A few memories of Thich Nhat Hanh

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

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

— Jim Forest

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

Another story:

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

And another:

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Here is a story about him told by Nancy:

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was my first Zen lesson.

— Nancy Forest

* * *

And this also comes from Nancy…

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

(Thay was outside sitting on a stone.)

Nancy: Do you have a moment to talk?

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

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

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

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

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

N: How can that be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Thay smiles.)

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

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

* * *

Saint Dorothy?

by Jim ForestDorothy Day head and shoulders 1968 (small)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

first Liturgy in Akademgorodok (July 1991)

In the thick birch woods south of Novosibirsk, Siberia’s largest city, is Akademgorodok — literally “Academic Town.” Founded in the fifties by Soviet Academy of Science as a major research center, it accommodates the Institutes of Nuclear Physics, Biology, Economics, Pure and Applied Mathematics, and Organic Chemistry, and numerous similar establishments as well as the campus of the University of Novosibirsk. John Le Carre’s novel, The Russia House, features a free-thinking, vodka-soaked nuclear physicist from this scientific enclave.

It was taken for granted by its founders that Akademgorodok would be forever free of the “superstitions of religion.” It was only in the Gorbachev era that religious life in unchurched places could finally come into the open, including a vital Orthodox Christian parish — All Saints — in Akademgorodok formed by scientists and babushkas together.

In June 1991, when I was taking a Russian course at the university, I took part in the town’s first Liturgy. It was Pentecost, called Troitsa (Holy Trinity) Sunday in Russia. Lacking a church building, the parish plus various curious on-lookers met for an outdoor service on the edge of the woods. Halfway through the service, it began to rain. Soon it was a downpour. On Troitsa Sunday, there are lengthy “kneeling prayers” at the end of the Liturgy. Everyone was soaked to the bones. It was a collective baptism by immersion.

No one has played a larger part in bringing the church into being than Natasha Gorelova, a mathematician and geologist. The greatest treasure of my month in Akademgorodok was getting to know her.

She was born in a Siberian mining town. Though baptized as an infant, she never entered a church again during her childhood. As a student at the State University in Moscow, she was awarded the Lenin Prize. In 1971 she was sent to Akademgorodok where she did post-graduate work in cybernetics at the Computer Center. Still at the Computer Center, her present work concerns applied mathematics. She is the mother of three. Her son, 19, is a university student. She has two daughters, ages 13 and 10. Akademgorodok (Academic Town) is a suburb of Siberia’s largest city, Novosibirsk. Set up in the fifties, Akademgorodok accommodates twenty research centers of the Siberian Division of the USSR Academy of Sciences, including the Institutes of Nuclear Physics, Biology, Economics, Pure and Applied Mathematics, and Organic Chemistry.

The interview with her took place in the living room of her apartment.

— Jim Forest

Natasha, tell me about yourself, where you’re from, where you grew up.

I saw born in Siberia in a coal mining town which became famous last year when the miners went on strike. I was baptized when I was one year old, but I never visited a church in my childhood. I never thought about church. I never knew who the priest was. But I always knew that God exists. I don’t remember any night going to sleep without praying. I was a Young Pioneer and in the summer went to Pioneer camps with a lot of other children. I remember if I didn’t pray before going to sleep, I would wake up in the night with a kind of shock, realizing that I had left this world without praying. However I didn’t use the word praying until I was an adult. I came to God without difficulty, but there is a distinction between coming to God and coming to Christ. It isn’t the same thing to say, “I have come to God” and “I have come to Christ.”

What brought about your conversion?

Probably it is typical for my generation. About the time I was 25 many new thoughts came into my head, new feelings, and I understood that I couldn’t survive anymore the way I was. Perhaps it was because of being born in Russia and the fate of this country – realizing the suffering of this country, the killing and murder, the terrible things that happened. I suddenly realized I couldn’t go on living in the same way. It was intolerable. But I didn’t think I could leave or even should leave. I didn’t think there was some other place where I could be happy, some foreign paradise – Australia or Arizona!

Thinking about it, I felt very depressed. I even thought about suicide. It wasn’t that I had no personal bad luck. I was fortunate. I had a good husband, good friends, good children, interesting work. I liked my parents. I had successfully defended my thesis and had my degree.

I thought that I couldn’t be the only one suffering this way. There must someone else. And perhaps this other had already found the way. I was reading a lot of existentialist writers then and some eastern philosophy. These writers were explaining the world as best they good and perhaps even their explanations were quite correct, but they didn’t show the way out, only another impasse. By my education I was a mathematician both professionally and in my thoughts. Reading all these things I was always aware of errors in logic. For example I came upon the statement that you cannot interrupt suffering by suicide because you will only be reincarnated in another life even worse than the present life. But I thought if I don’t remember any previous life, then I won’t remember this life in another life. In effect this “reincarnated self” will be someone else suffering, not me. So why bother about it?

I was working on my doctoral degree at that time and happened to read about Christ in a book about cybernetics. Surprising! The context was an explanation of positive and negative feedback. The book gave an example from the Gospel and the saying of Christ, If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn the other cheek to him as well. The book said that this is a statement that is quite sound and can be explained mathematically. If someone strikes you and you hit back, the consequence is that you only increase the amount of evil. If you want to reduce the amount of evil, you decrease it my refusing to repeat evil actions. You keep them to yourself. You leave it to the final point.

This saying of Jesus made me think. I decided to test it. In Russia that’s easy to do! You know our public transportation, our buses, and how crowded they are. So when someone shoved me or put his foot on mine, I didn’t say something offensive, only, “Please, why don’t you move to this side?” or “Please sit here” — speaking without sarcasm, in a kind voice. I saw how the tension in the bus immediately went down. I understood from my experiments that you can reduce the stress in a line or a crowd by refusing to respond to aggression with more aggression but instead with kindness.

I came to the conclusion that the hypothesis in the Gospel was correct. That was my first step to Christ. I began to think of the Gospel as a very wise book. The Resurrection of Christ, however, was something that I couldn’t understand.

It’s harder to demonstrate mathematically.

You are right. But finally I realized that if the Resurrection is not true then the whole book is false. In that case Christ was the greatest liar of this world. If Christ says, “I am the way, I am the truth,” but it is not true, then there is nothing else to say. It is useless to think further about Christianity anymore. At that time it seemed to me the choice was Nietzsche or Christ. These were the two theories that I found most logical and most developed.

At this point, like others before me, I accepted the formula: If the truth is not Christ, then I don’t need any other truth. Then I was thinking about what Christ said, “Knock and the door will be opened, ask and it shall be given.” I decided to do it, to knock on the door until it opened.

At that time I still didn’t know any believers. I had only books. I had good friends — poets, writers, scientists. They wanted to help me but they couldn’t understand why I was so preoccupied with these religious questions. They assumed it was a phase that I would eventually get through.

The first believers I met were Baptists. A Baptist gave me my first Gospel. They were very hopeful I would become one of them. They said, “Very soon we will have a good speaker among us!” I was considered a good speaker with a good style. Yet I wasn’t able to become a Baptist. I didn’t feel at home in the Baptist church.

At that time I couldn’t imagine that I would find myself among babushkas with their covered heads, so old, standing in the Orthodox church. But when I was in Moscow I was lucky to meet some people who were Orthodox believers. I was able to read about the Liturgy and the sacraments and what it means to receive communion. Still there was a lot I didn’t understand and no one could explain it to me.

While in Moscow, I finally went inside an Orthodox church. I hadn’t planned to before, but while I was there I decided to go up to the priest for confession just as others were doing. I had never been to confession and didn’t fully understand what it was. The priest asked me only one question, if I followed the fasting rules for Wednesday and Friday. He assumed I was used to being in church. I had read about the fasting rules and was already practicing them. So I said with great pride, “How can you ask! I don’t even drink water on Wednesday and Friday!” If he had asked more questions he would have found I wasn’t at all as I must have seemed from that one answer. I knew about fasting days but I had never heard that you were supposed to fast on the day you receive communion — I had eaten breakfast that morning. But the priest didn’t ask and I didn’t know. He gave me a blessing but I didn’t understand that he was blessing me to receive communion.

Later in the Liturgy, when he had finished giving communion, some believers looked at me and said, “But she didn’t go to the cup!” They were staring at me, and I was so surprised! How had they noticed me? Some old women took me by their hands and brought me to the priest to tell him I should receive communion, and so it happened. I received the holy gifts. Then the old women were all around me, kissing me, kissing my dress, crying. It was the first time I experienced so deeply my unity with the people around me and my love for them. It was in this way that I found out what the Eucharist is, what communion is. From that moment on, I loved babushkas! I loved old women. And from that moment on all my doubts were gone. I was a believer.

Of course I know quite well, and I knew it then, that I am not such a pleasant person. Too often I’m not kind. Friends sometimes say, “Natasha, why are you so intolerant? Believers should be tolerant.” I say, “Listen, it’s not that I’m intolerant. I’m impatient.” It’s like trying to explain a mathematical theorem to someone. I understand it quite well and want my friend to understand it too. But if my friend doesn’t get it right away, I became annoyed. I have a tendency to the same impatience when talking to others about religious truth. This is my problem. But I am very lucky with my friends. They are very kind, very tolerant, very patient. Perhaps they are praying to God to give me patience and to forgive me my impatience.

Nonetheless you have inspired many people to be baptized.

I have more than forty god-children! About fifteen are adults and the others are children. You met my first god-daughter two days ago, the archaeologist with seven children. She accepted baptism at my request, even though she wasn’t yet completely a believer. After baptism she no longer had any doubts. The same thing happened with another friend. Her husband — he was a biologist by profession — became a priest and now serves at a church in a small town. Those who were baptized at my urging then turned to their friends, asking them to get baptized.

But to get baptized doesn’t necessarily mean you are a believer. There are millions of people who are baptized but who aren’t believers.

Among my god-children almost all of them are going to church. They are believers. They never come to me by accident. Yes, it might happen, but I think people understand that I have a very serious attitude about this. Even the god-children of my god-children are taking it seriously. There are a few not coming to church but I think they will return eventually.

How do you prepare people for their baptism?

It varies in each case. Often it happens in a strange way. I remember one elderly woman. I said to her, “Listen, I cannot go on living if you aren’t baptized.” I begged her, for my sake, to get baptized. She was slow to agree. She kept hesitating. There was no possibility to talk her into it with theological arguments. That would have been useless. Finally she decided to do it. I went to Father Boris to ask about what I was doing — convincing her to be baptized even though she really didn’t believe in anything. Father Boris said, “It is already a lot that she agrees to be baptized just because she wants to be obedient to you.” What happened later was something to see. After baptism, she really became a new person. It was amazing. Still she doesn’t know very much. If you ask her, perhaps she will say things about Christianity that are quite wrong, real stupidities. But she can pray. She likes to pray. She likes to be in church. Her life has changed in a deep way.

I think of my friend Tamara. Once she invited me for dinner. At the time we were just acquaintances. It turned out she had cooked chicken. I said, “Tamara, please, I’m not eating meat right now. It’s Lent.” Tamara got pale and said, “Please, Natasha, but I don’t know anything about that. Tell me what it’s all about.” We spent several nights talking together. On the third night Tamara said, “In the morning I want to go to the church to be baptized.” And she did.

Sometimes it is the children who lead the adults, convincing their parents to be baptized. I remember years ago here in Akademgorodok there was a very troubled child, six years old. He was agitated, hyper-active, often ill. The parents were not at all believers but they had the idea that they should get him baptized — just a gesture. They had no intention of further contact with the Church. His father, a member of the Communist Party, had a high position. He didn’t want it known that he had his son baptized. It was difficult making the arrangements but finally it happened. As the child grew up, he became more and more interested in Christ and Christianity, eventually going to church quite openly, praying openly. Sometimes adults were saying to the boy, “There is no god in this world,” he answered, “Ha! So you say, but I know about God for sure.” In the end he brought his parents into the Church.

When did the local Orthodox community come together?

