Bishops’ Peace Dinner text / 26 November 2019 / an annual event held in Baltimore and sponsored by the Catholic Peace Fellowship
By Jim Forest
Images referred to are in this album:
[air view of the Abbey of Gethsemani]
One of the significant events of my life was being a participant in a retreat on the spiritual roots of peacemaking and protest hosted by Thomas Merton and held at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky in November 1964. It was a formative event in the founding of the Catholic Peace Fellowship 55 years ago.
[cover of The Seven Storey Mountain]
Only three years earlier I had been pointed in quite a different direction. I was a third class petty officer working with a Navy meteorological unit at the U.S. Weather Bureau just outside Washington, D.C. I was also a recent Catholic convert. One of the books I read in that period of my life was Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. In it he has a lot to say about the formation of his conscience. Regarding the issue of war and killing, he didn’t want to do anything that he couldn’t imagine Christ doing. He wrote to his draft board declaring himself a conscientious objector.
[icon of Christ Pantocrator]
As Merton explained in The Seven Storey Mountain: “[God] was not asking me to judge all the nations of the world or to elucidate all the moral and political motives behind their actions. He was not demanding that I pass some critical decision defining the innocence and guilt of all those concerned in the war. He was asking me to make a Gospel…. He was asking me to do, to the best of my knowledge, what I thought Christ would do…. After all, Christ did say, ‘Whatsoever you have done to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’.”
This line of attending to the Gospel became quite urgent for me personally when I was asked to fill out a form that included a difficult question: Were there any circumstances in which I might not be able to perform the duties which I might be be called upon to take.
[ruins of war — view of Dresden after the fire storm]
I read the question with dread, realizing that I could not find a way to answer honestly in a manner that would not get me into trouble. Getting back to my base on the Potomac, I went to the Catholic chapel to pray, read and think. I must have remained there until midnight. For months I had been aware that the serious application of the Church’s just war doctrine would condemn any modern war, if only because non-combatants had become war’s main casualties.
[photo of Anne Frank]
Also how could any Christian, in or out of the military, promise automatic obedience to each and every future order? I thought of the many Germans who justified their obedience to the demonic demands of the Hitler regime with the words: “I was only following orders.” I thought of Anne Frank and the Holocaust and all the obedient soldiers and police who herded captives into concentration camps and gas chambers. But at the same time I was apprehensive about what would happen to me if I failed to commit myself to unqualified obedience. What would my colleagues think? How would they treat me? I was wading in fear, struggling not to drown in it. Finally I composed this paragraph:
“I would have to refuse to obey any order or fulfill any duty which I considered to be immoral, contrary to my conscience or in opposition to the teaching of my Church…. It is highly conceivable that there are duties that would be imposed on me during war time which I could not accept. Though I would participate in the actual and just defense of our country, I would not assist in any attack or war effort which necessarily involved the death of innocent non-combatants. I would obey no order in conflict with my convictions.”
[Navy Commander John Marabito]
To make a long story short, thanks to the support of a senior officer in my command, Commander John Marabito, plus several priests —— one in my parish, one a Navy chaplain, one teaching at Catholic University — not many weeks later I was given an early discharge on the basis of conscientious objection. It was the starting point of a vocation in peace work that still goes on.
[cover of The Long Loneliness]
Once out of uniform, my next step was joining the Catholic Worker community in New York. That decision was in part influenced by another book I had read while in the Navy, the autobiography of Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness. Her life found its center point in the same Gospel sentence that so influenced Thomas Merton: “Whatsoever you have done to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”
[photo of Thomas Merton by John Howard Griffin]
The idea of launching the Catholic Peace Fellowship began taking root not long after I joined the Catholic Worker, but it wasn’t until three years later, 1964, that I began collaborating with several friends in actually starting the Catholic Peace Fellowship. One of our key advisors was Thomas Merton.
[Eric Gill engraving of Christ healing the man born blind]
The retreat in Kentucky began with a welcome from Merton which had its focal point in three Latin words: Domine ut videam! Lord, that I might see! This is Bartimaeus’s desperate appeal to Jesus to heal his blind eyes. These few words are at the heart of every Christian life that attempts to shape itself around the Beatitudes, the eighth of which is “blessed are the peacemakers.”
Peacemaking begins with seeing — seeing what is really going on around us, seeing ourselves in relation to the world we are part of, seeing our lives in the light of the kingdom of God, seeing those who suffer, seeing how interconnected we are, and seeing the image of God not only in friends but in enemies. What we see and what we fail to see defines who we are and how we live our lives. The day-to-day challenge is to be aware of the divine presence in the other, whoever that may be. It’s a struggle not to be blinded by fear.
[Catholic Worker October 1961– top half of page 1]
As Merton wrote in an essay published in The Catholic Worker, “The root of war is fear.”
Blindness is a major topic in the Gospels. It concerns not only those, like Bartimaeus, whose eyes cannot tell the difference between noon and midnight, but all of us. Our constant challenge is to be aware of the divine presence — and at the same time be alert to the demonic, to be able to tell the difference between that which safeguards life and that which destroys life, to mark what reveals the kingdom of God and what obscures it.
