Two Words I learned from Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov

Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov (photo: Jim Forest)

By Jim Forst

My Russian vocabulary is quite small, I’m sorry to say. While I studied conversational Russian one summer at the University of Novosibirsk, my progress was not impressive. The only language I seem to have any talent for is English. Linguistically, I am a beggar. However, thanks to Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov, there are two Russian words that I have come to know quite well: miloserdiye and svoboda.

I first met Fr Sergei and Aliona in Moscow in June 1988. At the time I was in Russia writing a book about the rapid changes occurring in religious life in the USSR. On that occasion I was in the company of Fr Alexis Voogd, co-founder and the first priest of our young parish of St Nicholas of Myra in Amsterdam, and also father of Aliona and father-in-law of Fr Sergei. To make the best use of available light, I recall sitting bird-like on a hotel window ledge while taking a photo of the recently married couple.

Fr Alexis and I were in Moscow to take part in a very special moment in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church: the thousand-year anniversary of the baptism of Rus’.

One of the events that stands out in my mind occurred in that same hotel room the night of June 20th. The four of us had turned on the television to see what coverage there was of the Church’s millennial celebration. We were not disappointed. Three items stand out in my memory. There was a very skillfully-made documentary film entitled “The Temple” [Xpam] – about Orthodox Church life. There was also a film drama that was inspired by the life of Mother Maria Skobtsova, since recognized as St Maria of Paris. And there was a long news report on the linkage that had just been established between Moscow’s Epiphany Cathedral and a nearby hospital. An agreement had been signed providing the opportunity for church members to offer volunteer service to patients.

The dean of the cathedral, Fr Matvei Stadniouk, was asked by the television interviewer what had led the Church to help in this way. “Our Orthodox people are part of society,” he answered, “and I’m very glad that now the opportunity has come to help people. It is perestroika and democratization at work. The time has come for common feeling. It means seeing what you can do today – tomorrow may be too late. This work is a moral reward for the people. The way people respond already shows that the conscience of our people has not been destroyed. We expect that many in our church will take part. The hospital is our neighbor. We hope to give help every day. After all, to have any success in healing you have to have love.”

“If you have a feeling of mercy in your heart,” said one of the church volunteers at the hospital, “you will do this.” A priest was shown making the sign of the cross over a woman too ill to raise her head. In another room a nurse was standing next to a frail patient. “Do you feel pushed aside by these volunteers coming from the church?” the nurse was asked. “Oh no,” said the nurse, crossing herself, “I am a believer myself!”

Fr Sergei, at that time a deacon, was very excited. “It is the first time,” he said, “that anything like this has happened since Lenin. In the past it has been said that the state provides social services and needs no help in doing it. But it’s far from true. At most hospitals the nursing staff is much too small.”

It was that evening that I first became aware, thanks to Fr Sergei, of the word miloserdiye – in English “works of mercy” or “works of a merciful heart.”

Some months later Fr Sergei sent me a text, co-signed by Aleksander Yablonsky and Georgi Krylov, addressed to Christians in the west. My Russian-speaking co-worker Joe Peacock translated it into English and we sent it far and wide. Here are some extracts:

“We are Christians living in Russia who seek to live in a truly Christian manner. Today for the first time [since Lenin] we are confronted by the question of Christian works of mercy [miloserdiye]….

“There was a time when we Christians were persecuted and believed that we would soon completely disappear. How did we live then? In fact, we [Russian Christians] lived more simply and more freely than we live today. We bore no great responsibility and we did not answer to the activities of the government’s machine of oppression.

“The period of the persecuted Church was in a sense the happiest of her historical experience. To be embroiled in combat with the state’s militant atheism was simpler than serving God and neighbor in the more banal lives we live today. To be a hero is simpler than to be a simple doer, a sower on divine soil. But the period of catacomb Christianity came to an end in Russia….”

But now, the letter continued, we are entering a new period of Russian history.

“We seemed to be like deep sea fish which can live only in the extreme conditions of external pressure and fear, but now we were coming close to the surface, where demands are placed on us for active service to our neighbor. In the west this is often called ‘social service’. In Russian there exists a word that is both precise and rich, though it resists definition – miloserdiye.”

Side by side with that unfamiliar word came another word with special significance for Fr Seregi: svoboda – freedom. Again I quote from his letter:

“All of this we began to understand clearly about two years ago [1986]. We did not expect great political freedoms, and, in any case, politics does not determine Christian freedom – svoboda.”

Let me pause to make a comment. Often freedom is defined politically – freedom of expression, freedom of assembly – but for Fr Sergei, freedom – svoboda – is a word that describes entering into the paschal state. It is embracing a life that takes its shape around the risen Christ. Because I am no longer a prisoner of fear, no longer in the hell of fear, I can make choices that are shaped by mercy and love rather than avoidance of punishment and death, I am free to be fully alive. Fear is longer the mainspring of my life. I am free.

