In Peace Let Us Pray to the Lord

by Jim Forest

Some years ago, while in Moscow as a guest of the parish of Saints Cosmos and Damien, a church not far from the Kremlin, I was sitting at a desk just outside the office of the rector making notes for a talk I was to give that night. I had been at work only a short time when the rector, Fr. Alexander Borisov, asked if I would be willing to share the room with two icon restorers. “Good company,” I replied. They came in with a large icon so dark I had no idea what image was hidden under the blackened varnish. The heavy panel — one restorer estimated it was 300 years old — was placed on a table. As the decades had passed and thousands upon thousands of candles burned before it, the image had become increasingly hidden under the smoke-absorbing varnish until it was like a starless night sky. Using a clear liquid, possibly alcohol, and balls of cotton, the two worked side by side. Gradually their painstaking efforts began to reveal sharp lines and vivid colors. After an hour’s work, part of the face of Saint Nicholas had been brought back to life. I found myself the witness of a small resurrection.

It was a minor act of repair that would soon grace this recently reopened place of worship which had for many years housed a Soviet-era printing plant. The resurrected icon was also a gesture containing in microcosm the great housecleaning that the Church was undergoing throughout Russia after so many years of destruction, vandalism, neglect, atheist propganda and immense suffering that cost millions of lives.

But icon-cleaning has still wider implications. As a writer always trying to find the right word, each day I am reminded of how much of our vocabulary has been blackened by the smoke of politics, economics, our culture of intensive consumption and permanent entertainment, the “newspeaking” of old words.

As someone who has been especially concerned about war and peace, I have long been aware of how difficult it is to use the word “peace.” It’s one of our most damaged words.

In Russia during the Soviet era, “peace” was incessantly enlisted by those who ruled as a word meant to sum up all they were doing or intended to do on the name of Marx and Lenin. Even a Soviet war or invasion — Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan, just to name a few — was justified as a means of peacemaking. “Mir,” the Russian word for peace, was emblazoned on countless banners and posters.

Peace is a damaged word in America as well. Peace is announced as their goal by America’s politicians no less than it was by those grim men who once supervised military parades from from the top of Lenin’s tomb. I can recall as a child growing up in New Jersey, watching live broadcasts on our small black-and-white television screen of the explosion of nuclear weapons in the Nevada desert, an amazing act of political theater in those relatively innocent days when few people worried about radioactive fallout. These doomsday weapons, we were told, were made for purposes of peace. The atom bomnbs that had been droped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, however horrific, had — it was agued — shortened the war and brought about peace. In the Cold War fifties, postage stamps were cancelled with the message, “Pray for peace.” The slogan of the Strategic Air Command, the wing of the Air Force created to fight nuclear war, was “Peace is our profession.” Peace could obtained, we were told, only by the threat of “mutually assured destruction” — a much-used phrase at the time which for some reason we no longer hear, though the military structures produced by this doctrine remain intact. The acronym, appropriately, is M-A-D — mad, a madness satirized by Stanley Kubrick in his film, “Doctor Stragelove.” There was an intercontinental, nuclear-armed missile that was christened the Peacemaker.

When a word becomes its own antonym, one cannot use it without first attempting to restore the word. But how? One way to scrub off the grime is to pay close attention to the various uses of the word “peace” in the Orthodox Liturgy. I refer especially to that liturgy not only because I happen to be an Orthodox Christian but because it’s a litugy that has been in continuous use since Christianity was young. The text we use every Sunday dates from the fourth century and is credited to Saint John Chrysostom, but in fact he was only editing and combining still older liturgical texts.

The Orthodox Liturgy begins with the Great the Litany of Peace. In this series of brief, connecting prayers, we hear the word “peace” used in a variety of ways. Let’s look at them briefly.

The litany begins with a summons: “In peace let us pray to the Lord.” Here peace is identified both as a goal and a precondition of worship. How can we pray as a community if we are divided by enmity? How can we be part of a service in which we seek communion with God if, before we start, we have broken communion with each other?

Next comes: “For the peace from above and the salvation of our souls, let us pray to the Lord.” Here peace is seen not as something we can obtain by ourselves, like an acadmic degree, but as heaven’s gift, a gift that is linked with salvation. We can receive that gift or lock the door. God never forces a gift on anyone.

Then comes: “For the peace of the whole world, the welfare of the holy churches of God, and the union of all, let us pray to the Lord.” Worship, if it’s real and not just the reading of a script, is an action of connection, not only with God but with all that God has made. We seek not only a private peace, but peace for the entire world, no one and no nation excepted. As such a peace partly depends on how well the churches of God succeed in being channels of God’s peace, we pray in the same breath for the well-being of the churches, and God knows they need to brought into a state of well-being. Churches so often stand in the way of God’s grace due to institutionalism and by turning religion into a “god business.” We also pray for “the union of all.” In fact, we are in a state of radical disunity. I wonder if even God knows how many churches there are, each with its own theological reasons for being separate from others?

Then comes: “For this holy house and for those who enter with faith, reverence and the fear of God, let us pray to the Lord.” The well-being of the place we worship depends on each one of us. This requires faith — not a state of being easily obtained. Being in a state of reverence is our effort to be aware of God’s presence. If we are unaware of it inchurch, a place designed to help us to become aware, it’s not likely we’ll be aware of it anywere else. Also it requires fear of God — not fear in the sense of dread, but the fear — the awe — that arises in contemplating that which is beyond our comprehension.

Then come a prayer for the place we live and for every place of human habitation: “For this city, for every city and country, and for the faithful dwelling in them, let us pray to the Lord.” No place where human beings live is excluded from God’s love and mercy.

Next comes an appeal regarding basic needs: “For seasonable weather, for abundance of the fruits of the earth, and for peaceful times, let us pray to the Lord.” Peace is not something remote or abstract but concerns the moment of history we happen to inhabit, and the place, along with its climate. Without a favorable climate, there will be hunger and thirst. Without peaceful times we are in a condition of enmity — probably actual war, the greatest of disasters.

We go on to pray for those who in various ways are uprooted: “For travelers by land, sea and by air, for the sick and the suffering, for captives and their salvation, let us pray to the Lord.” It’s a prayer that draws our attention to the needs of others, especially those in desperate need. As Christ has told us: “What you do to the least person, you do to me.”

Coming to the end of the Litany of Peace, there our two urgent appeals. First: “For our deliverance from all affliction, wrath, danger and necessity, let us pray to the Lord.” Then: “Help us, save us, have mercy on us, and keep us, O God, by thy grace.” The cry for deliverance and mercy has been the constant refrain of the entire litany, for to each segment the response of the congregation is, “Lord, have mercy.”

The Great Litany of Peace is a kind of extended definition of peace: the recognition that worship is at odds with enmity — also that we seek a gift that only God can give but for which we are co-responsible. God cannot give us something we refuse to accept. If we seek God’s peace but ignore the sufferings of others, or increase the sufferings of others, we will not receive the peace from above. Peace is so much more than a space between wars. “Blessed are the peacemakers” is one of the eight Beatitudes. Becoming a peacemaker means playing a play a role in bringing God’s peace into the world. It’s not something God does while we passively watch and applaud.

Now let’s look at one other damaged word: love. In every language, it’s one of the most important words we have yet one of the hardest to define.

In ordinary contemporary usage, love has been sentimentalized. It has mainly to do with positive emotional bonds or longings or likings, from the sublime to the trivial. “I’m madly in love with (so-and-so).” “I love films made by Woody Allen.” “I love the pizzas they make at Danilo’s.” “I love Paris in the springtime.” “I love my new frying pan.”

Love in this sense, says The American Heritage Dictionary, is “intense affection and warm feeling for another person; strong sexual desire for another person; a strong fondness or enthusiasm.”

Such a definition makes the teaching of Jesus to love one’s enemies incomprehensible. We can safely say that even Jesus was without intense affection or warm feelings for his judges, torturers and executioners.

In The Oxford English Dictionary you find a definition that is more biblical:

“Love … [is that] disposition or state of feeling with regard to a person which … manifests itself in solicitude for the welfare of the object … [Love is] applied in an eminent sense to the paternal benevolence and affection of God toward His children, to the affectionate devotion directed to God from His creatures, and to the affection of one created being to another so far as it is prompted by the sense of their common relationship to God.”

As used in the Bible, love has first of all to do with action and taking responsibility, not about how you feel at the time. It’s how a parent cares for a crying child at three in the morning, even though that parent is exhausted and may wish he or she had chosen to be a monk. To love is to do what you can to provide for the wellbeing of another whether or not you feel affection for that person at a given moment. Love is a matter of doing far more than of feeling, of will rather than emotion.

An act of love may be animated by a sense of gratitude and delight in someone else — wonderful when it happens — or it may be done despite anger, depression, fear or aversion, done simply as a prayer to God and a response to God, who links us all, who is our common Creator, in whom we are brothers and sisters even if we wish we weren’t.

Love becomes a degree or two easier when we realize we’re relatives. The idea that we are intimately related to each other is at least as old as the Book of Genesis. Few biblical texts have more challenging implications this: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

There’s a rabbinic commentary in which the question is asked, “Why only one Adam and only one Eve?” The answer is so that so no one can claim to be of a higher descent. To be a descendent of Charlemage or Queen Elizabeth, of Shakespeare or Mark Twain is less significant than being a descendant of Adam and Eve, and it puts every one of us in the same family tree. One God, one human race, each human being a bearer of the image of God.

Unfortunately our way of seeing each other is to a great extent formed by what I often call the Gospel According to John Wayne — by which I mean all the stories which center on the obligation to be armed and ready to kill. It’s a powerful story that preaches survival by firepower. The basic idea in practically every Western movie — plus countless non-Western films that follow the same plot line — is that certain people have not just taken an evil turn in life but are evil down to the marrow of their bones — evil in their DNA. Forget about the Book of Genesis. These people are made not in the image of God but in the image of Satan.

The archetypical Western is a tale about how good men with guns save the community from evil men with guns by killing them. The classic scene is the gunfight on Main Street in a newly-settled town in the lawless West. And there is that equally classic scene before the shoot-out in which we see the hero reluctantly open a drawer and grasp his revolver, a weapon we are aware he had hoped never to use again, strap it on and walk out the door knowing he may not live till sundown.

The Gospel According to John Wayne is far from an ignoble story. There is real courage in it – the readiness of an honorable man to risk his life to protect his community. The big problem with the Gospel According to John Wayne is that it hides from us the crucial fact that there is no such thing as a completely evil person — also, apart from Christ, no such thing as a completely good person. As Solzhenitsyn, survivor of Stalin’s prison camps, wrote in The Gulag Archipelago: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of hearts, there remains … an un-uprooted small corner of evil.”

I think of another Russian, Saint John of Kronstadt, a man who had no illusions about human beings and our capacity to commit serious sins. The main establishment in the port city of Kronstadt, not far from St. Petersburg, was a naval base. It was a city of much drunkenness, prostitution and violence. St. John was the local priest. The people he met in daily life, and whose confessions he heard every week, were frequently men who had committed acts of deadly violence. He helped many of them change direction. This was possible only because he saw the image of God in them. “Never confuse the person, formed in the image of God,” he said, “with the evil that is in him, because evil is but a chance misfortune, illness, a devilish reverie. But the very essence of the person is the image of God, and this remains in him despite every disfigurement.”

To fail to recognize the divine spark in the other is perhaps the most common form of spiritual blindness. It is a theme that was often addressed by Saint John Chrysostom way back in the fourth century. “If you fail to recognize Christ in the beggar at the church door,” he said, “you will not find Christ in the chalice.”

To become even vaguely aware of each person being a bearer of the divine image opens the door to love.

Love is linked with reconciliation, but reconciliation is a word rarely used and often misunderstood. For some it seems to mean reconciling yourself with what’s wrong in the world, accepting the status quo, smoothing over differences, being friendly at all costs, fitting in to the system in which you happen to find yourself. But the biblical meaning of reconciliation has to do with relationships that are restored, in fact transformed, in the peace of God. Reconciliation means the healing of community whose brokenness and deep-down injustice seemed beyond repair.

