Thomas Merton's Struggle with Peacemaking

Thomas Merton (photo by John Howard Griffin)

(This essay was originally a chapter in Thomas Merton: Prophet in the Belly of a Paradox, published in 1978 by the Paulist Press. The book is now out-of-print. Its editor, Fr. Gerald Twomey, has encouraged me to make this section available via the Jim & Nancy Forest web site. The text was scanned by Fr. Andrew P. Connolly and has been very lightly edited by the author. The full text of many of the letters quoted from can be found in The Hidden Ground of Love, edited by William Shannon.)

By Jim Forest

In The Sign of Jonas, Thomas Merton wrote: “Like Jonas himself I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.” (1)

Paradox was a word Thomas Merton appreciated and often used, perhaps because there were so many paradoxes within his vocation. He was, for example, a monk belonging to a religious order with a particular tradition of silence—and yet millions of people were to become familiar with his life and convictions. He had a noisy vocation in the silent life. It was a paradox he often wished would end, in favor of silence, but it wouldn’t.

He was also a pacifist—someone who has renounced violence as a means in peacemaking—yet he often said he was against war only in practice, not in theory. He accepted what Catholic doctrine knows as the “Just War Theory,” a post-Constantine Christian inheritance which holds that war, within certain defined circumstances, may be justified (if it is declared by lawful authority, after all non-military means have been fully exhausted, if the violence is focused on those criminally responsible for the war while the right to life of non-combatants is protected, if its destructive consequences are not worse than the injustice otherwise suffered, and if it seems probable the just side can win the war: and it must be all these things simultaneously).

Whether one’s basis of reasoning was the Sermon on the Mount or the Just War Theory, Merton pointed out, military technology and practice in this century brought one to the same location. In words Merton quoted on occasion, Pope John put it quite succinctly in Pacem in Terris: “It is irrational to argue that war can any longer be a fit instrument of justice.”(2)

In an existential and temperamental sense, Merton was one of the most committed pacifists I have ever met. He saw war as one of the clearest examples of human estrangement from sanity and God. He was appalled by war in an intense and personal way and saw response to war as a major element in the religious life. Some of the most lethal irony to be found in his writings is reserved for the subject: his anti-war novel, My Argument with the Gestapo (3), his “devout meditation” on the court-certified “sanity” of Adolf Eichmann (4), his “chant” to be used in procession around “a site with furnaces” (5) (Hitler’s death camps), and his Original Child Bomb (6) on Hiroshima’s atomic destruction complete with such military codes borrowed from Christian thought as “Papacy” and “Trinity.”

So deep was his revulsion regarding war and its premeditated terrors and cruelties that, when World War II was bursting its European seams and men like Merton’s brother were volunteering for the Royal Air Force, Merton was one of the rare Catholics to declare himself a conscientious objector. At the time Catholic bishops in America, England and Germany were as busy as other religious leaders in offering their unqualified support for lay compliance with “legitimate authority,” including military service and killing under orders. Merton, though a thoroughly devout Catholic, walked to a different drummer, away from battlefields and into a weaponless Trappist monastery.

Twenty years later, increasingly conscious of the monk’s responsibility for the world rather than against it, he established deep and continuing ties with several strongly pacifist groups, including the Catholic Worker, the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Catholic Peace Fellowship.

It was while visiting the Catholic Worker’s New York house of hospitality, St. Joseph’s, that my own friendship with Merton began. I was still in the Navy, freshly a Catholic, still too fragile in my newly acquired pacifism to have begun finding a way out of the military and into a vocation that had something to do with the peace of God. But I was looking. Hence my inquiring presence at the Catholic Worker, a religious community whose commitment to nonviolent social change was an outgrowth of its hospitality to social rejects.

Merton’s letter (arriving just before Christmas 1960) began with a reference to the Catholic Worker’s main peace witness in those years—its annual refusal to take shelter in the subways as a compulsory dress rehearsal for nuclear war with the Soviet Union. It was, really, a bad joke, as the subways offered protection only from conventional weapons, but the ritual had the effect of making nuclear war seem survivable. Dorothy Day, the Catholic Worker founder, had been imprisoned several times for her civil disobedience, until the crowds that gathered with her in City Hall Park became so large that the war game was abandoned. But that end was still not in sight when Merton wrote:

I am deeply touched by your witness for peace. You are very right in doing it along the lines of Satyagraha [literally “truth-force,” Gandhi’s word for nonviolent action]. I see no other way, though of course the angles of the problem are not all clear. I am certainly with you on taking some kind of stand and acting accordingly. Nowadays it is no longer a question of who is right but who is at least not a criminal—if any of us can say that anymore. So don’t worry about whether or not in every point you are perfectly all right according to everybody’s book; you are right before God as far as you can go and you are fighting for a truth that is clear enough and important enough. What more can anybody do? … It was never more true that the world cannot see true values.

I don’t suppose anyone can readily appreciate the value of this and similar letters that were arriving at the Catholic Worker from Merton in those days. (Personally, they helped form a determination in me that led to my discharge from the Navy as a conscientious objector and becoming a member of the Catholic Worker staff.) Partly due to Merton, the Catholic pacifist was to become far more common in the years ahead and to receive open and unambiguous official support from the highest levels of the Church. But at that time the Catholic Worker, viewed with considerable suspicion for its talk of “the works of mercy, not the works of war,” was tolerated because of its orthodoxy in other respects and its direct, simple and unpretentious commitment to the humanity of impoverished people who were ignored by everyone else. New York’s Cardinal Spellman, certainly no pacifist and no religious innovator, was often under pressure to suppress the Catholic Worker, or at least its pacifist newspaper, but he never did. Perhaps he felt that, in Dorothy Day, he had a saint in his diocese and that he had better not play the prosecutor’s part in a modern-day trial of Joan of Arc. Maybe he just sensed, puzzling though it was, that the Church needed the Catholic Worker movement.

At this time, Merton was hardly a controversial figure. His books were all over the place, in churches, drugstores and bus terminals, and each bore the Imprimatur (“let it be printed,” a bishop’s certification that the book was orthodox). Thousands owed their faith, and millions its deepening, to the stimulus of Merton’s writings—his continuing pilgrimage from non-belief to the depths of faith. His books were read by the convinced and the unconvinced, from the Pope’s apartment in the Vatican to prostitutes’ apartments near New York’s 42nd Street. His writings had been published in more languages than we had staff members in our Catholic Worker house of hospitality.

Yet here he was, often writing to the Catholic Worker community, taking our lives and vocations with utmost seriousness, and even encouraging us in those aspects of our work which were the most controversial.

If it is hard now to appreciate what those letters meant, it may be harder still to understand our world view. To put it simply, few of us expected to die of old age.

Nearly twenty years later, at the time this is written [1978], many people have gotten used to living in a world heavily stocked with nuclear weapons. In the short measure of human life and memory, and in a century crowded with other disasters, Hiroshima is a long way off. We have begun to count on generals and terrorists restraining themselves. So now there is certain complacency about the arms race and where it is headed. We imagine that, for the first time in human history, weapons are being produced and disbursed and mounted on delivery vehicles that will never be used. May it be so. Yet it didn’t seem to us that human nature has changed very much since Hiroshima or that those who see reality in purely abstract ideological terms, a mentality not uncommon in political and military leadership, no matter what their nationality or slogans, could be counted on to leave nuclear weapons on the shelf if other methods fail or someone gets an itch for “decisive action.”

In 1961, when even one monastery had set up a fallout shelter, we expected to be blasted to radioactive particles every time we heard the air raid sirens being tested. Somehow we never noticed the advance newspaper warnings beforehand. The sirens would begin their coordinated howling, the blasts being punctuated by silences so severe the city suddenly seemed desert-like in stillness. Stunned, momentarily paralyzed by the significance of the noise, I would stop whatever I was doing and wait at the Catholic Worker’s front window, gathering a final view of the battered neighborhood with its few scarred trees struggling for light and air: even here, a kind of beauty. Shortly it would all be consumed by fire. No need to think about a hiding place. Even were there a massive barrier against the blast and radiation, the blast’s firestorm would consume all the oxygen. Last moments are too important to be wasted. We were Christians. We had done our best to take Jesus at his plain words, in our awkward Catholic Worker way. We hoped in God’s mercy and, young though many of us were, we were better prepared to die than many others. And we believed in the resurrection: that the fate of God’s creation would not finally be decided by the owners of nuclear weapons. It was a faith that seemed bizarre if not insane to many others who believed in human progress and technology and the wisdom of experts, but it was clear to us, and gave these moments before death a certain tranquility, despite the sadness for this immense funeral we humans had so laboriously brought upon ourselves.

But each time the “all clear” sounded. The sirens ended their apocalyptic shrieks. There was no sudden explosive radiance “brighter than a thousand suns.” Then we felt like airline passengers setting shaking foot upon the ground after a no-wheels landing in emergency foam spread out across the runway. We were a flock of Lazarus folk risen from our shrouds. Our lives had ended, and then been given back: another chance for this odd experiment on planet earth; another chance for our curious two-legged breed to find a saner way to live, to free ourselves from a “security” founded upon the preparation of slaughters. Another chance for figs to grow from thistles.

It was in these days of fallout shelters and air raid sirens that we received Merton’s first submission to the paper we published, an essay—”The Root of War Is Fear”—that was later to appear in New Seeds of Contemplation. (7) The piece as a whole had gone through the normal if often rigid channels of Trappist censorship, but Merton had tacked on a few prefatory paragraphs which briefly expressed a message that eventually led to his silencing on “political” issues:

The present war crisis is something we have made entirely for and by ourselves. There is in reality not the slightest logical reason for war, and yet the whole world is plunging headlong into frightful destruction, and doing so with the purpose of avoiding war and preserving peace! This is true war-madness, an illness of the mind and spirit that is spreading with a furious and subtle contagion all over the world. Of all the countries that are sick, America is perhaps the most grievously afflicted. On all sides we have people building bomb shelters where, in case of nuclear war, they will simply bake slowly instead of burning quickly or being blown out of existence in a flash. And they are prepared to sit in these shelters with machine guns with which to prevent their neighbor from entering. This in a nation that claims to be fighting for religious truth along with freedom and other values of the spirit. Truly we have entered the “post- Christian era” with a vengeance. Whether we are destroyed or whether we survive, the future is awful to contemplate. (8)

In fact, just as we were going to press with Merton’s article, The New York Times gave front page attention to an essay that had been published in America, a Jesuit magazine, justifying just such a shelter “ethic.” No doubt, as Merton commented later on, “the case could be made for St. Peter to kill St. Paul if there was only enough food for one of them to survive winter in a mountain cave.” But Merton’s approach was drastically different, calling for a rejection of “mere natural ethics.” He wanted to know whether Christian responsibility involved more than getting to the front of the line into the fallout shelter:

What is the place of the Christian in all this? Is he simply to fold his hands and resign himself for the worst, accepting it as the inescapable will of God and preparing himself to enter heaven with a sigh of relief? Should he open up the Apocalypse and run into the street to give everyone his idea of what is happening? Or, worse still, should he take a hard-headed and “practical” attitude about it and join in the madness of the war makers, calculating how, by a “first strike,” the glorious Christian West can eliminate atheistic communism for all time and usher in the millennium? I am no prophet and seer but it seems to me that this last position may very well be the most diabolical of illusions, the great and not even subtle temptation of a Christianity that has grown rich and comfortable, and is satisfied with its riches.

What are we to do? The duty of the Christian in this crisis is to strive with all his power and intelligence, with his faith, his hope in Christ, and love for God and man, to do the one task which God has imposed upon us in the world today. That task is to work for the total abolition of war. There can be no question that unless war is abolished the world will remain constantly in a state of madness and desperation in which, because of the immense destructive power of modern weapons, the danger of catastrophe will be imminent and probable at every moment everywhere. Unless we set ourselves immediately to this task, both as individuals and in our political and religious groups, we tend by our very passivity and fatalism to cooperate with the destructive forces that are leading inexorably to war. It is a problem of terrifying complexity and magnitude, for which the Church itself is not fully able to see clear and decisive solutions. Yet she must lead the way on the road to nonviolent settlement of difficulties and toward the gradual abolition of war as the way of settling international or civil disputes. Christians must become active in every possible way, mobilizing all their resources for the fight against war. First of all there is much to be studied, much to be learned. Peace is to be preached, nonviolence is to be explained as a practical method, and not left to be mocked as an outlet for crackpots who want to make a show of themselves. Prayer and sacrifice must be used as the most effective spiritual weapons in the war against war, and like all weapons, they must be used with deliberate aim: not just with a vague aspiration for peace and security, but against violence and war. This implies that we are also willing to sacrifice and restrain our own instinct for violence and aggressiveness in our relations with other people. We may never succeed in this campaign, but whether we succeed or not, the duty is evident. It is the great Christian task of our time. Everything else is secondary, for the survival of the human race itself depends upon it. We must at least face this responsibility and do something about it. And the first job of all is to understand the psychological forces at work in ourselves and in society. (9)

In January 1962 Merton proposed I come for a visit. The next month, after getting the paper to press, I began to hitchhike to Kentucky with a poet-friend, Bob Kaye, bringing along nothing except the latest issue and a few loaves of bread fresh from a Spring Street Italian bakery. It was an exhausting three-day pilgrimage—long waits in remote places in ferocious weather. When we arrived and were shown to our “cells” in the guest house, Bob collapsed on his bed while I found my way through fire-doors and connecting passageways to a loft in the back of the monastery’s barn-like church. Surviving the trip, a prayer of thanksgiving came easily. But it didn’t last long because the church’s silence was broken by distant laughter, laughter so intense and pervasive that I couldn’t fail to be drawn to it, such an unlikely sound for a solemn Trappist abbey. It was coming from the guest house, in fact from Bob’s room: a kind of monsoon of joy. Well, that’s the difference between Bob and me, I thought: I pray, and he gives way to laughter; God probably likes the laughter better. I pushed open the door, and indeed Bob was laughing, but the sound was coming mainly from a monk on the floor in his black and white robes, feet in the air, a bright red face, hands clutching the belly. A shade more than Robin Hood’s well-fed Friar Tuck than I imagined any fast-chastened Trappist could be. Thomas Merton, author of so many books about such serious subjects, laughing half to death on the floor.

And laughing about what? The answer came with my first gasp of air. The smell! What would have offended so many others delighted him. The room was like a fish market in a heat wave. Bob, after three days of rough travel without a change of socks, had taken off his shoes. Had there ever been so rude a scent in this scrubbed monastery’s history? It was, in a way, the Catholic Worker’s social gospel incarnate—its unwashed, impolite vocation such as the Church in all its cathedral glory had seldom seen since the first Franciscans seven centuries before. The Catholic Worker, in stocking feet, had arrived indeed, announcing its sweaty message to the most non-attentive nose.

It made the monk roar with pleasure until the need to breathe took precedence and there could be a shaking of hands and a more traditional welcome.

Still smiling as he left, telling us when we could get together later, I realized why his face, never seen before even by his readers as none of his books carried the usual author picture, was nonetheless familiar: it was like Picasso’s, as I had seen it in David Duncan’s books—a face similarly unfettered in its expressiveness, the eyes bright and quick and sure suggesting some strange balance between mischief and wisdom. The face still haunts me in its many moods—such unremarkable features on their own, but so remarkable all together.

