Lessons in Peacemaking

[lecture given June 2nd at the 2012 conference of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship held in Abbotsford, British Columbia]

by Jim Forest

This talk began with a request from Alex Patico. He wrote: “At the Orthodox Peace Fellowship conference, I’d like you to speak about peacemaking, not so much abstract reflections on the subject of peacemaking, but a very personal memoir of what it was to be a peacemaker — whether it was in the streets of New York City, at a draft board office in Milwaukee, or as the patriarch of a fairly large and interesting extended family. You had opinions about the Bomb, about Vietnam, about Iraq, etc. and you did not just cluck over them while holding a newspaper in one hand and your breakfast toast in the other, but tried to do your bit.”

With Alex’s letter a case in point, I’ve often been described as a peacemaker. I’ve even received a “Peacemaker Award” from the University of Notre Dame. Still more often I have been described as a “peace activist” though weeks and months go by without me participating in a protest action, carrying a peace sign, wearing a peace button or putting a peace-advocating bumper sticker on my car. (In my own defense, I must point out we have no car.)

Such labels make me uncomfortable. As Al Hassler, one of my mentors, used to say, peacemaking is an aspiration, not an achievement.

On the other hand it’s true that I’ve spent much of my life trying in various ways to prevent wars or attempting to speed their end, years trying to discredit war and strip it of its glamorous mythology, and done whatever I could to promote disarmament and nonviolent approaches to conflict resolution. I’ve been involved in a succession of peace and civil rights groups, belonged to several communities in which hospitality and protest were key elements of life, done a great deal of counseling of conscientious objectors, spent many hours on picket lines and in demonstrations, and been locked up a number of times for acts of war protest. As a consequence of one act of civil disobedience, I was once imprisoned for more than a year. I tend to call that long one my sabbatical, and in many ways it was — a year of reading, meditation and prayer. I was a guest of the State of Wisconsin in 1969-1970 as a result of being one of fourteen people who made a bonfire of thousands of draft records at a little park in downtown Milwaukee, an action meant to make it harder to force people into involuntary military service in Vietnam.

Yet protest and public advocacy is not something I’m drawn to by nature, though it may seem otherwise when one looks at some of the choices I’ve made and the trouble I have gotten into that I might easily have avoided. I dislike being part of crowds even when I agree with what they are crowding together about. I have an aversion to slogans. My vocational ambitions as a young man included being a park ranger and, later on, joining a monastic community. Instead I became a writer, which is a line of work that has a monkish side to it. And perhaps there is still a fragment of park ranger lodged within me, in that normally I start the day with a walk in the park near our home and sometimes putting any trash I find along the way in trash cans.

Part of my aversion to protest is probably linked to having been what used to be called “a red diaper baby.” That is to say my parents were Communists. For much of my childhood, the FBI took a great deal of interest in our family. Dad was in prison for nearly half-a-year when I was eleven. Such things leave a mark on kids. In my case, a life of political invisibility seemed to me a life worth having. It’s not that I disagreed with my parents’ beliefs and opinions, to the extent that I understood them. In fact there was a lot to agree with — opposition to racism, wanting a society in which people were not treated as Kleenex-like disposable objects, a society in which no one was left to freeze to death on the sidewalks. But their Marxist ideology never appealed to me. When I was high school student, trying to get an idea of what Marxism was all about, I did some reading but found Marxist writers mind-numbing. Also I was unable to embrace a core element of Marxism: materialism. The insistence that nothing exists which does not exist materially didn’t explain to me why beauty is so important or the mystery of having a soul or the phenomenon of love. When, about the same time in my life, I read Doctor Zhivago, it brought home to me the brutality that is an essential element in any violent revolution, Communist or otherwise.

But, to the extent I have a social conscience, its early formation is mainly thanks to my parents.

An important fact of my childhood was growing up on “the other side of the tracks” — a mainly black neighborhood in Red Bank, New Jersey. It wasn’t until I was fifteen and had moved from Red Bank to Hollywood, California, that I met my first racist, a high-school classmate. She was a blond, blue-eyed girl who until that day had seemed quite attractive to me. At the time racial integration of schools was just getting started in states like Mississippi and Alabama. In the face of racist jeers, federal marshals were escorting black children into what had been all-white schools. My classmate was on the side of those who were screaming ugly words at a few dark-skinned children whose quiet courage stunned me. I would have argued with her had I not been struck dumb by astonishment. Meeting a zombie would not have amazed me more.

Like so many kids my age at that time — the latter part of the fifties — I thought a great deal about nuclear war. Open-air nuclear tests were broadcast live. As a member of the high school debating society, I gave a talk with the title “Generation in the Shadow.” The shadow was the shape of the radioactive mushroom clouds that again and again sprouted in the Nevada desert not far from Los Angeles. Each explosion made it clear that nuclear war was a major possibility, in fact a probability, in the coming years. Who ever heard of weapons being made but not used? Anyone who gave much thought to what was going on couldn’t think of the atom bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki except as dress rehearsals for an apocalyptic future. In those days many Americans, most of them Christians, were passionately advocating a unilateral nuclear attack on Russia and China. “The only good Red is a dead Red” was a popular slogan at the time. The Cold War was at its coldest. Visions of the future were grim.

While I was concerned enough to give a talk about nuclear war, it didn’t cross my mind to join one of the peace groups that had the courage to oppose not only using nuclear weapons, but making and testing them.

It wasn’t until after high school, while in the Navy, that it occurred to me to join a protest of any kind. By that time I had graduated from the Navy Weather School and was stationed with a small meteorological unit at the U.S. Weather Bureau headquarters just outside Washington, D.C.

What pulled me across the border from unengaged bystander to anti-war protester was the invasion of Cuba by a group of Cuban refugees in April 1961 — the abortive Bay of Pigs Invasion. Within days it became public knowledge that it had been a CIA-organized operation with the U.S. military in the background. I was truly shocked. Despite my left-wing parents, I had quite a naïve and uncritical view of the U.S. government, and was especially hopeful about the national direction following Kennedy’s recent inauguration. When I read in The Washington Post that a protest vigil involving such groups as the Catholic Worker and the War Resisters League was taking place in front of a CIA building in Washington, I decided to join it after work. I had not expected to be noticed — I was in civilian clothes — but somehow I was identified and in the days that followed got into a good deal of trouble.

Behind my involvement in the vigil was the religious awakening that was going on my life. While at the Navy Weather School in 1959, I became a Christian, an event that was set in motion by what I later realized would be called a mystical experience, that is an experience of God that was too intense to ignore or explain away. For the better part of a year I explored different Christian churches. In November 1960, I formally became a Catholic, and a Catholic I remained until becoming Orthodox in 1988.

While still in the Navy, one element in my life was working part-time as a volunteer at a home for children whose parents were unable to care for them. Among my tasks was taking the kids who were Catholic to Mass on Sunday. Providentially, it happened that the nearest parish had a library. How fortunate I was! As converts often do, I was reading all I could lay my hands on and here was a paradise of books — theology, church history, lives of saints, autobiographies of saintly people, etcetera.

Among the important finds in that library were copies of an eight-page tabloid newspaper with the surprising name The Catholic Worker. I can still see that pile of Catholic Workers on a ledge by a window side-by-side with a flowering plant. I took the entire stack (twenty-five copies or so) back to my base and found myself deeply challenged by what I found in its pages. I discovered a movement, mainly of lay people, that centered its life on the one text in the New Testament in which Jesus speaks in detail about the Last Judgment. He describes a vast resurrection at the end of history of everyone who has ever lived and asks this vast assembly just six questions: Did you feed the hungry? Give drink to the thirsty? Clothe the naked? Provide shelter to the homeless? Care for the sick? Visit the prisoner? Within each question is the same question: Did you see Christ in the least person and respond to that person’s urgent needs? Or turn your back and look the other way?

During those months I also read The Long Loneliness, the autobiography of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker. In the book she recounted her early adulthood in the same radical world my parents had been a part of, yet in her case the door had eventually opened to a radical Christianity. Perhaps it was in that book that I first encountered her observation that “those who cannot see Christ in the poor are atheists indeed.”

It was in large measure thanks to the Catholic Worker and Dorothy Day that I began to understand that what the Church does is transform our lives, gradually making them into channels of God’s love and mercy. It’s very simple. All the things we do in Church life are intended to make us inhabitants of the kingdom of God, a kingdom without greed, without hatred, without violence, without war, a paschal kingdom, a kingdom free of death. To gain entrance, all that’s required is the transformation of ourselves that we pray for every day of our lives: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Though I had known many people who had become socially engaged due to their political convictions, in my own case it was only as a Christian that I moved from being an observer to engagement in activities protesting war, for what human activity more opposes the works of mercy than war? Far from feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty, war destroys all that is life sustaining.

The thoughts I had once had of a Navy career had by now evaporated. On the other hand, I enjoyed my work at the Weather Bureau and got on well with my Navy colleagues. The work itself was as nonviolent as military work can possibly be. If at all possible, I thought it would be best to finish out my enlistment rather than seek an early discharge. But first I had to fill out a security form in which I found I could answer every question without raising a red flag except one. The question was: “In what circumstances, if any, would you refuse to obey a superior’s orders?” I spent a sleepless night in the base chapel struggling with that sentence, trying to find a way to answer it truthfully and yet remain in the Navy until the end of my enlistment. But in fact it was only too easy to think of circumstances in which any decent person must disobey orders. The most hideous things human beings have done to other human beings were carried out by people who were simply obeying orders.

I wrote a lengthy answer to that difficult question that mainly focused on the conditions for a just war that were established Catholic doctrine. One of these is the protection of the lives of non-combatants. I could not justify to myself remaining in an institution whose fundamental purpose regarded killing and destruction as normal and even praiseworthy actions — actions in which even military meteorologists have a role to play. (I realized only after the fact that my unit at the Weather Bureau had provided the weather predictions used for the Bay of Pigs Invasion.)

One of the reasons I had been reluctant to apply for a C.O. discharge was anxiety about how my Navy colleagues would treat me once the application was filed. As it turned out, everyone in my unit remained on friendly terms except the commanding officer and one or two others. In order to better understand my views, my executive officer, Commander Mirabito, borrowed a book from me, War and Christianity Today, written by a German Dominican, Franziskus Stratmann, who had been condemned to death in Hitler’s Germany for his anti-war declarations, but managed to survive the war in hiding. After reading Stratmann’s book that same night, Commander Mirabito was so openly supportive of me that he may well have sacrificed promotion to captain for doing so. I cannot think of him without profound gratitude. It was thanks to him and many others I got to know while in the Navy that, in later years, I was never tempted to think of people in the military in demeaning terms.

I was discharged in June 1961. By then I had already become an occasional volunteer at the New York Catholic Worker. At Dorothy Day’s invitation, I moved to Manhattan and joined the staff. In many ways it was this move that set my course until now. I can even credit Dorothy for making me aware of the Orthodox Church — she brought be to the New York cathedral of the Moscow Patriarchate and also involved me in a discussion group that brought together Orthodox and Catholic Christians. While it wasn’t her intention that I would someday become Orthodox, she would sympathize.

My education in peacemaking had begun in the Navy and continued at the Catholic Worker.

One of the major lessons in that early period of my adult life was becoming aware of how readily we shape ourselves to fit into the society we happen to belong to and tend to do so unconsciously. I started to learn this important lesson as a consequence of one of the routine activities that was an element of Catholic Worker life in New York in the early sixties. Once a week several of us would go uptown to hand out leaflets critical of preparations for nuclear war. We would stand for an hour at mid-day on the four corners of a Lexington Avenue intersection in the immediate neighborhood of the office responsible for “civil defense,” the organizing center for all that New Yorkers were obliged to do in preparing for a nuclear attack. Once a year a civil defense drill was imposed on the city, stopping every car, bus and subway and requiring everyone to take shelter in basements and subway stations. The world’s busiest city briefly became, at street level, a ghost town. Dorothy Day had been arrested several times for sitting on a park bench in front of the mayor’s office instead of taking shelter, as obliged by law.

Handing out our leaflets, we were like children pointing out that the emperor was stark naked. You won’t survive nuclear war by taking shelter in the subways, our text pointed out, but if by any chance you do, you will find yourself in a world resembling hell. You will envy the dead.

It was an education attempting to connect with people hurrying along a busy city street. New York’s traffic light system being what it is, people come down the avenues in waves. I learned that the response of the first person in each group — almost always a man in a hurry — usually determined the response of everyone who happened to be following him even though they were strangers to each other. Not a word was said, not a look was exchanged — the process was automatic and unconscious. This meant that I had to do my very best to get the man in front to take the flyer. If I succeeded, at least some of those behind him were likely to follow his example. If he refused, the chances were no one in that group would accept the piece of paper I was offering. If he balled up the leaflet and threw it on the ground, some of those following him were likely to do he same. My best hope was to make eye contact with the front-runner. It requires what a nun friend of mine calls “hospitality of the face.”

Prayer was involved. If hospitality of the face is to be more than wearing a smiley mask, you need hospitality of the heart, which in turn involves a pretty intense spiritual life. It was helpful to see in Dorothy Day what a focused, disciplined spiritual life involved — in her case daily Mass, daily rosary, time each day for prayer and intercession, spiritual reading, weekly confession.

Standing at the intersection once a week, it didn’t take long to realize that we’re just as bound together as the sorts of fish that swim in schools. It’s a human tendency to shape our lives, activities, opinions and vocabularies according to what is more or less “normal” among the people we happen to be living and working with. As the Indian writer, Tagore, observed: “The best defense for a person, just like an insect, is the ability to take on the color of his surroundings.” We adjust our lives, even our understanding and practice of Christianity, to fit within the norms of the society we’re part of. Thus if I had been living in Germany in the 1930s and hadn’t well-formed convictions that put me on guard about Nazism, the chances are I would have held Hitler in high regard and perhaps even become a Nazi. Or if I were a white person living in a racist milieu, it would be remarkable if I didn’t become a racist myself. If everyone in the neighborhood puts the national flag by their front door, would I dare to isolate myself by not doing the same? Go to a windy place and you notice how the trees are shaped by the wind.

What I learned handing out leaflets was only stage one of learning about how we adapt ourselves to our social environment. What came later on was the realization that not only do I have to be aware of the tides that move within the mega-group I am born into, that is the particular nation, but I also have to be conscious of how easily one shapes oneself to be fully part of whatever subculture I’ve bonded with. If you find yourself at odds with key aspects of the larger society, it’s natural to look for a group of people with similar dissident convictions. But you will need a well-formed conscience just as much among dissidents as you need it in the surrounding society.

For example, if you regard abortion as the killing of an unborn human being and just as tragic as the killing of a defenseless person in war, unless your keep your view hidden, in much of the peace movement your view, and possibly yourself, will be unwelcome. Supporting access to abortion was, for most of the women’s movement that emerged in the seventies, a non-negotiable issue, an attitude that gradually became bedrock for anyone in a “progressive” organization. Even in a pacifist group like the Fellowship of Reconciliation, in which I was active for more than 25 years, my own attempts to initiate dialogue on the issue of abortion not only got nowhere but cost me several friendships. That failure is among the more dismal experiences of my life. There is no peacemaking without dialogue, but even social activists are not always interested in dialogue.

For me, another painful collision with many others in the peace movement had to do with the question of how to relate to Vietnam after the war’s abrupt end in 1975. Keep in mind that the peace movement, though spoken of in the singular, is in fact a patchwork quilt of groups, some religious, some secular, some with a one-issue focus, some with a wide range of concerns, some far left, some hard to label in political terms.

A large segment of the American peace movement had been so alienated from the U.S. government and what it was doing in Vietnam that a friendly bond had formed between many peace activists with revolutionaries in the south as well as with the North Vietnamese government. When evidence began to emerge after the war that the victorious Hanoi regime was just as ready to arrest the same dissidents who had been jailed by Saigon and was just as anti-religious as other Communist governments, many preferred to dismiss or ignore the evidence. Others accepted that things were as bad as the evidence indicated but argued that, given what America had done in Vietnam, no American had the right to protest.

A letter addressed to the prime minister of Vietnam that I had drafted called on Hanoi to allow the Red Cross and/or Amnesty International to visit prison camps. Eventually it was signed by more than a hundred people who had been prominent in anti-war activity. A major controversy exploded within the peace movement. Some of the non-signers accused me of being a CIA agent. I kid you not. I was told by one senior staff member of the American Friends Service Committee that what I was doing in support of prisoners of conscience in Vietnam would cost me my “career in the peace movement.” Having made that angry prophecy, he slammed down the phone.

While I was astonished by his fury, I was enlightened by what he said. Until that day I hadn’t thought of what I was doing as a career. I had thought of it as a vocation. For me “career” meant pursuing one’s employment in a careful way that would assure promotions and regular pay raises leading ultimately to retirement. It might be a career in an area you enjoyed, but not necessarily. “Vocation” meant, as its Latin root suggests, a calling, that is something God calls you to do, an act of obedience to God’s intentions in your life that is discerned through a well-formed conscience. A career was security-centered. Vocation often involved leaps of faith. If your work is more career than vocation-centered, before you say or do anything, you make sure you’re not putting your career at risk.

At the time, my vocation was editing the monthly journal of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. I was fortunate that in fact my “career” in peace work did not go down the tubes — I spent the next twelve years heading the staff of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, the job that brought me to Holland in 1977. Then in 1988 I became Secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.

But I was and remain something of a black sheep even among black sheep. I seem to be a black sheep by vocation. Sometimes one has to be a conscientious objector even within the peace movement.

This is a talk about lessons in peace work I’ve come by, mainly the hard way. Let me briefly tell one more story that has to do with the round-about way I became an Orthodox Christian. There is not enough time to tell about it in detail — the roots go deep — but a major part of the process occurred in the early 1980s when I realized that the peace movement, in trying to get rid of nuclear missiles and other weapons of mass destruction, was focusing mainly on the weapons rather than the people at whom the weapons were aimed — mainly on doomsday and doomsday technology and not on the broken relationships of which the weapons were a symptom. Those working for disarmament at the time could describe types of ballistic missiles and the destructive capacity of particular weapons with an expertise that equaled what one might expect from a weapons expert working for the Pentagon. We could describe quite vividly the devastating environmental consequences of nuclear war, how it might trigger a “nuclear winter.” But we knew almost nothing about the Soviet Union and about the people American weapons would kill. In those days, the only people I knew in the West who were occasionally visiting the Soviet Union were Communists like my father who got the red carpet treatment. They saw happy workers in humane factories in a society in which there was no unemployment, everyone had a place to live, and health care was a human right. The KGB and the Gulag were kept behind curtains.

I recall an article by Thomas Merton that we published in The Catholic Worker in 1961. It’s title summed up the contents: “The Root of War is Fear.” If one of the root causes of war is fear, a fear that precludes significant contact with one’s enemy, one of the root causes of peace is doing all you can to know your enemy. For any Christian attempting to put into practice the love of enemies, actual contact with the supposed enemy is basic. How can you love someone you avoid meeting?

The insight that face-to-face contact with Russians was essential came to me in 1981 thanks to seeing a Russian film, “Moscow Does Not believe in Tears,” the one Soviet film ever to win an Academy Award. It was a story that centered on three totally a-political women who became best friends while sharing a room in Moscow.

It took quite some doing, but in 1983 I was in Moscow for the first time, having helped prepare a small theological conference initiated by the International Fellowship of Reconciliation and hosted by the Russian Orthodox Church. I arrived in Moscow a day or two earlier than other Western participants. That first night, too excited to sleep, I took a solo walk from my hotel to Red Square. The hour was so late that for most of the walk I was the only person in sight and there were very few cars — very different than the Moscow of 2012. Even on Red Square the only others present at that hour were two statue-like soldiers ceremonially guarding Lenin’s Tomb. The main presence on the square was the Church of Saint Basil with its circus-colored domes.