It began with some young people. Some were students, some had recently graduated. Somehow they knew about me and asked me whether I would join them and to help them organize a community. I was surprised. I asked them, “Why is it that I don’t see you in church?” If some old women asked me to join their community, of course I would join. But I said I didn’t want to join a community just for the sake of going to meetings. It was a kind of wide ecumenical group, a religious discussion group. Some thought of themselves as Catholic. Some were curious about religion but more in non-Christian religions – the Hare Krishna prayer and Hinduism. But most were drawn to Orthodoxy. Those who weren’t finally left the group. When it was Orthodox, Father Boris from Novosibirsk became their chaplain. They had the community officially registered with the Council for Religious Affairs.

What do you think of ecumenism?

I am not against it. But for me, I feel like someone in a forest fire, running for my life to escape from the fire. I don’t stop and look at all the trees and bushes and fallen logs. I just run. I am running for my salvation. If you have the truth already, you go forward within that truth. I don’t think I have to change the world. All I am trying to do is to change myself. I am trying to do it even though I don’t seem to make much progress. As Saint Seraphim said, “Pray to the Holy Spirit and forgive everyone and you will be saved.”

This way of thinking was different from the point of view some of the young people had in the community in the beginning. Some had the point of view that first you have to change the world and the church hierarchy, then you can change yourself. For me that was only politics. I didn’t want to come back to the things that I had left behind years before.

Who helped you find your way?

Father Boris. It was my meeting with him in 1980 that began determining my life within the Church. For me, he is an absolute authority. In all the aspects of his life, he is an example and inspiration.

[At this point the translator told how one day in 1982 she went to the cathedral in Novosibirsk, looking for Father Boris, hoping he would baptize her. He wasn’t there but his brother, Father Alexander, a well known priest who had once been a prisoner for two years, was visiting, and he baptized her.]

It is very important that Father Boris is with us. We would be helpless without him. But if he is with us, we will have everything: a community, a church, everything we need.

How did it happen that the discussion group became a worshiping group?

The most important moment was last January when we celebrated Theophany [the commemoration of the baptism of Jesus]. For the first time in the history of Akademgorodok we were allowed to have a public service. It wasn’t a Liturgy but the solemn blessing of water. We built a little shelter and set it up behind the House of Scientists in the center of town. It was a very cold day, more than 30 degrees centigrade below zero. A great many people came to receive the blessed water, not only old women but young girls and boys, mothers with their children, and men as well. Father Boris’ hands were nearly frozen pouring so much water in that cold weather. By the time we finished, the water had ice in it. I hadn’t mean to help because I wasn’t well. I just wanted to come for two minutes to get some blessed water. But once I got there I couldn’t leave.

How do local people who have no former relation to the church respond?

That day a woman saw we were cold and invited us to her house to eat. We had no idea who she was. We ate a little and got warm and then went back to give out more blessed water.

Because the service was in the center of town, a lot of people who were just passing by stopped and came over to watch and ask questions. Some were from the elder generation — they had been baptized but hadn’t been to church since they were children. But after this event they paid attention to us. When they saw a notice about a service in the newspapers, they paid attention. In this way it became more and more widely spread.

Since the beginning of this year, most of the important events on the church calendar have been celebrated in Akademgorodok. We put notices up on the door on the bakeries, places like that: The Orthodox Christian Community of Akademgorodok named after All the Holy Saints of Russia invites you to such-and-such event.

How do local people who think of themselves as atheists or unbelievers respond to an Orthodox community in Akademgorodok?

I think some are actually happy about it. Many are thinking, really for the first time, about atheist ideas. There are others who stick with their old slogans about atheism. Some of them are quite irritated by us. There was a man behind me in line a few days ago. I heard him say to someone else, “Those people aren’t believers, they are deceivers.” I turned around and asked him, “But why do you think so?” “I know for certain,” he said. I could see he was a veteran from the war — he had on a medal. I told him that the day before a few believers, myself among them, were at a home for veterans doing voluntary service. I asked him, “Do you ever go there?” He admitted that he hadn’t been. He wanted to argue about the Church but I wouldn’t argue.

You could notice at the Liturgy on Troitsa Sunday some people on the edge watching, a few of them making fun of us. Others came and watched in a respectful way or even started to cross themselves and pray. In the service after the Liturgy on Troitsa Sunday [a special service when believers kneel during a series of long readings], many knelt right there on the street even though by then the rain was heavy and the pavement was like a river. Some were people I had never seen before.

And what about the local political authorities?

In the middle of May the local Soviet voted 63 to 1 in favor of our request to build a church. The problem here is that it is not only the local elected representatives that decide but the Soviet Academy of Sciences. There is also the issue of where the church will be. We want it to be near the center of Akademgorodok, on the edge of the forest where we had the outdoor Liturgy on Sunday. This is a place that would be convenient for everyone and easy to get for old people and those who come by bus. The local Soviet has suggested three locations — one in the cemetery, one near a neighboring town, another at a nearby settlement — but nothing within Akademgorodok. I think in the end they will agree to our proposal. Many people — 2000 — have signed a petition in support of our proposal.

How did you choose this name for the local Church?

It was hard to decide. I wanted it to be named for the Transfiguration. Father Boris suggested dedicating it to the Holy Trinity. Some of the young people in the community wanted to name it for the New Martyrs, the sufferers from the Soviet period, but in our discussions it was finally agreed that to take that name would be more a political than a religious act. The name finally chosen was a compromise. If you name the community after all the saints of Russia, the New Martyrs are there also. God knows it very well, better than we.

Is there any connection between the local church and Pamyat or other anti-Semitic groups?

None. Pamyat is like a lynch mob. One member of our group helped organize a meeting of Memorial, the organization to honor victims of Stalin. The meeting was in the theater of the House of Scientists. Almost a thousand came. But the meeting was disrupted by Pamyat. Their slogan was, “There was no Stalinism, only Judeo-Fascism.” The Pamyat people came up onto the stage and stood behind the speakers like partisans of the Soviet type. A veteran of some of the prison camps tried to speak but they wouldn’t let him. Some spat on the man. Many in Pamyat are active in anti-drinking campaigns. Because of this you sometimes hear, “Better sclerosis of the liver than such a `memory.'” [The word “pamyat” means memory and is especially associated with requiem prayers for the dead.]

The Church has both divine and human elements. What do you find disturbing in the Church’s human side?

I have been lucky from the beginning because I never expected anything good from the human part of the Church. I was quite sure that anything existing officially in this country couldn’t be good. In such a situation, from the human point of view, the Church couldn’t be good. So I had no expectations. But after becoming Orthodox I kept meeting good people.

That’s Christianity — not to judge. Very hard sometimes.

I never permit myself to judge those people in the Church whom I don’t like. Maybe their cross is even heavier than mine. Maybe their destiny is even more difficult, more complicated. We cannot make a judgment about the declaration of Metropolitan Sergei [made after his release from prison in 1927, calling on believers to recognize the Soviet Union as their “civic motherland”]. Maybe thanks to such a declaration we had saints we will know about in the next life. These hard times that our country has witnessed and is facing now — so much evil and criminality — can give birth to people of remarkable virtues, even sanctity.

There is an article some members of our community wrote about our church for an Orthodox newspaper published by the Church in Moscow. At the end we used a quotation from Metropolitan Antony [Bloom] in which he speaks both about the human aspect of the Church and about sanctity. It is from a speech he gave in 1967.

“Today,” he said, “from all the variety of beautiful holy things, from all the rich human possibilities, we are celebrating the memory of all the saints of Russia. They are people close to us by our blood, whose lives are interwoven with our own by the decisive events of history. We are celebrating people who are the real glory of our land and whose deeds of holiness bless us all. The types of holy people were various. Some of the Russian saints were living alone in remote places, others in cities. They include princes, monks, metropolitans and priests. There were lay people doing many different kinds of activities. There were iurodivii [holy fools for the sake of Christ]. All were appearing in our land not casually but at exact moments of Russian history when they could show their love of God through specific deeds. They are our joy, even if sometimes a tragic joy, sometimes part of our dark and terrible history. All the stages and epochs of our history are covered both by light and dark colors, red threads and golden embroidery. It always happens so that whenever sins were increasing, virtues were growing as well. Also in places where human cruelty was rising, new testimonies of God’s love were appearing simultaneously, born in human hearts, giving witness to God’s pity for us. If we really wish that all the parts of our souls were connected to the children of God, we should join these features of Russian holiness. Only then would we be united with those people who are continuing even now on the way of salvation in the Russian land, a difficult way, sometimes bloody, but always marked by never-ending love.”

[Natasha served some food]

Forgive me, it isn’t very good. I can cook or speak but not both at the same time.

You can’t be both Mary and Martha the same day.

I consider myself a bad housewife. The story about Mary and Martha is one of my great consolations.

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recorded in July 1991
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Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings

edited by Helene Klepinin
translation: Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
preface: Oliver Clement
introduction by Jim Forest
Orbis Books, 192 pages, $15

Mother Maria Skobtsova — now recognized as Saint Maria of Paris — died at Ravensbrück concentration camp in 1945, paying with her life for her vocation of hospitality. In many ways, it was a life that  similar to that of Dorothy Day. The extraordinary courage Mother Maria displayed in confronting Nazism is becoming better known, thanks to her recent canonization, but English translations of her essays have been difficult to obtain. Now Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings is available as part of the Orbis Modern Spiritual Masters Series.

Here is one review:

When, during Great Lent of 1932, Metropolitan Evlogii received the monastic vows of Elisaveta Skobtsova at the church of St. Serge Institute in Paris, many must have been scandalized. After all, this woman had been twice divorced, had an illegitimate child by another man, had leftist political sympathies and was an original by any standard. At her profession she took the name of Maria in memory of St. Mary of Egypt, a prostitute who became a hermit and extreme ascetic. As a religious, Mother Maria continued to scandalize. Her “angelic habit” was usually stained with grease from the kitchen and paint from her workshop; she would hang out at bars late at night; she had little patience with the long Orthodox liturgies, and found the strict and frequent fasts a burden. And — horror of horrors — she even smoked in public in her habit! Her canonization process has been initiated by the Orthodox church. Her “essential writings” constitute the latest book in the Orbis series of Modern Spiritual Masters.

Jim Forest introduces this volume with a biographical essay of Mother Maria. The book consists mainly of articles published in obscure magazines and one long text discovered only recently. This is not stuff for the faint-hearted. The charity that Mother Maria proposes as an obligation of Christian life is severe, absolute, uncompromising and insane. We must love others as Jesus loved, without reserve, in an utter and unconditional self-sacrificing of everything. We must follow the Son of Man not only to Golgotha but beyond — to the very depths of hell where God is absent. We must be willing, as was St. Paul, to be separated from Christ so long as we can see our brothers saved. For we are not alone before God. As members of the body of Christ, each of us shares the fate of all; each of us is justified by the righteous and bears responsibility for the sins of sinners. This means taking upon oneself the crosses of all: their doubts, griefs, temptations, falls and sins.

And Mother Maria leaves us no wiggle room: “It goes without saying that it seems to every man as if nothing will be left of his heart, that it will bleed itself dry if he opens it, not for the countless swords of all of humanity, but even for the one sword of the nearest and dearest of his brothers. … Natural law, which in some false way has penetrated into the spiritual life, will say definitively: Bear your cross responsibly, freely, and honestly, opening your heart now and then to the cross-swords of your neighbor and that is all. … But if the cross of Christ is scandal and folly for natural law, the two- edged weapon that pierces the soul should be as much of a folly and scandal for it. … All that is not the fullness of cross-bearing is sin.” This is, of course, sheer madness — the madness of the Eternal Wisdom, judged and condemned, spat upon and mocked, abused and humiliated, making his the sins of all and descending to the place of the damned.

Mother Maria has no patience with those who are preoccupied with their “spiritual life” and their personal relationship with God. It is precisely this spiritual life that must be lost, given in sacrifice, if one truly loves. If this is not given, tongues and prophecy are useless, faith and martyrdom are in vain. Christian egocentrism is a contradiction in terms. He who seeks to save his soul will lose it. There is no room for complacency or self-righteousness. These are idols that must be destroyed. There is a gift to be given and it must be a total gift — “thine own of thine own.”

