadows.

“So it’s you, Nick!” he said. “But how is it possible? You’re so young! That a boy should care so much about our troubles. It’s a miracle.”

“I’m only following my uncle’s example,” said Nick. “Please don’t tell anyone.”

Zoe’s father promised not to tell, but of course he told his wife, who felt it necessary to tell her brother, who told his best friend, who whispered it to his next-door neighbor, who mentioned it to her husband. Each person who knew the secret thought of one other person who could be trusted not to tell. Before many days had passed, everyone in Patara knew what Nick had done.

At last the story reached his uncle’s ears. “I’m so proud of you, Nick,” he told his nephew, “and I know your parents would be too. You cared more about your neighbor than yourself.”

Many years passed, then centuries, but the tale has never been forgotten: the story of Nicholas, who wanted to be a sailor but who became Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, a great wonder worker who, when he was only a boy, gave away nine gold coins.

* * *

Saint Nicholas the Wonder Worker

Saint Nicholas was born in Patara about 270 years after Christ’s birth and died not far away, in the port city of Myra, on the 6th of December in the year 343. Both Patara and Myra are on the southern coast of what is today Turkey. In Nicholas’s time, the region was part of the Greek-speaking world known as Lycia. Nicholas’s parents died in an epidemic when their son was still a child. Nicholas’s uncle, also named Nicholas, was Patara’s bishop. It was he who took charge of his nephew’s upbringing and education.

As no biography of Nicholas was written until centuries after he died, much of Nicholas’s life is known more from legend than from contemporary sources. What is certain is that he became Bishop of Myra and that, after his death, he was recognized as a saint. Thousands of churches have been named in his memory. He is seen as a model of gift giving and also of pastoral care.

The most popular story about him — the one told in this book — concerns his secret help to a family that had no dowry for their three daughters. [art: a square illustration based on the typical icon scene]

One of the oldest stories concerning Nicholas is his election as bishop even though he was not yet either a deacon or a priest.

Another story relates how he managed to stop the execution of three men who had been condemned to death by the governor. It was a brave action that led the governor to repentance, but it could have had a much less happy ending for Nicholas. [art: a square illustration based on the typical icon scene]

Some stories dramatize his commitment to protect young people, for example his bringing back to life three children who had been murdered and cut into pieces by an evil innkeeper. [art: a square illustration based on the typical icon scene]

Nicholas was probably a participant in the First Ecumenical Council, held near Constantinople at Nicea in 325. One story relates that he so angered by the heretic Arius, who denied the divinity of Christ, that he slapped Arius in the face, for which violent action Nicholas was briefly excluded from the Council.

During a devastating famine that hit his region in 342, Nicholas was able to buy grain that saved the local people from starvation.

Because he was bishop of a port city and was pastor to many sailors, Nicholas is regarded as the heavenly guardian of sailors. According to one story, while on his way back to Myra after a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the ship he had boarded encountered a severe storm. Everyone would have drowned had it not been for his prayers. [art: a square illustration based on the typical icon scene]

After his death, Nicholas’s tomb in Myra became a place of pilgrimage. In the spring of 1087, with wars threatening the safety of that region, sailors from Bari, a port on the southeast coast of Italy, removed Nicholas’s bones and brought them home with them. A great church was built over the crypt in Bari to honor a saint who had been a friend to the poor, rescued children and prisoners, and saved sailors and famine victims. The Saint Nicholas shrine became one of Europe’s great pilgrimage centers. To this day many thousands of pilgrims come every year. The bones of Saint Nicholas exude a clear watery liquid that smells like rose water. [interior or exterior photo of the church in Bari?]

Because his feast day, December 6, occurs just nineteen days before Christmas, in some countries the two feasts have become connected. In medieval England, parishes held Yuletide celebrations on Saint Nicholas’ Day. Today the feast of Saint Nicholas is still celebrated in several European countries. In Holland and Belgium, it overshadows Christmas as a day of gift giving.

The Dutch call Saint Nicholas “Sinterklaas,” a name that came with Dutch settlers to New Amsterdam in the seventeenth century. By the time New Amsterdam became New York, the name “Sinterklaas” had undergone a small but interesting change. Have you ever heard of Santa Claus?

* * *

A few memories of Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh, Paris, early ’70s (copyright: Jim Forest)

I traveled and also at times lived with Thich Nhat Hanh in the late sixties through the seventies. Here are extracts from various letters in which Nancy and I relate a few stories about him. In these passages Nhat Hanh is sometimes called “Thay”, the Vietnamese word for teacher.

— Jim Forest

* * *

I sometimes think of an evening with Vietnamese friends in a cramped apartment in the outskirts of Paris in the early 1970s. At the heart of the community was the poet and Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh. An interesting discussion was going on the living room, but I had been given the task that evening of doing the washing up. The pots, pans and dishes seemed to reach half way to the ceiling on the counter of the sink in that closet-sized kitchen. I felt really annoyed. I was stuck with an infinity of dirty dishes while a great conversation was happening just out of earshot in the living room.

Somehow Nhat Hanh picked up on my irritation. Suddenly he was standing next to me. “Jim,” he asked, “what is the best way to wash the dishes?” I knew I was suddenly facing one of those very tricky Zen questions. I tried to think what would be a good Zen answer, but all I could come up with was, “You should wash the dishes to get them clean.” “No,” said Nhat Hanh. “You should wash the dishes to wash the dishes.” I’ve been mulling over that answer ever since — more than three decades of mulling.

But what he said next was instantly helpful: “You should wash each dish as if it were the baby Jesus.”

That sentence was a flash of lightning. While I still mostly wash the dishes to get them clean, every now and then I find I am, just for a passing moment, washing the baby Jesus. And when that happens, though I haven’t gone anywhere, it’s something like reaching the Mount of the Beatitudes after a very long walk.

* * *

In correspondence with a friend not long ago, I was reminded of this one:

I recall going with Nhat Hanh and Phuong to one of the Paris airports to pick up a volunteer who was arriving from America. On the way back, the volunteer stressed how dedicated a vegetarian she was and how good it was to be with people who were such committed vegetarians. Passing by the shop of a poultry butcher in Paris, Nhat Hanh asked Phuong to stop. He went inside and bought a chicken, which we ate that night for supper at our apartment in Sceaux. It’s the only time I know of when Nhat Hanh ate meat.

* * *

Another story:

I often think about how Thich Nhat Hanh uses the image of one river/two shores as a way of attacking dualistic perception: Standing on a river bank, I see two shores, the shore I am standing on and the shore facing me, on the other side of the river. Two shores — you see them with your own eyes — two! But in reality there is only one shore. If I walk from where I stand to the source of the river and continue round that point, the “other side” becomes this side — the two-ness was created only by bending it. In time I will be on the opposite embankment, facing the spot where I was formerly standing, and I will have never crossed the stream to get there and I will never have changed shores.

