Saying No to Caesar: St. Marcellus lecture, Notre Dame

the relics of St Marcellus are in the altar of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at the University of Notre Dame

Saint Marcellus lecture, delivered by Jim Forest at the University of Notre Dame 29 October 2017

Tomorrow is the feast of a saint who was once famous but isn’t widely known today, Saint Marcellus of Tangiers, a Christian martyr who was beheaded in the year 298 during the reign of the emperor Diocletian. In some strange providence, it happens that relics of St. Marcellus have ended up half a planet away from north Africa, right here in South Bend, Indiana, on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, placed within the high altar of the church in which we are gathered, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

St. Marcellus, a centurion, needn’t have died — it was due to what many sensible people would judge his imprudence, his foolishness, that he put his head on the chopping block.

It takes only a few sentences to tell the story. His unit was celebrating Diocletian’s birthday with a party. It must have been a very festive event. One can imagine the fervent, promotion-seeking toasts. The emperor was regarded as a god or at least the instrument of the gods who favored Rome and the vast areas under its rule. Surely sobriety quickly bit the dust. Everyone was having a good time. But suddenly Centurion Marcellus rose before the banqueters and denounced the celebration — in effect disparaging the deification of rulers. Tearing off his insignia of rank, Marcellus cried out, “I serve Jesus Christ the eternal King. I will no longer serve your emperors and I scorn to worship your gods of wood and stone, which are deaf and dumb idols.” This did not go down well with his military audience. Marcellus was immediately arrested and put in prison. The party proceeded without him. A few shocked friends must have wondered if Marcellus had lost his mind.

St Marcellus

Far from recanting, at his trial Marcellus freely confessed that he had done what his accusers charged him with and acknowledged that his mind was unchanged. The trial record quotes Marcellus as declaring to his judge, “It is not right for a Christian, who serves the Lord Christ, to serve in the armies of the world.” Marcellus was beheaded on the 30th of October in 298. His last recorded words, in fact a prayer, were addressed to the official — very likely a friend — who had ordered his execution: “May God be good to you, Agricolan.”

It’s no surprise that Marcellus is one of the patron saints of conscientious objectors, not only those who refuse to kill in war but anyone who refuses to take human life, full stop, whether in the womb or at any stage of life. Such people give witness to the much-ignored commandment entrusted by God to Moses: “You shall not kill.”

I think it’s fair to say that, for a great many Christians, saints like Marcellus are an embarrassment. After all being a soldier is an honorable vocation. Didn’t the Church long ago make its peace with war? Bishops and priests have blessed countless weapons of war and mounted pulpits to praise war and honor its warriors. We have had crusades blessed by popes and led by cardinals. We’ve had inquisitions, burned those judged heretics at the stake, and even dared describe some wars as holy. In western Christianity, beginning in the period of Ambrose and Augustine, we have a just war doctrine. True, if that doctrine is taken seriously, it invalidates the vast majority of wars ever fought, but when was the last time a bishop warned those in his pastoral care not to take part in a war because it failed to meet the conditions of a just war? America, ‘I can think of only one, Bishop John Michael Botean, who issued a pastoral letter condemning the Iraq invasion and warned his flock not to participate in it. But Bishop Botean is a hardly known bit player in the American hierarchy, responsible for nineteen Romanian Catholic parishes. (Not surprisingly, he is a longtime friend of the Catholic Peace Fellowship.)

For those whose identity is tightly bound to their nationality, Jesus is not, let’s admit, the ideal savior. There are many Christians who would prefer a different, tougher, more red-white-and-blue Jesus Christ. The Jesus we actually have just doesn’t measure up. He killed no one, blessed no wars and waved no flags. He wasn’t a patriot. He didn’t pledge allegiance. The Apostles were just as bad. The total number of people killed by the Apostles is also zero. They too failed to bless any wars or take part in them. One of the early theologians, Clement of Alexandria, described the Church as “an army that sheds no blood.” In those first centuries after Christ, one could say this as a simple matter of fact. But that was a long time ago.

Ought we not to ask ourselves if we really want to call ourselves Christians? Do we want to be followers of a man who is no one’s enemy? Who calls on his followers to love their enemies and to pray for them? Who, in the Beatitudes, blesses not the war makers but the peace makers? Whose last healing miracle before his crucifixion was to repair the wounded ear of one of the men, an enemy, who came to arrest him? Who not only failed to praise Peter for his brave effort to defend Jesus from an enemy but reprimanded him? “He who lives by the sword will die by the sword,” he said to the chief of the Apostles.

Marcellus took all this to heart. Jesus shaped his life. It’s a life that reminds me of a sentence from the Jesuit poet and priest Daniel Berrigan: “If you want to be follow Jesus you had better look good on wood.”

In this militarized world, Marcellus is a challenge to each of us. He is one of the saints who, in an especially focused way, reminds us that our primary obedience is to the kingdom of God, in which there is no slaughter and indeed in which everyone is a conscientious objector.

All this began to come clear in my own life while I was serving in the U.S. Navy. In that period of my life, I was seriously considering making the military a career. I liked the work I was doing — after graduating from the Navy Weather School I had been assigned to the U.S. Weather Service in Washington. I liked and respected the people with whom I was working. I was on track to become an officer. The problem was that I was also in the midst of becoming a Christian. In November 1960, just as I was being promoted to third class petty officer, I was received into the Catholic Church. On the one hand I was reading books on meteorology and on the other reading books by such authors as Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, and Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement. I was reading the Gospels closely and found the life Christ proposed to his disciples centered on love rather than enmity, the works of mercy rather than the works of war, conversion rather than coercion. It finally became clear to me that a career in the Navy wasn’t what God was calling me to.

What brought my brief military career to an early end was my incautiously deciding to take part in a silent vigil in front of a government building in downtown Washington protesting the CIA-arranged Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in the spring of 1961.

To make a long story short, I was fortunate to obtain an early discharge on grounds of conscientious objection. I left the Navy and joined the Catholic Worker community in New York, a border-crossing event that has shaped the rest of my life. But I have no regrets about the part of my life spent in uniform. I got to know several of the best people I’ve ever encountered. One of them, my executive officer, Commander John Marabito, a devout Catholic, probably never got his promotion to captain as a result of the support he gave me. Our commanding officer was furious.

The steps I took at the time were in part influenced by my awareness of such saints as Marcellus, who paid with their lives for their refusal to put duty to Caesar ahead of discipleship to Jesus. Marcellus challenged me, and challenges each of us, to consider — or reconsider — what direction we should go in life. He challenges us to put love of God and neighbor ahead of fear and ambition.

I mentioned the role fear plays in our lives. It’s a huge topic. “The root of war is fear,” wrote Thomas Merton in the first essay he submitted for publication in The Catholic Worker in the Fall of 1961. It was an essay that got him into a lot of hot water.

Fear not only makes us look at those around us with half-closed eyes but drives us to make vocational choices based on anxieties about future income rather than work that truly suits us, does no harm, and is rooted in our best self and embedded in a well-formed conscience. The best work we can do is life preserving and life enhancing. One should be able to read without shame Christ’s summary of the works of mercy: “I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me drink, naked and you clothed me, homeless and you welcomed me, sick and you cared for me, in prison and you came to visit me… I tell you solemnly, what you did to the least person you did to me.”

I mentioned the many ways in which much of Christianity, during the past fifteen or sixteen centuries, made its peace with war. But it pleases me that this is changing. One of the remarkable processes going on within the Catholic Church — to single out the largest Christian entity and, along with the Orthodox Church, the oldest — is the fact that what was typical of the early Church is steadily regaining ground in the Church today.

A dramatic early indication of this change was the publication in 1963 of the encyclical, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) by Pope John XXIII, now Saint John XXIII. Its release was front-page news in many countries. The thicker newspapers published extensive excerpts; some, like The New York Times, published the full text. Before long major conferences centering on Pacem in Terris were organized in many countries. Pope John was seen as having provided a bill of rights and duties for the human race.

Such unprecedented reception was due in part to this being the first encyclical addressed not only to Church members but to “all people of good will.” Here was a pope who, in the last months of his life, made an appeal for peace and did so at a time when millions of people were aware that they would more likely die of nuclear war than of illness or old age. It is fair to say that Pacem in Terris helped prevent a cataclysmic third world war, though it is still the case that such a war remains possible and, in present circumstances, not unlikely.

The primary human right, Pope John pointed out, the right without which no other right has any meaning, is the right to life. As no human activity so undermines the right to life as war, peacemaking is among the very highest and most urgent human callings.

One of Pope John’s major themes in his encyclical was conscience. “The world’s Creator,” he said in the opening section, “has stamped our inmost being with an order revealed to us by our conscience; and our conscience insists on our preserving it.” Quoting from St. Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome, he added, “Human beings show the work of the law written in their hearts. Their conscience bears witness to them.” (Rom 2:15)

The pope went on to declare that conscience could not be coerced either in religious matters or the relationship of the person to the state. “Hence,” he wrote, “a regime which governs solely or mainly by means of threats and intimidation or promises of reward, provides mankind with no effective incentive to work for the common good.”

“Authority,” John continued, “is before all else a moral force. For this reason the appeal of rulers should be to the individual conscience, to the duty which every person has of voluntarily contributing to the common good. But since all people are equal in natural dignity, no one has the capacity to force internal compliance on another. Only God can do that, for God alone scrutinizes and judges the secret counsels of the heart. Hence, representatives of the State have no power to bind people in conscience, unless their own authority is tied to God’s authority, and is a participation in it.” [48, 49]

In case the reader missed the implications, Pope John pointed out that laws that violate the moral order have no legitimacy and do not merit our obedience:

“Governmental authority … is a postulate of the moral order and derives from God. Consequently, laws and decrees passed in contravention of the moral order, and hence of the divine will, can have no binding force in conscience, since ‘it is right to obey God rather than men.’ … A law which is at variance with reason is to that extent unjust and has no longer the rationale of law. It is rather an act of violence. … Thus any government which refused to recognize human rights or acted in violation of them, would not only fail in its duty; its decrees would be wholly lacking in binding force.” [51, 61]

The time is urgent, Pope John noted. All of us are living “in the grip of constant fear …. afraid that at any moment the impending storm may break upon them with horrific violence. And they have good reasons for their fear, for there is certainly no lack of … weapons [of mass destruction]. While it is difficult to believe that anyone would dare to assume responsibility for initiating the appalling slaughter and destruction that [nuclear] war would bring in its wake, there is no denying that the conflagration could be started by some chance and unforeseen circumstance.” [111]

Pope John gave particular attention to dangers posed by weapons of mass destruction, declaring that, in this context, it is absurd to regard war as just: “People nowadays are becoming more and more convinced that any disputes which may arise between nations must be resolved by negotiation and agreement, and not by recourse to arms…. This conviction owes its origin chiefly to the terrifying destructive force of modern weapons. It arises from fear of the ghastly and catastrophic consequences of their use. Thus, in this age of ours which prides itself on atomic power, it is irrational to believe that war is still an apt means of vindicating violated rightsi.” [italics added]

Pacem in Terris can be seen as an urgent appeal to governments, on the one hand, to work toward nuclear disarmament, and to individuals, on the other, not to obey orders which would make the person an accomplice to so great a sin as wars in which the innocent are the principal victims.

It was also Pope John who, early in his pontificate, and to the astonishment of many members of the College of Cardinals, had announced preparations for a Second Vatican Council. He did so in the hope that such a work of renewal would, as he put it, “restore the simple and pure lines that the face of the Church of Jesus had at its birth.”

The fourth and last session of the Council, held in 1965, took up the challenge of Pacem in Terris/, developing and expanding many of its themes in Gaudium et Spes, the Latin words for “joy and hope” with which the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World/ begins. Its publication on the 7th of December 1965 by Pope Paul VI was the Council’s final action. But work on this text — known in its drafting stages as Schema 13 — was far from easy. Cardinal Fernando Cento remarked that “no other [Council] document had aroused so much interest and raised so many hopes.” [The Third Session, Rhynne, p 116-7] And, one could add, such controversy.

One of the significant achievements of the Council is the definition of conscience contained in Gaudium et Spes:

“In the depths of conscience, the human being detects a law which we do not impose upon ourselves, but which holds us to obedience. Always summoning each of us to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to our hearts more specifically: do this, shun that. For each person has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is our very dignity; according to it we will be judged. Conscience is our most secret core and sanctuary. 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. In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of humankind in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution of the numerous problems which arise in the lives of individuals and from social relationships. Hence, the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from individual ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares little for truth and goodness, or for conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.” [section 16]

It follows that conscientious objection to participation in war ought to be universally recognized. Gaudium et Spes endorsed that objective in this passage: “It seems right that laws make humane provision for the case of those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms, provided however, that they agree to serve the community in some other way.” (section 79.2)

The treatment of conscience marked a major turning point in Catholic teaching. Even during World War II, Catholics on all sides had been told to obey their rulers and had been assured that, were they made party to sin by their obedience, the blame would lie with their rulers rather than with themselves.

But in Gaudium et Spes, those who renounce violence altogether, seeking a more just and compassionate society by nonviolent means, were praised:

“We cannot fail to praise those who renounce the use of violence in vindication of their rights and who resort to methods of defense which are otherwise available to weaker parties too, provided this can be done without injury to the rights and duties of others or to the community itself.”

Those who, in the name of obedience, obey commands which condemn the innocent and defenseless to death were described as “criminal,” while the courage of those who disobey commands to participate in genocidal actions were described as meriting “supreme commendation.”

Though I am no expert on what went on behind the scenes as Guadium et Spes was being drafted, I do know some aspects of the story. Let me draw your attention to just one of these.

The first draft of Schema 13, eventually to become Guadium et Spes, was in circulation well over a year before the final text was approved by the bishops and signed by Pope Paul. During those months, not only were bishops and theologians present in Rome engaged in the debate, but so were others in distant parts of the world, including Thomas Merton, one of the most widely read Catholic authors of the twentieth century.

One of those quite attentive to Merton’s writings was John XXIII. Merton had begun writing to the pope just two weeks after his election in 1958. In a remarkable gesture, in April 1960, the Pope had shown his personal respect and affection for Merton by sending him, care of a Venetian friend, one of his papal stoles. (It can be seen at the Thomas Merton Center, located at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky.)