St Maria Skobtsova of Paris (iconographer: Fr John Matusiak)

What applies to individuals applies also to the church. In her final essay on “Types of Religious Life” (which really concerns types of piety), Mother Maria examines certain aspects of the church’s inner life and the danger of a fascination with its institutional structures, rituals, esthetic beauties and ascetical practices as ends in themselves to the detriment of a relationship to the Living Christ whose image is found in every person. Although she refers directly to the Orthodox church, her words are equally valid for all Christian churches:

“The eyes of love will perhaps be able to see how Christ himself departs, quietly and invisibly, from the sanctuary that is protected by a splendid iconostasis. The singing will continue to resound, the clouds of incense will arise, the faithful will be overcome by the ecstatic beauty of the services. But Christ will go out onto the church steps and mingle with the crowd: the poor, the lepers, the desperate, the embittered, the holy fools. Christ will go out into the streets, the prisons, the low haunts and dives. Again and again Christ lays down his soul for his friends … and so he will return to the churches and bring with him all those he has summoned to the wedding feast, has gathered from the highways, the poor and maimed, prostitutes and sinners … and [they] will not let him into the church because behind him will follow a crowd of people deformed by sin, by ugliness, drunkenness, depravity, and hate. Then their chant will fade away in the air, the smell of incense will disperse and Someone will say to them: ‘I was hungry and you gave me no food …’ ”

This does not imply a rejection of traditions and usages. In another essay, “In Defense of the Pharisees,” Mother Maria underlines the necessity of the collective memory of past blessings and the need for securities and points of reference. During certain historical epochs, of persecution or even in times of relative stability and in the absence of prophecy, adherence to traditions could be the predominant note in the life of the church, its anchor and guarantee. But this fidelity to the past must not become a paralyzing slavery. History is constantly presenting new challenges, and the church must be free to receive the prophetic gifts when such gifts are given and renew itself accordingly. Faced with modernity and bearing witness to the Gospel in our contemporary world, the church cannot let itself be bound by archaic and irrelevant structures.

Mother Maria’s view of the Christian life is anything but horizontal. She has no use for “trends of social Christianity … based on a certain rationalistic humanism [that] apply only the principles of Christian morality to ‘this world’ and do not seek a spiritual and mystical basis for their constructions.” The gift of oneself to others must be rooted in an intense and loving communion with the Son of God “who descended into the world, became incarnate in the world, totally, entirely, without holding any reserve, as it were, for his divinity. … Christ’s love does not know how to measure and divide, does not know how to spare itself.” Our love should not be any different.

In her writings, Mother Maria expresses what she tried to live. After taking her monastic vows — which she saw as a means of committing herself irrevocably to her vocation within the church — she rented a building that became her monastery, a soup kitchen and a refuge for the rejects of society. It resembled a Catholic Worker house more than anything else. One observer described the “monastery” as “a strange pandemonium; we have young girls, madmen, exiles, unemployed workers and, at the moment, the choir of the Russian opera and the Gregorian choir of Dom Malherbe, a missionary center, and now services in the chapel every morning and evening.” The monastery hosted lectures and discussions with speakers from the St. Serge Institute. Mother Maria’s very intense, mystical and personalist convictions did not prevent her from organizing on a larger scale. She founded a sanatorium for impoverished Russians suffering from tuberculosis and was instrumental in the launching of Orthodox Action with its multiple charitable works.

When the German armies occupied Paris, the monastery of Mother Maria became a refuge for persecuted Jews until escape routes could be found. For those who requested them, false baptismal certificates were provided. The Nazis eventually discovered what was going on. Mother Maria, her son Yuri, the monastery’s chaplain and its lay administrator were detained and sent to concentration camps. Only the lay administrator would survive. Those who knew Mother Maria in the camps bore witness to the courage, hope and optimism she imparted to others in the worst of conditions. The date and circumstances of her death are uncertain. There were reports that her name appeared on a list of those sent to the gas chambers on April 31, 1945, and that she offered herself in the place of a young Polish woman — but that has not been fully established.

Maria Skobtsova is, indeed, in the tradition of those fools for Christ who call the church to its essential mission, who strip aside illusions and delusions, a sign of contradiction to all that is human prudence and human “decency.” She challenges us in our complacency and self-satisfaction, our half-measures and sterile piety. She brings a sledgehammer to the all-too-prevalent contemporary search for personal fulfillment, harmony, peace and satisfaction in religion. But she would not be Orthodox if death and suffering were to have the final word — for it is precisely by descending into hell, losing himself among the godless, that life vanquished the dominion of death; where life has entered, death can no longer exist. It is from the tomb that the glory of the resurrection shines forth.

Olivier Clement did the preface to this book. His final paragraph is worth citing: “If we love and venerate Mother Maria it is not in spite of her disorder, her strange views and her passion. It is precisely these qualities that make her so extraordinarily alive among so many bland and pious saints. Unattractive and dirty, strong, thick and sturdy, yes, she was truly alive in her suffering, her compassion, her passion.”

— Jerry Ryan (National Catholic Reporter)

The book can be ordered from the publisher: http://www.maryknollsocietymall.org/description.cfm?ISBN=978-1-57075-436-4

It is also available from independent books shops and such web-based book providers as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

A Pilgrimage to Hell

view from the tower at Birkenau

by Jim Forest

“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and act without asking questions…”
— Primo Levi, survivor of Auschwitz, If This is a Man

No one is certain how many died at Auschwitz. Most prisoners were gassed soon after arrival without having been registered, while, for those who were registered, the SS destroyed the bulk of their records before abandoning the camp. But years of research have shown that the figure is not less than 1.1-million people. Even that minimum figure leaves us with a number beyond comprehension. One million plus one-hundred thousand. In the summer months, there are perhaps that many leaves on the trees in the park where I take a walk each morning before starting work. I live in a city of 100,000 people — thus the number killed equals everyone in this city plus ten more of the same size. But in fact there is no way to envision such a number meaningfully. I cannot take it in.

The way we usually deal with so large a number of human casualties is to focus on just a single face. One face, one story. This is manageable. A single life and death can open a window on a vast crowd.

The most well known face of the Holocaust is Anne Frank, who was fifteen when she and her family arrived at Auschwitz. (From there she was transferred to Bergen-Belsen, where she died.) It is consoling to know that her diary has been read or seen enacted in film or on stage by far more people than died in all the Nazi concentration camps combined. Millions have visited her hiding place in Amsterdam. In July 1944, shortly before she and her family were taken away, she wrote in her diary, “I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquillity will return once more.”

Or there is the face of Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish scholar who wrote another widely-read diary of life in Amsterdam during the German occupation, in her case living in the open. Turning down offers to go into hiding, she explained to friends that she wished to share her family’s and her people’s fate. She died at Auschwitz on the last day of November 1943. “They [the Nazis] are out to destroy us completely,” she wrote in her diary. “We must accept that and go on from there…. Very well then … I accept it…. God, take me by Your Hand. I shall follow You faithfully, and not resist too much. I shall evade none of the tempests life has in store for me, I shall try to face it all as best I can. I shall try to spread some of my warmth, of my genuine love for others, wherever I go…. I know that a new and kinder day will come. I would so much like to live on, if only to express all the love I carry within me. And there is only one way of preparing for the new age, by living it, even now, in our hearts.”

Or it could be the face of the Edith Stein, a nun with Jewish roots whose life ended on the 9th of August 1942 in a gas chamber at Auschwitz. She had been born in Poland, had lived in Germany and was in a Dutch Carmelite convent at the time of her arrest. “I told our Lord,” she wrote, “that I knew it was His cross that was now being placed upon the Jewish people; that most of them did not understand this, but that those who did would have to take it up willingly in the name of all. I would do that. At the end of the service, I was certain that I had been heard. But what this carrying of the cross was to consist in, that I did not yet know.”

For me, living in the Dutch city of Alkmaar, there is another way of making an intimate connection. On the 5th of March 1942, 213 Alkmaar Jews — all the local Jews not in hiding — were gathered at our one synagogue and from there transported, via Amsterdam and Westerbork, to Auschwitz. Only a few survived. (Today, after a 69-year recess, the same synagogue has just been restored and reconsecrated.)

So many names, so many stories, so many faces to choose from. More than a million.

It had long been a hope of mine to visit this Golgotha of the modern world. Though far from the only one, Auschwitz provides the most vivid image of the assembly-line production of dead bodies — a factory of absolute nihilism, a revelation of a demonic longing to assassinate God and the divine image in man.

The chance to visit Auschwitz finally came, thanks to an invitation to give a lecture at an interfaith peace conference at the University of Wroclaw in Poland. My topic at the conference was not a theory of dialog but the story of a rescuer — Mother Maria Skobtsova, now recognized as St. Maria of Paris, who founded of a house of hospitality in Paris where many lives were saved before she and her principal collaborators were arrested. Mother Maria’s life ended at Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany on the eve of Easter 1945. I could think of no better way to contribute to an interfaith meeting than to tell the story of a Christian willing to lay down her life for Jews.

I was one of three Orthodox Christians from outside Poland who came to the conference. The other two were Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, from Oxford, and Archimandrite Ignatios Stavropoulos, from a monastery near Nefpaktos in Greece. With us was Father Vladimir Misijuk, an Orthodox priest who has translated several of Metropolitan Kallistos’s books into Polish, and Dr. Pawel Wroblewski, one of the prime movers behind the peace conference in Wroclaw.

The day after the conference ended, we traveled together to the camp, now the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

The local weather seemed to be in mourning — chilly, gray, on the edge of foggy. The area for miles and miles around Auschwitz is flat and thinly populated. The town near the camp, Oswiecim, is almost entirely of post-war construction — the population had been removed by the Germans before construction of the concentration camp was started so that there would to be no local witnesses.

Standing near the only surviving crematorium, our delegation was met by an historian on the museum staff, Teresa Wontor-Cichy, who led us under the camp’s notorious Arbeit Macht Frei sign — Labor Brings Freedom. It was here that the famous Auschwitz inmate orchestra played as columns of famished prisoners marched in and out twice a day to their places of labor. The music, Teresa told us, made it easier for the guards to count.

I had imagined Auschwitz-Birkenau as one inter-connected camp, but soon learned that Auschwitz served as the nucleus for more than forty other camps, with nearby Birkenau the point of delivery for the daily trainloads of prisoners, mainly Jews but also Christians, gypsies, homosexuals and political opponents of the Nazis.

In Auschwitz itself, nearly all the buildings had been constructed of brick. It could pass for a solidly-built military post. It would not have been hard to convince a naive visitor, so long as he didn’t look behind the wrong doors, that the conditions of life at Auschwitz weren’t so bad. Why there was even an orchestra! On the other hand, were a visitor to be taken inside the buildings, he would have soon discovered that there are hells in this world worse than any hell he might imagine in the next. For example, there was Block 10 — the domain of Nazi doctors carrying out the most vile medical experiments. One of the physicians, Josef Mengele, became known as the “Angel of Death.” Block 11 served as a “prison within the prison.” A small court operated here at which many were sentenced to death. The basement cells were for those deprived of all food and water. Among those who died in one such cell, now marked by a tall Paschal candle, was Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan priest who took the place of a young husband and father. Kolbe was the last to die, enduring two weeks of starvation, thirst, and neglect. He has since been canonized by the Catholic Church.

We stopped for a time in the yard between Blocks 10 and 11. This had been used as a place of summary execution for those convicted of breaking camp rules. Even a baseless accusation could mean death before a firing squad. Here Metropolitan Kallistos led us in a prayer, long silences between each phrase, both for those who died here and for the guards who had caused so much suffering. We prayed with the awareness that, while the Nazis themselves despised Christianity, centuries of Christian anti-Semitism had helped create an environment of contempt and hatred without which the Shoah would have been impossible.

The charts, maps and photos we saw in the various buildings we passed through effectively told the story of the creation and uses of Auschwitz and its surrounding network of camps, but what made the deepest impression were the many items the SS had failed to destroy as, the Red Army fast approaching, they made their hurried retreat in January 1945. We passed through room after room containing the mute evidence of people who, after stripping naked for a delousing shower (so they were told), were gassed by the hundreds at a time — all children less than fifteen, their mothers, the elderly, those judged unfit. Among those condemned on arrival, the lucky ones were those closest to the shower heads — they died immediately — while those further away took up to twenty minutes to breathe their last.