* * *

Nhat Hanh and I were both friends of the Trappist monk and writer, Thomas Merton. They only met once, in May 1967. Merton immediately recognized Nhat Hanh as someone very like himself — a similar sense of humor, a similar outlook on the world and its wars, one of which was at the time killing many people in Vietnam. As the two monks talked, the different religious systems in which they were formed provided bridges. “Thich Nhat Hanh is my brother,” Merton wrote soon after their meeting. “He is more my brother than many who are nearer to me in race and nationality, because he and I see things exactly the same way.” When Merton asked Nhat Hanh what the war was doing to Vietnam, the Buddhist said simply, “Everything is destroyed.” This, Merton said to the monks in a talk he gave a few days later, was truly a monk’s answer, just three words revealing the essence of the situation.

Merton described the formation of young Buddhist monks in Vietnam and the fact that instruction in meditation doesn’t begin early. First comes a great deal of gardening and dish washing. “Before you can learn to meditate,” Nhat Hanh told Merton, “you have to learn how to close the door.” The monks to whom Merton told the story laughed — they were used to the reverberation of slamming doors as latecomers raced to the church.

* * *

And another:

I recall an experience I had during the late sixties when I was accompanying Thich Nhat Hanh on a lecture trip in the United States. He was about to give a lecture at the University of Michigan on the war in Vietnam. Waiting for the elevator doors to open, I noticed my brown-robed companion gazing at the electric clock above the elevator doors. Then he said, “You know, Jim, a few hundred years ago it would not have been a clock, it would have been a crucifix.” He was right. The clock is a religious object in our world, one so powerful that it can depose another.

* * *

It was from Thich Nhat Hanh that I first became aware of walking as an opportunity to repair the damaged connection between the physical and the spiritual.

In the late sixties, he asked me to accompany him on his lecture trips in the United States. He spoke to audiences about Vietnamese culture and what the war looked like to ordinary Vietnamese people. At times he also spoke about the monastic vocation and meditation.

In conversation, Nhat Hanh sometimes spoke of the importance of what he called “mindful breathing,” a phrase that seemed quite odd to me at first. Yet I was aware that his walking was somehow different than mine and could imagine this might have something to do with his way of breathing. Even if we were late for an appointment, he walked in an attentive, unhurried way.

It wasn’t until we climbed the steps to my sixth floor apartment in Manhattan that I began to [talk] take his example to heart. Though in my late twenties and very fit, I was out of breath by the time I reached my front door. Nhat Hanh, on the other hand, seemed rested. I asked him how he did that. “You have to learn how to breathe while you walk,” he replied. “Let’s go back to the bottom and walk up again. I will show you how to breathe while climbing stairs.” On the way back up, he quietly described how he was breathing. It wasn’t a difficult lesson. Linking slow, attentive breaths with taking the stairs made an astonishing difference. The climb took one or two minutes longer, but when I reached my door I found myself refreshed instead of depleted.

In the seventies, I spent time in France with Nhat Hanh on a yearly basis. He was better known then — his home had become for many people a center of pilgrimage. One of the things I found him teaching was his method of attentive walking. Once a day, all his guests would set off in a silent procession led by him. The walk was prefaced with his advice that we practice slow, mindful breathing while at the same time being aware of each footstep, seeing each moment of contact between foot and earth as a prayer for peace. We went single file, moving slowly, deeply aware of the texture of the earth and grass, the scent of the air, the movement of leaves in the trees, the sound of insects and birds. Many times as I walked I was reminded of the words of Jesus: “You must be like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Such attentive walking was a return to the hyper-alertness of childhood.

Mindful breathing connected with mindful walking gradually becomes normal. It is then a small step to connect walking and breathing with prayer.

* * *

Here is a story about him told by Nancy:

I came to the Netherlands in April of 1982 with my daughter Caitlan, who was five years old at the time. Jim and I were married shortly after that. We had been friends for many years in the US. Both of us worked together at the headquarters of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in Nyack, New York, and Jim move to Holland in 1977 to serve as general secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR). We had kept in touch during those five years. Jim was Cait’s godfather.

Shortly after I had moved here, Jim told me Thich Nhat Hanh would be coming to Alkmaar to visit. I had never met Nhat Hanh, but of course I had heard a great deal about him, and I knew how close Jim and Nhat Hanh had been over the years. Jim said Nhat Hanh would be coming to our house, and that the IFOR staff would be coming over as well to meet with him.

It was a beautiful day in May. First the staff arrived and took seats in our living room, then Nhat Hanh himself arrived, dressed in his brown robe. A hush fell over the staff members, and everyone was apparently in awe of this man. I remember feeling nervous that he was coming to our house, nervous about hosting this event. After he had sat down, the room fell silent and a sort of Zen silence fell on the room. It was hard for me to tell what to make of the atmosphere in the living room that day, but it made me uncomfortable.

In the meantime, Cait, who had just been giving her first bicycle and was practicing riding it in the parking lot behind our house, kept running in to tell me how far she was advancing. So you have this room full of awestruck adults sitting there with what appeared to me glazed looks on their faces, and my little daughter running in, breathless with excitement.

After Nhat Hanh finished speaking with the staff, Jim came up to me and told me he had invited him to dinner. This was a little more than I could handle. I went into the kitchen at the back of the house and started chopping vegetables. I remember feeling that I really had to get out of that living room, that there was something definitely weird about what was going on there. It didn’t feel genuine, while the vegetables were certain genuine and so was Cait.

After a few minutes, Nhat Hanh came into the kitchen and, almost effortlessly, started helping me with the vegetables. I think he just started talking to me in the most ordinary way. He ended up telling me how to make rice balls — how to grind the sesame seeds in a coffee grinder, to make the balls with sticky rice and to roll them in the ground sesame seeds. It was lots of fun and I remember laughing with him. The artificial Zen atmosphere was completely absent. Cait kept coming in, and Nhat Hanh was delighted with her.

This was my first Zen lesson.

— Nancy Forest

* * *

And this also comes from Nancy…

Notes of a conversation with Thich Nhat Hanh on August 21, 1984 at the Plum Village in France”

(Thay was outside sitting on a stone.)

Nancy: Do you have a moment to talk?

Thay: Yes, please. Sit here on a stone.

N: I’ve felt rather out of it here. I’m not a person from one of the Zen Centers, and I’m not an old friend, like Jim.

T: (very emphatically) No, no! You are wrong. Maybe you are better than Jim!

N: (I tell him my “North Pole” experience — how, when I was young, I had a profound experience of standing at the point on the globe where all lines converge and intersect — an overwhelming experience of being at the absolute Center.)

T: It’s true we are each, as you say, like the North Pole. (He takes a stick and places it at the edge of his stone.) We are each on the edge. We are each separate, and each one of us has everyone within us.

N: How can that be?

