Saint Nicholas wrote no books nor have any of his sermons or letters survived, but few saints have been the object of such universal affection. He is the patron of prisoners, seafarers and orphans.
Born in Asia Minor about 280, he was the only child of wealthy parents who arranged for their son to receive a Christian education from his uncle, the bishop of Patara. Taking literally the words of the Gospel, when his parents died, he distributed their property to the poor, keeping nothing for himself. Though drawn to monastic life, he felt led by God’s will to serve as a priest in the world. After his ordination, he was chosen as archbishop of Myra. During the persecutions of Diocletian and Maximian at the end of the third century, Nicholas was among the many thousands imprisoned and tortured.
Over the centuries, Nicholas’s life was embroidered with many legends, yet there are several stories about him which seem solidly historical. One of these relates how, while Nicholas was visiting a remote part of his diocese, several citizens from Myra came to him with urgent news: the ruler of the city, Eustathios, had condemned three innocent men to death. Nicholas set out immediately for home. Reaching the city outskirts, he asked those he met on the road if they had news of the prisoners. Informed that their execution was to be carried out that morning, he hurried to the executioner’s field where he found the three men kneeling with their arms bound, awaiting the fatal blow. Nicholas passed through the surrounding crowd, took the sword from the executioner’s hands and threw it to the ground, then ordered that the condemned men be freed. His authority was such that the executioner left his sword where it fell. Eustathios later confessed his sin. Nicholas absolved him, but only after the ruler had undergone a period of repentance.
Nicholas was one of the bishops participating in the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea in 325 where, according to legend, he was so angered by the heretic Arius, who denied that Jesus was the Son of God, that he struck him on the face. For his violent act, he was briefly excluded from the Council.
Tireless in his care of people in trouble or need, he was regarded as a saint even during his lifetime. At times, it is said, his face shone like the sun.
He died on December 6, 343 and was buried in Myra’s cathedral. In the eleventh century, his relics were brought to Bari, Italy, where they remain.
An interview with Jim Forest made in mid-October 2007 by Elena Nazarova for Nikolaas in de Jordaan, the quarterly journal of St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church, located in the Jordaan district of Amsterdam. For more about the parish, see its web site: www.orthodox.nl.
EN: Dear Jim, we know you for a long time as a member of our parish, so I suppose it is time to get acquainted once again. What I mean is that fifteen years ago, when our family first appeared in a little chapel in Utrechtsedwaarsstraat, our parish consisted of no more than 30 people. You and Nancy were one of the first to greet us, and let us feel at home in church, and to offer your help and assistance in difficult times. We are very grateful for this, and very happy to know you both. But since then our parish has grown very much, and it is difficult for church members to know everyone even though we are praying side by side every week. So that’s why this interview.
Please tell about yourself. What are you — an American — doing here, in a Russian Orthodox church in Amsterdam? Let’s begin from the beginning. Where were you born and who were your parents? Were they believers? Tell us please about your childhood.
JF: I was born in 1941 in Salt Lake City, in the state of Utah, which is in the western part of the USA. It’s a city best known as the main center for the Mormons, a strange variety of Protestant Christianity that is based on what its founders regarded as a lost book of the Bible, The Book of Mormon. But it wasn’t because of the Mormons or their beliefs that we were there. My parents were people on the political left. My father had been sent to Utah to be the regional organizer of the Communist Party. I know I’m not the only member of our parish who grew up in such a home. Father Sergei is another, and I’m sure there are others.
EN: As the son of Communists growing during the Cold War, did you ever feel an outcast in America?
JF: Not exactly an outcast but certainly someone living under a shadow. While the interest of the FBI was focused in my parents, especially my father, there was one occasion when FBI agents finger-printed my brother and me. I think they did it just to alarm the family. Of course I never mentioned to friends anything about my parents ideological convictions, but the FBI had visited our neighbors and probably also spoke to teachers at the school my brother and I attended. I never felt I had lost a friend due to my parents’ activities and views, but it was a scary time. I recall the execution of the Rosenbergs, convicted of passing on information about nuclear weapons to the USSR, and my having the feeling that they might not have done anything except belong to the Communist Party — though as an adult I began to wonder if they might not have been guilty of the charges that were made against them. There certainly were Americans in the Communist Party who felt a greater loyalty to the Soviet Union than to the US — people for whom the USSR was a kind of paradise in the making and Stalin a saintly leader.
EN: Did your parents have strong anti-religious views?
JF: Luckily, no. Though in principle both parents regarded themselves as atheists, neither was in fact personally hostile to religion. I was fortunate. My father had a Roman Catholic past — he had once thought seriously of becoming a priest — and my mother had grown up in a devout Protestant home. At least twice a year, Christmas and Easter, my mother took my brother and me to church.
EN: How did you get involved in Christianity?
When I was about eleven, thanks to the invitation of a friend, I visited a local Anglican church and found myself amazingly at home there. What attracted me was the Eucharistic service, in its main elements similar to our Orthodox Divine Liturgy, only not so long. This made me ask to be baptized — I wanted to be able to receive communion. It was as a catechumen being prepared for baptism that I began to understand such Greek words as Eucharist, meaning an act of thanksgiving, and liturgy, a public work. On the day of my baptism, the priest gave me what I now think of as a prophetic gift, an ancient Byzantine coin with the image of Christ Pantocrator on one side. This period of my life was the beginning of my complicated journey that finally led me, many years later, to the Orthodox Church.
As for other aspects of my childhood — well, it was in many ways amazingly normal, except that for about half of 1953 my father was in prison, as were many Communists in those days, while our family was being closely watched by the FBI. Even so, it is remarkable how normal one can be in such an abnormal situation. I was a Boy Scout, I delivered newspapers, I read a great deal, I enjoyed school, I was active in the church where I had been baptized, serving at the altar.
EN: What happened then? Have you met special people and was there some special experience in your youth? Tell please about your participation in anti-war struggle.
JF: For the latter part of my teen-age years I fell away from the church and described myself as an agnostic. I had acquired the idea that churches were for the simple-minded and that nature provided better places to worship. My religious life rekindled when I was in the Navy. I had quite a strong religious experience. As a result I returned to the Anglican Church.
Several of the big events of my life happened while I was in the military. I had been trained in meteorology and was part of a Navy meteorological unit working at the headquarters of the US Weather Bureau, just outside Washington, DC. It was fascinating work — it was the time when we had use of the first weather satellite. I did well in my work and was glad to be stationed in Washington.
While in Washington, my religious life was in a state of transition. The more aware I became of how deep the theological and liturgical divisions were among Anglicans (called Episcopalians in the US), the more troubled I was. This led me finally to become Roman Catholic. In the Catholic Church one met the same Liturgy in every parish church, and the same beliefs. Also I was impressed by how Catholics were responding to social issues — homelessness, hunger, violence. It seemed to me a church touching people’s lives more deeply — and also that it was not an elitist church. Perhaps, had I known about Orthodox Christianity at the time, I would have become Orthodox much earlier than I did, but my single Orthodox encounter at the time was with a Greek parish that was not welcoming to people who weren’t Greek. If you didn’t speak Greek, why were you there?
About the same time the peace aspect of my life began to come into focus. It was really the consequence of reading the Gospel. Despite my family background, I wasn’t politically minded, in fact someone who kept his distance from anything political, but I could see that there were certain qualities any Christian has to try to bring into his daily life. One of the major themes of the Gospel is forgiveness. Another is love, including love of enemies. I could see both these qualities not only in the words of Jesus but in the way he related to people around him. It struck me that he killed no one and that he gave no one a blessing to kill. Instead again and again he reached out to people who opposed him. Even when he was dying on the cross, he appealed to his Father to forgive those who were responsible for his crucifixion.
About this time the US, through the CIA, arranged an invasion of Cuba — the Bay of Pigs Invasion. It was in the early spring of 1961. I was shocked and ashamed both about the event itself and also the fact that, in the days following, it was claimed by President Kennedy that the US had nothing to do with the invasion. Then, when the press was ready to publish evidence that it was in fact a CIA operation, Kennedy admitted the truth. A few days later, when I read in The Washington Post about a small group of people who were praying in silence in front of a CIA building in Washington to protest to invasion, it seemed to me what they were doing was an appropriate response. After work and wearing civilian clothes, I went down to the place they were standing and joined them. I thought, as a US citizen, that anyone could engage in peaceful protest. It didn’t cross my mind that I might be getting into trouble, but in fact I got into a great deal of trouble. Photos had been taken. I was recognized. My commanding officer was outraged. I was threatened with prison. Luckily, thanks to help from others including several supportive people in the Navy, instead I received an early discharge as a conscientious objector. It was only later in life that I had some times in jail.
EN: What happened when you left the Navy?
JF: The next stop was to join a small Christian community in New York, the Catholic Worker, which was helping people who were living rough in the streets in what was an especially poor part of Manhattan. We ran a free kitchen and gave out clothing. It was led by a remarkable woman, Dorothy Day. She is likely in the coming years to be recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church. One of my books is a biography of her.
EN: Maybe, it is very personal, but how did you find your way to God? I don’t mean joining the church yet, but just when was it possible for you to give a “yes” answer to a question of God’s existence? Was there a turning point?
JF: Even in those earlier times in my life when I was embarrassed to speak about belief in God, even then I had a sense of God’s existence and the fact that God was not distant. This may be partly due to my parents, especially my mother. I vividly remember, in my mother’s case, the sorrow in her voice when, answering my question about God, she said she didn’t think God existed. The answer was less important to me than the deep sorrow in her voice when she said it. Why was she so sad? Not many years later, while I was in the Navy, she managed to find her way back to her Christian roots. She had left the Communist Party some years earlier, when Soviet troops invaded Hungary. My father also eventually left the Communist Party, in his case late in his life.
EN: And the Orthodox Church? I suppose it was a long way before you found your way to the church. And as far as I know by this time you were looking for this way together with Nancy…
JF: Both Nancy and I were Catholics but not quite at home in any parish. By this time the Catholic Church, quite notably in Holland but in many other countries as well, was deeply divided. In its attempts to modernize, it had much too quickly changed its approach to worship. Practically everything that the Church had once taught was being challenged if not rejected. I envied what seemed to me the deeper roots and stability of Orthodox Christianity, but I still had the idea who had to be born in an Orthodox culture to be accepted as a fellow Orthodox.
EN: How did you make your living?
JF: After I left the Catholic Worker community, most of my jobs were in journalism. I worked for a time for a business magazine in New York, later for a daily newspaper, then for a news service, and later still edited a monthly magazine. I also did a lot of freelance writing. I also had what I joke about being my “sabbatical” — a year in prison in 1969-1970 for protest against the war in Vietnam. My life has been a mixture of writing, journalism, and also involvement in peace activities.
EN: Is the chaining-yourself-to-the-rails story true? I’ve heard you did something like this during the Vietnam war?
JF: I have never been chained to any rails! I was briefly in jail several times for acts of civil disobedience — for example in 1961 I was one of the people blocking the entrance to an office of the government agency responsible for making and testing nuclear weapons. It was a protest against atmospheric tests of the H-bomb. I was jailed for about a month. It was quite an interesting experience.
Later on, in 1969, when I was about 27, I had a much longer time in prison, about thirteen months. It was during the Vietnam War. I was one of a group of fourteen people who removed files from a the military conscription center for the city of Milwaukee and then burned the files in a nearby park.
EN: Looking back on that experience, can you say it gave you some special inner experience?
JF: Definitely! It became part of my daily discipline to read at least a chapter of the New Testament. I spent more time praying. I was fortunate to be in a prison that not only had a library but a library that was part of the state university library system. If they didn’t have a book I wanted, they could always get it for me. I had always wanted to read Russian literature but hadn’t had time. Now I had both the time and the opportunity. I started with Tolstoy’s War and Peace, then Anne Karenina, and went on to Gogol, Dostoevsky, Chekhov and others. “The Brothers Karamazov” and “Crime and Punishment” were particularly important. I also owe a debt to Gorky, especially the first volume of his autobiography, My Childhood, with its astonishing description of his very devout grandmother. All this reading eventually played a part in my finding mt way to the Orthodox Church.
EN: What brought you to Holland?
JF: I came here in 1977 to head the staff of a peace organization, the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, and also edit its journal. It was a job I had for twelve years.
It was in connection with that work that I went to Russia the first time in 1983 to take part in a small theological conference hosted by the Russian Orthodox Church. I had intentionally come a few days early. During those days, with the help of an English-speaking member of the staff of the External Affairs Department, I visited most of the active parishes in Moscow as well as Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Monastery. What I saw surprised and impressed me. For all the obstacles church life was confronted with, it was clear to me that there was a strength and vitality in the Russian Church that was not only quite different than what I had been led to expect by western press reports, in fact a vitality unlike anything I had ever personally experienced before in any church in any country. I proposed to the Moscow Patriarchate that I write a book about the Church in Russia. In 1983, because of the political restraints imposed on the Church, it wasn’t possible, but by 1985, after the election of Gorbachev, things changed rapidly. I was given the permission that I had been seeking and began to travel widely in Russia, assisted by an English-speaking priest from Kiev, Fr. Boris Udovenko. In 1988 the book was published: Pilgrim to the Russian Church. That was followed a year later by a second book, Religion in the New Russia, which included a detailed description of the celebration of the thousand year anniversary of the baptism of Russia.
EN: Did you have contact at the time with the Orthodox parish in Amsterdam?
JF: It must have been about 1983 that I first met Fr Alexis Voogd and his wife Tatiana. Both of them were teaching at the University of Amsterdam. They loaned me books and gave me advice about people and places I should visit in Russia. But it wasn’t until the December 1987 that Fr. Alexis pointed out to me that, having visited so many Orthodox churches in Russia, wasn’t it time to visit the Orthodox Church in Amsterdam?
That did it! Nancy and I came to the parish for the first time in January 1988. It was a small community in those days but very strong. Once we started coming, it became impossible to be anywhere else on Sunday. A few months alter, on Palm Sunday, I was chrismated and the same happened to Nancy on Pentecost. Next year will be our twentieth anniversary as Orthodox Christians.
EN: Tell please about the people who influenced you most to make your choice, to become Orthodox, and about your spiritual teachers.
JF: Fr. Alexis [Voogd], of course. Thank God for all his advice and encouragement. Also Tatiana [Voogd]. Then there was Margot Muntz, another of the founders of the parish. She had come to Amsterdam from the USA just after the Second World War and never left. Her husband, Pierre, was Russian. Margot had an amazing gift for noticing strangers and making them feel at home. And then there was Metropolitan Anthony [Bloom]. Nancy and I went year after year to the Sourozh diocesan conference in Oxford, partly just to hear him speak. I felt as if I had met one of the apostles — one of the people who had witnessed Christ’s miracles, someone who had seen the risen Christ.
EN: We know you as an editor of a magazine “In Communion”. Can you tell more about it and about the Orthodox Peace Fellowship? Also about your lectures in America and elsewhere.
JF: The Orthodox Peace Fellowship is an international association of Orthodox Christians who seek to practice the peace of Christ in everyday life. The group has its roots in the Amsterdam parish. Its existence has a lot to do both with Fr. Alexis Voogd and Fr. Sergei Ovsiannikov. Both thought that to be Orthodox shaped the way you live your life, how you relate to other people, what kind of work you do, how you respond to conflict and enemies. It was especially Fr. Sergei who gave me the blessing to do this work. Another member of the parish, Michael Bakker, is the OPF president, and the treasurer is parish member Silouan Duetekom.
It was from Fr. Sergei — in those days he was still a theological student in St. Petersburg — I learned the Russian word miloserdia — the works of mercy. Miloserdia is what we do to translate of the Liturgy into daily life. There is a great deal on this topic in the writings of the Church Fathers, such saints as John Chrysostom and Basil the Great, but also many others. The Orthodox Peace Fellowship journal, “In Communion”, is simply a means to explore these topics via the written word. “In Communion” also exists as a web site — www.incommunion.org — where all the articles in past issues are available as well as many other texts and resources. The lectures I sometimes give are just another means of doing the same thing, except in a way that permits dialogue. Also I’ve written a number of books. Books tend to generate invitations to speak.
EN: Books are in some way like children. You bear them, give them birth and care of them. Please tell us about your books for adults and books for children.
JF: Probably the most translated of the books is Praying with Icons — just this week we received the first copies of the Romanian edition. Ladder of the Beatitudes has also been widely read. There is a book on confession — Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness. There are two biographies, one of Thomas Merton, the other of Dorothy Day. The most recent book is The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life — a book that looks at pilgrimage both as a physical journey to sacred places but also as a way of being even if you living the most ordinary life and never crossing a border. Also just published is a children’s book, Silent as a Stone: Mother Maria of Paris and the Trash Can Rescue, which is about a recently canonized Russian saint, Maria Skobtsova, who rescued many people who were in danger when the Nazis occupied France. She died in 1945 in a German concentration camp. One of her main collaborators was Fr. Dimitri Klépinin, who also perished in a concentration camp. Fr. Dimitri’s granddaughter, Tania Bos, is a member of our parish, so we have a special tie.
EN: We all know that you and Nancy have to undergo a serious operation soon. You have already written about your experience of illness — there is a chapter about it in your pilgrimage book. Can you tell us something in this respect?
JF: I’ve had kidney illness the last few years. Since January 2006 this has meant I have to have sessions of dialysis three times a week. At the end of October I’m due to receive a new kidney — Nancy is the donor. If the operation is successful, it will make it a lot easier to work and travel. Say a prayer!
EN: We all wish you and Nancy a lot of courage for the forthcoming events, we love you both and wish you God’s help for every moment of your life.
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published in the December 2007 issue of Nikolaas in de Jordaan
* * *
Interview made by Jim Forest at the Voogd apartment in Amsterdam on the fifth of April, 1990.
[starting the tape recorder]
This looks serious! But will my English make sense?
I admire your gift for languages.
Oh, Jim! There are blank spots in my English and they are getting more and more.
Can you tell us something about where and when you were born?
I was born on the 3rd of April 1927 in a house in newly-built part of The Hague, behind the dunes west of Scheveningen. The North Sea was nearby. With the windows open and the wind from the west, you could hear the unbroken roar of the beakers and, in fog, the melancholy sound of the foghorn. The first years of my life were closely bound up with the elements: the sea, gales, the smell of the sea and — not to forget — the little fishing port of Scheveningen, much less mechanized in those days. There were many things for a growing boy to be happy about in that little world behind the dunes — an endless source of discoveries!
Have you brothers or sisters?
A sister, Helena, two years older than me.
A very Orthodox name!
Yes. I can’t say that about mine — Alewijn — a name of Celtic origin.
Can you say something about your family?
My father and mother had very different backgrounds. My grandfather on my father’s side came from the shipping world. My father was a naval officer with years of service behind him in the Dutch East Indies — Indonesia as it is now. He had already retired when I was born. On my mother’s side, my grandfather was a university lecturer in Spanish — he compiled the first Spanish-Dutch dictionary. Before that he was for years a civil servant in the East Indies.
Were they people with a religious faith?
Neither were positively religious. Neither had been baptized. Nor were my grandparents connected with any church. Among my father’s books were a few about religion. I remember one title: “The Fool Says…”. It was about the Christian faith.
Did you ever talk to your parents about religion?
I can’t say that my parents had a harmonious marriage. Perhaps that’s a rather strange reply to your question. What I mean is that, where there is tension, it can be difficult to have intimate talks about, for example, religious belief. But I say this without any bitterness. My parents certainly did their best to give us a settled home life. There were a lot of creative activities going on in our home. My mother was a talented pianist and among her friends there were many professional musicians with whom she often played. There was much music in our house. It left a strong impression on us. My memories are tied up with music. In the evening we would ask her to play our favorite pieces. I was very fond of Grieg. Probably I felt in him a strong bond with nature.
When I look back on those years, I see myself always roaming around somewhere, in the dunes or by the sea. Here I had my first “religious” feelings, the feeling of the mystery behind things, as I see it now. Nature had a very strong influence on me. I often got up very early — very, very early! My parents were amazed and wondered: “Where on earth is the boy going at such an hour? The day hasn’t even begun and he’s already gone!”
I think of those blessed moments when the sun rises, the glow over everything, as if the world were being created anew, and I’m sitting on top of a tree, being gently rocked by the wind. I sit and sit, just looking, breathing and listening. Since then I have read about people who, in moments of intense concentration, experience the unity of all things. The unity of everything! In a flash the experience of the words, “And God saw that it was good.”
How old were you then?
Nine or ten.
These copses at the edge of the dunes — amazing what a child can make of them in his imagination! For me they were vast woods with pleasant and unpleasant places, trees with friendly and unfriendly faces. At that age I started reading about the North American Indians, the “Redskins.” Fascinating! I read everything I could find about their way of life and their beliefs. Through this reading I had the experience of how it’s possible to be completely carried away, to become one with, to identity with, persons and events. As far as the “Redskins” were concerned, this meant that I could so identify with their situation that sometimes, after an argument with other boys, I could hardly stop myself from threatening them with spear and arrow. Yes, really! Imagine it!
For a longtime I felt a sort of hate for those who destroyed the Indians.
Did you feel lonely as a boy?
I couldn’t share those nature-centered feelings with friends.
Now I realize that all these feelings had to do with my religious development. In those years I was inclined to have the same gods as the Indians had. I even prayed to those gods.
You asked about the feeling of loneliness. I think that this ability to identify — to be one with — makes it possible not to feel lonely. I had such a strong feeling of being part of everything, birds, the wind, leaves. All this filled me.
But it was all something that you experienced alone.
Yes, certainly. But I also had lots of friends in the neighborhood.
What later raised your interest in the Slavic countries?
I am sure that had to do with the war. In May 1940 our country was occupied by the Germans. I was 13. I had just finished primary school.
How did you experience the invasion?
In a childish way. It was something unusual, in a certain sense even fascinating. I longed for extreme situations, and here I had an extreme situation!
In terms of study, had you already decided what subject to concentrate on?
Not yet. I must say that school was a painful experience for me.
Were you happier as an Indian than a school boy?
Yes, most certainly. Especially in the last year of primary school and the first year of secondary. At the Lyceum I had no real friendships with other children. In general they were further on than I was. I hadn’t yet got “out of the woods.” Sitting at a school desk was torment. I promised myself that later I would never idealize my school years. Above all I had difficulty with the sciences. I found mathematics very difficult. My father secretly hoped that I would follow in his footsteps and become a naval officer, but for that I needed to do well in mathematics.
Was it difficult for him to accept that you were not going in the direction he wanted?
He didn’t complain and wasn’t angry. He was somewhat stoical in accepting disappointments. No, he never let me be aware of it. Nevertheless he did his best to give me some understanding of mathematics.
