Thomas Merton and the Catholic Worker: Ten Years After

drawing of Thomas Merton done for The Catholic Worker by Fritz Eichenberg
drawing of Thomas Merton done for The Catholic Worker by Fritz Eichenberg

By Jim Forest

[published in the December 1978 issue of The Catholic Worker]

The Catholic Worker, if not exactly respectable today, was even less so two decades ago, when Thomas Merton’s correspondence with Dorothy Day was beginning. It was before Popes John XXIII and Paul VI and the Second Vatican Council, when few Catholics had heard of pacifism or conscientious objection and that had thought that these had something to do with being a Quaker. One didn’t have to search far to find priests that regarded the Catholic Worker’s ideas on war and peace as mildly heretical. The Catholic Worker struck many as unfathomably bizarre — a paradox as odd as any G.K. Chesterton had imagined. Capping the Catholic Worker’s public image at the time were the annual rituals of arrest, when Dorothy would be seen in news photographs in front of city hall instead of taking shelter in the subways during a dress rehearsal for nuclear war. The Cardinal put up with the Catholic Worker, it was generally assumed, ignoring its peculiar opinions in admiration for the free soup and hospitality it offered the down-and-out.

At that time, the idea that Thomas Merton, one of the most well-known and respected writers in the Catholic Church, would be writing Dorothy respectful, appreciative letters—not only about the hospitality of the Catholic Worker but about its protest activities—would have struck many people as wildly improbable.

It was at Christmas time, 1960 that I remember a group of us at the CW sitting at the large dining room table of the Peter Maurin Farm in rural Staten Island, that beautiful place that has since disappeared under the march of suburban housing. The air smelled of tea and the bread Dean Mowrer had baked earlier in the day.

Dorothy was reading aloud from various letters received, something she often did, always adding her own commentary, which could be devastatingly funny affectionate, but grumpy if the letter were too complimentary.

‘Here is one from Thomas Merton,’ she said, opening and envelope from the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.

The name was enough to lower the tea cups and open the ears to maximum width.

‘Again, I am touched by your witness for peace,’ the letter began. ‘You are right in going at it along the lines of satyagraha.’

We knew enough of Gandhi to recognize the rarely heard word. Often translated as nonviolence, it meant a way of action rooted in the force of truth alone.

‘I see no other way,’ he went on, ‘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 a criminal, if any of us can say that anymore. So don’t worry about whether or not in every point you are right according to everybody’s book: you are right before God as far as you can go and you are fighting for a truth that is clear enough. What more can anybody do?’

His letters came fairly often. At times there were packages as well. At times there were packages as well—clothes contributed by a monk taking first vows, some Trappist cheese, even a side of smoked bacon one Christmas. (The bacon came with a card in Merton’s hand—‘From Uncle Louie and the Boys.’ In his monastic community, Merton was Fr. Louis. The ‘boys’ were the novices under his charge).

Rereading his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, one realizes Merton’s interest in the Worker’s peace work had deep roots in his earlier life. Much of his childhood had been in France and England, where the scars of the First World War were fresh. On one holiday, hiking along the Rhine Valley in Germany, he had nearly been run down by a car full of young Nazis, scattering leaflets in favor of Hitler’s election. He saw no point in imitating the Nazis in order to defeat them. After his conversion to Catholicism, he was one of the rare Catholics to register as a conscientious objector. Though he was willing to be a battlefield medic, the army (to his relief) wouldn’t have him, with or without guns, with or without a conscience: he didn’t have enough teeth.

His first public statement on Christian responsibility regarding war appeared in the October 1961 Catholic Worker. Entitled ‘The Root of War is Fear,’ the bulk of it was a chapter for New Seeds of Contemplation, a book he was preparing for publication. But a long prefsce was written especially for The Catholic Worker. There was no logical reason for the utter devastation of nuclear war, he argued, yet the world was plunging mindlessly in that direction, and doing so in the name of peace. ‘It is true war madness, an illness of the mind and spirit that is spreading with a furious and subtle contagion over all the world.’ So bad was the situation that many Americans were building ‘bomb shelters where, in case of nuclear war, they will simply bake slowly, instead of burning quickly…’

What is the Christian responsibility in the midst of such insanity? ‘Is he simply to fold his hands and resign himself for the worst, accepting it as the inescapable will of God and preparing himself to enter heaven with a sigh of relief… Or, worse still, should he take a hard-headed and practical attitude and join in the madness of the war-makers, calculating how by ‘first strike,’ the glorious Christian west can eliminate atheistic communism and user in the millennium?’

But what then to do?

Here followed as firm a statement of Christian duty as one can find anywhere in Merton’s published writing:

“The duty of the Christian in this crisis is to strive, with all his power and intelligence, with all his faith, his hope in Christ, and love for god and man, to do the one ask God has imposed upon us in the world today. That task is to work for the total abolition of war… It is a problem of terrifying complexity and magnitude, for which the Church itself is not bully able to see clear and decisive solutions. Yet she must lead the way of nonviolent settlement of difficulties and toward the gradual abolition of war as the way of settling international or civil disputes. Christian must become active in every possible way, mobilize all their resources for the fight against war. First of all, there is much to be studied, much to be learned. Peace is to be preached, nonviolence is to be explained as a practical method, and not left to be mocked as an outlet for crackpots who want to make a show of themselves. Prayer and sacrifices must be used as the most effective spiritual weapons in the war against war, and like all weapons, they must be used with deliberate aim; not just with a vague aspiration for peace and security, but against violence and war.’

Disarmament of nations requires a foundation of personal disarmament. ‘This implies,’ he went on, ‘that we are also willing to sacrifice and refrain our own instinct for violence and aggressiveness in our relations with other people.’

He was urgent but not at all optimistic about what could be accomplished. ‘We may never succeed, but whether we succeed or not, the duty is evident. It is the great Christian task of our time. Everything else is secondary…’

Following his own advice in the years that followed, Merton maintained a very busy correspondence with various persons and many groups working against war: Catholic Peace Fellowship, Pax (now Pax Christi) and the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He offered his counsel, his writings, his prayers and occasionally, his hospitality.

Much of his correspondence had a critical edge. His thought obviously challenged generals, but he could trouble his fellow pacifists equally well.

Among the main tendencies in the peace movement in the mid-sixties was ‘politicization.’ Political ‘analysis’ blossomed in pacifist circles much as they did in the Left. Plain words, like ‘suffering’ were replaced with such abstract words like ‘oppression.’ Increasingly, the universe was viewed through class and economic lenses. Pacifists seemed increasingly embarrassed not to be in possession of the annual reports of the multinational corporations. To offer the Sermon on the Mount as one’s political point of departure seemed, to a growing number of pacifists, like confessing to imbecility. The process deeply disturbed Merton, who recognized in it not only a decisive step away from pacifism but away from religious faith and the turning of human beings into ideological decimals.

Repeatedly he sought to reinforce a different spirit among pacifist groups with which he corresponded. As he expressed it on one letter:

‘The whole problem is inner change… an application of spiritual forces and not the use merely of political pressure. We all have the great need for purity of soul, that is, the deep need to possess in us the Holy Spirit, to be possessed by Him. This has to take precedence over everything else. If He lives and works in us, then our activity will be true and our witness with generate love of truth, even that we may be persecuted and beaten down in apparent incomprehension.’

Another letter emphasized what he called the ‘human dimension’:

‘The basic problem is not political, it is a-political and human. One of the most important things to do is keep cutting deliberately through political lines and barriers and emphasizing the fact that these are largely fabrications and that there is another dimension, a genuine reality, totally opposed to the fictions of politics: the human dimensions which politics pretend to arrogate entirely to themselves. This is the necessary first step along the long way toward the perhaps impossible task of purifying humanizing and somehow illuminating politics themselves.’

This required of pacifist groups a radical non-alignment with power blocs of both right and left: a manifestly non-political witness: non-aligned, non-labeled, fighting for the reality of man and his rights and needs in the nuclear world in some numbers against all alignments.’

Hence the importance of those who side with none of the forces of killing to maintain their independence and could not be absorbed in united-front coalition campaigns in which the protesters are not so much against war as against one side in the war. It reminded Merton of his experiences with the Left while a student at Columbia, which he was briefly a member of the Community Party, with the secret party name Frank Swift. “The primary duty of all honest movements,’ he counseled, ‘is to protect themselves from being swallowed up by any sea monster that happens along. Once the swallowing has taken place, rigidity replaces truth and there is no more possibility of dialogue: the old lines are hardened and the weapons slide into position for the kill once more.’

