A friend who thinks of the Catholic Church as the oldest form of Protestantism recently asked, “Why should an Orthodox Christian be interested in Dan Berrigan?” He was slightly scandalized that I, a member of the Orthodox Church since 1988, had written a biography of this often-jailed Jesuit priest, At Play in the Lions’ Den.
The core of my answer is that every Christian, no matter what church or communion or sect he belongs to, should interest us to the extent that he or she has lived a Christ-shaped, Christ-revealing life. While no community of Christians has been more attentive to preserving the theology and liturgy of the first millennium as the Orthodox Church, we don’t have a monopoly on sanctity. Christ did not say it was by our excellent theology that his followers would be known, but by their fruits. All sanctity deserves our interest—our divisions should not blind us to holiness on the other side of our ecclesiastical borders. As I recall, it was Metropolitan Platon of Kiev who, in the 19th century, remarked: “The walls we build on earth do not reach to heaven.”
“And just what is it,” my friend asked, “that was so Christ-revealing about Berrigan’s life?”
When he died last year, age 94, obituaries focused on the anti-war aspects of Berrigan’s life: he was eighteen months in prison for burning draft records in a protest against conscription of the young into the Vietnam War; then there was a later event in which he was one of eight people who hammered on the nose cone of a nuclear-armed missile. No one has kept count of his numerous brief stays in jail for other acts of war protest. He was handcuffed more than a hundred times.
He wrote in 1968 of his most famous act of war resistance as one of the Catonsville Nine:
Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise. For we are sick at heart. Our hearts give us no rest for thinking of the Land of Burning Children and for thinking of that other Child of whom the poet Luke speaks. The infant was taken up in the arms of an old man whose tongue grew resonant and vatic at the touch of that beauty.
He spoke with the voice of a poet. These remarkable sentences were reprinted in the longer obituaries. But much was left out.
Berrigan committed acts of civil disobedience not only protesting the mass killing of war but the mass killing of the unborn caused by abortion. Addressing those engaged in peace advocacy, he asked hard questions:
Is our morality in any sense superior to that of those ancient peoples who commonly exposed the newborn to death, as unwelcome aspirants to the sweet air of life? Can we help everyone walk into the full spectrum and rainbow of life, from womb to old age, so that no one is expendable? Especially in the religious pacifist community, we who believe no political idolatry can excuse the taking of life, can we help remind and symbolize the splendid range of nonviolence, from before birth to the aged? What is a human vocation anyway? Was not our first political act just getting born?
Dan noted how words, phrases, and slogans have been enlisted to dehumanize the human being in the womb. “It’s an unborn child only if it’s wanted—if unwanted it’s demoted to embryo or fetus.”
Also given little attention were the thousands of hours he had spent with the sick, especially those dying of cancer and AIDS. For years he was a part-time orderly at St. Rose’s Home, a Dominican hospice in Manhattan. The gentle care the nuns provided was done gratis. “In payment for such care, such friendship, no money crossed the palm,” he wrote. “No guest paid, no one could pay. It was a rule of the order, strictly adhered to. It struck me: here we had a stunning instance of the ethical cemented into natural law. The rule was all but metaphysical: no money.”
Dan Berrigan was an early responder to the AIDS crisis. For twelve years beginning in 1984 he walked the wards of St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York talking with AIDS patients and getting to know them, available to all but keeping an eye out especially for those who had no family or friends coming to visit. He also visited patients not yet hospitalized. Via a parent or sister or nun or friend, a spouse or former spouse, names and addresses of the afflicted had a way of making their way to Dan. One visit tended to lead to another until death intervened. A typical first sentence: “I heard from so-and-so that you were ill and thought I would drop by and see how it’s going.” He described himself as “a listener of last resort.”
For most of his adult life he was a teacher of theology and Scripture, though rarely staying at a particular school for more than a year, as he had a tendency to annoy the administration by noticing how badly paid were those doing menial jobs and to side with them in their appeals for better pay and working conditions. He also called for the demilitarization of schools where he was teaching. Many American Jesuit universities have tight connections with the Pentagon.
One of the constants in his life was poetry. In 1957, when he was 35, his first book, Time without Number, won the Lamont Poetry Award. He was a prolific author, averaging a book each year of his adult life.
His often-staged play, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, was partly inspired by the Greek classic, Antigone, the first drama centering on conscientious objection and civil disobedience. It was also produced as a film by Gregory Peck.
Dan was both an actor and advisor in the movie The Mission, which won the 1986 Cannes Film Festival Best Film Award and was nominated for seven Oscars, including best picture. His book on the making of The Mission has been described by Martin Sheen as “one of the best books on filmmaking” he had ever read.
Perhaps his most notable quality was his immense compassion, which shaped his life one way or another on a daily basis, even late in life when it was a great challenge just getting out of bed. I recall him once using the phrase “outraged love.” Many people are driven by rage, which rarely does them or anyone much good, and often makes things worse. But outraged love is mainly about love. Dan loved his flawed church, his flawed Jesuit community, even his flawed homeland—but there is much in all three zones that is outrageous, and Dan was never able to be silent or passive about our betrayals. This could have made him a ranter, but the artist side of Dan always found ways to channel his outrage into one or another form of creativity, whether via poetry or a wide variety of acts of witness.
He was also a profoundly pastoral person, the sort of person who visits the sick in the middle of the night and holds the hands of the dying. He was one of the most consistent voices of his generation for the protection of human life, a commitment excluding no one, from a child in the womb to a condemned murderer on death row.
He was supportive of me when I was received into the Orthodox Church at a parish of the Moscow Patriarchate in Amsterdam. Not every Catholic priest I was close to at the time viewed this as a positive event. Dan teased me: “This kind of thing can happen when you love your enemies.” He was referring to my frequent trips to Soviet Russia in the 1980s and the two books that came out of those journeys.
I first met Dan in 1961 and worked closely with him for more than half a century. From time to time he heard my confession. The confession with him that I remember best happened in New York late in 1965. I was twenty-four, Dan forty-three. It was nearly midnight. Dan and I, pushed along by a cold, damp wind, were walking back toward his Jesuit residence on East 78th Street after a meeting with college students at a West Side hotel.
By the mid-1960s, confession was becoming an unfashionable sacrament. The Age of Aquarius was dawning. The argument ran: “God knows, why tell a priest?” Also, events in one’s private life that had once been seen as morally catastrophic were now seen in a less critical light. There were multiplying assurances that self-accusations were as immobilizing to our potential selves as bricks tied to helium-filled balloons. For many social activists, sin’s main surviving validity was chiefly in the public sphere: complicity in war crimes, greedy use of the planet’s resources—social sins, sins we commit en masse. But I was unable to shake off a painful awareness that I was also guilty of sins of the old-fashioned variety: my failures as a husband and parent.
Dan listened. Confession can be like giving birth. Births are always hard, my words were coming hard, but Dan was a patient and cheerful midwife. I finished. We walked along in the special silence of Manhattan on a wet night, not a word from either one of us until Dan announced, “Hey, Jimmy, look at this!” We stopped. I discovered that we were in a wealthy zone of the Upper East Side and that Dan was gazing into the window of a store that sold every sort of sleep gear: silk and velvet eye masks, pillows with radios inside, pillows that provide the sounds of rain and water, down-filled pajamas, Swiss-made ear plugs, cashmere slippers, fur-trimmed blankets, silk and satin sheets. Dan was delighted. He pointed from item to item. “Look at that, Jimmy! Mink ear muffs!” I had never been invited to window-shop in a confessional before. Dan said, “This is how the other half sleeps!”
It dawned on me that the sleep store window tour was Dan’s comment on the unexamined life, his way of laughing at the moral sleepwalk I had been owning up to. And it was a celebration. “Look, Jimmy!” Which is to say, “Jimmy, this is where you were but now you’re awake again.”
Walking away from the shop, Dan said to me words I had often heard in the tight enclosure of a confessional: “With the authority I have received from the Church, in the name of Jesus Christ, I absolve you from all your sins.”
Whether there will ever be icons of Dan Berrigan remains to be seen, but his life was certainly a day-to-day response to the Gospel.
“If you want to follow Jesus,” Dan would say, “you had better look good on wood.”
* * * Editors’ Note: The author’s At Play in the Lions’ Den: A Biography and Memoir of Daniel Berrigan was released last month and is available on Amazon. Jim Forest is the international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and the author or editor of many books. His earlier books include Praying With Icons, Ladder of the Beatitudes, The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life, and Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness. His The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers won the International Thomas Merton Society‘s Louie Award. He serves as a reader at St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam.
12 December 2017 / for the blog Orthodoxy in Dialogue
Among saints remembered for their peaceful relations with dangerous animals not least is Gerasimos, shown in icons healing a lion. The story behind the image comes down to us from John Moschos, a monk of Saint Theodosius Monastery near Bethlehem and author of The Spiritual Meadow, a book written in the course of journeys he made in the late sixth and early seventh centuries. It’s a collection of stories of monastic saints, mainly desert dwellers, and also an early example of travel writing. Recently it inspired William Dalrymple to write From the Holy Mountain, in which the author sets out from Mount Athos to visit places — in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Egypt — that Moschos described.
In the fifth century Gerasimos was abbot of a community of seventy monks who lived in the desert east of Jericho, a mile from the River Jordan. They slept on reed mats, had cells without doors, and — apart from common prayer — normally observed silence. Their diet consisted chiefly of water, dates and bread. Gerasimos, in ongoing repentance for having been influenced by the teachings of a heretic in his youth, is said to have eaten even less than the norm.
One day while walking along the Jordan, Gerasimos came upon a lion roaring in agony because of a large splinter imbedded in one paw. Overcome with compassion for the suffering beast, Gerasimos removed the splinter, drained and cleaned the wound, then bound it up, expecting the lion would return to its cave. Instead the creature meekly followed him back to the monastery and became the abbot’s devoted pet. The whole community was amazed at the lion’s apparent conversion to a peaceful life — he lived now on bread and vegetables — and its devotion to the abbot.
It was given a special task: guarding the community’s donkey, which was pastured along the Jordan. But one day it happened, while the lion napped, that the donkey strayed and was stolen by a passing trader. After searching without success, the lion returned to the monastery, its head hanging low. The brothers concluded the lion had been overcome by an appetite for meat. As punishment, it was given the donkey’s job: to carry water each day from the river to the monastery in a saddle pack with four earthen jars.
