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

My Lai massacre, 16 July 1968

by Jim Forest

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.

* * *
text as of 10 October 2011
* * *

For more on this topic, see Jim Finn’s essay, “Fighting Among the Doves”:

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:

* * *

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:
Contacts: Molly Rush: 412.398.2163 or Carol Gonzalez: Teacher41 /at /

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:
Contact: Colleen Brathwaite (CBrathwaite /at /

Monday, October 17:

drive by rented car from Ossining area to St Bonaventure’s University in Olean, NY
Contact: Barry Gan (BGAN /at /; 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 / ; web:
Contact: Julia Demaree (juliademaree /at /

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 /

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:
sponsor: Crossroads Cultural Center
more information:
contact: Suzanne Tanzi (suzannetanzi /at /

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 /

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.

* * *

The Gift Of Merton

Thomas Merton (photo by Jim Forest, November 1964)

This is the first piece I wrote about Merton. It was done on the 11th of December 1968, the day after his death and published in Commonweal in the issue dated 10 January 1969.

By James H. Forest

“Please say he changed people’s lives. That’s why he was important. No one changed my life more than he did.” Such is my wife’s appeal as this recollection of Thomas Merton is begun.

She has lit incense from Lebanon, myrrh and frankincense. The room is full of smoke and silence. I realize Merton would be happy here. A splinter of Robert Bly poetry floats to the surface of consciousness: “A man throws back his head, gasps/And dies. His ankles twitch, his hands open and close,/And the fragment of time that he has eaten is exhaled from his pale mouth to nourish the snow.”

Thomas Merton is dead.

“He changed people’s lives.” Which is to say many heads, many lives were turned inside out; he brought together politics and the spiritual life; he helped give resistance a contemplative dimension. In part it was because he never interrupted the cycle of birth and death within himself, never became petrified, never was afraid to make it known that another Thomas Merton had perished. The Thomas Merton that wrote The Seven Storey Mountain died at least two decades before the Thomas Merton who became the world’s most political hermit died among Buddhists in Asia.

I first became aware of Thomas Merton on a blizzardy night a few days before Christmas in 1959. I had just turned 18, a Navy airman, and was in the unexpected midst of becoming a Marxist’s Christian son. A two-week leave had made it possible to spend Christmas with the Anglican monks at Holy Cross Monastery at West Park, New York, upstate along the Hudson. But to catch the bus, several hours had to be endured in the neon pall of Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Terminal. In a paperback rack I came upon Seven Storey Mountain.

I pictured Merton — no picture of him had yet been published, he was the contemporary equivalent of the man in the iron mask–as a lean, fast-weathered human scare-crow, something like St. Bernard in the desert and probably almost as irritable. But his writings — not only in the autobiography but in Seeds of Contemplation, The Waters of Siloe, No Man is an Island — were vivid and compelling, products of something more than a theologically-attuned cerebral cortex. “Everything that is, is holy” seemed more than an approved, homogenized thought, but an almost Zorba-like celebration of having millions of nerves — to see, hear, taste, smell, touch — reaching outward for communion; and he found a poet’s ways of giving it verbal flesh.

Chez Merton

A bit more than two years later, in February 1962, then an editor of The Catholic Worker, four of us on the Chrystie Street staff got up at sunrise, bought several loaves of fresh, still-hot Italian bread from a Spring Street bakery and started hitch-hiking to Gethsemani. Thomas Merton had been carrying on a warm correspondence with Dorothy Day and the Worker staff and had recently begun submitting articles on war and peace for CW publication. Now he had invited us down for a kind of informal retreat.

Discovering no one would stop for four people, we broke our group in half: Nelson Barr (later to found the New York Psychedelicatessen) and Polish artist Alex Marcin in one contingent and American-Polish poet

Robert Kachnowski and I in the other. Although the weather was bitter, Christmas was sufficiently remote from memory for most drivers to comfortably ignore two long-haired, peace-buttoned vagrants. Countless open-armed dashboard Jesus statues sailed by. After three sleepless days we finally made it to Cleveland, scraped together just enough for a bus to Bardstown, Kentucky, and were there picked up by a monk who brought us to the monastery. Bob collapsed in a guest room while I went to the chapel.

I had been in the church loft five minutes or so when I heard, coming from the adjacent guest house despite distance and heavy doors, such gales of explosive laughter as I had never heard before. It was a kind of mon- soon. Rushing toward the hilarity, I threw open Bob’s door. On the floor was a bald monk in white and black robes, feet in the air, hands pressed to his belly–not a skinny monk–and face radish-red, almost suffocating from laughter. The smell! Bob had taken off his shoes. During our three days and nights of ride begging there had been no rest or showers or change of socks. The room was like the inside of a fish barrel at the Fulton Fish Market in the middle of July, the air like month-old hot fish syrup. Merton had probably not smelled anything like it in his life. But for such a smell to erupt in cleanliness-is-next-to-godliness Gethsemani — a kind of negative miracle. The Catholic Worker had arrived. Perhaps it was an apocalyptic sign.

How to tell the effects of those weeks at Gethsemani?

We had come from the Bowery. Our clothes were gifts from the dead. In New York the peace movement, including almost all of the Catholic Worker’s staff, had just gotten through the exhausting, round-the-clock week of the First General Strike for Peace, carried out under the intense direction of the Living Theater’s Julian Beck and Judith Malina. People were working day and night in an atmosphere of crisis and chaos. The Russians had resumed the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons and we expected (correctly) the United States shortly to announce similar intentions. Vietnam, though as yet hardly known to anyone in America, was already the scene of a major U.S. confrontation with a revolutionary movement. In a climate of such urgency and exhaustion, it is not surprising that we at the Catholic Worker were showing signs of strain: staff crises developed from such world-shaking issues as what to do with the small amounts of real butter and eggs that were occasionally given us by convents and friends; the Great Butter Crisis, it was later called.

