Nhat Hanh on Meditation: Like Rain Falling on Fire

By Jim Forest

[Fellowship magazine / September 1975 / page 3-4]

In 1968, I was traveling with Thich Nhat Hanh on a Fellowship tour during which there were meetings with church and student groups, senators, journalists, professors, business people, and — blessed relief — a few poets. Almost everywhere he went, this brown-robed Buddhist monk from Vietnam, looking many years younger than the man in his 40s he was, quickly disarmed those he met.

His gentleness, intelligence and sanity made it impossible for most who encountered him to hang on to their stereotypes of what the Vietnamese were like. The vast treasury of the Vietnamese and Buddhist past spilled over through his stories and explanations. His interest in Christianity, even his enthusiasm for it, often inspired Christians to shed their condescension toward Nhat Hanh’s tradition. He was able to help thousands of Americans glimpse the war through the eyes of peasants laboring in rice paddies and raising their children and grandchildren in villages surrounded by ancient groves of bamboo. He awoke the child within the adult as he described the craft of the village kite-maker and the sound of the wind instruments these fragile vessels would carry toward the clouds.

After an hour with him, one was haunted with the beauties of Vietnam and ?lled with anguish at America’s military intervention in the political and cultural tribulations of the Vietnamese people. One was stripped of all the ideological loyalties that justified one party or another in their battles, and felt the horror of the skies raked with bombers, houses and humans burned to ash, children left to face life without the presence and love of their parents and grandparents.

But there was one evening when Nhat Hanh awoke not understanding but rather the measureless rage of one American. He had been talking in the auditorium of a wealthy Christian church in a St. Louis suburb. As always, he emphasized the need for Americans to stop their bombing and killing in his country. There had been questions and answers when a large man stood up and spoke with searing scorn of the “supposed compassion” of “this Mister Hanh.”

“If you care so much about your people, Mister Hanh, why are you here? If you care so much for the people who are wounded, why don’t you spend your time with them?” At this point my recollection of his words is replaced by the memory of the intense anger which overwhelmed me. When he finished, I looked toward Nhat Hanh in bewilderment. What could he or anyone say? The spirit of the war itself had suddenly ?lled the room and it seemed hard to breathe.

There was a silence. Then Nhat Hanh began to speak — quietly, with deep calm, indeed with a sense of personal caring for the man who had just damned him. The words seemed like rain falling on fire. “If you want the tree to grow,” he said, “it won’t help to water the leaves. You have to water the roots. Many of the roots of the war are here, in your country. To help the people who are to be bombed, to try to protect them from this suffering, I have to come here.”

The atmosphere in the room was transformed. In the man’s fury we had experienced our own furies; we had seen the world as through a bomb-bay. In Nhat Hanh’s response we had experienced an alternate possibility: the possibility (here brought to Christians by a Buddhist and to Americans by an “enemy”) of overcoming hatred with love, of breaking the seemingly endless chain reaction of violence throughout human history

But after his response, Nhat Hanh whispered something to the chairman and walked quickly from the room. Sensing something was wrong, I left the book table I had been standing behind and followed him out. It was a cool, clear night. Nhat Hanh stood on the sidewalk beside the church parking lot. He was struggling for air like someone who had been deeply underwater and who had barely managed to swim to the surface. It was several minutes before I dared ask him how he was or what had happened.

Nhat Hanh explained that the man’s comments had been terribly upsetting. He had wanted to respond to him with anger. Instead he had made himself breathe deeply and very slowly in order to find a way to respond with calm and understanding. But the breathing had been too slow and too deep.

“Why not be angry with him,” I asked. “Even pacifists have a right to be angry.” “If it were just myself, yes. But I am here to speak for Vietnamese peasants. I have to show them what we can be at our best.”

The moment was an important one in my life, one pondered again and again since then. For one thing, it was the first time that I realized there was a connection between the way one breathes and the way one responds to the world around us.

Until very recently, Nhat Hanh has made no attempt to teach Western people any of the skills of meditation — what he often calls mindfulness. Only during the past year, first with a few Western friends helping the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation in Paris, later with a group at that city’s Quaker International Center, has be begun to teach meditation. Now he has written a small book on the subject, The Miracle of Being Awake, a manual on meditation for activists.

Nhat Hanh, as Fellowship readers are likely to recall, is a poet, Zen master, and a co-chairman of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. In Vietnam, he has played a major role in the creation of “engaged Buddhism” — a profound religious renewal rooted in compassion and service out of which have emerged countless projects which have joined help to the war’s victims with nonviolent opposition to the war itself. For their work, thousands of Buddhists — nuns, monks and lay people — have been shot or imprisoned.

His work in Vietnam gave birth to the School of Youth for Social Service, Van Hanh University, a small monastery that was an early base of the nonviolent movement, a pacifist underground press (led by his co-worker Cao Ngoc Phuong), and the La Boi Press, one of the principal vehicles of cultural and religious renewal.

His poetry provides the words of many of the most popular songs in contemporary Vietnam, songs of hope surviving grief.

Even in exile, representing overseas the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, he has continued to be a force for nonviolence and reconciliation in his homeland and an organizer of supportive responses from other countries.

His friendship with Martin Luther King was a factor in Dr. King’s decision to ignore the advice of many colleagues and contributors who opposed his “mixing issues” and to join in the opposition to the Vietnam war. Shortly before his assassination, Dr. King nominated Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Prize for Peace.

Only a few of Nhat Hanh’s books have yet been published outside of Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire, The Cry of Vietnam, The Path of Return Continues the Journey, Zen Keys, and (coming this fall) The Raft is Not the Shore.

During conversations with Nhat Hanh and his co-workers in Paris this summer, in the apartment of the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation, our thoughts turned to the absence of a meditative dimension in much of the American peace movement. Its absence helped explain why so much of the “peace” movement (perhaps better called the American-withdrawal movement) had exhibited such slight and superficial interest in the Buddhists’ nonviolent campaign against the war. The weaponless Buddhists were not judged truly “political”, “merely” a religious movement: admirable, unusually courageous when compared to other religious groups, but peripheral.

What American peace activists might learn from their Vietnamese counterparts is that, until there is a more meditative dimension in the peace movement, our perceptions of reality (and thus our ability to help occasion understanding and transformation) will be terribly crippled. Whatever our religious or non-religious back- ground and vocabulary may be, we will be overlooking something as essential to our lives and work as breath itself.

Breath itself. Breathing. It comes to many as astonishing news that something as simple as attention to breathing has a central part to play in meditation and prayer. It is like a mystery-novelist’s idea of hiding the diamonds in the goldfish bowl: too obvious to notice. But since the news has made its way past my own barriers of skepticism, there have been no end of confirmations, principally the confirmation of experience.

The problem with meditation is that the contexts for it are too close at hand. The chances, as Nhat Hanh points out, are scattered everywhere: in the bathtub, in the kitchen sink, on a cutting board, a sidewalk or path, on a tenement staircase, on a picket line, at a typewriter … literally anywhere. The moments and places of silence and stillness are wondrous and helpful, but not indispensable. The meditative life doesn’t require a secluded, greenhouse existence. (It does need occasional periods of time, even a whole day of the week, when special attention can be given to becoming more mindful. But then Christians and Jews ought not to be newcomers to the Sabbath.)

To the skeptic, Nhat Hanh’s suggestions will seem quite absurd, a bad joke at the end of history, the latest card trick dealt out of the ancient deck of mystical double-talk. But the pacifist affirmation itself strikes many as no smaller an absurdity: choosing to nurture life and to live without weapons in a murderous world. The way of meditation only carries that personal disarmament we have already begun an essential step deeper—~nonviolence not only in the face of governments and corporations and liberation armies but a nonviolent encounter with reality itself.

This is the way to understand a simple truth Nhat Hanh has mentioned elsewhere: “Those who are without compassion cannot see what is seen with the eyes of compassion.” That more inclusive sight makes the small but crucial difference between despair and hope.

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The Green Patriarch’s Campaign for a Greener World

Patriarch Bartholomew at closing session

By Jim and Nancy Forest

Soon after his election to the throne of Ecumenical Patriarch in 1991, Bartholomew of Constantinople made clear that he saw his task not only as safeguarding the unity of the Orthodox Church but also doing all that he could to protect the world and its people in a period of extreme environmental peril. He quickly began to enlarge an initiative taken in 1989 by his predecessor, Patriarch Dimitrios, who had invited all Orthodox churches to begin the church year, the first of September, with prayer for all creation and for its preservation. In the years since, Bartholomew has repeatedly declared that “crimes against the natural world are sins…. Creation care — the preservation of nature and the protection of all people — emanates from the essence of our faith…. The world is not ours to use for our own convenience. It is God’s gift of love to us and we must return his love by protecting it and all that is in it. All human beings should draw a distinction between what we want and what we need.”

“The patriarch is a man of courage,” said Archdeacon John Chryssavgis, an adviser to Bartholomew on environmental issues. “For years he was going against the current of a significant segment of the Church, but little by little his work in this area has been recognized as prophetic. I see much of the work the patriarchate has been doing as a way of informing and educating our own.”

Not content to make speeches and issue written appeals, in 1995 Bartholomew launched a series of ship-borne floating conferences, involving not only theologians but also scientists, economists, jurists, political and business leaders, journalists, and men and women from other professions, that focused on environmental degradation. Sites chosen in the past have included the Black Sea, the Aegean, the Adriatic, the Baltic and the Danube as providing local examples of grave damage to the planet as whole.

The latest of these events, the ninth, took place in Attica, the region of Greece that has Athens at its center and includes the Saronic Islands. Two-hundred people took part in a four-day symposium, “Toward a Greener Attica.” It began June 5 in the lecture hall of the Acropolis Museum, on the southeastern slope of the Acropolis hill. Just a short walk from the museum is the Theater of Dionysus where the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes were first performed 25 centuries ago. Being in the shadow of so ground-breaking a civilization put our proceedings in a challenging historical context, as if Aristotle, Socrates, Plato and the Apostle Paul were invisibly present.

“The ecological crisis has revealed that our world constitutes a seamless whole, that our problems are universally shared,” Bartholomew said at the opening session. Highlighting the ecological problems of the surrounding region, he pointed out that “much remains to be done in order to reduce the trash in the surrounding mountainside of Attica with its deplorable landfills and to resolve all the plastic in the surrounding sea that threatens marine life.” He also spoke of the urgency of responding to the “forced migration [of many thousands of refugees] from the Middle East and Northern Africa.”

Pope Francis, in a message to the symposium read aloud by Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, said: “The care of creation, seen as a shared gift and not as a private possession, always entails the recognition and the respect of the rights of every person and every people. The ecological crisis now affecting all of humanity is ultimately rooted in the human heart, that aspires to control and exploit the limited resources of our planet while ignoring the vulnerable members of the human family. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. We cannot ignore the ubiquitous and pervasive evil in today’s situation, where sin is manifest in all its destructive power in wars, the various forms of violence and abuse, the abandonment of the most vulnerable, and attacks on nature. The duty to care for creation challenges all people of good will and calls upon Christians to cooperate in offering an unequivocal response.”

The following morning, June 6, we travelled by ferry to the auto-free island of Spetses where the conference continued its discussions, this time at the local cinema, the Titania.

The lead speaker was Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, founder and director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, professor of theoretical physics at the University of Potsdam, member of the German government’s Advisory Council on Global Change and member of the Pontifical Academy of Science. There was no doubt, Schellnhuber said, that the human race has had and is having a massive impact on the world’s environment, a phenomenon known as “dangerous anthropogenic interference.” Unless dramatic steps are taken very quickly to reverse damage to the atmosphere and oceans, we can only expect rising temperatures with the result of melting ice-caps and a dramatic rise in water levels that will submerge shoreline areas, including island nations and coastal cities, producing millions of refugees and triggering massive social instability. But he insisted, late though the hour is, reversal is still possible. “Our problem,” he said, “is that we have a lot of knowledge but very little wisdom. We are like the passengers on the Titanic. Having hit an iceberg, we need to stop thinking about what’s missing on the menu or what the ship’s orchestra should play next and instead focus on the rip in the ship’s hull.”

At the same session Raj Patal, a research professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin, raised the haunting question, “What sort of ancestor do you want to be? Will we be seen as the generation which ignored all warnings and failed to prevent catastrophe or the generation that changed course?” The environmental crisis, he continued, dwarfs all other crises of the present moment.

The following morning the focus shifted to economics, philosophy and theology.

The first speaker of day was Jeffrey Sachs, bestselling author, professor of sustainable development at Columbia University as well as advisor on sustainable development to UN Secretary-General António Guterres. Sachs pointed out that a basic shift in economic ethics occurred in the 16th and 17th centuries. Until that time the basic model was Aristotelian, based on the model of the family and household economics: handle your wealth with prudence and self-restraint. But for such men as Thomas Hobbes, Bernard Mandeville and Adam Smith, social good was achieved not through restraint but the pursuit of self-interest. Putting theory into practice, the Dutch and British East India Companies developed the concept of limited liability — the investor profited without responsibility for any damages caused by his investment. “In effect, companies were invited to misbehave — they were given the right to pillage and even the right to make war. Thanks to limited liability, greed was unleashed and to his day remains the driving force of the modern economy…. A basic shift in our thinking is needed if we are to decarbonize by 2050. Meanwhile campaigns are needed to challenge our politicians, to boycott companies causing environmental harm, and to call on shareholders to divest the oil, gas and coal industry.”

Maude Barlow spoke at the same session. She is honorary chairperson of the Council of Canadians and chairs the board of Washington-based Food and Water Watch. Her latest books are Blue Future: Protecting Water for People and the Planet Foreverand Boiling Point: Government Neglect, Corporate Abuse, and Canada’s Water Crisis. Barlow emphasized the growing number of water-stressed and desertified areas on the planet, pointing out that it’s not only climate change that accounts for this calamity but the commodification of water (plastic bottles of water, for sale or discarded, were everywhere to be seen in Greece) plus the use of vast quantities of water in manufacturing. Meanwhile all over the world major corporations are competing for control and ownership of water. Our job, said Barlow, is to work for recognition of water as a sacred trust that must be protected as an essential part of the eco-system belonging to all. Campaigners need to focus on water as a human right and public trust.

The well-known Orthodox theologian, Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon, author Being as Communion, concentrated on the transformed spiritual life that undergirds care of the environment. He is currently visiting professor at the University of Geneva and the Gregorian University in Rome. Zizioulas stressed that the role of the heart was even more important than that of the mind. It is a mistake to try to solve our problems with the unaided intellect. Dealing with climate change is more than a matter of education. Our ecological problems arise from neglect of the heart, he said, and it is in the heart, where the will resides, that they will be solved. We must purify our hearts. Conversion is needed. As St. Maximos the Confessor taught, selfishness — putting one’s own interests above all others — is the source of all our problems, while care of the other is rooted in the heart. The way of the heart is the way of asceticism — the way of restraint and sobriety. The way ahead requires sacrifice of our self-interest and eucharistic gratitude for the world as a gift from God.

Elizabeth Theokritoff, a research associate and lecturer at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge and co-chairwoman of the Religion and Science group in the International Orthodox Theological Association, stressed that the word “creation” is not a synonym for the environment but rather that creation comprises everything. “Creation is not something outsideof us. We are part of creation. Creation is not what we are deputed to care for; it is what we are.”

Following lunch, we went by ferry to the nearby island of Hydra where, with church bells ringing, much of the local population turned out to welcome the patriarch.

The symposium’s next session, held in a conference hall provided by the local church, focused on the refugee crisis — the migration of a tidal wave of reluctant migrants who are escaping war, environmental destruction and destitution.

Philippe Leclerc, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, explained that many myths surround the refugees, not least in Europe and America. “In fact, most refugees are not dreaming of a life in Europe or the United States. The vast majority, 85 percent, are being hosted in the south. For example, today one-third of the population of Lebanon is made up of refugees.”

Mohammed Abu-Nimer, professor of international peace and conflict resolution at the School of International Service of American University, emphasized that war is the main source of refugees. “These are not people who want to leave their homeland, in fact it’s just the opposite. They are running for their lives. Those seeking to respond to the refugee crisis need to become peace builders, but peace building takes much longer than making war. Signing peace agreements is only the beginning.”

Vandana Shiva, a physicist, founded the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology and also Bija Vidyapeeth, an international college for sustainable living. She has become a leading advocate for organic food production. Her work has demonstrated that harvests can be increased by up to 300 percent by using organic farming methods, in contrast, to using products made by the “poison cartel” involving such companies as Monsanto and Bayer. The global system of growing food is killing people, she said; she estimated that 75 percent of all chronic disease is linked to current methods of global food growing. Our task, she insisted, is to see food as sacred. Her comment that “all bread should be seen as a sacrament” brought a nod of agreement from the patriarch.

The last speaker of the session on Hydra was himself a refugee, Mohammad Vahedi. With great difficulty he had made his way from Iran to Greece sixteen years ago when he was fifteen. There was no one to welcome him — no accommodation centers or organizations to support unaccompanied young refugees arriving in Greece. It took Vahedi a decade before he was finally recognized as a refugee. He is now pursuing postgraduate studies while working for the SOS Children’s Villages in Greece with a program hosting unaccompanied minors. He spoke movingly of failed attempts to cross the Aegean Sea before reaching the Greek coastline. “No one wants to be a refugee,” he said.

Our ferry back to Spetses that afternoon was attended by a pod of playful dolphins. We took their presence as a sign of support for all efforts to promote living more lightly on our small planet.

Returning by ship to Athens the next morning, there was an on-board final session of the symposium.

One of the speakers was John Cardinal Olorunfemi Onaiyekan, Archbishop of Abuja in Nigeria, who is credited with saving Nigeria from dictatorship. In 2012 he was named Pax Christi International’s Peace Laureate. Cardinal John spoke of his appreciation for Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato Si, a document several other speakers had especially recommended. “We are called,” Cardinal John said, “to listen both to the cry of creation and the cry of the poor.” Laughing, he commented that no one speaks these days of the death of God — “the Death-of-God theologians have died.” “God is with us,” he added. “Faith and grace can change the human heart.”

Rabbi Avraham Soetendorp from Amsterdam, a founding member of the Islam and the West dialogue group of the World Economic Forum, remarked that many people today look toward the future with despair. He recalled how in 1943, during the German occupation of the Netherlands, he had been rescued by a Catholic family who were ready to risk their lives in order to save his. “We are wood that has been plucked from the fire,” he said. “How can we ever despair? With compassion we can confront the truth without compromise. Let us seize the moment!”

Patriarch Bartholomew had the last word. “Dear friends,” he said, “we have come to the conclusion of our gathering but a long journey lies before us. We have heard some inspiring presentations. Now it remains for us to preach what we oractice. Now we must begin the long and difficult way from the mind to the heart. There is so much more we can do to change attitudes if only we work with one another. May God in his abundant mercy guide you in your service to his people.”

During several sessions of the conference the two of us sat near Patriarch Bartholomew. We were impressed not only at his continuous presence but at how attentive he was, often nodding his head in assent when a speaker made a suggestion for action.

In the discussion period at the first session on the island of Spetses, a participant made the comment that the speeches being given were all well and good but a waste of time — “this symposium is a case of pastors preaching to the choir.” In fact, as became clear in discussions, a significant number were definitely not of one mind or singing from the same hymn book. Even for those who had similar convictions and analyses and thus might be seen as members of an environmental crisis “choir,” choristers sometimes burn out. Each of us needs renewed inspiration to reach further into the minds and hearts of those who have, in the past, turned an indifferent or even hostile ear. Our sense is that most who took part in the symposium, whatever their differences, left not only freshly challenged but with revitalized hope.

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Nancy Forest is a Dutch-English translator of fiction and non-fiction and has worked extensively with the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. She is married to Jim Forest, who is the author of biographies of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Daniel Berrigan, as well as books on pilgrimage, the basic teachings of Jesus, religious imagery, and overcoming enmity. He is also international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. They are members of the Parish of St Nicholas of Myra (Moscow Patriarchate) in Amsterdam and sit on the advisory board of The Wheel.

22 June 2018


Web site of the symposium:

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first published at:

The Milwaukee Fourteen: A Burning Protest against the Vietnam War

The Milwaukee 14 – 24 September 1968

Wisconsin Magazine of History / Winter 2017

By Tim Thering

On September 24, 1968, fourteen religiously motivated, anti-Vietnam war activists removed, or in their words, “liberated,” ten thousand draft records from the Milwaukee Selective Service office. The protesters, including five Catholic priests, hauled the draft files to a square in the middle of a busy Milwaukee throughway, poured what they called “homemade napalm” over records, and lit them on fire. The protesters gathered around the burning pyre, prayed, and sang “We Shall Overcome.”1 Their action sparked immediate controversy within the city of Milwaukee, which was still reeling from the Open Housing marches for fair housing that had ended just months before. Like much of the United States, Milwaukee was divided over Vietnam, but the stealing and burning of draft records was seen as a particularly pointed political act, far more serious than simply burning one’s own selective service papers.2 The Fourteen anticipated the reaction their protest might ignite, but they hoped it would inspire others to similar radical action. As they declared: “Our action is not an end in itself.”3

For the Fourteen, the burning of draft records was not simply a protest born of frustration at an ineffective political system. They saw the action as a “prophetic witness” that would counteract the passivity and silence of the Catholic Church. They also hoped to turn the public eye toward the excesses of war spending, as they believed the money could be better used at home to fight poverty and racial inequality. All were aware of the possible outcomes and saw their action as an example of taking responsibility and suffering the consequences—something they believed the country had not done in Vietnam. As Father Lawrence Rosebaugh wrote just hours before the protest, “We stand as witnesses to ask our government and all fellow men to come to grips seriously with our actions in Vietnam.”4 Largely forgotten today, the Milwaukee Fourteen stand as examples of radical resistance, motivated not simply by political fervor but also by religious conviction.

Losing Faith in Politics

Nineteen sixty-eight was a tumultuous year. In late January, the American public was shocked when Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces launched the Tet Offensive, attacking thirty-six provincial capitals and five major cities in South Vietnam, including Saigon. Americans had been repeatedly assured by military and political leaders that an end to the war was in sight, but Tet undermined this. Walter Cronkite, the trusted anchor of the CBS Evening News, asserted that the US effort was stalemated.”5 By March 10, a Gallup poll revealed that almost half of the nation believed sending troops to Vietnam had been a mistake.6

With the public turning against the war and President Lyndon Johnson’s approval rating plummeting, many concerned citizens turned to the political process as a way to end US involvement in the conflict. On March 12, 1968, Senator Eugene McCarthy, running on an antiwar platform, came in a close second to President Johnson in the New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary. Thousands of young antiwar activists were willing to “Get Clean for Gene.” On March 16, after McCarthy’s strong showing, Senator Robert F. Kennedy entered the race as a peace candidate on the Democratic ticket. Two weeks later, President Johnson addressed the nation and announced that he was temporarily halting the bombing of North Vietnam. Then he declared: “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”7

With two viable antiwar candidates competing for the Democratic nomination, the early spring of 1968 seemed to promise change in Vietnam. But hopes for peace were soon shattered by violence on the home front. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr., the most famous opponent of the war and the strongest advocate of nonviolent civil disobedience and civil rights, was assassinated in Memphis.