Even as they were dying, their possessions were being carefully sorted. We saw a mountain range of shoes, thousands of reading glasses, the train tickets more affluent passengers had purchased for the privilege of riding to Auschwitz first or second class instead of traveling in freight cars, and countless suitcases bearing names and addresses of the doomed. We saw dense piles of hair that had been cut from the bodies of women after their bodies were removed from the gas chamber. The hair was for use, Teresa told us, as a commercial component in making textiles. Finally we saw empty canisters of Zyklon B, the substance from which the lethal cyanide gas was released.

Our final stop in the original Auschwitz was the camp’s one surviving place of gassing and body burning. It had escaped destruction because, when much larger gas chambers and crematoria were built at Birkenau, this smaller building had been converted into a bomb shelter. The adjacent crematorium, with its tall square chimney and just two ovens, was also left intact.

Birkenau, about a mile away, didn’t bother with brick structures for housing its captives. It was a gridiron of quickly-erected wooden barracks filling a vast area, barrack after barrack as far as the eye could see. Though a small number of barracks survive, in most cases only the foundations remain. The one brick building left standing is at the entrance to Birkenau, a one-storey structure crowned with an observation tower in the center under which prisoner-bearing freight trains arrived from every part of Europe. A few hundred yards beyond the station, truly the end of the line, was the area where an SS doctor presided over the selection process. Some were judged healthy enough to work — a slow death sentence for all but a few — while the rest were led away to the nearby gas chamber. About 75 percent were killed on arrival.

We visited two barracks, one of them still containing the deep wooden bunks on which inmates — up to a thousand per barrack — were stored at night like cigarettes in a carton. The shed-like structure provided almost no defense against the elements.

Walking from place to place in the two camps, I felt as if I had turned to wood. Words failed me — indeed my emotions failed me, and they still do. It’s not possible to respond in word or sentiment in an adequate way to evil of such magnitude. The awful images are unerasable. Having been there in the flesh, the events that happened in this rural corner of Poland are forever real to me. Any pilgrim to Auschwitz is brought closer to the mainly anonymous people who died here.

One thought kept running through my mind. This human-made hell could never have existed without fear and obedience. Those who ran the camps, from the commandants to the lowest ranking soldier, knew they would themselves be killed if they failed to obey orders. While no doubt some of the staff were already psychopaths, most of those who were assigned here were, at least at the start, ordinary people, probably relieved that they hadn’t been sent into combat.

Adolf Eichmann, the chief bureaucrat of the Holocaust, claimed that he had no ill feeling against Jews. He did what he did because it was his assigned duty. He was “just following orders.” We have heard the same justifications from everyone involved in all concentration camps: “I was just following orders.” The same was true of those who created and staffed the Gulag Archipelago or who dropped nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki or who firebombed Tokyo or Dresden or Coventry or London. It remains true of those today whose daily work involves killing. Only psychopaths want to kill. The rest of us are “just following orders,” whether because of a sense of duty or driven by fear of what the consequences would if we dared to say no.

In his “Devout Meditation in Memory of Adolf Eichmann,” Thomas Merton reflected on the fact that psychiatrists testifying at Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem found Eichmann perfectly sane. “The whole concept of sanity in a society where spiritual values have lost their meaning is itself meaningless,” Merton commented. “A man can be ‘sane’ in the limited sense that he is not impeded by disordered emotions from acting in a cool, orderly manner, according to the needs and dictates of the social situation in which he finds himself. He can be perfectly ‘adjusted.’ God knows, perhaps such people can be perfectly adjusted even in hell itself. And so I ask myself: what is the meaning of a concept of sanity that excludes love, considers it irrelevant, and destroys our capacity to love other human beings, to respond to their needs and their sufferings, to recognize them also as persons, to apprehend their pain as one’s own?”

Perhaps sanity has come to mean merely the capacity to live successfully in a toxic society and follow orders. Following orders is made easier by propaganda — slogans inciting fear and hatred, slogans to kill by. For everyone involved wants to believe that the murderous work he or she is doing serves, at least eventually, some larger good.

Underneath such adaptation is fear — fear of punishment, fear of exclusion, fear of death. Thus we conclude that it’s better to remain alive by becoming a murderer than to die without the stain of innocent blood on our hands.

During the visit to Auschwitz, I kept thinking of Easter and the resurrection of the crucified Christ from his tomb, an event which, for Christians at least, ought to equip us not to fear death and no longer to be prisoners of hell. But how rare are the Paschal people — and how numerous those who obey orders no matter how deadly the consequences.

Leaving Auschwitz, I remembered the words of one of its victims, Etty Hillesum: “Ultimately, we have just one moral duty, to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it toward others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world.”

* * *

Auschwitz photos: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/albums/72157628042735399

text as of 20 December 2011

The Challenge of a 20th Century Saint, Maria Skobtsova

St Maria Skobtsova of Paris

by Jim Forest

Mother Maria Skobtsova — now recognized as Saint Maria of Paris — died in a German concentration camp on the 30th of March 1945. Although perishing in a gas chamber, Mother Maria did not perish in the Church’s memory. Those who had known her would again and again draw attention to the ideas, insights and activities of the heroic nun who had spent so many years of her life assisting people in desperate need. Soon after the war ended, essays and books about her began appearing in French, Russian and English. A Russian film, “Mother Maria,” was made in 1982. Her canonization was celebrated in May 2004 at the Cathedral of St. Alexander Nevsky in Paris. Among those present at the event was Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, archbishop of Paris and Jewish by birth, who subsequently placed St. Maria on the calendar of the Catholic Church in France. One wonders if there are any other saints of post-Schism Christianity who are on both the Catholic and Orthodox calendars?

We have no time today for a detailed account of her life. I will only point out that she was born in Riga in 1891 and grew up on a family estate along the Black Sea. Her father’s death when she was fourteen was a devastating event that for a time led her to atheism, but gradually she found her way back to the Orthodox faith. As a young woman, she was the first female student at the St. Petersburg Theological Academy. In the same period she witnessed the Bolshevik coup and the civil war that followed. Like so many Russians, she fled for her life, finally reaching Paris, where she was among those who devoted themselves to serving fellow refugees, many of whom were now living in a state of destitution even worse than her own. At that time, she worked with the Student Christian Movement.

The tragic death in 1926 of one her daughters, Anastasia, precipitated a decision that brought her to a still deeper level of self-giving love. In 1932, following the collapse of her marriage, her bishop, Metropolitan Evlogy, encouraged her to become a nun, but a nun with an exceptional vocation. Metropolitan Evlogy blessed her to develop a new type of monasticism — a “monasticism in the world” — that centered on diaconal service within the city rather than on quiet withdrawal in a rural context.

In a time of massive social disruption, Mother Maria declared, it was better to offer a monastic witness which opens its gates to desperate people and in so doing to participate in Christ’s self-abasement. “Everyone is always faced … with the necessity of choosing between the comfort and warmth of an earthly home, well protected from winds and storms, and the limitless expanse of eternity, which contains only one sure and certain item … the Cross.”

It was clear to her that it was not only Russia which was being torn to shreds. “There are times,” she wrote, “when all that has been said cannot be made obvious and clear since the atmosphere around us is a pagan one and we are tempted by its idolatrous charms. But our times are firmly in tune with Christianity in that suffering is part of their nature. They demolish and destroy in our hearts all that is stable, mature, hallowed by the ages and treasured by us. They help us genuinely and utterly to accept the vows of poverty, to seek no rule, but rather anarchy, the anarchic life of Fools for Christ’s sake, seeking no monastic enclosure, but the complete absence of even the subtlest barrier which might separate the heart from the world and its wounds.”

She saw that there were two ways to live. The first was on dry land, a legitimate and respectable place to be, where one could measure, weigh and plan ahead. The second was to walk on the waters where “it becomes impossible to measure or plan ahead. The one thing necessary is to believe all the time. If you doubt for an instant, you begin to sink.”

The water she decided to walk upon was a vocation of hospitality. With financial support from Metropolitan Evlogy, in December 1932 she signed a lease for her first house of hospitality, a place of welcome and assistance to people in desperate need, mainly young Russian women. The first night she slept on the floor beneath the icon of the Protection of the Mother of God. A small community of co-workers began to form. To make room for others, Mother Maria gave up her own room and instead slept on an iron bedstead in the basement by the boiler. A room upstairs became a chapel.

The first house having become too small, in 1934 the community relocated to a three-storey house at 77 rue de Lourmel in an area of Paris where many impoverished Russian refugees had settled. Now, instead of 25 people, the community could feed a hundred. Stables in back became a small church.

The vocation of hospitality is much more than the provision of food, clothing and a place to sleep. In its depths, it is a contemplative vocation. It is the constant search for the face of Christ in the stranger. “If someone turns with his spiritual world toward the spiritual world of another person,” she reflected, “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.”

By 1937, there were several dozen women guests at 77 rue de Lourmel. Up to 120 dinners were served each day. Other buildings were rented, one for families in need, another for single men. A rural property became a sanatorium.

From a financial point of view, it was a very insecure life, but somehow the work survived and grew. Mother Maria would sometimes recall the Russian story of the ruble that could never be spent. Each time it was used, the change given back proved to equal a ruble. It was exactly this way with love, she said: No matter how much love you give, you never have less. In fact you discover you have more — one ruble becomes two, two becomes ten.

Mother Maria’s day typically began with a journey to Les Halles to beg food or buy cheaply whatever was not donated. The cigarette-smoking beggar nun became well known among the stalls. She would later return with a sack of bones, fish and overripe fruit and vegetables.

Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh provides an impression of what Mother Maria was like in those days: “She was a very unusual nun in her behavior and her manners. I was simply staggered when I saw her for the first time. I was walking along the Boulevard Montparnasse. In front of a café, there was a table, on the table was a glass of beer, and behind the glass was sitting a Russian nun in full monastic robes. I looked at her and decided that I would never go near that woman. I was young then and held extreme views.”

Mother Maria felt sustained by the opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount: “Not only do we know the Beatitudes, but at this hour, this very minute, surrounded though we are by a dismal and despairing world, we already savor the blessedness they promise.”

Life in community was not easy. Conflicting views about the relative importance of liturgical life were at times a source of tension. Mother Maria was the one most often absent from services or the one who would withdraw early, or arrive late, because of the pressing needs of hospitality. “Piety, piety,” she wrote in her journal, “but where is the love that moves mountains?”

Mother Maria saw blessings where others only saw disaster. “In the past religious freedom was trampled down by forces external to Christianity,” she wrote. “In Russia we can say that any regime whatsoever will build concentration camps as its response to religious freedom.” She considered exile in the west a heaven-sent opportunity to renew the Church in ways that would have met repression within her mother country.

For her, exile was an opportunity “to liberate the real and authentic” from layers of decoration and dust in which Christ had become hidden. It was similar to the opportunity given to the first Christians. “We must not allow Christ,” she said, “to be overshadowed by any regulations, any customs, any traditions, any aesthetic considerations, or even any piety.”

Russians have not been last among those enamored with theories, but for Mother Maria, all theories had to take second place. “We have not gathered together for the theoretical study of social problems in the spirit of Orthodoxy,” she wrote, “[but] to link our social thought as closely as possible with life and work. More precisely, we proceed from our work and seek the fullest possible theological interpretation of it.”

While many valued what she and her co-workers were doing, there were others who were scandalized with the shabby nun who was so uncompromising in her hospitality that she might leave a church service to answer the door bell. “For many in church circles we are too far to the left,” she noted, “while for the left we are too church-minded.”

In October 1939, Metropolitan Evlogy send a priest to rue de Lourmel: Father Dimitri Klépinin, then 35 years old. A man of few words and great modesty, Fr. Dimitri proved to be a real partner for Mother Maria.

The last phase of Mother Maria’s life was a series of responses to World War II and Germany’s occupation of France.

Her basic choice was the decision to stay. It would have been possible for her to leave Paris when the Germans were advancing, or even to leave the country to go to America, but she would not budge. “If the Germans take Paris, I shall stay here with my old women. Where else could I send them?”

She had no illusions about Nazism. It represented a “new paganism” bringing in its wake disasters, upheavals, persecutions and wars. It was evil unveiled, the “contaminator of all springs and wells.” The so-called “master race” was “led by a madman who needs a straightjacket and should be placed in a cork-lined room so that his bestial wailing will not disturb the world at large.”