It was the experience of such freedom that, while he was in solitary confinement in a military prison several years earlier, led Fr Sergei to certainty that God exists. This in turn let him to read the Gospels. Here he learned that we can meet Christ in each other, especially in those who are in need, for he said, “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was naked and you clothed me, I was homeless and you opened your door, I was sick and you cared for me, I was a prisoner and you came to visit me. I tell you solemnly, what you did to the least person, you did to me.”

In his letter, Fr Sergei and his friends wrote in detail about the thousands of people in Leningrad who were in so many ways abandoned by society: widows, orphans, the demented, the insane, the invalids, the chronically ill, the amputees and the prisoners.

The Christian Seminar he belonged to in Leningrad recognized one cannot just read the Gospels and be socially passive. As Fr Sergei wrote, “We realized that our secret prayer services and underground [Christian] seminars were insufficient for following Christ today.”

A Christian life without mercy is not a Christian life. The letter continued:

“It is hard to recall how the question of miloserdiye arose in our small Christian seminar, who first said, ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.’ We are all co-authors with Christ. Like Christ, we must walk in the world in order to share in his pain and suffering. And in Russia to do this one does not have far to go.”

The letter reported that a social breakthrough had now occurred in Russia – it was no longer illegal for Christians as Christians to practice miloserdiye.

“The state’s monopoly on social care has been broken…. The state, living for the utopia of tomorrow – the eternal tomorrow – was in fact unable to be charitable…. The idea of miloserdiye is not an abstract concept but rather a living empathy which arises toward this particular person, at this moment, seen from these eyes which previously had always been averted from the pain. And so, as a beginning, those in our group began to visit hospitals and children’s homes. Six months after our first actual experiences offering such help there arose in our city an official society of miloserdiye…. We participated in the establishment of this society and went to its meetings, while our group still maintained a specifically Christian orientation of compassion. We studied how to be and to live as Christians.”

Let me finish by recalling a visit to our house by Fr Sergei last July during which Nancy and I recorded a conversation with him. Here are some extracts from what he said. The main themes of which were fear and freedom.

He recalled an insight that occurred during his first weeks in prison.

“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 [whether in prison or not] 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.”

I commented that it’s all based on fear.

“Yes,’ Fr Sergei agreed. “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…. 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!”

Here Fr Sergei paused to laugh.

“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.”

We can say that the risen Christ visited Fr Sergei in prison. As he put it, “I was given this joy while in solitary confinement. This kind of joy is indescribable and unbelievable. I lost my fear. That was the 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… They couldn’t take away my freedom. They could do what they liked to my body but I was not afraid anymore.”

“Sometimes,” he added, “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….

“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 Bloom 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 your 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.”

Each person in this parish has unique memories of Fr Sergei – some special attention he gave us at a difficult time, some words of guidance, some loving gesture, his attentive face, a sermon of his that opened a window, an assurance of God’s forgiveness, a moment of healing laughter. We are rich in such memories.

But to all of us left us these two words: miloserdiye and svoboda, the works of mercy and freedom.

* * *

A paper presented at a gathering of remembrance of Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov at St Nicholaks of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam 17 February 2018.

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About Fr Sergei

On the 6th of January, the eve of old calendar Christmas, Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov passed into eternal life. His death followed a prolonged struggle with pulmonary fibrosis made worse in his final weeks by pneumonia.

He was born in Leningrad on the 14th of August 1952. He is survived by his wife, Aliona [née Voogd], whom he married in 1986, and three children: Aleksey, Aglaya and Evdokia.

Fr Sergei was a spiritual child of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom of Sourozh, who ordained him priest in London in 1990, where he had been assigned in 1989 by the Moscow Patriarchate. In 1986 he was awarded a doctorate after defending a thesis on “Theological Schools in the Early Church”. At the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1989-1990 he did post-doctoral research in Bible sciences and church history at Oak Hill College in London. For thirteen years, beginning in 1991, he was a translation consultant for the United Bible Society, work which brought him to many parts of the former USSR. In the period 1993-1998, he was secretary of the New Testament Slavonic Scholarly Project. Earlier in his life, from 1969 through 1974, he studied physics at the State University in Leningrad. Between university and seminary studies, for two years (1971-1973) he was a conscript in the Soviet army. In that period, he was twice arrested and jailed.

Since 1991 he had served the parish of St Nicholas of Myra in Amsterdam (www.orthodox.nl) and been its rector since 1999. During these years the steadily-expanding parish moved two times, on each occasion to a larger building. The parish has about 300 registered members, with more than 25 nationalities. Services are conducted in Church Slavonic, Russian, Dutch and English.

He was a founding member of the advisory board of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship (www.incommunion.org) and played a major role in guiding its work.

“A Book About Freedom” by Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov

In December 2017, with the publication in St Petersburg of A Book about Freedom, Fr Sergei became an author. The book is now in its second printing. An English-language translation by Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear is underway. A Dutch translation is anticipated in the near future.

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Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov: a priest who loved the word ‘freedom’

Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov in Alkmaar, July 2017 (photo: Jim Forest)

By Jim Forest

On the 6th of January, the eve of old calendar Christmas, Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov passed into eternal life. His death followed a prolonged struggle with pulmonary fibrosis made worse in his final weeks by pneumonia.