As cities across the nation erupted in violence upon the news of Dr. King’s death, Milwaukee remained calm. Father James Groppi, speaking for members of the NAACP Youth Council, stated they were “sad and bitter” over King’s murder, but there was no rioting in Milwaukee.8 The Youth Council’s Open Housing marches campaign, two hundred nights of marching on the city’s south side from August 1967 to March 1968, had proven that nonviolent civil disobedience was still a possible and relevant means to achieve civil rights.9 Now, thirteen thousand Milwaukeeans marched solemnly through the city to mourn and honor the slain martyr of peace. Michael Cullen, one of the principal organizers of the Milwaukee Fourteen, participated in this silent vigil. Cullen praised his fellow Catholic and good friend Father Groppi for gaining the respect of African Americans in Milwaukee in advising the NAACP Youth Council during the marches. “The only white man the black man will recognize is one who has become black,” said Cullen. “Jim [Father Groppi] has done that. He bears witness daily with his body.” According to Cullen, the respect Father Groppi earned within the Milwaukee African American community helped him to “cool riot situations.”10

In contrast, campuses across the country erupted. An estimated one million college and high school students participated in the National Strike against War, Racism, and the Draft on April 26, 1968.11 According to the Milwaukee underground magazine Kaleidoscope, “40% of the student body boycotted classes” at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.12 Instead, over three thousand students attended a talk by Muhammad Ali. A year earlier, Ali had refused induction into the armed forces, and he was facing up to five years in prison for his draft resistance.13 At UW–Milwaukee, students engaged in guerrilla theater to register their disapproval of the war and the draft. Members of the Demilitarized Zone Mime Troupe set up a sacrificial altar “to the God, LBJ” on campus.14 The organizers burned dolls on the altar “as a mock representation of children being napalmed by Christian Americans.”15 One young woman offered up her bra to burn while other students threw draft cards, social security cards, and bus passes onto the fire. The Milwaukee Organizing Committee (MOC) organized a protest outside the Federal Building on the same day, joined by members of Marquette’s Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and thirty students from Riverside High School. From the Federal Building, the roughly two hundred protesters marched to City Hall.16

By the summer of 1968, tensions were at a high. Then in June, right after delivering his victory speech upon winning the California Democratic primary, Senator Bobby Kennedy was gunned down. The Democratic Convention held in Chicago that August devolved into chaos. When a majority of delegates to the convention selected as their presidential nominee Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who had not run in a single Democratic Party primary, bedlam ensued both within and outside the hall of the convention. Delegates committed to Senator McCarthy, and many of those pledged to the assassinated Kennedy, felt betrayed by the establishment. Fistfights broke out between delegates on the convention floor. Outside the convention hall, antiwar activists attempted to march from Grant Park to the Hilton. On Michigan Avenue, the protesters met a wall of Chicago police. Rather than hold  the line, the police waded into the ranks of the marchers and started swinging. With news of the alleged police riot trickling into the convention hall, Senator Abraham Ribicoff, who was in the midst of nominating Senator George McGovern as a peace alternative to Humphrey, went off script and declared that if George McGovern was president, “We wouldn’t have to have Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago.” A seething Mayor Richard Daley purportedly shouted back at Senator Ribicoff: “F–k you, you Jew son of a bitch.”17 The hope of peace through politics died that night in Chicago.

A month later, having lost faith in the political process, the Milwaukee Fourteen took action against this backdrop of racial and civil unrest. For inspiration, they looked to a protest carried out by religious activists a few months before. On May 17, 1968, nine Catholic activists, including Father Daniel Berrigan and Father Philip Berrigan, broke into the draft board office in Catonsville, Maryland. The protesters grabbed 378 daft files, took them to the parking lot, poured homemade napalm over the files, and then ignited a roaring blaze.18 The Milwaukee Fourteen timed their action to draw attention to the upcoming trial of the Catonsville Nine. Like the Catonsville Nine, their protest and the subsequent trials garnered national attention. But it did not stay on the national radar for long, overshadowed by an ever-shifting news cycle and then forgotten by historians, who tend to focus on the bigger and seemingly more contentious protests held on the UW–Madison campus. In fact, religious opposition to the war, especially among Catholic radicals, was a crucial part of the antiwar movement. The protest in Milwaukee demonstrates the reach of this wing of the antiwar movement— right into the sacred heart of the heartland.

Motivations of the Milwaukee Fourteen

Unlike many who protested against the Vietnam War, the Milwaukee Fourteen viewed their action not only as a political act but also as a religious one. Notre Dame’s Scholastic magazine interviewed Michael Cullen as the main organizer of the action and asked him what the main difference between a Christian radical and a secular radical was. Cullen responded: “Where some of us break with SDS in tactics is that we go far beyond a political point of view. Christ goes much deeper than the political. The 14 stood around to accept the consequences of what we did. That’s something that political people can’t understand.”19 When asked why he was inspired to translate his religious beliefs into radical action, Cullen said: “I just couldn’t stand by. . . . If you meditate long on the child destroyed by napalm in Vietnam, tears will fill in your eyes very fast. It’s like meditating on the stripping of Christ.”20

Vatican II also called the Milwaukee Fourteen to action. Pope John XXIII’s encyclical letter Pacem in Terris (1963) and Vatican II documents such as the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (1965) convinced them that the Church and Pope were summoning Catholics to work for peace and to oppose unjust wars. For the Milwaukee Fourteen, the problem was not with recent popes or the changing church in Rome, but rather with the US Catholic hierarchy that did not seem to get the memo.21 In a not-so-subtle dig at the Catholic hierarchy in the United States, Father Groppi compared the Milwaukee Fourteen’s actions “to Christ’s overturning the tables of the money changers in the temple.”22

In 1964, Jim Forest, one of the Fourteen, helped found the Catholic Peace Fellowship (CPF). Forest envisioned that the CPF would become the Catholic version of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), the main Protestant pacifist group in the United States since World War I. FOR assisted Forest in establishing the CPF. Early in its existence, the CPF lobbied behind the scenes with other Catholic groups at Vatican II to encourage the council to issue a statement legitimizing the right of Catholics to conscientiously object to unjust wars. Vatican II did just that, which proved to be crucial in allowing young Catholics in the United States to claim conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War. Jim Forest and other members of the CPF spent much of their time telling young Catholic men that they had this option and walking them through the process of how to achieve CO status.23

Father Lawrence Rosebaugh, a Milwaukee Catholic priest and Milwaukee Fourteen member, also joined the draft burning for religious reasons. He said he participated “because Christianity wasn’t moving like a Movement should.”24 Father Rosebaugh saw himself as a prophetic witness. Hours before the draft burning, he wrote: “I have become a tool to be worked on and molded. I am being made into something beautiful that others from me can share the gift bestowed upon me. . . . We stand as witnesses to ask our government and all fellow men to come to grips seriously with our actions in Vietnam.25 To these radical Catholics, witnessing did not mean standing on the sidelines and observing—to witness demanded action. If the action had consequences, the group would stand and take them.

Most of the Milwaukee Fourteen were also veterans or supporters of the Catholic Worker movement and disciples of Dorothy Day. In addition to leading the Catholic Peace Fellowship, Jim Forest edited the Catholic Worker. Michael Cullen opened up Casa Maria in Milwaukee, a Catholic Worker home for the homeless. Cullen and Bob Graf founded and co-edited the Catholic Radical, a local Catholic Worker newspaper in Milwaukee, and Father Rosebaugh opened the Living Room, a daytime drop-in center for the city’s homeless. For the Milwaukee Fourteen, their work with the homeless, poor, and minorities convinced them that money spent on the war in Vietnam should rather be spent on the War on Poverty at home. Like Martin Luther King Jr., they believed the government’s priorities were immoral. Cullen stated: “It was Dan [Berrigan] who impressed me, overwhelmed me by his person, and his style, who tied poverty and the war together for me. When I learned about the Catonsville 9, I simply had to take off. I had to act.”26

The Milwaukee Fourteen were also inspired by the 1967 to 1968 civil rights struggle for fair housing. Local members of the Fourteen, like Graf and Cullen, had participated in at least some of the two hundred nights of marching for open housing in Milwaukee. However, until they drew the connections between civil rights, poverty, and the war, most had not wanted a role on the front line of protest. Cullen explained: “Even though I had walked in the Groppi demonstrations and was somewhat involved in the civil rights movement, for the most part I was withdrawn. I could hardly be called a protestor or a radical.”27 Similar to the criticisms Dr. King faced when he came out against the war, the Fourteen had a difficult time explaining even to those who shared their concerns about civil rights and helping the poor how the war was connected. “As I began to speak about the war,” Cullen remembered, “people began to think I was more concerned with peace than I was concerned with the poor. But being concerned with the poor is the heart of peacemaking.”28

Previous Antiwar Activities

Although most of the Fourteen were motivated by religious convictions, there is no doubt they also interpreted the event as a political act. All of the Milwaukee Fourteen had already been active in the antiwar movement. It was their frustration that conventional civil disobedience had achieved so little in ending the war and ending the draft that motivated them to up the ante. Father Anthony Mullaney, a Catholic priest from Massachusetts and a Milwaukee Fourteen member, elaborated on the personal journey that led him to believe he had no other option. Mullaney had concluded that US involvement in Vietnam was wrong five years earlier, long before President Johnson sent combat troops. His opposition took the form of traditional protest within the law. He wrote letters, signed petitions, gave talks, preached sermons and “even risked a march or two.”29 According to a pamphlet put out by the Milwaukee Fourteen Defense Fund, Father Mullaney and Father Robert Cunnane, another Massachusetts priest who participated, had “gone through the proper channels.”30 They had even “appeared in groups at the White House, at the Senate, [and] at the House of Representatives” to plead with politicians to end the hostilities and “divert needed funds to the urban crises.”31 But their words and actions had come to naught. According to the priests, “some [politicians] even agreed with them—privately—but told them they could do nothing for them.”32

Father Cunnane helped found the Boston Committee for Religious Concern for peace. On October 16, 1967, Father Cunnane had spoken at the Arlington Street Church protest in Boston, where a couple hundred draft cards were turned in. Dr. Benjamin Spock, the famous pediatrician who changed the way Americans raised its children with his bestseller Baby and Child Care, and the Reverend William Coffin, the longtime civil rights and peace activist, would later be tried on charges of conspiracy for “returning” these draft cards to the Justice Department during the 1967 March on the Pentagon protests.33 Under Selective Service rules, young men registered for the draft needed to keep possession of their draft card at all times. Doug Marvy, the only Jewish member of the group, counseled young men on how to avoid the draft. Two others, Fred Ojile and the Reverend Jon Higgenbotham, a minister of the Founding Church of Scientology and the Church of American Science, were draft counselors in Minnesota.

Milwaukee members of the Fourteen had also been active against the war before the draft burning. Michael Cullen held a ten-day fast and vigil to draw attention to the immorality of the war at Milwaukee’s Saint John’s Cathedral in the spring of 1967. Cullen later reflected that the fast dramatically changed him: “I returned a different man. My life had taken a drastic turn.”34 On Good Friday of that year, Cullen left the cathedral and, with a small group of followers, carried a large crucifix from Saint John’s to Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church on Milwaukee’s south side. The group hoped that Catholics would remember what “the Prince of Peace” had sacrificed his flesh for.35 Just two days before the draft burning, Cullen, Jerry Gardner, and Bob Graf joined another protest at Saint John’s Cathedral. About a dozen protesters rushed the altar during Sunday mass. Father Nicholas Riddell, a priest from Saint Boniface Catholic Church (the church of civil rights activist Father James Groppi), then attempted to read a statement condemning the US Catholic Church for its silence on the war.36

All of this previous antiwar activity had convinced the Fourteen that something more drastic had to be done. Father Mullaney explained: “In order to be heard in a society where all ‘legal’ means of protest had been exhausted by us, where our right to free speech had been rendered ineffective, where all the words—such as peace, freedom—had been preempted by the government, where so many of us had become dulled by the long years of war and violence . . . we turned over the ‘golden calf’ of property [draft records].”37 The Milwaukee Fourteen knew that destruction of such “property” would likely lead to imprisonment and prosecution. Anticipating the charges, they had a ready answer in a statement they passed out to the press at the time of the action. “Today we destroy Selective Service System files because men need to be reminded that property is not sacred. . . . If anything tangible is sacred, it is the gift of life and flesh.” The Catholic radicals went on to decry the destruction of life not only in Vietnam and Southeast Asia, but in Latin America, Africa, and “Harlem, Delano, and wherever the poor live and die.” “Property” such as draft records could be used by any tyrannical regime or individual against life: “the gas ovens in Germany, concentration camps in Russia, occupation tanks in Czechoslovakia, pieces of paper in draft offices, slum holdings, factories of death machines.” Tying themselves to the American past, the Milwaukee Fourteen reminded the nation that the country did not dwell on the destruction of property when celebrating the Boston Tea Party.38

The Action

Although the Milwaukee Fourteen described burning the draft records as prophetic witness, they did not want to bear witness in the wilderness. As Michael Cullen put it at his trial, “the act belonged to the public.”39 Media savvy and yet cautious about tipping off law enforcement, the Milwaukee Fourteen arranged for reporters, photographers, and a film crew to be on hand, with the media not knowing exactly what the action would be or where it would take place. John Hagedorn, a member of the Milwaukee Organizing Committee, contacted the local media, telling them an event would take place on September 24 that might produce a story of “national headline importance.”40 Hagedorn met the media in a parking lot several blocks from the event and then had the group caravan to another parking lot. Hagedorn went up to the end of the block, ran back, handed out the press releases, and shouted: “Go to the corner. There’s your story.”41

By the time reporters arrived, the group was dragging draft records from the Selective Service offices in the Brumder Building to a small park across Wells Street, placing the sacks beneath a World War I memorial flagpole honoring fallen soldiers. At 5:55 p.m., Jerry Gardner, a Marquette graduate student and lifelong Milwaukee resident, and Don Cotton, co-chair of SDS at Saint Louis University, poured the homemade napalm over the draft records. Once the papers were soaked, Gardner and Doug Marvy set them ablaze.42 The deed done, the Fourteen gathered together in a supportive embrace and waited to be arrested, singing the Lord’s Prayer and reading scripture as fire trucks wailed in the distance.43 As the records continued to burn, a few pedestrians stopped to observe. Others did a quick double take and kept on walking. Michael Kirkhorn, a reporter from the Milwaukee Journal, began asking people walking by for their response. An older man, hearing the prayers and seeing the clerical collars of the priests as they gathered around the burning draft records, “muttered, “I bet they never read any scripture.” One young man exclaimed hopefully, “Maybe they got [my record].”44

By 6:04 p.m., firemen had extinguished the fire with some draft records still blowing in the wind.45 Cullen gave a short speech as the firemen raked the embers: “We love all of you who are putting out the fire. We have done this because we love America. We believe America has done wrong in Vietnam.”46 By this point, the police had arrived and began gently pushing the Fourteen toward the patrol wagons. The protesters offered no resistance, nor did the police officers use much force or even seem to be in a hurry as they made their arrests. By 6:15, all the Fourteen were in the patrol wagons heading for the Milwaukee County Safety Building. By the time the police had hauled the group away, around one hundred Milwaukee bystanders bore witness to the action.

While gathered around the burning records waiting for the police, Father Anthony Mullaney, reading from Luke 12:51, underscored how the Fourteen viewed their action as a baptism by fire: “But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is over. Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the world? Not peace, I tell you, but division.”47 And divide, the Milwaukee Fourteen did.

Response to the Milwaukee Fourteen

The day after the protest, the Milwaukee County Council of the Democratic Party passed a unanimous resolution condemning the mass draft burning. As the resolution was being introduced, several members began shouting “Shoot ’em.”48 Underscoring the heat of the times, the local Democratic Party also passed at the meeting a resolution praising Chicago Mayor Richard Daley for his actions the previous month against antiwar protesters at the national convention. This vitriol was not unexpected.

The Milwaukee Democratic Party of the 1960s was dominated by and represented the interests of the city’s white, blue-collar Catholic residents, especially those working-class voters of eastern and southern European ancestry residing on the city’s south side. These white ethnic workers had supported the Democratic Party since the New Deal. From the 1930s to the 1960s, the Democratic Party had helped them achieve a lower middle-class lifestyle with unions (the Wagner Act), homes (FHA loans and the GI Bill), and dignity in retirement (Social Security and Medicare). However, by the mid-1960s, many working-class Milwaukeeans began to feel forgotten. Even though many of LBJ’s Great Society programs continued to improve their lives, they resented the increasing focus on alleviating poverty and support for civil rights.

Many white working-class Milwaukeeans believed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 threatened their economic security and their modest homes. The ardent segregationist of Alabama, Governor George Wallace, won 34 percent of the vote in the 1964 Wisconsin Democratic presidential primary in large part due to his support on the south side of Milwaukee. He told these former bulwarks of liberalism that the ”civil wrongs bill” would mean the death of labor unions and private property.49 At a Wallace campaign rally at Serb Hall on the city’s south side in 1964, the crowd serenaded the southern segregationist governor with a verse of “Dixie” sung in Polish. At the same rally, two African American protesters who refused to stand for the national anthem were forced out of the hall with shouts of “Send Them Back to Africa.”50 Wallace claimed afterward: “If I ever had to leave Alabama, I’d want to live on the south side of Milwaukee.”51 Despite a peaceful intent, the Open Housing marches and further actions by the NAACP Youth Council only inflamed these racial hatreds further. The marchers, whose route took them to Kosciuszko Park on the south side, faced thousands of hostile counter protesters. With signs such as “Polish Power,” a cardboard casket marked “Groppi, Rest in Hell,” and chants of “kill, kill, kill,” the counter demonstrators unleashed their anger at those who simply wanted the right to choose where they lived.52

Within this cauldron of racial tension, the Milwaukee Fourteen’s action added fuel to the fire among the city’s ethnic working class. Although the war was not necessarily popular among these white blue-collar voters, they despised the protests and protesters—whom they associated with civil rights marchers—even more. It was their sons who were being sacrificed in Vietnam, and they resented college kids, and now even Catholic priests, telling them that their sons had died or might die for an unjust cause.

Republicans also quickly condemned the actions of the Milwaukee Fourteen. State Senator Robert Warren, a Republican running for state attorney general on a law-and-order platform that mimicked Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign, blasted the burning as “brazen anarchy.”53 Republican vice-presidential candidate Spiro Agnew, campaigning on the south side of Milwaukee just four days after the burning of the draft records, hammered home the slogan of law and order. Agnew, in a conscious attempt to peel these voters away from George Wallace’s third-party presidential campaign, fed the crowd red meat. He started out by declaring that the country was in a “moral crisis” and needed “moral leadership.” But, he claimed, “a president is not a clergyman, and I may say to you in Milwaukee that neither is a clergyman a president.”54 The crowd erupted in sustained applause. Everyone at the rally knew that Agnew was referring to the Milwaukee Fourteen and Father Groppi.

The Milwaukee Journal, considered the liberal newspaper of Milwaukee’s two dailies, ran an editorial that decried the actions of the Milwaukee Fourteen as “inexcusable hooliganism.” Challenging the protesters’ adherence to pacifism and nonviolence, the Journal editors proclaimed that instead “they defiled the pacifist traditions of Thoreau and Gandhi.” According to the Journal, the actions of the Milwaukee Fourteen “were more reminiscent of the ruffians of the Pennsylvania whiskey rebellion.”55 The next day, the Milwaukee Journal ran a front-page editorial cartoon that compared the Milwaukee Fourteen to the John Birch Society, the Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, and Vietnam War hawks, arguing that they were “pious fanatics” who believed “the end justifies any means.”56

Although the immediate local response overwhelmingly condemned the draft burning a few championed it. Father Groppi called the Fourteen “saints . . . who performed a tremendous act of courage.” He contrasted the group’s bravery to the “silence of the church hierarchy”  on the war in Vietnam.57 Groppi also questioned the Milwaukee Journal’s decision to refer to the burning of the draft records as “hooliganism.” “What do they call the war in Vietnam?” he demanded to know.58 Father Groppi would soon become co-chair of the Milwaukee Fourteen Defense Fund, which raised money for bail and legal fees.

To show support for the Milwaukee Fourteen, Father Groppi and comedian Dick Gregory organized a solidarity march. On October 1, 1968, 150 people gathered to listen to speeches supporting the Fourteen at Saint Boniface Catholic Church. Lawrence Friend, president of the Milwaukee NAACP Youth Council, denounced the Vietnam War as a “white man’s war” and called on African Americans to resist the draft. From Saint Boniface, Father Groppi and the supporters marched to Marquette University, where Dick Gregory gave a two-hour talk. After his talk, a group of five hundred, mainly Marquette students and a few NAACP Youth Council members, marched to the Milwaukee County Safety Building where the Milwaukee

Aftermath: Flames and Ashes

Whether they were trying to put on a brave front or they really wanted to go to prison to serve as an example, all of the Milwaukee Fourteen ended up serving at least a year in prison for their actions. After serving his time, Cullen, an Irish immigrant, also suffered deportation. Even though Cullen’s wife, Annette (Nettie), had been born and raised in Wisconsin, she and the children accompanied him to Ireland. Cullen would not be allowed to return to the United States until 1991.61 Bob Graf, Jerry Gardner, Fred Ojile, and Doug Marvy each missed the birth of a child while they served their sentences.

After his federal trial in March 1970, Cullen testified that he acted with full knowledge of the potential consequences: “I did what I did lest I be judged not a man but a coward. I did what I did even though I knew I jeopardized my wife’s future and my children.”62 Cullen’s macho stance quickly faded after only three months in prison. Considering his public statements and his long commitment to the Catholic Worker movement, his letter to Federal Judge Gordon would no doubt shock some of his supporters, but reveals that Michael Cullen, like all of us, was more human than saint:

“My reason for writing at this time is to beg you for mercy—help lighten my sentence . . .

I beg you. My wife and three children are having a terrible time—I really mean that. And it is not just financial but emotionally as well . . . I am willing to be put under surveillance by the federal government for whatever time they deem necessary. Please help us judge. Please. I promise to be a good citizen. This has been my first offense and I promise it will be my last.”63

Although personally costly for the men, the actions of the Milwaukee Fourteen did have immediate results. As Jim Forest explained decades later, “For starters, it closed down conscription for a time in a major US city. In Milwaukee for several months the only people who were sent to the war were volunteers.”64 It also inspired others. On May 25, 1969, protesters organized a mass draft record burning in Chicago, timed to draw national attention to the trial of the Milwaukee Fourteen.65 The Chicago protesters, who became known as the Chicago Fifteen, burned even more draft records than the Milwaukee Fourteen—some 40,000.66 One of those arrested was Milwaukee’s own Father Nicolas Riddell. Richard Zipfel, a spokesperson for the Milwaukee Fourteen Defense Committee, told the media that the Fourteen were “overjoyed and delighted” that their action had encouraged others to take nonviolent direct action against the war machine.67

However,  the Milwaukee Fourteen were dismayed when violence was employed by those who wanted to bring the war home. On September 28, 1969, the Federal Building  in Milwaukee was bombed—almost a year to the day of the Milwaukee Fourteen action.68 In a statement to the press, Cullen lamented the bombing: “I would like to make clear that I was very saddened by this happening since it was undoubtedly perpetrated by persons who have a real concern for the welfare of this society but who, in their eagerness for change, have overstepped the limitations of non-violence. I feel that such an act . . . will only create more fear.”69 Cullen explained that he would begin a fast “as penance for this act since I may well have inspired it.”

Whether viewed as saints or hooligans, the Milwaukee Fourteen deserve to be remembered. The burning of the draft records and the various responses to it are part of our collective history—indeed, part of Wisconsin history. For better or worse, the Milwaukee Fourteen ignited a firestorm whose flames have not been completely extinguished.

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About the author: Tim Thering is an associate professor of history at University of Wisconsin–Waukesha where he teaches a course on the Vietnam War. He is a past recipient of the UW–Colleges Chancellor’s Award for his contributions commemorating the Milwaukee Open Housing Marches. In 2016, he served as co-chair of the Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books. The author would like to thank Marquette archivist Phil Runkel for his research assistance and Margaret (Peggy) Rozga for encouraging him to tell the story of the Milwaukee Fourteen.