Reconciliation was the great dream of Martin Luther King: “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood… I have a dream today!”

The big question is what can we do that might help convert a relationship of enmity to one of friendship? In the short time left to me, I want to focus on just two propoals.

The first is very simple and but also extremely difficult: pray for your enemies. It’s not an idea of mine. It comes from one of the most challenging teachings of Jesus: “Love your enemies and pray for them.” If you don’t pray for your enemies, you have no starting point. Prayer is an act of connection, on the one hand with our creator, on the other with whoever I am praying for. Prayer is an action of forging links. There is no way I will be able to love someone I basically regard as unworthy of love unless there is first of all an inner connection. The moment I manage to pray for someone who, in my worst moments I wish would die a miserable death, the harder it is to dehumanize him or wish him ill — or do him harm. In praying for an enemy you can pray for his enlightenment, his repentance, his conversion — at the same time praying for your own enlightenment, your own repentance, your own conversion. After all, you don’t only have enemies. You’re an enemy too. Not too many people are rushing your way to present you with a halo.

Don’t wait to pray for enemies until you’re in the mood. It would be a miracle to ever be in such a condition. Create small islands of prayer at the beginning and the end of the day and at least once a day find time to pray for others in need of prayer, both friends and enemies. Make a list of names and revise it regularly so as not to forget.

The second proposal is also very basic: do good to enemies. Once again, I’m quoting Jesus: “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you.” (Luke 6:28) Prayer is not an alternative to action; in fact prayer may empower us to take personal responsibility for what we wish others would do. Do we really expect God to do what we pray for if we refuse to play a role in the process? If I pray for bread but refuse to work for it, do I expect my request to be taken seriously in heaven?

The teaching to do good to enemies is often viewed as particularly idealistic and profoundly unrealistic, but in fact it’s a teaching full of common sense. Unless we want to pave the way to a tragic future, we must actively search for opportunities through which we can demonstrate to an opponent our longing for an entirely different kind of relationship. An adversary’s moment of need or crisis can provide that opening.

Let me cite a specific example — an instance of what has become known as “earthquake diplomacy.”

On August 17, 1999, Turkey experienced a massive earthquake that severely affected many towns and cities, with the industrial city of Izmit the most severely damaged. A second major earthquake occurred five days later. The official number of casualties was 17,000, although the actual number is thought to be more than double that. About a third-of-a-million people were left homeless. The shift in the fault line passed through the most industrialized and urban areas of Turkey, including oil refineries and major factories. Istanbul was also hard hit.

Immediately to the west of Turkey is Greece, for many centuries the bitter enemy of Turkey, yet Greece was the first country to pledge aid and support to Turkey. Within hours of the earthquake, senior staff of the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs contacted their counterparts in Turkey; the minister sent personal envoys to Turkey. The Greek Ministry of Public Order sent in a rescue team of 24 people and two trained rescue dogs plus fire-extinguishing planes to help put out the huge blaze at an oil refinery. Greek medical teams followed — doctors and nurses plus tents, ambulances, medicine, water, clothes, food and blankets. Throughout Greece, the Ministry of Health set up units for blood donations. The Church of Greece launched a major fund raising campaign for humanitarian relief. The five largest municipalities of Greece sent a joint convoy with aid. When the Mayor of Athens came personally to visit earthquake sites, he was greeted at the airport by the Mayor of Istanbul.

Both Greece’s official actions and the responses of ordinary Greeks were given wide coverage day after day in every newspaper and TV channel in Turkey. Turks were astounded by the compassionate Greek response to Turkey’s disaster.

Less than a month after the Turkish disaster, on September 7, 1999, Athens was hit by a powerful earthquake, the most devastating natural disaster in Greece in 20 years. While the death toll was relatively low, the damage to buildings and the infrastructure in some of the city’s northern and western suburbs was severe.

This time, Turkey responded. Turkish aid was the first to reach Athens from outside Greece’s borders. Within 13 hours a 20-person rescue team was flown in by a military plane. The Greek consulates and embassy in Turkey had their phone lines jammed with Turks calling to find out whether they could donate blood. One Turk offered to donate his kidney for a “Greek in need.”

For years Greece and Turkey had been on the brink of war. In the wake of this series of earthquakes, there was a very different climate — the sense that the time had come for a new understanding.

Nearly thirteen years have passed. During this period there has been no talk of impending war between Turkey and Greece. A major war may have been prevented all because two countries decided to aid their enemy in a time of crisis. [For more detail about this topic, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek%E2%80%93Turkish_earthquake_diplomacy ]

If we had time we could talk in more detail about peacemaking and nonviolent alternatives to conflict resolution. We could talk about some of the people — Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Dorothy Day, Mother Maria Skobtsova and many others — who belonged to movements that demonstrate you don’t need to kill anyone to bring about constructive social change and whose example might inspire us to live our lives in such a way that our children and grandchildren have a better chance not just to survive but to live a good and loving life. I suggest you make it a priority to do what you can to know more about such people and the wells from which they drew their inspiration and courage.

Thank you!

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Oberlin lecture (presented 5 May 2012)

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The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life

Christ at Emmaus (Duccio)

By Jim Forest

Each of the stories about Christ’s resurrection is a challenge to the rational part of ourselves. Dead people are dead, period.

There is the account in John’s Gospel of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with him near the empty tomb. Until he speaks to her by name, she thinks he must be the gardener. Once she realizes who he is, Jesus tells her not to touch him. Why? There are many guesses, but in fact we don’t know.

Though risen from the dead, he still bears the wounds that caused his death. Thomas, the apostle who was the most reluctant to make a leap of faith, becomes the only man to touch the wounds of the risen Christ. Why isn’t Jesus fully healed? We don’t know.

Soon after, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus — a man freed from mortality — joins his friends in eating fish cooked over an open fire. Why is he who has become deathless still hungry? We don’t know.

Finally the resurrected Christ ascends into heaven. Where would that be? Why didn’t he stay on earth? Why didn’t be reveal his resurrection to crowds of people? We don’t know.

We know Christ rose from the dead and are familiar with the stories the Gospel preserves for us of encounters people had with him before the ascension, but the mystery of his resurrection is way beyond our intellectual reach.

Perhaps the most accessible of the resurrection narratives concerns the risen Christ’s short pilgrimage with two disciples to Emmaus, a village described as being seven miles — less than a two-hour walk — from Jerusalem.

Two friends are escaping from a tragedy in Jerusalem and perhaps also running from possible personal danger. It wasn’t at all clear that Jesus’ disciples weren’t next in line for execution. The two were not only mourners, but disillusioned mourners. Jesus had failed to meet their expectations. The person they fervently believed would become the new king of Israel, heir to David’s throne, not only isn’t ruling Israel but is in his grave. The candle of their messianic hopes has been snuffed out. His closest followers were in hiding. Their homeland was still ruled by Romans, undergirded by a second tier of well-rewarded Jewish collaborators. The kingdom of God that Jesus had said was already present now seemed infinitely distant.

Conversation would not have been easy. Deep grief is rarely a talkative condition. The words they hewed out of silence were confused, bitter, angry. Their beloved teacher was dead and buried. Everything that mattered had turned to dust. The world had no center. Life’s axis had crumbled. Death once again had proven itself life’s defining event. Existence had no meaning, no pattern. People of virtue perish while their persecutors feast. How could one speak of a merciful and all powerful God? Ruthless power, corruption, betrayal and the triumph of the grave — this was Good Friday’s bitter message.

What person old enough to have attended a funeral of a deeply loved person whose life was cut short in its prime hasn’t known a similar rage, numbness and despair?

Walking side by side, breathing dust, the two friends are joined by a stranger who appears without a word of description. He doesn’t impress the two men as being somehow familiar. They fail to notice his wounded hands. Without apology he joins their conversation. He wonders why they are so downcast. They are amazed at the stranger’s ignorance. One of the men, Cleopas, asks the stranger how is it possible that he doesn’t know what has happened in Jerusalem in recent days. Could anyone share in this particular Passover and be unaware of what happened to Jesus of Nazareth? Only a week ago Jesus had entered the city in triumph, joyful crowds putting palms in his path and shouting hosannas and calling him king of Israel. And now the man who should have redeemed Israel had been condemned by the high priests, renounced by the very crowds that had cheered him, and sentenced to public execution under the authority of Rome’s agent, Pontius Pilate. Finally he had been ritually murdered while soldiers threw dice for his clothing. Jesus’ followers had dared to hope for a miracle even when Jesus was taken away to Golgotha — after all, he had raised Lazarus from death — but the man who had been able to bring others back to life proved powerless to save himself. Yes, the two men had heard the wild tale told earlier in the day by a few grief-stricken women — angels, an empty tomb, Jesus alive again — but truly it was an unbelievably tale.

The stranger listened patiently. At last he responded, “O foolish men, so slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Then, starting with Moses and going on to all the prophets, he explained all the scriptural texts concerning the Messiah.

By this time they had reached the outskirts of Emmaus, apparently the place where the two friends planned to end their journey or at least spend the night. The stranger appeared to be going further, but they were so taken with his authoritative explanations of the prophecies of scripture that they appealed to him to join them for a meal in the local inn. “Stay with us,” they said, “for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.”

Even when they sat down to eat, the stranger was still nameless and unrecognized, yet it was he who presided at the table, taking bread, blessing it, breaking it and giving it to them. It’s at this point in Luke’s Gospel that we get one of the most breathtaking sentences in the New Testament: “And their eyes were opened and they recognized him.”(Luke 24:31)

Perhaps they recognized him because, at last, they noticed his wounded hands as he blessed and broke the bread.

In their moment of realization, Jesus “vanished from their sight.” Perhaps he actually disappeared — as we have seen in other resurrection stories, the risen Christ doesn’t seem subject to the rules of physics. Or perhaps he chose that moment to leave the table in order to continue his journey, but his departure was unseen because the two disciples, weeping with joy, were momentarily blinded by their tears. We don’t know. All we are sure of is that the stranger was Jesus and that the two friends finally knew with whom they had been talking on their way to Emmaus, and who it was that blessed the bread and broke it.

They said to each other, “Didn’t our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?”

Forgetting their exhaustion and hunger, the two friends reversed their journey, hurrying back to Jerusalem in order to report what they had witnessed. But by now, they discovered, it wasn’t only the women who had proclaimed the resurrection. “The Lord has risen indeed,” they were told, “and has appeared to Simon!”

What happened on the road to Emmaus, and finally in Emmaus itself, was the first Christian pilgrimage. Every pilgrimage, whether to a local park or to some distant place at the end of a well-trodden pilgrim road thick with miracles, is in its roots a journey to Emmaus, and every pilgrimage is animated with a similar hope: to meet the risen Christ along the way.

It’s a hope one hardly dares to mention. Yet something like the Emmaus story occurs in many lives. Again and again, we meet strangers along the way who speak with unexpected clarity about things that really matter. In such encounters, do we not find our hearts aflame within us? This is a person we’re in no hurry to part from, whose words and presence are water in the desert. The stranger is someone we would eagerly invite to eat with us even if we had little money to spare, someone with whom we are eager to break bread.

At the heart of the Emmaus story is the stranger. Had the two disciples failed to made room for him in their journey, the New Testament would be missing one of its most illuminating stories.

Pilgrimage is not possible if it excludes unexpected people found along the way. Perhaps it’s only for an hour or a day. A hesitant conversation takes wing. A reluctant tongue becomes fluent. Finally, we eat together. By now the stranger has become a named person. Sooner or later we part, but we remember that encounter as a shining moment. We didn’t literally meet Jesus risen from the dead, and yet, in this brief communion with a stranger, Jesus became present and traveled with us. A chance encounter became a eucharistic event. Ideas about Jesus were replaced with an experience of Jesus.