Another aspect of peace activity that disturbed him was a pacifist minority identity that expressed itself in various forms of self-righteousness, infecting protest so that it only drives opponents further apart. A deep longing for transformation, of oneself as well as others needed to animate activities for peace, and that required a genuine respect and sympathy with those whom protest located on ‘the other side.’ We must, he wrote the Catholic Worker, ‘always direction our action toward opening people’s eyes to the truth, and if they are blinded, we must try to be sure we did nothing specifically to blind them. Yet there is that danger: the danger one observes subtly in tight groups like families and monastic communities, where the martyr for the right sometimes thrives on making his persecutors terribly and visibly wrong, to see refuge in the wrong, to seek refuge in violence.’

Without compassion, protest tends simply to play on the guilt of one’s opponents. “There is,’ Merton wrote, ‘no finer torment.’

Merton’s difficulties with the peace groups he belonged to came to a crisis point for him late in 1965, when the intensity of the peace movement, reflecting the escalation of the war, began to acquire what Merton saw as an ominous spirit of irrationality.

While not holding the Catholic Worker or the Catholic Peace Fellowship responsible, Merton felt obliged to end his public identification with peace groups that he felt were creating a climate of protest which led in what seemed to be a desperate direction. He sensed, he wrote, ‘something demonic at work,’ not only in the war-making society but in movements of protest as well.

‘The spirit of this country at the present moment is to me terribly disturbing… It is not quite like Nazi Germany, certainly not like Soviet Russia, it is like nothing on earth I ever heard of before. The whole atmosphere is crazy, not even the peace movement, everybody. There is in it such an air of absurdity and moral voice, even where conscience and morality are invoked (as they are by everybody). The joint is going into a slow frenzy. The country is nuts.’

Merton’s vulnerability had been heightened by his recent move into a hermitage on the monastery property where he was a newcomer to a more intense solitude than had been possible before. Though more hidden from the world than previously, he felt his connections in every direction more intensely than ever.

Within a month, after much correspondence with several friends, he changed his mind, even going so far as to issue though the Catholic Peace Fellowship a public statement about the permission he had received to live as a hermit and his decision, nonetheless, to remain a Catholic Peace Fellowship sponsor. He wanted to continue to support groups ‘striving to spread the teachings of the Gospel and the Church on war, peace and the brotherhood of man.’ His public association did not mean, however, that he approved of everything individual members of such peace groups might undertake on their own responsibility. ‘I personally believe,’ he wrote ‘that what we need most today is patient, constructive and pastoral work rather than acts of defiance which antagonize the average person without enlightening him.’

Merton reached his position with considerable care, though often with false starts. He listened with close attention to what friends had to say, and was quite capable of changing his mind. But he would allow no one else to do his thinking for him. Thus it continually alarmed him to see mob mentality building up even in groups that were protesting the government’s mob mentality. One’s convictions, so often, were nothing more than absorbing unexamined the opinions of peers Even those in peace groups, he pointed out, very often had n real anchoring point for their spiritual or intellectual lives, no senses of the need carefully to establish the foundations of one’s life.

His own values, as he made clear in action as well as word, were formed in the Catholic Church and his monastic vocation. He became less and less parochial with the passage of years but never because of the erosion of his primary religious commitments.

He believed strongly in the disciplines of religious life, in a rather unfashionable way. For more than a year, for example, beginning in the spring of 1962, he was ordered not to write on war-peace issues—a decision he accepted, though with quite audible protest. He said the order was arbitrary, uncomprehending, discouraging, insensitive, disreputable and absurd—but that to disobey would only be taken with his community ‘as a witness against the peace movement’ confirming others in ‘their prejudices and self-complacency.’ It would be nice to ‘blast off’ about it but ‘I am not merely looking for opportunities to blast off.’ He pointed out he had chosen to live in a religious community where one voluntarily accepted limitations: ‘I may or may not agree with the ostensible reasons why the limitations are imposed, but I accept limits out of the love for God Who is using these things to attain ends which I myself cannot at the moment see or comprehend… I find no contradiction between love and obedience, and as a matter of fact it is the only sure way of transcending the limits and arbitrariness of ill-advised commands.’

The point of view seemed medieval to many others, for whom the right of disobedience towards civil authorities easily poured into the religious sphere as well. At the Catholic Worker, Dorothy Day had long expressed similar commitments in obedience within the Church, as strongly as she opposed blind obedience to the state. In this regard, ‘more radical’ (as we imagined) younger staff members took noisy exception.

Merton’s point, and Dorothy’s too, was that it wasn’t enough to be right about one’s opinions. One had to live them out in a way that opened others to them—even if that meant shutting up for a time. Nonviolence was something more than a new technology (although bloodless) for clubbing people over the head.

The silenced Merton wasn’t, however, altogether silent. His peace writings, in mimeographed form, flowed freely via The Catholic Worker, Catholic Peace Fellowship and other similar channels. It was a bit like the Soviet literary underground.

He continued to publish as well, but under invented names. He signed one article in The Catholic Worker with the by-line Benedict Monk. That was rather a thin disguise. A letter in Jubilee bore the signature Marco J. Frisbee. For anyone familiar with Merton’s particular sense of humor, that was a giveaway as well.

As things worked out, what Merton had been stopped from saying was taken up by Pope John XXIII and later the Second Vatican Council. ‘Pacem in Terris,’ published by Pope John in 1963, offered the first clear papal support to conscientious objection. A just war, the Holy Father stated, was no longer possible: ‘In this age of ours that takes pride in nuclear weapons, it is irrational to argue that war can any longer be a fit instrument of justice.’ The encyclical listed and discussed fundamental human rights, beginning with the right to life.

It is possible that Merton’s writings had a direct influence on Pope John’s thinking. Certainly Pope John held Merton in high esteem—so much so that after his election as Pope, he sent Merton one of the vestments—his priestly stole [now o display at the Thomas Merton Cnter in Louisville]. (In 1966, Pope Paul made a similar gesture of appreciation to Merton, entrusting small bronze cross to [Merton’s monastic secretary] Brother Patrick Hart for personal delivery to Merton in Kentucky. A formal written blessing to ‘Thomas Merton, Hermit’ hung in his hermitage inside the closet door as Merton would have it—the hideout in his hideout).

It is important to remember, of course, that he was, in his last years, still Thomas Merton, Monk, not Thomas Merton, would-be Catholic Worker, or Thomas Merton, would-be Buddhist Zen Master, or any of the things people sometimes try to make of him to bring him closer to their own ideas.

What is remarkable to those who haven’t lived the monastic life and imagine it as a situation cutting off the monk from reality and ‘the world’ is the discovery, in a monk’s life made public through writing, of how intensely his vocation joined him to may efforts outside themonastery, especially responses to human suffering. Thus Merton’s long association with the Catholic Worker movement and his personal sense of identification with others, especially the poor. As he commented in a letter about the slow processing by Trappist censors of an article he had written for The Catholic Worker, ‘This is the kind of thing one has to be patient with. It is wearying, of course. However, it is all I can offer (in sharing the lot of the poor). A poor man has to sit and wait and wait and wait, in clinics, in offices, in places where you sign papers, in police stations, etc. And he has nothing to say about it. At least there is an element of prayer for me, too.’

At the center of his spirituality was his hope in God, whom he spoke of at times as ‘Mercy within Mercy within Mercy.’ The hope required patience and poverty of spirit, not a frantic and optimistic expectation of what one was bound to accomplish. As he put this in one of his most helpful letters, written to me in 1966, two years before his death:

Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work that you [in the Catholic Worker and Catholic Peace Fellowship] have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that the work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no results at all, if not perhaps the opposite of what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be done through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.

It is so easy to get engrossed with ideas and slogans and myths that in the end one is left holding the bag empty, with no trace of meaning left in it. And then the temptation is to yell louder than ever in order to make the meaning be there again by magic.

The big results are not in your hands or mine but they suddenly happen, and we can share in them, but there is no point in building our lives on this personal satisfaction which may be denied us and which, after all, is not all that important…

The real hope, then, is not in something we think we can do, but in God Who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see. If we can do His will, we will be helping in this process. But we will not necessarily know all about it beforehand.

* * *

[A more detailed study of themes in this article appears in essays by Jim Forest and Gordon Zahn contained in Thomas Merton: Prophet in the Belly of a Paradox, Paulist Press, Gerald Twomey, editor].

Remembering Jean Forest

Jean serving soup at the Catholic Worker in 1961
Jean serving soup at the Catholic Worker in 1961

[the three eulogies given at the memorial service 17 January 2015 follow, plus an obituary]

By Jim Forest

I met Jean at the Catholic Worker in the spring of 1961. I had no premonition at the time that I was meeting someone I would marry the following year and who was to be the mother my first child, Benedict. While our marriage wasn’t a success — we were together less than four years — our friendship survived and flourished, lasting fifty-three years. My work took me to Holland in 1977 and there I have remained, but whenever my travels brought me to New Jersey, I visited her, most recently in the hospital here in Hoboken just weeks before her death.