He was born in Leningrad 65 years ago, on the 14th of August 1952. He is survived by his wife, Aliona [née Voogd], whom he married in 1986, and three children: Aleksey, Aglaya and Evdokia.

Fr Sergei was a spiritual child of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom of Sourozh, who ordained him priest in London in 1990, where he had been assigned in 1989 by the Moscow Patriarchate. In 1986 he was awarded a doctorate after defending a thesis on “Theological Schools in the Early Church”. At the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1989-1990 he did post-doctoral research in Bible sciences and church history at Oak Hill College in London. For thirteen years, beginning in 1991, he was a translation consultant for the United Bible Society, work which brought him to many parts of the former USSR. In the period 1993-1998, he was secretary of the New Testament Slavonic Scholarly Project. Earlier in his life, from 1969 through 1974, he studied physics at the State University in Leningrad. Between university and seminary studies, for two years (1971-1973) he was a conscript in the Soviet army. In that period, he was twice arrested and jailed.

Since 1991 he had served the parish of St Nicholas of Myra in Amsterdam (www.orthodox.nl) and been its rector since 1999. During these years the steadily-expanding parish moved two times, on each occasion to a larger building. The parish has about 300 registered members, with more than 25 nationalities. Services are conducted in Church Slavonic, Russian, Dutch and English.

He was a founding member of the advisory board of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship (www.incommunion.org) and played a major role in guiding its work.

In December 2017, with the publication in St Petersburg of A Book about Freedom, Fr Sergei became an author. The book is now in its second printing. An English-language translation by Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear is underway. A Dutch translation is anticipated in the near future.

“One of the biggest gifts Father Sergei had was giving attention, attention that consisted of love and admiration,” said Fr Sergei’s son, Aleksey, at the funeral January 11. “He was able to give full attention to that very moment he was living in whether he was reading, speaking or praying, giving his attention to every word and letter. Maybe even more importantly, he was able to let the silence sound in between the words.

“I’m an actor myself. Being an actor or being a priest is of course a totally different thing, but during these last few days it struck me how many similarities there are in our calling. As an audience member I notice immediately when an actor on stage is just summing up some words or making a movement because that is his assignment – just empty words and movements. But when an actor is able to re-live a monologue, to connect him or herself with a text or a movement, to exclude everything else that is going on in his head – his worries, his personal life, etcetera. Then you’re able to fully engage, to be fully alive in that very moment. When that happens, it’s a blessing. As an audience member you sense and feel it.

“Amazingly it’s something that I found in the church. When a priest is able to say a prayer not only with his mouth and tongue, but with his heart, when a priest gives a blessing not only with his hand but with the divine love within him, it touches us deeply. Father Sergei was someone who was able to do this. Connecting mind, body and soul with that specific prayer and with that very blessing, he was giving himself into that very moment.

“Father Sergei was a father for all of us, to some a father in the flesh, to others a father in spirit. I can tell you honestly that it is a strange sensation to share a father with so many people. Our phone used to ring almost all day long – people asking for help, for advice, for a last communion, or to baptize their newborn child.

“It’s just now, in these recent days, that I realized why he dedicated so much time of his life to the priesthood. Just look around you. His impact is huge.

“On the last day of his life, Father Sergei said, ‘Children, what do you want me to tell you?'” And I asked him, ‘Tell us your wish’. His answer was, ‘That you will love each other unconditionally’. I wanted you all to know this because he dedicated his life to his family and we are standing here today as that one family.”

In July 2017 my wife Nancy and I recorded a conversation with Fr Sergei, the main themes of which were fear and freedom. Here is the transcript:

Jim Forest: I recall that being in jail provided a turning point in your life…

Fr Sergei: I was jailed twice 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.

JF: 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.

JF: 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 the 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 Forest: When you had that experience in prison, did you sense there were things they couldn’t take away from you anymore?

Certainly. They couldn’t take away my freedom. They could do what they liked to my body but I was not afraid anymore.

JF: 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.

JF: I have noticed in your sermons how often you use the word “svoboda” – 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.

NF: 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.

JF: 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 your 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.

[A Russian translation of this interview is posted at: http://www.pravmir.ru/protoierey-sergiy-ovsyannikov-ya-perestal-boyatsya-eto-byilo-samyim-vazhnyim/ ]

* * *

A lecture given by Fr Sergei “Peace and Conflict in Scripture and History” is posted at:
http://incommunion.org/2006/03/24/peace-and-conflict-in-scripture-and-history/

Here is an album of photos of Fr Sergei:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/albums/72157662450293767

To download high-resolution photos from Flickr:

– When viewing an album, double click on any image to see enlarged
– click on the downward-pointing arrow below the photo and to the right
– choose resolution (“original” is the highest)
– save to your computer

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Blessed are the Pure of Heart: Maria Yudina

Maria Yudina

[an extract from “Ladder of the Beatitudes” by Jim Forest]

One of the people of modern times whose heart was radiantly pure was the Russian pianist, Maria Yudina. I have come to know her indirectly through the memoirs of her friend and one-time classmate, the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, and also through Tatiana Voogd, a founder of our parish who knew Yudina personally and has slept under her piano — “the most sheltered place in her apartment,” she tells me. (This photo was taken by Tatiana Voogd.)