Then to be at a Trappist monastery in a remote part of Kentucky with Thomas Merton, a man who, despite distances and solitude, was more conscious of the agonies being decreed for man than were we in the midst of destitution and institutionalized brutality. And yet a man who could laugh as none we had ever encountered, and who spent days and weeks in silence broken only by occasion- al bursts of typing and lectures to the novitiate.

We crunched through the snow with him, tried on his hooded choir robe (heavy as chain mail) and, with his novices chopped trees and cut firewood in the surrounding woods. We learned the hand signs for bread, God and potato, saw one novice demonstrate a current popular song put to sign language, sampled the community-made cheeses (not eaten by the monks themselves), sat in with the novices for Merton’s lectures, spent afternoons in his cinder-block hermitage a mile distant in the woods.

What did he say to us? I don’t remember the exact words. But there are fragments still preserved, and certain images he drew upon in making points.

He spoke of the problem of consciousness: how incidental, accidental and minor is the ‘I’ we generally speak of, how distant that “I” from real essence. What I call myself, he said, is like the debris of fallen leaves and twigs and algae that happen to gather on the surface of a lake, a lake which is perhaps not only deep but bottomless.

He spoke of the Eucharist as a breaking open of time itself, something in which all bread is joined to man not as repeated magic trick but as a singular event forever, indelibly enacted.

He talked of the need for silence and the uncluttering of the mind, even more important for us than for monks: the imperative to protect the spirit from ambushes of busy-ness and schedules. “Inside of yourselves you shouldn’t be running all the time,” he said, knowing well the kind of momentum which had been within us.

For those of us in the peace and justice struggle who have fallen, one way or another, under Merton’s influence, it is in the last area that his impact has been most profound, and again his relationship with the Catholic Worker staff is an example. Before we came down he had tried to get it through to us with letters. In a special delivery letter received while we were among 50 sitting in before the Atomic Energy Commission’s New York office, Merton had written: “My Mass of February 1st … will be for all strikers everywhere in the world and for all who yearn for a true peace, all who are willing to shoulder the great burden of patiently working, praying and sacrificing themselves for peace. We will never see the results in our time, even if we manage to get through the next five years without being incinerated. Really we have to pray for a total and profound change in the mentality of the whole world. What we have known in the past of Christian penance is not a deep enough concept if it does not comprehend the special problems and dangers of the present age. Hairshirts will not do the trick, but there is no harm in mortifying the flesh. But vastly more important is the complete change of heart and the totally new outlook on the world of man … ”

Merton’s message was one of freedom, freedom from cultures and mind-styles that have been driven mad with acceleration (he would have been happy to wear a Speed Kills button), freedom to see and hear without self-imposed biases. He hoped for de-nationalization of the head. Those who have providentially been stirred to be- come the leaven of change, he said, those who seek to renew human imagination, those who try to use their lives to give meaning to communion and community, love, hope and happiness, they most of all must have entered into a peace, a now-ness, in which moments, men and events can be savored.

Now Merton is dead.

His face was like Picasso’s.

In the winter he wore a Navy-type stocking cap.

In his hermitage there is probably still some of the candy and beer he used to keep for visitors, and his ancient patchwork quilt is probably still on his bed and his 1957 Sengai calendar from Japan surely still hanging on the wall.

In his files somewhere are letters from Thich Nhat Hanh, Martin Luther King, A. J. Muste, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, John Howard Griffin, D. T. Suzuki, Henry Miller, W. H. Ferry, James Baldwin, Hasidic rabbis, poets, musicians, conscientious objectors, resistors, mystics.

His friend the black snake is probably still in the outhouse.

He leaves behind, not children, but perhaps a few more peaceful people, a lot less parochial people, quite a few who learned from a monk and hermit what it means to be alive and in the world in time of plague.

Peace, Thomas Merton!

Children of Ishmael: an interview with Fr Elias Chacour

Elias Chacour is now the Melkite Archbishop of Galilee

[This interview was done in Galilee in June 1980 and published in the October 1980 issue of Sojourners magazine]

You won’t find it on the map of Israel unless the map is a remarkably good one, but if you draw a line between Haifa and the western bulge of the sea of Galilee, Ibillin is a quarter of the way from Haifa. This village of 5,500 Palestinians is atop a mound that, were you to dig through it layer by layer, would tell the story of life and faith in this contested land back to very ancient times. But the face of the past is largely buried, apart from a bit of a Crusader castle wall that was unearthed a few years ago when the villagers were building a community center.

Yet there are living monuments: the olive trees with their silvery gray-green leaves and gnarled, cratered trunks. Some on the hillside just south of Ibillin are more than 2,000 years old. It may be that Jesus, his family, and disciples ate olives from these ancient trees that, well-tended across the centuries, are still producing fruit.

Ibillin is a Christian and Moslem town. Two thousand of the villagers are Moslem, 3,000 Greek Orthodox, and 500 Melkite (Roman Catholics of the Eastern liturgical rite). The Melkite priest, a man well known throughout Galilee, is Fr. Elias Chacour. He is a gray-robed man in his middle years with a thick, jutting black beard, piercing gray eyes, and a contagious energy.

Chacour doesn’t fit either Christian or Palestinian stereotypes. A Palestinian who well understands the anger that occasionally leads to violence on the part of the Palestinian minority in Israel, an anger he shares, Chacour is a pacifist. Again and again he draws attention to a talk given some centuries ago on a hillside not far from Ibillin–the Sermon on the Mount.

A Catholic priest of tremendous dedication, Chacour is impatient with Christians’ preoccupation with their differences and their shrines–“holy stones and holy sands,” he says with impatience. His attention is entirely with living people. To the occasional bewilderment of his fellow Christians, including members of the hierarchy, Chacour has devoted himself to founding community centers, libraries, and kindergartens, in addition to his parish responsibilities. He organizes summer camps for Palestinian villagers in Galilee which are used by everyone–Moslem, Druze, Catholic, and Orthodox. He is raising funds now for Israel’s first peace center.–Jim Forest

Jim Forest: When did you first encounter the Israeli government?