The details of such encounters vary infinitely. No two God-revealing encounters are the same. Each of us is unique and each of us experiences conversion in unique ways, even though we recognize something of our own conversion in all the conversion stories we happen to hear. Conversion means a deep turning. Each of the conversions I experience shifts the way I see, hear and act. Each conversion is a freeing event. Something I desperately and addictively needed yesterday has become superfluous today. Certain fears I previously struggled with have been burned away.

There is not one conversion in life. Conversion follows conversion like an ascending ladder. Each rung reveals another. It’s a slow process, one that can never be forced or hurried. We are still busy being converted when we die. A good title for any autobiography would be the two-word message a computer occasionally displays when adapting a file from one program format to another: “Conversion in progress.”

Conversion isn’t something we do entirely on our own. As pilgrims, the main challenge is not to miss Jesus along the way. It requires the recognition that, no matter how alone we are, there are no solitary journeys. Life is a series of meetings. The only question is how deep we allow the meetings to be. The “I” exists only in communion with others.

We interact with other people every day: family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers, plus many people we don’t know by name, people we meet briefly in shops, on buses and trains, behind counters, beggars on the street. Whether known by name or an anonymous stranger, how much real contact occurs is partly up to us. Even people living or working under the same roof can be too busy, too irritated or too fearful for real contact to occur.

But there is always the possibility of conversation that moves beyond the exchange of distance-keeping civilities. To be a pilgrim — to be on the road to Emmaus — is to be open to contact, willing to share stories, willing to talk about the real issues in one’s life, willing to listen with undivided attention.

“Our life and our death is with our neighbor,” said St. Anthony the Great, founder of Christian monasticism. “If we win our brother, we win God. If we cause our brother to stumble, we have sinned against Christ.”

There is no such thing as finding Christ while avoiding our neighbor. The main thing impeding that encounter is my suffocating fear of the other. As the Orthodox theologian, Metropolitan John Zizioulas, comments:

Pilgrims to Canterbury

Communion with the other is not spontaneous; it is built upon fences which protect us from the dangers implicit in the other’s presence. We accept the other only insofar as he does not threaten our privacy or insofar as he is useful to our individual happiness …. The essence of sin is the fear of the Other, which is part of the rejection of God. Once the affirmation of the “self” is realized through the rejection and not the acceptance of the Other — this is what Adam chose in his freedom to do — it is only natural and inevitable for the other to become an enemy and a threat. Reconciliation with God is a necessary pre-condition for reconciliation with any “other.”

That last sentence also works in reverse: Reconciliation with the other is a necessary precondition for reconciliation with God. For as the Gospel author St. John writes, “He who says he is in the light and hates his brother is in the darkness still.” (1 John 2:9) The path to heaven leads through the rush-hour traffic of the human race.

At the heart of pilgrimage is the struggle not to let my dread of the other prevent meetings with strangers. Just as on the road to Emmaus, it is in the disguise of the stranger that Christ appears.

I often think of a nun who gave me a ride from Louisville to Lexington when I was in Kentucky to give a few lectures. It’s now too long ago for me to remember her name, but I will never forget the spirit of welcome that she radiated. Her old, battered car is also not easily forgotten, though it would have been worth little in a used-car lot. In her care it had become a house of hospitality on wheels. As we drove along the highway, the glove compartment door in front of me kept popping open. I closed it repeatedly, each time noticing a pile of maps inside and also a book. At last the text on the spine of the book caught my eye: “Guests.” I pulled it out, discovering page after page of signatures, most of which gave the impression that the person signing was barely literate.

“What is this?” I asked.

“Oh that’s my guest book.”

“But why keep it in the car?”

“Well, of course, I always pick up hitchhikers, so I need a guest book.”

It was very matter-of-fact to her, but I was astonished. Though I had been a hitchhiker myself back in my early twenties, I knew picking up hitchhikers was not without risks, especially for women.

“But isn’t that dangerous?” I asked.

“Well, I have had many guests sitting where you are now, most of them men, and I never felt I was in danger.”

She went on to explain that when she pulled over to offer a ride, she immediately introduced herself by name. Then she asked, “And what’s your name?”

The immediate exchange of names, she explained, was a crucial first step in hospitality and one likely to make for safety.

“Once two people entrust their names to each other,” she explained, “there is a personal relationship.”

The next step was to ask the guest to put his name in writing: “I would be grateful if you would sign my guest book.”

She didn’t have to explain to me that few of the people she had given rides to had ever been regarded as anyone’s guests, and fewer still had been invited to sign a guest book.

“I’ve met many fine people,” she told me, “people who have been a blessing to me. I never had any troubles, though you could see that many of them had lived a hard life.”

Anyone reading the lives of the saints will notice that life-changing meetings with strangers are not rare events. Martin of Tours, one of the major saints of the fourth century, famously had one such encounter not long before his baptism. A detailed retelling of the story is included in Butler’s Lives of the Saints:

One day, in the midst of a very hard winter and severe frost, when many perished with cold, as Martin was marching with other officers and soldiers, he met at the gate of the city of Amiens a poor man, almost naked, trembling and shaking with cold, and begging alms of those that passed by. Martin, seeing those that went before him take no notice of this miserable object, thought he was reserved for himself. By his charities to others he had nothing left but his arms and clothes upon his back; when, drawing his sword, he cut his cloak in two pieces, gave one to the beggar, and wrapped himself in the other half. Some of the bystanders laughed at the figure he made in that dress, whilst others were ashamed not to have relieved the poor man. In the following night St. Martin saw in his sleep Jesus Christ dressed in that half of the garment which he had given away, and was bid to look at it well and asked whether he knew it. He then heard Jesus say, “Martin, yet a catechumen, has clothed me with this garment.” This vision inspired the saint with fresh ardor, and determined him speedily to receive baptism, which he did in the eighteenth year of his age.

One extravagant act led to another. Two years after his baptism, Martin — still in the army — risked his life by refusing to take part in battle. “I am a soldier of Christ,” he explained to Julian Caesar on the eve of battle. “It is not lawful for me to fight.” Accused of being a coward, Martin volunteered to stand unarmed before the enemy. Miraculously, the enemy sued for peace. Caesar afterward allowed Martin to resign his army commission. Martin went on to become one of the most distinguished missionary bishops of the early Church. He who converted many owed his own conversion to an encounter with a nameless beggar in Amiens.

It’s a never-ending story — and a story of never-ending pilgrimage. Whatever real growth I may attain in my life is chiefly thanks to the care and love, the welcome and hospitality, provided by others who see in me qualities I cannot see, who somehow assist me in deepening my faith, who open a window revealing the risen Christ. Often the unexpected encounters come not from people who are obliged by family ties to care for me, but from strangers met along my particular pilgrim path. Indeed it’s often thanks to strangers that we discover that indeed we are on pilgrimage.

Pick any century, pick just about any saint, dig carefully enough into the stories that have come down to us, and again and again one finds both pilgrim and stranger.

As the life of grace deepens, many saints are no longer willing to wait to meet strangers by chance, but make it their business to do the finding.

Among recent examples of those who each day sought Christ in the poor is Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, with whom I worked in my early adulthood. “Those who cannot see Christ in the poor,” said Dorothy Day, “are atheists indeed.”

Another saint of the same generation is Mother Maria Skobtsova, a recently canonized Orthodox nun. Like Dorothy Day, she founded a house of hospitality. Indeed in both women’s lives it happened in the same year, 1933, one doing so in New York, the other in Paris.

In 1940, when the German army marched into Paris, hospitality became a vocation involving huge risks. Taking in many Jews and finding places of safety for them, Mother Maria and her co-workers were well aware they were courting arrest. In the end, she and three others from the same community died in Nazi concentration camps.

At the heart of Mother Maria’s countless acts of welcoming strangers was her conviction that each person without exception bears the image of God. As she wrote:

If someone turns with his spiritual world toward the spiritual world of another person, he encounters an awesome and inspiring mystery. He comes into contact with the true image of God in man, with the very icon of God incarnate in the world, with a reflection of the mystery of God’s incarnation and divine manhood. And he needs to accept this awesome revelation of God unconditionally, to venerate the image of God in his brother. Only when he senses, perceives and understands it will yet another mystery be revealed to him — one that will demand his most dedicated efforts. He will perceive that the divine image is veiled, distorted and disfigured by the power of evil. And he will want to engage in battle with the devil for the sake of the divine image.

The Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn made the same discovery, in his case while a prisoner in Stalin’s archipelago of concentration camps, an environment of profound contempt for life. While witnessing cruelty day after day, Solzhenitsyn found the anger and hatred he felt was gradually replaced by compassion. As religious faith took the place of Marxist ideology, it became more and more evident to him that no human being has ever been born in whom there is no trace of the Creator. Even the most vile person at certain moments reveals some evidence of God. As Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago:

The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of hearts, there remains … an un-uprooted small corner of evil.

Mainly one learns this only in the crucible of life. It’s a truth rarely revealed in movies. In films those who do evil tend to be evil. The evil is imbedded in their DNA. They had a pathological twist before they were born. The only cure for such pure evil is death. Thus killing evil people is an act of a virtue. It’s what we think heroes do. Far from wanting to meet such people and search in them for a “small bridgehead of good,” we either applaud their executions or, should our awareness of the mercy of Christ protect us from advocating killing as a solution, insist that they be locked up as long and grimly as possible, ideally until claimed by the grave. Seeing how merciless such people have been, we are tempted to think that they deserve no mercy and can never change for the better. In fact we behave toward them in a way that makes our dire expectations all the more likely.

A great problem of thinking along such grim, vindictive lines — imagining we know a person we know only through clippings or movies and resolutely refusing to search for God’s image in him — is that we exclude ourselves from walking on the road to Emmaus.

But being a pilgrim is not a naive undertaking. There are, we all know, strangers who are dangerous. Should our fear of violence lead us to avoid all strangers for that reason? Should our fear of death lead us to live cautiously?

But Christian pilgrims have always known that they might die on the way, like countless thousands of pilgrims before them. There are many graves along the roads leading to Jerusalem and Santiago de Compostela. Statistically, unexpected death along the way may be less likely for the modern pilgrim than it was in earlier times, but still accidents happen, grave sicknesses occur, and there are even occasional act of violence and even murder.

The pilgrim’s attitude traditionally has been: “Sooner or later I die. If it happens while on pilgrimage, what better way to cross life’s final border? Why be afraid?”

Pilgrimage is not getting from point A to point B on the map while counting the miles. The distances covered are incidental. What matters is being on the road to Emmaus — the road of discovering Christ in the Other.

Pilgrimage was, and still is, the great adventure of becoming unblinded. We discover it is impossible not to be in the presence of God. God is with us all the time, only we don’t notice. It’s not that we are technically blind. We may be able to read the small print in an insurance contract without glasses and to make out the shape of a high-flying jet, and yet there is so much we don’t yet see that we live in a darkness that is not unlike actual blindness. It is a condition not caused by physical damage but by deeply rooted fears, the imprisonment of self-absorption, and ideological obsessions.

Walking the road to Emmaus, as a Christian on permanent pilgrimage, is the great journey into real seeing. In words ascribed to Saint Patrick:

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise, Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every one who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

Pilgrimage is not only the act of going to one of thin places where great miracles have happened or where some event in the life of Jesus occurred. It can be to the journey to the front door of your house, opening it with a real welcome. It can be the creation of a Christ Room — a room of hospitality — in your own home. It can be choosing to see an unexpected and seemingly untimely event not as an irritating interruption but as a potential moment of grace. It can be your caring response to a beggar. It can be the journey to forgiveness in a situation in which forgiveness seemed impossible. It can be the difficult decision to take part in some act of public witness whose objective is to oppose killing, whether in war or by abortion or in an execution chamber.

It’s all pilgrimage. We are all on the road to Emmaus.

* * *
[Talk for a mini-retreat at Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Church in Lorain, Ohio on Saturday, May 5, 2012. The text is based on the final chapter of The Road to Emmaus by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Books.]