Months later, it happened that the trader was coming along the Jordan with the stolen donkey and three camels. The lion recognized the donkey and roared so loudly that the trader ran away. Taking its rope in his jaws, the lion led the donkey back to the monastery with the camels following behind. The monks realized, to their shame, that they had misjudged the lion. The same day Gerasimos gave the lion a name: Jordanes.
For five more years, until the abbot’s death, Jordanes was part of the monastic community. When the elder fell asleep in the Lord and was buried, Jordanes lay down on the grave, roaring its grief and beating its head against the ground. Finally Jordanes rolled over and died on the last resting place of Gerasimos.
The narrative touches the reader intimately, inspiring the hope that the wild beast that still roars within us may yet be converted — while the story’s second half suggests that, when falsely accused of having returned to an unconverted life, vindication will finally happen.
The icon of Saint Gerasimos focuses on an event of physical contact between monk and lion — an Eden-like moment. By the river of Christ’s baptism, an ancient harmony we associate with Adam and Eve before the Fall is renewed. Enmity is over between man and creation, at least in the small island of peace that Christ has brought into being through a merciful action. The icon is an image of peace – man and beast no longer threatening each other’s life.
But is the story of Gerasimos and Jordanes true?
Certainly the abbot Gerasimos is real. Many texts refer to him. Soon after his death he was recognized as a saint. The monastery he founded lasted for centuries, a center of spiritual life and a place of pilgrimage. He was one of the great elders of the Desert. But what about Jordanes? Might the lion be a graphic metaphor for the saint’s ability to convert lion-like people who came to him?
Unlikely stories about saints are not rare. Some are so remarkable — for example Saint Nicholas bringing back to life three murdered children who had been hacked to pieces which were being boiled in a stew pot — that the resurrection of Christ seems a minor miracle in contrast. Yet even the most farfetched legend usually has a basis in the character of the saint: Nicholas was resourceful in his efforts to protect the lives of the defenseless. On one occasion he prevented the execution of three young men who had been condemned to death. In icons that include biographical scenes, we find him in his bishop’s robes grasping an executioner’s blade that was about the fall on one prisoner’s neck. It’s a story that has the ring of truth. The miracle here is the saint’s courage. Christ’s mercy shines through Nicholas’ act of intervention.
Various icons bring together saints and beasts.
In icons of Saint George’s combat with the dragon, the legend has it that George only wounded the dragon, subduing it. The princess whose life was saved at last leads the dragon away like a pet, using her girdle as a leash. Afterward the local people accepted baptism and cared for the pacified dragon until it died. It’s a deeply Christian story even though Saint George never saw a dragon. The legend arose centuries after his death. The actual miracle in George’s life was his courage in publically confessing his Christian belief during the persecution of Diocletian. The dragon symbolizes the fear he overcame while the princess he saved and the people in the town who were baptized represent all those brought to salvation by the young martyr’s act of witness.
If the dragons saints have battled with were in reality invisible demons, the wolf we sometimes see in images of Saint Francis of Assisi was probably real. We know from the oldest collection of stories about his life that he was asked by the people of Gubbio to help them with a wolf which had been killing livestock. Francis set out to meet the wolf, blessed it with the sign of the cross, communicated with it by gesture, finally leading the wolf into the town itself where Francis obliged the people of Gubbio to feed and care for their former enemy. It’s a remarkable but not impossible story. In the last century, during restoration work, the bones of the wolf were discovered within Gubbio’s ancient church.
A similar image has come down to us from the life of Saint Seraphim of Sarov. In some icons he is shown feeding a bear at the door of his log cabin. Living deep in the Russian forest at the beginning of the eighteenth century, visitors occasionally found Seraphim sharing his ration of bread with bears and wolves. “How is it,” he was asked, “that you have enough bread in your bag for all of them?” “There is always enough,” Seraphim answered. He said of a bear which often visited him, “I understand fasting, but he does not.”
Neither Francis’ wolf nor Seraphim’s bear were storytellers’ inventions. It’s not unlikely that Jordanes was as real as Gerasimos. We can easily imagine a man so deeply converted that fear is burned away. Gerasimos was such a man. In fact it has not been rare for saints to show such an example of living in peace with wild creatures, including those that normally make us afraid. The scholar and translator Helen Waddell once assembled a whole collection of such stories: Saints and Beasts. (Appropriately, our copy is scarred with tooth marks in it left by a hyperactive puppy who was once part of our household.)
Apart from the probable reality of Jordanes, he happens to belong to a species long invested with symbolic meaning. In the Bible, the lion is mainly a symbol of soul-threatening passions and occasionally an emblem of the devil. David said he had been delivered “from the paw of the lion.” (1 Sam 17:37) The author of Proverbs says a wicked ruler abuses the poor “like a roaring lion and a raging bear.” (Prov 28:15) Peter warns Christians: “Be sober and watchful, for you adversary the devil roams about like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour.” (1 Pet 5:8) Here the lion is seen as representing that part of the unredeemed self ruled by instinct, appetite and pride — thus the phrase “a pride of lions.”
In medieval Europe, lions were known only through stories, carvings and manuscript illuminations. A thirteenth century Bestiary now at the Bodleian Library in Oxford starts its catalogue of astonishing creatures with the lion. It is called a beast, says the monastic author, because “where instinct leads them, there they go.” The text adds that the lion “is proud by nature; he will not live with other kinds of beasts in the wild, but like a king disdains the company of the masses.” Yet the author also finds in the lion promising traits: lions would rather kill men than women and only attack children “if they are exceptionally hungry.”
However merciful an unhungry lion might be, no one approaches even the most well-fed lion without caution. From the classical world to our own era, the lion has chiefly been regarded as danger incarnate — wild nature “red in tooth and claw.” And yet at times the symbol is transfigured. The lion becomes an image of beauty, grace and courage. In The Narnia Chronicles, C.S. Lewis chose a lion to represent Christ. The huge stone lions on guard outside the main entrance of the New York Public Library always struck me as guardians of wisdom.
There is still one more wrinkle to the ancient story of Gerasimos and Jordanes. Saint Jerome, the great scholar responsible for the Latin rendering of the Bible, long honored in the west as patron saint of translators, lived for years in a cave near the place of Christ’s Nativity in Bethlehem only a two day’s walk from Gerasimos’ monastery. The name of Gerasimos is not very different from Geronimus — Latin for Jerome. Pilgrims from the west connected the story told of Gerasimos with Jerome. Given the fact that Jerome sometimes wrote letters with a lionish bite, perhaps it’s appropriate that Gerasimos’ lion, and sometimes the donkey as well, eventually wandered into images of Jerome. It’s rare to find a painting of Jerome in which Jordanes isn’t present.
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Jim Forest is international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. His books include Praying With Icons, from which this text is adapted, and The Ladder of the Beatitudes. The icon, by Emelia Clerkx, is based on a 15th century icon in the collection of the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.
1811 GJ Alkmaar
e-mail: [email protected]
web site: www.jimandnancyforest.com
published by Orthodoxy in Dialogue November 29, 2017
As someone who made his way to the Orthodox Church from a Roman Catholic background, I am often asked why I became Orthodox and how I would compare the two Churches.
In the 29 years since my Orthodox chrismation, my answers to both questions have evolved. One of the constants has been to stress that, in crossing the Great Schism’s border in an eastward direction, I neither slammed nor locked any doors, and that my transition has not involved a conversion. There has been but one conversion in my life, and that occurred before I was either Catholic or Orthodox—my becoming a Christian, that is, an apprentice follower of Jesus. Finding a church came next.
“But after so many years a Catholic,” friends have asked, “why your turn to Orthodox Christianity?”
In the early years, I tended to stress what I didn’t like about Catholicism: its monarchical papacy, a fast-food liturgy that too often could be described as a McMass, a legalistic approach to pastoral issues such as failed marriages, its insistence that priests be celibate, its obsession with sexual sins, its insertion of the filioque into the ancient creed. (As Hilaire Belloc wrote, “The moral is / it is indeed / you must not monkey / with the Creed.”)
Taking a slightly different tack, I sometimes said that the two Churches were like parallel highways which, at first glance, looked nearly identical; but then, on closer inspection, you notice the traffic moves more slowly on the Orthodox highway, and there are no police cars. With such slow-moving vehicles, cops aren’t needed.
On the positive side of my change of address, I emphasized the unhurried beauty of Orthodox worship, saying that each eucharistic meal is done “at Thanksgiving Day speed…you wouldn’t want to eat a festive meal in a hurry.” I praised the Orthodox Church for its married priesthood and its relative lack of clericalism. I contrasted Orthodoxy’s more therapeutic approach to confession with the “shopping list of sins” approach that I had so often experienced in the Catholic Church. Recalling Jesus’ request to the apostles, “Let the children come unto me,” I asked if the Orthodox admission of children to Communion as soon as they are baptized was not wiser than to delay Communion until the would-be communicant reaches “the age of reason.” After all, I pointed out, few of us ever reach the age of reason. I argued that even Orthodoxy’s notorious slowness to change is more a plus than a minus in a culture in which short-lived ideological winds are blowing at hurricane force, with theological hemlines rising and falling as the winds howl.
But, Catholic friends would ask, are there no areas in which Catholicism is more admirable? Is there nothing you miss?
I freely admit that there are aspects of Orthodox Christianity that lag significantly behind its western counterpart, the most significant of which is tribalism. Catholics, in my experience, are far more likely to see themselves as members of a world church, a church in which national identity is secondary, a church on which the sun never sets, a church for whom all the dotted lines on world maps are provisional. One might be Korean, Irish, Italian, Polish, American, etc., but recognize these words as mere adjectives; whereas, for too many Orthodox, being Greek, Russian, Serbian, or Bulgarian comes first. One was Orthodox because having an Orthodox identity was an essential aspect of having a particular national identity.
Another especially praiseworthy aspect of modern Catholicism is its conciliar teaching in regard to war. The one and only actual condemnation that was made by the Second Vatican Council was its condemnation of weapons of mass destruction and of city destruction. At the same time, the bishops endorsed conscientious objection, praised those who refuse to obey unjust orders, and urged nonviolent approaches to conflict resolution. One seeks in vain to hear similar statements from the various Orthodox jurisdictions; instead, one finds weapons—even nuclear weapons—still being blessed by priests and even hierarchs. Were a Greek or Russian Orthodox Christian to declare himself a conscientious objector, how many Orthodox bishops would give him support? We Orthodox prefer to remember that such saints as Martin of Tours were soldiers, and forget that later on they renounced military service as inappropriate for Christ’s followers.