Paris fell on the 14th of June. With defeat came greater poverty and hunger for many people. Local authorities in Paris declared the house at rue de Lourmel an official food distribution point.

Paris was now a prison. “There is the dry clatter of iron, steel and brass,” wrote Mother Maria. “Order is all.” Russian refugees were among the high-priority targets of the occupiers. In June 1941, a thousand were arrested, including several close friends of Mother Maria and Fr. Dimitri. An aid project for prisoners and their dependents was soon launched by Mother Maria.

Early in 1942, with Jewish registration underway, Jews began to knock on the door at rue de Lourmel asking Fr. Dimitri if he would issue baptismal certificates to them. The answer was always yes. The names of those “baptized” were also duly recorded in his parish register in case there was any cross-checking by the police or Gestapo, as indeed did happen. Fr. Dimitri was convinced that in such a situation Christ would do the same.

In March 1942, the order came from Berlin that a yellow star must be worn by Jews in all the occupied countries. The order came into force in France in June. There were, of course, Christians who said that the law being imposed had nothing to do with Christians and that therefore this was not a Christian problem. “There is not only a Jewish question, but a Christian question,” Mother Maria replied. “Don’t you realize that the battle is being waged against Christianity? If we were true Christians we would all wear the star. The age of confessors has arrived.”

In July, Jews were forbidden access to nearly all public places. Shopping by Jews was restricted to an hour per day. A week later, there was a mass arrest of Jews — 12,884, of whom 6,900 (two-thirds of them children) were brought to a sports stadium just a kilometer from rue de Lourmel. Held there for five days, the captives in the stadium received water only from a single hydrant. From there the captives were to be sent to Auschwitz.

Mother Maria had often thought her monastic robe a God-send in aiding her work. Now it opened the way for her to enter the stadium. Here she worked for three days trying to comfort the children and their parents, distributing what food she could bring in, even managing to rescue a number of children by enlisting the aid of garbage collectors and smuggling them out in trash bins.

The house at rue de Lourmel was bursting with people, many of them Jews. “It is amazing,” Mother Maria remarked, “that the Germans haven’t pounced on us yet.” In the same period, she said if anyone came looking for Jews, she would show them an icon of the Mother of God.

Fr. Dimitri, Mother Maria and their co-workers set up routes of escape to the unoccupied south. It was complex and dangerous work. Forged documents had to be obtained. An escaped Russian prisoner of war was also among those assisted, working for a time in the Lourmel kitchen. In turn, a local resistance group helped secure provisions for those Mother Maria’s community was struggling to feed.

In February 1943 Mother Maria, her son Yuri, Fr. Dimitri and their collaborator Ilya Fondaminsky were arrested by the Gestapo and sent to the camp at Compiegne.

In December, Yuri and Fr. Dimitri were deported to Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany and from there to Dora, 40 kilometers away. On the 6th of February, Yuri was “dispatched for treatment” — a euphemism for being sentenced to death. Four days later Fr. Dimitri, lying on a dirt floor, died of pneumonia. His final action was to make the sign of the Cross. His body was disposed of in the Buchenwald crematorium.

Mother Maria was sent to Ravensbrück in Germany, where she endured for two years, an achievement in part explained by her long experience of ascetic life. “She was never downcast, never,” a fellow prisoner recalled. “She never complained…. She was on good terms with everyone. Anyone in the block, no matter who it was, knew her on equal terms. She was the kind of person who made no distinction between people [whether they] held extremely progressive political views [or had] religious beliefs radically different than her own. She allowed nothing of secondary importance to impede her contact with people.”

By March 1945, Mother Maria’s condition was critical. She had to lie down between roll calls and hardly spoke. Her face, a fellow prisoner Jacqueline Pery recalled, “revealed intense inner suffering. Already it bore the marks of death. Nevertheless Mother Maria made no complaint. She kept her eyes closed and seemed to be in a state of continual prayer. This was, I think, her Garden of Gethsemani.”

She died on Holy Saturday. The shellfire of the approaching Red Army could be heard in the distance. We are not certain of the details of her last day. According to one account, she was simply among the many selected for death that day. According to another, she took the place of another prisoner, a Jew. Jacqueline Pery wrote afterward: “It is very possible that [Mother Maria] took the place of a frantic companion. It would have been entirely in keeping with her generous life. In any case she offered herself consciously to the holocaust … thus assisting each one of us to accept the Cross…. She radiated the peace of God and communicated it to us.”

We now know Mother Maria as St. Maria of Paris. Her commemoration occurs on July 20.

Every saint poses a challenge, but Mother Maria is perhaps among the most challenging saints. Her life is a passionate objection to any form of Christianity that seeks Christ chiefly inside church buildings. Still more profoundly, she challenges each of us to a life of a deeper, more radical hospitality, a hospitality that includes not only those who share our faith and language but those whom we regard as “the other,” people in whom we resist recognizing the face of Christ.

Mother Maria was certain that there was no other path to heaven than participating in God’s love and mercy. “The way to God lies through love of people. At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked, Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked. About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person the Savior says ‘I’: ‘I was hungry and thirsty, I was sick and in prison.’ To think that he puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need…. I always knew it, but now it has somehow penetrated to my sinews. It fills me with awe.”

We can sum up Mother Maria’s credo in just a few words: “Each person is the very icon of God incarnate in the world.”

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A more detailed account of the life of St. Maria of Pais is posted at:

Mother Maria of Paris: Saint of the Open Door

A collection of links about her, and those who worked with her, is in this section of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site:

St. Maria Skobtsova Resources

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Jim Forest is international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. He is also the author of numerous books, including “Silent as a Stone: Mother Maria of Paris and the Trash Can Rescue,” and wrote the introduction to “Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings” (Orbis Books, 2003).

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Jim Forest

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date: November 8, 2011

After the War Was Over: Seeing What You’d Rather Not See

by Jim Forest

Evacuees boardin an American helicopter on the rood of the American Embasy in Saigon.

It was in 1975 that the Vietnam War came to an end with the sudden collapse of the South Vietnamese regime. The iconic image of that event was a helicopter taking off from the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon carrying diplomatic and military personnel to safety aboard an offshore aircraft carrier.

The Vietnam War was one of the main events of the Cold War — three decades of combat that began in 1946 with the French attempting to regain their colonies in Southeast Asia. That stage of the war ended in 1954 with French defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. The result was the division of Vietnam into two zones, North and South. As French influence waned in South Vietnam, little by little the US took on the war the French had abandoned. You get a vivid glimpse of the early stage of American engagement in Graham Greene’s novel “The Quiet American” or the film version of the book in which Michael Caine plays a jaded British journalist trying to make sense of what a very quiet American (in fact a CIA agent) is up to.

The US objective was to prevent the Communist regime in North Vietnam from taking over the South. This meant not only taking sides in a civil war but covertly creating the Saigon government we were supporting. Does this sound a little like current events in, for example, Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya?

If you have ever been in Washington, DC, perhaps you visited the Vietnam Wall and walked the length of its 58,272 names, all the US service members who died in that war. How many Vietnamese were killed is unknown — estimates range from one-million to more than three-million. For years American bombs rained down on jungles, towns and villages. Many thousands of those bombs carried napalm, a jellified gasoline designed to stick like glue to the body of whoever happens to be nearby when the bomb explodes. Napalm was only one of many varieties of “anti-personnel” weapons that were developed for use in Vietnam — another type exploded thousands of fragments of razor-sharp blades. Every war is hellish, but few have shown less interest in protecting non-combatants. In fact non-combatants became targets. At a place called My Lai, US soldiers methodically killed each and every man, woman, child and infant in the village.

When the US engagement in Vietnam was gathering momentum in the late fifties and early sixties, most Americans thought of it as something necessary to halt the spread of Communism. Few did more than shrug their shoulders, paid little attention. Even if you offered a $20 bill as a reward, you wouldn’t easily have found people on the streets who, shown a map of Asia, could have pointed out the location of Vietnam.

At first it was only American military advisers who were sent, but then came combat troops, a few thousand at first, large numbers before the war ended. As troop levels rose and military conscription was imposed, public interest rose too. You pay a lot of attention to a war in which a family member has been forced to participate. The war became increasingly controversial. Small demonstrations eventually grew into mass events involving tens of thousands. In one 1969 demonstration, half-a-million protesters clogged the streets of Washington, DC.

Part of the shame and disgust that took hold of many Americans was due to the fact that this was the first war Americans were able to watch on television as it was happening. On the one hand there was nothing inspiring about the series of Saigon regimes on whose behalf we were fighting. On the other hand there was the sheer horror of seeing the casualties of the war. Most of the dead were women and children, the aged and sick — the people, that is, who were least able to protect themselves. About ninety percent of Vietnamese casualties were non-combatant.

As time passed and the war got worse, many protesters began to sympathize with the other side — the Vietcong, as they were called, the forces of the National Liberation Front, and North Vietnam as well, for what was a ground war in the South Vietnam was an air war in the North. Before the war ended, many anti-war American peace activists had been honored guests of the North Vietnamese. They were taken on tours, visited bomb victims in hospitals, met American prisoners of war who assured their visitors they were being well treated (in fact many suffered torture), and took shelter with their hosts when US bombs began to fall on the places they happened to be visiting. Many of them came back to the US with glowing reports of how warmly they had been treated by their hosts.

My own engagement in protest against the war began quite early, July 17, 1963. At lunchtime the day before, two members of the Catholic Worker community, Tom Cornell and Chris Kearns, had demonstrated outside the building in midtown Manhattan where the South Vietnamese Observer to the United Nations had his apartment. Their signs read, “The Catholic Worker Protests US Military Support of Diem Tyranny.” Diem was president of South Vietnam at the time. It was the first US protest of Vietnam War. Hearing from Tom that this small action would continue each lunch hour until the 25th, I joined the next day. By the last day, our number had swelled to several hundred and drawn TV news attention.

In 1964, less than a year later, I wrote an article meant to give readers some basic knowledge of Vietnam and its recent history. It wasn’t easy doing the research. At the time there were very few books about Vietnam in the New York Public Library. There were also no privately-owned computers and there was no web.

Not many months later I left my newspaper job and began working full-time for the newly-established Catholic Peace Fellowship, an offshoot of the Catholic Worker. Our work focused mainly on assisting conscientious objectors who were refusing to fight in Vietnam and also making it better known to Catholics that conscientious objection as well as draft resistance was an option.

One of the events that brought Vietnam much closer to me at the personal level was a friendship that developed with a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and poet, Thich Nhat Hanh. In 1967, he asked me to accompany him on his lecture trips in the US. Vietnamese food, music, language and poetry became part of my daily life for weeks on end. I began to understand that the population of Vietnam was not tidily divided between Communists and anti-Communists. There were millions of South Vietnamese in the middle, mainly Buddhists. They identified with neither side and sought what they called a “third way” solution. They suffered a great deal of persecution from the Saigon government. A number of Buddhist monks and nuns gained international attention when they immolated themselves in acts of anti-war protest.

In 1968, I was part of a group of fourteen people, half of them Catholic priests, who filled sacks of key files from Milwaukee’s nine draft boards and burned them, using homemade napalm, in a little park in the center of the city. We were protesting both the war and military conscription. Following our trial, we began serving one-year prison sentences. I look back on it as a kind of sabbatical.

Released from prison in 1970, I renewed my efforts to end the Vietnam War. In 1973, I was appointed editor of Fellowship magazine, the monthly journal of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, America’s oldest and largest peace group. Two years later, it was my joy to edit an issue of the magazine celebrating the end of the war, at the same time raising the question: “And now what?” It wasn’t an easy question to answer. Years of our lives had been devoted to ending the war in Vietnam.

What I didn’t anticipate was that Vietnam would still hold a major place in my life and in the lives of many others who had celebrated the war’s end.

While I was in France the following summer staying with the small Vietnamese community led by Thich Nhat Hanh, letters smuggled out of Vietnam arrived with the news that the Hanoi government was arresting and jailing not only participants in the former Saigon administration but also Buddhist nuns, monks and lay people who had actively and courageously opposed the war. “My act [of self-immolation],” the monks Thich Hue Hien explained, “may be described as unusual both in the Dharma and in the world, but as wisdom shines, we should look at events in their own timing…. I do not act in foolishness. By my act I hope the blind will see, the deaf will hear, and living beings in the Six Realms will benefit from the light.”