Meanwhile time was passing. The occupation meant that life became more and more difficult. Then in 1943 my father fell ill with cancer. At that a Jewish man was hidden in our house. One day the Germans discovered this. Someone had betrayed us. My sister and I came home from school to find the doors and windows wide open with mother gone, the Jew gone, and the house in chaos. After six weeks my mother was released from prison, and that only because of my father’s death — he died in March — and because there was no one else to look after my sister and me. Otherwise we would have been sent to Ravensbrück, a women’s concentration in Germany. But our Jewish guest was less fortunate. He never returned from Auschwitz. This event signaled a definite break between “before”and “after.”
Soon after followed the period when we had to make trips to find food. The summer of that year was the first that I spent in the countryside. It was somewhere in the Betuwe, the area between the two great rivers, the Rhine and the Waal. I watched farmers — how they worked their land. In those days they were still working with horses, loading their hay into splendidly-made carts, digging the ground, standing bent over for hours as they cut the corn, and milking their cows by hand. It was an overwhelming experience. That was life! From that time, every holiday I went to the country and worked on a farm. It didn’t take me long to make my decision. I wanted to go to an agricultural college so that I could become a farmer.
My mother was soon resigned to the decision. My father could no longer oppose it, but he would not have been happy about it.
The trouble was that, as a boy from the town, I couldn’t be accepted just like that into the agricultural college. First I had to work for a year on a farm. In October 1943 I managed to find a place on a farm in the northeast of our country. For the first time I had the feeling of being “abroad” — far from home, in a foreign land, among foreign people who spoke an almost incomprehensible dialect. At first I did all the dirty work, as would any apprentice, but quite soon I learned to milk cows and look after horses. Then came the day when I was allowed for the first time to take the cart to the field alone with “my own team of horses.” How proud I was!
If you include the years at the agricultural college, this part of my life lasted until 1951. After that I went to do something I had dreamed of in the dark time of the war.
What kind of dream was that?
I had a friend with whom I often spoke of what we were going to do after the war. One of our favorite past-times was looking at maps and imagining journeys to all sorts of countries. The strongest dream of was to go to Scandinavia. After I had finished college, this dream was fulfilled. I worked for a year as a lumberjack in the Swedish forest.
Did you learn Swedish?
Yes, I managed that fairly quickly. Swedish is in the same group of languages as Dutch.
Did you already have an interest in Russian at that time?
Actually that began during the war. In 1944, the year before the Liberation, I was taken away by the Germans and forced to work in the neighborhood of Assen, in the province of Drente. We had to dig trenches and build bunkers. Not far from the place where we worked was a camp of Russian prisoners of war who were being used as slave laborers. Every morning as we went to our place of work, we met them on the way to their work. They were going in the opposite direction under guard of German soldiers. They looked dreadful — dirty, emaciated, clothed in rags. But they sang! This made a deep impression on me.
I remember one of their songs. It was a song about a Cossack who, far from home, thinks about his country. These impressions meant a great deal to me. Something was born in me. Also the fact that Russia was our ally in the war against Germany played a role in this.
Another factor in my interest was Dostoevsky. In Sweden I read his short stories — not yet his novels — in Swedish. On the radio I found a station that often broadcast Russian music. A new world opened up for me — my interest in Russian language and the people. Back in Holland I began learning Russian on my own.
Why did you do that?
At first it was just a question of feeling. The Russians attracted me as a people. Also their literature and music. Russian became a passion for me. All my free time was given over to it. I was working then at the Agricultural Research Institute at Wageningen. The burning question was: Was I to stay there or start studying Russian? Finally I chose Russian.
That took me to the University of Amsterdam in the autumn of 1952. I had an appointment with Professor Becker, a Russian, the founder of the Department of Slavic Studies in the Philological Faculty. I had written him a letter from Wageningen telling him what had led to this decision. He asked me why wanted to do this study. It was hard to give him a clear and rational answer. And still I cannot do so. There are motives that are so deep-seated that it is difficult to say why you do something, but you have to do it! I felt that I had to study Russian. Intuitively I felt that this language could bring me to a deeper understanding of the meaning of life. I had the impression that Russians had a strong grasp of its essence — sometimes given positive expression, sometimes negative.
Professor Becker took me in. He was a teacher of the old school, very strict. You had to prepare carefully for his lectures. You had to be on time. But he gave himself fully to his students, lending them books from his own library. At that time it was often impossible to get the books you needed from the university library.
Was he Orthodox?
He wasn’t a believer. He was a real humanist. He respected anyone who has a genuine religious belief.
Was your interest in the Russian language connected with other aspects of Russian culture?
My interest in the language meant in the first place a feeling for the Russian people, for the country of Russia. I couldn’t at that time separate the Russians from their political system. Obviously it was necessary to make this distinction but I couldn’t — how it had all started, how it had developed, Stalin and so forth. I must admit that at first I thought that in Russia a new world, a new society was being built up and that they had solved the problem of capitalism.
Then in 1958 I went with Tatiana to Russia and came into real contact with actual life and the system there.
Did you think of yourself as a Marxist in those years?
No, not at all! But I wanted to know about everything out of a sort of curiosity: how was it possible for such a system to become established in Russia and how could part of the intelligentsia have accepted such an ideology?
Had you then thought at all about the Russian Orthodox Church, or was that still distant?
Actually I must turn back in time because I missed a most important moment. My coming to Amsterdam, to the university, meant that I met Tatiana. She came to the Netherlands from Odessa in 1944, had then studied and was appointed to a post in the university as assistant to Professor Becker. When I appeared there, she was already giving lectures. At that time there were only a few students studying Russian. Professor Becker was struck by my burning interest in Russian and spoke to his students about it. They decided to invite me to join the Slavic debating society. Tatiana was given the job of asking me. She found me and introduced herself. In this way we met each other in December 1952. The following June we married.
In order to become a member of the society, I had to give a talk. I decided to speak about a book I had read shortly before, Walter Schubart’s European Man of the Future. It was a book that was fairly popular in the years after the war.
In those years I did little else but study, continually study. I had started my studies fairly late ands felt that I had to make up for much lost time. I was very hungry for knowledge — about the Russian language and history and culture.
I worked for two years cataloging books in the Russian section of the library of the Institute of Social History. In this way many books about Russia passed through my hands. They were good years. I learned a great deal.
Getting to know Tatiana meant that I was also introduced to the Orthodox Church. She was a practicing Orthodox. She took me to an Orthodox church here in Amsterdam, a parish of the Russian Church in Exile, which still exists. There were services once a month and choir practice every week. It was a surprise for me to discover that the services were conducted in Old Church Slavonic. Church Slavonic was an important part of Slavic studies at the university. Although I was not a believer I was allowed to sing in the choir. I had a good voice and could read music, though it was an unusual experience to sing in a language that I thought to be dead. I liked singing and was fond of the music even though having no idea what it really meant. My involvement in the service was restricted to the choir. It was impossible then for me to go deeper into the meaning of the Liturgy, to its essence.
Besides I was still in a state of admiration for life in Russia, not criticizing the system. I was, as it were, pulled in opposite directions. Morever I couldn’t close my eyes to the negative role the Church had played in the social history of Russia. The problem continued to bother me.
The attitude of the Church in Exile was a typical example of reactionary response to social problems, an attitude which, it seemed to me, was an important cause of the Russian revolution.
Only much later I came to understand that this “revolution” almost destroyed the Church, doing everything it could to annihilate it. But then it wasn’t important for me to understand why there was so strong a bond between Church and State and why the Church reacted so strongly against socialism and socialism against the Church.
In this frame of mind we went to Russia in 1958. For me it was the first time while Tatiana was returning after a thirteen-year absence. It was difficult to get a visa. It was the Khrushchev period. Stalin had been dead five years. While he was still alive Tatiana would never have dared to enter the Russian Embassy — she would have been counted among the traitors, those who weren’t willing to return to the fatherland. But in 1958 Khrushchev’s campaign against the Church hadn’t yet begun.
To go to Russia was a wish I had fostered for a long time — to be there, to see the people, to hear the language. I came to Russia not as a tourist through the official Soviet travel agency “Intourist” but as Tatiana’s husband. That was an impressive difference!
I found myself in an old-fashioned Russian family where I was welcomed unreservedly. All of them were believers and closely connected to the Church. To my brother-in-law, Nikolai Poltorazki, husband of Tatiana’s sister, I am deeply grateful. He had a profound knowledge of Russian religious philosophy — Berdyaev, Bulgakov, S. Frank, Florensky. Some of them he had known personally. His fervent interpretation of their writings has been of great importance to me on the way to the faith.
When I got back to Holland, I began in earnest to study Berdyaev. As I look back on that period now, I realize how much Berdyaev has meant for me, what a role he played in my life in those years. He inspired me, gave me a vision. As a young man Berdyaev, though not a Marxist, was not that distant from Marxists. I felt myself involved with the problems he was trying to solve — the truth of Russian Orthodoxy but also the untruth of Orthodoxy linked to the state — an unholy alliance. Berdyaev spoke about general social problems, about Eros, about the place of art in society. His style of searching appealed to me: “follow the way back.” He was a Russian who had thought deeply about the source of Russian culture, and this finally brought him to Orthodoxy. Gradually he came to a new understanding of Orthodoxy, an Orthodoxy freed from ties with the state and from the reactionary attitudes to progress.
This thinking was very enriching for me, though not that all aspects of his teaching are authentically Orthodox.
I have spoken already about my near-mystic experiences as a child. It was intuition without a clear idea about God. But after the trip to Russia, after the discovery of Berdyaev, I became convinced that I had to come to terms with the fundamental questions of life. I had a feeling of now or never! I realized that if I didn’t come to an understanding now, I should never do so. I would continue to read interesting books, piles of them, without making any real progress in my spiritual life.
There followed a time of intense search that brought me to a crisis.
In 1962 and ’63 a new system of language learning was introduced at the University of Amsterdam — the language laboratory. This meant a great deal of extra work designing and writing a new Russian course. The professor of Slavic languages, Carl Ebeling was — indeed still is — a brilliant man of tremendous energy. He was very enthusiastic about these innovations. He was also very patient about my way of teaching. I found it hard to concentrate only on language, because it was difficult for me at that time to separate out language from the spiritual problems in which I was immersed. Luckily Ebeling understood all this.
We worked together literally day and night on the new course, but this turned out to be more than I could stand. It led me unavoidably and suddenly to the point of a complete breakdown.
And into this crisis appeared the figure of Metropolitan Anthony…
How did that happen?
At the beginning of the ’60s, while in Moscow, Tatiana met the great Russian pianist, Maria Yudina. Yudina was a deeply religious woman, a convinced Orthodox Christian. She heard from Tatiana about the desperate situation I was in and said, “Why doesn’t he go to Metropolitan Anthony?” Tatiana asked, “Who is that?” Yudina’s answer was, “What! You live in the West and you don’t know who Metropolitan Anthony is? He has just been visiting Moscow and has helped many people with their problems! He is an exceptional preacher and moreover a physician. Let Alexei Jacovletisch go to him!”
Tatiana wrote a letter to him and shortly after I received an invitation to visit him in London.
My situation was this. I had read a great deal about the faith. Much had become clear to me. Intellectually I was convinced of the truth of the faith. But how to go further? It is amazing how you can be intellectually convinced of the truth of the Christian faith and yet not be in a state to embrace it, not able to give this rational conviction a place in your heart and soul. You can, for instance, be a great specialist in church music, but still that doesn’t make you a Christian.
I spent a few days in London with Metropolitan Anthony and told him my story. He listened very carefully, understood my problem and gave me a simple piece of advice. He asked if I knew the Gospel? Had I read it thoroughly and systematically? I said, “No.” He urged me to do this and gave me advice as to how to do this. It forced me to interiorize the Gospel, to find myself in the Gospel. It is the principle of identification. This had happened to me once before in my life, when I was a boy and read about Indians! Now I had to identify with all the people I met in the New Testament. It took me a year to go through the Gospel, word by word, story by story.
After this first visit Metropolitan Anthony sent me to Father Barnabas, a monk who had a small hermitage in Hastings, not far from London. This was my first experience of a monastery. There I met a young monk, Brother Vincent, a man with whom I could talk fully and at length. Father Barnabas had no objection to this, but now and then did want reassurance that we were talking about spiritual matters.
When I returned to Amsterdam I was already over the worst of my crisis, but I can’t say it was the end of my troubles. I was still dependant on tranquilizers. Metropolitan Anthony had warned me not to stop taking these drugs abruptly. He compared them to a stick that helps you walk — “Eventually you will be strong enough to walk without a stick.”
I did not follow his advice. While in Odessa a month later, I decided to stop taking the pills and threw them away. Thus put me into a wretched state. Suddenly I had to manage without medicine. Traveling alone, the journey I had to make back Holland via Romania, Austria and Germany was a nightmare. But then I spent ten days I spent in the countryside, immersed in the Gospel and in prayer, and this brought me back to health.
Can you tell me more about the way of reading the Gospel that Metropolitan Anthony recommended?
He gave me a booklet made by members of a Christian student organization in Petrograd on the twenties. This little book, written in Russian, I later translated into Dutch. The principle was — to transfer yourself into the given situation of the Gospel. When Christ heals a blind man, you are that blind man. When a man is robbed and beaten and left at the side of the road, you are that man. And you are also those who pass by without helping…
How long was it between your first meeting with Metropolitan Anthony and your entry into the Orthodox Church?
I was baptized in 1967 on the 22nd of July — Metropolitan Anthony’s name day. We were in Italy and heard about a French monastery in Provence given to the Orthodox Church and that Metropolitan Anthony would be there in July. Tatiana had not yet met him. So we traveled from Italy to see him in France. I still had doubts about being baptized. Was I actually ready for it? But Vladika Anthony said, “Here am I, here are you, here is Tanya, here’s the Gospel, there’s the river. Why shouldn’t we baptize you now?” And he baptized me in the river under the walls of the monastery.
How did the founding of the Amsterdam parish come about?
After my baptism we went more and more to the parish in The Hague. There was much to do there. For example there was hardly a choir. That had to be established. Father Benjamin gave me every opportunity to enlarge it and soon a reasonable choir was formed. I had to learn the services and arrange for the choir to practice during the week. That required yet another weekly journey to The Hague. To be able to prepare everything properly I used to stay over Saturday night. In the spring of 1973 I was ordained deacon and Anton du Pau — now Father Anton — was ordained reader.
Is that when you took the name Alexis?
No, earlier, at baptism.
Alexis, Man of God, a saint of the undivided early Church. He was born in Rome. The life of the Holy Alexis was very popular in the Middle Ages, also in the western Church. But now he is almost entirely forgotten in the West, along with Saint Mary of Egypt, though her name is connected with the tiny Synodal church in Amsterdam.
You sang in the Synodal church, but when you became Orthodox you changed to the Moscow Patriarchate. What was behind this change?
When we were in Russia and told the family that we sang in the choir of an Orthodox parish in Amsterdam, they asked at once, “In what church?” Tatiana answered, “In the Russian Orthodox Church.” “Yes, but which church? From which jurisdiction?” We had no idea what that meant. We knew nothing about all the divisions and jurisdictions in the Orthodox Church. That meant that we and our family in Russia were in different jurisdictions and were joined through the sacraments. So on our return to the Netherlands, we went to the parish in The Hague, St. Mary Magdalene, which is part of the Moscow Patriarchate. We wanted to belong to the Mother Church and not to a church that had broken away from it. That was our decision.
Of course by now I understood the reasons why the Synodal Church existed and why it regarded the Moscow Patriarchate with so much enmity. But I wanted to belong to the Mother Church, the suffering Church in Russia. There were people in the Synodal parish who maintained that we had been “brain-washed” in Russia and that for these reasons had gone to the Patriarchal parish in The Hague. Nonetheless, I have much to thank that little parish for!
Somewhere along the way you had also become a father…
Yes, that happened in Moscow at the end of our first trip in 1958 when Tatiana and I were taking part in the International Congress of Slavists. We had prepared everything for the birth of our child in Amsterdam. But Aliona decided to be born in Moscow where she was baptized shortly after.
When was the parish of Saint Nicholas founded?
In 1973 a small group had formed, five or six people — myself, Tatiana, our daughter Aliona and Stefan Royé, who was then not Orthodox but interested. There was also Anton du Pau, who had recently become Orthodox. We talked together about how good it would be to have an Orthodox parish in Amsterdam.
Through God’s providence we got to know a priest of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Father Janko Stanic, who had been given by his bishop the task of setting up a Serbian parish in Amsterdam. Thanks to the help of Pastor Boiten and influential friends from the Roman Catholic Church we obtained the use of a space in an annex of the big Saint Nicholas Church opposite Central Station. Father Janko was financially supported by the Diaconal Council of the Dutch Reformed Church. Father Anton had his own income, as did I from the university. Father Anton painted icons, was a good organizer and could turn his hand to everything. In a few months, a nice little parish was created! At the end of 1973 we started our choir practices. In 1974 on the 4th of May the first Vigil service was celebrated by Metropolitan Anthony. On the 5th — the Dutch Liberation Day as it happens — Metropolitan Anthony and Bishop Laventrie consecrated our church and celebrated the Divine Liturgy.
Was it a Serbian parish?
No, both Serbian and Russian. Originally we hoped to found a pan-Orthodox parish for Serbians, Romanians, Russians and Greeks, but it wasn’t possible. So a parish was formed under the joint direction of the Moscow and Serbian Patriarchates. Father Janko served with us twice a month. The other Sundays he was with Serbs in other parts of the country.
The problem for us in Amsterdam was that the Russian part of the parish had no priest. We solved this by inviting priests from other parishes for those Sundays when Father Janko was absent — — for example, Father Adrian from the monastery in The Hague or Father Stefan Bakker from Amersfoort or Father Jozef Lamien from Brussels. Once Father Vladimir, the former priest at the Russian parish in The Hague, came to celebrate. When no priest was available, I served as deacon at Vespers on Saturday and again at Matins on Sunday. In that way the continuity of the services was ensured. Unfortunately I could never serve as deacon at the Liturgy — I had to lead the choir.
How did the independent Russian parish come into being?
At the end of 1978, following a series of events. With a group of parishioners we went to London where I was ordained priest and Father Anton deacon by Metropolitan Anthony. My first Liturgy was in London the next day — the 19th of December, the Feast of Saint Nicholas.
It was a severe winter. In the Saint Nicholas Church in Amsterdam where we had our chapel the water pipes had burst. The chapel and the steps leading to it were all under water and then frozen. We couldn’t use it. We celebrated the Christmas Vigil on the 6th of January in the main part of the church and then the next day had the Nativity Liturgy in Pastor Boiten’s tiny Saint Joris Chapel at Ouderzijds 100.
What had led to your ordination as priest?
The Russian part of the parish had by then grown considerably. Though often on Sundays we had no priest, my serving as a deacon on Saturdays and Sundays was good experience.
Despite being without a priest, we were coming together, and that had a positive influence, spiritually speaking, on the formation of a parish. We worked also on the translation of liturgical texts into Dutch, since during the first five years of our existence the services were all in Old Church Slavonic.
I often return to the same point — the Russians have retained their rich traditions in a distinctive manner. They have the most complete services, rich services with a clear rhythm and incomparably beautiful vocal music. All this we must wanted to bring as much as possible it into the Dutch services. It’s not a question of imitation. Imitation in the spiritual life is not what we need — rather inspiration: illumination through the Spirit. I haven’t found better forms than the Russian ones. And I believe that, to a certain degree, we have managed to carry over the spirit of the Russian services into the Dutch ones.
Was it difficult to be both a university lecturer and priest at the same time?
Yes, that was difficult. But gradually I realized that my place was in the Church. I found it more and more difficult to be in academic circles. It is strange to have two identities. When we started the parish, I had already worked in the field of Slavic studies for thirteen years. I had studied and lived with academics — students and professors — for years, but in doing so I had missed a whole important aspect of life. Yet I know I owe an infinite debt of gratitude to many people with whom I came into contact via the university. It is a gift of fortune, the many years with them.
But — there’s always a “but” — it was all on the level of reason. Perhaps that’s why it was so difficult for me to make the jump from the theoretical to the living faith, the faith of heart and soul. Knowledge in itself is not enough to make a real believer — just as knowing what sickness you have doesn’t mean that you are cured of it.
When you spent that year reading the Gospel, was there a certain moment, a certain text, that gave you a feeling of a door opening?
I understand your question and it would have been natural for there to have been such a moment, but I cannot say there was. So many parts of the Gospel were a revelation to me. Yet I will cite one text: “My teaching is not Mine, but His who sent Me. If any man’s will is to do His will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking by My own authority.”
Metropolitan Anthony had taught me a most important principle: “Be attentive, be watchful. Every time you are touched by certain words you read, you must know that God has touched you, even if such a touch is not always pleasant.”
In May 1942, two young medical students in Munich secretly formed an anti-Nazi project they christened the White Rose. The work they envisioned was simple but daring: publication of a series of anti-Nazi leaflets. In the months that followed, four more friends joined the White Rose. Once launched, the group managed to publish and widely distribute six leaflets advocating active resistance by the German people to Nazi oppression and tyranny. Rejecting fascism and militarism, the White Rose called for a federated Europe committed to tolerance and justice. The leaflets quoted extensively from the Bible, Aristotle, Goethe, Novalis and Schiller. Following the German defeat at Stalingrad, the White Rose also carried out a night-time action of writing anti-Nazi slogans on walls such as “Freedom” and “Down with Hitler” as well as a white swastika with a red slash running through it.
In less than a year, all the principal participants in the group plus many collaborators had been identified, arrested and executed, but their memory lives on. Today not only has the White Rose become important to Germans, but it is internationally known. This is in part thanks to “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days,” the Oscar-nominated film that focuses on the youngest member of the White Rose, Sophie (only 21 when she died) and her brother Hans. There have also been several books, including Sophie Scholl and the White Rose, and numerous web sites.
Part of the initial inspiration for the activities of the White Rose came from a series of sermons by August von Galen, Catholic bishop of Münster, in which he denounced Aryan racism and the Nazi euthanasia program that resulted in the killing of members of society whom the Nazis regarded as unfit or unproductive.
“These are men and women, our neighbors, our brothers and sisters!” said Bishop von Galen. “Poor ill human beings. Maybe they are unproductive, but does that mean that they have lost the right to live?… If one adopts and puts into practice the principle that men are entitled to kill their unproductive fellows, then woe to all of us when we become aged and infirm! … Then no one will be safe: some committee or other will be able to put him on the list of ‘unproductive’ persons, who in their judgment have become ‘unworthy to live.’ And there will be no police to protect him, no court to avenge his murder and bring his murderers to justice. Who could then trust his doctor? He might decide that a patient is ‘unproductive,’ condemning him to death! One cannot even imagine the moral depravity, the universal mistrust that would spread even in the bosom of the family, if this terrible doctrine is tolerated, accepted, and put into practice. Woe to man, woe to the German people, if the divine commandment, Thou shalt not kill, which the Lord gave at Sinai amid thunder and lightning, which God our Creator wrote into man’s conscience from the beginning, if this commandment is not only violated, but violated with impunity!”