I have even learned to appreciate the papacy, which has been slowly undergoing its own reformation, most notably in the past half century. The pope is indeed a symbol of unity as well as the Christian voice most often heard in the world as a whole. Orthodox bishops are rarely heard beyond the borders of their citizenship.
“Okay,” various friends have said, “thanks to all you’ve said, it’s now even more puzzling that you’re in the Orthodox Church.”
I often respond with a joke: “Count me as a Catholic on loan to the Orthodox Church.” It’s not a perfect joke. Things on loan are normally returned to the lender. I am where God has nudged me to be, and expect to spend the rest of my life in the Orthodox Church, and gratefully so. But I remain deeply indebted to my years in the Catholic Church, and see myself living and praying on an under-construction bridge crossing the river that flows between East and West in Christianity.
Whether Orthodox or Catholic, we have so much to learn from each other.
Jim Forest is the international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and the author or editor of many books. His At Play in the Lions’ Den: A Biography and Memoir of Daniel Berrigan was published just two weeks ago. His earlier The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers won the International Thomas Merton Society‘s Louie Award. He serves as a reader at St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam.
First of all, Dorothy Day taught me that justice begins on our knees. I have never known anyone, not even in monasteries, who was more of a praying person than Dorothy Day. When I think of her, I think of her first of all on her knees praying before the Blessed Sacrament. I think of those long lists of names she kept of people, living and dead, to pray for. I think of her at Mass, I think of her praying the rosary, I think of her going off for Confession each Saturday evening.
“We feed the hungry, yes,” she said. “We try to shelter the homeless and give them clothes, but there is strong faith at work; we pray. If an outsider who comes to visit us doesn’t pay attention to our prayings and what that means, then he’ll miss the whole point.”
If you find the life of Dorothy Day inspiring, if you want to understand what gave her direction and courage and strength to persevere, her deep attentiveness to others, consider her spiritual and sacramental life.
Second, Dorothy Day taught me that justice is not just a project for the government, do-good agencies, or radical movements designing a new social order in which all the world’s problems will be solved. It’s for you and me, here and now, right where we are.
Jesus did not say “Blessed are you who give contributions to charity” or “Blessed are you who are planning a just society.” He said, “Welcome into the Kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world, for I was hungry and you fed me.”
At the heart of what Dorothy did were the works of mercy. For her, these were not simply obligations the Lord imposed on his followers. As she said on one occasion to Robert Coles, “We are here to celebrate him through these works of mercy.”
Third: the most radical thing we can do is to try to find the face of Christ in others, and not only those we find it easy to be with but those who make us nervous, frighten us, alarm us, or even terrify us. “Those who cannot see the face of Christ in the poor,” she used to say, “are atheists indeed.”
Dorothy was an orthodox Catholic. This means she believed that Christ has left himself with us both in the Eucharist and in those in need. “What you did to the least person, you did to me.”
Her searching of faces for Christ’s presence extended to those who were her “enemies.” They were, she always tried to remember, victims of the very structures they were in charge of.
She sometimes recalled the advice she had been given by a fellow prisoner named Mary Ann, a prostitute, when she was in jail in Chicago in the early 1920s: “You must hold up your head high and give them no clue that you’re afraid of them or ready to beg them for anything, any favors whatsoever. But you must see them for what they are—never forget that they’re in jail too.”
Fourth, I learned that beauty is not just for the affluent.
One day a donor, dropping by at the Catholic Worker, gave, Dorothy a diamond ring. Dorothy thanked her for it and put it in her pocket. Later a rather demented lady came in, one of the more irritating regulars at the house. Dorothy took the diamond ring out of her pocket and gave it to the woman. Someone on the staff said to Dorothy, “Wouldn’t it have been better if we took the ring to the diamond exchange, sold it, and paid that woman’s rent for a year?” Dorothy replied that the woman had her dignity and could do what she liked with the ring. She could sell it for rent money or take a trip to the Bahamas. Or she could enjoy wearing a diamond ring on her hand like the woman who gave it away. “Do you suppose,” Dorothy asked, “that God created diamonds only for the rich?”
Fifth, Dorothy taught me that meekness does not mean being weak-kneed. There is a place for outrage as well as a place for very plain speech in religious life.
She once told someone who was counseling her to speak in a more polite, temperate way, “I hold more temper in one minute than you will hold in your entire life.”
Or again her lightning-like comment, “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.”
Sixth, I learned from Dorothy to take the “little way.” The phrase was one Dorothy borrowed from Saint Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower. Change starts not in the future but in the present, not in Washington or on Wall Street but where I stand.
Change begins not in the isolated dramatic gesture or the petition signed but in the ordinary actions of life, how I live minute to minute, what I do with my life, what I notice, what I respond to, the care and attention with which I listen, the way in which I respond.
As Dorothy once put it: “Paperwork, cleaning the house, dealing with the innumerable visitors who come all through the day, answering the phone, keeping patience and acting intelligently, which is to find some meaning in all that happens—these things, too, are the works of peace, and often seem like a very little way.”
Or again: “What I want to bring out is how a pebble cast into a pond causes ripples that spread in all directions. Each one of our thoughts, words, and deeds is like that.”
What she tried to practice was “Christ’s technique,” as she put it, which was not to seek out meetings with emperors and important officials but with “obscure people, a few fishermen and farm people, a few ailing and hard-pressed men and women.”
Seventh, Dorothy taught me to love the church and at the same time to speak out honestly about its faults. She used to say that the net Saint Peter lowered when Christ made him a fisher of men caught “quite a few blowfish and not a few sharks.”
Dorothy said many times that “the church is the cross on which Christ is crucified.” When she saw the church taking the side of the rich and powerful, forgetting the weak, or saw bishops living in luxury while the poor are thrown the crumbs of “charity,” she said she knew that Christ was being insulted and once again being sent to his death.
“The church doesn’t only belong to the officials and bureaucrats,” she said. “It belongs to all people, and especially its most humble men and women and children.”
At the same time I learned from her not to focus on the human failings so obvious in every church, but rather to pay attention to what the church sets its sights on. We’re not here to pass judgment on our fellow believers, whatever their role in the church, but to live the gospel as wholeheartedly as we can and make the best use we can of the sacraments and every other resource the church offers to us.
“I didn’t become a Catholic in order to purify the church,” Dorothy told Coles. “I knew someone, years ago, who kept telling me that if [the Catholic Workers] could purify the church, then she would convert. I thought she was teasing me when she first said that, but after a while I realized she meant what she kept saying.
“Finally, I told her I wasn’t trying to reform the church or take sides on all the issues the church was involved in; I was trying to be a loyal servant of the church Jesus had founded.
“She thought I was being facetious. She reminded me that I had been critical of capitalism and America, so why not Catholicism and Rome?
“My answer was that I had no reason to criticize Catholicism as a religion or Rome as the place where the Vatican is located…. As for Catholics all over the world, including members of the church, they are no better than lots of their worst critics, and maybe some of us Catholics are worse than our worst critics.”
Last but not least: I learned from Dorothy Day that I am here to follow Christ. Not the pope. Not the ecumenical patriarch. Not the president of the United States. Not even Dorothy Day or any other saint.
Christ has told us plainly about the Last Judgment, and it has nothing to do with belonging to the right church or being theologically correct. All the church can do is try to get us on the right track and keep us there. We will be judged not on membership cards but according to our readiness to let the mercy of God pass through us to others. “Love is the measure,” Dorothy said again and again, quoting Saint John of the Cross.
Hers was a day-to-day way of the cross, and just as truly the way of the open door.
“It is the living from day to day,” she said, “taking no thought for the morrow, seeing Christ in all who come to us, and trying literally to follow the gospel that resulted in this work.”
* * *
Jim Forest began his association with Dorothy Day in 1961, when he moved to New York City to join the Catholic Worker community there. A recent convert to Catholicism, he had been discharged from the U.S. Navy as a conscientious objector.
Nearly 30 years earlier Day, together with Peter Maurin, began a Depression-era newspaper called The Catholic Worker. And from this early collaboration an entire movement was born—the Catholic Worker movement, which has become well known for its houses of hospitality for people in need and for its strong stance against injustice and violence.
Forest went on to become managing editor of The Catholic Worker newspaper, and it was his work on the paper that first put him in touch with Catholic monk Thomas Merton.
Saint Marcellus lecture, delivered by Jim Forest at the University of Notre Dame 29 October 2017
Tomorrow is the feast of a saint who was once famous but isn’t widely known today, Saint Marcellus of Tangiers, a Christian martyr who was beheaded in the year 298 during the reign of the emperor Diocletian. In some strange providence, it happens that relics of St. Marcellus have ended up half a planet away from north Africa, right here in South Bend, Indiana, on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, placed within the high altar of the church in which we are gathered, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.
St. Marcellus, a centurion, needn’t have died — it was due to what many sensible people would judge his imprudence, his foolishness, that he put his head on the chopping block.
It takes only a few sentences to tell the story. His unit was celebrating Diocletian’s birthday with a party. It must have been a very festive event. One can imagine the fervent, promotion-seeking toasts. The emperor was regarded as a god or at least the instrument of the gods who favored Rome and the vast areas under its rule. Surely sobriety quickly bit the dust. Everyone was having a good time. But suddenly Centurion Marcellus rose before the banqueters and denounced the celebration — in effect disparaging the deification of rulers. Tearing off his insignia of rank, Marcellus 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.” This did not go down well with his military audience. Marcellus was immediately arrested and put in prison. The party proceeded without him. A few shocked friends must have wondered if Marcellus had lost his mind.
Far from recanting, at his trial Marcellus freely confessed that he had done what his accusers charged him with and acknowledged that his mind was unchanged. The trial record quotes Marcellus as declaring to his judge, “It is not right for a Christian, who serves the Lord Christ, to serve in the armies of the world.” Marcellus was beheaded on the 30th of October in 298. His last recorded words, in fact a prayer, were addressed to the official — very likely a friend — who had ordered his execution: “May God be good to you, Agricolan.”
