Knock knock… Is your life complete?

knock-knockBy Jim Forest

>> Dutch MPs on Wednesday held their first debate on the government’s plans to legalise assisted suicide for elderly people who consider their lives to be complete. The proposal follows years of discussion in parliament and in society at large about the right of people who consider their lives have reached the end to die peacefully. Outlining the plans earlier this month, health minister Edith Schippers and justice minister Ard van de Steur said people who feel their ‘life has been completed’ should get the legal right to die with the help of a specialist care worker. (DutchNews, item dated 27 October 2016) <<

Specialist Care Worker: Knock knock…

Hans Bakker, senior citizen, 75 years old: Come in.

SCW: Hi! I’m Annet van Dam. I wonder if you could help me with a little survey I’m doing?

HB: Yes, of course. Come in. Have a cup of coffee.

(coffee is served)

SCW: Mister van Dam, we are trying to find out how many people regard their lives as complete. Would you say your life is complete?

HB: What do you mean by complete?

SCW: First of all are you still working?

HB: Oh no, I retired ten years ago.

SCW: And you’re not looking for a job?

HB: I wouldn’t mind going back to work, just part time, but there really are no jobs for people my age, especially if you have some health issues as I do.

SCW: Then one could say that the work part of your life really is complete. Let me take note of that. And what about plans for the future? Do you have any plans for travel?

HB: Well, my retirement income travel is pretty limited. Also I have to use a cane. Occasionally I get to the zoo. But I don’t mind. I did quite a lot of traveling when I was younger. Of course my wife was still alive in those days.

SCW: So you could say, in terms of travel, that you’re life is pretty much complete?

HB: Yes, that’s true.

SCW: I’ll take note of that. Another question. Do you have grandchildren?

HB: Yes, three of them! Great kids…

SCW: Do you see much of them? Help with child care?

HB: Sadly, no. My son and his wife now live in Canada. We sometimes skype, but my computer isn’t working right now. I’d love to do more as a grandfather but I’m really not up to flying to Vancouver!

SCW: So one could say your life as a grandfather is pretty much complete?

HB: When you put it that way, yes.

(Ten more questions follow, each producing an agreement that, area by area, Hans Bakker’s life is complete.)

SCW: I hate to mention it, Mister Bakker, but you are costing the state a great deal of money yet it seems all you doing most of the time is watching television. It doesn’t seem quite fair to the taxpayer, does it? As you’ve said yourself, your life is complete.

HB: I sometimes think the same, on bad days. Sometimes I feel like a used car slowly rusting, ready for the junkyard.

SCW: I understand. But there is a solution, Mister Bakker. You have the right to decide whether you want to continue having those bad days. When your life is complete, well, you can let go of it. No more illness, no more worries. All you have to is sign here. We call it the “completion form”….

[Note: Nothing like this is happening in Holland today. But the news item is real. The debate is in progress.]

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28 October 2016

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Loving Our Enemies, Climbing the Ladder of the Beatitudes

Jim Forest (photo: Nikos Kosmidis)

Athens Lecture / 10 October 2016

By Jim Forest

Probably you know the British saying about carrying coals to Newcastle. It’s used to refer to something that is obviously unnecessary and pointless. Newcastle is a coal-mining city. It has no more need of coal than the Sahara Desert has need of sand.

Such sensible advice comes to mind when I consider my own situation here today — an American who has been transplanted to Holland talking with Greeks about the New Testament! The New Testament is Greek. Greeks are the only people in the world who, with but a little special education, can read the most sacred of texts in its original language.

Also I am aware that most if not all of you were born into Orthodox Christianity while I grew up in a culture in which the Orthodox Church is a fringe element. Speaking to Greeks about Orthodox Christianity, I am in danger of being like the boy who decides to teach his grandmother how to fry an egg.

So I speak to you with a certain hesitation, hoping for your patience, your kindness, your charity.

The Greek publisher Porphyra Books has in recent months done me the great honor of publishing two of my books, Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment and Ladder of the Beatitudes. I will attempt to say something about the themes of these books and in the process say a little about what led me, 28 years ago, to become an Orthodox Christian.

That journey, in fact, has partly to do with love of enemies.

left to right – Maria Kokkinou, publisher, Porphyra Editions; Jim Forest; Fr Vasileos Thermos, child psychiatrist and assistant professor of the Athens Ecclesiastical Academy; and Dr Pantelis Kalaitzidis, Director or the Volos Academy for Theological Studies

First a little history. I was not quite four years old when two American atom bombs destroyed two Japanese cities. This double war crime happened in August 1945. In the years and then decades that followed, thousands of nuclear weapons have been built. America’s monopoly on such weapons didn’t last long. During the Cold War, and even today, the nuclear-armed missiles and long-range bombers of both the US and the Soviet Union were kept — are still being kept — in a constant of readiness for use. World War III is never far away. Time and again in the past seventy years, the human race has been days and even minutes from a massive use of these most powerful weapons of mass destruction. It is a miracle that what has so often nearly happened has not yet happened.

But this is not a talk about the apocalypse. It is about love of enemies. In 1979, after seeing a Russian-made romantic movie called “Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears,” it occurred to me, as an American active in the peace movement, how odd it was that people like myself knew more about nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles than about the people at whom such weapons were targeted. The question arose in my mind: Might not the world be a slightly less dangerous place if we had more face-to-face contact with those whom we regarded as mortal enemies and whom we were prepared to kill by the millions? If we saw them as human beings instead of as gray political objects?

At the time this thought occurred to me, I was already a Christian, quite active in the Catholic Church, and I was of course familiar with Christ’s commandment that his followers were required to love their enemies. Yet — like all but a few Americans — I knew more about imaginary Martians than about actual Russians.

To make a long and complex story short, with the cooperation of the Moscow Patriarchate I ended up drawing on my background as a journalist in order to travel widely in the former Soviet Union, with my main focus on the Russian Orthodox Church. Many magazine articles resulted and also two books. The first, published in 1988, was Pilgrim to the Russian Church; the second, issued a year later, was Religion in the New Russia. For many readers these two books opened doors and windows into a world quite different than had been shown to them before by the mass media — a world in which, despite all the repression religious believers had faced, all the martyrdoms, all the suffering, a vital, even passionate spiritual life had survived. Making use of hundreds of interviews plus visits to churches, monasteries and theological schools, I was able to bear sober witness to the state of religious life in an immense country whose government had made a serious effort to destroy the Church, all other religious communities, and even the very idea of God.

If this were a lecture about the survival of Christianity in Russia, there would be many remarkable stories to tell, but let me limit myself to a conversation with an elderly priest, Father Mikhail, whom I met in the ancient city of Novgorod in 1987. Mikhail Gorbachev was then in his second year as Soviet head of state. To his everlasting credit, he had brought religious persecution to a halt. Ruined churches and monasteries were being given back to the Church. Many thousands of people were seeking baptism. It was truly a time of miracles. A long winter of persecution was ending, a springtime of religious rebirth was occurring.

Greek edition of "Loving Our Enemies"
Greek edition of “Loving Our Enemies”

Over supper with Father Mikhail, I asked, “Aren’t you surprised?” ”Not at all,” he replied. “All believers have been praying for this every day of our lives. We knew God would answer our prayers, only we did not know when. I am only surprised that our prayers have been answered while I am still alive.”

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.”

It was in Russia that I encountered not just a few but many Christians who loved their enemies. I don’t mean they loved them romantically or sentimentally. They loved them in the sense that Christ demands. First of all they prayed for them, praying not for their destruction but for their conversion and salvation. They attempted to live in a way that, at the very least, they would not be obstacles to the conversion of their enemies.

What nourished them in their Christian witness? At that time not many churches were open. It was much easier to get a ticket to the Bolshoi Ballet than a copy of the Bible. But sentences and parables from the Gospel — these precious fragments survive in multi-generational memory even when every Bible is destroyed. Eucharistic life or, for those living too far from a living church, even the memory of eucharistic life — this too survived. So did the stories of saints, ranging from those who could be called heroes to those known as holy fools. There were also the books by such deeply Orthodox Christian writers as Dostoevsky.

Let me tell one more story that will perhaps show how a Christianity capable of loving enemies survived even in the most hostile environment. This happened in Moscow in the next-to-last year of the Second World War. Among the witnesses was the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, then still a child. He was standing at his mother’s side on July 17, 1944, part of the crowd watching a procession of twenty thousand German war prisoners being marched across Red Square. Yevtushenko writes:

“The pavements swarmed with onlookers, cordoned off by soldiers and police. The crowd was mostly women — Russian women with hands roughened by hard work, lips untouched by lipstick, and with thin hunched shoulders which had borne half of the burden of the war. Every one of them must have had a father or a husband, a brother or a son killed by the Germans. They gazed with hatred in the direction from which the column was to appear.

“At last we saw it. The generals marched at the head, massive chins stuck out, lips folded disdainfully, their whole demeanor meant to show superiority over their plebian victors. ‘They smell of perfume, the bastards,’ someone in the crowd said with hatred. The women were clenching their fists. The soldiers and policemen had all they could do to hold them back.

“All at once something happened to them. Following the high officers, they saw German soldiers, thin, unshaven, wearing dirty, blood-stained bandages, hobbling on crutches or leaning on the shoulders of their comrades; the soldiers walked with their heads down. The street became dead silent — the only sound was the shuffling of boots and the thumping of crutches.

“Then I saw an elderly women in broken-down boots push herself forward and touch a policeman’s shoulder, saying, ‘Let me through.’ There must have been something about her that made him step aside. She went up to the column, took from inside her coat something wrapped in a colored handkerchief and unfolded it. It was a crust of black bread. She pushed it awkwardly into the pocket of a soldier, so exhausted that he was tottering on his feet. And now from every side women were running toward the soldiers, pushing into their hands bread, cigarettes, whatever they had. The soldiers were no longer enemies. They were people.” [Yevgeny Yevtushenko, A Precocious Autobiography (New York: Dutton, 1963), p 26]

This event on Red Square was a truly eucharistic moment initiated by the courage and compassion of one brave woman. What was in her thoughts as she pushed her way forward through the police line? Would she have described herself as a Christian? Not necessarily. But perhaps she remembered her mother or grandmother saying these words from the Gospel: “I was hungry and you fed me.” Perhaps. All we can say for sure is that food was in short supply and that nearly everyone in the crowd was undernourished. Even the smallest scrap of bread was valuable. Yet, inspired by the simple act of one person, hungry women gave bread to hungry enemies. We might say it was a reenactment of the miracle at Emmaus. Once again Christ was known in the breaking of bread.

At this point let me say a few words about what led me to the Orthodox Church. Why am I not still a Roman Catholic? After all, the Gospel is the same for Catholics as it is for Orthodox Christians. Both churches have the eucharist and much more in common. Nor was I weighed down with complaints about the Catholic Church. I do not think of myself as an ex-Catholic with all the bitterness the prefix “ex” implies. Not at all. I am profoundly grateful for the wide river of Catholic saints who have blessed the world. I was not looking for a perfect or even a better church. The perfect church, the church without sins, does not exist. If it did, how quickly we sinners would spoil its perfection.

No, part of what drew me to Orthodoxy was encountering, in Russia, a suffering church in which love of enemies and prayer for them was not exceptional.

Let me mention another factor that, in my case, had unexpected consequences. In the course of my travels in Russia I found myself moving from bewilderment and at times physical pain while standing during long services (Russians seem able to stand for days!) to gradual appreciation of this unhurried, upright approach to worship. Perplexity slowly became gratitude. Just as it takes time to prepare and then enjoy a good meal, I began to understand that it takes time — even some discomfort — to be aware of the presence of God. If you hurry past a beautiful painting you don’t see it. Life, including liturgy, is best lived in the slow lane. What finally brought me to eucharistic life in the Orthodox Church was the unhurried liturgy.

Greek edition of “Ladder of the Beatitudes”

Finally let me say a few words about what I call “the ladder of the Beatitudes,” the nine verses that preface the Sermon on the Mount. Brief though they are, the Beatitudes are not easily grasped. They are best understood by those traveling in the slow lane.

In the Slavic liturgical tradition, one meets the Beatitudes every week as these verses are normally sung during the Gospel-bearing procession at every liturgy. The Beatitudes are in fact a compact summary of the Gospel.

In that part of the world whose languages are mainly rooted in Latin, the word “beatitude” comes from the Latin word beatus, meaning happy, fortunate, blissful. In the late fourth century, beatus was the word Saint Jerome opted for in his Latin translation of the “blessed are” verses.

Of course the Gospels were written in Greek, a more nuanced language than Latin. Here we encounter the beautiful Greek word makarios, a word derived from makar, which is the state of the immortal gods — a state beyond suffering and anxiety, a state that is free of death. Thus in Christian use makarios means sharing in the life of God, theosis, 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 abstract 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, that their light may be centuries old by the time it reaches our eyes and that the objects which produced the light may no longer exist. The blessing extended to us is participation in the communion of the Holy Trinity, sharing in God’s immortality, and being blessed with qualities that seem humanly impossible.

How might we translate the word makarios in a way that makes its meaning even clearer? I suggest “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…

Ours is a paschal faith. If we call ourselves Christians we see the empty tomb and the risen Christ at the center of life. Our lives and choices are not defined by hatred and death but by love, forgiveness and resurrection. As St. Paul said in a letter to the young church in Corinth, “They call us dead men and yet we live.” In such a radical freedom, we become free of fear and even free of enmity. As Fr. Mikhail said to me many years ago in Novgorod: “If I refuse to love my enemies, I too am not a believer.”

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for possible use in the discussion period:

If love of enemies is understood in a Christian sense, it refers to a non-sentimental attitude in which one sees in the other, even an enemy, the possibility of a changed relationship. It is not easy, for the Christian any more than the non-Christian, to respond to an adversary in a non-hostile way, but history is full of examples of constructive rather than destructive response. For example consider this instance of what is sometimes referred to as a classic instance of “earthquake diplomacy.” On August 17, 1999, Turkey experienced a massive earthquake that severely affected many towns and cities, with the city of Izmit the most severely damaged. A second major earthquake occurred five days later. The official number of casualties was 17,000, although the actual number is thought to be more than double that. About a third-of-a-million people were left homeless.

To the world’s astonishment, Greece — historic enemy of Turkey — was the first country to pledge aid and support to Turkey. Within hours of the earthquake, senior staff of the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs contacted their Turkish counterparts, then dispatched personal envoys to Turkey. The Greek Ministry of Public Order sent in a rescue team of twenty-four people with trained rescue dogs plus fire-extinguishing planes to help put out the huge blaze at an oil refinery. Greek medical teams followed — doctors and nurses plus tents, ambulances, medicine, water, clothes, food and blankets. The Greek Orthodox Church launched a major fund raising campaign for humanitarian relief. Throughout Greece, the Ministry of Health set up units for blood donations. The five largest municipalities of Greece sent a joint convoy with aid. When the Mayor of Athens came personally to visit earthquake sites, he was greeted at the Istanbul airport by the mayor. Both Greece’s official actions and the responses of ordinary Greeks were given wide coverage day after day in every newspaper and TV channel in Turkey. Turks were astounded by the compassionate Greek response to Turkey’s disaster.

As it happened, just weeks after the Turkish disaster, on September 7, 1999, Athens was hit by a powerful earthquake, the most devastating natural disaster in Greece in twenty years. While the death toll was relatively low, the damage to buildings and the infrastructure in some of the city’s northern and western suburbs was severe. This time Turkey responded — in fact Turkish aid was the first to reach Athens from outside Greece’s borders. Within thirteen hours a twenty-person rescue team was flown in by a military plane. The Greek consulates and embassy in Turkey had their phone lines jammed with Turks calling to find out whether they could donate blood. One Turk offered to donate his kidney for a “Greek in need.”

The very last thing our enemies imagine is that we could wish them well or do them well. Such events can radically change the script.

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A photo album of eight days in Greece:


religion-in-the-new-russiaopening chapters in my book Religion in the New Russia (NY: Crossroads, 1989)

by Jim Forest

While he let it be known that he had been baptized as a child, during his first three years as General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev seemed to ignore the churches. He had been preoccupied with strengthening his leadership position within the Politburo, inaugurating positive relations with the United States and other western countries, promoting disarmament, launching programs to revive the stagnant Soviet economy, and coping with the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster. His main gesture to believers had been the release of numerous prisoners.7

Then on April 29, 1988, five weeks before the Millennium celebration was to begin, Gorbachev received Patriarch Pimen and five Orthodox metropolitans in the Kremlin. Apart from Gorbachev and the clerics, two others were present: Gorbachev’s friend, the philosopher Ivan Frolov, and the Chairman of the Council for Religious Affairs, Konstantin Kharchev.8

That night Soviet television viewers witnessed Gorbachev’s warm welcome to the Patriarch, saw the bishops sitting with him around a circular conference table in the ornate Saint Catherine Hall, and heard Gorbachev express regret for past “mistakes made with regard to the Church and believers” in violation of the Constitution and socialist principle. He cited the recent return to the Orthodox Church of several monasteries and said a new law was being drafted to protect freedom of conscience.

Patriarch Pimen responded: “Esteemed Mikhail Sergeyevich, I pledge support to you, the architect of perestroika and the herald of new political thinking. . . . We pray for the success of this process and are doing everything we can to promote it.”

While most of what he said was unremarkable, the Patriarch used the occasion to say that, though much had improved, “not all the problems of Church life are being resolved or duly attended to.” The comment, despite its brevity, was as unprecedented as the meeting. In the past church leaders routinely denied troubles existed even when the situation they faced was much worse.

The informal exchange that followed was not broadcast but press articles reported that the bishops raised “a number of specific questions connected with guaranteeing the normal activity of the Orthodox Church.” According to an interview with Konstantin Kharchev published late that year in Ogonyok, the bishops expressed their desire to open new seminaries in Belorussia and in other republics of the Union, to re-establish nine dioceses suppressed in the sixties and to reopen religious associations closed in the same period. They also raised a group of questions relating to publication work. Gorbachev promised he would “pass on the requests and considerations to the government which would carefully examine them and make appropriate decisions.”

It was the second time that religious leaders had been received by the head of state since the Bolshevik revolution. The other occasion was on September 4, 1943, two years after the German invasion. Realizing that a change in policy toward religion would be a positive factor in the war with Hitler, Stalin had met with Metropolitan Sergei (soon after elected Patriarch) and two other Orthodox bishops. But it was a private meeting. No photo was published. The image of Stalin and the Metropolitan together was never communicated to the public. Accounts of what occurred vary. All that is certain is that the situation for the Church changed drastically. A Council for the Affairs of the Orthodox Church (later the Council for Religious Affairs) was set up. Many churches were re-opened and anti-religious propaganda sharply curtailed. The Patriarch, formerly exiled to a log cabin on the outskirts of Moscow, was given a mansion in the Arbat district of central Moscow, a residence previously occupied by the German ambassador. The Holy Trinity-Saint Sergius Monastery forty miles north of Moscow became a living monastery again and a seminary was opened within its walls. During the fifteen-year period that followed, religious life was partially restored in many parts of the USSR. It wasn’t until Khrushchev’s anti-church campaign, launched in 1959, that the Soviet state resumed full-scale war with religion.

“Until Gorbachev received the Patriarch,” an official of the Council for Religious Affairs told me in May 1989, “it was BC. Afterward it was AD.”

When I arrived in Moscow on June 2, 1988 — the fifth week of this new AD — it was immediately evident that the state was celebrating the Millennium of the baptism of Kievan Rus’9 nearly as much as the faithful. At Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport Millennium guests were taken directly to the VIP lounge and served a cup of coffee while awaiting delivery of their baggage. There was no border guard comparing and re-comparing my visa photo with my face, no long wait by the baggage carousel, no searching of luggage. I felt more like a visiting prime minister than a religious journalist poking around in a society where God’s obituary had been published long ago.

At the Ukraina Hotel, where most Millennium guests were housed, an exhibition of church photography had been mounted in the lobby. One flight up, in front of the hotel’s hard-currency store, a large stand was set up for the sale in rubles of icon reproductions, crosses, church badges and other religious articles manufactured by the Moscow Patriarchate. (It proved even more popular with the hotel staff than with the Millennium guests. For every bishop in line, there seemed to be at least two cleaning women.)