We had both been drawn to the Catholic Worker house of hospitality in Manhattan, then located at 175 Chrystie Street, below Second Avenue and just east of the Bowery. The leader of the community was Dorothy Day, now widely regarded as a saint but in those days seen more as a troublemaker who made headlines less for welcoming the indigent than for such acts of civil disobedience as refusing to take shelter during civil defense exercises.

Small as the Catholic Worker staff was, it was large enough to have its divisions. Jean, a rising poet, was part of a more literary circle that included several of the people who were inventing what was to become The Sixties, while I was more drawn to the theological/church-related issues that were an aspect of the Catholic Worker.

Life within the Catholic Worker community was not without tension. I recall one evening Jean giving me a poem in which she described me as “healthy” — in the context of the poem the word “healthy” really meaning too healthy. Jean, though only sixteen months my senior, made me feel quite young, naïve and embarrassingly innocent. For my part, I was impressed by her forthright, unjudgmental manner, her sense of humor, her laughter, her care with words, her vigorous poetry

Our lives overlapped and friendship gradually took root. We both were involved in the day-to-day work of the Catholic Worker, activities that included going to wholesale markets to beg food, helping cook and serve meals, wash dishes, and assist with the two clothing rooms. There were occasional smaller and larger social gatherings in the evenings at which both of us were often present. At one of these I got drunk for the first time in my life — I couldn’t tell you for sure, but perhaps Jean was one of those who helped navigate me back to my one-room apartment, a $25-a-month-cold-water flat on Spring Street.

Jean was a person of exceptional compassion. Let me read you a short article Jean wrote for The Catholic Worker that reveals her respect for the down-and-out and also reveals Jean’s character and her talent as a writer. It’s about Josephine, family name unknown, one of the homeless women in whom Jean took a special interest:

The first time I came across Josephine at the Catholic Worker was during one of her appearances at a Friday night meeting. She was wearing a low-cut, yellow evening dress which she told us she wore especially for weekends. I couldn’t believe my eyes — she looked like a grotesque, aged Ophelia or a caricature of a fairy queen. She was eventually shuffled from the meeting after causing some disturbance. Our next encounter was in the clothing room where I distributed clothes. Each week she would appear with a different and imaginative tale of what happened to the clothes we had given her the previous week. Very often, it was the tale of some interesting thief she had “entrusted” them with. It didn’t matter for I could never refuse her. I found, quite to my amazement, that I really liked and enjoyed her stories.

One can get “impersonal” to the people one serves. It’s the easiest way out on the nerves. Josephine never allowed anyone to treat her “impersonally.” With her it wasn’t “business” or a “hand-out”; it was a person-to-person encounter. She worked on you until you had to respond positively or negatively. When she asked you for a bandage (she was usually bruised either from falls or beatings), you knew better than to procrastinate for a minute. Her needs were immediate and she’d tolerate no delay. Not that she was a nag. It was never that way because of her fantastic sense of humor. Fantastic, in the face of living on the streets (she preferred their freedom and excitement). She was an alcoholic with an ailing liver, always bruised and abused, begging for the next meal and drink. How did she escape despair? The answer may be in the mystery of her humor. When feeling especially exuberant she serenaded the kitchen and office with her most prized possession, a harmonica. The Bowery was a way of life which she accepted and, you might say, made the most of. She would tell a variety of stories of how she got here. She claimed to have become an alcoholic while a nurse. She said she had a husband somewhere and a child. She could have been any age from fifty to eighty.

Jospehine’s last years were spent as music-maker and clown — harming no one and bringing laughter to some. She died in the hospital ward of the poor. It was a hard life which she managed to transcend—as though by magic.

And there that sketch ends. Josephine would have been pleased to be so affectionately remembered and so vividly described.

Despite being part of the Catholic Worker and close to Dorothy Day, Jean had a shaky relationship with the Catholic Church. However the thread of connection with Christianity never broke. It’s truly appropriate that she received Last Rites before her death and that this celebration of her life takes place in a Hoboken parish named in honor of All Saints. For years she had a close relationship with a Benedictine monastery, Regina Laudis in Connecticut. In fact in Christmas 1962 it seemed for a few hours that Ben had decided to be born there — thus the name we chose for him: Benedict. In one period of her life she was on the staff of Trinity Church, Wall Street. Later on Jean was closely associated with Emmaus House, a house of hospitality and social action center that was in those days located in East Harlem.

Jean - Mother's Day 2012
Jean – Mother’s Day 2012

I can think of no event in her life that pleased Jean more than becoming the grandmother first of Zackary and then of Kara. Her grandmotherly years were perhaps her happiest. It was at that stage of her life that the motherhood side of Jean fully kicked in. To play an active role as grandmother, she frequently traveled to Red Bank. She took enormous pride in what Ben was doing with his life, as a journalist, environmental activist, computer doctor, and now president of Red Bank’s Board of Education. She was in awe of Amy’s work and achievements as director of the New Jersey’s Clean Water Action.

One of the great hopes I had for Jean, indeed I still have it, was that her work as a poet might be better known. Perhaps those of us who knew her and have copies of some of her poems might share what we have with each other and publish them as a booklet. I was fortunate to find one of them just a few days ago. It was written during the period we lived on Staten Island, where Ben was born, and was published soon afterward in Liberation magazine. The title is “Staten Island Ferry — Spring.” Let me read it to you:

You could almost believe on a day like this
a gift from God
here, now
why we were born
here, now
the deck, the rail, the movement
surrounded by sheer blue

the city it comes
now the gift

the city becoming
all clear geometry
all clear the odor of green
the slight wind
the gift

never mind
what will happen in the city
never mind
what can happen
the great farewell
ugly lives unclean in oppression
never knowing the whole man
cracked in the geometry

now beautiful and lunging
toward the docks
becoming bigger
and the docks slamming the bulk
the old wood
screaming and splintering

now is the gift.

jean textJust six more words. I found these yesterday while looking through Jean’s notebooks:

“When all else fails, try gratitude.”

* * *

Reflection for Jean

by Carolyn Zablotny

Jean was the first friend I ever made in New York City where, fresh out of college, I arrived in 1970 to join that “radical Christian community” in East Harlem called Emmaus House. I don’t know when we first christened each other “best friend” but that’s what we became — and remained all these years.

Her loss is the great unimaginable. No one, certainly not me, anticipated it. And over Christmas — of all times! For no one loved Christmas more than Jean. It was a time in which she could totally indulge her natural generosity. I remember her parties in Hoboken where you would literally have to wade your way through her apartment, ankle-deep in presents. I remember how Kara was the designated elf who would have to set packages aflight, tossing them into outstretched hands, delivery by ground not an option. Remember?

Years earlier, I remember Chrismasses when we were roommates, sharing the top floor of an old brownstone in East Harlem. Space just at regular times of the year was more than tight. But at Christmas — and with Jean who only knew how to give gifts in multiples — we were particularly challenged. We solved it by transforming the ironing board, always open in the kitchen, into a kind of “holiday platform” from which to display — and exchange — our gifts, all carefully wrapped, ribboned and bowed. Over the ritual of coffee — endless coffee — we’d squeeze by the kitchen sink and gently lift off one package after another, sliding backward to the little kitchen table we had managed to shoehorn in, and proceed to open. Seeming hours vanished as we went back and forth, oohing and aahing with delight. If it doesn’t exactly evoke images of a Norman Rockwell Christmas, let me assure you: we wouldn’t have changed any of it.

And then there was that one infamous Christmas back in Hoboken when Jean tasked me with finding a replacement baby Jesus for her Nativity set. Somehow the original occupant was lost. Setting out on this sacred mission, I quickly learned that Nativities do not come in parts: it’s all or nothing. I decided my only option, in true 60’s fashion, was to “liberate” a baby Jesus.

I arrived triumphant on Jean’s doorstep. She swung the door wide open — as she always did -and I announced “Jean, I’ve brought the baby Jesus!” A shadow darkened her previously animated face, her hand shot up over her mouth. “Did I forget to tell you that I found it?” But then, in an almost immediate recovery, she adeptly took my illicit offering and placed it delicately in the crib stating, “How marvelous. Now we have a male baby Jesus…and a female baby Jesus.”

Not surprisingly, Jean was drawn to the “dialogue” of Gestalt therapy. She had a genius for recognizing and appreciating the contradictory impulses racing through each of us: selfish/self-less; creative/destructive; self-aggrandizing/humble. She had an acute ear for a false note: her honesty and directness could be daunting. But she always held a mirror up to herself first, owning courageously where she saw herself broken and striving arduously towards wholeness…which some call holiness.