Those were wonderfully renewing days. There was much talk of the Catholic Worker and the difficult business of making headway as peacemakers of some kind, but there were also long walks in the woods, rambling conversations on the porch of his cinder-block hermitage looking out over rolling Kentucky hills. Shaggy guests that we were, we submitted to the abbot’s proposal that we have haircuts, but then going from one extreme to the other, masses of hair falling to the floor leaving only stubble behind while the novices watched and laughed. I marveled at the huge white wool cowl that the monks wore when in the abbey church. Merton lifted his off and dropped the surprising weight of it on my shoulders—more laughter at the sudden monastic sight of me. We noticed that the several Japanese calendars in this hermitage were all for the wrong years and months.

We talked of the Catholic Mass and its many levels, the Eucharist being a kind of dance at the crossroads, a place of encounter not only of every condition of people and every degree of faith, but an intersection between time and eternity—the most nourishing place in the world.

Merton spoke plainly but with contagious feeling. He reminded me of a particularly good-natured truck driver—the kind of people who had sometimes given us rides on the way down.

One of the things we talked about was a possibility that nibbled at my imagination of becoming a monk myself and even joining this community. “Man, right now the Church needs people working for peace in a way that’s impossible here—the kind of things you’re doing at the Catholic Worker. If you want to try the life, it’s possible. But wait a while. I think the Holy Spirit has other things in mind.”

Merton was very much a monk and committed to his community and his monastic vows, but he didn’t romanticize the problems. He had struggled for years to have a greater opportunity for solitude than was normal in the Trappist life, and had only lately gotten the hermitage; he was only a part-time hermit, as yet, still hoping for permission to live full-time in the hermitage.

Many of his fellow monks didn’t understand or appreciate his leading in this direction, and even less did they welcome his recent involvement with the Catholic Worker. I recall another author-monk of the community, Fr. Raymond, looking at a copy of The Catholic Worker as Merton and I were walking down a passageway in his direction; it was an issue full of peace-related material, including a letter of Merton’s prominently displayed. The monk heard our footsteps, looked up, scowled at us, crumbled the Worker into a ball of waste paper, threw it into a trash can and stormed away.

By this time I was getting used to Merton’s laugh at unlikely times. He laughed when many others in the same situation would have abruptly looked as pompous, offended and grave as a puritan judge forced to walk past nude statues in the Vatican Museum. Then he said, “You know, when I first came here, he used to denounce me for being too hung up with contemplation and not concerned enough with the world. And now he denounces me for being too hung up with the world and not busy enough with contemplation.”

One morning a telegram arrived from New York telling us that, the Soviet Union having earlier decided to renew atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, President Kennedy had now announced the U.S. would do the same. We Catholic Worker visitors were being asked to hurry back to New York to take part in a protest action at the offices of the Atomic Energy Commission. Before leaving, we attended one last class with the novices, presented Merton with a peace button which he put on his monk’s robes with mischievous satisfaction, and then we were on our way—on a bus this time, the abbey having contributed the fare. A few days later, we were in jail—a very different sort of monastery.

During the next two years or more, censorship was often a subject in Merton’s letters. It became increasingly difficult for him to get his peace-related articles in print, since his Trappist superiors generally considered war an inappropriate subject. Even prior to the visit, one letter spoke of the need “to work out something sensible on this absurd censorship deal.” As usual, he discussed the subject with jarring candor:

The censorship is completely and deliberately obstructive, not aimed at combing out errors at all, but purely and simply preventing the publication of material that “doesn’t look good.” And this means anything that ruffles in any way the censors’ tastes or susceptibilities….

But such considerations were never the end of the line in Merton’s thinking. And it was in this area that his nonviolence was put to its hardest personal test. His nonviolence, like Gandhi’s, implied “enduring all things” that transformation might occur in which adversaries were convinced and won over rather than defeated but left unconvinced. Perhaps he recognized in the fears of his superiors the same fears that existed elsewhere in the world, the fears which give rise to war. What would be the sense of calling others to patience in the labors of fostering life when he could not be patient with those close at hand? Certainly many others have stormed away from committed relationships, muttering about betrayal, the abuse of authority, the Inquisition, the death of God, the hypocrisy of this institution or that—with the net result that the world was only a bit more fractured and embittered, more estranged by those who were so furious in their advocacy of truth. Merton’s letter went on:

That is the kind of thing one has to be patient with. It is wearying, of course. However, it is all I can offer to compare with what you people are doing to share the lot of the poor. A poor man is one who has to sit and wait and wait and wait, in clinics, in offices, in places where you sign papers, in police stations, etc. And he has nothing to say about it. At least there is an element of poverty for me too. The rest of what we have here isn’t that hard or that poor. (January 5, 1962)

A few months later came a harder test. It was no longer a matter of enduring the delays of censorship, or the watering down or qualifying that might involve. Now it was a matter of being silenced. The date included the notation that it was “Low Sunday”:

I have been trying to finish my book on peace [Peace in the Post-Christian Era, finally published long after Merton’s death by Orbis], and have succeeded in time for the axe to fall….

Now here is the axe. For a long time I have been anticipating trouble with the higher superiors and now I have it. The orders are, no more writing about peace. This is transparently arbitrary and uncomprehending, but doubtless I have to make the best of its … [In] substance I am being silenced on the subject of war and peace. This I know is not a very encouraging thing. It implies all sorts of very disheartening consequences as regards the whole cause of peace. It reflects an astounding incomprehension of the seriousness of the present crisis in its religious aspect. It reflects insensitivity to Christian and Ecclesiastic values, and to the real sense of the monastic vocation. The reason given is that this is not the right kind of work for a monk, and that it “falsifies the monastic message.” Imagine that: the thought that a monk might be deeply enough concerned with the issue of nuclear war to voice a protest against the arms race, [this] is supposed to bring the monastic life into disrepute. Man, I would think that it might just possibly salvage a last shred of repute for an institution that many consider to be dead on its feet. That is really the most absurd aspect of the whole situation, that these people insist on digging their own grave and erecting over it the most monumental kind of tombstone.

The problem, from the point of view of the Church and its mission, is of course this. The validity of the Church depends precisely on spiritual renewal, uninterrupted, continuous, and deep. Obviously this renewal is to be expressed in the historical context, and will call for a real spiritual understanding of historical crises, an evaluation of them in terms of their inner significance and in terms of man’s growth and the advancement of truth in man’s world: in other words, the establishment of the “kingdom of God.” The monk is the one supposedly attuned to the inner spiritual dimension of things. If he hears nothing, and says nothing, then the renewal as a whole will be in danger and may be completely sterilized. But these authoritarian minds believe that the function of the monk is not to see or hear any new dimension, simply to support the already existing viewpoints precisely insofar as and because they are defined for him by somebody else. Instead of being in the advance guard, he is in the rear with the baggage, confirming all that has been done by the officials. The function of the monk, as far as renewal in the historical context goes, then becomes simply to affirm his total support of officialdom. He has no other function, then, except perhaps to pray for what he is told to pray for: namely the purposes and the objectives of an ecclesiastical bureaucracy. The monastery as dynamo concept goes back to this. The monk is there to generate spiritual power that will justify over and over again the already pre-decided rightness of the officials above him. He must under no event and under no circumstances assume a role that implies any form of spontaneity and originality. He must be an eye that sees nothing except what is carefully selected for him to see. An ear that hears nothing except what it is advantageous for the managers for him to hear. We know what Christ said about such ears and eyes.

Now you will ask me: how do I reconcile obedience, true obedience (which is synonymous with love) with a situation like this? Shouldn’t I just blast the whole thing wide open, or walk out, or tell them to jump in the lake?

Let us suppose for the sake of argument that this was not completely excluded. Why would I do this? For the sake of the witness for peace? For the sake of witnessing to the truth of the Church, in its reality, as against this figment of the imagination? Simply for the sake of blasting off and getting rid of the tensions and frustrations in my own spirit, and feeling honest about it?

In my own particular case, every one of these would backfire and be fruitless. It would be taken as a witness against the peace movement and would confirm these people in all the depth of their prejudices and their self-complacency. It would reassure them in every possible way that they are incontrovertibly right and make it even more impossible for them ever to see any kind of new light on the subject. And in any case I am not merely looking for opportunities to blast off. I can get along without it.

I am where I am. I have freely chosen this state, and have freely chosen to stay in it when the question of a possible change arose. If I am a disturbing element, that is all right. I am not making a point of being that, but simply of saying what my conscience dictates and doing so without seeking my own interest. This means accepting such limitations as may be placed on me by authority, and not because I may or may not agree with the ostensible reasons why the limitations are imposed, but out of love for God who is using these things to attain ends which I myself cannot at the moment see or comprehend. I know He can and will in His own time take good care of the ones who impose limitations unjustly or unwisely. That is His affair and not mine. In this dimension I find no contradiction between love and obedience, and as a matter of fact it is the only sure way of transcending the limits and arbitrariness of ill-advised commands. (April 29, 1962)

Very strong stuff. Very few in the peace movement then or now could understand or appreciate that kind of stubborn continuity. Marriages often end over much less. But it is the kind of decision that would be respected and valued by Francis of Assisi or Gandhi or Dorothy Day.

He appealed the order to the Abbot General in Rome, but it was affirmed. He wrote to me:

I was denounced to him by an American abbot who was told by a friend in the intelligence service that I was writing for a “communist controlled publication” (The Catholic Worker). You didn’t know you were Communist controlled, did you? Maybe George [a hospital visitor on the Worker staff] is really Khrushchev’s nephew. Meanwhile, though I look through all my pockets, I cannot find that old [Communist Party] card. Must have dropped out when I was mopping my brow in the confessional. (June 14, 1962)

The “silenced” Merton wasn’t altogether silent. The suppressed book was circulated in substantial numbers in a mimeographed form, not unlike the samizdat literary underground in the USSR. He collected his war-peace letters (under the title Cold War Letters) and self-published two editions; his recognition of the larger dimensions of the Cold War and its pervasive and destructive effects in every quarter, including even the monastery, led him to include the “Low Sunday” epistle.

In 1963, the Trappist freeze on his peace writing slowly began to thaw, at least in part, no doubt, because Pope John was saying in encyclical letters to the entire Church and world the kinds of things Merton was formerly saying in The Catholic Worker and, more recently, in samizdat (or, on occasion, in writings published under pseudonyms—Benedict Monk was almost a giveaway, but my favorite was Marco J. Frisbee). (10) The Pope having declared flatly in Pacem in Terris that war could no longer be considered “a fit instrument of justice,” Merton wryly mentioned that he had just written to the Order’s Abbot General once again:

I said it was a good thing that Pope John didn’t have to get his encyclical through our censors: and could I now start up again. (April 26, 1963)

While the silencing order was not removed, some of Merton’s reflections on peace began to reach at least fractions of the reading public again, and under his own name. One of these was a short statement in response to the award in 1963 of the Pax Medal, given by the American Pax Society, a mainly Catholic peace group of which he was a sponsor that later grew into the American branch of Pax Christi. His message was read aloud at the Pax annual meeting at the Catholic Worker Farm in Tivoli, N.Y., and then published in the Pax magazine. In his message, after apologizing for his inability to be present and noting that his inability might suggest he ought not to receive such an award, he went on:

A monastery is not a snail’s shell, nor is religious faith a kind of spiritual fallout shelter into which one can plunge to escape the criminal realities of an apocalyptic age.

Never has the total solidarity of all men, either in good or in evil, been so obvious and so unavoidable. I believe we live in a time in which one cannot help making decisions for or against man, for or against life, for or against justice, for or against truth.

And according to my way of thinking, all these decisions rolled into one (for they are inseparable) amount to a decision for or against God.

I have attempted to say this in the past as opportunity has permitted, and opportunity has not permitted as much as I would have liked. But one thing I must admit: to say these things seems to me to be only the plain duty of any reasonable being. Such an attitude implies no heroism, no extraordinary insight, no special moral qualities, and no unusual intelligence. (11)

He proceeded to offer brief quotations, “perfectly obvious and beyond dispute,” from Pope John’s Pacem in Terris: that “the arms race ought to cease, that nuclear weapons should be banned, that an effective program of gradual disarmament should be agreed upon by all nations.” (12)

These propositions … are … obvious, and clear as daylight…. If I said it before Pacem in Terris, that still does not make me terribly original, because the same things were said long ago by Popes before Pope John, and by Theologians, and by the Fathers of the Church, and by the Gospels themselves….

I don’t deserve a medal for affirming such obvious and common sense truths. But if by receiving the medal I can publicly declare these to be my convictions, then I most gladly and gratefully accept. (13)

This same year he wrote a preface to the Japanese edition of The Seven Storey Mountain, in which he drew the reader’s attention to changes that had occurred in his attitudes and assumptions since writing the autobiography:

I have learned … to look back into [the] world with greater compassion, seeing those in it not as alien to myself, not as peculiar and deluded strangers, but as identified with myself. In freeing myself from their delusions and preoccupations I have identified myself, none the less, with their struggles and their blind, desperate hope of happiness.

But precisely because I am identified with them, I must refuse all the more definitively to make their delusions my own. I must refuse their ideology of matter, power, quantity, movement, activism and force. I reject this because I see it to be the source and expression of the spiritual hell which man has made of his world: the hell which has burst into flame in two total wars of incredible horror, the hell of spiritual emptiness and sub-human fury which has resulted in crimes like Auschwitz or Hiroshima. This I can and must reject with all the power of my being. This all sane men seek to reject. But the question is: how can one sincerely reject the effect if he continues to embrace the cause? (14)

Merton goes on to say that he has always regarded his conversion to Christ “as a radical liberation from the delusions and obsessions of modern man and his society” and that religious faith alone “can open the inner ground of man’s being to the liberty of the sons of God, and preserve him from surrender of his integrity to the seductions of a totalitarian lie.”

He speaks of his present understanding of the monastic life:

[T]he monastery is not an “escape from the world.” On the contrary, by being in the monastery I take my true part in all the struggles and sufferings of the world. To adopt a life that is essentially non-assertive, nonviolent, a life of humility and peace is in itself a statement of one’s position. But each one in such a life can, by the personal modality of his decision, give his whole life a special orientation. It is my intention to make my entire life a rejection of, a protest against the crimes and injustices of war and political tyranny which threaten to destroy the whole race of man and the world with him. By my monastic life and vows I am saying No to all the concentration camps, the aerial bombardments, the staged political trials, the judicial murders, the racial injustices, the economic tyrannies, and the whole socio-economic apparatus which seems geared for nothing but global destruction in spite of all its fair words in favor of peace. I make monastic silence a protest against the lies of politicians, propagandists and agitators, and when I speak it is to deny that my faith and my Church can ever seriously be aligned with these forces of injustice and destruction. (15)

He notes regretfully that others who believe in war also invoke the faith, as they support racial injustices and engage in “self-righteous and lying forms of tyranny.”

My life must, then, be a protest against these also, and perhaps against these most of all. (16)

The problem for contemporary Christians, he continues, is to end the identification of Christian faith with those forms of political society that dominate Europe and the West, much as did the early Christian monks of the fourth-century (post-Constantine) Church:

The time has come for judgment to be passed on this history. I can rejoice in this fact, believing that the judgment will be liberation of Christian faith from servitude to and involvement in the structures of the secular world. And that is why I think certain forms of Christian “optimism” are to be taken with reservation, in so far as they lack the genuine eschatological consciousness of the Christian vision, and concentrate upon the naive hope of merely temporal achievements— churches on the moon!