Pilgrim in Jerusalem

by Jim Forest

As is often the case with much-visited thin places, pilgrims often find themselves unready once they arrive, no matter how much preparation they have made. Standing at the door of the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem (or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher as it’s better known to Christians in the West), many pilgrims are in a state of exhaustion and irritation rather than astonishment and exaltation. They have endured the wear and tear of getting there only to meet the obstacle of slow-moving lines once inside the church. Many pilgrims find themselves struggling to lay aside all their frayed nerves as they attempt to focus their thoughts on what happened in this place two millennia ago. After all this hard work, the pilgrim may not be in a receptive state. On top of that, there may be the disappointment of what time has done to such a place. Nothing inside the Church of the Resurrection looks anything like it did twenty centuries ago.

For most pilgrims stepping into that dimly lit, time-worn church, the first stop is the chapel on Golgotha, where Jesus gave up his life on the cross.

The Golgotha chapel, reached by ascending a narrow stone staircase just inside the main entrance, is dominated by a life-sized icon of Christ on the cross in front of which is a marble altar standing on four thin pillars. Dozens of candles burn constantly while numerous ornate silver lamps, large and small, hang from the ceiling. Glass panels on either side of the altar reveal the rough stone surface on which the cross was erected outside the city walls that stood nearby in the days of Roman occupation. (Following the city’s destruction in 70 AD by the Roman army, Jerusalem was rebuilt within new walls, at which time the western wall was moved further west, enclosing Golgotha.)

Cluttered as it is with pre-Reformation religious imagery, this chapel can be a disconcerting place for Protestant visitors. They may also be disconcerted to witness the physical veneration exhibited by pilgrims belonging to the older churches. Yet once inside the chapel, the most undemonstrative visitor tends to be moved by the climate of quiet, heartfelt devotion shown by pilgrims from the more ancient churches. Even a tourist with a head full of religious doubts may feel obliged to speak in a whisper. Visitors who regard the resurrection as nothing more than a pious legend may be moved by the realization that here, on this very spot, a man who had harmed no one — a man of mercy and healing — was stripped, nailed to a cross, and left to die while soldiers threw dice to determine who would take possession of his blood-stained robe. Nearly all visitors kneel in front of the altar, then reach through an opening in the marble floor to touch the rock of Golgotha.

Another significant resonance for this place is the tradition that Adam and Eve were buried at Golgotha, the very place where Christ was later crucified. In any icon of the Byzantine tradition, Adam’s skull appears in a tiny black cave just under the foot of the cross.

Leaving the Golgotha chapel, most pilgrims stop at the place where, according to Christian memory, Christ’s body was laid out before burial. The stone tablet set into the floor, placed there many centuries ago and now as smooth as silk, has received not only millions of kisses but also a river of tears and a nearly constant flow of perfume, the latter poured mainly by women pilgrims. Each day brings many hundreds of mourners who pause at this small area just inside the church’s main entrance. The pilgrims among them know the significance of this rectangle of stone on which no one steps, while tourists are mainly puzzled and perhaps embarrassed by the intense emotion they see displayed by the people kneeling there.

The next stop for pilgrim and tourist alike is the tomb in which Christ rose from the dead. It’s about thirty meters west of the Golgotha chapel and directly beneath the church’s main dome.

When Jesus was crucified, this was the Garden of Golgotha, full of olive trees and flowering plants. Many people were buried here. What was once a small and ordinary burial place — a simple niche chiseled out of a stone embankment, one among many — has become an elaborately carved, chapel-like structure. The surrounding embankment and the adjacent tombs have been completely cut away since the fourth century.

To accommodate pilgrims, Christ’s tomb has been made larger than it was. The structure encasing the tomb — called the Aedicula — now has within it both an outer and inner room, the latter with the narrow shelf, now covered with a thin sheet of marble, on which Christ’s body was laid.

Worn nerves and aching feet notwithstanding, pilgrims always find it a blessing to enter this constricted enclosure. At the very least, the Gospel accounts of the mystery of Christ’ triumph over death become more real. It probably crosses even the atheist visitor’s mind that what occurred here may not be merely an ancient fable. Something happened in this small space that every subsequent generation has had to consider — a mysterious event that has shifted culture and history and even altered the way we look at each other. The place of the resurrection continuously attracts people from near and far, touches both intellect and heart, providing a summons to live the rest of one’s life the freedom that comes from no longer dreading death.

The Church of the Resurrection is more than an enclosure for two sacred places. The pilgrim who has time will discover many unexpected surprises by wandering alone through this maze-like church.

One of my most memorable experiences inside this ancient church occurred during Easter in 1985. How fortunate I was! It’s all but impossible to get inside the Church of the Resurrection on Pascha. One must have an invitation. Providentially, George Hintlian, a leader of Jerusalem’s Armenian Christian community and curator of the Armenian Museum, had given me one. It was a precious gift. Each of the several Christian communities in Jerusalem is allotted only so many. Once the guests are inside the church, the doors are locked and bolted. The area immediately around the tomb is densely crowded.

At a certain moment the Patriarch of Jerusalem, having entered the tomb and been locked inside, lights the “holy fire.” Flame bursts out of the tomb’s small windows. The sealed doors are opened, and the Patriarch comes out bearing two candles which are then used to light the candles everyone holds. Few people hold only one; more often each holds ten or twelve. Each candle will later become a gift to a friend or relative who couldn’t be present. Meanwhile, guests utter cries of joy not unlike those one might hear in a crowded sports stadium at the moment a winning point is scored in a crucial game. As at a sports match, some exultant young men ride on the shoulders of friends. It’s an amazing sight. The space around the tomb quickly becomes hot from the proximity of so many people. So many living flames — so many people packed so tightly! Those who suffer from claustrophobia may find it slightly terrifying.

During the hours when we were locked inside the church, I twice retreated from the crowd to empty areas away from the tomb.

First I went back to Golgotha. How strange it is to be at a place normally crowded with pilgrims and to be the only one there. It is a rare blessing to be entirely alone at the exact spot where Christ gave himself for the life of the world.

On my second walk away from the tumult surrounding the tomb, I went as far as the east end of the Church. Walking down the stairway to St. Helena’s Chapel and from there to another deeper level, I entered the Chapel of the Discovery of the Cross.

While all visitors to the church visit the place of the crucifixion and the tomb in which Christ’s body was laid, far fewer visit this remote corner. Many visitors don’t have time. People often travel long and far to reach Jerusalem and then face a tight schedule once they arrive. As a result, they see relatively little of this huge, somewhat chaotic, ancient building with its many passageways, staircases, chapels and places of veneration. In fact, many Protestant tour groups, suspicious of relics and uncomfortable with devotion to saints, intentionally avoid this subterranean chapel. “The true cross? Found here?” one may hear a visitor say. “Hogwash! All these so-called relics! It was a hoax — just some old wood in the ground passed off as the real thing by swindlers.”

The pilgrim descends via a stone staircase. Step by step the air gets cooler and damper. One goes slowly, perhaps pausing to notice the carefully carved graffiti on the walls left by the pilgrims of earlier eras. Finally the pilgrim reaches an exceptionally quiet, womb-like area beneath the huge church.

There is something remarkable about the special quietness of this deep, damp chapel. Even when there is a steady stream of people coming and going, it seems to absorb and muffle every sound. The unhurried visitor can feel a numinous quality here that may be harder to experience in places where people are waiting in slow-moving lines. In a subterranean enclosure entirely abandoned at Easter, I found myself more aware of the risen Christ than when I stood outside his tomb. An ancient garbage pit has become the thinnest of thin places.

I was also aware of being in the footsteps of St. Helena, whose pilgrim journey in the year 326 inspired the discovery of the cross. Twenty years later, St. Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem, declared, “[The Cross] has been distributed fragment by fragment from this spot and already has nearly filled all the world.”

[extract from The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Books] The photo was taken by Gali Tibbon.

* * *

Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day (Oakham lecture)

(Lecture given at the annual conference of Thomas Merton Society of Great Britain and Ireland meeting at Oakham, England in April 2012)

By Jim Forest

What initially put Merton on the world map was the publication in 1948 of his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. It was an account of growing up on both sides of the Atlantic (part of his adolescence right here at Oakham), what drew him to become a Catholic as a young adult, and finally what led him, in 1941, to become a Trappist monk at a monastery in rural Kentucky, Our Lady of Gethsemani. He was only 33 years old when the book appeared. To his publisher’s amazement, it became an instant best-seller. For many people, it was truly a life-changing book. I have lost count of how many copies of the book have been printed in English and other languages in the past 64 years, but we’re talking about millions.

Merton was and remains a controversial figure. Though he was a member of a monastic order well known for silence and for its distance from worldly affairs, Merton was outspoken on various topics that many regard as very worldly affairs. Merton disagreed. He was a critic of a Christianity in which religious identity is submerged in national or racial identity and life tidily divided between religious and ordinary existence.

Merton got into hot water for his writings on war and peace as well his participation in both inter-Christian and inter-religious dialogue. In the sixties, there was a Berlin Wall running between Catholics and Protestants. To the alarm of a good many people on both sides of the divide, Merton climbed over that palisade. Even worse, he regarded friendly conversation with people of other religious traditions — Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam — as a useful and necessary, not to say Christian, activity. Some people were scandalized — some still are — that a Trappist monk would engage in dialog with the Dalai Lama. Both among critics and as well as admirers admirers, the idea got around that, if only Merton had lived a slightly longer life, he would have waved goodbye to the Catholic Church and become a Buddhist. In fact Merton’s religious practice centered on Liturgy, the eucharist, the rosary, the Jesus Prayer, and daily offices of monastic prayer.

How did Dorothy Day and Merton intersect? And who is Dorothy Day?

What put Dorothy on the map was her effort to weave together radical convictions about the social order with the Christian faith. This endeavor occurred after she became a Catholic when she was thirty years old. Less than six years after that event, in 1933, she founded and began editing a newspaper which she christened The Catholic Worker. From that eight-page journal, the Catholic Worker movement quickly emerged, a movement known for its many houses of hospitality for people who are generally unappreciated and unwelcome.

If books by Merton have sold millions of copies, Catholic Worker communities have served millions of meals. But the Catholic Worker is also well known for its acts of protest against war and social injustice. Many people associated with the Catholic Worker have served periods in jail for acts of civil disobedience or for refusing to take part in war. Dorothy herself was jailed at least eight times. The first time was for taking part in a Suffragist demonstration in front of the White House in 1917 when she had just turned twenty. Her last arrest and confinement was with striking farm workers in California in 1973 when she was seventy-five. If Thomas Merton was at times controversial, Dorothy Day was controversial pretty much full-time.

For those who think of saints as, generally speaking, law-abiding folk, it may strike them as remarkable that the Catholic Church is currently considering a proposal from the Archdiocese of New York that Dorothy Day be officially recognized as a saint. More than ten years have passed since the late Cardinal John O’Connor launched the process. It has now reached the point of Dorothy being given the title “Servant of God Dorothy Day” by the Vatican. After that comes “Blessed Dorothy” and finally “Saint Dorothy.” It would not astonish me if there are people here today who will one day be present for her canonization.

I first met Dorothy in December 1960. I was in the U.S. Navy at the time, stationed in Washington, D.C. After reading copies of The Catholic Worker that I had found in my parish library, and then reading Dorothy’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness, I decided to visit the community she had founded. Arriving in Manhattan for that first visit, I made my way to Saint Joseph’s House, the Catholic Worker’s house of hospitality on the Lower East Side. It’s now an area that has become fashionable, repackaged as the East Village. In those days it was the Bowery, an area for the desperately poor — many of them penniless alcoholics — people so down-and-out that some of them were sleeping, even in winter, on the sidewalks or in tenement hallways.

A few days into that first encounter with the Catholic Worker, I visited the community’s rural outpost on Staten Island, the Peter Maurin Farm. Crossing the New York Harbor by ferry, I made my way to an old farmhouse on a rural road near the island’s southern tip. In its large, faded dining room, I found half-a-dozen people, Dorothy among them, gathered around a pot of tea at one end of the dining room table. I gave Dorothy a bag of letters addressed to her that had been received in Manhattan. Within minutes, she was reading the letters aloud.