It’s no surprise that Marcellus is one of the patron saints of conscientious objectors, not only those who refuse to kill in war but anyone who refuses to take human life, full stop, whether in the womb or at any stage of life. Such people give witness to the much-ignored commandment entrusted by God to Moses: “You shall not kill.”
I think it’s fair to say that, for a great many Christians, saints like Marcellus are an embarrassment. After all being a soldier is an honorable vocation. Didn’t the Church long ago make its peace with war? Bishops and priests have blessed countless weapons of war and mounted pulpits to praise war and honor its warriors. We have had crusades blessed by popes and led by cardinals. We’ve had inquisitions, burned those judged heretics at the stake, and even dared describe some wars as holy. In western Christianity, beginning in the period of Ambrose and Augustine, we have a just war doctrine. True, if that doctrine is taken seriously, it invalidates the vast majority of wars ever fought, but when was the last time a bishop warned those in his pastoral care not to take part in a war because it failed to meet the conditions of a just war? America, ‘I can think of only one, Bishop John Michael Botean, who issued a pastoral letter condemning the Iraq invasion and warned his flock not to participate in it. But Bishop Botean is a hardly known bit player in the American hierarchy, responsible for nineteen Romanian Catholic parishes. (Not surprisingly, he is a longtime friend of the Catholic Peace Fellowship.)
For those whose identity is tightly bound to their nationality, Jesus is not, let’s admit, the ideal savior. There are many Christians who would prefer a different, tougher, more red-white-and-blue Jesus Christ. The Jesus we actually have just doesn’t measure up. He killed no one, blessed no wars and waved no flags. He wasn’t a patriot. He didn’t pledge allegiance. The Apostles were just as bad. The total number of people killed by the Apostles is also zero. They too failed to bless any wars or take part in them. One of the early theologians, Clement of Alexandria, described the Church as “an army that sheds no blood.” In those first centuries after Christ, one could say this as a simple matter of fact. But that was a long time ago.
Ought we not to ask ourselves if we really want to call ourselves Christians? Do we want to be followers of a man who is no one’s enemy? Who calls on his followers to love their enemies and to pray for them? Who, in the Beatitudes, blesses not the war makers but the peace makers? Whose last healing miracle before his crucifixion was to repair the wounded ear of one of the men, an enemy, who came to arrest him? Who not only failed to praise Peter for his brave effort to defend Jesus from an enemy but reprimanded him? “He who lives by the sword will die by the sword,” he said to the chief of the Apostles.
Marcellus took all this to heart. Jesus shaped his life. It’s a life that reminds me of a sentence from the Jesuit poet and priest Daniel Berrigan: “If you want to be follow Jesus you had better look good on wood.”
In this militarized world, Marcellus is a challenge to each of us. He is one of the saints who, in an especially focused way, reminds us that our primary obedience is to the kingdom of God, in which there is no slaughter and indeed in which everyone is a conscientious objector.
All this began to come clear in my own life while I was serving in the U.S. Navy. In that period of my life, I was seriously considering making the military a career. I liked the work I was doing — after graduating from the Navy Weather School I had been assigned to the U.S. Weather Service in Washington. I liked and respected the people with whom I was working. I was on track to become an officer. The problem was that I was also in the midst of becoming a Christian. In November 1960, just as I was being promoted to third class petty officer, I was received into the Catholic Church. On the one hand I was reading books on meteorology and on the other reading books by such authors as Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, and Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement. I was reading the Gospels closely and found the life Christ proposed to his disciples centered on love rather than enmity, the works of mercy rather than the works of war, conversion rather than coercion. It finally became clear to me that a career in the Navy wasn’t what God was calling me to.
What brought my brief military career to an early end was my incautiously deciding to take part in a silent vigil in front of a government building in downtown Washington protesting the CIA-arranged Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in the spring of 1961.
To make a long story short, I was fortunate to obtain an early discharge on grounds of conscientious objection. I left the Navy and joined the Catholic Worker community in New York, a border-crossing event that has shaped the rest of my life. But I have no regrets about the part of my life spent in uniform. I got to know several of the best people I’ve ever encountered. One of them, my executive officer, Commander John Marabito, a devout Catholic, probably never got his promotion to captain as a result of the support he gave me. Our commanding officer was furious.
The steps I took at the time were in part influenced by my awareness of such saints as Marcellus, who paid with their lives for their refusal to put duty to Caesar ahead of discipleship to Jesus. Marcellus challenged me, and challenges each of us, to consider — or reconsider — what direction we should go in life. He challenges us to put love of God and neighbor ahead of fear and ambition.
I mentioned the role fear plays in our lives. It’s a huge topic. “The root of war is fear,” wrote Thomas Merton in the first essay he submitted for publication in The Catholic Worker in the Fall of 1961. It was an essay that got him into a lot of hot water.
Fear not only makes us look at those around us with half-closed eyes but drives us to make vocational choices based on anxieties about future income rather than work that truly suits us, does no harm, and is rooted in our best self and embedded in a well-formed conscience. The best work we can do is life preserving and life enhancing. One should be able to read without shame Christ’s summary of the works of mercy: “I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me drink, naked and you clothed me, homeless and you welcomed me, sick and you cared for me, in prison and you came to visit me… I tell you solemnly, what you did to the least person you did to me.”
I mentioned the many ways in which much of Christianity, during the past fifteen or sixteen centuries, made its peace with war. But it pleases me that this is changing. One of the remarkable processes going on within the Catholic Church — to single out the largest Christian entity and, along with the Orthodox Church, the oldest — is the fact that what was typical of the early Church is steadily regaining ground in the Church today.
A dramatic early indication of this change was the publication in 1963 of the encyclical, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) by Pope John XXIII, now Saint John XXIII. Its release was front-page news in many countries. The thicker newspapers published extensive excerpts; some, like The New York Times, published the full text. Before long major conferences centering on Pacem in Terris were organized in many countries. Pope John was seen as having provided a bill of rights and duties for the human race.
Such unprecedented reception was due in part to this being the first encyclical addressed not only to Church members 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, though it is still the case that such a war remains possible and, in present circumstances, not unlikely.
The primary human right, Pope John pointed out, 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.
One of Pope John’s major themes in his encyclical was conscience. “The world’s Creator,” he said in the opening section, “has stamped our inmost being with an order revealed to us by our conscience; and our conscience insists on our 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.” (Rom 2:15)
The pope went on to declare that conscience could not be coerced either in religious matters or 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 mankind 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 person has of voluntarily contributing to the common good. But since all people are equal in natural dignity, no one has the capacity to force internal compliance on another. Only God can do that, for God alone scrutinizes and judges the secret counsels of the heart. Hence, representatives of the State have no power to bind people in conscience, unless their own authority is tied to God’s authority, and is a participation in it.” [48, 49]
In case the reader missed the implications, Pope John pointed out that laws that violate the moral order have no legitimacy and do not merit our 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, Pope 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.” 
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 rightsi.” [italics added]
Pacem in Terris can be seen as an urgent appeal to governments, on the one hand, to work toward nuclear disarmament, and to individuals, on the other, not to obey orders which would make the person an accomplice to so great a sin as wars in which the innocent are the principal victims.
It was also Pope John who, early in his pontificate, and to the astonishment of many members of the College of Cardinals, had announced preparations for a 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, held in 1965, took up the challenge of Pacem in Terris/, developing and expanding many of its themes in Gaudium et Spes, the Latin words for “joy and hope” with which the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World/ begins. Its publication on the 7th of December 1965 by Pope Paul VI was the Council’s final action. But work on this text — known in its drafting stages as Schema 13 — was far from easy. Cardinal Fernando Cento remarked that “no other [Council] document had aroused so much interest and raised so many hopes.” [The Third Session, Rhynne, p 116-7] And, one could add, such controversy.
One of the significant achievements of the Council is the definition of conscience contained in Gaudium et Spes:
“In the depths of conscience, the human being detects a law which we do not impose upon ourselves, but which holds us to obedience. Always summoning each of us to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to our hearts more specifically: do this, shun that. For each person has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is our very dignity; according to it we will be judged. Conscience is our most secret core and sanctuary. There we are alone with God whose voice echoes in our 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 humankind 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 that conscientious objection to participation in war ought to be universally recognized. Gaudium et Spes endorsed that objective in this passage: “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 community in some other way.” (section 79.2)
The treatment of conscience marked a major turning point in Catholic teaching. Even during World War II, Catholics on all sides had been told to obey their rulers and had been assured that, were they made party to sin by their obedience, the blame would lie with their rulers rather than with themselves.
But in Gaudium et Spes, 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.”
Though I am no expert on what went on behind the scenes as Guadium et Spes was being drafted, I do know some aspects of the story. Let me draw your attention to just one of these.
The first draft of Schema 13, eventually to become Guadium et Spes, was in circulation well over a year before the final text was approved by the bishops and signed by Pope Paul. During those months, not only were bishops and theologians present in Rome engaged in the debate, but so were others in distant parts of the world, including Thomas Merton, one of the most widely read Catholic authors of the twentieth century.
One of those quite attentive to Merton’s writings was John XXIII. Merton had begun writing to the pope just two weeks after his election in 1958. In a remarkable gesture, in April 1960, the Pope had shown his personal respect and affection for Merton by sending him, care of a Venetian friend, one of his papal stoles. (It can be seen at the Thomas Merton Center, located at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky.)
One of Merton’s letters to John XXIII may have been a factor in the pope’s decision to write Pacem in Terris. Writing to the pope in November 1961, Merton spoke of the “grave threat” of nuclear war. The “lack of understanding, ignorance and violent and subtle propaganda … conspire together to create a very unsettling mood in the United States” with the result that “many hate communist Russia with a hatred that implies the readiness to destroy this nation.” War and preparation for war had now become so embedded in the economy that, for many people, disarmament would cause financial ruin. “Sad to say,” Merton continued, “American Catholics are among the most war-like, intransigent and violent.” Monsignor Loris Capovilla, the pope’s private secretary, later noted that John XXIII was especially impressed by this letter. [The Hidden Ground of Love, p 486]
After John’s death, Merton began an equally substantial correspondence with his successor, Paul VI. One of the papers Merton sent to Paul VI was a copy of an open letter on Schema 13 that Merton had addressed to members of the American hierarchy. It was written in the summer of 1965, just before the final session of the Council began. In his letter Merton urged the American bishops to embrace the opportunity provided by Schema 13 to challenge widespread belief in “the primacy of power and of violence.”
