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: ]

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.]