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  1. “Statement for Issuance while Awaiting Arrest for the Destruction of Milwaukee Draft Records,” September 24, 1968, Milwaukee Fourteen Defense Committee Records, 1968– 1971, Wisconsin Historical Society Area Research Center Archives, Golda Meier Library, UW–Milwaukee; “The Milwaukee Fourteen: Hypothesis, Perspective,” Kaleidoscope (Milwaukee) 1, no. 24 (1968): 5.
  2. Michael S. Foley, Confronting the War Machine: Draft Resistance during the Vietnam War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 3–16; Charles DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal: The Antiwar Movement of the Vietnam Era (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1990), 128–130.
  3. “Statement for Issuance.”
  4. Father Larry Rosebaugh, “This Is How I See It,” September 24, 1968, Michael Denis Cullen Papers, Series 5, Box 1, Special Collections and University Archives, Raynor Memorial Libraries, Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin (hereafter Cullen Papers).
  5. Robert Mann, A Grand Delusion: America’s Descent into Vietnam (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 574–575.
  6. Forty-nine percent of those polled said it was a mistake, 41 percent said it was not, and 10 percent had no opinion. George Gallop, ed., The Gallup Poll: Public Opinion 1935–1971, Vol. 3 (New York: Random House, 1972), 2109.
  7. Charles E. Neu, America’s Lost War, Vietnam: 1945-1975 (Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, 2005), 142.
  8. “Wisconsin Leaders Mourn Dr. King,” Madison Capital Times, April 5, 1968.
  9. For histories of the 1967/1968 Milwaukee Open Housing marches, see Patrick D. Jones, Selma of the North: Civil Rights Insurgency in Milwaukee (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009) and Margaret Rozga, “March On Milwaukee,” Wisconsin Magazine of History 90, no. 4 (Summer 2007): 28–39.
  10. “Milwaukee Priest Long Known as Advocate of Non-Violence,” The Ontario Daily Report, May 22, 1968.
  11. “Student Strike Succeeds,” Kaleidoscope 1, no. 14 (1968): 2; “LBJ Sacrificial Altar,” Kaleidoscope 1, no. 14 (1968): 5.
  12. “Student Strike Succeeds.”
  13. “Pugilist Poet Preacher Muhammad Has Stage,” Wisconsin State Journal, April 27, 1968.
  14. “LBJ Sacrificial Altar.”
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Testimony of Richard Joseph Daley, Chicago Eight Conspiracy Trial, University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law Famous Trials website, accessed at http://www.famoustrials.com/chicago8/1322-daley.
  18. For the definitive study of the Catonsville Nine, see Shawn Francis Peters, The Catonsville Nine: A Story of Faith and Resistance in the Vietnam Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).
  19. “Violence in Search of Peace: An Interview with Michael Cullen,” Scholastic (Notre Dame), May 9, 1969.
  20. “Fast Nourishes Protester,” Milwaukee Journal, March 25, 1967.
  21. Penelope Adams Moon, “‘Peace on Earth—Peace in Vietnam’: The Catholic Peace Fellowship and Antiwar Witness, 1964–1976,” Journal of Social History (Summer 2003): 1037.
  22. “Government Rests Case; 16 Testify for Cullen,” unidentified newspaper clipping, n.d., Cullen Papers, Series 5, Box 2.
  23. Moon., 1038–1040.
  24. Francine du Plessix Gray, “The Ultra-Resistance,” New York Review of Books, September 25, 1969.
  25. Father Larry Rosebaugh, “This Is How I See It.”
  26. “Rough Draft for a Brochure on Michael Cullen,” n.d., mimeograph copy, Cullen Papers, Series 5, Box 1.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Anthony Mullaney, “Why Are Three Boston Priests Involved in a Federal Trial?” n.d., Cullen Papers, Series 5, Box 2.
  30. Milwaukee Fourteen Defense Fund (Boston Area), “Peace on Earth . . . Good Will toward Men,” pamphlet, n.d., Cullen Papers, Series 5, Box 2.
  31. Milwaukee Fourteen Defense Fund (Boston Area), “Yes—But Why Didn’t They Go through the Proper Channels?” pamphlet, n.d., Cullen Papers, Series 5, Box 2.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Foley, Confronting the War Machine, 225–233.
  34. “Rough Draft for a Brochure on Michael Cullen.”
  35. “March on Good Friday Protests Vietnam War,” Milwaukee Journal, March 25, 1967.
  36. Eugene Horn, “Archbishop Describes Protest at Cathedral as ‘Disgraceful’ Action,” Catholic Herald (Milwaukee), September 28, 1968.
  37. Mullaney, “Why Are Three Boston Priests.”
  38. “Statement for Issuance.”
  39. “Draft Building ‘Cased’ for Weeks, Cullen Says,” Milwaukee Sentinel, March 21, 1970.
  40. “Intermediary Leads Newsmen to Protest,” Milwaukee Journal, September 25, 1968; “How Press Was Taken to Scene,” Milwaukee Sentinel, September 26, 1969.
  41. “Intermediary Leads Newsmen to Protest,” Milwaukee Journal, September 25, 1968.
  42. “War Protestors Give Statement,” Milwaukee Journal, September 25, 1968.
  43. “Milwaukee 14 Demonstrators Lead the News Crew to a Fire of Burning Draft Records,” September 24, 1968, Milwaukee Journal Stations Records, WTMJ-TV News Film Archives, Wisconsin Historical Society Area Research Center, Golda Meier Library, UW–Milwaukee.
  44. “Selective Service Office Invaded, Records Burned,” Milwaukee Journal, September 25, 1968.
  45. “War Protestors Give Statement.”
  46. “Milwaukee 14 Demonstrators,” WTMJ-TV News Film Archives.
  47. Ibid.
  48. “Democratic Council Blasts Draft Protest,” Milwaukee Journal, September 25, 1968.
  49. Richard Haney, “Wallace in Wisconsin: The Presidential Primary of 1964,” Wisconsin Magazine of History 61, no. 4 (Summer 1978): 268.
  50. Ibid., 270–271.
  51. “Dixie North: George Wallace and the 1964 Wisconsin Presidential Primary,” Sheppard Express (Milwaukee), December 22, 2015.
  52. Rozga, “March on Milwaukee,” 34–35.
  53. “Draft Record Burning Blasted as Anarchy,” Milwaukee Journal, September 25, 1968.
  54. “Agnew Visits Milwaukee,” Eau Claire Leader, September 29, 1968.
  55. “Inexcusable Hooliganism,” Milwaukee Journal, September 26, 1968.
  56. “The Gospel according to Pious Fanatics,” Milwaukee Journal, September 26, 1968.
  57. “Protestors Compared to Saints by Groppi,” Milwaukee Journal, September 26, 1968.
  58. Ibid.
  59. “March Supports Draft Protestors,” Milwaukee Journal, September 26, 1968; “Gregory Addresses Crowd at Marquette,” Milwaukee Journal, September 26, 1968.
  60. Mullaney, “Why Are Three Boston Priests.” Mullaney’s 3,000 is in contrast to the Milwaukee Journal’s report of 500.
  61. “Once Deported, Irishman Takes Oath,” The Capital Times, March 20, 2001.
  62. “Defense Based on Religious Belief Fails; Cullen Guilty of Card Burning,” Catholic Herald Citizen (Milwaukee), March 28, 1970.
  63. Letter from Michael Cullen to Judge Gordon, August 12, 1970, Cullen Papers, Series 5, Box 1.
  64. Jim Forest, “Looking Back on the Milwaukee 14,” March 3, 2006, blog post, accessed at http://jimandnancyforest.com/2006/03/looking-back-on-the-milwaukee-14/.
  65. There were two trials for the Milwaukee Fourteen. Michael Cullen was tried alone due to his immigrant status, Jerry Gardner pleaded guilty and had no trial, and the other twelve had a combined trial. The Chicago action was an attempt to draw attention to the latter.
  66. Gray, “The Ultra-Resistance.”
  67. “Dedicated to the ‘Milwaukee 14’: 18 Arrested in Chicago Draft Data Burning Protest,” Capital Times (Madison), May 26, 1969.
  68. “Violence Rapped by the Milwaukee 14,” Rhinelander Daily News, September 30, 1969.
  69. Michael Cullen, “Statement Concerning the Bombing of the Federal Bldg.,” n.d., Cullen Papers, Series 1 Box 1.

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The Milwaukee 14: Action, Trial, Prison

The following pages are a draft of three chapters in an autobiography I’ve been writing. It’s a work-in-progress.

>> The Milwaukee Fourteen

Dan Berrigan had just been released from prison on bail and Jim Douglass, a co-founder of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, was in town. Jim and I decided to visit Dan at a Jesuit parish in the Bronx where he was briefly staying before returning to his chaplaincy work at Cornell. Sitting on wooden chairs in the weedy backyard of the rectory, we discovered that Dan, usually remarkably upbeat, was depressed. The reason quickly became apparent. Several months had passed since the nine had put Catonsville on the map and, so far as Dan knew, no one was preparing a similar action. Both Jim and I were dumbfounded — we had both seen the draft-record burning in Maryland as a one-of-a-kind happening, not a prototype. It hadn’t crossed our minds that what happened at Catonsville was intended to presage a parade of raids. We were speechless. On the subway back to Manhattan, we both talked about reasons we couldn’t do anything that was likely to cost years in prison. At the top of the list was the fact that we both were parents of young children. Yet I was troubled by my hesitations. Should not peace-making be as costly as war-making? Should so much be asked of soldiers and so much less of ourselves?

Soon afterward I was in Washington to attend the annual meeting of the National Liturgical Conference, a group dedicated to renewal of worship in the Catholic Church. Dorothy Day was the principal speaker. (Martin Luther King was to have been the main lecturer but had been murdered in Memphis four months earlier.) After being greeted by a standing ovation, Dorothy began her address by confessing she was “more at home washing a batch of dishes than standing before such an august audience.” She spoke about the connection that had long existed between the Catholic Worker and Benedictine monks working for liturgical renewal. “It was the liturgy,” Dorothy said, “which led us to pray the psalms with the Church, leading us to a joyful understanding in prayer. It was the liturgy which brought us close to scripture.” Coming to know many of the psalms by heart, she said, had helped sustain vigils for peace and justice as well as times in jail.

Dorothy referred to the “hard sayings” in the Gospel — love of enemies, forgiving seventy times seven, refusing to respond to violence with violence, turning the other cheek, going the second mile. She named various people in the Catholic Worker movement who were in prison that very day because they were attempting to shape their lives around the “hard sayings” of Jesus — Tom Cornell, David Miller, Bob Gilliam, Jimmy Wilson and others.

She drew particular attention to Phil and Dan Berrigan and the witness of the Catonsville Nine and their “revolutionary act of destroying draft records.” Their motivation, she stressed, was “love of brother and compassion for men conscripted and dying in Vietnam and other countries of the world to which we have sold arms and planes.” She was aware that some had judged the destruction of draft records as an act of violence, but Dorothy disagreed. “It was a nonviolent act,” she argued, “in that it was directed only against the symbols of man’s present-day enslavement and not against man, and at the same time it was the violence of the Lord Himself when he overturned the tables of commerce in the Temple.”[1]

I was deeply moved by what Dorothy had said. Afterward, walking the streets of Washington side by side with George Mische, one of the Catonsville Nine, George told me that a second Catonsville-like action that was taking shape and asked if I was interested in joining it. Without hesitation, the word “yes” flew out of my mouth. I was astonished at what I had just said.

When and where the event was to take place, George said, was as yet unknown. He told me that several people, including two priests, had expressed readiness. He was adding my name to the list.

My next stop happened to be Milwaukee where Dan Berrigan and I had both agreed to speak at a conference of Franciscan teaching nuns. For the several days we were there, we stayed at Casa Maria, the local Catholic Worker house of hospitality. Our hosts were Michael and Nettie Cullen. Michael was an enthusiastic Irishman, with a brogue thick as potato soup, while Nettie was, with her mid-western accent and practical manner, as American as pumpkin pie.

On our second night at Casa Maria, Dan and I found ourselves drinking beer in a crowded kitchen in which several of those present, Michael among them, made clear they were eager to follow the Catonsville example. All Milwaukee’s nine draft boards were conveniently located in adjacent offices on the first floor of a downtown office building in front of which was a small park dedicated to America’s war dead. It was, Michael pointed out, “the ideal spot for burning draft files.”

George Mische’s list had quickly enlarged. The next step was a weekend gathering of the twenty or so potential volunteers on August 23-25, at St. Paul’s Abbey, a monastery in northwest New Jersey. Paul Mayer, coordinator of the Catonsville Nine Defense Committee, made the arrangements. The gathering was shaped liked a retreat, with Mass each morning and a period of Bible study later in the day. In addition there were sessions at which we got to know each other, discuss our motives and backgrounds, and to make decisions about who would take part in the action, who would form a support team, and which of several cities being considered should be chosen.

By the time the retreat ended it had been agreed that Milwaukee was the best option, in part because four of the participants lived there. Fourteen people committed themselves to take part: Don Cotton, Michael Cullen, Fr. Robert Cunnane, Jerry Gardner, Bob Graf, Jon Higgenbotham, Fr. Jim Harney, Fr. Al Janicke, Doug Marvy, Fr. Anthony Mullaney, Fred Ojile, Brother Basil O’Leary, Fr. Larry Rosebaugh and myself.[2] Twelve were Catholics, five of them priests. The oldest member of the group was a professor of economics, another was a Benedictine monk. Few of us had met each other before the retreat. A date was set— the 24th of September, just four weeks away. We decided to gather in Milwaukee two days beforehand.

I agreed to draft a group declaration. Here are extracts from the final document:

We who burn these records of our society’s war machine are participants in a movement of resistance to slavery, a struggle that remains as unresolved in America as in most of the world. Man remains an object to be rewarded insofar as he is obedient and useful, to be punished when he dares declare his liberation. Our action concentrates on the Selective Service System because its relation to murder is immediate. Men are drafted — or “volunteer” for fear of being drafted — as killers for the state. Their victims litter the planet. In Vietnam alone, where nearly 30,000 Americans have died, no one can count the Vietnamese dead, crippled, the mentally maimed.

Today we destroy Selective Service System files because we need to be reminded that property is not sacred. Property belongs to the human scene only if man does… Property is repeatedly made enemy of life: gas ovens in Germany, concentration camps in Russia, occupation tanks in Czechoslovakia, pieces of paper in draft offices, slum holdings, factories of death machines, germs and nerve gas….

In destroying these links in the military chain of command, we forge anew the good sense of the Second Vatican Council: “Human dignity demands that each person act according to a free conscience that is personally motivated from within, not under mere external pressure or blind internal impulse.”

Others worked on an action plan. Doug Marvy took on the task of finding a way to open the doors to the nine boards half-an-hour after the staff left for the day. Others mapped the boards, locating the cabinets in which the files of people in the 1-A category were stored — those who had passed their physicals and would soon receive orders to report for military service.

Amazingly the action came off as planned. The fourteen of us walked in pairs from a variety of starting points, converging at the office building that housed the draft boards. My knees shook every inch of the way. The nine doors were successfully opened, the many burlap sacks we had brought with us were filled to bursting with 1-A files — 10,000 of them, it was estimated during the trial — and dragged out to the park across the street. Homemade napalm, made according to a recipe found in the U.S. Army Special Forces Handbook, was poured on the files and a match struck. The fourteen of us lined up on one side of the bonfire and prayed the Our Father and sang “We Shall Overcome.” The police and fire department were slow to arrive. Had we wished, we could have quietly walked back to Casa Maria, but the trial to follow was as important to us as the destruction of the files.

Here is the account of my role in the action that I gave in testimony during the trial:

“I would like to describe what I personally did when we went to the Bruder Building. I entered Board 47, a board on the right side of the building as you face it, second floor, halfway down the corridor. The door was already opened [by Doug Marvy] when I got there. There were several burlap sacks on the floor and a large screwdriver for forcing open file the locked cabinets so that we could remove 1-A files and other key registration records. One priority item was a large volume that had names, serial numbers, addresses and classification histories. I took the cross-reference book and several drawers of 1-A files. I also took some other files that were in a drawer marked ‘Delinquent’ — people who were in trouble with the Selective Service System.

“I dragged these sacks down to the front of the building. When the street was clear, I ran across the street to the little park. I then helped a couple of the other guys pull sacks. Others were piling the sacks together. The gasoline — homemade napalm — was poured on them and someone lit the fire. We knew that the fire posed a slight danger to other people — some of us were working to make sure nobody was too close. Then we stood on one side of the bonfire singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ and then read from the Gospels and prayed.

“I should add that while I was in the building I heard a woman screaming in the hallway. I went out and saw Mrs. Pauline Gaydos, a cleaning woman, running down the hallway. My reason for stopping her wasn’t to prevent her from screaming, but because she was in a state of terror. My hope was that she could understand what was happening, what we were doing, so that she would know that she had nothing to be afraid of. I walked her backward into Draft Board  47 with one hand around her belly and one hand around her cheek. She was rigid with fear. I let go of her and started talking to her — in fact I had start talking to her while I was still holding her in the hallway. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but, as you have already heard her testify, it was something like ‘perhaps you have a son who is in Vietnam, or perhaps have neighbors who have sons in Vietnam, or perhaps you have friends whose sons might go to Vietnam and their parents are afraid.’ I was concerned about her fear and was speaking very softly. Suddenly I felt her body relax in the most beautiful way. It was like an iron bar turning into a pillow. A relaxed feeling just poured out of her. It was a very wonderful feeling. She looked at me and said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me that before ?’ We talked for a while longer, and then there was a knock on the door — Doug saying it was time to leave the building. We dragged all the sacks to the park and set them on fire.”

I doubt the police had ever arrested a more cheerful or cooperative, in fact elated, set of prisoners. We had set out to declare nonviolent war on military conscription and to do our bit to impede the war in Vietnam and had achieved all we had dreamed of.

I recall these events with gratitude, pride, embarrassment and astonishment, but at the same time I’m disturbed that it never occurred to me to back out. I still have mixed feelings about having been one of the Milwaukee Fourteen. I am still troubled by my unexpected encounter with Mrs. Gaydos. Thank God she didn’t have a heart attack. I am also disturbed that I left my son fatherless for part of his young life. It was one thing for celibates like Dan and Phil Berrigan to go to prison, another for the parent of a five-year-old child. My defense was that soldiers were being sent to Vietnam who would never see their wives or children again, or who would return home with appalling injuries, physical, mental and spiritual. Was I unwilling to make a much less costly sacrifice?

The hardest part of preparing for the action was working out Ben’s care during the prolonged absence I anticipated. Jean’s sister, Mary Corchia, agreed to play a significant part, but the main role was taken by my mother. Thank God in the end it all worked out remarkably well — Ben has many happy memories of that period of his life and is proud of what I did — but it still troubles me that I put work for social change ahead of family responsibilities, much as my father had done during my own childhood. Dad had often remarked that I was “a chip off the old block.” Perhaps I should have been less so.

>> Trial

One doesn’t have to be have undergone arrest to know what happened next. The ritual has been endlessly and accurately reenacted in countless TV crime dramas: handcuffs, transport by police car or paddy wagon to the nearest police station, the emptying of pockets and removal of pens and wrist watches followed by finger printing and the taking of mug shots. The same had happened to me six years earlier when I had been among those blocking the entrance to the Atomic Energy Commission in New York. I felt as if I were playing a familiar role in a crime film.

seven-bunk cell in the Milwaukee County Jail — a perfect fit

As night was falling, we were delivered to at the Milwaukee County Jail where we were briefly deposited in a “drunk tank” and then moved to a dormitory with seven bunk beds — a perfect arrangement for the fourteen on us. The County Jail was to be our home for a month.

In court to be arraigned the next day, we found we charged with three felonies: burglary, theft and arson — burglary for breaking into the nine draft boards, theft for removing draft files, and arson for burning the files.

The judge who arraigned us had the remarkable name of Christ Seraphim, a notorious foe of Milwaukee’s civil rights movement and a past president of the Eagles Club, a whites-only fraternity. He set bail that would have been more appropriate for kidnappers, rapists or bank robbers: $430,000 in toto — approximately $3,000,000 in today’s money. It took a month but, after the amount was reduced by a different judge and thanks to generous loans from supporters (one couple mortgaged their house), we were set free pending trial the following May. This gave us half a year to prepare our defense as well as to organize all sorts of public meetings and events, from discussion forums to poetry readings to helping people who were organizing new draft board actions.[3]

There was a major surprise at the end of the second day behind bars. Hearing loud cheers outside, we looked out our third story window to discover a large crowd led by the comedian and civil rights leader Dick Gregory had gathered on the streets below. Earlier in the evening Gregory had given a talk at Marquette University and then led his audience and many more to the jail to say thank you to the fourteen. “You’ll receive better treatment from the government if you cheat on your income tax than if you burn your draft card,” Gregory told the crowd. At his side was Fr. James Groppi, an often-arrested leader in the local battle against racism. Soon after he became co-chairman of our defense committee.

The time together in jail proved to be a great blessing — a month in which we really got to know each other. Each day there were seminars led by one or another member of the group. Doug Marvy told us what it has been like, while in the Navy, to live in the Antarctic and to closely follow the lives of penguins. I recall Basil O’Leary teaching us the basics of economics, in the course of which he commented, “Everything, every institution, is to be weighed in terms of its effect on people.” Bob Graf, who had been a Jesuit for seven years, introduced us to the life of St. Ignatius Loyola. Tony Mullaney did sessions on the Holy Rule of St. Benedict. Larry Rosebaugh focused on the parables of Jesus. Mike Cullen talked about Irish history and culture. I led a discussion on the history of the Catholic Worker movement. We all shared life stories — events in our lives that had finally led us to the nine draft boards of Milwaukee. Discussion of the forthcoming trial was, necessarily, a major topic. Local priests managed to visit and celebrate Mass with us.

Several lawyers volunteered their services — Percy Julian, William Kuntsler and Mark Stickgold — and did a great deal to help us prepare our defense, but in the end we made a decision to represent ourselves rather than have lawyers speaking on our behalf. This gave us greater leeway to express our views. Mark Stickgold, a professor of law at Wayne State University in Michigan, stayed on as legal adviser.

By the time the trial began we were down to twelve — Mike Cullen and Jerry Gardner had opted for a separate trial with representation by their own attorney.

One of my main stops during the half year between being free on bail and the trial was at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Thomas Merton had died a few months before, on the 10th of December 1968. I felt orphaned by his absence. While I knew he hadn’t fully approved of the sort of action I had participated in, I also knew he would have been supportive of me personally and would have helped in any way he could. His many letters had played such an important role in my life for more than six years. I thought one useful thing I might do while in prison was to edit his letters to me with the goal of making available, in a booklet, extracts potentially helpful to others. “Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers” was the title I had in mind.[4]

The trial began in the Milwaukee County District Court on May 5th, 1969, with Judge Charles Larson presiding.[5] Larson, in his sixties, was Republican, the Wisconsin Commander of the American Legion, father of Vietnam veterans, and a devout Roman Catholic. Having five Catholic priests and one Christian Brother in the dock for protesting war was not an experience he could ever have imagined or wished for. Surprisingly he was a kind and relatively patient man who allowed testimony many other judges would have muzzled, albeit rarely with the jury present.

Two lawyers from the District Attorney’s office carried on the prosecution, both of whom, we discovered, sympathized with our anti-war views if not our methods. One was white, Deputy District Attorney Allen Samson, the other black, Harold Jackson Jr. Both were twenty-nine. “The immorality of this war bothers me more than its unconstitutionality,” Samson said in an interview. “We’re using Vietnam the way Russia used Hungary and Czechoslovakia. If I were boss I’d have our boys home by tomorrow noon. I’m more anti-war than anyone in the courtroom, but I don’t burn draft records. It’s bad for the peace movement.” Jackson agreed. “I’m as anti-war as anyone in the courtroom,” he said. “Our draft laws are obscene. But these draft-file burners are the worst thing that could happen to us liberals. They’ve polarized the community so much I thought I would have to resign.”

We sat on the left side of the court room at a long table heavily laden with law volumes and others books. We looked like “a graduate seminar at a respectable university,” Francine du Plessix Gray wrote in a lengthy essay about the trial published in The New York Review of Books.[6] A local sheriff told her that we were “the classiest bunch of defendants ever.”

The first day was taken up with jury selection. We took turns interviewing the candidates. After I had asked one potential juror too abstract a question, Judge Larson advised me, “Not everybody is a philosopher like you, Mr. Forest. You have a doctor of philosophy degree, is that correct?” I confessed I had no degrees at all — “I am a high school dropout, your honor.” But it was good advice. Afterward I stuck to simpler questions.

Following jury selection — eight men, four women, eleven of them white, eight of them Catholics, none of them critical of the Vietnam war — the prosecution proceeded to make its case. It wasn’t hard. Evidence presented during the first five days of the trial included charred draft records, screwdrivers, gasoline cans and photos of files being burned. Witness testimony was given by policemen, two cleaning women, a photographer, journalists, passers-by and Selective Service employees. Two days were spent in arguments concerning the value of the draft files and what purpose the files served. We argued, unsuccessfully, that the material value of the documents destroyed was not great enough to qualify as a felony.

On our side, we readily admitted we had done what we were charged with doing but contended that our actions were intended to prevent greater crimes and thus were legally justifiable. We were attempting to impede a war that was, as expert witnesses would testify, illegal, unconstitutional and immoral. Our purpose was to save lives. We sought permission of the court to argue the protection of “defensive privilege” — statute 939.48 in the Wisconsin legal code — which declares that actions normally punishable under the criminal code may be considered privileged, that is non-criminal, if the action is taken with the “reasonable belief” that it may prevent bodily harm to another party. A classic example: a driver running a red light to get a gravely injured person to the hospital. We were prepared to show that we had earlier tried a wide range of legal methods of stopping the war and that our act of civil disobedience was a last resort.

To prove that it was reasonable to believe that our actions were justifiable, we sought the court’s consent to present as exhibits scholarly judgments contained in books, documents, and legal journals testifying to the illegality of the Vietnam war. We also hoped to demonstrate that our action was in accordance with Christian doctrine. The exhibits we offered — all rejected by the Judge Larson — ranged from the Congressional Record’s list of the war dead and Pope John’s encyclical “Pacem in Terris,” to Gordon Zahn’s book on the Catholic Church in Hitler’s Germany, and the New Testament. (Remarkably the prosecution was willing to admit the New Testament as an exhibit, but Judge Larson ruled that “to admit [the New Testament] into evidence may create substantial danger of undue prejudice or of misleading the jury.”)

It was not always easy to connect Judge Larson’s rulings with the life-and-death issues being raised by our trial, but at least Larson at times wrestled with the implications of our “justification” defense. “Mr. Forest,” Larson asked me in one exchange, “I want to ask you a question. Was John Wilkes Booth justified when, believing he was acting for the welfare of the Confederacy, he shot and killed Abraham Lincoln?”