“We must,” he stated, “be resolutely convinced that this is one area in which the Church is bound not only to disagree with ‘the world’ in the most forceful terms, but intervene as a providentially designated force for peace and reconciliation. We must clearly recognize that the Church remains perhaps the most effective single voice speaking for peace in the world today. That voice must not be silenced or made ineffective by any ambiguity born of political and pragmatic considerations on the part of national groups.”
Merton reminded his readers that in time of war “the average citizen” feels he “has no choice but to support his government and bear arms if called upon to do so,” as was seen in World War II with the non-resisting participation of German Catholics “in a war effort that has since revealed itself to have been a monstrously criminal and unjust aggression.” He also noted that, even on the side fighting Hitler’s armies, “those who defended their nations in a manifestly just resistance … eventually found themselves … cooperating in acts of total, indiscriminate and calculatedly terroristic destruction which Christian morality cannot tolerate.”
Merton deserves a share of the credit for the fact that Gaudium et Spes contains a solemn condemnation, the only formal condemnation 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.”
This one-sentence condemnation focuses on one aspect of major threats against life. It connects with this longer declaration:
“Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where human beings are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, doing more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonor to the Creator.” 
Soon after the Council ended, Paul VI addressed the United Nations General Assembly. On the 4th of October, 1965, the feast St. Francis of Assisi, he gave powerful support to an organization whose main purpose is to make war less likely. The most memorable moment in his speech came when he spoke of the horrors of war. With deep emotion in his voice, he pleaded, “No more war! War never again! It is peace, peace that must guide the destiny of the peoples of the world and of all humanity.… If we wish to be brothers, let the weapons of war fall from our hands.”
Between publication of Pacem in Terris and the promulgation of Gaudium et Spes, the Catholic Church made a giant step toward becoming once again the church that shaped the conscience of such saints at Marcellus the Centurion. It could no longer be presumed that obedience to national leaders would be the automatic response of faithful Catholics, a fact that helps explain widespread Catholic resistance to war in subsequent years and also the fact that the largest number of conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War were Catholics.
The challenge of Pacem in Terris and Gaudium et Spes remains with us, as does the challenge of all those martyrs, men and women like Marcellus, whose lives were cut short because their obedience to Christ gave them the courage to say no to Caesar.
I want to begin with a story, but first I have to preface it with a little information about how the liturgy is carried out in the Orthodox Church. During the service, there are two processions. During the first half, the liturgy of the word, a book containing only the four Gospels is carried through the church and is then placed on the altar. During the second half, the liturgy of communion, a similar procession carries bread and wine to the altar.
During the first procession, it’s the tradition in the Russian Orthodox Church to sing the Beatitudes. The reason is simple. The Beatitudes — the first ten verses of the Sermon on the Mount — are a compact summary of the teaching of Jesus. The Church wants everyone, even children, to know the Beatitudes by heart. Singing them at every liturgy makes memorization easy. There are Orthodox people suffering from dementia, people who can no longer remember family names or recall who is alive and who is dead or identify whose face they see when they look in the mirror, but who can still sing the Beatitudes.
The second fact I should mention is that, in the decades following the Bolshevik revolution, the Soviet state made a very serious effort to destroy the Church and to convert everyone to atheism. Religious education was forbidden, atheist education was compulsory. Churches and monasteries were turned to other uses or simply destroyed. In the 1980s and 90s, I often stood in the ruins of Russian churches. Many thousands of Christians were executed. Millions more died in the labor camps known as the Gulag Archipelago.
Now the story: In the Stalin years, a popular Russian comedian developed a stage act in which he played a drunken priest. Dressed in wine-stained priestly robes and armed with a censor exhaling thick clouds of incense, he did a comic imitation of the eucharistic liturgy. Part of his performance was to chant the Beatitudes but with distorted words —such alterations as “blessed are the cheese makers” and ”blessed are they who hunger and thirst for vodka” — while struggling to manage his out-of-control censor and to remain more or less upright. He had done his act time and again and been rewarded by the authorities for his work in promoting atheism and in making worship seem ridiculous.
But on one occasion things didn’t go as planned. Perhaps he was actually drunk rather than pretending. Perhaps he was ashamed of his many desecrations of piety and beauty. Instead of saying his garbled version of the Beatitudes in his well-rehearsed comic manner, he chanted the sentences as they are actually sung in a real Liturgy. His attention was focused not on the audience but on the life-giving words that were coming out of his mouth, words he had learned and sung as a child. He listened and something happened in the depths of his soul. After singing the final Beatitude, he fell to his knees weeping. He had to be led from the stage and never again parodied the sacred. Probably he was sent to a labor camp, but he had begun a new life in a condition of spiritual freedom that no prison can take away. Whatever his fate, be brought the Beatitudes and his recovered faith with him.
Truly, the Beatitudes can change one’s life.
The Beatitudes are such a short text — eight of them and only ten verses long. “Blessed” is the most repeated word. What does it mean? To find out, let’s look at the oldest text of the Gospels, the Greek New Testament. Here the key word is makarios.
In ancient times, many Jews spoke Greek fluently and even used it as their first language. The oldest Hebrew Bible that has come down to us, the Septuagint, was written not in Hebrew but in Greek by Jewish scholars in Alexandria about 650 years before Christ. It was before the end of the first century that the Greek text of Matthew’s Gospel was written down. It’s likely Matthew wrote it in Greek.
Here we encounter the beautiful Greek word makarios, a word derived from makar, a term referring to the state of the gods, a state beyond suffering and anxiety, a state that is free of death. For the Greeks the most impressive attribute of the gods was that they were immortal.
Adapted to Christian usage, makarios means participating in the life of God, a transformation which has its own Greek word, theosis, that is an intimate sharing in God’s Being, thus the ultimate joy, a happiness without the fault lines of death running through it. There is no higher gift. We are not simply capable of an intellectual awareness that God exists or of studying God as an astronomer might study the night sky all the while knowing the stars are unbridgeable distances away. The blessing extended to us is participation in the communion of the Holy Trinity, sharing in God’s immortality, and being endowed with qualities that seem humanly impossible.
How might we translate the word makarios in a way that makes its meaning even clearer? I suggest “free from the fear of death” or, even simpler, “risen from the dead.” To the extent we follow Christ we become people whose choices are not driven by fear and death. Thus we can say:
Risen from the dead are the poor in spirit… Risen from the dead are they who mourn… Risen from the dead are the meek… Risen from the dead are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness… Risen from the dead are the merciful… Risen from the dead are the pure of heart… Risen from the dead are the peacemakers… Risen from the dead are they who are persecuted for righteousness sake…
Keep in mind that, in the early Church, the New Testament had not yet been assembled as a canonical book. During the first few centuries of the Christian era, it was a major labor of the Church to decide which accounts of Christ’s life were authentic and which were false, unreliable, or were vehicles of heresy that undermined the Gospel.
When at last the New Testament became a canonical text, it was certainly not by accident that Matthew’s account of Christ’s life was made the first book. One result of that decision is that it put the Sermon on the Mount, and thus the Beatitudes, in a very prominent location — the gateway through which we enter into the book of good news. The Beatitudes are the first lengthy text in the Gospels from the mouth of Jesus — a distilled presentation of his teaching.
We are supposed not just to memorize the Beatitudes — that’s only a first step — but to let them burn in our thoughts like candles. Quite literally, they are meant to illumine us.
Let’s look very briefly at the each of the Beatitudes.
First, think for a moment about their order. Do you see a kind of architecture in them? Would it make any difference if the beatitude of peacemaking came first and poverty of spirit came last? Can we arrange them any way we like? I don’t think so.
The Beatitudes connect with each other and depend on each other. Each Beatitude builds on the ones below. For example if you want to be a peacemaker but have an impure heart, what you will do in the name of peace will only drive people further apart and increase violence in the world. If you hunger and thirst for righteousness but have no mercy, your righteousness is likely to damage rather than heal.
We can describe the Beatitudes as a ladder reaching from the hard earth on which we live to a paradise more perfect than the Eden of Adam and Eve, what Christ calls the kingdom of God.
The first Beatitude is the foundation of all that follow: Risen from the dead are the poor in spirit…
Poverty of spirit is the essential beginning, the context of discipleship. None of the Beatitudes that follow are possible without poverty of spirit. But what does poverty of spirit mean? It’s my awareness that I cannot save myself, that I am basically defenseless, that neither money nor power will spare me from suffering and death, and that no matter what I achieve and acquire in this life, it will be far less than what I wanted. Poverty of spirit is my awareness that I need God’s help and mercy more than I need anything else. Poverty of spirit is getting free of the rule of fear, fear being the great force that restrains us from acts of love. Poverty of spirit is a letting go of all that keeps me locked in myself, imprisoned in myself. Being poor in spirit means letting go of the myth that the more I possess, the happier I’ll be. In the words of Dostoevsky, “Blessed are they who have nothing to lock up.”
Poverty of spirit is not something we can achieve by having no possessions. When you look closely at the life of the saints, you discover what they had, little or much, was part of their particular vocation and their particular obedience to Christ. All the saints are linked by poverty of spirit. All the saints lived an ascetic life. All of them approached God in a state of spiritual destitution, seeking as a matter of life or death to know God’s will in their lives and to live it, for God not only creates us but gives each of us a unique identity, a unique responsibility, a unique path to follow on the way to heaven. Poverty of spirit — the condition of being a spiritual beggar — is seeking to live God’s will rather than one’s own.
On to the second rung on the ladder: Risen from the dead are they who mourn…
Poverty of spirit is inseparable from mourning. Without poverty of spirit, I am always on guard to keep what I have for myself, and to keep me for myself. An immediate consequence of poverty of spirit is becoming sensitive to the pain and losses of people around me, not only those whom I happen to know and care for, but also people I don’t know and perhaps don’t want to know. To the extent I open my heart to others, I will do whatever I can to help — pray, share what I have, even share myself. Not only am I called to mourn the tragedies others suffer but to mourn for my sinful self, who so often has failed to see, to notice, to care, to respond, to share, to love.
The second Beatitude is the Beatitude of tears. Christ too shed tears. The shortest verse in the Bible has just two words, “Jesus wept.” Christ stood before the tomb of his friend Lazarus and, before summoning him back to life, he cried.