Fr. Elias Chacour: I think I was six years old. My father told us–we were six children–that in a country called Germany there had been “a cruel Satan killing Jews.” Of course, we knew little about faraway places. We Palestinians had come out from under the slavery of the Turks, and then the British Mandate, ignoring almost everything else in the world. But nobody could ignore Germany, even if that nation was at the end of the earth.

Father said there were Jewish soldiers who had escaped from Germany and that they would be coming to our village, Ba’ram, in the north of Galilee. He said some of them wanted to settle near us. As Christians, he said, we must welcome them, help them, and give them food and drink.

When the soldiers came, he told us they would need to sleep in our beds, and he asked us to sleep on the roof. And we children gladly accepted this–it was fun to sleep on the roof! We thought of the soldiers as our guests. For the first time in my life I saw father slaughtering a sheep to prepare a feast. It was like this throughout the village, and the soldiers stayed in every house. It was the consensus to accept them.

But a few days later, the keys to the doors were collected by an officer. For security reasons, he said, we must all leave for a few days. He would be guardian for our village. Then we could come back.

We accepted this. People like my father never thought our guests could play an ugly game with us. So we left and for several days lived in the open, under olive trees. I remember it was very, very cold at night. Then my father managed to find us a cave. After that we went to an abandoned village, where our whole family lived in one room of a deserted house.

What was to be a few days became weeks and then months and now it is thirty years.

Forest: And now Ba’ram is only ruins. How was it destroyed?

Chacour: When the elders realized the Israeli army had fooled us, when we saw that all our furniture had been taken away and that we were expelled–such a reward from our guests!–we applied to the Israeli Supreme Court of Justice in Jerusalem, and at last we won the case.

But when we asked the army to implement the court’s order, the soldiers refused. Their own court! We applied to the court a second time, and in 1951 we won again.

When this happened, the Prime Minister, Ben Gurion, ordered the destruction of the village. On Christmas morning it was bombed, and then bulldozers swept away what was left.

Forest: When those in your family realized they could not soon return home, where did you go?

Chacour: To Gish, also in the north of Galilee. My parents are still there and many others of Ba’ram. From there I was sent to a boarding school in Haifa.

Forest: And your education after that?

Chacour: Then a secondary school in Nazareth. Later my archbishop sent me for studies in Paris: philosophy and theology in preparation for ordination to the priesthood. In 1965, I was ordained in Nazareth. Afterward I went to Jerusalem and studied Bible and the Talmud at the Hebrew University. Finally, I went to Geneva, where I spent a year with the World Council of Churches completing a doctorate in ecumenical studies.

Forest: Have you had other childhood experiences which have shaped your understanding of belonging to a minority?

Chacour: There is one event I can never forget. I was perhaps ten or twelve at the time. There was a telephone wire running on the ground in Gish. One morning it had been cut, and a section of it was missing. Soldiers came and accused some of the children, including myself.

They took us, and then gathered our parents and grandparents, our entire families. Then they said horrible things: “You are worth nothing, your children are worth nothing, you are doing underground work, your children are thieves and you are the teachers of theft….” Words like these.

Then, before our elders, the soldiers beat us with sticks. Our parents did not dare interfere. At the end, a soldier said to me, “Now bring that piece of wire to me.” I went to my father and asked, “Father, where should I go?” Then the soldier thought my father must have the wire, so he began to curse and accuse him.

But to whom could I go and ask this question? I was innocent, but even my mother did not know what to believe. The next day my father and I were taken to a police station in a Jewish town, and they threatened us with prison if we did not confess and return the wire.

When we returned, I remember mother made a few sweets for me, saying, “If you took it, tell me where it is.” But I didn’t know! A week later it was discovered that the wire had been cut by a bus. The soldiers got the wire from the driver who had taken it back to his home in another town. But for us in our village there was never an apology. Why? Because we were just Arabs.

Forest: Experiences like this must be rather common. And the effect must be deeply embittering.

Chacour: It is amazing. You will not believe it. While of course some grow an attitude of revenge–to do it back to the other, to do it worse–others become disgusted and do not want to see these things done again. They try to act in the opposite way.

Many of us Palestinian Arabs do not allow ourselves any feelings of hatred, although we will never give up our rights, and we question many things. We will even turn to God and ask, “How can you allow this to happen?” It is understandable. Our people have always trusted God in everything that happened. “Why now do you mislead us?” we ask. Yet even now there is this effort not to hate, not to take revenge.

Forest: Every year people come to Israel–the Holy Land–and yet seem unaware of the people who live here today.

Yes, they come to see the holy stones and holy sands. They do not care much for the people. We have many basilicas to take their time, and even now there are new ones being built. It reflects a church mentality of triumphalism, a priority in the churches for stones and antiquities.

On the other side, there are the tourists and pilgrims who are much more interested in the phenomenon of the Jewish state. It’s new. It has something to do with Europe. There is the guilt complex of the European Christians about what has been allowed to happen to the Jews. There is a wish, mainly in Germany, that Israel do what Europe was unable to do. And to these visitors the Arabs within Israel do not exist except as enfants terribles, as terrorists. We do not exist.

Forest: Speaking of terrorists, it is remarkable that so far this morning there have been no jets flying over the Galilee to drop bombs in Lebanon. There have been many the last few days. Do you get used to this?

Chacour: At first it was terrible. Now it is our daily bread. We know these are bombs for our heads. For Palestinians. With these jets they can kill more innocent people in a single day than all the Palestinian soldiers kill in a year. Yet it is the Palestinians alone who are said to be terrorists.

One thing strikes me about the Palestinian people. We have never been colonizers. We have been satisfied with our land. We have never wanted to conquer any other nation, although others have always tried to conquer us. Yet not once have the conquerers stayed. Not one has remained forever here. Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Babylonians, Assyrians, Crusaders, Turks, British: They all came, and they all have disappeared.

Forest: Yet Palestinians seem very new to nationalism.