One of Merton’s letters to John XXIII may have been a factor in the pope’s decision to write Pacem in Terris. Writing to the pope in November 1961, Merton spoke of the “grave threat” of nuclear war. The “lack of understanding, ignorance and violent and subtle propaganda … conspire together to create a very unsettling mood in the United States” with the result that “many hate communist Russia with a hatred that implies the readiness to destroy this nation.” War and preparation for war had now become so embedded in the economy that, for many people, disarmament would cause financial ruin. “Sad to say,” Merton continued, “American Catholics are among the most war-like, intransigent and violent.” Monsignor Loris Capovilla, the pope’s private secretary, later noted that John XXIII was especially impressed by this letter. [The Hidden Ground of Love, p 486]

After John’s death, Merton began an equally substantial correspondence with his successor, Paul VI. One of the papers Merton sent to Paul VI was a copy of an open letter on Schema 13 that Merton had addressed to members of the American hierarchy. It was written in the summer of 1965, just before the final session of the Council began. In his letter Merton urged the American bishops to embrace the opportunity provided by Schema 13 to challenge widespread belief in “the primacy of power and of violence.”

“We must,” he stated, “be resolutely convinced that this is one area in which the Church is bound not only to disagree with ‘the world’ in the most forceful terms, but intervene as a providentially designated force for peace and reconciliation. We must clearly recognize that the Church remains perhaps the most effective single voice speaking for peace in the world today. That voice must not be silenced or made ineffective by any ambiguity born of political and pragmatic considerations on the part of national groups.”

Merton reminded his readers that in time of war “the average citizen” feels he “has no choice but to support his government and bear arms if called upon to do so,” as was seen in World War II with the non-resisting participation of German Catholics “in a war effort that has since revealed itself to have been a monstrously criminal and unjust aggression.” He also noted that, even on the side fighting Hitler’s armies, “those who defended their nations in a manifestly just resistance … eventually found themselves … cooperating in acts of total, indiscriminate and calculatedly terroristic destruction which Christian morality cannot tolerate.”

Merton deserves a share of the credit for the fact that Gaudium et Spes contains a solemn condemnation, the only formal condemnation issued by the Second Vatican 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.”

This one-sentence condemnation focuses on one aspect of major threats against life. It connects with this longer declaration:

“Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where human beings are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, doing more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonor to the Creator.” [27]

Soon after the Council ended, Paul VI addressed the United Nations General Assembly. On the 4th of October, 1965, the feast St. Francis of Assisi, he gave powerful support to an organization whose main purpose is to make war less likely. The most memorable moment in his speech came when he spoke of the horrors of war. With deep emotion in his voice, he pleaded, “No more war! War never again! It is peace, peace that must guide the destiny of the peoples of the world and of all humanity.… If we wish to be brothers, let the weapons of war fall from our hands.”

Between publication of Pacem in Terris and the promulgation of Gaudium et Spes, the Catholic Church made a giant step toward becoming once again the church that shaped the conscience of such saints at Marcellus the Centurion. It could no longer be presumed that obedience to national leaders would be the automatic response of faithful Catholics, a fact that helps explain widespread Catholic resistance to war in subsequent years and also the fact that the largest number of conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War were Catholics.

The challenge of Pacem in Terris and Gaudium et Spes remains with us, as does the challenge of all those martyrs, men and women like Marcellus, whose lives were cut short because their obedience to Christ gave them the courage to say no to Caesar.

Saint Marcellus, pray for us.

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text as of 11 October 2017
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Climbing the Ladder of the Beatitudes

Anastasis – Christ Harrowing Hell (Chora Church in Istanbul)

by Jim Forest

I want to begin with a story, but first I have to preface it with a little information about how the liturgy is carried out in the Orthodox Church. During the service, there are two processions. During the first half, the liturgy of the word, a book containing only the four Gospels is carried through the church and is then placed on the altar. During the second half, the liturgy of communion, a similar procession carries bread and wine to the altar.

During the first procession, it’s the tradition in the Russian Orthodox Church to sing the Beatitudes. The reason is simple. The Beatitudes — the first ten verses of the Sermon on the Mount — are a compact summary of the teaching of Jesus. The Church wants everyone, even children, to know the Beatitudes by heart. Singing them at every liturgy makes memorization easy. There are Orthodox people suffering from dementia, people who can no longer remember family names or recall who is alive and who is dead or identify whose face they see when they look in the mirror, but who can still sing the Beatitudes.

The second fact I should mention is that, in the decades following the Bolshevik revolution, the Soviet state made a very serious effort to destroy the Church and to convert everyone to atheism. Religious education was forbidden, atheist education was compulsory. Churches and monasteries were turned to other uses or simply destroyed. In the 1980s and 90s, I often stood in the ruins of Russian churches. Many thousands of Christians were executed. Millions more died in the labor camps known as the Gulag Archipelago.

Now the story: In the Stalin years, a popular Russian comedian developed a stage act in which he played a drunken priest. Dressed in wine-stained priestly robes and armed with a censor exhaling thick clouds of incense, he did a comic imitation of the  liturgy. Part of his performance was to chant the Beatitudes but with distorted words —such alterations as “blessed are the cheese makers” and “blessed are they who hunger and thirst for vodka” — while struggling to manage his out-of-control censor and to remain more or less upright. He had done his act time and again and been rewarded by the authorities for his work in promoting atheism and in making worship seem ridiculous.

But on one occasion things didn’t go as planned. Perhaps he was actually drunk rather than pretending. Or perhaps he was ashamed of his many desecrations of piety and beauty. Instead of saying his garbled version of the Beatitudes in his well-rehearsed comic manner, he chanted the sentences as they are actually sung in a real Liturgy. His attention was focused not on the audience but on the life-giving words that were coming out of his mouth, words he had learned and sung as a child. He listened to the memorized words and something happened in the depths of his soul. After singing the final Beatitude, he fell to his knees weeping. He had to be led from the stage and never again parodied the sacred. Probably he was sent to a labor camp, but even so it’s a story of a happy moment in his life. He had begun a new life in a condition of spiritual freedom that no prison can take away. Whatever his fate, be brought the Beatitudes and his recovered faith with him.

Truly, the Beatitudes can change one’s life.

The Beatitudes are such a short text — eight of them and only ten verses long. “Blessed” is the most repeated word. What does it mean? To find out, let’s look at the oldest text of the Gospels, the Greek New Testament. Here the key word is makarios.

In ancient times, many Jews spoke Greek fluently and even used it as their first language. The oldest Bible that has come down to us, the Septuagint, was written not in Hebrew but in Greek by Jewish scholars in Alexandria about 650 years before Christ. It was before the end of the first century that the Greek text of Matthew’s Gospel was written down. It’s likely Matthew wrote it in Greek.

Here we encounter the beautiful Greek word makarios, a word derived from makar, a term referring to the state of the gods, a state beyond suffering and anxiety, a state that is free of death. For the Greeks the most impressive attribute of the gods was that they were immortal.

Adapted to Christian usage, makarios means participating in the life of God, a transformation which has its own Greek word, theosis, that is an intimate sharing in God’s Being, thus the ultimate joy, a happiness without the fault lines of death running through it. There is no higher gift. We are not simply capable of an intellectual awareness that God exists or of studying God as an astronomer might study the night sky all the while knowing the stars are unbridgeable distances away. The blessing extended to us is participation in the communion of the Holy Trinity, sharing in God’s immortality, and being endowed with qualities that seem humanly impossible.

How might we translate the word makarios in a way that makes its meaning clearer? I suggest “free from the fear of death” or, even simpler, “risen from the dead.” To the extent we follow Christ we become people whose choices are not driven by fear and death. Thus we can say:

Risen from the dead are the poor in spirit…
Risen from the dead are they who mourn…
Risen from the dead are the meek…
Risen from the dead are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness…
Risen from the dead are the merciful…
Risen from the dead are the pure of heart…
Risen from the dead are the peacemakers…
Risen from the dead are they who are persecuted for righteousness sake…

Keep in mind that, in the early Church, the New Testament had not yet been assembled as a canonical book. During the first few centuries of the Christian era, it was a major labor of the Church to decide which accounts of Christ’s life were authentic and which were false, unreliable, or were vehicles of heresy that undermined the Gospel.

When at last the New Testament became a canonical text, it was certainly not by accident that Matthew’s account of Christ’s life was made the first book. One result of that decision is that it put the Sermon on the Mount, and thus the Beatitudes, in a very prominent location — the gateway through which we enter into the book of good news. The Beatitudes are the first lengthy text in the Gospels from the mouth of Jesus — a distilled presentation of his teaching.

We are supposed not just to memorize the Beatitudes — that’s only a first step — but to let them burn in our thoughts like a row of candles. Quite literally, they are meant to illumine us.

Let’s look very briefly at the each of the Beatitudes.

First, think for a moment about their order. Do you see a kind of architecture in them? Would it make any difference if the beatitude of peacemaking came first and poverty of spirit came last? Can we arrange them any way we like? I don’t think so.

The Beatitudes connect with each other and depend on each other. Each Beatitude builds on the ones below. For example if you want to be a peacemaker but have an impure heart, what you will do in the name of peace will only drive people further apart and increase violence in the world. If you hunger and thirst for righteousness but have no mercy, your righteousness is likely to damage rather than heal.

We can describe the Beatitudes as a ladder reaching from the hard earth on which we live to a paradise more perfect than the Eden of Adam and Eve, what Christ calls the kingdom of God.

The first Beatitude is the foundation of all that follow: Risen from the dead are the poor in spirit…

Poverty of spirit is the essential beginning, the context of discipleship. None of the Beatitudes that follow are possible without poverty of spirit. But what does poverty of spirit mean? It’s my awareness that I cannot save myself, that I am basically defenseless, that neither money nor power will spare me from suffering and death, and that no matter what I achieve and acquire in this life, it will be far less than what I wanted. Poverty of spirit is my awareness that I need God’s help and mercy more than I need anything else. Poverty of spirit is getting free of the rule of fear, fear being the great force that restrains us from acts of love. Poverty of spirit is a letting go of all that keeps me locked in myself, imprisoned in myself. Being poor in spirit means letting go of the myth that the more I possess, the happier I’ll be. In the words of Dostoevsky, “Blessed are they who have nothing to lock up.”

Poverty of spirit is not something we can achieve by having no possessions. When you look closely at the life of the saints, you discover what they had, little or much, was part of their particular vocation and their particular obedience to Christ. All the saints are linked by poverty of spirit. All the saints lived an ascetic life. All of them approached God in a state of spiritual destitution, seeking as a matter of life or death to know God’s will in their lives and to live it, for God not only creates us but gives each of us a unique identity, a unique responsibility, a unique path to follow on the way to heaven. Poverty of spirit — the condition of being a spiritual beggar — is seeking to live God’s will rather than one’s own.

On to the second rung on the ladder: Risen from the dead are they who mourn…

Poverty of spirit is inseparable from mourning. Without poverty of spirit, I am always on guard to keep what I have for myself, and to keep me for myself. An immediate consequence of poverty of spirit is becoming sensitive to the pain and losses of people around me, not only those whom I happen to know and care for, but also people I don’t know and perhaps don’t want to know. To the extent I open my heart to others, I will do whatever I can to help — pray, share what I have, even share myself. Not only am I called to mourn the tragedies others suffer but to mourn for my sinful self, who so often has failed to see, to notice, to care, to respond, to share, to love.

The second Beatitude is the Beatitude of tears. Christ shed tears. The shortest verse in the Bible has just two words, “Jesus wept.” Christ stood before the tomb of his friend Lazarus and, before summoning him back to life, he cried.

This is not the only time he shed tears. The other occasion we know of happened as he stood gazing from a distance at Jerusalem. “And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it.” It must have been a puzzling experience for his disciples. They saw a shining, golden-walled city dominated by its great Temple, with people like themselves streaming busily in and out of the city’s gateways. Jesus saw what had not yet happened, Jerusalem’s destruction, the suffering of the city’s inhabitants, and the enslavement and deportation of its survivors. He wept for the victims of a catastrophe decades in the future, but very real to him, so immediate, so devastating, that he grieved as if it was happening at that moment. He said to those who were with him, “Would that today you knew the things that make for peace!”

Now up another rung on the ladder, the third Beatitude: Risen from the dead are the meek…

Often confused with weakness, in fact a meek person is neither spineless nor cowardly. Understood biblically, meekness is making choices and exercising power with a divine rather than a social reference point. Meekness is the essential quality of the human being in relationship to God. Without meekness, we cannot align ourselves with God’s will. In place of humility we prefer pride — pride in who we are, pride in doing as we please, pride in what we’ve achieved, pride in the national or ethnic or racial group to which we happen to belong.

Meekness has nothing to do with blind obedience or social conformity. A meek Christian does not allow himself to be dragged along by the tides of passions or propaganda or political power or fear or imposed obedience. Such a rudderless person has cut himself off from his own conscience, that is from God’s voice in his heart, and thrown away his God-given freedom. Meekness is an attribute of following Christ no matter what risks are involved.

The next rung, the fourth Beatitude: Risen from the dead are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness…

In his teaching about the Last Judgment, Christ speaks of hunger and thirst: “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me drink.” To hunger and thirst for something is not a mild desire but a desperate craving. Our salvation hinges on our caring — caring to the point of hunger and thirst — for the least person as we would for Christ himself. Did he not say, “What you have done to the least person you have done to me”?

To hunger and thirst for righteousness means to urgently desire that which is honorable, right and true. A righteous person is a right-living person, living a truthful, blameless life, right with both God and neighbor. A righteous social order would be one in which no one is abandoned or thrown away, in which people live in peace with God, with each other and with the world God has given us.

Up one more rung, the fifth Beatitude: Risen from the dead are the merciful…

One of the dangers of pursuing righteousness is that one can become self-righteousness. If all you have is a thirst for righteousness, how easy it is to become merciless. This is why the next rung of the ladder of the Beatitudes is the commandment of mercy. Mercy is the quality of self-giving love, of gracious deeds done for others.

Twice in the Gospels Christ makes his own the words of the Prophet Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” We witness mercy in event after event in the Gospel accounts of Christ’s life — forgiving, healing, freeing, correcting. Again and again Christ declares that those who seek God’s mercy must be merciful to others. The principle is included in the only prayer Christ taught his disciples, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” He calls on his followers to love their enemies and to pray for them. But how many enemies are we including in our daily prayers? The moral of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that a neighbor is whoever happens to be in front of us. Nowhere in the Gospel do we hear Christ advocating anyone’s death or blessing his followers to harm anyone. At the Last Judgment Christ receives into the kingdom of heaven those who were merciful.