Jean actually became a very skilled Gestalt therapist; I think it was the pinnacle of her many accomplishments. I remember her graduation from the Gestalt Institute and how she recalled her working class roots in Brooklyn. Her father, a member of the famous Fighting 69th, slept on firescapes as a boy growing up in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen; her mother knew firsthand the sufferings of the Great Depression. She proudly called them “survivors” for whom the insights borne of therapy were an unaffordable luxury.

I’d like to suggest — I know this is risky — that no matter how much Jean loved Hoboken — and she did — and no matter how much she had the sophistication of a Manhattanite — and she had — that she was always at heart a working class girl from Brooklyn.

She couldn’t afford college so she went to a better university: the Catholic Worker. She cut quite an image, I’m told, working on the soupline, inadvertently spicing it with ashes dropping from her ever dangling cigarette. When I met her at Emmaus House, a kind of spiritual stepchild of the Catholic Worker, and learned that she had been at the REAL TRUE Worker, I was awed. In my Midwest, deadly earnest way, I beseeched her to tell me everything, everything!, she knew about the Worker’s pacifism, personalism, decentralism, anarchism. The list went on. Clearly but kindly amused, she waved me off. “I didn’t know anything about all those “ism’s” — I just liked the men on the line.”

But she tutored me in other things I needed to learn about, as least as much as all those “isms.” Like the Zen awareness that life was too serious to be taken so seriously. And most important perhaps, how to dance. We’d subway down into Yorkville, only a few stops but a world away from East Harlem, get money from the wall — her expression for newly introduced ATM’s, we half thought/hoped it was someone else’s money — and following one strobe light to the next, we’d hit every disco. Ever the student, it turned out I was a fast learner. But then all I really had to do was watch how Jean could move: effortlessly, gracefully, freely. Transcendence in motion!

It wasn’t, however, transcendence that Jean experienced a few years later when she was studying for the Episcopalian priesthood, newly opened to women. When asked by the ordination committee what was her understanding of God, she responded that, for her, God was community. I still contend that a more theologically orthodox response would have yielded a different outcome. When her candidacy was rejected, I consoled her by reminding her that the Franciscans had rejected Thomas Merton.

Ordination or not, Jean continued in her ministry to community — whether to workers on Wall Street, single women, poor women needing jobs, people with AIDS, victims of injustice in northern Ireland, and always, people suffering with mental illness. She became a full ledged member of my immediate family, and I was honored to become part of hers. When my brother who has struggled heroically for years with mental illness was consigned to a group home in Cleveland, my elderly mother now unable to care for him, Jean would send him little notes with a twenty dollar bill crumpled inside it. “Have a little fun,” she’d write. And she’d never make mention of it. I’d learn of it only from him. My friend Jean, the good Samaritan.

In these last months, I’ve begun to think that her lament – I want to go home – painful as it was to hear, may have been her last gift. She held that mirror up to herself once again — and by extension, to us. For who of has not wanted to go home? And who of us has not known the long loneliness? As Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day wrote, “We have all known the long loneliness, and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”

Besides being an artful poet, Jean was an artful letter writer. I found this little note, saved among many others. It was sent to me, now living in Massachusetts, for a Christmas not long ago. Very Jean: a romantic little Victorian sleigh ride scene, with women warmed by white muffs. She wrote, “Thanks for the ride. It goes on, God knows where. As the friendship.”

But Jeannie, Jeannie! How are we to go on now? How am I?

Oh, I know, I know. I will embrace you — and place onto the ironing board of my memory, spread across a lifetime of friendship, your many gifts: your humor, your passion, your sentiment, your fierce loyalty, your flamboyance, your playful whimsy, your astute judgment, your love of beauty, your intense pleasure over a good book, your capacity for fun, your uncanny ability to see through to the heart of the matter, and, always, your generosity.

And when I need one, I will squeeze by the world, and pick it up — and hold it up to the light. And I will marvel…that I ever, ever had a friend like you.

* * *

Remembering My Mom

Jean Forest & BenI am Benedict, Jean’s son. Great seeing everyone. I know Rev. Danny is going to mention this later but please stay here after the service and join us for coffee, desserts and lunch. Please also remember to sign-in and leave your phone and email. I do not have contact information on everyone.

The last six months were hard ones. In July, my mother Jean took a fall in her apartment — multiple-fracture shoulder break. It took months and a lot of physical therapy to recover. During the process, the nurses discovered a cancerous growth. Mom was told it had to be removed. It was explained that there were risks with removal, but there was a reasonable chance the procedure would be successful. Mom was afraid. We both discussed it. In the end she decided some chance is better than no chance.

Complications from the procedure led to her passing on December 22.

Mom had been pretty much lived at Hoboken University Hospital and the Harbor View Nursing in Jersey City since the end of July though she did manage to get home for two difficult weeks. I wish I could say she did not suffer. In fact she hated being in these facilities. Of great help were the visitors and phone calls from family and friends. Thank you, with an extra special mention to Rev. Danny Lennox here at All Saints.

Whenever I saw my mother of late, her number one question the minute I walked in was always “When am I going home.”

What my mom really wanted was her life back — to be that Hoboken woman about town. Getting her hair done. Walking at the waterfront. Visiting her grandchildren. Talking politics.

One of my favorite recent days with her was a quick get-away from the nursing home to Coach House Restaurant in Union City, her absolute favorite diner. She struggled to get in and out, but she loved every moment we were there. It was there that we took the selfie together that you see as part of the slideshow. She spoke about her life. “Back then (the sixties),” she said, “there were fewer options for woman. I was not encouraged to go to college. In many ways, I wish I had been starting out today, but that is not the way life works as you know.”

In the hospital, mom and I talked about a lot of things. What we would do when she got back home, like getting her on the internet. She’d always asked about the grandkids. Also my wife: “How is Amy?” And there were always current events — she watched CNN from bed and I usually brought in her The New York Times and The Hoboken Reporter. She was furious when she was missing family events. On one recent day — it was at a point when she was not able to get out of her bed — she got very excited when I read her a report about the thawing of relations between us and Cuba. “That is long overdue.”

We even spoke a few times about her runs for office, the first being her “Kitchen Campaign” run out of apartment. (Some of those flyers are on display in the back.) I so loved campaigning with her as part of Hoboken United. My wife Amy plus Zack joined in. Let me tell you there nothing like campaigning with a baby grandson. It was fun. Wow! The overall campaign was remarkably successful though my mom missed getting elected by 100 votes. I got to know a lot of the nooks and crannies of this town. Mom made friends and also enemies. Politics it a rough game here — I recall nearly getting into a massive brawl in mid-town! “You! Go back to Jersey City. We don’t want you paid campaign stooges here!” The guy and others yelled and started to push me and other Hoboken United campaigners.

“Actually I am Jean Forest’s son!”

“Oh. Jean Forest son. Ok then.” And they us alone.

Many of my mom’s friends are here today with us. I know she loved being a part of city politics. She would rather have won of course, but she was very happy with the overall outcome. She always spoke of Bernie, David, Tony, Angelo, Maurice and her manager Shelly. And of course the other man in her life, Governor Jim McGreevey. I do not know how they first connected but she put everything she had into supporting him. I had no idea who he was when she first introduced him to me. “He’s the mayor of Woodbridge.” I think I responded with; “Mom, I think you like it that he has an Irish name.”

On one visit she asked me what I thought happens when we die.

“Mom, I don’t know. I hope it’s not nothing.”

“I am not sure either. I fear this may be it,” she said.

“Mom, my hope is that it’s a big endless party and we get to hangout with everyone at their prime. Love to see grandpa tap-dancing.”

“Agreed. Me too.”

She had told me earlier that her father — John Morton — had won a tap-dancing contest in New York City back when he was a young man.

My mom felt she had not been a good mother. She brought it up a few times: “Ben, I am so sorry I was not a better mom. I hope you can forgive me. I do love you.”

“Mom, it’s fine, no need to ask to be forgiven. I’m 51 now and have no reason to lie. I’m going to tell from my heart how I feel. I never had a day when I felt unloved. I had an amazing childhood — I dare say better than most. Believe me — I know what a blessing that is. I got to see other parts of the world. People still don’t believe me when I say I got to know Thich Nhat Hanh. I got to know and live with our amazing family. You have been an advocate, ally and advisor my whole life. You have been a wonderful grandma. We may not have had the so-called conventional family thing, but I love you too and I am honored to be your son.”