“I would simply point out,” I replied, “that the only charges against us are damage to property, not to persons, and that, in fact, we were trying to prevent people from getting killed. So, the direction is the opposite. I’m not saying that the jury should find us innocent. I’m simply hoping that the court will allow us to try to demonstrate [to you and to the jury] the reasonableness of our belief and to decide for themselves whether, in fact, it was reasonable. The jury must determine whether the threat was apparent … whether we could reasonably believe as we do. Therefore all the evidence relevant to establishing either one of these points we believe must be admitted into evidence so that the jury can decide these points…. In Weston versus State 28 Wisconsin 2nd, 136 of 1964, the court agrees with this analysis. The court in this instance allowed evidence to be introduced under 939.48, the justification defense, and then gave an instruction to the jury explaining that theory.” (“Well, Jim comes from a family of lawyers,” one of my co-defendants audibly remarked.)

“Let the record show,” said Larson, “that while these defendants are in court without counsel, time and time again they have cited law which is very pertinent and relevant, law which requires a learned legal mind to ferret out…. The Court therefore wants the record to show that although it does not appear so in the courtroom, clearly they are receiving legal assistance.”[7]

Continuing my exchange with Larson, I pointed out that I was not saying that the jury was obliged to find us innocent, only that the jury be allowed to hear the argument that we broke the law in the reasonable hope of saving lives. As jurors they could then decide whether or not our action could be regarded as justifiable. “The jury may not be the ideal representative of the community,” I said. “Nonetheless we would like the opportunity to let the jurors decide, with all the facts before them, and not just the fact that doors were opened, papers removed and files burned… I realize that we’re on untrod paths as far as legal precedent is concerned, but it seems to me that when boys are literally dying every hour, American boys, Vietnamese soldiers and civilians, women, children, the old, the young, that it’s certainly imminent peril that we’re speaking of…. We would like the jury to decide whether the peril is imminent or not…. By analogy, consider the situation of a Jew in Nazi Germany. He didn’t have to be walking into the ovens to be in imminent danger. He was in danger if he was a Jew and could be found.”

“Mr. Forest,” Larson responded, “why have you assumed the heavy burden of making [such determinations]?”

“I think I stand on fairly solid ground in American tradition,” I answered, “although I admit there are many who would question whether I’m right. It may well be that the jury will decide I’m wrong. I am prepared for that. But it seems that many times in the history of this nation small minorities have had to act…. It was only a small minority that first sought to establish these United States. It was, at first, only a small minority that believed that slavery was wrong.”

“You call this civil disobedience, Mr. Forest?”

“Yes, your honor, in the same sense that it was civil disobedience, in the 1850s, to help prevent an escaped slave from being forcibly returned to slavery.”

Not all the exchanges in court had to do with issues of historical importance. A nice moment occurred after I saw clear indications that District Attorney Sampson was suffering from an overfull bladder. He had asked Larson for “a very brief recess” but been told to be patient. However when I seconded Sampson’s request, Larson grasped the urgency and gave us a ten-minute break. Sampson gave me a grateful smile and a thumbs-up as he hurried out of the courtroom.

We brought three expert witnesses to Milwaukee prepared to testify on the reasonableness of our views on the war and the place of civil disobedience in American history: Howard Zinn, professor of government at Boston University and author of A People’s History of the United States, war crimes expert John Fried, and Marvin Gettleman, author of Vietnam: History, Documents, and Opinions.

Zinn came first. With Dan Berrigan, he had recently played a major role in obtaining the release of three U.S. pilots being held in Hanoi.

“The tradition of civil disobedience in this country goes as far back as the colonial period,” Zinn testified, “reaching a height during the American Revolution. It has been enunciated by the Fathers of our country, written into the Declaration of Independence, carried on in the movement to end slavery, and carried on in the movement to win decent conditions for laboring people. The tradition of civil disobedience goes back as far as Thomas Jefferson and it comes right up to today… People distinguished in the field of law and philosophy recognize that there’s a vast difference between a person who commits an ordinary crime and a person who commits an act which technically is a crime, but which in essence is a social act.”

Zinn was beginning to answer a question about acts of civil disobedience committed against the fugitive slave laws in the 1850s when Judge Larson stopped him. “We are not here to consider the fugitive slave laws. Such testimony is inflammatory and immaterial.”

The only fragment of a substantial comment that Zinn was allowed to make was in response to a question concerning the relationship of civil disobedience to democratic process. “Whatever progress has been made in the United States in eliminating social evils,” he responded before being cut off, “has been due in part to the courage of some people in committing acts of civil disobedience. If these acts were considered ordinary crimes, this country would be far worse off than we are today.”

After a hail storm of attempted questions and forbidden responses, and after a warning of arrest from Larson, Zinn left the witness box.

John Fried was the next witness. He had been chief consultant to the American judges at the Nuremberg war crime trials of leading Nazis as well as a United Nations Adviser on International Law and also an adviser on international law at the Pentagon. We hoped he would be allowed to testify on “a hierarchy of law in the international world order.”

The prosecution and Judge Larson objected that testimony drawn from such documents as the U.N. Charter and the Nuremberg Principles concerning the U.S. violations of international law would be irrelevant to charges of burglary, arson, and theft. Amazingly, after heated argument, Fried was allowed to answer a number of questions though in the absence of the jury. “I say with a very, very grave heart and after very, very careful study that the U.S. military intervention in Vietnam,” Fried said, “that it does violate essential and basic provisions of the United Nations Charter, and this is not an isolated opinion of myself.”

“What recourse does a citizen have,” Basil O’Leary asked Fried, “when his country pursues war in violation of international treaties which the citizen holds have been violated?”

Expecting an objection, Larson looked toward the prosecution table. “No objection,” said Jackson; “if he can answer that, God bless him.”

Fried replied, “The International Tribunal at Nuremberg, at which the United States was represented, stated that it is the moral choice of the individual if he feels that for him obedience to the higher order — to the world order — is more important … then he has to take the moral choice and do the things which he considers morally proper. That is the great ethical and moral method of Nuremberg.”

He added: “The United Nations Charter does not give the rules for conduct during war time. There are other treaties, like the Hague Treaties of 1907 long preceding the Charters of the Geneva Conventions of 1929 and 1949. In the hierarchy of law, international world order as stipulated in treaties … is the highest. If, then, a dichotomy develops between international law and domestic law, the dilemma for the government and for the individual is great.”

“No more questions,” said Basil.

Our last witness was Marvin Gettleman, an expert on the history of the Vietnam war. He was questioned by Doug Marvy. Upon Doug’s first question to Gettleman — whether, on the basis of his expert knowledge, he was aware of the United States ever being attacked by North Vietnam, Larson dismissed the jury, then asked Doug what he intended to prove. Doug replied, “I have no reason whatsoever to speak outside the presence of the jury on any matter …. I am not interested in speaking to the Court.” “It makes it difficult to proceed,” said Larson. Doug agreed. “I’m merely following court procedure,” Larson responded. “I’ll speak when the jury is in the room,” Doug insisted. The twelve of us went on strike for a brief period, refusing to do or say anything in the jury’s absence.

Finally Larry Rosenbaugh broke the silence by describing how Gettleman’s testimony would show that the war in Vietnam was crippling the nation’s war on poverty. Larson predictably interrupted Larry to declare such testimony as irrelevant. Unpredictably, prosecutor Samson asked Larson to be patient as because “everyone knows that the war is taking money away from urban planning.”

At last Gettleman was dismissed. He had not been permitted to answer a single question.

After days of passionate endeavor on our part, Larson ruled that we had failed to prove that military conscription constituted an “imminent” threat to anyone’s life and thus we could not argue that, in destroying draft records, we were protecting lives. Larson ruled that section 939.48 of the Wisconsin penal code regarding privilege was “not applicable in this case.” He added, “I shall not permit any testimony about the fairness of the draft or the fact that it discriminates against some, and as far as the Vietnam war is moral or anything else, it is not relevant here.”

Prohibited from presenting evidence on the illegality and immorality of the war in Vietnam, our only way of communicating to the jury what lay behind our destruction of draft records was through our own testimony. In the course of several days we took turns cross-examining each other.

One of the high points of the trial were the three hours in which Tony Mullaney, a Benedictine monk, explained what had brought him to interfere with the work of the Selective Service System. He proceeded to identify several aspects of his state of mind.

The motto of the Benedictine order has always been Pax — peace. The vows of the monk can be summed up as a single vow to set up the conditions whereby man can be fully human. The monk is supposed to be a sign of hope, he is supposed to be a sign that history can be moved in the direction laid down in the Gospels, and therefore a sign that we are responsible for history and the direction that history takes.”

Tony described the justifiable anger “that stems from a correct assessment of a present moment in history. My anger on September 24th was based on first-hand evidence that I had that the draft was doing violence to the consciences of young men, doing real psychological damage to young men.” No less important were the experiences he had in Roxbury, an area of Boston “where poverty is perhaps at its worst. In Roxbury, your defenses are shattered the day you arrive.”

Another element was “fear of a very deep and very pervasive polarization that is going on in the United States…. We are a nation that’s very seriously divided … black-white, rich-poor, young-old … the growing gap between the powerful and the powerless. My participating in the burning of draft records was my attempt to say something about the polarization, which, if it is not checked, is going to lead to great disaster in this nation.”

Finally Tony read aloud the 1500-word statement which the Milwaukee Fourteen had handed to reporters at the time of our action. Notwithstanding some objections from the Court that Father was giving “an oration on social matters” he was allowed to read through this entire document.

“Tony, reverend doctor,” Fred Ojile asked in his cross-examination, “when does the question of who determines destruction of property become pertinent in the decision-making process?”

“The decision to destroy property,” Tony replied, “has to be confronted whenever the person has reasonably concluded that there is no longer any relationship between that property and the enhancement of those values to which he is committed, through his membership in various communities such as the American community, the family of nations, and so forth. In other words, when property no longer enhances the dignity of the person. Property is an instrument, it does not have substantial value, it has instrumental value.”

When it was my turn to describe my intentions, I stressed that breaking a law does not necessarily imply contempt for the law: “One aspect of our action was the idea that our action would not add to an atmosphere of lawlessness in this country, but, on the contrary, help restore law and order in our society. You have heard it said, and it was my belief at the time as it is today, that our public officials are failing to take proper cognizance of the Constitution of this country and the law of the land. Our leaders we’re paying a great deal of attention to small laws, but overlooking the very big laws which are the most important ones to this country and its future.”

I also emphasized our commitment to nonviolence: “One of my main concerns was to reopen the possibility of protest being nonviolent in our society. Many people have said ‘when Martin Luther King died, nonviolence died with him.’ We don’t believe that. We wanted to keep open the possibility of people undertaking their protests in the context of nonviolence, with respect for life, and to keep people from becoming so frustrated that protest would simply become destructive.”

I spoke about the influence on my life of a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh: “I spent three months last year traveling with Thich Nhat Hanh to campuses throughout this country. Thich Nhat Hanh is the founder of the Van Hanh University in Saigon and also of the Buddhist Youth for Social Service movement, which in this country would be something like a blending of the Red Cross and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — that is it undertakes both the works of mercy and is involved in nonviolent methods of change and resistance. Thich Nhat Hanh has worked closely with Christians in Vietnam and has helped to restore a peaceful atmosphere between Christians and Buddhists. He created in me a deep feeling for the culture of Vietnam — the awareness that we are destroying a culture — a culture far older and, in many respects, more beautiful, more serene, than our own.”

I also tried to describe the climate of our action: “It was my hope that day — perhaps this is the hardest thing to describe — it was my hope to encourage in this movement for renewal of our society not only something we call nonviolence, but a style of action which could be called celebrative, coming out of the word “to celebrate.” We believe that such actions should be a kind of celebration — that they should speak not only to the minds of other people but to their hearts as well. We believe that imagination should be involved. When you look at the film of the Milwaukee Fourteen burning the draft files, notice we’re singing. It was our hope that that people would see not just a fire but our joy — see that this was a celebration of life. It was a new style of protest — not a model for others to imitate like echoes, but a qualitative sort of thing where people put their lives on the line, not sadly and not in mourning, but in hope. As you look at the film, I think you will see that in our faces.”

As the trial drew to its end, it was remarkable that Assistant District Attorney Jackson, who so often had raised objections to what we were trying to say, confessed to a journalist how shaken he was by the trial. “I’m more torn by this case than at the beginning. I see nothing but honesty and intelligence here, depth of perception and integrity, an atmosphere that I can only describe as very loving.” (After the trial was over, Jackson resigned from his job in order to concentrate on black civil rights cases. “Negroes in this country are being sent to jail like Jews to Auschwitz,” he said in his office on his last day. “There’s not enough legal talent around to help them.” He explained that the trial of the Milwaukee Fourteen had been’ a turning point. “That trial tore me up,” he said. “I’m still not sure what they accomplished politically. But whatever religion is, they’re where it’s at…. I suppose the essence of religiousness is to break rules at the proper time…. What the hell do you expect when a great priest like [Tony] Mullaney leaves his monastery after nineteen years and to see what  life is like in Roxbury, Massachusetts?”)

Several times we attempted to inform the jury that they were free to ignore the judge’s instructions as to the limits of their responsibility. We cited a famous case in colonial America in which the jury found a printer named Peter Zenger not guilty of sedition. Zenger’s lawyer, Andrew Hamilton, told the jurors that each of them had the right “to see with his own eyes, hear with his own ears, and to make use of his own conscience” no matter what the judge may say to the contrary. But it was not an argument the court wanted our jurors to hear.

On May 26, the eleventh and last day of the trial, Larson gave the jury its charge: “The law does not recognize political, religious or moral convictions, or some higher law, as justification for the commission of a crime, no matter how good the motive may be…. People who believe that the Vietnam war is illegal or unconstitutional or morally wrong have the right to protest in various ways but not to break the law.”

The jury deliberated for only seventy minutes before returning its verdict. All of us were guilty as charged.

Dozens of spectators rose and sang “We Shall Overcome.”

“I pity the nation that fears its young!” said Tony to Judge Larson.

>> Sabbatical

After the trial, I spent just over a year under lock-and-key in Wisconsin, more than half of that time at Waupun, a prison that closely resembled the penitentiaries Hollywood used in classic black-and-white crime movies starring such iconic gangsters as James Cagney and George Raft: castle-like walls, barred cells four tiers high with metal catwalks, metal staircases, metal bunkbeds, metal toilets, metallic slams as steel gates and cell doors were opened and closed. The smallest sounds reverberated in metal echoes.

Waupun, opened in 1851, was Wisconsin’s oldest and most guarded lockup — a “maximum security” prison. The population of convicts housed there was a thousand or so, mainly men convicted of the most serious crimes: murder, manslaughter, armed robbery, rape and child molesting. It was an odd environment for a young writer who had a principled objection to war and other forms of violence, but in many ways I gradually came to find being there a blessing. I have ever since referred to it as my sabbatical year. My monastic side came to the rescue, but also the good luck of being locked up in Wisconsin. In the seventies, Wisconsin and California were regarded as having the best state prison systems in the U.S. If I was a long way from paradise, in most other states it would have been much worse.

My first seven days were spent in 24-hour-a-day isolation — similar to solitary but not as grim — while a decision was made about what work I would be assigned to. I felt like a caged squirrel. My main human contact was with an elderly prisoner-trustee delivering a tray of food three times a day. This was the hardest week for me, a week of fear. Fear was not unreasonable. I drew on years of reading stories about prison brutality, drugs, gangs, racial rivalries, and rape. I was full of dread. But when I was finally assigned to a cell block and released into the general prison population my anxieties quickly receded. Waiting in line in the cafeteria, a huge man with battered features standing behind me tapped my shoulder. I expected him to say, “What are you doing standing in front of me?” Instead he quietly asked, “Would you like a caramel?” Assuming my terrified silence meant yes, he pushed a cellophane-wrapped candy into my hand and told me his name was George.

my cell at Waupun

I was initially assigned to the laundry. Six days a week truckloads of sheets, pillowcases and clothing from various state institutions, including mental hospitals, orphanages and other prisons, were sorted, washed, ironed and folded. Especially in the summer it was work with an outhouse smell as the sheets were often smeared with feces. Flies by the thousand were drawn into the delivery area.

Eventually I was moved into the section where ironing was done with industrial steam presses. Here my first prison friendship took root while working side-by-side with a man in his mid-sixties — I’ll call him Thomas Jones. He was then in his eleventh year of serving a life sentence for murder. Though as kind and caring a man as I’ve ever met, Thomas had the handicap of being black and near the bottom of the economic ladder — not helpful when it comes to police, lawyers and judges. I asked what led to his conviction. The story he told was simple and tragic. He had rented a back room of a neighborhood bar for a celebration with family and friends of his wedding anniversary, the 25th as I recall. Two aggressive drunken young men crashed the party and behaved toward his wife in an insulting way. Thomas, who also wasn’t sober, went out to his car, took a handgun out of the glove compartment, and returned to the anniversary party. “I swear to God,” Thomas told me, “I didn’t mean to hurt no one. All I wanted was to scare them. I was just waving the gun around. But somehow I pulled the trigger. If I had any target in mind, it was the ceiling, but that one bullet hit one of those boys in the head and he died of the wound. Biggest mistake of my life.” Thomas was not convicted of accidental manslaughter, as a white man with a good lawyer might well have been. He was doing time for premeditated first-degree murder. He may well have died at Waupun.

I was to meet quite a few men who were inside the walls for their inability to hire a good lawyer. Many others that I came to know were convicted of crimes they didn’t commit. Wrong skin color — racial factors so often played a significant part. Drugs were another common factor leading to years in the penal zoo. I would estimate that less than ten percent of the prisoners at Waupun posed a danger to anyone.

In many ways I was so much luckier than my fellow inmates. For starters I had many caring friends on the outside providing a network of support. One of them, Francene de Plessix Gray, who had written a detailed and engaging account of the Milwaukee Fourteen trial for The New York Review of Books, gave me a typewriter — a handsome red-and orange Italian-made Olivetti portable.  Equipped with a copy of the trial transcript borrowed from the court, over many weeks I typed up a 250-page abridgement of the huge text.[8] I also used my beloved Olivetti for correspondence, writing projects and for helping illiterate prisoners who needed assistance with letters home, or, in the case of more literate convicts, in their efforts to obtain a retrial or parole.

Letters to Ben, now seven years old, were more graphic than verbal — water-colored pen drawings with text written around the illustrations. Each page was a kind of children’s story. (Obtaining permission to have a drawing pen — a Rapidograph — and a set of water colors in my cell had not been easy.)

Ben’s drawing of his dad in prison.

Ben responded in kind. Of all the communications I received while locked up, the most cherished is a crayon drawing Ben made for his Sunday School class at my mother’s church. The topic that week was St. Paul. The teacher leading the group mentioned that St. Paul had been imprisoned for his faith. “So is my dad — he’s in jail right now,” Ben announced with pride. The drawing he made that day showed me behind prison bars with victoriously raised arms and a big smile. Framed, it now hangs in our house.

The other major treasure that made its way to my cell was a photo of the planet Earth that an astronaut had taken on the historic Apollo 11 Moon voyage in July 1969.

There is a back story. Most people at the time watched the moon landing on television. In my case, I listened to it via a pair of aging, low-tech earphones provided in each Waupun cell by the State of Wisconsin. I wonder if it wasn’t more exciting listening to the landing on the lunar surface than seeing it in blurry images on TV? Radio’s great advantage has always been enlisting one’s own imagination for all the visual effects. Having seen so many science fiction films made in the fifties and having read so many volumes of science fiction, I had plenty of props to assist my imagination. It wasn’t hard picturing the crew of three crossing the dry and airless sea of space, then actually landing and standing on the Moon’s dusty surface.

But the biggest surprise was yet to come: the delivery of a packet from NASA containing an  8-1/2 x 11-inch color photo of the Earth made from the actual negative. I doubt the photo could have reached the White House many days sooner than it reached my prison cell. The same image was to appear a few months later on the cover of National Geographic Magazine, but even in that case didn’t have the richness of color and detail of the original photo.

Whole Earth – Apollo 11 photo – July 1969.

The prison administration made it difficult for me to receive the photo — it hadn’t been sent by an “authorized correspondent.” I was given a form to sign that had two options: authorization to destroy the packet or to return it to the sender. After a struggle with the prison bureaucracy and an appeal to the warden, the packet was delivered to my cell and for the rest of my time in prison it rested on top of my book-laden table. It has been a treasured icon for me ever since. I often carry the photo (now plasticized) with me when I travel. It has been held by thousands of people.

How did this remarkable photo come to me? As there was no letter in the packet, I could only guess. My theory: The Milwaukee 14 trial had received a great deal of press attention. Perhaps something I had been quoted as saying about our world as God sees it had been read by one of the astronauts and lingered in his memory during the voyage to the Moon and back. Many astronauts have said that it is a life-changing, soul-deepening experience to see the borderless globe we live on through a window in space. I could only guess that his sending me a photo of our astonishingly beautiful planet could have been his way of saying thank you.

If I am right about the sender being one of the astronauts, the donor was a career officer in the U.S. Air Force saying thank-you to an anti-war protester locked in a small cell in middle America. How good it was to feel the bond between us.

Later on I came upon this statement from Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, the sixth human being to walk on the moon:

“[Looking at the Earth from the moon] you develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.”

My sabbatical year was also a year of reading. Dorothy Day had urged me time and again to read Dostoevsky’s greatest work, The Brothers Karamazov. There is no better place to give such a book the unhurried attention it deserves than prison. I went on to read Crime and Punishment. Next came Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Curious to know more about Tolstoy, I read a brilliant memoir about a visit with him written by Maxim Gorky, which in turn led me to Gorky’s e enthralling autobiographies: My Childhood, In the World, and My Universities. In them I met Gorky’s saintly grandmother, whose vividly described prayer life left a lasting impression. One Russian author led to another — Pushkin, Gogol, Leskov, and, from the Soviet era, Solzhenitsyn, a fellow prisoner. I had no idea at the time that my reading was laying a solid foundation for work I would later be doing in Russia.

There were other books and authors that left a mark on me, not least J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. And poetry was important: Robert Bly, Denise Levertov, Gary Snyder and Galway Kinnell sent book after book. My cell was hard pressed to hold them all.

Most important was the New Testament. Starting with Matthew, I read a chapter a day and then, when I reached the end, started over — much like the crew that is continuously repainting the George Washington Bridge.

Complementing the Gospels, there was the rosary. I discovered I needed no string of actual beads — the ten fingers I was born with served the purpose. After years of regarding the rosary as something mainly for pious ladies of modest education, I found myself praying “Hail Maries” as I was marched from building to building at Waupun or as I gazed through remote windows at the sky.

God and my guardian angel must have been laughing. Via an act of civil disobedience, I had stumbled off the conveyer belt that carries peace activists along at the same speed that corporation executives travel. I had once aspired to the contemplative life and, in a funny sort of way, found it in the company of convicts in a maximum-security prison.

My time at Waupun came in two slices that together added up to just over seven months. There was a brief in-between period at Camp Gordon, a minimum-security compound in northwest Wisconsin whose inmates did maintenance work at state parks and, when needed, fought forest fires. The forestry work inspired such poems as this:

Prisoner Forest
on hands and knees
thick grass, blooming clover.
He is supposed to be looking for
a needle valve fallen off the lawn mower
but actually he’s watching a bee
moving with Bolshevik determination
from blossom to blossom.
Not very much like Prisoner Forest.

And this:

In a woods of poplar, jack pine, birch,
knee-high ferns dripping with last night’s rain,
sixteen of us in orange and yellow helmets,
the bull gang.
Axe blows sounds like rocks falling into a stream.
“Just let me at these trees with a flame-thrower,”
says a blond, grey-eyed kid with instant-oatmeal skin.
“You ever seen a flame-thrower, kid?” Paisan asks.
Paisan comes from New York —
East 111th Street and 2nd Avenue, Little Italy.
He has World War II scars on his legs.
“150 feet of flame, kid? You make one mistake
with one them cocksuckers and your ass’ll be burned
from here to kingdom come, you goddam right.”
“You ever eat Vietcong flesh?” the kid asks.
Wind in the poplar leaves rustles like clothes
being taken off, like kisses.
Ferns sparkling with rain drops,
the sky soft enough to be sucked,
but eyes have been so long blistered
that all the tongue can taste
is burned brother’s flesh.

If the words were sometimes grim, the work was mainly pleasant, but the few redneck guards took sadistic glee in withholding mail, even such journals as Natural History and National Geographic. Finally, at my own request, I was sent back to Waupun. During my second stint there I worked in a factory that made metal furniture for state institutions.