No German newspaper reported the bishop’s remarks. The Gestapo, while not daring to arrest and imprison so prominent a bishop, put von Galen under house arrest. After the war, it was revealed that Hitler had put von Galen on a list of people to be executed after the German victory in the war. Von Galen’s sermons, and their clandestine distribution far beyond Münster, helped inspire the founding of the White Rose. Although not a religious group per se, faith in God was one of the main strands uniting those involved in the White Rose.
Though the printings of the first few White Rose leaflets were small – obtaining the paper needed was a serious problem – the leaflets caused an immediate sensation. The Gestapo began an intensive search for the authors.
The White Rose founders and principal leaflet authors were Alexander Schmorell and Hans Scholl.
Hans Scholl, born in Ingersheim on September 22, 1918, came from a Lutheran family. Hans’s father Robert had served in World War I as a non-combatant medic because of his pacifist convictions. Active in liberal politics, in pre-Nazi times he had been a mayor. As a boy, Hans had been active in the Hitler Youth, but became disillusioned and developed anti-Nazi convictions.
Schmorell was a member of the Orthodox Church, attending the liturgy regularly. His friend Lilo Ramdohr recalls he always had a Bible with him and in various ways expressed his bond with the Orthodox Church. Schmorell was born in Orenburg, Russia, on September 16, 1917. Friends often called him by his Russian nickname, Shurik. His father Hugo was a physician – German by nationality but Russian by birth. His mother, the daughter of a Russian Orthodox priest, died of typhus in 1919 when Alexander was only two years old. Hugo remarried the following year. His second wife, Elisabeth, though German, had grown up in Russia. In 1921, the Schmorell family plus their nanny, Feodosiya Lapschina, fled Russia for Germany to escape from the Bolsheviks and the civil war. They settled in Munich, where two more children, Erich and Natasha, were born. Within the home Russian was spoken. Elisabeth Schmorell was Catholic, as were Alexander’s siblings, but Alexander remained Orthodox, attending Orthodox church services as well as religion classes in Munich.
According to Nazi theories of race, Slavs (Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, etc.) were untermenschen, sub-human – a view no member of the Schmorell family could accept. At one point, Alexander had been part of the Scharnhorst Youth, but once the group merged with Hitler Youth he stopped attending meetings.
When Schmorell was drafted into the army and was required to take an oath of loyalty to Hitler, he told his commanding officer that he could not do it, asking instead to be released from military duty. Though not discharged, remarkably he was excused from taking the oath and suffered no punishment. Before his participation in the White Rose, Schmorell had served in Czechoslovakia and in France and so knew first-hand of the crimes the occupying troops were committing.
Schmorell began his medical studies in Hamburg in 1939, but by the fall of 1940 he was studying closer to home at Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich. There he met Hans Scholl.
Scholl and Schmorell managed to obtain a duplicating machine – no easy achievement at the time, as such devices had to be officially registered – which they used in duplicating all the White Rose leaflets.
The first leaflet, issued in June 1942, declared that “Nothing is so unworthy of a civilized nation as allowing itself to be ‘governed’ without opposition by an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct. It is certain that today every honest German is ashamed of his government. Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible of crimes – crimes that infinitely outdistance every human measure – reach the light of day? If the German people are already so corrupted and spiritually crushed that they do not raise a hand, frivolously trusting in a questionable faith in the lawful order of history; if they surrender man’s highest principle, that which raises him above all other of God’s creatures, his free will; if they abandon the will to take decisive action and turn the wheel of history and thus subject it to their own rational decision; if they are so devoid of all individuality, have already gone so far along the road toward turning into a spiritless and cowardly mass – then, yes, they deserve their downfall.”
A passage written by Schmorell in the second leaflet, issued in June 1942, contains the only known public protest by any German resistance group specifically against the Holocaust. “We wish to cite the fact that, since the conquest of Poland, 300,000 Jews have been murdered in that country in a bestial manner. Here we see the most terrible crime committed against the dignity of man, a crime that has no counterpart in human history…. No crime of this dimension has ever been perpetrated against human beings.” The text blames the German people, in their apathy, for allowing such crimes to be committed by “these criminal fascists.” The leaflet declares, however, that “it is not too late to do away with this most reprehensible of all miscarriages of government, to avoid being burdened with even greater guilt…. We know exactly who our adversary is.” The text adds, “Please make as many copies of this leaflet as possible and pass them on.”
The third leaflet recognized that many people “do not see clearly how they can practice an effective opposition. They do not see any avenues open to them. We want to try to show them that everyone is in a position to contribute to the overthrow of this system. It is not possible through solitary withdrawal, in the manner of embittered hermits, to prepare the ground for the overturn of this ‘government’ or bring about the revolution at the earliest possible moment. No, it can be done only by the cooperation of many convinced, energetic people – people who are agreed as to the means they must use to attain their goal. We have no great number of choices as to these means. The only one available is passive resistance. The meaning and the goal of passive resistance is to topple National Socialism…”
The fourth leaflet had a theological dimension: “Every word that comes from Hitler’s mouth is a lie. When he says peace, he means war, and when he blasphemously uses the name of the Almighty, he means the power of evil, the fallen angel, Satan. His mouth is the foul-smelling maw of Hell, and his might is at bottom accursed. True, we must conduct a struggle against the National Socialist terrorist state with rational means, but whoever today still doubts the reality, the existence of demonic powers, has failed by a wide margin to understand the metaphysical background of this war. Behind the concrete, the visible events, behind all objective, logical considerations, we find the irrational element: the struggle against the demon, against the servants of the Antichrist.
“Everywhere and at all times demons have been lurking in the dark, waiting for the moment when man is weak, when of his own volition he leaves his place in the order of Creation as founded for him by God in freedom, when he yields to the force of evil, separates himself from the powers of a higher order, and after voluntarily taking the first step, he is driven on to the next and the next at a furiously accelerating rate.
“Everywhere and at all times of greatest trial men have appeared, prophets and saints who cherished their freedom, who preached the One God and who with His help brought the people to a reversal of their downward course. Man is free, to be sure, but without the true God he is defenseless against the principle of evil. He is a like rudderless ship, at the mercy of the storm, an infant without his mother, a cloud dissolving into thin air.”
In the summer of 1942, Hans Scholl, Schmorell and another soon-to-be White Rose member, Willi Graf, were sent as medics to the Russian “Eastern Front.” For Schmorell it was a homecoming of sorts, the first time since early childhood that he could experience Russia for himself rather than through such writers as Dostoevsky. He told his friends that there was no way that he could shoot at any Russian, adding he would not kill Germans either. As a fluent speaker of Russian, he opened the door for his friends to make informal contact with ordinary Russian people as well as doctors and Orthodox priests. He, Scholl and Graf attended Orthodox liturgies together.
When they returned to Munich in October, the activities of the White Rose were redoubled. Several new people were involved – Christoph Probst, Sophie Scholl (Hans’s sister), Professor Kurt Huber and Willi Graf – as well as others in a supportive outer circle. Through Alexander’s friend, Lilo Ramdohr, contact was established with Falk Harnack, younger brother of Arvid Harnack, active in a resistance group in Berlin.
In January 1943, the fifth leaflet was ready. Asking if Germany was forever to be “a nation which is hated and rejected by all mankind,” the text called on its readers to dissociate themselves “from National Socialist gangsterism” and to “prove by your deeds that you think otherwise…. Cast off the cloak of indifference you have wrapped around you. Make the decision before it is too late…. Separate yourselves in time from everything connected with National Socialism. In the aftermath a terrible but just judgment will be meted out to those who stayed in hiding, who were cowardly and hesitant.” Thousands of copies were distributed all over “greater” Germany – that is, in Austria as well. Schmorell’s travels brought him to Linz, Vienna, and Salzburg.
Two weeks after the fall of Stalingrad on February 2, 1943, a sixth leaflet was produced. In it Hitler was described as “the most contemptible tyrant our people has ever endured…. For ten long years Hitler and his collaborators have manhandled, squeezed, twisted, and debased these two splendid German words – freedom and honor – to the point of nausea, as only dilettantes can, casting the highest values of a nation before swine. They have sufficiently demonstrated in the ten years of destruction of all material and intellectual freedom, of all moral substance among the German people, what they understand by freedom and honor.”
On February 18, Hans and Sophie Scholl were caught distributing the leaflet at the University in Munich. Two days later Christoph Probst was arrested. On February 22, the three were tried and executed by guillotine hours later.
A Gestapo manhunt was now underway for Schmorell. Assisted by friends, he tried to escape to Switzerland using a forged passport, but he was inadequately clothed for a winter crossing of a mountain route – he had no alternative but to return to Munich. On February 24, with the city under heavy bombardment, he was arrested after being recognized in an air-raid shelter. On April 19 he was tried and sentenced to death and executed by guillotine on July 13, 1943.
At his trial, Schmorell told the court of his work as a medic trying to save lives on the Russian front, his refusal to shoot “the enemy,” and also his earlier refusal to take the oath of loyalty to Hitler. The judge, the notorious ultra-Nazi Roland Freisler, responded by screaming, “Traitor!”
Schmorell’s body was buried behind Stadelheim Prison in the cemetery at Perlacher Forst. After the war, American forces built a base adjacent to the cemetery. Following closure of the base in the mid-1990s, the buildings, including a church, were turned over to the German government. Providentially the Russian Orthodox community was searching for a church building and was able to purchase it. As a result, Schmorell’s parish is across the street from where his earthly remains are buried, while in the church there is an icon of Schmorell.
Archbishop Mark of Berlin, head the German diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, says that in the near future Schmorell will be formally recognized as a martyr saint. In 2007, he led a pilgrimage group to Orenburg, Russia, to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Schmorell’s birth, an event arranged by Igor Chramow of the Eurasia Foundation in Orenburg. During this trip, the pilgrim group met 87-year-old Nikolai Daniilovich Hamasaspian, who, while living in Munich, had been a friend of Schmorell. He had given Schmorell his Bulgarian passport for possible flight from the country. Hamasaspian recalled that Schmorell had often spoken with him about spiritual matters, since they were both Orthodox Christians.
Katja Yurschak, a participant in the Orenburg pilgrimage in 2007, described to me in a letter how impressed she was by the comments Hamasaspian made over dinner one evening: “He said that his friend, Alexander Schmorell, loved his life and did not go around with the idea that he would become a martyr. It’s easy to forget that Alexander Schmorell, in many ways, was not so much different than most other 26-year-old young men at that time. I have always felt it easier to relate to Alexander Schmorell and the story of the White Rose because besides the story being amazing, it’s true, and in some ways, it’s easier to relate to people who are of a similar age, and who live in a similar type of world. In the bonus material for the ‘Sophie Scholl: The Final Days’ DVD, there’s an interview with Elisabeth Scholl Hartnagel, sister to Hans and Sophie. The part that especially hit me was when she said that she doesn’t like it when people call her brother and sister heroes because they tend to use it as an excuse – well, they could do what they did because they were heroes, but you can’t expect me to do anything of the same because I’m not a hero. It misses the point that it is more or less ‘ordinary’ people who work and struggle day by day to accomplish something bigger than themselves…. that the ‘cloud of witnesses’ is always around us, and that we can aspire to that in our lives. Alexander Schmorell was a young man with many talents. He had good friends and loved sculpture and music and literature. Apparently, he also was someone that young women became smitten with. All these things would point to a very bright future, but because of his faith, these alluring things did not hold him fast to this earth. Doing what was right was that much more important.”
In the letters Schmorell sent to his family from prison, he wrote about the deepening of his faith, assuring his family that, although he had been condemned to die, he was at peace, knowing he had served the truth. “This difficult ‘misfortune’ was necessary,” he wrote, “to put me on the right road, and therefore was no misfortune at all…. What did I know until now about belief, about a true and deep belief, about the truth, the last and only truth, about God?” In the last letter, written the day of his death, he told his family, “Never forget God!!” Just before he was taken to the guillotine, he told his lawyer, “I’m convinced that my life has to end now, early as it seems, because I have fulfilled my life’s mission. I wouldn’t know what else I have to do on this earth.” ?
* * *
Jim Forest is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. His books include All is Grace: a biography of Dorothy Day, Living With Wisdom: A Biography of Thomas Merton, The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life, Ladder of the Beatitudes, Praying with Icons and Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness.
(a talk given in Prades, France, May 2006, in the course of a pilgrimage organized by the Thomas Merton Society of Canada)
by Jim Forest
Each of us has a memory of Merton’s entrance into our lives. Usually it has to do with coming upon one of his books. It is the same for me.
I recall being an eighteen-year-old boy waiting for a bus in Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Terminal. It was 1959 and I was on leave from my Navy job at the U.S. Weather Bureau. Christmas was a few days away. I was en route to a monastery for a week-long stay. Until that moment, the closest I had come to monastic life was seeing a film called “The Nun’s Story” starring Audrey Hepburn. With a little time on my hands, I was browsing a carousel full of paperback books that was off to one side of the waiting room’s newsstand and came upon a book with the odd title, The Seven Storey Mountain by someone named Thomas Merton. The author’s name meant nothing to me. It was, the jacket announced, “the autobiography of a young man who led a full and worldly life and then, at the age of 26, entered a Trappist monastery.” There was a quotation from Evelyn Waugh, who said this book “may well prove to be of permanent interest in the history of religious experience.” Another writer compared it to Saint Augustine’s Confessions.
It proved to be a can’t-put-it-down read for me. In the bus going up the Hudson Valley, I can recall occasionally looking up from the text to gaze out the window at the heavy snow that was falling that night. Merton’s story has ever since been linked in my mind with the silent ballet of snow flakes swirling under street lights.
In 1948, the year The Seven Storey Mountain was published, Merton was only 33. His book had been in the shops eleven years when, in its umpteenth printing, it reached my hands.
Had I known it, the book’s author was now quite a different person than the Merton I envisioned on my first reading of his autobiography. The Thomas Merton I imagined had found his true home on the 10th of December 1941, the day he came to stay at the Abbey of Gethsemani, and was as firmly and peacefully rooted there as an oak tree in a national park. He was that blessed man who finds not only faith but the place to live that faith, and though accidentally made famous by a book, was living happily in medieval obscurity in rural Kentucky.
I would later discover that the actual Thomas Merton, far from being happily rooted, was in fact eager to transplant himself. It wasn’t something he mentioned in The Seven Storey Mountain, but he had found sleeping in a crowded Trappist dormitory hard going and often found his monastery factory-like. He had dreams of becoming a hermit, but there was no living tradition of solitary life in his order.
As it happens, 1959 was the year he made a major effort to get permission to move. His idea was to become a hermit associated with a more primitive monastery somewhere in Latin America, with Mexico the leading contender. On the 17th of December 1959, just a few days before I began reading The Seven Storey Mountain, he had been on his knees before the Blessed Sacrament opening a letter from Rome that told him, though his request was viewed with sympathy, permission could not be given for him to leave the Abbey of Gethsemani. “They were very sorry,” he noted in his journal later that day. “They wanted the right words to pour balm in certain wounds. But my departure would certainly upset too many people in the Order as well as outside it. They agreed with my superiors that I did not have an ermitical vocation. Therefore what they asked of me was to stay in the monastery where God had put me, and I would find interior solitude.” [The Intimate Merton, p 146] Two cardinals had signed the letter.
And yet the Merton I imagined was not altogether different than the actual Merton. He read the letter with detachment, without anger, resentment or the temptation to disobey. In his journal he commented: “The letter was too obvious. It could only be accepted. My first reaction was one of relief that at last the problem had been settled.” He found himself surprised that he wasn’t at all upset and felt no disappointment but rather “only joy and emptiness and liberty.” He saw the letter as bearing news of God’s will, which more than anything else was what he was desperate to know. “I accept it fully,” he wrote. “So then what? Nothing. Trees, hills, rain. Prayer much lighter, much freer, more unconcerned. A mountain lifted off my shoulders — a Mexican mountain I myself had chosen.”
Yet even that day he had in mind the importance of replying to the letter, if only to explain what he understood the hermit’s vocation to be and what drew him in that direction. If he was not to be allowed to become a hermit at another monastery, then perhaps the day might come when there would be a place for hermits within the Trappist context.
It was thanks to Dorothy Day, leader of the Catholic Worker movement, that I came in closer contact with Merton. I first met Dorothy a few days before Christmas in 1960, just a year after reading The Seven Storey Mountain. Once again I was on leave from my Navy job in Washington, D.C. My first few days were spent at Saint Joseph’s House in Manhattan, but one day I went to the Catholic Worker’s rural outpost on the southern tip of Staten Island, the Peter Maurin Farm. In the large, faded dining room of an old farmhouse, I found half a dozen people gathered around a pot of tea and a pile of mail at one end of a large table. Dorothy Day was reading letters aloud.
The only letter I still recall from that day’s reading was one from Thomas Merton. It amazed me that they were in correspondence. The Merton I had met in the pages of The Seven Storey Mountain had withdrawn from “the world” with a slam of the door that was heard around the world, while Dorothy Day was as much in the world as the mayor of New York. Also I recalled Merton’s description of the strict limits Trappists placed on correspondence. I had assumed he wrote to no one outside his family. Yet here he was exchanging letters with one of America’s more controversial figures.
Merton told Dorothy that he was deeply touched by her witness for peace, which had several times resulted in arrest and imprisonment. “You are right going along the lines of satyagraha [Gandhi’s term for nonviolent action; literally the power of truth]. I see no other way…. Nowadays it is no longer a question of who is right but who is at least not criminal …. It has never been more true than now that the world is lost in its own falsity and cannot see true values.” [The Hidden Ground of Love; New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1985; p 136-7]
In this letter, and many similar “Cold War letters,” Merton would write during the last decade of his life, one met a Merton who at first seemed quite different from than the Merton of The Seven Storey Mountain, yet in fact the reader looking for a more socially engaged, war-resisting Merton will find much evidence of him in the autobiography.
It was in The Seven Storey Mountain, after all, that he explained why he had decided not to fight in World War II, though he was prepared for noncombatant service as an Army medic. In a passage which must have startled many readers of the autobiography, appearing as it did just after the war, he explained:
[God] was not asking me to judge all the nations of the world, or to elucidate all the moral and political motives behind their actions. He was not demanding that I pass some critical decision defining the innocence and guilt of all those concerned in the war. He was asking me to make a choice that amounted to an act of love for His truth, His goodness, His charity, His Gospel…. He was asking me to do, to the best of my knowledge, what I thought Christ would do…. After all, Christ did say, “Whatsoever you have done to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” [SSM, 311-12]
In the same book, Merton had recorded the experience of being a volunteer at a house of hospitality on 135th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem in the months that proceeded his choosing the monastic life. He described Harlem as a
divine indictment against New York City and the people who live downtown and make their money downtown.… Here in this huge, dark, steaming slum, hundreds of thousands of Negroes are herded together like cattle, most of them with little to eat and nothing to do. All the senses and imagination and sensibilities and emotions and sorrows and desires and hopes and ideas of a race with vivid feelings and deep emotional reactions are forced in upon themselves, bound inward by an iron ring of frustration: the prejudice that hems them in with its four insurmountable walls. In this huge cauldron inestimable natural gifts, wisdom, love, music, science, poetry, are stamped down and left to boil … and thousands upon thousands of souls are destroyed. [SSM, 345]
It’s an easy leap from these sentences to his essays about racism written in sixties.
Anguish and rage warm many pages in The Seven Storey Mountain. The distress with structures of violence and social cruelty that is a major theme of his later writings is evident in the younger Merton as well. If there is a difference in later life, it is simply that the older Merton no longer regarded monastic life as a short cut to heaven. Rather he saw it as a place to which some are called, but in no way a “higher” vocation than any other state in life to which God calls His children. The question is thus not to seek a “best” vocation but rather to seek God’s will in the particular context of one’s own temperament and circumstances. The challenge God gives each of us is to become a saint.
After receiving my discharge from the Navy in the early summer of 1961, I joined the Catholic Worker community in New York City. I thought it might be a stopping point on the way to a monastery.
Dorothy knew of my interest in Merton’s book and the attraction I felt for monastic life. She shared Merton’s letters with me. Then one day she gave me a letter of his to answer. He had sent her a poem about Auschwitz and the Holocaust that he had written during the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, “Chant to Be Used Around a Site for Furnaces.” In his letter to Dorothy, Merton described it as a “gruesome” work. I wrote to tell Merton of our appreciation of the poem and our plans to publish it. It would serve, I commented, as The Catholic Worker’s response to the Eichmann trial.
Not many days later I had a response from Merton in which he noted that we live in a time of war and the need “to shut up and be humble and stay put and trust in God and hope for a peace that we can use for the good of our souls.” A letter to me from Thomas Merton! I could not have felt more elated had I received the map revealing the location of pirate gold.
Though I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, that single sentence revealed a great deal about the long-term struggles in which Merton was engaged. I thought what he said was aimed at me (how apt the advice was!), but, as was so often the case in his letters, he was addressing himself as well. He had enormous difficulty shutting up, feared he was lacking in humility, and often resisted staying put.
Though by now I had read several of his books, my own idea of Merton was still two-dimensional. I could not imagine he had problems being humble and staying put.
In December 1961, Merton suggested that perhaps I would like to come to the monastery for a visit. There was never any question in my mind about accepting though there was an issue of The Catholic Worker to get ready for publication and a night class in English Literature to finish at Hunter College. I was able to leave for Kentucky early in February 1962.
I had no money for such a journey — at the Catholic Worker one received room and board plus small change for minor expenses, subway rides and the like. I never dared ask even for a penny, preferring to sell The Catholic Worker on street corners in Greenwich Village, keeping a small portion of the proceeds for my incidental expenses and giving the rest to the community. A companion on the Catholic Worker staff, Bob Kaye, joined me. With our nearly empty wallets, we had no alternative but to travel by thumb. Before sunrise one damp winter morning we loaded up on Italian bread still warm from the oven of the Spring Street bakery and set off. I can still recall standing in nighttime sleet at the side of a highway somewhere in Pennsylvania watching cars and trucks rush past, many of them with colorful plastic statues of an open-armed Jesus on the dashboard. The image of Christ’s hospitality seemed to have little influence on the drivers. It took us two exhausting days to travel the thousand miles to the Abbey of Gethsemani.