* * *

Jean Forest, an Activist’s Life

A memorial service for Jean Forest (nee Morton) will take place on Saturday, January 17 at 11 AM at All Saints Episcopal Church, 707 Washington Street, Hoboken. She passed away surrounded by her family on December 22 at the Hoboken University Medical Center at the age of 75. Jean was born and raised in Brooklyn, lived in Manhattan and Staten Island for some years, and finally moved to Hoboken in 1980.

Jean spent her life fighting for social justice and a more compassionate society. She started her career in 1961 on the Catholic Worker staff in Manhattan. She worked closely with its founder and social activist Dorothy Day who is now being considered for sainthood. She later worked for the Community Service Society of Greater NY, the City of New York’s Office for Non-Traditional Employment for Woman and the North Hudson County of Regional Mayors Project Reach Out fighting the AIDS crisis. After many years as a patient advocate at the Greystone Psychiatric facility in Morris County NJ, she retired in 2009. In 2005, she received the Professional Recognition Award from the New Jersey Coalition of Mental Health Consumer Organizations.

In the mid-90s, she volunteered tirelessly for the Voice of the Innocent and Lawyers Alliance project seeking to reverse convictions of those wrongfully incarcerated in Northern Ireland. On several occasions, she was part of a U.S. delegation of “trial witnesses” in Ireland. Jean ran for Hoboken City Council twice, was active in the Democratic Party and was involved in many local community projects and causes.

She was a poet, an avid reader, moviegoer and shopper. In her 20’s and 30’s, she acted in small NY theater companies and won an award as best actress in an “off-off-off” Broadway play. During retirement she travelled to China and Alaska, but her favorite destination remained Ireland. She had a passion for socializing and loved throwing a party. Her ideal night was hanging out with family and friends at a fine restaurant.

“Like Dorothy Day,” she once remarked, “I wanted the abundant life, and wanted it for others too.”

Jean was a dedicated grandmother to her two grandchildren, Zackary (16) and Kara Forest (14). She is survived by her son Benedict J. Forest and his wife Amy Goldsmith of Red Bank NJ, as well as her sister Mary Corchia, nieces Anna and Vanessa Corchia, all of Far Rockaway NY, nephews George Jr. of Brooklyn NY and Victor Corchia of Virginia, and best friend Carolyn Zablotny of Mill River MA and former husband Jim Forest of Alkmaar, The Netherlands.

In lieu of flowers, please make donations to: Hoboken Homeless Shelter at 300 Bloomfield Street, Hoboken, NJ 07030. Tel. 201-656-5069.

— Ben Forest

* * *

Christianity and the Challenge of Peacemaking

Cain & AbelIntroduction to a forthcoming anthology of Christian texts of war and peace to be published by Bose monastery in Italy

By Jim Forest

The story of the first murder — the prototype of all war — is told in the Book of Genesis. It concerns Cain, the first-born child of Adam and Eve, attacking and killing his brother Abel:

Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out into the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” Cain said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” (Genesis 4:8)

It is a scene depicted in countless works of art — without resistance a Christ-like Abel, often shown kneeling in prayer, awaits Cain’s deadly blow. This biblical moment anticipates Christ’s voluntary death on the cross.

The first homicide was a micro-war: only one combatant, one weapon and one victim, yet, given how small was the family of Adam and Eve, with Abel’s death a large segment of the human race was destroyed.

In the ages that have followed, the Cains have greatly multiplied while the Abels — those who refuse to kill — are the exceptions, unless one counts (no government bothers) all the defenseless bystanders who fall under the broad, clinical heading of “collateral damage.” In fact far more non-combatants die in war than soldiers.

The motive of the very first war was Cain’s envy of Abel. How many subsequent wars have had their deepest roots in envious motivations: we want what you have — your land, your water, your wealth, your resources.

No one in history has challenged war, small and large, root and branch, more than Jesus Christ. In the portrait drawn by the four Gospel authors, we see that he kills no one and threatens no one’s life. One of the most startling elements of Jesus’ teaching is his emphasis on love. Far from blessing enmity, Christ calls on his followers to love their enemies and to pray for them. Showing love of enemies in practice, we see his readiness to heal the servant of a Roman centurion, an officer of an unwelcome and oppressive army of occupation. In cleansing the temple of money-changers, Christ uses a weapon that could bruise but not wound — the only life endangered by his action was his own. In a situation where execution was the penalty prescribed by law, he shames a crowd of would-be executioners of an adulterous woman into letting their intended victim survive unharmed. His final miracle before his own execution is to heal the wound of a man Peter injured in his attempt to defend his master from an enemy; at the same time we hear Jesus reprimanding Peter for his violent attack on the man: “He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.” At no point during his arrest or the suffering that followed do we see Jesus offering any form of resistance. Indeed we find no instance in the Gospel of Jesus killing anyone or authorizing his followers to commit an act of homicide. Jesus waved no flags — he was not a zealot. Though the word “nationalism” had not yet been invented, no one could describe him as a nationalist. In the Gospel of John, we hear Jesus saying, “I have come to give life and to give it more abundantly.” Describing the Last Judgment, he declares, “What you have done to the least person, you have done to me.” Encapsulating the Gospel in eight Beatitudes, in the seventh he proclaims, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.”

As we consider the Christian vocation of peacemaking, it is helpful to see the ways peacemaking has been lived and written about by those who have gone before us. Such an anthology as the one you hold in your hands is intended to contribute to the restoration of Christian memory. Reading the oldest texts in this collection, it may come as a shock for many readers to discover how much has been forgotten or buried in footnotes, including key elements of teaching by church councils and revered pastors that was normative in the early Church.

Searching the calendar of saints, among the countless martyrs of the early centuries we sometimes find Christian soldiers — men baptized while in the army — who were executed for refusing to or take part in battle as well as conscripts refusing to take the military oath. Today they would be called conscientious objectors.

For example, there is Maximilian of Numidia, a 21-year-old North African, who was being drafted into military service but refused to take the oath. Arrested in the year 295, he declared to Dion, the proconsul who tried him, “I cannot fight for this world…. I tell you, I am a Christian.” The proconsul pointed out that there were Christians serving in the Roman army. St Maximilian replied, “That is their business. I also am a Christian, and I cannot serve.” For his refusal, Maximilian was beheaded. He was immediately recognized by the Church as a martyr and saint. The trial transcript is preserved in the Roman Martyrology.

There is also the case of a recently-baptized centurion, St Marcellus. In the year 298, Marcellus’s unit in northern Africa was celebrating the emperor’s birthday with a party. To the astonishment of his fellows, Marcellus rose before the banqueters and denounced such parties as heathen. Then, casting off his military insignia, he cried out, “I serve Jesus Christ the eternal King. I will no longer serve your emperors and I scorn to worship your gods of wood and stone, which are deaf and dumb idols.” Marcellus was at once arrested for breach of discipline. At his trial, the record of which has been preserved by the Church, Marcellus readily admitted what he had said and done. It was not only, one notices, due to his being required to worship pagan gods, a defining moment for many martyrs. Marcellus’s motive for objection was, he declared, that “it is not right for a Christian man, who serves the Lord Christ, to serve in the armies of the world.” Because of his stand, he was beheaded. It is recorded that he died in great peace of mind, asking God to bless the judge who had condemned him.

Not all who took such stands paid for it with their lives. One such exception, Martin of Tours, is counted among the great missionary saints of the early Church. St Martin is most often represented in religious art as a young man wearing Roman military attire and seated upon a horse while using his sword to divide his cloak, giving half of it to a freezing beggar. In a life-changing vision that night, he recognized the beggar as none other than Jesus Christ.

Martin was born about the year 336 in Sabaria, Asia Minor. He was a member of the elite imperial guard serving with the emperor. While an officer, he became a catechumen. His crisis in military service occurred due to a barbarian invasion of Gaul, or France, as we know it today. Called to appear before Julian Caesar (better remembered as Julian the Apostate) to receive a war-bounty on the eve of battle, he declined to accept it, saying to Caesar: “Up to now I have served you as a soldier. Now permit me to serve Christ. Give the bounty to these others. They are going to fight, but I am a soldier of Christ and it is not lawful for me to fight.” Not surprisingly, the emperor accused Martin of cowardice. Martin replied that, in the name of Christ, he was prepared to face the enemy alone and unarmed. Instead he was thrown into prison. As it happened, there was a sudden end to the hostilities in Gaul. The emperor, who may have regarded the enemy’s withdrawal as a divine act, chose not to punish Martin but instead ordered his discharge. Remaining in Gaul, Martin was welcomed by the bishop at Poitiers, St Hilary, who not long afterward ordained Martin a deacon, later a priest. When St Hilary died, Martin was chosen as his successor. He brought many people to baptism and also was an effective opponent of the Arian heresy.