If I say NO to all these secular forces, I also say YES to all that is good in the world and in man. I say YES to all that is beautiful in nature, and in order that this may be the yes of a freedom and not of subjection, I must refuse to possess anything in the world purely as my own. I say yes to all the men and women who are my brothers and sisters in the world, but for the yes to be an assent of freedom and not of subjection, I must live so that no one of them may seem to belong to me, and that I may not belong to any of them. It is because I want to be more to them than a friend that I become, to all of them, a stranger. (17)

“God writes straight with crooked lines,” offers a Portuguese proverb. No doubt Merton’s silencing had been unjust and unwarranted and something his Trappist superiors came to regret, not simply because it came to be embarrassing but because it was wrong. Yet the crisis it occasioned in Merton’s life, if a friend dare make guesses about the “stranger” within his friend, more deeply purified his understanding and compassion, his vision of the Church and its mission, his sense of connection with all who suffer. It also made him more astute in the pastoral role he took on, mainly via mail but on occasion through visits at the monastery, with those active in work for peace, social justice, and renewal of the Church. Merton did not view the peace movement through rose-colored glasses. He knew how difficult it was for those in protest movements to grow in patience and compassion. Thus he offered us his support, but it was a critical support that sought to prod us to become more sympathetic toward those who were threatened or antagonized by our efforts. Thus he noted “the tragedy” that the majority of people so crave “undisturbed security” that they are threatened by agitation even when it protests something—nuclear weapons—which in reality is the real threat to their security. But it wouldn’t help to get in a rage over this irony:

We have to have a deep patient compassion for the fears of men, for the fears and irrational mania of those who hate us or condemn us. These are, after all, the ordinary people, the ones who don’t want war, the ones who get it in the neck, the ones who really want to build a decent new world in which there will not be war and starvation…. (Jan. 29, 1962)

On this crucial matter of managing patience while being aware of the desperate urgency of responding to immediate crises, he spoke of the special attitude we were going to depend upon if we hoped to continue in such immensely difficult and frustrating work:

We will never see the results in our time, even if we manage to get through the next five years without being incinerated. Really, we have to pray for a total and profound change in the mentality of the whole world. What we have known in the past as Christian penance is not a deep enough concept if it does not comprehend the special problems and dangers of the present age. Hairshirts will not do the trick, though there is no harm in mortifying the flesh. But vastly more important is the complete change of heart and the totally new outlook on the world of man….

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

A week later he was at once pleased with, yet worried about, a demonstration in New York in which pacifists, from several groups including the Catholic Worker, had blocked the main doorways of the Atomic Energy Commission. He was pleased that the action had been, in planning and execution, thoroughly Gandhian—so determined to realize “openness and truthfulness” that police observers received (and accepted) invitations to be present at the planning meetings for that demonstration so there could be no doubt regarding exactly what was to happen and in what spirit. Nor was he surprised that, despite the physically unthreatening nature of a quiet sit-in before doors when other entrances were unimpeded, some of the AEC staff had kicked through our carpet of bodies in order to pass through the front doors. But he was worried that we weren’t seeing deeply enough into the subtle dangers that exist even in nonviolent action:

One of the problematic questions about nonviolence is the inevitable involvement of hidden aggressions and provocations. I think this is especially true when there are a fair proportion of non-religious elements, or religious elements that are not spiritually developed. It is an enormously subtle question, but we have to consider the fact that, in its provocative aspect, nonviolence may tend to harden the opposition and to confirm people in their righteous blindness. It may even in some cases separate men out and drive them in the other direction, away from us and away from peace. This of course may be (as it was with the prophets) part of God’s plan. A clear separation of antagonists….

Even so, he went on, driving people in the opposite direction can never be seen as a goal of such actions:

[We must] always direct our action toward opening people’s eyes to the truth, and if they are blinded, we must try to be sure we did nothing specifically to blind them. Yet there is that danger: the danger one observes subtly in tight groups like families and monastic communities, where the martyr for the right sometimes thrives on making his persecutors terribly and visibly wrong. He can drive them in desperation to be wrong, to seek refuge in the wrong, to seek refuge in violence.

In words that should be carefully read and pondered by anyone hoping to defuse a bit of the world’s explosive potential, Merton continued:

The violent man is, by our standards, weak and sick, though at times he is powerful and menacing in an extreme degree. In our acceptance of vulnerability, however, we play on his guilt. There is no finer torment. This is one of the enormous problems of the time, and the place. It is the overwhelming problem of America: all this guilt and nothing to do about it except finally to explode and blow it all out in hatreds—race hatreds, political hatreds, war hatreds. We, the righteous, are dangerous people in such a situation. (Of course we are not righteous; we are conscious of our guilt; above all, we are sinners: but nevertheless we are bound to take courses of action that are professionally righteous and we have committed ourselves to that course.)….

We have got to be aware of the awful sharpness of the truth when it is used as a weapon, and since it can be the deadliest weapon, we must take care that we don’t kill more than falsehood with it. In fact we must be careful how we “use” truth, for we are ideally the instruments of truth and not the other way round. (Feb. 6, 1962)

As the weeks and months went by, Merton often had reason to notice that very few peace activists were deeply attuned to some of these insights, and he expressed his anguish with the peace movement’s “terrible superficiality,” as he summed it up in a letter of August 27 that same year. Yet he was as committed to his relationship with us, for all our immaturity and immense limitations, perhaps in a way analogous to his commitments to others in the monastic life and the wider Church who found some of his concerns so discordant and out of step. Thus he kept articulating a vision of what we might become—something more helpful in the world than a new brigade of two-legged loudspeakers joining the political shouting matches:

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

Was such a thing possible, he wondered, noting that some had accused him of being “too ready to doubt the possibility”:

At least we must try to hope in it, otherwise all is over…. Hence the desirability of a manifestly non-political witness, non-aligned, non-labeled, fighting for the reality of man and his rights and needs in the nuclear world in some measure against all the alignments.

He warned against the importance of all movements with such aims taking care not to be exploited, manipulated or taken over by Communists whose peace, it turns out, isn’t so peaceful:

The prime duty of all honest movements is to protect themselves from being swallowed by any sea monster that happens along. And plenty will happen along. Once the swallowing has taken place, rigidity replaces truth and there is no more possibility of dialogue: the old lines are hardened and the weapons slide into position for the kill once more. (Dec. 8, 1962)

The years 1963 and 1964 saw America’s quiet war in Vietnam suddenly begin to bulge in size and devastation; these events helped prod the Catholic Peace Fellowship into existence, first as a part-time officeless project initially involving Daniel Berrigan and myself with support from John Heidbrink of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (which Merton had joined formally, not hesitating over its explicitly pacifist statement of purpose, in September 1962: “a rather obvious thing to do,” he mentioned in a letter of Sept. 22). Merton, while mentioning his increasing discomfort at being “a name,” agreed to be one of the sponsors. The Catholic Peace Fellowship, with roots both in the Catholic Worker and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, took an unequivocally pacifist stand, emphasizing in its membership brochure the sweeping rejections of war by Popes John and Paul.

In November 1964, several weeks before the CPF was to have an office and, in myself, a full-time staff person, a small group of CPF- and FOR-related individuals came together for a three-day retreat with Merton to consider, in Merton’s phrase, “the spiritual roots of protest.” (18) Those taking part included Daniel and Philip Berrigan, W. H. Ferry (a friend of Merton’s as ell as vice-president of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions), John Howard Yoder (FOR member, prominent Mennonite theologian), Tony Walsh (of the Catholic Worker house in Montreal), A. J. Muste (long-time executive secretary of FOR, founder of the Committee for Nonviolent Action, pacifism’s “elder statesman” in the U.S.), Tom Cornell (of the Catholic Worker, later CPF co-secretary), myself and several others: a small crowd that had been brought together largely by John Heidbrink, the FOR’s Church Work Secretary—though, due to illness, not at the retreat himself.

This was my second meeting with Merton in person. There was still laughter, but less of it. The times were deadly serious and so was much of the conversation. Merton spoke in earnest, listened with a quick and critical ear, and at times launched us into silence. I remember him best in those days not with us in his hermitage, though he was present with the group as much as anyone, but rather walking alone outside, pacing back and forth in a state of absorption in thought so complete and compelling that it brought home to me the gravity of what he was going to say in the conference that followed more than the words themselves.

Merton’s contribution was to impress on us, often more with questions than answers, that protest wasn’t simply an almost casual human right, but rather a terribly dangerous calling that, if it lacked sufficient spiritual maturity, could contribute to making things worse. Thus his Zen koan of a question that hit us like an arrow in the back was: “By what right do we protest? Against whom or what? For what? How? Why?”

Questions. The whole retreat was more a questioning and an answering experience. We considered the momentum of technology in the modern world: technology’s implied credo being summed up in a few apocalyptic words—”If it can be done, it must be done.” In the context of technology, whether on its battlefields or in its almost monastically-sheltered laboratories, the human being was coming to be seen as (quoting from a scientific paper) a “bio-chemical link”: a shaky bridge between the solid-circuit perfection of cybernetic systems and moodless computers, and not a being little less than the angels.

By way of counter-point to man as “bio-chemical link,” we repeatedly turned back to a man whose head was chopped off by the Nazis on August 9, 1943—Franz Jaegerstatter, an Austrian Catholic peasant with modest education and a wife and three young daughters to worry over who, despite strong opposition from his pastor and bishop, refused military service in Hitler’s armies, even in a non-combatant capacity. Uncanonized though he was, he struck us as a saint for our moment when many would refuse to join in a war with no more justice than Hitler’s. We were struck by an isolated peasant’s ability to see clearly—expressed in letters written from prison (later collected and published by Gordon Zahn) (19)—what bishops and theologians couldn’t see or didn’t dare see. We had every reason to expect the same from our own Church leadership as the Vietnam War worsened. But we had to hope for something better than that in our situation, and not waste a minute in working toward that end— toward a Church that would put its weight behind those who refused to wage war and who refused to see other humans simply as “bio-chemical links.”

“If the Church,” said Merton, “could make its teachings alive to the laity, future Franz Jaegerstatters would no longer be in solitude but would be the Church as a whole reasserting the primacy of the spiritual.”

With such a sense of purpose, the Catholic Peace Fellowship began its work, focusing on the right—and, in the present situation, possible duty—not to take part in this killing of Vietnamese. A booklet of mine, written with advice from Merton, even received the Imprimatur of the Archdiocese of New York—with the censorship process, to my astonishment, only weeding out a few errors of fact that weakened the text; thus “Catholics and Conscientious Objection” (20) was readily accepted for use in Catholic schools where previously anything along these lines would have landed in the wastebasket next to Lady Chatterly’s Lover. In time, we were counseling Catholic conscientious objectors in droves—as many as fifty a week wrote for help or came to see us. Chapters were springing up across the country, as Tom Cornell and I went forth on speaking trips. A number of theologians and many clergy gave support, signed statements, and joined in demonstrations.

All the time, however, the war was getting worse and thus the pressures were on us to do more than “just” educate. David Miller, one of the Catholic Worker staff, unable to find words to adequately express his dismay with the war, its casualties and the conscription of young Americans to fight in it without their consent or understanding, lifted up his draft card at a rally in front of Manhattan’s military induction center and burned the card to an ash—an event on the front page of American newspapers the next morning.

A few months later, Tom Cornell of the CPF staff felt obliged to do the same, responding to a newly passed law that provided heavy fines and long jail terms for anyone mutilating or destroying these tiny forms that noted one’s draft status. Tom reasoned it was an idolatrous law, making sacred a scrap of paper, and decided to burn his publicly as well. He did so at the beginning of November. The event attracted substantial national attention. A week later Roger LaPorte, a young volunteer and former Cistercian novice, burned not his draft card but himself. Sitting before the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, he poured gasoline on his body and struck a match.

The two events hit Merton like a bolt of lightning. On November 11, 1965, we received a telegram:


We were already in a state of shock, still trying to absorb the event of Roger’s action. He was still alive, dying in Bellevue Hospital. Tom Cornell had been indicted and was awaiting a trial date. Merton’s telegram, and the letter which arrived a few days later, added to a sense of exhaustion and despair.

In his letter he recognized that we were as shocked as he by Roger’s action. Such actions would harm rather than help the peace movement. So would draft card burnings, he went on. Such things were so disturbing, Merton said, that he was led to the “regretful decision that I cannot accept the present spirit of the movement as it presents itself to me.” Not questioning anyone’s sincerity, still he couldn’t see in such actions the qualities of a genuinely nonviolent movement, and he even sensed “there is something demonic at work in it.” In fact such actions seemed to echo rather than oppose the direction of violent America:

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

Merton’s vulnerability to such events had been heightened by a major event in his own life that began only ten weeks before: on August 21, after nearly two decades of prayers and petitions, he was finally allowed to be a hermit. By this was meant not life in a hollow tree out of human reach but a life based in his cinderblock hermitage, involving considerably more solitude than had been possible before. Finally, as he put it in a Christmas letter to friends, “I am… trying to do the things I came here for.” A less cluttered life, fewer chores and responsibilities, less correspondence. This more hidden and seemingly sheltered life was in reality, as surely Merton knew it would be, much less defended against the world as a whole, for better, for worse. He felt the events involving Catholic pacifists in New York like an earthquake under his feet.

In the exchange of letters that was to follow, as he heard details about what had happened and began to learn not only of the legal and political basis of Tom’s action but more of the human dimensions of Roger LaPorte, he decided not to withdraw his CPF sponsorship after all. He expressed apologies, asking us to understand that, in a way, he had just begun a new life, and it presented problems:

I am, so to speak, making my novitiate as a “hermit” of sorts and I have my hands full with this. It is a full time job just coping with one’s own damn mind in solitude without getting wrought up about what appear to be the vagaries of others. (Nov. 19, 1965)

He added that some of his fellow monks held him responsible for anything that happened with Catholic pacifists anywhere: “It is … mere gossip, but they are associating the card burning with my ideas about peace. This certainly does not make life simple for me since I am not quite sure that I agree with card burning (though I accept Tom’s arguments for his own position).” [A year later, in fact, while not seeing draft card burning as an appropriate tactic for big campaigns, he said, in a joint letter to Tom and me, “The more I think about the card burning, the more I think that you, Tom, are utterly right before God.” (Nov. 16, 1966)]

John Heidbrink’s letters to Merton at this time prompted a long reflection on the intersection of his redefined vocation with the recent events in New York:

Roger’s immolation started off a deep process of examination and it will lead far. Wrong as I did think his act was objectively, I believe it did not prejudice the purity of his heart and I never condemned him. What I condemned and … still … question is a pervasive “spirit” or something, a spirit of irrationality, of power seeking, of temptation to the wrong kind of refusal and impatience and to pseudo charismatic witness which can be terribly, fatally destructive of all good…. [There is] a spirit of madness and fanaticism [in the air] … and it summons me to a deep distrust of all my own acts and involvements in this public realm….

[T]he real road [for me] lies … with a new development in thought and work that will, if it is what it should be, be much more true and more valid for peace than any series of ephemeral gestures I might attempt to make. But anyway, now is a time for me of searching, digging, and if I mention angst it will not be to dramatize myself in any way but to assure you that I conceive my real and valid union with you all to make this form of silently getting ground up inside by the weights among which you are moving outside.