The only letter I still recall from that day’s reading was one from Thomas Merton. I was amazed. Having read The Seven Storey Mountain, I knew Trappist monks wrote very few letters and that generally these were limited to family members. But here was Merton writing not only to a non-relative but to someone who was as much in the world as he was out of it.

On reflection, I should have been less surprised. I had read both their autobiographies and they revealed a great deal of common ground. Both had lived fairly bohemian lives before becoming Catholics. Like Dorothy, Merton had wrestled with the issue of war, deciding that, if Christ had given an example of a nonviolent life, he would attempt to do the same. Both had thought long and hard about the sin of racism. Both were writers. Both were unburdened by any attraction to economic achievement. Merton, like any monk, had taken a vow of poverty — there were things he had use of but nothing he actually owned — while Dorothy was committed to what she called “voluntary poverty.” Though in different circumstances, they both lived very disciplined religious lives — Merton’s day beginning with Mass before dawn and ending not long after sunset with Compline, Dorothy’s including daily Mass, daily rosary, daily periods of prayer and intercession, and weekly confession. Both had a marked interest in “eastern” — or Orthodox — Christianity. Both had a degree of pastoral care for others. Though their vocations were different, it wasn’t only Merton who was a contemplative.

They never actually met. Theirs was a friendship of letters. In their exchanges the topics included peacemaking, observations about social change, problems in the Catholic Church, obedience and disobedience, the Cold War, community life, marriage, their hopes and frustrations, their current reading, the meaning of love, and a wide range of issues for which advice was sought.

The date their correspondence got underway isn’t certain. The oldest surviving letter in their exchange, dated the 4th of June, 1959, is a reply to a letter from Merton. In it she apologizes for not having answered more quickly and also recalls with gratitude the copies of The Seven Storey Mountain Merton had sent to her way back in 1948. She went on to ask Merton’s prayers for a member of the Catholic Worker staff, Charles Butterworth, who was about to be sentenced for harboring a military deserter at the Catholic Worker and then, by warning him that FBI agents had arrived with an arrest warrant, playing a part in the young man’s escape. “We have done this before,” Dorothy explained, “giving [deserters] the time to make up their own minds; one returned to the army and the other took his sentence.” She mentioned to Merton another member of staff, Bob Steed, formerly a novice at Gethsemani, whom she worried might be arrested for having torn up his draft registration card. In her letter Dorothy didn’t say a word of explanation or justification for such actions — miles off the beaten track for American Catholics. Clearly, in Merton’s case, she felt this wasn’t needed.

In the same letter Dorothy thanked Merton for gifts he had sent to the Catholic Worker. I wasn’t there when that particular box arrived from Gethsemani, but two years later, when I became part of the Catholic Worker staff after being discharged from the military as a conscientious objector, such boxes were not rare. The contents varied — sometimes cast-off clothing monks had worn before taking vows, often his most recent book, and also monk-made cheese and even a fruitcake flavored with Kentucky bourbon. (For many years the monks have helped support themselves by making and selling very tempting food products. Merton didn’t quite approve of the business aspect of Trappist life, but he had no qualms about giving the results away.) I recall the gift card inside one such box was signed, in Merton’s easily recognizable handwriting, “from Uncle Louie and the Boys.” “Uncle Louie” was Merton — the name “Louis” was given him when he became a Trappist monk. Dorothy always addressed him in her letters to him as “Father Louis.” The “boys” would have been his novices — Merton was Master of Novices at the time.

It’s remarkable that, in his overfull life, he occasionally found the time and motivation to fill a box to be sent off to the Catholic Worker. This says as much about his bond with Dorothy as any of his letters. He felt a deep sense of connection with what the Catholic Worker was doing — its hospitality work, its newspaper, its protest activities. His gifts communicated to all of us working at the Catholic Worker a deep sense of his of solidarity.

This sense of connection with houses of hospitality went back Merton’s days volunteering at Friendship House in Harlem, a house of hospitality whose existence was in large measure inspired by the Catholic Worker. It had been founded by a close friend of Dorothy’s, Catherine de Hueck Doherty, or “the Baroness” as she was often called due to her family’s aristocratic Russian roots. In reading The Seven Storey Mountain, one sees the important role the Baroness had played in Merton’s life. “She had a strong voice, strong convictions, and strong things to say,” Merton wrote, “and she said them in the simplest, most unvarnished, bluntest possible kind of talk, and with such uncompromising directness that it stunned.” One could say the same about Dorothy Day. Few choices Merton ever made were so difficult as deciding between a Catholic Worker-like vocation at Friendship House and becoming a monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani. “The way [the Baroness] said some things,” Merton wrote in his journal in August 1941, “left you ready to do some kind of action … renounce the world, live in total poverty, but also doing very definite things: ministering to the poor in a certain definite way.”

In one of his letters to Dorothy, Merton remarked that the reason he volunteered at Friendship House rather than at the Catholic Worker house in lower Manhattan was because, “I was at Columbia, F[riendship] H[ouse] was just down the hill and so on. [The] C[atholic] W[orker] stands for so much that has always been meaningful to me: I associate it with similar trends of thought, like that of the English Dominicans and Eric Gill, who also were very important to me. And [Jacques] Maritain…. [The] Catholic Worker is part of my life, Dorothy. I am sure the world is full of people who would say the same…. If there were no Catholic Worker and such forms of witness, I would never have joined the Catholic Church.” [TM to DD, December 29, 1965, italics added]

In the first surviving letter from Merton to Dorothy, dated July 9, 1959, he starts out by letting her know that another gift box is on its way — some “sweet-smelling” toothpaste. He then goes on to tell her that he is “deeply touched” by her witness for peace, which had several times resulted in her arrest and imprisonment. He continues: “You are right going along the lines of satyagraha [Gandhi’s term for nonviolent action]. I see no other way, though of course the angles of the problem are not all clear. I am certainly with you in taking some kind of stand and acting accordingly. Nowadays it is no longer a question of who is right but who is at least not criminal, if any of us can say that anymore.”

In the same letter Merton confided to Dorothy his attraction to a vocation of greater solitude and deeper poverty, though he realizes that “the hopes of gaining such permission, humanly speaking, are very low.” Deep questions about where, as a monk, he ought to be was not a topic that Merton touched on with many of his correspondents. It’s clear that he saw in Dorothy someone capable of helping him discern God’s will.

There is not time in a single lecture to look letter by letter at the complex exchange between them between 1956 and 1968, but I would like to read some extracts and briefly comment on several of the major themes.

One of these themes was perseverance. “My constant prayer,” Dorothy confided to Merton just before Christmas in 1959, “is for final perseverance — to go on as I am trusting always the Lord Himself will take me by the hair of the head like [the prophet] Habakkuk and set me where he wants me.”

Anyone who has ever been part of any intentional community will recall how stressful it can be even when there are no dark clouds, but when it is a community that opens its doors day and night to people in urgent need, people who would not often be on anyone’s guest list, and when it is a community with very strong-willed, sometimes ideologically-driven volunteers, it can at times be like life in a hurricane.

In one letter to Merton, Dorothy speaks in detail about the bitterness animating some of the criticisms directed at her by co-workers. She senses the motivation of some of those who come to help at the Catholic Worker is less love than a “spirit of rebellion.” [DD to TM, October 10, 1960] Many who knew her and were aware of the emotional and physical strains of Catholic Worker life were astonished that Dorothy persevered from the founding of the Catholic Worker in 1933 until her death in 1980 — forty-seven years as part of a community of hospitality.

In his response, Merton noted that “more and more one sees that [perseverance] is the great thing,” but he also points out that perseverance is much more than “hanging on to some course which we have set our minds to, and refusing to let go.” It can sometimes mean “not hanging on but letting go. That of course is terrible. But as you say so rightly, it is a question of [God] hanging on to us, by the hair of the head, that is from on top and beyond, where we cannot see or reach.”

This was a matter of acute importance to Merton personally, a monk with itchy feet who repeatedly was attracted to greener monastic pastures. Dorothy was all for Merton staying put. In a later letter, Dorothy remarks, “I have a few friends who are always worrying about your leaving the monastery but from the letters of yours that I read I am sure you will hold fast. I myself pray for final perseverance most fervently having seen one holy old priest suddenly elope with a parishioner. I feel that anything can happen to anybody at any time.” [DD to TM, March 17, 1963]

Both Merton and Dorothy remain remarkable models, not just for persevering — barnacles can do that — but for continually putting down deeper roots while rediscovering a sense of its being God’s will not to uproot themselves.

In one letter Merton reflects on the levels of poverty that he sees the Catholic Worker responding to. “O Dorothy,” he writes, “I think of you, and the beat people, the ones with nothing, and the poor in virtue, the very poor, the ones no one can respect. I am not worthy to say I love all of you. Intercede for me, a stuffed shirt in a place of stuffed shirts…” [TM to DD, February 4, 1960]

Merton goes further with this topic in his next letter to Dorothy. “I was in Louisville at the Little Sisters of the Poor yesterday, and realized that it is in these beautiful, beat, wrecked, almost helpless old people that Christ lives and works most. And in the hurt people who are bitter and say they have lost their faith. We (society at large) have lost our sense of values and our vision. We despise everything that Christ loves, everything marked by His compassion. We love fatness health bursting smiles the radiance of satisfied bodies all properly fed and rested and sated and washed and perfumed and sexually relieved. Everything else is a scandal and a horror to us.” [TM to DD, August 17, 1960]

I can easily imagine Merton in the act of writing letters like this, some of them with an “on the road” abandon. At Merton’s invitation, I made my first visit to the abbey early in 1962, hitchhiking from the Catholic Worker in Manhattan to Gethsemani. Sitting one day in the small office Merton had next to the classroom where he gave lectures to the novices, I watched while he banged out a response to a letter I had brought him from a friend at the Catholic Worker. I have rarely if ever seen paper fly through a typewriter at such speed. When you read Merton’s letters, you have to keep in mind that he was used to making the best use possible of relatively small islands in time. If you wanted deep silence at Gethsemani, a place to avoid was the area of the monastery where Merton might be working on his gray office typewriter (now on display at the Merton Center in Louisville).

In the Merton-Day correspondence, a theme that was occasionally mentioned, more in passing than at length, was their mutual debt to Russian literature and Orthodox Christianity. They shared a high regard for Pasternak and Dostoevsky, with Dorothy mentioning that the novels of Dostoevsky are “spiritual reading for me.” [DD to TM, June 4, 1960] Merton responded by mentioning that Staretz Zosima, a saintly monk in The Brothers Karamazov, “always makes me weep.” [TM to DD, August 17, 1960] So significant was Dostoevsky’s influence on Dorothy’s basic vision of Christianity that I sometimes wonder whether Dostoevsky ought not to be listed among the co-founders of the Catholic Worker.