In the days that followed, what impressed me more than anything else was the intensity of spiritual life in the parishes I visited, a vitality I had not anticipated, in fact a vitality I had never experienced in churches in the West. The prayer was as solid and life-sustaining as black bread. Despite decades of repression, punishment and countless martyrdoms, this was a Church that was, like Christ, risen from the dead.

Our theological seminar in Moscow proved to be a breakthrough. In the years that followed, conferences and collaborative projects involving people from the West meeting their Soviet counterparts became more and more frequent until one could not begin to keep track of them. The East-West climate, after many arctic years, became more and more tropical.

A number of friendships with bishops and lay people took root during that first visit. On my second visit, the following year, I proposed to Metropolitan Pitirim, the bishop heading the Church’s publishing department, that I come back in order to begin work on a book. The following year, 1985, the year that Gorbachev became head of state, permission was given. When published several years later, the resulting book had the title Pilgrim to the Russian Church. As it happened, I was the first Western journalist in Soviet times to have gained such broad access to the parishes, theological schools and monasteries that were open at the time.

What I hadn’t anticipated in my efforts to open East-West doors was not only that the effort would quickly spread to a great many other groups, including major corporations, but that my own life would be changed at a very deep level.

In December 1987, while still writing Pilgrim to the Russian Church, I got a call from the rector of the Russian Orthodox parish in Amsterdam, Father Alexis Voogd. For a year or more, he and his wife had been giving me helpful advice about places to go and people to meet in Russia. Father Alexis pointed out that few people had visited so many centers of Orthodox religious life in Russia as I had, and yet neither I nor Nancy had ever attended services at the Russian Orthodox parish in Amsterdam.

Two weeks later, in January 1988, Nancy and I attended our first Orthodox Liturgy in Amsterdam. To our joy and surprise, we found that the intensity of liturgical life we had known in Russia was equally present in this small Dutch parish. (These days it’s quite a large one.) The result was that within not many months Nancy and I crossed the thin border that separates the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. It wasn’t so much that we had left the Catholic Church, slamming the door behind us. Not at all. It was simply that we found ourselves unable to miss the Liturgy at Saint Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam. Clearly, if we were going to be there every Sunday, we needed to be able to receive communion there. Chrismation followed.

It was not a journey from imperfect to perfect Christianity. Of course there is much that needs urgent repair in the Catholic Church — I can understand why some people walk out. But every church, the Orthodox Church not excepted, urgently needs repair. To its credit, every member of the Catholic Church is at least vaguely aware that he or she belongs to a world church, a church which transcends national and linguistic borders. This is not something one can say about a great many Orthodox Christians for whom national adjectives — Russian, Greek, Serbian, Romanian, Cyprian, etcetera — come first.

Perhaps because it’s a world church not threatened by fractures along national or linguistic lines, in the past hundred years or so the Catholic Church has provided the world with a series of encyclicals and conciliar statements on the social implications of Christianity. In most Orthodox jurisdictions, one has to look back centuries, even to the patristic era, to find similar guidance. Even when they speak, our bishops have not been able to speak to the world with a united voice. Rather our hierarchs struggle to decide in what order to commemorate the various patriarchs while barely managing to stay in communion with each other.

To get back to my own journey, whatever the challenges are for me as an Orthodox Christian and whatever troubles me about the Church in its human dimension, it’s a blessing far more valuable than any treasure to have found my way to the Orthodox Church. And it all happened as an unexpected consequence of wanting to meet people who were regarded as the enemy and had become the targets of nuclear weapons.

The lesson? It’s very basic Christianity: Love your enemies. They might bring you closer to the Kingdom of God.

* * *

This lecture was presented at the Orthodox Peace Fellowship conference in British Columbia in June 2012.

* * *

Choosing Life: an interview with Hildegard Goss-Mayr

Hildegard Goss-Mayr

In nominating Hildegard Goss-Mayr and Jean Goss for the Nobel Peace Prize, Nobel laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire wrote: “Peace work has been a team effort for this French/Austrian couple since their marriage in 1958. The Goss-Mayrs are well-known and admired for their courage, persistence and vision as they initiate and participate in nonviolence work. They have given nonviolence seminars in Eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America and more recently in the Philippines and Bangladesh. Their lives and personal commitment to nonviolence are an inspiring example and a light of hope in a world where violence and militarism continue to sap the energy and hope of many. With their own lives, dedicated as they are to active nonviolence, they are planting the seeds which will someday create the disarmed, reconciled world so yearned for by millions in our world today.”

A book-length conversation with them by Gerard Houver, Nonviolence: c’est la vie, first published in France, has since appeared in Italy, Germany, Austria, Brazil and England (A Nonviolent Lifestyle: Conversations with Jean & Hildegard Goss-Mayr). A biography of Hildegard Goos-Mayr, Marked for Life by Richard Deats, has been published by New City Press.

I taped the following interview with Hildegard in 1988 at the headquarters of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation in Alkmaar, Holland. We discussed her family background and certain crucial early experiences that contributed to the formation of her values.

–Jim Forest

note: Jean Goss died in 1991.

Hildegard, please tell me about your parents.

My father, Kasper Mayr, was born in 1892 in a village not far from Saltzburg on the German side of the Austrian border. His father was a peasant farmer. When my father was ten, he left the farm to begin his studies. Father was one of ten children. When he was ten he expressed his desire to study. At that time if you came from a village and you wanted to study, it was either to be a medical doctor or to become a priest. For my father it was the latter. After secondary school he began theological studies in the diocesan seminary. By the time the First World War broke out, he had done the philosophical section. He was drafted and was eventually sent to the front near Verdun where hundreds of thousands died in the trenches. My father was taken prisoner by the French and didn’t return home until 1919. The experience, first in the trenches, then in prison, was a tremendous shock to him. It led him to realize that war was unacceptable for a Christian. It was while he was in prison that he met Father Max Josef Metzger, who was one of the first Christian ecumenists on the Catholic side.

After his release, my father went to Graz, in the southeast of Austria, to join Father Metzger’s Community of the White Cross. This community tried to live in the example of St. Francis. It was something truly remarkable at that time, a nonviolent community of priests and lay people, some of them married. It was here that my father gave up the idea of returning to the seminary. He decided to marry and to devote his life to peace work. He met my mother and they married in 1923.

Until 1924 or ’25, they remained part of the community. My brother Richard was born there in 1924. Then they moved to Switzerland. It was here that my father first heard about the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Father wrote to the international office in London. It was out of this contact that he was appointed to the leading team of IFOR.

Our family was in London from 1925 to ’28. At that time there were few Catholics in IFOR, but one of the striking things about IFOR from the very beginning was that it was ecumenical. At the time this was revolutionary. There were many new Christian groups that sprang up after the war, but I think IFOR was the only one that had both an ecumenical basis and a commitment to the way of nonviolence. In IFOR there was the conviction that, whatever differences exist among us, we have a common basis in Jesus Christ and we can and we must work together. It was this perspective that attracted my father. What also attracted him was that people in IFOR combined theological reflection with the practice of their faith — living out the faith in situations of friction and violence. In this IFOR was unique.

How had IFOR come to London?

A few British people, mainly Anglicans and Quakers, had gone through a radical change and were willing to give in every way, including financially, to make it possible for this young movement to have a start. Lillian Stevenson was one of these. She became a close friend of our family — by then there were three children! Another leading figure in IFOR was Muriel Lester. She was also had been quite well off but had put everything they had at the disposal of this new movement.

What were the priorities of IFOR in those first years?

Even then one of them was East-West relations. At that time there was the strife between Germany and Poland. With the IFOR movement it was realized that, unless there was a reconciliation between these two countries, the conflict here could become the starting point of a new war. It was because of this that, in 1928, two years before I was born, that IFOR moved its headquarters to Vienna. IFOR moved there so that it could more easily direct much of its work towards the other eastern European countries. There was a leadership team. My father was one of them and Donald Grant was another. My father’s main task was to work for German-Polish reconciliation. He took many trips building up contacts in both countries. The discussions he helped arrange were both theological and political — in the latter case, for example, about practical matters such as access to the Baltic Sea. IFOR had proposals for the shared use of the harbor at Gadansk which we felt would greatly reduce tension in the region. My father established contact with Cardinal Pacelli, then the Papal Nucio in Berlin, later Pope Pius XII. Father hoped to open him to the necessity of working actively for friendship between Germany and Poland. Pacelli was not unresponsive. He was a person who tried to understand. But we still don’t know what result my father’s contact with Pacelli may have had.

What of IFOR’s work in Poland?

There were several conferences in Poland between 1929 and 1933. But then the effects of the Depression had grave consequences for IFOR. In 1934 it was necessary to close the Vienna office. It was in 1933 that Hitler came to power in Germany. That same year my father was stopped in Germany and the documents he had were taken away. He was on the “subversive” list — people that the Nazis did not like. The kind of work IFOR was doing in Poland was unacceptable. The Nazis insisted on viewing the Poles, and any people of “Slavic races”, as inferior, people to be annihilated.

Where did IFOR go after Vienna?

To a very small office in Paris. Henri Roser was appointed General Secretary. My father stayed in Austria working with the Catholic Action Movement. He was also a journalist with a religious-cultural periodical. It was a very unstable time in Austria. The monarchy was discontinued in 1919. The empire was gone and Austria was just a small country with a big capitol. With the world economic crisis, it became impossible. There was radicalization among the workers, many of whom were unemployed. At the same time the Christian Democrats came increasingly under fascist influence. The Nazis were actively infiltrating the government. In 1934 the Austrian Chancellor was assassinated. Finally, in 1938, there was a national election and Austria merged into the German Third Reich.

How well do you remember these events?

One of my first memories was the day of the assassination. I was standing under the veranda. Airplanes were flying overhead. There was an atmosphere of fear. I was four years old.

What was it like growing up in your family?

Because of my father, we always knew a great deal about politics. I can remember that we children made games out of political events, even the assassination of the Chancellor! And we played the Japanese-Chinese war! These were the things we heard being discussed in our home.

Between the Austrian union with Germany and the end of the war, did you family have difficulties?

In that time, we were among those who were persecuted. Many friends died in concentration camps. It is really astonishing that father wasn’t one of these. I can vividly remember him saying to us, after the war started and all that terrible killing was going on, “We have the responsibility to strengthen those who are in the resistance against Hitler. We have to live the biblical shalom. We live that shalom with the people of God, which is to say, we live it with those who resist. We must try to strengthen and help each other.” Really, he was giving us a theological formation. There were always people in our house. I think my father was really a stronghold to them, affirming everyone who stood against Hitler. It was a moral affirmation. But he also insisted that resistance was not enough. He said that in a situation where everything in going to pieces, where so many are being killed, we have to give witness that God is the Father of us all. We must not only care for those who think as we do, but we must give witness to those who do not think as we do. How will the Nazis ever change is we do not give them a witness of truth and of respect. We must not respond with hatred to their hatred. He showed us the oneness of all humanity. This oneness, he taught us, is God’s vision of us, but unless we live it, it cannot come into existence. It was very difficult for us to live this, but this was the task he gave us — not to hate our colleagues or fellow students who were fascist, but to try to give a witness to them. Really, he asked us to love our enemy. We did not call it this at the time, but now I am very aware of this seed that he planted in our hearts. Our answer must never be hatred — it must be to challenge the adversary to become a new person. We had to struggle very hard with this, because in fact there was a great deal of bitterness within us. I can remember we once did a solemn burning of a doll dressed in an SS uniform. We were careful that my father didn’t see it. It was natural for us to feel as we did; revenge is in the nature of every human being. But we knew my father’s conviction, with St. Paul, that the whole universe is awaiting salvation and that all human beings are included in the liberating act of Jesus, and that we must live this out ourselves. This really marked me. I had to grow, to undergo many ups and downs, but I was never able to give it up.

Did you ever actually see Hitler?

Hitler came the last time to Vienna when I was 12. All the students of the city were brought out to one of the main roads to welcome him and I was one of those in that big crowd. And there I was, on my own. Then the convoy of cars appeared and there was Hitler standing in one of them. Everyone around me was lifting their hands and shouting, “Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler!” It was the first time that I felt that there really is a strength of evil, something that is stronger than any individual being. I experienced the fascination that came from Hitler, that manipulation of masses of people. Evil can have a tremendous attraction. I knew I was not allowed to lift my hand or to join in the shouting. I thought, “Even if they kill me, I am not going to lift up my hand.” It was extremely hard. It was a personal decision at that moment to stand against it. It was an important moment of struggle within myself, a struggle with violence, and a struggle with justice and truth and love. It was a struggle that, in a way, wounded me. Not only that day but in the years that followed, this struggle continued with great intensity. When I was 17, I felt that I could not go on living if men behaved so terribly toward each other. It touched even my willingness to live. It marked my soul. From 17 until I was 19, I really had to struggle, to make a choice to go on living, to find the will to live. But then I could build on the little seed that my father had planted, his belief in the power of love, that God has given us the vision of the unity of life. But throughout my life I have been very sensitive to the force of evil and have had to struggle with despair. My temptation has been to despair.

What happened to your family at the end of the war, when the Russians entered Vienna?

I left Vienna in September 1944. All the schools were evacuated. I went to the farm of my uncle. It was near a camp for sick war prisoners. They came out to work and I saw them. I was able to give them the news that I had heard over the BBC.

My father and mother, along with one of my sisters and some friends who had sought refuge in our home, were still in Vienna when the Russians took over. In April, 1945, there was a ten-day siege — German soldiers inside the city, the Russians around it, shooting from the other side of the Danube. Then the Russians moved in, taking one section after another, house by house. Our house is on the edge of the city. People in the city expected he worst. Here was a victorious army that would take revenge, that would rape its way to the center of the city. When the Russians approached and pounded against the door with their guns, father opened it and stood before them in a way they could not have expected. He pushed aside their rifles and gestured that they should come in. It was a gesture as if they were guests. Of course a soldier’s attitude at such a moment is one of suspicion. He has seen six years of war and wants to survive. He is ready to shoot before he is shot. But they saw in my father’s gesture that perhaps their fear was not necessary. They looked in the house to see if it was a trap. They found it wasn’t. My father could see that they were relieved. They took off their rifles. And then my father called the others up from the basement. He was able to create an atmosphere of welcome, of trust, of love, of belonging. The soldiers could see how thin and hungry we were — the city had been cut off for quite some time. The soldiers shared with our family and guests from their own food. They could see how thin and hungry we were — the city had been cut off for quite some time.

How different from what people usually do when they think they are in danger!

People often tell me that when you are attacked, you have to defend yourself. I agree, but then I point out that there are different ways to do that. I tell the story about what my father did. Without violence, without hatred, my father was able to protect everyone in the house. If he had used a weapon, he could not have done it. They might have been raped and even killed. If my father had been armed, the Russian soldiers would have been affirmed in their fears. Instead, out of his inner strength and calm, he was able to affirm their humanity and to take them out of the terrible way of war. Nobody is an angel, and often war brings out the worst in people. My father’s approach made it more likely to bring out the best — but of course you can never know beforehand what will happen. Those soldiers might have acted violently no matter what my father did. Still, when you believe in the strength of truth and love, you must respond in this way no matter what the danger is. You have to prefer to be killed yourself rather than to kill another.

Another part of that story had to do with my brother, Richard, and the Russian icon that was on our wall. From the time Richard was six or seven, he had a great love of Russian culture and had when he was eight he had started to learn Russian. He wanted to work for a closer unity between Christians of East and West. But when he was 19, he was drafted, and they sent him to the front in Russia. For Richard this was deadly. How could he fight against the Russians, whom he loved and whose language he knew? It was in 1943. The Battle of Stalingrad was over. The German retreat was under way. Briefly after his arrival at the front he was wounded and a little later killed. He was 19 when he died. Before his death he managed to save a small icon of Mary and Jesus from a burning Russian house. It was sent to our home and it was on the wall. When the Russian soldiers left that day, one of them stayed behind and prayed before the icon, bowing and crossing himself.

Your brother’s interests continue in you.

We were very close. I remember he used to say, “I will go and work for unity, and you will help me!” Later on, I have been able to work for unity.

What came next for you?

I was still at the farm in Germany where we experienced the breakdown of the last part of the German army. Our family farm was between Saltzburg and Munich, in the area where the troops were passing in their retreat. We were in the region of the last fighting of the war. I remember the American tanks one side of us, and German troops in the other — and then the German troops coming out with the white flag, but the Americans afraid it was a trick. They looked at everything with suspicion. I remember there was a boy on a neighboring farm who had been discharged from the military because of an injury. But the Americans suspected him. They took him, and me — because I was the only one who spoke English and so I became their translator, though I was only 14 or 15. An American officer accused him of having hidden weapons and he said, “Unless you give the weapons to us, I will shoot you.” I had to translate this to him! It was a long interrogation, and finally we were taken to a wood and they said that this was where they would shoot him. In the end they released him. I was finally able to explain to the officer the story of the boy. I remember that there was also an enlisted man, a Negro who was the officer’s driver. He must have noticed how upset I was, my fear about what was going to happen. So the next day he came to our farm and gave me two bottles of wine!

Did you return to Vienna immediately after the American occupation began?

No. The Austrian frontier was re-established so I had to wait from May until October until a transport of repatriated Austrian children was allowed. But finally I got home, went back to school, graduated high school in 1948, went to the university. That is the part of your life when the child’s face is replaced by the adult face, and you have to undergo some real challenges. Together with many other young people, I was questioning the very sense of my life — because of all the destructive things I had been witnessed. We had lived with death and a sense of complete powerlessness, just waiting for the bomb to fall which will kill you. This is something that marks you for the rest of your life.

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September 9, 1988
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The Light of the Beatitudes Casts Shadows

by Jim Forest

In the Soviet time, a certain comedian developed a stage act in which he played a drunken priest. Dressed in robes for the Liturgy and armed with a censor exhaling thick clouds of incense, he did a comic imitation of the Liturgy. Part of the performance was to recite the Beatitudes but with altered words — one can imagine such alterations as “blessed are the cheese makers” — while struggling to control the censor. His had done the act time and again and been complimented by the authorities for his work in promoting atheism. But on one occasion things didn’t go as planned. Instead of saying his revised version of the Beatitudes in his well-rehearsed comic manner, he chanted them as they are actually sung in a real Liturgy, and instead of inspiring laughter he listened to the sacred words that were coming out of his mouth. He listened and something happened in the depths of his soul. He fell to his knees weeping. He had to be led from the stage and never again parodied the sacred. It was the beginning of a new life. What happened to him later on I don’t know. The authorities would have been unforgiving. Probably he was one more of those sent into the gulag. Whatever his fate, be brought the Beatitudes with him.

Truly, the Beatitudes can change one’s life.

Such a short text — only ten verses long.

“Blessed” is the most repeated word in these ten verses. It’s not a word we use very much. When was the last time you used the word “blessed” in daily conversation? What does it mean?

In the Latin translation of the Greek text made in the fourth century, St Jerome chose the word beatus, the Latin word for “happy.” The result is that in some modern English translations “blessed” has been replaced with “happy,” but “happy” doesn’t tell us much. We are happy we didn’t miss a train, happy that we passed a test, happy something lost or stolen was returned to us… It doesn’t take much to be happy. Happiness tends to be a transient condition.

What we need to do is look closely at the Greek word makarios.

Many Jews spoke Greek fluently and even used it as a first language. It was at an early date, well before the end of the first century, that the Greek text of Matthew’s Gospel was written down. It may even be that Matthew wrote it in Greek.

Let’s look closely at this key word, makarios. In classical Greek makar was a word associated with the immortal gods. The second syllable comes from kari which means fate or death. It may be related to the Sanskrit word karma, meaning an action with consequences that determine your fate. According to the Hindu doctrine of reincarnation, someone who has made unfortunate choices might be described as having “bad karma” — thus his fate will not be enviable.