But at last we reached the monastery. After the Guest Master showed us our rooms, my first stop was the monastery church. There was a balcony in the church that was connected to the guest house. Surviving such a trip, a prayer of thanksgiving came easily, but my prayer was cut short by the sound of distant laughter so intense and pervasive that I couldn’t resist looking for its source. I hadn’t expected laughter at a penitential Trappist monastery.
The origin, I discovered, was Bob Kaye’s room. As I opened the door the laughter was still going on, a kind of gale of joy. The major source was the red-faced man lying on the floor, wearing black and white robes and a broad leather belt, his knees in the air, hands clutching his belly. Though the monk was more well-fed than the fast-chastened Trappist monk I had imagined, I realized instantly that the man on the floor laughing with such abandon was Thomas Merton. His face reminded me of David Duncan’s photos of Pablo Picasso, not so much in details but a similar mobility of expression. And the inspiration for the laughter? It proved to be the heady smell of feet kept in shoes all the way from the Lower East Side to Gethsemani — the perfume of the Catholic Worker.
After that week-long stay at Gethsemani, The Seven Storey Mountain became a new and different book. No wonder the films of Charlie Chaplin were twice mentioned in The Seven Storey Mountain! Not only did I become aware that Merton was someone capable of hurricanes of laughter, but I learned that he was far from the only monk who knew how to laugh, though few of them exhibited the trait quite so readily as Merton.
The abbot, Dom James, though a hospitable man, was not initially quite so positive about a visitation of young Catholic Workers. In those days most American men had frequent haircuts, but haircuts seemed to Bob and me a massive waste of money. The next day Merton apologetically explained that our shaggy hair did not please the abbot. If we were to stay on at the abbey, Dom James insisted we have our hair trimmed. Merton hoped we wouldn’t object. A little while later I was sitting in a chair in the basement room where the novices changed into their work clothes; the room also served as a kind of barber shop. While the novices stood in a circle laughing, my hair fell to the concrete floor. Going from one extreme to the other, I was suddenly as bald as Yul Brinner.
After the haircut Merton took me to the abbot’s office. I can no longer recall what we talked about — it may well have been about Dorothy Day and community life at the Catholic Worker — but I will never forget the solemn blessing Dom James gave me at the end of our conversation. I knelt on the floor near his desk while he gripped my skull with intensity while praying over me. He had a steel grip. There was no doubt in my mind I had been seriously blessed. I have ever since had a warm spot in my heart for Dom James, a man who has occasionally been maligned by Merton biographers.
I recall another monk at the monastery who had much less sympathy for me and still less, it seemed, for Thomas Merton — or Father Louis, as Merton was known within the community. This was the abbey’s other noted author, Father Raymond, whose books were well known to Catholics at the time though they had never reached the broad audience Merton’s books had. Merton and I were walking down a basement corridor that linked the guest house kitchen to the basement of the main monastery building. There was a point in the corridor where it made a leftward turn and standing there, next to a large garbage container, was an older monk who was not so much reading as glaring at the latest Catholic Worker, which he held open at arm’s length as if the paper had an unpleasant smell. There was an article of Merton’s in it, one of his essays about the urgency of taking steps to prevent nuclear war. Father Raymond looked up, saw us coming his way, balled the paper up in his fist, hurled into the garbage container, and strode away without a word leaving a trail of smoke.
Once again, Merton’s response was laughter. Then he explained that Father Raymond had never had a high opinion of Merton’s writings and often denounced him at the community’s chapter meetings. “In the early days Father Raymond said I was too detached from the world, and now he thinks I’m not detached enough.” Merton laughed once again.
During that visit I had my first glimpse of Merton’s openness to non-Catholics and, more striking, non-Christians. It happened the first evening I was there. There was a hurried knock on the door of my room in the guest house. Merton was standing there, but in a rush as he was late for Vespers. He wanted me to have the pile of papers in his hands, a collection of Jewish Hasidic stories that a rabbi had left with him a few days before. “Read these — these are great!” And off he hurried to Vespers without further explanation, leaving me with a collection of amazing tales of mystical rabbis in Poland generations before the Holocaust.
I recall another evening a day or two later when Merton was not in a hurry. He was in good time for Vespers and already had on the white woolen choir robe the monks wore during winter months while in church. It was an impressive garment, all the more so at close range. I reached out to feel it thickness and density. In a flash Merton slid out of it and placed it over my head. I was astonished at how heavy it was! Once again, Merton laughed. The robe met a practical need, he explained. It was hardly warmer in the church than it was outside. If you wore only the black and white garments that were standard attire, you would freeze to death.
The guest master, a monk named Father Francis, knew I was at the monastery at Merton’s invitation and thought I might be able to answer a question which puzzled him and no doubt many of the monks: “How did Father Louis write all those books?” I had no idea, no more than he. But I got a glimpse of an answer before my stay was over. A friend at the Catholic Worker had sent a letter to Merton in my care. He urged Merton to leave the monastery and do something “more relevant,” such as join a Catholic Worker community. (Over the years Merton received quite a few letters telling him that he was in the wrong place.) What is memorable to me about this particular letter was the experience of watching Merton write. He had a small office just outside the classroom where he taught the novices. On his desk was a large grey typewriter. He inserted a piece of monastery stationery and wrote a reply at what seemed to me the speed of light. I had never seen anyone write so quickly. You will sometimes see a skilled stenographer type at such speed when copying a text, but even in a city news room one doesn’t often see actual writing at a similar pace. I only wish I had made a copy of his response. I recall that he readily admitted that there was much to reform in monasteries and that monastic life was not a vocation to which God often called His children, yet he gave an explanation of why he thought the monastic life was nonetheless an authentic Christian vocation and how crucial it was for him to remain faithful to what God had called him to. It was a very solid, carefully reasoned letter filling one side of a sheet of paper and was written in just a few minutes.
When I first met Merton, more than two years had passed since the Vatican’s denial of his request to move to another monastery where he might live in greater solitude. In March 1960, nearly a year before my visit, Merton had been given his own small cell in the monastery and soon after plans were made for the construction of a small cinder block building — in principle a conference center where Merton could meet with non-Catholic visitors, but Merton called it his hermitage — on the edge of the woods about a mile north of the monastery. Merton had lit the first fire in the fireplace several months before, on December 2nd. There was a small bedroom behind the main room. Merton occasionally had permission to stay overnight, but it would not be until the summer of 1965 that it became his full-time home. At that point he became the first Trappist hermit.
By the time I came to visit, it already had a lived-in look. It was winter so there was no sitting on the porch. We were inside, regularly adding wood to the blaze in the fireplace. I recall a Japanese calendar on the wall with a Zen brush drawing for every month of the year, also one of his friend Ad Reinhart’s black-on-black paintings. Of course there was a bookcase and, next to it, a long table that served as a desk placed on the inside of the hermitage’s one large window. There was a view of fields and hills. A large timber cross had been built on the lawn. On the table was a sleek Swiss-made Hermes typewriter. Off to one side of the hermitage was an outhouse which Merton shared with a black snake, a harmless but impressive creature.
What Merton took the most pleasure in when he showed me the hermitage was a sheet of parchment-like paper tacked to the inside of the closet door in his bedroom — a colorful baroque document such as one finds in shops near the Vatican: a portrait of the pope at the top in an oval with a Latin text below and many decorative swirls. In this case it was made out to “the Hermit Thomas Merton” and was signed by Paul VI.
The week ended abruptly. A telegram for me came from New York with the news that President Kennedy had announced the resumption of atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, thus another escalation of the Cold War and yet another indication that nuclear war might occur in the coming years. Anticipating such a decision, I was part of a group of New Yorkers who had planned to take part in an act of civil disobedience, a sit-in at the entrance to the Manhattan office of the Atomic Energy Commission, the federal agency then responsible for making and testing nuclear weapons. The abbey provided money for our return to New York by bus rather than thumb. Not many days later, now with a slight stubble of hair, I was in a New York City jail known locally as “The Tombs.”
Merton had a part even in that event. I recall a letter from him, sent care of the Catholic Worker, being hand delivered to me during the hour or two that we sat on the pavement awaiting arrest. (My monastic haircut made me interesting enough to be featured on the front page of one of New York’s daily newspapers the following morning.)
I was to meet with Merton face to face only one more time. The next occasion was a small retreat at the monastery on the spiritual roots of protest in November 1964. Would that we had time to talk about that as well! But from the summer of 1961 until his death in 1968, we carried on a busy correspondence. (Most of his side of it is published in The Hidden Ground of Love.) On average there was a letter or note from him nearly every month. There were also many envelopes containing copies of essays he had written and sometimes larger works, such as the manuscript of Peace in the Post-Christian Era, and Cold War Letters, a collection of letters on topics of the day. (Peace in the Post-Christian Era was at last published in 2004; Cold War Letters is due out this year.)
I didn’t know the phrase in those days, but, looking back, I realize he became for me what in the Orthodox Church is called a “spiritual father” — someone to whom you open your soul and who in turn can help you stay on the path of the Gospel and help you find your way back to that path when you stray, as I certainly did time and again. If I had understood spiritual fatherhood better, perhaps I would have made better use of his readiness to help me see the way forward and would have made fewer false steps, but even so it was a extraordinarily fruitful relationship. I was one of Merton’s adopted children. (In actual fact, as I would later realize, I was about the right age to be one of his children. I was born in November 1941, just five weeks before he left his teaching post at St. Bonaventure’s to make his way to the monastery. Merton was then 26.)
What keeps Merton so fresh all these years after his death? Why is he still such a helpful presence in so many lives? Mine too! He is a long time dead yet remains quite a lively presence in my life.
In Thomas Merton we meet a man who spent the greater part of his life trying with all his being to find the truth and to live a truthful life. Though he chose a celibate vocation in an enclosed monastic environment, he nonetheless, mainly thanks to his several abbots, had a voice which reached far beyond the abbey’s borders. With tremendous candor, he exposed through his writings his own on-going struggles and the fact that he was like the rest of us, often wracked with uncertainties, and was no stranger to the temptations each of us faces. At a time when there was little inter-religious contact, he challenged his readers to find God not only within their particular community but across national as well as cultural and religious borders. He did this while giving an example of how one could at the same time remain deeply rooted in Christian belief and faith. He was a man of dialogue, as we see in the hundreds of letters he wrote to an astonishing variety of people in all parts of the world, including Soviet Russia. We also see in him one of the healers of Christian divisions. He did this not by renouncing anything a Catholic Christian would normally believe, but by allowing himself to become aware of anything of value in other parts of the Christian community, whether something as big and deeply rooted as the Orthodox Church or as small as the Shaker movement whose craftsmen made chairs fit for angels to sit on.
We see in him a pilgrim. As pilgrims tend to do, he crossed many borders, but the greater part of that journey was lived in a small corner of Kentucky. During his 26 years as a monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani, he rarely traveled further than Louisville. For all his temptations to move elsewhere, he remained a member of his particular monastic community until his dying day. He is a model of uncomfortable stability. His pilgrimage was one that didn’t require hiking boots.
Merton gives us a model of someone with an unshakable love not only of Christ but of Christ’s mother and also his grandmother. Whenever he had a building in need of a dedication such as his hermitage or other shelters of solitude, it was either to Mary or Anne. In the communion of saints, they were his permanent patrons. Everything he did or represents is rooted, in part, in his devotion to them.
Sometimes I am asked: Is Thomas Merton a saint? I know him too well to say a glib “yes,” but also too well to say “no.” Certainly he was not a perfect person. But the same is true of other saints. With the possible exception of Christ’s mother, there are no perfect persons in the calendar of saints. In Merton’s case we know his imperfections because he made a point of writing them down for us to read.
Yet I think the answer is yes. Few people have done so much to help so many find their way toward Christ and a deeper faith. Few people have drawn so many toward the mercy of God.
The canonization of Mother Maria Skobtsova and several people closely associated with her was the occasion of a trip to Paris the first weekend of May, 2004, for many members of our Amsterdam parish. It was my first visit to the church on the Rue Daru. The name of the church itself is the Cathedral of St. Alexander Nevsky, but the phrase “Rue Daru” is used far more often. For Orthodox Christians of the Russian tradition in Western Europe, it’s a way of distinguishing a jurisdiction: “our church isn’t Moscow Patriarchate, it’s Rue Daru.” After the Russian Revolution and the civil war that came in its wake, many Russians — including members of the nobility as well as intellectuals — fled to the west. Thousands ended their journey in or near Paris. With the Church in Russia enduring severe persecution, there was a real question as to the connection between this new diaspora church and the Moscow Patriarchate. The church of the emigres appealed to the Ecumenical Patriarch and asked if they, as Russian Orthodox, could be received under his jurisdiction. This change took place, and now the “Rue Daru” church, so very Russian as it is, is still under the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul rather than Moscow.
This was the situation that Mother Maria Skobtsova and Father Dimitri Klepinin found themselves in. Not only that, but over the years, as more and more French people became Orthodox, and more of the Russians became real Frenchmen, a stressful situation developed between the Russian and the “French” parts of the congregation. The solution was to split the church, with the Russians having Slavonic service upstairs (where the canonization took place) and the French having services in French in the lower church (known among European Orthodox simply as The Crypt). This situation still stands.
This is important background information, and I think it was partly because I knew this that the canonization service struck me so profoundly.
The cathedral is a beautiful building. It’s often included among guidebook sites — one of the spots even a non-Orthodox visitor might wish to see in this part of Paris. According to the guide book Jim and I had with us, it was built in 1861, “designed by members of the St. Petersburg Fine Arts Academy and financed jointly by Tsar Alexander II and the local Russian community.”
The iconography reminded me very much of the work of the 19th-century Russian itinerant painters and iconographers, especially Vasnetsov. These were men who painted ordinary Russians — peasants, women, children — in a very compelling, compassionate way, a style which carried over into their icons. So even though the inside of the cathedral is quite splendid, there is something almost homely about the way it is decorated, something very human and solid. There are two large painted panels on either side of the church — one of Christ preaching from a boat on the Sea of Galilee to a great crowd of people, the other of Christ walking on the water, a small haloed figure in the moonlight moving across a vast expanse of water, and in both you sense that this is Christ of the people, the ordinary people. I have a feeling Mother Maria must have felt very much at home in this place, and that it may even have helped stir her feelings of great compassion for ordinary people.
We attended both the Saturday evening Vespers, which began with a panikhida — a final memorial service for those soon to be recognized as saints — and the Sunday Liturgy. The services were long, but no longer than you would expect for something of this magnitude in the unhurried Russian tradition.
In addition to the services themselves there were other things that struck meeven though we were “upstairs” in the Russian Church, there was a blend of French and Russian used throughout both services. (We spoke with a friend later on, the wife of a French priest, who said this has to be regarded as one of Mother Maria’s miracles.)
The archbishop for the Ecumenical Patriarchal Russian church in Western Europe, Archbishop Gabriel, is from Flanders, and his mother tongue is neither Russian nor French but Flemish. He conducted the service mainly in Slavonic and preached in French. We know him from years ago when he was the priest of the Russian church in Maastricht here in the Netherlands. (When I went up for the blessing during the Vespers service he smiled at me and said “Christus is opgestaan!”, the Easter greeting in Dutch.) Celebrating with him was Bishop Basil of Sergievo of the Moscow Patriarchate in Great Britain (successor to Metropolitan Anthony Bloom). Bishop Basil is an American but has lived in England for 35 years. So standing there in the center of that staunchly Russian church were two Western bishops. On the other side of Archbishop Gabriel was Bishop Silouan, who is serving the Romanian church in Western Europe.
Also present was Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Paris, who was given a seat of honor in front of the iconostasis. Cardinal Lustiger was a dual representative at the canonization, not only of the Catholic Church but also of the Jewish community, since he is a convert from Judaism and always identifies himself as a Jew. He was born in Paris of Polish Jewish parents. When the Germans occupied the city he was sent to live with a Christian family and was baptized in 1940. His parents were both deported, and his mother was killed in Auschwitz. So this service, and the nature of the martyrdom of Mother Maria, Father Dimitri, Yuri Skobtsov and Ilya Fondaminsky must surely have meant a great deal to him.
We also noticed a very old, white-haired woman on the other side of the church — she had been provided with a chair and given a place of honor — and were later told that she was a fellow prisoner in Ravensbrück with Mother Maria and was with her until the end.
The church gradually filled to overflowing during both services. It must have taken nearly an hour to serve Communion.
Both the cathedral choirs provided music — the Russian choir and the French choir — and they switched back and forth. This meant that neither choir became exhausted, and the singing continued at the same glorious level all the way through both services. So here, again, was another sign of reconciliation — the Russian and the French choirs, singing together.
There were many priests involved in the services, but the most visually interesting was Father Serge Hackel. Father Serge wrote the book Pearl of Great Price, the story of Mother Maria, and it is partly due to his work that the life of Mother Maria became known to so many people in the West.
Father Serge was wearing an old, tattered, faded vestment of coarse fabric, obviously hand-embroidered. There’s a vestment with a story, I said to myself. Later on we discovered that this was a vestment Mother Maria herself had embroidered by hand for Father Dimitri. (We recalled that Mother Maria wrote with disdain about nuns who do nothing but embroider vestments for the clergy; so much for saintly consistency.)
After the Liturgy we met Father Serge out in the church parking lot, carrying his vestments in a plastic bag. Jim asked him if he could take a picture of the vestment, and he was only too happy to oblige. Then we asked if we could touch it, realizing instantly that this was a relic. He told us how he came to have this vestment. In 1967, a German film crew had come to Paris to do a film based on Fr. Serge’s biography of Mother Maria. At rue de Lourmel, in a room that served as the chapel vestry, Fr. Serge discovered vestments Mother Maria had made. Due to moth damage they were soon to be burned, he was told. Instead they were entrusted to Fr. Serge’s care and have since been repaired.
The high point of the canonization service occurred Saturday evening when the icons of the new saints were brought out. I knew this was going to happen, but I had no idea how strong the impact would be. There were actually five saints who were canonized, shown on two icons. One was an icon of Father Alexis d’Ugine Medvedkov, a Russian priest who worked in France after the Russian Revolution in great obscurity and humility; when his remains were unearthed they were discovered to be incorrupt. The other icon was of the martyrs Father Dimitri Klepinin, Mother Maria, Yuri, Skobtsov (Mother Maria’s son), and Ilya Fondaminsky, a Russian Jewish intellectual who was baptized after his arrest by the Nazis. [The icon plus two others are on the OPF website. Also on the site are articles about St. Dimitri, St. Ilya and St. Alexis. See St. Maria Skobtsova]
Many members of Father Dimitri’s family were at the services: his daughter Helene Arjakovsky and four of Helene’s children. Her daughter Tanya, Father Dimitri’s granddaughter, is a member of our parish in Amsterdam and is married to Deacon Hildo Bos. Tanya told us she and her mother felt as if they had been taken out of themselves, the services were so beautiful; they had to pinch themselves to make sure they were really awake. (Helene’s collection of essays — Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings — was recently published in English translation by Orbis Books.)
We were also happy to meet Father Paul Schroeder and Elizabeth and their two children at the canonization. The Schroeders had come all the way from California. After the Liturgy, we went to a small flat they had rented and went out to lunch with Elizabeth and Zachary (who, he told me proudly, is seven).
After visiting with the Schroeders we did something we had very much wanted to do — went on a pilgrimage to 77 Rue de Lourmel, once site of the house hospitality Mother Maria founded. It took some navigating by metro, but finally we found the place — a very ordinary Paris street, it was raining slightly, and once we got there we found that Mother Maria’s building was gone. In its place was a modern block of flats. But at the building’s entrance we discovered that someone had put up a white marble plaque with gold letters, explaining that this had been the place where Mother Maria and Father Dimitri had done their good work and saved the lives of many Jews, and that they had been killed by the Nazis. So even though the building is gone, they are commemorated on the streets of Paris to this day.
Nancy Forest-Flier is a translator and editor living in Alkmaar, the Netherlands.
Alexander Ogorodnikov was born in 1950. At age 17, he was a lathe operator at a clock factory. Three years later he began philosophy studies at the University of the Urals in Sverdlovsk, only to be expelled in 1971 for “a dissident way of thinking incompatible with the title of the Komsomol member and student.” He then went to Moscow where he studied at the Institute of Cinematography. He founded the Christian Seminar in 1974. From 1978 until 1987 he was a prisoner, finally released at the order of Gorbachev. Since his return to Moscow, he founded the Christian-Democratic Union of Russia and the Christian Mercy Society, a group assisting the hungry and homeless with a special concern for children and adolescents. The following conversation with him was recorded in Amsterdam on 25 April 1999 following the Liturgy at St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church. Alexander began by recalling his time as a prisoner at Perm 36.
Perm 36 was one of the worst prisons in the Soviet Union. Quite a number of famous prisoners were there, Anatoly Schiransky for example.
Why were you regarded as so dangerous?
It goes back to starting the Christian Seminar in the 70’s. Now there is a fresh interest in what happened at that time — last year there was a television program about it. They united participants of the seminary from 20 years ago, when I was jailed and the Seminar was crushed after five years of life. The television producers wanted to see what had happened to us after 20 years — were we still loyal to the ideals of that time? Sadly, we see that many participants got lost in heresy and left the Church. Listening to my old friends, I realize freshly how difficult it is to get rid of the Communist system. Although 1991 was the official end of the Soviet Union, from the moral point of view it still has not ended. I compare it to a corpse which is decomposing and the poison it creates is everywhere. We carry it in ourselves. It is very important to stress this fact because people tend to underestimate it, and to underestimate the tragedy of Russia in this century.
When the Bolsheviks took over, they fought the Church not only because it was an institution of the Czarist regime, but because the Church was storming heaven and they were at war with heaven. Did you know that in 1923 there was really a trial — a revolutionary tribunal that brought God to court? God Himself was tried! Lunacharsky and Trotsky were the two commissars who led the process, and during this process they sentenced God to death. This was not a carnival — it was absolutely serious. God and the Church had to be crushed. In many of his letters Lenin stressed the importance of getting rid of priests. The whole fight against the church and religion was carefully planned and very fierce. In 1932 there was the 17th party congress which not only produced a five-year plan for the economy but a five-year plan for achieving an atheist society. The plan was that by 1935 the last Church would be shut down, and that by 1936 even the word “God” would have disappeared from the language!