The fact that they both were writers may have been what drew Merton to confess to Dorothy his skepticism about the value of his own writing. “There has been some good and much bad.” He fears that his books too easily “become part of a general system of delusion,” a system that ultimately feels it is practically a religious duty to have and, if necessary, to use nuclear weapons. In the sentences that follow, Merton says that he finds himself “more and more drifting toward the derided and probably quite absurdist and defeatist position of a sort of Christian anarchist. This of course would be foolish, if I followed it to the end… But perhaps the most foolish would be to renounce all consideration of any alternative to the status quo, the giant machine.” [TM to DD, July 23, 1961]

This letter is, so far as I am aware, one of only two places in his vast body of writings in which Merton refers to anarchism. With Dorothy, it was a connecting word — for her, it meant someone like herself whose obedience was not to rulers, states, or any secular or ideological system, but to Christ. The other place is in an essay on the Desert Fathers, the fourth-century ascetics who created the monastic vocation, living in places that people generally avoided. Here Merton sees the Desert Fathers as being “in a certain sense ‘anarchists’ … They were men who did not believe in letting themselves be passively guided and ruled by a decadent state, and who believed that there was a way of getting along without slavish dependence on accepted, conventional values.” [introduction to The Wisdom of the Desert]

If Merton sometimes expressed to Dorothy his frustrations about his writing, wondering what good his words did, Dorothy was a source of deep gratitude for all that he published or privately circulated. In one letter she mentioned the spontaneous comment of a struggling young woman staying at the Catholic Worker who had borrowed The Thomas Merton Reader, an anthology that Dorothy kept on her desk, and said in Dorothy’s hearing, “Thank God for Thomas Merton.” In a 1965 letter to Merton, Dorothy said much the same: “You will never know the people you have reached, the good you have done. You certainly have used the graces and the talents God has given you.” [DD to TM, June 24, 1965]

They weren’t always in agreement. In one letter Dorothy takes note of how often Merton uses the word “beat” in his letters. For him it was a very positive word, suggesting his sense of connection with “the beat generation,” as it was called — people who had moved toward the edge of society, felt alienated from the mainstream, people who didn’t want to have “careers,” and regarded the pursuit of money as a dead-end street. They were, Merton said, people “challenging the culture of death.” Probably he was aware that Allen Ginsberg, leading bard of the beats, had done a reading his poem “Kaddish” at the Catholic Worker. In the sixties, Merton had some correspondence with the beat novelist, Jack Kerouac. Kerouac had coined the phrase “beat generation.” Catholic that he was, for Kerouac the word “beat” was probably clipped out of the word “beatific,” as in “beatific vision,” a very Catholic phrase.

But for Dorothy “beat” was not a connecting word. She felt Merton was seeing the beats through too rosy a lens. In one letter she described how unbeat several long-term members of the Catholic Worker staff were. There had only been a few people Dorothy regarded as beat-types at the Catholic Worker, she continued, and her blood pressure shot up when she thought of them. She described them as “a fly-by-night crew who despised and ignored the poor around us and scandalized them by their dress and morals. I am afraid I am uncharitable about the intellectual who shoulders his way in to eat before the men on the line who have done the hard work of the world, and who moves in on the few men in one of the apartments and tries to edge them out with their beer parties and women. They can sleep on park benches as far as I am concerned. Unfortunately we are left with the women who are pregnant for whom I beg your prayers. … As far as I am concerned, I must look on these things as a woman, and therefore much concerned with the flesh and with what goes to sustain it. Sin is sin [but] the sentimental make a mystique of it…” For all their common ground, Dorothy could be testy even with Merton. [DD to TM, June 4, 1962]

The danger of nuclear war and the vast destruction of cities and life was a major concern for Merton as it was for Dorothy. Much of his writing on war and peace was published in The Catholic Worker, starting in October 1961 with his essay, “The Root of War is Fear,” an expanded version of a chapter for New Seeds of Contemplation. This was not a case of worrying where no worrying was needed. A third world war fought with nuclear weapons seemed not just a possibility but a probability. Open-air nuclear weapon tests by the United States and the Soviet Union were frequent. Planning for nuclear war was built into military practice. In 1961, while I was working with a Navy unit at the U.S. Weather Bureau just outside Washington, one of our regular exercises was to plot fallout patterns over a three-day period if a nuclear explosion were to occur over the nation’s capital that day.

For Merton is was clear that Catholics would be no more hesitant that other Americans to play their part in initiating a nuclear war with the Soviet Union and regard themselves as doing God’s work. It was a grim topic — Christians crediting God with willing a storm of killing that would make every other war in history look like a water-pistol fight. There is a letter in which Dorothy consoles Merton with the reminder that Dame Julian of Norwich, the medieval mystic, had written that “the worst has already happened and been repaired. Nothing worse can ever befall us.” [DD to TM, August 15, 1961]

Not all Trappists were pleased with Merton writing on such topics and doing so in the pages of The Catholic Worker. Everything Merton wrote had to pass his order’s censors, some of whom thought the war issue was inappropriate. There is a document in the archive of the Merton Center in Louisville that may give you a sense of those times. Here we have an unnamed American Trappist monk writing to the order’s Abbot General in Rome, Dom Gabriel Sortais, warning him of the scandal being caused by Merton’s anti-war writings. Let me read a few extracts:

“There is one further matter, Reverend Father, which I hesitate to speak of but which I feel I should. We have, in the United States, a … paper called ‘The Catholic Worker.’ This is a very radical paper, which some Americans believe is a tool of the Communists. Fr. Louis (under the name Thomas Merton) has been writing for it frequently…. The name ‘Thomas Merton’ is almost synonymous in America with ‘Trappist.’ Thus quite a number of people believe that he is expressing the Trappist outlook…”

Later in the letter, the writer reports that a military intelligence officer had visited his monastery and had spoken with him “concerning Father Louis.” He concludes his letter by acknowledging that many have benefitted from Merton’s “spiritual works,” but “it is difficult to understand how he can express himself so strongly on questions as to whether the United States should test nuclear weapons and also the wisdom of building fallout shelters. It is hard to see how — as an enclosed religious — he has access to enough facts to pass a prudent judgment on such matters.” It is unlikely that this was the only such letter sent to the Abbot General.

During my first visit with Merton early in 1962, I recall a bizarre incident that occurred when Merton and I were walking down a corridor that connected the guest house kitchen to the basement of the main monastery building. Standing next to a garbage container was an older monk, Father Raymond Flanagan, the probable author of the letter to the Abbott General. Father Raymond who was not so much reading as glaring at the latest issue of The Catholic Worker, which included an article of Merton on the urgency of taking steps to prevent nuclear war. Father Raymond looked up, saw us coming his way, balled the paper up in his fist, hurled it into the garbage container, turned his back and strode away without a word, leaving a trail of smoke. Merton’s response was laughter. He told me that Father Raymond had never had a high opinion of his writings and often denounced him at the community’s chapter meetings. “In the early days Father Raymond said I was too detached from the world,” Merton said, “and now he thinks I’m not detached enough.” The tension between Merton and Father Raymond never abated. In March 1968, just nine months before Merton’s death, Merton recorded in his journal a furious verbal assault on himself by Father Raymond, who was enraged with Merton’s opposition to the war in Vietnam. [The Other Side of the Mountain, entry of March 7, 1968, p 62]

Dorothy was one of the people to whom Merton could complain about the increasing problems he was having with censorship. The issue wasn’t that he was being charged with writing anything at odds with Catholic doctrine, but the feeling, in Merton’s words, that “a Trappist should not know about these things, or should not write about them.” He found the situation exhausting and demoralizing. “Obedience,” he wrote Dorothy, “is a most essential thing in any Christian and above all in a monk, but I sometimes wonder if, being in a situation where obedience would completely silence a person on some important moral issue … a crucial issue like nuclear war … if it were not God’s will … to change my situation.”

In the spring of 1962, Merton received an order from Dom Gabriel Sortais not to publish any more writings on war and peace. As a consequence, a book Merton has just finished writing, Peace in the Post-Christian Era, was published more than four decades after it was written. Merton found the gagging order not only outrageous but at odds with the prophetic dimension of the monastic vocation.

If you ever want to read a letter hot enough to heat a castle in January, I recommend one he sent me at the end of April in 1962. Here’s a very brief extract:

“[The Abbot General’s decision] reflects an astounding incomprehension of the seriousness of the present crisis in its religious aspect. It reflects an insensitivity to Christian and Ecclesiastical values, and to the real sense of the monastic vocation. The reason given is that this is not the right kind of work for a monk and that it ‘falsifies the monastic message.’ Imagine that: the thought that a monk might be deeply enough concerned with the issue of nuclear war to voice a protest against the arms race, is supposed to bring the monastic life into disrepute. Man, I would think that it might just possibly salvage a last shred of repute for an institution that many consider to be dead on its feet… That is really the most absurd aspect of the whole situation, that these people insist on digging their own grave and erecting over it the most monumental kind of tombstone.” [TM to Jim Forest, April 29, 1962, full text in The Hidden Ground of Love]

Yet Merton obeyed. Explaining his decision to do so in the same letter, he stresses that “blowing off steam” is not what’s important. The real question is what response was most likely to bring about a change of heart among those — monks and others — who were threatened by Merton’s thoughts regarding war. “Disobedience or a public denunciation,” he said, would be seen by his fellow monks “as an excuse for dismissing a minority viewpoint and be regarded by those outside [the church] as fresh proof that the church had no love for private conscience.” Very soberly, he asked the crucial question: “Whose mind would be changed?” In his particular case, Merton concluded, public protest and disobedience “would backfire and be fruitless. It would be taken as a witness against the peace movement and would confirm these people in all the depth of their prejudices and their self complacency.”

In fact Merton wasn’t quite silenced. He continued to write for The Catholic Worker but under such transparent pseudonyms as Benedict Monk. On one occasion he signed himself Marco J. Frisbee. He remained a member of the advisory board of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, often giving its staff extremely helpful guidance. His abbot, Dom James Fox, decided that what the Abbot General had banned was publication of mass market editions of Merton’s peace writings. With his abbot’s collaboration, Merton was able to bring out several mimeographed editions of Peace in the Post-Christian Era and another called Cold War Letters plus a succession of essays. Via Dorothy Day, the staff of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, plus a number of other friends, these were widely distributed, including to various people in the White House as well as to bishops and theologians taking part in the Second Vatican Council. Ironically, in the end Merton’s peace writings were given a much more attentive reading by many more people than would have been the case with a commercial edition. It has often been observed that nothing makes a reader so interested in a book as its being banned.

Being a lay-edited and lay-published journal, Dorothy didn’t have to work within the censorship labyrinth that Merton did, but her views about obedience were the same as Merton’s. Again and again, in similar circumstances, Dorothy quoted from the Gospel: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” [John 12:24]

Not all enemies are across national borders. Sometimes your enemies are people who, in principle, are your friends and neighbors, even your brothers and sisters in religious life. Christ taught his followers to love their enemies and in his own life demonstrated such love. Christians in the early Church gave a similar witness, even at the cost of their lives. But in Christianity today, too often what is most striking is zealous hatred of enemies, in fact not only enemies but anyone who is seen as too different or too inconvenient. For Dorothy and Merton, the refusal to hate anyone was basic Christianity. It’s not surprising to find one of Merton’s finest meditations on enmity is in one of his longer letters to Dorothy. Listen to this:

“Persons are not known by intellect alone, not by principles alone, but only by love. It is when we love the other, the enemy, that we obtain from God the key to an understanding of who he is, and who we are. It is only this realization that can open to us the real nature of our duty, and of right action. To shut out the person and to refuse to consider him as a person, as another self, we resort to the ‘impersonal law’ and to abstract ‘nature.’ That is to say we block off the reality of the other, we cut the intercommunication of our nature and his nature, and we consider only our own nature with its rights, its claims, it demands. And we justify the evil we do to our brother because he is no longer a brother, he is merely an adversary, an accused. To restore communication, to see our oneness of nature with him, and to respect his personal rights and his integrity, his worthiness of love, we have to see ourselves as similarly accused along with him … and needing, with him, the ineffable gift of grace and mercy to be saved. Then, instead of pushing him down, trying to climb out by using his head as a stepping-stone for ourselves, we help ourselves to rise by helping him to rise. For when we extend our hand to the enemy who is sinking in the abyss, God reaches out to both of us, for it is He first of all who extends our hand to the enemy. It is He who ‘saves himself’ in the enemy, who makes use of us to recover the lost groat which is His image in our enemy.” [TM to DD, December 20, 1961]

Here one sees in high relief what was at the root of Christian life for both Dorothy and Merton and shaped their friendship. We know God and we know each other only by love. What is most unique about Christianity is its special emphasis on the vocation to love — a love whose only real test is the love of opponents and even the love of enemies. This is not sentimental love, and certainly not romantic love, but love in the sense of recognizing our family ties with each and every human being and doing whatever is in our power to protect each life, hoping that in the process both we and those whom we regard as enemies may experience a conversion of heart. No one has ever been threatened or bludgeoned or terrified or bribed into conversion. Such a deep change of heart is something only love can obtain. Without love, we become inhabitants of hell long before we die. With love, we already have a foretaste of heaven. One of Dorothy’s most often-repeated quotations summarizes this basic truth. It is a sentence that comes from one of her favorite saints, Catherine of Siena. “All the way to heaven is heaven,” she said, “because Jesus said, ‘I am the way.’”