Also at that time a left-leaning French journal, Nouvelle Observateur, was publishing a series of lengthy reports about post-war Vietnam. The author, Jean Lacouture, was the first western journalist invited into Vietnam by the Hanoi government. He was deeply jarred by some of what he saw, not least by his visits to prison camps. He estimated there were 300,000 prisoners, 100,000 more than Vietnam had admitted, but even 200,000 would have been an astonishing number. He asked why there were so many? After all, there had only been 35,000 army officers in the forces of the South, and thousands of them, along with nearly all important government officials had fled Vietnam after the northern victory.

It turned out that many of those imprisoned were people, including Buddhist monks and nuns, who had opposed the war, siding with neither North or South. Those whose lives were centered in their religion rather than in politics, whether Buddhist or Christian, were being singled out, temples and churches closed, publications suppressed, charitable and educational projects locked up. There was also news of the arrest and imprisonment of leaders of the Unified Buddhist Church.

Back in the US, I wrote an article about the reports that had reached Thich Nhat Hanh plus the reports by Jean Lacouture, a name respected in the anti-war movement in the US. Circulating the text in draft to peace movement leaders prior to its publication, I vividly recall a phone call from a colleague who urged me not to publish it. Should it appear in print, he warned me, “it will cost you your career in the peace movement.” My caller was a member of the national staff of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization. Our conversation ended abruptly when he slammed down the receiver at his office in Philadelphia. I was astonished. Why would a peace organization wish to ignore human rights violations, especially in a country in which they had contacts in the government?

The caller’s key word was “career.” Until he called, I had no idea I had a “career,” but I began to realize that even in peace groups one can embrace a careerist mentality.

My article — “Vietnam: Reunification Without Reconciliation” — was in fact published in the October 1975 issue of Fellowship, by which time I was one of several people  (the others included Tom Cornell and Robert Ellsberg) drafting an appeal to the government in Hanoi. Here are the main paragraphs:

“Beginning soon after the victory of North Vietnam and the Provisional Revolutionary Government in the Spring of 1975, and sharply increasing in recent months, reports have reached us indicating grievous and systematic violations of human rights by your government. The evidence is too specific and persuasive for us to ignore.

“Especially with regard to those imprisoned or otherwise detained, in May a Vietnamese official stated that 200,000 were being held in re-education camps. While some respected foreign journalists in Vietnam have estimated 300,000 detainees — the actions of your government constitute a great disappointment to all those who expected not the ‘bloodbath’ so eagerly predicted by the American White House but rather an example of reconciliation built on tolerance. We realize that those held include individuals responsible for aspects of the war and the repressive mechanisms of the former Saigon government. But, having believed your fervent past expressions of commitment to human rights, we are deeply saddened to hear of the arrest and detention of a wide range of persons, including religious, cultural and political figures who opposed the Thieu government despite considerable personal risks… [A list of names was included.]

“Differences among us on what could be hoped for in the revolution’s victory did not in the past hamper our solidarity in opposing America’s intervention. Our agreement, then and now, transcends difference in ideology and analysis, being firmly grounded in our concern for the lives of the Vietnamese people. We have recognized that the credibility of our witness is related to the candor with which we demonstrate our concerns and our commitment to certain ethical precepts regardless of politics…

“We therefore call upon you to honor the concern for human rights which you have expressed both in formal agreements and in countless conversations with peace activists. We call for a complete public accounting of those detained or imprisoned indicating as well, the charges for which they are held. We call on the government of Vietnam to facilitate on-the-spot inspection by the United Nations, Amnesty International or other independent international agencies in order to assure that those in the government’s charge are treated in accord with international covenants regarding human rights. We call on you to release any individuals who are held purely because of their religious or political convictions. We call for government recognition of the right to open and free communication.

“We recall the tragic self-immolation of twelve monks and nuns in Can Tho Province last November 2, protesting administrative orders redefining and drastically restricting their religious practice. We have noted reports that many service projects of the Unified Buddhist Church … including those assisting war orphans, have been closed, their funds frozen and properties confiscated.”

Quite a number of people quickly signed. Just as quickly passionate opposition arose.

Some of the appeal’s opponents were so outraged that they accused me of being a CIA agent. The author of an article in one peace movement publication proposed that I should to be sent to a re-education camp. Another accused me of being a white bourgeois American — which was true except for the adjective “bourgeois.” I was also charged with being a covert anti-Communist. (That reminded me of how, in the fifties, my father had often been accused of being a Communist, except in his case it was true.)

Rational opposition to the appeal largely fell into two categories. Some objected that the reports of human rights violations could not possibly be true. Another group said some of the reports, possibly many of them, might be true, but — given what America as a nation had done to Vietnam — no American, even those who had spent years of their lives opposing the war, had the right to protest what the Vietnamese government was doing.

There were some who regarded the reports as true but saw such actions as justifiable. One non-signer, professor of international law Richard Falk, explained in a letter to me that one need not be troubled by re-education camps in Vietnam: “What has been done is to remove temporarily from the political order some of those who seem obstructive in a period of national economic emergency.” In my response, I pointed out that these words could have been used word for word by Stalin and his apologists back in the 1930s to justify the creation of the Gulag.

On the positive side, the appeal was signed by a hundred well-known Americans who had struggled to end the war, many of whose names would have been known and respected by leaders of the Hanoi government. We could reasonably hope to be taken seriously.

One of the appeal signers was Joan Baez. She called me one morning to describe the intense pressure she was under to withdraw her signature. It had been exhausting. The night before she had endured a six-hour coast-to-coast phone call from one weighty opponent of the appeal. In addition Joan told me that a distinguished friend, recipient of several peace prizes, had made a personal visit to warn her of Jim Forest’s “possible CIA connections.” Her first response to her guest, she said, was laughter. She then told him, “Jim Forest is much too nice — and much too disorganized — to work for the CIA.” (In fact how does one prove he isn’t working for the CIA? Should you ask the director of the CIA to certify you weren’t an employee? Denial only adds fuel to the fire of suspicion. The only thing you can do is joke about it.)

Joan wanted to assure me that the pressure to withdraw her signature had only made her more determined not to. She said she could hardly imagine what the pressures were on me. Then, to cheer me along, she sang me a song over the phone. Would that I had recorded it.

She also issued a public statement in which she recalled Albert Camus’s comment that justice is the “eternal refugee from the camp of the victor.”

“I have,” she said, “a general expectation that grave injustices will be inflicted upon the defeated after almost any war, and almost certainly after one fought under the banner of revolution. That expectation may be dismissed as undue skepticism or cynicism, as insufficient faith in and reliance upon the goodness inherent in humankind. I would like to be persuaded that this were so and that Vietnam today could be the instrument of my conversion. But the melancholy history of wars and their aftermath, to which recent decades have contributed a possibly undue share, seems not to point in that direction. My own hope is that the injustices that occur will be limited, and finally brought under civilizing control. That is my hope concerning Vietnam.”

What did our controversial appeal achieve? We certainly failed in our main proposal — Vietnam’s camps and prisons were never opened to the Red Cross or Amnesty International. But did we do some degree of good? Governments never acknowledge that appeals or protests have any influence, though occasionally later on we learn that the impact was significant. Someone in the government writes a book, an insider makes secret papers public, revelations occur at a hearing or trial. But mainly we never know. Perhaps we made a positive difference for some of the prisoners in Vietnam, perhaps we totally failed. Perhaps we prevented worse from happening. All one can say with certainty is that it was a worthwhile effort.

What did I learn from this event? Here are five lessons:

* There is no peace where there is a systematic violation of basic human rights, beginning with the right to life itself. War of its nature involves a massive violation of human rights.

* Human rights issues can be divisive even in groups that one associates with the protection of human rights. Much of the opposition to the Vietnam War grew out of disgust with the systematic violation of human rights by the Saigon government — imprisonment and torture of dissidents had been commonplace.

* Attention to violations of human rights can severely strain relations not only between governments but between persons and organizations. Whenever we identify with the perpetrator of human rights violations, there is always a temptation to downplay, ignore or even justify violations of human rights. For example, in the 1930s, many on the left were rightly outraged by human rights violations carried out by Nazis and Fascists in Germany, Austria, Italy and Spain, but turned a blind eye to similar actions carried out under the red flag in the Soviet Union. The reverse was true of those on the right.

* Our way of seeing the world around us is often shaped by peer group pressure. Like certain kinds of fish, we humans tend to swim in schools. It happens even to dissidents, who band together in their own smaller schools. If I belong to a group that regards abortion as a human right, the chances are I will adopt that view. If I belong to a group that sees abortion as a violation of human rights, then it’s more than likely I will too. How little independent hard thinking we actually do!

* Last but not least, there is the problem of careerism. Careerism is possible even in idealistic movements. How easy it is for the bottom line in one’s life not to be the search for truth but the search for economic security. We say what our bosses or more powerful colleagues want to hear, and we say it with a smile. We even try to believe what we’re saying.

It’s only graying people who can recall the Vietnam War. It’s in a category of dusty past events that include the Punic Wars and the War of the Roses. Today Vietnam is a tourist destination and a country offering cheap labor to major corporations. But the issues raised both by that war as well as its aftermath remain all too timely. We continue fighting wars that bring us immense shame and cost immense treasure. We continue to pay lip service to human rights while ignoring them when it suits us.

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text as of 10 October 2011
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For more on this topic, see Jim Finn’s essay, “Fighting Among the Doves”: http://www.jimandnancyforest.com/2011/08/08/fighting-among-the-doves/

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Extracts from the writings of Dorothy Day

selected by Jim Forest


“Every morning I break my fast with the men in the breadline. Some of them speak to me. Many of them do not. But they know me and I know them. And there is a sense of comradeship there. We know each other in the breaking of bread.” (Diary entry, February 27, 1939)

“We are the rich country of the world, like Dives at the feast. We must try hard, we must study to be poor like Lazarus at the gate, who was taken into Abraham’s bosom. The Gospel doesn’t tell us anything about Lazarus’s virtues. He just sat there and let the dogs lick his sores. He would be classed by any social worker of today as a mental case. But again, poverty, and in this case destitution, like hospitality, is so esteemed by God, it is something to be sought after, worked for, the pearl of great price.” (Catholic Worker, July-August 1953)


“The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us.” (Loaves and Fishes, the last chapter, p 210)

“I seemed to feel the faith of those about me and I longed for their faith. My own life was sordid and yet I had had occasional glimpses of the true and the beautiful. So I used to go in and kneel in a back pew of St. Joseph’s, and perhaps I asked even then, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’” (From Union Square to Rome)

“I had become convinced that I would become a Catholic, and yet I felt I was betraying the class to which I belonged, the workers, the poor of the world, the class which Christ most loved and spent His life with.” (From Union Square to Rome)

“Most Catholics speak of Communists with the bated breath of horror. And yet those poor unfortunate ones who have not the faith to guide them are apt to stand more chance in the eyes of God than those indifferent Catholics who sit by and do nothing for ‘the least of these’ of whom Christ spoke.” (Catholic Worker, June 1934)

“‘I have sinned exceedingly in my life,’ Tolstoy said to Maxim Gorki once. This phrase comes to mind when fulsome praise comes my way…. My loose life as a young woman was like that of so many young women today, only there was no ‘drug scene’ then. We drank; we were the flaming youth of the 20s, portrayed by Hemingway and Malcolm Cowley. In my book The Long Loneliness I tried to write only of those things which brought about my conversion to the faith—a happy love affair, a love of nature, a truly good life in the natural sense.” (Diary entry, November 1976)

voluntary poverty

“The only way to live in any true security is to live so close to the bottom that when you fall you do not have far to drop, you do not have much to lose.”