My last four or five months were spent at Fox Lake, a medium-security facility in central Wisconsin that was, as prisons go, a remarkably decent place to be — attractive modern buildings, each prisoner with his own room, and guards and staff who seldom were heavy handed. After a short period working in a factory that made wooden furniture, I became assistant to the Catholic chaplain, Jim Koneazny, a priest who was outspoken in his support of the Milwaukee Fourteen. We became good friends and stayed in touch until his death from cancer a few years ago.

Were there no horror stories? In my case no. Two or three guys wondered if I might like to get to know them sexually — they accepted my negative response without protest or threats. At Camp Gordon I was once struck in the face by a Native American prisoner who had assumed I was his enemy. He apologized the same day and we soon became friends. I never felt in danger at Waupun, but this may be due in part to a black inmate who discovered I lived in East Harlem, his own neighborhood, and immediately appointed himself my bodyguard. He was a contract killer by trade who had been caught in Milwaukee with a dead body on the pavement  and a smoking gun in his hand. “Bad timing, man,” he explained.

* * *

[1] In the weeks that followed, shaken by a Catonsville-style raid on the offices of the War Resisters LEAGUE, Dorothy had second thoughts about the tactic of property destruction as a means of protest. “We ought not do to others what we would not have them do to us,” she said. She also worried that less dramatic efforts to end the war would be denigrated and judged less valuable than actions that were likely to result in long prison sentences. Early in 1969, she reminded Catholic Worker readers that peacemaking most often took quite ordinary forms. “The thing is to recognize that not all are called, not all have the vocation, to demonstrate in this way … to endure the pain and the long drawn out, nerve-wracking suffering of prison life. We do what we can, and the whole field of the works of mercy is open to us…. All work, whether building, increasing food production, running credit unions, working in factories that produce for human needs, working in the handicrafts — all these things can come under the heading of the works of mercy, which are the opposite of the works of war.” For more about Dorothy’s change of mind, see pages 365-367 in the collection of her letters, All the Way to Heaven, edited by Robert Ellsberg.

[2] Information about each of the fourteen can be found here: www.nonviolentworm.org/Milwaukee14Today .

[3] By the time the war in Vietnam ended, nearly three hundred draft board raids had occurred. In addition the headquarters of the Dow Chemical Corporation, the infamous manufacturer of napalm, was targeted. The documentary film Hit & Stay: A History of Faith and Resistance by Joe Tropea and Skizz Cyzyk provides an excellent overview. The DVD, produced by BRINKvision, can be ordered online.

[4] What I envisioned as a booklet finally evolved into a book, The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers, published by Orbis in 2016.

[5] Quotations in the pages that follow mainly come from a 250-page unpublished abridgement of the trial transcript that I typed from the court record during the months I was in prison in Waupun. The pages are online at this URL: http://jimandnancyforest.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Milwaukee-14-abridged-trial-transcript-sm.pdf.

[6] “The Ultra-Resistance: On the Trial of the Milwaukee 14,”, Francine du Plessix Gray, http://jimandnancyforest.com/2006/11/m14trial/ .

[7] He was correct. Law professor Mark Stickgold helped prepare us for the trial, taught us how to find and cite relevant case law, instructed us in courtroom etiquette, and attended the trial, meeting with us afterward to join in evaluating what has happened that day and to help us prepare for the next day.

[8] The pages are online at this URL: http://jimandnancyforest.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Milwaukee-14-abridged-trial-transcript-sm.pdf.

The Milwaukee Fourteen: striking a match

[This is the draft text for a chapter in the autobiography I’m writing. Comments and corrections would be helpful to me.]

Daniel Berrigan had just been released from prison on bail and theologian Jim Douglass, a co-founder of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, was in town. We decided to visit Dan at the Jesuit parish in the Bronx where he was then staying. Sitting on wooden chairs in the weedy backyard of the rectory, we discovered that Dan, usually remarkably upbeat, was depressed. The reason quickly became apparent. Several months had passed since the nine had put Catonsville on the map and, so far as Dan knew, no one was preparing a similar action. Both Jim and I were dumbfounded. We had both seen the draft-record burning in Maryland as a one-of-a-kind happening, not a prototype. It hadn’t crossed our minds that Catonsville Nine was intended to presage a parade of raids and that just not a few hundred draft files were to be destroyed but tens of thousands. We were speechless. On the subway back to Manhattan, we both talked about reasons we couldn’t do anything that was likely to cost years in prison. At the top of the list was the fact that we both were parents of young children. Yet I was troubled by my hesitations. Should not peace-making be as costly as war-making? Should so much be asked of soldiers and so much less of ourselves?

Soon afterward I was in Washington to attend the annual meeting of the National Liturgical Conference, a group dedicated to renewal of worship in the Catholic Church. Dorothy Day was the principal speaker. (Martin Luther King was to have been the main lecturer but had been murdered in Memphis four months earlier.) After being greeted by a standing ovation, Dorothy began her address by confessing she was “more at home washing a batch of dishes than standing before such an august audience.” She spoke about the connection that had long existed between the Catholic Worker and Benedictines monks working for liturgical renewal. “It was the liturgy,” Dorothy said, “which led us to pray the psalms with the Church, leading us to a joyful understanding in prayer. It was the liturgy which brought us close to scripture.” Coming to know many of the psalms by heart, she said, had helped sustain vigils for peace and justice as well as times in jail.

Dorothy referred to the “hard sayings” in the Gospel — love of enemies, forgiving seventy times seven, refusing to respond to violence with violence, turning the other cheek, going the second mile. She named various people in the Catholic Worker movement who were in prison that very day because they were attempting to shape their lives around the “hard sayings” of Jesus — Tom Cornell, David Miller, Bob Gilliam, Jimmy Wilson and others.

She drew particular attention to Phil and Dan Berrigan and the witness of the Catonsville Nine and their “revolutionary act of destroying draft records.” Their motivation, she stressed, was “love of brother and compassion for men conscripted and dying in Vietnam and other countries of the world to which we have sold arms and planes.” She was aware that some had judged the destruction of draft records as an act of violence. Dorothy disagreed. “It was a nonviolent act” she argued, “in that it was directed only against the symbols of man’s present-day enslavement and not against man, and it at the same time it was the violence of the Lord Himself when he overturned the tables of commerce in the Temple.”[1]

I was deeply moved by what Dorothy had said. Afterward, walking the streets of Washington side by side with George Mische, one of the nine, George told me that a second Catonsville-like action that was taking shape and asked if I was interested in taking part in it. Without hesitation, the word “yes” emerged from my mouth. I was astonished at what I had just said.

When and where the event was to take place, George said, was as yet unknown. He told me that several people, including two priests, had expressed readiness. He was adding my name to the list.

My next stop happened to be Milwaukee where Dan Berrigan and I had both agreed to speak at a conference of Franciscan teaching nuns. For the several days we were there, we stayed at Casa Maria, the local Catholic Worker house of hospitality. Our hosts were Michael and Nettie Cullen. Michael was an enthusiastic Irishman, with a brogue thick as potato soup, while Nettie was, with her mid-western accent and practical manner, as American as pumpkin pie.

On our second night at Casa Maria, Dan and I found ourselves drinking beer in a crowded kitchen in which several of those present, Michael among them, made clear they were eager to follow the Catonsville example. All Milwaukee’s nine draft boards were conveniently located in adjacent offices on the first floor of a downtown office building in front of which was a small park dedicated to America’s war dead. It was, Michael pointed out, “the ideal spot for burning draft files.”

George Mische’s list had quickly enlarged. The next step was a weekend gathering of the twenty or so potential volunteers on August 23-25 at St. Paul’s Abbey, a monastery in northwest New Jersey. Paul Mayer, coordinator of the Catonsville Nine Defense Committee, made the arrangements. The gathering was shaped liked a retreat, with Mass each morning and a period of Bible study later in the day. In addition there were sessions at which we got to know each other, discuss our motives and backgrounds, and to make decisions about who would take part in the action, who would form a support team, and which of several cities being considered should be chosen.

By the time the retreat ended it had been agreed that Milwaukee was the best option, in part because four of the participants lived there. Fourteen people committed themselves to take part: Don Cotton, Michael Cullen, Fr. Robert Cunnane, Jerry Gardner, Bob Graf, Rev. Jon Higgenbotham, Fr. Jim Harney, Fr. Al Janicke, Doug Marvy, Fr. Anthony Mullaney, Fred Ojile, Brother Basil O’Leary, Fr. Larry Rosebaugh and myself.[2] Twelve were Catholics, five of them priests. The oldest member of the group was a professor of economics, another was a Benedictine monk. Few of us had met each other before the retreat. A date was set— the 24th of September, just four weeks away. We decided to gather in Milwaukee two days beforehand.

I agreed to draft a group declaration. Here are extracts from the final document:

We who burn these records of our society’s war machine are participants in a movement of resistance to slavery, a struggle that remains as unresolved in America as in most of the world. Man remains an object to be rewarded insofar as he is obedient and useful, to be punished when he dares declare his liberation. Our action concentrates on the Selective Service System because its relation to murder is immediate. Men are drafted — or “volunteer” for fear of being drafted — as killers for the state. Their victims litter the planet. In Vietnam alone, where nearly 30,000 Americans have died, no one can count the Vietnamese dead, crippled, the mentally maimed.

 Today we destroy Selective Service System files because we need to be reminded that property is not sacred. Property belongs to the human scene only if man does… Property is repeatedly made enemy of life: gas ovens in Germany, concentration camps in Russia, occupation tanks in Czechoslovakia, pieces of paper in draft offices, slum holdings, factories of death machines, germs and nerve gas….

In destroying these links in the military chain of command, we forge anew the good sense of the Second Vatican Council: “Human dignity demands that each person act according to a free conscience that is personally motivated from within, not under mere external pressure or blind internal impulse.”

Others worked on an action plan — how to open the doors to the nine boards (our plan was to break in at 5:30 PM, half an hour after the staff left for the day), and to map the boards, locating the cabinets in which the files of people in the 1-A category were stored — those who had passed their physicals and would soon be ordered to begin military service.

Amazingly the action came off as planned. The fourteen of us walked in pairs from a variety of starting points, converging at the office building that housed the draft boards. My knees shook every inch of the way. The nine doors were successfully opened, the many burlap sacks we had brought with us were filled to bursting with 1-A files — 10,000 of them, it was estimated during the trial — and dragged out to the park across the street. The one wrinkle in the action involved a cleaning woman who found us stuffing papers into burlap sacks and became hysterical — thank heaven she didn’t have a heart attack. Homemade napalm, made according to a recipe found in the U.S. Army Special Forces Handbook, was poured on the files and the match struck. The fourteen of us lined up on one side of the bonfire and prayed the Our Father and sang “We Shall Overcome.”  The police and fire department were slow to arrive. Had we wished, we could have quietly walked back to Casa Maria, but the trial to follow was as important to us as the destruction of the files.

I doubt the police had ever arrested  a more cheerful set of prisoners. We had set out to declare nonviolent war on military conscription and to do our bit to impede the war in Vietnam and had achieved all we had dreamed of.

I recall these events with gratitude, pride and astonishment, but at the same time I’m puzzled that it never occurred to me to back out. I still have mixed feelings about having been one of the Milwaukee Fourteen. It was one thing for celibates like Dan and Phil to go to prison, another for the parent of a five-year-old child. My defense was that soldiers were being sent to Vietnam who would never see their wives or children again, or who would return home with appalling injuries, physical, mental and spiritual. Was I unwilling to make a much less costly sacrifice?

By far the hardest part of preparing for the action was working out Ben’s care during my prolonged absence. Jean’s sister, Mary Corchia, agreed to play a significant part, but the main role was taken by my mother. In the end it all worked out remarkably well — Ben has happy memories of that period of his life and is proud of what I did — but it still troubles me that I put work for social change ahead of family responsibilities, much as my father had done during my own childhood. Dad had often remarked that I was “a chip off the old block.”

* * *

[1] In the weeks that followed, Dorothy had second thoughts about the tactic of property destruction as a means of protest. We ought not do to others what we would not have them do to us, she said. She also worried that less dramatic efforts to end the war would be denigrated and judged less valuable than actions that were likely to result in long prison sentences. Early in 1969, she reminded Catholic Worker readers that peacemaking most often took quite ordinary forms. “The thing is to recognize that not all are called, not all have the vocation, to demonstrate in this way … to endure the pain and the long drawn out, nerve-wracking suffering of prison life. We do what we can, and the whole field of the works of mercy is open to us…. All work, whether building, increasing food production, running credit unions, working in factories that produce for human needs, working in the handicrafts — all these things can come under the heading of the works of mercy, which are the opposite of the works of war.”

[2] Information about each of the fourteen can be found here: www.nonviolentworm.org/Milwaukee14Today .

Apocalypse Soon? a Reflection on the Anniversaries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

by Jim Forest

In 1951, the year I turned ten, one didn’t have to be a grown-up to be aware that radioactive particles were in the air. Invisible cancer-causing debris was being carried by the winds from the deserts of Nevada to the far corners of the Earth, and before long was being mixed with the fallout of Soviet, French and British nuclear tests. Radioactive strontium 90 was making its way from mushroom clouds into the food chain, arriving finally in every bottle of milk.

I knew from close range what nuclear weapons could do to those targeted by them. In 1951 two young Japanese women, survivors of the atom bomb that had been dropped on Nagasaki on the 9th of August 1945, arrived in my home town, Red Bank, New Jersey. They were house guests of the local Methodist minister, Roger Squire, and his family. A national peace group had arranged for plastic surgeons in New York to treat some of the people who had been burned by the blasts. The Squires were providing hospitality for two of them. Thanks to my mother’s occasional attendance at Methodist services, I saw these very poised women sitting side-by-side in a pew near the front of the church, their damaged faces hidden behind silk veils. I couldn’t stop staring. Though I had seen a few post-explosion photos of the ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, being in the same room with these two women bought home to me in a more intimate way the human dimension of war, the effects of nuclear weapons, and the fact that the victims of war were rarely those responsible for war. I was also old enough to be aware that taking Japanese victims of America’s atom bombs into one’s home was not something that all Americans would appreciate. In the ice age of the Cold War, such hospitality required courage.

the ruins of St Mary’s Cathedral in Nagasaki

As a kid I read a great deal of science fiction, some of which described our planet devastated by nuclear war. Meanwhile, in the real world, the darkest fantasies of science fiction seemed to be unfolding, political leaders hurrying to make our planet into a radioactive wasteland in which few would be left to bury the dead and the achievements of civilization turned to ash and rubble. We were marching into a blast furnace — not Apocalypse Now but Apocalypse Soon. The nuclear tests going on in Nevada were a death notice.

It was in 1951 that our first television was installed in the living room, its tiny screen not much bigger than a sardine tin. One of the occasional “news specials” allowed us to join the live audience witnessing America’s open-air nuclear test explosions. Cameras, television crews, reporters, scientists and military brass were shielded in concrete bunkers miles from the blast site. Views of the desert were interlaced with interviews with those in the shelter until the countdown began. Ten nine eight seven six… There was at last the word “zero” followed by a split second of silence, then the screen going white followed by the spectacle of an expanding transparent globe of light and fire that gave birth to a seething column of smoke exploding upward in which a kind of fire never seen before 1945 was rotating within the mushroom cloud.

For one of the tests, buildings had been constructed at varying distances from ground zero, with blast-protected high-speed cameras at strategic points. Soon afterward television viewers saw in slow motion the blast’s impact on houses not unlike our own. A two-story white clapboard house turned black on its blast-facing side before the shock wave struck. The structure, as if made of paper-thin glass, was in a flash torn to fragments while the splinters were catapulted away from ground zero by a wind far beyond hurricane strength.

In 1951 there were sixteen U.S. nuclear tests, in 1952 there were nine, and the next year eleven — thirty-six in three years, on average one per month.

While I doubt I watched all of the explosions, in 1953 nuclear war was enough on my mind for me to build a foot-high model of a mushroom cloud using a cardboard tube for the upward shaft and a cardboard disk for the horizontal top layer plus cotton wool sprayed with red, yellow and orange paint. Made for the annual New Jersey Science Fair, this was placed in a homemade wooden display case along with panels of text explaining the destructive effects of a nuclear explosion, augmented by extracts from John Hershey’s book, Hiroshima. My exhibit won no award — it wasn’t a science experiment — but it seemed to me an achievement that my own quiet protest against nuclear war had found a place in the fair. Few fair-goers passed it by.

Ever aware that death by nuclear war was more than likely and possibly not far off, in the fall of 1961 I tacked a magazine cover to the wall of my one-room apartment in Manhattan that was emblazoned with just four words: Get ready to die. It was the verbal equivalent of having, like a medieval monk, a skull close at hand that silently sang out the ascetic message, Momento mori.

In the early sixties each time I heard New York’s air-raid sirens being tested I expected to be shredded into radioactive particles. The sirens would begin their coordinated howling, the blasts punctuated by silences so severe the city suddenly seemed desert-like in stillness. Stunned, momentarily paralyzed by the significance of the noise, I would stop whatever I was doing and stand at a window, waiting for death. There was no need to think about a hiding place. Even were there a massive barrier against the blast and radiation, the blast’s firestorm would consume all the oxygen. Last moments are too important to be wasted on panic. As someone who believed in the resurrection and hoped in God’s mercy, these moments seemed best used for prayer.

But each time the sirens ceased their doomsday howls. There was no sudden radiance brighter than a thousand suns. At such times I felt like an airline passenger setting shaking feet upon solid ground after a no-wheels landing in emergency foam spread out across the runway. Our lives had ended and been given back. We had in our hands another chance to free ourselves from a “security” founded upon the preparation of nuclear holocaust. Another chance for figs to grow from thistles.

I’m now 76. In my lifetime we’ve come in arm’s reach of nuclear war several times. It’s a miracle that no nuclear weapon has been used in war since 1945. For many people this is seen as proof that deterrence works. In the short measure of human life and memory, and in a time crowded with other disasters, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are a long way off. We have begun to count on generals and their subordinates restraining themselves from pressing the nuclear button. We imagine that, for the first time in human history, weapons are being produced and made ready for use — are in fact poised for use with thousands of people in a constant state of readiness to release them — yet will never be used. May it be so. Yet one has to ask the question: has human nature changed since Hiroshima? Do we have to search far to find people who see reality in purely abstract ideological terms? It’s a mentality not uncommon in political and military leadership, no matter what the nationality. Could such people be counted on to leave nuclear weapons on the shelf if other methods failed to achieve the desired goal? Imagine someone with a launch code getting a Doctor Strangelove itch to take “decisive action.”

The button-pushers will be respected, perfectly sane men and women simply doing their job. Such sanity inspired the Trappist monk Thomas Merton to comment:

We equate sanity with a sense of justice, with humaneness, with prudence, with the capacity to love and understand other people. We rely on the sane people of the world to preserve it from barbarism, madness, destruction. And now it begins to dawn on us that it is precisely the sane ones who are the most dangerous. It is the sane ones, the well-adapted ones, who can without qualms and without nausea aim the missiles and press the buttons that will initiate the great festival of destruction that they, the sane ones, have prepared…. No one suspects the sane, and the sane ones will have perfectly good reasons, logical, well-adjusted reasons, for firing the shot. They will be obeying sane orders that have come sanely down the chain of command. [Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable (New York: New Directions, 1966), 45-53.]

But we are not predestined to commit mass suicide. Partly thanks to the efforts of many people, there are signs of hope that we may get rid of such weapons before they get rid of us. Following nearly a decade of negotiations and international conferences, in July 2017 the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons came into effect, the first legally-binding international agreement to ban nuclear weapons, with the goal of their total elimination. For those nations that are party to it, the treaty prohibits the development, testing, production, stockpiling, stationing, transfer, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons, as well as assistance and encouragement to the prohibited activities. For nuclear-armed states joining the treaty, it provides for a time-bound framework for negotiations leading to the verified and irreversible elimination of its nuclear weapons program.

It comes as no surprise that none of the states that possess nuclear weapons have yet signed the treaty, but numerous groups, many of them of Christian inspiration, are campaigning for the public support that’s needed to bring about a change of direction — metanoia is the Greek word. What’s needed is as much a religious awakening as it is political. Who could describe as Christian a religion that fails to oppose weapons of mass destruction?

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10 August 2018
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Archbishop Anastasios of Albania: ‘Turn No One Away’

By Jim Forest

Archbishop Anastasios (photo: Jim Forest)

Archbishop Anastasios has a white beard and moustache. His hair is silver. His glasses have tortoise-shell frames with gold stems and thick lenses, though what you notice most of all is the twinkle in his welcoming brown eyes. His words are often echoed by hand gestures. While he never seems to hurry, he leads a busy life, as I was to see at close range during many days of travel at his side or visiting him at his office at the archdiocesan headquarters in Tirana. He rarely glances at his watch, but when he does it is not so much to know the hour as to signal that it’s time for the next thing he has to do.

When Archbishop Anastasios flew to Tirana from Athens on July 16, 1991, he was arriving in what had until recently been the world’s most militant atheist state. The 440 clergy that had served the Orthodox Church 60 years earlier had been reduced to 22, all old and frail, some close to death.

While Archbishop Anastasios could recall occasionally citing Albania as providing one of the most extreme examples of religious persecution since the age of Diocletian, it had never crossed his mind that Albania might one day become his home and that he would become responsible for leading a Church that most of the world regarded as not only oppressed but extinct.

Born November 4, 1929, in Piraeus, Greece, the port city on the west side of Athens,
it was by no means certain Anastasios Yannoulatos would become more than a nominal Christian. He grew up in a period when life seemed mainly shaped by secular ideologies, wars, politics and economics, with many of his peers regarding the Orthodox Church as little more than a decorative social vestige of the past.

When he was six, an army-backed dictatorship lead by General Ioannis Metaxas was established in Greece. Metaxas liked the titles “First Peasant,” “First Worker” and “National Father.” He led a fascist regime, though one independently minded and non-racist, resisting alliances with its counterparts in Germany and Italy. From bases in Albania, Italy invaded Greece in 1940. Anastasios was ten. While Italian forces were quickly pushed back into Albania, the following year the German army arrived in force. Greeks found themselves subject to a harsh tripartite German, Italian, and Bulgarian occupation, with civil war breaking out between factions of the resistance — the royalist right versus the Marxist left — even before occupation troops began to withdraw late in 1944. Anastasios was nearly 20 when civil conflict in Greece finally ended, the United States having weighed in on the side of democratic forces.

“I have many memories of the Second World War and the civil war in Greece that followed,” he told me. “This made me ask: Where is freedom and love? Many found their direction in the Communist movement, but I could not imagine that freedom and love could result from the Communist Party or any other party. Very early in my life there was a longing for something authentic. During the war we had no school — we were more free. I read a lot, so many books! Not all of them helped my faith — Marx, Freud, Feuerbach. But there was a turning point. I can remember as if it were yesterday kneeling on the roof of our home, saying, ‘Do you exist or not? Is it true there is a God of love? Show your love. Give me a sign.’

“When you say such a prayer, the answer comes. It does not come with angels singing but you realize God is there, in front of you and what He says is ‘I ask for you — not something from you.’ You understand in such a moment what is important is not to give but to be given.

“That prayer was when I was a teenager. You can see why I have such a respect for teenagers. It can be a time when you ask the most important questions and are willing to hear the answer that is without words. Love and respect is shown to young people not in words but in the way you approach them, how you see them. It is the same with very old people in difficult times, people who are suffering.”

In his teens Anastasios studied at a gymnasium in Athens. His main strength was in mathematics, but he had excellent grades in all his subjects. He graduated first in the school. “A certain path in life seemed obvious to everyone, but within myself there was a sense of being called toward the Church, not something everyone I knew sympathized with! At a critical moment, wrestling with the question what is essential, I turned toward freedom and love. It was a turn toward Christ, in whom I saw the only answer.”

Finally he applied for the Theological Faculty of Athens University. “It was, of course, the age of technology. My decision to become a theology student was a scandal. What a waste! This is what many of my friends and teachers thought at the time.”

While studying theology, he found himself drawn into Orthodox youth activities through which opportunities arose to meet young Orthodox Christians from other countries, an experience which made him realize that Christianity was far larger than Greece.

After being drafted into the Greek army for a term, where he served as a communications officer, he returned to academic life, now going further with developing communication skills — homiletics and journalism. At the same time youth work continued, which always included religious education. He began training other catechists, finally writing text books for a three-year program of religious education for youth. More than a quarter century and eight editions later, the books remained a standard in Greek Sunday schools.

I asked him about sources of inspiration in his childhood.