I won’t describe for you all the horrors and all the tortures, and how many bishops, priests, monks and ordinary believers were buried alive or killed in other ways. What I want to stress is that to a great extent the Communists succeeded in converting Russia to Communism. And yet for all their success, hundreds of thousands of people defended the Church and became martyrs and the Church was not destroyed. The Church displayed a unique, quiet belief. Many priests went underground. In the 30’s, there were only three bishops still not in prison. Probably in the whole Soviet Union in the 30’s, just before the war, only 50 churches were still open. Thanks to this war, the fate of the Church shifted. People returned to belief. Stalin invited Patriarch Sergei to come from his small house on the edge of Moscow to live in the former embassy of the German Ambassador — one day in a log cabin with no telephone, the next in a mansion in the heart of Moscow. Many churches were re-opened, and two theological schools.
Still, though the church had survived, when I was a boy we had no living contact whatsoever with the church. None. Most of our generation came from atheistic families. One of my grandfathers was a commissar who died for the ideals of the revolution. My other grandfather has a little different story, a different fate. He was an officer in the Czarist army during the First World War. His orderly converted him to Protestantism — it was a kind of very primitive protest belief against the official Orthodox state Church. Later in his life, when he was 37, they tried to arrest my grandfather. By then he was a school director. He was warned by a KGB member and fled into the woods. For two years my mother went into the woods to bring him food unnoticed. Because of that, he survived. Nonetheless, I was raised as a normal Soviet child.
Where was that?
I was born in 1950 in Christopol, a town in the former Kazan government. We were raised in such a way that by the time we were 14 or 15 years old, we were ready to give our lives for Communist ideals. We were convinced that all these churches, which were only attended by old women, would sooner or later disappear together with their babushkas. Yet finally, in our search for true belief — true Truth — we began to understand that Marxism was a lie.
How did you go from being ready to give your life for Communism to seeing Marxism as a lie?
In our school, there was a map of the world with flags marking every new country converted to Communism. We were singing revolutionary Cuban songs, and we were ready to die for Cuba or for any of these countries. How we moved from that attitude to understanding that the Marxist ideology was a lie is something of a mystery. In the beginning it was just a kind of clash with reality, because we looked at real life and saw it didn’t match all those high ideals we were taught. First we thought, “Well, we live in the provinces — maybe it takes a little longer for all these ideals to reach us,” though later, in Moscow, I could see the very same problems. Finally I was expelled from university because of my growing doubts about materialistic ideology.
So little by little people like me became critics of Marxism and of the Soviet system. Protest became a way of life and also a way of survival in the system of lies. Also little by little, through irony and criticism, we ended up in a kind of vacuum — with only criticism and irony, you end up with denying everything. We didn’t actually have any other choice because we hardly had any information. We were boiling in our own soup. Russian literature offered a kind of revelation for us when we came to know it. However you have to understand that the way Russian literature was taught in the schools was so perverted that you came to hate it. But thanks at last to Russian literature, we finally got a little, not understanding, but a feeling that somewhere there is God. Through our searching, we understood that God exists. This literary understanding of God was more abstract, like as creator or creative force or power, a bag of ideas. We had far to go from this abstract idea of the existence of God to finally reach the living Christ.
By the time I had been expelled from the university I was attending in the Urals, I managed to get to Moscow and enter the film institute. It was a kind of miracle that I was accepted. In that period one of my fellow students gave me a copy of the Gospels, though for a long time I didn’t read it. I couldn’t even touch it. The guy I shared my room with kept his money hidden in the Bible because it was a book that nobody dared to touch.
One day, as part of our lessons, we were invited to a hidden place where forbidden films were kept by the film institute. You had to go train to get there.
By this time the New Testament was the only book I possessed I hadn’t read, but that day I had it with me. There on the train and I opened the book and started reading. Immediately I had this very strange feeling. On one side my mind knew or told me that this is just a legend or fairy tale. But from my heart there arose a different feeling that became stronger and stronger that this is actually the truth. I couldn’t rationally understand that feeling. At that moment the conductor came into our carriage. Of course we didn’t have a ticket. We were all protesting students — the film school was more or less the only place where dissent was tolerated. The way we dealt with these situations when we didn’t have a ticket usually was to start arguing with the man, saying things like, “Don’t touch the guy because he is in Nirvana, and if you touch him he will die, and you will be responsible.”
For the first time I did something that rationally I couldn’t understand. I took out my money and wanted to pay. And wanted to pay also the fine for all of us. It was very strange, but I understood that the Gospels had done this to me.
At last we arrived and we walked through the woods towards the restricted cinema, first passing through several security posts. The first film we were shown was “The Gospel According to Saint Matthew.” It was real shock for me. It helped me overcome all my irony and to accept the Savior, Jesus Christ. The background of the film was that Passolini, an Italian Communist, had who stayed some night in some hotel, had the Bible on the bed next to him, read St. Matthew’s Gospel, and decided he wanted to make a film that would simply show every scene from this Gospel. He decided not to use professional actors. He found people on the streets. Jesus Christ was played by a Spanish student he happened to meet. After seeing this film, I couldn’t he silent. I started preaching to my colleagues. They were amazed because I had been such a cynical man, and here I was promoting the film as being the truth.
Thanks to this film, I became a Christian and searched for a Christian way of life. I was a Christian outside the Church. I didn’t know what the Church was. I took my Bible with me and went to look for people thinking similar thoughts. The people I met became the core of that Christian Seminary. This was the summer of 1973. We felt that we were missing something, that there was a mystery hidden somewhere, but we couldn’t touch it. The Church was far from everything we knew, but finally I made a big effort and went to church.
It was a big church near the center of Moscow. I was amazed it was so crowded. It amazed me that so many of those attending the Liturgy were from the intelligencia. Despite there being so many people, I was able to walk toward the altar right through the crowd. A saw a bishop was celebrating. I didn’t understand what exactly was going on. Almost everyone was crying. I couldn’t understand why, but I was also crying. And when the bishop came out to serve communion, a certain power pulled me toward the chalice. It so happens, without thinking about fasting, I hadn’t eaten the whole day. Even the days before, it so happens, I had been fasting. It was by accident. And I received Communion. After that I found out that it was Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, the bishop in London, who gave me communion. He happened to be in Moscow at that moment.
Were you already baptized?
My grandmother had arranged my baptism secretly when I as a child. My father, a Communist, didn’t know.
What happened after your first communion that day in Moscow?
My friends also started going to church and participating in church life. But we encountered a new problem. It seemed to us that the church as an institution was not ready to accept us. The priests were afraid of us, and not only the priests. I went to a church in Kazan and when I entered, an old babushka tried to push me out. She thought that since I was a young man, I must be a representative of the government or the Konsomol [the young Communist association] who had come to provoke them in order to shut down the Church. At that time young people did not go to Church. She was protecting their church against me, or my kind. It was not easy to stay! But when the old women saw that I went to confession and I received communion, they all cried. At the end they all came and they wanted to kiss me and thank me. It was a powerful experience — they saw a new generation coming into the church.
We young people found ourselves in a very complex situation. It was difficult to find a place for ourselves inside the church. There was no living community, and no education. We were trying to find out what were the possibilities, what could we do in this world as Christians, as Orthodox Christians.
In this kind of schizophrenic situation, we could only pray while we were in church, and then it was like leaving our belief in a kind of waiting room. It was difficult for us to understand because the reason we came to church was because it was the truth, but outside the church we had to go on living as Soviet citizens. This being torn apart was very difficult. We came to church because here was the True Light. That’s why we started the Christian Seminar, because we couldn’t live with this church which was silent.
The Seminar helped us to start a living Christian community, and also to educate us in Orthodox belief. Then we started to travel all over Russia in what we called our search for the invisible town of Kitezh. Kitezh is a fabled place miraculously preserved under the waters of the Svetloyar Lake where the old way of life and worship has continued without pause. According to the legend, occasionally Kitezh rises from the water and appears to the devout. To “search for Kitezh” is a way of speaking in metaphors about the search for holiness. Little by little we were discovering the spiritual life in Russia. It was hidden, but it started to open to us. We didn’t want to remain just a small intellectual circle of Orthodox youth. We found monks and nuns who helped us. Now today we can openly talk about this, how in the Ukraine, at the Pachaiev monastery, they hid us from KGB at a time when the KGB was looking for us. And they helped us with other ways. They gave us money and helped us buy a house for the Seminar. We declared that house to be a kind of free territory, not part of the Soviet Union, a liberated territory. Of course the authorities paid us back and they declared us to be a forbidden zone. We were actually provoked, persecuted.
One day I was called to Moscow by the KGB. Five strong men from the KGB put me in a car and driven out of the city. The car stopped in the middle of the forest and I was thrown out of the car. They put me against the car, and encircled me, holding guns in their hands. At that moment, someone in a black suit came toward us out of the forest, walking in our direction very slowly. And the KGB men opened their circle and stood to the side. The man in black said, “You are free.” But when I tried to get through the circle of the KGB men, they wouldn’t let me pass. So I said to the man in black, “I can’t go, I can’t get out.” He made a gesture, and then I was able to force my way out with my shoulders. And I walked away, all the time waiting for a shot in my back. I didn’t know where I was — a very dark wood.
Then behind me I heard footsteps. The KGB men again surrounded me, one on the left, one on the right, one in front, one in back. They said, me “Now we will look for a place where we can shoot you.” I understood that this is the blind force of evil, which in this world you can never hide from. They brought me to a certain place, then one of them took out his gun and said, “Get down on your knees.” I responded, “I kneel only in front of God.” Then he fired a shot, but over my head. After that he said, “We don’t want any new martyrs.”
After this incident, for a certain time they left the Christian Seminar in peace, but before long once again they were looking for ways to frighten us. There were times when we had to flee over roofs. We had to invent all kinds of conspiracies, not because we were hiding guns or narcotics, but spiritual literature. So we were actually forced to behave in that way.
Yet all this time we were living with the constant feeling of the presence of God. There were many miracles that saved us. But finally there came a moment when I was arrested and was brought to Lubianka, the KGB headquarters in Moscow. They told me, “It is time you put an end to behaving as a hero. You have one month, we give you the possibility to leave, get out.” I said “Why should I leave my country? I was born here, why should I leave?” They started shouting at me, “We give you one month. If you don’t emigrate in that one month, then we will arrest you and you will never get out again, you will die in prison. You will die forgotten and deserted by all.”
In those years it was almost impossible to emigrate. Only 1,500 Jews emigrated in one year. What we understood is that once you were willing to speak, you had to be willing to pay the price. We had to prove that Christianity is not an abstract idea, but that it was real life. And so we decided that I would go to prison. After me 13 others were arrested. There was a kind of systematic arrest of every new leader that came after me. I must say that all of us behaved very bravely in prison. Nobody surrendered.
Before I was imprisoned, I knew that I would have a difficult time in prison — I liked being free, I liked good food, I liked all these things. I was afraid. I thought I would not be able to lead a worthy life in prison. In prison you have constantly to fight for your own rights and for the rights of the other prisoners. But finally when I was imprisoned, I discovered my own depths, and not only inside of myself, but in every man. This was such an elevation, it lifted me spiritually, but also it gave me strength. There are many stories I could tell you, but I’ll tell just one.
This was during my stay at the Habarosk prison. I was being held in a large cell shared with many others. It was the plan of the KGB on this occasion to break me with the help of the real criminals. The door was closed. I heard the lock slam in place, leaving me with about forty men, half naked, all with tattoos.
As I entered the cell, I said, “Peace be with you.” It was strange for them to hear these words — they looked at me in amazement. At that time I did not wear prison clothing — I still had my own clothes. And they said, “Take your clothes off,” and they threw some old rags at my feet, which I had to put on.
I answered, “I can give away my own clothes only to those who really need them, not if you force me to.” They started yelling at me, and they were at the point of violence. The leader of this group, a man sitting on a top bunk, said, “You will be sleeping near the toilets” — the place where the worst criminals sleep, the pederasts. You find this pecking order in every prison. The pederasts are considered subhuman. Most of them are not real criminals, but victims themselves. What happens to them is that they are violated, used sexually as a punishment.
The men in the cell were getting ready to attack me. Then one of them asked me, “You said ‘Peace be with you.’ Are you a Christian?” And I said, “Yes.” He replied, “We heard that if a Christian prays to his God, then a miracle occurs. So please prove to us that you are a Christian and not just somebody trying to make an impression.” In prison it is very important that you take responsibility for everything you say. And I accepted this challenge.
They answered, “We are the scum of the earth, everything is negative as far as we are concerned. We have nothing, not even cigarettes to smoke. And our ears have become thick because of not smoking. So if you really are a Christian, please pray to your God that we get something. Pray to your God that He will bring us something and then we will believe that He exists.”
I said, “I’m convinced that the miracle will happen, but for this we have to pray all together.” That was my condition. I went into the center, or in the middle of the room. And I made them all get up from their beds, because it is our tradition to stand in front of God as a sign of respect. And they all got up. They were all smiling and they thought it was a kind of game, and they would beat me up in the end. So I said, “Please listen carefully to the words of the prayer. And those who are able to, repeat them. And the other who was not able to repeat the words, just listen.” And I started to pray.
After one minute I started to feel by the skin of my back that something was going on. You have to realize that in this atmosphere of hatred and cynicism, and neglect, for the first time these high words of prayer were heard. A devout atmosphere of silence came into the room. And when I ended the prayer, the smiles from their faces had gone, and they were full with a new feeling. It was the first time in their lives that they heard these words, and it probably had touched their hearts. And in this complete silence I showed them with my hands that they could sit down. And at that exact moment, a small window in the door was opened, and cigarettes were thrown through the hole in the door.
Who would believe God can show Himself with cigarettes.
We don’t know His ways. Before the prayer I had told them smoking is a sin, but that God will show this miracle to show His love. Their Creator loves them despite their sins, and because of this love, He will show his miracle even in this way, not withstanding that the behavior is sinful.
I tell you this story just so you will know how my heart was burning when I was in prison. I understood it was not an ordinary imprisonment — it was a kind of mission. And I tried to make something out of this. Finally, when the KGB or authorities understood how dangerous it was to keep me together with other prisoners, I was isolated completely. And then too I understood how wise that was. Because while I was living in the world, my prayer was not strong enough, and I did not have the peace to think. I was very much involved fighting the system, and in a certain sense this influenced my spiritual life. And I understood it was necessary for me to be in isolation. Of course it was very difficult for me — I had no contact with priests, I couldn’t receive communion.
When you say it was necessary, do you mean it was God’s will?
Yes. For instance one day I felt that I absolutely needed to confess, and I started to pray to several saints, and when I directed my words to St. Seraphim, I had this physical feeling that an epitrachelion was touching my head. And literally this heavy feeling was lifted from my heart, and I felt as if I was born again. And I think that I had the strongest experience of gratitude I had during isolation. And that is the reason why sometimes I long to be in isolation again.
* * *
translation from Russian: Kathi Hansen-Love; transcription of the tape: Mitchell Goodman.
(lecture given by Jim Forest at New Skete Monastery in Cambridge, NY on 4 October 2010)
What I would like to do is take a closer look at one of our most-used prayers, “O heavenly king,” giving special attention to the words, “cleanse us from all impurity.” But first please stand up for a moment and let’s say the “O heavenly king” prayer together, using the New Skete translation:
O heavenly king, consoler, spirit of truth, everywhere present and filling all things: treasury of blessings and giver of life, come dwell within us, and cleanse us of every stain, and save our souls, O good one.
Not many words — less than forty. This is one of the oldest Christian prayers. It’s a prayer especially associated with Pentecost — the descent of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, on the Apostles — when at last Christ’s followers understood what they had witnessed and what Christ had prepared for them to do. It’s a prayer most Orthodox Christians know by heart, used in the home even in the shortest offices of morning and evening prayer. It’s also placed at the beginning of the Office of Oblation that precedes the Eucharistic Liturgy. We say and sing the words so often that they recite themselves. I am guessing that all of us who use the prayer have moments when one or another phrase hits us like an arrow shot into the center of our heart. Because it’s aprayer connected with every liturgy as well as morning and evening prayer, it is a prayer of prayers, a prayer that creates community. This is a prayer that puts us all on the same page.
The prayer does two things.
First it expresses the focus of all our prayers. It names names. In addressing the Holy Trinity, we are reminded that the Holy Trinity, the community of three Persons within the One God, is the focus and center of our lives. This is what our Christian lives are all about.
Second, it’s a fervent appeal that sums up all we are seeking. We want God to come and abide in us, to cleanse us from every impurity and to save our souls. It’s a prayer for a deep healing. We cannot cleanse ourselves or save our own souls, not without God’s help.
The first part can be broken down into three points: The first phrase — “O heavenly king, consoler, spirit of truth” — answers the question: Who are we praying to? The second — “everywhere present and filling all things” — answers the question: where are you? The third — “treasury of blessings and giver of life” — answers the questions: what do you do?
The beginning of the prayer reminds us that we are not people lacking a ruler. We have a ruler — a heavenly king — to whom we are uniquely responsible and whose demands on us have absolute priority. God has given us — not laws, in the usual sense — but a few commandments.
For example there is the Sermon on the Mount. It opens with the Beatitudes, which the Russian Church refers to as “the commandments of blessedness.” The Beatitudes are in fact a very brief summary of the Gospel. Each Beatitude has to do with aspects of living a Paschal life — that is a life not shaped by death. One way of reading each Beatitude is to use the phrase “Risen from the dead” at the beginning of each verse — for example, “Risen from the dead are the poor in spirit.”
There is also the command to forgive, and not just once but seventy times seven. Even once is rarely easy.
And there are the paired commandments — to love God (not as easy as it sounds) and to love our neighbor (much harder than it sounds). The commandment to love God is welded to the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. In the Gospel it is made clear that the neighbor referred to is not only a friendly person living next door with whom we sometimes have pleasant conversations and who might even go to the same church we do. The neighbor the commandment refers to is whomever God puts in front of us. We are not talking about relationships of mutual affection but of proximity, however brief, temporary and unsought: the beggar on the street, the atheist who despises Christianity root and branch, the fellow Christian who makes us run for cover, the politician who takes stands we find appalling, the person who just stole my wallet, the wounded stranger lying at the side of the road, the person who threatens my life or the lives of people dear to me.
We have a king and, if we are serious about calling ourselves Christians, we are people attempting to live under his rule. But it’s hard. We are sailors almost always sailing against powerful winds, the winds of our own insecurity, fears and selfishness, the winds of unhealed wounds and bitter memories, the winds of disbelief, the winds of politics, of propaganda, of slogans, of national identity, the winds of what we sense we should say and think in order to get ahead with our lives.
Our king is a heavenly king — a king, that is, not of this world — and yet a king who loves this world, who gives himself for the life of the world, a king who heals the sick of soul and body, a king who feeds the hungry, a king who forgives sins and saves the lives of sinners, a king who weeps, a king who prays for the forgiveness of those who are crucifying him, a king who hides himself in the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the homeless, the sick and the imprisoned, a king who regards our response to the least person as the ultimate criteria of salvation. Not your usual king.
Our king is someone whom we address as “consoler.” In the original Greek text, the word is “parakletos,” which can mean strengthener, advocate, counselor, consoler, encourager, comforter, helper, defender. In fact no single English word is fully adequate. Here at New Skete “consoler” has been chosen. The English word most often used in translation is “comforter,” which comes from a Latin root, “comfortare,” meaning to strengthen. God offers us simultaneously both strength for the struggle and consolation.
On the theme of strength, I often think of a remark made by Father Sergei Ovsiannikov, the rector of my parish in Amsterdam: “It is a question whether a Christian ought to a soldier, but it is obligatory for every Christian to be a warrior.” This is what Christ our King tells us when he says “I come not to bring peace but a sword.” This is not an order for us to go out and buy a sword. He neither possessed or used deadly weapons and reprimanded Peter when he used a sword against one of the people who had come to arrest Jesus. But every word Christ spoke and every action he performed cuts like a sword. Saint Paul describes the ideal Christian as a kind of a soldier who bears only one weapon, “the sword of truth.” In western iconography you can always recognize Paul not only because he is bald but because he carries a sword, a visual metaphor of his wielding the sword of truth. To use a phrase from one of the early theologians, Clement of Alexandria, we belong “to an army that sheds no blood.” We are on a battlefield but we seek no one’s death. We seek only to further our own incomplete conversion and to be made useful to God in the conversion of others.
God’s Holy Spirit is “the Spirit of Truth,” a phrase that often reminds me of the saying, “Speak the truth and shame the devil.” And there is the Russian proverb, “Eat bread and salt and speak the truth.” What a challenge it is to know the truth, speak the truth and to live a truthful life. To speak truthfully is something much more than saying what you sincerely believe on some topic, though that can sometimes be hard enough. Just to know the truth about simple things is not easy. How many innocent people are in prison today for crimes they didn’t commit, found guilty and sentenced because a witness mistakenly identified them as the guilty party. The witness gave his or her testimony in all sincerity but was in error and the wrong person now spends long years in prison as a result. Sincerity does not equal truthfulness. One can be sincerely wrong.
How great a challenge it is to live a life shaped by truth — to long to know the truth and to struggle day after day to free oneself from errors, many of which seem to enter our lives through the air we breathe. Sometimes atheists are braver than believers in this regard. To use the word “comfort” in its modern sense, it isn’t so comfortable living in a universe that has no actual meaning, held together by no glue other than gravity, with your consciousness and being ending forever the moment you die. On the other hand, in our time atheism can also be act of conformity — it is currently fashionable to be an atheist, a way of signaling that you are one of the bright ones — just as in other times it was often nothing more than an act of conformity to be a Christian.
Answering the question “where are you, God?”, we next have the phrase “everywhere present and filling all things.” We might sometimes wish, like Jonah, for God to be anywhere but here, but God cannot be unpresent. Light cannot hide itself in darkness. Even in hell God is not absent — it’s impossible. Hell is what we experience when we attempt to be absent from God, that is not to love. As Bernanos put it, “Hell is not to love anymore.” God is everywhere present. A well-made church does everything possible help make us aware of that presence and open our hearts to it, but God is not less present in your kitchen or in a bus or in prison or in a place where people are enduring torture. And not only is God present but all creation is filled with that presence. We may use what we mine from the earth to make deadly weapons, tools that remind us of hell, but the materials weapons are made from should remind us of God. “All creation sings Your glory,” we say in one of the evening prayers. All that God creates has a sacramental potential for us. All we need to bring to the encounter is a sense of wonder.
Answering the questions “What do you do? How do we know you?”, we address God as the “treasury of blessings and the giver of life.”