Now we ascend to the next rung, the sixth Beatitude: Risen from the dead are the pure of heart…

Christ didn’t say, “Blessed are the pure in mind” or “Blessed are the brilliant in mind.” Instead he blesses purity of heart. But in our world the brain has come up in the world while the heart has been demoted. The heart used to be recognized as the center of God’s activity within us, the hub of human identity and conscience, linked with our capacity to love, the core of both physical and spiritual life — the zero point of the human soul. The Greek word for purity, katharos, means spotless, stainless, unbroken, perfect, free from anything that defiles or corrupts.

What then is a pure heart? A heart free of possessiveness, a heart capable of mourning, a heart which thirsts for what is right, a merciful heart, a loving heart, a heart not ruled by passions, an undivided heart, a heart searching for the image of God in others, a heart drawn to beauty, a heart aware of God’s presence in each face. A pure heart is a heart without contempt or hatred of others. In the words of Saint Isaac of Syria, “A person is truly pure of heart when he considers all human beings as good and no created thing appears impure or defiled to him.”

Opposing purity of heart is lust of any kind — for wealth, for recognition, for power, for vengeance, for using others as sexual or economic objects. A discipline of prayer in daily life helps heal, guard and unify the heart. “Always keep your mind collected in your heart,” instructed one of the great Russian teachers of prayer, Saint Theofan the Recluse. The Jesus Prayer — the Prayer of the Heart — is part of a tradition of spiritual life which helps move the center of consciousness from the mind to the heart: “Lord Jesus, have mercy on us.” Purification of the heart is the striving to place the mind under the rule of the heart, the mind representing the analytic and organizational aspect of consciousness. Purification of the heart is the lifelong struggle of seeking a more God-centered life, a heart illuminated with the presence of the Holy Trinity.

We’re well up the ladder now, almost at the top. Now comes the seventh Beatitude: Risen from the dead are the peacemakers…

Christ is often called the Prince of Peace. He calls us not simply to be in favor of peace — nearly everyone is — but makers of peace. The peacemaker is anyone who helps heal damaged relationships. Another word for peacemaking is healing. We could say, “Risen from the dead are those who heal and those who repair.” Throughout the Gospel we see Christ bestowing peace with healing words and actions. In his final discourse before his arrest, he says to the Apostles: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” After the Resurrection, he greets his followers with the words, “Peace be with you.” He instructs his followers that, on entering a house, their first action should be the blessing, “Peace be upon this house.” Christ kills no one and calls no one to kill. The one act of bloodshed committed by his apostles was caused by over-zealous Peter injuring the ear of one of those who came to arrest Jesus, while Jesus’s last miracle before his crucifixion was the healing of that wound. In the words of one of the earliest Christian theologians, Clement of Alexandria, “The church is an army that sheds no blood.”

Sadly, for most of us the peace we long for is not the Kingdom of God but a slightly improved version of the world we already have. We would like to get rid of conflict without seeking to eliminate the spiritual and material factors that give rise to conflict.

The peacemaker knows that ends never stand apart from means: figs don’t grow from thistles; neither is community brought into being by glares, hatred and violence. A peacemaker is aware that each person, even those who seem to be slaves of evil, is made in the image of God and is capable of change and conversion. So much depends on how I relate to adversaries and enemies. So much depends on hospitality of the face.

One of the things a peacemaker isn’t is a war maker. He or she doesn’t foment hatred or conflict, steers clear of war-justifying propaganda, and doesn’t dehumanize the adversary but sees in each person a brother or sister, albeit in some cases estranged. We are challenged by the example of early Christians, who, like the Savior, took no part in bloodshed. They regarded themselves as patriots only of the kingdom of God.

Only now do we reach the top of the ladder, the eighth Beatitude: Risen from the dead are the persecuted…

The last rung of the Beatitudes is where we reach the Cross. “We must carry Christ’s cross as a crown of glory,” wrote Saint John Chrysostom, “for it is by it that everything that is achieved among us is gained…. Whenever you make the sign of the cross on your body, think of what the cross means and put aside anger and every other passion. Take courage and be free in the soul.”

In the ancient world Christians were persecuted chiefly because they were regarded as undermining the social order even though in most respects they were models of civil obedience and good conduct. But Christians refused to treat kings and emperors as gods. They would not sacrifice to gods their neighbors venerated and were notable for their refusal to take part in war or bloodshed in any form. Is it surprising that a community that lived by such values, however well-behaved, would be regarded as a threat by the government? And it still goes on. One pays a price for following Jesus rather than Caesar.

“Both the Emperor’s commands and those of others in authority must be obeyed if they are not contrary to the God of heaven, but if they are, they must not only not be disobeyed; they must be resisted,”said Saint Euphemia in the year 303 during the reign of Diocletian. Following torture, Euphemia was killed by a bear — the kind of death endured by thousands of Christians well into the fourth century, though the greatest number of Christian martyrs belong to the twentieth century, in Russia most of all. In many countries religious persecution continues to this very day.

At the very top of the ladder of the Beatitudes, beyond the eight rungs, we reach the resurrection, the joy of no longer being a captive of fear and a prisoner of death. “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

We’ve made a speedy climb up a tall ladder. Just one last comment: Climbing the ladder of the Beatitudes is a daily task in which we often fail. Every time you fall off, all you need to do is start again. While climbing, it helps to know the Beatitudes by heart and think about them often. Recite them as a prayer. Breathe them in and breathe them out. Recite them with your heart. Let them question you. Let them renew and reshape your life.

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Jim Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands

[email protected]

15 August 2017

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One of Jim Forest’s books is “Ladder of the Beatitudes.” (Orbis)
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“I lost my fear”: a conversation with Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov

Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov (photo: Jim Forest)

Interview by Jim and Nancy Forest / 25 July 2017

Jim Forest: I recall that being in jail provided a turning point in your life…

Fr Sergei: I was in two jails while I was in the army. The first time I was accused of doing propaganda for the American style of life. In fact it wasn’t true — I knew almost nothing about the American style of life. What could I say about it? They also accused me of disobedience, and that was true. I was disobedient to the authorities. So I was sent to prison, originally just for a few weeks. That was nice. I was with other people and we had good discussions. But when we walked to work together, we were followed by a soldier with a machine gun. Not so pleasant. It was at this time I realized that we are always being followed by such a soldier, only usually he is invisible. In normal life you don’t see him. But somewhere inside of you he is controlling what you think and what you say, controlling your behavior. You had to become your own guard, your own censor. You must abide by the system.

J: And it’s all based on fear…

Yes. In fact the prison was to create fear. At some moment I shared this thought with someone else, another prisoner. He told one of the jail administrators what I had said and this resulted in my being put in solitary confinement. I was there three months. This was hard. You can do nothing. You can’t really sleep — the floor is wet. You cannot read — there are no books. You cannot write — no paper, no pencil. You have four walls and that’s it.

J: No window?

Yes. Light comes in but the window is too high to look through it. So all you can do is think. It was in this situation that I realized I didn’t know how to think. I had thought that thinking is a very easy thing. I used to be a physicist so I thought about physics, laws of physics, formulas. But after a few days, perhaps a week, these topics were exhausted. Finished! Then you have to really think, but I didn’t know how. Then something happened. I began to think about freedom. What happened next is very difficult to describe. Maybe I can say there was a kind of light. I heard the words “freedom is in God.” But — a big but — I knew nothing about God! I didn’t believe in God! (laughter) This was a problem — freedom is in God but I didn’t believe in God! But it seems God believed in me. I experienced joy. Only much later did I realize that it is comparable only to one thing, the joy you experience on the night of Pascha. Easter night. Finally I came to realize that the state you enter on Pascha night is intended to be the natural state of the human being. In fact many people experience this joy at the all-night Pascha service, but we lose it again and again, some after a few hours, some after a couple of months.

So I was given this joy while in solitary confinement. This kind of joy is indescribable and unbelievable. I lost my fear. That was he most important thing. I realized if they sent me to a labor camp with a long sentence it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because I was free. Of course gradually I came to realize freedom is not just given — you have to take responsibility for it. You have to do something about it every moment of your life.

Anyway it was a beginning. I understood that I had to know about God. I had to read the Gospel — it was difficult even to find a Bible in those days. But it was the real beginning of my life.

Finding my way into the Church was much more complicated. It was the beginning of the 70s. Not many churches were open and churches were watched closely.

Nancy: When you had that experience in prison, did you sense there were things they couldn’t take away from you any more?

Certainly. They couldn’t take away my freedom. They could do what they liked to my body but I was not afraid anymore.

J: What happened then, once you were out of solitary?

Their first plan was to send me to a labor camp, but then they realized there was no basis for convicting me of a crime. So they decided on a completely different course and instead sent me to school for officer training! Six months. Instead of being a good soldier they made me into a bad officer! School was wonderful. I spent many hours in the library and found a book by Solzhenitsyn — One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich — and books by other forbidden writers. Lucky for me the librarians had failed to remove such books.

J: I have noticed in your sermons how often you use the word “svaboda” — freedom.

Yes. Sometimes people tease me for speaking so often about freedom. It’s such an important topic. It is what we lost in the Garden of Eden. It’s at the center of the story of Adam and Eve. That’s where the problem started. After eating the forbidden fruit they tried to hide from God. God said to Adam, “Where are you?” And Adam responded, “I heard the sound of you in the garden and I was afraid.” This is the first time in the Bible we hear about fear. In place of freedom Adam and Eve got fear. Human nature was damaged. All of us are damaged. We are not born in freedom but there is the chance to find the way to freedom. We have to pass through the difficulties of life, but the chance is quite big. We have somehow to be born in freedom. Christ is awaiting our freedom. Christ wants only free people. Of course he accepts many other people too, but he wants free people.

Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov in Alkmaar 25 July 2017 (photo: Jim Forest)

N: As Christians we can say that without Christ there is no true freedom, yet there is the paradox that Christ only accepts free people. What comes first?

First comes the icon. Each person is an icon of God. In Genesis we read, “Let us create man according to our image.” The Greek word for image is icon. This was a favorite topic of Metropolitan Anthony [Bloom]. Everyone has this icon but the icon is damaged. Life is given to man in order to repair — restore — the icon. With the help of Christ to return to freedom.

J: Peacemaking is the removal of the smoke-darkened varnish that masks the icon…

This is why Christ is so often described as a physician. Perhaps the most important thing he does is heal the heart and open our eyes. One consequence is that we become capable of seeing beauty. One of the favorite sayings used by Metropolitan Anthony was “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” What does that mean? It doesn’t mean that beauty is something we can manipulate. Yes, you must open our eyes, but not only your eyes. You must enlarge your heart. Otherwise we see beauty only partially or not at all. If the heart is too narrow, the beauty that we see will seem ugly. What you see depends on you — on you and your spiritual condition.

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Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov, longtime rector of St Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam, died 6 January 2018. He was 65.

A Russian translation of this interview is posted at:

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Praying for Peace

On the 3rd of March, 2014, there was a special moleben (service of supplication) at St Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam for peace between Russia and Ukraine. Here is a summary of what was said at the end of the service by the rector of the parish, Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov:

Recently I heard this explanation of how evil happens. It is when two people, each convinced he is acting for a just cause, attack each other. We seek mercy from heaven, but we in this world seek justice by ourselves.

There is no war in which people on one side consider themselves unjust. People always are convinced that their side is the just side and that their going to war is justified and necessary.

The only way to peace is to make peace in your heart — in each heart and in all our hearts. That is what we are trying to do now.

A hundred years ago, in 1914, the First World War was started. Perhaps you remember how it happened. On the 28th of June, one good man, an Orthodox man, a Serbian man, decided to seek justice, and so he killed another man, Archduke Ferdinand. That was the beginning of the First World War. And when that first war finished, in 1918, it was not really the end because soon the Second World War began — a direct continuation of the First World War.

Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov (photo: Jim Forest)

Let me share with you a quotation: “We must defend our people, we must defend our brothers and sisters. They are suffering in another country, but it is our nation, our people. Our people are suffering.” Who do you think said these words? It was Hitler. It was in a speech he gave in the Reichstag, the German parliament. It was his justification for starting the Second World War.

The terrible thing is that we hear this words again and again and we don’t recognize them. We hear them once again and we think perhaps it is true — people are suffering and they need us to make justice. And in this way war begins once again.

The only chance we have is to ask God for a miracle, a miracle in our hearts that can prevent a new war. That is why we are here praying together. Let us pray, and keep on praying. Please pray.

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A Letter on Marriage and Hospitality

Recently I heard that my friend Henriette is getting married. Henriette is famous for hating housework. As a wedding surprise, a mutual friend has called around asking people to send in “household tips” which she plans to put together in a book to give to Henriette at her wedding. This was my contribution.

Dear Henriette,

The most valuable household tip I ever had came from a very special person, Dorothy Day. As a young single mother, a recent convert to the Catholic Church, she decided to spend her life practicing hospitality — feeding people who were hungry, finding places to sleep for people who had no home. In the early years these were mostly men out of work because of the Depression. It started in her own apartment. Later she found a building in lower Manhattan where she and a few friends opened a soup kitchen. They never preached to the people they fed — they just fed them, gave them clothes and made them feel welcome. Some stayed there until they died, and then she made sure they got a decent burial.

One of the stories about Dorothy that has been important in my life has to do with a woman who was going crazy trying to keep her house clean, take care of her large family, and receive many guests. She asked Dorothy for advice. Dorothy answered, “Lower your standards.”

That’s great advice but that isn’t my tip to you. My real tip is not to lower your standards, but to practice hospitality. I don’t mean you have to find outcasts living on the streets. I mean get to know people by inviting them into your home, inviting them for a meal or for dessert.

Interesting things happen when you practice hospitality. Here are a few:

1. Your house stays clean! It’s quite mysterious. There’s no better motivation for cleaning your house than knowing that guests are coming.

2. Your problems fall into perspective. When you invite people in and they start telling you their problems, your life doesn’t look so bad after all.

3. You pick up a few more household tips. As long as the dinnertime conversation doesn’t start to sound like a detergent commercial.

4. It’s great for your marriage. Hospitality is something that you both do together.

5. It increases your circle of friends.

6. It makes you realize what’s really important in life. If you start the day wringing your hands because your windows aren’t clean, there’s something wrong! Lighten up! Chill out! Cool your jets! The most important thing in your life is the people in it. We’ve been living on this street for 15 years and we almost never wash our windows, and our neighbors still smile at us (though they probably think we’re a little strange).