In Moscow the center of Millennium celebration was the Danilov Monastery, located in an industrial district a mile south of the Kremlin. Founded in the Thirteenth Century, the monastery had been closed in stages between 1929-32 until all that was left to the monks was the Resurrection Church outside the walls, and finally that was taken away as well. The monastery became a prison for juvenile delinquents. Then in 1983 the badly-damaged monastery was returned along with the Resurrection Church and several adjacent buildings including a former umbrella factory.

After five years of restoration work in which many believers volunteered their labor, the monastery no longer showed any trace of political vandalism. Walls, bell towers, churches and other buildings — everything looked as good as new. Several new buildings were still under construction, including a hotel-sized hostel for church guests.

Metropolitan Pitirim and his staff at the Church’s Publishing Department had set up a Press Center within the former Resurrection Church. On June 4 it was packed with reporters and TV film crews, most of them still recovering from the just-ended Moscow Summit meeting.

Metropolitan Filaret, Exarch of the Ukraine, announced the major news item: the return of part of the Monastery of the Caves in Kiev, the oldest monastic community in the Russian Orthodox Church. Founded in 1051, it was closed in 1929 and reopened in 1941 during the German occupation. In 1961 the monks, having been limited to a small section of the monastery, were ordered out altogether on the grounds that the buildings were in danger of falling down. Given the neglect the structures suffered afterward, it is a wonder that the pretext didn’t turn into a prophecy. The section being given back was the Far Caves consisting of two churches and the caves beneath, a bell tower and various buildings. “We are on the verge of resuming monastic life after a pause of 25 years,” said the Metropolitan. The keys were to be turned over at a ceremony June 7 in Kiev.

Konstantin Kharchev of the Council for Religious Affairs, a participant in the press conference, was asked about new legislation being drafted that will protect religious rights. All he would say was that the law would be published soon, depending on “the relevant parliamentary commissions.” When asked by a reporter about how an atheist state can undertake such positive actions on behalf of churches, Kharchev insisted that the changes occurring did not mean that the government was giving up its “materialistic outlook.” The changes only indicate “that constitutional guarantees of religious rights will be fully protected.”10

As there were no more Millennium events that day, I drove out to Peredelkino, a village on the edge of Moscow made famous by the writers who lived there, among them Boris Pasternak. His grave is in the cemetery near the Transfiguration Church. Three women were sitting on a bench at the foot of Pasternak’s grave. One of them pointed out the branch of pale lavender orchids lying in front of the tomb stone. “Nancy Reagan put them there. I saw her do it with my own eyes.” She asked what I was eating at my hotel. I mentioned the various kinds of meat and fish. “Well that’s not real Moscow food. You should go into one of the local produckti [food stores] and buy two rubles’ worth of sausages. Cook that and see how you like it! There was an article in the press recently about sausages. They found insects, hair, paper and many other things — everything but meat.” She had a copy of the Russian edition of Moscow News. She pointed out a back-page interview with a young village priest. “We never used to see anything like that in our press. I only wish they would do to the sausage what they are doing in the press.”

The Millennium celebration began the following day with the celebration of the Holy Liturgy in Moscow’s Epiphany Cathedral. The chief celebrant was Patriarch Pimen, who stood more easily than when I had last seen him sixteen months before. At that time I doubted he would live another year. After the Liturgy he placed a wreath on the tomb of the unknown soldier next to the Kremlin wall.

The main Millennium event for the Russian Orthodox Church was to be the Pomestny Sobor — the Local Council — set to start the next day, June 6. The only others in this century had been in 1917, in the midst of the revolution at which time the first Patriarch was elected since the time of Czar Peter the Great; 1945, after Patriarch Sergei’s meeting with Stalin; 1961, when Khrushchev wanted the priest’s parish role restricted; and in 1971, in the midst of Brezhnev’s “years of stagnation.”

The day turned out to be a fiercely sunny and hot, Moscow’s hottest weather in 109 years. I was reminded of New York in August.

We were received at the Holy Trinity-Saint Sergius Monastery by large crowds and the constant ringing of bells in the monastery belfry. For years church bell-ringing was suppressed by Soviet officials but the skill survived. Russians again were ringing bells with the joyous abandon of children skipping rope.

The Council meeting place was the monastery’s colorful refectory, normally used as a winter church. The light in the large room was nearly blinding. While the Church’s last Council in 1971, also held in this hall, was completely ignored by Soviet television, this time television crews were not only present but had set up five camera platforms around the hall as well as installing klieg lights.

From additional TV platforms outside cameras followed the parade of church leaders whom the bells were welcoming: heads of other branches of the Orthodox Church, several Roman Catholic cardinals, the Archbishop of Canterbury, representatives of the World Council of Churches, leaders of National Councils of Churches from many countries, and bishops and lay people from the various dioceses of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Gogol wrote in Dead Souls, “Russia likes to assume large dimensions: mountains, woods, steppes, faces, lips and feet.” This applied to millennium celebrations as well. With its cast of thousands, the event could have been designed by Cecil B. DeMille.

The last to arrive was Patriarch Pimen, walking slowly and with the support of two young, sturdy clerics. The Council began in sung prayer, the sound of the monastic choir bursting on us with the refreshing force of sudden rain.

Sitting at the side of Patriarch Pimen was Konstantin Kharchev of the Council for Religious Affairs, conspicuous in his grey suit amid all the ecclesiastical raiment. One also was struck by the stillness of his hands when, during the opening prayers, all around him were crossing themselves. One of the first to address the Council, Kharchev spoke of the state’s responsibility “to protect the rights of all citizens, whether believers or unbelievers.”

Patriarch Pimen expressed his satisfaction with the meeting a few days earlier of Gorbachev and Reagan. Supporting perestroika, he called on “all the children of our church to be honest in labor and pure, humble and loving in their service to others.”

One of the Council’s first items of business was to review the past. Metropolitan Filaret of Kiev said that many participants in the Church Council held in Moscow in 1917 were “closely bound up with” the czarist and economic system and “were altogether alienated from the real socio-political questions affecting the life of the people.” Thus “the majority of the Council members did not understand the real meaning of the fundamental changes which took place in our homeland and the positive effect they had on life.” Proceeding to describe initial Church resistance to the Bolsheviks, Filaret referred to the “hostile actions undertaken by the Council with regard to the newly-established people’s power.” These “led to tension and even confrontation between Church and State which became especially strong during the Civil War and made a dramatic and lasting imprint on their relations.” With the separation of church and state established by the revolution, “the Orthodox Church lost the privileged position she had enjoyed,” a separation begun under the conditions of “famine, economic dislocation, anti-government conspiracies and civil war.” Filaret described the unfolding tragedy: confrontation between believers and atheists, the mass closure and destruction of churches and monasteries, the killing of many believers, lay and clerical. In the early years of the revolution “the clergy often supported the adversaries of Soviet power.” At the same time Soviet laws on religion were often and brutally ignored. He concluded that “every departure from democratic principles . . . dealt a blow to the common cause of building and developing our socialist society.”

Among other speakers at the morning session was Cardinal Willebrands, head of the Vatican’s Secretariat for Christian Unity. He rejoiced in “the holy act of God” that had brought the people of Kiev to the Christian faith, from whom it “rapidly spread across huge territories.” A thousand years ago, he recalled, Christians of east and west, despite dissension, were still in communion with one another. But estrangement reached the breaking point. “Catholic and Orthodox fought each other in word and with sword. It is time to overcome division, to develop a sense of being together as Church.” He mentioned various ways in which dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox has developed and deepened in recent years, becoming a “dialogue of charity.” One consequence of the encounter was the “struggle of churches for disarmament and peace to prevent the catastrophe of nuclear war.” He pointed out that several points of division still remain, especially questions of church structure — an allusion to Orthodox criticism of the lack of conciliarity (the Russian word is sobornost) in the Catholic Church. Common reflection was needed on the special role in the Church of the Bishop of Rome, understanding that “unity does not mean conformity of one group to another but the recovery of unity around the eucharistic table.” Moving on to more controversial subject, he expressed regret that there was still no recognition of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. “Nonetheless,” he said, “a new climate has been created in which we can heal old wounds.” He extended to the Council and the entire Russian Orthodox Church “the greetings and blessing of His Holiness John Paul II.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, described the Russian Church as “an icon of the resurrection.” Despite severe persecution, it has risen from the tomb to celebrate its millennium. “The martyrs have been the seed of new church life. We honor the suffering that you have borne, we honor those who have testified to the faith that was in them with their own lives both during the time of the ‘cult of personality’ [as the Stalin years are called] and in more recent times.” Russia offers a witness that “when we take God from the center of our lives, the god-substitutes are deadly.”

The main event of the afternoon session was the addition of nine names to the calendar of saints. The most renowned name was Andrei Rublev, the Fifteenth Century monk whose icons of the Holy Trinity and the Savior have made their way to churches and homes throughout the world. Also canonized was Father Amvrosi, staretz (holy elder) of Optina Pustyn, a monastery south of Moscow recently returned to the Church. Amvrosi’s wisdom and holiness were so renowned in Nineteenth Century Russia that pilgrims walked hundreds of miles to seek his advice and guidance. Among the pilgrims was Dostoyevsky, who used Amvrosi as the model for Father Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov.

The Russian Church has always given special attention to iurodivii: fools for Christ’s sake, people in whom Christ wears the guise of madness. These are ascetic Christians living outside of the borders of conventional social behavior. At the beginning of the Seventeenth Century there was even one holy fool who ruled Holy Russia, Czar Theodore, the son of Ivan the Terrible. Regarded by western diplomats sent to Moscow as a weakling and idiot, he was adored by the Russian people. Brought up in an environment of brutality, disliked by his father, regarded with scorn by courtiers, he took shelter in simplicity, prayer and devotion to his wife. Much of his time was spent in church. Throughout his fourteen years as czar he never lost his playfulness or love of beauty. A gifted bell-ringer, he often woke the people of Moscow in the hours before dawn by sounding the great bells of the Kremlin, a summons to prayer. “He was small of stature,” according to a contemporary account, “and bore the marks of fasting. He was humble, given to the things of the soul, constant in prayer, liberal in alms. He did not care for the things of this world, only for the salvation of the soul.”

“This simpleton,” writes Nicholas Zernov, “robed in gorgeous vestments, was determined that bloodshed, cruelty and oppression must be stopped, and it was stopped as long as he occupied the throne of his ancestors.”11

The best known of the iurodivii beyond Russia, if only by name, is Saint Basil, from whom the cathedral on Red Square takes its name. Basil walked the streets of Moscow naked and dared to condemn the behavior of Ivan the Terrible.

The Council canonized one of the more recent iurodivii, Xenia of Saint Petersburg, who had lived in a cemetery, worn the clothing of her dead husband and answered only to his name. To the irritation of Leningrad officialdom, her grave continued to be a place of pilgrimage and prayer in the Soviet period.

After each canonization was solemnly declared, a newly made icon of the particular saint was used by the Patriarch to bless all those present.

So ended the Council’s first day.

While the Council continued at Zagorsk, during the second and third day non-delegates were invited to visit local churches. I joined a bus-load of people heading south. Our first stop was the town of Maloyaraslavets, 75 miles from Moscow. At least a thousand people were waiting outside the church with their young pastor, Father Vladimir Makheev, red-bearded and with grey-blue eyes. After being welcomed by bells, bread and salt, we went into the church, also full of people, the kind of crowd that the church might contain on Easter when, as they say, “not an apple can drop.”

Father Vladimir told us something of the town and church’s history, recalling that Gogol had once stayed in a local house and pointing out that the church is a replica, though on a smaller scale, of Moscow’s Cathedral of the Savior.12

“Thanks to local believers,” said Father Vladimir, “our church is being restored — in fact now the restoration is nearly completed. Not long ago this church was in danger of falling down.” Gifts were distributed. I received an Easter egg with a painting of the restored church.

As we stood on the church steps in the intense sun to have our picture taken, a lean middle-aged man who hadn’t shaved in several days asked me where I was from. “America,” I said, skipping the part about living in Holland. “You are the first person I have met from America. Our countries have been enemies but I want to tell you that I have never been your enemy.” He said he had read Mark Twain and John Steinbeck. I told him I read Dostoyevsky and Gogol. He gave me a scratchy embrace, kissing me on the cheek.

In the city of Kaluga, another 50 miles to the south, I had lunch with Father Vladimir. I asked him if perestroika was having much impact outside of Moscow.

“Yes,” he said, “finally the parish priest is being allowed to play an important role in society. Also perestroika is happening in the church. Take our church in Maloyaraslavets. Because of the structure of church control imposed in the time of Khrushchev, the head of our parish council was a government appointee, a man named Vasili Osimin, an atheist who had no respect for the church. He was typical of the period of stagnation [the standard phrase used for the Brezhnev period]. All he wanted to do was scratch the backs of the local authorities. The parish priest’s word meant nothing — he was simply considered an employee whose job was to stand at the altar. The head of the parish council was doing all he could to cause the death of our church, and having such a head of the Parish Council isn’t rare. Many churches have this problem. But now we can be sure that this situation will be put right. In our case money raised for the preservation of our church, 18,000 rubles, simply disappeared. I wrote to the bishop and also to the head of the local Council for Religious Affairs. Still the man wouldn’t resign.

“Finally, because of the new processes in our society, I was able to summon a parish meeting and 216 people turned up. All but 16 voted to kick him out. That was December 13, 1987, a day I will never forget. On that day a real believer was elected to head the parish council. And since then we have repaired the church and restored our parish community. It is a period of restoration, at least the beginning of it. Since that day in December, I feel I have wings on my back. We are celebrating not only our church’s millennium but the resurrection of Christianity in the Kaluga region. There are many times in these months when I have cried for joy. There are many times when I couldn’t believe what was happening in front of my eyes.”

It so happened that, as we talked, new church legislation making the priest the head of the parish was being submitted to the Council in Zagorsk. But already its norms were being taken up locally.

I asked him what led him to become a priest.

“It was, I think, mainly my god-father. He was always watching me, caring about me. He was a priest. He celebrated the last Holy Liturgy at the Cathedral of the Savior in Moscow before it was destroyed. More than anyone, he inspired me to belief. He taught me to believe, to hope, to love. Because of him I came to realize that, when you believe from the depth of your heart, there are no obstacles in life.”

The next morning we joined in the Holy Liturgy at a church near our hotel, the large building packed to capacity and the church itself embraced by huge crowds.

Afterward we were taken to meet the local political leadership. After a long review of Kaluga’s history and economy, the chairman of the City Council mentioned the recent return of three local churches as well as the famous Optina Pustyn monastery elsewhere in the Kaluga district, now undergoing restoration. Inviting responses from us, he was probably as surprised as I at the passion and depth of what was said by some in the audience. Speaking with a shaking voice, a woman from Australia said she had been born in this district but left as a child in 1925.

“I will not tell you what our life was like,” she said, “or why we left, only say that we knew much suffering. Now I see things happening here which I thought I would never live to see. Every time I go into a church, I find myself crying.”

Father Vladimir expressed regret that the bishop of Kaluga couldn’t be here, as he was today at the Church Council. In his absence, he thought it might be appropriate to appeal to city authorities to authorize an apartment for the bishop.

A woman representing the Russian Orthodox Church in Paris gave the City Council a small, finely made “travelling” icon cast from brass of Saint Vladimir. “The gift of icons to political leaders,” a neighbor commented drily, “is not traditional. New times!”

In the hotel restaurant afterward, Allan Boesak of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the South Africa Council of Churches gave a brief, impromptu speech. “Christian love and Christian solidarity,” he said, “recognize no limits in time or space. We have no borders. Apart from the ties of Christian love, there is another bond between my people and the people of Russia — your solidarity with our struggle for freedom in South Africa. My church thanks you for a thousand years of grace and mercy.”

Driving back to Moscow, we stopped in a village lucky enough to have its own church. It appeared that every local inhabitant was there to receive us. At the door of the church stood a babushka offering the traditional Russian sign of welcome, bread and salt. Inside the church, Dr. Fairy von Lilienfeld from West Germany, a professor of Slavic studies, spoke to the villagers. Her roots are Russian, she said. Her family fled to the west after the revolution. One of the great gifts of Orthodoxy, she said, was its emphasis on repentance and forgiveness. She said it was her prayer that German repentance would insure that never again would another war come from Germany.

“The Russians have an extraordinary capacity to forgive,” she told me on the bus afterward. “They understand that you should never receive communion until you have forgiven everyone. First you forgive, only then do you come to the altar. This is one of the reasons why receiving communion is infrequent in the Russian Church. Believers prepare for it, sometimes for weeks or months. In a Russian village, it is understood that once someone has gone to confession and received communion, there will never again be the renewal of an old enmity. This is part of what we Christians in the west have to receive from the Christians in the east.”

I recalled how, in 1943, when German prisoners of war were marched across Red Square, Russian women broke through police lines to give food to German soldiers, an astonishing scene that the poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko describes in his autobiography.13 At the time Moscow was hungry and many of the sons and husbands of the women in Moscow were dead in the war. But when the women saw the pathetic condition of the German soldiers, compassion took precedence over grief and hatred. I cannot imagine such a thing happening in any other country.

Back in Moscow, Boris Chapchal, one of the two Dutch participants in the Council, told me about what had happened at the Council during our two days away.

The highlight was acceptance of the new Statute of the Russian Orthodox Church. The existing church law, said Archbishop Kyrill of Smolensk, head of the drafting commission, was completely inadequate. It was written in 1945 while the war was still being fought, then amended in 1961 under pressure from the Khrushchev government.

“One can say with conviction,” Archbishop Kirill declared, “that the amendments to the [Church’s] Regulations of 1961 were provoked not by the internal needs of the Church but by the complicated external situation in which our Church lived in the late fifties and early sixties. . . . The regulations the government forced on the Church were provoked by social ideas which can no longer be tolerated in today’s society since they are in principle in opposition to the process of democratization, the growth of glasnost, and the struggle for perestroika.” The 1961 amendments “separated the clergy not only from parish administration but from the parish itself. The relation of the clergy and the parish was based upon a contract which formally fixed the non-participation of the clergy in the life of the parish in which they celebrated the worship.”

The new Statute assumed that sobornost (conciliarity) must be the basis of Church administration “from top to bottom.” While the new statute was far from perfect, still it provided “a realistic organization of Church administration and a system that corresponds fully to Orthodox ecclesiology and canon law.”

After several hours of discussion, the Statute was adopted without dissent. “Still,” one Orthodox priest told me, “there must have been some not happy with it. Now the parish priest is going to have to work much harder. Most are eager to do so, but there are still too many who like to take it easy. The priest can no longer say, ‘It isn’t my job.'”

Another highlight was a speech by Metropolitan Anthony from London: “The Millennium is a glorious feast,” he said, “but when we speak of the triumph of Orthodoxy, we must realize that it is the triumph of God over the Orthodox, of truth and light over our sinfulness and our lack of understanding. We must approach the Millennium with a sense of wonder and gratitude. Also we must offer to God and to the people around us both historical and personal repentance for the fact that, historically, the Russian Church failed the Russian nation throughout ten centuries, because otherwise millions of people would not have fallen away from their faith in Christ at the first challenge. This was because baptism was given but education was not.”

Arriving at Zagorsk the next morning, I joined the procession into the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity to venerate the body of Saint Sergius, the monastery’s founder, who taught that contemplation of the Trinity would dissolve all discord.

Among events at the Council’s final day was a call by the head of the Orthodox Church in America, an independent church that grew out of the Russian Orthodox Church, for the canonization of Tikhon, elected to lead the Russian Orthodox Church just as the revolution was occurring in 1917. While opposing the Bolsheviks, he also refused to give his blessing to those who went to war against Red rule. Eventually he became a prisoner before deciding that the Church should provide the same degree of cooperation to the Communists that it had offered the state when it was led by the czars. His name is linked with the severe persecutions Russian Christians have suffered.14

The morning session ended with a panikhida (memorial service) for soldiers who had died in Afghanistan. They had, said Metropolitan Filaret of Kiev, “fulfilled their civil and patriotic duty and had given witness to the teaching of Jesus that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for another.” It is true, as Filaret said, that “thousands of mothers are left in grief.” No doubt it is hard to say to those mothers that their sons fought in an unjust war forced on the population by a handful of old men far from the battlefield. One longs for the day when the Russian Orthodox Church will grieve for all who fall in war, cry out against military interventions by the Soviet army, and support those who refuse to fight such wars.