It is to be understood that if I get any word, I hope reasonable word, to utter, I will not hesitate to utter it as I have always done before. But this word has to come from here, not from there. That is why I worked it out with Jim that I will remain a sponsor of CPF provided it is understood that in political matters and other questions of immediate practical decision I remain independent and autonomous…. (Dec. 4, 1965)

Merton changed his mind. This isn’t a trait one takes for granted. Not only did he change it, but he decided to make a public statement about the new shape of his vocation and at the same time to mention the reasons he would remain a CPF sponsor even while pruning his life severely. The CPF released his statement a few days before Christmas and it was widely reported in the press. Beginning with a denial of the ever-current rumors that he had left the monastery and abandoned the contemplative life, he said,

In actual fact, far from abandoning the contemplative life, I have received permission to go into it more deeply. I have been granted an opportunity for greater solitude and more intense prayer, meditation and study. As a result of this, I am even less involved in various activities than I was before…. I am not keeping track of current controversies…. I am not taking an active part in [the peace movement] ….

However, I certainly believe it is my duty to give at least general and moral support to all forms of Catholic Action…. In particular, I continue to give … moral support to those who are working to implement the teachings of the Council and of the modern Popes on war and peace. If my name remains among the sponsors of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, it is because I believe that this dedicated group is sincerely striving to spread the teachings of the Gospel and of the Church on war, peace, and the brotherhood of man. However, my sponsorship does not imply automatic approval of any and every move made by this group, still less of individual actions on the part of its members acting on their own responsibility…. I personally believe that what we need most of all today is patient, constructive and pastoral work rather than acts of defiance which antagonize the average person without enlightening him. (Dec. 3, 1965; released Dec. 22)

Paradoxically, the final effect of Merton’s short-lived resignation was that he decided to become more directly involved. He helped the CPF carefully define its “pastoral” work which, by December 29, he saw as being of immense importance. While the Council and Popes had spoken “clearly and authoritatively,” few if any Catholic prelates were going to get the message out in a way that could be dearly understood by the average churchgoer; the Vietnam War would continue on its murderous course, with Catholics as busy in the killing as any other group. The Popes’ encyclicals and the Council’s Constitution on the Church in the Modern World would be dead letters, unless the CPF effectively got out to the colleges, the seminaries and the clergy. “This is a big job … it is what you are called to do now.” While in some ways the task was “colorless” and undramatic—”simply reaching a lot of people and helping them to change their minds”—it could have a “transforming effect on the American Catholic Church.”

For his own part he offered to write a leaflet spelling out the Church’s teaching on war—and in time this emerged as a CPF booklet, “Blessed Are the Meek,” not only presenting the Church’s teaching but spelling out what nonviolence is all about—a meekness that has nothing to do with passivity, that involves selflessness and considerable risk, and that is liberating rather than murderous. “The chief difference between violence and nonviolence,” he remarked, “is that violence depends entirely on its own calculations. Nonviolence depends entirely on God and His Word.” (21)

One of the helpful events for Merton in the last few years of his life was the arrival at his hermitage of a brown-robed monk from Asia: Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen master, a leader of the nonviolent movement in Vietnam, one of the monks most responsible for the “engaged Buddhism” which had led Vietnamese Buddhists—at immense personal risk—to resist the war and to work toward a neutral “third way” solution, getting rid of American soldiers and ending the civil war that had so worsened with their involvement. Like Merton, Thich Nhat Hanh was a poet. Because of the horrors of the war, he had temporarily given up many of the externals of the monastic life, though the reality of his monk’s identity remained unimpaired. “A perfectly formed monk,” Merton marveled to his novices the next day, saying Nhat Hanh’s arrival was really the answer to a prayer.

Merton’s interest in Eastern spirituality, especially Buddhism and Zen, had long since been established. The Way of Chuang Tzu (22) had already been published and he was at work on Zen and the Birds of Appetite. (23) But he had known almost nothing of Vietnamese Zen Buddhism until Thich Nhat Hanh’s arrival. The two stayed up into the night, sharing the chant of their respective traditions, discussing methods of prayer and meditation, sharing experiences in approaches to monastic formation—and talking of the war.

“What is it like?” Merton asked.

“Everything is destroyed.”

This, Merton later commented, was a monk’s answer. Not long-winded, carefully qualified and balanced explanations—just the essence of the event, its soul. “Everything is destroyed.”

Afterward Merton wrote short declaration about his newly found “brother” that John Heidbrink had brought to the abbey. (Thich Nhat Hanh, a member of FOR, was on an FOR-sponsored speaking trip in the U.S.) Merton’s major statement in the text was as simple and direct as Thich Nhat Hanh’s comment about the war:

Thich Nhat Hanh is my brother.

This is not a political statement. It has no “interested” motive, it seeks to provoke no immediate reaction “for” or “against” this or that side in the Vietnam war. It is on the contrary a human and personal statement and an anguished plea for the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh who is my brother. 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. (24)

Merton went on to speak of their shared rejection of the war for “human reasons, reasons of sanity, justice and love.” He underscored the fact that neither of them was political in the word’s ordinary sense, not supporting any ideology of conquest and war.

He emphasized that Nhat Hanh had risked his life in order to present the war’s reality to Americans. Neither armed side would readily tolerate a spokesman for toleration—with one message, he betrays both sides. He does so simply because he speaks for compassion:

Nhat Hanh is a free man … moved by the spiritual dynamic of a tradition of religious compassion. He has come among us as many others have, from time to time, bearing witness to the spirit of Zen. More than any other he has shown us that Zen is not an esoteric and world- denying cult of inner illumination, but that it has its rare and unique sense of responsibility for the modern world. Wherever he goes he will walk in the strength of his spirit and in the solitude of the Zen monk who sees beyond life and death. . . .

I have said that Nhat Hanh is my brother, and it is true. We are both monks, and we have lived the monastic life about the same number of years. We are both poets, both existentialists. I have far more in common with Nhat Hanh than I have with many Americans, and do not hesitate to say it. It is vitally important that such bonds be admitted. They are the bonds of a new solidarity and a new brotherhood which is beginning to be evident on all the five continents and which cuts across all political, religious and cultural lines to unite young men and women in every country in something that is more concrete than an ideal and more alive than a program. The unity of the young is the only hope for the world. In its name I appeal for Nhat Hanh. Do what you can for him. If I mean something to you, then let me put it this way: do for Nhat Hanh whatever you would do for me if I were in his position. In many ways I wish I were.25

Their conversations strengthened Merton in the conviction that the peacemaker is one who rejects victories by “sides” but is one, instead, committed to the formation of community that protects the economic, cultural, political and spiritual rights of every person and group within the disciplines of nonviolence.

This was the goal of the “third way” Buddhists in Vietnam. It meant an alternative to the absolutist claims and the military “solutions” of the competing sides. This had immense implications not only for the Vietnamese but for the entire world and its fragile future.

But the encounter with Nhat Hanh was also an illumination, an encounter with a hermit who carried his hermitage invisibly around him, a contemplative wandering the face of the earth bearing his own silence within the surrounding noise.

This was one of the preparatory steps for Merton’s own journey to Asia. His last letter (August 5, 1968) ended with a request for Nhat Hanh’s current address.

During these last years of correspondence, while there continued to be much that was of a practical nature relating to the work of CPF and FOR, there continued to be much that reminded me again that my first encounter with Merton was with a man of outrageous laughter.

I suspect his sense of humor had a great deal to do with his ability to persevere, not only with his monastic community, but also with his peace community. If he sometimes spoke critically, not to say grumpily, about his fellow monks, it tended to be in a way that occasioned at least a smile. When a friend, Linda Henry, designed a letterhead that featured the words “the monks are moving,” he asked if I could send him some blank sheets for some of his own correspondence, then added:

Only thing is I wonder if the monks are moving. Everything I do gives me scruples about being identified with this stupid rhinocerotic outfit that charges backward into the jungle with portentious snuffling and then bursts out of the canebrake with a roar in the most unlikely places. (June 26, 1967)

When his old friend and mentor Dan Walsh was ordained in Louisville, Merton wrote of the celebration that followed afterward at the home of Tommie O’Callaghan:

[T]here was a lot of celebrating. In fact I celebrated on too much champagne, which is a thing a Trappist rarely gets to do, but I did a very thorough job. At one point in the afternoon I remember looking up and focusing rather uncertainly upon four faces of nuns sitting in a row looking at me in a state of complete scandal and shock. Another pillar of the Church had fallen. (June 17, 1967)

The following spring a letter arrived that began with a mysterious Yiddish proverb, all in capitals: SLEEP FASTER WE NEED THE PILLOWS.

Another letter arrived with a color snapshot of, Merton announced, “the only known photograph of God.” In most respects it was just a view of the Kentucky hills, fold upon fold of green under a brilliant blue sky. But hanging down from the top, dominating the whole scene, was an immense sky hook, the kind used in construction for lifting substantial objects. It looked like an overgrown fishing hook.

If Leon Bloy was right—”Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God”—God was very present in Merton, for all his hard times in a hard century. That joy and that laughter were a major element in what he had to say about peacemaking and many other things as well. He was at times a scandal to his brothers in the monastic life, and to pacifists too—the kind that can’t admit a smile in These Difficult Times.

It was in that laughter that I best understood his seriousness. One discovered the connection that necessarily exists between a profound and attentive silence and words that have truth in them. A monk who could see God in a giant hook dangling above the Kentucky woods and who could roll on the floor with joy over the stench of unwashed feet was the same one who could consider war in its human dimension, with all its agony and sense that God was obliging us not to make a peace with such peacelessness.

With prayer and with word, he was able to help others to do the same, to keep going when continuity seemed impossible. His letters did that for me on a number of occasions. But perhaps one letter was to you no less than me. Let me end by giving it to you. It was written February 21, 1966:

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

You are fed up with words, and I don’t blame you. I am nauseated by them sometimes. I am also, to tell the truth, nauseated by ideals and with causes. This sounds like heresy, but I think you will understand what I mean. It is so easy to get engrossed with ideas and slogans and myths that in the end one is left holding the bag, empty, with no trace of meaning left in it. And then the temptation is to yell louder than ever in order to make the meaning be there again by magic. Going through this kind of reaction helps you to guard against this. Your system is complaining of too much verbalizing, and it is right….

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

The next step in the process is for you to see that your own thinking about what you are doing is crucially important.

You are probably striving to build yourself an identity in your work, out of your work and your witness. You are using it, so to speak, to protect yourself against nothingness, annihilation. That is not the right use of your work. All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love. Think of this more, and gradually you will be free from the need to prove yourself, and you can be more open to the power that will work through you without your knowing it.

The great thing after all is to live, not to pour out your life in the service of a myth: and we turn the best things into myths. If you can get free from the domination of causes and just serve Christ’s truth, you will be able to do more and will be less crushed by the inevitable disappointments. Because I see nothing whatever in sight but much disappointment, frustration, and confusion….

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

Enough of this … it is at least a gesture…. I will keep you in my prayers.

All the best, in Christ,


* * *


1. Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas (N.Y.: Harcourt, Brace, 1951), p. 21.

2. Pope John XXIII, Pacem in Terris (N.Y.: America Press, 1963), p. 39.

3. Merton, My Argument With the Gestapo (N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969).

4. Merton, Thomas Merton on Peace, edited by Gordon Zahn (N.Y.: McCall’s, 1971), pp. 160-165 [later reissued as The Nonviolent Alternative (NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1980].

5. Merton, Emblems of a Season of Fury (N.Y.: New Directions, 1963), pp. 47ff.

6. Cf. Zahn, TMOP, pp 3-11.

7. Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (N.Y.: New Directions, 1966).

8. Ibid., pp. 112ff.

9. The Catholic Worker, October, 1961, p. 1.

10. Cf. Edward Rice, The Man in the Sycamore Tree (N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970), p. 79, where this and a litany of other Merton pseudonyms appear, signatures of his correspondence with Rice (editor’s note).

11. Merton, cited in Zahn, TMOP, p. 257.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid., p. 258.

14. Merton, “Author’s Preface to the Japanese Edition,” Nanae No Yama (The Seven Storey Mountain), trans. Tadishi Kudo (Tokyo: Chou Shuppansha, 1966).

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. Cf. Zahn, TMOP, pp. 259-260.

19. Gordon C. Zahn, In Solitary Witness (N.Y.: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1964).

20. James H. Forest, Catholics and Conscientious Objection (N.Y.: Catholic Peace Fellowship, 1966).

21. Cited in Zahn, TMOP, p. 216

22. Merton, The Way of Chuang Tzu (N.Y.: New Directions, 1965).

23. Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite (N.Y.: New Directions, 1968).

24. Cited in Zahn, TMOP, p. 262.

25. Ibid., p. 263.

* * *

In Peace Let Us Pray to the Lord

by Jim Forest

Some years ago, while in Moscow as a guest of the parish of Saints Cosmos and Damien, a church not far from the Kremlin, I was sitting at a desk just outside the office of the rector making notes for a talk I was to give that night. I had been at work only a short time when the rector, Fr. Alexander Borisov, asked if I would be willing to share the room with two icon restorers. “Good company,” I replied. They came in with a large icon so dark I had no idea what image was hidden under the blackened varnish. The heavy panel — one restorer estimated it was 300 years old — was placed on a table. As the decades had passed and thousands upon thousands of candles burned before it, the image had become increasingly hidden under the smoke-absorbing varnish until it was like a starless night sky. Using a clear liquid, possibly alcohol, and balls of cotton, the two worked side by side. Gradually their painstaking efforts began to reveal sharp lines and vivid colors. After an hour’s work, part of the face of Saint Nicholas had been brought back to life. I found myself the witness of a small resurrection.

It was a minor act of repair that would soon grace this recently reopened place of worship which had for many years housed a Soviet-era printing plant. The resurrected icon was also a gesture containing in microcosm the great housecleaning that the Church was undergoing throughout Russia after so many years of destruction, vandalism, neglect, atheist propganda and immense suffering that cost millions of lives.

But icon-cleaning has still wider implications. As a writer always trying to find the right word, each day I am reminded of how much of our vocabulary has been blackened by the smoke of politics, economics, our culture of intensive consumption and permanent entertainment, the “newspeaking” of old words.

As someone who has been especially concerned about war and peace, I have long been aware of how difficult it is to use the word “peace.” It’s one of our most damaged words.

In Russia during the Soviet era, “peace” was incessantly enlisted by those who ruled as a word meant to sum up all they were doing or intended to do on the name of Marx and Lenin. Even a Soviet war or invasion — Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan, just to name a few — was justified as a means of peacemaking. “Mir,” the Russian word for peace, was emblazoned on countless banners and posters.

Peace is a damaged word in America as well. Peace is announced as their goal by America’s politicians no less than it was by those grim men who once supervised military parades from from the top of Lenin’s tomb. I can recall as a child growing up in New Jersey, watching live broadcasts on our small black-and-white television screen of the explosion of nuclear weapons in the Nevada desert, an amazing act of political theater in those relatively innocent days when few people worried about radioactive fallout. These doomsday weapons, we were told, were made for purposes of peace. The atom bomnbs that had been droped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, however horrific, had — it was agued — shortened the war and brought about peace. In the Cold War fifties, postage stamps were cancelled with the message, “Pray for peace.” The slogan of the Strategic Air Command, the wing of the Air Force created to fight nuclear war, was “Peace is our profession.” Peace could obtained, we were told, only by the threat of “mutually assured destruction” — a much-used phrase at the time which for some reason we no longer hear, though the military structures produced by this doctrine remain intact. The acronym, appropriately, is M-A-D — mad, a madness satirized by Stanley Kubrick in his film, “Doctor Stragelove.” There was an intercontinental, nuclear-armed missile that was christened the Peacemaker.