Add to “kari” the negative prefix “ma” and you get makar and from that the adjective makarios — a word that means being deathless, no longer subject to fate. It’s a condition both inaccessible and longed for by mortals. Avoiding death is on of the main projects of mortal life, and fear of death the main fear for a great many people. It was because of their immortality that the gods, the hoi makarioi, were regarded as the blessed ones. Unlike human beings, they could do as they pleased without paying the price of death.

If we look for a word in our own language that might take the place of blessed, one possibility would be “deathless” or “immortal.” In the case of the Beatitudes, we could say, “Immortal are the poor in spirit.”

Even better, we could use the paschal proclamation: risen from the dead. Thus,

Risen from the dead are the poor in spirit…
Risen from the dead are they who mourn…
Risen from the dead are the meek…
Risen from the dead are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness…
Risen from the dead are the merciful…
Risen from the dead are the pure of heart…
Risen from the dead are the peacemakers…
Risen from the dead are the persecuted…

Where do we find the Beatitudes in the New Testament? Is there any special significance about the location of these ten verses?

The Beatitudes are the first lengthy text in the Gospels from the mouth of Jesus — a succinct presentation of his teaching of Jesus. The Beatitudes, the opening verses of the Sermon the Mount, are a summary of that message, so short that it can be easily memorized.

Keep in mind that, in the early Church, the New Testament had not yet been assembled as a canonical book. During the first few centuries of the Christian era, it was a major labor the Church to decide which accounts of Christ’s life were authentic and which were false, unreliable or were instruments of heresy.

When at last the New Testament as we know it became a canonical text, it was certainly not by accident that Matthew’s account of Christ’s life was made the first book. One result of that decision is that it put the Sermon on the Mount, and thus the Beatitudes, in a very prominent a location — the gate through which we enter in book of good news.

In the Slavic tradition we normally sing the Beatitudes, this summary of the Gospel, at exactly the time when the Gospel Book is being carried in procession into the church nave and then back into the sanctuary. Sunday after Sunday we hear these same ten verses sung over and over. The result is that they become deeply embedded not only in our memory, but in our heart. What more could the Church do to impress these life-giving words upon us? I can imagine there are aged people with dementia, people who can hardly remember family names or recall who is alive and who is dead, but who can still sing the Beatitudes.

We are supposed not just to memorize the Beatitudes but let them burn in our thoughts like candles. Quite literally, they are meant to illumine us.

Let’s look briefly at the each of the Beatitudes — so easily recited but about which so much could be said.

First, think for a moment about their order. Do you see a kind of architecture in them? Would it make any difference if the beatitude of peacemaking came first and poverty of spirit came last? Can we arrange them any way we like?

The Beatitudes connect with each and depend on each other. Each Beatitude builds on the ones below. For example if you want to be a peacemaker but have an impure heart, what you will do in the name of peace will only drive people further apart and increase violence in the world. If you hunger and thirst for righteousness but have no mercy, your righteousness may damage rather than heal.

We can describe the Beatitudes as a ladder reaching from the hard earth on which we live to a paradise more perfect than the paradise of Adam and Eve.

The first Beatitude is the foundation of all that follow: Risen from the dead are the poor in spirit…

Poverty of spirit is the essential beginning, the context of discipleship. None of the Beatitudes that follow are possible apart from poverty of spirit. Without it we cannot begin to follow Christ.

What does poverty of spirit mean? It is my awareness that I cannot save myself, that I am basically defenseless, that neither money nor power will spare me from suffering and death, and that no matter what I achieve and acquire in this life, it will be far less than I wanted. Poverty of spirit is my awareness that I need God’s help and mercy more than I need anything else. Poverty of spirit is getting free of the rule of fear, fear being the great force which restrains us from acts of love. Being poor in spirit means letting go of the myth that the more I possess, the happier I’ll be. Poverty of spirit is a letting go of self and of all that keeps you locked in yourself. In the words of Dostoevsky, “Blessed are they who have nothing to lock up.”

“The first beatitude,” comments Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, “stands at the threshold of the Kingdom of God…. Blessed are those who have understood that they are nothing in themselves, possess nothing that they dare call ‘their own’. If they are ‘something’, it is because they are loved of God and because they know for certain that their worth in God’s eyes can be measured by the humiliation of the Son of God.”

Poverty of spirit is not something we can achieve by having no possessions. While most saints had little personal property, there are also saints who, at least for a substantial part of their lives, possessed a great deal and lived in comfort, rarely worrying about a roof over their heads or a pillow under it.

As Saint Leo the Great observed: “While it cannot be doubted that poverty of spirit is more easily acquired by the poor than the rich, for submissiveness is the companion of those in want, even in many of the rich is found that spirit which uses its abundance not for the increasing of its pride but on works of mercy, regarding as the highest profit that which it expends in the relief of others’ hardships.”

When you look closely at the life of the saints, you discover what they had or didn’t have was part of their particular obedience to Christ. All the saints are linked by poverty of spirit. All the saints lived an ascetic life. All of them approached God in a state of destitution, seeking as a matter of life or death to know God’s will in their lives and to live it, for God not only creates us but gives each of us a unique identity, a unique responsibility, a unique path to follow on the way to heaven. Poverty of spirit — the condition of being a spiritual beggar — is seeking to live God’s will rather than one’s own.

Each Beatitude raises questions. Here are several to consider: Do I really seek to know and embrace God’s will in my life? Am I regularly praying that God will give me poverty of spirit? Do I keep the Church fasts that would help strengthen my capacity to live this Beatitude? Am I willing to be seen as odd or stupid by those whose lives are dominated by values opposing the Beatitudes? When tempted to buy things I don’t need, do I pray for strength to resist?

On to the next rung on the ladder: Risen from the dead are they who mourn…

The word used in the Greek New Testament, penthein, signifies intimate, intense, heart-breaking sorrow.

Poverty of spirit is inseparable from mourning. Without poverty of spirit, I am always on guard to keep what I have for myself, and to keep me for myself. An immediate consequence of poverty of spirit is becoming sensitive to the pain and losses of people around me, not only those whom I happen to know and care for, but also people I don’t know and don’t want to know. To the extent I open my heart to others, I will do whatever I can to help — pray, share what I have, even share myself. Not only am I called to mourn the tragedies others suffer but to mourn for my sinful self, who so often has failed to see, to notice to care, to respond, to share, to love.

Christ too shed tears. The shortest verse in the Bible has just two words, “Jesus wept.” Christ stood before the tomb of his friend Lazarus and, before summoning him back to life, he cried.

This is not the only time we know he shed tears. The other occasion happened as he stood gazing at Jerusalem from a distance. “And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it.” It must have been a bewildering experience for his disciples. They saw a shining, golden-walled city dominated by its great Temple, with people like themselves streaming busily in and out of the fortified gateways. Jesus saw what had not yet happened, Jerusalem’s destruction, the suffering of the city’s inhabitants, and the enslavement and deportation of its survivors. He wept for the victims of a catastrophe decades in the future, but so real to him, so immediate, so devastating, that he grieved as if it was happening at that moment. He said to those who were with him, “Would that today you knew the things that make for peace!”

Questions to consider: Do I seek to do the things that make for peace? Do I weep with those who weep? Have I mourned those in my own family who have died? Do I open my thoughts and feelings to the suffering and losses of others? Do I open my heart to the calamities of others who may be far away and neither speak my language nor share my faith?

Now up another rung on the ladder… Risen from the dead are the meek…

Often confused with weakness, a meek person is neither spineless or cowardly. Understood biblically, meekness is making choices and exercising power with a divine rather than a social reference point. Meekness is the essential quality of the human being in relationship to God. Without meekness, we cannot align ourselves with God’s will. In place of humility we prefer pride — pride in who we are, pride in doing as we please, pride in what we’ve achieved, pride in the national or ethnic group to which we happen to belong. Meekness has nothing to do with blind obedience or social conformity. A meek Christian does not allow himself to be dragged along by the tides of our passions or by political power. Such a rudderless person has cut himself off from his own conscience, God’s voice in his heart, and thrown away his God-given freedom. Meekness is an attribute of following Christ no matter what risks are involved.

Questions to consider: When I read the Bible or writings about the saints, do I consider what the implications are in my own life? Do I pray for God’s guidance? Do I seek help with urgent questions in confession? Do I tend to make choices and adopt ideas that will help me fit in to the group I want to be part of? Do I fear the criticism or ridicule of others for my efforts to live a Gospel-centered life? Do I listen to others? Do I tell the truth even in difficult circumstances?

The next rung… Risen from the dead are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness…

In his teaching about the Last Judgment, Christ speaks of hunger and thirst: “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me drink.” To hunger and thirst for something is not a mild desire but a desperate craving. Our salvation hinges on our caring for the least person as we would for Christ himself. Did he not say, “What you have done to the least person you have done to me”?

To hunger and thirst for righteousness means to urgently desire that which is honorable, right and true. A righteous person is a right-living person, living a moral, blameless life, right with both God and neighbor. A righteous social order would be one in which no one is abandoned or thrown away, in which people live in peace with God, with each other and with the world God has given us.

Questions to consider: Does it disturb me that I live in a world which in many ways is the opposite of the kingdom of heaven? When I pray “your kingdom come, you will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” am I praying that my own life might better reflect the God’s priorities? Who is “the least” person in my day-to-day world? Do I try to see Christ’s face in him or her?

Up one more rung… Risen from the dead are the merciful…

One of the dangers of pursuing righteousness is that one can become self-righteousness. If all you have is a thirst for righteousness, how easy it is to become merciless. This is why the next rung of the ladder of the Beatitudes is the commandment of mercy. Mercy is the quality of self-giving love, of gracious deeds done for those in need.

Twice in the Gospels Christ makes his own the words of the Prophet Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” We witness mercy in event after event in the Gospel accounts of Christ’s life — forgiving, healing, freeing, correcting, even repairing the wound of a men injured by Peter in his effort to protect his master. Again and again Christ declares that those who seek God’s mercy must be merciful others. The principle is included in the only prayer Christ taught his disciples, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” He calls on his followers to love their enemies and to pray for them. The moral of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that a neighbor is a person who comes to the aid of a stranger in need. No where in the Gospel do we hear Christ advocating anyone’s death or blessing his followers to kill anyone. At the Last Judgment Christ receives into the kingdom of heaven those who were merciful.

Questions to consider: When I see a stranger in need, how do I respond? Is Christ’s mercy evident in my life? Am I willing to extend forgiveness to those who seek it? Am I generous with my time and material possessions to those in need? Do I pray for my enemies? Do I try to assist them if they are in need? Have I been an enemy to anyone? What am I doing to make my society more welcoming, more caring, more life-protecting?

Now we ascend to the next rung… Risen from the dead are the pure of heart…

Christ didn’t say, “Blessed are the pure in mind” or “Blessed are the brilliant in mind.” Instead he blesses purity of heart. But in our world the brain has come up in the world while the heart has been demoted. The heart used to be recognized as the center of God’s activity within us, the hub of human identity and conscience, linked with our capacity to love, the core of both physical but also spiritual life — the zero point of the human soul. The Greek word for purity, katharos, means spotless, stainless, unbroken, perfect, free from anything that defiles or corrupts.

What then is a pure heart? A heart free of possessiveness, a heart capable of mourning, a heart which thirsts for what is right, a merciful heart, a loving heart, a heart not ruled by passions, an undivided heart, a heart aware of the image of God in others, a heart drawn to beauty, a heart aware of God’s presence in creation. A pure heart is a heart without contempt for others. In the words of Saint Isaac of Syria, “A person is truly pure of heart when he considers all human beings as good and no created thing appears impure or defiled to him.”

Opposing purity of heart is lust of any kind — for wealth, for recognition, for power, for vengeance, for using others as sexual objects. A rule of prayer in daily life helps heal, guard and unify the heart. “Always keep your mind collected in your heart,” instructed the great teacher of prayer, Saint Theofan the Recluse. The Jesus Prayer — the Prayer of the Heart — is part of a tradition of spiritual life which helps move the center of consciousness from the mind to the heart. Purification of the heart is the striving to place the mind under the rule of the heart, the mind representing the analytic and organizational aspect of consciousness. Purification of the heart is the lifelong struggle of seeking a more God-centered life, a heart illuminated with the presence of the Holy Trinity.

Questions to consider: Am I attentive to beauty in people, nature and in the arts? Do I take care not to read or look at things that stir up lust? Do I avoid using words which soil my mouth? Am I sarcastic about others? Is a rhythm of prayer part of my daily life? Do I prepare carefully for communion, never taking it for granted? Do I observe fasting days and seasons? Am I aware of and grateful for God’s gifts?

We’re well up the ladder now. Next comes: Risen from the dead are the peacemakers…

Christ is often called the Prince of Peace. He calls us not simply to be in favor of peace — nearly everyone is — but makers of peace. The peacemaker is anyone who helps heal damaged relationships. Throughout the Gospel we see Christ bestowing peace. In his final discourse before his arrest, he says to the Apostles: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” After the Resurrection, he greets his followers with the words, “Peace be with you.” He instructs his followers that, on entering a house, their first action should be the blessing, “Peace be upon this house.” Christ is at his most paradoxical when he says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” He is speaking not of a sword that sheds blood but the sword of division. We see how those who try to live Christ’s peace may find themselves in trouble, as all those who have died a martyr’s death bear witness.

Sadly, for most of us the peace we long for is not the Kingdom of God but a slightly improved version of the world we already have. We would like to get rid of conflict without eliminating the spiritual and material factors that draw us into conflict.

The peacemaker knows that ends never stand apart from means: figs do not grow from thistles; neither is community brought into being by hatred and violence. A peacemaker is aware that each person, even those who seem to be possessed by evil spirits, is made in the image of God and is capable of change and conversion.

Questions to consider: In my family, in my parish and among co-workers, am I guilty of sins which cause or deepen division and conflict? Do I seek forgiveness when I realize I am in the wrong? Or am I always justifying what I do no matter what pain or harm it causes others? Do I regard it as a waste of time to communicate with opponents? Do I listen with care and respect to those who irritate me? Do I pray for the well-being and salvation of adversaries and enemies? Do I allow what others say or what the press reports to define my attitude toward people I have never met? Do I take positive steps to overcome division? Are there people I regard as not bearing God’s image and therefore innately evil?

Only now do we reach the top of the ladder: Risen from the dead are the persecuted…

The last rung of the Beatitudes is where we reach the Cross. “We must carry Christ’s cross as a crown of glory,” wrote Saint John Chrysostom, “for it is by it that everything that is achieved among us is gained…. Whenever you make the sign of the cross on your body, think of what the cross means and put aside anger and every other passion. Take courage and be free in the soul.”

In the ancient world Christians were persecuted chiefly because they were regarded as undermining the social order even though in most respects they were models of civil obedience and good conduct. But Christians refused to treat kings and emperors as gods. They would not sacrifice to gods their neighbors venerated, and were notable for their objection to war or bloodshed in any form. Is it surprising that a community which lived by such values, however well-behaved, would be regarded as a threat by the government?

“Both the Emperor’s commands and those of others in authority must be obeyed if they are not contrary to the God of heaven,” said Saint Euphemia in the year 303 during the reign of Diocletian. “If they are, they must not only not be disobeyed; they must be resisted.” Following torture, she was killed by a bear — the kind of death endured by thousands of Christians well into the fourth century, though the greatest number of Christian martyrs belong to the twentieth century, in Russia most of all. Just to be a Christian believer was to be seen by the state as an enemy. In many countries religious persecution continues this very day.

Questions to consider: Does fear play a bigger role in my life than love? Do I hide my faith or live it in a timid, half-hearted way? When I am ordered to do something which conflicts with Christ’s teaching, whom do I follow? Am I aware of those who are suffering for righteousness sake in my own country and elsewhere in the world? Am I praying for them? Am I doing anything to help them? Do I understand that each Christian is called to carry the cross — not he cross we choose but the cross that is given to us?

At the very top of the ladder of the Beatitudes we reach the resurrection, the joy of no longer being a captive of fear and a prisoner of death. “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

One last thought: Climbing the ladder of the Beatitudes is a daily task. When you fall off you start again. It helps to know these ten verses by heart and think about them. Recite them as a prayer. Recite them with your heart. Let them question you. Use them as a light when you are preparing for confession and communion.

talk by Jim Forest for a session of the parish retreat at St Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam 24 March 2012. The text draws on two books: Ladder of the Beatitudes and Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness, both published by Orbis.

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Jim Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar

[email protected]

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Ten Things My Mother Taught Me

by Nancy Forest

I’ve made a list of the things my mother taught me. If it had not been for her, I would not have learned these things:

1. How to make do with very little, and not feel sorry for yourself about it.

2. How to make pie crust, spaghetti sauce, roast stuffed turkey, pumpkin pie, apple pie, pecan pie, and generally everything, because she made me feel that cooking is easy.

3. How to sew. How to put together a pattern, to set in sleeves, to put in a zipper, and generally to sew anything, because she made me feel that sewing is easy.

4. How to love poetry: all the Pooh poems, and those from the Golden Book of Favorite poems. And how to read poetry out loud.

5. How to love books. Beautifully made books, with hard covers and good paper, and beautiful illustrations.

6. How to appreciate irony and satire.

7. That it was OK to love classical music, even though no one else in my entire family did.

8. That singing is fun, and dancing, too. And that you can do these things without embarrassment.

9. That art is important.

10. That God is your friend, and that’s all the theology you need to know.

These were hard months for my mother — being disabled by a major stroke, unable to speak, unable to walk or use her hands very much. Being in a foreign country and in a nursing home where the other residents did not speak her language. But even before that — just coming here from America, leaving her household behind and her beloved country, and losing her beloved son. She lived for almost two years in that room we all created for her, but the amazing thing was that she did not become depressed, she was not angry at God for arranging her life this way. Instead, she painted pictures — dozens of them. More pictures than I ever saw her make all the years I was living with her when I was young. Beautiful pictures made with great confidence and joy.

A couple of months ago, a friend of mine at church who knew how difficult it was to live with my mother came up to me with tears in her eyes and said, “You will be so glad you’ve done this.” And she was right. I am so glad we did this. Thanks to everybody. We all did this — Grandma, too.

(read aloud by Nancy at Lorraine Flier’s funeral December 29, 2009; funeral photos: www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/sets/72157623093350866/with/4225376408/)

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A Canonization in Munich: Saint Alexander Schmorell

by Jim Forest

Saints come in many sizes and varieties, ranging from kings to beggars, surgeons to street sweepers, scholars to the illiterate, the extraordinary to the unnoticed. Some never marry, some are the parents of large families. Some die in bed in their old age, others die early in life at the hands of executioners. There are millions of saints — heaven is crowded — but relatively few of heaven’s population have been formally canonized. The vast majority are rank-and-file saints, an inspiration to those who knew them, but never placed by name on the church calendar.

Reporting on canonizations, journalists often say that so-and-so was “made a saint” today at such-and-such location, but in fact the Church does not make saints. Canonization is merely an act of carefully considered recognition that a particular person became a saint in his lifetime and is unquestionably among the blessed and thus in no need of our prayers for his forgiveness and salvation. The saints who are singled out for special recognition are mentioned at the Liturgy on a particular day every year, some locally or nationally, others in churches around the world. They are also depicted in icons in both churches and homes.

What is it that makes the Church occasionally canonize a particular saint? In many cases it has to do with some remarkable quality or achievement — their exceptional impact on other lives. The memory of their works and lives needs to be passed on from generation to generation in order to encourage others to follow in their footsteps. It is one of the ways the Church declares, “This is sanctity. This is the path to eternal life.”