T: (He holds up a leaf.) As this leaf holds within it everything – all the sun, all water, all earth.

N: But it also makes you realize we do everything alone. Everything, every step – alone. Walk through life alone. Die alone.

T: Yes. I told the people in the Zen Centers in America, “Meditation is a personal matter!” (He smiles.) That means meditation is an exercise in being alone – in realizing what it is to be alone. There is a story in Zen Buddhism about a monk. His name was (pause), “The Monk Who Was Alone.” He did everything alone – eat alone, wash dishes alone – everything. They said to him, “Why do you do everything alone?” He said, “Because that is the way we are.”

N: (I tell him how, lately, I’ve been reading so many things which all seem to pertain to this event. How I pick up a book or read an article, and it all connects. I tell him at first I thought it was a coincidence that so much of what I read is connected.)

T: (Smiles and shakes his head.) It’s no coincidence.

N: I’ve read some of Merton. And about the Hasidic Jews. And the story of the Fall in the Bible – Adam and Eve. About how, before the Fall, Eve just stood in her place, and walked in the garden. God had given them everything they needed, and it was all good. Eve didn’t know what evil was. Then when she was tempted to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, she decided there wasn’t enough for her, just standing there – even though she didn’t have any idea what “evil” was. So by eating, she destroyed the garden.

I’ve thought a lot about that here – walking slowly through the woods.

T: But you know – good and evil are just concepts. Maybe even the serpent was good, and the apple. All good. It’s like this stick. I can say, “This half is good, this half is evil.” They’re all concepts. Maybe Eve was even good after the Fall. You say “before the Fall – after the Fall.” It’s all the same.

N: The Hasidic Jews always are dancing. It’s all holy, everything. But after Eve ate the apple, we don’t know if she really was able to know good from evil – we only know she was ashamed.

(Thay smiles.)

N: Merton said Eve wasn’t good before the Fall and bad afterwards. He said she was her True Self before the Fall and not her True Self afterwards.

T: And he also said, “Everything is Good.” (He smiles and stares at me) – and he said that in Bangkok! (Long pause.) You know, if you are really able to understand this, you can look at all the nuclear weapons and … (very long pause – his eyes scan the distance) … and smile.

* * *

Saint Dorothy?

by Jim ForestDorothy Day head and shoulders 1968 (small)

Long before her death, many people spoke of Dorothy Day as a saint. It made Dorothy uncomfortable and sometimes irritable. If people knew her better, she insisted, they would see her in a far more critical light. She staunchly resisted being regarded as a model Christian. She famously said, “Don’t call me a saint — I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” On the other hand she aspired to sanctity and was impatient with those who regarded saints as a breed apart. “We are all called to be saints,” she often said, paraphrasing Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Sanctity isn’t for the few but for the many, not for the exceptional but for the ordinary. But no sane person looks in a mirror and sees a halo. One certain indication of someone being far from sanctity is imagining themselves being portrayed on a holy card. Actual saints seek recognition only as great sinners.

What Dorothy could not see in herself, many others, including people who knew her well, perceived. In September 1983, the Claretians, a Catholic religious order active in sixty countries, took the first step in promoting recognition of Dorothy Day as a saint. Their campaign was launched with the publication of an article by Father Henry Fehren in a Claretian journal, Salt. Canonization would, Fehren argued, make Dorothy’s life known to generations to come with the result that “more people would learn about her and be inspired and strengthened by her. Saint Augustine said that funeral customs were more for the living than for the dead; and canonization also is not to benefit the dead but the living.”

What impressed him most about Dorothy Day, he wrote, “was her perseverance — year after year living an austere life in the grimmest of conditions, being jailed again and again, never giving up doing the works of mercy, never getting cynical, never letting her love of God and people dissolve. Anyone can be saintly for a week or two, or even a year, but to persevere from youth through old age, to remain on the cross until death — that is a mark of true holiness.”

The Church calendar, he continued, needed more lay people, women especially. “Most of the canonized saints … are nuns, brothers, priests, and bishops; yet the Church is almost entirely made up of lay people, and the emphasis in our time is on the work and responsibility of the lay people in the Church…. Dorothy Day did not ask Church officials for permission to do her works of mercy…. Nor did she found a religious order, as so many holy women of strong character had in the past…. ‘How to love,’ she wrote in one issue of The Catholic Worker, ‘that is the question.’ She answered that question by her life.”

The Claretians solicited prayers and testimonials and also printed cards with a drawing of Dorothy Day on one side and a prayer on the reverse: “Merciful God, you called your servant Dorothy Day to show us the face of Jesus in the poor and forsaken. By constant practice of the works of mercy, she embraced poverty and witnessed steadfastly to justice and peace. Count her among your saints and lead us to become friends of the poor ones of the earth and to recognize you in them.” Over the years, tens of thousands of the cards, plus similar posters, have been distributed — the Claretians have lost count of how many. Part of their website is devoted to Dorothy Day.

In 1997, seventeen years after Dorothy’s death, Cardinal John O’Connor, Archbishop of New York, took the first steps in launching the actual process of canonization. For those who recalled the military dimension of O’Connor’s background, it must have come as a surprise. In 1952, seven years after his ordination as a priest, O’Connor joined the U.S. Navy as a chaplain. He often entered combat zones, first in Korea, later in Vietnam, to say Mass and administer last rites to the wounded. In 1975, he was appointed Chief of Navy Chaplains with the rank of rear admiral. In all, he spent twenty-seven years with the military before he was appointed Bishop of Scranton in 1983 and then, the following year, Archbishop of New York.

A bishop who is also an admiral, one might have imagined, is an unlikely candidate to seek the canonization of a woman who had spent much of her life encouraging people not to go to war. On the other hand, someone who has seen the reality of combat would not be last in line to appreciate Dorothy’s hatred of war. “No priest can watch the blood pouring from the wounds of the dying, be they American or Vietnamese of the North or South, without anguish and a sense of desperate frustration and futility,” he wrote. “The clergy back home, the academicians in their universities, the protesters on their marches are not the only ones who cry out, ‘Why?’”

As a bishop, O’Connor not only opposed abortion but capital punishment, and was also outspoken in his critique of war and militarization. In the 1980s, he condemned U.S. support of counter-revolutionary guerrilla forces in Central America, opposed America’s mining of the waters off Nicaragua, questioned spending vast sums on new weapon systems, and in general advocated caution in regard to American military actions around the world. In 1998, he questioned whether U.S. missile strikes on Afghanistan and Sudan were morally justifiable, and, in 1999, during the Kosovo War, declared that NATO’s bombing campaign of Yugoslavia did not meet the Church’s criteria for a just war. “Does the relentless bombing of Yugoslavia,” O’Connor asked, “prove the power of the Western world or its weakness?” He was also known as strongly pro-labor. Had she lived to know Cardinal O’Connor, Dorothy would have applauded his stands on many issues, no doubt recalling how uncritical of American military actions Cardinal Francis Spellman had been.