Jim and I both wish you a life full of friends, happy evenings, delicious meals, and plenty of time for the things that matter most.

all the best,

Nancy Forest

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At Play in the Lions’ Den: a biography and memoir of Daniel Berrigan

It is hard to deny that God prepares and then uses certain people for very special tasks. You will see that is eminently the case with Daniel Berrigan — but also for Jim Forest who seems to always know who is worth writing about — and how to do the writing. Read, and enter into a much larger world.
— Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation

Resurrection! Daniel Berrigan’s vim and vision and vitality crackle out of the pages of Jim Forest’s book. My uncle is alive in this book: in the stories and remembrances Forest collects, in the author’s sharing of his own long friendship with Dan and in his savvy situating of Dan’s life within the life of the Jesuit Order, the Catholic Church, and war and peace and countless movements for justice. Dan Berrigan, Presente!
— Frida Berrigan, author, “It Runs in the Family”

As Jim Forest’s biography demonstrates, Daniel Berrigan’s life was a full measure of grace which soared up and flowed out of all those times and places that witnessed his unyielding personal commitment in word and deed to peace and social justice, his deep compassion and disarming humor, and the consistently heroic levels of his nonviolent resistance that took our breath away and renewed the face of the earth.
— Martin Sheen

Who better than a literate peacemaker like Jim Forest to tell the story of dear Dan Berrigan and all his commitments to nonviolence? And tell it so well.
— Colman McCarthy, director, the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington, D.C. 

Thanks to Jim Forest’s faithful, joyful portrait of Dan Berrigan’s transforming life, here is Dan in our face and hearts all over again — challenging us, loving us, pushing us to give up war and every form of violence. Jim takes us on a walk with Dan and Jesus into that community of communities where everyone on earth is together, “laughing, drinking beer, and listening to rain battering the windows.” Thank you, Daniel. And thank you, Jim.
— Jim Douglass, author, “JFK and the Unspeakable”

At Play in the Lions’ Den takes us into the heart of this very human prophet on his journey where Jesus seems to tell him, as he told Peter, “You will stretch out your hands and somebody else will put a belt round you and take you where you would rather not go.” (John 21:18) And we know Dan Berrigan kept his joyful smile, even as he ended up in a difficult place, as prophets generally do. Jim Forest’s life has been deeply touched by Dan Berrigan and, after reading his memoir, you will know another dedicated and prophetic follower of Jesus.
— Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton

“If you want to follow Jesus, you better look good on wood!” Daniel Berrigan coined that phrase. In this extraordinary biography and memoir, Jim Forest, who knew Berrigan intimately, shows us that Daniel Berrigan looked every bit the good prophet on wood. This is a first-rate story that needs to be read. Highly recommended.
— Ronald Rolheiser, OMI

What is amazing about the Berrigans and their ever expanding family is that God continues to anoint them with suffering prophetic witnesses, writers, healers and artists. This beautiful, arresting book about Daniel by Jim Forest is an introduction into the many lives of a brilliant, holy genius who used all of his gifts for God and in that very way each of us can follow his loving example.
— William Hart McNichols, painter and iconographer

There is no better general introduction to the life of Dan Berrigan, one of the greatest Christians of our age, of any age, than this deeply researched, highly personal, beautifully written biography by his friend Jim Forest. He has captured Dan the poet, the prophet and the priest. And what a poet! What a prophet! What a priest!
— James Martin, SJ, author of “The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything”

Some critics have suggested that Berrigan threw away a prestigious career as a Catholic writer whose work was on a par with Flannery O’Connor and Thomas Merton to write against war. But in this insightful and inspiring biography, Forest suggests that Daniel Berrigan lived his poems, that his metaphors became stepping stones (and rocks) on the difficult path he chose.
— Diane Scharper, America magazine

I’m reading the new Dan Berrigan biography by Jim Forest and it’s wonderful, a model of what a biography ought to be. It brings back so many memories. Dan had a close relationship with my father. He often came to our home for Shabbat dinner, and we all loved his presence. What I really appreciate is the way Jim Forest brings Dan’s voice to the pages, quoting him often. This is one of the few biographies in which the subject is brought to life.
— Susannah Heschel, Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and daughter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

If you read ony one new biography this year, you’ll be hard pressed to find a more rollicking read than this spirited and intimate look at the life and faith of Daniel Berrigan (1921-2016) and the colorful cast of friends and associates who shared both with him, or crossed his path. (Think Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Thich Nhat Hanh, Martin Luther King, Ernesto Cardenal, and Martin Sheen, to list the best known). Celebrated as a rebel priest, poet, activist, and teacher, Berrigan was famous enough to make the cover of TIME. But he also belonged to a large and fascinating Irish Catholic family; and to a religious community that didn’t always appreciate him. And the strength of his personal beliefs was tested not only by his many well-publicized arrests for civil disobedience, but also by the zeitgeist. Fun-loving and generous he may have been; but he also took the confession – and forgiveness – of sins seriously; and he never wavered in his views that a vow made before God ought to be upheld; that violence can never be redemptive; and that every life is sacred. Packed with vivid anecdotes, rare photographs, and telling marginal quotes from Berrigan’s many books, Forest’s profile aptly illustrates why his fascinating subject chose the following epitaph for his gravestone – and not just in jest: “It was never dull. Alleluia!”
— Chris Zimmerman (Plough Quarterly)

At Play in the Lion’s Den is so readable, so strategic in its storytelling, so edifying, so wonderfully decorated with photographs. I am learning so much, history and context I wish I would have understood better as I attempted to learn from Dan over the years… I can’t imagine the labor that went into locating, compiling and ordering all of that material! Narratives of great lives are so daunting to try to capture, yet so important to a proper grasp of our common history. Jim Forest has done a masterful job. All of us who knew, loved and learned from Dan are deeply in Jim’s debt for serving so magnificently as a keeper of this story that has so shaped us, the church and the nation.
— Ched Myers, theologian, biblical scholar, author

In his compelling portrait of Daniel Berrigan, Jim Forest has given us a wonderful gift. He captures the amazing grace of Berrigan’s remarkable life as priest, poet, humanitarian, educator, anti-war activist and modern-day prophet. I could not put this book down. Forest spent time with Berrigan as a young man and kept in touch with him over the years after he moved to the Netherlands for work and where Dan visited him and his family. Theirs was a close bond. Consequently, his knowledge is firsthand. He succeeds in capturing the essence of Berrigan – his intellect, his humor, his compassion, his love for his community of Jesuits and his profound sense of humanity.
— Sabina Clarke, Irish Edition

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From the book’s preface:

Daniel in the lions’ den was a popular scene in Romanesque stone carving, a visual anticipation of Christ’s death and resurrection. In one of the capitals in the basilica of the French town of Vézelay, Daniel is shown as if he were resting on a bed of leaves within an almond-shaped mandorla of divine protection. He is no more threatened by the lions on either side of him than I am threatened by Beckett, our household cat.

Dan Berrigan spent much of his life in various lions’ dens — at home as a child when his father was in a rage, in paddy wagons and prisons, in demonstrations which were targets of violent attack, in a city under bombardment, in urban areas police would describe as hazardous — yet remarkably he lived to be 94, dying peacefully in bed, though he bore many invisible scars and scratches.

Like the biblical Daniel, Dan Berrigan was a man of prayer, both private and public. I never knew anyone gladder to celebrate the Eucharist. But, unlike the biblical Daniel, Dan was also a man of play, at play as much in courtrooms and jails as in his apartment assembling a meal for whoever happened to be his guests that night.

I recall him saying, “The worst thing is an omnivorous solemnity.” Dan was rarely solemn. I remember one night he and two other friends helped me push my decrepit VW beetle down a rain-soaked East Harlem Street, trying to bring the engine to life, all of us laughing till our bellies ached while Dan told a joke about a near-sighted, sex-starved elephant who mistook a VW for a female elephant who wanted to mate.

For many years Dan lived with a Jesuit community in a building at 220 West 98th Street in Manhattan. Dan had apartment 11L. Once through the door, the many people who were welcomed there found themselves in what might be described as the set for a small Off Broadway play. Posters and banners, flags and photos were decoratively placed here and there, but what I found most striking was a canticle-like quotation from the great Irish abbess, St. Bridget of Kildare, that Dan had inscribed on one wall, the calligraphy done in black magic-marker, the text wrapping around his refrigerator:

I should like a great lake of beer for the King of Kings.
I should like the angels of Heaven to be drinking it through time eternal.
I should like excellent meats of belief and pure piety.
I should like flails of penance at my house.
I should like the men of heaven at my house;
I should like barrels of peace at their disposal;
I should like vessels of charity for distribution;
I should like for them cellars of mercy.
I should like cheerfulness to be in their drinking.
I should like Jesus to be there among them.
I should like the three Marys of illustrious renown to be with us.
I should like the people of heaven, the poor, to be gathered around us from all parts.

Barrels of peace, cellars of mercy, meats of belief, flails of penance, the good company of the poor, an assembly brought together from far and near, all gathered with the King of Kings and the three Marys around a great lake of beer… One could shape one’s life around so magnetic a vision, so joyful a prophecy, so great an expectation — as compelling a glimpse of heaven as any I have heard. How suitable to discover these holy words in Dan Berrigan’s home, a grand central station of hospitality whose countless guests included many who were en route to prison or dying of AIDS.

Inventive man that he was, Dan helped, with his brother Phil, to develop more theatrical forms of protest, civil disobedience and resistance and then, as a writer, to transform prosaic events into poetry and theater, as he did in converting the courtroom drama of the trial of the Catonsville Nine into the often performed play of the same name.

And what could be more theatrical than slipping away, costumed as a giant apostle, from a crowd of F.B.I. agents poised to arrest and handcuff him, and thus beginning four months playing hide-and-seek as an underground priest?

Dan was a performer and artist but his art was rarely art for art’s sake. His was a life of lived-out translations of such biblical commandments as “thou shalt not kill” and “love one another.” How sadly rare it is to find a person — Dan was one of the exceptions — who regards such a straightforward mandate as obliging us to protect life rather than destroy it, even if that requires saying a costly “no.”

Perhaps Dan’s most notable quality was his immense compassion, which guided him one way or another on a daily basis, even late in life when it was a challenge just getting out of bed in the Jesuit infirmary at Fordham University that had become his last home.

I recall Dan using the phrase “outraged love.” Many people are driven by rage, which rarely does them or anyone much good and often makes things worse. But outraged love is mainly about love. Dan loved his imperfect church, his not always agreeable Jesuit community, he even loved America — but there is much in all three zones that is outrageous, and Dan was never able to be silent or passive about our betrayals. This could have made him a ranter but the artist side of Dan always found ways to channel his outrage into one or another form of creativity, whether via poetry or a wide variety of acts of witness. He became one of the most consistent voices of his generation for nonviolent approaches to change and conflict resolution — in that dimension of his life a spiritual child of Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day. His commitment to life excluded no one, from a child in the womb to a condemned murderer on death row.

Dan remarked of Dorothy Day, “She lived as if the Gospel were true.” The same could be said of Dan. He once said, “If you want to follow Jesus, you had better look good on wood.” He didn’t mean a Christian had to be a martyr, in the sense of dying for one’s faith, but a martyr in the literal meaning of the Greek word martyros: a witness. Part of that witness, Dan insisted, is refusing to use death as a means of improving the world, still less creating the Kingdom of God.

For the Christian, peacemaking is any action that bears witness to the risen Christ. As Dan said in a talk given at the Abbey of Gethsemani, “To be witnesses of the resurrection is to be contemplative and public all at once.”

Dan had countless friends. I was fortunate to be one of them. May this book become an occasion for friendship with him for those new to his name as we gather around the great lake of beer at which the King of Kings presides and where lions and lambs lie side by side.

— Jim Forest

True Free Choice

by Nancy Forest

The more I read about abortion, the more women I meet who have had an abortion or had a close brush with it, the more discussions I have with supporters and opponents, the more I am convinced that ours is not a society of death. We are a fearful society, we are cowardly, we are deeply confused about what constitutes the truth, and more than anything else we do not know what it means to really make a free choice — but we are not a society of death. If we were, the choice to abort would be regarded as morally neutral, and it is not. Even the Clintons agree — at least claim to agree — that fewer abortions would make for a better world. Statistics are cited about the way abortion is used as a means of birth control in Eastern Europe as evidence that something is terribly wrong with these societies. If we were a society of death, we wouldn’t care. If we were a society of death, we would allow women to abort their babies until they went into labor. There would be no discussion of “viability.” But this is not the case. Past a certain number of weeks abortion is just not an option because the baby is recognized as “viable” — so indisputably human that even the laws that defend choice will no longer permit ending a pregnancy.

The child is protected by law once it is recognized as being capable of surviving outside the womb. But I wonder if this is the whole story, or indeed if this has anything at all to do with this arbitrary time limit on abortion. I wonder if, instead, the pregnancy has advanced to a stage at which we could no longer successfully suppress our horror at halting it. If we were a society of death, we would have no qualms about aborting at any phase of pregnancy. But abortion, despite all the support it seems to have, doesn’t affect us in the neutral way that a tooth extraction does. We know abortion is a nasty business. It is intrusive and profoundly unsettling. It is a frantic attempt to halt the inexorable development of something, ­which means making quick, irreversible decisions. It is extremely stress­ful. It is not a shrug of the shoulders.

If there is something about abortion that is deeply unsettling, and wide agreement that the fewer abortions, the better, then why does society allow the abortion option to remain in place?

Over the years I’ve received many letters from pro-choice friends expressing more or less the same sentiments: “Of course I’m not pro-abortion. Nobody wants to have an abortion. But we have to uphold a woman’s right to make this decision for herself. It’s a matter of free choice.” To this may be added a few points about whether a fetus is a human being, the problem over-population and so forth. But the bottom line is the defense of choice and freedom. Even if the choice is painful, even if it is harmful, even if abortion is socially damaging, even if the abortion procedure itself is horrific, even if the mother knows in her heart of hearts that it is the wrong choice and that she will be haunted for life by the experience: even so a woman must be free to choose.

Abortion is upheld on the principle of freedom of choice. To deny women the freedom to abort is somehow to seen as putting the axe to freedom itself.

But is this really the stark choice: defense of the unborn child versus defense of freedom?

Abortion involves violence and death. No one denies this. Whether you call it a human being or a bit of “fetal tissue,” it was once alive and now it is dead. That’s the whole point of abortion. We all know this, even the most militant pro-choice activist. Our problem is not that death doesn’t bother us as much as a perceived loss of freedom, but that we are willing to accept a certain level of death for the sake of what we believe to be “freedom.” And because ours is not a culture of death, this acceptance is highly unnatural; it is creating a catastrophic social trauma, because we can’t really swallow it. We feel a dull ache that we cannot name, we exhibit all the symptoms of someone who has been forced to commit dreadful crimes. And the triumphant cry of freedom is ever louder as a way of masking the real uncertainty, the real shame.