“But daily, hourly, to give up our own possessions and especially to subordinate our own impulses and wishes to others — these are hard, hard things; and I don’t think they ever get any easier. You can strip yourself, you can be stripped, but still you will reach out like an octopus to seek your own comfort, your untroubled time, your ease, your refreshment. It may mean books or music — the gratification of the inner sense — or it may mean food and drink, coffee and cigarettes. The one kind of giving up is no easier than the other.” (Loaves and Fishes, p. 84)

“Once we begin not to worry about what kind of a house we are living in, what kind of clothes we are wearing, we have time, which is priceless, to remember that we are our brother’s keeper, and that we must not only care for his needs as far as we are immediately able, but try to build a bridge to a better world.” (From an unpublished manuscript quoted by Mel Piehl in Breaking Bread: The Catholic Worker and the Origin of Catholic Radicalism in America, pp 99-100)

“Voluntary poverty means a good deal of discomfort in these houses of ours…. I was so cold and damp and so unbelievably poverty-stricken that little children coming to see who were the young people meeting there exclaimed that this could not be a Catholic place; it was too poor. We must be Communists.” (The Long Loneliness)

“It is hard … to quote the Gospel to men with empty stomachs. It is hard to preach holy poverty to those who suffer perforce from poverty not only for themselves but for their loved ones. But we wish to assure our readers that most of the people who are writing for and putting out this paper have known poverty—hunger and heat and cold; some have slept in city lodging houses, in doorways, in public parks, have been in the wards of city hospitals; have walked the city with their feet upon the ground searching for work, or just walking because they had no shelter to go to.” (Catholic Worker, May 1934)

a nonviolent way of life

“Now the whole world is turning to ‘force’ to conquer. Fascist and Communist alike believe that only by the shedding of blood can they achieve victory. Catholics, too, believe that suffering and the shedding of blood ‘must needs be,’ as Our Lord said to the disciples at Emmaus. But their teaching, their hard saying, is that they must be willing to shed every drop of their own blood, and not take the blood of their brothers. They are willing to die for their faith, believing that the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” (Catholic Worker, November 1936)

“I do not see why we must accept the inevitability of war. It was only in the last century that slavery was done away with here in this country, and I suppose that everybody thought it was inevitable, something to be accepted, before that time. If we are working toward peace, we must look with hope that in a future generation we will do away with war. You know with how great suffering and how great prayer we are trying to hold up these ideas.” (Letter to Bob Walsh, May 3, 1940)

“I will not register for conscription, if conscription comes for women…. I shall not register because I believe modern war to be murder, incompatible with a religion of love. I shall not register because registration is the first step toward conscription, and I agree with Cardinal Gasparri, that the only way to do away with war is to do away with conscription.” (Catholic Worker, January 1943)


“We will never stop having breadlines at Catholic Worker houses…. But I repeat: Breadlines are not enough, hospices are not enough. I know we will always have men on the road. But we need communities of work, land for the landless, true farming communes, cooperatives and credit unions. There is much that is wild, prophetic, and holy about our work—it is that which attracts the young who come to help us. But the heart hungers for that new social order wherein justice dwelleth.” )Catholic Worker, January 1972)


“God meant things to be much easier than we have made them.”

“What we would like to do is change the world—make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And to a certain extent, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, of the poor, of the destitute … we can to a certain extent change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever-widening circle will reach around the world. We repeat, there is nothing that we can do but love, and dear God— please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as well as our friend.” (Catholic Worker, June 1946)

“We need to change the system. We need to overthrow, not the government, as the authorities are always accusing the Communists “of conspiring to teach to do,” but this rotten, decadent, putrid industrial capitalist system which breeds such suffering in the whited sepulcher of New York.” (On Pilgrimage, September 1956)

“So many in these days have taken violent steps to gain the things of this world—war to achieve peace; coercion to achieve freedom; striving to gain what slips through the fingers. We might as well give up our great desires, at least our hopes of doing great things toward achieving them, right at the beginning. In a way it is like the paradox of the Gospel, of giving up one’s life in order to save it. That, in effect, is what we did when we went to jail. It was part of it. We were setting our faces against the world, against things as they are, the terrible injustice of our capitalist industrial system which lives by war and by preparing for war…. We made our gesture; we disobeyed a law.” (Catholic Worker, September 1957)

“Next week we demonstrate again, stick our necks out, protest, say no, carry out into the street some of the Pope’s words … such as ‘War is murder and suicide.’ (It would naturally follow from that that it is forbidden us.) We will be arrested again, in jail again, maybe for a day, maybe for a month, or six months. It is not easy. I just have to remember that I am visiting the prisoner, the last work of mercy and the hardest to perform. Do pray for us.” (Letter to Donald Powell, April 9, 1959)

remaining in the Church

“I am afraid I am a traditionalist, in that I do not like to see Mass offered with a large coffee cup for a chalice.” (On Pilgrimage, March 1966)

“As a convert, I never expected much of the bishops. In all history popes and bishops and father abbots seem to have been blind and power-loving and greedy. I never expected leadership from them. It is the saints that keep appearing all through history who keep things going. What I do expect is the bread of life [the eucharist] and down thru the ages there is that continuity.” (Letter to Gordon Zahn, October 29, 1968)

“Of course the church is corrupt! ‘But this corruption must put on incorruption,’ St. Paul says, so I rejoice as I have in my short lifetime seen renewals going on, or read of them, and see the excitement, the joy of this sense of renewal. Certainly I knew when I became a Catholic that the church was a human institution and at first I had a sense of my betrayal of the working class, of the poor and oppressed for whom I had a romantic love and desire to serve. But just as I in my youth sought them out, lived in their slums and felt at home, so the Lord was seeking me out and I could not resist Him. And I found Him in the Church, in the Sacraments, life-giving and strength-giving, in spite of the American flag in the sanctuary, the boring sermons, the incomprehensible and mumbled Latin, the Sunday Catholic, the wide gulf between clergy and laity, even the contempt for the laity which I often felt, and even heard expressed.” (Diary entry, July 1969)

“What I feel about the institutional church…. For me it is the place in the slum, in our neighborhood, where it is possible to be alone, to be silent, to wait on the Lord…. No matter how corrupt the Church may become, it carries within it the seeds of its own regeneration.” (Letter to Karl Meyer, August 3, 1971)

“To embrace a faith is to ‘kiss a leper,’ to make a leap, as over a chasm, from one world into another, or to plunge into an abyss—‘underneath are the everlasting arms.'” (December 29, 1975)

patience and perseverance

“People say, “What good can one person do? What is the sense of our small effort?” They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time. We can be responsible only for the one action of the present moment. But we can beg for an increase of love in our hearts that will vitalize and transform all our individual actions, and know that God will take them and multiply them, as Jesus multiplied the loaves and the fishes.”

[My] year in the hospital made me realize was that one of the hardest things in the world is to organize ourselves and discipline ourselves.” (From Union Square to Rome)

“Do what comes to hand. Whatsoever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might. After all, God is with us. It shows too much conceit to trust to ourselves, to be discouraged at what we ourselves can accomplish. It is lacking in faith in God to be discouraged. After all, we are going to proceed with His help. We offer Him what we are going to do. If He wishes it to prosper, it will. We must depend solely on Him. Work as though everything depended on ourselves, and pray as though everything depended on God, as St. Ignatius says.” (House of Hospitality)

“We must contain ourselves in patience, remembering each morning that our main job is to love God, and to serve Him, and if we don’t get things done due to interruptions, well, it cannot be helped, and God will take care of what we leave undone. But a tranquil spirit is important. St. Teresa says that God cannot rest in an unquiet heart. I have to remember that many times during the day.” (Letter to Joe Zarrella, March 5, 1940)

“One of the greatest evils of the day is the sense of futility. Young people say, ‘What can one person do? What is the sense of our small effort?’ They cannot see that we can only lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time; we can be responsible only for the one action of the present moment. But we can beg for an increase of love in our hearts that will vitalize and transform these actions, and know that God will take them and multiply them, as Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes.” (Catholic Worker, September 1957)

“So often one is overcome with a tragic sense of the meaninglessness of our lives—patience, patience, and the very word means suffering. Endurance, perseverance, sacrament of the present moment, the sacrament of duty. One must keep on reassuring oneself of these things. And repeat acts of faith, ‘Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.’ We are placed here; why? To know Him, and so love Him, serve Him, by serving others and so attain to eternal life and joy, understanding, etc.” (Diary entry, July 2, 1962)

“You will know your vocation by the joy that it brings you.” (from an interview with Pat Jordan in Dorothy Day: Portraits by Those Who Knew Her by Rosalie Riegle, p 146)

prayer / the value of a disciplined spiritual life

December 8 is a “holy day of obligation” for Catholics, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, celebrating Catholic belief that a special grace had touched Mary’s life from the moment of her conception in her mother’s womb. Before returning to her no-frills hotel room to write down her impressions of the day, Dorothy went to a church built to commemorate the event, the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, adjacent to the campus of Catholic University in northeast Washington. As the upper church was still under construction, she went into the crypt beneath, with its low vaulted ceilings, mosaics and dark chapels lit with the flickering of vigil candles. “There I offered up a special prayer, a prayer which came with tears and anguish, that some way would open up for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers, for the poor.” (The Long Loneliness)

“I believe You are a personal God, and hear me when I speak, even my trivial petty speech. So I will tell You personally over and over I love You, I adore You, I worship You. Make me mean it in my life. Make me show it by my choices. Make me show it from my waking thought to my sleeping.” (Diary entry, August 21, 1952)

“I am surprised that I am beginning to pray daily. I began because I had to. I just found myself praying. I can’t get down on my knees, but I can pray while I am walking.” (From Union Square to Rome)

“I’m praying very hard for you this morning, because I myself have been through much of what you have been through. Twice I tried to take my own life, and the dear Lord pulled me thru that darkness—I was rescued from that darkness. My sickness was physical too, since I had had an abortion with bad after-effects, and in a way my sickness of mind was a penance I had to endure. But God has been so good to me—I have known such joy in nature, and work—in fulfilling myself, using my God-given love of beauty and desire to express myself. He has given me over and over again, such joy and strength as He will surely give to you if you ask him.” (Letter to a young woman, February 6, 1973)

the Little Way / humility

“Martyrdom is not gallantly standing before a firing squad. Usually it is the losing of a job because of not taking a loyalty oath, or buying a war bond, or paying a tax. Martyrdom is small, hidden, misunderstood. Or if it is a bloody martyrdom, it is the cry in the dark, the terror, the shame, the loneliness, nobody to hear, nobody to suffer with, let alone to save. Oh, the loneliness of all of us in these days, in all the great moments of our lives, this dying which we do, by little and by little, over a short space of time or over the years.” (Catholic Worker, January 1951)

“Paper work, cleaning the house, dealing with the innumerable visitors who come all through the day, answering the phone, keeping patience and acting intelligently, which is to find some meaning in all that happens—these things, too, are the works of peace, and often seem like a very little way. (Catholic Worker, December 1965)

“I wrote the life of St. Therese because she exemplified the ‘little way.’ We know how powerless we are, all of us, against the power of wealth and government and industry and science. The powers of this world are overwhelming. Yet it is hoping against hope and believing, in spite of ‘unbelief,’ crying by prayer and by sacrifice, daily, small, constant sacrificing of one’s own comfort and cravings—these are the things that count…. I am convinced that prayer and austerity, prayer and self-sacrifice, prayer and fasting, prayer, vigils, and prayer and marches, are the indispensable means…. And love. All these means are useless unless animated by love.” (Letter to Mike Cullen, February 1970)

“We feel so powerless. We do so little, giving out soup. But at last we are facing problems daily. Hunger, homelessness, greed, loneliness. Greatest concern of the Bible is injustice, bloodshed. So we share what we have, we work for peace.” (Diary entry, June 19, 1973)

“How little I can do these days but suffer patiently the innumerable small difficulties of aging. And always Prayer which is a joy. Psalms are always the joyful ones on Thursday, in honor of the Last Supper. Where else would we have room save at Tivoli Farm for so much joy and suffering?” (Diary entry, September 2, 1976)


We devour each other in love and in hate; we are cannibals. There are, of course, the lives of the saints, but they are too often written as though they were not in this world. We have seldom been given the saints as they really were, as they affected the lives of their times — unless it is in their own writings. But instead of that strong meat we are too generally given the pap of hagiography. Too little has been stressed the idea that all are called. (Catholic Worker, May 1948)

“We are all called to be saints, St. Paul says, and we might as well get over our bourgeois fear of the name. We might also get used to recognizing the fact that there is some of the saint in all of us. Inasmuch as we are growing, putting off the old man and putting on Christ, there is some of the saint, the holy, the divine right there…. We are all called to be saints. Sometimes we don’t see them around us, sometimes their sanctity is obscured by the human, but they are there nonetheless.” (The Third Hour, 1949)