After lunch in the seminary, I wandered around the grounds of the Holy Trinity Monastery, a “city of churches” that has never ceased to be a place of pilgrimage even in those years when the monks had been driven out. “There are still those who walk here even if it is a walk of thousands of miles,” a Russian friend told me. But the main body of pilgrims could have stepped off the Moscow Metro, people of every age and condition of life, including many teenagers and young adults.

The Council ended with a closing service of thanksgiving and a brief speech by Patriarch Pimen in which he expressed confidence that the Russian Orthodox Church would continue to develop and grow stronger in its task of “sanctifying her children.”

The next day Millennium events shifted to the Bolshoi Theater. When the curtain opened about a hundred people were sitting in tiers on the stage. In the center of the first row was Patriarch Pimen. Raisa Gorbachev was sitting a few places to his right, next to Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk, head of the External Church Affairs Department of the Russian Orthodox Church. During some of the more tedious speeches they took to conversation. I counted eight whispered exchanges between them during the four-hour meeting.

Among those on stage was Georgi Arbatov, a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and an architect of Soviet foreign policy. He had recently told a Time reporter, “We are going to do something terrible to you. We are going to deprive you of an enemy.”

The main speech was by Metropolitan Yuvenali of Krutitsky and Kolomensky. I have warm feelings for him. In 1986 we exchanged rosaries — he gave me the one he wore on his wrist, and I gave him one I had received from Pope John Paul II.

Talking about the cultural impact of Christianity, Yuvenali spoke of the improvement in the status and security of women, the introduction of book publishing, the Russian Church’s contribution to the spread of Christianity, the commitment to the poor, and Church’s role both in the defense of the nation and as a peacemaker. He reaffirmed the Church’s hope that the celebration of the start of Christianity’s third millennium in the year 2000 would be a celebration of the “elimination of all weapons of mass destruction.” He said the ecumenical commitment of the Russian Orthodox Church “is inseparable from its peacemaking responsibility.”

The speech lacked the triumphal note one might have expected. Yuvenali noted that the Church has also contributed to division in the world, adding, “We ask God and the people to forgive us for our imperfections.”

It was the first speech by a Russian Orthodox leader providing statistics about the Church’s population. Yuvenali estimated that 50,000,000 Soviet citizens were active in the Russian Orthodox Church (out of a population of 285,000,000) and reported that 30,000,000 Russians have been baptized since 1971 Council. It may be the figure was not provided in the past because the state required that baptisms be officially registered. Many of the 30,000,000 were not. A few months ago the requirement was dropped.

Stressing the connection of faith to social responsibility, Yuvenali quoted Dostoyevsky: “Our Church should be in us, not merely in our words but in our entire life.”

Metropolitan Filaret of Kiev spoke of the trials the Church had passed through, all the while sharing the fate of the people. “As a result of perestroika and glasnost, we have a much better relationship with the state.” He hoped the new developments could help overcome historic divisions among Russian Christians. “The longing for unity is a characteristic quality of our people.”

No doubt responding to widespread disappointment that the Council had not canonized any of the martyrs who had perished in the period of Communist rule, Metropolitan Mefodi of Veronezh said that “the times were not ripe” — suggesting by implication that the Church anticipates a time when such canonizations will occur.

Cardinal Casaroli, Secretary of State for the Vatican, said that “Christianity is an undisputed fact of reality, one that cannot be ignored in any country without ill effect.” In every society, Christianity offers, even to those without specific religious belief, certain ethical standards. “For many difficult questions, it is impossible to find a solution without morals.” Noting the “new winds blowing here,” he called for “new legislation to safeguard freedom of conscience.” (Sitting next to Cardinal Casaroli was Cardinal Glemp, Primate of the Polish Church. A Vatican adviser on the Russian Orthodox Church told me in 1987 that Glemp’s visit should precede that of the Pope.)

Arie Brower of the National Council of Churches in the United States gave thanks to God “for the victory of the resurrected Christ witnessed in the thousand-year history of the Russian Orthodox Church. We remember those who have lived and died in the Lord, especially those who have given witness with their blood.”

He had learned that the destinies of Americans and Russians “are bound up with one another” and was glad that the Millennium celebration was providing the occasion “for American Christians to learn more about Christianity in the Soviet Union.” One consequence was a campaign of young people in American churches to send birthday greetings to Christians in the USSR. Of the tens of thousands of hand-made cards that have been sent so far, Brower presented Patriarch Pimen with a birthday card six yards long, filled with crayon-drawings of a thousand burning candles made by many young hands.

Among the other American speakers was Billy Graham. “I had many letters from people in the U.S. who were praying in support of the meeting of President Reagan and Secretary Gorbachev in Moscow,” he said. “Most people never dreamed a person of such conservative convictions as President Reagan would participate in a breakthrough like this. We have been too isolated from each other.” The Baptist paid his respects to Orthodoxy: “The Russian Orthodox Church has much to teach us. One of the great experiences of my life has been getting to know Russian Orthodox Christians. They have deepened my life, made me more aware of the power of the resurrection, and that the crucifixion and resurrection are the central facts of history.”

The day ended with a Millennium concert at the Bolshoi with Patriarch Pimen seated in a box adjacent to the stage. Raisa Gorbachev again was present. The event was broadcast live throughout the USSR and in several other countries. While many famous choirs and orchestras took part, the most sustained applause was given to the non-professional choir of monks and seminarians from the Holy Trinity Monastery at Zagorsk. No choir of believers had ever sung on the stage of the Bolshoi Theater since at least 1917. The next night the event was repeated in the presence of Mikhail Gorbachev.

The next day, June 11, police cars shepherded our buses through one of the gates in the Kremlin walls where we were taken to the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet near the Kremlin’s Savior Tower. The main hall is a high, windowless chamber of clinical white marble with gold trim decorated only with the gilded emblem of the USSR.

Our host was Andrei Gromyko, Chairman of the Supreme Soviet and President of the Council of Ministers of the USSR — in other words head of state, but in a country where it is the head of the Party who is really in charge. Patriarch Pimen was sitting at his side. On the other side was Konstantin Kharchev of the Council for Religious Affairs. Gromyko, as poker-faced live as on film, gave a welcoming address in which he recognized the celebration of the Millennium of the baptism of Kievan Rus as having universal significance. Christianity has influenced “every aspect of life — economics, education, and social care.” The Church had played a crucial role in periods of crisis and had contributed to the unity of the nation. It had shaped the nation’s spiritual values and given birth to new art, sculpture, architecture, music and literature. While church and state were separated after 1917, they had found a meeting point in their common concern for peace in the world. “We want a world without war, a world without violence. We want policies based on the integrity and inter-dependence of the world. All of us, whether believer or unbeliever, have to ask what the coming generation will inherit from us?”

In the question period that followed, Gromyko said he could offer few details about the new legislation being written on freedom of religion. “The draft is being developed and I hope will be ready before long.” The separation of church and state, a basic constitutional principle, will remain, but religious organizations will be permitted to engage in charitable public service. Bibles and other religious literature can be imported into the country. In cooperation with local authorities, religious bodies will be able to play a role in the conservation of historical monuments (these are mainly churches which, everyone realizes, will eventually be used for the purposes for which they were originally built).

Cardinal Willebrands, noting appreciatively what had been achieved already, expressed his hope that “under perestroika there will be further developments” in the protection of religious rights. In particular “we are concerned about our Church in the USSR, in the Baltic states, White Russia and the Ukraine. It would be a great help in promoting friendship and unity if we could resolve the question about the organization of our Church in your country and find the way to form priests and maintain church structures.”

The Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Casaroli, asked if representatives of the different confessions could present comments to the new religious law while it was still in draft form. “It would be quite logical to know the view of the churches in the preparation process,” Gromyko said. Casaroli added that never before had the Vatican sent such a delegation to the Soviet Union. “It is unprecedented, a sign of special respect for the Russian Orthodox Church and the people of the Soviet Union.” Casaroli spoke of Moscow as the “third Rome,” referring to the Russian idea that the mantle of religious leadership moved from Rome to Constantinople, and from Constantinople, after the Moslem conquest, to Moscow. While one assumes Casaroli sees no need for a second or third Rome, it was striking that he admitted religious leadership has more than one address.

Patriarch Pimen, the last to speak, expressed his joy that such a meeting could occur in the Kremlin. There had been nothing like it since Lenin came to power. He pledged to do “everything we can to encourage Soviet and American cooperation in disarmament.”

At the end of the meeting Gromyko invited us to a meal. This turned out to be a sumptuous buffet in the most handsome of all Kremlin locations, the majestic Saint George Hall, last used for a reception honoring President Reagan. While we ate, a priest described the Russian family. “The husband is like the government, and the wife is like the Party.” So far in Russia, he said, the government has all the honor while the Party makes the decisions. “The government and party will be re-negotiating the terms of their not entirely happy marriage at the coming special meeting of the Communist Party.”

I talked briefly with Cardinal John O’Connor from New York. He was in a fairly hot state, annoyed that the car, driver and translator he had been promised were in fact rarely to be found. “This isn’t how they are taking care of Cardinal Casaroli,” he said. “You can bet he has a car and translator when he wants it!”

One of the high points of the Millennium happened that night. It occurred neither in a church nor monastery but on Soviet television screens with the nationwide broadcast of a film about Russian Orthodoxy called “Church.”

The sixty-minute film began with scenes of the reconstruction of a village church. “Everybody is happy about our church,” said a member of the parish council, “and everyone is helping, even the elderly and the sick. A lot of people are giving money to help — 10 or 20 kopeks, even a ruble.”

A priest in Vladimir, Father Dimitri, spoke about religious life in his large family. “My wife is in charge of the spiritual upbringing of the children. She starts reading the Bible to them the moment they are able to understand.” There were scenes of a name-day celebration for two of the children, Olga and Vladimir. “After the revolution,” he said, “many things changed, but moral principles remain always the same. The question is still what is the point of departure in your life. For us it is God.”

There were black-and-white film clips about the campaign against churches and believers in the twenties and thirties: icons being thrown into bonfires, church crosses being cut down, onion domes and bells being pulled off church tops and smashed, the dynamiting of the Savior Cathedral in Moscow: scene after scene of cultural barbarism.

The longest interview was with Father Nicholai, a priest who seemed as old as Russian Orthodoxy. He sat at the kitchen table in his small wooden house holding a cup of tea in his hand, his face shining with unaffected love.

“The time goes fast,” he said. “Hour after hour — it goes and you can’t get it back. Be thrifty about time! You only get so many hours. It is like sand pouring through your fingers. I stand near the doors of death. I am 78. Not bad. I have been a priest for many years. I love my work. I love God.” He paused to cross himself. “With God a person is able to do a lot.”

He serves an island church on Chudskoye Lake northwest of Pskov. “Our fishermen work hard. They go out even in bad weather. They do good work. We pray and ask God to save us from calamity, sickness and war. Save us, Lord!” The camera showed a woman standing under grey skies at the water’s edge, a chapel nearby.

“The old people die and the young people leave. Not so many of the young go to church any more.” He paused and gazed out the window, speechless with grief.

The screen faded from him to kids on motorbikes roaring through a cemetery. The adjacent church had been turned into a youth club. Hard rock pounded in the former sanctuary. The din gave way to a solo male voice singing a hymn of mourning. The night club was replaced by birds flying in the cupola of a church crumbling into ruin.

The camera returned to Father Nicholai. “My father died in 1914,” he said. “I stayed with my brothers. They went to war and never came back. But we are still alive.” He crossed himself. “For this I thank the heavenly Father. We live in abundance. We have bread and sugar, work and rest. For this I thank God. I give money to the Peace Fund. By doing it I hope all acts of war will end. I hope it helps. War shocks young people. Life is just beginning for them and then suddenly it is over.”

As he spoke about war, the screen shifted to a Leningrad cemetery where those who died in the siege are buried. A young mother was showing her child how to cross himself.

Father Nicholai’s gentle face returned. He offered tea to the interviewer and the cameraman. “Please! Don’t be embarrassed. But it’s probably cold.”

In another interview a young woman said, “You have to believe in God. Without God, you are dead. Religious faith is life itself.”

A nun was shown praying while making bread. She explained, “Human work that isn’t framed by prayer has no meaning. Prayer is the only answer to the industrial age. Otherwise the machine will destroy us.”

Father Zinon of the Monastery of the Caves near Pskov was questioned about icons. Those he paints are already regarded as treasures of Orthodoxy. “Icons aren’t meant for museums,” he said. “The Vladimirskaya [the most famous of Russian icons, now part of the Tretyakov Gallery collection] isn’t for a museum! It is nonsense to call them a cultural expression. Icons are an expression of the spiritual life. They relate us to love and peace and mercy. The creation of God is beauty itself. In the icon the beautiful is seen in the light of holiness. Icons should be returned to the places for which they were blessed.”

“I am amazed they showed it,” said a friend watching the film with me. “It was shown in a few cinemas but millions will have seen it on television who could never have seen it in the theater. A few months ago there was an article about whether it was safe for atheists to see it!”15

The next day, Sunday, was cool and windy, not ideal for an outdoor Liturgy, but the rain that threatened never came. A specially erected platform in the courtyard of the Danilov Monastery held both the altar and the more prominent church representatives, including nine Catholic cardinals, more than I had ever seen in one place before. “Actually there are nine-and-a-half Cardinals,” Etienne De Jonghe, General Secretary of Pax Christi International, pointed out. “The Archbishop from Hungary is soon to get the red hat.”

Presiding at the Liturgy with Patriarch Pimen were the heads of other Orthodox Churches: Patriarch Diodorus I of Jerusalem, Patriarch Ignatios IV of Antioch, Patriarch Iliya of Georgia, Patriarch Teoctist of Cyprus, and Patriarch Maxim of Bulgaria.

Communion was distributed at ten points among the crowd — estimated at 10,000 — that filled a large area within the Danilov walls. While there are long lines for everything in Russia, usually the communion lines are short, but not on this occasion. I had never seen so many people receiving communion in Russia, where a profound awe for the presence of Christ in the Eucharist inspires preparation involving days or even weeks of prayer, searching out any trace of enmity in one’s life, and finally confession.

The body language for receiving communion is quite special: both arms folded cross-wise on the chest, a simple gesture that suggests both submission and presence with Christ on the cross. Orthodoxy has not given up the body language of prayer: crossing oneself, kneeling, bowing down to the ground, kissing icons, and many other gestures in which body and soul are knit together. Communion is given slowly and by name: “The servant of God, [name], partakes of the holy precious body and blood of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, unto remission of sins and everlasting life.” To receive communion anywhere in the world is immensely significant, but for it to happen for an American in a monastery in Moscow within a long line of Russians, is — as Thomas Merton once said about a certain ancient monk on Mount Athos — “to be kissed by God.”

Speaking after the Liturgy, Poland’s Cardinal Glemp welcomed the newly canonized Orthodox saints, a suitable stress as it was the Feast of All the Saints Who Illumined Russia. “How wonderful that these new saints are added to your iconostasis, and such a variety of people.” He drew attention to one of the most recently canonized Catholic saints, Maximillian Kolbe, the Polish priest who gave his life to save a Jew when they were both prisoners in Auschwitz. “Father Kolbe went to a place of suffering to bring God’s love, to pray, and to offer his service.” The Cardinal expressed his special feelings for “the people of this land, who have experienced so much suffering yet have always overcome their difficulties.”

At a meal afterward in the Praga Restaurant at the end of Arbat Street, Patriarch Pimen expressed gratitude. “From all our hearts we thank the leaders of our country for their understanding of the needs of believers. . . . One can hardly overestimate the importance of what has been done by the state to help our Church conduct this celebration in the proper way.”

Over the meal a young Russian translator asked, “Please explain God to me.” She told me about the joy of having a child and her longing to have another despite the numerous obstacles to family life and parenthood in Moscow. After a little while we were talking about the words from John: “God is love, and he who abides in love, abides in God, and God in him.” She copied down the verse, entirely new to her. “I don’t know if I am Orthodox,” she said, “but I know I am a believer. I have so much to learn.”

The next day, Monday, was the ground-breaking ceremony for what will be the first new church in Moscow since 1917. Just as important is the fact that it is in a modern part of the city on the city’s southeast edge where there are no churches. Though dedicated to the Holy Trinity, perhaps it will be nick-named Perestroika Cathedral. The word was used over and over again as we stood around the church’s huge cornerstone. Konstantin Kharchev, speaking on behalf of the government, said that the new church will be “a symbol of perestroika and a symbol of the right of religious believers to have the churches they need.” Patriarch Pimen said that the new church represents the fulfillment of his life’s hopes. “Thanks to perestroika, relations between church and state are changing for the better, as this cathedral will bear witness.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu from South Africa rejoiced in the new church and all it stands for. “It is a sign that Christianity has a contribution to make in each society, especially in affirming the infinite worth of each person.”

The location of the new church is stunning. The site is within a large park, just above Tsaritsino Ponds. The ground is high — the church will be visible for miles in every direction. “The sound of its bells will carry far,” a priest standing at my side said with satisfaction. “Even more important,” said one of the translators, “it is near a Metro station [the Orechovo stop].”

The Americans taking part in the Millennium celebration were invited to Spaso House, the residence of the U.S. Ambassador, where we discovered not only the embassy staff and trays of hot pizza awaiting us but several prominent dissidents, among them Father Gleb Yakunin.

Father Gleb had been among the most outspoken opponents of state interference in Church life and Church compliance with state direction. In 1965 he wrote an open letter to the former Patriarch, Alexi, describing the Russian Orthodox Church as dangerously ill largely because the bishops were compromised by their obedience to atheist directives. Soon afterward the Patriarch suspended him. In 1975 he co-authored an appeal to the World Council of Churches asking it to increase its attention to Christians suffering for their faith. In 1976 he was a founder of the Christian Committee for the Defense of Believers’ Rights, sending reports west about violations of the human rights of believers. In 1979, arrested on the charge of anti-Soviet agitation, he was condemned to five years at a strict-regime labor camp. Internal exile in Siberia followed.

Freed in 1987 and permitted to return to the capital, he was assigned a parish north of Moscow near Zagorsk by the Orthodox Church. In April he had signed an open letter urging Patriarch Pimen to retire so that a younger person could lead the church “more energetically.” (One priest in Moscow said that this proposal saddened him. “The Patriarch’s legs and kidneys may not be well but his mind and heart are strong. Does your father have to be healthy to be your father?”)

A few days before Father Gleb had been one of three people invited to address Reagan at a meeting in Spaso House. Afterward he told reporters, “It is only after meeting the President that you realize how deep is his commitment to human rights.” Reading this, I hoped that Father Gleb would one day have the chance to look at the U.S. from the perspective of those whose human rights were a matter of slight concern in the White House. But talking with him in the Ambassador’s residence, our conversation was instead entirely about the situation in the Soviet Union. He described recent events in the USSR as “miraculous.” At the same time he was worried that “the celebration will screen awareness of the problems that remain to be solved.”

“There is much vitality at the parish level,” he said. “Last Sunday we had twenty baptisms. The Church is attracting many people, but there is a desperate need for religious education. We don’t have religious literature. The Church has recently published a new edition of the Bible but it is very expensive and there are not nearly enough copies.”

At the airport waiting for our flight to Kiev, I asked Billy Graham what had led him to undertake his first trip to the USSR in 1982 despite advice from Vice President Bush not to go. “I had been briefed at the Pentagon about what would happen if there was a nuclear war,” he replied. “I had been to Auschwitz and seen how limitless is our capacity for evil. And I was thinking about Paul saying in his first letter to the Corinthians that he was called to be all things to all people. I realized I had closed myself to the people in the Soviet Union. So I felt I had to say yes to the invitation I received from the Russian Orthodox Church inviting me to take part in a peace conference they were preparing in Moscow.”

We arrived in Kiev the night of June 13. At the hotel where we were staying I found some of the birthday cards American children had sent for the Millennium via the National Council of Churches. Shawn White in Anderson, South Carolina, wrote, “I am interested in knowing if you are a Christian. Happy 1000th birthday, Russian, whoever you are!” Kristi Matochi in El Campo, Texas, wrote in white letters on heavy black paper: “Hi, I’m Kristi, 13 years old, a girl! I like Heavy Metal and boys and my favorite color is black. Please write to me. Happy birthday.”