In a homily given at Mass in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York on November 9, 1997, a day after the hundredth anniversary of Dorothy’s birth, O’Connor said he was considering proposing Dorothy Day for canonization and invited responses to this idea from any interested persons. She was, he said, “a truly remarkable woman” who had combined a deep faith and love for the Church with a passionate commitment to serving the poor and to saving lives. He would soon be meeting with persons knowledgeable about Dorothy’s life, he announced, including some who were present as his invited guests at Mass that day.

O’Connor acknowledged that some might object to his taking up the cause of Dorothy Day because “she was a protester against some things that people confuse with Americanism itself,” but this was a view he completely rejected. Others, he said, might argue that she was already widely recognized as a living saint and therefore formal canonization is not needed. “Perhaps,” O’Connor said, “but why does the Church canonize saints? In part, so that their person, their works and their lives will become that much better known, and that they will encourage others to follow in their footsteps — and so the Church may say, ‘This is sanctity, this is the road to eternal life.’” Dorothy was, he said, someone who believed that a person is “a temple of God, sacred, made in the image and likeness of God, infinitely more important in its own way than any building…. To Dorothy Day, everyone was a cathedral.”

Dorothy Day, he continued, “saw the world at large turned into a huge commercial marketplace where money means more than anything else. She saw people turned into tools of commerce. She saw the family treated as a marketplace. She reminded us frequently enough that the Church herself could become simply a marketplace. She loved the Church, and she was immensely faithful to the Church. She had no time for those who attacked the Church as such, the Body of Christ. She loved the Holy Father. But she recognized that we poor, weak human beings — people like you, people like me — could turn the Church into nothing but a marketplace.” The more reading he had done about Dorothy Day, he said, “the more saintly a woman she seems to be.”

He noted that Dorothy had often been severely criticized. “She suffered in many, many ways. Some of the sufferings, she herself would say, she brought on herself. Others came from enemies. Most of her suffering came from seeing the sufferings of Christ in the poor.”

Praising Dorothy for all she had done to draw attention to Saint Therese of Lisieux, he read aloud the final paragraphs of Dorothy’s book about “the Little Flower”:

So many books have been written about Saint Therese, books of all kinds, too, so why, I ask myself again, have I written one more? There are popular lives, lives written for children, travelogue lives following her footsteps, lives for the extrovert, the introvert, the contemplative, the activist, the scholar and the theologian.

Yet it was the “worker,” the common man, who first spread her fame by word of mouth. It was the masses who first proclaimed her a saint. It was the ‘people.’

When we think of the masses, we think of waves of the sea, of forests, of fields of wheat, all moved by the spirit which blows where it listeth. When we think of the people we think of the child at school, the housewife at her dishpan, the mother working, the mother sick, the man traveling, the migrant worker, the craftsman, the factory worker, the soldier, the rich, the bourgeois, the poor in tenements, the destitute man in the street. To a great extent she has made her appeal to all of these.

What was there about her to make such an appeal? Perhaps because she was so much like the rest of us in her ordinariness. In her lifetime there are no miracles recounted, she was just good…

What did she do? She practiced the presence of God and she did all things — all the little things that make up our daily life and contact with others — for His honor and glory. She did not need much time to expound what she herself called ‘her little way,’ which she said was for all. She wrote her story, and God did the rest. God and the people. God chose for the people to clamor for her canonization.

Noting that, prior to her religious conversion, Dorothy had aborted her first child, O’Connor said, “I wish every woman who has ever suffered an abortion, including perhaps someone or several in this church, would come to know Dorothy Day. Her story was so typical. Made pregnant by a man who insisted she have an abortion, who then abandoned her anyway, she suffered terribly for what she had done, and later pleaded with others not to do the same. But later, too, after becoming a Catholic, she learned the love and mercy of the Lord, and knew she never had to worry about His forgiveness. This is why I have never condemned a woman who has had an abortion; I weep with her and ask her to remember Dorothy Day’s sorrow but to know always God’s loving mercy and forgiveness.”

Dorothy’s gratitude for the Church, despite every human shortcoming and sin, warranted O’Connor’s admiration: “Her respect for and commitment and obedience to Church teaching were unswerving. Indeed, those of us who grew up knowing her recognized early in the game that she was a radical precisely because she was a believer, a believer and a practitioner. She, in fact, chided those who wanted to join her in her works of social justice, but who, in her judgment, didn’t take the Church seriously enough, and didn’t bother about getting to Mass.”

The approach of Dorothy’s hundredth birthday, he said, had inspired a number of people to send him letters urging her canonization. O’Connor read several of them aloud, including one written several years earlier by Robert Coles, a physician on the faculty of the Harvard Medical School who had come to know Dorothy when he was a medical student:

Fourteen years ago my wife started getting some numbness in her left side. I took her to a prominent doctor, who, after a diagnostic work-up, told us that she had a brain tumor and she had six months to live. The doctors were absolutely definite about it…. I wrote to Dorothy; I told her. And I started getting a letter or a postcard a day from her with her prayers and her messages. She didn’t contradict the doctors, but her letters were different in nature — full of encouragement and love. After the months turned into years, the doctors started talking about a ‘miraculous recovery.’ They said that my wife somehow had “made it.” … The only one who didn’t tell me my wife was going to die in six months was Dorothy Day.

“I wish I had known Dorothy Day personally,” O’Connor concluded. “I feel that I know her because of her goodness. But surely, if any woman ever loved God and her neighbor, it was Dorothy Day! Pray that we do what we should do.”

O’Connor’s decision to formally begin the process quickly followed. On February 5, 1998, he invited various people who had known Dorothy well (among them Tom and Monica Cornell, Eileen Egan, Robert Ellsberg, Jane Sammon, Frank Donovan and Pat and Kathleen Jordan) to come to his office for an unhurried discussion that started at 4 P.M. and lasted until 6:30. O’Connor sat on the couch for the meeting, Tom Cornell recalled, “joking about how a cardinal should sit higher not lower.” Thanks to the notes taken by Robert Ellsberg, I have a detailed account of the meeting.

“The purpose of the present meeting is to reflect on whether this is really God’s will,” O’Connor said at the outset. “Is it in the best interest of the poor, of the Church? What should we do in this matter? … Cardinal Newman said, “The tragedy is never to have begun.’ So now we are beginning. If we decide to go forward it will be a lengthy and complicated process. I presume it will not be completed in whatever time I have left.’

Responding to the issue of whether the time was right, Ellsberg pointed out that “Dorothy is a real saint of what Cardinal Bernardin called ‘common ground.’ She challenges the reformers and social activists to maintain their love for the Church and the Gospel. She challenges conservatives to be attentive to the radical social dimensions of the Gospel. She challenges both sides to resolve differences with mutual respect and love, for the benefit of the world.”