“I am very glad to be home again, to be cultivating my own bit of soil, to be living in my own house and to feel, for the time at least, that I am never going to leave it again. There is beauty here too, a lovely, gentle beauty of cultivated gardens and woodlands and shore…. Along the road we gathered sweet clover to put in the hot attic, where its fragrance will be distilled and fill the house, and Teresa sighed happily, ‘Flowers and grass and things are so beautiful, they just hurt my feelings.’” (Commonweal, 1931)

“I owe great thanks to God that he gave me an appreciation of his beauty so young…. I have never gotten over my love for the sound of water, little waves lapping on the beach, retreating through the heaps of small stones and shells…. I am sure that it is because the Church is so alert to Man, as body and soul, because she believes in the resurrection of the body and life-ever-lasting, that I became strongly attracted to her when I began to catch glimpses of her later.” (Diary entry, November 3, 1970)


Turn off your radio. Put away your daily paper. Read one review of events a week and spend some time reading good books. They tell too of days of striving and of strife. They are of other centuries and also of our own. They make us realize that all times are perilous, that men live in a dangerous world, in peril constantly of losing or maiming soul and body. We get some sense of perspective reading such books. Renewed courage and faith and even joy to live. (Diary entry, 28 Sept 1940)


“Love is a matter of the will…. If you will to love someone (even the most repulsive and wicked), and try to serve him as an expression of that love—then you soon come to feel love. And God will hear your prayers. ‘Enlarge Thou my heart that Thou mayest enter in!’ You can pray the same way, that your heart may be enlarged to love again.” (Diary, August 6, 1937)

Sometimes it is hard to see Christ in his poor. Sometimes it is hard to see the Blessed Mother in women we come in contact with. But if we minister to each other, as we would want to serve the Holy Family, not judging the faults of others, but serving them with joy and with respect, then that is the true way of seeing Christ in our neighbor. If He thought them worth dying for, who are we to judge? … If you help people, you soon begin to love them. Just as gratitude makes you love people. (Diary entry, Jan 2, 1940)

Love and ever more love is the only solution to every problem that comes up. If we love each other enough, we will bear with each other’s faults and burdens. If we love enough, we are going to light that fire in the hearts of others. And it is love that will burn out the sins and hatreds that sadden us. It is love that will make us want to do great things for each other. No sacrifice and no suffering will then seem too much. (from “House of Hospitality,” chapter 14; Sheed & Ward, 1939)

“When you love people, you see all the good in them, all the Christ in them.” (On Pilgrimage column, April 1948)

“If we could only learn that the only important thing is love, and that we will be judged on love—to keep on loving, and showing that love, and expressing that love, over and over, whether we feel it or not, seventy times seven, to mother-in-law, to husbands, to children—and to be oblivious of insult, or hurt, or injury. It is a hard, hard doctrine. Where there is no love, put love and you will take out love, St. John of the Cross says. I am preaching to myself too.” (Letter to Dorothy Gauchat, February 11, 1958)

“People talk so much about the meaning of life and the work is to grow in love, love of God our destination, and love of neighbor, our first step, our continuing step, our right road in that direction. Love means answering the mail that comes in—and there is a fearful amount of it. That person in the hospital, that person suffering a breakdown of nerves, the person lonely, far-off, watching for the mailman each day. It means loving attention to those around us, the youngest and the oldest, the drunk and the sober.” (Diary, January 6, 1967)

getting ready for death

“I had a mild heart attack in September, pains in my chest and arms and a gasping need of fresh air. It is certainly frightening not to be able to breathe. One line of a psalm is: ‘Be still and know that I am God.’ You hear things in your own silences. The beauty of nature, including the sound of waves, the sound of insects, the cicadas in the tress—all were part of my joy in nature that brought me to the Church.” (Catholic Worker, October-November 1976)

“My brain, my memory is like a rag bag. I reach in and pull out of it the scraps that make up these [Catholic Worker] columns.” (Diary entry, January 18, 1978)

“Woke up with two lines haunting me. ‘Duty of delight.’ And ‘Joyous I lay waste the day.” (Diary entry, January 6, 1979)

“Remember Julian of Norwich, ‘All will be well, all manner of things will be well!” I’m a feeble creature these days. Too much celebration here at the house. Our house is packed and I enjoy getting down to dinner at night and getting acquainted with all the women. What a variety… What a privileged life I’ve had, to meet so many great people.” (Letter to Nina Polcyn, May Day 1979)

“Mike Harank has planted morning glories in front of Maryhouse again. The strings for them to climb on go up to the third floor. Beauty!” (Diary entry, May 27, 1980)

* * *

“Most of our life is unimportant, filled with trivial things from morning till night. But when it is transformed by love it is of interest even to the angels.” (The Long Loneliness)

* * *

The last three paragraphs of The Long Loneliness:

“We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know him the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore. Heaven in a banquet and life is a banquet too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.

“We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.

“It all happened while we sat there talking and it is still going on.”

* * *

note: much of Dorothy’s writing is on line — The Dorothy Day Library: www.catholicworker.org/dorothyday/

* * *

US Lecture Trip Calendar – October 2011

Thursday, October 13:

fly from Amsterdam to Pittsburgh via Newark
Continental flight 071 13 AMS-EWR dep 0915 arr 1140
transfer to Continental flight 4904 13 EWR-PIT dep 1316 arr 1449

October 14-15: Pittsburgh

For information re the days in Pittsburgh: http://thomasmertoncenter.org/Documents/GeneralFlyerJForest3v2.pdf
Contacts: Molly Rush: 412.398.2163 or Carol Gonzalez: Teacher41 /at / aol.com

Friday 14 October:

11:30 to 1: A Meager Meal in the Spirit of Dorothy Day hosted by Carlow University at the St. Agnes Center (3333 Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh)

7:30 PM talk “Dorothy Day: All Is Grace” at St George Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral, 3400 Dawson, Pittsburgh, PA, 1521

Saturday 15 October:

10 AM to 4 PM, Day of Reflection: “Dorothy Day: A Saint for Our Times?”
at Holy Family Nazareth Conference Center, 285 Bellevue Rd., Pittsburgh, near Perrysville (exit off 279N)

Sunday, October 16:

7:35 AM flight to Laguardia: USAir 3134, departure from Pittsburgh at 07:35, arrival Laguardia 08:58

2:30 PM lecture at Maryknoll “A Life of Radical Grace: Dorothy Day”
for details see: http://www.maryknollsociety.org/index.php/articles/2-articles/782
Contact: Colleen Brathwaite (CBrathwaite /at / maryknoll.org)

Monday, October 17:

drive by rented car from Ossining area to St Bonaventure’s University in Olean, NY
Contact: Barry Gan (BGAN /at / sbu.edu); cell 716-244-8135

Tuesday, October 18:

4 p.m. talk on “Dorothy Day: Saint & Troublemaker” (the Fall Honors Program Lecture) at SBU Thomas Merton Campus Ministry Center

7 p.m. Tuesday, Conversation with Jim Forest at SBU Thomas Merton Campus Ministry Center

Wednesday, October 19:

9:30 and 10:30 — speak about my post-war Vietnam experiences and nonviolence in general with two of Barry Gan’s classes

4 p.m. talk (Vietnam After the War: Seeing What You Don’t Want to See) at SBU Thomas Merton Campus Ministry Center

Thursday, October 20:

morning departure, driving the rented car back to Ossining from Olean, then take the train to Manhattan

7:30 PM talk — “Love in Action: The Challenging Life of Dorothy Day” — at St Mary’s Episcopal Church, 521 West 126th Street
sponsor: Emmaus House: 160 W. 120th St.; phone 212-749-9404; e-mail: emmausharlem /at / gmail.com ; web: http://emmaushouse-harlem.org/
Contact: Julia Demaree (juliademaree /at / gmail.com)

stay that night at Emmaus House

Friday, October 21:

train from Manhattan to Baltimore, staying the next few days with Alex & Elaine Patico in Columbia, Maryland

Saturday, October 22:

9 AM to 4 PM, day-long retreat: “All is Grace: The Revolutionary Life of Dorothy Day” at Bon Secours Spiritual Center Marriottsville, in Maryland (1525 Marriottsville Rd., Marriotsville, MD 21104; tel: 410: 442-3142
Contact: Lynn Lieberman (Lynn_Lieberman /at / bshsi.org)

dinner that evening at the Patico home, staying that night with the Dykhorsts in DC

Sunday, October 23:

4 PM talk — talk (“Dorothy Day: A Saint for Our Time?”) at Catholic University, Washington, DC
Hannon Hall, room 108
Redline Metro: Brookland stop
For campus map, see D11: http://www.cua.edu/res/docs/cuamap.pdf
sponsor: Crossroads Cultural Center
more information:
contact: Suzanne Tanzi (suzannetanzi /at / gmail.com)

Monday, October 24:

6:30 PM talk on Dorothy Day at
Viva House (26 South Mount St., Baltimore, MD 21223; tel 410-2330488)
contact: Brendan Walsh & Willa Bickham (vivacatholicworker /at / gmail.com)

Tuesday, October 25:

train from Baltimore to Newark and from there to Red Bank, New Jersey — family visit with Ben & Amy and the grandchildren

Friday, 28 October:

7:30 PM talk: “I Never Knew What Hit Me: Memories of Dorothy Day” at Maryhouse Catholic Worker, East Third Street, New York City

Sunday, 30 October – Monday 31 October (4th anniversary of the kidney transplant!):

night flight from Newark to Amsterdam – Continental flight 070 EWR-AMS dep 1821 arr next day 0705

* * *

Moscow Doesn't Believe in Tears

by Jim Forest

Part of my work from 1977 to 1988, the years I was General Secretary of the the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, was to go on annual speaking trips in the US. In 1982, one of my stops was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I had a lecture to give at the Harvard Divinity School. I was staying with my friend Robert Ellsberg, now publisher of Orbis Books, but at that time studying at Harvard. One evening Robert invited me out for a film. The one we choose was from the USSR, “Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears.” Normally, even in an academic town like Cambridge, one rarely had the chance to see a Soviet movie, but this one had recently won the Oscar for best foreign film.

It was a film about economic and social classes in the allegedly “classless” society. Centering on three women who arrive in Moscow in 1960, the Brezhnev period, the film follows their struggles to build careers and families. Despite differences in temperament and ambition, they create an enduring three-way friendship. Mid-way the film jumps to the forward in time so that we see what has happened in their lives after the passage of fifteen years. The last half of the film is mainly a love story.

The stories told were comic, tragic, convincing and socially revealing. The result was that Muscovites became, for me, three-dimensional, not just cardboard figures living in the grey world of Communism.

What was so important to me at the time about this non-political film was the window it opened on ordinary Russian life. Walking out of the theater, I realized I had spent a large part of my life trying to prevent war between the US and the Soviet Union but had never been to Russia. The awful truth was that — like so many people in the peace movement at the time — I knew more about American weapons of mass destruction than about the people at whom they were aimed — and the same was true for Russians. It was a shocking realization.

scene from "Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears"
I wondered how we could regard what we were doing as peace work if it mainly had to do with informing people what the apocalyptic consequences of nuclear war? If Merton’s insight about fear being the root of war was true, would it not be better if we who sought peace in the world focused on changing relationships with those we regard as enemies than trying to prevent war by selling a nightmare? After all, the weapons and missiles we knew so much about were symptoms of fear.

That night at the movies in Cambridge was a turning point for me. The years of my life that followed mainly had to do with trying to open east-west doors, doors that had long been locked on both sides. On the Russian side, there was a lot of worry about letting in people whom they knew opposed Russia’s war in Afghanistan, then in the middle of its decade-long run, and who were critical of the Soviet political system. No doubt they worried that we would demonstrate on Red Square.

It took more than a year of hard work to arrange a small conference (the theme was liberation theology) organized by the International Fellowship of Reconciliation and hosted by the Russian Orthodox Church. It was probably the first such event in Russia since the Bolshevik overthrow of the Russian government in 1917– an event that was religious rather than political in content, and whose agenda came from the west. All things considered, it was quite an achievement, and much followed from it.

* * *