This is not the only time he shed tears. The other occasion we know of happened as he stood gazing from a distance at Jerusalem. “And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it.” It must have been a puzzling experience for his disciples. They saw a shining, golden-walled city dominated by its great Temple, with people like themselves streaming busily in and out of the city’s gateways. Jesus saw what had not yet happened, Jerusalem’s destruction, the suffering of the city’s inhabitants, and the enslavement and deportation of its survivors. He wept for the victims of a catastrophe decades in the future, but very real to him, so immediate, so devastating, that he grieved as if it was happening at that moment. He said to those who were with him, “Would that today you knew the things that make for peace!”
Now up another rung on the ladder, the third Beatitude: Risen from the dead are the meek…
Often confused with weakness, a meek person is neither spineless nor cowardly. Understood biblically, meekness is making choices and exercising power with a divine rather than a social reference point. Meekness is the essential quality of the human being in relationship to God. Without meekness, we cannot align ourselves with God’s will. In place of humility we prefer pride — pride in who we are, pride in doing as we please, pride in what we’ve achieved, pride in the national or ethnic group to which we happen to belong.
Meekness has nothing to do with blind obedience or social conformity. A meek Christian does not allow himself to be dragged along by the tides of passions or propaganda or political power or fear or imposed obedience. Such a rudderless person has cut himself off from his own conscience, that is from God’s voice in his heart, and thrown away his God-given freedom. Meekness is an attribute of following Christ no matter what risks are involved.
The next rung, the fourth Beatitude: Risen from the dead are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness…
In his teaching about the Last Judgment, Christ speaks of hunger and thirst: “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me drink.” To hunger and thirst for something is not a mild desire but a desperate craving. Our salvation hinges on our caring — caring to the point of hunger and thirst — for the least person as we would for Christ himself. Did he not say, “What you have done to the least person you have done to me”?
To hunger and thirst for righteousness means to urgently desire that which is honorable, right and true. A righteous person is a right-living person, living a truthful, blameless life, right with both God and neighbor. A righteous social order would be one in which no one is abandoned or thrown away, in which people live in peace with God, with each other and with the world God has given us.
Up one more rung, the fifth Beatitude: Risen from the dead are the merciful…
One of the dangers of pursuing righteousness is that one can become self-righteousness. If all you have is a thirst for righteousness, how easy it is to become merciless. This is why the next rung of the ladder of the Beatitudes is the commandment of mercy. Mercy is the quality of self-giving love, of gracious deeds done for others.
Twice in the Gospels Christ makes his own the words of the Prophet Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” We witness mercy in event after event in the Gospel accounts of Christ’s life — forgiving, healing, freeing, correcting. Again and again Christ declares that those who seek God’s mercy must be merciful to others. The principle is included in the only prayer Christ taught his disciples, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” He calls on his followers to love their enemies and to pray for them. But how many enemies are we including in our daily prayers? The moral of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that a neighbor is whoever happens to be in front of us. Nowhere in the Gospel do we hear Christ advocating anyone’s death or blessing his followers to harm anyone. At the Last Judgment Christ receives into the kingdom of heaven those who were merciful.
Now we ascend to the next rung, the sixth Beatitude: Risen from the dead are the pure of heart…
Christ didn’t say, “Blessed are the pure in mind” or “Blessed are the brilliant in mind.” Instead he blesses purity of heart. But in our world the brain has come up in the world while the heart has been demoted. The heart used to be recognized as the center of God’s activity within us, the hub of human identity and conscience, linked with our capacity to love, the core of both physical and spiritual life — the zero point of the human soul. The Greek word for purity, katharos, means spotless, stainless, unbroken, perfect, free from anything that defiles or corrupts.
What then is a pure heart? A heart free of possessiveness, a heart capable of mourning, a heart which thirsts for what is right, a merciful heart, a loving heart, a heart not ruled by passions, an undivided heart, a heart searching for the image of God in others, a heart drawn to beauty, a heart aware of God’s presence in each face. A pure heart is a heart without contempt or hatred of others. In the words of Saint Isaac of Syria, “A person is truly pure of heart when he considers all human beings as good and no created thing appears impure or defiled to him.”
Opposing purity of heart is lust of any kind — for wealth, for recognition, for power, for vengeance, for using others as sexual or economic objects. A discipline of prayer in daily life helps heal, guard and unify the heart. “Always keep your mind collected in your heart,” instructed one of the great Russian teachers of prayer, Saint Theofan the Recluse. The Jesus Prayer — the Prayer of the Heart — is part of a tradition of spiritual life which helps move the center of consciousness from the mind to the heart: “Lord Jesus, have mercy on us.” Purification of the heart is the striving to place the mind under the rule of the heart, the mind representing the analytic and organizational aspect of consciousness. Purification of the heart is the lifelong struggle of seeking a more God-centered life, a heart illuminated with the presence of the Holy Trinity.
We’re well up the ladder now, almost at the top. Now comes the seventh Beatitude: Risen from the dead are the peacemakers…
Christ is often called the Prince of Peace. He calls us not simply to be in favor of peace — nearly everyone is — but makers of peace. The peacemaker is anyone who helps heal damaged relationships. Another word for peacemaking is healing. We could say, “Risen from the dead are those who heal and those who repair.” Throughout the Gospel we see Christ bestowing peace with healing words and actions. In his final discourse before his arrest, he says to the Apostles: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” After the Resurrection, he greets his followers with the words, “Peace be with you.” He instructs his followers that, on entering a house, their first action should be the blessing, “Peace be upon this house.” Christ kills no one and calls no one to kill. The one act of bloodshed committed by his apostles was caused by over-zealous Peter injuring the ear of one of those who came to arrest Jesus, while Jesus’s last miracle before his crucifixion was the healing of that wound. In the words of one of the earliest Christian theologians, Clement of Alexandria, “The church is an army that sheds no blood.”
Sadly, for most of us the peace we long for is not the Kingdom of God but a slightly improved version of the world we already have. We would like to get rid of conflict without seeking to eliminate the spiritual and material factors that give rise to conflict.
The peacemaker knows that ends never stand apart from means: figs don’t grow from thistles; neither is community brought into being by glares, hatred and violence. A peacemaker is aware that each person, even those who seem to be slaves of evil, is made in the image of God and is capable of change and conversion. So much depends on how I relate to adversaries and enemies. So much depends on hospitality of the face.
Only now do we reach the top of the ladder, the eighth Beatitude: Risen from the dead are the persecuted…
The last rung of the Beatitudes is where we reach the Cross. “We must carry Christ’s cross as a crown of glory,” wrote Saint John Chrysostom, “for it is by it that everything that is achieved among us is gained…. Whenever you make the sign of the cross on your body, think of what the cross means and put aside anger and every other passion. Take courage and be free in the soul.”
In the ancient world Christians were persecuted chiefly because they were regarded as undermining the social order even though in most respects they were models of civil obedience and good conduct. But Christians refused to treat kings and emperors as gods. They would not sacrifice to gods their neighbors venerated and were notable for their refusal to take part in war or bloodshed in any form. Is it surprising that a community that lived by such values, however well-behaved, would be regarded as a threat by the government? And it still goes on. One pays a price for following Jesus rather than Caesar.
“Both the Emperor’s commands and those of others in authority must be obeyed if they are not contrary to the God of heaven, but if they are, they must not only not be disobeyed; they must be resisted,”said Saint Euphemia in the year 303 during the reign of Diocletian. Following torture, Euphemia was killed by a bear — the kind of death endured by thousands of Christians well into the fourth century, though the greatest number of Christian martyrs belong to the twentieth century, in Russia most of all. In many countries religious persecution continues to this very day.
At the very top of the ladder of the Beatitudes, beyond the eight rungs, we reach the resurrection, the joy of no longer being a captive of fear and a prisoner of death. “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
We’ve made a speedy climb up a tall ladder. Just one last comment: Climbing the ladder of the Beatitudes is a daily task in which we often fail. Every time you fall off, all you need to do is start again. While climbing, it helps to know the Beatitudes by heart and think about them often. Recite them as a prayer. Breathe them in and breathe them out. Recite them with your heart. Let them question you. Let them renew and reshape your life.
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1811 GJ Alkmaar
Jim Forest: I recall that being in jail provided a turning point in your life…
Fr Sergei: I was in two jails while I was in the army. The first time I was accused of doing propaganda for the American style of life. In fact it wasn’t true — I knew almost nothing about the American style of life. What could I say about it? They also accused me of disobedience, and that was true. I was disobedient to the authorities. So I was sent to prison, originally just for a few weeks. That was nice. I was with other people and we had good discussions. But when we walked to work together, we were followed by a soldier with a machine gun. Not so pleasant. It was at this time I realized that we are always being followed by such a soldier, only usually he is invisible. In normal life you don’t see him. But somewhere inside of you he is controlling what you think and what you say, controlling your behavior. You had to become your own guard, your own censor. You must abide by the system.
J: And it’s all based on fear…
Yes. In fact the prison was to create fear. At some moment I shared this thought with someone else, another prisoner. He told one of the jail administrators what I had said and this resulted in my being put in solitary confinement. I was there three months. This was hard. You can do nothing. You can’t really sleep — the floor is wet. You cannot read — there are no books. You cannot write — no paper, no pencil. You have four walls and that’s it.
J: No window?
Yes. Light comes in but the window is too high to look through it. So all you can do is think. It was in this situation that I realized I didn’t know how to think. I had thought that thinking is a very easy thing. I used to be a physicist so I thought about physics, laws of physics, formulas. But after a few days, perhaps a week, these topics were exhausted. Finished! Then you have to really think, but I didn’t know how. Then something happened. I began to think about freedom. What happened next is very difficult to describe. Maybe I can say there was a kind of light. I heard the words “freedom is in God.” But — a big but — I knew nothing about God! I didn’t believe in God! (laughter) This was a problem — freedom is in God but I didn’t believe in God! But it seems God believed in me. I experienced joy. Only much later did I realize that it is comparable only to one thing, the joy you experience on the night of Pascha. Easter night. Finally I came to realize that the state you enter on Pascha night is intended to be the natural state of the human being. In fact many people experience this joy at the all-night Pascha service, but we lose it again and again, some after a few hours, some after a couple of months.