“As a young person I had been deeply moved by stories of Father Damian, a Catholic priest who served lepers in Hawaii, and also Albert Schweitzer. I asked myself whatever happened to our missionary tradition in the Orthodox Church? Where were the Orthodox missionaries? What are we doing to share our faith with others? What are we doing to reach all those people who have never heard the Gospel? I realized that indifference to missions is a denial of Orthodoxy and a denial of Christ. How had it happened that a Church called to baptize the nations was so indifferent to the nations? Saint Paul brought the Gospel to Greeks. Who were we bringing it to?”

It was a pivotal question that would shape the rest of his life.

In 1959 he founded a quarterly bi-lingual (Greek and English) magazine, Porefthendes (Go Ye), devoted to the study of the history, theology, methods and spirit of Orthodox mission. “With all my talk about mission, I was regarded at first as very romantic, but gradually people began to understand that a Church is not apostolic if it is not involved in mission activity. Apostolic means to be like the apostles, every one of whom was a missionary.” The journal lasted only a decade but its existence occasioned the resurrection of the mission tradition in the contemporary Orthodox Church.

In 1961, thanks to decisions made at the fifth assembly of Syndesmos, the Orthodox youth movement, a center also named Porefthendes was established in Athens with Anastasios as director. This in turn involved him in international ecumenical meetings on mission, events often organized by the World Council of Churches. Anastasios became a member of the WCC’s Working Committee on Mission Studies. He has since held a number of WCC leadership positions.

It was the desire to serve the Church as a missionary that finally brought him to ordination as a priest. “When I was 33, at Christmas time, I went to a remote monastic skete on the island of Patmos. This is a period of the year when there are few if any tourists. You experience absolute silence and isolation. During this time I again considered returning to missionary activity. The question formed in my mind: What about the dangers you will face? Then came the response: “Is God enough for you? If God is enough for you, go! If not, stay where you are.” Then a second question followed: “If God is not enough for you, then in what God do you believe?”

“In the evening of the day I was ordained a priest in May 1964, I flew to Uganda, which I had thought about so often and with such longing. I thought Africa would be my home for the remainder of my life, but malaria ended that dream. It was the malaria of the Great Lakes, which can attack the brain. The first symptom was loss of balance. Then I had a fever of 40 degrees. It was my first experience of being close to death. I remember the phrase that formed in my thoughts when I thought I would die: ‘My Lord, you know that I tried to love you.’ Then I slept — and the next day I felt well! But this was only a providential remission. There was a second attack when I went to Geneva to attend a mission conference. Fortunately doctors there were able to identify the illness and knew how to treat it. But I had a complete breakdown of health. When I was well enough to leave the hospital they said I must forget about returning to Africa.

This was like a second mortal wound for me. Friends said to me. ‘You don’t have to be a missionary — you can inspire others to be missionaries through your teaching.’ But it had always been clear to me that what you say you must also do — how could I teach what I wasn’t living?”

In the end Anastasios returned to his scholarly studies, but did not forget Africa. He received the prestigious “Alexander von Humboldt” scholarship and pursued post graduate studies at the Universities of Hamburg and Marburg, Germany from 1965-69. He specialized in the History of Religion, but also studied ethnology, missiology, and Africanology, with a main interest in studying African symbolism from the Orthodox perspective. His dissertation was entitled, The Spirits Mbandwa and the Frame of their Cult: A Research on the African Religion of Western Uganda.

In 1969, the WCC called Archimandrite Anastasios to accept a position created for him in the Commission of World Mission and Evangelism as the “Secretary for Research and Relation with the Orthodox Churches.”

By 1972 he was elected by the Faculty of Theology of Athens University as associate professor of the History of Religions. The same year, in recognition of the importance of his academic work, with his emphasis on mission, he was ordained Bishop of Androussa, with a special responsibility to be the general director of Apostoliki Diakonia of the Church of Greece. Four years later he became full professor.

Throughout the decade of the 1970s, he published four original studies on African religions, emphasizing the special respect we owe to the African past, and the necessity to properly understand it for any Orthodox witness among the Africans. He also made a special effort among his students to instill a sincere love and respect for the African people, and to understand the worldwide responsibility for an Orthodox witness. (Today, a number of these former students, including His Beatitude, Patriarch Petros, presently serve as Metropolitans under the Patriarchate of Alexandria in Africa.)

During this decade, he also became the first scholar in Greece to publish a general survey of Islam, a book in which he strongly advocated inter-religious dialogue, especially between Orthodoxy and Islam.

At the same period, he was involved in the ecumenical movement, serving as a member of the WCC’s theological working group on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies (1975-83). He later became the first Orthodox moderator of the Commission for Mission and Evangelism (1984-91), presiding over the San Antonio World Mission Conference in 1989.

In 1981, the Orthodox Church in East Africa was in a state of division and severe crisis. Patriarch Nicholas of Alexandria asked Bishop Anastasios for help restore the local African Church and become the acting archbishop of East Africa. In order to fulfill this task, he received permission from the University of Athens to restrict his academic work to one semester per year, and used the other semester, plus his vacation time, to live and work in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania.

After a fruitful decade in Africa, he could begin to contemplate eventually returning to the University of Athens and devoting himself to teaching and writing. Instead something altogether unimagined intervened in his life: neither Africa nor Athens but Albania.

In January 1991, one month after the government in Tirana had allowed the formation of non-Communist political parties, the Ecumenical Patriarchate took the initiative to re-establish the Church of Albania. Two months after his 61st birthday, Anastasios received a telephone call from the patriarchate in Constantinople asking if he would be willing to go to Albania as Exarch to see what if anything was left of the Orthodox Church. It was at the time intended not as a permanent assignment, only a reconnaissance effort to see if and how the local Church could be revived. It would require, however, a substantial interruption of his work in Africa.

After a time of prayer, he said yes, though it would take six months before the reluctant authorities in Tirana finally issued a visa, and that was only for one month. “The Communist times were over, but not completely. Attitudes formed in the course of many years of propaganda do not change quickly. However, once in the country, my visa was extended.”

Anastasios showed me several photos taken the day he arrived in Tirana. “It was a wonderful experience stepping off the airplane and being received by the people who had come to welcome me. It was a bright summer day, but the light seemed mainly to come from faces rather than the sun. Such joy!”

Delaying his arrival at an official reception arranged by Albania’s president, Anastasios’ first action was to visit Tirana’s temporary cathedral, though still in a devastated condition with a large hole in the roof. The old cathedral on the city’s main square had been demolished years before to make way for a hotel. The one church in Tirana that was beginning to serve as a place of public worship had been a gymnasium since 1967. Though the Easter season was past, on his arrival Anastasios gave everyone present the Paschal greeting, “Christ is risen!”, lit a candle and embraced local believers. “Everyone was weeping,” he remembers, “and I was not an exception.”

It was a far from easy life for Anastasios and those working with him. “When I first came to Tirana, I stayed in a hotel the first month. There was no other possibility. After that I was able to rent a small house with two floors, two rooms on each floor. I had a small office and bedroom above and a kitchen and meeting room below. There was a lack of water, lack of heat, lack of electricity. For me the cold was the most difficult. This was our Archdiocese at that time. I recall how surprised the government was that I had no bodyguards. It amazed them that I wasn’t interested in such ‘security’!”

He quickly discovered that in this corner of Europe a degree of poverty existed which he had not encountered before. “Of course there was great poverty in East Africa, but at least most people there had their own garden. Here that isn’t the case. Like so many Albanians, my diet that summer in Albania was chiefly watermelon, bread, tomatoes and oil.”

He had no idea when he stepped off the plane in Tirana that July day he had arrived at what would be his home for the rest of his life. “My mission as Exarch was only to discover what if anything of the local Church had survived the decades of extreme repression and to see if there were suitable candidates for consecration as bishops who had survived. Only later was I asked by authorities of the Patriarchate if I would be willing to accept election as Archbishop of Albania. After a period of reflection and prayer, I was open, depending on three conditions. The first was that it must be clear that this was the wish of the Orthodox in Albania. Second, that this was the desire of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Third, that the Albanian authorities would accept this decision. Otherwise the situation of the Church would only be made more difficult. My answer was much less than yes! I was like Jonah looking for a path of escape! But inside my prayer was, ‘Your will be done.’

“The Orthodox people were indeed pressing me to stay. They made it clear day after day. And how could I refuse them? How could I say I had a different plan for the rest of my life? Remaining in Albania would mean putting aside all the ideas I had about what I would be doing with the remainder of my life — a peaceful retirement in Greece, giving occasional lectures at the university and writing books. I had collected a vast amount of material on the history of religion in various countries and had a scholarly desire to elaborate and publish all that material. I knew that if I stayed I would have to give my undivided attention to Albania. All other plans and interests would have to be put completely aside.”

“On June 24, 1992, following the proposal of the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, the Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate unanimously elected me as head of the Orthodox Church of Albania. After overcoming serious difficulties, I accepted the appointment by giving the “Great Message” on July 12. The enthronement occurred on August 2, in the presence of all the clergy and lay leaders of Albania. In fact I was not so much accepting a throne — that sounds rather comfortable! — but embracing the Cross.

“Remarkably, the Berisha government had acceded to my election, but between their acceptance and the event itself around a month later, there was a renewed government-backed attack on the Church and on me personally.

“It was a time of constant crisis. Every day there was a critical decision. My constant prayer in those days was, ‘Illumine me Lord to know your will, give me humility to accept your will, and give me strength to obey and take the consequences’.”

The situation was to grow more critical. He was often the target of severe criticism and false reports in the Albanian press— a “verbal crucifixion,” in the words of one of the archbishop’s co-workers. A law was almost passed that would have forced any non-Albanian bishop to leave the country. His life has been repeatedly threatened. It is one of many Albanian miracles that he is still alive and well.

“The fact that I was Greek, not Albanian, was a daily theme in hostile press articles, speeches in Parliament and television reports. The message was very simple: If you are a Greek, you must be a spy. How else could an Albanian whose mind was shaped in the Hoxha period think? A mind entirely formed by an atheistic culture? Each person was seen exclusively in social-economic terms. You cannot imagine that a man in his sixties could be coming here because of love! Therefore, we cannot complain about such people. Their way of thinking is not their fault. It is an algebraic logic in which numbers exist below zero. But how to respond to hatred? Here you learn that often the best dialogue is in silence — it is love without arguments. Only remember you cannot love without cost, neither Christ nor anyone.”

The decisive attempt to remove the Archbishop was made in the Autumn of 1994. The intended means was the proposed insertion of a special paragraph in the new draft of the state Constitution. “At a certain point, when our situation seemed absolutely hopeless, I was packed and ready to depart the following morning, only trying to prepare others to carry on in my place while I did whatever was possible living outside Albania. It seemed to me and many people nothing less than a miracle that the new constitution was rejected in the national referendum in November 1994. This was not the result anyone expected!”

Another serious problem for the local church, that created numerous disputes, troubles and pain for several years, was the re-establishment of the Holy Synod.

“This issue was finally settled in July 1998, following persistent negotiations by representatives from the Ecumenical Patriarchate (especially Metropolitans Evangelos of Perges and Meliton of Philadelphia), the Church of Albania, and the Albanian authorities. In the end, Metropolitan Ignatius from Greece took his see in Berat, and two Albanians were chosen, Archimandrite Joan Pelushi as Metropolitan of Korça, and Fr. Kosma Qirio as Bishop of Apollonia. This solved a crucial problem for the proper functioning of an autocephalous Church.

“For the first seven hard years, I had to struggle alone as bishop, surrounded only by a General Ecclesiastical Council composed of thirteen clergy and lay members. Demanding needs in all dioceses and parishes were pressing. From this point onwards, I would continue the uphill road in communion with precious brothers. A Holy Synod, in which we are being, thinking and acting in His name, is a real divine gift and a spiritual security.”

His difficulties were not simply of a political nature. One of the hardest challenges was to overcome divisions within the Church. “There used to be great division within the Church. Our people come from various ethnic backgrounds. Our first goal was to create unity among Orthodox Christians. After so much persecution, we could no longer allow division. I recall in Korça saying, ‘Do you think the forest is more beautiful if there is only one kind of tree?’ All the various trees must grow freely under the rays of the sun.’ The key to proper development is love and freedom.”

One element in the process of breaking down borders inside the Church had to do with how the Church refers to itself.

“We do not call ourselves the Albanian Orthodox Church, but the Orthodox Church of Albania. In fact, we look upon ourselves as the Orthodox Church in Albania. We are part of the world Church. The Orthodox Church is not a federation of churches; the one Orthodox Church fully exists in particular places. We are going toward the kingdom of God together. No one can be an island, not even Britain, not even huge China. You cannot be isolated. On the other hand we point out that we are autocephalous, a word that means self-standing. We govern ourselves — our autocephalous status was recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarch in 1937. But we had to resume Church life after a long interruption, a process in which the Ecumenical Patriarchate played a vital role. The Orthodox in Albania are grateful to Patriarch Bartholomew for his continuous interest during these critical years.”

He struggled personally to give an example through the use of the Albanian language. “It has been important for me not only to learn Albanian but to take care that whenever I say something I say it not just in a way that can be understood but say it well. I must carefully pronounce each word and phrase. The first words I learned were, ‘Krishti u ngjall, Zoti eshte me ne, lavdi Zotit!’ — ‘Christ is risen, God is with us, Glory to God!’ It has been very important to use Albanian even in situations where the majority speak Greek, as is the case in many towns and villages in the south. I recall in Saranda, very close to the Greek border and in sight of the Greek island of Corfu, we had our first public prayer in the open air near the shore. It was suggested it could be done entirely in Greek — almost everyone would understand. But I said that even if only two persons need Albanian, we shall have Albanian.”

One of the most pressing tasks for Archbishop Anastasios was directing the effort to provide places for worship in a country in which churches had been methodically destroyed or turned to secular functions. His most visible achievements are all the churches erected or restored since his arrival. By the middle of 2001, 80 new churches have been build, 70 churches restored from ruin, more than 140 repaired, and five monasteries brought back to life.

In addition, more than twenty large buildings have been erected or renovated to house the theological academy in Durres, the office of the archdiocese in Tirana and diocesan centers and bishops’ residencies in Korça, Berat and Gjirokaster, the Holy Cross High School in Gjirokaster, a diagnostic center in Tirana, dispensaries, guest houses, schools, and the complex “Nazareth” housing the candle factory, printing house, icon atelier, restoration workshop and other church service facilities.

He recalled a recent visit to a place where local people come to pray even though not a single wall of the church that once stood there survives.

“Often you see with the Albanian people how a church still exists in a certain place even when you see only scattered fragments. It is amazing how people will treat a church as a church no matter how ruined it is — no matter what had been done to the building, no matter what else it was — it remains a church, it remains connected to the holy. Even in the times when it was dangerous, people went to places where churches once stood to pray and light candles.

“Many times in the first months the Liturgy was conducted out of doors as no indoor place of worship was available, but preferably in a place where a church formerly existed. Of course this was only possible when the weather cooperated.

“In the very beginning we had no alternative but to put up a number of prefabricated temporary churches in various locations, but in the years since then the churches are permanent structures built mainly of stone each with its own character. In some cases these are restored, often from a state of ruin, while others are built from the foundations up. Our goal has been not simply to put up adequate buildings but to make beautiful churches. Through the architecture of the church buildings we try to say something not only about the present but the future. It is work coordinated by the technical office, under the direction of Father Theologos, an Athonite monk who studied architecture, together with a staff of local, skilled collaborators. We have spent millions of dollars on church construction and restoration. The majority of these funds are donations from people in other countries, including some of my former students who have done well in their work and are able to be generous or who are active in trusts and foundations that can assist us. Sometimes I say I am an international beggar! We are a poor Church, but very rich in friends. And we are deeply grateful for all of them.”

The Church is, however, not rich in friends within the government.

“Rarely have the political authorities been quick to return confiscated church property in those cases where churches hadn’t been completely destroyed, or even land with church ruins on it. This is a problem that impedes us in many locations to this very day. Sometimes the only practical solution is to buy back what was stolen from us.”

Church building often involves more than just a structure for worship. “When we build or restore a church or monastery, often we also have to rebuild the road. I was once asked what gift I would like — I think they meant an icon. I said, ‘I would like a bulldozer.’ They were surprised! ‘But what can you do with a bulldozer?’ ‘We can make roads in the remote areas so that we make more humane the life of our people.”

“With all our construction projects, the Church has become a significant factor in the economic development of Albania. We are one of Albania’s most serious investors and job creators.”

There is not only the on-going task of providing church buildings where needed but helping those drawn to the church to learn to pray together after a long exile from church life in a rigidly secular society.

“Sometimes it was very difficult to conduct the Liturgy. Often people came more to watch than pray. It was like having the Liturgy in a place where cars are being repaired or where a football game was going on. Often it was impossible to have silence. Many times I was severe. I refused to go further with the Liturgy until the people were silent. I didn’t mean the children. Let them chatter like birds. But let the rest of the people pay attention to the service and not carry on as if they were in the market.”

At a Liturgy in a remote mountain village, in a cemetery church which had survived the Hoxha years by serving as a weapon depot, I saw how readily Archbishop Anastasios adapted himself to the enthusiasm of children, not only the noises they make but their eagerness to be close to him. One child approached him for a blessing and immediately all the children wanted the same thing. With so many children present, this meant a delay in the start of the service, but that was no problem.

Related to the task of restoring the physical church and the understanding of what it means to pray together is the reformation of understanding the co-responsibility of each person in the Church for the life of the Church.

“We have three basic principles that I speak of again and again. The first is local leadership, next local language, and finally local finance. It is only on the last that we have had to compromise. The profound poverty of Albania has required help from outside to rebuild the churches and to undertake projects to relieve suffering. But even in this area we never undertake a project without financial sacrifice from Albanians as well. In order to receive God’s blessing, we have to offer what we have. Only zero cannot be blessed. With only two fish and five loaves, Christ fed 5,000 — but there had to be gift of what little people had.

“One of the most memorable gifts I received for the diaconal work of the Church came from two elderly women whose brother was killed during the Second World War in southern Albania. For fifty-five years these women carefully saved money to be used in some good way in memory of their brother. Fifty-five years! When I met them they presented all the money they had saved — also some flowers. I used the money for our girls’ high school near Gjirokaster and in the same village put the flowers they gave me at the base of a memorial for those who died in the war.”

Another immediate task was to do all that was possible to relieve suffering in Europe’s poorest country. The Church began to set up clinics in major population centers. There are programs to assist the disabled, a women’s rural health program, an agriculture developmental program, work with prisoners and the homeless, free cafeterias, and emergency assistance to the destitute. Most of this work is carried out through the Diaconal Agapes (Service of Love), a Church department set up by Archbishop Anastasios in 1992 and first led by Father Martin Ritsi [who now heads the Orthodox Christian Mission Center in the US], later by Penny Deligiannis, and now by an Albanian, Nina Gramo Perdhiku. These projects were never intended simply to benefit Orthodox Christians alone but any person in need, no matter what his or her faith — or lack of faith.

“We keep working to improve the standards of health care,” said Archbishop Anastasios. “The Annunciation Clinic here in Tirana now meets the highest European standards. People come from all over the country to use it.”

Another model project is a dental clinic housed in a large white van that travels from town to town. While accompanying Archbishop Anastasios on a visit to the Monastery of Ardenica, we happened to encounter the mobile clinic parked in the field of a nearby village. The archbishop decided not only to stop and greet the many local children waiting in line outside the van but to test the dental chair himself and invite the dentist to inspect his teeth under the bright light. The children watched with delight. Archbishop Anastasios quickly became a beloved uncle.

While his official title is Archbishop of Tirana and All Albania, Anastasios has occasionally been called the Archbishop of Tirana and All Atheists. It isn’t a title he objects to. “I am everyone’s archbishop. For us each person is a brother or sister. The Church is not just for itself. It is for all the people. As we say at the altar during each Liturgy, it is done ‘on behalf of all and for all. Also we pray ‘for those who hate us and for those who love us.’ Thus we cannot have enemies. How could we? If others want to see us as enemies, it is their choice, but we do not consider others as enemies. We refuse to punish those who punished us. Always remember that at the Last Judgment we are judged for loving Him, or failing to love Him, in the least person. The message is clear. Our salvation depends upon respect for the other, respect for otherness. This is the deep meaning of the Parable of the Good Samaritan — we see not how someone is my neighbor but how someone becomes a neighbor. It is a process. We also see in the parable how we are rescued by the other. What is the theological understanding of the other? It is trying to see how the radiation of the Son of God occurs in this or that place, in this or that culture. This is much more than mere diplomacy. We must keep our authenticity as Christians while seeing how the rays of the Son of Righteousness pass through another person, another culture. Only then can we bring something special.”

I noticed while traveling with him how each day he gives an example of love of non-Orthodox neighbors. To give but one instance, when we visited the Ardenica monastery, one of the very few religious centers to survive the Hoxha period with little damage (it had become a tourist hotel).

There was a group on Albanian tourists visiting when we arrived one of whom approached the Archbishop. “I am not baptized,” he said. “I am a Moslem. But will you bless me?” The man received not only an ardent blessing but was reminded by the archbishop that he was a bearer of the image of God. [use photo of the man receiving a blessing]

Educational work was another key area of concern, first of all to prepare both men and women for service in the Church. “We are struggling with the problem of the shortage of priests. The young generation was raised in an atheistic climate, and after that came the capitalist dream, which made many decide to go to other countries. The scent of money is very powerful. Gradually some people realize money does not bring happiness, that happiness can only come from something deeper.

“To develop local leaders, in 1992 we immediately started a seminary, renting a hotel in Durres. What a place it was! Much of the time it had no heat, no electricity, no running water. But we were able to overcome the difficulties for several years, until our own seminary building was ready in October 1996. It was suggested we send our seminarians to study in Greece and America, but decided their formation should be here. In order to have a new forest, you plant the trees where they will grow, not somewhere else. Since the seminary was opened, there have been 120 ordinations.

“It is not easy finding promising candidates. In the Communist time many efforts were made to ridicule the clergy as an uneducated lower class, if not evil people, and still there are people who defame the clergy, though it has become more and more difficult to imagine priests as uneducated. But finding suitable candidates and giving them a good theological education is hard, tiring work.

“In earlier times the priest was at the center of village and town life — teacher, healer, judge, reconciler, a person who could call things by their true names. We hope in the future something of this tradition can be restored. Not to offend politicians, but the priest is a permanent silent leader.

“We need serious young people, capable of leadership, who will realize that being a priest is not a second of third choice and that it is a vocation that can make an enormous difference, no less significant than a physician or engineer.

“As you will have noticed, there are not only men but also women at the seminary, about a third of the enrollment. It used to be the vocation of women was mainly in the home, but now they have a public life and the Church must use their gifts. Women exercise another form of church service. There are many women who have graduated from the seminary and who are playing an important role in the activities of the Church in Albania — diaconal works of mercy, teachers, administration, mission activity, and so forth. We would have achieved much less without them.”

In addition to the seminary, schools have been started to meet other needs. A post-secondary “Institute for Professional Training” was recently opened in Tirana. In Gjirokaster for several years there has been a high school for boys and one for girls in a nearby town. Twelve kindergartens have been opened in various towns and cities. There are summer camps and many youth programs.

“Our first priority is children. We have opened many kindergartens, nurseries and schools. Our only regret is that we cannot help more young people. We do what we can with the staff and space we can afford.”

Archbishop Anastasios points out that education is far more than books to read and facts to memorize. The goal must be to help shape people who are not only capable intellectually or skilled in certain specializations, but motivated by respect and love rather than greed and fear. As he says: “God did not give us a spirit of fear but of power. Those who fear God fear nothing else.”

But Albania is still a country in which fear and greed shape many people’s lives.

“To get results we need people — holy people — people who don’t change things but change themselves. The Church has the power to create people capable of love and sacrifice, people above vendettas, people capable of forgiveness. Reconciliation is not easy. It needs help from the Church. Forgiveness and reconciliation are an essential part of the Christian life, especially during Lent. It gives us the power to forgive the other. More forgiveness, more community!

“The young generation was educated with systematic Communist propaganda. It was a culture of fear. Look at all the many bunkers littering the country that were built in the Communist era. Each one is like a large skull. When you see many of them near each other, it is like a cemetery of exposed bones. In the Hoxha period, the creation of enemies was essential to maintaining the discipline of the people. It was a diabolic method, the formation of a culture of fear. Fear, once learned, is hard to unlearn. Many people still are paralyzed by fear.

“Now they are subject to another propaganda — the idea that status in society equals having money. The new system says that the more money you have, the more important you are. But without love and sacrifice, people become wild animals. Today, without religious communities, there is no hope. Otherwise they cannot understand sacrifice motivated by love, by belief in Christ. It is a pity so many are held captive by the belief that happiness comes from money. Young people must know there is something more behind life. Now when such people look at those who are living sacrificial lives, they assume the other person is getting some secret material benefit. Often they imagine our helpers from other countries are making more money assisting us here than they would in their home country! Otherwise why would they be here? But finally they begin to see that our collaborators give up a great deal in coming to Albania — that the motive is not at all financial. In some cases this discovery gives young Albanians the motivation to stay here.