When a word becomes its own antonym, one cannot use it without first attempting to restore the word. But how? One way to scrub off the grime is to pay close attention to the various uses of the word “peace” in the Orthodox Liturgy. I refer especially to that liturgy not only because I happen to be an Orthodox Christian but because it’s a litugy that has been in continuous use since Christianity was young. The text we use every Sunday dates from the fourth century and is credited to Saint John Chrysostom, but in fact he was only editing and combining still older liturgical texts.

The Orthodox Liturgy begins with the Great the Litany of Peace. In this series of brief, connecting prayers, we hear the word “peace” used in a variety of ways. Let’s look at them briefly.

The litany begins with a summons: “In peace let us pray to the Lord.” Here peace is identified both as a goal and a precondition of worship. How can we pray as a community if we are divided by enmity? How can we be part of a service in which we seek communion with God if, before we start, we have broken communion with each other?

Next comes: “For the peace from above and the salvation of our souls, let us pray to the Lord.” Here peace is seen not as something we can obtain by ourselves, like an acadmic degree, but as heaven’s gift, a gift that is linked with salvation. We can receive that gift or lock the door. God never forces a gift on anyone.

Then comes: “For the peace of the whole world, the welfare of the holy churches of God, and the union of all, let us pray to the Lord.” Worship, if it’s real and not just the reading of a script, is an action of connection, not only with God but with all that God has made. We seek not only a private peace, but peace for the entire world, no one and no nation excepted. As such a peace partly depends on how well the churches of God succeed in being channels of God’s peace, we pray in the same breath for the well-being of the churches, and God knows they need to brought into a state of well-being. Churches so often stand in the way of God’s grace due to institutionalism and by turning religion into a “god business.” We also pray for “the union of all.” In fact, we are in a state of radical disunity. I wonder if even God knows how many churches there are, each with its own theological reasons for being separate from others?

Then comes: “For this holy house and for those who enter with faith, reverence and the fear of God, let us pray to the Lord.” The well-being of the place we worship depends on each one of us. This requires faith — not a state of being easily obtained. Being in a state of reverence is our effort to be aware of God’s presence. If we are unaware of it inchurch, a place designed to help us to become aware, it’s not likely we’ll be aware of it anywere else. Also it requires fear of God — not fear in the sense of dread, but the fear — the awe — that arises in contemplating that which is beyond our comprehension.

Then come a prayer for the place we live and for every place of human habitation: “For this city, for every city and country, and for the faithful dwelling in them, let us pray to the Lord.” No place where human beings live is excluded from God’s love and mercy.

Next comes an appeal regarding basic needs: “For seasonable weather, for abundance of the fruits of the earth, and for peaceful times, let us pray to the Lord.” Peace is not something remote or abstract but concerns the moment of history we happen to inhabit, and the place, along with its climate. Without a favorable climate, there will be hunger and thirst. Without peaceful times we are in a condition of enmity — probably actual war, the greatest of disasters.

We go on to pray for those who in various ways are uprooted: “For travelers by land, sea and by air, for the sick and the suffering, for captives and their salvation, let us pray to the Lord.” It’s a prayer that draws our attention to the needs of others, especially those in desperate need. As Christ has told us: “What you do to the least person, you do to me.”

Coming to the end of the Litany of Peace, there our two urgent appeals. First: “For our deliverance from all affliction, wrath, danger and necessity, let us pray to the Lord.” Then: “Help us, save us, have mercy on us, and keep us, O God, by thy grace.” The cry for deliverance and mercy has been the constant refrain of the entire litany, for to each segment the response of the congregation is, “Lord, have mercy.”

The Great Litany of Peace is a kind of extended definition of peace: the recognition that worship is at odds with enmity — also that we seek a gift that only God can give but for which we are co-responsible. God cannot give us something we refuse to accept. If we seek God’s peace but ignore the sufferings of others, or increase the sufferings of others, we will not receive the peace from above. Peace is so much more than a space between wars. “Blessed are the peacemakers” is one of the eight Beatitudes. Becoming a peacemaker means playing a play a role in bringing God’s peace into the world. It’s not something God does while we passively watch and applaud.

Now let’s look at one other damaged word: love. In every language, it’s one of the most important words we have yet one of the hardest to define.

In ordinary contemporary usage, love has been sentimentalized. It has mainly to do with positive emotional bonds or longings or likings, from the sublime to the trivial. “I’m madly in love with (so-and-so).” “I love films made by Woody Allen.” “I love the pizzas they make at Danilo’s.” “I love Paris in the springtime.” “I love my new frying pan.”

Love in this sense, says The American Heritage Dictionary, is “intense affection and warm feeling for another person; strong sexual desire for another person; a strong fondness or enthusiasm.”

Such a definition makes the teaching of Jesus to love one’s enemies incomprehensible. We can safely say that even Jesus was without intense affection or warm feelings for his judges, torturers and executioners.

In The Oxford English Dictionary you find a definition that is more biblical:

“Love … [is that] disposition or state of feeling with regard to a person which … manifests itself in solicitude for the welfare of the object … [Love is] applied in an eminent sense to the paternal benevolence and affection of God toward His children, to the affectionate devotion directed to God from His creatures, and to the affection of one created being to another so far as it is prompted by the sense of their common relationship to God.”

As used in the Bible, love has first of all to do with action and taking responsibility, not about how you feel at the time. It’s how a parent cares for a crying child at three in the morning, even though that parent is exhausted and may wish he or she had chosen to be a monk. To love is to do what you can to provide for the wellbeing of another whether or not you feel affection for that person at a given moment. Love is a matter of doing far more than of feeling, of will rather than emotion.

An act of love may be animated by a sense of gratitude and delight in someone else — wonderful when it happens — or it may be done despite anger, depression, fear or aversion, done simply as a prayer to God and a response to God, who links us all, who is our common Creator, in whom we are brothers and sisters even if we wish we weren’t.

Love becomes a degree or two easier when we realize we’re relatives. The idea that we are intimately related to each other is at least as old as the Book of Genesis. Few biblical texts have more challenging implications this: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

There’s a rabbinic commentary in which the question is asked, “Why only one Adam and only one Eve?” The answer is so that so no one can claim to be of a higher descent. To be a descendent of Charlemage or Queen Elizabeth, of Shakespeare or Mark Twain is less significant than being a descendant of Adam and Eve, and it puts every one of us in the same family tree. One God, one human race, each human being a bearer of the image of God.

Unfortunately our way of seeing each other is to a great extent formed by what I often call the Gospel According to John Wayne — by which I mean all the stories which center on the obligation to be armed and ready to kill. It’s a powerful story that preaches survival by firepower. The basic idea in practically every Western movie — plus countless non-Western films that follow the same plot line — is that certain people have not just taken an evil turn in life but are evil down to the marrow of their bones — evil in their DNA. Forget about the Book of Genesis. These people are made not in the image of God but in the image of Satan.

The archetypical Western is a tale about how good men with guns save the community from evil men with guns by killing them. The classic scene is the gunfight on Main Street in a newly-settled town in the lawless West. And there is that equally classic scene before the shoot-out in which we see the hero reluctantly open a drawer and grasp his revolver, a weapon we are aware he had hoped never to use again, strap it on and walk out the door knowing he may not live till sundown.

The Gospel According to John Wayne is far from an ignoble story. There is real courage in it – the readiness of an honorable man to risk his life to protect his community. The big problem with the Gospel According to John Wayne is that it hides from us the crucial fact that there is no such thing as a completely evil person — also, apart from Christ, no such thing as a completely good person. As Solzhenitsyn, survivor of Stalin’s prison camps, wrote in The Gulag Archipelago: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of hearts, there remains … an un-uprooted small corner of evil.”

I think of another Russian, Saint John of Kronstadt, a man who had no illusions about human beings and our capacity to commit serious sins. The main establishment in the port city of Kronstadt, not far from St. Petersburg, was a naval base. It was a city of much drunkenness, prostitution and violence. St. John was the local priest. The people he met in daily life, and whose confessions he heard every week, were frequently men who had committed acts of deadly violence. He helped many of them change direction. This was possible only because he saw the image of God in them. “Never confuse the person, formed in the image of God,” he said, “with the evil that is in him, because evil is but a chance misfortune, illness, a devilish reverie. But the very essence of the person is the image of God, and this remains in him despite every disfigurement.”

To fail to recognize the divine spark in the other is perhaps the most common form of spiritual blindness. It is a theme that was often addressed by Saint John Chrysostom way back in the fourth century. “If you fail to recognize Christ in the beggar at the church door,” he said, “you will not find Christ in the chalice.”

To become even vaguely aware of each person being a bearer of the divine image opens the door to love.

Love is linked with reconciliation, but reconciliation is a word rarely used and often misunderstood. For some it seems to mean reconciling yourself with what’s wrong in the world, accepting the status quo, smoothing over differences, being friendly at all costs, fitting in to the system in which you happen to find yourself. But the biblical meaning of reconciliation has to do with relationships that are restored, in fact transformed, in the peace of God. Reconciliation means the healing of community whose brokenness and deep-down injustice seemed beyond repair.

Reconciliation was the great dream of Martin Luther King: “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood… I have a dream today!”

The big question is what can we do that might help convert a relationship of enmity to one of friendship? In the short time left to me, I want to focus on just two propoals.

The first is very simple and but also extremely difficult: pray for your enemies. It’s not an idea of mine. It comes from one of the most challenging teachings of Jesus: “Love your enemies and pray for them.” If you don’t pray for your enemies, you have no starting point. Prayer is an act of connection, on the one hand with our creator, on the other with whoever I am praying for. Prayer is an action of forging links. There is no way I will be able to love someone I basically regard as unworthy of love unless there is first of all an inner connection. The moment I manage to pray for someone who, in my worst moments I wish would die a miserable death, the harder it is to dehumanize him or wish him ill — or do him harm. In praying for an enemy you can pray for his enlightenment, his repentance, his conversion — at the same time praying for your own enlightenment, your own repentance, your own conversion. After all, you don’t only have enemies. You’re an enemy too. Not too many people are rushing your way to present you with a halo.

Don’t wait to pray for enemies until you’re in the mood. It would be a miracle to ever be in such a condition. Create small islands of prayer at the beginning and the end of the day and at least once a day find time to pray for others in need of prayer, both friends and enemies. Make a list of names and revise it regularly so as not to forget.

The second proposal is also very basic: do good to enemies. Once again, I’m quoting Jesus: “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you.” (Luke 6:28) Prayer is not an alternative to action; in fact prayer may empower us to take personal responsibility for what we wish others would do. Do we really expect God to do what we pray for if we refuse to play a role in the process? If I pray for bread but refuse to work for it, do I expect my request to be taken seriously in heaven?

The teaching to do good to enemies is often viewed as particularly idealistic and profoundly unrealistic, but in fact it’s a teaching full of common sense. Unless we want to pave the way to a tragic future, we must actively search for opportunities through which we can demonstrate to an opponent our longing for an entirely different kind of relationship. An adversary’s moment of need or crisis can provide that opening.

Let me cite a specific example — an instance of what has become known as “earthquake diplomacy.”

On August 17, 1999, Turkey experienced a massive earthquake that severely affected many towns and cities, with the industrial city of Izmit the most severely damaged. A second major earthquake occurred five days later. The official number of casualties was 17,000, although the actual number is thought to be more than double that. About a third-of-a-million people were left homeless. The shift in the fault line passed through the most industrialized and urban areas of Turkey, including oil refineries and major factories. Istanbul was also hard hit.

Immediately to the west of Turkey is Greece, for many centuries the bitter enemy of Turkey, yet Greece was the first country to pledge aid and support to Turkey. Within hours of the earthquake, senior staff of the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs contacted their counterparts in Turkey; the minister sent personal envoys to Turkey. The Greek Ministry of Public Order sent in a rescue team of 24 people and two trained rescue dogs plus fire-extinguishing planes to help put out the huge blaze at an oil refinery. Greek medical teams followed — doctors and nurses plus tents, ambulances, medicine, water, clothes, food and blankets. Throughout Greece, the Ministry of Health set up units for blood donations. The Church of Greece launched a major fund raising campaign for humanitarian relief. The five largest municipalities of Greece sent a joint convoy with aid. When the Mayor of Athens came personally to visit earthquake sites, he was greeted at the airport by the Mayor of Istanbul.

Both Greece’s official actions and the responses of ordinary Greeks were given wide coverage day after day in every newspaper and TV channel in Turkey. Turks were astounded by the compassionate Greek response to Turkey’s disaster.

Less than a month after the Turkish disaster, on September 7, 1999, Athens was hit by a powerful earthquake, the most devastating natural disaster in Greece in 20 years. While the death toll was relatively low, the damage to buildings and the infrastructure in some of the city’s northern and western suburbs was severe.

This time, Turkey responded. Turkish aid was the first to reach Athens from outside Greece’s borders. Within 13 hours a 20-person rescue team was flown in by a military plane. The Greek consulates and embassy in Turkey had their phone lines jammed with Turks calling to find out whether they could donate blood. One Turk offered to donate his kidney for a “Greek in need.”

For years Greece and Turkey had been on the brink of war. In the wake of this series of earthquakes, there was a very different climate — the sense that the time had come for a new understanding.

Nearly thirteen years have passed. During this period there has been no talk of impending war between Turkey and Greece. A major war may have been prevented all because two countries decided to aid their enemy in a time of crisis. [For more detail about this topic, see: ]

If we had time we could talk in more detail about peacemaking and nonviolent alternatives to conflict resolution. We could talk about some of the people — Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Dorothy Day, Mother Maria Skobtsova and many others — who belonged to movements that demonstrate you don’t need to kill anyone to bring about constructive social change and whose example might inspire us to live our lives in such a way that our children and grandchildren have a better chance not just to survive but to live a good and loving life. I suggest you make it a priority to do what you can to know more about such people and the wells from which they drew their inspiration and courage.

Thank you!

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Oberlin lecture (presented 5 May 2012)

* * *

The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life

Christ at Emmaus (Duccio)

By Jim Forest

Each of the stories about Christ’s resurrection is a challenge to the rational part of ourselves. Dead people are dead, period.

There is the account in John’s Gospel of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with him near the empty tomb. Until he speaks to her by name, she thinks he must be the gardener. Once she realizes who he is, Jesus tells her not to touch him. Why? There are many guesses, but in fact we don’t know.

Though risen from the dead, he still bears the wounds that caused his death. Thomas, the apostle who was the most reluctant to make a leap of faith, becomes the only man to touch the wounds of the risen Christ. Why isn’t Jesus fully healed? We don’t know.

Soon after, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus — a man freed from mortality — joins his friends in eating fish cooked over an open fire. Why is he who has become deathless still hungry? We don’t know.

Finally the resurrected Christ ascends into heaven. Where would that be? Why didn’t he stay on earth? Why didn’t be reveal his resurrection to crowds of people? We don’t know.

We know Christ rose from the dead and are familiar with the stories the Gospel preserves for us of encounters people had with him before the ascension, but the mystery of his resurrection is way beyond our intellectual reach.

Perhaps the most accessible of the resurrection narratives concerns the risen Christ’s short pilgrimage with two disciples to Emmaus, a village described as being seven miles — less than a two-hour walk — from Jerusalem.