So I was given this joy while in solitary confinement. This kind of joy is indescribable and unbelievable. I lost my fear. That was he most important thing. I realized if they sent me to a labor camp with a long sentence it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because I was free. Of course gradually I came to realize freedom is not just given — you have to take responsibility for it. You have to do something about it every moment of your life.
Anyway it was a beginning. I understood that I had to know about God. I had to read the Gospel — it was difficult even to find a Bible in those days. But it was the real beginning of my life.
Finding my way into the Church was much more complicated. It was the beginning of the 70s. Not many churches were open and churches were watched closely.
Nancy: When you had that experience in prison, did you sense there were things they couldn’t take away from you any more?
Certainly. They couldn’t take away my freedom. They could do what they liked to my body but I was not afraid anymore.
J: What happened then, once you were out of solitary?
Their first plan was to send me to a labor camp, but then they realized there was no basis for convicting me of a crime. So they decided on a completely different course and instead sent me to school for officer training! Six months. Instead of being a good soldier they made me into a bad officer! School was wonderful. I spent many hours in the library and found a book by Solzhenitsyn — One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich — and books by other forbidden writers. Lucky for me the librarians had failed to remove such books.
J: I have noticed in your sermons how often you use the word “svaboda” — freedom.
Yes. Sometimes people tease me for speaking so often about freedom. It’s such an important topic. It is what we lost in the Garden of Eden. It’s at the center of the story of Adam and Eve. That’s where the problem started. After eating the forbidden fruit they tried to hide from God. God said to Adam, “Where are you?” And Adam responded, “I heard the sound of you in the garden and I was afraid.” This is the first time in the Bible we hear about fear. In place of freedom Adam and Eve got fear. Human nature was damaged. All of us are damaged. We are not born in freedom but there is the chance to find the way to freedom. We have to pass through the difficulties of life, but the chance is quite big. We have somehow to be born in freedom. Christ is awaiting our freedom. Christ wants only free people. Of course he accepts many other people too, but he wants free people.
N: As Christians we can say that without Christ there is no true freedom, yet there is the paradox that Christ only accepts free people. What comes first?
First comes the icon. Each person is an icon of God. In Genesis we read, “Let us create man according to our image.” The Greek word for image is icon. This was a favorite topic of Metropolitan Anthony [Bloom]. Everyone has this icon but the icon is damaged. Life is given to man in order to repair — restore — the icon. With the help of Christ to return to freedom.
J: Peacemaking is the removal of the smoke-darkened varnish that masks the icon…
This is why Christ is so often described as a physician. Perhaps the most important thing he does is heal the heart and open our eyes. One consequence is that we become capable of seeing beauty. One of the favorite sayings used by Metropolitan Anthony was “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” What does that mean? It doesn’t mean that beauty is something we can manipulate. Yes, you must open our eyes, but not only your eyes. You must enlarge your heart. Otherwise we see beauty only partially or not at all. If the heart is too narrow, the beauty that we see will seem ugly. What you see depends on you — on you and your spiritual condition.
[conversation to be continued…]
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Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov is rector of St Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
* * *
Recently I heard that my friend Henriette is getting married. Henriette is famous for hating housework. As a wedding surprise, a mutual friend has called around asking people to send in “household tips” which she plans to put together in a book to give to Henriette at her wedding. This was my contribution.
The most valuable household tip I ever had came from a very special person, Dorothy Day. As a young single mother, a recent convert to the Catholic Church, she decided to spend her life practicing hospitality — feeding people who were hungry, finding places to sleep for people who had no home. In the early years these were mostly men out of work because of the Depression. It started in her own apartment. Later she found a building in lower Manhattan where she and a few friends opened a soup kitchen. They never preached to the people they fed — they just fed them, gave them clothes and made them feel welcome. Some stayed there until they died, and then she made sure they got a decent burial.
One of the stories about Dorothy that has been important in my life has to do with a woman who was going crazy trying to keep her house clean, take care of her large family, and receive many guests. She asked Dorothy for advice. Dorothy answered, “Lower your standards.”
That’s great advice but that isn’t my tip to you. My real tip is not to lower your standards, but to practice hospitality. I don’t mean you have to find outcasts living on the streets. I mean get to know people by inviting them into your home, inviting them for a meal or for dessert.
Interesting things happen when you practice hospitality. Here are a few:
1. Your house stays clean! It’s quite mysterious. There’s no better motivation for cleaning your house than knowing that guests are coming.
2. Your problems fall into perspective. When you invite people in and they start telling you their problems, your life doesn’t look so bad after all.
3. You pick up a few more household tips. As long as the dinnertime conversation doesn’t start to sound like a detergent commercial.
4. It’s great for your marriage. Hospitality is something that you both do together.
5. It increases your circle of friends.
6. It makes you realize what’s really important in life. If you start the day wringing your hands because your windows aren’t clean, there’s something wrong! Lighten up! Chill out! Cool your jets! The most important thing in your life is the people in it. We’ve been living on this street for 15 years and we almost never wash our windows, and our neighbors still smile at us (though they probably think we’re a little strange).
Jim and I both wish you a life full of friends, happy evenings, delicious meals, and plenty of time for the things that matter most.
It is hard to deny that God prepares and then uses certain people for very special tasks. You will see that is eminently the case with Daniel Berrigan — but also for Jim Forest who seems to always know who is worth writing about — and how to do the writing. Read, and enter into a much larger world.
— Richard Rohr, OFM, Center for Action and Contemplation
Resurrection! Daniel Berrigan’s vim and vision and vitality crackle out of the pages of Jim Forest’s book. My uncle is alive in this book: in the stories and remembrances Forest collects, in the author’s sharing of his own long friendship with Dan and in his savvy situating of Dan’s life within the life of the Jesuit Order, the Catholic Church, and war and peace and countless movements for justice. Dan Berrigan, Presente!
— Frida Berrigan, author, “It Runs in the Family”
As Jim Forest’s biography demonstrates, Daniel Berrigan’s life was a full measure of grace which soared up and flowed out of all those times and places that witnessed his unyielding personal commitment in word and deed to peace and social justice, his deep compassion and disarming humor, and the consistently heroic levels of his nonviolent resistance that took our breath away and renewed the face of the earth.
— Martin Sheen
Who better than a literate peacemaker like Jim Forest to tell the story of dear Dan Berrigan and all his commitments to nonviolence? And tell it so well. — Colman McCarthy, director, the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington, D.C.
Thanks to Jim Forest’s faithful, joyful portrait of Dan Berrigan’s transforming life, here is Dan in our face and hearts all over again — challenging us, loving us, pushing us to give up war and every form of violence. Jim takes us on a walk with Dan and Jesus into that community of communities where everyone on earth is together, “laughing, drinking beer, and listening to rain battering the windows.” Thank you, Daniel. And thank you, Jim. — Jim Douglass, author, “JFK and the Unspeakable”
At Play in the Lions’ Den takes us into the heart of this very human prophet on his journey where Jesus seems to tell him, as he told Peter, “You will stretch out your hands and somebody else will put a belt round you and take you where you would rather not go.” (John 21:18) And we know Dan Berrigan kept his joyful smile, even as he ended up in a difficult place, as prophets generally do. Jim Forest’s life has been deeply touched by Dan Berrigan and, after reading his memoir, you will know another dedicated and prophetic follower of Jesus. — Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton
“If you want to follow Jesus, you better look good on wood!” Daniel Berrigan coined that phrase. In this extraordinary biography and memoir, Jim Forest, who knew Berrigan intimately, shows us that Daniel Berrigan looked every bit the good prophet on wood. This is a first-rate story that needs to be read. Highly recommended. — Ronald Rolheiser, OMI
What is amazing about the Berrigans and their ever expanding family is that God continues to anoint them with suffering prophetic witnesses, writers, healers and artists. This beautiful, arresting book about Daniel by Jim Forest is an introduction into the many lives of a brilliant, holy genius who used all of his gifts for God and in that very way each of us can follow his loving example. — William Hart McNichols, painter and iconographer
There is no better general introduction to the life of Dan Berrigan, one of the greatest Christians of our age, of any age, than this deeply researched, highly personal, beautifully written biography by his friend Jim Forest. He has captured Dan the poet, the prophet and the priest. And what a poet! What a prophet! What a priest! — James Martin, SJ, author of “The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything”
Some critics have suggested that Berrigan threw away a prestigious career as a Catholic writer whose work was on a par with Flannery O’Connor and Thomas Merton to write against war. But in this insightful and inspiring biography, Forest suggests that Daniel Berrigan lived his poems, that his metaphors became stepping stones (and rocks) on the difficult path he chose. — Diane Scharper, America magazine
* * *
From the book’s preface:
Daniel in the lions’ den was a popular scene in Romanesque stone carving, a visual anticipation of Christ’s death and resurrection. In one of the capitals in the basilica of the French town of Vézelay, Daniel is shown as if he were resting on a bed of leaves within an almond-shaped mandorla of divine protection. He is no more threatened by the lions on either side of him than I am threatened by Beckett, our household cat.
Dan Berrigan spent much of his life in various lions’ dens — at home as a child when his father was in a rage, in paddy wagons and prisons, in demonstrations which were targets of violent attack, in a city under bombardment, in urban areas police would describe as hazardous — yet remarkably he lived to be 94, dying peacefully in bed, though he bore many invisible scars and scratches.
Like the biblical Daniel, Dan Berrigan was a man of prayer, both private and public. I never knew anyone gladder to celebrate the Eucharist. But, unlike the biblical Daniel, Dan was also a man of play, at play as much in courtrooms and jails as in his apartment assembling a meal for whoever happened to be his guests that night.
I recall him saying, “The worst thing is an omnivorous solemnity.” Dan was rarely solemn. I remember one night he and two other friends helped me push my decrepit VW beetle down a rain-soaked East Harlem Street, trying to bring the engine to life, all of us laughing till our bellies ached while Dan told a joke about a near-sighted, sex-starved elephant who mistook a VW for a female elephant who wanted to mate.
For many years Dan lived with a Jesuit community in a building at 220 West 98th Street in Manhattan. Dan had apartment 11L. Once through the door, the many people who were welcomed there found themselves in what might be described as the set for a small Off Broadway play. Posters and banners, flags and photos were decoratively placed here and there, but what I found most striking was a canticle-like quotation from the great Irish abbess, St. Bridget of Kildare, that Dan had inscribed on one wall, the calligraphy done in black magic-marker, the text wrapping around his refrigerator:
I should like a great lake of beer for the King of Kings.