Chacour: Nationalism in the Middle East began with the end of World War II and the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. The Arab states were stubborn and resisted Jewish existence here, and this did much to help the Jews found their separate state. Then in reaction to Jews becoming so radical, so fanatical, so Zionist in the negative sense, the Palestinians became more and more radical and nationalistic.

It is true there was little Palestinian national expression forty years ago. We were part of the Middle East. But this does not mean that today Palestinians have no right to a state, to nationhood, to existence on their own land.

Forest: What of the Jewish religious claim to the land?

Chacour: Many Jews truly believe they are fulfilling God’s will, that they are fulfilling ancient prophecies: “God gave us the land thousands of years ago, and we are coming back. These ugly Palestinians have no right to be here.” They forget we gave our name to the land of Palestine even before the Jews came. And they forget that the Holy Land was promised to Abraham and his descendants–all of them. If [Israeli Prime Minister Menachem] Begin is one of the descendants of Abraham because he is a son of Isaac, I too am a descendant of Abraham because I am a son of Ishmael. We are all Abraham’s children.

What makes the Palestinian children of Abraham so sad is the realization that we are being made to pay the cost of what other people, not we, have done to the Jews. We have felt solidarity with the Jews because we are both people who have been often persecuted. And now we, not the Europeans, become the victims of the children of the martyrs of Auschwitz.

Forest: What do you see in the future regarding relations between Palestinians and Jews? Is healing possible?

Chacour: I don’t believe it is impossible. But Zionist ideology does not allow another people within Israel equal footing. It is not an ideology of tolerance, or equality. This is troubling.

The Palestinian Charter can be criticized, but its basic idea is to have a democratic, secular state with no official religion and no raising of one people over another. The idea of a Jewish state in which others are barely tolerated, this must be changed. Otherwise, as they say in the Talmud, we non-Jews will have a britah–a footnote in the margins about how to deal with us.

Forest: We in the West have little sense of connection with Palestinian or Arab culture. Through films, books, and personal encounters, we feel connected with Judaism and Israel as a Jewish state. But there is no Palestinian equivalent to The Diary of Anne Frank or Leon Uris’ Exodus. Instead, all we have is a terrorist image of Palestinians, or perhaps an idea of people who lived on a land but neglected it.

Chacour: Why are the Jews so well known in your countries? Because for two thousand years they were there, in the Diaspora, while we Palestinians were at home. The Jews are well known because they have had a strong, effective lobby in the United States and Europe.

And, to speak plainly, they have benefited because Europe has wanted to get rid of the Jews and, since Hitler, the remnants of the Jews: “Go away, wherever you want, and you will get from us all kinds of help. You can have weapons. You can steal warships from France. You can have heavy water for nuclear reactors from Belgium. Anything you want. But go away.” This Western “sympathy” for Jews is another way of getting rid of them.

I remember a Swiss professor who was angry at a PLO attack on a Swiss Air jetliner. “You Palestinians are welcome to throw bombs in Tel Aviv and Haifa and Jerusalem, but in Zurich, in a Swiss airplane, no!” I told that Swiss friend, “I prefer that every Swiss airplane, if they are empty, be exploded rather than one Jew or Palestinian be wounded. The airplanes are not worth a single drop of human blood.”

Forest: How do you humanize the Palestinian image so that there is something more in the Western perception than a political killer? It seems to me every PLO raid that kills more children or bystanders only reconsecrates the terrorist image.

Chacour: The image can be changed in two ways. One is the way of the Sermon on the Mount of Jesus Christ, which let us admit is a slow way, a way many, including most people in the West, do not think is efficient. The other way, sadly enough, is the violent way, which is also used in your countries.

And I have to ask you: Without those bombs and terrorist actions, would the world acknowledge any right of the Palestinian people? Would you notice that we even exist? Would we be anything but poor refugees? What else has made you look at us?

Forest: It is true in every country that one person with a bomb can draw more attention in five minutes than a thousand unarmed people in a month. But is not the Israeli government glad that the Palestinians are noticed only as a people of violence? The Israeli counterviolence, even if it kills many more people, then only seems part of the game.

Chacour: Ask why! What is on your TV, what is in your newspapers? Is it our fault you see only the killing? Until a few years ago, you were unable to say, “I saw a good Palestinian on television.”

In 1974, a Dutch television station made a program about how we Palestinians in Israel were organizing kindergartens and libraries despite the complete lack of public help. The program never mentioned discrimination or the problems between Jews and Palestinians. But one letter protested the program as Nazi because it dared to give a positive impression of the Palestinians.

Forest: I think your libraries and kindergartens are far more threatening to some than guns and dynamite.

Chacour: You are not the first to say that.

The prime minister’s adviser on Arab affairs once said, “It is more dangerous to give Fr. Chacour the opportunity to provide Arabs with books than to give him a bomb to throw in a Jewish shop.” He’s definitely right. With a bomb you kill. With books you can make people aware of their own responsibility. But perhaps he thought of that only as leading toward vengeance. Responsibility can also lead people toward forgiveness.

Forest: Why have you spent so much time founding libraries?

Chacour: Three-quarters of our young people are under twenty-eight. Our future depends on the opportunities they have. I did some research earlier and discovered that every young person here, and it is true in other villages of Galilee, has six to eight empty hours a day–sitting on street corners, playing with stones, waiting for nothing–growing bitter thinking of the opportunities young Jews have in neighboring villages raised on confiscated lands.

I wanted to find an alternative for this empty time. Each time a young person accepts a book, you have given meaning to twenty hours in his or her life, and perhaps have done more than that. In this one small village, we have every day one hundred twenty to one hundred fifty persons taking books home from the library.

Forest: How many libraries have now been founded?

Chacour: There are five, with each of the community centers that have been started, and two more community centers with libraries are now planned.

Forest: With what you have been through, after what you have seen, under daily bombing flights passing over your village, how do you keep your hope? How do you speak of forgiveness?

Chacour: I remember what my father said when he realized it was a trick and that we had been driven from our village. “Don’t forget to return, even if at the end of your life, but to do that never use the same means that were used against us.”