Who isn’t interested in treasure? As a boy I used to make treasure maps and imagine myself a pirate. I’ve outgrown that fantasy, but who doesn’t seek a treasure of blessings? Adam may be our legendary forefather, but Aladdin is one of our most popular role models. There must be a magic lantern somewhere, if only I could find it. But the treasury of blessings referred to in this prayer does not require a magic lantern and will not lead anyone to sacks of gold. The blessing referred to here is a life in communion, first of all with God, but also with each other. Connection. What a blessing it is to become capable of seeing the image of God in another human being. The more often it happens, the happier we are. To see God in others helps us to see God. It is a foretaste of heaven. It is being able to love, to experience and share in God’s love for others. The blessing of all blessings is to be aware of God’s presence — not the idea of God being present, but being alive and awake in that presence. Being unable to see the divine presence in others is a kind of blindness, worse than simply not seeing. I remember Dorothy Day saying, “Those who cannot see God in the poor are atheists indeed.”
Only now comes what we are actually asking for in this short prayer: “come and abide in us and cleanse of every impurity and save our souls, O good one.”
One could make a list a mile long of various impurities that most of us struggle with. I want to concentrate on only three: tribalism, fear, and living in a hurry. (I limit myself to three on the advice of Metropolitan Kallistos.)
Tribalism first. One aspect of our damaged human nature is a strong tribal tendency, bringing with it the illusion of separateness. While the life of anyone in this room could be saved by blood donations given by a Latin American Aztec, an Alaskan Inuit or an African Zulu, we prefer to recognize ourselves as chiefly linked with those who share our nationality, language and primary stories, or — when tribalism has a religious character — with those who share a similar ritual life, a similar religious vocabulary. Within our tribal and sub-tribal boundaries, we are willing to make notable sacrifices, even to risk and give our lives if there is no honorable alternative. Yet the tribe excludes far more than it includes. We see ourselves as radically and everlastingly separate from the vast majority, though in reality — if we mean what we’re saying when we pray the “Our Father” — they are our brothers and sisters, equally descended with us from those mysterious first humans we call Adam and Eve, and equally the object of God’s love and mercy. There is a rabbinic commentary that says the reason God made only one Adam and one Eve was that so no one could regard himself as being of higher descent, or being of separate descent.
We even have tribalism in the Orthodox Church. I’ve been in Orthodox churches where the unspoken question was, “Why are you here? Your ancestors did not come from the place where our ancestors were born. You are not welcome.” At a 19th century church council presided over by the Patriarch of Constantinople, the nationalizing or tribalizing of Christianity was called Ethnophyletism — literally “love of the tribe” — and declared a heresy, but it’s a heresy that thrives to this day.
Keeping the “other” at a distance is one of the hardest impurities for God to remove from us because we are so intensely attached to tribal identity. We are reluctant even to recognize the problem.
“The essence of sin is the fear of the Other, which is part of the rejection of God,” wrote Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon. “Once the affirmation of the ’self’ is realized through the rejection and not the acceptance of the Other — this is what Adam in his freedom chose to do — it is only natural and inevitable for the other to become an enemy and a threat. Reconciliation with God is a necessary precondition for reconciliation with any ‘other’.”
Who is “the Other”? Zizioulas capitalizes the word “Other” to stress its importance and mystery. The “Other” is anyone whom I am tempted to regard as better dead than alive or better far than near. In most cases it is someone outside my tribe, my ethnic, religious or national group. We tend to take a fair amount of care about intentional killing within the tribe — due process of law, etcetera — but not very much when killing outside the tribe. Americans carefully count Americans killed in war but try not to count others killed by us, though they are vastly more numerous. As a Christian, I may in theory believe that each human being — each “Other” — is a bearer of the image of God, but in practice? The truth is it rarely crosses my mind that people outside my tribe are bearers of God’s image. In fact I have a really hard time discerning that image within the tribe, indeed even within my own family.
What Metropolitan Zizioulas is saying is that, in rejecting the “Other,” I am not just rejecting a particular person but rejecting that person’s Divine parent. This is the essence of sin, the dividing of the human race into the “us” and the “non-us” — that is, assuming I have developed beyond the point of the even more primary division of “me” and “not-me.” Those who are “not-us” can be dehumanized and become targets of war without our even regarding it as a sin. Reconciliation, Zizioulas says, begins with God, but there can be no reconciliation with God if we refuse to seek reconciliation with “the Other.”
This insight is put even more simply by one of the saints of the desert, Abba Dorotheos of Gaza; “As you come closer to your neighbor, you come closer to God. As you go further from your neighbor, you go further from God.”
Then let us consider fear, fear being the primary force restraining us from acts of love.
If we would sum up the angelic message in a few words, it would be this: “Be not afraid.” But most of us are polluted by fear, and perhaps never more so than since the two towers of the World Trade Center fell. Back in 2001, many people, including to his credit President Bush, went out of their way to make clear that it wasn’t Muslims who were the enemy, only fanatics who use their religion as an excuse to commit murder. No one was talking in those days about banning Muslim cultural centers or mosques. But recently such things have become burning issues. It’s no longer just the Islamic fanatics who are the problem. For many people it’s Islam itself. For them, every Muslim is under suspicion. You even hear people say Islam is not a religion, it’s an ideology. Some say the Koran has a lot in common with than Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf. While only a few upright citizens want to get rid of freedom of religion as a basic right, there are many people who make clear that it’s not a right they want practiced locally. There are devout Christians who now object to identifying Muslims as descendants of Abraham and “people of the Book,” that is a monotheistic people who have in common with Jews and Christians worship of one God, for in failing to recognize Jesus as more than a prophet, it’s argued, Muslims fail to recognize or worship the true God. One even finds Christians who have decided Islam is the Antichrist. The pope, who used to be cast for that role by generations of anti-Catholics, has now been demoted to a slightly less satanic part because we can only have one Antichrist at a time.
If you want an example of a very different way of relating to Muslims, consider Saint Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai Desert. This is one of the oldest monasteries in the world, a place of uninterrupted prayer and worship since its founding in the sixth century. If you look attentively at photos of the monastery, close to the monastery church you will notice a bright, white tower. This is the minaret of the only mosque the world that exists inwithin a monastic enclosure. The Fatimid Mosque, still used by the monks’ Bedouin grounds-keepers and neighbors, was originally a hospice for pilgrims, but in the year 1106, more than nine hundred years ago, was converted to its present use. It must be one of the oldest mosques in the world. No doubt the monk’s hospitality to Muslims helps explain how it survived all these centuries in what became Muslim territory and became the safe harbor for a number of the oldest icons and biblical manuscripts to survive from Christianity’s first millennium. It’s a striking witness to a genuinely Christian response to conflict in a non-fear-driven manner.
Fear drives so many of our choices. In his essay “The Root of War is Fear,” written nearly half a century ago, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton noted that it is not so much the fear people have of each other “as the fear they have of everything. It is not merely that they do not trust one another; they do not even trust themselves…. Only love — which means humility — can exorcize the fear that is at the root of war.” This was an essay which I mailed to my father, a Marxist, who soon after responded with appreciation but said he could not agree. “I greatly respect Thomas Merton and am amazed to see so famous a Catholic priest opposing war, but I have to disagree with his view that the root of war is fear,” he said. “In my opinion, the root of war is bad economics.” Years passed without either of us mentioning Merton’s essay. I only discovered he had continued thinking about it when, a decade later, I received a letter in which he told me, “I still think about what Father Merton said and want you to know that I have come to realize that the root of bad economics is fear.”
Not only war and social injustice but any failure in moral life, private or collective, often has its deepest roots in fear. Fear of rejection by our peers, with all its potentially dire consequences, is an extraordinarily powerful force in life, far more potent for most of us than any commandments of Christ or the witness of the saints.
The Orthodox Paschal proclamation is “Christ tramples down death by death.” Similarly the cure of fear is fear — not fear of others but fear of God. I don’t mean to suggest the two fears are the same. Fear of God is not similar to the terror someone might feel if he had to stand before Hitler or Stalin’s desk. Fear of God is something vastly different — a condition of absolute awe, astonishment and adoration which must overwhelm any person aware he stands in God’s presence. “Fear of God” is an empowering fear. It gives the strength to swim against the tides of hatred, enmity, propaganda, and socially-organized murder in which we are made complicit even if others do the actual killing.
The fear of a tyrant cannot open the gateway of love — only the fear of God does this. To love another — that is to be willing to lay down one’s life for another — is never one’s own achievement but only God’s gift, specifically a gift of the Holy Spirit who purifies the heart. Even love of one’s wife or husband, one’s children or parents, is God’s gift. It is impossible to love without God’s grace, yet only that love is perfect which sees and responds to God’s image in those whom we have no familial or social obligation to love. “The soul that has not known the Holy Spirit,” taught Saint Silouan of the Holy Mountain, “does not understand how one can love one’s enemies, and does not accept it.” As a young man, this Russian monk once nearly killed a neighbor. Later in life, having become a monk, he insists, “He who does not love his enemies does not have God’s grace.”
My third and last point has to do with the problem of living in a hurry. In our society, at least for those of us living outside a monastic community, this is a major obstacle to the purification of the heart. We’re way too busy. We often feel like prisoners of rush-hour traffic. While busy-ness was sometimes a problem to our ancestors, few of them could imagine a culture living at such high speed as our own, any more than they could imagine the noise levels we take for granted.
I recall an experience I had during the late sixties when I was accompanying Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who was visiting the United States. He was about to give a lecture on the war in Vietnam at the University of Michigan. Waiting for the elevator doors to open, I noticed my brown-robed companion gazing at the electric clock above the elevator doors. Pointing to the clock, he said to me, “You know, Jim, a few hundred years ago it would not have been a clock, it would have been a crucifix.” He was right. The omnipresent clock has become a religious object in our secular world, one so powerful that it could depose another.
I recall a story related in the journal of Daniel Wheeler, a Quaker engineer who had come to Russia from Britain at the time of Tsar Alexander I to take charge of draining swamp land in the Ochta region south of St. Petersburg. Several peasants had been sent to his house with an urgent message. They knocked on the door, got no response, and went inside hoping to find the engineer. First things first, however. As Orthodox Christians, they immediately looked for the icon corner in order to say a prayer. In an austere Quaker house, this proved difficult. There was no vigil lamp and nothing looked like an icon. The peasants knew things were different in other countries. What would a British icon look like? The settled on the mantelpiece clock. Standing before it, they crossed themselves, bowed, and were reciting a prayer — perhaps it was “O heavenly king” — when Daniel Wheeler walked in the door.
Were the peasants mistaken? The ticking icon on the mantle or the quartz watch on the wrist may not often be kissed but surely it is devoutly venerated by “advanced” people in our post-Christian world.
I think too of an experiment in the sixties at Princeton. A number of theological students were asked to prepare sermons on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. These were to be taped for grading by a professor of homiletics. It seemed an ordinary assignment, but those responsible for the project were not especially interested what the aspiring pastors would say about the parable. Without their knowledge, the students had been divided into three groups. Some were to be called on a certain morning and told that they could come to the taping room any time in the day; others were to be told that they had to be there within the next few hours; and the rest were to be told that an error had been made — they should have been called with their appointment time the day before and they had to come without delay.
The testers had arranged that, as each student arrived at the building where the sermons were being recorded, they would find someone lying on the ground by a bench near the entrance, seemingly unconscious and in need.
What were the results? Barely a third took the time to stop and do anything for the person lying on the ground. Those who did stop, it was discovered, were mainly the ones who had been told they could come any time that day. They felt they had time, and that sense of having time gave them time to be notice and respond — time for a merciful action. They weren’t ruled by deadlines and over-crowded schedules — the constant problem of many people, not least clergy and lawyers, which perhaps is why Jesus cast a priest and Levite in those unfortunate parts in his parable.
In reality everyone has time, indeed nothing has been given us so equally, but people walking side by side on the same street can have a very different sense of time, so that one of them is so preoccupied by a demanding schedule, or worry or fear or plans for the future, that he hardly notices what is immediately at hand, while the next person, even though living a life full of obligations, is very attentive. Each person has freedom — to pause, to listen, to pray, to be late for an appointment, to change direction. The purification of the heart makes us freer, more capable of hearing and seeing those around us and responding to their needs.
How many people have been unable to follow the example of the Good Samaritan because they glanced at their watch and realized they just didn’t have time?
It can be hard work learning how to get off the speedway inside our heads. The late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, who for many years headed the Russian Orthodox Church in Britain suggested as a basic exercise of spiritual life sitting down and saying to yourself,
“I am seated, I am doing nothing, I will be doing nothing for five minutes,” and then relax. One or two minutes is the most you will be able to endure to begin with. Continually throughout this time realize, “I am here in the presence of God, in my own presence and in the presence of all the furniture that is around me, just still, moving nowhere.” There is of course one more thing you must do: you must decide that within these two minutes, five minutes, which you have assigned to learning that the present exists, you will not be pulled out of it by the telephone, by a knock on the door, or by a sudden upsurge of energy that prompts you to do at once what you have left undone for the past ten years. So you settle down and say, “Here I am,” and you are. If you learn to do this at lost moments in your life when you have learned not to fidget inwardly, but to be completely calm and happy, stable and serene, then extend the few minutes to a longer time and then to a little longer still. [The Essence of Prayer; London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1989; pp 181-182. This section of the book was also published separately as School for Prayer.]
It’s a simple but not easy exercise, a kind of prayer that is both physical and spiritual, in which we ask God to assist up in the purification of our hearts.
The more engaged we are in the world, the more troubled by the destruction of the environment or the murderous violence or war, of injustice and cruelty, of abortion and other forms of killing, of the decay of civil life occurring in so many places, the more we need to take to heart this kind of subversive advice. Whatever we do that has some value stands on the foundation of prayer and stillness before God. Neglect these foundations and the most well-intentioned efforts are likely to go badly off course. Our work will be as impure as our hearts.
Then what is a pure heart? A heart free of possessiveness, a heart capable of mourning, a heart which thirsts for what is right, a merciful heart, a loving heart, a heart not ruled by passions, an undivided heart, a heart aware of the image of God in others, a heart aware of God’s presence in creation. In the words of Saint Isaac of Syria: “A person is truly pure of heart when he considers all human beings as good and no created thing appears impure or defiled to him.”
Purification of the heart is the lifelong struggle of seeking a more God-centered life, a heart illuminated with the presence of the Holy Trinity. Purification of the heart is the moment-to-moment prayerful discipline of seeking to be so aware of God’s presence that no space is left in the heart for fear, hatred, greed, lust or vengeance. Purification of the heart is the striving to place the mind under the rule of the heart, the mind representing the analytic and organizational aspect of consciousness. A pure heart is a heart through which the mercy of God flows toward others. A pure heart is a heart without contempt, a source of hope and patience and compassion. Those with a pure heart are a source of encouragement to others.
The more pure the heart, taught Saint Isaac, the more aware one becomes of the Creator in creation. Isaac laid great stress on ascetic struggle — prayer, fasting, voluntary poverty, generosity to the poor — as the way to purify the heart. A warrior against passions of the world, this seventh-century bishop was passionate in his love of creation, not only the human being made in God’s image but everything which God has graced with life. “What is purity?” Saint Isaac asked. “It is a heart full of compassion for the whole of created nature … And what is a compassionate heart? …. It is a heart which burns for all creation, for the birds, for the beasts, for the devils, for every creature. When he thinks about them, when he looks at them, his eyes fill with tears. So strong, so violent is his compassion … that his heart breaks when he sees the pain and suffering of the humblest creature. That is why he prays with tears at every moment … for all the enemies of truth and for all who cause him harm, that they may be protected and forgiven. He prays even for serpents in the boundless compassion that wells up in his heart after God’s likeness.”
Let’s finish where we started, by standing and saying the prayer together:
O heavenly king, consoler, spirit of truth, everywhere present and filling all things: treasury of blessings and giver of life, come dwell within us, and cleanse us of every stain, and save our souls, O good one.
(lecture given by Jim Forest 11 October 2010 at St Elizabeth Orthodox Christian Church in Murfreesboro, Tennessee and 16 October 2010 at St Athanasius Orthodox Church in Nicholasville, Kentucky)
The title of this talk could also be “Remaining Christian After 9-11.” Nine eleven — the only historical event I can think of that we refer to by numbers. Has there been an event since Pearl Harbor that has stalked Americans so powerfully? We are haunted by image after image, like icons from hell: the hijacked planes crashing into the two towers, the orange plumes of fire, small grey dots that we realize are men and women leaping to their deaths to escape an inferno behind them, the sudden collapse of first one tower and then the other, the stunned, bloodied survivors emerging from the clouds of ash, the “have you seen so-and-so” notices tacked to walls and fences in the surrounding area… So many such images are burned into our collective memory. Ground Zero has become a place of pilgrimage, as has the quiet field where Flight 93 crashed in Stonycreek Township, Pennsylvania.
When Americans think of the word “enemies” these days, the people responsible for the attacks of nine-eleven and many other acts of terrorism are at the top of the list. However much or little we know about them as individuals, however much or little we know about their religion and its many divisions and sects, we know that the people involved in these attacks were Muslims who believed what they were doing, even killing fellow Muslims, was blessed by Allah.
America’s response as a nation has been two immensely destructive and costly wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many Americans have died in combat while far more bear wounds — some physical, many in mind and soul — that they will contend with for the rest of their lives. Meanwhile we as a people are unrepentant that the war in Iraq was fought against a regime that had no connection with Al Quaida, had nothing to do with nine-eleven, and possessed no weapons of mass destruction. Nor do we seem very bothered about many noncombatant casualties our weapons have produced in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and in Pakistan as well, where our pilotless drone aircraft fire missiles that often kill the innocent — “collateral damage,” as it’s called. The mantra is, “Sad, but these things happen. We try to keep them at a minimum.”
During much of the same period there has been a major economic crisis in which the US has been hard hit. Nearly ten percent of the work force is unemployed. One in seven Americans is now living below the poverty line. Millions of people are out of work. Many thousands have lost their homes. There are tent cities all over the country. The poorer still sleep under bridges or wherever they can find some small degree of protection from the elements. The fortunate ones, the people who still have homes and jobs, feel little security. A lot of people go to sleep worrying.
A recession bordering on depression plus a war with an enemy who could be anywhere — it’s no wonder that we’re very much on edge. It’s a perfect moment for hotheads to gain an audience. Turn on the radio or TV, do a little browsing, and there the rabble-rousers are, some of them Christians, announcing their views with many exclamation marks and very few question marks. And many people are listening and nodding their heads.
Between the ranters and the grim realities of war plus economic bad news, it’s not surprising that we are suffering a pandemic of fear and anger. It’s at flood level, possibly worse now than it was nine years ago. Back in 2001, many people, including President Bush, went out of their way to make clear that Muslims weren’t the enemy, only fanatics who using their religion as an excuse to commit murder. No one was talking in those days about banning Muslim cultural centers or mosques. But in recent months such things have become burning issues. It’s no longer just the Islamic zealots who are the problem. For many people it’s now Islam itself. For them, every Muslim is under suspicion. You even hear people say Islam is not a religion, it’s an ideology. Some say the Koran has a lot in common with Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf. While relatively few people want to get rid of freedom of religion as a civil right, there are many people who make it clear that it’s not a right they want practiced locally. There are devout Christians who now object to identifying Muslims as descendants of Abraham and “people of the Book,” that is a monotheistic people who have in common with Jews and Christians worship of one God, for in failing to recognize Jesus, it’s argued, Muslims fail to recognize or worship the true God. These days one finds Christians who have decided Islam is the Antichrist. The pope, who used to be cast for that role by generations of anti-Catholics, has now been demoted to a slightly less satanic part because we can only have one Antichrist at a time. Because it’s nothing less than the Antichrist we’re dealing with, you can find Christians who say this gives us time out on that problematic command of Jesus that Christians must love our enemies.
In fact many Christians would rather their pastor ignored certain parts of the the New Testament. Probably you have heard of Tony Campolo, a popular Baptist minister. I recently came upon this comment from him: “I find it strange,” he said, “that the last place I can really quote Jesus these days is in American churches. They don’t want to hear ‘overcome evil with good.’ They don’t want to hear ‘those who live by the sword die by the sword.’ They don’t want to hear ‘if your enemy hurts you, do good, feed, clothe, minister to him.’ They don’t want to hear ‘blessed are the merciful.’ They don’t want to hear ‘love your enemies’.”
We need to ask ourselves: Are the more challenging teachings of Jesus only for times when they are easy to practice? Does scripture change according the political season or the nation in which we happen to live? Can we call ourselves Christians while only following those teachings of Jesus that aren’t so difficult and won’t get us into hot water? I doubt any of us would want to be Christian only by label. Label isn’t substance. I think back to when I was a kid going to high school in Hollywood and worked one summer on the Warner Brothers movie ranch with it’s big Western town set — a complete town in which each building was all front and no back — great for gunfights but nowhere to live. Do we want our Christianity to be like that?
My assertion is that Christ’s teachings in their totality are for anyone trying to be a Christian. With that in mind, I’d like to spend a little time attempting to reflect on love of enemies in our post-nine-eleven world and the harm it does to us — and to others — when we decide, in times of conflict and war, that love of enemies is not an essential part of being a Christian. This means we need to take a close look at this particular part of the Gospel, trying to see what it actually means — and also consider at some of the obstacles that stand in our way in living it out.
In the Sermon in the Mount, there is a passage in which Christ speaks about our relationship with enemies:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
My guess is that passages like this led Mark Twain to comment, “It’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that bother me. It’s the parts I do understand.”
Let’s wait a moment before considering what Jesus meant by love and instead start with the word “enemy.” In commanding his followers to love our enemies, what is meant by enemy?
The Gospel text was originally written in Greek. The Greek word that we translate as “enemy” is echthros. It simply means someone we hate. The hatred may be justified — someone who is attacking us — or it may be based on our own misperceptions or fears. One way or the other, an enemy is anyone we feel threatened by. It might be your mother-in-law or it might be Osama ben Laden.
If you look at its root meaning, the English word “enemy” takes in even more people than the Greek. Enemy comes from the Latin word inamicus. Amicus means friend — stick in at the front it and you get inamicus: non-friend. It’s very digital — the world is divided into friends and enemies. An enemy is anyone we would exclude from the category of friend. That’s a lot of people.
Notice that, in his instruction to love enemies, Christ added, “and pray for then.” One good way of knowing who your enemies are is by listing all the people, or groups of people, you don’t pray for and in fact would rather not pray for or refuse to pray for — people who, in your heart of hearts, you think of mainly with anger.
The next question is even more important, perhaps the most primary of all of life’s questions: What does Jesus mean by love? It’s definitely not the love we hear about in songs. The love Christ is speaking about has nothing to do with a Romeo-and-Juliet state of passionate mutual attraction. Love, understood from a biblical point of view, is not sentimental affection. It has nothing to do with Valentine’s Day. It has very little to do with feelings and a great deal to do with what we do. It’s how we care for each other.