Cathedral of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia

The majority of those canonized are martyrs. One of these — Alexander Schmorell — was added to the church calendar this past weekend. His canonization took place at the Cathedral of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia, a church in Munich not far from Schmorell’s grave. On the far side of the cemetery, at Stadelheim Prison, Schmorell was beheaded on 13 July 1943. He was only 25 at the time. He was an Orthodox Christian who had put his life at risk by being part of a anti-Nazi resistance group.

The canonization got underway on Saturday afternoon, February 3, as people began to gather in the church. Aware that the reporters and cameramen present would need certain photos before the ceremonies started, Fr. Nikolai Artemoff, dean of the cathedral, brought out the icon of Alexander Schmorell in anticipation of its formal presentation later in the day. Many photos were taken, a pre-canonization ceremony that would not have been imagined in earlier centuries. The icon showed Alexander Schmorell as the tall, brown-haired young man he was, wearing the white robe of a physician with a Red Cross arm band (he had been a medical student at Munich’s Maximilian University), his left hand raised in a gesture of greeting, the other holding a blood-red cross plus a white rose. He is standing against a pure gold background representing eternity and the kingdom of God.

As Father Nikolai explained to the journalists, the white rose in his hand symbolizes the White Rose group Schmorell co-founded with Hans Scholl in the spring of 1942. Before the arrests began the following February, the group succeeded — assisted by friends in many German and Austrian cities and towns — in widely distributing a series of six anti-Nazi leaflets. All six members of the core group were guillotined. (The story is powerfully told in an the Oscar-nominated film, “Sophie Scholl – The Final Days,” much of which was photographed in Munich.)

Press photos taken and interviews completed, at about 4 PM a procession of about two hundred people set out led by a cross bearer. Behind the cross were six bishops: Archbishop Mark (who leads the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia in Germany), Metropolitan Valentin of Orenburg (the Russian city where Schmorell was born), Metropolitan Onufriy of Czernowitz in Ukraine, Archbishop Feofan of Berlin, Bishop Michael of Geneva, and Bishop Agapit of Stuttgart. How many priests? I lost count.

The frigid air was challenging — it was about 15 degrees below zero Centigrade (5 degrees Fahrenheit), with snow and ice on the ground. Though the cemetery, Perlacher Forst, was just across the street, its entrance was several hundred meters away. Once inside the gate, we wound our way through tombstone-lined paths, first stopping to pray at the graves of Hans and Sophie School, the brother and sister who were the first to be executed from the White Rose group, and Christoph Probst, beheaded the same day — 22 February 1943. Here three tall black crosses stand side by side, a single cross piece linking the crosses over the Scholl graves. Sophie, the one woman in the White Rose inner circle, and the youngest, was 21 when she was killed. Today many German streets and squares are named in honor of Sophie and Hans Scholl, Alexander Schmorell, Christoph Probst and others executed for their part in the White Rose. Hans and Sophie came from a closely-knit Lutheran family. Christoph Probst was baptized in the Catholic Church a day before his execution.

Archpriest Nikolai Artemoff placing a candle of the grave of St Alexander Schmorell

The procession than continued to Alexander Schmorell’s resting place, not far away. A bouquet of white roses was resting against the rough surface of the tombstone and more flowers heaped over the grave. Embedded in the stone was a bronze Russian Orthodox crucifix. Memorial prayers — a panikhida — was sung, concluding with the melodic two-word chant, Vyechnaya Pamyat (eternal memory), sung repeatedly by all present. Every year there has been a panikhida sung at this grave on the 13th of July, the anniversary of Schmorell’s death, but this was the final panikhida. Now that he has been officially glorified, future services at his grave no longer have a penitential character.

The high point of the day came during the Saturday evening Vigil, which began at 5 PM and lasted three-and-a-half hours, by which time an almost full moon was shining through the windows. In the middle of the service, several icon stands were placed in the center of the church with candle stands behind. At least a hundred candles were lit, forming a curtain of light. Finally a procession of bishops, clergy and altar servers poured out of the sanctuary carrying an icon of Saint Alexander Schmorell followed by another icon crowded with images of New Martyrs of the twentieth century. Next came a huge silver-bound Gospel book, a copy that had been a gift from Russia’s last czar, Nicholas II, to Russian Orthodox Christians in Germany. The two icons and the Gospel book were solemnly placed side by side on the stands, then incensed. Finally everyone in the church, beginning with the six bishops, venerated the icon of the newly recognized saint.

“When they brought out the icon,” Nancy told me later that night, “it was such a climax, with the servers holding all those fans over the icons and the choir singing with such exaltation. It was as it there were neon arrows pointing at the icon of Alexander Schmorell and saying, ‘This is what really matters.’ It’s the Church pulling out all the stops. They couldn’t do more to make you look in that direction and feel the importance, the challenge, of this brave life. You couldn’t not get it. This is what the Church does in interpreting human events and letting us know what’s truly valuable. This is something that requires all the ceremony the Church is capable of. But it’s not ceremony for its own sake. It’s all meant to confront us with the inner meaning of a young man putting his head on the chopping block. The canonization ceremony pulls you out of ordinary time and confronts you with the message: consider this life and let it influence your own.”

At the Liturgy the following morning, the church was even more crowded than it had been for the Vigil. We were jammed together like cigarettes in a carton — it was challenging to make the sign of the cross without grazing your neighbors with your elbows. Perhaps as many people were present as would fill the church for the All-Night Easter service. (Also present on Sunday– given a special chair placed at the right end of the iconostasis — was Bishop Engelbert Siebler, representing the Catholic Archdiocese of Munich.)

In the Orthodox Church every Sunday is regarded as a little Easter, but rarely have I experienced so intense a paschal radiance. Resurrection was at the heart of Father Nikolai’s sermon, delivered just before communion. He reminded us that the name the White Rose group adopted for itself had been proposed by Alexander Schmorell. His suggestion came from a story in the novel The Brothers Karamazov, written by Schmorell’s most beloved author, Dostoevsky. In one chapter Christ comes back to earth, “softly, unobserved, and yet, strange to say, every one recognized Him.” He is suddenly present among the many people in Seville’s cathedral square, a place were the pavement is still warm from the burning of a hundred heretics. Responding to a mother’s desperate appeal, Christ raises from the dead a young girl whose open coffin was being carried across the square on its way to the cemetery. Flowers have been laid on her body. “The procession halts, the coffin is laid on the steps at [Christ’s] feet. He looks with compassion, and His lips softly pronounce the words, ‘Maiden, arise!’ and she arises. The little girl sits up in the coffin and looks round, smiling with wide-open wondering eyes, holding a bunch of white roses they had put in her hand.” This merciful action completed, he is recognized by the Grand Inquisitor, who orders Christ’s arrest.

The white rose is a paschal symbol, a sign of the victory of life over death.

That Alexander Schmorell would one day be canonized at this cathedral had been evident for years. He is shown among of a row of twenty-two martyrs of the twentieth-century included in an icon that has long been part of the cathedral’s iconostasis. After the Liturgy and the emptying out of the church, I went to look more carefully at that older icon. Schmorell is easily picked out — there he is, in the first row, third from the right, wearing a white robe. What is remarkable is that, within the group, he alone group has no halo, for at the time the icon was painted canonization was only anticipated. In one hand he holds a thin cross, in the other a scroll with these words taken from his last letter to his parents:

“This difficult ‘misfortune’ was necessary to put me on the right road, and therefore was no misfortune at all…. What did I know until now about belief, about a true and deep belief, about the truth, the last and only truth, about God? Never forget God!!”

One can imagine future icons of Saint Alexander of Munich will often use the same text while other iconographers may decide to use his last words, spoken to his lawyer as he was being taken to the guillotine: “I’m convinced that my life has to end now, early as it seems, because I have fulfilled my life’s mission. I wouldn’t know what else I have to do on this earth.”

In a time when fear is being sold every minute of the day, every day of the year — where would the “war on terror” be were we not prisoners of fear? — the pilgrimage to Munich to honor a saint who had freed himself from the tyranny of fear gave me an injection of pure courage.

(report written 9 February 2012)

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Extracts from Fr Nikolai Artemoff’s sermon:

Holy New Martyrs are glorified by the Church because, in the particular circumstances of their own times, they bore a clear witness to Christ and in so doing sacrificed their own lives. On July 13, 1943 Alexander Schmorell was executed by means of the guillotine in Munich’s Stadelheim Prison. On Sunday (in Russian, the “day of resurrection”) the 5th of February 2012, he shall take his place among the band of New Martyrs of Russia, to whom this cathedral church is dedicated.

The death of a martyr is always comprised of both the love for Christ as well as, through this love, the exposure of wickedness of evildoers in this world, and therefore also those who pave the way for Satan and his complict servant, the antichrist.

Alexander Schmorell’s favorite book was The Brothers Karamazov, from which the name “White Rose” hails, as a symbol of purity and resurrection (as evidenced in the resurrection of the girl at the appearance of Christ in Seville at the beginning of the “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor”). The path of Alexander Schmorell led from religious instruction which he received from priests in Munich, to the contribution of an Orthodox worldview via F.M. Dostoevsky in the catagorical repudiation of both regimes, enemies of man and idols that they have become of the “Fueher”, Hitler, as well as of Stalin, both nationalist and socialist. The “White Rose” considered Nazi rule as anti-Christian, but for Alexander Schmorell, no less anti-Christian was the regime in which his beloved was enslaved — Bolshevism. “I admit to my love of Russia without reservation. Therefore I also stand in opposition to Bolshevism.”

The last flyer of the White Rose primarily authored by Alexander Schmorell (Nr. IV) witnesses to his concept of the spiritual dimensions of this struggle in the name of God and his Son, Christ. He wrote:

“When he [that is, Hitler] blasphemously uses the name of the Almighty, he means the power of evil, the fallen angel, Satan. His mouth is the foul-smelling maw of Hell, and his might is at bottom accursed. True, we must conduct a struggle against the National Socialist terrorist state with rational means; but whoever today still doubts the reality, the existence of demonic powers, has failed by a wide margin to understand the metaphysical background of this war. Behind the concrete, the visible events, behind all objective, logical considerations, we find the irrational element: The struggle against the demon, against the servants of the Antichrist. Everywhere and at all times demons have been lurking in the dark, waiting for the moment when man is weak; when of his own volition he leaves his place in the order of Creation as founded for him by God in freedom; when he yields to the force of evil, separates himself from the powers of a higher order; and after voluntarily taking the first step, he is driven on to the next and the next at a furiously accelerating rate. Everywhere and at all times of greatest trial men have appeared, prophets and saints who cherished their freedom, who preached the One God and who with His help brought the people to a reversal of their downward course. Man is free, to be sure, but without the true God he is defenseless against the principle of evil. He is a like rudderless ship, at the mercy of the storm, an infant without his mother, a cloud dissolving into thin air.

“I ask you, you as a Christian wrestling for the preservation of your greatest treasure, whether you hesitate, whether you incline toward intrigue, calculation, or procrastination in the hope that someone else will raise his arm in your defense? Has God not given you the strength, the will to fight? […] Though we know that National Socialist power must be broken by military means, we are trying to achieve a renewal from within of the severely wounded German spirit.”

(with thanks to Katja Yurschak for the translation of Fr. Nikolai’s words)

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Hymns sung at the glorification of Saint Alexander of Munich (annual commemoration day July 13):

Troparion, tone 4:

Today a light adorns our glorious city, / having within it your holy relics, O Holy Martyr Alexander; / for which sake pray to Christ God / that He deliver us from all tribulations, / for gathered together in love we celebrate your radiant memory / imitating your bravery, / standing against the godless powers and enemies.

Kontakion, tone 4:

From your mother you did inherit the love of Christ, / and through the love of your care-giver you were nourished in the fear of God, O all-glorious one, / to Whom you did give thyself, O all-honorable Alexander, / and you diligently pray with the angels. / Entreat on behalf of all who honor your memory a forgiveness of their sins.

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A section of the web site of the Cathedral of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia is devoted to St Alexander Schmorell, with texts both in Russian and German:

A biographical essay (“Alexander Schmorell: a Witness in Dark Times”) is here: www.jimandnancyforest.com/2011/02/02/alexander-schmorell-a-witness-in-dark-times/

Russian translation of “Alexander Schmorell: a Witness in Dark Times”: http://www.sobor.de/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=272:alexander-schmorell-a-witness-in-dark-times&catid=79:alexander-schmorell-verherrlichung&Itemid=109&lang=ru

An English translation of Schmorell’s letters from prison:

A set of photos of the canonization:

A set of photos having to do of the White Rose:

Wikipedia entry about the White Rose:

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Jim Forest is international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship — www.incommunion.org — and is the author of many books — see: http://www.jimandnancyforest.com/books/ . He belongs to St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam and lives in Alkmaar, the Netherlands.

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A Visit to Beit Jala

by Jim Forest

Beit Jala, with its population of 12,350, stands on the eastern slopes of Ras Jala, which rises 920 meters above sea level, one of the highest mountains in the Judean Hills. The town is famous for its olives and olive oil, apricots and skilled stone-cutters. Viewed from a distance, Beit Jala — “carpet of grass” in Aramaic– is simply the western side of Bethlehem, only on higher ground. The border between the two towns is the road that runs south from Jerusalem to Hebron. The main street connecting Bethlehem and Beit Jala — part of it a stairway — is a busy pedestrian artery named in honor of Pope Paul VI. Along the way there are many posters honoring Palestinians who had died in the intifada, from infants killed by accident to suicide bombers. The buildings are two or three storeys high with shops on the ground floor. In ancient times, Beit Jala may have been the Biblical town of Gallim, mentioned by the Prophet Isaiah in relation to the Assyrian invasion in the eighth century before Christ, a time of even greater suffering.

Beit Jala is also one of the main Palestinian centers of Christianity. Approximately 70 percent of the community are Orthodox Christians, 20 percent Catholic, and the rest Muslim. There are three Orthodox churches, a Catholic church and seminary, and a mosque.

Beit Jala is also one of the Palestinian places most damaged by Israeli firepower since the current intifada began in September 2000, just after Sharon’s infamous visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Hundreds of houses have been damaged, many destroyed or made uninhabitable. No one goes to sleep without taking care to be in the safest possible location.

I visited the town in the eleventh month of the current conflict, often referred to both in Israel and Palestine as “the situation.”

In conversation with a taxi driver in the town center, I had the good luck to meet someone not only welcoming but remarkably open and articulate. I will refer to him as Michael, not using his actual name.

I asked if anyone in his family had been hurt in the conflict.

“No, thank God, but we have had some very close calls. There has been serious damage in the upper part of our house but no one was injured, at least not physically. Only one of my daughters — she is seven — has been having terrible nightmares and headaches. My wife and I also have trouble sleeping. But luckily we are not in the area of houses closest to Gilo. For now we are trying to stay in our house.”

Michael gave me a gift — a long, heavy, missile-shaped slug which still had its sharp point. It had shattered a window in his home before being stopped inside a living room couch. It’s a souvenir I didn’t bring back home with me — it’s not the kind of object I would want to explain to a security agent at Ben Gurion Airport — but I have a photo of it in the taxi-driver’s hand.

I mentioned to him that I knew Gilo from the period in 1985 when I was teaching at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute, a place in the immediate neighborhood both of Beit Jala and Gilo, the one community southwest of us, the other west. At the time, Anne was still a baby and Gilo — a young town itself, only fifteen years old — was the one place in walking distance where disposable diapers were for sale in those days. These were sold at an American-style supermarket, but Nancy preferred to do most of our food shopping at traditional open-air Arab markets along the roads to Bethlehem and Beit Jala. Gilo — as new as the nearby Palestinian towns were ancient — was built on land confiscated from Beit Jala and the adjacent village of Beit Safafa. It’s one of the belt of fortress-like settlements Israel has established that circle East Jerusalem. Another substantial settlement, Har Homa, is now under construction on another confiscated hilltop immediately north of Bethlehem.

“Doesn’t anybody care about us?” Michael asked. These were words I heard over and over again from Palestinians in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and then Beit Jala. “Not many of us wish any harm to the Israelis. We want to live side-by-side with them and raise our children in peace. For us who are Christian, it is especially hard — radical Israelis on one side, radical Muslims on the other. These fanatics will be our death. Fanatics are a minority but more and more they seem to be the ones in charge. I pray every day for God to protect us and also ask St. Nicholas to help us.”

The oldest Christian church in Beit Jala is named in honor of St. Nicholas. I had already been in the church for a visit. There were icons of Nicholas everywhere I turned, including one carved from red stone on a pillar in the crypt.

“We Christians are only two percent of the Palestinian population. Our only hope of survival is to live in peace with all our neighbors, whether Jewish or Muslim. Jesus killed no one. He hated no one. He gives us the example of peace.”

I asked if anyone was helping the local people rebuild damaged houses.

“Thank God, the Vatican is helping us, but I am sorry to say we experience no support from our own Orthodox Church. Do Orthodox Christians in other countries not care about their brothers in the land where Christ was born? I am happy you came and only wish many more would come. Perhaps if they saw how we are living, what is happening to us, they would try to help. Perhaps they can have some influence on their governments. What can we do to stop the war? Only people in Europe and America can do that. Who else will the Israelis listen to? For them a Palestinian is hardly more than an animal. But we are human beings who only want to live in peace. We cannot live without the Israelis and they cannot live without us.”

I pointed out that news reports indicate that Israeli forces normally doesn’t shoot first at Beit Jala but open fire only in retaliation. Michael shook his head and lit a cigarette.

“I have to admit the Israelis are not our only problem. There are Palestinian radicals who shoot at Gilo and the army post that protects Gilo. The Palestinian Authority has issued orders that no one should attract fire on populated areas and peaceful homes but such orders have little effect. These men keep shooting — not every day but often. Sometimes they shoot from inside cars. Their only achievement is giving the Israelis an excuse to destroy our homes. I no longer can remember how many times we have been attacked in the last eleven months — thousands of bullets, also rockets and bombs, and who knows what is still to come? We are used to helicopter gunships over our houses. Perhaps next it will be tanks.”

I asked why anyone would shoot at Gilo if the real harm is done not to Gilo but to Beit Jala.

“We don’t think any of the people who fire shots from Beit Jala live here. They use Beit Jala because it is so close to Gilo. They use Beit Jala — and Gilo — to make Israel angry, to make the fire hotter. They think they are doing something brave, something for the liberation of Palestine, but all they do is give Israel an excuse to destroy Palestinian homes and cause more Palestinians to flee to other countries. There are fewer and fewer Christians in the Holy Land.”

I asked if he had ever visited Gilo or knew anyone from that town. That morning the taxi driver who brought me to the military checkpoint to the north of Bethlehem was from Gilo, a man whose parents had come to Israel from the Jewish community in Iraq.

“I was in Gilo when it was mainly olive groves — I gathered olives there with my family — but I wouldn’t dare to go there today, especially right now. Another place I would not dare enter is Har Gilo, a smaller settlement on the western edge of Beit Jala — you can walk there easily from here, only you have to pass through a military checkpoint. Har Gilo was created on Beit Jala land in 1976.”

I asked if he had any hope for better times in the future.

“Some days I have no hope at all and other days I thank God that we are still alive and that it is mainly our houses rather than our people which are destroyed. On those days I feel God is close and it gives me hope.”

His home is near the Church of the Virgin Mary, one of the largest churches in the Holy Land, built of cream white stone in the Byzantine style. “The bell tower is 31 meters high,” Michael said. “You can see Jerusalem from it, and the Jordanian desert.

The conversation with Michael was providential. A planned meeting with the senior Orthodox priest, Fr. George Shawan, came next and was the day’s main event.

A man with a close-clipped, greying beard, Fr. George is living in large house on Virgin Mary Street next to Beit Jala’s only mosque. Also in the house were his wife, mother and children, four of whom I met — Heidi, Christina, Natasha, and Stephanos, who is less than a year old. Also taking part in the visit was Dr. Solomon Nour, headmaster of Hope School, and Rose Saga, a member of his parish whom I knew through a mutual friend.