The witness of such saints is in harmony with the catechetical teaching of the Church at that time.

For example, the Apostolic Canons attributed to St Hippolytus, a Roman text dated between 170 and 236, state that renunciation of killing is a precondition of baptism. Here are several of the relevant canons:

Concerning the magistrate and the soldier: they are not to kill anyone, even if they receive the order…. Whoever has authority and does not do the righteousness of the Gospel is to be excluded and is not to pray with the bishop.

A soldier under authority shall not kill a man. If he is ordered to, he shall not carry out the order, nor shall he take the oath. If he is unwilling, let him be rejected. He who has the power of the sword or is a magistrate of a city who wears the purple, let him cease or be rejected. Catechumens or believers, who want to become soldiers, should be rejected, because they have despised God.

A Christian must not become a soldier, unless he is compelled by a chief bearing the sword. He is not to burden himself with the sin of blood. But if he has shed blood, he is not to partake of the [eucharistic] mysteries, unless he is purified by punishment, tears, and wailing. He is not to come forward deceitfully but in the fear of God.” (Canons XII-XVI)

In brief, the Church was willing to baptize soldiers so long as they promised not to engage in war or acts of deadly violence. This was a difficult but not impossible condition, as in many situations of service the soldier was fulfilling either a noncombatant role or the role of what today would be regarded as a policeman.

In the first half of the third century, Christians were sharply criticized for their attitude toward military service by the pagan scholar Celsus: “If all men were to do as you,” wrote Celsus, “there would be nothing to prevent the Emperor from being left in utter solitude, and with the desertion of his forces, the Empire would fall into the hands of the most lawless barbarians.”

Defending Christian practice, a theologian of the Church in Alexandria, Origen, replied to Celsus:

Christians have been taught not to defend themselves against their enemies; and because they have kept the laws that command gentleness and love of man, they have received from God that which they would not have achieved if they were permitted to make war, though they might have been quite able to do so. (Contra Celsum 3,8)

The Christian refusal of military service, Origen argued, did not indicate indifference to social responsibility, but rather the higher duty to engage in effective spiritual combat with the forces of evil that lead to war. He wrote:

The more devout the individual, the more effective he is in helping the Emperor, more so than the soldiers who go into the lines and kill all the enemy troops they can … The greatest warfare, in other words, is not with human enemies but with those spiritual forces which make men into enemies.

In the same period St Justin Martyr expressed himself in similar terms:

We who were filled with war and mutual slaughter and every wickedness have each of us in all the world changed our weapons of war … swords into plows and spears into pruning hooks.” (Trypho 110)

Elsewhere he wrote:

We who formerly murdered one another now not only do not make war upon our enemies but, that we may not lie or deceive our judges, we gladly die confessing Christ. (I Apol. 39)

Around the year 177, St Athenagoras of Athens also stressed nonresistance to evil:

For we have been taught not to strike back at someone who beats us nor to go to court with those who rob and plunder us. Not only that: we have even been taught to turn our head and offer the other side when men ill use us and strike us on the jaw and to give also our cloak should they snatch our tunic. [A Plea for Christians]

Another of the Christian voices coming down to us from the early generations of believers is that of Clement of Alexandria. At the end of the second century, or early in the third, Clement described the Church as “an army which sheds no blood.” (Protrepticus 11,116) “If you enroll as one of God’s people, heaven is your country and God your lawgiver. And what are His laws? You not kill. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. To him that strikes you on the one cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Protrepticus 10) “In peace, not in war, we are trained,” he declared in another essay. (Paedogogus 1,12)

Even in the Emperor Constantine’s time, one finds within the Church a profoundly critical attitude regarding military service. At the First Ecumenical Council, held at Nicea near Constantinople in the year 325, with the emperor attending, one of the canons issued by the bishops declared:

As many as were called by grace, and displayed the first zeal, having cast aside their military belts, but afterwards returned, like dogs, to their own vomit, so that some have regained their military stations; let these, after they have passed the space of three years as hearers, be for ten years prostrators. [Hearers and prostrators were categories of penitents who can be present, like catechumens, for the Liturgy of the Word, but were barred from participation in the Eucharistic Liturgy.] But in all these cases it is necessary to examine well into their purpose and what their repentance appears to be like. For as many as give evidence of their conversions by deeds, and not pretense, with fear, and tears, and perseverance, and good works, when they have fulfilled their appointed time as hearers, may properly communicate in prayers; and after that the bishop may determine yet more favorably concerning them. (Canon XII)

Throughout his reign as emperor, Constantine, though himself baptized only on his deathbed, favored, protected and endowed the Christian Church. During his reign, and still more in the post-Constantinian world, attitudes regarding Christian engagement in the government, including the military, gradually began to shift. No longer regarded by the state as an enemy, the Church came to be seen — and began to see itself — as the Christian emperor’s partner. Having become an object of imperial protection, with Church membership a plus rather than a minus for those seeking advancement, the changes in attitude that followed must have been distressing to those who remained committed to earlier models of behavior. As the scholar and biblical translator St Jerome (347-420) observed, “When the Church came to the princes of the world, she grew in power and wealth but diminished in virtue.” The rapid expansion of monasticism in remote desert regions in the fourth century is often seen as a flight from a Christianized Caesar. As Thomas Merton wrote in Wisdom of the Desert, “The fact that the emperor was now Christian and thus that the ‘world’ was coming to know the Cross as a sign of temporal power only strengthened [the monks] in their resolve [to flee].”

Late in the fourth and early fifth centuries, the foundations were laid by St Augustine and others (drawing on such classical authors as Cicero and Virgil) of what eventually became known as the Just War Doctrine. While rejecting personal self-defense, Augustine argued that it would be sinful to respond to grave wrongs done to others with passivity, so long as a military response was authorized by a legitimate authority. As he wrote in The City of God: “They who have waged war in obedience to the divine command, or in conformity with His laws, have represented in their persons the public justice or the wisdom of government, and in this capacity have put to death wicked men; such persons have by no means violated the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’” Yet Augustine, in the same book, also saw the damage war does to those who kill: “Let everyone who reflects with pain upon such great evils, horrors and cruelty [that are the consequence of war] acknowledge that this is misery. And if anyone either endures them or thinks of them without anguish of soul, his condition is still more miserable; for he thinks himself happy only because he has lost all human feeling.” [XIX,7]

Over the centuries, the Just War Doctrine evolved until it reached its most developed form in the Middle Ages. Under its terms, a defensive war could be considered just, and Christians participate in it without sin, if it met certain criteria: the war must be declared by the legitimate authority; it must be fought for a just cause and with a just intention, not simply to satisfy national pride or for economic or territorial gain; just means must be employed; the right to life of the innocent and noncombatants must be respected; the war must have a reasonable chance of success; there must be a reasonable expectation that the good results of the war will outweigh the evils caused by it; war must be the last resort; and the burden of guilt must be clearly on one side.

The Just War Doctrine is chiefly associated with Western Christianity. In his essay “No Just War in the Fathers,” Fr Stanley Harakas, for many years Professor of Orthodox Theology at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Massachusetts, described his search through Greek patristic sources and Byzantine military manuals for texts concerning war. He reported:

[In my study] I found an amazing consistency in the almost totally negative moral assessment of war coupled with an admission that war may be necessary under certain circumstances to protect the innocent and to limit even greater evils. In this framework, war may be an unavoidable alternative, but it nevertheless remains an evil. Virtually absent in the tradition is any mention of a “just” war, much less a “good” war. The tradition also precludes the possibility of a crusade. For the Eastern Orthodox tradition … war can be seen only as a “necessary evil,” with all the difficulty and imprecision such a designation carries. [“No Just War in the Fathers,” full text on the website of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship —; search “Harakas”.]

Over the centuries countless wars have been fought which failed to meet the standards of the Just War Doctrine, yet who can recall the bishops of any nation declaring a war fought by their compatriots as being unjust and warning Christians in their pastoral care that participation in a particular war was sinful?

Fr Harakas identified what he referred to as the “stratification of pacifism” in the Church: “The discipline of not killing others under any circumstances that had applied in earlier times to all baptized Christians eventually came to be required only of those serving at the altar.” To this day canons of the Orthodox Church bar priests, deacons and monks from the sanctuary if they have killed anyone for any reason, including accidental manslaughter. Some priests and deacons practice the asceticism of not driving a car precisely because of the danger of their accidentally killing someone. (On the other hand, many clerics, though themselves barred from warfare, have used their voices to encourage others to take part in war, thus vicariously shedding blood by word rather than action.)