So what does it mean to make a free choice? To make a decision between two options? And how do we come to make that decision?

By rationally weighing the pros and cons of each side, and deciding on that which does the least harm, which does the most good?

But is that really what is involved in free choices? Do we really make free choices in a vacuum, into which we insert our rationality? Do we make free choices in isolation? Is freedom something that emanates from ourselves alone?

The word “free” has an interesting etymology. It is an ancient word. Freedom has been valued by human beings since the dawn of speech. There are sister words to our English word “free” in every Indo-European language, including Sanskrit. But the strange thing is that as you advance back in time, “free” loses its sense of individual, isolated decisions and instead describes a pattern of relation­ship. To say someone was “free” was to say something about a relationship: that the person was not a slave, that the person was “freely” related to another, defended that other – indeed, “loved” that other. In the Middle Ages, a “free” person gave his military services to the feudal lord, but he gave them freely, not as payment, not as a serf or a slave. A free person acted out of love, not compulsion. Other words in our language group that make this clear: Free is a sister word of friend. In other Indo-European languages, there are links with words for love, beloved, making love, and wife. Freedom and love are inextric­ably combined in the very soul of our culture, not to say in the very nature of things.

So perhaps the question we should be asking is, in the free choice that is being made for or against abortion, what is the freedom relationship? Is there such a relationship at all? Or is this “free” choice in fact the choice of a slave, a choice made under compulsion?

For many women, choice is hardly involved in their decision to have an abortion. They feel compelled by demands or threats from boy­friends, husbands, parents, employers, or sometimes simply by nameless social pressures that threaten women with an uncertain, unsupported future. In the tragic climax of William Styron’s novel Sophie’s Choice (written only a few years after the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of abortion, and surely in response to that ruling), Sophie is forced to decide which of her children to have killed, and the Nazi officer who cynically grants her this “choice” is named von Niemand — the German word for “No One.”

If someone — anyone, a faceless sense of doom — convinces you that abortion is your only choice, is it really a “free” choice?

As Christians, our understanding of free choice is inextricably combined with love. We struggle to make God, and the universe in which he manifests himself, the aim of our love, which becomes the criterion on which all our choices are based. In our ascetic struggle as Orthodox Christians we practice making free choices every day. Even the simplest ascetic practices — regular fasting — help teach us to make free choices based not on our appetites, or on our fears, or on the manipulative wishes and threats of other people, or on our own amorphous future plans, or on any other consideration, but on our love of God. The deeper you enter into the ascetic life, the more you realize that the Christian understanding of free choice is quite different from the commonly understood notion.

Whereas the common notion of free choice suggests doing whatever you please for any reason, as long as you don’t hurt anybody or break the law, the Christian understanding of free choice implies always choosing out of love — even if it means crucifixion. In fact, we know that our salvation depends on these choices, on our willingness to “lose our lives” in order to save them. These are the true free choices.

So in this abortion debate, it seems to me that there are some things that need to be straightened out. It is not a debate between those who support life and those who support death. It is a debate in which life and freedom are in the balance, and a very dubious sort of freedom at that. For we do not live in a society of death, no matter how deep we seem to be wading in blood. We live in a society of fear, where we have put all our faith in what we think “freedom” can gain for us and are willing to swallow enormous amounts of unpleasantness, bad consciences and nightmarish images haunting our dreams and our future. Making choices at this cost is doing untold damage to both the unborn and to our whole society. ?

Nancy Forest is a writer, editor and translator. She founded Forest-Flier Editorial Services in 1988. She is a member of St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam.

Reprinted from the Winter 2000 issue of In Communion, the journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.

A Conversation in Novgorod: ‘Let us call brothers even those who hate us and forgive all by the Resurrection’

Novgorod kremlin

Talk given by Jim Forest at the Belgian Congress of Orthodox Youth at their meeting in Leuven, Belgium, in February 2005:

“Let us call brothers even those who hate us and forgive all by the Resurrection.”

These are words we hear each year in the context of the most important feast on the Church calendar: the celebration of Christ’s triumph over death.

Again and again we are called by Christ’s Gospel, and by similar texts in the Sacred liturgy, to do something that, from a human point of view, seems completely impossible: to recognize familial bonds with our enemies and, drawing on the power of the Resurrection, to forgive those who hate us.

In fact, until we meet people who give an example of translating these words into actual life, it’s hard to imagine such a thing is possible.

I have been fortunate in my life to meet many people who treated their enemies as brothers or sisters and, empowered by the Resurrection, forgave all.

To give one example, I think of Fr. Michael, a priest I met in the Russian city of Novgorod in 1987. At the time I was working on a book published a year later with the title, Pilgrim to the Russian Church. Fr. Michael was born in 1924 in Pskov. At age 20, in 1944, he was badly wounded on the White Russian Front. After the war, he studied at the Leningrad Theological Seminary. When I met him, he had been a priest nearly 40 years, most of them in Novgorod. He was rector of one of the few living Orthodox parishes in the region in those still-Communist days, the Church of Saints Nicholas and Philip. Fr. Michael was a man with a very Russian face: pale skin, high forehead, the bone behind his eyebrows very pronounced, slate-blue eyes, hair combed straight back, huge hands, all-in-all a man built like a bear. I liked him immediately. A man with a great passion for his faith, he radiated welcome and warmth.

First he took me to his church, part of which dates from the twelfth century. These were originally two adjacent churches, facing different streets, but like an old married couple, they had grown into each other, becoming one structure, painted white, with shingled onion domes, wide log porches with rough wood stairs leading up to them, and two icons set into the outer walls of the church, with vigil candles flickering before them. It was winter time. We trudged together through the snow toward the candle-lit icons.

Inside the church I was amazed to find an exceptionally beautiful iconostasis done in a sixteenth-century style but recent work by contemporary iconographers from the famous village of Palekh. It was the first sign I had, in those late days of the USSR, that the artists of Palekh were becoming iconographers once again after decades of having to paint images that were acceptable to the Communist Party.

In the smaller church there was a saint’s body, Nikita of Novgorod. His relics were a place of prayer and veneration for many pilgrims. Fr. Michael lifted the coffins’s glass lid so that I could venerate St. Nikita. I confess this is not something I would have suggested or wished for. It was a year before my chrismation in the Orthodox Church– I was not yet even in the kindergarten of Orthodoxy. I had the usual American aversion to touching the dead, but managed to overcome my hesitations and found myself kissing the thin silk cloth covering St. Nikita’s face — and in that same moment inhaling a fragrance that seemed to come from heaven. After that I could never again regard the phrase, “the odor of sanctity,” simply as a line of poetry.

Later in the day, entering Novgorod’s kremlin, we went to St. Sophia’s Cathedral, one of Russia’s most ancient churches. It was built when Saint Prince Vladimir was still reigning in Kiev and the Russian Church was in its infancy. Sadly, in 1987, nearly a thousand years later, it had become a museum. Even so Fr. Michael had convinced the museum’s caretakers to allow the playing of recordings of Orthodox liturgical music so that visitors might have a faint idea of what it was like to be in a living church.

Fr. Michael pointed out the cathedral’s massive bronze doors gave a witness to the undivided church that still existed when this building was put up. The doors were covered with relief images of biblical scenes done in a Romanesque style, with inscriptions on one side of each panel in Latin, on the other side in Slavonic.

It was intriguing to discover in the back of the church a massive stone cross of the Celtic rather than Russian or Latin types. Connecting the four beams of the cross was a circle. Were it not for the crucifix in the center being six pointed, Russian style, one would guess the cross had been brought to Novgorod from the Scotland’s western islands or the mainland of Ireland. It seemed to give evidence that Irish or Scottish monks had come came this far east — or perhaps Novgorodian traders had found their way to the Christianity’s most western outposts? Novgorod, Fr. Michael explained, had been a great trading city for centuries, with business links that stretched from Scandinavia to Constantinople.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Novgorod was one of the few major Russian towns spared from the Tartar invasions, but the city’s good fortune ended in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In 1456, and again in 1471, war broke out between Moscow and Novgorod. In both cases, Novgorod was defeated. Up to that time, Novgorod was a remarkably cosmopolitan principality run on democratic lines. Princes were elected and often deposed, and bishops too. A parliament — veche — was assembled for town meetings by the ringing of a great bell. When Ivan III, father of Ivan the Terrible, subdued Novgorod the second time, he had the Veche Bell, symbol of the city’s republican tradition, removed. However, the great bell tumbled off the cart not far from the city walls and shattered into many pieces. Local tradition is that each fragment grew into a small version of the mother bell. “Ivan could take the bell and crush Novgorod’s traditions,” explained Fr. Michael, “but he could not take from the people their longing to freely choose their rulers, and if necessary reject them.” Small brass bells are still the city’s main souvenir. Fr. Michael gave me a set of three.

In 1570 Ivan the Terrible, accompanied by an army, came to visit. It was an experience from which the city never fully recovered. Many leaders as well as common people of Novgorod were tortured to death or drowned in the river. To make clear who was in charge, Ivan ordered the construction of an ornate throne to be placed inside the Cathedral of St. Sophia. It remains there to this day.

Fr. Michael was a storehouse of local memory and legends. One of them explained a curious feature of the River Volkhov — the fact that it rarely if ever freezes, even when everything else is encased in ice. The hero of the tale was the legendary Sadko, merchant prince of Novgorod, whose ship sank in a lake to the south. Under water, Sadko entered a watery kingdom and here he met a mermaid princess who fell deeply in love with him and wanted to become his wife. But Sadko missed his wife in Novgorod and longed for her so much that the compassionate mermaid princess allowed him to return to life in the mortal world. However the princess was so saddened after Sadko’s departure that her warm tears made the lake overflow its borders and form the river that now divides the city of Novgorod. The river, they say, is still full of her tears, and these warm the river so much that it cannot freeze.

Certainly many tears have flowed in that river. In the last world war Novgorod was all but destroyed. Only three of the city’s numerous ancient churches were left relatively intact. Now many of them have since been painstakingly rebuilt, including the Church of the Transfiguration, whose frescoes were painted by Theophanes the Greek, the teacher of St. Andrei Rublev. The reconstruction of churches was still going on during my visit. One married couple had spent their entire working life reassembling the fragments of the frescoes of a church that was blown up as the German army withdrew. By 1987, the walls had been entirely rebuilt and most of the frescoes put back in place. I hope the couple has lived to see the completion their work and to witness the church serving once again as a place of worship.

We ate our evening meal by candlelight in a small chamber, at one time a guard’s room, high in Novgorod’s kremlin wall where a tower has been turned into a restaurant. The narrow windows gave as a good view birch trees illumined by the sunset.

Now at last we come to the reason I connect Fr. Michael with the words, “Let us call brothers even those who hate us and forgive all by the Resurrection.”

After a day of intense conversation, we had reached a point of real trust and began to discuss the major changes then occurring in Russia — publication of books and release of films that had in the past been strictly forbidden, the creation of a social climate in which Russians could talk to foreigners without fear, and — most important of all — the end of state repression of the Church. All over Russia churches were being repaired and reopened, monasteries were coming back to life, more and more students were applying to study in the seminaries. There were even first-rate programs about the Church on state television. Thousands of people who had called themselves atheists were coming into the Church.

I asked is Fr. Michael if he was not amazed by all these changes, but especially those that had to do with the Church.

“No,” he answered, “not at all. Every believer has been praying for this every day. I always knew our prayer would someday be answered, only I am astonished that it is happening in my lifetime. I didn’t dare to believe it would happen so soon.”

Then I asked if he didn’t want to see punished in some way all those people who had caused such suffering to so many people, sent so many to the Gulag, even tortured and killed so many faithful people. “Punishment is God’s business,” Fr. Michael responded, “not ours. If God wants to punish, He will punish. But we are told to forgive, not to punish. This is what the Gospel orders us to do. What we always hoped and are still hoping is for the conversion of those who hated us, not their punishment. And now we see many conversions happening. It is a miracle.” He made the sign of the Cross.

Fr. Michael recalled writings of a second century theologian: “According the Church Father Tertullian, every soul is, of its original nature, Christian. This means that if you dig deeply enough, you will always find something of the image of God in each person. It’s always there. You see it where you never think you will find it. Look at Gorbachev, the head of the Communist Party! They say that his mother is a believer, and you know that babushkas have influence! The image of God is present in every person. I have seen this myself all my life. You find it in people who are certain that they are unbelievers, certain there is no God…. The longing for Christ’s peace is something deep in each person’s soul. It is natural for the soul to want to live in peace, to do things for peace. In our church, all my life, I have always heard it taught that we must love everyone — believers, non-believers, Russian people, people from other countries. We are told to love people no matter what. Everyone is in your family. So it is natural for a Christian to think about how to live in peace with those around him.”

I thought of the countless people who had been shot or were taken to labor camps where they froze to death or died of disease or exhaustion. I had visited places of mass execution. I said to Father Mikhail, “But surely you must hate those who caused so much suffering and who killed so many people.” Father Mikhail gave me an answer that I did not expect. “Christ doesn’t hate them,” he said. “Why should I? How will they find the way to belief unless we love them? And if I refuse to love them, I too am not a believer.”

In those days I had not yet encountered the words, “Let us call brothers even those who hate us and forgive all by the Resurrection,” at least not in a language I could understand, but I met them in Fr. Michael. For Fr. Michael, there was no one who is not a brother or sister. No matter how much a person seemed to hate the Church and to oppress its members, in his eyes that person was a potential convert. Forgiveness of enemies was an essential aspect of their longed-for and prayed-for conversion.

It was in meeting people like Fr. Michael — I found there were many others like him — that I realized it is possible for ordinary people to love their enemies, to regard them as brothers, to forgive them, and to play a role in helping them find their way to Christ.

If we were to remove from the Gospel all that Christ says about forgiveness, and all his actions of forgiveness, there would be not much Gospel left. Again and again we are called by Christ’s Gospel to do something that, from a fallen human point of view, seems completely impossible: to recognize our bonds with our enemies and, drawing on the power of the Resurrection, to forgive them.

Consider the word “brother.” This is a word normally associated with deeply positive, loving feelings. It is a word with emotional currents flowing through it, which in the end make the word problematic to use when we think about enemies. Part of our problem about recognizing the other as brother lies in the emotions. We think of love and brotherhood in emotional terms. As the Church Fathers remind us so often, the emotions are like quicksand. Love that depends on the emotions will fail in hard times, not only in relations with enemies but even in relations with friends, and even in family life.

If we think about the human race biblically, we are all in fact brothers and sisters. Each of us is a descendent of Adam and Eve. It is impossible not to be related as each and every family tree has the same parents at the source.