After lemonade was served, Fr. George told me why the town’s oldest church is named in honor of St. Nicholas.

“For us he is not Santa Claus but like our great great grandfather. We feel we know him personally. In the year 305, several monks from Anatolia in Asia Minor came here and established a small monastery with a church named in honor of the Great Martyr George. This was before St. Sava’s Monastery was founded in the desert east of Bethlehem on the Kidron Gorge near the Dead Sea. The monks in Beit Jala had a few caves and several houses. In the years 312-315, St. Nicholas was here. He came as a pilgrim to visit shrines in the Holy Land. A text written in his own hand is still in the care of the Patriarchate in Jerusalem. It was in his prayers that St. Nicholas heard the Holy Spirit call him back to Asia Minor, to Myra, where soon after his return — in 317 — he was consecrated bishop. We was among the bishops taking part in the first Ecumenical Council.”

I asked about the age of the present church.

“The ancient church was destroyed by the Persians in 614 but another was raised in its place and later also destroyed. It has been built and rebuilt several times, but our local people are very skilled stone workers and never let a church stay in ruins for long. It is said that the people of Beit Jala can make the stone talk!

“But now we are facing another period of destruction. In the past 20 years much of our land has been confiscated and thousands of olive trees destroyed. Many people have been displaced. The Israeli town of Gilo, immediately to the north, is built entirely on land taken from Beit Jala and another Palestinian village, Beit Safafa.”

His views about the violence of the past eleven months were similar to what I had been told by Michael the taxi driver.

“Radical gunmen — not local people — have used Beit Jala in order to fire shots at Gilo. Israel responds with bullets, rockets and bombs. So far 300 homes have been heavily damaged, 50 completely destroyed. Many more have been damaged less severely — broken windows, damage to the furnishings inside. When you think how much damage has been done, how many times Beit Jala has been attacked, it is a miracle there have been so few casualties!”

I asked where people who have been forced from their homes either by destruction or danger are staying.

“Sometimes they stay for a night or two in our churches. In most cases they find places away from the main lines of fire. The most dangerous area is in direct sight of Gilo, the north edge of town.”

Does he see a solution for the conflict?

“We continue to hope that the resolutions of the UN Security Council can be applied and that the way can be found for the Holy Land to be shared and all the people living here to respect and safeguard each other, but it seems to us that Israel’s wishes are quite different. Israel wants everything and controls everything. Israel closes every road. I am afraid to go anywhere. Often it is impossible to visit people who are ill or close to death and need a priest. Even our school, a 20-minute walk from here, is on the other side of a checkpoint.”

I asked if the local people continue in Beit Jala under such circumstances.

“Beit Jala has been a center of Christian life in the Holy land for nearly 2000 years and has survived many catastrophes, but now our Christian community is shrinking, partly because of the violence, but mainly because of our severe economic problems. The most urgent thing for our people is to find jobs and, in the case of newly married couples, to have a place to live. Because of the economic situation, young couples are unable to rent or buy a home or apartment. This is one of the reasons so many of our young people are leaving for America or Jordan or other countries.”

But is housing a question for the Church?

“The Church cannot say this is their problem, not our problem. The Church begins with the family. Without it, there is no Church. We are not a religion of individuals but of families.”

I asked if the Church had the funds for building.

“Our hope is that we can find friends in other countries who can help with long-term, low-interest loans. We have two projects in mind. The first is a housing project especially for young couples. The Church owns the land — it is only a question of putting up the buildings. Our plan is to put up several building with a total 40 apartments costing $50,000 each. Thus we need to borrow $2,000,000. The couples will pay back the loans over a 30-year period.”

The headmaster of the Hope School, Dr. Nour, described one other plan. He has been at the school for 31 years.

“We want to add an additional floor to Hope School and make it a college, adding business administration and computer courses, also new language courses such as Greek. Until now it has been a secondary school with 125 students, 20 of whom are residential because they are orphans. The ages range from twelve to eighteen. Our local Arab Orthodox Benevolent Society owns the building but we have not been able to run it ourselves because we didn’t have enough money. The school has gradually been moving in a more Orthodox direction. The Mennonites who have been responsible for the school are willing that it be taken over by the local community — but we can only do so with outside help, though we are raising part of the school’s costs with self-support and work-study projects like our chicken farm, which raises three to five percent of the budget.”

“We are often given small gifts by caring people from other countries — food and clothing,” said Fr. George, “but what we really need is help in strengthening the structures of community. We can do a lot with our own hands, anything that does not require a lot of money. The future of the people of Beit Jala depends on such help! Without it the day will come when pilgrims will come here and find our churches buildings but not our believing people.”

I promised to make the projects known and can only hope that support can be found. Fr. George will soon be sending me detailed proposals to make available to anyone who will try to help. The sums of money needed are so tiny compared to the costs of war.

Fr. George was suddenly called away to visit a sick member of the parish. Dr. Nour excused himself as he had to return to the school. In their absence, Fr. George’s mother took charge, serving us stuffed eggplant and tomato soup.

While the meal was being eaten the sad news came that a suicide bomber had killed himself and at least twelve others — the next day the number was fifteen — at a pizza restaurant in west Jerusalem, not far from the guest house where I was staying.

“It is terrible news,” Rose Saga said. “It is the first bomb in Jerusalem since the intifada started. The Israelis will certainly respond heavily. It’s not safe in Beit Jala. You had better leave.” This meant putting off till a future time a visit planned for that day with her family.

Rose accompanied me to the square where the taxi stand is located. There would be one taxi with green plates to take me as far as the checkpoint near Tantur, then a walk across the border with my western passport, then another taxi with yellow plates into Jerusalem.

I told Rose on parting how much the visit had meant to me.

“No one comes here without his life being changed,” she replied.

* * *


Shortly after midnight on August 28, just 18 days after my visit, Israeli forces entered Beit Jala, taking up positions in various buildings, including the Church of the Virgin Mary, the Arab Orthodox Club, a Lutheran-sponsored orphanage, a girls’ school, and several homes. One Palestinian policeman was killed and ten Palestinians wounded. The occupation followed sniper fire from Beit Jala aimed at nearby Gilo. Israel radio said 31 apartments were damaged. Israeli troops responded with heavy machine gun and tank fire, then sent in tanks, armored personnel carriers and bulldozers.”

Israelis imprisoned more than 40 people in houses that were used as bases.

As the Israelis blasted away with machine guns from the upper stories of his lavish home, Sami Shehadeh, 27, a lawyer, was held under guard for two days in a bedroom with relatives, half of them children. “It was really frightening because the shooting was coming from inside our house. We were flat on our bellies, and had no way of knowing what was going on around us.”

In her house, 12-year-old Razan Rabiyeh said she held a Bible and a small wooden cross during the attack “in order to feel protected.”

Reached by mobile phone during the attack, Father George Shawan said he was speaking not from his home but a tiny dwelling which in recent days had been crammed with children as young as two, hiding from gun battles. “If President Bush read the Bible well, he would not be sending missiles and bombs to fall on us.”

The Independent, a British newspaper, reported that “while life continued as normal in the Gilo, the Arabs in the old villas across the valley — many of them middle-class professionals who used to work with Israelis — did not seek this conflict and have long resented the Palestinian gunmen who have been coming in to fire at settlers.”

“The takeover is a tragedy for residents of Beit Jala … the least likely people to take arms against Israel,” another British daily, The Telegraph reported. It quoted a Beit Jala resident saying: “We cannot tell the [Palestinian] gunmen to go away. They do not listen. They tell us that Beit Jala is no better than anywhere else, and we should share the suffering of the struggle.”

The occupation ended on its third day.

— JF

published in the summer 2001 issue of In Communion / addendum re Beit Jala’s occupation added 25 August 2001

Becoming Orthodox

by Jim Forest

I am sometimes asked how the son of atheist parents ended up not only a Christian but a member of the Orthodox Church.

In fact it wasn’t so big a leap as it sounds. For starters my parents weren’t people for whom atheism was a religion unto itself. Their atheism seemed to mainly to do with being on the Left. Their real interest was in the down-and-out — people who were being treated like beasts, underpaid or jobless, trapped in slums, without health care, etc. When I was growing up, they were both Communists. It was part of Marxist dogma that there was no god. For them it was not so much a question of agreeing with that tenet of Marxism as not disagreeing. In fact both of them had been shaped and inspired by their religious roots. Mother was a Methodist Communist, my father a Catholic Communist. Mother’s parents, both devout Methodists, raised their children to take Christianity seriously, and with an eye to its social implications. Dad, a fervent Catholic in his youth, had once looked forward to becoming a priest.

I was born in November 1941 in the Vatican of Mormonism, Salt Lake City, Utah. At the time my Father was working as regional organizer for the Communist Party and my Mother was a social worker. When I asked about Mormons later in life, Mother spoke with respect of the ways Mormons helped each other when anyone was out of work or facing other troubles. However, she tended to judge religion by how attentive its members were not just to each other but to the woes of the world. On that score, the Mormons didn’t impress her.

During the several years that followed, I have only splinters of memory. There is a photo of me when I was about a year old, standing upright while my mother, wearing a beret and smoking a cigarette, is sitting on a park bench in a Chicago park. Later we lived in Denver, where my brother, Richard, was born in 1943. Dad was in the Army part of the Second World War, stationed in Hawaii. In 1944 Dad fell in love with a Communist Party co-worker and filed for divorce. During the next decade, he was an occasional visitor whose home was far away. Remarkably, divorce didn’t seem to embitter Mother. I cannot recall her ever speaking ill of Dad.

Following the divorce, my mother, brother and I moved to Red Bank, New Jersey. This was the town where Mother had grown up in. While her parents by then had both died, her sister and brother-in-law were living there. It took some good will and squeezing, but we lived with them until we had a house of our own. Mother’s identification with people on the other side of the tracks brought us to buy a bungalow on the other side of the tracks, a small house in a mainly black neighborhood where indoor plumbing, such as we had, was still the exception. Many local roads were unpaved. One neighbor, Libby, nearly a century old and black as coal, had been born in slavery days in Tennessee, where my grandmother had been raised. Earlier in Libby’s life she had worked in my grandparents’ house.

Radical music was part of our upbringing. Mother hadn’t much of a voice, but from time to time sang such songs as “This Land is Your Land,” “Joe Hill” and “The Internationale” with its line, “Arise ye prisoners of starvation, arise ye wretched of the earth, for justice thunders condemnation, a better’s world’s in birth.” These were, for Mother, not so much songs as hymns to be sung with Methodist enthusiasm. On our wind-up 78 rpm record player, we played records of Paul Robeson, the Weavers, Burl Ives and Pete Seeger, all singers whose voices tilted to the Left. From these I learned a number of spirituals — songs about baptism, salvation, laying down my sword and shield, crossing the River Jordan with angelic chariots swinging low. The music of the black Christianity was the one of the few acceptable sources of religion for American radicals. I also sometimes heard spirituals being sung when I walked past the nearby African Methodist Episcopal Church.

In her youth, while a student at Smith College, Mother had reached the conclusion that religion was mythology, yet I doubt she ever fully abandoned belief in God. She never said a critical word about religious faith. When I was eight or so, I asked her if there was a God and was impressed by the regret in her voice when she said she didn’t think so. Even more than her answer, her sadness remained with me. Why such sorrow? Clearly she missed the Methodist Church she had grown up in. Especially at Easter and Christmas, religious homesickness got the better of her and so we attended Methodist services, sitting up in the balcony. One year she sent my brother and me to the church’s summer school. While this was a help for her as a working mother (she was a psychiatric social worker on the staff of a state mental hospital in Marlboro), I have no doubt she hoped my brother and I would soak up the kind of information about the deeper meaning of life that she had received as a child.

The minister of the church, Roger Squire, was an exceptional man whose qualities included a gift for noticing people in balconies and connecting with children. His occasional visits to our house were delightful events for my brother and me. Only as an adult did it cross my mind how remarkable it was, with the Cold War in full swing, that he would make it a point to come into our unglamourous neighborhood to knock on the kitchen door of a home that contained a Communist and her two sons.

One of the incidents that marked me as a child was the hospitality of the Squire family to two young women from Hiroshima and Nagasaki who had survived the nuclear bombing but were badly scarred. American religious peace groups had brought them and others to the United States for plastic surgery and found them temporary homes in and near New York City — not an easy undertaking for hosts in the fifties when the word “peace” was regarded by many as a synonym for Communist sympathies and when many people had no desire to think about, not to say see with their own eyes, what American nuclear bombs had done to actual people. In fact, I could only guess at the results myself, as the faces of the two women were draped with veils of silk. Through them, I learned about the human cost of war and the effects of nuclear weapons, and through the Squire family I had a sturdy idea of what it meant to conform one’s life to the Gospel rather than to politics and the opinions of neighbors.

Yet the Methodist Church as such didn’t excite me. While I was always glad to see Rev. Squire and enjoyed the stories and jokes he sprinkled in sermons to underline his points, long-time sitting is hard work for a child. I felt no urge to be baptized. Neither was I won over by the nearby Dutch Reformed Church which, due to a neighbor’s invitation, I attended for a few weeks and which I remember best for its unsuccessful attempt to get me to memorize the Ten Commandments.

The big event in my religious development as a child was thanks to a school friend inviting me Christ Episcopal Church in nearby Shrewsbury. It was among the oldest buildings in our region, its white clapboard scarred with musket balls fired in the Revolutionary war. The blood of dying soldiers had stained the church’s pews and floor, and though the stains could no longer be seen, it stirred me to think about what had happened there.

What engaged me still more was the form of worship, which was altar- rather than pulpit-centered. It was an Episcopal parish in which sacraments and ritual activity were the main events. (Being a parent has helped me realize that ritual is something that children naturally like. For all the experiments we make as children, we are born conservatives who want our parents to operate in predictable, patterned, reliable ways. We want meals to be on the table at a certain time and in a specific way, and in general like to know what to expect. We want the ordinary events of life to have what now I think of as a liturgical shape.)

I didn’t know it at the time, but the parish would have been described by many Episcopalians as “high church” — vestments, acolytes, candles, processions, incense, liturgical seasons with their special colors, much of the service in plain chant, communion every Sunday. The result was that I got a taste of a more ancient form of Christianity than I had found among Methodists or other Protestants. For the first time in my life, I wanted to be part of it. It was in this church that, age ten, I was baptized. I became an acolyte (thus getting to wear a bright red robe with crisp white surplice) and learned to assist the pastor, Father Theodore La Van, at the altar. His baptismal gift to me was an ancient Byzantine coin that bore a relief image of Christ on one side.

I learned much of the Book of Common Prayer by heart and rang a bell when the bread and wine were being consecrated. In Sunday school after the service I learned something of the history of Christianity, its sources and traditions, with much attention to Greek words. I remember Father La Van writing “Eucharist” on the blackboard in both English and Greek, explaining it meant thanksgiving, and that it was made up of smaller Greek words that meant “well” and “grace.” The Eucharist was a well of grace. Such lessons put the ancient world in reaching distance.

But the friendship which had brought me to the church in the first place fell apart later that year and Father La Van was dismissed. Years later I was told some in the parish thought he drank too much. I found other things to do with my Sundays than go to church. My religious interest went into recess. Within a year or two I was trying to make up my mind whether I was an atheist or an agnostic. I decided on the latter, because I couldn’t dismiss the sense I often had of God being real. Like my parents, I loved nature and wilderness, and these suggested to me the existence of God. Wherever I looked, whether at ants with a magnifying glass or at the moon with a telescope, everything in the natural order was awe-inspiring, and awe is a religious state of mind. Creation made it impossible for me to dismiss God, even if it was a rather impersonal God — God as prime mover rather than God among us.

It wasn’t until 1959, when I was turning 18, that I began to think more deeply about religion and what God might mean in my life. By then I had dropped out of high school and joined the Navy. Lately out of boot camp, I was studying meteorology at the Navy Weather School at the Naval Air Base in Lakehurst, New Jersey.

At the turning point in his life, St. Paul was struck blind on the road to Damascus. The equivalent moment in my own life is linked to a more prosaic setting: Saturday night at the movies. The film at the base theater that night happened to be “The Nun’s Story,” based on the autobiography of a Belgian woman who entered a convent and later worked at a missionary hospital in the African Congo. In the end, the nun (played by Audrey Hepburn) became an ex-nun. Conscience was at the heart of the story: conscience leading a young woman into the convent and eventually leading her elsewhere, but never away from her faith. I later discovered the film was much criticized in the Catholic press for its portrayal both of loneliness and of the abuse of authority in religious community.

If it had been Hollywood’s usual religious movie of “The Bells of St. Mary’s” variety, it would have had no impact on my life. But this was a true story, well-acted and honestly told, and without a happy ending, though in the woman’s apparent failure as a nun one found both integrity and faith. Against the rough surface of the story, I had a compelling glimpse of the Catholic Church with its rich and complex structures of worship, community and service.

After the film I went for a walk, heading away from the buildings and sidewalks. It was a clear August evening. Gazing at the stars, I felt an overwhelming happiness such as I had never known. This seemed to rise up through the grass and to shower down on me in the starlight. I felt I was floating on God’s love like a leaf on water. I was deeply aware that everything that is or was or ever will be is joined together in God. For the first time in my life, the blackness beyond the stars wasn’t terrifying.

I didn’t think much about the film itself that night, except for a few words of Jesus that had been read to the novices during their first period of formation and which seemed to recite themselves within me as I walked: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you have, and give it to the poor, and you will have great treasure in heaven, and come, follow me.” I had nothing to sell but the words “follow me” landed in the core of my being.

I went to sleep that night eager to go to Mass. I knew I wanted to return to Christianity and was strongly drawn to Catholicism.

The next morning I went to a nearby Catholic church but found the Mass disappointing. I felt like an anthropologist observing a strange tribal rite. I had only a vague idea what was happening. There seemed little connection between the priest and the congregation. Most of the worship was in mumbled, hurried, often inaudible Latin. As for the sermon, probably I would have preferred it had it been in Latin. People in the pews seemed either bored or were concentrating on their rosaries. At least they knew when to sit, stand, and kneel. I struggled awkwardly to keep up with them. At the end of Mass, there was no exchange of greetings or further contact between people who had been praying together. Catholic worship seemed to have all the intimacy of people waiting in a bus station.

I started looking for a church where there was engagement and beauty and at least something of what I had hoped to find in Catholicism. The Anglo-Catholic segment of the Episcopal Church, which I had begun to know as a child, seemed the obvious choice, and it happened that another sailor at the Weather School had grown up in such a parish. He shared his Book of Common Prayer with me and, in the weeks that followed, we occasionally read its services of morning and evening prayer together.

After graduating, I spent a two-week Christmas leave in an Episcopal monastery — Holy Cross — on the Hudson River not far from West Point, a joyous experience in which I thought I had found everything I was hoping for in the Catholic Church: liturgy, the sacraments, and a religious community that combined prayer, study and service to others. Having been assigned to a Navy unit at the Weather Bureau in Washington, D.C., I joined a local Episcopal parish, St. Paul’s, which the monks at Holy Cross had told me about.

Those months were full of grace. So why am I not writing an essay on “Why I am an Episcopalian”? Perhaps the main item was that I had never quite let go of the Catholic Church. I could never walk past a Catholic church without stopping in to pray. A hallmark of the Catholic Church was that the Blessed Sacrament was reserved on or near the altar awaiting anyone who came in. Its presence meant this wasn’t just a room that came to life from time to time when Mass was being celebrated, but a place where many of the curtains that usually hide God were lifted, even if you were the only person present. In those days, the doors of Catholic churches always seemed open.

Another factor were many excellent books that found their way into my hands — among these, Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man, and The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement.