I believe that that foolish man of Galilee, Jesus Christ, had something to tell us, to tell me. Not considering his existence here, I would immediately go into despair. Immediately. And forgetting him, I would first despair of the institutional church and its hierarchy, and only later, of the Jews.

We have tried violence. We have tried wars. We are sure that wars will bring wars. I am sure that the attempt to kill the Arab mayors on the West Bank in early June will bring more killings of Jews. I am sure. It’s a vicious circle. It’s the logic of violence.

We know where violence leads. Even if we are not certain where we are going with nonviolence, let us try it. At least that. At least we can be sure with nonviolent action that, even if we are destroyed ourselves, we will not destroy any other person.

Forest: You said that, if you despaired, it would be first with the institutional church. Why?

Chacour: It is painful to say, but we clergy, if we read the New Testament at all, read it only as an instrument of instruction for the people, not to be instructed ourselves. You know the churches here in Israel are the most wealthy churches in the world. At the top. But there is a divorce between the institution and the people. The people get very little from the wealth of the church. Where all that huge amount of money goes, only God and the hierarchy know.

Forest: Is the peace movement in Israel a source of hope for you?

Chacour: There is no peace movement. There are various groups. Some are good. Some are motivated only by self-interest–the “peace” they speak of only means everyone accepting the status quo. Let everything stay as it is, but stop the fighting. We stay, in our places, the refugees stay in their places. This kind of “peace” can only lead us to pieces, and in the very near future.

So far none of these peace groups has had any impact on the national level. None whatsoever. The people are well-intentioned, but they are without influence. The general trend goes against them. The main political parties go the opposite way.

Forest: Still, the peace groups seem to be steadily growing.

Chacour: Yes, and that is encouraging. It indicates that, within the Jewish community, there are more people recognizing that they have to take note of the existence of others.

Forest: What, in general, is your advice to the traveler in Israel?

Chacour: Do not suffice yourself with holy antiquities. Jesus is not in Jerusalem. He is not there, he is risen. The Holy Sepulcher is only a reminder of a person who is not there. To touch Jesus Christ, to have contact with him, is only possible through his living brothers, his living sisters, the community.

We Christians in Galilee have a vocation to behave beyond all confessional and denominational boundaries, to try to behave as Christ behaved, to represent the living, risen Christ to all who come searching for him. We do not have to show you that we are reformed, or re-reformed, or not-yet-reformed, or Roman Catholic, or Orthodox. That should mean nothing to us here in Galilee. What means something is that the man of Galilee is risen and is still alive.

Forest: And how does the visitor find the community and not just stones and hotels?

Chacour: Here in this remote village, in less than two months, fifty-four groups have come just to have contact. Each year there are more people coming for such encounters, here and many other places. Tourists are less and less satisfied with shrines and historical explanations. They want to see something living.

Forest: And what about people who want to do something more than visit–who are ready to help in some way?

Chacour: First they can spread the word that people are, despite all differences, still alike–in each nation some good, some wicked. There is no terrorist people and no righteous people.

A second way is to come and help. There are ways of helping in the summer camps, the community centers, the libraries, and other projects.

A third way is to send money, through private, direct contribution, or through funding agencies helping the work here.

Or people can sometimes send things we need; for example, books.

There is one special need we have now. We are starting a peace center–the Galilee Peace Research Center. It will be a place where people can meet across the lines of conflict. We will be able to receive visitors from other countries. We will have the first study center with the first library on nonviolent alternatives in Israel.

Forest: What is it, in working for peace here, that you, a Palestinian Christian priest, hope to say to your Jewish neighbors?

Chacour: I want to say, “You can take our lands, you can take our houses, you can kill us. But you cannot take our hearts with violence. Impossible! I hope you will try to have our hearts in the way described by Antoine de Saint-Exupery in The Little Prince–‘to tame each other’–not with bombs, but with silence, contemplation, and one’s own conversion. We have to tame each other. There is no alternative if we are to survive. We go on killing until there is no one left, or we choose to survive together.”

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One Face in the Human Wall: Civil Resistance in Moscow

Yeltsin atop tank in front of the Russia's White House 19 August 1991

by Jim Forest

I met Misha Slonin, a scientist active in the Christian segment of Russia’s democratic movement, just ten days after the collapse of the coup in Moscow. He had been one of the people in the “human wall” around the Belodoma — the White House — the sleek marble building on the Moskva River housing the Russian parliament and governmental apparatus that was under siege during the attempted coup in August.

Brought together by a mutual friend, we met at the Octobrskaya Metro station, crossed Moscow underground, then took one train and then another until there was no trace of urban life. We got off at a village stop and walked into the nearby woods. The area was so green and unspoiled that we might as well have been in the heart of Siberia. Already members of his club had built a fire and were boiling water for tea.

“This is the real life,” Misha exclaimed. “Russians are never happy in cities.”

After helping to cut up a tree that had already been felled we set off to find another so that there would be enough wood to last the night. “Our club is very ecological,” Misha explained. “We have a rule that you cannot be a member if you cut down a living tree.” It took much walking through the woods till we found a tree that was both dead and of the right wood to burn without too much smoke.

Our main activity was sitting on a ring of logs around a fire, drinking tea, singing and telling stories and jokes. (One of the jokes described a sign to be erected at Sheremetyevo Airport: “Will the last immigrant to leave please turn off the light?”)

The group — about 20 people, mainly young adults in their thirties — has been getting together like this three or four times annually, some of the older ones for 15 years. Most are active in the democratic movement. Misha was not the only “veteran of the White House.” Another was a former army major who had been part of the group guarding Boris Yeltsin.

It was mainly because of my questions that several of them talked about the defense of the White House. “The three who died, Ilya [Kruchevski], Vladimir [Usov] and Dmitri [Romar], are a cross section of the country,” said Misha, “one a Jew, one Ukrainian, one Russian. One was an architect, one a worker, one a businessman. One was an Afgansi [veteran of the war in Afghanistan]. It’s symbolic.”