We see what Christ means by love in such gestures as healing the wounded ear of one of the men who was arresting him at the Garden of Gethsemani. It is also an act of love to admonish Peter, his good friend and brave disciple, with the words, “put away your sword for he who lives by the sword perishes by the sword.” A loving act for an enemy, healing a wound, and a loving word for a well-meaning but misguided friend.
We learn about love in many of the parables. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, it is not his co-religionists who come to the aid of a man robbed, beaten and left to die on the side of the road, but a passing Samaritan, someone whom Jews at the time would regard with contempt. Were any of us to retell the story using contemporary categories, it would become the Parable of the Good Muslim, and we would be telling it, in part, to challenge the forces of hatred and enmity in our own world. The point would be, as it was when Jesus first told the story, that a neighbor is not identified by his degree of us-ness but by his compassion, his active love. A neighbor is a person who, putting aside his plans for the day, acts mercifully to another and does so without regard for any external factor or social or religious dividing line.
Love is caring for the needs of another person even though you wish you didn’t have to and even though you have no reason to think he would do the same for you. If a mother fails to feed a child because she is too tired or irritated but then says “I love that child,” who would believe her? Love is first of all how we care for each other, not how we feel about them at the time. Feelings are secondary. This is something Saint Paul stresses by saying, “If your enemy hungers, feed him.” Your enemy’s need is your opportunity to let him know that you want enmity to end.
Love is communicated by compassionate, merciful actions. We saw a powerful example of this a few years ago when the Greeks responded with breathtaking generosity to urgent needs in Turkey, the historic enemy of Greece, after an especially devastating earthquake. When Greece was struck by a major earthquake a year or two later, the Turks were inspired to reach out in a similar way. In the process, Greek-Turkish enmity, though certainly not ended, was significantly reduced.
We see an example of this kind of reaching out to an adversary at Saint Catherine’s Monastery, located in the Sinai Desert, an area under Muslim domination since the year 639, only a few years after the death of Muhammad. Saint Catherine’s is one of the oldest monasteries in the world, a place of uninterrupted prayer and worship since its founding in about 550 in a region already long populated by many Christian ascetics. If you look attentively at photos of the monastery, within the wall, adjacent to the monastery church, you will notice a bright, white tower. This is the minaret of the only mosque within a monastic enclosure. The Fatimid Mosque, which I’m told is still used by the monks’ Bedouin neighbors, was originally a hospice for pilgrims, but in the year 1106, more than nine hundred years ago, it was converted to its present use. It must be one of the oldest mosques in the world. No doubt the monk’s hospitality to Muslims helps explain how the monastery survived all these centuries in what became Muslim territory and also how it became the safe harbor for a number of the oldest icons and biblical manuscripts to survive from Christianity’s first millennium. The irony is, it was thanks to being in the Muslim world that the icons survived. In the Byzantine world in the iconoclastic periods, countless ions were destroyed at the emperor’s command. The monastery, with its many generations of monks, offers a continuing witness to a genuinely Christian response to conflict in a non-fear-driven manner. By their act of hospitality, the monks give us a lesson in how Christians can make enemies, or potential enemies, into friends. It’s something like the miracle at Cana at which Jesus converted water into wine.
Let me give one other example of how the walls of enmity can be pierced in unexpected ways. A few years ago my wife and I decided to celebrate Pascha in Istanbul, still the home of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople. On Friday of Bright Week, the first Friday after Easter, we took a ferry to one of the nearby islands, Buyukada, where we walked to St. George’s Monastery on the south end of the island. It wasn’t clear from the map, but this involved a long uphill climb along a cobblestone path. We were surprised by how much company we had along the way — not crowds, but we were far from alone. We were puzzled — Orthodox Christians are a rarity in modern Turkey. All along the path there were pieces of fabric and napkins tied to the branches and lots of colorful string and thread running branch to branch. We were reminded of the prayer flags in Tibet. The higher we got, the more beautiful the view. Finally we reached the top only to discover the monastery was not currently occupied and its church was locked. But the biggest surprise was that the monastery was still very much a place of prayer, not inside but outside. Candles were burning on every available ledge. Women, men and children stood around the church, often with their hands extended and palms up. It took a few minutes before it dawned on us that we were probably the only Christians present. Everyone else was Muslim. This is one of the many places in the Middle East where Muslims pilgrims worship at Christian shrines. Beyond the church, families, having completed their prayers, were picnicking. We learned that day that we had more in common with Muslims than we dared to imagine. Their prayer inspired our prayer, their devotion our devotion.
But generally speaking we mainly hear unsettling news about Muslims and they about us. “If it bleeds, it leads” was one of the first proverbs I learned as a young journalist. If you are looking for good news, skip page one. We hear about people driven to homicidal rage or despair or both who, in the name of Allah, blow themselves up while killing others, abuse of women in Muslim countries, people being stoned to death after being condemned under Sharia law, etc. In the Muslim world there is a similar concentration of news that fuels hostility — American bombs that have fallen on innocent people, people held indefinitely without charges or trial on suspicion of being terrorists, reports of torture, attacks on Muslims, the burning of Muslim schools, plans to burn Korans, etc. On both sides, events that justify enmity are well publicized. It isn’t that the reports are untrue, only that so much is left out.
What can we as Christians, as followers of Christ, do to overcome enmity?
In the passage I read from the Sermon on the Mount, Christ says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” For anyone who wishes to love his enemies, our first duty is to pray for them. Without that beginning point, it’s very difficult to go further. But if I had a dollar for every Christian who doesn’t pray for his enemies, my guess is I would be on the cover of Fortune magazine and have Bill Gates as my next-door neighbor.
Whenever you pray for someone, it creates a thread of connection. There may already be a strong connection anyway, as when you pray for a friend or family member, but when you pray for someone you fear or hate, then that thread is the only connection. Such a prayer creates connection where none existed. What do we ask of God? It’s enough to pray for the health, healing, well-being and salvation of an enemy. As for details, God doesn’t need our advice. But only we, through prayer, can connect ourselves to people who we regard as enemies. One can pray for specific people, like Osama ben Laden, or one can pray for large groups of people whose individual names we do not know. Keep a prayer list and use it daily. You will discover that once you begin praying for people you wish didn’t exist, you begin to think about them differently.
With the foundation of prayer, one can go further: learn more about Islam (which is as complex a phenomenon as Christianity), meet and talk with Muslims, even take part in events, nationally and internationally, that in various ways seek nonviolent solutions.
What are the obstacles to love of enemies? We could make a long list. I’d like to talk briefly about only three: fear, stories that undermine the Gospel, and peer group pressure.
First, let’s think about fear.
“The essence of sin is the fear of the Other, which is part of the rejection of God,” wrote Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon. “Once the affirmation of the ‘self’ is realized through the rejection and not the acceptance of the Other — this is what Adam in his freedom chose to do — it is only natural and inevitable for the other to become an enemy and a threat. Reconciliation with God is a necessary precondition for reconciliation with any ‘other’.”
Who is “the Other”? Zizioulas capitalizes the word “Other” to stress its importance. The “Other,” in most cases, is someone outside my tribe, my ethnic, religious or national group. We tend to take a fair amount of care about intentional killing within the tribe — due process of law, etcetera — but not very much when killing outside the tribe. We carefully count Americans killed in war and try not to count others killed by us, though they may be far more numerous. As a Christian, I may in theory believe that each human being — each “Other” — is a bearer of the image of God, but in practice? The truth is it rarely crosses my mind that people outside my tribe are bearers of God’s image. In fact I have a really hard time discerning that image within the tribe, indeed even within my own family.
What Metropolitan Zizioulas is saying is that, in rejecting the “Other,” I am not just rejecting a particular person or group of people but rejecting that person’s Divine parent. This is the essence of sin, the dividing of the human race into the “us” and the “non-us.” Those who are “not-us” can be dehumanized and become targets of war without our even regarding it as a sin. Reconciliation, Zizioulas says, begins with God, but there can be no reconciliation with God if we refuse to seek reconciliation with “the Other.”
Not only war and social injustice but any failure in moral life, private or collective, often has its deepest roots in fear. Fear drives so many of our choices. In his essay “The Root of War is Fear,” the monk Thomas Merton noted that it is not so much the fear people have of each other “as the fear they have of everything. It is not merely that they do not trust one another; they do not even trust themselves…. Only love — which means humility — can exorcize the fear that is at the root of war.” This was an essay which I mailed to my father. Soon after he responded with appreciation but said he could not agree. “I greatly respect Thomas Merton, but I have to disagree with his view that the root of war is fear,” he said. “In my opinion, the root of war is bad economics.” Years passed without either of us mentioning Merton’s essay. I only discovered he had continued thinking about it when, a decade later, I received a letter in which he told me, “I still think about what Thomas Merton said and want you to know that I have come to realize that the root of bad economics is fear.”
Christ tramples down death by death. Similarly the cure of fear is fear — not fear of others but fear of God. I don’t mean to suggest the two fears are the same. Fear of God is not similar to the terror someone might feel if he had to stand before Hitler or Stalin’s desk. Fear of God is something vastly different — a condition of absolute awe, astonishment and adoration which must overwhelm any person aware he stands in God’s presence. “Fear of God” is an empowering fear. It gives the strength to swim against the tides of hatred, enmity, propaganda, and socially-organized murder in which we are made complicit even if others do the actual killing.
The fear of a tyrant cannot open the gateway of love — only the fear of God does this. To love another — that is to be willing to lay down one’s life for another — is never one’s own achievement but only God’s gift, specifically a gift of the Holy Spirit who purifies the heart. Even love of one’s wife or husband, one’s children or parents, is God’s gift. It is impossible to love without God’s grace, yet only that love is perfect which sees and responds to God’s image in those whom we have no familial or social obligation to love. “The soul that has not known the Holy Spirit,” taught Saint Silouan of the Holy Mountain, “does not understand how one can love one’s enemies, and does not accept it.” As a young man, this Russian monk once nearly killed a neighbor. Later in life, having become a monk, he insists, “He who does not love his enemies does not have God’s grace.”
Another obstacle to the love of enemies is the influence in our lives of stories that undermine the Gospel:
We are very influenced by films. Cinema a powerful medium. Our primary text is what I call the “The Gospel According to John Wayne.” It’s a Gospel that preaches salvation by firepower. The basic idea in many movies is that certain people have not just taken an evil turn in life but are evil down to the marrow of their bones, evil in their DNA. The only solution is to kill them.
When I say “The Gospel According to John Wayne,” I am not talking about the actual John Wayne, only the role he played in so many movies. The classic Western is a tale about how good men with guns save the community from evil men with guns by killing them. The classic scene is the gunfight on Main Street in a newly-settled town in the wild west, though the same story can be played out in the ancient world, any modern city, or on a planet light years away that exists only in the film maker’s imagination. The Gospel According to John Wayne isn’t an ignoble story. There is true courage in it – the readiness of the hero to lay down his life to protect his community. Thus to a certain extent it’s a Christian story – a modern retelling of the legend of Saint George and the dragon, except that in the Christian legend of George, the saint only wounds the dragon. Afterward it’s cared for by the very people who formerly had sacrificed their children to it. The George legend is about risking one’s life to bring about conversion, of self, of others, of enemies. It’s exactly what Christians did in bringing about conversion in the Roman world.
The problem with the modern “The Gospel According to John Wayne” is that it hides from us the fact that there is no such thing as a completely evil person – also no such thing as a completely good person. As Solzhenitsyn, survivor of Stalin’s prison camps, wrote in The Gulag Archipelago:
“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of hearts, there remains … an un-uprooted small corner of evil.” (vol. 2, “The Ascent.”)
Solzhenitsyn reminds us that we don’t need to go far to meet a murderer. We only need to look in the mirror. I don’t mean that each of us has literally taken someone’s life, but at the very least we have had occasion to fantasize about killing another person or being glad someone else did the actual killing. Certainly that’s true of me. Most of us have experienced times of rage when murderous thoughts flooded our minds, or times of depression when self-murder — suicide — was a real temptation.
The missing element in our culture’s dominant story is the mystery that dominates the Bible right from the Book of Genesis: We are made in the image and likeness of God. The human “we” is all of us without exception, from Saint Francis of Assisi to Osama bin Laden, from Jack the Ripper to Mother Theresa. Even Stalin, even Hitler. The traditional Christian teaching is that the image of God exists in each person as something indestructible, still there no matter how well hidden, but that, by our fear-driven choices, the likeness can only be recovered through ascetic effort and God’s grace. “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image,” notes the writer Anne Lamott, “when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
Last but not least, there is the immense power of peer group pressure.
I first became consciously aware of the peer group pressure when I was in my early twenties and belonged to a community whose main work was to provide food and other forms of assistance to people living on the streets in a derelict section of lower Manhattan. The community was also concerned with civil rights, preparations for war and various other social issues. Part of the weekly rhythm of our life was for a few of us to go uptown once a week to the headquarters of the Civil Defense Agency on Lexington Avenue. Here we stood on the four corners of the nearest intersection handing out copies of a leaflet. I can’t recall the leaflet’s text in detail, but no doubt it pointed out that going into cellars and fallout shelters, or hiding under desks, would not save you in the event of nuclear war. Even should you exit your shelter alive, the world you would be returning to would not be friendly to the human presence. Probably we argued that our best protection was in dialogue with adversaries rather than in preparations for nuclear war.
Did many people accept the leaflet? No. It was something of a miracle to find any takers. The big discovery I made in my attempts to pass it out was that, given the fact that the red traffic light system created waves of people instead of a steady flow, should I succeed in getting the leaflet into the hands of the first person in a group coming my way, my chance of getting others who were part of that wave to take it were hugely improved. Though few of the people following the leader knew each other — all they had in common was the fact that they were pedestrians going from one place to another in mid-town Manhattan and had been gathered into groups by the streetlight system — they tended to imitate the response of the person up front. I actually prayed for the person in front — invariably a man in a hurry, often with irritation on his face — to notice my friendly face and take my very important leaflet.
It was a useful lesson for any would-be peacemaker. All of us are constantly taking cues from one another. Not many people are inclined to solitary gestures. Like many varieties of fish, we prefer to swim in schools. The result is that we are easily influenced by the society in which we happen to live, not only by nationalism, in the sense of unswerving devotion to nation, but also by the ideologies the nation promotes at a given time. Had I been a German in the Hitler years, I would have been under immense social pressure to greet my neighbor with a raised right hand and the words, “Heil Hitler!” Had I been a Russian in the Lenin and Stalin years, I might have succumbed to atheist propaganda and been someone destroying icons rather than kissing them. Had I been a white South African in the apartheid years, going along with apartheid would have been much easier than opposing it. Had I been born in a slave-owning society and been among those benefiting from such cheap labor, the arguments (some of them biblical) in favor of slavery might have been convincing.
Peacemaking, then, involves becoming more aware of the myriad ways manipulation occurs, how powerfully it effects each of us, and finding ways to help ourselves and others not be so easily manipulated. It requires conscious awareness of the fears that I struggle with and seeking God’s help in overcoming them. It means living as attentively as I can with the Gospel, letting its stories rather than Hollywood movies shape my responses to God and the people around me.
The mirror over the sink can help us. I recall a small piece of paper taped next to the mirror in a friend’s bathroom. On it were written just three short lines of text: “I am no big deal. I am no big deal. I am no big deal.” The priest who heard his confessions, my friend explained when I asked him about it, had suggested he recite these words every day. We can do something similar. Look at your face in the mirror and remember that “I too am an enemy” — an enemy of certain others, and also an enemy of myself. Keep in mind the final sentence in the Prayer of Saint Ephraim the Syrian: “O Lord and King, grant for me to see my own faults and not to judge my brother.”
I think too of these words from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, who headed the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain for many years. “To be a Christian,” he said, “is to attempt to live a Christ-centered life. We should try to live in such a way that if the Gospels were lost, they could be re-written by looking at us.”
The very best thing we can do for ourselves, our families, our neighbors, our nation, our world, is to follow Christ wholeheartedly. One crucial aspect of that discipleship is love of enemies. It isn’t an option. It is at the heart of the Christian calling.
(lecture by Jim Forest given at Bellarmine University in Louisville on 13 October 2010)
The recent donation to the Thomas Merton Center here at Bellarmine University of the papers of Joe Zarrella, a longtime collaborator of Dorothy Day, has provided us with an occasion to reflect on the special friendship that enriched the lives of two remarkable people: Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day.
Because we are at Bellarmine, surely everyone present recognizes the name of Thomas Merton even if you are a little in the dark about exactly who he was or why there is a statue of him here on campus. Also here at Bellarmine is the Thomas Merton Center, in which all sorts of Merton-related items are located: the many books he wrote plus all the books that have been written about him, file-cabinets full of letters he wrote and received, handwritten manuscripts and working notebooks, photographs he took with borrowed cameras that reveal his contemplative way of looking at things, a personal gift that was sent to him by Pope John XXIII, examples of Merton’s art work, paintings of him, and a substantial part of Merton’s library.
There is also the special recognition of Merton in the heart of Louisville. Thousands of people each day cross Thomas Merton Square. Some of them pause to read the historical marker installed there in 1998 by the Commonwealth of Kentucky. This may be the only memorial plaque anywhere in the world placed at a busy urban intersection to mark the location of a mystical experience.
What initially put Merton on the world map was the publication in 1948 of his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. It was an account of growing up on both sides of the Atlantic, what drew him to become a Catholic as a young adult, and finally what led him, in 1941, to become a Trappist monk at a monastery in rural Kentucky, Our Lady of Gethsemani. He was only 33 years old when the book appeared. To his publisher’s amazement, it became an instant best-seller. For many people, it was truly a life-changing book. The Merton Center has lost count of how many copies of the book have been printed in English and other languages in the past 62 years, but we’re talking about millions.
What might not be so immediately obvious is that, despite Merton’s renown and his many best-selling books, he was — and remains — a controversial figure. Though he was a member of a monastic order well known for silence and for its distance from worldly affairs, Merton was outspoken about racism, war and other hot topics that many regard as very worldly affairs. Merton disagreed. He was a critic of a Christianity in which religious identity is submerged in national identity and life is divided between religious and ordinary existence.
Merton got into hot water for his writings on war and peace as well his participation in both inter-Christian and inter-religious dialogue. In the sixties, there was a Berlin Wall running between Catholics and Protestants. To the alarm of a good many people on both sides of the divide, Merton climbed over that palisade. Even worse, he regarded conversation with people of other religious traditions — Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam — as a useful and necessary, not to say Christian, activity. Some people were scandalized — some still are — that a Trappist monk would engage in dialog with the Dalai Lama. The idea got around that, if only Merton had lived a slightly longer life, he would have waved goodbye to the Catholic Church and become a Buddhist. There is even an icon-like painting of Merton in which he is shown sitting Buddha-like on a meditation cushion. In fact Merton’s religious practice centered on Liturgy, the eucharist, the rosary, the Jesus Prayer, and daily offices of monastic prayer.
Now on to Dorothy Day. Who is Dorothy Day? I have heard people ask if she was the sister of the movie star, Doris Day. Dorothy Day sometimes got letters addressed to Doris Day. In fact there is a small patch of Hollywood in Dorothy’s life story. In 1929, just before the Great Depression started, she worked as a writer at a Hollywood film studio, but she had no screen credits. What made Dorothy Day famous was her effort to weave together radical convictions about the social order with the Christian faith after becoming a Catholic when she was thirty years old. Less than six years after that event, in 1933, she founded and began editing The Catholic Worker. From that eight-page journal, the Catholic Worker movement quickly emerged, a movement known for its many houses of hospitality for people who are generally unappreciated and unwelcome. If books by Merton sold millions of copies, Catholic Worker communities have served millions of meals. But the Catholic Worker is also well known for its acts of protest against war and social injustice. Many people associated with the Catholic Worker have served periods in jail for acts of civil disobedience or for refusing to take part in war. Dorothy herself was jailed at least eight times. The first time was for taking part in a Suffragist demonstration in front of the White House in 1917 when she had just turned twenty. Her last arrest and confinement was with striking farm workers in California in 1973 when she was seventy-five. If Thomas Merton was at times controversial, Dorothy Day was controversial pretty much full-time.
If you think of saints as, generally speaking, law-abiding folk, it may strike you as remarkable that the Catholic Church is currently considering a proposal from the Archdiocese of New York that Dorothy Day be officially recognized as a saint. More than ten years have passed since the late Cardinal John O’Connor launched the process. It has now reached the point of Dorothy being given the title “Servant of God Dorothy Day” by the Vatican. After that comes “Blessed Dorothy” and finally “Saint Dorothy.” It would not astonish me if there are people here today who will one day be present for her canonization.
I first met Dorothy in December 1960. I was in the U.S. Navy at the time, stationed in Washington, D.C. After reading copies of The Catholic Worker that I had found in my parish library, and then reading Dorothy’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness, I decided to visit the community she had founded. Arriving in Manhattan for that first visit, I made my way to Saint Joseph’s House, the Catholic Workers’s house of hospitality on the Lower East Side. It’s now an area that has become fashionable, repackaged as the East Village. In those days it was the Bowery, an area for the desperately poor — people so down-and-out that some of them were sleeping, even in winter, on the sidewalks or in tenement hallways.
A few days into that first encounter with the Catholic Worker, I visited the community’s rural outpost on Staten Island, the Peter Maurin Farm. Crossing the New York Harbor by ferry, I made my way to an old farmhouse on a rural road near the island’s southern tip. In its large, faded dining room, I found half-a-dozen people, Dorothy among them, gathered around a pot of tea at one end of the dining room table. I gave Dorothy a bag of letters addressed to her that had been received in Manhattan. Within minutes, she was reading the letters aloud to all of us.
The only letter I still recall from that day’s reading was one from Thomas Merton. I was amazed. Having read The Seven Storey Mountain, I knew Trappist monks wrote very few letters and that generally these were limited to family members. But here was Merton writing not only to a non-relative but to someone who was as much in the world as he was out of it.
On reflection, I should have been less surprised. I had read both their autobiographies and they revealed a great deal of common ground. Both had lived fairly bohemian lives before becoming Catholics. Like Dorothy, Merton had wrestled with the issue of war, deciding that, if Christ had given an example of a nonviolent life, he would attempt to do the same. Both had thought long and hard about the sin of racism. Both were writers. Both were unburdened by any attraction to economic achievement. Merton, like any monk, had taken a vow of poverty — there were things he had use of but nothing he actually owned — while Dorothy was committed to what she called “voluntary poverty.” Though in different circumstances, they both lived very disciplined religious lives — Merton’s day beginning with Mass before dawn and ending not long after sunset with Compline, Dorothy’s including daily Mass, daily rosary, daily periods of prayer and intercession and weekly confession. Both had a marked interest in “eastern” — or Orthodox — Christianity. Both had a degree of pastoral care for others. Both were black sheep. Though their vocations were different, it wasn’t only Merton who was a contemplative.