There were negative elements as well. One of these was an experience at the Episcopal monastery I had first visited at Christmas. Back in the Spring for Easter, on the last day of my stay one of the monks asked to see me in the visitors’ room. Once there, he embraced and kissed me. With some difficulty, I struggled free and later that day returned by bus to Washington. From there I wrote to the prior of the community, telling him what had happened. His reply wasn’t helpful. He might have pointed out that monks, like everyone else, sometimes suffer loneliness and may sexual longings of one sort or another and sometimes don’t manage them very well. Rather he said that homosexuality was often an indication of a monastic vocation. As my own sexual orientation was of the more common variety, I wondered if the prior meant I wasn’t the right sort of person to be visiting. After his letter, I had no desire to return. The experience added to my growing doubts about remaining in the Episcopal Church, uncomfortably divided as it was into high, low and middle liturgical strata.

Yet I still had reservations about becoming Catholic and so began to explore the varieties of Christianity in Washington, visiting every sort of church, black and white, high and low. Among them was a Greek Orthodox cathedral, but I sensed one had to be Greek to be a part of it. I returned several times to the black church on the campus of Howard University, a friendly place with wonderful singing, but felt that, as a white person, I would always be an outsider. If I could have changed skin color by wishing, I would have been tempted to turn black in the Howard chapel.

As the weeks went by I came to realize that the Catholic churches I so often stopped in to pray were places in which I felt an at-homeness I hadn’t found anywhere else. On November 26,1960, after several months of instruction, I was received into the Catholic Church.

What had most attracted me to Catholicism was the Liturgy, in its basics the same no matter where one was. Though in some parishes it was a dry, mechanical affair, there were other parishes where the care taken in every aspect of worship was profound. While for some people, worship in an ancient language is a barrier, in my own case I came to love the Latin. Luckily I had studied Latin in high school. I was happy to be participating in a language of worship that was being used simultaneously in every part of the world and which also was a bridge of connection with past generations. I learned many Latin prayers by heart, especially anything that could be sung. “To sing is to pray twice,” one of the Church Fathers says. How true!

In the mid-sixties, in the early stages of liturgical change following the Second Vatican Council, I felt a complex mixture of expectation, gratitude and anxiety. Despite my private love of Latin, I could hardly disagree with the compelling arguments put forward for scrapping it. I didn’t want to hang onto what clearly got in the way for others. Unfortunately, the Englishing of the Liturgy was not carried out by poets. We ended up with the English language in its flattest state. In the process we lost not only Latin but Gregorian chant, a great pity. Most of the music that took its place was pedestrian. The body language of prayer was in retreat. The holy water fonts inside church entrances were often dry.

Yet, like most Catholics, I uttered few words of complaint. I knew that change is not a comfortable experience. And I thought of myself as a modern person. I was embarrassed by my difficulties adjusting to change. Also I had no sense of connection with those who were protesting the changes. These tended to be the rigid Catholics of the sort who were more papal than the Pope and politically on the far right. (I had never been attracted to that icy wing of Catholicism that argued one must be a Catholic, and a most obedient Catholic, in order to be saved.)

All this said, there was a positive side to Catholicism that in many ways compensated for what was missing in the Liturgy. For all its problems, which no church is without, the Catholic Church has the strength of being a world community in which many members see themselves as being on the same footing as fellow Catholics on the other side of the globe, in contrast with many Christians who see their church first of all as a national institution. The Catholic Church also possesses a strong sense of co-responsibility for the social order, and a relatively high degree of independence from all political and economic structures.

This aspect of the Catholic Church finds many expressions. I had joined one of them, the Catholic Worker movement, after being discharged from the Navy as a conscientious objector in the spring of 1961. Founded by Dorothy Day in 1933, the Catholic Worker is best known for its houses of hospitality — places of welcome mainly in run-down urban areas where those in need can receive food, clothing, and shelter. It is a movement in some ways similar to the early Franciscans, attempting to live out the Gospels in a simple, literal way. It is basic Christianity to have as little as possible — what Dorothy Day called voluntary poverty. Jesus said to do good to and pray for those who curse you, to love your enemies, to put away the sword; and Catholic Workers try to do this as well, refusing to take part in war or to sanction violence. The Catholic Worker view of the world is no less critical than that of the Prophets and the New Testament.

I also found in the Catholic Worker movement a remarkable interest in the writings of the Church Fathers. One often encountered quotations from St. John Chrysostom, Saint Basil, St. Gregory Nazianzen and other voices of the early Church in movement’s widely read publication, The Catholic Worker.

One of the surprises in getting to know Dorothy Day was her special love for Russian literature, most of all the work of Dostoevsky. At times she recited passages from The Brothers Karamazov that had shaped her understanding of Christianity. Mainly these had to do with the saintly staretz Father Zosima and his teaching on active love — “love in action is often a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.” Dorothy all but demanded that I read Dostoevsky. She also had a deep appreciation of the liturgical life of the Eastern Church. It was Dorothy who first took me into a Russian Orthodox Church, a cathedral in upper Manhattan where I met a priest who, many years later, I was to meet again in Moscow, Father Matvay Stadniuk. (In 1988 he organized the first public project of voluntary service by Church members since Soviet power had launched its war on religion.) At a Liturgy Dorothy took me to, I first learned the Old Slavonic words Gospodi pomiloi (Lord have mercy), the most often repeated prayer in Orthodox worship services.

One evening Dorothy brought me to a Manhattan apartment for a meeting of the Third Hour, a Christian ecumenical discussion group founded by a Russian émigré, Helene Iswolsky. Participants that evening included the Orthodox theologian, Father Alexander Schmemann, the poet W.H. Auden, and Alexander Kerensky, who had been prime minister of Russia after the abdication of Czar Nicholas II and before the Bolshevik coup led by Lenin. As I recall, the conversation that evening was in part about the Russian word for spirituality, dukhovnost. The Russian understanding of spiritual life, it was explained, not only suggests a relationship between the praying person and God, but has profound social content: moral capacity, social responsibility, courage, wisdom, mercy, a readiness to forgive, a way of life centered in love. While much of the discussion flew over my head, I recall talk about iurodivi, the “holy fools” who revealed Christ in ways that would be regarded as insanity in the West, and stralniki, those who wandered Russia in endless pilgrimage, begging for bread and silently reciting with every breath and step the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Life at the Catholic Worker was never without surprises. One of them was the discovery of Dorothy’s friendship with the Trappist monk and author, Thomas Merton, whose autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, had been a factor in my becoming a Catholic. Thanks to Dorothy’s encouragement, I came to be one of Merton’s correspondents and later his guest at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Following that first visit, he and I exchanged letters frequently — a seven-year conversation by mail that ended only with his death in 1968.

I also found in Merton a special interest in Eastern Christianity. Merton occasionally sent me photographs of Russian and Byzantine icons. As I was to discover in writing a biography of him, icons had played an important part in his conversion to Christianity and remained significant to the end of his life.

Thanks mainly to Merton and Dorothy Day, I was more aware than many Western Christians of the Eastern Church, but I had no more thought about becoming Orthodox than a visitor to the zoo thinks about becoming a flamingo. Orthodoxy seemed to me more an ethnic club than a place for an American whose roots were mainly Dutch and Irish. What eventually converted my mainly academic interest to something more intimate and compelling was actual encounter with the Orthodox Church in Russia.

Once again, a turning point in my life was triggered by a movie. In the Fall of 1982, I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts to give a lecture at the Harvard Divinity School. One evening I joined my friend Robert Ellsberg in going to a local cinema to see “Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears,” a Soviet film that had just received an Academy Award. It was a story set in the Brezhnev years that follows three women who met by chance as roommates in a Moscow residence for women. The film follows their struggles to build careers and families. Despite differences in temperament and ambition, they create enduring friendships. The stories told are comic, tragic, convincing and socially revealing. Muscovites became quite three-dimensional and not simply cardboard figures living in the grey world of Communism.

What was so important to me at the time about this entirely non-political film was the window it opened on ordinary Russian life. Walking out of the theater, I realized I had spent a large part of my life trying to prevent war between the US and the Soviet Union — I had been secretary of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, then been part of the staff of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and now was General Secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, working at its headquarters in Holland — yet had never been to Russia or even thought of going. The awful truth was that I knew more about American weapons than about the people at whom they were aimed. The same was true of everyone I knew who was involved in peace work. It was a shocking realization.

I wondered how we could regard what we were doing as peace work if it mainly had to do with informing people what nuclear war would do to the planet we live on and its population? I recalled of Thomas Merton’s insight: “The root of war is fear.” If that was true, would it not be better if we who sought peace in the world focused on building bridges rather than selling nightmares? After all, the weapons of mass destruction and the missiles that delivered them were chiefly the result of fear and ignorance.

That evening at the movies in Cambridge set me on a different course. A substantial part of my work for the International Fellowship of Reconciliation in the years that followed had to do with trying to open East-West doors that had long been locked on both sides. On the Russian side, there was a lot of worry about letting people into the country whom they knew opposed Russia’s war in Afghanistan (then in the middle of its decade-long run) and who were highly critical of the Soviet repressive political system. No doubt they worried, should we be allowed in, that we would demonstrate on Red Square.

It took a year of persistent effort to arrange a three-day conference (the theme was violence, nonviolence and liberation) organized by my own organization, the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, and hosted by the Russian Orthodox Church. It was probably the first such event in Russia since the Bolshevik overthrow of the Russian government in 1917. Our small conference helped pave the way for many organizations, academic bodies and businesses to develop their own contacts and arrange their own events and programs in Soviet Russia. What happened in the years that followed helped create a climate for greatly improved relations between the U.S. and Russia, which in turn led to still more face-to-face contact. Thousands of people from the U.S. and its Western allies began to visit Russia for business, cultural and purely touristic reasons, and more and more Russians came to the West. Eventually, in the Gorbachev-Reagan period, there were inter-governmental breakthroughs resulting in treaties that significantly reduced the number of nuclear weapons and missiles.

That first meeting in Moscow would have been useful no matter where it had happened, but for me it had an unexpected spiritual impact thanks to the event being in Russia. The first night I was there, too excited to sleep, I took a post-midnight walk from the hotel where I was staying all the way to Red Square and back. I felt as if I were exploring the dark side of the moon.

In the days that followed, visiting some of the city’s churches, I experienced a strong sense of connection with Russian Orthodox believers. The vitality of religious life, despite decades of severe repression and the martyrdom of many, far outstripped my expectations. This was not a Church on the brink of the extinction Lenin and Stalin had planned.

That first trip in the USSR was something like riding through the Louvre on a bicycle. I saw wonderful things, but too fast to take them in and with far too little understanding of Russian and Soviet history to make much sense of even those things which weren’t a blur. But the trip was enough for me to know that I wanted to come back, see things more slowly, and talk with Russians. I had a particular sense of connection with the Russian Orthodox Church and longed to have the chance to meet believers informally and face to face.

Back in Holland, I wrote to the bishop who headed of the publishing department of the Moscow Patriarchate, asking if I might have the cooperation of his department in writing a book about the Orthodox Church in Russia. It would not be, I said, an academic work. Others had done such books and in any event I was not qualified. But I had spent much of my adult life doing interviews for peace and church magazines, worked for various newspapers and press services, had written two biographies and many essays. I felt I could write a book about Russian believers, if the church could provide a translator and help me visit centers of Orthodoxy large and small. Thus began work on Pilgrim to the Russian Church, a book that would be published in 1988.

Not many months later, I was back in Moscow as a guest of the Russian Orthodox Church for another small conference. This time I had arranged for a three-day private visit ahead of the meeting. I was met at the airport by Tatiana Tchernikova, a devout Christian, an expert on Russian history and culture plus a gifted translator who was on the staff of the Church’s Department for External Affairs. Together we visited churches, monasteries, the one seminary near Moscow and art museums which housed icons as well as more modern works of religious art.

There were many high points, but perhaps the most significant was taking part in the Liturgy at the Epiphany Cathedral. This wasn’t one of Moscow’s oldest or most beautiful churches, though it has an outstanding choir. The icons, coming from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were a far cry from the work of such iconographers as Rublev and Theofan the Greek. Yet being in that throng of devout worshipers was a more illuminating experience than I had had in far more beautiful churches.

It was an ordinary Sunday, but the church was as crowded as a church in the West would be only on Christmas or Easter. As is usual in the Russian Orthodox Church, there were no pews, just a few benches and chairs along the walls for those who needed them, but I found it freeing to be on my feet. Though at times it was uncomfortable to be standing for so long, being upright made me more attentive. It was like a move from the bleachers to the field. (I’d love to know how chairs and benches made their way into churches. My guess is that it was connected with the Reformation’s re-centering of services around the pulpit rather than the altar. Gradually chairs and then pews became a normal fixture of church architecture.)

I was fascinated by the linking of spiritual and physical activity. Making the sign of the cross was a major element of prayer — Orthodox believers seemed to cross themselves and bow almost continually. As I watched the rippling of bowing heads in the tightly packed congregation, I was reminded of the patterns the wind makes blowing across afield of wheat. At first I stood like a statue, though wanting to do what those around me were doing. It seemed so appropriate for an incarnational religion to link body and soul through these simple gestures. It must have taken me most of an hour before I began to pray in the Russian style.

All the while two choirs, in balconies on either side of the cupola, were singing. For the Creed and Our Father, the congregation joined with the choirs, singing with great force.

The sense of people being deeply at prayer was as solid and tangible as Russian black bread. I felt that, if the walls and pillars of the church were taken away, the roof would rest securely on the prayers of the congregation below. I have rarely experienced this kind of intense spiritual presence.

In the course of my many trips in Russia, I came to love the unhurried tradition of worship in Orthodoxy, deeply appreciating its absent-mindedness about the clock. The Liturgy rarely started on time, never ended on time, and lasted two or three hours, still longer on major feasts. I discovered that Orthodox believers are willing to give to worship the kind of time and devotion that Italians give to their evening meals.

At first somewhat scandalized by the fact that many adults in church did not receive communion, I gradually became aware of how deep and mindful is Orthodox preparation for communion, with stress on forgiveness of others as a precondition for reception of the sacrament.

Receiving communion was often linked with confession the night or morning before. It was impressive watching confession in Orthodox churches. The penitent and priest weren’t tucked away in a closet but stood in the open, within sight of on the iconostasis, their faces inclined toward each other, nearly touching. There is a tenderness about it that never ceases to amaze me.

I quickly came to appreciate Orthodoxy for taking literally Jesus’ teaching, “Let the children come to me and hinder them not.” In our Catholic parish in Holland, our daughter Anne had gone from confusion and hurt to pain and anger after her many futile attempts to receive communion along with Nancy and me. The problem, priests and others tried to explain, was that she hadn’t reached “the age of reason” (who has?) and therefore couldn’t receive the instruction considered a prerequisite to post-baptismal sacramental life. In Orthodox parishes, all children, once baptized, are at the front of the line to receive communion.

I came to esteem the married clergy of Orthodoxy. It changes the climate of parish life. While there are many Orthodox monks and nuns, with celibacy an honored state, it seemed to me marriage was more valued in Orthodoxy than Catholicism. While chastity is for everyone, celibacy is not regarded as a higher state or a short-cut to heaven.

Praying with icons was an aspect of Orthodox spirituality that had begun opening its doors for my wife and me even before we became Orthodox. During a three-month sabbatical in 1985, while living near Jerusalem and teaching at the Ecumenical Institute, we bought a Russian “Vladimirskaya” icon of Mary and Jesus and began praying before it. That small icon, possibly brought to Jerusalem by a Russian pilgrim in the 19th century, became a school of prayer. We learned much about prayer by simply standing in front of it.

By the end of 1987, both Nancy and I had gotten to know the Church in Russia first hand, to the point that we envied those who belonged to it despite the many political and social problems Russian Christians faced. Oddly enough, it didn’t occur to me that there might be a similar quality of worship in Orthodox churches in the West. I thought that Orthodoxy was like certain wines that are best drunk at the vineyard.

Meanwhile, we were searching for a Catholic parish that would be a good fit. Because of our work, Holland had become our home. We lived in Alkmaar, a city northwest of Amsterdam which had nine Catholic parishes. Each had its own distinct identity. On the one hand there were parishes that seemed linked to the larger Church only by frayed threads. One parish we were part of for a time never used the Creed and one Sunday replaced the Gospel reading with a children’s story. It was very social but on its own path liturgically. The parish we next joined was, in its ritual life, clearly part of the Catholic Church, but here we experienced no sense of welcome or warmth. The only words anyone said to us occurred when we received communion: “the Body of Christ.” Finally we became part of a parish that struck us as both liturgically healthy and welcoming. This time we joined the choir in order to be more a part of a church community, but we were easily the youngest members of the choir and felt isolated. During the coffee break at choir rehearsal, the main topic of conversation was how much more vital the parish had been in earlier years. As before, Anne continued to be upset about her exclusion from communion.

Then in January 1988, we received an from Father Alexis Voogd, pastor of the St. Nicholas of Myra Church in Amsterdam, to participate in a special ecumenical service to mark the beginning of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Millennium celebration: a thousand years since the baptism of the citizens of Kiev in 988. He also teased me: “You have visited practically very Orthodox church in Russia but never visited the Russian Orthodox parish nearest to you!” For several years Father Alexis had been one of the people giving me advice about people to meet and places to visit in Russia.

Soon after Nancy and I were part of a gathering of Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Christians attending a service that was a hodge-podge of speeches by clergy from various local churches (the Catholic bishop of Haarlem, also the head of the Dutch Council of Churches) interspersed with Orthodox hymns sung by the parish choir and some comments about the Baptism of Russia from Father Alexis.

If it was just that ecumenical service, perhaps we might not have returned, but at the reception in the parish hall that followed we were startled to experience a kind of interaction that I had rarely found in any church in any country. Walking to the train station afterward, we decided to come back to see what the Liturgy was like.

The following Sunday we discovered that the Orthodox Liturgy in Amsterdam was every bit as remarkable as it in Russia. And that was that. We managed only once or twice to return to Mass in our former Catholic parish in Alkmaar. Before a month had passed we realized that a prayer we had been living with along time had been answered in an unexpected way: we had found a church we wholeheartedly could belong to and in fact couldn’t bear not going to, even if it meant getting out of bed early and traveling by train to Amsterdam every Sunday. On Palm Sunday 1988, I was received into the Orthodox Church. Nancy made the same step on Pentecost.

In many ways it wasn’t such a big step from where we had been. Orthodoxy and Catholicism have so much in common: sacraments, apostolic succession, similar calendars of feasts and fasts, devotion to the Mother of God, and much more. Yet in Orthodoxy we found an even deeper sense of connection with the early Church and a far more vital form of liturgical life. Much that has been neglected in Catholicism and abandoned in Protestant churches, including confession and fasting, remain central in Orthodox life. We quickly found what positive, life-renewing gifts they were, and saw that they were faring better in a climate that was less legalistic but in many ways more demanding.

Yet we have never thought of ourselves as ex-Catholics. I occasionally describe myself as being a cobblestone on the bridge linking the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

A friend once asked me to describe the difference between the two churches. I said it’s something like the difference one might see in two parallel highways. The first impression is that they are identical, but after a little while, you notice that the traffic on one of the highways is going much slower and that, in contrast to the other, there are no police cars.


The religious movement in my life, which from the beginning was influenced by my parents, also influenced them. While neither followed me into Catholicism or Orthodoxy, in the early sixties my mother — after reading Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain — returned to the Methodist Church and remained much a part of the local church to the end of her life. Despite her age and failing eyesight, she continued in her struggle for the poor, much to the consternation of local politicians and bureaucrats. Though it’s not clear whether or not my father ever left the Communist Party, he eventually became a Unitarian. He enjoyed the joke about Unitarians believing at most in one God. In the last two decades of his life he was especially active in developing low-income and inter-racial housing projects in California. A cooperative he helped found in Santa Rosa was singled out for several honors, including the Certificate of National Merit from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Always deeply supportive of my religious commitment, I recall with particular happiness hearing him reading aloud to my step-mother from my book, Pilgrim to the Russian Church. In the spring of 1990, very weakened by cancer, he borrowed the crucifix I normally wear around my neck. It was in his hands when he died.