The next morning there was a meeting in the Kiev Opera House that was similar to the one held a few days before at the Bolshoi. By choosing a back row seat, I was able to read Gogol’s Dead Souls during some of the more boring or repetitive speeches. Gogol seemed to have the face of a local official of the Council for Religious Affairs when he wrote: “There was absolutely nothing in him: neither wickedness nor goodness, and there was something terrifying in this absence of anything.” What was most striking about the official’s face was his utter lack of enthusiasm. One assumed he had received word from on high that he must now to do all sorts of things that previously it was his job not to do. More impressive were the entirely benevolent faces of Metropolitan Filaret of Kiev and Metropolitan Yuvenali, who could easily be turning victor’s grins toward those officials who for so many years blocked the way.

Cardinal Willebrands was among the speakers, an important moment for the Catholics in the Ukraine. “The feast we are celebrating is an occasion for dialogue,” he said, “a requirement that unfortunately is very often neglected. We need a dialogue between the believer and the non-believer, between faith and atheism. The state has tried to humiliate religion, to reduce it to a pathology. Now it offers signs of respect and a readiness to engage in dialogue.” He noted that often believer and non-believer interpret the same facts differently, for human understanding often centers on oneself rather than on others. “Glasnost, the clarity of words expressing faith and wisdom, is the basis of a healthy culture. A new epoch is emerging in our world, an epoch that admits that it has not got all the answers but has the courage to hear the answers.”

Vespers was at Saint Vladimir’s Cathedral. The streets around were crowded. Inside, the huge church was filled to bursting and only those with invitations were being allowed to join the congregation. Even showing my plastic-encased Millennium identity card, I was told, “Nyet, nyet, nyet!” With all the authority I could muster, I said, “Da, da, da!” Then the gate opened enough for me to slip inside. I was lucky to find a bit of space right against the iconostasis. The television lights made it painful to look toward the congregation.

Billy Graham was invited to speak. Metropolitan Filaret stood at his side. It was a vintage Graham sermon: “My grandfather never dreamed of the changes that have happened in our world — space travel, color television, travel from continent to continent in a few hours by jet airplane. But some things never change. Interest in religion never changes. The nature of God never changes.” He spoke about God’s love for each person, a love we cannot damage by our sins. Graham recalled a Moscow lady who told him, “I am a great sinner.” He responded, “I too am a great sinner, but we have a great savior.” He recalled Prince Vladimir and his conversion. “He turned away from idols and destroyed them, opening a new path in life not only for himself but for millions of others right down to our own time. God never changes, but you and I must change just as Prince Vladimir changed a thousand years ago.” He ended his sermon saying, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

The congregation replied in one voice, “God save you!”

That night Soviet television again caught me by surprise with “Mother Maria,” a film dramatizing the life of a Russian woman who surely one day will be canonized. Though among the revolutionaries in her youth, she finally had to flee the Bolsheviks, finding refuge in Paris. After the disintegration of the marriage, she became a nun and founded a refuge in Paris for homeless Russians. There was a scene in the film where she is talking to a young exile who wants to fight the Communists. “But you will be fighting your brothers, not Communists,” she says to him. During the war, because she hid Russian soldiers who had escaped from the Germans, she was arrested by the Gestapo. She died in Ravensbruck March 30, 1945, taking the place of another prisoner.

“However hard I try,” she said, “I find it impossible to construct anything greater than these three words, ‘Love one another’ — only to the end, and without exceptions: then all is justified and life is illumined, whereas otherwise it is an abomination and a burden.” Her reasons for centering her vocation on hospitality had a profound theological basis: “The bodies of fellow human beings must be treated with greater care than our own. Christian love teaches us to give our brethren not only spiritual gifts, but material gifts as well. Even our last shirt, our last piece of bread must be given to them. Personal almsgiving and the most wide-ranging social work are equally justifiable and necessary. The way to God lies through love of other people and there is no other way. At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked if I was successful in my ascetic exercises or how many prostrations I made in the course of my prayers. I shall be asked, did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners: that is all I shall be asked.”16

“It is the third time this film has been shown on television,” a pastor in Kiev told me. “It is amazing. She was a most cultured person. She knew Berdyaev and Blok — her book on Blok is finally going to be published here, forty years after she wrote it. She loved colors and flowers. She had a gift for breathing life and hope into despairing people. Of course what she did in the war made her a hero, but it is clear that what gave her the courage to do what she did was not political ideology but religious faith. In fact her political ideology was all wrong from the point of view of marxism!”

The Holy Liturgy at Saint Vladimir’s the next morning brought out an even larger crowd than had been there for Vespers. A good sound system had been installed outside the church so that those unable to get inside could listen. In fact they had a better chance to hear everything than those packed together within the walls.

Cardinal Willebrands and two other cardinals were present. Willebrands has a round, pink face without a trace of guile. He seemed not to be familiar with the Orthodox Liturgy, which, if so, is remarkable, given the fact that he heads the Vatican’s Secretariat for Christian Unity. But at least there was no air of condescension or boredom — rather complete fascination. He watched with the eyes of a child at the circus. At appropriate moments, taking cues from other worshippers, he shyly crossed himself.

There was a long line of people for communion and I happened to be standing close by. I was freshly impressed with how the human face shines brightest at moments of deep prayer and love.

“It is not a coincidence,” a local priest, Father Boris Udovenko, told me over lunch, “that perestroika in our country coincides with the millennium. In fact I think it is out of the spiritual life of our country that perestroika was born, and that the anticipation of the millennium gave the country an inspiration to look at everything from the point of view of spiritual values. But we are very far from realizing what we now dare to imagine. There are still thousands of officials who don’t want to change and don’t want to step down, who like being little czars.” He said the man who is curator of the museum at the Monastery of the Caves is one of those who is quite unhappy to see the church receiving back even a minor part of the monastery. “This man claims to be a historian, but he is actually a former restaurant manager. He likes having a famous museum better than having a third-rate restaurant.”

“Many powerful civilizations have perished because they lost their moral foundations,” said Metropolitan Filaret in a luncheon speech. “Under perestroika, the spiritual and moral foundations of society are of tremendous importance. Our guests are seeing with their own eyes what is happening because of perestroika. They can see how perestroika has touched relations between Church and State. It would have been unimaginable ten years ago. Ten years ago we could also not imagine that there would be the destruction of a whole class of nuclear weapons. We can now have the hope that we can meet the year 2000 without weapons of mass slaughter. One or two people cannot do this, but it can happen if we all play our role. If something tragic should happen — God forbid! — we will all be victims, and we will all face the judgment of God where we will each receive according to our deeds. Let us hope for the best. Faith, hope and love give us the force to overcome evil in the world. Let us raise our glasses to the possibility of the long-awaited peace. May we recognize each human being as a brother or sister.”

The evening concert at the Opera House, featuring the choir of Saint Vladimir’s Cathedral, was shown live throughout the Ukraine. A number of the hymns had been composed at the Monastery of the Caves when it was still active. The painted backdrop was of a church setting under a huge icon of the Savior’s face and an Orthodox cross.

The next morning, June 16, Kiev’s gaze was centered on the three hills above the Dnieper River which support the Monastery of the Caves. The highest hill, with the largest complex of churches and buildings, remains a museum, but the two lower hills plus the caves were returned to monastic use June 7. The monks had set up an outdoor chapel in front of one small church.

By 9 o’clock clergy shining in gold and green liturgical vestments stood around the altar. Close at hand were foreign guests, the press and a choir. Beyond them, stretching half-a-mile away until heads disappeared over the crest of a hill, were thousands of people from Kiev and beyond. The geography of the hillside and monastery complex was such that lines of participants unfolded in other directions so that, from the air, the crowd took the shape of a tree with budding branches, the altar marking the point where the tree was rooted in the earth.

Among those around the altar was a wiry old man with wispy white beard, one of the monks who had been driven away from the monastery a quarter-century ago. His face constantly attracted my gaze. He has lived long enough not only to return to his home but to see hatred of religion give way to respect. One local woman who managed to get near the altar through a back gate spent most of the Liturgy with her knees on the cobblestones, her thick fingers folded together and her lips moving in constant but silent prayer. Her attention never wavered from the direction of the altar though all she could see were the backs of priests.

After the distribution of communion, I wandered toward the back of the crowd exploring faces. Attention was so focused on the Liturgy that I was hardly noticed, though in most cases when I asked to take a photo of a particular person or family assent was given and friendly eyes were turned my way.

“The lamp of the monastery that was extinguished in this sacred place is lit again,” Metropolitan Filaret told the crowd. “The monastery was built by faith, and after many trials and tribulations, we have received back part of our holy cloister. We will immediately resume the work of being a monastery where believers can bring their griefs, their joys, their plea for forgiveness and all their needs.” Twenty monks have moved in already.

The Millennium event that will still be talked about a century from now was the commemoration of the Baptism of Rus that occurred late that afternoon at the foot of the monumental Saint Vladimir statue above the Dnieper River. What made this much more than it might have been was bad weather. Half an hour before the ceremony was to begin, rain began to fall, not just rain but a torrent that turned the steep streets of Kiev into spillways. It was a kind of rain I have rarely known in twelve years of living in grey, wet Holland where one should be born wearing a rain coat.

The rain had no impact at all on Russian involvement in the baptismal celebration. People who had been standing on the hillside above the towering statue of the cross-bearing Saint Vladimir since eight in the morning remained rooted to their spots. With or without protection, no one budged except some of the foreign guests. After an hour in the rain I was more than ready to seek shelter in the bus, but hung on because of the example of Father Alexis Voogd, pastor of the Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam. It was he who made me notice some of the faces around us: “Look at how they are praying!” They were praying with such absorption that they seemed oblivious to the downpour.

An old monk and three nuns were by our side, kept somewhat dry by a big sheet of transparent plastic they used as a common umbrella. Their black clothing was worn thin, looking as old as themselves. On the other side was a family clustered under one large umbrella. I realized that for most of the people present, the rain wasn’t a burden but a blessing. The baptism of Rus’ was being renewed. As we hadn’t waded into the river, the water had risen to us, and all Kiev was being doused anew: believer and unbeliever, Orthodox and Baptist, atheist and agnostic, journalist and policeman.

Then, perhaps fifteen minutes before the end of a ceremony centering on the blessing of water, just when prayers of thanksgiving were being sung, the grey clouds parted and we were in the spotlight of the sun. It was as if we were on the stage of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow rather than the steep hillsides above the Dnieper River in Kiev.


According to the Primary Chronicle, Saint Nestor’s Tale of Bygone Years written at Kiev’s Monastery of the Caves, Prince Vladimir realized that the time had come to embrace a religious tradition of world standing. Taking great care to make the right choice, he sent emissaries to investigate the religions of neighboring countries. They went to synagogues, mosques, and to both Latin and Greek Christian churches. Receiving Vladimir’s representatives in Constantinople, the Patriarch brought them to a service in the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) Cathedral. Incense filled the air, choirs sang, the clergy wore vestments radiant with candle light, icons gave witness to the link between earth and heaven, time and eternity. The emissaries wrote to Vladimir: “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells among these people and that their services are fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. We can never forget that beauty.”17

On a June day in 988, the people of Kiev, carrying banners and icons, went in procession into the Dnieper River and were baptized. “Joy was seen throughout heaven at the sight of so many souls being saved,” the Chronicle records. That same summer the Christian faith spread to the cities of Novgorod, Rostov, Vladimir and Belgorod.

Before his conversion Vladimir was, says Nestor, “a man insatiable in vice.” Afterward he became renowned for his care of the poor, of orphans and the sick. The palace gates were opened to the hungry. He built hospices for the aged. Rejecting the views of his Orthodox mentors from Greece, he prohibited torture and execution of criminals. He was named a saint not only for bringing Christianity to the ancient land of Kievan Rus’ — thus given the title Equal of the Apostles — but because of his wholehearted devotion to the teaching of Jesus.

Among the fifteen Orthodox Churches, the Russian Church is fifth in rank (after the four ancient Patriarchates of Jerusalem, Constantinople, Antioch and Alexandria) and largest in size: 50,000,000 was the estimate given at the Millennium celebration.

Charity in Moscow

On June 20, 1988, Moscow’s evening television news program reported that Patriarch Pimen’s church, the Epiphany Cathedral, had become linked with a local hospital. An agreement had been signed providing the opportunity for church members to offer volunteer service.

“The Christian religion teaches care of neighbor,” said Doctor Anatoly Soloviev, the hospital’s director. “This is a concrete way of doing it. Now we have our first contact with a religious group. We think it can help with problems we have offering health care. Some of the patients need constant care, and we don’t have the staff to offer that. The feeling you get from believers is compassion. Patients need that. They need the support of faith and love.”

The interviewer asked Father Matthew Stadniouk, dean of the Patriarchal Cathedral, what led the Church to help in this way. “Our Orthodox people are part of society,” he answered, “and I’m very glad that now the opportunity has come to help people. It is perestroika and democratization at work. The time has come for common feeling. It means seeing what you can do today. Tomorrow may be too late. This work is a moral reward for the people. The way people respond already shows that the conscience of our people has not been destroyed. We expect that many in our church will take part. The hospital is our neighbor. We hope to give help every day. After all, to have any success in healing you have to have love.”

“If you have a feeling of mercy in your heart, ” said one of the volunteers at the hospital, “you will do this.” A priest was shown making the sign of the cross over a woman too ill even to raise her head. In another room a nurse was standing next to a frail patient. “Do you feel pushed aside by these volunteers coming from the church?” the nurse was asked. “Oh no,” said the nurse, immediately crossing herself, “I am a believer myself!”

“It is the first time,” said an astonished Orthodox priest who was watching the news with me, “that anything like this has happened since Lenin. In the past it has been said that the state provides social services and needs no help in doing it. But it is far from true. At most hospitals the nursing staff is much too small.”

Assisted by a Muscovite teacher of English, three days later I visited Clinical Hospital Number Six a few blocks west of the Epiphany Cathedral. We hadn’t been able to get through by phone so had come in the hope the director might be there and could find the time for a visitor. Though repair work was underway, the buildings had fallen into appalling condition: broken doors, cracked or missing glass, faded, ancient paint. We searched through several buildings surrounding a small park until we found the appropriate office.

The only decoration in Anatoly Soloviev’s dimly lit office were side-by-side pictures of Lenin and Gorbachev. He was a man in his late thirties who six months earlier had been elected by his colleagues.

I asked how many hospitals were involved in the volunteer initiative. “This is the only hospital so far with people coming as volunteers from a local church.”

What sort of volunteers are coming? “Ordinary people. There is no pay for it and there are no qualifications needed except the willingness to help.”

He laughed when I asked about the history of the hospital’s engagement with the local church. “It is so new that it is hard to say there is any history! We began just ten days ago during the celebration of the Church’s Millennium. There were talks between the staff of the church, Father Matthew and Father Nicholas, and the chief doctors of the hospital. Then it was announced at the Cathedral during morning prayer June 8 that we would welcome volunteers. The first one to show up was a man named Sergei Leonidovitch Timofeev. Then came a nun, Mother Marianelle, who brought a group of believers with her. We can say these people are the founders. So far, except Sergei, they are all women. They come when they have time. There’s no schedule.”

What do they do? “They clean wards, change linens, take care of bed pans, talk to the patients, sit with them, read the newspaper or a book aloud. They make contact with the believers among the patients and, in case the patients ask, they invite a priest to bring the sacraments or to come and pray for them.”

How is it going? “We are happy about it. We see how much it means to the patients, and it is good for the staff also. One of the patients, an old man who has had five heart attacks, asked if he can give his money to the hospital to help others. This is something we never heard from a patient before. You see, you are watching the very beginning. We don’t know where it will lead. I have no prognosis. But I have hope. We are in a new period of our history, we are starting a new life. Both the clergy and the doctors have hopes that this will develop. From our side, we are ready to do our best. But we have no experience in it and are learning as we go.”

What sort of response are you getting from higher up? “All the responses are positive. I want to believe, in fact I am almost sure, that the church is going to play a big role in health care work in this country. It is time. The Millennium is a good time to start. We have many believing people in our country. It is good that they play the part they deserve to play.”

He asked if there were pastors in legislative roles in the United States. I said there were. “I hope,” he responded, “to see the day when priests will become People’s Deputies. They are also Soviet people. They are close to the people. It may seem like a crazy idea but I would like to suggest that Father Matthew should be a People’s Deputy. He has the life experience. He is honest. He is a helpful man. He is qualified. We need people like that helping to lead our country.”

The next day I went to the Patriarchal residence near Arbat Street to meet Father Matthew Stadniouk. His desk was covered with papers and books and there were several icons on the wall. He had a short white beard and a shy manner.

“Our Russian word for such acts of care is miloserdia — works of a merciful heart,” he said. “It means any action done for others out of Christ’s love. In her long history the Church was always taking care of people. There is nothing new in the task, but the possibility in our situation is new. We are just starting to put seeds in the ground. It is too early to say what will come from them. But the Church should do whatever she can, that is the thing, especially for those who are sick and need our help. We hope that the possibilities to do this will improve, especially now that we have a good relationship with the government. As you know, perestroika is going on. But this renewal of structures comes from dukhovnost — the spiritual life of the people. Our country and every country need dukhovnost. In fact I think America needs it even more than we do. Dukhovnost is the reason the Church survived so many centuries. We should thank God.”

How are members of the congregation responding? “One person asked whether it was more important to go to the church for services or to go to the hospital to volunteer. Well, normally we don’t have to choose between one and the other, but I said sometimes it may be more important to go to the hospital. Sometimes the needs there may be the most urgent. We have 300,000 people living in our area.”

Was he surprised at this new opening in society? “No, not that it happens, only I did not know when it would happen. It is something I expected sooner or later. The government knows that the Church has always been with the people. We have lived with them, suffered with them, shared their fate, never abandoned them, and we are always ready to serve in whatever ways we can.”

What did he think would happen next? “I can’t say. God is giving us such help. All we can do is thank God and pray that this new atmosphere will last for the next thousand years. Now we should try to show our people, not only here but in other countries, that the next Jubilee, the Second Millennium of Christianity, will be in peace and love and mercy and understanding.”

In the short time we were together, Father Matthew spoke repeatedly of gratitude: “We are grateful. . . .We should gives thanks. . . . Thanks be to God! . . . We should say thanks to God!” It was his deep gratitude that I felt even more than his words. He is a man with a radiant face. That such a person shares the Patriarch’s home and serves as pastor of patriarchal cathedral provides significant clues to the character of Patriarch Pimen himself.

When leaving, I gave him a copy of a biography I had written of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, whose houses of hospitality in the United States have been a place of welcome for so many abandoned people. He was amazed. “Dorothy Day! Did you know her?” I said I had worked with her on the Catholic Worker staff in the early sixties and that it was she who first brought me to visit a Russian Orthodox Cathedral, the church on East 97th Street in New York. “We have met before! I remember you when you were a young man!” said Father Matthew. “I was serving in that church. Dorothy used to visit me, and I once went to the Catholic Worker farm. I remember her bringing you to our church.”

“I believe,” said Father Matthew, “that there are no accidental meetings. Please come and see me again when you return to Moscow.”

Six months later, in January 1989, we met again in an office tucked into the rafters of the Epiphany Cathedral. A Christmas tree stood in the middle of the office, a battered couch to one side, a small wooden desk to the other. While Father Matthew prepared tea, I studied the photos over his desk. One was of the Savior Cathedral, the church near the Kremlin that was dynamited in 1931. After the tea was served in cups of various sizes and colors, I asked how the miloserdia was coming.

“More parishes are involved, more volunteers, more patients. Similar work is being done by other churches in Moscow and Leningrad and we anticipate it will develop quickly throughout the country. We have just established the Federated Society of Charities. Next we will set up the Moscow Society of Charities. So there has been much progress.”

What about new churches in Moscow? “One week ago a church building was returned to us and two months ago we received one located in the north of the city near the Sheremetyevo Airport. In the near future we will build a cathedral in southern Moscow dedicated to the Holy Trinity, with a second altar dedicated to the Holy Saints of Russia. The ground was blessed during the Millennium. Little by little, the needs of believers are being met.”

Isn’t it hard to find people with the skills needed for church construction? “We want the church to be built in a traditional way so of course there will be problems. It will not be easy to find the builders. Yet we notice that in earlier centuries people had no education but they made beautiful churches. In the whole of Russia we hope to find both the people and resources needed.”

Can the Church could afford to put back into service so many buildings in derelict condition? “Money is a big problem. Restoration costs a lot. It is not easy to do so much at the same time. We are now restoring many churches and also two monasteries. But we know our people will give whatever is needed, even everything they have. We find support from many people not belonging to the Church. During the Jubilee a good atmosphere was created throughout society. Many writers and scientists wrote good articles about church history — what the Church has done for the country. They also wrote about the importance of the art and architecture that has been created by believers. There has been much on television and in the press, and this didn’t stop with the end of the Jubilee year. It is still going on. We feel the respect and affection of our neighbors. It is amazing how things can change so quickly! I thank God.”