Pat Jordan, another former managing editor of The Catholic Worker, said he felt it was important that the light shed by Dorothy’s life “not be hidden under a basket.” He stressed her purity, her modesty, her hope, her ability to go on even when things seemed hopeless, and doing so without institutional help. Her greatest sacrifice was “not being able to put the needs of her family first — she died totally to self to try to respond to Christ’s love. She had to struggle, to forgive seventy times seven. She knew all the spiritual traps. She challenged us always to care for the weak, to love our enemy, yet she never claimed that everyone had to do it her way. In this materialistic society, she showed us the simple beauty of sharing and of community.”

O’Connor asked Jordan what Dorothy would think about being called a saint? “She would have none of it,” he replied. “She knew that some people during her life wanted to call her a saint. She thought it was a way of letting themselves off the hook — Dorothy could do these things because ‘she’s a saint.’ But she really took seriously the idea that we are all called to be saints. She wasn’t embarrassed about saying that. She often quoted Leon Bloy, ‘There is only one sadness: not to be a saint.’”

Was her objection to being called a saint due to humility, O’Connor asked. “Dorothy had a strong sense of her own sins, her weaknesses and failures,” Jordan responded. “Her standards were so high that her failures stood out all the more sharply. But she had all the more sense of God’s grace, of what it means to be forgiven. Her gravestone has the words ‘Deo Gratias,’ as she had requested. She had such a sense of gratitude, a sense that what she had done was because of grace. This was one reason she didn’t like to be called a saint, which implied that she deserved the credit for what she had done. She believed she was responsible for her failures. Everything else was due to God.”

O’Connor noted that some people objected to the archdiocese seeking Dorothy’s canonization because it would cost a great deal of money that could better be given to the poor. “I don’t know where this idea comes from that a lot of money is involved,” said O’Connor. “It’s really a very small amount. The process of seeking the canonization of Pierre Toussaint [a Haitian-born New Yorker of slave descent], which has progressed now to the point of awaiting a miracle, has cost the archdiocese no more than three or four thousand dollars, including the cost of sending someone to Rome. [In 1996, Toussaint was beatified by Pope John Paul.] If the money were given instead to the poor, we wouldn’t be giving them very much money.”

Eileen Egan, Dorothy’s friend of many years as well as a key figure in Catholic Relief Services, saw Dorothy as someone who “shows that ordinary people can live by the Sermon on the Mount. She tried to relate the Sermon on the Mount to everything she did. This makes her a tremendous inspiration for lay people. Most saints appear to be hedged in by vows or life style, but Dorothy wasn’t hedged in by anything.”

O’Connor wondered if canonization might trivialize Dorothy’s memory — would it merely serve as a “superficial aggrandizement of the Catholic Worker movement? Would it let us off the hook? Would it be a way, as she said, of dismissing her too easily? Turning her into a holy card? Would it attract more people to know this life? The issue here is the holiness of her life. Holiness is expressed in a thousand ways.”

Jordan said that Dorothy had taught him “how to see Christ in every person. This didn’t come easily or naturally. It reflected tremendous effort. She was not always an easy person to get along with. There were times when I felt miffed by her decisions. But there was no question in my mind about her holiness. I’ve never met anyone like her. I doubt that I will ever meet anyone else like her.”

Ellsberg commented that, “if Dorothy Day was not a saint, it is hard to know what meaning that word should have.”

O’Connor said that the discussion had made it even clearer that “here was a holy woman” and that he would be failing in his duty if he were not to begin the canonization process. “I don’t want to have on my conscience that I didn’t do something that God wanted done.” It seemed to him that the campaign the Claretians had begun in 1983 should now be taken up by the diocese Dorothy had belonged to all her Catholic life.

As he said goodbye, O’Connor remarked, “You are all so warm — you must have gathered around a wonderful fire.”

The group met again in March, this time augmented by Catholic Worker artist Ade Bethune, Geoff Gneuhs (who, as a Dominican priest, had presided at Dorothy’s funeral), Dorothy’s friend and correspondent Nina Polcyn Moore, Phillip Runkel (curator of the Catholic Worker Archive at Marquette University), long-time Catholic Worker Dorothy Gauchat, George Horton of Catholic Charities, and Meinrad Scherer-Emunds, representing the Claretians. Tom and Monica Cornell were absent; they were at the Vatican for a meeting with Cardinal James Stafford, then head of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, who would have to approve Cardinal O’Connor’s application to introduce Dorothy’s cause in Rome.

The decision to begin the process having already been taken, the focus this time was on identifying next steps. In the coming months, O’Connor would send a letter to the prefect heading the Congregation for the Causes of Saints proposing Dorothy’s canonization. Next would come the formal appointment of a postulator in Rome and a vice-postulator in New York who would interview people who knew Dorothy or were acquainted with her life. Next, a commission would write a historical report on Dorothy’s life which would then be handed over to a theological commission. Finally a recommendation would be made to the pope that, as soon as there is a documented miracle linked to her, Dorothy Day be declared Blessed. A second miracle would open the way for her official recognition as Saint Dorothy.

In September 1998, O’Connor wrote to those involved in the meetings to let them know how things were coming along: “I have written to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints asking that the process for her canonization be initiated. Included in my submission are the letters submitted by those who attended our meetings in the spring. I have received an invitation to meet with the Prefect of the Congregation during my next trip to Rome. I may have more information for you following that visit.”

Rome is well known for moving slowly. It wasn’t until March 2000, eighteen months later, that Cardinal O’Connor announced the approval of the Holy See for the Archdiocese of New York to open the cause for the beatification and canonization. With this approval, Dorothy received the formal ecclesiastical title, “Servant of God Dorothy Day.”

By then O’Connor knew he was living in sight of his grave. Two months later, on May 3, he died of cardiopulmonary arrest. He was eighty years old. A spokesman for the archdiocese said the cardinal’s death was “the result of the tumor and the cancer that he was suffering from.”

O’Connor’s successor, Cardinal Edward Egan, formally established the Dorothy Day Guild in 2005 to advance the cause. (One way to join the guild is via its website: http://dorothydayguild.org.) His successor, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, enthusiastically supports the cause, which is headquartered in the New York Archdiocesan Offices.

Whatever comes of the canonization effort, the Catholic Worker movement is alive and continues to grow. Each house of hospitality that identifies itself with the Catholic Worker movement — currently there are more than a hundred and sixty — might be regarded as a monument to Dorothy Day, though Dorothy would stress they are first and foremost a response to the words of Christ: “What you did to the least, you did to me.” There is also the more hidden testimony of the countless people who lead more hospitable and more peaceful lives, thanks in part to Dorothy Day. Who could count them all?