One of the White House defenders Misha introduced me to was an ecstatic man in bright colors and bare feet, Max Nikishim, an Afgansi who told me about going down to Armenia with 25 other Afgansis after the earthquake. “There were already some students who volunteered but we realized it would be a problem for them, having never seen blood. A lot of people were killed in the earthquake. So we did what we could. Then in the end they told us to pick out three people from our group to get medals. We said we didn’t want any medals. What for? We went to help, not to get medals. We went for our souls. Should you get a medal just to be human? Inside yourself you have to decide whether to follow devils or prophets. Should you get a medal for not following devils?” He felt the same about going to the White House.

After returning to Moscow the next morning, I didn’t see Misha again until ten days later when he took me for a walk through parts of central Moscow. A great lover of Russian culture and history, he knew not only what stood where in the modern — city but — more importantwhat and who had been there in the days before so much of Moscow was made ugly. While walking, Misha told parts of his life story.

“It’s only in the last few years that I found my way to religious belief,” he said. “But there was some inspiration in this direction within my family. I had a grandmother who was an unsystematic believer. She believed in God and had a certain saint she prayed to. My other grandmother, an actress, wasn’t religious but she was sure the world was created by God. It was a very literate family. My grandfather read me Pushkin’s stories and poems when I was little. My father loved poetry and music. I think I had a kind of `genetic’ religion — I couldn’t not believe in God. I was never absolutely atheist.”

I asked about political loyalties within his family. “The only Communist was a grandfather in the diplomatic service who was shot during the Great Terror in the 1936 or ’37. Apart from him, I can say that our family was always anti-Communist. I remember how glad we were when Stalin died. Their were no tears in our flat! We read Solzhenitsyn’s books in samizdat. A big event was the radio my father was given as a reward for his work as an engineer — he was quite brilliant and got ahead despite not being a party member. With that radio we listened to the BBC Russian Service and Voice of America. My friends in school thought the same way and we were able to talk openly with each other. None were communist-minded. One is now a priest here in Moscow. He was the one who introduced me to Bulgakov [author of The Master and Margarita]. His books were a big event in my life. There was a definite attraction toward social democracy and much respect for what was happening in Czechoslovakia at the time. In fact I was able to go there and saw for myself what was happening before it was crushed in 1968. I had fallen in love with Prague — the thought of Soviet tanks on its streets was horrible. I always respected everyone with a spiritual life. There was a definite religious feeling. But my main interest was in science and mathematics.”

He graduated from the Moscow University in 1973 and in 1979 received his a doctorate. “Now I am assistant director of a laboratory of the Academy of Sciences. Earning 600 rubles a month, I am rich by Soviet standards, but at the present exchange rate that’s less than $20. I’m married a little more than ten years ago. Tamara and I have a daughter, Julia, nine years old.”

I wondered if he was a political activist at the university. “Not at all, unless you count what we did on the social level. I had no hope for outbreak opposition but, with my friends, I thought something could be done in the long run through cultural activities. We opened an international friendship club, which sounded fine to the authorities, and here we had the chance to learn about other cultures — to eat different kinds of food, enjoy different kinds of music — Armenian, Georgian, and so forth. It gave me a lot. Our simple idea is that people should really know each other. In 1976 we opened the Rhythm Café Club which was especially for jazz and poetry and theater lovers. We did a lot of singing there, just the kind you heard us singing in the woods. But our café didn’t fit in and was closed, along with many other things, in 1981. They were willing to let it go if we put it under outside control but we wouldn’t. So it died. We wouldn’t collaborate. Then in 1985 came Gorbachev, speaking about glasnost and perestroika. I must say that I never expected much from a General Secretary of the Communist Party. In 1986 a friend and I put on a satirical play about what he was saying in Gorky Park. It was a kind of low-key comic protest against the Communist Party and more than a thousand people saw it. Looking back, I realize it wasn’t dangerous but at the time we didn’t know that. We felt so happy to be brave! This set the stage for my religious resurrection.”

While his movement toward religious faith was intertwined with his social development, the decisive event came from taking a fresh look at the Bible. “What finally changed everything was simply reading the New Testament. There were other factors but that was the main one. This was three years ago. It had quite an impact on me. I was terrified how foolish I had been all my life — nearly 40 years in vain! I felt very dirty. I desperately wanted to receive communion but it took time before I cleared away the obstacles. Fortunately, having some friends who were believers, I could talk to them about it. Finally it was clear to me what I was living for. It wasn’t my friends moving me in a certain direction, however. The main thing moving me was the word of God. I didn’t need more than that.”

Why the Orthodox Church? “I found the Protestant churches too strict, too narrow. While working in Poland, I was impressed by the Catholic churches I visited and yet didn’t feel completely at home. I feel at home in Orthodoxy. But the main thing is to see not what church you belong to but to see Christianity as a way of life. And for me this has had big consequences. I can honestly say that since my baptism two years ago, I have forgotten what anger is. Yes, I can get irritated, but it is something else. I feel more self-confident, more centered. Many complexes that used to trouble me are simply gone. And it is not only a change in my life. Both my wife and daughter were baptized. We were able to take this step together.”

I asked about the Christian democratic movement. “There are several Christian democratic parties. Part of what is unique in ours is the emphasis on separation of church and state, similar to the western European model. I don’t think it is good to have a favored church in Russia, even if it is the one I belong to. There is another Christian democratic party oriented toward the Orthodox Church — they want it to have a special place. But we believe this would be bad both for the church and the country. What we believe is that the social structures are good only insofar as they promote the development of the soul and its service to humanity. This is at the heart of what we think of as Christian democracy. It is something not only for Christians but for everyone.”