It was Maria Yudina’s fate to live through the Russian revolution and its aftermath, seeing many of her dearest friends and colleagues disappear into the Gulag. A fearless Christian, she wore a cross visibly even while teaching or performing in public — an affirmation of belief at a time when any display of religious faith could cost one’s work, one’s freedom, even one’s life. She lived an ascetic life, wearing no makeup, spending little on herself, and dressing simply. “I had the impression that Yudina wore the same black dress during her entire long life, it was so worn and soiled,” said Shostakovich.

For her, music was a way of proclaiming her faith in a period when presses were more carefully policed than pianos. “Yudina saw music in a mystical light. For instance, she saw Bach’s Goldberg Variations as a series of illustrations to the Holy Bible,” said Shostakovich. “She always played as though she were giving a sermon.”

She would not only perform piano works but pause during concerts to read poetry, such writers as Boris Pasternak, unable to publish at the time.

She was notorious among friends for her inability to keep anything of value for herself. “She came to see me once,” Shostakovich recalled, “and said that she was living in a miserable little room where she could neither work nor rest. So I signed a petition, I went to see various bureaucrats, I asked a lot of people to help, I took up a lot of people’s time. With great difficulty we got an apartment for Yudina. You would think that everything was fine and that life could go on. A short time later she came to me again and asked for help in obtaining an apartment for herself. ‘What? But we got an apartment for you. What do you need another one for?’ ‘I gave the apartment away to a poor old woman.’”

Shostakovich heard from a friend that he had made a loan to Yudina of five rubles. “I broke a window in my room, it’s drafty and so cold, I can’t live like that,” she had told them. “Naturally, they gave her the money — it was winter. A while later they visited her, and it was as cold in her room as it was outside and the broken window was stuffed with a rag. ‘How can this be, Maria Veniaminovna? We gave you money to fix the window.’ And she replied, ‘I gave it for the needs of the church .

Shostakovich, who regarded religion as superstition, didn’t approve. “The church may have various needs,” he protested, “but the clergy doesn’t sit around in the cold, after all, with broken windows. Self-denial should have a rational limit.” He accused her of behaving like a yurodivye, the Russian word for a holy fool, a form of sanctity in the eyes of the Church.

Her public profession of faith was not without cost. Despite her genius as a musician, from time to time she was banned from concert halls and not once in her life was she allowed to travel outside Russia.

“Her religious position was under constant artillery and even cavalry attack [at the music school in Leningrad],” Shostakovich remembered. “Serebriakov, the director then, had a habit of making so-called ‘raids of the light brigade’. . . . He realized that Yudina was a first-class pianist, but he wasn’t willing to risk his own position. One of the charges of the light brigade was made specifically against her. The cavalry rushed into Yudina’s class and demanded of Yudina: ‘Do you believe in God?’ She replied in the affirmative. ‘Was she promoting religious propaganda among her students?’ She replied that the Consti­tution didn’t forbid it. A few days later a transcript of the conversation made by ‘an unknown person’ appeared in a Leningrad paper, which also printed a caricature — Yudina in nun’s robes surrounded by kneeling students. And the caption was something about preachers appearing at the Conservatoire. The cavalry trod heavily, even though it was the light brigade. Naturally, Yudina was dismissed after that.”

From time to time she all but signed her own death warrant. Perhaps the most remarkable story in Shostakovich’s memoir concerns one such incident:

“In his final years, Stalin seemed more and more like a madman, and I think his superstition grew. The ‘Leader and Teacher’ sat locked up in one of his many dachas, amusing himself in bizarre ways. They say he cut out pictures and photos from old magazines and newspapers, glued them onto paper, and hung them on the walls. . . . [He] didn’t let anyone in to see him for days at a time. He listened to the radio a lot. Once Stalin called the Radio Committee, where the administration was, and asked if they had a record of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, which had been heard on the radio the day before. ‘Played by Yudina,’ he added. They told Stalin that of course they had it. Actually, there was no record, the concert had been live. But they were afraid to say no to Stalin, no one ever knew what the consequences might be. A human life meant nothing to him. All you could do was agree, submit, be a yes-man, a yes-man to a madman.

“Yudina later told me that they had to send the conductor home, he was so scared he couldn’t think. They called another conductor, who trembled and got everything mixed up, confusing the orchestra. Only a third conductor was in any shape to finish the recording.

“I think this is a unique event in the history of recording — I mean, changing conductors three times in one night. Anyway, the record was ready by morning. They made one single copy in record time and sent it to Stalin. Now that was a record. A record in yes-ing.