While the Just War Doctrine has failed to prevent war, other ancient Christian initiatives can claim a degree of limited success in the course of several centuries. What came to be called the Peace of God (Pax Dei) was a European movement that applied spiritual sanctions to limit the violence of private war in feudal society. It began in the tenth century and survived and evolved in various forms until at least the thirteenth century.

First named the Lex Innocentium (the Law of Innocents), it was promulgated at a gathering of rulers and clerics meeting at the Abbey of Birr in Ireland in 697. The law also came to be known as the Cáin Adomnán, bearing the name of its chief advocate, Adomnán, the ninth abbot of Iona, one of the principal centers of Celtic monasticism.

Adomnán’s initiative was one of the first systematic attempts to lessen the savagery of warfare among Christians. In it Adomnán gave expression, in the context of the Gaelic legal tradition, to a wider Christian movement to restrain violence. Kings of Ireland and northern Britain were made the laws’ guarantors.

The main focus of the laws that were agreed on was the protection of non-combatants in warfare. One law required, for example, that “whoever slays a woman … his right hand and his left foot shall be cut off before death, and then he shall die.” The laws provided sanctions against the killing of children, clerics, clerical students and peasants living on clerical lands. Rape was forbidden. Bystanders who did nothing to prevent a war crime were as liable as the perpetrator. Fines were set for violations. “Stewards of the Law” collected the fine and paid it to the victim or next of kin.

The Pax Dei initiative spread to the south of France. At a church synod, children as well as merchants and their goods were added to the early protections. Warriors were barred from beating the defenseless and invading churches or burning houses. The powerful Abbey of Cluny in Burgundy took up promotion of the Pax Dei. Cluny, independent of any secular authority, was subject only to the pope. Many Cluniac monks came from powerful families, the knightly class, whose violence they were trying to stop. The Pax Dei phenomenon became one of the first popular religious movements of the Middle Ages.

During the eleventh century, the movement spread to the north of France where the nobility sponsored peace assemblies in Flanders, Burgundy, Champagne, Normandy and Berry. Oaths to keep the peace were taken by many by nobles and spread to the towns and villages where heads of households, meeting communally, made solemn vows to uphold the peace.

A parallel movement, the Treuga Dei (the Truce of God), had its origin in Normandy in the city of Caen. It sought cessation of battles on Sundays, major feast days and during the fasting periods leading up to the most important feast days on the church calendar — Easter, Christmas, and Pentecost. This prohibition was subsequently extended to specific days of the week — Thursday, in honor of the Ascension, and Friday, the day of the Passion. By the middle of the twelfth century the number of proscribed days was extended until fighting was licit only on eighty days of the year.

The Truce of God spread from France to Italy and Germany. A church council held in 1179 extended the institution to the whole Church. “De treugis servandis,” on the observation of the Truce of God, was added to canon law by Pope Gregory IX.

St Francis of Assisi can be seen as perhaps the most radical and influential medieval advocate of peace. Thanks to Francis, there was a period in the thirteenth century when many thousands of lay Christians took vows not to take part in war and were, remarkably, given papal support. Francis founded a “third order” for lay people whose rule called on members to become unarmed peacemakers: “They are to be reconciled with their neighbors and [are] to restore what belongs to others…. They are not to take up deadly weapons, or bear them about, against anybody…. They are to refrain from formal oaths [which might bind them to military service]…. They are to perform the works of mercy: visiting and caring for the sick, burying the dead, and caring for the poor…. They should seek the reconciliation of enemies, both among their members and among non-members.” The rule was approved by Pope Innocent III in 1201 and reconfirmed by Pope Nicholas IV eight decades later.

If notable efforts were being made to restrain warriors from killing each other in Christian countries, war against Moslems was a different matter. In 1095 Pope Urban proclaimed the first Crusade with the goal of gaining Christian control of the holy places in and near Jerusalem.

While no exact transcription survives of the speech delivered by Urban at the Council of Clermont on 27 November 1095, the chronicler Robert the Monk attributed the following to the pope: “This land which you inhabit … is too confining for your large population … and it furnishes scarcely food enough for its cultivators. Hence it is that you [Christians of Europe] murder one another, that you wage war, and that frequently you perish by mutual wounds. Let therefore hatred depart from among you, let your quarrels end, let wars cease, and let all dissensions and controversies slumber. Enter upon the road to the Holy Sepulcher; wrest that land from the wicked [Moslem] race, and subject it to yourselves … God has conferred upon you above all nations great glory in arms. Accordingly undertake this journey for the remission of your sins, with the assurance of the imperishable glory of the Kingdom of Heaven.” According to Robert, the whole assembly responded, “It is the will of God! It is the will of God!” — words that became the Crusaders’ chant.

Another participant in the Council, Fulcher of Chartres, recorded that Pope Urban promised pardon for anyone who died while a Crusader: “All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins. This I grant them through the power of God with which I am invested.”

Pope Urban added, Fulcher reports: “Let those who have been accustomed unjustly to wage private warfare against the faithful now go against the infidels and end with victory this war which should have been begun long ago. Let those who for a long time, have been robbers, now become knights. Let those who have been fighting against their brothers and relatives now fight in a proper way against the barbarians. Let those who have been serving as mercenaries for small pay now obtain the eternal reward. Let those who have been wearing themselves out in both body and soul now work for a double honor.”

As inevitably happens in war, many were killed who were not the declared target. The preaching of the First Crusade unleashed a wave of Christian fury that resulted in the massacre of Jews as well as attacks on “schismatic” Orthodox Christians of the East.

When the Crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099 during the First Crusade, no inhabitant of the city was spared — men, women and children were hacked to pieces until, the chronicle says, the Crusaders’ horses waded in blood. But their victory proved temporary.

Following the First Crusade there was an intermittent two-century struggle for control of the Holy Land, with six more major crusades. The conflict ended in failure with the fall of the last Christian stronghold in the Holy Land at Acre in 1292.

St Francis of Assisi was also a Crusader, but one refusing armor, sword or the will to kill. Among the most well-attested stories in Francis’s life is his meeting in 1219 with one of the Crusaders’ chief opponents, Sultan Malik-al-Kamil. It was the time of the Fifth Crusade, shortly after a Crusader victory at the Egyptian port city of Damietta (modern Dumyat) on the Nile Delta. Francis sought the blessing of the Cardinal who was chaplain to the Crusader forces to go and preach the Gospel to the sultan. The cardinal told him that the Moslems understood only weapons and that the one useful thing a Christian could do was to kill them. At last the cardinal stood aside, certain that Francis and Illuminato, the brother traveling with him, were being led to die as martyrs. The two left the Crusader encampment singing the psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd…”

Soldiers of the sultan’s army captured the pair, beat them, then brought them before Sultan Malik-al-Kamil, who asked if they wished to become Moslems. Saying yes would save their lives. Francis replied that they had come to seek his conversion; if they failed in their effort, then let them be beheaded. According to legend, Francis offered to enter a furnace to demonstrate the truth of Christ’s Gospel; whether or not he made such a proposal, going unarmed into the enemy’s stronghold was analogous to leaping into a fire.

For a month Francis and the sultan met daily. Though neither converted the other, the sultan had such warmth for his guests that not only did he spare their lives but he gave them a passport allowing them to visit Christian holy places under Moslem control and presented Francis with a beautifully carved ivory horn which is now among the relics of the saint kept in the Basilica of Assisi. It is recorded that “the two [Francis and Malik-al-Kamil] parted as brothers.”

What a different history we would look back upon if Moslems had encountered Christians who did not slaughter their enemies. While Christians in the first three centuries shocked the ancient world by their refusal to kill, by the thirteenth century Francis was a voice crying in the wilderness: Christianity in the West was preaching the holiness of war.

Crusades fought against Moslems at the east end of the Mediterranean evolved into crusades against Christians regarded as heretics in Europe; among others there was the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229) and the Aragonese Crusade (1284-1291).

The spectacle of Christian killing Christian reached its nadir during the Reformation, the grimmest event of which was the “Thirty Years’ War” — in fact a series of wars fought in Central Europe between 1618 and 1648 — was one of the most destructive conflicts in European history, and one of the longest, causing the desolation of entire regions and significantly decreasing the population.

The scholar and biblical translator Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) was one of the prominent Christians associated with the Reformation who refused to sanction schism or to bless bloodshed in the name of Christ. Through letters and his published works Erasmus tirelessly strove to calm martial passions and to prevent war. “There is nothing more wicked, more disastrous, more widely destructive [than war],” he wrote, “nothing more deeply tenacious or more loathsome.” He saw the great skeleton of Death itself striding triumphantly at the end of all military parades and expeditions.