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This an extract from All Is Grace: a biography of Dorothy Day, published by Orbis Books. The text is copyright and may not be reprinted or posted on the web without the author’s permission.
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Siberian God-mother: an interview with Natasha Gorelova

first Liturgy in Akademgorodok (July 1991)

In the thick birch woods south of Novosibirsk, Siberia’s largest city, is Akademgorodok — literally “Academic Town.” Founded in the fifties by Soviet Academy of Science as a major research center, it accommodates the Institutes of Nuclear Physics, Biology, Economics, Pure and Applied Mathematics, and Organic Chemistry, and numerous similar establishments as well as the campus of the University of Novosibirsk. John Le Carre’s novel, The Russia House, features a free-thinking, vodka-soaked nuclear physicist from this scientific enclave.

It was taken for granted by its founders that Akademgorodok would be forever free of the “superstitions of religion.” It was only in the Gorbachev era that religious life in unchurched places could finally come into the open, including a vital Orthodox Christian parish — All Saints — in Akademgorodok formed by scientists and babushkas together.

In June 1991, when I was taking a Russian course at the university, I took part in the town’s first Liturgy. It was Pentecost, called Troitsa (Holy Trinity) Sunday in Russia. Lacking a church building, the parish plus various curious on-lookers met for an outdoor service on the edge of the woods. Halfway through the service, it began to rain. Soon it was a downpour. On Troitsa Sunday, there are lengthy “kneeling prayers” at the end of the Liturgy. Everyone was soaked to the bones. It was a collective baptism by immersion.

No one has played a larger part in bringing the church into being than Natasha Gorelova, a mathematician and geologist. The greatest treasure of my month in Akademgorodok was getting to know her.

She was born in a Siberian mining town. Though baptized as an infant, she never entered a church again during her childhood. As a student at the State University in Moscow, she was awarded the Lenin Prize. In 1971 she was sent to Akademgorodok where she did post-graduate work in cybernetics at the Computer Center. Still at the Computer Center, her present work concerns applied mathematics. She is the mother of three. Her son, 19, is a university student. She has two daughters, ages 13 and 10. Akademgorodok (Academic Town) is a suburb of Siberia’s largest city, Novosibirsk. Set up in the fifties, Akademgorodok accommodates twenty research centers of the Siberian Division of the USSR Academy of Sciences, including the Institutes of Nuclear Physics, Biology, Economics, Pure and Applied Mathematics, and Organic Chemistry.

The interview with her took place in the living room of her apartment.

— Jim Forest

Natasha, tell me about yourself, where you’re from, where you grew up.

I saw born in Siberia in a coal mining town which became famous last year when the miners went on strike. I was baptized when I was one year old, but I never visited a church in my childhood. I never thought about church. I never knew who the priest was. But I always knew that God exists. I don’t remember any night going to sleep without praying. I was a Young Pioneer and in the summer went to Pioneer camps with a lot of other children. I remember if I didn’t pray before going to sleep, I would wake up in the night with a kind of shock, realizing that I had left this world without praying. However I didn’t use the word praying until I was an adult. I came to God without difficulty, but there is a distinction between coming to God and coming to Christ. It isn’t the same thing to say, “I have come to God” and “I have come to Christ.”

What brought about your conversion?

Probably it is typical for my generation. About the time I was 25 many new thoughts came into my head, new feelings, and I understood that I couldn’t survive anymore the way I was. Perhaps it was because of being born in Russia and the fate of this country – realizing the suffering of this country, the killing and murder, the terrible things that happened. I suddenly realized I couldn’t go on living in the same way. It was intolerable. But I didn’t think I could leave or even should leave. I didn’t think there was some other place where I could be happy, some foreign paradise – Australia or Arizona!

Thinking about it, I felt very depressed. I even thought about suicide. It wasn’t that I had no personal bad luck. I was fortunate. I had a good husband, good friends, good children, interesting work. I liked my parents. I had successfully defended my thesis and had my degree.

I thought that I couldn’t be the only one suffering this way. There must someone else. And perhaps this other had already found the way. I was reading a lot of existentialist writers then and some eastern philosophy. These writers were explaining the world as best they good and perhaps even their explanations were quite correct, but they didn’t show the way out, only another impasse. By my education I was a mathematician both professionally and in my thoughts. Reading all these things I was always aware of errors in logic. For example I came upon the statement that you cannot interrupt suffering by suicide because you will only be reincarnated in another life even worse than the present life. But I thought if I don’t remember any previous life, then I won’t remember this life in another life. In effect this “reincarnated self” will be someone else suffering, not me. So why bother about it?

I was working on my doctoral degree at that time and happened to read about Christ in a book about cybernetics. Surprising! The context was an explanation of positive and negative feedback. The book gave an example from the Gospel and the saying of Christ, If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn the other cheek to him as well. The book said that this is a statement that is quite sound and can be explained mathematically. If someone strikes you and you hit back, the consequence is that you only increase the amount of evil. If you want to reduce the amount of evil, you decrease it my refusing to repeat evil actions. You keep them to yourself. You leave it to the final point.

This saying of Jesus made me think. I decided to test it. In Russia that’s easy to do! You know our public transportation, our buses, and how crowded they are. So when someone shoved me or put his foot on mine, I didn’t say something offensive, only, “Please, why don’t you move to this side?” or “Please sit here” — speaking without sarcasm, in a kind voice. I saw how the tension in the bus immediately went down. I understood from my experiments that you can reduce the stress in a line or a crowd by refusing to respond to aggression with more aggression but instead with kindness.

I came to the conclusion that the hypothesis in the Gospel was correct. That was my first step to Christ. I began to think of the Gospel as a very wise book. The Resurrection of Christ, however, was something that I couldn’t understand.

It’s harder to demonstrate mathematically.

You are right. But finally I realized that if the Resurrection is not true then the whole book is false. In that case Christ was the greatest liar of this world. If Christ says, “I am the way, I am the truth,” but it is not true, then there is nothing else to say. It is useless to think further about Christianity anymore. At that time it seemed to me the choice was Nietzsche or Christ. These were the two theories that I found most logical and most developed.

At this point, like others before me, I accepted the formula: If the truth is not Christ, then I don’t need any other truth. Then I was thinking about what Christ said, “Knock and the door will be opened, ask and it shall be given.” I decided to do it, to knock on the door until it opened.

At that time I still didn’t know any believers. I had only books. I had good friends — poets, writers, scientists. They wanted to help me but they couldn’t understand why I was so preoccupied with these religious questions. They assumed it was a phase that I would eventually get through.

The first believers I met were Baptists. A Baptist gave me my first Gospel. They were very hopeful I would become one of them. They said, “Very soon we will have a good speaker among us!” I was considered a good speaker with a good style. Yet I wasn’t able to become a Baptist. I didn’t feel at home in the Baptist church.

At that time I couldn’t imagine that I would find myself among babushkas with their covered heads, so old, standing in the Orthodox church. But when I was in Moscow I was lucky to meet some people who were Orthodox believers. I was able to read about the Liturgy and the sacraments and what it means to receive communion. Still there was a lot I didn’t understand and no one could explain it to me.