[drawing of A.J. Muste]
At the Merton retreat the theme of seeing was dramatized by the presence among us of A.J. Muste, a leading figure in the American peace movement. As a seminary student, Martin Luther King had first learned about the path of nonviolence in a lecture given by A.J. Muste. He later became one of King’s advisers. A.J. had devoted many years of his life to work for nuclear disarmament. Before his death in 1967, he played a pivotal role in efforts to end the Vietnam War.
[fall maple leaf]
But it is not what A.J. talked about during the retreat that I recall most vividly. It was the fact that shortly before coming to Kentucky, A.J. had undergone surgery to remove cataracts from both eyes. At the Abbey of Gethsemani, he was in a constant state of amazement, seeing everything as if he had been given the eyes of Bartimaeus. I have never seen anyone, even Dorothy Day, look at the world around him more attentively, so full of awe and gratitude. No leaf or flash of color went unappreciated. He reminded me of a sentence from G.K. Chesterton: “I am astonished that people are not astonished.” A.J. helped all of us open our eyes a little wider.
[Nagasaki after the nuclear explosion]
One of the topics in our retreat conversations was technology. On the one hand, technology has the potential to solve many problems. I recall how grateful Merton was for the ingenious Coleman lantern that illumined his hermitage. On the other hand, technology can create a hellish darkness. It can destroy whole cities in a blinding nuclear flash while incinerating millions of people.
[Pandora opening the box]
One sentence that stands out in my memory of the retreat is this: “If it can be done it must be done.” Once a technological possibility is envisioned, we are drawn to making the vision real as irresistibly as Pandora was drawn to opening the chest that had served as a prison for all evil spirits. The challenge of being members of a technological society poised on the edge of unprecedented self-inflicted catastrophe is developing a capacity to envision consequences — to foresee, for example, that a nuclear weapon, so long as it exists, is sooner or later likely to be used and when that happens will kill vast numbers of innocent people.
[icon of the Last Supper – the apostles with Christ]
Merton and I carried on a frequent correspondence that began soon after I joined the Catholic Worker and lasted until his death — seven years of letters. In a letter he sent me several years after the retreat, he remarked that peacemaking is in fact an apostolic work — work of the highest order. It means becoming more Christ-like. It’s work that centers on conversion, both my own unfinished conversion and the conversion of others. Drawing on the example of the apostles, we need to keep in mind that no one is converted by anger or contempt or self-righteousness. Only love pries open the doors that enmity locks. In fact to really be effective peace work needs to be animated by love, not love in the sentimental sense but in the sober biblical sense of the word. As St John put it, “Whoever says he loves God but hates his neighbor is a liar.” Another way of putting it is this: Until we love our enemies, we’re not yet Christians.
Once again, seeing is the challenge. For that to happen, we have to see our neighbor, even if he is someone currently possessed by evil, with God’s eyes rather than our own. God never gives up on any of us.
One of the people we talked about at the retreat was Franz Jägerstätter, a man not many people had heard of at the time. Gordon Zahn’s book about Jägerstätter, In Solitary Witness, had only just been published. Jägerstätter was an Austrian Catholic farmer who, for his refusal to collaborate with the Nazi regime, was beheaded in Berlin on the 9th of August 1943. Jägerstätter saw with amazing clarity what was going on around him. He was aware of the satanic character of Nazism and spoke out clearly and without fear to both neighbors and strangers about the hellish nature of Hitler’s movement. He paid for his peaceful resistance with his life. Over the years Jägerstätter has come to be recognized as a patron saint of conscientious objectors. A few years ago he was beatified at the cathedral in Linz, Austria, but during Jägerstätter’s lifetime no member of the Austrian or German hierarchy declared that it was a sin to join the Nazi Party or to fight and kill in Hitler’s armies or to have a role in the Nazi concentration camps and the structures which siphoned Jews and others into them. In fact, many bishops were outspoken supporters of Hitler’s wars.
[Franz Jägerstätter – Austrian postage stamp]
A saint like Franz Jägerstätter, his eyes wide open, represents the holy act of saying “no” under certain circumstances: “No, I will not be your obedient killer. No, I will not play it safe. No, I would rather die than join in a parade to hell.”
An item of good news is that Blessed Franz Jägerstätter is now about to become much better known. A film about him, “A Hidden Life,” written and directed by Terrence Malick, is due for release in the coming months. It’s a film not to miss.
[Jim Forest and Tom Cornell in the CPF office in 1966]
The retreat played a major role in shaping the Catholic Peace Fellowship. In January 1965, I became the first person on the staff of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, and soon after was joined by Tom Cornell. Merton was the most renowned member of our advisory board, with Dan Berrigan, another participant in the retreat, becoming in effect our chaplain. Our core work was assisting young Catholics who were seeking recognition as conscientious objectors — people saying no to war and seeking instead to embrace a life shaped by the works of mercy.
[painting: “I was hungry and you fed me”]
To conclude: It all has to do with how we see each other. As Saint John Chrysostom said, “If I do not see Christ in the beggar at the church door, I will not find him in the chalice.”
Domine ut videam. Lord, that I might see!
— Jim Forest
* * *