I should like the angels of Heaven to be drinking it through time eternal.
I should like excellent meats of belief and pure piety.
I should like flails of penance at my house.
I should like the men of heaven at my house;
I should like barrels of peace at their disposal;
I should like vessels of charity for distribution;
I should like for them cellars of mercy.
I should like cheerfulness to be in their drinking.
I should like Jesus to be there among them.
I should like the three Marys of illustrious renown to be with us.
I should like the people of heaven, the poor, to be gathered around us from all parts.
Barrels of peace, cellars of mercy, meats of belief, flails of penance, the good company of the poor, an assembly brought together from far and near, all gathered with the King of Kings and the three Marys around a great lake of beer… One could shape one’s life around so magnetic a vision, so joyful a prophecy, so great an expectation — as compelling a glimpse of heaven as any I have heard. How suitable to discover these holy words in Dan Berrigan’s home, a grand central station of hospitality whose countless guests included many who were en route to prison or dying of AIDS.
Inventive man that he was, Dan helped, with his brother Phil, to develop more theatrical forms of protest, civil disobedience and resistance and then, as a writer, to transform prosaic events into poetry and theater, as he did in converting the courtroom drama of the trial of the Catonsville Nine into the often performed play of the same name.
And what could be more theatrical than slipping away, costumed as a giant apostle, from a crowd of F.B.I. agents poised to arrest and handcuff him, and thus beginning four months playing hide-and-seek as an underground priest?
Dan was a performer and artist but his art was rarely art for art’s sake. His was a life of lived-out translations of such biblical commandments as “thou shalt not kill” and “love one another.” How sadly rare it is to find a person — Dan was one of the exceptions — who regards such a straightforward mandate as obliging us to protect life rather than destroy it, even if that requires saying a costly “no.”
Perhaps Dan’s most notable quality was his immense compassion, which guided him one way or another on a daily basis, even late in life when it was a challenge just getting out of bed in the Jesuit infirmary at Fordham University that had become his last home.
I recall Dan using the phrase “outraged love.” Many people are driven by rage, which rarely does them or anyone much good and often makes things worse. But outraged love is mainly about love. Dan loved his imperfect church, his not always agreeable Jesuit community, he even loved America — but there is much in all three zones that is outrageous, and Dan was never able to be silent or passive about our betrayals. This could have made him a ranter but the artist side of Dan always found ways to channel his outrage into one or another form of creativity, whether via poetry or a wide variety of acts of witness. He became one of the most consistent voices of his generation for nonviolent approaches to change and conflict resolution — in that dimension of his life a spiritual child of Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day. His commitment to life excluded no one, from a child in the womb to a condemned murderer on death row.
Dan remarked of Dorothy Day, “She lived as if the Gospel were true.” The same could be said of Dan. He once said, “If you want to follow Jesus, you had better look good on wood.” He didn’t mean a Christian had to be a martyr, in the sense of dying for one’s faith, but a martyr in the literal meaning of the Greek word martyros: a witness. Part of that witness, Dan insisted, is refusing to use death as a means of improving the world, still less creating the Kingdom of God.
For the Christian, peacemaking is any action that bears witness to the risen Christ. As Dan said in a talk given at the Abbey of Gethsemani, “To be witnesses of the resurrection is to be contemplative and public all at once.”
Dan had countless friends. I was fortunate to be one of them. May this book become an occasion for friendship with him for those new to his name as we gather around the great lake of beer at which the King of Kings presides and where lions and lambs lie side by side.
The more I read about abortion, the more women I meet who have had an abortion or had a close brush with it, the more discussions I have with supporters and opponents, the more I am convinced that ours is not a society of death. We are a fearful society, we are cowardly, we are deeply confused about what constitutes the truth, and more than anything else we do not know what it means to really make a free choice — but we are not a society of death. If we were, the choice to abort would be regarded as morally neutral, and it is not. Even the Clintons agree — at least claim to agree — that fewer abortions would make for a better world. Statistics are cited about the way abortion is used as a means of birth control in Eastern Europe as evidence that something is terribly wrong with these societies. If we were a society of death, we wouldn’t care. If we were a society of death, we would allow women to abort their babies until they went into labor. There would be no discussion of “viability.” But this is not the case. Past a certain number of weeks abortion is just not an option because the baby is recognized as “viable” — so indisputably human that even the laws that defend choice will no longer permit ending a pregnancy.
The child is protected by law once it is recognized as being capable of surviving outside the womb. But I wonder if this is the whole story, or indeed if this has anything at all to do with this arbitrary time limit on abortion. I wonder if, instead, the pregnancy has advanced to a stage at which we could no longer successfully suppress our horror at halting it. If we were a society of death, we would have no qualms about aborting at any phase of pregnancy. But abortion, despite all the support it seems to have, doesn’t affect us in the neutral way that a tooth extraction does. We know abortion is a nasty business. It is intrusive and profoundly unsettling. It is a frantic attempt to halt the inexorable development of something, which means making quick, irreversible decisions. It is extremely stressful. It is not a shrug of the shoulders.
If there is something about abortion that is deeply unsettling, and wide agreement that the fewer abortions, the better, then why does society allow the abortion option to remain in place?
Over the years I’ve received many letters from pro-choice friends expressing more or less the same sentiments: “Of course I’m not pro-abortion. Nobody wants to have an abortion. But we have to uphold a woman’s right to make this decision for herself. It’s a matter of free choice.” To this may be added a few points about whether a fetus is a human being, the problem over-population and so forth. But the bottom line is the defense of choice and freedom. Even if the choice is painful, even if it is harmful, even if abortion is socially damaging, even if the abortion procedure itself is horrific, even if the mother knows in her heart of hearts that it is the wrong choice and that she will be haunted for life by the experience: even so a woman must be free to choose.
Abortion is upheld on the principle of freedom of choice. To deny women the freedom to abort is somehow to seen as putting the axe to freedom itself.
But is this really the stark choice: defense of the unborn child versus defense of freedom?
Abortion involves violence and death. No one denies this. Whether you call it a human being or a bit of “fetal tissue,” it was once alive and now it is dead. That’s the whole point of abortion. We all know this, even the most militant pro-choice activist. Our problem is not that death doesn’t bother us as much as a perceived loss of freedom, but that we are willing to accept a certain level of death for the sake of what we believe to be “freedom.” And because ours is not a culture of death, this acceptance is highly unnatural; it is creating a catastrophic social trauma, because we can’t really swallow it. We feel a dull ache that we cannot name, we exhibit all the symptoms of someone who has been forced to commit dreadful crimes. And the triumphant cry of freedom is ever louder as a way of masking the real uncertainty, the real shame.
So what does it mean to make a free choice? To make a decision between two options? And how do we come to make that decision?
By rationally weighing the pros and cons of each side, and deciding on that which does the least harm, which does the most good?
But is that really what is involved in free choices? Do we really make free choices in a vacuum, into which we insert our rationality? Do we make free choices in isolation? Is freedom something that emanates from ourselves alone?
The word “free” has an interesting etymology. It is an ancient word. Freedom has been valued by human beings since the dawn of speech. There are sister words to our English word “free” in every Indo-European language, including Sanskrit. But the strange thing is that as you advance back in time, “free” loses its sense of individual, isolated decisions and instead describes a pattern of relationship. To say someone was “free” was to say something about a relationship: that the person was not a slave, that the person was “freely” related to another, defended that other – indeed, “loved” that other. In the Middle Ages, a “free” person gave his military services to the feudal lord, but he gave them freely, not as payment, not as a serf or a slave. A free person acted out of love, not compulsion. Other words in our language group that make this clear: Free is a sister word of friend. In other Indo-European languages, there are links with words for love, beloved, making love, and wife. Freedom and love are inextricably combined in the very soul of our culture, not to say in the very nature of things.
So perhaps the question we should be asking is, in the free choice that is being made for or against abortion, what is the freedom relationship? Is there such a relationship at all? Or is this “free” choice in fact the choice of a slave, a choice made under compulsion?
For many women, choice is hardly involved in their decision to have an abortion. They feel compelled by demands or threats from boyfriends, husbands, parents, employers, or sometimes simply by nameless social pressures that threaten women with an uncertain, unsupported future. In the tragic climax of William Styron’s novel Sophie’s Choice (written only a few years after the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of abortion, and surely in response to that ruling), Sophie is forced to decide which of her children to have killed, and the Nazi officer who cynically grants her this “choice” is named von Niemand — the German word for “No One.”
If someone — anyone, a faceless sense of doom — convinces you that abortion is your only choice, is it really a “free” choice?
As Christians, our understanding of free choice is inextricably combined with love. We struggle to make God, and the universe in which he manifests himself, the aim of our love, which becomes the criterion on which all our choices are based. In our ascetic struggle as Orthodox Christians we practice making free choices every day. Even the simplest ascetic practices — regular fasting — help teach us to make free choices based not on our appetites, or on our fears, or on the manipulative wishes and threats of other people, or on our own amorphous future plans, or on any other consideration, but on our love of God. The deeper you enter into the ascetic life, the more you realize that the Christian understanding of free choice is quite different from the commonly understood notion.
Whereas the common notion of free choice suggests doing whatever you please for any reason, as long as you don’t hurt anybody or break the law, the Christian understanding of free choice implies always choosing out of love — even if it means crucifixion. In fact, we know that our salvation depends on these choices, on our willingness to “lose our lives” in order to save them. These are the true free choices.
So in this abortion debate, it seems to me that there are some things that need to be straightened out. It is not a debate between those who support life and those who support death. It is a debate in which life and freedom are in the balance, and a very dubious sort of freedom at that. For we do not live in a society of death, no matter how deep we seem to be wading in blood. We live in a society of fear, where we have put all our faith in what we think “freedom” can gain for us and are willing to swallow enormous amounts of unpleasantness, bad consciences and nightmarish images haunting our dreams and our future. Making choices at this cost is doing untold damage to both the unborn and to our whole society. ?
Nancy Forest is a writer, editor and translator. She founded Forest-Flier Editorial Services in 1988. She is a member of St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam.
Reprinted from the Winter 2000 issue of In Communion, the journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.