Is the climate still positive? “God sent us Mister Gorbachev to give good leadership to our country and now many things are possible. We thank God that we have been given the right man. The atmosphere in society is very good. We pray and the whole country prays that perestroika will continue. It helps us and it helps the whole world. Your country and my country no longer criticize each other so much. Neither country is trying to be the judge of the whole world. This is as it should be for no one gave us such a right. What we have been given is the right to help each other.”

Our conversation turned to the subject of forgiveness. “Forgiveness is based on Jesus’ saying, ‘If you are going to pray and you remember that you have a dispute with your neighbor, leave the gift at the altar, go and make peace with your neighbor, and then return.’ The Apostle John says that, ‘Whoever says he loves God but hates his brother is a liar.’ You know in Russia we have the tradition of Forgiveness Sunday just before the beginning of Great Lent. This is a day when all people go to the church and forgive each other. Of course you cannot forgive everyone in one day but you can make a beginning that goes on throughout Lent. Everyone understands that when you go to the Holy Chalice you must have forgiven everyone from your heart. To live in Christ is to forgive. But this is very hard sometimes. To forgive is not easy. If someone killed your brother it is not easy to forgive the killer. We have to take the example of our Savior who said, ‘Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.’

“Forgiveness is at the heart of the transformation happening in our country. This rejuvenation is impossible without forgiveness. Perestroika cannot happen by itself, without a spiritual life. Just one man can do much evil. We know from our history how much evil one man can do. With one small match you can burn down a big building. But with the light of forgiveness you can do even more. With spiritual fire you can heal.

“I think everywhere in the world people are realizing the need to find some solution to the crisis we are facing and they see the answer isn’t some machine. People are asking: Where are we going? Does this direction not lead to destruction? They come more and more to the Church to find an inner direction, and also to find the inspiration to forgive. But of course still there are people who think you are crazy if you speak about forgiveness, people who think humility is a very old fashioned word. Yes, there are still many people thinking like that.”


Sharing our compartment on the night train to Kiev was a babushka named Olga on her way home after a Christmas visit with one of her sons and his family in Moscow. “They almost killed me with food,” she said, “and then they gave me this big bag of food to take on the train. You have to help eat it, please. All that God gives is blessed.” She crossed herself and opened the bag. “So you’re welcome!” We ate brown bread, hard-boiled eggs, bologna and cookies.

Christmas in Moscow didn’t please her. “Young people don’t know what Christmas is. There used to be a real Christmas. Now it hardly exists. There was no feeling of Christmas in Moscow. In our town, we still have it but not as it used to be. We have two churches in our town, one Orthodox, one Catholic. I am Orthodox.”

She talked about her three sons and their families. “My sons are good to me, and their wives. Praise be to God!” She crossed herself.

I was the first American she had ever met. “It’s good that it is going better between America and our country. Our children should never know what we had to know.” She crossed herself. “I pray for peace and friendship.”

While Olga got ready for bed, Sergei and I went out into the corridor. “She is a true babushka,” said Sergei, “the real thing. She is what we miss so much in our lives. The babushka created the soul of Lermontov and Pushkin. She is so plain but she has her special beauty. We have the proverb, ‘Of course we are astonished by the beauty of a beautiful woman, but our heart belongs to a nice woman.’ Real beauty comes from inner goodness.”

Arriving at Metropolitan Filaret’s three-storey house on Pushkin Street, we found a crowd of people — among them several women who reminded me of Olga — gathered in the back yard, lined up to receive Bibles that were being distributed inside.

Apart from his neatly trimmed snow white beard, Metropolitan Filaret has a child’s face — pink, hardly lined, with clear, expectant eyes. Neither while presiding at the Liturgy nor in private conversation does he ever seem in a hurry.

He opened the interview with a general overview of the current situation of the Russian Orthodox Church. “We have got to have changes in the life of the Russian Orthodox Church, changes linked with the general changes in our society, glasnost and perestroika. When Mikhail Gorbachev received the Patriarch and members of the Holy Synod last April 29, he told us that perestroika concerns everything, including the Church.

“Speaking about how it is manifested for believers, I would point first of all to the Millennium last year. This event was celebrated not only by believers but by everyone. For non-believers it was a celebration of national identity and culture. It showed that the wall between church and state is being erased. Churches that were closed are being opened, new churches are under construction. In the past year we registered over 800 new Orthodox communities, 420 of these in the Ukraine. There are many new churches serving other religious communities have also opened — Catholic, Baptist, Adventist, Armenian, also Jewish synagogues, Moslem mosques and Buddhist temples. The weather is good for everyone.

“Part of the Monastery of the Caves has been returned. Please go and visit the monks living there. Now there are eleven monasteries on Ukrainian territory, four for men and seven for women, and we expect the return of the Holy Trinity Monastery at Chernigov. In Russia the Optina Pustyn Monastery and the Tolga Convent are being restored and we anticipate the return of the Holy Trinity Monastery in Kolomna [40 miles from Moscow] and the Gethsemane Monastery near Zagorsk. We are discussing the return of the Valaam Monastery in Karelia [near the Finnish border] and another monastery in the Ryazan region. We will have the chance to re-open still other monasteries in the near future. The problem is staff, finances, and the extensive restoration work that needs to be done.

“We have three seminaries with approximately 2500 resident students at Zagorsk, Leningrad and Odessa. Now we plan to open seminaries in the Ukraine and Byelorussia and another either in Siberia or the Volga River region. Possibly there will be one in Moscow. The Ukrainian one will be in Kiev. We also plan to open theological schools in Minsk, Smolensk and in Chernigov in the Ukraine to train psalm singers, readers and other church staff.

“We still have the problem of providing faithful people with Bibles. You saw the line of people waiting for a copy. Many Bibles were given to us by the Scandinavian churches, others from the Bible Society in Great Britain. The Ukrainian Exarchate has also published a Ukrainian edition. A Russian prayer book is being distributed and we plan a Ukrainian edition. The publishing activity of the church is rapidly expanding. We plan to open a church publishing house. The most serious problem we face is the shortage of paper. We are hoping that publishers and churches in other countries will help us with paper. If we had the paper we could issue a short presentation of our faith, for example, a church history and other much needed publications and books.

“Fortunately we now have the opportunity to participate in the mass media. Radio and television programs are broadcast about church life. Orthodox people are being interviewed and also being invited to participate in discussion programs.

“Church workers are active at all levels in many public organizations — the Cultural Fund, the Children’s Fund, the Peace Fund, and so forth. Now we have launched a structure for charity work around the country. The Church is ready to collaborate with any civic organizations. Again there are still problems to be solved, however. We still have old-fashioned laws limiting the activities of the Church, but step by step the barriers are being removed. We are expecting a new law for religion in the new future. The separation of church and state will remain as well as the separation of church and school, but we expect that faithful people will be allowed the right to fully participate in social life. We hope the draft of this new law will be openly discussed. By all means the church will present it opinions about the law.

“Society is expecting the Church to play her part in the moral and spiritual education of the people and this is the mission and longing of the Church. In the past religious education took place within the family and at church. We would like to address ourselves to the wider character of religious education in the life of this people. We don’t want to impose religious instruction at school but we look for other ways to meet this need, perhaps by providing the opportunity for private religious education. We don’t yet know how this will work. It is under discussion.

“There is also the Church’s peacemaking work. This is worldwide and it will continue.

“Another important development is that religious workers have the chance to be elected to Soviet legislative bodies. Religious workers have been nominated by several public organizations. The Holy Synod discussed this opportunity at its recent session and gave its blessing to church workers to participate in the legislature. The Patriarch and Holy Synod hope that this will be beneficial to the people, the state and the Church.

“Another point: You know about the process of rehabilitation now going on of people killed unjustly in purges in the Stalin period. The Holy Synod, at its meeting December 28, decided to set up a committee to collect material about those who perished, who were repressed or who suffered in that period.”

The interview continued over lunch — fish in jelly, kvass, lemon flavored vodka, caviar, bread and butter — prepared by a sister from the Pokrovsky Convent.

I mentioned the criticism Konstantin Kharchev had made in Ogonyok magazine about the resistance of local Councils for Religious Affairs to the new direction taken by the Council in Moscow. “He is right. Some local authorities are still resisting the registration of local religious communities. Often the authorities do not want to return old churches that are being destroyed by the weather or being used for secular purposes. When faithful people want to take over a church, it should be given to them. This would be good both for believers and society. The church would be used once again for the purpose for which it was built and at the same time a cultural landmark would be restored.”

I asked how money for church restoration is being raised. “We are collecting money to build the new cathedral in Moscow. Partly this money comes from the sale of Bibles. While we give some away free we also sell them in order to raise money for the new church. For example they are on sale at the cathedral here in Kiev. We would welcome any help that churches in the west can offer. We are trying to raise money to rebuilt the Assumption Cathedral and to restore the Pokrovsky and Florensky Monasteries here in Kiev. The Dormition Cathedral at the Monastery of the Caves was blown up by the Nazis in the war. We want it to be a place both for divine services and to serve as a cultural landmark for tourists to visit. We will also restore the Holy Intercession Krasnogorsky Convent in Zolotonosha.”

What about the church’s new opportunities for social service? “Now believing people are able to found charitable societies. This is a welcome development. We see a difference between civil charity and charity in response to the Gospel. Our faith stresses the importance of charity in the heart. In the Gospel story about the woman who gave two kopeks, the reason her small gift was more precious to God was that it came from her heart. Orthodoxy tries to cultivate the heart and this deep feeling of charity.”

What about the prospect for improved relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and Ukrainian Catholics? “This problem has been exaggerated. Those campaigning for legalization are a small group driven more by political than religious interests. Their method is not peaceful but aggressive. Under such circumstances how can relations be improved?”

The conversation turned to the approach the Orthodox Church has to confession, repentance and forgiveness. “Orthodoxy emphasizes careful preparation for communion — prayer, repentance, forgiveness of others, confession, fasting. We understand repentance to be a rebirth that comes from deep within. The violent person who confesses must end his violence, the drunkard should stop drinking. What you confess you should stop doing. Repentance means a process of renovating your whole life.”

I asked what he saw as special characteristics of Orthodoxy. “More than churches in the west, which seem to deal more with civic issues, we concentrate on religious and spiritual issues. We also put special stress on love of enemies. Consider those who suffered under Stalin’s purges. You can easily have a feeling for revenge. Many of those who were responsible are still alive yet in the Orthodox Church you hear no one calling for revenge. Also many suffered terribly from the Germans. We suffered very much in the Ukraine. Yet you do not find longing for revenge. I have been told by German visitors that they feel more welcomed here than in any part of Europe that was occupied by the German army.”

He talked about the religious programs on Soviet television. “One of the most important was the film ‘Church.’ Its basic message was that the destruction of places of worship is the destruction of everything that is holy, the loss of a sense of the sacred. You recall the scene where some young people are riding their motorbikes through a graveyard around a church that has been made into nightclub. There is a lot of noisy dancing inside. This is contrasted in the film with the beauty of church singing. In the Orthodox Church, when you have committed a sin, you must repent before you can improve yourself. The film shows the evil that has been done — the violence against believers and the desecration of places of worship. We can see the film as itself a confession, an act of repentance, a plea for renewal of the soul. The public disclosure of your evil actions is a sign of repentance. It is a way of saying that we don’t want to be this way anymore.”

For Vespers Sergei and I went to Saint Vladimir’s Cathedral. A large church of the Byzantine style built in the last century, it is one of the most ravishing churches in Russia. In a religious goods shop in back, in addition to inexpensive crosses and silk-screened icons, the Bible was on sale for 80 rubles. Hand-painted icons were 300 rubles.

The Dean of the Cathedral, Father John Chernienko, was eager to show the iconography covering the cathedral walls, much of it the work of Victor Vasnetsov. “He had a wonderful gift to reveal holiness,” said Father John. Just within the main entrance, we looked at a Vasnetsov fresco of Prince Vladimir’s baptism. On the facing wall was a painting of the people of Kiev being baptized in the Dnieper River.

“The cathedral is named for Saint Vladimir, whom we call Equal to the Apostles because he led our people to Baptism,” said Father John. “In an old manuscript it says Prince Vladimir was blinded but in baptism his eyes were re-opened. You get this impression in the way Vasnetsov shows Vladimir’s face as he comes out of the baptismal water. He has an expression of profound wonder. He is looking at the world with new eyes. But notice that some of the people standing around watching the baptism have very old eyes — some of his warriors are clearly displeased at what their prince is doing.”

As Father John’s talked, a crowd gathered to listen. “Christianity was not new to Kiev but many had opposed it. There had been baptized people in Kiev for generations. There was already the Church of Saint Elijah. Among the prominent people who converted to the new faith was Princess Olga, grandmother of Vladimir. But it was because of the conversion of Vladimir that Christianity became the state religion. In the painting of the baptism of the Kievan people, you can see that while the mass of people are accepting baptism with joy, some are displeased. You can see that our people are only at the beginning of the process of conversion.”

Over the entrance doors, between the two baptismal paintings, was a fresco of the Last Judgment, a work in which the crack of doom is almost audible. “If you look at the details, you can sense Vasnetsov’s theological depth. He almost graduated from a seminary before taking the path of art.” By now the crowd around us was large and pressing hard. “The Last Judgment is a mystical subject — not historical in the sense of the other two but the portrayal of an event we await rather than one we remember. Any sensitive viewer can penetrate the church’s theology by looking at it. You see Christ in the center. He is holding the Gospel. This means he will judge us by the law of the Gospel. You see Mary’s head almost touching his — the halos are touching. There are tears in her eyes. She is pleading for mercy. You also see John the Baptist making appeals. The condemned are those who failed to maintain the moral level they were called to — people who committed actions against conscience. There is the Archangel. What strict and just beauty! He is holding the scroll with the seven seals described in the Book of Revelations of Saint John. Its text is the history of the world and what each has done or failed to do. There is the scale. You can see among the condemned many who were supposed to be leading others to salvation — notice the priest tearing his clerical garments. And there is a king — you see him grabbing for his crown as it falls from his head. The painting says that salvation cannot be bought by money or authority or ecclesiastical vocation. Your clothes and titles do not excuse you from living a moral life. You also see in the painting the strength of prayer. There is one woman falling toward hell. But you see she is being rescued from damnation by the intercession of someone praying for her. You see in this painting that nothing disappears. The same God who made you from nothing will reform your body at the end of history even if there is nothing left of your body but ash scattered across a desert. You will be raised from death, body and soul, and be held responsible for how you lived.”

Later, away from the crowd, I asked Father John if the cathedral had managed to stay open through the Stalin years. “It was closed from 1931 to 1941, but since that time it has been a working church. It has served not only the needs of believers but people coming to belief. Many visitors come in just to look and begin to discover the treasures of faith. Sometimes we have an entire family to baptize. Through art, architecture and music, through the witness of our Liturgy, the hearts of many people, especially young people, have been opened. In this church many people have committed themselves to goodness.”

Was perestroika having a positive effect? “We are feeling it. It gives our people the chance to live in conformity with our conscience. Believers are supporting the process in every way. We only want it to go faster.”

Back at the hotel, I gave a Bible I had been presented with that morning to a cleaning woman. She took it in her hands and kissed it.

At the Liturgy the next morning in the lower church at the Pokrovsky (Protection of the Mother of God) Convent, Father Timothy Shaidurov’s sermon occasioned a vocal response. “Are you going to consent to a life of materialism?” Several people said, “Nyet!” “Are you going to be careless about prayer?” “Nyet!” Blessing the faithful at the end of the Liturgy, he affectionately tapped some of them on the forehead with the bronze cross in his hand.

Afterward the abbess, Matushka (Mother) Margarita, took us into the upper church, a building consecrated in 1911, now restored except for its missing cupola. “Not so many people were at the Liturgy today,” she said. “They are tired after being in church so much during the last two weeks. During the Christmas celebration, there were real crowds. Our four priests and one deacon were kept busy.”

She paused in front of an icon of Saint Seraphim of Sarov. “He inspires much devotion. He showed that it was possible to lead a life of constant prayer while loving and serving all those around him. He devoted his life to repentance in such a way that many ascended to God. Such a saint attracts God by the absence of pride in his heart. His eyes are opened and he can see what others fail to see. He can see the thoughts and souls of others. This power is given to him by God. He does not need a car or tram to go somewhere. He can go anywhere without taking a single step. Other people travel a lot but see nothing. To travel is not necessarily to see. The great saints labored hard in the spirit — it is hard to overcome yourself! — and God gave them eyes that were truly open. God gave them a sanctified life. This was God’s gift. We come to live in the convent in the hope of obtaining just a spark of such grace. We will not be great saints but perhaps we can have a spark of the fire of sanctity. This is what we seek. Just a spark. We may not be great saints but we want at least not to fall into hell. Our will isn’t strong but we rely on Christ.” She crossed herself. “He is our hope. He was incarnated into a man’s body. He was crucified. He saved us from eternal death. He gave us the spark of longing for eternal life and made us want to pray and to work and to live a tender life.”

Over tea in the convent, she told me that fifteen nuns had joined the community since my last visit at Easter in 1987. “One sister dies, another arrives. We have 82 in our community now.” I wondered if the sisters are all Ukrainian. “No, also Russian, Moldavians and others. All nations are here.”

We talked about the convent’s history. Founded in 1889 by Grand Princess Alexandra Petrovna, who was called Sister Anastasia in the convent, the community stressed charity work from the beginning. The nuns opened a school for blind girls, an orphanage, and a hospital with a free out-patient department. The convent was closed by the Soviet government in the late twenties and reopened in 1941 during the German occupation, though a smaller, older church remains closed. Damage to the buildings in the years of persecution included removal of the larger church’s cupola, once a landmark of Kiev.

“While the worst things are in the past, still we face obstacles,” said Father Timothy. “We have asked permission to rebuild the cupola and to reopen the original church of this community but so far there is no answer to our letter. Also we hope someday to be able to do more of the charity work that Matushka Anastasia intended when she founded the convent. Of course the sisters have never ceased, no matter what circumstances, to live a life of mercy and charity.” He talked about what the nuns had done during the war, opening a scrap book to show a photo of a nun caring for injured soldiers. “Today some of the sisters work in the Kiev hospitals.”

I asked if there were other current difficulties. “The sisters would like to re-open a building which was taken away in the twenties and now used as a government office building,” Father Timothy responded. “There are several agencies here on the territory of the convent — the Society for Planting Trees, for example. Also the local authorities have constructed some garages on the convent grounds. We feel besieged by inappropriate structures and would like to see them moved to a more suitable location. The idea of monastic life is to maintain some degree of isolation. We see what the authorities have done in the past as an injustice and we would like to put things right. So you see we have faced and still face hardships, a lot of labor and pain. Despite all our difficulties we survived, thanks be to God! But it was a hard life.”

“There is a new climate now,” said Matushka Margarita. “We are getting more letters than ever from people who want to lead a more faithful life. People not only write to us but to the Council for Religious Affairs saying they want to be monks and nuns. But we still have trouble to get the necessary city residence permits for those we are willing to accept into community. Konstantin Kharchev has publicly spoken about the problem of red tape, all the artificial problems created by bureaucracy. It’s true. Our sisters have to spend hundreds of hours to get residence permits. You face all these useless walls! You can smash your head on them. We see that the government is trying to fight the problem and has ordered big cuts in bureaucracy, but the functionaries try to escape the reductions. They move people whose job is only red tape from one section to another and the red tape survives.”

I asked about community life. “To be in such a community,” said Matushka Margarita, “you need to love prayer and the Liturgy and be willing to get up early. There is morning prayer at five a.m. and Liturgy at seven. On feast days there is a second Liturgy at ten. We often have very large crowds. Orthodox people are praying people! On feast days the Liturgy lasts three or four hours, longer than in a normal parish because we do everything, and take a little more time. Vespers begins at five and lasts until about eight-thirty. At eleven or twelve we go to bed, but not everyone. Some sisters are praying in turn around the clock.