Theirs was a friendship of letters. In their exchanges the topics included peacemaking, observations about social change, problems in the Catholic Church, obedience and disobedience, the Cold War, community life, marriage, their hopes and frustrations, their current reading, the meaning of love, and a wide range of issues for which advice was sought.
The date their correspondence got underway isn’t certain. The oldest surviving letter in their exchange, the 4th of June, 1959, is a reply to a letter from Merton. In it she apologizes for not having answered more quickly and also recalls with gratitude the copies of The Seven Storey Mountain Merton had sent to her way back in 1948. She went on to ask Merton’s prayers for a member of the Catholic Worker staff, Charles Butterworth, who was about to be sentenced for harboring a military deserter at the Catholic Worker and then, by warning him that FBI agents had arrived with an arrest warrant, playing a part in the young man’s escape. “We have done this before,” Dorothy explained, “giving [deserters] the time to make up their own minds; one returned to the army and the other took his sentence.” She mentioned to Merton another member of staff, Bob Steed, formerly a novice at Gethsemani, whom she worried might be arrested for having torn up his draft registration card. In her letter Dorothy didn’t say a word of explanation or justification for such actions — miles off the beaten track for American Catholics. Clearly, in Merton’s case, she felt this wasn’t needed.
In the same letter Dorothy thanked Merton for gifts he had sent to the Catholic Worker. I wasn’t there when that particular box arrived from Gethsemani, but two years later, when I became part of the Catholic Worker staff after being discharged from the military as a conscientious objector, such boxes were not rare. The contents varied — sometimes cast-off clothing monks had worn before taking vows, often his most recent book, and also monk-made cheese and even a fruitcake flavored with Kentucky bourbon. (For many years the monks have helped support themselves by making and selling very tempting food products. Merton didn’t quite approve of the business aspect of Trappist life, but he had no qualms about giving the results away.) I recall the gift card inside one such box was signed, in Merton’s easily recognizable handwriting, “from Uncle Louie and the Boys.” “Uncle Louie” was Merton — the name “Louis” was given him when he became a Trappist monk. Dorothy always addressed him in her letters to him as “Father Louis.” The “boys” would have been his novices — Merton was Master of Novices at the time. It’s remarkable that, in his overfull life, he occasionally found the time and motivation to fill a box to be sent off to the Catholic Worker. This says as much about his bond with Dorothy as any of his letters. He felt a deep sense of connection with what the Catholic Worker was doing — its hospitality work, its newspaper, its protest activities. His gifts communicated to all of us working at the Catholic Worker a deep sense of his of solidarity.
This sense of connection with houses of hospitality went back Merton’s days volunteering at Friendship House in Harlem, a house of hospitality whose existence was in large measure inspired by the Catholic Worker. It had been founded by a close friend of Dorothy’s, Catherine de Hueck Doherty, or the Baroness, as she was often called due to her family’s aristocratic Russian roots. In reading The Seven Storey Mountain, one sees the important role the Baroness had played in Merton’s life. “She had a strong voice, strong convictions, and strong things to say,” Merton wrote, “and she said them in the simplest, most unvarnished, bluntest possible kind of talk, and with such uncompromising directness that it stunned.” One could say the same about Dorothy Day. Few choices Merton ever made were so difficult as deciding between a Catholic Worker-like vocation at Friendship House and becoming a monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani. “The way [the Baroness] said some things,” Merton wrote in his journal in August 1941, “left you ready to do some kind of action … renounce the world, live in total poverty, but also doing very definite things: ministering to the poor in a certain definite way.”
In a letter to Dorothy sent two decades later, Merton remarked that the reason he went to Friendship House rather than the Catholic Worker in lower Manhattan was because, “I was at Columbia, F[riendship] H[ouse] was just down the hill and so on. [The] C[atholic] W[orker] stands for so much that has always been meaningful to me: I associate it with similar trends of thought, like that of the English Dominicans and Eric Gill, who also were very important to me. And [Jacques] Maritain…. [The] Catholic Worker is part of my life, Dorothy. I am sure the world is full of people who would say the same…. If there were no Catholic Worker and such forms of witness, I would never have joined the Catholic Church.” [TM to DD, December 29, 1965, italics added]
In the first surviving letter from Merton to Dorothy, dated July 9, 1959, he starts out by letting her know that another gift box is on its way — some sweet-smelling toothpaste. He then goes on to tell her that he is “deeply touched” by her witness for peace, which had several times resulted in her arrest and imprisonment. He continues: “You are right going along the lines of satyagraha [Gandhi’s term for nonviolent action]. I see no other way, though of course the angles of the problem are not all clear. I am certainly with you in taking some kind of stand and acting accordingly. Nowadays it is no longer a question of who is right but who is at least not criminal, if any of us can say that anymore.”
In the same letter Merton confided to Dorothy his attraction to a vocation of greater solitude and deeper poverty, though he realizes that “the hopes of gaining such permission, humanly speaking, are very low.” Deep questions about where, as a monk, he ought to be was not a topic that Merton touched on with many of his correspondents. It’s clear that he saw in Dorothy someone capable of helping him discern God’s will.
There is not time in a single lecture to look letter by letter at the complex exchange between them between 1956 and 1968, but I would like to read some extracts and briefly comment on several of the major themes.
One of these themes was perseverance. “My constant prayer,” Dorothy confided to Merton just before Christmas in 1959, “is for final perseverance — to go on as I am trusting always the Lord Himself will take me by the hair of the head like [the prophet] Habakkuk and set me where he wants me.”
Anyone who has ever been part of any intentional community will recall how stressful it can be even when there are no dark clouds, but when it is a community that opens its doors day and night to people in urgent need, people who would not often be on anyone’s guest list, and when it is a community with very strong-willed, sometimes ideologically-driven volunteers, it can at times be like life in a hurricane. In one letter to Merton, Dorothy speaks in detail about the bitterness animating some of the criticisms directed at her by co-workers. She senses the motivation of some of those who come to help at the Catholic Worker is less love than a “spirit of rebellion.” [DD to TM, October 10, 1960] Many who knew her and were aware of the emotional and physical strains of Catholic Worker life — long-time co-workers such as Joe Zarrella — were astonished that Dorothy persevered from the founding of the Catholic Worker in 1933 until her death in 1980 — forty-seven years as part of a community of hospitality.
In his response, Merton noted that his awareness that “more and more one sees that [perseverance] is the great thing,” but he also points out that perseverance is much more than “hanging on to some course which we have set our minds to, and refusing to let go.” It can sometimes mean “not hanging on but letting go. That of course is terrible. But as you say so rightly, it is a question of [God] hanging on to us, by the hair of the head, that is from on top and beyond, where we cannot see or reach.”
This was a matter of acute importance to Merton personally, a monk with itchy feet who repeatedly was attracted to greener monastic pastures. Dorothy was all for Merton staying put. In a later letter, Dorothy remarks, “I have a few friends who are always worrying about your leaving the monastery but from the letters of yours that I read I am sure you will hold fast. I myself pray for final perseverance most fervently having seen one holy old priest suddenly elope with a parishioner. I feel that anything can happen to anybody at any time.” [DD to TM, March 17, 1963]
Both Merton and Dorothy remain remarkable models, not just for persevering — barnacles can do that — but for continually putting down deeper roots while rediscovering a sense of its being God’s will not to uproot themselves.
In one letter Merton reflects on the levels of poverty that he sees the Catholic Worker responding to. “O Dorothy,” he writes, “I think of you, and the beat people, the ones with nothing, and the poor in virtue, the very poor, the ones no one can respect. I am not worthy to say I love all of you. Intercede for me, a stuffed shirt in a place of stuffed shirts…” [TM to DD, February 4, 1960] Merton goes further with this topic in his next letter to Dorothy. “I was in Louisville at the Little Sisters of the Poor yesterday, and realized that it is in these beautiful, beat, wrecked, almost helpless old people that Christ lives and works most. And in the hurt people who are bitter and say they have lost their faith. We (society at large) have lost our sense of values and our vision. We despise everything that Christ loves, everything marked by His compassion. We love fatness health bursting smiles the radiance of satisfied bodies all properly fed and rested and sated and washed and perfumed and sexually relieved. Everything else is a scandal and a horror to us.” [TM to DD, August 17, 1960]
I can easily imagine Merton in the act of writing letters like this, some of them with an “on the road” abandon. At Merton’s invitation, I made my first visit to the abbey early in 1962, hitchhiking from the Catholic Worker in Manhattan to Gethsemani. Sitting one day in the small office Merton had next to the classroom where he gave lectures to the novices, I watched while he banged out a response to a letter I had brought him from a friend at the Catholic Worker. I have rarely if ever seen paper fly through a typewriter at such speed. When you read Merton’s letters, you have to keep in mind that he was used to making the best use possible of relatively small islands in time. If you wanted deep silence at Gethsemani, a place to avoid was the area of the monastery where Merton might be working on that large gray office typewriter that is now on display at the Merton Center.
In the Merton-Day correspondence, a theme that was occasionally mentioned, more in passing than at length, was their mutual debt to Russian literature and Orthodox Christianity. They shared their high regard for Boris Pasternak and Dostoevsky, with Dorothy mentioning that the novels of Dostoevsky are “spiritual reading for me.” [DD to TM, June 4, 1960] Merton responded by mentioning that Staretz Zosima, a saintly figure in The Brothers Karamazov, “always makes me weep.” [TM to DD, August 17, 1960] So significant was Dostoevsky’s influence on Dorothy’s basic vision of Christianity that I sometimes wonder whether Dostoevsky ought not to be listed among the co-founders of the Catholic Worker.
The fact that they both were writers may have been what drew Merton to confess to Dorothy his skepticism about the value of his own writing. “There has been some good and much bad.” He fears that his books too easily “become part of a general system of delusion,” a system that ultimately feels it is practically a religious duty to have and, if necessary, to use nuclear weapons. In the sentences that follow, Merton says that he finds himself “more and more drifting toward the derided and probably quite absurdist and defeatist position of a sort of Christian anarchist. This of course would be foolish, if I followed it to the end… But perhaps the most foolish would be to renounce all consideration of any alternative to the status quo, the giant machine.” [TM to DD, July 23, 1961]
This letter is, so far as I am aware, one of only two places in his vast body of writings in which Merton refers to anarchism. With Dorothy, it was a connecting word — for her, it meant someone like herself whose obedience was not to rulers, states, or any secular system, but to Christ. The other place is in an essay on the Desert Fathers, the fourth-century ascetics who created the monastic vocation, living in places that people generally avoided. Here Merton sees the Desert Fathers as being “in a certain sense ‘anarchists’ … They were men who did not believe in letting themselves be passively guided and ruled by a decadent state, and who believed that there was a way of getting along without slavish dependence on accepted, conventional values.” [introduction to The Wisdom of the Desert]
If Merton sometimes expressed to Dorothy his frustrations about his writing, wondering what good his words did, Dorothy was a source of deep gratitude for all that he published or privately circulated. In one letter she mentioned the spontaneous comment of a struggling young woman staying at the Catholic Worker who had borrowed The Thomas Merton Reader, a paperback anthology that Dorothy kept on her desk, and said in Dorothy’s hearing, “Thank God for Thomas Merton.” In a 1965 letter Dorothy said much the same: “You will never know the people you have reached, the good you have done. You certainly have used the graces and the talents God has given you.” [DD to TM, June 24, 1965]
They weren’t always in agreement. In one letter Dorothy takes note of how often Merton uses the word “beat” in his letters. For him it was a very positive word, suggesting his sense of connection with “the beat generation,” as it was called — people who had moved toward the edge of society, felt alienated from the mainstream, people who didn’t want to have “careers.” They were, Merton said, people “challenging the culture of death.” Probably he was aware that Allen Ginsberg, leading bard of the beats, had read some of his poetry at the Catholic Worker. In the sixties, Merton had some correspondence with the beat novelist, Jack Kerouac. Kerouac had coined the phrase “beat generation.” Catholic that he was, for Kerouac the word “beat” was probably clipped out of the word “beatific,” as in “beatific vision,” a very Catholic phrase.
But for Dorothy “beat” was not a connecting word. She felt Merton was seeing the beats through too rosy a lens. In one letter she described how unbeat several long-term members of the Catholic Worker staff were. There had only been a few people Dorothy regarded as beat-types at the Catholic Worker, she continued, and her blood pressure shot up when she thought of them. She described them as “a fly-by-night crew who despised and ignored the poor around us and scandalized them by their dress and morals. I am afraid I am uncharitable about the intellectual who shoulders his way in to eat before the men on the line who have done the hard work of the world, and who moves in on the few men in one of the apartments and tries to edge them out with their beer parties and women. They can sleep on park benches as far as I am concerned. Unfortunately we are left with the women who are pregnant for whom I beg your prayers. … As far as I am concerned, I must look on these things as a woman, and therefore much concerned with the flesh and with what goes to sustain it. Sin is sin [but] the sentimental make a mystique of it…” For all their common ground even with Merton, Dorothy could be testy. [DD to TM, June 4, 1962]
The danger of nuclear war, and the vast destruction of cities and life, was a major concern for Merton as it was for Dorothy. Much of his writing on war and peace was published in The Catholic Worker, starting in October 1961 with his essay, “The Root of War is Fear,” an expanded version of a chapter for New Seeds of Contemplation. This was not a case of worrying where no worrying was needed. A third world war fought with nuclear weapons seemed not just a possibility but, for a great many well-informed people, a probability. Open-air nuclear tests by the United States and the Soviet Union were frequent. Planning for nuclear war was built into military practice. In 1961, while I was working with a Navy unit at the U.S. Weather Bureau just outside Washington, one of our regular exercises was to plot fallout patterns over a three-day period if a nuclear explosion were to occur over the nation’s capital that day. For Merton is was clear that Catholics would be no more hesitant that other Americans to play their part in initiating a nuclear war with the Soviet Union and regard themselves as doing God’s work. It was a grim topic — Christians crediting God with willing a storm of killing that would make every other war in history look like a water-pistol fight. There is a letter in which Dorothy consoles Merton with the reminder that Dame Julian of Norwich, a medieval mystic whom they both revered, had written that “the worst has already happened and been repaired. Nothing worse can ever befall us.” [DD to TM, August 15, 1961]
Not all Trappists were pleased with Merton writing on such topics and doing so in the pages of The Catholic Worker. Everything Merton wrote had to pass his order’s censors, some of whom thought the war issue was inappropriate. There is a document in the archive of the Merton Center that may give you a sense of those times. Here we have an unnamed American Trappist monk writing to the order’s Abbot General in Rome, Dom Gabriel Sortais, warning him of the scandal being caused by Merton’s anti-war writings. Let me read a few extracts:
“There is one further matter, Reverend Father, which I hesitate to speak of but which I feel I should. We have, in the United States, a weekly paper [in fact monthly] called ‘The Catholic Worker.’ This is a very radical paper, which some Americans believe is a tool of the Communists. Fr. Louis (under the name Thomas Merton) has been writing for it frequently…. The name ‘Thomas Merton’ is almost synonymous in America with ‘Trappist.’ Thus quite a number of people believe that he is expressing the Trappist outlook…”
Later in the letter, the writer reports that a military intelligence officer had visited his monastery and had spoken with him “concerning Father Louis.” He concludes his letter by acknowledging that many have benefitted from Merton’s “spiritual works,” but “it is difficult to understand how he can express himself so strongly on questions as to whether the United States should test nuclear weapons and also the wisdom of building fallout shelters. It is hard to see how — as an enclosed religious — he has access to enough facts to pass a prudent judgement on such matters.” It is unlikely that this was the only such letter sent to the Abbot General.
During my first visit with Merton early in 1962, I recall a bizarre incident that occurred when Merton and I were walking down a corridor that connected the guest house kitchen to the basement of the main monastery building. Standing next to a garbage container was an older monk, Father Raymond Flanagan, who was not so much reading as glaring at the latest issue of The Catholic Worker, which included an article of Merton on the urgency of taking steps to prevent nuclear war. Father Raymond looked up, saw us coming his way, balled the paper up in his fist, hurled it into the garbage container, turned his back and strode away without a word, leaving a trail of smoke. Merton’s response was laughter. He told me that Father Raymond had never had a high opinion of his writings and often denounced him at the community’s chapter meetings. “In the early days Father Raymond said I was too detached from the world,” Merton said, “and now he thinks I’m not detached enough.” The tension between Merton and Father Raymond never abated. In March 1968, just ten months before Merton’s death, Merton recorded in his journal a furious verbal assault by Father Raymond, who was enraged with Merton’s opposition to the war in Vietnam. [The Other Side of the Mountain, entry of March 7, 1968, p 62]
Dorothy was one of the people to whom Merton could complain about the increasing problems he was having with censorship. The issue wasn’t that he was being charged with writing anything at odds with Catholic doctrine, but the feeling, in Merton’s words, that “a Trappist should not know about these things, or should not write about them.” He found the situation exhausting and demoralizing. “Obedience,” he wrote Dorothy, “is a most essential thing in any Christian and above all in a monk, but I sometimes wonder if, being in a situation where obedience would completely silence a person on some important moral issue … a crucial issue like nuclear war … if it were not God’s will … to change my situation.”
In the spring of 1962, Merton received an order from Dom Gabriel Sortais not to publish any more writings on war and peace. As a consequence, a book Merton has just finished writing, Peace in the Post-Christian Era, was published only a few years ago, more than four decades after it was written. Merton found the gagging order not only outrageous but at odds with the prophetic mission of the monastic vocation.
If you ever want to read a letter hot enough to roast a turkey, I recommend one he sent me at the end of April in 1962. Here’s a very brief extract: “[The Abbot General’s decision] reflects an astounding incomprehension of the seriousness of the present crisis in its religious aspect. It reflects an insensitivity to Christian and Ecclesiastical values, and to the real sense of the monastic vocation. The reason given is that this is not the right kind of work for a monk and that it ‘falsifies the monastic message.’ Imagine that: the thought that a monk might be deeply enough concerned with the issue of nuclear war to voice a protest against the arms race, is supposed to bring the monastic life into disrepute. Man, I would think that it might just possibly salvage a last shred of repute for an institution that many consider to be dead on its feet… That is really the most absurd aspect of the whole situation, that these people insist on digging their own grave and erecting over it the most monumental kind of tombstone.” [TM to Jim Forest, April 29, 1962]
Yet Merton obeyed. Explaining his decision to do so in the same letter, he stresses that “blowing off steam” is not what’s important. The real question is what response was most likely to bring about a change of heart among those — monks and others — who were threatened by Merton’s thoughts regarding war. “Disobedience or a public denunciation,” he said, would be seen by his fellow monks “as an excuse for dismissing a minority viewpoint and be regarded by those outside [the church] as fresh proof that the church had no love for private conscience.” Very soberly, he asked the crucial question: “Whose mind would be changed?” In his particular case, Merton concluded, public protest and disobedience “would backfire and be fruitless. It would be taken as a witness against the peace movement and would confirm these people in all the depth of their prejudices and their self complacency.”
Yet in fact Merton wasn’t quite silenced. He continued to write for The Catholic Worker but under such pseudonyms as Benedict Monk. His remained a member of the advisory board of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, often giving its staff extremely helpful guidance. His abbot, Dom James Fox, decided that what the Abbot General had banned was publication of mass market editions of Merton’s peace writings. With his abbot’s collaboration, Merton was able to bring out several mimeographed editions of Peace in the Post-Christian Era and another called Cold War Letters and many shorter papers. Via Dorothy Day, the staff of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, plus a number of other friends, these were widely distributed, including to various people in the White House as well as to bishops and theologians taking part in the Second Vatican Council. Ironically, in the end Merton’s peace writings were given a much more attentive reading by many more people than would have been the case with a commercial edition. It has often been observed that nothing makes a reader so interested in a book as its being banned.
Being a lay-edited and lay-published journal, Dorothy didn’t have to work within the censorship labyrinth that Merton did, but her views about obedience were the same as Merton’s. Again and again, in similar circumstances, Dorothy quoted from the Gospel: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” [John 12:24]
Not all enemies are across national borders. Sometimes your enemies are people who, in principle, are your friends and neighbors, even your brothers and sisters in religious life. Christ taught his followers to love their enemies and in his own life demonstrated such love. Christians in the early Church gave a similar witness, even at the cost of their lives. But in Christianity today, too often what is most striking is zealous hatred of enemies, in fact not only enemies but anyone who is seen as too different or too inconvenient. For Dorothy and Merton, the refusal to hate anyone was basic Christianity. It’s not surprising to find one of Merton’s finest meditations on enmity in one of his longer letters to Dorothy. Listen to this:
“Persons are not known by intellect alone, not by principles alone, but only by love. It is when we love the other, the enemy, that we obtain from God the key to an understanding of who he is, and who we are. It is only this realization that can open to us the real nature of our duty, and of right action. To shut out the person and to refuse to consider him as a person, as another self, we resort to the ‘impersonal law’ and to abstract ‘nature.’ That is to say we block off the reality of the other, we cut the intercommunication of our nature and his nature, and we consider only our own nature with its rights, its claims, it demands. And we justify the evil we do to our brother because he is no longer a brother, he is merely an adversary, an accused. To restore communication, to see our oneness of nature with him, and to respect his personal rights and his integrity, his worthiness of love, we have to see ourselves as similarly accused along with him … and needing, with him, the ineffable gift of grace and mercy to be saved. Then, instead of pushing him down, trying to climb out by using his head as a stepping-stone for ourselves, we help ourselves to rise by helping him to rise. For when we extend our hand to the enemy who is sinking in the abyss, God reaches out to both of us, for it is He first of all who extends our hand to the enemy. It is He who ‘saves himself’ in the enemy, who makes use of us to recover the lost groat which is His image in our enemy.” [TM to DD, December 20, 1961]
Here one sees in high relief what was at the root of Christian life for both Dorothy and Merton and shaped their friendship. We know each other only by love. What is most unique about Christianity is its special emphasis on the vocation to love — a love whose only real test is the love of opponents and even the love of enemies. This is not sentimental love, and certainly not romantic love, but love in the sense of recognizing our family ties with each and every human being and doing whatever is in our power to protect each life, hoping that in the process both we and those whom we regard as enemies may experience a change of heart. No one has ever been threatened or bludgeoned or terrified or bribed into conversion. Such a deep change of heart is something only love can obtain. Without love, we are inhabitants of hell long before we die. With love, we already have a foretaste of heaven. One of Dorothy’s most often-repeated quotations summarizes this basic truth. It is a sentence that comes from one of her favorite saints, Catherine of Siena. “All the way to heaven is heaven,” she said, “because Jesus said, ‘I am the way.’”