“I often ask people I meet, ‘What would you like to do?’ And often the answer is, ‘Emigrate!’ They don’t say what they want to do — only that they want to leave. At the present time there are about half a million Albanians in Greece alone, all arriving in the last decade, some going legally, many illegally. There are so many Albanians in other countries, in many cases not happy where they are, but thinking they have no alternative. Some of them are trying to help those who remain here. Of course often they are tempted to leave as so many of their friends have done. They ask me, ‘What about the future?’ Of course, I share their concern, but I emphasize, ‘Let us look at the present. Let us do our duty, only doing whatever is an expression of love of one for the other. This will shape the future.”

Still another dimension of the Church’s task is to teach forgiveness.

“This begins within the Church in the way we respond to those who denied or betrayed the Church, in the Communist period. Especially in earlier years, I was sometimes asked, what do we do when such people want to rejoin the Church after having been apostates? Our response must be to forgive and receive them back, not to turn anyone away. Following the fall of communism, the first church we opened in Berat has an inscription above the central door which says — ‘Whoever comes to me, I will not cast away.’ However difficult it is, we must be willing to forgive and forget. There can be no true forgiveness without forgetting.”

There have been several other areas of development in bringing the Church fully back to life. “We started a radio station and newspaper, both called Ngjallja — Resurrection. The newspaper is monthly, the radio station is on the air 24 hours a day. It broadcasts a mixture of spiritual programs, music, news and other programming. There is now a children’s hour. Recently an antenna was set up so that broadcasts can now reach the southern part of the country. Also we have a center just outside Tirana called Nazareth where icon painting and restoration are taught. In the same building there are also a printing house and a candle factory. The sale of candles provides local parishes with a steady source of income.”

He sees as another area of activity for the Church developing projects to foster local environmental responsibility.

“This year, we started an environmental protection program which includes training 15 post-graduate students, who have completed degrees in biology and forest or environmental engineering. They will set up programs to protect the eco-system in three areas of Albania. We are even establishing garbage management programs in two cities. Part of the vocation of the parish is to keep the village, town and city clean. We need to inspire the idea of a clean environment. Albania used to have it but it was imposed by a police state. Now it is not imposed but needs to be chosen.”

“What is necessary is that the Church should be present in all areas of life — with pilot programs in health care, education, social and relief efforts, developmental programs, culture and environmental concerns — all those things which are essential to civilization. In each area of life we must implant a spiritual dimension. Culture is more than technology! Most of all it is respect for the dignity of people. Culture requires respect for God’s creation. Where it exists, there is beauty.”

He paused to reflect on the importance of foreign volunteers in the work the Church is doing in Albania. So far they come mainly from Greece and the United States. Some come continually over a period of years, perhaps teaching in the seminary or taking key roles in church projects, others coming from time to time for specific tasks, like the architect Eva Papapetrou from Athens.

“Among our biggest blessings are the gifted people who have come to assist us, though it is not a success in every case. All who offer their services want to help, but not all who come are able to cope with the problems of daily life in Albania. It is not easy being here! We cannot romanticize it. Not everyone has the necessary patience. There are others who are full of their own ideas and too eager to import solutions. This only creates confusion. I ask people from abroad who come not to come with answers to all our problems but rather to come and see and listen and to discover first how to live when things are not working — when the water and electricity are not flowing. First they need to learn not why some people leave — that’s easy enough to understand — but why so many people stay even though they could easily emigrate. The list is too long to mention, and you already met some of them, but I feel the need to express, again and again my deep gratitude for the long-term collaborators who have stayed with us.”

One crucial dimension of life for the archbishop is helping maintain good relations between the several religious communities. During my stay there was a visit with national leaders of the Moslem community — “part of the normal rhythm of my life,” he explained, “and not only since arriving in Albania. During my long journey I have learned one must always respect the other and regard no one as an enemy. We must help each other for the sake of our communities. Tolerance is not enough — there must be respect and cooperation. If we turn our backs on each other, only atheism benefits. We also have to meet with respect those who have no belief.”

There are similar visits with Catholic bishops, clergy and lay people. Archbishop Anastasios helped welcome Mother Teresa when, in her old age, the Albanian-born nun was able to visit post-Communist Albania. It pleases him that one of the main streets in Tirana has been renamed in her honor and a postage stamp is graced with her portrait. (While visiting the Orthodox Church’s Annunciation Clinic in Tirana, I happened to meet one of the sisters from Mother Teresa’s community, the Missionary Sisters of Charity. The city’s Orthodox and Catholic cathedrals are nearly side by side.)

The Archbishop spoke about the ecumenical vision he is trying to transmit among the Orthodox in Albania.

“Beyond a Balkan, European perspective, we are trying to respectfully and lovingly embrace the whole church and the entire world that Christ himself has raised, redeemed and enlightened by His cross and resurrection. The ecumenical vision offers a special power, endurance and perspective — for every local and concrete situation. Besides this, the emphasis on the ecumenicity and catholicity of the church, and the gaze on the incarnate word of God in the Holy Spirit, offers to the Orthodox thought and conscience an open horizon with boundless majesty.”

Interfaith dialogue, he pointed out, is not simply exchanges of words.

“It helped being in the World Council of Churches’ committee for dialogue with other religions, but what we did was academic. Here you learn that often the best dialogue is in silence — it is love without arguments.”

His task, he has discovered, is not only to lead the Orthodox Church in Albania.

“You must bear in mind that Albania has had very little experience of being an independent country and even less experience of freedom. The Albanian state was created in 1912-13. Then there were 25 years of trying to build up that state in the poorest country in Europe.

“Killing here is not something rare — it easily happens that someone ‘disappears.’ There are complex rules of revenge that are still operative in many places. In such a setting it is necessary to think in larger terms, about social development as a whole, to think not in terms of decades but centuries. We must think not about luxuries but necessities and endurance. We must think what it means to be free.

“A passport does not give freedom. If God does not free us, we will have no freedom. I sometimes pray, ‘O Lord, free me from myself. Free me from fear! Let me be a free person in Christ.’ God is always a God of love and freedom. Love and freedom must come first in our lives and they lead us to God Himself. You cannot love the other if you are not free from yourself. It is not easy. It is never finished. It may happen that you are only free a small part of the time. I was free part of yesterday.”

As democracy was originally a Greek idea, perhaps it should not be surprising that a Greek bishop is not only a Christian missionary but a missionary of democracy.

“Part of my vocation here is to encourage fermentation in the society. We must ask the question how can Albania become a truly democratic society? Democracy is a complex phenomenon. It cannot be just one party which happens to be in power imposing its will. It is more than coming to power via elections. Democracy means respect for truth, respect for the other. It means not confusing words and slogans with reality. It means not thinking your violence is good, their violence is a crime. Words change but unfortunately the syntax remains as it was. We suffer from a vacuum of values and from a very rough form of capitalism — the capitalism you meet in Oliver Twist.”

Not all Albania’s calamities occurred before the end of the rigid Communism in 1991. In 1997, Albania was plunged into anarchy after the collapse of pyramid investment schemes in which many Albanians had risked and lost their life savings.

“The country was on the verge of civil war,” Archbishop Anastasios recalled. “It was a major disaster revealing all the fear and violence that had accumulated in so many people’s hearts. People who had come from other countries in most cases fled abroad or were airlifted out. During this period the Church provided emergency aid to 25,000 families and tirelessly repeated our appeal, ‘No to arms, no to violence’. We said that no act of violence can be justified by the Church.”

Ignoring the advice of many friends both in Albania and elsewhere, he refused to leave the country.

“Many had to leave but I realized I must stay and invited those to stay with me who were willing. In my own case, I am the captain of the ship. For me leaving was not an option. But the danger was very real”

He showed me a bullet that had lodged itself in the double-pane glass of his office, smashing the outer pane but being stopped by the inner pane. [use photo of him by the window with the embedded bullet]

“It was strange to see a bullet that had been halted like that! I’ve kept it there as a souvenir of those times in which we were tested, when each day could have been our last. In those days I was sleeping on the office floor in a corner below the windows.”

Carefully pulling the curtain further back, he drew my attention to a grey pigeon tending a single egg in a flower pot. “A bullet and an egg!” he commented. “Perfect symbols of Albania at the crossroads.”

“We must in every situation choose life and refuse the temptation to hate and harm others,” he said. “Many times, not only in 1997, I have repeated the message, ‘The oil of religion should be used to soothe and heal the wounds of others, not to ignite the fires of hatred’.”

Expanding on the theme of healing, he commented on the Gospel story in which Christ heals a paralytic who was lowered by friends through a hole in the roof when a crowd blocked the way.

“Notice that Christ heals the man not because of his faith but their faith. It is a revealing phrase, ‘seeing their faith.’ Faith is collaboration: thinking together, praying together, acting together. The Church is not the place of my prayer but of our prayer. We pray together and are responsible for each other. Paralysis is not only a physical condition. Some people are paralyzed in their inability to love, to believe in God, to forgive, to collaborate. To move from only doing this for my own benefit to acting in a way that benefits the community — this is being healed of paralysis. Then we become responsible for each other. Christ’s healing goes to the depth of life, to our need for forgiveness. Healing is another word for peace — Christ is the one who heals our brokenness.”

Another time of testing came in 1999, when NATO attacked Yugoslavia, bombing many targets in Serbia and Kosovo.

“Half a million Kosovar refugees fled to Albania in that period. The Church could not turn its back on them. While the majority of refugees were quickly taken into Albanian homes, we took responsibility for 32,000 people, and are still operating the last refugee camp in the country. It didn’t matter to us that few if any of the refugees were Christian. For some time we stopped classes at the seminary so all the students could participate in emergency work with the refugees.” I knew from photos that the archbishop was not only sending others to help but was also doing so himself, unloading boxes of food and medicine. “In this period, perhaps it became clearer to our critics that the Church is not here only for itself but for everyone.”

The Archbishop recalled how, at that time, some of the seminary students were initially afraid, worried some of the refugees might be hostile to Orthodox Christians, even if they were there to help.

“I said we must go in the middle of the crisis and see the face of Christ in those who suffer. There was one student who asked, ‘But will the cross I am wearing provoke some?’ I said to him that it was enough to wear the cross in his heart. More important than speeches about Orthodoxy are Orthodox actions. Obey the God of love, don’t be afraid. Don’t let fear become an idol. It is impossible to do theology without involvement.”

* * *

Late in my stay in Albania, sitting next to him one night as we drove along a narrow, winding mountain road, I asked if he could tell me about the prayer life that sustains him. After a long silence, he began to answer my question.

“The roots must remain hidden. There is a Trinitarian emphasis in my short repetitive prayers. I start with the verse in the Book of Revelation, ‘O Lord, who is, who was and who is to come, the Almighty, Glory to Thee.’ Then I continue with the Jesus Prayer — ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.’ And I finish with the invocation, ‘O Holy Spirit, give me your fruit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Gal 5:22-23].’ Notice that Paul says ‘fruit’ — not ‘fruits.’ Communion with the Holy Spirit gives birth to all these qualities.

“The experience of St. Paul in his apostolic endeavors remains a basic refuge and inspiration, while my prayer for my people and me culminates in his prayer — Ephesians 3:14-21. There is a special music in the Greek text that I don’t hear in translations, but the meaning is always clear. Our life is to be a ray of the Holy Spirit, to be used by Him. It is not our own activity that is important but what He does through us.

“Prayer summarizes a longing. The problem is that so often we become ego-centered, lacking humility. Thus it is good to pray, ‘Oh Lord, deliver me from myself and give me to Yourself!’ — a cry of the heart. It is similar to the prayer, ‘Lord, I believe, please help my unbelief.’ Often it is necessary to pray for forgiveness.

“Many times in my life there is no time for long prayers, only time to quickly go into what I call the ‘hut of prayer’ — very short prayers that I know by heart or to make a very simple request — ‘Show me how to love!’ Or, when you have to make a decision, ‘Lord, help me make the right estimation and come to the right judgment, to make the right action.’ Then there is the very simple prayer, ‘Your will be done.’ I have also learned, in Albania, what it means to be a foreigner, to come from a country many regard with suspicion. This, however, can help one become more humble. It helps one pray with more intensity, ‘Use me according to Your will.’ Often I pray, ‘Lord, illumine me so that I know your will, give me the humility to accept your will, and the strength to do your will.’ I go back to these simple prayers again and again.

“Many times the Psalms are my refuge. You realize that in the spontaneous arising of certain phrases from the Psalms you are hearing God speak to you. Perhaps you are reciting the psalm, ‘My soul, why are you so downcast…’ And then another phrase from the Psalms arises which is a response. It is an ancient Christian tradition that a bishop should know many psalms by heart. The Psalms provide a spiritual refuge. In each situation there is a psalm that can help you, in those critical moments when you have no place of retreat. Perhaps you remember the words, ‘Unless the Lord guards the house, they who guard it labor in vain.’ You are reminded that your own efforts are not decisive. You also come to understand that your own suffering is a sharing in His suffering. It is a theme St. Paul sometimes writes about. You come to understand that the resurrection is not after the Cross but in the Cross.

“Often in prayer we have no time to think what each word means. But prayer is not an analytical activity. It is in our intention, in our longing. You know you are far away from the ideal and you reach out in prayer. God does not need a detailed report about our efforts. Sometimes the only prayer that is possible is the prayer of silence, silence and cries of the heart asking the Holy Spirit to dwell in us.

“I have a secret corner, a tiny chapel next to my apartment, a place for thinking, praying, appealing for strength, for overcoming frustration, so that I can try to understand God’s will, and then find the humility and strength to obey.”

Archbishop Anastasios also spoke about what he called “Theotokos spirituality.”

“Theotokos simply means Mother of God or God bearer. This is Mary, Christ’s mother. Think of her! She became the first and best disciple and sets the perfect example for anyone who is trying to follow her Divine Son. There are three main elements in her witness. She said to the archangel, ‘Be it done to me according to your word.’ God’s will, not my own! She gives us this example and through it Christ enters our lives. She also said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord.’ We are asked to center our lives on the Lord, not ourselves. And she says, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ We learn from her another type of freedom — the freedom to be free of your own plans. We realize He becomes present in our lives, as he became present in hers, through obedience. It is the obedience of love, a gift of the Holy Spirit. In her silence, in her capacity to quietly consider events in her heart, we also learn much about prayer — face-to-face conversations with God in silence. Contemplating the Mother of God is a great help and is itself a form of prayer.”

* * *

The day I left Albania, there was time for one last conversation with the archbishop before Father Luke Veronis took me to the airport. I reminded him that he had been reluctant at first to make his home in Albania. This made him laugh. “People look at the difficulties of life here and say to me, ‘How can you stand it? It is so ugly!’ But for me it is so beautiful! It is God’s blessing to be here — not the blessing I imagined but the one I received.

“My origins are not with the humble people, but I learn from them to become more simple, more true, more honest, more ready to forgive and let go of past injuries. Humility is not an achievement but a development, a contiguous dynamism in our life. So often you meet here in Albania persons who absorb every word, every gesture. Their faces are like a thirsty land ready to absorb every single drop of rain. It is a surprising providence to be sent to serve such people, people you never knew, never expected to meet, and yet who receive you with such confidence. Thank God I was sent to live among such people, to be helped by them.”

“People sometimes ask me about my expectations, but I don’t know about the future! You can only do your job with love and humility. I am not the savior of Albania, only a candle in front of the icon of the Savior.”

* * *
This is a chapter from The Resurrection of the Church in Albania by Jim Forest, published in 2002 by the World Council of Churches, Geneva, Switzerland. ISBN 2-8254-1359-3.
* * *

Thomas Merton: One Foot in the Wilderness, One Foot in the World

By Jim Forest

Were our long-dead ancestors, say just about anyone from before the nineteenth century, transported by time machine into our twenty-first century world, my guess is that the biggest single shock that our world would pose for them would not be our modern technology but rather the unrelenting noise that most of us are subject to. The noise of traffic. The noise of jet planes overhead. The noise of television and radio. The noise of machinery. The noise of garbage trucks roaming the streets before dawn. The noise of canned music pumped out of loudspeakers into supermarkets and so many other stores. The noise of ambulance and police sirens. The thin ghostly sounds emitted by earphones. The noises made by mobile phones as they announce incoming calls, followed by the noise of one-way conversations. The noise of vacuum cleaners and lawnmowers…. This is but a partial list. Feel free to add your least favorite noise.

We live in a cacophonous world in which billions of people have not only acclimated themselves to noise but become noise addicts. Many of us depend on more or less continuous noise. For almost any urban person, silence is a stunning experience — for many, it’s frightening. We all know people who keep a radio, television or music player on continuously. I recall a friend in New York who lost his job as a radio announcer on a popular station for broadcasting ten seconds of silence. The station manager said that, more than anything else, their audience depended on the station to provide constant sound. Even one second of silence meant listener distress and an urgent search for sound on another station.

Thomas Merton was a refugee from the world of noise. On the 10th of December, 1941, a month before his 27th birthday, he left a teaching job at a small Franciscan college in upstate New York and presented himself as an applicant monk at the gate of a Trappist monastery, Our Lady of Gethsemani, in rural Kentucky. Until his death 27 years later, he was part of a community that lived in silence, the monks communicating with each other mainly by sign language, resorting to the spoken word only when it was essential. Merton had embraced what he sometimes referred to as “the silent life,” the title of one of his books. But at times even the monastery was not silent enough for Merton. When the abbot bought a tractor and other agricultural equipment to make the monastery’s farm more efficient and profitable, the resultant noise distressed him. Merton was noise allergic.

What Merton sought was not a dead silence or a cold silence but a vibrant silence, a condition in which it is easier to be aware of the presence of God. In many ways it was a leaning that was akin to what his artist parents had sought. They too were contemplatives. His mother, Ruth, had become a Quaker, connecting herself with a tradition whose base of worship is silence. His father, Owen, himself a churchless Christian, was a man who sought out quiet environments in which to draw and paint, the kind of place where Tom Merton was born: Prades, an isolated town in the French Pyrenees. My guess is that his contemplative parents, both of whom died in their son’s youth, played a major part in nudging Merton toward a contemplative vocation.

A significant aspect of Merton’s attraction to becoming a hermit was not only his at-homeness with solitude but his longing to live in a deeper silence than was possible even within a Trappist community. Just a decade after becoming a monk, he imagined what it would it would be like to live alone in the woods north of the monastery. “The woods cultivate me with their silences,” he wrote in his journal, “and all day long, even in choir and at Mass, I seem to be in the forest.”[i]

Six weeks later, in February 1952, comes a remarkable journal entry. Sitting on a cedar log under a tree gazing out at light blue hills in the distance, Merton saw his true self as a kind of solitary sea creature dwelling in a water cavern which knows of the world of dry land only by faint rumor. When he got free of plans and projects — the first level of the sea with its troubled surface — then he entered a deeper second level, the deep waters out of reach of storms where there was “peace, peace, peace…. We pray therein, slightly waving among the fish…. Words, as I think, do not spring from this second level. They are only meant to drown there. The question of socialization does not concern these waters. They are nobody’s property…. No questions whatever perturb their holy botany. Neutral territory. No man’s sea. I think God meant me to write about this second level.”

Still deeper down Merton was aware of a third level,

swimming in the rich darkness which is no longer thick like water but pure, like air. Starlight, and you do not know where it is coming from. Moonlight is in this prayer, stillness, waiting for the Redeemer…. Everything is charged with intelligence, though all is night. There is no speculation here. There is vigilance… Everything is spirit. Here God is adored, His coming is recognized, He is received as soon as He is expected and because He is expected He is received, but He has passed by sooner than He arrived, He was gone before He came. He returned forever. He never yet passed by and already He had disappeared for all eternity. He is and He is not. Everything and Nothing. Not light not dark, not high not low, not this side not that side. Forever and forever. In the wind of His passing the angels cry, “The Holy One is gone.” Therefore I lie dead in the air of their wings…. It is a strange awakening to find the sky inside you and beneath you and above you and all around you so that your spirit is one with the sky, and all is positive night.[ii]

Silence is not silent. There is a torrent of sound even at midnight on the driest, most remote desert: breezes scraping the sand, the tireless conversation of insects, the tidal sound of one’s own breathing, the drumming of one’s heart, the roar of being. It’s an active silence, being attentive rather than speaking, praying rather than engaging in chatter. So long as we breathe, so long as our heart keeps beating, we will never hear absolute silence, but by avoiding distractions and listening to what remains, we discover that the door to silence is everywhere, even in Times Square and Piccadilly Circus. To listen is always an act of being silent. Yet finding places of relative silence can help a pilgrim discover inner silence. As Merton’s friend, the poet Bob Lax, who in his later years made his hermit-like home on the quiet Greek island of Patmos, once put it in a letter:

The thing to do with nature … is to listen to it, and watch it, and look deep into its eyes in a sense, as though you were listening to and watching a friend, not just hearing the words or even just watching the gestures but trying to guess, or get a sense, or share the spirit underneath it, trying to listen (if this isn’t too fancy) to the silence under the sound and trying to get an idea (not starting with any preconceived formulation) of what kind of silence it is.[iii]

In 1965, a few months before Merton began living as a full-time hermit, he wrote a descriptive essay, “Day of a Stranger,” about what he had so far experienced in his several years of being a part-time hermit. In it he speaks in rapturous terms of what he has been learning day-by-day in the woods of Gethsemani:

One might say I had decided to marry the silence of the forest. The sweet dark warmth of the whole world will have to be my wife. Out of the heart of that dark warmth comes the secret that is heard only in silence, but it is the root of all the secrets that are whispered by all the lovers in their beds all over the world. So perhaps I have an obligation to preserve the stillness, the silence, the poverty, the virginal point of pure nothingness which is at the center of all other loves. I attempt to cultivate this plant without contempt in the middle of the night and water it with psalms and prophecies in silence. It becomes the most rare of all the trees in the garden, at once the primordial paradise tree, the axis mundi, the cosmic axle, and the Cross…. There is only one such tree. It cannot be multiplied.

Words were so very important to Merton. One reads his books not only for his surprising and challenging insights but because he plays with the music of words as if he were playing jazz clarinet or saxophone. No one is more articulate than Merton but also no one was more aware than he of the limits of words. Like arrows, words point but they are not the target. As he once remarked to his novices, “He who follows words is destroyed.”

Merton explores this topic more deeply a letter the Venezuelan poet, Ludivico Silva:

The religion of our time, to be authentic, needs to be the kind that escapes practically all religious definition. Because there has been endless definition, endless verbalizing, and words have become gods. There are so many words that one cannot get to God as long as He is thought to be on the other side of the words. But when he is placed firmly beyond the other side of the words, the words multiply like flies and there is a great buzzing religion, very profitable, very holy, very spurious. One tries to escape it by acts of truth that fail. One’s whole being must be an act for which there can be found no word. This is the primary meaning of faith. On this basis, other dimensions of belief can be made credible. Otherwise not. My whole being must be a yes and an amen and an exclamation that is not heard. Only after that is there any point in exclamations and even after that there is no point in exclamations. One’s acts must be part of the same silent exclamation. It is because this is dimly and unconsciously realized by everyone, and because no one can reconcile this with the state of division and alienation in which we find ourselves, that they all without meaning it gravitate toward the big exclamation that means nothing and says nothing: Boom. The triumph of speech, when all the words have worn out, and when everybody still thinks that there remain an infinite amount of truths to be uttered. If only they could realize that nothing has to be uttered. Utterance makes sense only when it is spontaneous and free…. [This] is where the silence of the woods comes in. Not that there is something new to be thought and discovered in the woods, but only that the trees are all sufficient exclamations of silence, and one works there, cutting wood, clearing ground, cutting grass, cooking soup, drinking fruit juice, sweating, washing, making fire, smelling smoke, sweeping, etc. This is religion. The further one gets away from this, the more one sinks in the mud of words and gestures. The flies gather.[iv]

In February 1962, when I first met Merton, his long-nurtured fantasy of living as a hermit was in its second year of being realized. His abbot, Dom James Fox, had authorized the construction of a small cinderblock building that stood on the edge of the woods about a mile north of the monastery. Officially it was a place for Merton to meet with non-Catholic visitors for ecumenical dialogue, but from day one Merton saw it primarily as his hermitage. Merton had lit the first fire in the hearth in December 1960. It was, he wrote in his journal, “the first time in my life I ever really felt I had a home and that my waiting and looking were ended.”[v] A narrow bedroom behind the main room was part of the structure. Occasionally he had permission to stay overnight, but it would not be until the summer of 1965, three-and-a-half years later, that it became his full-time home. At that point Merton became the first Trappist hermit in modern times. He had become a citizen of the wilderness, much as Thoreau had been when he moved into his log cabin on the side of Walden Pond.