If we think of it scientifically, we find the same thing. All superficial differences are of little account when weighed against the bonds that unites us. DNA itself bears witness to the unity of the human race. The blood of a Moslem from Arabia can save the life of a Christian from Alaska. The marriage of a Belgian to a Pacific islander can produce healthy children. Our regional genetic distinctions are extremely minor.

The reality is that we are brothers even if we are as divided from each other as Cain was from his brother Abel. It is because we are brothers and sisters that Christ taught us to say the words “Our Father.”

In fact, as the story of Cain and Abel makes clear, all conflicts are between brothers. There is no other kind of warfare than fratricidal warfare.

Think about the word “love,” another word flooded with emotional content. But, understood biblically, love is not a matter of fleeting emotions but of unshakeable commitment to the life and well-being of the other, whether you like him or not. It can happen that this commitment is made easier by emotions, but it can just as easily happen that the emotions are an obstacle to love. The love that Christ speaks of and bears witness to is, he says, like sunlight falling equally on the just and on the unjust — or like rain falling equally on good grain and weeds. These are not just pleasant metaphors. Time and again we see in the Gospel Christ’s readiness to receive and care for anyone who opens the door even in the smallest way: an officer of Rome’s occupying army, tax collectors, prostitutes, people with contagious diseases, people possessed by demons, women no less than men, a temple guard who is one of those arresting him in the Garden of Gethsemani, etc.

In the same short text we have been considering, we are called on to “forgive all by the Resurrection.”

Consider forgiveness. Like so many things of ultimate importance, forgiveness is beyond our capacity to understand or explain, yet we know it is one of the principle themes of the Gospel. Forgiveness is what Christ offers again and again to people seeking his mercy. In what may be the most surprising prayer in the New Testament, Christ appeals while on the Cross for his Father to forgive those responsible for his crucifixion.

Forgiveness is an act of freeing the other from debt or from punishment. We offer forgiveness to others and seek it for ourselves. It is what each of us is hoping for whenever we confess our sins in the week-by-week struggle to clear away any obstacles between ourselves and the chalice. Forgiveness doesn’t mean we forget what we have done or what others have done, but it’s the letting go of obligations associated with those events. If I forgive you the debt you owe me, what was a loan is converted into a gift. In people like Fr. Michael, one witnesses a more difficult forgiveness: not simply the excusing of a debt, but pardoning people who crucified believers, destroyed churches, and were missionaries of atheism, poisoning many people’s souls.

We see forgiveness at work in countless stories that come down to us from the saints. For example there was the desert abbot whose only valuable treasure was stolen: his Gospel book. In those days, long before printing presses, such a book was worth a fortune. The thief takes the stolen Gospel to Alexandria and offers it for sale. The merchant asks if he might have a few days to decide what price to offer for so rare an object. The thief agrees. The merchant than goes out to the desert to see the abbot, carrying the Gospel book with him. The abbot looks at it, never mentioning it is in fact his own property, and suggests a price — a certain number of gold coins. The merchant goes back to Alexandria, meets the thief and offers the suggested payment. It is more than the thief expects. “How did you decide on such a price?” he asks the merchant. “I took the book to abbot so-and-so and he told me what it was worth.” The thief is struck in the heart by these words. He apologizes to the merchant for all the troubles he had caused but says he can no longer sell the Gospel. The thief then rushed back to the abbot he had robbed, returns the precious book, begs forgiveness, and asks to join the brotherhood. In fact the abbot had forgiven the thief even before forgiveness was sought. He happily welcomes the repentant thief into the community.

On the other hand, the refusal to forgive poisons one’s own heart. As St John Chrysostom taught:

“Just as with maniacs, who never enjoy tranquility, so also he who is resentful and retains an enemy will never have the enjoyment of any peace; incessantly raging and daily increasing the tempest of his thoughts calling to mind his words and acts, and detesting the very name of him who has aggrieved him. Do you but mention his enemy, he becomes furious at once, and sustains much inward anguish; and should he chance to get only a bare sight of him, he fears and trembles, as if encountering the worst evils, Indeed, if he perceives any of his relations, if but his garment, or his dwelling, or street, he is tormented by the sight of them. For as in the case of those who are beloved, their faces, their garments, their sandals, their houses, or streets, excite us, the instant we behold them; so also should we observe a servant, or friend, or house, or street, or any thing else belonging to those We hate and hold our enemies, we are stung by all these things; and the strokes we endure from the sight of each one of them are frequent and continual. What is the need then of sustaining such a siege, such torment and such punishment? For if hell did not threaten the resentful, yet for the very torment resulting from the thing itself we ought to forgive the offences of those who have aggrieved us. But when deathless punishments remain behind, what can be more senseless than the man, who both here and there brings punishment upon himself, while he thinks to be revenged upon his enemy!” (Homily 20)

St Gregory the Great addresses us with a similar urgency in these words:

“When our hearts are reluctant we often have to compel ourselves to pray for our enemies, to pour out prayer for those who are against us. Would that our hearts were filled with love! How frequently we offer a prayer for our enemies, but do it because we are commanded to, not out of love for them. We ask the gift of life for them even while we are afraid that our prayer may be heard. The judge of our soul considers our hearts rather than our words. Those who do not pray for their enemies out of love are not asking anything for their benefit.

“Jesus, our advocate, has composed a prayer for our case. And our advocate is also our judge. He has inserted a condition in the prayer that reads: Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Sometimes we say these words without carrying them out. Thus our words bind us more tightly.

“What are we to do then, my friends? We must bestow our love on our brothers and sisters. We must not allow any malice at all to remain in our hearts. May almighty God have regard for our love of our neighbor, so that He may pardon our iniquities! Remember what He taught us: Forgive, and you will be forgiven. People are in debt to us, and us to them. Let us forgive them their debts, so that what we owe may be forgiven.” (Homily, “Be Friends of God”)

One could spend the whole weekend simply reading aloud passages about forgiveness from the Bible, the Liturgy and the Fathers of the Church.

What is it finally that gives us the strength, the freedom, the love to forgive? Surely it is Christ himself, risen from the dead.

It is these last few words that are the axis of the text we’ve been looking at: “… and forgive all by the power of the Resurrection.”

One has to be slightly demented to imagine saying anything new about Pascha to an Orthodox Christian. We know from experience that this is not simply the great feast of all feasts but the axis on which the Church calendar turns and the revelation of the greatest of all mysteries: that the grave does not have the last word. In a famous poem, Dylan Thomas said that we ought not to go silently “into that good night” but rather should “rage, rage against the falling of the light.” But Pascha reveals to us the truth is that the “good night” of death leads not to non-being, as Dylan Thomas seems to fear, but into Christ’s presence and, with him, a transfigured life more radiant than anything we can imagine.

Here is how the great Irish saint, the abbess Bridget, speaks of what awaits us. A text that seems especially apt in a conference in Belgian, home of the world’s best beer:

“I should like a great lake of beer for the King of Kings. I should like the angels of Heaven to be drinking it through time eternal. I should like excellent meats of belief and pure piety. I should like threshers of penance at my house. I should like the men of Heaven at my house; I should like barrels of peace at their disposal. I should like vessels of charity for distribution. I should like for them cellars of mercy. I should like cheerfulness to be in their drinking. I should like Jesus to be there among them. I should like the three Marys of illustrious renown to be with us. I should like the people of Heaven, the poor, to be gathered around us from all parts.”

The first Orthodox Pascha I participated in was in Kiev in 1986. I think it was only that night that I fully realized that Christ’s resurrection was a fact, and even more than a fact. Facts you can find in history books and newspapers. Here was an encounter with something far truer and more basic than the table of elements or the rules of geometry.

The next day, Bright Monday, I attended Vespers and heard a remarkable Paschal sermon that, with my translator’s help, I managed to write down.

“Today we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and we rejoice in it. And we see in it not only his resurrection but our resurrection. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the same as our resurrection. We believe that. We believe that in Christ each one of us will stand up.

“Many people do not believe in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ or in the Resurrection of anyone. I don’t want to give them proof or argue with them. The main thing about their conviction, the thing their unbelief is founded on, is that it’s impossible for a dead person to come back to life. How can it happen? How can something that is just dust and bones live again? And what about bodies that are now only ashes? Or were cut into many pieces? Or were eaten by beasts or fish? How can such people’s bodies be made whole and come back to life? Our brain can’t overcome this dilemma. How is it possible?
“But then we can ask another question: What about everything that exists? All this beauty? There are so many things we don’t understand and can’t explain. Most things we can’t explain. What do you think? Isn’t this huge miracle we live in as big a miracle as the resurrection? Do you think creation is easier than resurrection? If God is strong enough to create everything from nothing, to create the whole world and the whole universe, do you think it is difficult to resurrect what he has already created?

“So don’t be discouraged by anyone who says it’s impossible. God has the power to create everything.

“So, brothers and sisters, we believe in eternal life. But it isn’t an easy belief. It is a belief that gives us responsibilities. We have to realize that each person, whether or not he wants God, must answer to God for his life — what he did, what didn’t do. He must stand judgment.

“It is a weakness not to believe in eternal life. Even if you don’t believe, it is no justification when you stand before God with sins and horrible deeds. Don’t imagine that you will be unjudgeable.

“Our people have lived by great ideals. The big ideal that has been living in our people for a thousand years is to live in God’s truth. Not human truth. God’s truth. Our ancestors mostly wanted to live according to God’s truth. They suffered greatly. Many terrible things happened. There were dreadful persons. But somehow, no matter what sorrows there were, they were still trying to live according to God’s truth.

“We need this too. God’s truth has to lead us. We have to have a spiritual life even if we are surrounded by an unspiritual life. We need to have Christian families even if we are surrounded by families that are breaking down. We need to work hard and sincerely, not for praise or money, but for the heart and soul of our neighbors. We have to work for our people.

“Let us not think about bread for ourselves. Bread is something we need, yes, but the person who thinks about bread for himself has lost the spiritual dimension of life. But if he thinks of bread for his neighbors, then he is leading a spiritual life — a life of love, a life of caring for others. This is the spiritual life.

“The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is not only a joy for us, it is a great responsibility and a great task. It leads us to prepare for the Last Judgment. Let the Resurrection fill our hearts with belief in eternal life so that truth can take root in our hearts. Let us not only think about it in our minds but feel it in our hearts.”

* * *

The Spiritual Development of Thomas Merton

Lecture to be given 10 March 2017 at Koningshoeven Abbey (Berkel-Enschot, North Brabant)

By Jim Forest

To provide an overview of the spiritual development of Thomas Merton in the course of a single lecture is, of course, an impossible task, like offering a sixty-minute tour of Rome, but it is possible in the time available to look at a few aspects of Merton’s spiritual development in areas in which my life and his intersected.

Let me very briefly recall how Merton and I came into contact with each other.

I had left the U.S. Navy as a conscientious objector in the spring of 1961 and, at the invitation of Dorothy Day, joined the Catholic Worker community in New York City. Dorothy already knew of the special interest I had in the writings of Thomas Merton and shared with me several of his letters to her. Initially I had been quite surprised that they were in correspondence with each other as the idea I had of Merton, as the 1960s began, was that he personified a radical monastic withdrawal from “the world” (in quotation marks) while Dorothy Day was the personification of engagement with the world. And yet I sensed, if only thanks to my attraction of both their writings, that there is no such thing as Christianity apart from the world. I came to appreciate that, albeit living in quite different circumstances, Merton and Dorothy Day had a great deal in common.

One sees in Merton’s journals and letters in the late fifties a growing awareness of the danger of a new world war, one far more destructive then all other wars ever fought combined, given the factor of nuclear weapons. Let me read to you an extract from a letter Merton sent to Erich Fromm in 1955:

I feel that the blindness of men to the terrifying issue [of nuclear war] we have to face is one of the most discouraging possible signs for the future…. Fear has driven people so far into the confusion of mass-thinking that they no longer see anything except in a kind of dim dream. What a population of zombies we are! What can be expected of us? …. It seems to me that the human race as a whole is on the verge of a crime that will be second to no other except the crucifixion of Christ and it will, if it happens, be very much the same crime all over again. And then, as now, religious people are involved on the guilty side. What we are about to do is “destroy” God over again in His image, the human race…. Any person who pretends to love God in this day, and has lost his sense of the value of humanity, has also lost his sense of God without knowing it. I believe that we are facing the consequences of several centuries of more and more abstract thinking, more and more unreality in our grasp of values. We have reached such a condition that now we are unable to appreciate the meaning of being alive, of being able to think, to make decisions, to love.

Little by little Merton’s life was reshaped by his awareness that it was neither Christian nor monastic to turn a blind eye toward the endangered world and its troubles.

In his journals and lettersof this same period Merton records several intense experiences — we can call them mystical experiences — of God opening his eyes in a life-changing way. Perhaps the most significant of these happened on the 18th of March, 1958. On an errand that brought him to Louisville, Merton was standing at a busy downtown intersection waiting for the light to change:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream…. This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud … It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which mad writermakes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake…. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun…. There are no strangers…. If only we could see each other [as we really are] all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…. I suppose the big problem is that we would fall down and worship each other…. [T]he gate of heaven is everywhere.

This awakening marked the opening of a greater compassion within Merton, and at the same time it heightened his sense of responsibility to do what he could as a monk and writer to awake others, first of all fellow Christians, to do whatever could be done to prevent war. The consequences in his own life became obvious in the decade that followed.

In late August 1961, Merton wrote in his journal:

I have been considering the possibility of writing a kind of statement —”where I stand,” as a declaration of my position as a Christian, a writer and a priest in the present war crisis. There seems to be little I can do other than this. There is no other activity available to me…. If I can say something clear and positive it may be of some use to others as well as to myself. This statement would be for the Catholic Worker. As a moral decision, I think this might possibly be a valid step toward fulfilling my obligations as a human being…

Two or three weeks later Dorothy received Merton’s first-ever prose submission to The Catholic Worker, “The Root of War Is Fear.” It turned out to be a chapter from the book he was then writing, New Seeds of Contemplation, which was a revised and expanded edition of an earlier work, Seeds of Contemplation. This particular chapter had been just a few pages in the earlier edition, its meditative paragraphs only loosely connected. Merton had now transformed it into a ten-page chapter that contained only fragments from the earlier version.

One of the many additions was a comment on the cold-war mentality — the tendency of Americans to see only the best and purest motives in ourselves and to ascribe the very worst motives to our adversaries. As Merton put it:

In our refusal to accept the partially good intentions of others and work with them (of course prudently and with resignation to the inevitable imperfection of the result) we are unconsciously proclaiming our own malice, our own intolerance, our own lack of realism and political quackery.