“There is a lot of work to do. We have orchards, gardens, the kitchen. Some take care of the sick. We have twenty sisters in need of care. We have a sewing workshop where we make clothing and liturgical garments. We send some sisters to work in local hospitals. And we have guests, many guests — sometimes five, sometimes a hundred — and so we have sisters doing hospitality work. Some of our sisters are caring for the residence of Metropolitan Filaret. Here at the convent there is cleaning to be done, and restoration work. All the art and decoration that you saw in the church is the work of our sisters.

“I think for non-believers it seems very odd that we live this way, but for us it is logical. Our life is centered on prayer. We believe that to pray for someone is important. We believe if a person’s name is mentioned in prayer, that prayer will ascend to our Lord. If we remember a dead soul, we believe our Lord will hear our prayer and respond. Our Lord teaches us, ‘Pray for each other.’ And he said, ‘You will have what you ask for in prayer.’ Our Lord gave us ears. We are sure that he hears what we ask him. He gave us a heart. We are sure that he feels what we pray for.”

“At the Liturgy,” said Father Timothy, “we pray for many people, living and dead. With each name, we put a small piece of prosphora [bread specially made for use at the altar] in the chalice, asking God to forgive the person named. The Holy Liturgy is at the very center of life. Our Lord said, ‘Eat my body, drink my blood, and you will have eternal life.’ During the great feasts, thousands of people receive communion here. We hear thousands of confessions. People come to us with their tortured consciences, seeking forgiveness. To forgive and be forgiven is part of communion. Before we receive the body and blood of our Lord, we purify ourselves with confession and fasting.”

Father Timothy told the story of a certain person who walked to the Pochayev Monastery in the western Ukraine to bring back some water from a healing spring for a Jewish friend who had an eye disease.

“The Mother of God once appeared at this place and caused a spring to flow from the stone where she was standing. Its water is associated with many miracles. But it was a hot day. On the way back the woman became so thirsty she drank the water she was carrying and then put water from the tap into the bottle when she got home. She gave this water to her sick neighbor. The neighbor believed it came from the special spring and her eyes were healed! Faith is what is important. All water is holy water if you have faith. But faith is not just what you think. It is what you do. Faith is linked with deeds. Read the scripture. Follow the regulations of Christian life. Faith is encouraged by good deeds.”

“It isn’t enough to believe in God,” said Matushka Margarita. “The devil knows God exists. You have to live according to the commandments of God. You should believe and act with goodness, and also without pride. If we have pride in our good deeds, they are useless. The effect disappears. You must know that good deeds come to us from God. Our hands are used by God. There is a story from the early years of Christianity about Saint Anthony of the Desert. A devil came to him and said, ‘You fast often but I fast always. You sleep little but I never sleep. Still you are victorious over me. How do you do it?’ ‘Because I am meek,’ Saint Anthony said. We need meekness. With meekness, any ordinary person can be accepted into the Kingdom of God. A Christian never abandons respect for science or loses interest in reading, but heaven is not only for the clever. Anthony of the Desert was asked by some philosophers, ‘You are illiterate and we read a lot but your name is on every tongue. Why?’ ‘Which came first,” the saint asked, “science or mind?’ The philosophers said, ‘Mind.’ Anthony said, ‘If I have mind, what need have I for science?’

“This is not to criticize science,” said Father Timothy, “but it is clear that science without faith brings destruction. Perhaps it is because of all the destruction caused by science that today many scientists are turning back toward faith. They begin to see that there is a divine force ruling creation.”

Before my departure I was able to talk with three nuns in the community, Sisters Anne, Nina and Tatiana.

I asked Sister Anne Rudenko, the oldest, what had brought her to the convent. “Faith! Faith in God! Love towards God!”

How long have you been here? “Thirty years.”

How did you choose this community. “My father brought me to visit when I was a child. I liked the services. I always wanted to live here.”

What are you doing in your work? “I help clean the church but I am glad to do anything that is needed.”

Sister Nina, a young woman with a round face and large dark eyes, was still a novice. She told me she also came from a family of believers. “My mother sang in the choir so I was in church a lot. I fell in love with singing! I am Ukrainian. We Ukrainians have a deep, ancient tradition of singing. When I grew up I became interested in monasticism. I began visiting different convents, studying details. First I went to the Pochayev Monastery. This was where my interest in monasticism started. Then I went to the Krasnagorsky Convent. When I met the sisters of that community I felt love in my heart. But this one was my favorite. I loved everything about this convent — the way ritual was done, the choir singing. I was accepted here and then I was sent to Leningrad to learn choral direction at the Choral School at the Theological Academy. Now my main work is our choir.”

The youngest was Sister Tatiana, 25. “My parents were deeply believing people interested in Christian spirituality and tradition. Because of them I also came to love the church. My being here is really thanks to them. Since childhood I had a feeling in my heart of wanting to devote my life to God. Coming here was a response to my soul’s longing.”

In an old building near the city center, we stopped to talk with Boris Ilyich Oleinik, a much loved Ukrainian poet who is now chairman of the Ukrainian Culture Foundation. “Personally, I am Orthodox. As I see it, the Orthodox Church always tried to cultivate enlightenment,” he said. “In all these years, the Church was one of the few forces in society never to waver. It has passed through many adversities still bearing the soul of our culture.”

The Foundation was set up in 1987 to protect architecture, art, music and literature and is, he said, “not only very democratic but is among those groups working to revive the nation’s spirituality.”

“The highest sensibility is in the spirit,” he continued. “Both the artist and the Church are preoccupied with the soul. Look at the writing of Dostoyevsky and his attention to the interior man. His goal was beauty, the spiritual perfection of the human being. The road of religion and literature converges in his writing. You see this also in our Ukrainian author, Gogol. He was a devout Orthodox believer. It was Gogol who caused a thaw in Russian literature. The Russian language was bookish while Ukrainian speech was rooted in folk language. I don’t want to insult the Russian language but it was a little cold and heavy. Gogol helped to warm it up. After Gogol, the Gulf Stream flowed into the Russian language.”

Arriving at the Monastery of the Caves the next day, I was impressed with how much had been transformed since my first visit two years earlier. In 1987 many of the buildings on the “far hill,” the part since returned to the Church, were almost derelict. The renewal of monastic life on these hilltops above the Dnieper seemed a distant dream. Now they were either fully restored or the restoration was well underway.

We were met by the vicar of the monastery. Archimandrite Jonathan Eletskih was tall, young, energetic, and very dashing in his flowing black robes. I recalled the vast crowd that had been at the monastery for its first Liturgy the previous June. “We had many outdoor Liturgies after that and want to have more,” said Father Jonathan, “to make it a tradition. Anyway for major feasts it is impossible to fit all those who come within the church. We also like it because it means good contact between clergy and people.” He regretted that I hadn’t been at the monastery for Christmas. “There was a nativity play in the courtyard. It was the first time. Formerly religious plays were forbidden. Next Christmas we hope to perform the play all around the city.”

He was proud of the repairs so far accomplished. “You saw how these building were last year. Everything was falling down. Look how it is now! We have still a lot to do but already you can see the difference. Come back next Easter and see what it’s like then!”

The change was impressive. Despite scaffolding, the area returned to the monks had a new-born quality. What had been dull or rotting when I first saw it was now shining. “If you tried to do something like this under a state plan,” he said, “it would take at least three years, but we have religious enthusiasm on our side and that’s a big factor.”

He showed us a newly restored church. “It is dedicated to the Mother of God. It was a museum for more than a quarter century. The restorers were the same ones who restored the czar’s palace at Pushkin near Leningrad. The icons have been given to us by faithful people who were saving them until the monastery was brought back to life. They are real treasures. We consider some of them miracle-working icons — they are linked with specific miraculous events. In hard times they had to be hidden. There are other icons that should be returned but are still in museums, but we believe that just as God has returned part of this monastery, in time icons will be returned to their rightful places.”

I asked about the condition of the caves. “We have much work to do there as well but the chapels are now used for services and the bodies of the saints are no longer tourist curiosities but places of prayer. Also we have even experienced what we consider a miraculous sign. There are several skulls that were formerly dry bone and are now continuously exuding a myrrh-like oil. You will see it yourself. To protect the monastery from the charge of falsification, I had the oil tested. Scientists found a high percentage of protein, 72 percent. They have no explanation for how this can happen. We accept it as a miracle. A lifeless skull is giving birth to a living substance. It is a holy event, an action of the Lord, a blessing for a monastic community that has been restored to life.”

Father Jonathan led us up a staircase. “Before you go into the caves, I want you to see our pilgrim church.” He pointed to bedding piled up along the walls. “Not only is this a place for worship but a place for pilgrims to sleep, although in fact many of them pray more than sleep at night. But it is too small. When the restoration gets further and other churches are restored, we plan for this room to be a refectory.”

He pointed to an icon of a bishop. “This is the image of Metropolitan Vladimir of Kiev who was killed by a member of the Anarchist Party in 1918. We are permitted to venerate his memory in this church. He is one of the New Martyrs [martyrs of the Soviet period] already regarded as a saint by Orthodox of the Synodal Church [Russian Orthodox believers outside of the Soviet Union who have no bond with the Patriarch in Moscow]. Please let them know that we have this icon here. The proposal that he should be canonized is under consideration, as is true for others who gave witness to their faith with their lives. This is a manifestation of the deep change going on in our country.”

I asked if he expected the rest of the monastery to be returned. “We are optimists! We are waiting for the second perestroika when the rest of the monastery will be returned. But until then we have a lot to keep us busy.”

With the arrival of another guest, Father Jonathan put us in the care of a younger monk who led us into the caves, the final resting place for the bodies of 116 canonized saints plus thousands of other who took monastic vows.

The last time I entered those narrow, damp passages deep within the hill above the Dnieper River, they were lit by electric lights installed after the monks were evicted. The light fixtures remain but have been switched off. One hand holding a candle, the other the thin railing, I made my cautious way downward step by step.

In 1987 a museum guide passed by the bodies of saints like someone avoiding beggars on a city street. Her bored voice reverberated in the caves. Today we were engulfed in silence.

The bodies of the saints lay in glass-topped coffins. Their mummified hands are all that was visible of these remarkable ascetics of Kiev who did so much to shape the spirit of Slavic Orthodoxy. The monk leading the way quietly named them and then gently kissed the glass above their silk-covered faces.

“Some pilgrims are overcome by tears,” the monk said. “They start crying and they can’t stop. They fall down on their knees.”

Carved into the rock was the Church of Saint Theodosius, named after the monastery’s founder. “This is a living church again,” the monk said. “We have the Holy Liturgy here at 7 a.m. every Thursday. Also we have the ceremony here for tonsuring new monks. Before the revolution there were more than 40 Liturgies a day in the caves. Only one other place in the world had so many, Mount Athos. Before 1922 there were still twelve a day.”

I entered Saint Theodosius’ narrow, low-ceilinged cell. Touching the rock shelf that had been his bed, I tried to imagine what it would be like to pray day after day deep in the earth, truly buried with Christ. “The relics of Saint Theodosius aren’t here,” the monk said. “We hope to find them when we excavate the Dormition Cathedral.”

In a cabinet in a small alcove nearby there were a number of cylindrical glass jars holding skulls. “These are remains of saints whose names we do not know,” he said. Several were dark and glistening, partially submerged in an amber oil — a wonder and blessing to Orthodox believers, a puzzle to scientists, and a source of revulsion to those for whom the spiritual life ought to be rational, well ordered, and disembodied.

We venerated the body of Saint Nestor the Illiterate whose teaching is summed up very simply: “You will not find the truth in books, only in your heart.”

Kiev’s caves also hold one of Orthodoxy’s most literate figures, the biographer of Theodosius and author of The Tale of Bygone Years, Saint Nestor the Chronicler who died in 1113. His body was in the part of the caves that remains a museum.

When we stepped back into the world above the caves, it was a kind of resurrection from the dead. Perhaps it was to better celebrate Easter that the Kievan monks spent so much of their lives hidden in the earth.

As we left Father Jonathan was yet receiving another guest.18


Our approach to Irkutsk was by air, a flight from Tashkent that began with a vista of the Tien Shan range, China’s border. A thread-thin road disappeared under the snow. The land was quickly stripped of all trace of a human presence. We were flying over an eternally frozen ghost world that seemed to have been done in finger paints by a cosmic child working in dark purple and lavender white. Darkness fell and with it came a blackness below that more than equalled the night sky. Occasionally there was a sprinkling of light: a town on the edge of a lake or river. More provocative were the rare pricks of orange light in a sea of blackness. What would it be like to live in that kind of vast, fierce solitude? Are there still hermit monks in the Siberian wilderness? Finally there was the urban neon glow of Irkutsk and we were on the ground.

The word Irkutsk means “fast-flowing,” referring to the Angara River, the one body of water flowing out of Lake Baikal. A wintering camp for fur traders set up in 1652 became a town in 1686. The Irkutsk shield granted that year displays the basis of its frontier prosperity: a sable in the jaws of a Siberian tiger. In the mid-Nineteenth Century, gold was found, bringing a new wave of wealth to Irkutsk, but great suffering too. Many political prisoners spent long years — often their last years — in the mines. The wealth was so immense that Irkutsk’s governor plated his carriage wheels with silver and shod his horses with gold. For “unheard of theft,” he was hanged in 1771 at the order of Peter the Great. The first school in East Siberia, at the Resurrection Monastery, was just outside the city. In 1898 the city became linked to Moscow by the Trans-Siberian Railroad.

Though Irkutsk has become the industrial, administrative, and educational center for eastern Siberia, much of the old city remains unspoiled. Log buildings have not only survived but proved better suited to the Siberian environment than concrete.

In the heart of the city, on the shore, is the Church of the Savior, now a museum. Built in 1706, it was Siberia’s first stone structure. Three other museum churches stand near by. Two were Orthodox: the Church of the Apparition of the Lord and the Church of the Exaltation of the Cross. A third was Catholic, built by some of the 18,600 Poles exiled to Siberia after the 1863 Polish uprising. The Tikhvin Cathedral is gone, dynamited in the thirties.

There are only three working Orthodox churches left in Irkutsk and nineteen in the Irkutsk diocese — an area bigger than Texas, encompassing 300,000 square miles and 2,500,000 people.

The bishop of the diocese, Archbishop Chrysostom, has his residence next to the gleaming white Cathedral of the Holy Sign, originally part of the Znamensky Convent. Two old nuns still live there though the convent was closed half a century ago.

The Epiphany Liturgy was in progress when Sergei and I arrived at the Cathedral. With several other late arrivals, we stood shivering on the church porch. When the Liturgy ended we were invited into the watchman’s room in the corner of an adjacent building, a dingy space with a bed in the back that doubled as a couch, a table in front covered with magazines and newspapers, a hot plate and radio on a small cabinet near the door, a small icon on the upper back corner. Our host, the watchman, turned out to be a scholar. Items of reading on the table included recent issues of Novi Mir [New World], the prestigious Soviet literary journal. I noticed a Russian-Chinese dictionary. He was interested in herbal medicine and so was learning Chinese. “Being a watchman is a good job for scholars,” he said, serving us tea.

Word came that the Archbishop was waiting.

A 1974 report by the Council for Religious Affairs identified three categories of bishops in the Russian Orthodox Church. In the first category were those who “in words and deeds” demonstrated “not only loyalty but patriotism towards the socialist state, strictly observing the law on cults and educating the parish clergy and believers in the same spirit, [and who] realistically understand that our state is not interested in proclaiming the role of religion . . . and . . . do not display any particular activeness in extending the influence of Orthodoxy among the population.” In the second category were those who, while having “a correct attitude to the laws on cults,” in “their everyday administrative and ideological activity strive toward activating servants of the cult and active members of the church [and] stand for the heightening of the role of the church in personal, family and public life . . . and select for priestly office young people who are zealous adherents of Orthodox piety.” Finally there were those who “have made attempts to evade the laws on cults” and who are “capable of falsifying the position in their dioceses and the attitude which the organs of authority have formed towards them” and might even attempt to bribe officials in order to gain concessions for the church.

In this third category the report’s author placed Archbishop Chrysostom, at the time Bishop of Kursk. Shortly after arriving in Kursk, the CRA report said, he had undertaken “zealous activities to revitalize religious life,” ignoring “the recommendations of commissioners of the Council and the local authorities.” He was bold enough to say to his interrogator, “I am a bishop, I am forty years old. I don’t intend to leave the Church. I’ve heard a good many insulting and offensive things from atheists, but these are the times we live in, there’s nothing to be done about it.”19

The Archbishop’s office was impressive for its austerity. A small icon of Mary and Jesus hung over the door behind his desk. Archbishop Chrysostom was as plain as his office: a thin man with a long beard and black rosary around his wrist. His beard is just beginning to grey. The lack of an autocratic quality was striking. An old ink stand was on the desk, the crystal ink pots empty, a brass woman’s head shining between them. A jar of pencils and a telephone stood to one side. Resting against his desk calendar was a post-card icon of the Baptism of Jesus.

Hearing that I had come into the Russian Orthodox Church from Catholicism, he expressed surprise. “I was part of a Russian Orthodox delegation that visited Jerusalem in 1966,” he recalled. “Jerusalem is the center of all Christian churches, and we visited many of them not only in Jerusalem but also in Nazareth and Bethlehem. I have to say I was shocked by the attitude of the Greek Orthodox toward other churches. We saw negligence and a lack of purity in the Greek churchmen — greed and carelessness. Many of them were highly educated yet they were proud and inaccessible. They showed superiority. This wasn’t pleasant to observe. Yet when we visited churches in the care of Catholics, we were pleased. The clergy were also well educated but they weren’t snobs. The churches were neat and beautifully maintained. I left full of gratitude for the care Catholics took of these places of pilgrimage. Since then I am imbued with a deep respect for the Catholic Church. I have now had much contact with Catholics, all sorts of people of various ranks including members of the hierarchy. The Catholic Archbishop in Athens was the one who impressed me most of all — he has a face shining with love, deeply sensitive, generous to everyone, the kind of pastor that attracts all kinds of people, old and young.

“In 1974 I met Pope Paul VI — a small man, very thin, modest, but a man of character, not only someone of great intellect but with the strength of holiness. Also in Rome I was impressed by the human diversity of those receiving communion — so many people and with every color of skin, yellow, black and white. I also liked the masses for young people. They were playing guitars and singing. The climate was impressive. I felt the Holy Spirit was present. I was educated in a different way, but I have come to understand that both churches have spiritual treasures.”

We moved on in our discussion to Russian Orthodoxy. “The Russian Orthodox Church has a deep tradition of iconography. Our Holy Trinity icon by Rublev is now known throughout the world. And we have a special tradition of church architecture. When you see our icons and church buildings, you cannot help but feel proud of artisans who were capable of such masterpieces. We descend from such people. Yet our pride in them can be dangerous.

“When we celebrated the Millennium of our Baptism last June, of course we felt this pride. Our Church Council occurred in such a good climate. There was the canonization of the new saints, who remind us of what has been achieved. But even in such a moment we shouldn’t close our eyes to ourselves. We have to ask ourselves what have we contributed to this treasure trove? What will we leave to coming generations? At a certain moment I looked around the Council hall and was stunned. I saw so many empty faces, empty eyes. I thought, ‘Selfish fools!’ Their gazes were selfish and senseless. If this is our condition, how can we take care of the faithful?”

I mentioned a translator I had talked with just after the Council who had been disappointed with the faces of many bishops. She asked me, “How many of them do you think are really believers?” Her guess was about half while I said one can’t judge such a thing so easily and that, in any event, many of them would be quite different if they weren’t surrounded by other bishops.

“I understand well what she felt,” said Archbishop Chrysostom. “I felt so strongly the same thing that I took the floor at the Council and spoke out against many present, and against myself as well. It was a criticism of the clergy, especially the higher clergy. It wasn’t well received!” He laughed. “In fact many in the hall showed their irritation. There were some evil eyes focused on me, I can tell you. This anger mainly came from those who have no pastoral responsibilities — rather the ones close to the Council for Religious Affairs, that so-called ‘linking body’ that is really a chaining body. Some of our clergy are willingly in conformity with the demands of these atheists.

“The years of stagnation [the Brezhnev years] were very hard — more deadly for us than the years under Stalin. In the Stalin years we had martyrs and confessors. Some died. Others gave witness in their suffering. But the years of stagnation drove us down. These were years of real degradation of mind and morality, degradation of personality. It was a time especially hard on the bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church. It was hard also for the Catholics and Protestants but they resisted more successfully. The Baptists had their ‘grass root groups.’ The most slavish people were Russian Orthodox bishops. True, we had some great personalities like Metropolitan Nikodim of Leningrad, a great ecumenical figure. But these were exceptions. In the years of stagnation, at a lower level, there were many priests doing their job — a hard job! — to resist those deadly trends. They helped to prepare the way for the fresh winds now blowing — perestroika, glasnost, democratization.”