* * *

Saint Nicholas and the Nine Gold Coins

St Nicholas cover (small)[Copyright 2014. This text may not be re-printed, linked or posted to other sites without my permission. The book was published by St Vladimir’s Seminary Press in April 2015.]

by Jim Forest

Once upon a time there was a boy named Nicholas. Today we call him Saint Nicholas, but when he was growing up everyone called him Nick.

Nick lived in a town called Patara where ships came and went every day. You should have seen them! They were made of brightly painted wood with tall masts that seemed to touch the sky and had sails of every color.

The men who made up the crews had an endless supply of tales to tell of their close encounters with fabulous creatures, from sea monsters big as islands to mermaids whose voices could pull a sailor beneath the waves.

The sailors also filled Nick’s imagination with visions of distant ports and great cities — Alexandria, Antioch, Sidon, Tripoli, Carthage, Rome, Syracuse, Ravenna…. Such beautiful names, so many places, all so far away, but at the same time as close as the masts of any ship floating in Patara’s harbor.

It was Nick’s dream to become a sailor and travel to all the far-away ports that were beyond the horizon yet shared the same sea in which he and his friends so often swam. In the meantime, he asked every sailor he met, “Where have you been? What was it like?”

Nick’s uncle was an important man in Patara — the bishop — but for Nick he was also both father and mother as Nick’s own parents had died early in his life. It was his uncle who had taught him to read and write.

It pleased Nick that he had been named after his uncle. Everyone respected the bishop, not only because he helped each person who came to him in need but also for his faith and courage. As a young man, the bishop had been beaten and imprisoned just for being a Christian.

The two of them often went for walks together. His uncle enjoyed listening to Nick retell stories he had heard from the sailors. He had stories to tell as well, some from the Gospel, some from his own experiences as bishop. “You don’t have to go to sea to have adventures,” he told Nick. “I promise you, whoever lives according to the Gospel will have greater adventures than meeting sea monsters or hearing mermaids sing.”

For Nick, just being with his uncle was an adventure and an education. Nearly every day his uncle found time to visit the sick. Nick was often at his side. “It’s a never-ending journey getting to know people,” said Nick’s uncle. “Everyone has a story and no two stories are alike.”

Nick thought of Mark, a neighbor who had lost a leg in an accident on-board ship. His uncle not only changed Mark’s bandages day after day but he also changed Mark’s mind. After his accident, Mark had wanted to die. “My life is over,” he said. “There is nothing for me to do.” By finding a job for Mark mending nets, Nick’s uncle helped him want to stay alive. “Restoring hope can be a resurrection,” his uncle had told him.

Nick also noticed how his uncle would sometimes quietly leave a coin as he was saying goodbye to those he visited. “You know what Jesus said,” his uncle explained. “‘Sell what you have and give it to the poor.’”

Nick knew that in his uncle’s house there was a special chest where his uncle kept a sack of gold coins that had been left for him by his parents — Nick’s inheritance. “Should I give the coins to the poor?” he asked his uncle. “It’s good that you think about these things,” his uncle replied, “but you’re too young to make such decisions.”

By the time Nick was fourteen, he still had his dream of being a sailor but he was also haunted by the example of his uncle’s life. Perhaps the voyages God wanted him to take in life weren’t by ship to distant ports but to people nearby.

Had it not been for the needs of a family living only a few doors away, perhaps Nick would have joined the crew of one of the ships in the harbor. But walking past their front door one evening, Nick heard the mother weeping. This was the home of a husband and wife whose three daughters were old enough to marry — but not one had married yet.

Nick knew about their problem. The family had no money. In those days it was the custom that a father whose daughter was getting married had to provide money or property to help the couple set up the new household. This was called a dowry. But because they were so poor, it seemed none of the daughters would ever be able to marry and start a family of their own.

Nick wondered if he shouldn’t tell his uncle? Perhaps he would find a way to help. But it seemed to Nick that God had put this problem in his hands and no one else’s. His uncle had given him an example of what to do.

Nick made a secret decision. He knew where the key was to the chest where his uncle kept the gold coins left for him by his parents, and he had discovered that three gold coins would be enough for a dowry. Just three coins would make it possible for the oldest daughter, Sophia, to marry. How happy she would be!

One night when his uncle was away, Nick opened the chest, found the bag with his inheritance, took three coins, put them in a cloth sack and tied it closed. In the dark of night, he threw the sack through an open window into his neighbor’s house, then slipped away as quiet as a cat.

Days later the news swept through the town that Sophia was to going to marry Antony, a friend of Nick’s. It was a good match, everyone said — two fine young people, perfect for each other. Sophia’s parents said it was a miracle — a sack of gold coins had been thrown into their home while they were sleeping! “Perhaps an angel sent it,” said Sophia’s mother, her face wet with tears.

It was hard to keep from telling his uncle what he had done, but hadn’t he often said that giving is most pleasing to God when only God knows the giver? “Don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing,” his uncle often said, quoting the Gospel. “Let God be the only witness.”

The problem was that there were still two unmarried sisters, Macrina and Zoe. It had been easy giving three coins, but six more gold coins would mean that very little of his inheritance would remain safely locked up in the chest.

It took three months, but at last Nick found the courage to throw a second sack with three coins into his neighbor’s house. Not long afterward Macrina married Paul — and still no one knew where the money had come from.

There was still Zoe, the youngest daughter. Must he help her as well? Hadn’t he done enough? Shouldn’t he keep the money left in the chest for his own future needs?

One day he happened to see Zoe walking home from the market and noticed the sadness in her eyes. What right had he to worry about his own future when Zoe’s needs were here and now? Hadn’t Jesus said, “Don’t worry about tomorrow?”

That night he took three more coins from the chest. With only the light of the moon to guide him, Nick tossed the last sack through the window.

But this time someone spotted him. Zoe’s father had been waiting in the shadows.

“So it’s you, Nick!” he said. “But how is it possible? You’re so young! That a boy should care so much about our troubles. It’s a miracle.”

“I’m only following my uncle’s example,” said Nick. “Please don’t tell anyone.”

Zoe’s father promised not to tell, but of course he told his wife, who felt it necessary to tell her brother, who told his best friend, who whispered it to his next-door neighbor, who mentioned it to her husband. Each person who knew the secret thought of one other person who could be trusted not to tell. Before many days had passed, everyone in Patara knew what Nick had done.

At last the story reached his uncle’s ears. “I’m so proud of you, Nick,” he told his nephew, “and I know your parents would be too. You cared more about your neighbor than yourself.”

Many years passed, then centuries, but the tale has never been forgotten: the story of Nicholas, who wanted to be a sailor but who became Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, a great wonder worker who, when he was only a boy, gave away nine gold coins.

* * *

Saint Nicholas the Wonder Worker

Saint Nicholas was born in Patara about 270 years after Christ’s birth and died not far away, in the port city of Myra, on the 6th of December in the year 343. Both Patara and Myra are on the southern coast of what is today Turkey. In Nicholas’s time, the region was part of the Greek-speaking world known as Lycia. Nicholas’s parents died in an epidemic when their son was still a child. Nicholas’s uncle, also named Nicholas, was Patara’s bishop. It was he who took charge of his nephew’s upbringing and education.

As no biography of Nicholas was written until centuries after he died, much of Nicholas’s life is known more from legend than from contemporary sources. What is certain is that he became Bishop of Myra and that, after his death, he was recognized as a saint. Thousands of churches have been named in his memory. He is seen as a model of gift giving and also of pastoral care.

The most popular story about him — the one told in this book — concerns his secret help to a family that had no dowry for their three daughters. [art: a square illustration based on the typical icon scene]

One of the oldest stories concerning Nicholas is his election as bishop even though he was not yet either a deacon or a priest.

Another story relates how he managed to stop the execution of three men who had been condemned to death by the governor. It was a brave action that led the governor to repentance, but it could have had a much less happy ending for Nicholas. [art: a square illustration based on the typical icon scene]

Some stories dramatize his commitment to protect young people, for example his bringing back to life three children who had been murdered and cut into pieces by an evil innkeeper. [art: a square illustration based on the typical icon scene]

Nicholas was probably a participant in the First Ecumenical Council, held near Constantinople at Nicea in 325. One story relates that he so angered by the heretic Arius, who denied the divinity of Christ, that he slapped Arius in the face, for which violent action Nicholas was briefly excluded from the Council.

During a devastating famine that hit his region in 342, Nicholas was able to buy grain that saved the local people from starvation.

Because he was bishop of a port city and was pastor to many sailors, Nicholas is regarded as the heavenly guardian of sailors. According to one story, while on his way back to Myra after a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the ship he had boarded encountered a severe storm. Everyone would have drowned had it not been for his prayers. [art: a square illustration based on the typical icon scene]

After his death, Nicholas’s tomb in Myra became a place of pilgrimage. In the spring of 1087, with wars threatening the safety of that region, sailors from Bari, a port on the southeast coast of Italy, removed Nicholas’s bones and brought them home with them. A great church was built over the crypt in Bari to honor a saint who had been a friend to the poor, rescued children and prisoners, and saved sailors and famine victims. The Saint Nicholas shrine became one of Europe’s great pilgrimage centers. To this day many thousands of pilgrims come every year. The bones of Saint Nicholas exude a clear watery liquid that smells like rose water. [interior or exterior photo of the church in Bari?]

Because his feast day, December 6, occurs just nineteen days before Christmas, in some countries the two feasts have become connected. In medieval England, parishes held Yuletide celebrations on Saint Nicholas’ Day. Today the feast of Saint Nicholas is still celebrated in several European countries. In Holland and Belgium, it overshadows Christmas as a day of gift giving.

The Dutch call Saint Nicholas “Sinterklaas,” a name that came with Dutch settlers to New Amsterdam in the seventeenth century. By the time New Amsterdam became New York, the name “Sinterklaas” had undergone a small but interesting change. Have you ever heard of Santa Claus?

* * *

A few memories of Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh, Paris, early ’70s (copyright: Jim Forest)

I traveled and also at times lived with Thich Nhat Hanh in the late sixties through the seventies. Here are extracts from various letters in which Nancy and I relate a few stories about him. In these passages Nhat Hanh is sometimes called “Thay”, the Vietnamese word for teacher.

— Jim Forest

* * *

I sometimes think of an evening with Vietnamese friends in a cramped apartment in the outskirts of Paris in the early 1970s. At the heart of the community was the poet and Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh. An interesting discussion was going on the living room, but I had been given the task that evening of doing the washing up. The pots, pans and dishes seemed to reach half way to the ceiling on the counter of the sink in that closet-sized kitchen. I felt really annoyed. I was stuck with an infinity of dirty dishes while a great conversation was happening just out of earshot in the living room.

Somehow Nhat Hanh picked up on my irritation. Suddenly he was standing next to me. “Jim,” he asked, “what is the best way to wash the dishes?” I knew I was suddenly facing one of those very tricky Zen questions. I tried to think what would be a good Zen answer, but all I could come up with was, “You should wash the dishes to get them clean.” “No,” said Nhat Hanh. “You should wash the dishes to wash the dishes.” I’ve been mulling over that answer ever since — more than three decades of mulling.

But what he said next was instantly helpful: “You should wash each dish as if it were the baby Jesus.”

That sentence was a flash of lightning. While I still mostly wash the dishes to get them clean, every now and then I find I am, just for a passing moment, washing the baby Jesus. And when that happens, though I haven’t gone anywhere, it’s something like reaching the Mount of the Beatitudes after a very long walk.

* * *

In correspondence with a friend not long ago, I was reminded of this one:

I recall going with Nhat Hanh and Phuong to one of the Paris airports to pick up a volunteer who was arriving from America. On the way back, the volunteer stressed how dedicated a vegetarian she was and how good it was to be with people who were such committed vegetarians. Passing by the shop of a poultry butcher in Paris, Nhat Hanh asked Phuong to stop. He went inside and bought a chicken, which we ate that night for supper at our apartment in Sceaux. It’s the only time I know of when Nhat Hanh ate meat.

* * *

Another story:

I often think about how Thich Nhat Hanh uses the image of one river/two shores as a way of attacking dualistic perception: Standing on a river bank, I see two shores, the shore I am standing on and the shore facing me, on the other side of the river. Two shores — you see them with your own eyes — two! But in reality there is only one shore. If I walk from where I stand to the source of the river and continue round that point, the “other side” becomes this side — the two-ness was created only by bending it. In time I will be on the opposite embankment, facing the spot where I was formerly standing, and I will have never crossed the stream to get there and I will never have changed shores.

* * *

Nhat Hanh and I were both friends of the Trappist monk and writer, Thomas Merton. They only met once, in May 1967. Merton immediately recognized Nhat Hanh as someone very like himself — a similar sense of humor, a similar outlook on the world and its wars, one of which was at the time killing many people in Vietnam. As the two monks talked, the different religious systems in which they were formed provided bridges. “Thich Nhat Hanh is my brother,” Merton wrote soon after their meeting. “He is more my brother than many who are nearer to me in race and nationality, because he and I see things exactly the same way.” When Merton asked Nhat Hanh what the war was doing to Vietnam, the Buddhist said simply, “Everything is destroyed.” This, Merton said to the monks in a talk he gave a few days later, was truly a monk’s answer, just three words revealing the essence of the situation.

Merton described the formation of young Buddhist monks in Vietnam and the fact that instruction in meditation doesn’t begin early. First comes a great deal of gardening and dish washing. “Before you can learn to meditate,” Nhat Hanh told Merton, “you have to learn how to close the door.” The monks to whom Merton told the story laughed — they were used to the reverberation of slamming doors as latecomers raced to the church.

* * *

And another:

I recall an experience I had during the late sixties when I was accompanying Thich Nhat Hanh on a lecture trip in the United States. He was about to give a lecture at the University of Michigan on the war in Vietnam. Waiting for the elevator doors to open, I noticed my brown-robed companion gazing at the electric clock above the elevator doors. Then he said, “You know, Jim, a few hundred years ago it would not have been a clock, it would have been a crucifix.” He was right. The clock is a religious object in our world, one so powerful that it can depose another.

* * *

It was from Thich Nhat Hanh that I first became aware of walking as an opportunity to repair the damaged connection between the physical and the spiritual.

In the late sixties, he asked me to accompany him on his lecture trips in the United States. He spoke to audiences about Vietnamese culture and what the war looked like to ordinary Vietnamese people. At times he also spoke about the monastic vocation and meditation.

In conversation, Nhat Hanh sometimes spoke of the importance of what he called “mindful breathing,” a phrase that seemed quite odd to me at first. Yet I was aware that his walking was somehow different than mine and could imagine this might have something to do with his way of breathing. Even if we were late for an appointment, he walked in an attentive, unhurried way.

It wasn’t until we climbed the steps to my sixth floor apartment in Manhattan that I began to [talk] take his example to heart. Though in my late twenties and very fit, I was out of breath by the time I reached my front door. Nhat Hanh, on the other hand, seemed rested. I asked him how he did that. “You have to learn how to breathe while you walk,” he replied. “Let’s go back to the bottom and walk up again. I will show you how to breathe while climbing stairs.” On the way back up, he quietly described how he was breathing. It wasn’t a difficult lesson. Linking slow, attentive breaths with taking the stairs made an astonishing difference. The climb took one or two minutes longer, but when I reached my door I found myself refreshed instead of depleted.

In the seventies, I spent time in France with Nhat Hanh on a yearly basis. He was better known then — his home had become for many people a center of pilgrimage. One of the things I found him teaching was his method of attentive walking. Once a day, all his guests would set off in a silent procession led by him. The walk was prefaced with his advice that we practice slow, mindful breathing while at the same time being aware of each footstep, seeing each moment of contact between foot and earth as a prayer for peace. We went single file, moving slowly, deeply aware of the texture of the earth and grass, the scent of the air, the movement of leaves in the trees, the sound of insects and birds. Many times as I walked I was reminded of the words of Jesus: “You must be like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Such attentive walking was a return to the hyper-alertness of childhood.

Mindful breathing connected with mindful walking gradually becomes normal. It is then a small step to connect walking and breathing with prayer.

* * *

Here is a story about him told by Nancy:

I came to the Netherlands in April of 1982 with my daughter Caitlan, who was five years old at the time. Jim and I were married shortly after that. We had been friends for many years in the US. Both of us worked together at the headquarters of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in Nyack, New York, and Jim move to Holland in 1977 to serve as general secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR). We had kept in touch during those five years. Jim was Cait’s godfather.

Shortly after I had moved here, Jim told me Thich Nhat Hanh would be coming to Alkmaar to visit. I had never met Nhat Hanh, but of course I had heard a great deal about him, and I knew how close Jim and Nhat Hanh had been over the years. Jim said Nhat Hanh would be coming to our house, and that the IFOR staff would be coming over as well to meet with him.

It was a beautiful day in May. First the staff arrived and took seats in our living room, then Nhat Hanh himself arrived, dressed in his brown robe. A hush fell over the staff members, and everyone was apparently in awe of this man. I remember feeling nervous that he was coming to our house, nervous about hosting this event. After he had sat down, the room fell silent and a sort of Zen silence fell on the room. It was hard for me to tell what to make of the atmosphere in the living room that day, but it made me uncomfortable.

In the meantime, Cait, who had just been giving her first bicycle and was practicing riding it in the parking lot behind our house, kept running in to tell me how far she was advancing. So you have this room full of awestruck adults sitting there with what appeared to me glazed looks on their faces, and my little daughter running in, breathless with excitement.

After Nhat Hanh finished speaking with the staff, Jim came up to me and told me he had invited him to dinner. This was a little more than I could handle. I went into the kitchen at the back of the house and started chopping vegetables. I remember feeling that I really had to get out of that living room, that there was something definitely weird about what was going on there. It didn’t feel genuine, while the vegetables were certain genuine and so was Cait.

After a few minutes, Nhat Hanh came into the kitchen and, almost effortlessly, started helping me with the vegetables. I think he just started talking to me in the most ordinary way. He ended up telling me how to make rice balls — how to grind the sesame seeds in a coffee grinder, to make the balls with sticky rice and to roll them in the ground sesame seeds. It was lots of fun and I remember laughing with him. The artificial Zen atmosphere was completely absent. Cait kept coming in, and Nhat Hanh was delighted with her.

This was my first Zen lesson.

— Nancy Forest

* * *

And this also comes from Nancy…

Notes of a conversation with Thich Nhat Hanh on August 21, 1984 at the Plum Village in France”

(Thay was outside sitting on a stone.)

Nancy: Do you have a moment to talk?

Thay: Yes, please. Sit here on a stone.

N: I’ve felt rather out of it here. I’m not a person from one of the Zen Centers, and I’m not an old friend, like Jim.

T: (very emphatically) No, no! You are wrong. Maybe you are better than Jim!

N: (I tell him my “North Pole” experience — how, when I was young, I had a profound experience of standing at the point on the globe where all lines converge and intersect — an overwhelming experience of being at the absolute Center.)

T: It’s true we are each, as you say, like the North Pole. (He takes a stick and places it at the edge of his stone.) We are each on the edge. We are each separate, and each one of us has everyone within us.

N: How can that be?

T: (He holds up a leaf.) As this leaf holds within it everything – all the sun, all water, all earth.

N: But it also makes you realize we do everything alone. Everything, every step – alone. Walk through life alone. Die alone.