When I came to visit, the hermitage already had a lived-in look. It was winter so there was no sitting on the porch. We sat inside, with Merton regularly adding wood to the blaze in the fireplace. There was a Japanese calendar on the wall with a Zen brush drawing for every month of the year — not even the year was correct — and a black-on-black painting of the cross by Merton’s friend, Ad Reinhart. 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 offering a view of fields and hills. A large timber cross had been erected on the lawn, with a wagon wheel, symbol of wholeness and convergence, leaning against it. On the table was a portable Swiss-made Hermes typewriter. Off to one side of the hermitage was an outhouse which Merton shared with a black snake.

My being a guest at that time was linked to another aspect of Merton’s vocation. If he had one foot in the wilderness, he also had one foot in the world. In the framework of the world-wilderness duality, I was from the other side — the world side — of the border: Monasticism, on the other hand, was generally thought of as a radical exodus from “the world,” the “world” meaning the arena of headlines, wars, propaganda, slogans, alienation, elections, noise, controversy, borders, competition, greed, etc. In theory the “world” was on the other of the monastery walls, but in reality — consider any astronaut’s photo of the whole earth — there is no border between here and there. As the fifties ended, Merton was becoming intensely aware of the underlying unity. “The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream,” he wrote. He could not turn a blind eye toward the world, its suffering and its march toward doomsday.

In his essay “Rain and the Rhinoceros,” he wrote:

There are always a few people who are in the woods at night, in the rain (because if there were not the world would have ended), and I am one of them… Of course at three-thirty A.M. [a nuclear-armed B-52 bomber] goes over, red light winking low under the clouds, skimming the wooded summits on the south side of the valley, loaded with strong medicine. Very strong. Strong enough to burn up all these woods….[vi]

A lone man listening to noises most of us sleep through. The root meaning of the word “monk” is the Greek word monokos — a person who is alone, a solitary. One does not have to belong to a monastery to experience and benefit from inner solitude. In his rain-drenched essay, Merton stresses the positive significance of being alone.

At the time of my first visit, I was part of the Catholic Worker community in New York City whose activities were largely urban. We were engaged in welcoming and assisting the down-and-out while engaging in occasional acts of protest. The leader of the community, Dorothy Day, had been to prison time and again for various acts of civil disobedience, most recently for refusing to take shelter during civil defense drills. Instead she had sat praying on a park bench in front of the mayor’s office. Following Christ, in Dorothy’s view, meant following his teaching and example. He killed no one and healed many. He invited us to live lives shaped by mercy and forgiveness. He neither advocated war nor took part in any. He was a threat to no one’s life.

Only a few months before my visit, in October 1961, The Catholic Worker had published its first essay by Merton, a text with the title “The Root of War Is Fear.” It was an expanded version of a chapter of the book he was then writing, New Seeds of Contemplation. In this chapter Merton stressed the human tendency to accuse the other rather than to accuse oneself, so that, failing to recognize our own co-responsibility for evils that lead toward war, we come to see war — even nuclear war — as necessary and justified, forced on us by the evil other. We pray for peace while spending a “fabulous amount of money, planning, energy, anxiety and care” on the production of weapons of mass annihilation. “It does not even seem to enter our minds,” Merton wrote, “that there might be some incongruity in praying to the God of peace, the God who told us to love one another as He had loved us, who warned us that they who took the sword would perish by it, and at the same time annihilate not thousands but millions of civilians and soldiers, women and children without discrimination.” Only love, he wrote, “can exorcise the fear which is at the root of war.”

In the several pages that he added to the Catholic Worker version, Merton summoned his readers to embrace nonviolent methods of conflict resolution and to work for the abolition of war:

What are we to do? The duty of the Christian in this crisis is to strive with all his power and intelligence, with his faith, his hope in Christ, and love for God and man, to do the one task which God has imposed upon us in the world today. That task is to work for the total abolition of war. There can be no question that unless war is abolished the world will remain constantly in a state of madness and desperation in which, because of the immense destructive power of modern weapons, the danger of catastrophe will be imminent and probable at every moment everywhere. Unless we set ourselves immediately to this task, both as individuals and in our political and religious groups, we tend by our very passivity and fatalism to cooperate with the destructive forces that are leading inexorably to war…. Christians must become active in every possible way, mobilizing all their resources for the fight against war. First of all there is much to be studied, much to be learned. Peace is to be preached, nonviolence is to be explained as a practical method…. Prayer and sacrifice must be used as the most effective spiritual weapons in the war against war, and like all weapons, they must be used with deliberate aim: not just with a vague aspiration for peace and security, but against violence and war. This implies that we are also willing to sacrifice and restrain our own instinct for violence and aggressiveness in our relations with other people. We may never succeed in this campaign, but whether we succeed or not, the duty is evident. It is the great Christian task of our time… for the survival of the human race itself depends upon it….[vii]

In the issues of The Catholic Worker that followed Merton wrote more on the topic. Such writing got him into a great deal of trouble.

Since the Reformation, censorship had been deeply embedded in Catholic life. A Catholic writing on theological topics was required to submit his or her books for scrutiny to an official censor who might in time grant a declaration of nihil obstat (Latin for “without error”), which would clear the way for the local bishop to give the book his imprimatur (“let it be printed”). For a Trappist author, the process was still more complex, involving prior approbation by censors within the order before the monk’s abbot gave permission for the book to be forwarded to the bishop for final approval. For the Trappists, it was not enough that a book or article be free of theological error; the topic also had to be deemed suitable for a Trappist to address. “The abbots-general in the fifties and sixties kept an eagle eye on Merton’s writings,” one older Trappist told me. “Their view was that prayer and weeping, not social commentary, were the province of monks.”

It became increasingly difficult for Merton to get his war-and-peace-related articles into print as some of the monks appointed as censors considered Merton’s views on war inappropriate if not outrageous. There is a document in the archive of the Thomas Merton Center in Louisville that gives a sense of the opposition Merton was facing within his own order after October 1961. Here we have an unnamed abbot of another American Trappist community writing to the Abbot General in Rome, Dom Gabriel Sortais, warning him of the scandal being caused by Merton’s anti-war writings:

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…

The writer goes on to report that a military intelligence officer had visited his monastery and had spoken with him “concerning Father Louis.” [Louis was Merton’s monastic name.] He concludes his letter by acknowledging that many have benefitted from Merton’s “spiritual works,” but:

[I]t is difficult to understand how [Father Louis] can express himself so strongly on questions as to whether the United States should test nuclear weapons and also the wisdom of building fallout shelters. It is hard to see how — as an enclosed religious — he has access to enough facts to pass a prudent judgment on such matters.

Similar criticism was made in an editorial published in an archdiocesan newspaper, The Washington Catholic Standard. Here Merton was described “as an absolute pacifist” whose recent writings ignored “authoritative Catholic utterances” and made “unwarranted charges about the intention of our government towards disarmament.”

At the end of April 1962, Merton received a letter from his order’s Abbot General forbidding him to publish any war-related writings because, said Dom Gabriel Sortais, writing about war and peace “falsifies the message of the contemplative life.”[viii]

Merton wrote at length to me about this. Here’s an extract:

I have been trying to finish my book on peace [Peace in the Post-Christian Era] and have succeeded in time for the axe to fall…. For a long time I have been anticipating trouble with the higher superiors and now I have it. The orders are, no more writing about peace. This is transparently arbitrary and uncomprehending, but doubtless I have to make the best of it…. In substance I am being silenced on the subject of war and peace. This I know is not a very encouraging thing. It implies all sorts of very disheartening consequences as regards the whole cause of peace. It reflects an astounding incomprehension of the seriousness of the present crisis in its religious aspect. It reflects insensitivity to Christian and Ecclesiastic values, and to the real sense of the monastic vocation.

As Merton saw it, the monk was vocationally obliged to be among those most attentive to what was going on in the world at large and raise a prophetic voice in times of crisis:

The problem, from the point of view of the Church and its mission, is of course this. The validity of the Church depends precisely on spiritual renewal, uninterrupted, continuous, and deep. Obviously this renewal is to be expressed in the historical context, and will call for a real spiritual understanding of historical crises, an evaluation of them in terms of their inner significance and in terms of man’s growth and the advancement of truth in man’s world: in other words, the establishment of the “kingdom of God.” The monk is the one supposedly attuned to the inner spiritual dimension of things. If he hears nothing, and says nothing, then the renewal as a whole will be in danger and may be completely sterilized. But these authoritarian minds believe that the function of the monk is not to see or hear any new dimension, simply to support the already existing viewpoints precisely insofar as and because they are defined for him by somebody else. Instead of being in the advance guard, he is in the rear with the baggage, confirming all that has been done by the officials…. [The monk] must be an eye that sees nothing except what is carefully selected for him to see. An ear that hears nothing except what it is advantageous for the managers for him to hear. We know what Christ said about such ears and eyes.

Merton’s own abbot, Dom James Fox, saw a loophole in the silencing order. If Merton was prohibited from writing about war for commercial publishers, non-commercial publication on a small scale by Merton’s own monastery was a different matter. With Dom James’s permission, a mimeographed edition of Peace in the Post-Christian Era, for controlled distribution, was run off, the first printing followed not long afterward by a second. By the end of 1962 there were five or six hundred copies of the book in circulation. Hot item that it was, few copies stayed long at any one address. Within a few months Merton’s banned book must have reached thousands of attentive readers, many of them people of influence. One recipient was Merton-correspondent Ethel Kennedy, who may well have shared it both with her husband Robert and her brother-in-law, President John Kennedy.

To the credit of Dom Gabriel Sortais, in 1964 he permitted copies of the mimeographed edition of Peace in the Post-Christian Era to be circulated to the bishops and theologians participating in the final session of the Second Vatican Council where Merton’s voice played a part in shaping the one formal condemnation issued by that Council:

Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and humanity, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.

It follows, the Council fathers declared, that conscientious objection to participation in war must be universally recognized and respected. “Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of each human being,” the text read. “There we are alone with God whose voice echoes in our depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor.” The express recognition of conscientious objection marked a major turning point in Church teaching. For centuries, Catholics in every country had been told to obey their rulers, submit to conscription, and do what they were ordered to do, assuring them that, were they made party to a sin by their obedience, the guilt would lie with the rulers rather than with themselves. Those who obey commands which condemn the innocent and defenseless to death were described as “criminal.”

This lecture has been both too long and not long enough. My focus has been limited to only a brief exploration of one aspect of Merton’s engagement with “the world.” Several topics that were important for him — for example racism and abuse of the environment — have been left unmentioned. But time’s up. Let me make just one final observation:

A Trappist hermit, living the silent life in a cinderblock shelter in the wilderness of Kentucky, paid such close attention to the nightly passage overhead of a Strategic Air Command B-52 bomber, whose cargo more than equaled hundreds of Hiroshimas and Nagasakis, that he played a part in shaping one of the most important results of the only Council of the Catholic Church in the twentieth century: its condemnation of total war and its affirmation of conscience, including our right, even our duty, to say no to killing. In the fifties no such change of direction could have been imagined not only by the average church member but even by the average member of the College of Cardinals.

We owe a great deal to Merton’s attentive eyes and ears. Thank God he had one foot in the wilderness and one foot in the world. Thank God for this unwalled and undivided man.

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[i]           Sign of Jonas, 337.

[ii]          Sign of Jonas, 338-39.

[iii]         Letter by Bob Lax to Jubilee magazine staff, quoted by Jim Harford in his book Merton and Friends; New York: Continuum, 2006, p 105-6.

[iv] The Courage for Truth: Letters to Writers by Thomas Merton, letter dated 10 April 1965, 225

[v] Entry dated 26 December 1960.

[vi] Raids on the Unspeakable, 13-14.

[vii] The full text of the paragraphs added to the Catholic Worker version of his essay are found in The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers, Jim Forest, Orbis Books, 28-32.

[viii] See Merton’s letter to Jacques Maritain dated 12 February 1963; Thomas Merton, The Courage for Truth: Letters to Writers, 36.

Brave Pianist: Maria Yudina

Maria Yudina

by Jim Forest

Armando Iannucci’s recent film, The Death of Stalin, briefly filled the two Moscow cinemas where it was being shown, but then was abruptly banned. The movie was described as an “unfriendly act by the British intellectual class” by Nikolai Starikov, head of the Russian Great Fatherland Party, and as part of a “Western plot to destabilize Russia by causing rifts in society,” by the head of the Public Council of the Russian Ministry of Culture.

In fact the film provides, in the form of a Dr. Strangelove-sort of black comedy, a remarkably accurate portrait of the end of Stalin’s ruthless reign and the subsequent battle for leadership among those in his inner circle. Though only Stalin looks like his historical self, the casting is superb. My only disappointment was the portrayal of the great Russian pianist, Maria Veniaminovna Yudina.

In the film she is young and glamorous and, though despising Stalin, willing to make a special recording for him in exchange for a bribe of thousands of rubles.

The actual Yudina was very different. I have come to know her indirectly through the memoirs of her friend and one-time classmate, the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, as related by Solomon Volkov in his book, Testimony, and also through Tatiana Voogd, a founder of our Russian Orthodox parish in Amsterdam, who knew Yudina personally and even slept under her piano — “the most sheltered place in her apartment,” she told me.

Born to a Jewish family in 1899, Maria Yudina converted to the Orthodox faith at the age of 20. It was her fate to live through the Bolshevik Revolution (she was 18 at the time) and its aftermath, seeing many of her dearest friends and colleagues disappear into the Gulag. Fearlessly, even recklessly, she wore a cross even while teaching or performing in public—an affirmation of belief at a time when any display of religious faith could cost one’s work, one’s freedom, even one’s life. In contrast to the on-screen portrayal, she lived an ascetic life, wearing no makeup, spending little on herself, and dressing simply. “I had the impression,” said Shostakovich, “that Yudina wore the same black dress during her entire long life, it was so worn and soiled.”

For her, music was a way of proclaiming her faith in a period when printing presses were more stringently policed than pianos. “Yudina saw music in a mystical light. For instance she saw Bach’s Goldberg Variations as a series of illustrations to the Holy Bible,” said Shostakovich. “She always played as though she were giving a sermon.”

Maria Yudina

She would not only perform piano works but sometimes pause during concerts to read poetry by such writers as Boris Pasternak, himself unable to publish at the time. (Pasternak did the first reading of his novel Doctor Zhivago at Yudina’s apartment in 1947.)

Yudina was notorious among friends for her inability to keep anything of value for herself. Shostakovich recalled:

She came to see me once and said that she was living in a miserable little room where she could neither work nor rest. So I signed a petition, I went to see various bureaucrats, I asked a lot of people to help, I took up a lot of people’s time. With great difficulty we got an apartment for Yudina. You would think that everything was fine and that life could go on. A short time later she came to me again and asked for help in obtaining an apartment for herself. “What? But we got an apartment for you. What do you need another one for?” “I gave the apartment away to a poor old woman.”

Shostakovich heard from a friend that he had made a loan to Yudina of five rubles:

“I broke a window in my room, it’s drafty and so cold, I can’t live like that,” she had told them. Naturally, they gave her the money—it was winter. A while later they visited her, and it was as cold in her room as it was outside and the broken window was stuffed with a rag. “How can this be, Maria Veniaminovna? We gave you money to fix the window.” And she replied, “I gave it for the needs of the church.”

Shostakovich, who regarded religion as superstition, didn’t approve. “The church may have various needs,” he protested, “but the clergy doesn’t sit around in the cold, after all, with broken windows. Self-denial should have a rational limit.” He accused her of behaving like a yurodivye, the Russian word for a holy fool, a special category of sanctity.

Her public profession of faith was not without cost. Despite her genius as a musician, from time to time she was banned from concert halls, and not once in her life was she allowed to travel outside Russia. Shostakovich remembered:

Her religious position was under constant artillery and even cavalry attack [at the music school in Leningrad]. Serebriakov, the director then, had a habit of making so-called “raids of the light brigade”…. He realized that Yudina was a first-class pianist, but he wasn’t willing to risk his own position. One of the charges of the light brigade was made specifically against her. The cavalry rushed into Yudina’s class and demanded of Yudina: “Do you believe in God?” She replied in the affirmative. “Was she promoting religious propaganda among her students?” She replied that the Constitution didn’t forbid it. A few days later a transcript of the conversation made by “an unknown person” appeared in a Leningrad paper, which also printed a caricature—Yudina in nun’s robes surrounded by kneeling students. And the caption was something about preachers appearing at the Conservatoire. The cavalry trod heavily, even though it was the light brigade. Naturally, Yudina was dismissed after that.

From time to time she all but signed her own death warrant. Perhaps the most remarkable story in Shostakovich’s memoir concerns one such incident, dramatized inaccurately in the film:

In his final years, Stalin seemed more and more like a madman, and I think his superstition grew. The “Leader and Teacher” sat locked up in one of his many dachas, amusing himself in bizarre ways. They say he cut out pictures and photos from old magazines and newspapers, glued them onto paper, and hung them on the walls…. [He] didn’t let anyone in to see him for days at a time. He listened to the radio a lot. Once Stalin called the Radio Committee … and asked if they had a record of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, which had been heard on the radio the day before. “Played by Yudina,” he added. They told Stalin that of course they had it. Actually, there was no record, the concert had been live. But they were afraid to say no to Stalin, no one ever knew what the consequences might be. A human life meant nothing to him. All you could do was agree, submit, be a yes-man, a yes-man to a madman.

Yudina later told me that they had to send the conductor home, he was so scared he couldn’t think. They called another conductor, who trembled and got everything mixed up, confusing the orchestra. Only a third conductor was in any shape to finish the recording.

I think this is a unique event in the history of recording—I mean, changing conductors three times in one night. Anyway, the record was ready by morning. They made one single copy in record time and sent it to Stalin. Now that was a record. A record in yes-ing.

Soon after, Yudina received an envelope with twenty thousand rubles. She was told it came on the express orders of Stalin. Then she wrote him a letter. I know about this letter from her, and I know that the story seems improbable. Yudina had many quirks, but I can say this—she never lied. I’m certain that her story is true. Yudina wrote something like this in her letter: “I thank you, Joseph Vissarionovich, for your aid. I will pray for you day and night and ask the Lord to forgive your great sins before the people and the country. The Lord is merciful and He will forgive you. I gave the money to the church that I attend.”

And Yudina sent this suicidal letter to Stalin. He read it and didn’t say a word. They expected at least a twitch of the eyebrow. Naturally, the order to arrest Yudina was prepared and the slightest grimace would have been enough to wipe away the last traces of her. But Stalin was silent and set the letter aside in silence. The anticipated movement of the eyebrows didn’t come.

Nothing happened to Yudina. They say that her recording of the Mozart was on the record player when the “Leader and Teacher” was found dead in his dacha. It was the last thing he had listened to.

Shostakovich found Yudina’s open display of belief foolish, yet one senses within his complaints both envy and awe. In a time of heart-stopping fear, here was someone as fearless as Saint George before the dragon, someone who preferred giving away her few rubles to repairing her own broken window, who “published” with her own voice the poems of banned writers, who dared to tell Stalin that even he was not beyond God’s mercy and forgiveness. She had a large and pure heart.

No wonder her grave in Moscow has been a place of pilgrimage ever since she died, November 19, 1970.

* * *
Parts of this text were first published in Ladder of the Beatitudes (Orbis Books). This revised and expanded version was published online by Orthodoxy in Dialogue 1 June 2018: https://orthodoxyindialogue.com/2018/06/01/brave-pianist-maria-yudina-by-jim-forest/#more-10289

* * *

Our friend the translator Larissa Volokhonsky adds this story:

Thank you for your excellent post about Maria Veniaminovna Yudina. I can tell you a funny story about her told by the cellist Rostropovich to one of my friends. Maybe it is a fable, but it’s funny anyway.

Once Yudina went to a storage room at the recording factory to get her copies of a record she had recorded with the music of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. She took her ten copies. The man in the storage room asked: “do you know these guys, Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart?” — “I do very well” Yudina said truthfully. “Then could you, please, take their copies to them, too, so I don’t have to wait for them?” And he gave her thirty more copies…

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Bridge Dweller

walls into bridges (Len Munnik)

As someone who made his way to the Orthodox Church from a Roman Catholic background, I am often asked why I became Orthodox and how I would compare the two churches.

In the 29 years since my Orthodox chrismation, my answers to both questions have evolved, but one of the constants has been to stress that, in crossing the Great Schism’s border in an eastward direction, I neither slammed nor locked any doors and that my transition had not involved a conversion. There has been but one conversion in my life and that occurred before I was either Catholic or Orthodox — my becoming a Christian, that is an apprentice follower of Jesus. Finding a church came next.

“But after so many years a Catholic,” friends have asked, “why your turn to Orthodox Christianity?”

In the early years, I tended to stress what I didn’t like about Catholicism: its monarchical papacy, a fast-food liturgy that too often could be described as a McMass, a legalistic approach to pastoral issues such as failed marriages, its insistence that priests be celibate, its obsession with sexual sins, its insertion of the filioque into the ancient creed. (As Hilaire Belloc wrote, “The moral is / it is indeed / you must not monkey / with the Creed.”)

Taking a slightly different tack, I sometimes said that the two churches were like parallel highways that at first glance looked nearly identical but then, on closer inspection, you notice the traffic moves more slowly on the Orthodox highway and that there are no police cars. With such slow-moving vehicles, cops aren’t needed.

On the positive side of my change-of-address, I emphasized the unhurried beauty of Orthodox worship, saying that each eucharistic meal is done “at Thanksgiving Day speed …. you wouldn’t want to eat a festive meal in a hurry.” I praised the Orthodox Church for its married priesthood and its relative lack of clericalism. I contrasted Orthodoxy’s more therapeutic approach to confession with the “shopping list of sins” approach that I had so often experienced in the Catholic Church. Recalling Jesus’s request to the apostles, “Let the children come unto me,” I asked if the Orthodox admission of children to communion as soon as they are baptized was not wiser than to delay communion until the would-be communicant reaches “the age of reason”? After all, I pointed out, few of us ever reach the age of reason. I argued that even Orthodoxy’s notorious slowness to change is more a plus than a minus in a culture in which short-lived ideological winds are blowing at hurricane force, with theological hemlines rising and falling as the winds howl.

But, Catholic friends would ask, are there no areas in which Catholicism is more admirable? Is there nothing you miss?

I freely admit that there are aspects of Orthodox Christianity that lag significantly behind its eastern counterpart, the most significant of which is tribalism. Catholics, in my experience, are far more likely to see themselves as members of a world church, a church in which national identity is secondary, a church on which the sun never sets, a church for whom all the dotted lines on world maps are provisional. One might be Korean, Irish, Italian, Polish, American, et cetera, but recognize these words are mere adjectives, whereas for too many Orthodox being Greek, Russian, Serbian or Bulgarian comes first. One was Orthodox because having an Orthodox identity was an essential aspect of having a particular national identity.

Another especially praiseworthy aspect of modern Catholicism is its conciliar teaching in regard to war. The one and only actual condemnation that was made by the Second Vatican Council was its condemnation of weapons of mass destruction and of city destruction. At the same time the bishops endorsed conscientious objection, praised those who refuse to obey unjust orders, and urged nonviolent approaches to conflict resolution. One seeks in vain to hear similar statements from the various Orthodox jurisdictions; instead one finds weapons, even nuclear weapons, still being blessed by priests and even hierarchs. Were a Greek or Russian Orthodox Christian to declare himself a conscientious objector, how many Orthodox bishops would give him support? We Orthodox prefer to remember that such saints as Martin of Tours were soldiers and forget that later on they renounced military service as inappropriate for Christ’s followers.

I have even learned to appreciate the papacy, which has been slowly undergoing its own reformation, most notably in the past half century. The pope is indeed a symbol of unity as well as the Christian voice most often heard in the world as a whole. Orthodox bishops are rarely heard beyond the borders of their citizenship.

“Okay,” various friends have said, “thanks to all you’ve said, it’s now even more puzzling that you’re in the Orthodox Church.”

I often respond with a joke: “Count me as a Catholic on loan to the Orthodox Church.” It’s not a perfect joke. Things on loan are normally returned to the lender. I am where God has nudged me to be and expect to spend the rest of my life in the Orthodox Church and gratefully so. But I remain deeply indebted to my years in the Catholic Church and see myself living and praying on an under-construction bridge crossing the river that flows between east and west in Christianity. Whether Orthodox or Catholic, we have so much to learn from each other.

— Jim Forest

29 November 2017
for the blog “Orthodoxy in Dialog”

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