“Soon after, Yudina received an envelope with twenty thousand rubles. She was told it came on the express orders of Stalin. Then she wrote him a letter. I know about this letter from her, and I know that the story seems improbable. Yudina had many quirks, but I can say this — she never lied. I’m certain that her story is true. Yudina wrote something like this in her letter: ‘I thank you, Joseph Vissarionovich, for your aid. I will pray for you day and night and ask the Lord to forgive your great sins before the people and the country. The Lord is merciful and He’ll forgive you. I gave the money to the church that I attend.’

“And Yudina sent this suicidal letter to Stalin. He read it and didn’t say a word. They expected at least a twitch of the eyebrow. Naturally, the order to arrest Yudina was prepared and the slightest grimace would have been enough to wipe away the last traces of her. But Stalin was silent and set the letter aside in silence. The anticipated movement of the eyebrows didn’t come.

“Nothing happened to Yudina. They say that her recording of the Mozart was on the record player when the ‘Leader and Teacher’ was found dead in his dacha. It was the last thing he had listened to.”

Shostakovich found Yudina’s open display of belief foolish, yet one senses within his complaints both envy and awe. In a time of heart-stopping fear, here was someone as fearless as Saint George before the dragon, someone who preferred giving away her few rubles to repairing her own broken window, who ‘published’ with her own voice the poems of banned writers, who dared to tell Stalin that he was not beyond God’s mercy and forgiveness. She had a large and pure heart. No wonder her grave in Moscow has been a place of pilgrimage ever since she died.

* * *

Thin Places

By Jim Forest

Pilgrimage is the quest for what the Celts have described as “thin places.” Thin places have a way of slowing us down, even stopping us in our tracks.

A thin place is a place where ordinary matter seems charged with God’s presence. It may be a spot well known for a celebrated encounter with God, a place remembered for a key event in the life of Jesus, or a place linked with a great saint; it may be twelve time zones away or as close at hand or right where you’re standing. What marks any thin place is the time-stopping awareness of God’s presence. It doesn’t matter whether a particular thin place is known only to you or featured in hundreds of guidebooks. For you, that spot will be endowed ever after with a special significance.

Thin places, even when built of stone, seem to possess a kind of translucence. While awareness of the Divine Presence — in reality, everywhere — s forced upon no one, go to a thin place and an awareness of the holy often touches even the most skeptical and faith-resistant person. The walls of ancient churches seem to have been sponge-like in absorbing the prayers and tears of all who have come there. All that makes life opaque has slowly been worn away by so many pilgrims bringing their suffering, their longing, their prayers, their grief, their gratitude, their joy.

The most famous thin places are powerful magnets attracting pilgrims by the thousands or even millions. They come by foot and bike, car and bus, plane and train; they come alone and they come in crowds.

An encyclopedia of many volumes could be written describing all the world’s thin places. But for the moment let’s consider only three.

One of the most venerable of thin places is Mount Sinai and its surroundings. Moses got there on foot. Most pilgrims these days arrive by bus.

About 1300 years before Christ’s birth, Moses murdered an Egyptian who was abusing a Hebrew. Desperately in need of a hiding place, he fled to the southern Sinai, a desert region of narrow valleys and precipitous cliffs. There, beside a well years later, he met his wife Zipporah. While guarding his father-in-law’s flock near the same well, he experienced the miracle of the burning bush. Before his eyes a desert bush exploded with flame, yet wasn’t consumed. From within the burning bush, God called, “Moses, Moses!” Moses replied, “Here am I.” The voice spoke again: “Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Finally the voice identified itself: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” The text in Exodus adds: “And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” On that day Moses found the next step in his vocation: to return to Egypt and free his fellow Jews from slavery.

While the bush Moses stood before no longer burns, it lived a long life. Its progeny has survived to the present day. In the year 330, the Byzantine empress, St. Helena, requested the monks living in the area to build a chapel next to the site of the bush. Later in the same century, the Spanish nun Egeria was among pilgrims who came here. “There are many cells of holy men,” she wrote, “and a church on the spot where the bush stands, and this bush is still alive today and gives forth shoots.” The bush, quite large, still thrives within an enclosure adjacent to a chapel directly behind the basilica’s main sanctuary.

In the sixth century substantial donations from the Emperor Justinian made possible construction of a basilica and the fortress wall that still encloses the monastery. Even with this formidable barrier, however, the monks could do little in self-defense under siege. One of the wonders of the Christian era is that this vulnerable desert community has survived. Its principal defense is not its granite walls, but a document signed by the prophet Muhammad personally guaranteeing the safety of the monastery and its inhabitants. It is one of the principal treasures of the monastery library. For centuries, Muslim Bedouin neighbors who venerate both Moses and Mary and regard Jesus as a prophet have assisted the monks. As an act of gratitude and hospitality to its guardians, St. Catherine’s is the world’s only monastery to have a mosque within its walls.

The monastery opens its gate to visitors only three hours a day between 9:00 a.m. and noon. Praying at the place of the burning bush may be the pilgrims’ first priority, but they find much more to do both within the walls of St. Catherine’s and in the surrounding wilderness.