I asked about the coup and what led him to be among those guarding the White House. “I didn’t decide to do it. I just had to do it. I turned on the radio on the morning of the 19th and there was the news about Gorbachev’s removal. I was in a state of shock. I told Tamara that if I was arrested, she should call Sonia [a friend working at Moscow bureau of the The New York Times], and then I went to my laboratory — the Institute for the Development of Mineral Resources — to see what was happening with my co-workers. Then I went to the office of our Christian Democratic party and we got out a statement saying the self-appointed new Soviet leaders were not a legitimate government and that the only legitimate authority was the government of the Russian Federation. It wasn’t that we were so supportive of Gorbachev — we had lost confidence in him several years ago — but his return was essential. We managed to make a lot of photocopies. And then we went to the White House to hand them out. I went home that night — it seemed clear there wouldn’t be an attack yet. In the morning I stopped in at my laboratory again, where we made more photocopies of the statement, several hundred, and then went back to the White House and, except for a hurried trip home to get fresh clothes and some food in the late afternoon, stayed there right through the night until after dawn when the danger had passed. This was the night when they tried to break through the barricades with tanks and the three were killed. But we weren’t near the place where that happened. Our company was near the northeast corner of the White House. We heard gunfire but we didn’t see what was happening. In the quiet hours we handed out small prayer books and also several thousand newspapers from our party.”

Were there many religious believers there? “Many, although this is a word that means different things to different people. There were all sorts of believers — Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants, Jews, Moslems, and people who believe, like my grandmother, in an unsystematic way. There were people who were baptized that night. There were some priests, for example Father Gleb Yakunin. He was a source of much inspiration. He is a national hero. And we heard over the Russian Federation radio from inside the White House about the declaration by Patriarch Aleksi calling on soldiers not to any obey orders to shed blood.”

He recalled how some people came to give food and stayed though they hadn’t intended to. “One was Mira Tetarina [Misha took pains to write her name in my note book], an old woman who brought tea and ended up staying. She kept her place all through the night. She was very calm even in the hours when the rest of us were very frightened, wondering if we would live to see the dawn.”

He pointed out it wasn’t only the defenders of the White House who were frightened. “The soldiers were scared too. They were mostly young boys who didn’t know what it was all about and who hadn’t had much sleep. They were in a state of shock. I think the three deaths were all accidents. No one wanted to kill anyone. Some of the tank drivers hardly knew how to drive a tank. The soldiers were victims too.”

Was he optimistic about the future? “It is too soon for optimism. The hat has been removed but not the head. The head is still the same old head which is still working in the same old way. There are a lot of believers in communism from the older generation and they aren’t finished trying to have things go their way. They want to defend their privileges, and some are afraid of being punished for what they’ve done in the past. But there is a chance for us. The events at the White House not only changed the way people in other countries look at us but changed the way we look at ourselves.”

Misha had a parting gift for me, a small prayer booklet: “To dear Jim, to remember the spirit that surrounded the White House August 19-22, 1991. This prayer book was there and maybe helped us. I hope that looking at it, you will remember your Moscow friends. Misha, September 10, 1991.”

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Also see “Three Days in August: The Coup That Failed”:

Three days in August: the Coup the Failed

Yeltsin atop tank calling for resistance to the attempted to coup

by Jim Forest

On August 19, 1991, two months after Boris Yeltsin’s election as president of Russia, a junta led by KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov made a nearly-successful effort to suppress the democratic movement that had emerged during the Gorbachev years. The junta announced formation of a “State Emergency Committee” that was “taking supreme power.”

Gorbachev, still president of the soon-to-be extinct Soviet Union, was under house arrest, but Yeltsin remained free, having taken refuge in the Russian Parliament, a modern building on the Moskva River known, because of its white tiles, as the White House. First using fax and telephone, then radio and television, Yeltsin summoned the citizens of Moscow to defend democracy. At 1 PM on the day of the coup, Yeltsin stood on one of the tanks the junta had placed around the White House, calling for public resistance. Muscovites streamed by the thousands to the White House, forming a human shield.

The news that ten of the tanks had gone over to the White House defenders quickly became known – a defection that encouraged other in the military to side with the democratic movement. Elements of three army divisions sent to storm the White House were now supporting Yeltsin, including the elite Alpha Unit.

Yet the outcome remained in doubt. The junta still had the support of entire armored divisions plus much of the state bureaucracy. If the human shield was attacked, thousands would die.

Part of the credit for preventing a bloodbath that never happened belongs to Patriarch Aleksy, elected in June the year before to lead the Russian Orthodox Church.

One of Yeltsin’s first actions had been to appeal to Aleksy for his support, “The tragic events that have occurred throughout the night have made me turn to you,” Yeltsin said to Aleksy by radio broadcast. “There is lawlessness inside the country – a group of corrupt Party members has organized an anti-constitutional revolution. Essentially, a state of emergency has been declared inside the country due to the extreme gravity of the situation. The laws and constitution of the USSR and of the sovereign republics of the Union have been grossly violated…

“At this moment of tragedy for our Fatherland, I turn to you, calling on your authority among all religious confessions and believers. The influence of the Church in our society is too great for the Church to stand aside during these events. This duty is directly related to the Church’s mission, to which you have dedicated your life: serving people, caring for their hearts and souls. The Church, which has suffered through the times of totalitarianism, may once again experience disorder and lawlessness. All believers, the Russian nation, and all Russia await your word!”

Aleksy threw his full weight behind Yeltsin and against the coup.

As tanks filed into Red Square, Aleksy was on the other side of the Kremlin walls, in the Cathedral of the Assumption, where he was presiding at the liturgy for the Feast of the Transfiguration.
During the service Aleksy made his first gesture of opposition to the coup. In a litany which ordinarily would have included a prayer for the “authorities” and “the army,” he prayed instead “for our country protected by God and its people.”

All those present, noting the changed text, instantly understood its meaning. Patriarch Aleksy had sided with Russia’s infant democracy.

The following morning, Aleksy faxed a letter throughout the country challenging the junta’s legality:

“This situation is troubling the consciences of millions of our fellow citizens, who are concerned about the legality of the newly formed State Emergency Committee. … In this connection we declare that it is essential that we hear without delay the voice of President Gorbachev and learn his attitude toward the events that have just taken place.

“We hope that the Supreme Soviet of the USSR will give careful consideration to what has taken place and will take decisive measures to bring about the stabilization of the situation in the country.