T: Yes. I told the people in the Zen Centers in America, “Meditation is a personal matter!” (He smiles.) That means meditation is an exercise in being alone – in realizing what it is to be alone. There is a story in Zen Buddhism about a monk. His name was (pause), “The Monk Who Was Alone.” He did everything alone – eat alone, wash dishes alone – everything. They said to him, “Why do you do everything alone?” He said, “Because that is the way we are.”

N: (I tell him how, lately, I’ve been reading so many things which all seem to pertain to this event. How I pick up a book or read an article, and it all connects. I tell him at first I thought it was a coincidence that so much of what I read is connected.)

T: (Smiles and shakes his head.) It’s no coincidence.

N: I’ve read some of Merton. And about the Hasidic Jews. And the story of the Fall in the Bible – Adam and Eve. About how, before the Fall, Eve just stood in her place, and walked in the garden. God had given them everything they needed, and it was all good. Eve didn’t know what evil was. Then when she was tempted to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, she decided there wasn’t enough for her, just standing there – even though she didn’t have any idea what “evil” was. So by eating, she destroyed the garden.

I’ve thought a lot about that here – walking slowly through the woods.

T: But you know – good and evil are just concepts. Maybe even the serpent was good, and the apple. All good. It’s like this stick. I can say, “This half is good, this half is evil.” They’re all concepts. Maybe Eve was even good after the Fall. You say “before the Fall – after the Fall.” It’s all the same.

N: The Hasidic Jews always are dancing. It’s all holy, everything. But after Eve ate the apple, we don’t know if she really was able to know good from evil – we only know she was ashamed.

(Thay smiles.)

N: Merton said Eve wasn’t good before the Fall and bad afterwards. He said she was her True Self before the Fall and not her True Self afterwards.

T: And he also said, “Everything is Good.” (He smiles and stares at me) – and he said that in Bangkok! (Long pause.) You know, if you are really able to understand this, you can look at all the nuclear weapons and … (very long pause – his eyes scan the distance) … and smile.

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Saint Dorothy?

by Jim ForestDorothy Day head and shoulders 1968 (small)

Long before her death, many people spoke of Dorothy Day as a saint. It made Dorothy uncomfortable and sometimes irritable. If people knew her better, she insisted, they would see her in a far more critical light. She staunchly resisted being regarded as a model Christian. She famously said, “Don’t call me a saint — I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” On the other hand she aspired to sanctity and was impatient with those who regarded saints as a breed apart. “We are all called to be saints,” she often said, paraphrasing Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Sanctity isn’t for the few but for the many, not for the exceptional but for the ordinary. But no sane person looks in a mirror and sees a halo. One certain indication of someone being far from sanctity is imagining themselves being portrayed on a holy card. Actual saints seek recognition only as great sinners.

What Dorothy could not see in herself, many others, including people who knew her well, perceived. In September 1983, the Claretians, a Catholic religious order active in sixty countries, took the first step in promoting recognition of Dorothy Day as a saint. Their campaign was launched with the publication of an article by Father Henry Fehren in a Claretian journal, Salt. Canonization would, Fehren argued, make Dorothy’s life known to generations to come with the result that “more people would learn about her and be inspired and strengthened by her. Saint Augustine said that funeral customs were more for the living than for the dead; and canonization also is not to benefit the dead but the living.”

What impressed him most about Dorothy Day, he wrote, “was her perseverance — year after year living an austere life in the grimmest of conditions, being jailed again and again, never giving up doing the works of mercy, never getting cynical, never letting her love of God and people dissolve. Anyone can be saintly for a week or two, or even a year, but to persevere from youth through old age, to remain on the cross until death — that is a mark of true holiness.”

The Church calendar, he continued, needed more lay people, women especially. “Most of the canonized saints … are nuns, brothers, priests, and bishops; yet the Church is almost entirely made up of lay people, and the emphasis in our time is on the work and responsibility of the lay people in the Church…. Dorothy Day did not ask Church officials for permission to do her works of mercy…. Nor did she found a religious order, as so many holy women of strong character had in the past…. ‘How to love,’ she wrote in one issue of The Catholic Worker, ‘that is the question.’ She answered that question by her life.”

The Claretians solicited prayers and testimonials and also printed cards with a drawing of Dorothy Day on one side and a prayer on the reverse: “Merciful God, you called your servant Dorothy Day to show us the face of Jesus in the poor and forsaken. By constant practice of the works of mercy, she embraced poverty and witnessed steadfastly to justice and peace. Count her among your saints and lead us to become friends of the poor ones of the earth and to recognize you in them.” Over the years, tens of thousands of the cards, plus similar posters, have been distributed — the Claretians have lost count of how many. Part of their website is devoted to Dorothy Day.

In 1997, seventeen years after Dorothy’s death, Cardinal John O’Connor, Archbishop of New York, took the first steps in launching the actual process of canonization. For those who recalled the military dimension of O’Connor’s background, it must have come as a surprise. In 1952, seven years after his ordination as a priest, O’Connor joined the U.S. Navy as a chaplain. He often entered combat zones, first in Korea, later in Vietnam, to say Mass and administer last rites to the wounded. In 1975, he was appointed Chief of Navy Chaplains with the rank of rear admiral. In all, he spent twenty-seven years with the military before he was appointed Bishop of Scranton in 1983 and then, the following year, Archbishop of New York.

A bishop who is also an admiral, one might have imagined, is an unlikely candidate to seek the canonization of a woman who had spent much of her life encouraging people not to go to war. On the other hand, someone who has seen the reality of combat would not be last in line to appreciate Dorothy’s hatred of war. “No priest can watch the blood pouring from the wounds of the dying, be they American or Vietnamese of the North or South, without anguish and a sense of desperate frustration and futility,” he wrote. “The clergy back home, the academicians in their universities, the protesters on their marches are not the only ones who cry out, ‘Why?’”

As a bishop, O’Connor not only opposed abortion but capital punishment, and was also outspoken in his critique of war and militarization. In the 1980s, he condemned U.S. support of counter-revolutionary guerrilla forces in Central America, opposed America’s mining of the waters off Nicaragua, questioned spending vast sums on new weapon systems, and in general advocated caution in regard to American military actions around the world. In 1998, he questioned whether U.S. missile strikes on Afghanistan and Sudan were morally justifiable, and, in 1999, during the Kosovo War, declared that NATO’s bombing campaign of Yugoslavia did not meet the Church’s criteria for a just war. “Does the relentless bombing of Yugoslavia,” O’Connor asked, “prove the power of the Western world or its weakness?” He was also known as strongly pro-labor. Had she lived to know Cardinal O’Connor, Dorothy would have applauded his stands on many issues, no doubt recalling how uncritical of American military actions Cardinal Francis Spellman had been.

In a homily given at Mass in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York on November 9, 1997, a day after the hundredth anniversary of Dorothy’s birth, O’Connor said he was considering proposing Dorothy Day for canonization and invited responses to this idea from any interested persons. She was, he said, “a truly remarkable woman” who had combined a deep faith and love for the Church with a passionate commitment to serving the poor and to saving lives. He would soon be meeting with persons knowledgeable about Dorothy’s life, he announced, including some who were present as his invited guests at Mass that day.

O’Connor acknowledged that some might object to his taking up the cause of Dorothy Day because “she was a protester against some things that people confuse with Americanism itself,” but this was a view he completely rejected. Others, he said, might argue that she was already widely recognized as a living saint and therefore formal canonization is not needed. “Perhaps,” O’Connor said, “but why does the Church canonize saints? In part, so that their person, their works and their lives will become that much better known, and that they will encourage others to follow in their footsteps — and so the Church may say, ‘This is sanctity, this is the road to eternal life.’” Dorothy was, he said, someone who believed that a person is “a temple of God, sacred, made in the image and likeness of God, infinitely more important in its own way than any building…. To Dorothy Day, everyone was a cathedral.”

Dorothy Day, he continued, “saw the world at large turned into a huge commercial marketplace where money means more than anything else. She saw people turned into tools of commerce. She saw the family treated as a marketplace. She reminded us frequently enough that the Church herself could become simply a marketplace. She loved the Church, and she was immensely faithful to the Church. She had no time for those who attacked the Church as such, the Body of Christ. She loved the Holy Father. But she recognized that we poor, weak human beings — people like you, people like me — could turn the Church into nothing but a marketplace.” The more reading he had done about Dorothy Day, he said, “the more saintly a woman she seems to be.”

He noted that Dorothy had often been severely criticized. “She suffered in many, many ways. Some of the sufferings, she herself would say, she brought on herself. Others came from enemies. Most of her suffering came from seeing the sufferings of Christ in the poor.”

Praising Dorothy for all she had done to draw attention to Saint Therese of Lisieux, he read aloud the final paragraphs of Dorothy’s book about “the Little Flower”:

So many books have been written about Saint Therese, books of all kinds, too, so why, I ask myself again, have I written one more? There are popular lives, lives written for children, travelogue lives following her footsteps, lives for the extrovert, the introvert, the contemplative, the activist, the scholar and the theologian.

Yet it was the “worker,” the common man, who first spread her fame by word of mouth. It was the masses who first proclaimed her a saint. It was the ‘people.’

When we think of the masses, we think of waves of the sea, of forests, of fields of wheat, all moved by the spirit which blows where it listeth. When we think of the people we think of the child at school, the housewife at her dishpan, the mother working, the mother sick, the man traveling, the migrant worker, the craftsman, the factory worker, the soldier, the rich, the bourgeois, the poor in tenements, the destitute man in the street. To a great extent she has made her appeal to all of these.

What was there about her to make such an appeal? Perhaps because she was so much like the rest of us in her ordinariness. In her lifetime there are no miracles recounted, she was just good…

What did she do? She practiced the presence of God and she did all things — all the little things that make up our daily life and contact with others — for His honor and glory. She did not need much time to expound what she herself called ‘her little way,’ which she said was for all. She wrote her story, and God did the rest. God and the people. God chose for the people to clamor for her canonization.

Noting that, prior to her religious conversion, Dorothy had aborted her first child, O’Connor said, “I wish every woman who has ever suffered an abortion, including perhaps someone or several in this church, would come to know Dorothy Day. Her story was so typical. Made pregnant by a man who insisted she have an abortion, who then abandoned her anyway, she suffered terribly for what she had done, and later pleaded with others not to do the same. But later, too, after becoming a Catholic, she learned the love and mercy of the Lord, and knew she never had to worry about His forgiveness. This is why I have never condemned a woman who has had an abortion; I weep with her and ask her to remember Dorothy Day’s sorrow but to know always God’s loving mercy and forgiveness.”

Dorothy’s gratitude for the Church, despite every human shortcoming and sin, warranted O’Connor’s admiration: “Her respect for and commitment and obedience to Church teaching were unswerving. Indeed, those of us who grew up knowing her recognized early in the game that she was a radical precisely because she was a believer, a believer and a practitioner. She, in fact, chided those who wanted to join her in her works of social justice, but who, in her judgment, didn’t take the Church seriously enough, and didn’t bother about getting to Mass.”

The approach of Dorothy’s hundredth birthday, he said, had inspired a number of people to send him letters urging her canonization. O’Connor read several of them aloud, including one written several years earlier by Robert Coles, a physician on the faculty of the Harvard Medical School who had come to know Dorothy when he was a medical student:

Fourteen years ago my wife started getting some numbness in her left side. I took her to a prominent doctor, who, after a diagnostic work-up, told us that she had a brain tumor and she had six months to live. The doctors were absolutely definite about it…. I wrote to Dorothy; I told her. And I started getting a letter or a postcard a day from her with her prayers and her messages. She didn’t contradict the doctors, but her letters were different in nature — full of encouragement and love. After the months turned into years, the doctors started talking about a ‘miraculous recovery.’ They said that my wife somehow had “made it.” … The only one who didn’t tell me my wife was going to die in six months was Dorothy Day.

“I wish I had known Dorothy Day personally,” O’Connor concluded. “I feel that I know her because of her goodness. But surely, if any woman ever loved God and her neighbor, it was Dorothy Day! Pray that we do what we should do.”

O’Connor’s decision to formally begin the process quickly followed. On February 5, 1998, he invited various people who had known Dorothy well (among them Tom and Monica Cornell, Eileen Egan, Robert Ellsberg, Jane Sammon, Frank Donovan and Pat and Kathleen Jordan) to come to his office for an unhurried discussion that started at 4 P.M. and lasted until 6:30. O’Connor sat on the couch for the meeting, Tom Cornell recalled, “joking about how a cardinal should sit higher not lower.” Thanks to the notes taken by Robert Ellsberg, I have a detailed account of the meeting.

“The purpose of the present meeting is to reflect on whether this is really God’s will,” O’Connor said at the outset. “Is it in the best interest of the poor, of the Church? What should we do in this matter? … Cardinal Newman said, “The tragedy is never to have begun.’ So now we are beginning. If we decide to go forward it will be a lengthy and complicated process. I presume it will not be completed in whatever time I have left.’

Responding to the issue of whether the time was right, Ellsberg pointed out that “Dorothy is a real saint of what Cardinal Bernardin called ‘common ground.’ She challenges the reformers and social activists to maintain their love for the Church and the Gospel. She challenges conservatives to be attentive to the radical social dimensions of the Gospel. She challenges both sides to resolve differences with mutual respect and love, for the benefit of the world.”

Pat Jordan, another former managing editor of The Catholic Worker, said he felt it was important that the light shed by Dorothy’s life “not be hidden under a basket.” He stressed her purity, her modesty, her hope, her ability to go on even when things seemed hopeless, and doing so without institutional help. Her greatest sacrifice was “not being able to put the needs of her family first — she died totally to self to try to respond to Christ’s love. She had to struggle, to forgive seventy times seven. She knew all the spiritual traps. She challenged us always to care for the weak, to love our enemy, yet she never claimed that everyone had to do it her way. In this materialistic society, she showed us the simple beauty of sharing and of community.”

O’Connor asked Jordan what Dorothy would think about being called a saint? “She would have none of it,” he replied. “She knew that some people during her life wanted to call her a saint. She thought it was a way of letting themselves off the hook — Dorothy could do these things because ‘she’s a saint.’ But she really took seriously the idea that we are all called to be saints. She wasn’t embarrassed about saying that. She often quoted Leon Bloy, ‘There is only one sadness: not to be a saint.’”

Was her objection to being called a saint due to humility, O’Connor asked. “Dorothy had a strong sense of her own sins, her weaknesses and failures,” Jordan responded. “Her standards were so high that her failures stood out all the more sharply. But she had all the more sense of God’s grace, of what it means to be forgiven. Her gravestone has the words ‘Deo Gratias,’ as she had requested. She had such a sense of gratitude, a sense that what she had done was because of grace. This was one reason she didn’t like to be called a saint, which implied that she deserved the credit for what she had done. She believed she was responsible for her failures. Everything else was due to God.”

O’Connor noted that some people objected to the archdiocese seeking Dorothy’s canonization because it would cost a great deal of money that could better be given to the poor. “I don’t know where this idea comes from that a lot of money is involved,” said O’Connor. “It’s really a very small amount. The process of seeking the canonization of Pierre Toussaint [a Haitian-born New Yorker of slave descent], which has progressed now to the point of awaiting a miracle, has cost the archdiocese no more than three or four thousand dollars, including the cost of sending someone to Rome. [In 1996, Toussaint was beatified by Pope John Paul.] If the money were given instead to the poor, we wouldn’t be giving them very much money.”

Eileen Egan, Dorothy’s friend of many years as well as a key figure in Catholic Relief Services, saw Dorothy as someone who “shows that ordinary people can live by the Sermon on the Mount. She tried to relate the Sermon on the Mount to everything she did. This makes her a tremendous inspiration for lay people. Most saints appear to be hedged in by vows or life style, but Dorothy wasn’t hedged in by anything.”

O’Connor wondered if canonization might trivialize Dorothy’s memory — would it merely serve as a “superficial aggrandizement of the Catholic Worker movement? Would it let us off the hook? Would it be a way, as she said, of dismissing her too easily? Turning her into a holy card? Would it attract more people to know this life? The issue here is the holiness of her life. Holiness is expressed in a thousand ways.”

Jordan said that Dorothy had taught him “how to see Christ in every person. This didn’t come easily or naturally. It reflected tremendous effort. She was not always an easy person to get along with. There were times when I felt miffed by her decisions. But there was no question in my mind about her holiness. I’ve never met anyone like her. I doubt that I will ever meet anyone else like her.”

Ellsberg commented that, “if Dorothy Day was not a saint, it is hard to know what meaning that word should have.”

O’Connor said that the discussion had made it even clearer that “here was a holy woman” and that he would be failing in his duty if he were not to begin the canonization process. “I don’t want to have on my conscience that I didn’t do something that God wanted done.” It seemed to him that the campaign the Claretians had begun in 1983 should now be taken up by the diocese Dorothy had belonged to all her Catholic life.

As he said goodbye, O’Connor remarked, “You are all so warm — you must have gathered around a wonderful fire.”

The group met again in March, this time augmented by Catholic Worker artist Ade Bethune, Geoff Gneuhs (who, as a Dominican priest, had presided at Dorothy’s funeral), Dorothy’s friend and correspondent Nina Polcyn Moore, Phillip Runkel (curator of the Catholic Worker Archive at Marquette University), long-time Catholic Worker Dorothy Gauchat, George Horton of Catholic Charities, and Meinrad Scherer-Emunds, representing the Claretians. Tom and Monica Cornell were absent; they were at the Vatican for a meeting with Cardinal James Stafford, then head of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, who would have to approve Cardinal O’Connor’s application to introduce Dorothy’s cause in Rome.

The decision to begin the process having already been taken, the focus this time was on identifying next steps. In the coming months, O’Connor would send a letter to the prefect heading the Congregation for the Causes of Saints proposing Dorothy’s canonization. Next would come the formal appointment of a postulator in Rome and a vice-postulator in New York who would interview people who knew Dorothy or were acquainted with her life. Next, a commission would write a historical report on Dorothy’s life which would then be handed over to a theological commission. Finally a recommendation would be made to the pope that, as soon as there is a documented miracle linked to her, Dorothy Day be declared Blessed. A second miracle would open the way for her official recognition as Saint Dorothy.

In September 1998, O’Connor wrote to those involved in the meetings to let them know how things were coming along: “I have written to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints asking that the process for her canonization be initiated. Included in my submission are the letters submitted by those who attended our meetings in the spring. I have received an invitation to meet with the Prefect of the Congregation during my next trip to Rome. I may have more information for you following that visit.”

Rome is well known for moving slowly. It wasn’t until March 2000, eighteen months later, that Cardinal O’Connor announced the approval of the Holy See for the Archdiocese of New York to open the cause for the beatification and canonization. With this approval, Dorothy received the formal ecclesiastical title, “Servant of God Dorothy Day.”

By then O’Connor knew he was living in sight of his grave. Two months later, on May 3, he died of cardiopulmonary arrest. He was eighty years old. A spokesman for the archdiocese said the cardinal’s death was “the result of the tumor and the cancer that he was suffering from.”

O’Connor’s successor, Cardinal Edward Egan, formally established the Dorothy Day Guild in 2005 to advance the cause. (One way to join the guild is via its website: http://dorothydayguild.org.) His successor, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, enthusiastically supports the cause, which is headquartered in the New York Archdiocesan Offices.

Whatever comes of the canonization effort, the Catholic Worker movement is alive and continues to grow. Each house of hospitality that identifies itself with the Catholic Worker movement — currently there are more than a hundred and sixty — might be regarded as a monument to Dorothy Day, though Dorothy would stress they are first and foremost a response to the words of Christ: “What you did to the least, you did to me.” There is also the more hidden testimony of the countless people who lead more hospitable and more peaceful lives, thanks in part to Dorothy Day. Who could count them all?

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This an extract from All Is Grace: a biography of Dorothy Day, published by Orbis Books. The text is copyright and may not be reprinted or posted on the web without the author’s permission.
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