Merton asked:

What is the use of postmarking our mail with exhortations to ‘pray for peace’ and then spending billions of dollars on atomic submarines, thermonuclear weapons, and ballistic missiles? This, I would think, would certainly be what the New Testament calls ‘mocking God’ — and mocking Him far more effectively than atheists do.… Consider the utterly fabulous amount of money, planning, energy, anxiety and care which go into the production of weapons which almost immediately become obsolete and have to be scrapped. Contrast all this with the pitiful little gesture ‘pray for peace’ piously canceling our stamps!… It does not even seem to enter our minds 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 planning to annihilate not thousands but millions of civilians and soldiers, men, women and children without discrimination.… It may make sense for a sick man to pray for health and then take medicine, but I fail to see any sense at all in his praying for health and then drinking poison.

In a two-page preface to the chapter written especially for The Catholic Worker, Merton made a call for action: “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.”

In this hard struggle, Merton saw the Church as being called to play a prominent part promoting nonviolent alternatives to conflict, leading the way “on the road to the nonviolent settlement of difficulties and toward the gradual abolition of war as the way of settling international or civil disputes. Christians must become active in every possible way, mobilizing all their resources for the fight against war.”

Not a great many people in the American Catholic Church in those days were ready to say “amen” to such ideas. In fact even now, half a century later, Merton’s words remain strong stuff, but in the climate of the time, when to display an interest in peacemaking or social justice could easily result in one being labeled a “Communist sympathizer” if not an outright “Red,” Merton was really putting his neck on the chopping block. That such thoughts should come from the most widely read Catholic author of his generation was more than startling.

We placed “The Root of War” essay on page one of the October issue alongside a drawing of Saint Francis of Assisi. The Catholic Worker version of this chapter, comments William Shannon in his anthology of Merton’s social essays, Passion for Peace, “marked the initial and definitive entry of Thomas Merton into the struggle against war.”

Shortly afterward Merton wrote in his journal:

I am perhaps at a turning point in my spiritual life: perhaps slowly coming to a point of maturation and the resolution of doubts — and the forgetting of fears. Walking in to a known and definite battle. May God protect me in it. The Catholic Worker sent out a press release about my article, which may have many reactions — or may have none. At any rate it appears that I am one of the few Catholic priests in the country who has come out unequivocally for a completely intransigent fight for the abolition of war, for the use of nonviolent means to settle international conflicts. Hence by implication not only against the bomb, against nuclear testing, against Polaris [nuclear-armed] submarines but against all violence. This I will inevitably have to explain in due course. Nonviolent action, not mere passivity. How I am going to explain myself and defend a definite position in a timely manner when it takes at least two months to get even a short article through the censors of the Order is a question I cannot attempt to answer….

At least I feel clean for having stated what is certainly the true Christian position. Not that self-defense is not legitimate, but there are wider perspectives than that and we have to see them. It is not possible to solve our problems on the basis of “every man for himself” and saving your own skin by killing the first person who threatens it….

I am happy that I have turned a corner, perhaps the last corner in my life.

At Dorothy Day’s encouragement, I wrote to Merton. To my astonishment he responded. In his first letter, he mentioned that he had said the Mass in Time of War that morning. It definitely wasn’t, he said, a “belligerent Mass.” It fails to ask that anyone “be struck down.” Merton pointed out that “nowhere in [the text of the Mass] are there promises of blessings upon the strong and the unscrupulous or the violent.” The text, he said, suggested that “we shut up and be humble and stay put and trust in God and hope for a peace that we can use for the good of our souls.”

One sees a great deal of Merton’s basic outlook in that short letter. If he wasn’t in fact shutting up, he was attempting to speak as a Christian monk, with humility and clarity, and with trust that God would somehow find ways to make good use of our efforts for the good of everyone’s souls.

Regarding how a Christian should respond to war and what it might mean to be a peacemaker, Merton’s point of entry was deeply rooted in the primary sources of Christian life — the Gospel and other biblical writings, the Mass plus all the offices of prayer that were an integral part of monastic life, and the lives and writings of the saints.

At Merton’s invitation, in January 1962 I hitchhiked to the Abbey of Gethsemani where Merton gave me a warm welcome, seeing me daily until I left for New York to take part in a protest against U.S. resumption of the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons.

As I discovered during that first week-long visit to the monastery, Merton’s attitude toward war was not shared by all his brother monks. One of them, seeing Merton and me walking together, demonstrated his opinion of The Catholic Worker, and of Merton’s writing for that journal, by compressing the latest issue into a ball about the size of a tangerine and hurling it into the garbage can that he happened to be standing next to.

While wandering about monastery guest house, I found a small booklet for sale that had to do with war and was addressed to young men like myself. It gives a much more typical impression of American Catholic thinking about war and soldiering in those days. The author, Father Raymond Flanagan, was the community’s other noted author, the very monk who had thrown The Catholic Worker into the trash. I paraphrase from memory, but the text began along these lines:

“So, you’ve received an induction order and have to report for an Army physical? Well, there’s nothing to worry about. Only two things can happen. You either pass or you fail. So, you’ve passed your physical and you have to serve in the Army? Well, there’s nothing to worry about. Only two things can happen. You’re either sent into combat or you are assigned behind the lines. So, you’re sent into combat? Well, there’s nothing to worry about. Only two things can happen. You’re either injured or you’re not injured. So, you’re injured in combat? Now there’s something to worry about — you either recover or you die. So, it turns out to be a dead;y injury and you die? Now at last there is something to worry about. You either go to heaven or you go to hell.”

The rest of the text was an exhortation to the hell-avoiding soldier not to curse or use profanities, not to commit fornication, to go confession regularly, to fast on Fridays, and to attend Mass on Sunday and Holy Days of Obligation. The Catholic soldier, if he practiced purity of mouth and genitals and fulfilled his religious duties, could look forward to heaven. The author had nothing to say about the love of enemies. He offered no cautions about the possible abuse of obedience by the state or the soldier’s superiors. He said nothing about a soldier’s obligations to respect the lives of the innocent and to refuse participation in war crimes. While the author clearly believed in hell, not a word was said about war itself being hell.

What stood behind the turning in Merton’s mind that made the issue of war and peace so important, that he felt compelled to write about it? What led him to start publishing articles on these matters in such journals as The Catholic Worker? Or to write Cold War Letters and Peace in the Post-Christian Era? Or to play, as he did during the last four years of his life, an important role in developing the work of the Catholic Peace Fellowship?

It was a slow process with deep roots. There were many turning points in the development of Merton’s thinking about the world and his place in it.

Surely the beginning was with his anti-war parents. His New Zealand born father, Owen, was one of the relatively few men of war-fighting age not to take part in World War I or to have any sympathy with it. He had opted to leave France, Tom’s birthplace, and go to the U.S. because in France even foreigners like were subject to the draft. As would be the case with his son, Owen was immune to propaganda, recruiting posters and military songs. So was his American-born wife, Ruth, who had become a Quaker. For Merton, failing to march to the drumbeat of war was something of a family tradition.

While Ruth Merton had died too young for Merton — who was only eight at the time — to understand or be directly influenced by her pacifist religious convictions, his father’s influence was considerable. Though he was put off by churches, which did little to remind Owen of Christ, Owen took Christ’s teachings very much to heart.

“I shall never forget,” Merton wrote in The Seven Storey Mountain, “a casual remark Father happened to make [to me as a boy] in which he told me of Saint Peter’s betrayal of Christ, and how, on hearing the cock crow, Peter went out and wept bitterly. … We were just talking casually, standing in the hall of the flat we had taken. … I have never lost the vivid picture I got, at that moment, of Peter going out and weeping bitterly.”

Merton recalled another occasion when Owen expressed indignation with a woman who had been speaking hatefully of a neighbor. “He asked her why she thought Christ had told people to love their enemies. Did she suppose God commanded this for His benefit? Did he get anything out of it that he really needed from us? Or was it rather for our own good that he had given us this commandment? [Father] told her that if she had any sense, she would love other people if only for the sake of the good and health and peace of her own soul.”

There was also some influence from Gandhi. In the fall of 1930, Tom, then a fifteen-year-old student at a residential high school in England, took Gandhi’s side in a school debate, arguing that India had every right to demand its freedom from Britain. Later in his life, Merton came to see Gandhi’s use of nonviolent methods as a model for achieving justice without resorting to violence or incitement to hatred and edited a small book of selections from Gandhi’s writings.

Far more important was Merton’s encounter with Christ three years later, age eighteen, when he was on a solo visit to Rome. While the religious artwork of later periods tended to leave Merton cold, the Byzantine mosaic icons that he found in many of the city’s oldest churches arrested his attention in a way that triggered within Merton a profound sense of the actual presence of Christ — not simply a legendary teacher who had lived in the days of the Caesars, been crucified and buried, but someone still living.

“For the first time in my whole life,” Merton wrote in The Seven Storey Mountain, “I began to find out something of who this Person was that men call Christ. It was obscure, but it was a true knowledge of Him. But it was in Rome that my conception of Christ was formed. It was there I first saw Him, Whom I now serve as my God and my King, and who owns and rules my life. It is the Christ of the Apocalypse, the Christ of the Martyrs, the Christ of the Fathers. It is the Christ of Saint John, and of Saint Paul, and of Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome and all the Fathers, and the Desert Fathers. It is Christ God, Christ King.”

This seems to have been Merton’s first mystical experience, in the sense of an experience of the living reality of God and of Jesus risen from the dead. From that period of his life until his death, Christ remained for Merton not simply “a historical person,” as he explained in a letter to a Quaker correspondent, “but an interior presence in light, which is the glory of the transfigured Christ, the experience of which is transmitted in faith from generation to generation by those who have ‘seen,’ from the Apostles on down.”

It is one thing to study Christ and the Gospel, as one might study Plato and his books, and another thing to know — at least begin to know — that Christ rose from the dead and is the Lord of Creation — that he is “Christ God, Christ King.” Such an event in one’s life may take years to be fully integrated, as was the case with Merton, but it shapes choices and decisions for the rest of one’s life. Merton’s conversion and reception into the Catholic Church came only a few years later.

Another factor was Merton’s experience, after finishing his studies at Columbia University, of doing volunteer work at Friendship House, a house of hospitality in Harlem, a black section of upper Manhattan. One of the hardest decisions Merton made as a young adult was choosing between work of that kind, in the poorest and most densely populated area of Manhattan, and going to the monastery. Harlem brought home to him the neglected beauty of people who had been marginalized by racism.

All the while, in the background of the choices Merton was wrestling with, was the widening war in Europe. Only one novel Merton wrote in that period has survived. It was finally published in 1968 with the title, The Journal of My Escape from the Gestapo. The text throws light on Merton decision to be a conscientious objector. “My sins have done this,” he wrote. “Hitler is not the only one who has started this war: I have my share in it too.” Devout Catholic that Merton had become, he understood that there are threads of connection between the relatively minor sins each person commits and the calamities of the world.

In writing The Seven Storey Mountain, with the dust of World War II still settling, Merton thought it important to write at length about his conviction that Christian response to war ought to reflect the example of Christ, who neither took part in war nor blessed his followers to do so. What would have happened if tens of thousands of German Christians had refused military service? It is interesting to note that the western Christian theological tradition of the “just war” was not of special interest to Merton and goes unmentioned. His question was simply: What would Christ do? Would he shoot others or drop bombs on them? Merton found it impossible to say yes.

It isn’t surprising that, just as America was entering World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Merton gave up his teaching job at St. Bonaventure’s College, gave away what little he had, traveled to Kentucky and entered the monastery.

The early years of his monastic life were years of formation. The world beyond the monastic enclosure seemed far away, though even then there were many reminders of the suffering of others and the death of many. Among the casualties of the war in Europe was Merton’s brother, John Paul, who had joined the Canadian Royal Air Force.

Merton came to look back on some aspects of his early monastic formation as flawed. The border between the world and the monastery had seemed a kind of chasm — the monk belonging to a holier species of being. Merton had allowed himself to think of monastic life not just as a form of Christian life but as the truest and best model of Christian life. He had felt free to regard “the world” with contempt rather than compassion.

During the fifties, in a gradual conversion of attitude, Merton came to see the monastic vocation as an authentic Christian option without any longer regarding it as the highest tier of Christian life. For each person, what was important was to embrace whatever vocation God intended for you, and do so wholeheartedly. No one, simply by virtue of his vocation, however “religious” it may seem to be, has a special entrance to heaven or goes to the front of the line by virtue of wearing monastic robes.

No less than any Christian, Merton realized, the monk is called to love his neighbor, and that love can at times require dissent and protest of events and structures that endanger life and make it hellish. Merton writes of his new understanding in the preface to  Seeds of Destruction: “The contemplative life is not, and cannot be, a mere withdrawal, a pure negation, a turning of one’s back on the world with all its sufferings, its crises, its confusions and its errors.”

From about 1958 onward, we see in Merton’s journals how far he had moved from the “enclosed mentality” of the early years of his monastic life. He found himself dismayed with the “loud bluster” of his early poems in which, even more than in the prose of the same period, he ranted about the “futility of ‘the world’.”

Merton felt a growing sense of connection with ordinary people and a deep gratitude for such lay Catholics as Dorothy Day, with whom he began corresponding in 1959. Here was a person whose life was a continuing response to Christ’s words, “What you have done to the least person, you have done to me.”

Merton notes that the “refusal of all political commitments is absurd.” In a letter to Dorothy Day, he told her, “I don’t feel that I can in conscience, at a time like this, go on writing just about things like meditation, though that has its point. I cannot just bury my head in a lot of rather tiny and secondary monastic studies either. I think I have to face the big issues, the life-and-death issues: and this is what everyone is afraid of.”

By 1961 Merton saw himself not only as a voice for the contemplative life but understood the contemplative life as inspiring a compassionate response to threats to life and a shield against dehumanization and propaganda.

His spiritual journey was taking a turn not welcomed either by his religious superiors or, for that matter, by all of his readers. How thin the ice that Merton had stepped out upon was soon made clear. Six months later after “The Root of War is Fear” was published in The Catholic Worker, the head of the Trappist order, Dom Gabriel Sortais, ordered Merton to stop writing on the topic of war and peace. But in that half-year period, and despite the obstacles of censorship within the Trappist order, Merton had managed to publish a flurry of peace essays.