First of all, there is the iconography. The monks care for some of the world’s oldest and finest icons. Two hundred of them hang in a special gallery. Among the earliest is an image of the face of Christ that has a photographic immediacy. A sixth-century icon of St. Peter is so lifelike that, if smaller, could be used in a passport. That these icons have survived is thanks to the irony of the monastery’s being situated in the Muslim world and thus beyond the edicts of the iconoclastic Byzantine emperors of the eighth and ninth centuries.

Among the monastery’s less ancient icons is one from the thirteenth century of Moses taking off his sandals before the burning bush.

Outside the walls, Mount Sinai towers over the monastery. As it rises, it divides into three peaks, the most famous being Jebel Musa, the Peak of Moses. Mount Sinai seems not just to have risen but to have erupted out of the earth. It’s as barren a place as exists anywhere or earth.

Moses climbed the mountain on two occasions to speak with God. Regarding the second ascent, Exodus records: “Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days; and on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. And Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.”

During those forty days Moses received the two tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed.

In the first millennium, monks living on and near Mount Sinai created a 3750-step granite stairway that makes the ascent for today’s pilgrims much easier than it was for Moses. Pilgrims normally start the climb in the middle of the night so they can witness the sunrise from the summit. The small church on the top, on the spot where Moses talked with God and received the Ten Commandments, is about 1,600 years old.

Few places on earth are less favorable to a human presence than Mount Sinai and the surrounding area, yet countless thousands of monks have made this desert region, including the mountain heights, their home for more than seventeen centuries. At the same time, they have received and cared for a never-ending river of pilgrims.

No matter how brief the visit, no pilgrim can leave St. Catherine’s without being impressed with the astonishing tenacity of monastic life in such a dry, rugged, sun-battered setting. One need only read any of the collections of desert-father stories to meet some of the astonishing people who have made the Egyptian desert their home.

The best known monk of St. Catherine’s Monastery was St. John Climacus (or St. John of the Ladder), abbot of the monastery for many years until his death in the year 606, when he was in his eighties. He is the author of one of the classics of ascetic life, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. This is the only book that has its own icon, an image that with great economy summarizes the text: A thirty-rung ladder links the desert to the welcoming hands of Christ in heaven, but many are falling from it. The book is a kind of guidebook outlining the route to salvation for monks to follow. A ladder of thirty virtues begins with the renunciation of worldly life and ascends, rung by rung, through obedience, penitence, detachment, and humility to enter into love of God and neighbor and freedom from all that impedes that love. The book’s moral isn’t how easy it is to fall, but rather how important it is to get up and start climbing again after each fall. This is what generation after generation of monks at St. Catherine’s has been struggling to do.

While St. Catherine’s is among the most honored and impressive places of Christian pilgrimage anywhere on earth, the oldest and most important pilgrimage center for Christians is Jerusalem. Despite all its sorrows, Jerusalem remains a city crowded with thin places, chief of which is the Church of the Resurrection, as it is called by Orthodox Christians; or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, as it is known to Christians of other traditions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another thin place, goal of many pilgrims despite its size and remoteness, is the tiny island of Iona in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides. This comma of land just off the southwest tip of Mull has been a place of pilgrimage for nearly fifteen hundred years.

In the course of walking Iona’s paths, you will find yourself standing on some of the oldest exposed rock on earth. The more imposing volcanic heights of neighboring Mull belong to a land just barely out of the baby carriage in comparison — a mere 70 million years old. Iona is vastly older: two-and-a-half billion years.

An Irish saint, Columba, put Iona on the map. In penance for his role in a bloody clan war, Columba, along with twelve companions, sailed away from his homeland in self-exile, arriving on Iona on Pentecost Sunday in the year 563. Walking across the island from what has since been known as Columba’s Bay, his group found an ideal spot to build a monastic settlement on the northeast edge of the island.

Iona is the probable birthplace of the greatest masterpiece of Celtic art, the illuminated Gospel text known as the Book of Kells. The book takes its name from a monastery in Ireland where it was later taken for safekeeping. It is now displayed in the library of Trinity College, Dublin.

The wattle-and-wood dwellings the monks lived in fifteen centuries ago are long gone, destroyed by Viking raids between 795 and 806. During those years, 67 of the monks were martyred. At last the survivors packed up and returned to Ireland. All that remains from the early days of monastic life on Iona are several standing crosses, the tiny chapel of St. Oran, the adjacent graveyard in which many kings and queens of ancient Ireland and Scotland are buried, Macbeth among them, and the faint traces of foundations.

What today’s pilgrims find are the solid stone buildings Benedictine monks erected in the 13th century, when monastic life found a fresh footing on Iona: the plain square tower of St. Mary’s Cathedral and the rectangular masses of the several adjoining buildings are all of enduring gray stone with deep-cut windows under steep slated roofs.

The monks of Columba’s day lived a demanding life spent close to the elements. Columba’s monastic rule, later adopted by many similar communities, required that the monks own nothing but bare necessities, inhabit a place with but one door, center their conversations on God and the New Testament, refuse idle words and the spreading of rumor and evil reports, and follow every rule that governs devotion. They were to prepare themselves daily for suffering and death, to offer forgiveness from the heart to everyone, to put almsgiving before all other duties, and to eat nothing unless hungry; they were not to sleep unless tired; they were to pray constantly for anyone who had been a trouble, and to pray until tears came. They were to labor to the point of tears as well; or, if tears “are not free, until thy perspiration come often.”