Two friends are escaping from a tragedy in Jerusalem and perhaps also running from possible personal danger. It wasn’t at all clear that Jesus’ disciples weren’t next in line for execution. The two were not only mourners, but disillusioned mourners. Jesus had failed to meet their expectations. The person they fervently believed would become the new king of Israel, heir to David’s throne, not only isn’t ruling Israel but is in his grave. The candle of their messianic hopes has been snuffed out. His closest followers were in hiding. Their homeland was still ruled by Romans, undergirded by a second tier of well-rewarded Jewish collaborators. The kingdom of God that Jesus had said was already present now seemed infinitely distant.

Conversation would not have been easy. Deep grief is rarely a talkative condition. The words they hewed out of silence were confused, bitter, angry. Their beloved teacher was dead and buried. Everything that mattered had turned to dust. The world had no center. Life’s axis had crumbled. Death once again had proven itself life’s defining event. Existence had no meaning, no pattern. People of virtue perish while their persecutors feast. How could one speak of a merciful and all powerful God? Ruthless power, corruption, betrayal and the triumph of the grave — this was Good Friday’s bitter message.

What person old enough to have attended a funeral of a deeply loved person whose life was cut short in its prime hasn’t known a similar rage, numbness and despair?

Walking side by side, breathing dust, the two friends are joined by a stranger who appears without a word of description. He doesn’t impress the two men as being somehow familiar. They fail to notice his wounded hands. Without apology he joins their conversation. He wonders why they are so downcast. They are amazed at the stranger’s ignorance. One of the men, Cleopas, asks the stranger how is it possible that he doesn’t know what has happened in Jerusalem in recent days. Could anyone share in this particular Passover and be unaware of what happened to Jesus of Nazareth? Only a week ago Jesus had entered the city in triumph, joyful crowds putting palms in his path and shouting hosannas and calling him king of Israel. And now the man who should have redeemed Israel had been condemned by the high priests, renounced by the very crowds that had cheered him, and sentenced to public execution under the authority of Rome’s agent, Pontius Pilate. Finally he had been ritually murdered while soldiers threw dice for his clothing. Jesus’ followers had dared to hope for a miracle even when Jesus was taken away to Golgotha — after all, he had raised Lazarus from death — but the man who had been able to bring others back to life proved powerless to save himself. Yes, the two men had heard the wild tale told earlier in the day by a few grief-stricken women — angels, an empty tomb, Jesus alive again — but truly it was an unbelievably tale.

The stranger listened patiently. At last he responded, “O foolish men, so slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Then, starting with Moses and going on to all the prophets, he explained all the scriptural texts concerning the Messiah.

By this time they had reached the outskirts of Emmaus, apparently the place where the two friends planned to end their journey or at least spend the night. The stranger appeared to be going further, but they were so taken with his authoritative explanations of the prophecies of scripture that they appealed to him to join them for a meal in the local inn. “Stay with us,” they said, “for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.”

Even when they sat down to eat, the stranger was still nameless and unrecognized, yet it was he who presided at the table, taking bread, blessing it, breaking it and giving it to them. It’s at this point in Luke’s Gospel that we get one of the most breathtaking sentences in the New Testament: “And their eyes were opened and they recognized him.”(Luke 24:31)

Perhaps they recognized him because, at last, they noticed his wounded hands as he blessed and broke the bread.

In their moment of realization, Jesus “vanished from their sight.” Perhaps he actually disappeared — as we have seen in other resurrection stories, the risen Christ doesn’t seem subject to the rules of physics. Or perhaps he chose that moment to leave the table in order to continue his journey, but his departure was unseen because the two disciples, weeping with joy, were momentarily blinded by their tears. We don’t know. All we are sure of is that the stranger was Jesus and that the two friends finally knew with whom they had been talking on their way to Emmaus, and who it was that blessed the bread and broke it.

They said to each other, “Didn’t our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?”

Forgetting their exhaustion and hunger, the two friends reversed their journey, hurrying back to Jerusalem in order to report what they had witnessed. But by now, they discovered, it wasn’t only the women who had proclaimed the resurrection. “The Lord has risen indeed,” they were told, “and has appeared to Simon!”

What happened on the road to Emmaus, and finally in Emmaus itself, was the first Christian pilgrimage. Every pilgrimage, whether to a local park or to some distant place at the end of a well-trodden pilgrim road thick with miracles, is in its roots a journey to Emmaus, and every pilgrimage is animated with a similar hope: to meet the risen Christ along the way.

It’s a hope one hardly dares to mention. Yet something like the Emmaus story occurs in many lives. Again and again, we meet strangers along the way who speak with unexpected clarity about things that really matter. In such encounters, do we not find our hearts aflame within us? This is a person we’re in no hurry to part from, whose words and presence are water in the desert. The stranger is someone we would eagerly invite to eat with us even if we had little money to spare, someone with whom we are eager to break bread.

At the heart of the Emmaus story is the stranger. Had the two disciples failed to made room for him in their journey, the New Testament would be missing one of its most illuminating stories.

Pilgrimage is not possible if it excludes unexpected people found along the way. Perhaps it’s only for an hour or a day. A hesitant conversation takes wing. A reluctant tongue becomes fluent. Finally, we eat together. By now the stranger has become a named person. Sooner or later we part, but we remember that encounter as a shining moment. We didn’t literally meet Jesus risen from the dead, and yet, in this brief communion with a stranger, Jesus became present and traveled with us. A chance encounter became a eucharistic event. Ideas about Jesus were replaced with an experience of Jesus.

The details of such encounters vary infinitely. No two God-revealing encounters are the same. Each of us is unique and each of us experiences conversion in unique ways, even though we recognize something of our own conversion in all the conversion stories we happen to hear. Conversion means a deep turning. Each of the conversions I experience shifts the way I see, hear and act. Each conversion is a freeing event. Something I desperately and addictively needed yesterday has become superfluous today. Certain fears I previously struggled with have been burned away.

There is not one conversion in life. Conversion follows conversion like an ascending ladder. Each rung reveals another. It’s a slow process, one that can never be forced or hurried. We are still busy being converted when we die. A good title for any autobiography would be the two-word message a computer occasionally displays when adapting a file from one program format to another: “Conversion in progress.”

Conversion isn’t something we do entirely on our own. As pilgrims, the main challenge is not to miss Jesus along the way. It requires the recognition that, no matter how alone we are, there are no solitary journeys. Life is a series of meetings. The only question is how deep we allow the meetings to be. The “I” exists only in communion with others.

We interact with other people every day: family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers, plus many people we don’t know by name, people we meet briefly in shops, on buses and trains, behind counters, beggars on the street. Whether known by name or an anonymous stranger, how much real contact occurs is partly up to us. Even people living or working under the same roof can be too busy, too irritated or too fearful for real contact to occur.

But there is always the possibility of conversation that moves beyond the exchange of distance-keeping civilities. To be a pilgrim — to be on the road to Emmaus — is to be open to contact, willing to share stories, willing to talk about the real issues in one’s life, willing to listen with undivided attention.

“Our life and our death is with our neighbor,” said St. Anthony the Great, founder of Christian monasticism. “If we win our brother, we win God. If we cause our brother to stumble, we have sinned against Christ.”

There is no such thing as finding Christ while avoiding our neighbor. The main thing impeding that encounter is my suffocating fear of the other. As the Orthodox theologian, Metropolitan John Zizioulas, comments:

Pilgrims to Canterbury

Communion with the other is not spontaneous; it is built upon fences which protect us from the dangers implicit in the other’s presence. We accept the other only insofar as he does not threaten our privacy or insofar as he is useful to our individual happiness …. The essence of sin is the fear of the Other, which is part of the rejection of God. Once the affirmation of the “self” is realized through the rejection and not the acceptance of the Other — this is what Adam chose in his freedom to do — it is only natural and inevitable for the other to become an enemy and a threat. Reconciliation with God is a necessary pre-condition for reconciliation with any “other.”

That last sentence also works in reverse: Reconciliation with the other is a necessary precondition for reconciliation with God. For as the Gospel author St. John writes, “He who says he is in the light and hates his brother is in the darkness still.” (1 John 2:9) The path to heaven leads through the rush-hour traffic of the human race.

At the heart of pilgrimage is the struggle not to let my dread of the other prevent meetings with strangers. Just as on the road to Emmaus, it is in the disguise of the stranger that Christ appears.

I often think of a nun who gave me a ride from Louisville to Lexington when I was in Kentucky to give a few lectures. It’s now too long ago for me to remember her name, but I will never forget the spirit of welcome that she radiated. Her old, battered car is also not easily forgotten, though it would have been worth little in a used-car lot. In her care it had become a house of hospitality on wheels. As we drove along the highway, the glove compartment door in front of me kept popping open. I closed it repeatedly, each time noticing a pile of maps inside and also a book. At last the text on the spine of the book caught my eye: “Guests.” I pulled it out, discovering page after page of signatures, most of which gave the impression that the person signing was barely literate.

“What is this?” I asked.

“Oh that’s my guest book.”

“But why keep it in the car?”

“Well, of course, I always pick up hitchhikers, so I need a guest book.”

It was very matter-of-fact to her, but I was astonished. Though I had been a hitchhiker myself back in my early twenties, I knew picking up hitchhikers was not without risks, especially for women.

“But isn’t that dangerous?” I asked.

“Well, I have had many guests sitting where you are now, most of them men, and I never felt I was in danger.”

She went on to explain that when she pulled over to offer a ride, she immediately introduced herself by name. Then she asked, “And what’s your name?”

The immediate exchange of names, she explained, was a crucial first step in hospitality and one likely to make for safety.

“Once two people entrust their names to each other,” she explained, “there is a personal relationship.”

The next step was to ask the guest to put his name in writing: “I would be grateful if you would sign my guest book.”

She didn’t have to explain to me that few of the people she had given rides to had ever been regarded as anyone’s guests, and fewer still had been invited to sign a guest book.

“I’ve met many fine people,” she told me, “people who have been a blessing to me. I never had any troubles, though you could see that many of them had lived a hard life.”

Anyone reading the lives of the saints will notice that life-changing meetings with strangers are not rare events. Martin of Tours, one of the major saints of the fourth century, famously had one such encounter not long before his baptism. A detailed retelling of the story is included in Butler’s Lives of the Saints:

One day, in the midst of a very hard winter and severe frost, when many perished with cold, as Martin was marching with other officers and soldiers, he met at the gate of the city of Amiens a poor man, almost naked, trembling and shaking with cold, and begging alms of those that passed by. Martin, seeing those that went before him take no notice of this miserable object, thought he was reserved for himself. By his charities to others he had nothing left but his arms and clothes upon his back; when, drawing his sword, he cut his cloak in two pieces, gave one to the beggar, and wrapped himself in the other half. Some of the bystanders laughed at the figure he made in that dress, whilst others were ashamed not to have relieved the poor man. In the following night St. Martin saw in his sleep Jesus Christ dressed in that half of the garment which he had given away, and was bid to look at it well and asked whether he knew it. He then heard Jesus say, “Martin, yet a catechumen, has clothed me with this garment.” This vision inspired the saint with fresh ardor, and determined him speedily to receive baptism, which he did in the eighteenth year of his age.

One extravagant act led to another. Two years after his baptism, Martin — still in the army — risked his life by refusing to take part in battle. “I am a soldier of Christ,” he explained to Julian Caesar on the eve of battle. “It is not lawful for me to fight.” Accused of being a coward, Martin volunteered to stand unarmed before the enemy. Miraculously, the enemy sued for peace. Caesar afterward allowed Martin to resign his army commission. Martin went on to become one of the most distinguished missionary bishops of the early Church. He who converted many owed his own conversion to an encounter with a nameless beggar in Amiens.

It’s a never-ending story — and a story of never-ending pilgrimage. Whatever real growth I may attain in my life is chiefly thanks to the care and love, the welcome and hospitality, provided by others who see in me qualities I cannot see, who somehow assist me in deepening my faith, who open a window revealing the risen Christ. Often the unexpected encounters come not from people who are obliged by family ties to care for me, but from strangers met along my particular pilgrim path. Indeed it’s often thanks to strangers that we discover that indeed we are on pilgrimage.

Pick any century, pick just about any saint, dig carefully enough into the stories that have come down to us, and again and again one finds both pilgrim and stranger.

As the life of grace deepens, many saints are no longer willing to wait to meet strangers by chance, but make it their business to do the finding.

Among recent examples of those who each day sought Christ in the poor is Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, with whom I worked in my early adulthood. “Those who cannot see Christ in the poor,” said Dorothy Day, “are atheists indeed.”

Another saint of the same generation is Mother Maria Skobtsova, a recently canonized Orthodox nun. Like Dorothy Day, she founded a house of hospitality. Indeed in both women’s lives it happened in the same year, 1933, one doing so in New York, the other in Paris.

In 1940, when the German army marched into Paris, hospitality became a vocation involving huge risks. Taking in many Jews and finding places of safety for them, Mother Maria and her co-workers were well aware they were courting arrest. In the end, she and three others from the same community died in Nazi concentration camps.

At the heart of Mother Maria’s countless acts of welcoming strangers was her conviction that each person without exception bears the image of God. As she wrote:

If someone turns with his spiritual world toward the spiritual world of another person, he encounters an awesome and inspiring mystery. He comes into contact with the true image of God in man, with the very icon of God incarnate in the world, with a reflection of the mystery of God’s incarnation and divine manhood. And he needs to accept this awesome revelation of God unconditionally, to venerate the image of God in his brother. Only when he senses, perceives and understands it will yet another mystery be revealed to him — one that will demand his most dedicated efforts. He will perceive that the divine image is veiled, distorted and disfigured by the power of evil. And he will want to engage in battle with the devil for the sake of the divine image.

The Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn made the same discovery, in his case while a prisoner in Stalin’s archipelago of concentration camps, an environment of profound contempt for life. While witnessing cruelty day after day, Solzhenitsyn found the anger and hatred he felt was gradually replaced by compassion. As religious faith took the place of Marxist ideology, it became more and more evident to him that no human being has ever been born in whom there is no trace of the Creator. Even the most vile person at certain moments reveals some evidence of God. As Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago:

The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of hearts, there remains … an un-uprooted small corner of evil.

Mainly one learns this only in the crucible of life. It’s a truth rarely revealed in movies. In films those who do evil tend to be evil. The evil is imbedded in their DNA. They had a pathological twist before they were born. The only cure for such pure evil is death. Thus killing evil people is an act of a virtue. It’s what we think heroes do. Far from wanting to meet such people and search in them for a “small bridgehead of good,” we either applaud their executions or, should our awareness of the mercy of Christ protect us from advocating killing as a solution, insist that they be locked up as long and grimly as possible, ideally until claimed by the grave. Seeing how merciless such people have been, we are tempted to think that they deserve no mercy and can never change for the better. In fact we behave toward them in a way that makes our dire expectations all the more likely.

A great problem of thinking along such grim, vindictive lines — imagining we know a person we know only through clippings or movies and resolutely refusing to search for God’s image in him — is that we exclude ourselves from walking on the road to Emmaus.

But being a pilgrim is not a naive undertaking. There are, we all know, strangers who are dangerous. Should our fear of violence lead us to avoid all strangers for that reason? Should our fear of death lead us to live cautiously?

But Christian pilgrims have always known that they might die on the way, like countless thousands of pilgrims before them. There are many graves along the roads leading to Jerusalem and Santiago de Compostela. Statistically, unexpected death along the way may be less likely for the modern pilgrim than it was in earlier times, but still accidents happen, grave sicknesses occur, and there are even occasional act of violence and even murder.