In The Complaint of Peace (Querela Pacis), Erasmus envisioned Peace herself rising before an audience to protest the abuse of her name, praised by one and all in words, yet how few live peaceful lives. “Without me,” she points out, “there is no growth, no safety for life, nothing pure or holy, nothing agreeable,” while war is “a vast ocean of all the evils combined, harmful to everything in the universe.” He points out that war is unknown among wild beasts. “Only men, who above all other species should agree with one another and who need mutual understanding most of all, fail to be united in mutual love … not even brought to their senses by the awareness of the many evils resulting from war.”

Erasmus saw how nationalism, one of the driving forces of the Reformation, was taking precedence over the baptismal bonds that unite all believers: “The populace is now incited to war by insinuations and propaganda, by claims that the Englishman is the natural enemy of the Frenchman and the like…. How can anything so frivolous as a name outweigh the ties of nature and the bonds of Christianity? The Rhine separates the French from the German but it cannot divide the Christian from the Christian. The Pyrenees lie between the French and the Spaniards but cannot break the indissoluble bond of the communion of the Church…. In the midst of the non-Christian world Christians are set as a city on a hill to give light, but how will they move the heathen to embrace the faith when they so contend among themselves? If we would bring the Turks to Christianity we must first be Christians…. How impious are those who think blessedness can be attained by war, seeing that blessedness consists of the ineffable communion of souls.”

Erasmus’s pacific voice had little impact on the major parties in the Reformation conflict. His refusal to leave the Catholic Church was bitterly criticized by Martin Luther and, after his death, his writings were put on the Index of Prohibited Books by the Catholic Church. Yet doubtless the voice of Erasmus and others of similar convictions played a role in the formation of smaller Christian movements which emerged from the Reformation and came to be known as “peace churches,” in modern times notably represented by the Church of the Brethren, the Society of Friends (Quakers), and the Mennonites.

Four centuries have passed since the Reformation, each and every generation living in wartime. All the while, until the mid-twentieth century, no notable change occurred in church teaching regarding war, whether among Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant. But in recent decades, confronted with nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, Christians have been forced to think again about war. In no segment of Christianity has this been more evident than in the Catholic Church, beginning during the years 1958 to 1963 when John XXIII was pope.

The publication of papal encyclicals is normally of interest only to Roman Catholics. Secular journalists as well as those in other churches pay little attention. But Pope John XXIII’s encyclical, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), issued in 1963, was a dramatic exception. Its release was front-page news around the world. Many newspapers published extensive excerpts and some published the full text. Pope John was widely recognized as having provided a bill of rights and obligations for the human race.

Such an unprecedented reception was due in part to Pacem in Terris being the first encyclical addressed not only to Catholics but to “all people of good will.” Here was a pope who, in the last months of his life, made an appeal for peace and did so at a time when millions of people were aware that they would more likely die of nuclear war than of illness or old age. It is fair to say that Pacem in Terris helped prevent a cataclysmic third world war.

The primary human right, wrote Pope John, the right without which no other right has any meaning, is the right to life. As no human activity so undermines the right to life as war, peacemaking is among the very highest and most urgent human callings. More than ever we can appreciate Christ saying “Blessed are the peacemakers … they shall be called children of God.”

One of the encyclical’s major themes was the role of conscience. “The world’s Creator,” John declared in the opening section, “has stamped man’s inmost being with an order revealed to man by his conscience; and his conscience insists on his preserving it.” Quoting from St Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome, he added, “Human beings ‘show the work of the law written in their hearts. Their conscience bears witness to them.’” (Romans 2:15)

The pope went on to declare that conscience could not be coerced either in religious matters or in the relationship of the person to the state. “Hence,” he wrote, “a regime which governs solely or mainly by means of threats and intimidation or promises of reward, provides men with no effective incentive to work for the common good.”

“Authority,” John continued, “is before all else a moral force. For this reason the appeal of rulers should be to the individual conscience, to the duty which every man has of voluntarily contributing to the common good. But since all men are equal in natural dignity, no one has the capacity to force internal compliance on another. Only God can do that, for He alone scrutinizes and judges the secret counsels of the heart. Hence, representatives of the State have no power to bind men in conscience, unless their own authority is tied to God’s authority, and is a participatnt in it.” [48, 49]

In case the reader missed the implications, Pope John pointed out that laws which violate the moral order have no legitimacy and do not merit obedience: “Governmental authority … is a postulate of the moral order and derives from God. Consequently, laws and decrees passed in contravention of the moral order, and hence of the divine will, can have no binding force in conscience, since ‘it is right to obey God rather than men.’ … A law which is at variance with reason is to that extent unjust and has no longer the rationale of law. It is rather an act of violence.… Thus any government which refused to recognize human rights or acted in violation of them, would not only fail in its duty; its decrees would be wholly lacking in binding force.” [51, 61]

The time is urgent, John noted. All of us are living “in the grip of constant fear … afraid that at any moment the impending storm may break upon them with horrific violence. And they have good reasons for their fear, for there is certainly no lack of … weapons [of mass destruction]. While it is difficult to believe that anyone would dare to assume responsibility for initiating the appalling slaughter and destruction that [nuclear] war would bring in its wake, there is no denying that the conflagration could be started by some chance and unforeseen circumstance.” [111]

Pope John gave particular attention to dangers posed by weapons of mass destruction, declaring that, in this context, it is absurd to regard war as just: “People nowadays are becoming more and more convinced that any disputes which may arise between nations must be resolved by negotiation and agreement, and not by recourse to arms…. This conviction owes its origin chiefly to the terrifying destructive force of modern weapons. It arises from fear of the ghastly and catastrophic consequences of their use. Thus, in this age of ours which prides itself on atomic power, it is irrational to believe that war is still an apt means of vindicating violated rights.” [italics added]

Pacem in Terris was not only an urgent appeal to governments to work toward nuclear disarmament but to individuals to disobey orders which would make them accomplices to so great a sin as wars in which the innocent are the principal victims.

It was also Pope John who launched the Second Vatican Council. He did so in the hope that such a work of renewal would, as he put it, “restore the simple and pure lines that the face of the Church of Jesus had at its birth.”

The fourth and last session of the Council in 1965, which John did not live to see, took up the challenge of Pacem in Terris, developing and expanding many of its themes in Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope), the words with which The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in Modern World begins. Its publication on the 7th of December 1965 by Pope Paul VI was the Council’s final action. No other conciliar document had gone through so many stages before reaching its final form.

One of the significant achievements of the Council is the definition of conscience contained in Gaudium et Spes:

In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart more specifically: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of man. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor. In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution of the numerous problems which arise in the lives of individuals and from social relationships. Hence, the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from individual ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares little for truth and goodness, or for conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin. (section 16)

It follows, the text continues, that conscientious objection to participation in war ought to be universally recognized: “It seems right that laws make humane provision for the case of those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms, provided however, that they agree to serve the human community in some other way.” (79.2)

The treatment of conscience marked a major turning point in Catholic teaching. Even during World War II, Catholics in every country had been told to obey their rulers and h had been assured, were they made party to a sin by their obedience, that blame would lie with the rulers rather than with their subjects.

Gaudium et Spes also contained a solemn condemnation, one of the few expressed in texts issued by the Second Vatican Council: “Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and humanity, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.”

Those who renounce violence altogether, seeking a more just and compassionate society by nonviolent means, were praised: “We cannot fail to praise those who renounce the use of violence in vindication of their rights and who resort to methods of defense which are otherwise available to weaker parties too, provided this can be done without injury to the rights and duties of others or to the community itself.”

Those who, in the name of obedience, obey commands which condemn the innocent and defenseless to death were described as “criminal” while the courage of those who disobey commands to participate in genocidal actions were described as meriting “supreme commendation.”

If the Council did not succeed in restoring “the simple and pure lines that the face of the Church of Jesus had at its birth,” as Pope John had dared to hope, Gaudium et Spes was a major achievement not only for Catholic teaching but a giant step forward for Christianity as a whole.

Though the saints of the early Church would still be shocked at the spectacle of Christians promoting and fighting wars, perhaps they would be consoled to see that fewer and fewer Christians see war as either good or just while more and more Christians are searching avidly for nonviolent approaches to injustice and conflict. They would also be consoled to see how many war-eligible Christians are refusing to kill or to advocate war.

The pacific words of many saints and Church Fathers are being heard again, such as these from St John Chrysostom:

It is certainly a finer and more wonderful thing to change the mind of enemies to another way of thinking than to kill them…. The mystery [of the Eucharist] requires that we should be innocent not only of violence but of all enmity, however slight, for it is the mystery of peace.

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Jim Forest is International Secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. His books include “Praying With Icons”, “Ladder of the Beatitudes”, “Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness”, and “Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment”.

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text as of 2 January 2015

Jim Forest – [email protected]