While in Moscow, I finally went inside an Orthodox church. I hadn’t planned to before, but while I was there I decided to go up to the priest for confession just as others were doing. I had never been to confession and didn’t fully understand what it was. The priest asked me only one question, if I followed the fasting rules for Wednesday and Friday. He assumed I was used to being in church. I had read about the fasting rules and was already practicing them. So I said with great pride, “How can you ask! I don’t even drink water on Wednesday and Friday!” If he had asked more questions he would have found I wasn’t at all as I must have seemed from that one answer. I knew about fasting days but I had never heard that you were supposed to fast on the day you receive communion — I had eaten breakfast that morning. But the priest didn’t ask and I didn’t know. He gave me a blessing but I didn’t understand that he was blessing me to receive communion.

Later in the Liturgy, when he had finished giving communion, some believers looked at me and said, “But she didn’t go to the cup!” They were staring at me, and I was so surprised! How had they noticed me? Some old women took me by their hands and brought me to the priest to tell him I should receive communion, and so it happened. I received the holy gifts. Then the old women were all around me, kissing me, kissing my dress, crying. It was the first time I experienced so deeply my unity with the people around me and my love for them. It was in this way that I found out what the Eucharist is, what communion is. From that moment on, I loved babushkas! I loved old women. And from that moment on all my doubts were gone. I was a believer.

Of course I know quite well, and I knew it then, that I am not such a pleasant person. Too often I’m not kind. Friends sometimes say, “Natasha, why are you so intolerant? Believers should be tolerant.” I say, “Listen, it’s not that I’m intolerant. I’m impatient.” It’s like trying to explain a mathematical theorem to someone. I understand it quite well and want my friend to understand it too. But if my friend doesn’t get it right away, I became annoyed. I have a tendency to the same impatience when talking to others about religious truth. This is my problem. But I am very lucky with my friends. They are very kind, very tolerant, very patient. Perhaps they are praying to God to give me patience and to forgive me my impatience.

Nonetheless you have inspired many people to be baptized.

I have more than forty god-children! About fifteen are adults and the others are children. You met my first god-daughter two days ago, the archaeologist with seven children. She accepted baptism at my request, even though she wasn’t yet completely a believer. After baptism she no longer had any doubts. The same thing happened with another friend. Her husband — he was a biologist by profession — became a priest and now serves at a church in a small town. Those who were baptized at my urging then turned to their friends, asking them to get baptized.

But to get baptized doesn’t necessarily mean you are a believer. There are millions of people who are baptized but who aren’t believers.

Among my god-children almost all of them are going to church. They are believers. They never come to me by accident. Yes, it might happen, but I think people understand that I have a very serious attitude about this. Even the god-children of my god-children are taking it seriously. There are a few not coming to church but I think they will return eventually.

How do you prepare people for their baptism?

It varies in each case. Often it happens in a strange way. I remember one elderly woman. I said to her, “Listen, I cannot go on living if you aren’t baptized.” I begged her, for my sake, to get baptized. She was slow to agree. She kept hesitating. There was no possibility to talk her into it with theological arguments. That would have been useless. Finally she decided to do it. I went to Father Boris to ask about what I was doing — convincing her to be baptized even though she really didn’t believe in anything. Father Boris said, “It is already a lot that she agrees to be baptized just because she wants to be obedient to you.” What happened later was something to see. After baptism, she really became a new person. It was amazing. Still she doesn’t know very much. If you ask her, perhaps she will say things about Christianity that are quite wrong, real stupidities. But she can pray. She likes to pray. She likes to be in church. Her life has changed in a deep way.

I think of my friend Tamara. Once she invited me for dinner. At the time we were just acquaintances. It turned out she had cooked chicken. I said, “Tamara, please, I’m not eating meat right now. It’s Lent.” Tamara got pale and said, “Please, Natasha, but I don’t know anything about that. Tell me what it’s all about.” We spent several nights talking together. On the third night Tamara said, “In the morning I want to go to the church to be baptized.” And she did.

Sometimes it is the children who lead the adults, convincing their parents to be baptized. I remember years ago here in Akademgorodok there was a very troubled child, six years old. He was agitated, hyper-active, often ill. The parents were not at all believers but they had the idea that they should get him baptized — just a gesture. They had no intention of further contact with the Church. His father, a member of the Communist Party, had a high position. He didn’t want it known that he had his son baptized. It was difficult making the arrangements but finally it happened. As the child grew up, he became more and more interested in Christ and Christianity, eventually going to church quite openly, praying openly. Sometimes adults were saying to the boy, “There is no god in this world,” he answered, “Ha! So you say, but I know about God for sure.” In the end he brought his parents into the Church.

When did the local Orthodox community come together?

It began with some young people. Some were students, some had recently graduated. Somehow they knew about me and asked me whether I would join them and to help them organize a community. I was surprised. I asked them, “Why is it that I don’t see you in church?” If some old women asked me to join their community, of course I would join. But I said I didn’t want to join a community just for the sake of going to meetings. It was a kind of wide ecumenical group, a religious discussion group. Some thought of themselves as Catholic. Some were curious about religion but more in non-Christian religions – the Hare Krishna prayer and Hinduism. But most were drawn to Orthodoxy. Those who weren’t finally left the group. When it was Orthodox, Father Boris from Novosibirsk became their chaplain. They had the community officially registered with the Council for Religious Affairs.

What do you think of ecumenism?

I am not against it. But for me, I feel like someone in a forest fire, running for my life to escape from the fire. I don’t stop and look at all the trees and bushes and fallen logs. I just run. I am running for my salvation. If you have the truth already, you go forward within that truth. I don’t think I have to change the world. All I am trying to do is to change myself. I am trying to do it even though I don’t seem to make much progress. As Saint Seraphim said, “Pray to the Holy Spirit and forgive everyone and you will be saved.”

This way of thinking was different from the point of view some of the young people had in the community in the beginning. Some had the point of view that first you have to change the world and the church hierarchy, then you can change yourself. For me that was only politics. I didn’t want to come back to the things that I had left behind years before.

Who helped you find your way?

Father Boris. It was my meeting with him in 1980 that began determining my life within the Church. For me, he is an absolute authority. In all the aspects of his life, he is an example and inspiration.

[At this point the translator told how one day in 1982 she went to the cathedral in Novosibirsk, looking for Father Boris, hoping he would baptize her. He wasn’t there but his brother, Father Alexander, a well known priest who had once been a prisoner for two years, was visiting, and he baptized her.]

It is very important that Father Boris is with us. We would be helpless without him. But if he is with us, we will have everything: a community, a church, everything we need.

How did it happen that the discussion group became a worshiping group?