The pilgrim’s attitude traditionally has been: “Sooner or later I die. If it happens while on pilgrimage, what better way to cross life’s final border? Why be afraid?”

Pilgrimage is not getting from point A to point B on the map while counting the miles. The distances covered are incidental. What matters is being on the road to Emmaus — the road of discovering Christ in the Other.

Pilgrimage was, and still is, the great adventure of becoming unblinded. We discover it is impossible not to be in the presence of God. God is with us all the time, only we don’t notice. It’s not that we are technically blind. We may be able to read the small print in an insurance contract without glasses and to make out the shape of a high-flying jet, and yet there is so much we don’t yet see that we live in a darkness that is not unlike actual blindness. It is a condition not caused by physical damage but by deeply rooted fears, the imprisonment of self-absorption, and ideological obsessions.

Walking the road to Emmaus, as a Christian on permanent pilgrimage, is the great journey into real seeing. In words ascribed to Saint Patrick:

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise, Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every one who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

Pilgrimage is not only the act of going to one of thin places where great miracles have happened or where some event in the life of Jesus occurred. It can be to the journey to the front door of your house, opening it with a real welcome. It can be the creation of a Christ Room — a room of hospitality — in your own home. It can be choosing to see an unexpected and seemingly untimely event not as an irritating interruption but as a potential moment of grace. It can be your caring response to a beggar. It can be the journey to forgiveness in a situation in which forgiveness seemed impossible. It can be the difficult decision to take part in some act of public witness whose objective is to oppose killing, whether in war or by abortion or in an execution chamber.

It’s all pilgrimage. We are all on the road to Emmaus.

* * *
[Talk for a mini-retreat at Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Church in Lorain, Ohio on Saturday, May 5, 2012. The text is based on the final chapter of The Road to Emmaus by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Books.]

Pilgrim in Jerusalem

by Jim Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[extract from The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Books] The photo was taken by Gali Tibbon.

* * *

Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day (Oakham lecture)

(Lecture given at the annual conference of Thomas Merton Society of Great Britain and Ireland meeting at Oakham, England in April 2012)

By Jim Forest

What initially put Merton on the world map was the publication in 1948 of his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. It was an account of growing up on both sides of the Atlantic (part of his adolescence right here at Oakham), what drew him to become a Catholic as a young adult, and finally what led him, in 1941, to become a Trappist monk at a monastery in rural Kentucky, Our Lady of Gethsemani. He was only 33 years old when the book appeared. To his publisher’s amazement, it became an instant best-seller. For many people, it was truly a life-changing book. I have lost count of how many copies of the book have been printed in English and other languages in the past 64 years, but we’re talking about millions.

Merton was and remains a controversial figure. Though he was a member of a monastic order well known for silence and for its distance from worldly affairs, Merton was outspoken on various topics that many regard as very worldly affairs. Merton disagreed. He was a critic of a Christianity in which religious identity is submerged in national or racial identity and life tidily divided between religious and ordinary existence.

Merton got into hot water for his writings on war and peace as well his participation in both inter-Christian and inter-religious dialogue. In the sixties, there was a Berlin Wall running between Catholics and Protestants. To the alarm of a good many people on both sides of the divide, Merton climbed over that palisade. Even worse, he regarded friendly conversation with people of other religious traditions — Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam — as a useful and necessary, not to say Christian, activity. Some people were scandalized — some still are — that a Trappist monk would engage in dialog with the Dalai Lama. Both among critics and as well as admirers admirers, the idea got around that, if only Merton had lived a slightly longer life, he would have waved goodbye to the Catholic Church and become a Buddhist. In fact Merton’s religious practice centered on Liturgy, the eucharist, the rosary, the Jesus Prayer, and daily offices of monastic prayer.

How did Dorothy Day and Merton intersect? And who is Dorothy Day?

What put Dorothy on the map was her effort to weave together radical convictions about the social order with the Christian faith. This endeavor occurred after she became a Catholic when she was thirty years old. Less than six years after that event, in 1933, she founded and began editing a newspaper which she christened The Catholic Worker. From that eight-page journal, the Catholic Worker movement quickly emerged, a movement known for its many houses of hospitality for people who are generally unappreciated and unwelcome.

If books by Merton have sold millions of copies, Catholic Worker communities have served millions of meals. But the Catholic Worker is also well known for its acts of protest against war and social injustice. Many people associated with the Catholic Worker have served periods in jail for acts of civil disobedience or for refusing to take part in war. Dorothy herself was jailed at least eight times. The first time was for taking part in a Suffragist demonstration in front of the White House in 1917 when she had just turned twenty. Her last arrest and confinement was with striking farm workers in California in 1973 when she was seventy-five. If Thomas Merton was at times controversial, Dorothy Day was controversial pretty much full-time.

For those who think of saints as, generally speaking, law-abiding folk, it may strike them as remarkable that the Catholic Church is currently considering a proposal from the Archdiocese of New York that Dorothy Day be officially recognized as a saint. More than ten years have passed since the late Cardinal John O’Connor launched the process. It has now reached the point of Dorothy being given the title “Servant of God Dorothy Day” by the Vatican. After that comes “Blessed Dorothy” and finally “Saint Dorothy.” It would not astonish me if there are people here today who will one day be present for her canonization.

I first met Dorothy in December 1960. I was in the U.S. Navy at the time, stationed in Washington, D.C. After reading copies of The Catholic Worker that I had found in my parish library, and then reading Dorothy’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness, I decided to visit the community she had founded. Arriving in Manhattan for that first visit, I made my way to Saint Joseph’s House, the Catholic Worker’s house of hospitality on the Lower East Side. It’s now an area that has become fashionable, repackaged as the East Village. In those days it was the Bowery, an area for the desperately poor — many of them penniless alcoholics — people so down-and-out that some of them were sleeping, even in winter, on the sidewalks or in tenement hallways.

A few days into that first encounter with the Catholic Worker, I visited the community’s rural outpost on Staten Island, the Peter Maurin Farm. Crossing the New York Harbor by ferry, I made my way to an old farmhouse on a rural road near the island’s southern tip. In its large, faded dining room, I found half-a-dozen people, Dorothy among them, gathered around a pot of tea at one end of the dining room table. I gave Dorothy a bag of letters addressed to her that had been received in Manhattan. Within minutes, she was reading the letters aloud.

The only letter I still recall from that day’s reading was one from Thomas Merton. I was amazed. Having read The Seven Storey Mountain, I knew Trappist monks wrote very few letters and that generally these were limited to family members. But here was Merton writing not only to a non-relative but to someone who was as much in the world as he was out of it.

On reflection, I should have been less surprised. I had read both their autobiographies and they revealed a great deal of common ground. Both had lived fairly bohemian lives before becoming Catholics. Like Dorothy, Merton had wrestled with the issue of war, deciding that, if Christ had given an example of a nonviolent life, he would attempt to do the same. Both had thought long and hard about the sin of racism. Both were writers. Both were unburdened by any attraction to economic achievement. Merton, like any monk, had taken a vow of poverty — there were things he had use of but nothing he actually owned — while Dorothy was committed to what she called “voluntary poverty.” Though in different circumstances, they both lived very disciplined religious lives — Merton’s day beginning with Mass before dawn and ending not long after sunset with Compline, Dorothy’s including daily Mass, daily rosary, daily periods of prayer and intercession, and weekly confession. Both had a marked interest in “eastern” — or Orthodox — Christianity. Both had a degree of pastoral care for others. Though their vocations were different, it wasn’t only Merton who was a contemplative.

They never actually met. Theirs was a friendship of letters. In their exchanges the topics included peacemaking, observations about social change, problems in the Catholic Church, obedience and disobedience, the Cold War, community life, marriage, their hopes and frustrations, their current reading, the meaning of love, and a wide range of issues for which advice was sought.

The date their correspondence got underway isn’t certain. The oldest surviving letter in their exchange, dated the 4th of June, 1959, is a reply to a letter from Merton. In it she apologizes for not having answered more quickly and also recalls with gratitude the copies of The Seven Storey Mountain Merton had sent to her way back in 1948. She went on to ask Merton’s prayers for a member of the Catholic Worker staff, Charles Butterworth, who was about to be sentenced for harboring a military deserter at the Catholic Worker and then, by warning him that FBI agents had arrived with an arrest warrant, playing a part in the young man’s escape. “We have done this before,” Dorothy explained, “giving [deserters] the time to make up their own minds; one returned to the army and the other took his sentence.” She mentioned to Merton another member of staff, Bob Steed, formerly a novice at Gethsemani, whom she worried might be arrested for having torn up his draft registration card. In her letter Dorothy didn’t say a word of explanation or justification for such actions — miles off the beaten track for American Catholics. Clearly, in Merton’s case, she felt this wasn’t needed.

In the same letter Dorothy thanked Merton for gifts he had sent to the Catholic Worker. I wasn’t there when that particular box arrived from Gethsemani, but two years later, when I became part of the Catholic Worker staff after being discharged from the military as a conscientious objector, such boxes were not rare. The contents varied — sometimes cast-off clothing monks had worn before taking vows, often his most recent book, and also monk-made cheese and even a fruitcake flavored with Kentucky bourbon. (For many years the monks have helped support themselves by making and selling very tempting food products. Merton didn’t quite approve of the business aspect of Trappist life, but he had no qualms about giving the results away.) I recall the gift card inside one such box was signed, in Merton’s easily recognizable handwriting, “from Uncle Louie and the Boys.” “Uncle Louie” was Merton — the name “Louis” was given him when he became a Trappist monk. Dorothy always addressed him in her letters to him as “Father Louis.” The “boys” would have been his novices — Merton was Master of Novices at the time.

It’s remarkable that, in his overfull life, he occasionally found the time and motivation to fill a box to be sent off to the Catholic Worker. This says as much about his bond with Dorothy as any of his letters. He felt a deep sense of connection with what the Catholic Worker was doing — its hospitality work, its newspaper, its protest activities. His gifts communicated to all of us working at the Catholic Worker a deep sense of his of solidarity.

This sense of connection with houses of hospitality went back Merton’s days volunteering at Friendship House in Harlem, a house of hospitality whose existence was in large measure inspired by the Catholic Worker. It had been founded by a close friend of Dorothy’s, Catherine de Hueck Doherty, or “the Baroness” as she was often called due to her family’s aristocratic Russian roots. In reading The Seven Storey Mountain, one sees the important role the Baroness had played in Merton’s life. “She had a strong voice, strong convictions, and strong things to say,” Merton wrote, “and she said them in the simplest, most unvarnished, bluntest possible kind of talk, and with such uncompromising directness that it stunned.” One could say the same about Dorothy Day. Few choices Merton ever made were so difficult as deciding between a Catholic Worker-like vocation at Friendship House and becoming a monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani. “The way [the Baroness] said some things,” Merton wrote in his journal in August 1941, “left you ready to do some kind of action … renounce the world, live in total poverty, but also doing very definite things: ministering to the poor in a certain definite way.”

In one of his letters to Dorothy, Merton remarked that the reason he volunteered at Friendship House rather than at the Catholic Worker house in lower Manhattan was because, “I was at Columbia, F[riendship] H[ouse] was just down the hill and so on. [The] C[atholic] W[orker] stands for so much that has always been meaningful to me: I associate it with similar trends of thought, like that of the English Dominicans and Eric Gill, who also were very important to me. And [Jacques] Maritain…. [The] Catholic Worker is part of my life, Dorothy. I am sure the world is full of people who would say the same…. If there were no Catholic Worker and such forms of witness, I would never have joined the Catholic Church.” [TM to DD, December 29, 1965, italics added]

In the first surviving letter from Merton to Dorothy, dated July 9, 1959, he starts out by letting her know that another gift box is on its way — some “sweet-smelling” toothpaste. He then goes on to tell her that he is “deeply touched” by her witness for peace, which had several times resulted in her arrest and imprisonment. He continues: “You are right going along the lines of satyagraha [Gandhi’s term for nonviolent action]. I see no other way, though of course the angles of the problem are not all clear. I am certainly with you in taking some kind of stand and acting accordingly. Nowadays it is no longer a question of who is right but who is at least not criminal, if any of us can say that anymore.”

In the same letter Merton confided to Dorothy his attraction to a vocation of greater solitude and deeper poverty, though he realizes that “the hopes of gaining such permission, humanly speaking, are very low.” Deep questions about where, as a monk, he ought to be was not a topic that Merton touched on with many of his correspondents. It’s clear that he saw in Dorothy someone capable of helping him discern God’s will.

There is not time in a single lecture to look letter by letter at the complex exchange between them between 1956 and 1968, but I would like to read some extracts and briefly comment on several of the major themes.

One of these themes was perseverance. “My constant prayer,” Dorothy confided to Merton just before Christmas in 1959, “is for final perseverance — to go on as I am trusting always the Lord Himself will take me by the hair of the head like [the prophet] Habakkuk and set me where he wants me.”

Anyone who has ever been part of any intentional community will recall how stressful it can be even when there are no dark clouds, but when it is a community that opens its doors day and night to people in urgent need, people who would not often be on anyone’s guest list, and when it is a community with very strong-willed, sometimes ideologically-driven volunteers, it can at times be like life in a hurricane.

In one letter to Merton, Dorothy speaks in detail about the bitterness animating some of the criticisms directed at her by co-workers. She senses the motivation of some of those who come to help at the Catholic Worker is less love than a “spirit of rebellion.” [DD to TM, October 10, 1960] Many who knew her and were aware of the emotional and physical strains of Catholic Worker life were astonished that Dorothy persevered from the founding of the Catholic Worker in 1933 until her death in 1980 — forty-seven years as part of a community of hospitality.

In his response, Merton noted that “more and more one sees that [perseverance] is the great thing,” but he also points out that perseverance is much more than “hanging on to some course which we have set our minds to, and refusing to let go.” It can sometimes mean “not hanging on but letting go. That of course is terrible. But as you say so rightly, it is a question of [God] hanging on to us, by the hair of the head, that is from on top and beyond, where we cannot see or reach.”

This was a matter of acute importance to Merton personally, a monk with itchy feet who repeatedly was attracted to greener monastic pastures. Dorothy was all for Merton staying put. In a later letter, Dorothy remarks, “I have a few friends who are always worrying about your leaving the monastery but from the letters of yours that I read I am sure you will hold fast. I myself pray for final perseverance most fervently having seen one holy old priest suddenly elope with a parishioner. I feel that anything can happen to anybody at any time.” [DD to TM, March 17, 1963]

Both Merton and Dorothy remain remarkable models, not just for persevering — barnacles can do that — but for continually putting down deeper roots while rediscovering a sense of its being God’s will not to uproot themselves.