* * *

Jim Forest is the author of quite a number of books, including All is Grace: a Biography of Dorothy Day and Living With Wisdom: A Biography of Thomas Merton.

* * *

Lessons in Peacemaking

[lecture given June 2nd at the 2012 conference of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship held in Abbotsford, British Columbia]

by Jim Forest

This talk began with a request from Alex Patico. He wrote: “At the Orthodox Peace Fellowship conference, I’d like you to speak about peacemaking, not so much abstract reflections on the subject of peacemaking, but a very personal memoir of what it was to be a peacemaker — whether it was in the streets of New York City, at a draft board office in Milwaukee, or as the patriarch of a fairly large and interesting extended family. You had opinions about the Bomb, about Vietnam, about Iraq, etc. and you did not just cluck over them while holding a newspaper in one hand and your breakfast toast in the other, but tried to do your bit.”

With Alex’s letter a case in point, I’ve often been described as a peacemaker. I’ve even received a “Peacemaker Award” from the University of Notre Dame. Still more often I have been described as a “peace activist” though weeks and months go by without me participating in a protest action, carrying a peace sign, wearing a peace button or putting a peace-advocating bumper sticker on my car. (In my own defense, I must point out we have no car.)

Such labels make me uncomfortable. As Al Hassler, one of my mentors, used to say, peacemaking is an aspiration, not an achievement.

On the other hand it’s true that I’ve spent much of my life trying in various ways to prevent wars or attempting to speed their end, years trying to discredit war and strip it of its glamorous mythology, and done whatever I could to promote disarmament and nonviolent approaches to conflict resolution. I’ve been involved in a succession of peace and civil rights groups, belonged to several communities in which hospitality and protest were key elements of life, done a great deal of counseling of conscientious objectors, spent many hours on picket lines and in demonstrations, and been locked up a number of times for acts of war protest. As a consequence of one act of civil disobedience, I was once imprisoned for more than a year. I tend to call that long one my sabbatical, and in many ways it was — a year of reading, meditation and prayer. I was a guest of the State of Wisconsin in 1969-1970 as a result of being one of fourteen people who made a bonfire of thousands of draft records at a little park in downtown Milwaukee, an action meant to make it harder to force people into military service in Vietnam.

Yet protest and public advocacy is not something I’m drawn to by nature, though it may seem otherwise when one looks at some of the choices I’ve made and the trouble I have gotten into that I might easily have avoided. I dislike being part of crowds even when I agree with what they are crowding together about. I have an aversion to slogans. My vocational ambitions as a young man included being a park ranger and, later on, joining a monastic community. Instead I became a writer, which is a line of work that has a monkish side to it. And perhaps there is still a fragment of park ranger lodged within me, in that normally I start the day with a walk in the park near our home and sometimes putting trash in trash cans.

Part of my aversion to protest is probably linked to having been what used to be called “a red diaper baby.” That is to say my parents were Communists. For part of my childhood, the FBI took a great deal of interest in our family. Dad was in prison for nearly half-a-year when I was eleven. Such things leave a mark on kids. In my case, a life of political invisibility seemed to me a life worth having. It’s not that I disagreed with my parents’ beliefs and opinions, to the extent that I understood them. In fact there was a lot to agree with — opposition to racism, wanting a society in which people were not treated as Kleenex-like disposable objects, a society in which no one was left to freeze to death on the sidewalks. But their Marxist ideology never appealed to me. When I was high school student, trying to get an idea of what Marxism was all about, I did some reading but found Marxist writers mind-numbing. Also I was unable to embrace a core element of Marxism: materialism. The insistence that nothing exists which does not exist materially didn’t explain to me why beauty is so important or the mystery of having a soul or the phenomenon of love. When, about the same time in my life, I read Doctor Zhivago, it brought home to me the brutality that is an essential element in any violent revolution, Communist or otherwise.

But, to the extent I have a social conscience, its early formation is mainly thanks to my parents.

An important fact of my childhood was growing up on “the other side of the tracks” — a mainly black neighborhood in Red Bank, New Jersey. It wasn’t until I was fifteen and had moved from Red Bank to Hollywood, California, that I met my first racist, a high-school classmate. She was a blond, blue-eyed girl who until that day had seemed quite attractive to me. At the time racial integration of schools was just getting started in states like Mississippi and Alabama. In the face of racist jeers, federal marshals were escorting black children into what had been all-white schools. My classmate was on the side of those who were screaming ugly words at a few dark-skinned children whose quiet courage stunned me. I would have argued with her had I not been struck dumb by astonishment. Meeting a zombie would not have amazed me more.

Like so many kids my age at that time — the latter part of the fifties — I thought a great deal about nuclear war. Open-air nuclear tests were broadcast live. As a member of the high school debating society, I gave a talk with the title “Generation in the Shadow.” The shadow was the shape of the radioactive mushroom clouds that again and again sprouted in the Nevada desert not far from Los Angeles. Each explosion made it clear that nuclear war was a major possibility, in fact a probability, in the coming years. Who ever heard of weapons being made but not used? Anyone who gave much thought to what was going on couldn’t think of the atom bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki except as dress rehearsals for an apocalyptic future. In those days many Americans, most of them Christians, were passionately advocating a unilateral nuclear attack on Russia and China. “The only good Red is a dead Red” was a popular slogan at the time. The Cold War was at its coldest. Visions of the future were grim.

While I was concerned enough to give a talk about nuclear war, it didn’t cross my mind to join one of the peace groups that had the courage to oppose not only using nuclear weapons, but making and testing them.

It wasn’t until after high school, while in the Navy, that it occurred to me to join a protest of any kind. By that time I had graduated from the Navy Weather School and was stationed with a small meteorological unit at the U.S. Weather Bureau headquarters just outside Washington, D.C.

What pulled me across the border from unengaged bystander to anti-war protester was the invasion of Cuba by a group of Cuban refugees in April 1961 — the abortive Bay of Pigs Invasion. Within days it became public knowledge that it had been a CIA-organized operation with the U.S. military in the background. I was truly shocked. Despite my left-wing parents, I had quite a naïve and uncritical view of the U.S. government, and was especially hopeful about the national direction following Kennedy’s recent inauguration. When I read in The Washington Post that a protest vigil involving such groups as the Catholic Worker and the War Resisters League was taking place in front of a CIA building in Washington, I decided to join it after work. I had not expected to be noticed — I was in civilian clothes — but somehow I was identified and in the days that followed got into a good deal of trouble.

Behind my involvement in the vigil was the religious awakening that was going on my life. While at the Navy Weather School in 1959, I became a Christian, an event that was set in motion by what I later realized would be called a mystical experience, that is an experience of God that was too intense to ignore or explain away. For the better part of a year I explored different Christian churches. In November 1960, I formally became a Catholic, and a Catholic I remained until becoming Orthodox in 1988.

While still in the Navy, one element in my life was working part-time as a volunteer at a home for children whose parents were unable to care for them. Among my tasks was taking the kids who were Catholic to Mass on Sunday. Providentially, it happened that the nearest parish had a library. How fortunate I was! As converts often do, I was reading all I could lay my hands on and here was a paradise of books — theology, church history, lives of saints, autobiographies of saintly people, etcetera.

Among the important finds in that library were copies of an eight-page tabloid newspaper with the surprising name The Catholic Worker. I can still see that pile of Catholic Workers on a ledge by a window side-by-side with a flowering plant. I took the entire stack back to my base and found myself deeply challenged by what I found in its pages. I discovered a movement, mainly of lay people, that centered its life on the one text in the New Testament in which Jesus speaks in detail about the Last Judgment. He describes a vast resurrection at the end of history of everyone who has ever lived and asks this vast assembly just six questions: Did you feed the hungry? Give drink to the thirsty? Clothe the naked? Provide shelter to the homeless? Care for the sick? Visit the prisoner? Within each question is the same question: Did you see Christ in the least person and respond to that person’s urgent needs? Or turn your back and look the other way?

During those months I also read The Long Loneliness, the autobiography of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker. In the book she recounted her early adulthood in the same radical world my parents had been a part of, yet in her case the door had eventually opened to a radical Christianity. Perhaps it was in that book that I first encountered her observation that “those who cannot see Christ in the poor are atheists indeed.”

It was in large measure thanks to the Catholic Worker and Dorothy Day that I began to understand that what the Church does is transform our lives, gradually making them into channels of God’s love and mercy. It’s very simple. All the things we do in Church life are intended to make us inhabitants of the kingdom of God, a kingdom without greed, without hatred, without violence, without war, a paschal kingdom, a kingdom free of death. To gain entrance, all that’s required is the transformation of ourselves that we pray for every day of our lives: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Though I had known many people who had become socially engaged due to their political convictions, in my own case it was only as a Christian that I moved from being an observer to engagement in activities protesting war, for what human activity more opposes the works of mercy than war? Far from feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty, war destroys all that is life sustaining.

The thoughts I had once had of a Navy career had by now evaporated. On the other hand, I enjoyed my work at the Weather Bureau and got on well with my Navy colleagues. The work itself was as nonviolent as military work can possibly be. If at all possible, I thought it would be best to finish out my enlistment rather than seek a special discharge. But first I had to fill out a security form in which I found I could answer every question without raising a red flag except one. The question was: “In what circumstances, if any, would you refuse to obey a superior’s orders?” I spent a sleepless night in the base chapel struggling with that sentence, trying to find a way to answer it truthfully and yet remain in the Navy until the end of my enlistment. But in fact it was only too easy to think of circumstances in which any decent person must disobey orders. The most hideous things human beings have done to other human beings were carried out by people who were simply obeying orders.

I wrote a lengthy answer to that difficult question that mainly focused on the conditions for a just war that were established Catholic doctrine. One of these is the protection of the lives of non-combatants. I could not justify to myself remaining in an institution whose fundamental purpose regarded killing and destruction as normal and even praiseworthy actions — actions in which even military meteorologists have a role to play. (I realized only after the fact that my unit at the Weather Bureau had provided the weather predictions used for the Bay of Pigs Invasion.)

One of the reasons I had been reluctant to apply for a C.O. discharge was anxiety about how my Navy colleagues would treat me once the application was filed. As it turned out, everyone in my unit remained on friendly terms except the commanding officer and one or two others. In order to better understand my views, my executive officer, Commander Mirabito, borrowed a book from me, War and Christianity Today, written by a German Dominican, Franziskus Stratmann, who had been condemned to death in Hitler’s Germany for his anti-war declarations, but managed to survive the war in hiding. After reading Stratmann’s book that same night, Commander Mirabito was so openly supportive of me that he may well have sacrificed promotion to captain for doing so. I cannot think of him without profound gratitude. It was thanks to him and many others I got to know while in the Navy that, in later years, I was never tempted to think of people in the military in demeaning terms.

I was discharged in June 1961. By then I had already become an occasional volunteer at the New York Catholic Worker. At Dorothy Day’s invitation, I moved to Manhattan and joined the staff. In many ways it was this move that set my course until now. I can even credit Dorothy for making me aware of the Orthodox Church — she brought be to the New York cathedral of the Moscow Patriarchate and also involved me in a discussion group that brought together Orthodox and Catholic Christians. While it wasn’t her intention that I would someday become Orthodox, she would sympathize.

My education in peacemaking had begun in the Navy and continued at the Catholic Worker.

One of the major lessons in that early period of my adult life was becoming aware of how readily we shape ourselves to fit into the society we happen to belong to and tend to do so unconsciously. I started to learn this important lesson as a consequence of one of the routine activities that was an element of Catholic Worker life in New York in the early sixties. Once a week several of us would go uptown to hand out leaflets critical of preparations for nuclear war. We would stand for an hour at mid-day on the four corners of a Lexington Avenue intersection in the immediate neighborhood of the office responsible for “civil defense,” the organizing center for all that New Yorkers were obliged to do in preparing for a nuclear attack. Once a year a civil defense drill was imposed on the city, stopping every car, bus and subway and requiring everyone to take shelter in basements and subway stations. The world’s busiest city briefly became, at street level, a ghost town. Dorothy Day had been arrested several times for sitting on a park bench in front of the mayor’s office instead of taking shelter, as obliged by law.