I asked him about his former assignment. “I was bishop of a diocese in the Kursk region. We had 108 churches to serve a population of five-million people. But it was even worse than it sounds because 45 percent of our parishes were without a parish priest. There were 45 churches that hadn’t had divine services for two to five years. There were 159 priests. Among them the average age was 70. I had the challenge to rebuild the local church. I don’t want to be a modest liar. In five years I managed to fill the gap. We didn’t have a single parish without a priest. I left 182 priests serving 108 working churches. The average age of a priest when I left was 30 years old. More than 20 of them had a higher eduction. But in order to ordain them, one had to have a serpent’s wisdom! All the administrative authorities and party bosses were absolutely against what I was trying to do. Somehow it happened anyway. [laughter] Also I was able to deprive of their posts those occasional rotten people who had penetrated the church and who were discrediting it by their faithless attitude and their immoral behavior. This was my second task. Such people had to be kicked out. The passage of the Helsinki Final Act helped me in doing this. When it was signed, the climate was more favorable. I was able to succeed in this cleansing work. I deprived two scoundrels wearing clerical garments. They were stripped of their ranks and the right to serve as priests. But this proved to be the last straw. In 1984, after ten years as bishop in that diocese, I was sent, as you see, to Siberia, to Irkutsk. I wasn’t able to last in the Kursk region until the first years of perestroika. Now of course, the climate has changed in a way that no one could imagine a few years ago. Last year, 700 Orthodox churches were opened. In the former time, the officials wanted to send to Moscow statistics every year showing that there were fewer churches than the year before. So you can imagine how the officials felt about me! I was a blank spot, or worse.”

How is the situation now? “Our Church is facing the most difficult and complex period in her history. Atheism has greatly deteriorated. It used to be atheists could do whatever they wanted — discharge clergy, publish articles. Of course people didn’t take very seriously what they said. Their ideas weren’t respected. But they had power. They were able to keep the Orthodox Church under strict surveillance. They were able to make sure that only politically reliable people entered the seminaries, and also to make sure that only the most slavish people were promoted. True, there were capable people among those promoted, but these were exceptions and morally they didn’t fit. Or they were nice people but useless, without courage. But we found ways around all this vigilance. Sometimes people can be ordained without entering the theological schools. And one must add that, after so many years in power, the atheists were sometimes complacent. They were lax in their vigilance. In various ways it was possible to ordain good people to service in the church. But our problem is that, at this moment, we don’t have unity. The higher ranks of the clergy are very far from the lower clergy, and from the rank and file people in the church.”

Have you particular people in mind? “I wouldn’t like to single out anyone. In any event, all of us are compromised, all of us are sinners, none of us is adequate. Although all of us were anointed with the same chrism [holy oil], we became obedient slaves, doing what was ‘recommended’ by the civil powers — bowing down, bending our backs. Nor were we prepared by our theological schools to answer the hard questions that people increasingly bring to those with pastoral responsibility. There is very little purposeful preaching. There are few pastors who can evangelize those who are educated. The one seminary rector who tried to prepare clergy for evangelical work was Archbishop Kyrill. For ten years he was the rector in Leningrad. He was preparing people not only to be capable of doing the rituals correctly but to be pastors. You know what happened. He was sent away from the seminary to head the Smolensk diocese! The civil authorities were disturbed at his success in preparing thinking pastors. He and I were like the Decembrists20 sentenced to hard labor in Siberia. We were removed and sent to remote places.”

Aren’t you painting too dark a picture? “It is true that despite our problems we have many people of deep faith and real intellect, priests and monks with an appropriate inspiration. Still there are barriers on the way to their promotion. We also have many faithful people among the Soviet intelligentsia. Though it is widely thought that Soviet intellectuals are all atheists, this is far from true. Many are believers. But few of them have contact with the Orthodox Church. In fact many of them don’t trust the clergy. Some had built up unofficial contact in the past and then got into trouble — it seems the clergy informed on them. The intellectuals were betrayed. So there is a residue of distrust. Nor do we have any publications within the church that can serve as a point of encounter. The Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate is published every month but it is mainly church news, ecumenical news, news about peacemaking activities. You find nothing about the problems within the church or the society we are part of. If you want to find writing about spirituality or the real history of this century, you had better look in the secular publications — the literary journals or certain magazines and newspapers. There you will find classic essays by Florensky or Solovyov, pieces that are thrilling to read. Or look on the television screen. Recently there have been many good films and documentaries on television in which religious life is presented in a thoughtful and positive way. The problem is that these films may raise up expectations in those who see them that will not be met by our clergy. A passionate interest has taken hold of many people about their history, their lost culture, their religious roots. This is now a focus of national attention. Society is prepared to offer its repentance. But all they find in the Russian Orthodox Church is complacency! We are suddenly on the stage, face to face with the people. But we have a blank face! We are not ready for the dialogue that is offered to us, a dialogue between believer and non-believer, a dialogue not to convert but to make contact, to illuminate, to help each other.”

What is the situation of the church in Irkutsk? “For three years I knew only our babushkas. Many were frail and sick. Yet we grew very close. I think they found in me an open window into the sky, into life. It was very nice. 1988 was a strong year, a productive year. We built up contacts with local institutions, with the local branch of the Academy of Sciences, with all kinds of informal organizations. There were some meetings where we had an audience of a thousand people talking about all sorts of issues. We still have far to go. In the immense territory of this diocese we have only 19 parishes. Although there are 700 churches newly opened in the last year throughout the Soviet Union, none are in this diocese. There are three Orthodox churches serving this large city. We badly need a fourth, but where would we get the funds to restore a church?”

What about the condition of the Russian Orthodox Church following the Council? “We have a much better church law now. The priest is the head of the parish once again, not someone pushed on the church by those who have no love for us. At the same time there are also some disturbing signs. There was one bishop appointed recently, Gavriel, who now heads half of my former diocese, the eastern part. He was Father Superior of the Monastery of the Caves near Pskov where he was criticized for his rough manner. There were many complaints about him and his disgraceful behavior. Yet now he is made a bishop! If in this period of perestroika and glasnost the Russian Orthodox Church nominates disgraced people to high pastoral responsibilities, it is likely that we will have a schism. In fact we can see indications of such a trend. Here we are, in a society returning to Lenin’s Period. Remember that in Lenin’s time there were many splits within the church. The Russian Orthodox Church was under great pressure then, and it is under pressure now. But the times have changed. Now the people can express themselves freely and can act freely. If the civic leadership controls the activities of the church in such a time, those who cooperate with them will cause a schism. But let us hope that we’ll not have it and that instead the perestroika process will start in the Russian Orthodox Church.”

Doesn’t the consecration of bishops like yourself indicate that there are people of integrity and courage leading the Russian Orthodox Church? “Yes, there are good people in the Holy Synod. They work hard. They are faithful people, believing people. The only major failure is a lack of courage and will. I don’t condemn them. I wouldn’t disgrace them. But I cannot understand how they can appoint someone unsuitable to head a diocese.”

What brought you to serve the church? “I was born in 1934 into a believing family. My parents were passionate in their faith. My father was director of the church choir. I started going to church early in life. Then I cooled down because of the severity of church regulations — the strict fasts, the ban on going to the movies — but that period in my life lasted only two years. I returned to church and began working as an assistant icon painter. From 1948 to 1961, I almost lived in churches, helping to gild and doing ornamental work. We were restoring churches in many parts of Russia. In 1961 I entered the Moscow Theological Seminary. I was 27. That was a very hard year for the church, a year many churches were closed. Until that time I had little education. I hadn’t completed high school. My meager education actually helped me get into the seminary — the less promising you were, the more willing the civil authorities were for you to take a place in the seminary! They would have been happy if we were all insane and illiterate. People like me. In 1972 I was consecrated a bishop. At the time few realized my thinking was on the wrong path, though Metropolitan Nikodim placed high hopes in me. It was he who wanted me to be a bishop. But I never wanted it. I wanted to be a parish priest. In fact that is what I still want. I am ready today to stop being a bishop and just to be a local pastor.”

Serving at the Cathedral with Archbishop Chrysostom was Father Evgeni Kasatkin who took time to show us around. After the tour we sat on a bench in a chilly corner where restoration work was underway.

I asked what had brought him to religious belief. “While visiting the church I was more and more filled with a feeling of veneration. The will to serve the Church penetrated to the depth of my soul.”

Did your parents sympathize? “My mother died in the siege of Leningrad so didn’t live to see it happen. My father was against it.”

What brought you to the priesthood? “I wanted to be a priest since I was a boy. Before entering the seminary I had studied rigorously by myself. I had a diploma from the University of Leningrad and so had the right to use the Leningrad Public Library where all the books printed since Peter the Great are in the stacks. I was accepted by the Moscow Theological Seminary during the time Metropolitan Filaret [at the time of the interview head of the Church’s External Affairs Department] was rector. He was much loved by all the students. He knew us all.”

Has perestroika had any impact on the Church in Irkutsk? “After the Church Council at the Holy Trinity Monastery last summer we had a public concert of church music. This had never been possible in the past. Any interested person could come. It was a charity benefit.”

Is the local Church undertaking charity work? “It is beginning. We founded a Charity Society just a few days ago. It is too early to say what we will be able to do but I think believers can play a role in the local hospitals.”

Are there new churches opening in this diocese? “Throughout the country many have opened though so far there are no new ones in this diocese. But the process of change is started and is moving in one direction, even if very slowly.”

Do you sense more people moving from disbelief to belief? “Yes! Of course! Many. We have many adult baptisms here.”

The next day we drove to Listvianka, a village of log houses on the shore of Baikal. The lake draws one’s attention from the village. Here is one-fifth of the world’s supply of fresh water, nearly as much water as flows out of all the world’s rivers in one year. We broke the ice and drank a glass full.

Baikal is fed by 336 streams but has only one outlet, the Angara River, a tributary of the Yenisei River. The legend is that the tyrant Baikal had 336 sons and one daughter. The sons did as they were told, giving all the wealth they collected to Father Baikal, but the daughter, Angara, was strong-willed and independent — in other words a true Siberian. She fell in love with Yenisei. As Baikal opposed their wedding, they eloped, thus creating Baikal’s one exit point.

While the pure water of Baikal is one of the wonders of the world, a less noticed miracle is the fact that the village of Listvianka has its own church, St. Nicholas’. There are whole cities without churches in Siberia. The pastor, Father Sergei Kozlov, was 35 years old. “Orthodoxy is not just a faith,” he said. “It is a unified way of life. But in modern society there is no unified life. The ordinary believer today is likely to have two lives running side by side — a civic, ‘Soviet’ way of life, and a private life that includes a religious area. At work you are one person, at home and in church another. But, as the Gospel says, you cannot serve two masters. Yet how can you do otherwise? This is the tragic tension we are experiencing today.”

What can be done about it? “Russia needs to become Russia again. This doesn’t mean that all Russians will be believers. There will continue to be atheists because there will continue to be freedom of will. But atheism would no longer be the dominant religion. It would no longer be imposed.”

Are perestroika and glasnost moving society in this direction? “Yes, yes! Increasingly people are moving toward belief and toward the Church. But still we have many serious problems. Too many people are thinking primarily about the economic problems and neglecting spiritual ones. Our main attention — even the attention of political leaders — should be focused on religious problems. There is an urgent need to remove all the impediments that stand in the way of religious education and religious formation. Before we can recover our economic health we must recover our spiritual health.”

Did you grow up a believer? “I was an atheist until I was 27. Neither was Irina, my wife, a believer. We moved to belief together.”

What led you toward the Church? “There were so many things, so many personal religious experiences. A crucial event was my first reading of the Gospel. It stirred me deeply.”

How did you prepare for the priesthood? “In the monasteries. I didn’t go to a theological school. I was what is called an ‘obedient’ [a guest sharing in the monastic life without taking monastic vows] at several monasteries including the Danilov Monastery in Moscow. Then two years ago Archbishop Chrysostom ordained me in Irkutsk.”

Standing silently at Father Sergei’s side while we talked was Ivan Ilyich, the church warden. He had a sober face, white beard and wore a traditional embroidered Russian shirt under his jacket. I expressed my hope to him that the day would soon come when no Russian town or village would be without a church. “Let’s hope!” he said. “But it is God’s will that decides.

* * *

Thomas Merton’s Affinity with Albert Camus

Albert Camus

A paper presented at the Thomas Merton conference in Prades, France in May 2006.

by Jim Forest

Where would we be without our friends? Friends who glimpse our true face? Friends who help us see doors we hadn’t noticed? Friends who accidentally reveal possibilities in ourselves that, left to ourselves, we might never have found? Thomas Merton was friend to many and also the beneficiary of many friendships.

One of his friends was the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz. The Merton-Milosz correspondence started in 1958. What sparked Merton’s first letter to the Polish author was reading Milosz’s The Captive Mind. It’s a grand tour of the human mind caught in a labyrinth of lies provided by any totalitarian society. Milosz observed that the intellectuals who became dissidents “were not necessarily the ones with the strongest minds, but those with the weakest stomachs, for the mind can rationalize anything, but the stomach can only take so much.”

Milosz was living in France when his correspondence with Merton started but soon after moved to the United States, teaching Slavic literature at the University of California at Berkeley.

Not surprisingly, Milosz was an admirer of the writings of Albert Camus. It was Milosz who encouraged Merton to read Camus who in turn became an intimate part of Merton’s intellectual and spiritual life during the last decade of his life.

The two most important Camus novels were The Stranger, published in France during the German occupation, and The Plague, published two years after the occupation ended.

Let me refresh your memory about both books. Afterward we can consider at what made these books so important to Merton.

The Stranger is a tale of two murders, with the narrator of the book guilty of the first killing. As we read the book, we soon become aware that the narrator is so minimally socialized as to be nearly autistic. His act of deadly violence is committed on impulse while in a dazed condition brought on by the fierce heat of the Algerian day. He shoots a man who is unknown to him, a stranger who was threatening him with a knife. As is always the case with murder, it’s an ugly crime, yet the killer can never comprehend why society reacts as it does to this event; he was under threat, and, after all, the victim was “only an Arab”. Had a more skillful defense been offered, he would have escaped a guilty verdict on the grounds that he had acted in self-defense, but he is badly defended and unfairly prosecuted. In the trial, the crime is of less consequence than the defendant’s social failings. The accused is condemned to death less for shooting a man than for smoking a cigarette while on nighttime vigil at the side of his mother’s coffin. He has also failed to have a religious faith or to exhibit regret. Clearly, the prosecutor argues, this man is a criminal type. Even while awaiting his execution, with seemingly endless days to reflect on what he has done, our narrator remains a two-dimensional man, unable to empathize, love, or repent. His chief virtue, one that has cost him dearly, is that he is a man who seems incapable of lying or pretending. A few tears might have saved his life.

It is, as I mentioned, a book about two murders. The second is worse than the first. It is a murder prepared with the utmost premeditation, a judicially-sanctioned murder, a murder that is carried out for “the good of society” and in the name of society. It is cold-blooded murder done cleanly and by the clock, a well-ordered murder with doctor and priest in attendance, a murder arranged by people who, in their domestic lives, may be the soul of kindness. A man’s head is cut off in what is regarded as a socially therapeutic action.

The Stranger was published in 1942. Five years later, Camus’ next novel appeared, The Plague. In it, the reader discovers that Camus was far from finished with the question of the outsider, the exile, the stranger — and not only the stranger from afar; Camus reminds us that it is quite possible to be a stranger even when living in the place where one was born. We also find Camus still wrestling with the issue of killing, and not only when it is carried out by the state, but when committed by revolutionary organizations whose manifestoes call for the creation of a more humane, less murderous society.

Among those we meet in The Plague is Jean Tarrou. He enters the book very quietly as a man of private means who is newly arrived in the Algerian port city of Oran, which Camus describes elsewhere as “a labyrinth where the wanderer is destroyed by the minotaur of boredom.” Tarrou is a man who enjoys life’s pleasures without being their slave. His diary, often quoted in The Plague, is striking for its acute insights and observations and also for the author’s compassion. As the people of Oran fall victim to the plague and are forced to isolate themselves from the surrounding world. It is Tarrou, stranger though he is, who organizes a corps of volunteers, the Hygiene Squad, to assist the afflicted and to attend to all the unpleasant, often dangerous, chores imposed by the plague. Each volunteer, of course, stands a good chance of falling victim to the plague himself.

Another key figure in the novel is Bernard Rieux, one of the city’s physicians. He and Tarrou set the highest standard for selfless response to the plague. For the reader, both men are heroes, and all the more impressive for their profound modesty. Yet neither man for a moment regards himself as a hero. In their own eyes, and in Camus’ view, they are simply being decent, modest human beings. Their response to the plague is no more remarkable than that of a teacher before the blackboard explaining that two plus two equals four. They do not regard themselves as exceptional. Neither do they harbor any resentment for those who respond less bravely, try to escape, who make money on the black market, who do little or nothing for those around them. But the two of them give nearly every waking hour in fighting what seems an utterly futile and endless battle. When at last, after ten months, the plague lets go of its grip of Oran, they take no credit for having speeded the day when the city gates are re-opened. Though they have been warriors along the lines of St. George, they still see the dragon as undefeated. The beast has only gone into temporary retirement. He has not even been scratched by his opponents’ lances.

Many of those who battled the plague are outsiders or strangers in one way or another. Tarrou is a recent arrival in the city with no obvious reason to risk his life for his newly acquired neighbors. He seems to have come to Oran more for the sun and beach than the people. Though Dr Rieux is a native of Oran, he seems by temperament to be a man who stands at a slight distance from others. He even takes distance from the book he is writing — only in the final pages does the reader discover that Rieux is the book’s narrator. He has written it in the third person, with himself just one of diary’s participants.

Both Rieux and Tarrou are outsiders in another sense: neither professes the religious faith of their neighbors in Oran. In a town in which most people, however atheistic in their day-to-day behavior, profess belief in God and identify themselves as Catholic, neither Rieux nor Tarrou is able to make a similar confession. Neither calls himself an atheist, yet they are not believers. When a local Jesuit, Fr Paneloux, preaches that the people of Oran deserve the plague and describes it as harsh but soul-saving medicine, both Rieux and Tarrou find his views deeply repellant. If the God Christians worship is the organizer of plagues, they want nothing to do with Him. They refuse to worship a deity who arranges the agonizing death of even one child.

Tarrou tells Rieux about a pivotal experience in his life when he was seventeen, a story that echoes Camus’ first novel. Tarrou’s father was a prosecutor. One day Tarrou attended court to witness his father in action on the closing day of a murder trial. His father, an entirely decent and caring man at home, becomes, in his blood-red robes, a passionate advocate of the death penalty. Calling on the jury to send the accused to the guillotine, it seems to Tarrou that snakes are gushing from his father’s mouth.

Meanwhile, the man in the dock makes no effort to justify his crime. He is resigned to his grim fate. “The little man of about thirty,” says Tarrou, “with sparse, sandy hair, seemed so eager to confess everything, so genuinely horrified at what he had done and what was going to be done with him, that after a few minutes I had eyes for nothing and nobody else. He looked like a yellow owl scared blind by too much light. His tie was slightly awry, he kept biting his nails, those of one hand only, his right… I needn’t go on, need I? You’ve understood — he was a living human being.”

For Tarrou, until that moment such a person had only been the accused, the defendant, a criminal. He had been a blurry man of inky dots in a newspaper photo, not a human being. Now a revolution occurs in his perceptions. It’s a change of heart which will help shape the remainder of his life. “I can’t say I quite forgot my father,” Tarrou tells Rieux, “but something seemed to grip my vitals at that moment and riveted all my attention on the little man in the dock. I hardly heard what was being said: I only knew that they were set on killing that living man and an uprush of some elemental instinct, like a wave, had swept me to his side.”

Tarrou’s bond with his father, now seen as a man swimming in blood, is irreparably damaged. Not many months pass before Tarrou leaves home, an event that coincides with the day of the condemned man’s execution. A head is separated from a body and a boy is separated from his family.