“We call upon all parts of the Russian Orthodox Church, the whole of our people, and particularly our army at this critical moment, for our nation to show support and not to permit the shedding of fraternal blood. We raise a heartfelt prayer to our Lord and summon all true believers in our Church to join this prayer, begging Him to dispense peace to the peoples of our land so that they can in future build their homeland in accordance with freedom of choice and the accepted norms of morality and law.”

The words “not to permit the shedding of fraternal blood” were understood by all as an appeal to the army not to obey orders to kill their fellow citizens.

By August 21, most of the coup leaders had fled Moscow. Gorbachev was freed and returned to Moscow. Yeltsin was subsequently hailed by his supporters around the world for rallying mass opposition to the coup. On November 6, 1991, Yeltsin issued a decree banning the Communist Party.

Yeltsin’s role will never be forgotten, and neither should that of Patriarch Aleksy.

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Also see “One Face in the Human Wall: Civil Resistance in Moscow”:

The Friendship of Thomas Merton and Rowan Williams

preface to A Silent Action: Engagements with Thomas Merton by Rowan Williams (Louisville: Fons Vitae, 2011)

It is a pity Thomas Merton and Rowan Williams never met. What a friendship it would have been. Their age difference was the obstacle — Rowan was only eighteen when Merton died. Yet there is another sense in which meetings occur and friendships spring to life despite the impossibility of correspondence or face-to-face encounter. Good writing always remains in the present tense; the attentive reader meets the author in the intimate space of the printed page. When that occurs, a relationship can take root that flourishes despite the problem of death.

One sees the reality of such a friendship in this slim volume that brings together Rowan’s explorations of Merton’s writings. Merton would have been delighted to have found himself so carefully and perceptively read. The correspondence between them would have made this a much larger book.

In fact Merton’s own life, especially once he had become a monk, was to a great extent one of dialogue with people who were either distant or dead (many saints and writers of past centuries).

Rowan looks closely at two such relationships in Merton’s life — first with the Orthodox theologian, Paul Evdokimov, and then with Karl Barth, the Reformed theologian who, by a surprising providence, died on the same day as Merton. Rowan also takes note of the impact on Merton’s thought of books by Hannah Arendt, Dostoevsky, Vladimir Lossky, Olivier Clément, Bonhoeffer, Boris Pasternak, and St. John of the Cross.

Not the least of the many meeting points for Merton and Rowan is their Orwell-like awareness of the abuse of language, so easily used for magical (that is to say, manipulative) ends. Thus war is described and justified in words that mask its actual purposes, dehumanize the adversary, and cloak its actual cost in human agony. The problem extends to religious words as well — ways of speaking about God that flatten rather than unveil. “Words of faith,” Rowan observes, “are too-well known to believers for their meaning to be knowable.” Indeed, “almost any words in the modern cultural setting will be worn and shabby or illusory and self-serving.” Rowan sees in Merton’s writings how, with ascetic effort, language can be restored to the transparent state of plain speech, a revealer of truth, a preserver of freedom, but this involves a day-by-day, word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence struggle.

We see in these several essays that Rowan, no less than Merton, regards Christian life without a contemplative dimension as incomplete and also recognizes that the contemplative life is accessible not only to those living in monasteries but to anyone who seeks an “interiorized” monasticism, for “contemplative prayer is the vocation of every believer.” One of the major tasks of contemplative life is the ongoing search for the actual self, the unmasked self, a self that is not merely the stage clothes and scripted sentences that we assemble and dutifully exhibit each day in the attempt to appear to be someone, but the self that exists purely because it exists in God. Rowan notes how often Merton is drawn to a “delusory self image” but then quickly abandons each self-image as a ridiculous deception.

Merton’s pilgrimage, from his initial attraction to the Trappists until the day of his death, was to disappear — that is not to be the brand name “Thomas Merton” or a Thomas Merton who has become mainly the bearer of various labels: monk, writer, contemplative, mystic, etc. Twice in this book Rowan cites a passage from The Sign of Jonas that he first read when he was eighteen: “I have to be a person that nobody knows. They can have Thomas Merton. He’s dead. Father Louis — he’s half-dead too.” In fact, for all Merton’s grumbling about his famous adversary, Thomas Merton, he remained Thomas Merton, fully alive and always writing in a voice that was intensely and recognizably his own — but a Merton who was unwilling to make himself the prisoner of his readers’ expectations and illusions. (No doubt the struggle not to be defined purely by an ecclesiastical role is every bit as pressing to Rowan as it was to Merton.) “Truth can only be spoken by a man nobody knows,” Rowan writes, “because only in the unknown person is there no obstruction to reality: the ego of self-oriented desire and manifold qualities, seeking to dominate and organize the world, is absent.”

Both Merton and Rowan are people who have drawn deeply from Eastern Christian sources, both ancient and modern. Rowan’s doctoral dissertation concentrated on the work of Vladimir Lossky, whose writings also had great impact on Merton. Lossky was one of the Paris-based Orthodox theologians who distinguished the “individual” from the “person,” the latter understood as the self existing in communion with others rather than attempting to live in a state of one-person apartheid. To the extent one is becoming a person, Rowan notes, the process of sanctity is underway, for one “cannot be simply an individual pursuing an impossible ideal of individual sanctification in a sort of spiritual solipsism; this is, rather, the condition characteristic of hell.”

For the Orthodox Christian, it is often noted, there are “at least” seven sacraments. On the long list that can be attached to the seven, surely one is the mystery of friendship: an enduring relationship held together not only by affinity, shared questions and common interests, but the awareness that each can help the other in a quest — a partnership in pilgrimage. As the bond between Rowan Williams and Thomas Merton bears witness, not all friendships depend on being of the same generation or even being simultaneously alive.

Jim Forest
December 8, 2010

note: The water color of Canterbury Cathedral on the book’s cover is by Owen Merton. In The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton refers to his father painting in the Cathedral Close at Canterbury during his Easter vacation from Oakham in 1929.

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