Columban monastic life was far from sedentary. The monks of Iona traveled into the wilds of Scotland and, later on, much further as missionaries of the Gospel. They also served as a pacifying influence in a Europe of small kingdoms and constant war. Irish monasticism had a profound impact on the development both of Christianity and culture across Europe, even reaching to France, Italy and western Russia. Missionaries sent from Iona founded schools and communities, winning in the process such a reputation for holiness that, even in the sixth century, pilgrims were drawn to the remote isle from as far away as Rome. Tiny Iona became known as “the Jerusalem of the North.”

Much of the thirty-two years of life left to Columba once he arrived on Iona were spent preaching the Christian faith to the unchurched inhabitants of the highlands of northern Scotland. His preaching was confirmed by many miracles. He provided for the nurturing of his converts by building many churches and monasteries. He governed numerous communities in Ireland and Scotland that recognized him as spiritual father and founder. When not away on missionary travels, Columba resided on Iona.

Witnesses record that Columba never spent a waking hour without study, prayer or useful work. A lover of books from his early years, he was often engaged in the work of transcription. Reportedly he copied more than 300 books with his own hand. Two of these, The Book of Durrow, and the psalter called The Cathach, survive to the present day.

One of the most revealing of the many stories that come down to us about Columba’s life concerns a sword. It was the custom of people who visited him not only to seek a blessing for themselves, but also for some item of personal property. One day, without due reflection, Columba blessed a sword that was put before him, only to realize afterward that it might well be used in battle. He then gave the sword a second, more careful blessing, praying that the blade would remain sharp only so long as it was used for cutting bread and cheese but would acquire a dull edge if ever used to harm any living thing.

The medieval abbey seems as timeless as the island’s seagulls. So solid and undamaged does the monastery appear that it is startling to see old engravings showing the ruined state it fell into after the Scottish Parliament outlawed monastic life in 1561. The Act of Suppression came just two years before the thousand-year anniversary of the first monks landing on Iona. It was only in the last century that restoration at last occurred, thanks mainly to the efforts of a Presbyterian minister, George MacLeod, pastor of a working class parish in Glasgow. Inspired by MacLeod, pilgrims came to Iona not simply to admire the ruins and try to imagine what had once happened there, but to take part in the hard physical labor of restoration. The restored abbey in turn has greatly enlarged the number of pilgrims coming to Iona.

No doubt St. Columba rejoices to see Iona’s revival as a place of Christian life and a center of pilgrimage, one of the world’s thin places. He had a gift for seeing the future and knew one day there would be nothing left of his foundation, but he saw beyond that desolate time to its restoration. He left this prophecy:

Iona of my heart,
Iona of my love,
Instead of monk’s voices,
Shall be lowing of cattle,
But ere the world comes to an end
Iona shall be as it was.

* * *

Note: This is a chapter from Jim Forest’s book, “The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life” (Orbis). Endnotes removed.

My reservations concerning “Plowshare” actions

The discussion of weapon damage as a method of war resistance that has been ignited by Tom Cornell’s article on nonviolence in the current Catholic Worker [December 2017] has got me thinking.

One of my problems with property destruction is secrecy. If you tell the people making or guarding the weapons that you’re coming, they won’t let you in. It’s that simple. The only way around it is to take pains not to be expected. You are obliged to be secretive. There are events in life where secrecy is necessary, even contexts in which life-saving actions are difficult or even impossible unless there is secrecy. For example here in Holland, my home since 1977, one had to be highly secretive about the people you were hiding during the period of German occupation. Think of Anne Frank.

My guess is that even in circumstances where the only way to save life and struggle against evil powers is to live and operate in secrecy, everyone pays a price. What I noticed in the resistance groups I was a part during the Vietnam War was how much suspicion there was within the groups preparing major acts of civil disobedience. Inevitably there were worries about FBI infiltrators. Time and again the question was, “Is so-and-so to be trusted?” Various people were suspected of working for the FBI and were forced out of the groups they were a part of. For those wrongly suspected it could be deeply embittering. Eventually, in courtrooms, it became absolutely clear who the actual informers were. I don’t recall the people suspected of spying ever having been the right people. Ironically, sometimes it was people who had been trusted the most who turned out to be helping the FBI. (Think of Boyd Douglas, mailman for Phil Berrigan and Liz McAlister, in the Harrisburg case.)

So we are talking about forms of action in which secrecy is a given and about the suspicions that secrecy, of its nature, tends to generate, and the possibility that considerable interpersonal damage may be the consequence of misdirected suspicion. Apart from other factors, this ought to make us very cautious about getting involved in actions in which secrecy is essential.