Handing out our leaflets, we were like children pointing out that the emperor was stark naked. You won’t survive nuclear war by taking shelter in the subways, our text pointed out, but if by any chance you do, you will find yourself in a world resembling hell. You will envy the dead.

It was an education attempting to connect with people hurrying along a busy city street. New York’s traffic light system being what it is, people come down the avenues in waves. I learned that the response of the first person in each group — almost always a man in a hurry — usually determined the response of everyone who happened to be following him even though they were strangers to each other. Not a word was said, not a look was exchanged — the process was automatic and unconscious. This meant that I had to do my very best to get the man in front to take the flyer. If I succeeded, at least some of those behind him were likely to follow his example. If he refused, the chances were no one in that group would accept the piece of paper I was offering. If he balled up the leaflet and threw it on the ground, some of those following him were likely to do he same. My best hope was to make eye contact with the front-runner. It requires what a nun friend of mine calls “hospitality of the face.”

Prayer was involved. If hospitality of the face is to be more than wearing a smiley mask, you need hospitality of the heart, which in turn involves a pretty intense spiritual life. It was helpful to see in Dorothy Day what a focused, disciplined spiritual life involved — in her case daily Mass, daily rosary, time each day for prayer and intercession, spiritual reading, weekly confession.

Standing at the intersection once a week, it didn’t take long to realize that we’re just as bound together as the sorts of fish that swim in schools. It’s a human tendency to shape our lives, activities, opinions and vocabularies according to what is more or less “normal” among the people we happen to be living and working with. As the Indian writer, Tagore, observed: “The best defense for a person, just like an insect, is the ability to take on the color of his surroundings.” We adjust our lives, even our understanding and practice of Christianity, to fit within the norms of the society we’re part of. Thus if I had been living in Germany in the 1930s and hadn’t well-formed convictions that put me on guard about Nazism, the chances are I would have held Hitler in high regard and perhaps even become a Nazi. Or if I were a white person living in a racist milieu, it would be remarkable if I didn’t become a racist myself. If everyone in the neighborhood puts the national flag by their front door, would I dare to isolate myself by not doing the same? Go to a windy place and you notice how the trees are shaped by the wind.

What I learned handing out leaflets was only stage one of learning about how we adapt ourselves to our social environment. What came later on was the realization that not only do I have to be aware of the tides that move within the mega-group I am born into, that is the particular nation, but I also have to be conscious of how easily one shapes oneself to be fully part of whatever subculture I’ve bonded with. If you find yourself at odds with key aspects of the larger society, it’s natural to look for a group of people with similar dissident convictions. But you will need a well-formed conscience just as much among dissidents as you need it in the surrounding society.

For example, if you regard abortion as the killing of an unborn human being and just as tragic as the killing of a defenseless person in war, unless your keep your view hidden, in much of the peace movement your view, and possibly yourself, will be unwelcome. Supporting access to abortion was, for most of the women’s movement that emerged in the seventies, a non-negotiable issue, an attitude that gradually became bedrock for anyone in a “progressive” organization. Even in a pacifist group like the Fellowship of Reconciliation, in which I was active for more than 25 years, my own attempts to initiate dialogue on the issue of abortion not only got nowhere but cost me several friendships. That failure is among the more dismal experiences of my life. There is no peacemaking without dialogue, but even social activists are not always interested in dialogue.

For me, another painful collision with many others in the peace movement had to do with the question of how to relate to Vietnam after the war’s abrupt end in 1975. Keep in mind that the peace movement, though spoken of in the singular, is in fact a patchwork quilt of groups, some religious, some secular, some with a one-issue focus, some with a wide range of concerns, some far left, some hard to label in political terms.

A large segment of the American peace movement had been so alienated from the U.S. government and what it was doing in Vietnam that a friendly bond had formed between many peace activists with revolutionaries in the south as well as with the North Vietnamese government. When evidence began to emerge after the war that the victorious Hanoi regime was just as ready to arrest the same dissidents who had been jailed by Saigon and was just as anti-religious as other Communist governments, many preferred to dismiss or ignore the evidence. Others accepted that things were as bad as the evidence indicated but argued that, given what America had done in Vietnam, no American had the right to protest.

A letter addressed to the prime minister of Vietnam that I had drafted called on Hanoi to allow the Red Cross and/or Amnesty International to visit prison camps. Eventually it was signed by more than a hundred people who had been prominent in anti-war activity. A major controversy exploded within the peace movement. Some of the non-signers accused me of being a CIA agent. I kid you not. I was told by one senior staff member of the American Friends Service Committee that what I was doing in support of prisoners of conscience in Vietnam would “cost [me] my career in the peace movement.” Having made that prophecy, he slammed down the phone.

While I was astonished by his anger, I was enlightened by what he said. Until that day I hadn’t thought of what I was doing as a career. I had thought of it as a vocation. For me “career” meant doing something in a careful way that would assure promotions and regular pay raises leading ultimately to retirement. It might be a career in an area you enjoyed, but not necessarily. “Vocation” meant, as its Latin root suggests, a calling, that is something God calls you to do, an act of obedience to God’s intentions in your life that is discerned through a well-formed conscience. A career was security-centered. Vocation often involved a leap of faith. If your work is more career than vocation-centered, before you say or do anything, you make sure you’re not putting your career at risk.

At the time, my vocation was editing the monthly journal of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. I was fortunate that in fact my “career” in peace work did not go down the tubes — I spent the next twelve years heading the staff of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, the job that brought me to Holland in 1977. Then in 1988 I became Secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.

But I was and remain something of a black sheep even among black sheep. I seem to be a black sheep by vocation. Sometimes one has to be a conscientious objector even within the peace movement.

This is a talk about lessons in peace work I’ve come by, mainly the hard way. Let me briefly tell one more story that has to do with the round-about way I became an Orthodox Christian. There is not enough time to tell about it in detail — the roots go deep — but a major part of the process occurred in the early 1980s when I realized that the peace movement, in trying to get rid of nuclear missiles and other weapons of mass destruction, was focusing mainly on the weapons rather than the people at whom the weapons were aimed — mainly on doomsday and doomsday technology and not on the broken relationships of which the weapons were a symptom. Those working for disarmament at the time could describe types of ballistic missiles and the destructive capacity of particular weapons with an expertise that equaled what one might expect from a weapons expert working for the Pentagon. We could describe quite vividly the devastating environmental consequences of nuclear war, how it might trigger a “nuclear winter.” But we knew almost nothing about the Soviet Union and about the people American weapons would kill. In those days, the only people I knew in the West who were occasionally visiting the Soviet Union were Communists like my father who got the red carpet treatment. They saw happy workers in humane factories in a society in which there was no unemployment, everyone had a place to live, and health care was a human right. The KGB and the Gulag were kept behind curtains.

I recall an article by Thomas Merton that we published in The Catholic Worker in 1961. It’s title summed up the contents: “The Root of War is Fear.” If one of the root causes of war is fear, a fear that precludes significant contact with one’s enemy, one of the root causes of peace is doing all you can to know your enemy. For any Christian attempting to put into practice the love of enemies, actual contact with the supposed enemy is basic. How can you love someone you avoid meeting?

The insight that face-to-face contact with Russians was essential came to me in 1981 thanks to seeing a Russian film, “Moscow Does Not believe in Tears,” the one Soviet film ever to win an Academy Award. It was a story that centered on three totally a-political women who became best friends while sharing a room in Moscow.

It took quite some doing, but in 1983 I was in Moscow for the first time, having helped prepare a small theological conference initiated by the International Fellowship of Reconciliation and hosted by the Russian Orthodox Church. I arrived in Moscow a day or two earlier than other Western participants. That first night, too excited to sleep, I took a solo walk from my hotel to Red Square. The hour was so late that for most of the walk I was the only person in sight and there were very few cars — very different than the Moscow of 2012. Even on Red Square the only others present at that hour were two statue-like soldiers ceremonially guarding Lenin’s Tomb. The main presence on the square was the Church of Saint Basil with its circus-colored domes.

In the days that followed, what impressed me more than anything else was the intensity of spiritual life in the parishes I visited, a vitality I had not anticipated, in fact a vitality I had never experienced in churches in the West. The prayer was as solid and life-sustaining as black bread. Despite decades of repression, punishment and countless martyrdoms, this was a Church that was, like Christ, risen from the dead.

Our theological seminar in Moscow proved to be a breakthrough. In the years that followed, conferences and collaborative projects involving people from the West meeting their Soviet counterparts became more and more frequent until one could not begin to keep track of them. The East-West climate, after many arctic years, became more and more tropical.

A number of friendships with bishops and lay people took root during that first visit. On my second visit, the following year, I proposed to Metropolitan Pitirim, the bishop heading the Church’s publishing department, that I come back in order to begin work on a book. The following year, 1985, the year that Gorbachev became head of state, permission was given. When published several years later, the resulting book had the title Pilgrim to the Russian Church. As it happened, I was the first Western journalist in Soviet times to have gained such broad access to the parishes, theological schools and monasteries that were open at the time.

What I hadn’t anticipated in my efforts to open East-West doors was not only that the effort would quickly spread to a great many other groups, including major corporations, but that my own life would be changed at a very deep level.

In December 1987, while still writing Pilgrim to the Russian Church, I got a call from the rector of the Russian Orthodox parish in Amsterdam, Father Alexis Voogd. For a year or more, he and his wife had been giving me helpful advice about places to go and people to meet in Russia. Father Alexis pointed out that few people had visited so many centers of Orthodox religious life in Russia as I had, and yet neither I nor Nancy had ever attended services at the Russian Orthodox parish in Amsterdam.

Two weeks later, in January 1988, Nancy and I attended our first Orthodox Liturgy in Amsterdam. To our joy and surprise, we found that the intensity of liturgical life we had known in Russia was equally present in this small Dutch parish. (These days it’s quite a large one.) The result was that within not many months Nancy and I crossed the thin border that separates the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. It wasn’t so much that we had left the Catholic Church, slamming the door behind us. Not at all. It was simply that we found ourselves unable to miss the Liturgy at Saint Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam. Clearly, if we were going to be there every Sunday, we needed to be able to receive communion there. Chrismation followed.

It was not a journey from imperfect to perfect Christianity. Of course there is much that needs urgent repair in the Catholic Church — I can understand why some people walk out. But every church, the Orthodox Church not excepted, urgently needs repair. To its credit, every member of the Catholic Church is at least vaguely aware that he or she belongs to a world church, a church which transcends national and linguistic borders. This is not something one can say about a great many Orthodox Christians for whom national adjectives — Russian, Greek, Serbian, Romanian, Cyprian, etcetera — come first.

Perhaps because it’s a world church not threatened by fractures along national or linguistic lines, in the past hundred years or so the Catholic Church has provided the world with a series of encyclicals and conciliar statements on the social implications of Christianity. In most Orthodox jurisdictions, one has to look back centuries, even to the patristic era, to find similar guidance. Even when they speak, our bishops have not been able to speak to the world with a united voice. Rather our hierarchs struggle to decide in what order to commemorate the various patriarchs while barely managing to stay in communion with each other.

To get back to my own journey, whatever the challenges are for me as an Orthodox Christian and whatever troubles me about the Church in its human dimension, it’s a blessing far more valuable than any treasure to have found my way to the Orthodox Church. And it all happened as an unexpected consequence of wanting to meet people who were regarded as the enemy and had become the targets of nuclear weapons.

The lesson? It’s very basic Christianity: Love your enemies. They might bring you closer to the Kingdom of God.

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This lecture was presented at the Orthodox Peace Fellowship conference in British Columbia in June 2012.

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