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

Beneath the surface of the disagreement between Merton and his Abbot General was a different conception of the identity and mission of the Church and its monastic component. “The vitality of the Church depends precisely on spiritual renewal, uninterrupted, continuous, and deep,” Merton said in the same letter. “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.”

Those silencing him, he went on, regarded the monk as someone appointed not to see or hear anything new but “to support the already existing viewpoints … [The monk] has no other function, then, except perhaps to pray for what he is told to pray for: namely the purposes and the objectives of an ecclesiastical bureaucracy. … He must be an eye that sees nothing except what is carefully selected for him to see. An ear that hears nothing except what it is advantageous for the managers for him to hear. We know what Christ said about such ears and eyes.”

Despite his profound disagreement with the Abbot General’s order, Merton chose to obey. “In my own particular case,” he explained to me in another letter, disobedience and public protest “would backfire and be fruitless. It would be taken as a witness against the peace movement and would confirm these people in all the depth of their prejudices and their self complacency. It would reassure them in every possible way that they are incontrovertibly right and make it even more impossible for them ever to see any kind of new light on the subject. And in any case I am not merely looking for opportunities to blast off. I can get along without it.”

As events unfolded, Merton wasn’t altogether silenced. He was able to publish two books, Peace in the Post-Christian Era and Cold War Letters, in non-commercial, mimeographed editions that, as often happens with banned books, were all the more carefully read and shared by those who managed to obtain copies. Merton also wrote and published new pieces on war and peace under such pen names and Benedict Monk and Benedict Moore. Merton’s banned peace writings were circulated among the bishops and theologians taking part in the Second Vatican Council and played a part in shaping the Council’s final document, The Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, in which the Council’s one and only condemnation is included: “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.” This solemn declaration was the most dramatic vindication of what Merton had been advocating and seeking.

If for the time being Merton was unable to publish his peace writings in book form, one of the doors that remained wide open for Merton was that of correspondence. Through correspondence, Merton became a source of encouragement and dialogue for a many people, for some a spiritual father, as he certainly was for me.

What is striking about all his letters is how free they are from jargon. Merton was not an ideological person. He hated slogans whether religious or political. Neither was he self-righteous nor did he seek to remake others in his own image. While he believed following Christ ideally involved for us, as it did for the first Christians, a renunciation of all killing, he didn’t deny the possibility that just wars might have occurred in earlier times, when the technology of warfare didn’t inevitably cause numerous noncombatant casualties, and might occur in the modern context in the case of oppressed people fighting for their liberation. But, as he wrote Dorothy Day in 1962, the issue of the just war “is pure theory…. In practice all the wars that are [happening] … are shot through and through with evil, falsity, injustice, and sin so much so that one can only with difficulty extricate the truths that may be found here and there in the ’causes’ for which the fighting is going on.”

As was made clear in his letters and other writings, what he found valuable in the just-war tradition was its insistence that evil must be actively opposed, and it was this that drew him to Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Hildegard and Jean Goss, and groups involved in active nonviolent struggle for social justice such as the Catholic Worker and the Catholic Peace Fellowship.

What was often missing in protest movements, Merton pointed out, was compassion for those who disagreed or felt threatened by protest. Those involved in protest tend to become enraged with those they see as being responsible for injustice and violence and even toward those who uphold the status quo. But without compassion, Merton pointed out, the protester tends to become more and more centered in anger and may easily become an obstacle to changing the attitudes of others. As he put it in one letter to me, “We have to have a deep patient compassion for the fears of men, for the fears and irrational mania of those who hate or condemn us. … [These are, after all] the ordinary people, the ones who don’t want war, the ones who get it in the neck, the ones who really want to build a decent new world in which there will not be war and starvation.”

Beyond compassion, there is love. Without love of opponents and enemies, neither personal nor social transformation can occur. Neither can we call ourselves Christians. As Merton wrote to Dorothy Day:

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

At the heart of Merton’s writings on peacemaking was his emphasis on the spiritual life that must sustain peace service. In another letter, he reminded me: “[What is needed is a] complete change of heart and [a] totally new outlook on the world …. The great problem is this inner change. … [Any peace action has] to be regarded … as an application of spiritual force and not the use of merely political pressure. We all have the great duty to realize the deep need for purity of soul, that is to say the deep need to possess in us the Holy Spirit, to be possessed by Him. This takes precedence over everything else.”

Merton was convinced that engagement was made stronger by detachment. Not to be confused with disinterest in achieving results, detachment meant knowing that no good action is wasted even if the immediate consequences are altogether different from what one hoped to achieve. In a letter on this theme, he advised me:

Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing … an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end … it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything…. As for the big results are not in your hands or mine, but they can suddenly happen, and we can share in them: but there is no point in building our lives on this personal satisfaction, which may be denied us and which after all is not that important.… The real hope … is not in something we think we can do, but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see. If we can do His will, we will be helping in this process. But we will not necessarily know all about it beforehand.

Merton himself didn’t live to see the results of his efforts for peace. The war in Vietnam was raging when he flew to Asia in September, 1968. On December 10th, just after addressing a conference of Trappist and Benedictine monks and nuns meeting near Bangkok, Merton died.

Merton’s was an untimely and tragic death — he was only 53 — and yet for the corpse of a peacemaker to be sent home as part of a cargo of dead bodies, all the others being soldiers who had died in the Vietnam War, seemed somehow appropriate. These strangers, victims of war and of an ill-judged policy, were among those whom Merton had come to see as brothers.

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text as of 7 March 2017
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Jim Forest’s books include Living With Wisdom: a life of Thomas Merton and The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice for Peacemakers.

A Bishop Who Stood in the Way

Metropolitan Kirill

by Jim Forest

In 1941, after a period of neutrality, Bulgaria allied itself with Nazi Germany. This was a decision partly motivated by the Bulgarian government’s wish to regain neighboring territories that it had lost in previous wars.

Early in 1943, the government in Sofia signed a secret agreement with the Nazis to deport 20,000 Jews. The deportations started with Jews in the annexed territories.

Between March 4 and March 11 of that year, soldiers rounded up thousands of Jews and prepared boxcars to take them to the Treblinka extermination camp in occupied Poland, where approximately 850,000 people, almost all Jews, perished.

Word of the planned deportation leaked out, triggering protests throughout Bulgaria. Opposing the deportation, Vice President of Parliament Dimitar Peshev managed to force its temporary cancellation, but it was only a brief delay.

On March 10, boxcars were loaded with 8,500 Jews, including 1,500 from the city of Plovdiv. The bishop of Plovdiv, Metropolitan Kirill (later Patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church), along with 300 church members, showed up at the station where the Jews were awaiting transport. Kirill pushed through the SS officers guarding the area. His authority and courage were such that no one dared stop him as he made his way to the Jews inside the boxcars.

According to some accounts, as he reached them, he shouted a text from the Book of Ruth: “Wherever you go, I will go! Wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your God, my God!”

Kirill, whose protest had the blessing of Metropolitan Stephan of Sofia, the highest ranking Bulgarian Church official during the Hitler years, opened one of the boxcars in which Jews had been packed like sardines and tried to get inside, but now SS officers stopped him. However, when one door is locked, often another is left open. Kirill next walked to the front of the train, declaring he would lie down on the tracks if the train started to move.

News of Metropolitan Kirill’s act of civil disobedience spread quickly. Some 42 members of Parliament rebelled against the government. Leaders of all the political parties sent protests to the government and the King. The next day the Jews were freed and returned to their homes.

The struggle was not over. On April 15, King Boris arranged a meeting of the Holy Synod at his palace to persuade the bishops to support anti-Jewish policy and the Nazi deportation plans. “After all,” he said, “other countries have dealt the same way with the ‘Jewish Problem’.” He called upon the patriotism of the Church to accept the laws enacted by the Parliament, but his counsel was rejected by Metropolitans Stephan, Kirill and other Synod members.

In May, Sofia’s Jews received deportation orders to the countryside. The Jewish community’s two chief rabbis, Daniel Zion and Asher Hannanel, asked Metropolitan Stephan to shelter them and pleaded for the cancellation of the deportation order. Stephan sent a number of messages to the King, pleading for him to have mercy on the Jews. “Do not persecute,” he wrote, “so that you, yourself, will not be persecuted. The measure you give will be the measure returned to you. I know, Boris, that God in heaven is keeping watch over your actions.”

The sudden death of King Boris in September 1943 stopped the deportation attempts once and for all.

At the beginning of World War II, the Jewish population of Bulgaria was 48,000. At the end it was 50,000, making Bulgaria the only country under Nazi rule to end the war with more Jews than at the beginning.

Metropolitan Stephan entered eternal life in 1957, and Metropolitan Kirill in 1971.

In 2003, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem recognized both bishops as Righteous Among the Nations.

Spring 2009 issue of In Communion, journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship / IC 53

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Some reservations about Plowshare actions

February 12, 1993

Dear friends at the Los Angeles Catholic Worker,

I was one of the Milwaukee 14, a group that burned draft records in 1968. This was the action that followed the Catonsville Nine. The discussion of Plowshares-style property damage and destruction in the November issue of The Catholic Agitator really got me thinking.

One of the essential elements in property destruction actions is secrecy. If you tell them you’re coming, they won’t let you in. It’s that simple. The only way around it is to take pains not to be expected. You are obliged to be secretive. There are events in life where secrecy is necessary, even contexts in which life-saving actions are difficult or even impossible unless there is secrecy. For example here in Holland, my home since 1977, you had to be highly secretive about the people you were hiding during the period of German occupation.

My guess is that even in circumstances where the only way to save life and struggle against evil powers is to live and operate in secrecy, everyone pays a price. What I noticed in the resistance groups I was a part during the last five or six years of the Vietnam War was how much suspicion there was within the groups. Inevitably there were worries about FBI infiltrators. So time and again the question was, “Is so-and-so for real? Can so-and-so be trusted?” Various people were suspected of working for the FBI. Some were forced out of the groups they were a part of. (I still correspond with one these, a guy who was very embittered by the experience and in whom the scars left remain visible.)

Eventually, in courtrooms, it became absolutely clear who the actual informers were. Personally, I don’t recall the people suspected of spying ever having been the right people. Ironically, sometimes it was people who had been trusted the most who turned out to be helping the FBI. (Think of Boyd Douglas, mailman for Phil Berrigan and Liz McAlister, in the Harrisburg case.)

So we are talking about forms of action in which secrecy is a given and about the suspicion that secrecy, of its nature, generates, and the possibility, even likelihood, that considerable interpersonal damage may be the consequence of misdirected suspicion. This ought to make us very careful about getting involved in actions where secrecy is essential.

To plan actions of this type requires secrecy — and that in turn inspires distrust and suspicion. Also some of the actions that followed the “hit and stay” sort that I took part in made me question what we had done. We stood around and took full public responsibility for what we did, welcoming the trial and whatever consequences came our way. Later draft board actions tended to become “hit and run” actions done anonymously. From my point of view what we had started gradually devolved into a form of politically-motivated vandalism, albeit for praiseworthy purposes.

Another issue that must be considered: Things rarely go as planned. In the case of the Milwaukee action, I am still troubled by the cleaning woman — an elderly Ukrainian refugee — who discovered us emptying files inside the draft boards and wanted to call the police. Two members of the group gently but firmly restrained her. She became hysterical. What if we had caused her to have a heart attack? What if she had died?

Another problem that increasingly bothered me was the way in which people were at times manipulated — “guilt-tripped” was the term in those days — into taking part in high-risk actions. This is not only a problem of actions aimed at property destruction but just about any acts of civil disobedience. Any group involved in trying to get other people to take part in anything is going to have to struggle with the temptation to become manipulative. But it struck me that this form of civil disobedience came to involve a lot of guilt-tripping. For one thing we had people who tended to talk about actions in which there was a likelihood of long prison sentences as being “Serious.” As in: “Are you ready to take part in a Serious action?” One felt the capital S in the way such questions were asked. Anything that didn’t involve imprisonable risks was less than serious if not inconsequential. Individual conscience was being pushed to the sidelines.

As I see it, we are in the permanently awkward position of having to work out within ourselves who we are and what God calls us to do with our unique mixture of gifts and tendencies. This involves ongoing struggle with not only demands that governments may make but also our peers and heroes, and that last part is often even more difficult. The most important thing I can possibly do is what God leads me to, which may seem unimportant to others, even to those whom I most admire. But if I do otherwise, however useless or irrelevant or unimportant or meager it seems, I am leaving my conscience behind.

The shaping of one’s conscience is about as hard a piece of work as I can think of. It’s the search for one’s real identity, finding out who we really are. It’s finding out what it would be like to fully recover ourselves as being made in the image and likeness of God.

A question raised by all this is, of course, what do we make of Jesus throwing the money changers out of the Temple? Is this a model of Christian resistance to militarism? In this regard, the question for Catholic Workers isn’t what anyone else might have thought, or is thinking now, but what does it mean to follow Jesus?

It is a lightning-like event in Christ’s life: turning over the tables of commerce in a place of worship and using a whip to drive away the money changers. If the story does nothing else, it should at least shave away the sugar-coating that often gets put on Jesus. The Lamb of God breathed fire.

Yet it’s striking to notice that Jesus didn’t enter the armories of the Roman occupiers or their collaborators. He didn’t even disarm his own disciples. At the time Jesus was arrested, Peter had a sword. Jesus healed the injury Peter caused and told his followers that whoever takes up the sword will die by the sword. (I suppose Peter intended to strike a deadly blow in Jesus’ defense, but all he did was chop off an ear; it seems Peter wasn’t very skilled in handling weapons. In the gospels we hear no more of Peter’s using a weapon. He seems to have throen away his sword that night and never got another.)

The point is that Jesus didn’t force Peter or anyone to be disarmed.

At present there is no military draft — thus no more occasion to destroy draft records. Instead a “plowshares movement” has emerged aimed at damaging weapons, especially weapons of mass destruction. Some of these actions have helped raise awareness important questions. Yet I wonder if the damage caused makes it any more likely that the people who make the weapons or want them are brought closer to disarmament by their action? I can imagine that if I had a gun and someone damaged it or stole it from me, I would be inclined to get another and maybe even two. I think I might become more suspicious, more afraid, more dependent on police and armies.

I understand that for those now in prison for Plowshare actions raising such questions probably makes for hard reading. I can recall writing to Dorothy from prison, taking issue with her criticisms of draft record burning. I didn’t change her mind, but it was always clear that she had a profound sympathy for what motivated people like me, which centered on saving lives, and that the disagreements she expressed never made any of us feel rejected.

In any event very little we do is beyond criticism. Much good often comes from actions that are far from perfect.

friendly greetings,

Jim Forest

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