Another issue that must be considered: Things very rarely go as planned. In the case of the Milwaukee Fourteen action, in which I was a participant, I am still troubled by the cleaning woman — an elderly refugee — who discovered us emptying files inside the draft boards, was deeply upset, and tried to call the police. When two members of the group restrained her, she became hysterical. What if we had caused her to have a heart attack? What if she had died? While I don’t regret our action, what we did could have gone very badly off tracks and generated headlines that centered on a dead cleaning lady.

Another problem that has long bothered me was the way in which people were at times manipulated — “guilt-tripped” — into taking part in high-risk actions. This is not only a problem of actions aimed at property destruction but just about any acts civil disobedience likely to result in long sentences. Any group involved in trying to get other people to take part is going to have to struggle with the temptation to become manipulative. The kind of civil disobedience in which I was deeply involved came to involve a lot of guilt-tripping. At that time we had people who tended to talk about actions in which there was a likelihood of long prison sentences as being “Serious.” As in: “Are you ready to take part in a Serious action?” One felt the capital “S” in the way such questions were asked. Anything that didn’t involve the risk of long-term imprisonment was dismissed as less than serious if not inconsequential

While we are all called to be peacemakers, we are each in the permanently awkward position of having to work out what that means in my particular case — who I am and what God calls me to do with my unique mixture of gifts and tendencies and limitations. This involves ongoing struggle with not only demands that governments may make but also our peers and heroes, and that last part is often even more difficult. The most important thing I can possibly do is what God leads me to, which may seem quite minor to others, even to those whom I most admire. But if I do otherwise, however useless or irrelevant or unimportant or meager it seems, I am leaving my conscience behind.

The shaping of one’s conscience is about as hard a piece of work as I can think of. It’s the search for one’s real identity, finding out who we really are. It’s finding out what it would be like to fully recover in ourselves hat it means to be made in the image and likeness of God.

A question raised by all this is, of course, what do we make of Jesus throwing the money changers out of the Temple? Is this the prototype for Christian resistance to militarism?

It’s a lightning-like event in Christ’s life: turning over the tables of commerce in a place of worship and using a whip to drive away the money changers. If the story does nothing else, it should at least shave away the sugar-coating that often gets put on Jesus. The Lamb of God breathed fire.

Yet it’s striking to notice that Jesus didn’t enter the armories of the Roman occupiers or their collaborators. He didn’t even disarm his own disciples. At the time Jesus was arrested, Peter had a sword. Jesus’ last miracle before the crucifixion was to heal the injury Peter caused. Only afterward did he tell his followers that whoever takes up the sword will die by the sword. (I suppose Peter intended to strike a deadly blow in Jesus’ defense, but all he did was chop off an ear; it seems Peter wasn’t very skilled in handling weapons. In the gospels we hear no more of Peter’s using a weapon. He seems to have thrown away his sword that night and never got another.)

The point is that Jesus didn’t force Peter or anyone to be disarmed.

Most of the civil disobedient actions I was closest to — all during the Vietnam War — involved the destruction of draft records. After that war finally ended in 1975, the Plowshares movement gradually emerged with its focus on damaging weapons. Some of these actions have helped raise awareness of important questions, but I wonder if the damage caused makes it any more likely that the people who make the weapons or want them are brought closer to disarmament? I can imagine that if I had a gun and someone damaged it or stole it from me, I would be inclined to get another and maybe even two. I think I might become more suspicious, more fear-driven, more dependent on police and armies.

I understand that for those now in prison for Plowshare actions raising such questions probably makes for hard reading. I recall writing to Dorothy Day from prison, taking issue with her criticisms of draft record burning. I didn’t change her mind, but her response made clear that she had a deep sympathy for what motivated me. She pointed out that we were performing one of the major works of mercy: visiting the prisoner.

In Christ’s peace,

Jim Forest

28 December 2017

* * *

Why Should an Orthodox Christian be Interested in Daniel Berrigan?

Dan Berrigan & Jim Forest, 1973

by Jim Forest

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.”

Dan Berrigan & Jim Forest, 2011

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

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Saints & Beasts: Gerasimos and Jordanes the Lion

St Gerasimos

By Jim Forest

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.

Jim Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands
e-mail: [email protected]
web site: www.jimandnancyforest.com

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Bridge Dweller

drawing by Len Munnik

by Jim Forest

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.

What I learned about justice from Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day – October 1961

by Jim Forest

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.”

* * *
1995

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.

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Saying No to Caesar: St. Marcellus lecture, Notre Dame

the relics of St Marcellus are in the altar of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at the University of Notre Dame

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.

St Marcellus

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.” [111]

Pope John gave particular attention to dangers posed by weapons of mass destruction, declaring that, in this context, it is absurd to regard war as just: “People nowadays are becoming more and more convinced that any disputes which may arise between nations must be resolved by negotiation and agreement, and not by recourse to arms…. This conviction owes its origin chiefly to the terrifying destructive force of modern weapons. It arises from fear of the ghastly and catastrophic consequences of their use. Thus, in this age of ours which prides itself on atomic power, it is irrational to believe that war is still an apt means of vindicating violated 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.” [27]

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.

Saint Marcellus, pray for us.

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text as of 11 October 2017
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