In one letter Merton reflects on the levels of poverty that he sees the Catholic Worker responding to. “O Dorothy,” he writes, “I think of you, and the beat people, the ones with nothing, and the poor in virtue, the very poor, the ones no one can respect. I am not worthy to say I love all of you. Intercede for me, a stuffed shirt in a place of stuffed shirts…” [TM to DD, February 4, 1960]

Merton goes further with this topic in his next letter to Dorothy. “I was in Louisville at the Little Sisters of the Poor yesterday, and realized that it is in these beautiful, beat, wrecked, almost helpless old people that Christ lives and works most. And in the hurt people who are bitter and say they have lost their faith. We (society at large) have lost our sense of values and our vision. We despise everything that Christ loves, everything marked by His compassion. We love fatness health bursting smiles the radiance of satisfied bodies all properly fed and rested and sated and washed and perfumed and sexually relieved. Everything else is a scandal and a horror to us.” [TM to DD, August 17, 1960]

I can easily imagine Merton in the act of writing letters like this, some of them with an “on the road” abandon. At Merton’s invitation, I made my first visit to the abbey early in 1962, hitchhiking from the Catholic Worker in Manhattan to Gethsemani. Sitting one day in the small office Merton had next to the classroom where he gave lectures to the novices, I watched while he banged out a response to a letter I had brought him from a friend at the Catholic Worker. I have rarely if ever seen paper fly through a typewriter at such speed. When you read Merton’s letters, you have to keep in mind that he was used to making the best use possible of relatively small islands in time. If you wanted deep silence at Gethsemani, a place to avoid was the area of the monastery where Merton might be working on his gray office typewriter (now on display at the Merton Center in Louisville).

In the Merton-Day correspondence, a theme that was occasionally mentioned, more in passing than at length, was their mutual debt to Russian literature and Orthodox Christianity. They shared a high regard for Pasternak and Dostoevsky, with Dorothy mentioning that the novels of Dostoevsky are “spiritual reading for me.” [DD to TM, June 4, 1960] Merton responded by mentioning that Staretz Zosima, a saintly monk in The Brothers Karamazov, “always makes me weep.” [TM to DD, August 17, 1960] So significant was Dostoevsky’s influence on Dorothy’s basic vision of Christianity that I sometimes wonder whether Dostoevsky ought not to be listed among the co-founders of the Catholic Worker.

The fact that they both were writers may have been what drew Merton to confess to Dorothy his skepticism about the value of his own writing. “There has been some good and much bad.” He fears that his books too easily “become part of a general system of delusion,” a system that ultimately feels it is practically a religious duty to have and, if necessary, to use nuclear weapons. In the sentences that follow, Merton says that he finds himself “more and more drifting toward the derided and probably quite absurdist and defeatist position of a sort of Christian anarchist. This of course would be foolish, if I followed it to the end… But perhaps the most foolish would be to renounce all consideration of any alternative to the status quo, the giant machine.” [TM to DD, July 23, 1961]

This letter is, so far as I am aware, one of only two places in his vast body of writings in which Merton refers to anarchism. With Dorothy, it was a connecting word — for her, it meant someone like herself whose obedience was not to rulers, states, or any secular or ideological system, but to Christ. The other place is in an essay on the Desert Fathers, the fourth-century ascetics who created the monastic vocation, living in places that people generally avoided. Here Merton sees the Desert Fathers as being “in a certain sense ‘anarchists’ … They were men who did not believe in letting themselves be passively guided and ruled by a decadent state, and who believed that there was a way of getting along without slavish dependence on accepted, conventional values.” [introduction to The Wisdom of the Desert]

If Merton sometimes expressed to Dorothy his frustrations about his writing, wondering what good his words did, Dorothy was a source of deep gratitude for all that he published or privately circulated. In one letter she mentioned the spontaneous comment of a struggling young woman staying at the Catholic Worker who had borrowed The Thomas Merton Reader, an anthology that Dorothy kept on her desk, and said in Dorothy’s hearing, “Thank God for Thomas Merton.” In a 1965 letter to Merton, Dorothy said much the same: “You will never know the people you have reached, the good you have done. You certainly have used the graces and the talents God has given you.” [DD to TM, June 24, 1965]

They weren’t always in agreement. In one letter Dorothy takes note of how often Merton uses the word “beat” in his letters. For him it was a very positive word, suggesting his sense of connection with “the beat generation,” as it was called — people who had moved toward the edge of society, felt alienated from the mainstream, people who didn’t want to have “careers,” and regarded the pursuit of money as a dead-end street. They were, Merton said, people “challenging the culture of death.” Probably he was aware that Allen Ginsberg, leading bard of the beats, had done a reading his poem “Kaddish” at the Catholic Worker. In the sixties, Merton had some correspondence with the beat novelist, Jack Kerouac. Kerouac had coined the phrase “beat generation.” Catholic that he was, for Kerouac the word “beat” was probably clipped out of the word “beatific,” as in “beatific vision,” a very Catholic phrase.

But for Dorothy “beat” was not a connecting word. She felt Merton was seeing the beats through too rosy a lens. In one letter she described how unbeat several long-term members of the Catholic Worker staff were. There had only been a few people Dorothy regarded as beat-types at the Catholic Worker, she continued, and her blood pressure shot up when she thought of them. She described them as “a fly-by-night crew who despised and ignored the poor around us and scandalized them by their dress and morals. I am afraid I am uncharitable about the intellectual who shoulders his way in to eat before the men on the line who have done the hard work of the world, and who moves in on the few men in one of the apartments and tries to edge them out with their beer parties and women. They can sleep on park benches as far as I am concerned. Unfortunately we are left with the women who are pregnant for whom I beg your prayers. … As far as I am concerned, I must look on these things as a woman, and therefore much concerned with the flesh and with what goes to sustain it. Sin is sin [but] the sentimental make a mystique of it…” For all their common ground, Dorothy could be testy even with Merton. [DD to TM, June 4, 1962]

The danger of nuclear war and the vast destruction of cities and life was a major concern for Merton as it was for Dorothy. Much of his writing on war and peace was published in The Catholic Worker, starting in October 1961 with his essay, “The Root of War is Fear,” an expanded version of a chapter for New Seeds of Contemplation. This was not a case of worrying where no worrying was needed. A third world war fought with nuclear weapons seemed not just a possibility but a probability. Open-air nuclear weapon tests by the United States and the Soviet Union were frequent. Planning for nuclear war was built into military practice. In 1961, while I was working with a Navy unit at the U.S. Weather Bureau just outside Washington, one of our regular exercises was to plot fallout patterns over a three-day period if a nuclear explosion were to occur over the nation’s capital that day.

For Merton is was clear that Catholics would be no more hesitant that other Americans to play their part in initiating a nuclear war with the Soviet Union and regard themselves as doing God’s work. It was a grim topic — Christians crediting God with willing a storm of killing that would make every other war in history look like a water-pistol fight. There is a letter in which Dorothy consoles Merton with the reminder that Dame Julian of Norwich, the medieval mystic, had written that “the worst has already happened and been repaired. Nothing worse can ever befall us.” [DD to TM, August 15, 1961]

Not all Trappists were pleased with Merton writing on such topics and doing so in the pages of The Catholic Worker. Everything Merton wrote had to pass his order’s censors, some of whom thought the war issue was inappropriate. There is a document in the archive of the Merton Center in Louisville that may give you a sense of those times. Here we have an unnamed American Trappist monk writing to the order’s Abbot General in Rome, Dom Gabriel Sortais, warning him of the scandal being caused by Merton’s anti-war writings. Let me read a few extracts:

“There is one further matter, Reverend Father, which I hesitate to speak of but which I feel I should. We have, in the United States, a … paper called ‘The Catholic Worker.’ This is a very radical paper, which some Americans believe is a tool of the Communists. Fr. Louis (under the name Thomas Merton) has been writing for it frequently…. The name ‘Thomas Merton’ is almost synonymous in America with ‘Trappist.’ Thus quite a number of people believe that he is expressing the Trappist outlook…”

Later in the letter, the writer reports that a military intelligence officer had visited his monastery and had spoken with him “concerning Father Louis.” He concludes his letter by acknowledging that many have benefitted from Merton’s “spiritual works,” but “it is difficult to understand how he can express himself so strongly on questions as to whether the United States should test nuclear weapons and also the wisdom of building fallout shelters. It is hard to see how — as an enclosed religious — he has access to enough facts to pass a prudent judgment on such matters.” It is unlikely that this was the only such letter sent to the Abbot General.

During my first visit with Merton early in 1962, I recall a bizarre incident that occurred when Merton and I were walking down a corridor that connected the guest house kitchen to the basement of the main monastery building. Standing next to a garbage container was an older monk, Father Raymond Flanagan, the probable author of the letter to the Abbott General. Father Raymond who was not so much reading as glaring at the latest issue of The Catholic Worker, which included an article of Merton on the urgency of taking steps to prevent nuclear war. Father Raymond looked up, saw us coming his way, balled the paper up in his fist, hurled it into the garbage container, turned his back and strode away without a word, leaving a trail of smoke. Merton’s response was laughter. He told me that Father Raymond had never had a high opinion of his writings and often denounced him at the community’s chapter meetings. “In the early days Father Raymond said I was too detached from the world,” Merton said, “and now he thinks I’m not detached enough.” The tension between Merton and Father Raymond never abated. In March 1968, just nine months before Merton’s death, Merton recorded in his journal a furious verbal assault on himself by Father Raymond, who was enraged with Merton’s opposition to the war in Vietnam. [The Other Side of the Mountain, entry of March 7, 1968, p 62]

Dorothy was one of the people to whom Merton could complain about the increasing problems he was having with censorship. The issue wasn’t that he was being charged with writing anything at odds with Catholic doctrine, but the feeling, in Merton’s words, that “a Trappist should not know about these things, or should not write about them.” He found the situation exhausting and demoralizing. “Obedience,” he wrote Dorothy, “is a most essential thing in any Christian and above all in a monk, but I sometimes wonder if, being in a situation where obedience would completely silence a person on some important moral issue … a crucial issue like nuclear war … if it were not God’s will … to change my situation.”

In the spring of 1962, Merton received an order from Dom Gabriel Sortais not to publish any more writings on war and peace. As a consequence, a book Merton has just finished writing, Peace in the Post-Christian Era, was published more than four decades after it was written. Merton found the gagging order not only outrageous but at odds with the prophetic dimension of the monastic vocation.

If you ever want to read a letter hot enough to heat a castle in January, I recommend one he sent me at the end of April in 1962. Here’s a very brief extract:

“[The Abbot General’s decision] reflects an astounding incomprehension of the seriousness of the present crisis in its religious aspect. It reflects an insensitivity to Christian and Ecclesiastical values, and to the real sense of the monastic vocation. The reason given is that this is not the right kind of work for a monk and that it ‘falsifies the monastic message.’ Imagine that: the thought that a monk might be deeply enough concerned with the issue of nuclear war to voice a protest against the arms race, is supposed to bring the monastic life into disrepute. Man, I would think that it might just possibly salvage a last shred of repute for an institution that many consider to be dead on its feet… That is really the most absurd aspect of the whole situation, that these people insist on digging their own grave and erecting over it the most monumental kind of tombstone.” [TM to Jim Forest, April 29, 1962, full text in The Hidden Ground of Love]

Yet Merton obeyed. Explaining his decision to do so in the same letter, he stresses that “blowing off steam” is not what’s important. The real question is what response was most likely to bring about a change of heart among those — monks and others — who were threatened by Merton’s thoughts regarding war. “Disobedience or a public denunciation,” he said, would be seen by his fellow monks “as an excuse for dismissing a minority viewpoint and be regarded by those outside [the church] as fresh proof that the church had no love for private conscience.” Very soberly, he asked the crucial question: “Whose mind would be changed?” In his particular case, Merton concluded, public protest and disobedience “would backfire and be fruitless. It would be taken as a witness against the peace movement and would confirm these people in all the depth of their prejudices and their self complacency.”

In fact Merton wasn’t quite silenced. He continued to write for The Catholic Worker but under such transparent pseudonyms as Benedict Monk. On one occasion he signed himself Marco J. Frisbee. He remained a member of the advisory board of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, often giving its staff extremely helpful guidance. His abbot, Dom James Fox, decided that what the Abbot General had banned was publication of mass market editions of Merton’s peace writings. With his abbot’s collaboration, Merton was able to bring out several mimeographed editions of Peace in the Post-Christian Era and another called Cold War Letters plus a succession of essays. Via Dorothy Day, the staff of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, plus a number of other friends, these were widely distributed, including to various people in the White House as well as to bishops and theologians taking part in the Second Vatican Council. Ironically, in the end Merton’s peace writings were given a much more attentive reading by many more people than would have been the case with a commercial edition. It has often been observed that nothing makes a reader so interested in a book as its being banned.

Being a lay-edited and lay-published journal, Dorothy didn’t have to work within the censorship labyrinth that Merton did, but her views about obedience were the same as Merton’s. Again and again, in similar circumstances, Dorothy quoted from the Gospel: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” [John 12:24]

Not all enemies are across national borders. Sometimes your enemies are people who, in principle, are your friends and neighbors, even your brothers and sisters in religious life. Christ taught his followers to love their enemies and in his own life demonstrated such love. Christians in the early Church gave a similar witness, even at the cost of their lives. But in Christianity today, too often what is most striking is zealous hatred of enemies, in fact not only enemies but anyone who is seen as too different or too inconvenient. For Dorothy and Merton, the refusal to hate anyone was basic Christianity. It’s not surprising to find one of Merton’s finest meditations on enmity is in one of his longer letters to Dorothy. Listen to this:

“Persons are not known by intellect alone, not by principles alone, but only by love. It is when we love the other, the enemy, that we obtain from God the key to an understanding of who he is, and who we are. It is only this realization that can open to us the real nature of our duty, and of right action. To shut out the person and to refuse to consider him as a person, as another self, we resort to the ‘impersonal law’ and to abstract ‘nature.’ That is to say we block off the reality of the other, we cut the intercommunication of our nature and his nature, and we consider only our own nature with its rights, its claims, it demands. And we justify the evil we do to our brother because he is no longer a brother, he is merely an adversary, an accused. To restore communication, to see our oneness of nature with him, and to respect his personal rights and his integrity, his worthiness of love, we have to see ourselves as similarly accused along with him … and needing, with him, the ineffable gift of grace and mercy to be saved. Then, instead of pushing him down, trying to climb out by using his head as a stepping-stone for ourselves, we help ourselves to rise by helping him to rise. For when we extend our hand to the enemy who is sinking in the abyss, God reaches out to both of us, for it is He first of all who extends our hand to the enemy. It is He who ‘saves himself’ in the enemy, who makes use of us to recover the lost groat which is His image in our enemy.” [TM to DD, December 20, 1961]

Here one sees in high relief what was at the root of Christian life for both Dorothy and Merton and shaped their friendship. We know God and we know each other only by love. What is most unique about Christianity is its special emphasis on the vocation to love — a love whose only real test is the love of opponents and even the love of enemies. This is not sentimental love, and certainly not romantic love, but love in the sense of recognizing our family ties with each and every human being and doing whatever is in our power to protect each life, hoping that in the process both we and those whom we regard as enemies may experience a conversion of heart. No one has ever been threatened or bludgeoned or terrified or bribed into conversion. Such a deep change of heart is something only love can obtain. Without love, we become inhabitants of hell long before we die. With love, we already have a foretaste of heaven. One of Dorothy’s most often-repeated quotations summarizes this basic truth. It is a sentence that comes from one of her favorite saints, Catherine of Siena. “All the way to heaven is heaven,” she said, “because Jesus said, ‘I am the way.’”

* * *

Jim Forest is the author of quite a number of books, including All is Grace: a Biography of Dorothy Day and Living With Wisdom: A Biography of Thomas Merton.

* * *

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:

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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:

Russian translation of “Alexander Schmorell: a Witness in Dark Times”:

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 — — and is the author of many books — see: . He belongs to St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam and lives in Alkmaar, the Netherlands.

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