The most important moment was last January when we celebrated Theophany [the commemoration of the baptism of Jesus]. For the first time in the history of Akademgorodok we were allowed to have a public service. It wasn’t a Liturgy but the solemn blessing of water. We built a little shelter and set it up behind the House of Scientists in the center of town. It was a very cold day, more than 30 degrees centigrade below zero. A great many people came to receive the blessed water, not only old women but young girls and boys, mothers with their children, and men as well. Father Boris’ hands were nearly frozen pouring so much water in that cold weather. By the time we finished, the water had ice in it. I hadn’t mean to help because I wasn’t well. I just wanted to come for two minutes to get some blessed water. But once I got there I couldn’t leave.

How do local people who have no former relation to the church respond?

That day a woman saw we were cold and invited us to her house to eat. We had no idea who she was. We ate a little and got warm and then went back to give out more blessed water.

Because the service was in the center of town, a lot of people who were just passing by stopped and came over to watch and ask questions. Some were from the elder generation — they had been baptized but hadn’t been to church since they were children. But after this event they paid attention to us. When they saw a notice about a service in the newspapers, they paid attention. In this way it became more and more widely spread.

Since the beginning of this year, most of the important events on the church calendar have been celebrated in Akademgorodok. We put notices up on the door on the bakeries, places like that: The Orthodox Christian Community of Akademgorodok named after All the Holy Saints of Russia invites you to such-and-such event.

How do local people who think of themselves as atheists or unbelievers respond to an Orthodox community in Akademgorodok?

I think some are actually happy about it. Many are thinking, really for the first time, about atheist ideas. There are others who stick with their old slogans about atheism. Some of them are quite irritated by us. There was a man behind me in line a few days ago. I heard him say to someone else, “Those people aren’t believers, they are deceivers.” I turned around and asked him, “But why do you think so?” “I know for certain,” he said. I could see he was a veteran from the war — he had on a medal. I told him that the day before a few believers, myself among them, were at a home for veterans doing voluntary service. I asked him, “Do you ever go there?” He admitted that he hadn’t been. He wanted to argue about the Church but I wouldn’t argue.

You could notice at the Liturgy on Troitsa Sunday some people on the edge watching, a few of them making fun of us. Others came and watched in a respectful way or even started to cross themselves and pray. In the service after the Liturgy on Troitsa Sunday [a special service when believers kneel during a series of long readings], many knelt right there on the street even though by then the rain was heavy and the pavement was like a river. Some were people I had never seen before.

And what about the local political authorities?

In the middle of May the local Soviet voted 63 to 1 in favor of our request to build a church. The problem here is that it is not only the local elected representatives that decide but the Soviet Academy of Sciences. There is also the issue of where the church will be. We want it to be near the center of Akademgorodok, on the edge of the forest where we had the outdoor Liturgy on Sunday. This is a place that would be convenient for everyone and easy to get for old people and those who come by bus. The local Soviet has suggested three locations — one in the cemetery, one near a neighboring town, another at a nearby settlement — but nothing within Akademgorodok. I think in the end they will agree to our proposal. Many people — 2000 — have signed a petition in support of our proposal.

How did you choose this name for the local Church?

It was hard to decide. I wanted it to be named for the Transfiguration. Father Boris suggested dedicating it to the Holy Trinity. Some of the young people in the community wanted to name it for the New Martyrs, the sufferers from the Soviet period, but in our discussions it was finally agreed that to take that name would be more a political than a religious act. The name finally chosen was a compromise. If you name the community after all the saints of Russia, the New Martyrs are there also. God knows it very well, better than we.

Is there any connection between the local church and Pamyat or other anti-Semitic groups?

None. Pamyat is like a lynch mob. One member of our group helped organize a meeting of Memorial, the organization to honor victims of Stalin. The meeting was in the theater of the House of Scientists. Almost a thousand came. But the meeting was disrupted by Pamyat. Their slogan was, “There was no Stalinism, only Judeo-Fascism.” The Pamyat people came up onto the stage and stood behind the speakers like partisans of the Soviet type. A veteran of some of the prison camps tried to speak but they wouldn’t let him. Some spat on the man. Many in Pamyat are active in anti-drinking campaigns. Because of this you sometimes hear, “Better sclerosis of the liver than such a `memory.'” [The word “pamyat” means memory and is especially associated with requiem prayers for the dead.]

The Church has both divine and human elements. What do you find disturbing in the Church’s human side?

I have been lucky from the beginning because I never expected anything good from the human part of the Church. I was quite sure that anything existing officially in this country couldn’t be good. In such a situation, from the human point of view, the Church couldn’t be good. So I had no expectations. But after becoming Orthodox I kept meeting good people.

That’s Christianity — not to judge. Very hard sometimes.

I never permit myself to judge those people in the Church whom I don’t like. Maybe their cross is even heavier than mine. Maybe their destiny is even more difficult, more complicated. We cannot make a judgment about the declaration of Metropolitan Sergei [made after his release from prison in 1927, calling on believers to recognize the Soviet Union as their “civic motherland”]. Maybe thanks to such a declaration we had saints we will know about in the next life. These hard times that our country has witnessed and is facing now — so much evil and criminality — can give birth to people of remarkable virtues, even sanctity.

There is an article some members of our community wrote about our church for an Orthodox newspaper published by the Church in Moscow. At the end we used a quotation from Metropolitan Antony [Bloom] in which he speaks both about the human aspect of the Church and about sanctity. It is from a speech he gave in 1967.

“Today,” he said, “from all the variety of beautiful holy things, from all the rich human possibilities, we are celebrating the memory of all the saints of Russia. They are people close to us by our blood, whose lives are interwoven with our own by the decisive events of history. We are celebrating people who are the real glory of our land and whose deeds of holiness bless us all. The types of holy people were various. Some of the Russian saints were living alone in remote places, others in cities. They include princes, monks, metropolitans and priests. There were lay people doing many different kinds of activities. There were iurodivii [holy fools for the sake of Christ]. All were appearing in our land not casually but at exact moments of Russian history when they could show their love of God through specific deeds. They are our joy, even if sometimes a tragic joy, sometimes part of our dark and terrible history. All the stages and epochs of our history are covered both by light and dark colors, red threads and golden embroidery. It always happens so that whenever sins were increasing, virtues were growing as well. Also in places where human cruelty was rising, new testimonies of God’s love were appearing simultaneously, born in human hearts, giving witness to God’s pity for us. If we really wish that all the parts of our souls were connected to the children of God, we should join these features of Russian holiness. Only then would we be united with those people who are continuing even now on the way of salvation in the Russian land, a difficult way, sometimes bloody, but always marked by never-ending love.”

[Natasha served some food]

Forgive me, it isn’t very good. I can cook or speak but not both at the same time.

You can’t be both Mary and Martha the same day.

I consider myself a bad housewife. The story about Mary and Martha is one of my great consolations.

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recorded in July 1991
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