Tarrou’s struggle with executions has one more crisis. After he leaves home, he is drawn into radical political associations. Not wanting to be part of a social order based on the death sentence, he becomes an agitator, active in movements which, though left unlabeled in The Plague, appear to be some form of communism. Here too he is faced with the problem of killing, for revolutionaries also pass death sentences. “But I was told,” says Tarrou, “these few deaths were inevitable for the building up of a new world in which murder would cease to be.” Tarrou attempted to embrace such sloganistic thinking but ultimately failed, in part because he was still haunted by “that miserable ‘owl’ in the dock.”

What finally exiles him from revolutionary movements is witnessing an execution.

“Have you ever seen a man shot by a firing squad?” Tarrou asks. “No, of course not. The spectators are hand-picked and it’s like a private party. You need an invitation. The result is that you’ve gleaned your ideas about it from books and pictures. A post, a blindfolded man, some soldiers in the offing. But the real thing isn’t a bit like that. Do you know that the firing squad stands only a yard and a half from the condemned man? Do you know that if the victim took two steps forward his chest would touch the rifles? Do you know that, at this short range, the soldiers concentrate their fire on the region of the heart and their big bullets make a hole into which you could thrust your fist? No, you didn’t know all that. These are things that are never spoken of.”

Camus’ description, by the way, was not second-hand. He had witnessed the execution of an anti-Nazi journalist by the Germans in December 1941. The event galvanized Camus’ horror with the intentional killing of any human being. Until his death, Camus sought a way of life in which one is neither a victim nor an executioner.

Thomas Merton (photo by John Howard Griffin)
Thomas Merton
(photo by John Howard Griffin)

Merton felt a deep bond with Camus, nor was it one that fizzled out. Camus, he wrote, “was one with whom my heart agreed.” [a quotation cited by George Woodcock in Thomas Merton: Monk and Poet, p 116]

An obvious contrast between Camus and Merton was that one had rejected Christianity while the other embraced it. Indeed Camus, as Merton notes in one of his essays, regarded The Plague as his most anti-Christian book. Yet the difference between Camus and Merton is less substantial than it appears at first glance. In fact what Camus rejected was not the person of Christ but a pseudo-Christianity that had become a mechanism for blessing the established order, a religion of accommodation that provides chaplains to witness executions without raising a word of protest, a religion committed to the status quo rather than the kingdom of God. What Camus was missing in the world were Christians who reminded him of Christ.

Merton was equally troubled with such a pseudo-Christianity. Far from blessing the guillotine or the hangman’s rope, Merton was drawn to the Christianity of the early centuries, when one could not be baptized without renouncing bloodshed, whether in war or as a means of punishment, a Christianity of care for the poor, a Christianity of hospitality, mercy and forgiveness — a Christianity in which sanctity is normal.

In one of the key passages in The Plague, Tarrou confesses to Dr. Rieux that he aspires to a form of sanctity. “What interests me,” he says, “is how to be a saint. But can one be a saint without God? — that’s the problem, in fact the only problem, I’m up against today.” [p 219] (Another key word in the novel is a synonym for saint: healer. Tarrou and Rieux are both healers, fighting, as Merton notes, “against disease and death because living man remains for [them] an ultimate, inexplicable value. (“The Plague of Albert Camus: A Commentary and an Introduction,” The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton, p 186)

Camus died at an early age, not yet 50. In his writings, the question of the post-Christian saint is left unresolved, though we see in his notebooks and correspondence that it remained a burning question. One also notes the ongoing dialogue Camus had with various Christians beginning with his encounter with a community of Dominican Friars not long after the war, while he was writing The Plague, in which he made the remarkable statement that “the world of today needs Christians who remain Christians.”

What Camus hoped to find in Christians was the kind of radical social witness that had been so notable in the early Church. At the very least, he hoped that Christians would, if not reduce evil, then not add to it. But he wished for more than that: “Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children. And if you don’t help us, who else in the world can help us do this?” [Resistance, Rebellion and Death, p.73]

Merton also sought a renewed, Christ-revealing Christianity in which Christians would neither justify torture nor become torturers, a Christianity that rejected not only capital punishment but the use of murderous methods to advance any social goal. For him a Christian lacking a sensibility about the horror of bloodshed had hardly begun to know Christ. As he wrote in Seeds of Destruction:

“The Christian does not need to fight and indeed it is better that he should not fight, for insofar as he imitates his Lord and Master, he proclaims that the Messianic Kingdom has come and bears witness to the presence of the Kyrios Pantocrator [Lord of Creation] in mystery, even in the midst of the conflicts and turmoil of the world.” (p 129)

It was, however, more than a question of standing aside from war and conflict. In common with Camus, he was searching for a way of life in which one was neither a victim nor an executioner. This is what drew him to Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day. It is what stood behind his engagement with the Catholic Peace Fellowship. The question is not simply what can we do to keep our hands clean from human blood but what can we do to defend our neighbors without become killers in the process? How can one overcome the plague of bloodshed and those things which cause bloodshed? This became one of the main areas of meditation, study, correspondence and writing in the last ten years of Merton’s life. (But this side of Merton had deep roots. We see it as early as his high school days when he took Gandhi’s side — by no means a popular side at the time — in a student debate at Oakham in England.)

The plague in Camus’ novel is depicted in quite vivid terms, yet it would be a dull reader who failed to see that the plague Camus was writing about was less about an epidemic of a highly contagious, often fatal illness than a parable about life in the modern world. The Plague, Merton wrote, “is a protest against all forms of passive submission to unhappiness and unmeaning. It is a protest against the passive acceptance of alienation.” (“The Plague of Albert Camus: A Commentary and an Introduction,” The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton, p 182)

Merton carefully studied Camus’ notebooks when they were published and noted that the idea that grew into The Plague for began to form in 1941 while France was under Nazi occupation. Camus spent the war as part of the French Resistance, one of the editors of the underground journal Combat, work in which he literally risked his life for every sentence he wrote.

During those testing years, he witnessed the countless ways that the great majority of French people made their peace with the occupation, many actively collaborating, often with enthusiasm, and many others reluctantly,. Through most of the war, the Resistance was small. Not until the approaching collapse of the Third Reich was obvious did the ranks of the Resistance suddenly swell — but by then such a step was less an act of courage than of prudence. It would be in one’s interest, after the war, to have been part of the Resistance. (Merton witnessed a similar accommodation to the Cold War and the prospect of nuclear war on the part of Christians in the US; for refusing to join the militaristic parade, Merton was accused of being a communist, or, at the very least, “a communist stooge,” and for a time was forbidden by his Abbot General to publish essays or books on war and peace.)

The Plague stands for a social order whose foundation is killing or the threat of killing. The plague is a life in which freedom is increasingly circumscribed by fear — fear of death or fear of pain and poverty. Fear of death, as Merton observed, “lashes the self to externals in a relentless search for security.” [Ross Larie, Thomas Merton and the Inclusive Imagination, p 69] Few medical conditions are so contagious as fear and yet recognized with such reluctance. It is an important moment in our spiritual lives when we become aware that we too are infected with what Camus and Merton call “the plague.”

In Camus’ novel, it is Tarrou who says, “And thus I came to understand that I … had had plague” — here meaning especially an ideology which justifies bloodshed — “through all those long years in which, paradoxically enough, I’d believed with all my soul that I was fighting it. I learned that I had had an indirect hand in the deaths of thousands of people; that I’d even brought about their deaths by approving of acts and principles which could only end that way.” [p 217]

The writings of Thomas Merton in the sixties often address the state of plague we are facing and do so in a way that reveal how much Merton had in common with Camus. As Merton wrote in one essay:

“The awful problem of our times is not so much the dreams, the monsters, which may take shape and consume us, but the moral paralysis in our own souls which leaves us immobile, inert, passive, tongue-tied, ready and even willing to succumb. The real tragedy is in the cold, silent waters of moral death, which climb imperceptibly within us, blinding conscience, drowning compassion, suffocating faith and extinguishing the Spirit. A progressive deadening of conscience, of judgment and of compassion is the inexorable work of the Cold War [or any social matrix driven by fear and enmity].” [Thomas Merton, Passion for Peace, p 81]

Concern about the horror of war and what it does not only to the bodies of its victims but to the souls of all who in various way participate in war, even if only as its cheerleaders or passive collaborators, was one of the constants in Merton’s life from early adulthood until his death.

Not many years later, when the war in Europe was well underway and the US moving steadily toward joining the war, Merton was coming to the conclusion that, as a follower of Christ, he could not take part in the killing. When he registered with the Selective Service, it was as a conscientious objector. Though prepared for noncombatant service on the battlefield as an unarmed medic, he would have nothing to do with killing enemies. In such a role, he wrote in his journal, “I would not have to kill men made in the image and likeness of God” but could obey the divine law of “serving the wounded and saving lives.” Even if it turned out that he would only dig latrines, he regarded such activity as “a far greater honor to God than killing men.” [St. Bonaventure Journal, March 4, 1941]

Writing his autobiography fifteen years later, Merton expanded on his decision:

“[God] was not asking me to judge all the nations of the world, or to elucidate all the moral and political motives behind their actions. He was not demanding that I pass some critical decision defining the innocence and guilt of all those concerned in the war. He was asking me to make a choice that amounted to an act of love for His truth, His goodness, His charity, His Gospel …. He was asking me to do, to the best of my knowledge, what I thought Christ would do …. After all, Christ did say, ‘Whatsoever you have done to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’” [The Seven Storey Mountain, pp 311-12]

How startling — also challenging — these words must have been to most of his readers, appearing as they did in the early days of the Cold War. When The Seven Storey Mountain appeared, it was only three years since the atom bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki while countless millions had been killed by more conventional methods or in death camps. Now the H-bomb was already being developed, a weapon with much greater destructive power, while huge sums were being spent on developing other weapons of mass destruction, both chemical and biological. It was a very grim period in the history of sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. The club with which Cain killed Abel could only kill one person at a time — now millions could be killed in a flash. One need not even known the victim’s name, age or sex or ever have seen his or her face. Every human being had become a target of war. And, on the whole, American Christians didn’t seem to mind. Were we not actually keeping our fingers on the nuclear button on God’s behalf? Was not the killing of Communists a God-pleasing activity? (One of the popular slogans of the day was: “The only good Red is a dead Red.”

Human beings were now defined not by the mystery of bearing the image of God but by the fate of being defined by the borders within which they happened to live and the color we assigned to them. The word “red” had become a death sentence. This was the plague with which millions of American Christians were infected and eagerly passed on to others.

How we Christians have changed over the years since Christ’s resurrection, Merton pointed out in essay after essay. The war-resisting, life-protecting, bloodshed-refusing witness given by Christians in the first centuries seems today incomprehensibly remote and scandalously unpatriotic. Among contemporary Christians, there are not many who, in those moments when one has to choose between the example of Jesus, who killed no one, and what is described as patriotic duty, side with Jesus. Better to find some way to explain the Gospel in such a way that it aligns Christ’s teaching with the demands of one’s nation. Time and again the cross is made into a flagpole. In every country and culture one finds pastors and theologians who exhibit a great talent for adjusting the Bible to fit the politics and ideologies of the moment. South Africa had its theologians of apartheid, the United States has had theologians of Manifest Destiny, Nazi Germany had theologians who were rabidly anti-Semitic, and in any country in which slavery existed or thrived as a business, there were theologians who could demonstrate that slavery was God’s will. From the fourth or fifth centuries, there has never been a shortage of bishops and theologians willing to sing the praises of whatever war was underway.

To the end of his life, Merton sought to align himself with the Gospel, refusing to adjust the Gospel to the local flag, or any flag.

The person trying to live according to the unabridged Gospel is sailing by to a different compass than the great majority of his neighbors. That compass is one’s faith-shaped conscience. Under no circumstances can a Christian just “go with the flow.”

In an article that was to get him into quite a lot of hot water, Merton wrote:

“The present war crisis is something we have made entirely for and by ourselves. There is in reality not the slightest logical reason for war, and yet the whole world is plunging headlong into frightful destruction, and doing so with the purpose of avoiding war…. This is true war-madness, an illness of the mind and spirit that is spreading with a furious and subtle contagion all over the world. Of all the countries that are sick, America is perhaps the most grievously afflicted. On all sides we have people building bomb shelters where, in case of nuclear war, they will simply bake slowly instead of burning quickly or being blown out of existence in a flash. And they are prepared to sit in these shelters with machine guns with which to prevent their neighbor from entering. This in a nation that claims to be fighting for religious truth along with freedom and other values of the spirit. Truly we have entered the “post-Christian era” with a vengeance. Whether we are destroyed or whether we survive, the future is awful to contemplate.

“What is the place of the Christian in all this? Is he simply to fold his hands and resign himself for the worst, accepting it as the inescapable will of God and preparing himself to enter heaven with a sigh of relief? Should he open up the Apocalypse and run into the street to give everyone his idea of what is happening? Or, worse still should he take a hard-headed and “practical” attitude about it and join in the madness of the war makers, calculating how, by a “first strike” the glorious Christian West can eliminate atheistic communism for all time and usher in the millennium? I am no prophet and seer but it seems to me that this last position may very well be the most diabolical of illusions, the great and not even subtle temptation of a Christianity that has grown rich and comfortable, and is satisfied with its riches.

“What are we to do? The duty of the Christian in this crisis is to strive with all his power and intelligence, with his faith, his hope in Christ, and love for God and man, to do the one task which God has imposed upon us in the world today. That task is to work for the total abolition of war. There can be no question that unless war is abolished the world will remain constantly in a state of madness and desperation in which, because of the immense destructive power of modern weapons, the danger of catastrophe will be imminent and probable at every moment everywhere. Unless we set ourselves immediately to this task, both as individuals and in our political and religious groups, we tend by our very passivity and fatalism to cooperate with the destructive forces that are leading inexorably to war. It is a problem of terrifying complexity and magnitude, for which the Church itself is not fully able to see clear and decisive solutions. Yet she must lead 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.

“First of all there is much to be learned. Peace is to be preached, nonviolence is to be explained as a practical method, and not left to be mocked as an outlet for crackpots who want to make a show of themselves. Prayer and sacrifice must be used as the most effective spiritual weapons in the war against war, and like all weapons, they must be used with deliberate aim: not just with a vague aspiration for peace and security, but against violence and war. This implies that we are also willing to sacrifice and restrain our own instinct for violence and aggressiveness in our relations with other people. We may never succeed in this campaign but whether we succeed or not, the duty is evident.” [The Catholic Worker, October 1961. This was a preface that Merton added to the text for the chapter “The Root of War” in New Seeds of Contemplation.]

This was Merton’s first attempt in the sixties to raise his voice against the plague spirit of the time. He did so in the pages of Dorothy Day’s journal, The Catholic Worker, in the issue published in October 1961; it was one of the first issues that I was involved in preparing for publication. I still recall the excitement I felt to be holding manuscript pages with various corrections penciled in by Merton himself. As it happened, side to side with Merton’s essay when it appeared in print was a drawing of St Francis of Assisi — another disciple of Christ whose conversion led him to embrace the Gospel in its totality and, in the process, to renounce all killing.

Had he not been died in an auto crash four years earlier, Camus would have  appreciated Merton’s role in challenging Christians to struggle against the plague. Indeed I have little doubt the two would have struck up a correspondence. What fascinating letters these would have been!

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Root of War coverJim Forest is the author of The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers and Living With Wisdom: a biography of Thomas Merton.

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Merton on Camus:

“Man is driven to destroy, to kill, or simply to dominate and to oppress comes from the metaphysical void he experiences when he finds himself a stranger in his own universe.” (“The Plague of Albert Camus: A Commentary and an Introduction,” The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton, p 181)

The Plague “is a protest against all forms of passive submission to unhappiness and unmeaning. It is a protest against the passive acceptance of alienation. (182)

At the center of the book is a stoic “‘healer’ who fights against disease and death because living man remains for him a an ultimate, inexplicable value. (186)

Life, we learn from Camus, “is to be affirmed in defiance of suffering and death, in love, compassion, and understanding, the solidarity of man in revolt against the absurd…” (186)

As he said in his Nobel acceptance speech, Camus wanted to show “how to fashion an art of living in times of catastrophe… (186)

Oran “is a labyrinth where the wanderer is destroyed by the minotaur of boredom (187)

There are more things to admire in man than to despise (189)

“They forgot to be modest.” Modesty is a key word in The Plague. Such modesty is “the sanity of that wholly realistic self-assessment which delivered them from fatal hybris.” Such modesty “ implies a capacity to doubt one’s own wisdom, a hesitancy in the presence of doctrines and systems that explain everything too conveniently and justify evil as a form of good.” (191)

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Capital Punishment: A Few Points to Consider

q - St Nicholas stopping an execution
St Nicholas stopping an execution

from a letter by Jim Forest to a friend in the United States

We are followers of Christ, who killed no one nor blessed anyone to kill and who on one occasion prevented a legal execution, saying to those who intended to take part, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” The Savior taught us a way of life that centers on love and forgiveness and which seeks the conversion rather than the destruction of our enemies.

It is chiefly through the love and care of others that each of us gradually comes to know the love of God. Can we not hope that people who have committed serious crimes, even murder, might also change for the better and even reach repentance and conversion? Consider the story Dostoevsky tells in Crime and Punishment of how a murderer, Raskolnikov, is led to repentance.

As Orthodox Christians say in a pre-communion prayer by St. Basil the Great: “You do not wish, Master, that the work of Your hands should perish, neither do You take pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.”

Many people cannot afford capable lawyers and, if indigent, may be assigned lawyers who invest little time or care in their defense. To favor capital punishment is to support a system that of its nature discriminates against the poor. As Sister Helen Prejean has written, “The death penalty is a poor person’s issue… After all the rhetoric that goes on in the legislative assemblies, in the end, when the deck is cast out, it is the poor who are selected to die in this country.”

Mistakes happen. Again and again cases come to light of innocent people who have been executed. We easily make mistakes — based on circumstantial evidence, what seem to us good guesses based on what we think we know about other people and other “types” of people. The film “Twelve Angry Men” is about a jury that comes within a hair’s breath of convicting an innocent man but, thanks to the stubborn resistance of one unconvinced  juror, realizes a mistake has been made and at last finds the accused not guilty. In real life, unfortunately, the story could easily have had a different ending: the ritual killing of a man who happens to resemble a murderer, who belongs to a racial minority, has no money, is without effective legal defense, and isn’t articulate.

Consider two events in Russian history.

After the baptism of Rus’, Saint Vladimir abolished executions as being incompatible with the Gospel. It is one of several indications we have of how profound was his conversion.

One of the most impressive reforms that happened in Russia in the 19th century was the effective abolition of capital punishment. Instead convicts were sent to do hard labor, mainly in Siberia. It is striking that Russians usually call those in prison, no matter what their crime, not “crooks” or villains,” but “the unfortunate.” There is an attitude of compassion suggested in this that is missing in American culture.

One of the most loved saints in the Orthodox Church, St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, bishop of Myra, intervened to prevent three executions. In icons of St. Nicholas in which biographical panels are included, you  find the scene of Nicholas in his episcopal vestments putting his restraining hand on the raised executioner’s sword.To this day priests are forbidden to kill, a law which comes down from the prohibition within the early Church of killing for all baptized persons. Consider why such a canon exists.

Consider also the words of an early Greek convert to Christianity, the philosopher Athenagoras of Athens (ca. 133-190): “We see little difference between watching a man being put to death and killing him.” He reminds us that to be implicated in murder, one does not have to commit murder. We can become accomplices in the violent death of others through the words we utter or through passivity.

“Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation.” (Psalm 50)

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The Root of Sin is Fear

[an extract from The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers by Jim Forest]

fear shadowSpeaking before the US Congress, Pope Francis described Thomas Merton as “above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.” Merton was notable, the pope added for “his openness to God.”

It was Merton’s openness to God which was the driving force behind his qualities as a man of prayer, as a thinker, as someone opening new horizons, as a man of dialogue, as a promoter of peace, and — to make one addition to Francis’ list — a monk challenging the rule of fear.

Few sentences have helped me so much and so often as these six words from Merton: “The root of war is fear.” In fact fear is the root cause not only of war but of innumerable damaging structures, bad choices and calamitous actions. One could say, “The root of sin is fear.”

Fear is a powerful emotion that has the potential of taking over our lives even when there is no rational threat. A classic example: On October 30, 1938, during a radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’ novel War of the Worlds, many listeners, mistaking what they heard for a genuine news broadcast, became convinced that Earth was being invaded by Martians. As one newspaper put it, a “tidal wave of terror swept the nation.” There were listeners who fled their homes in panic.[1]

Of course there are countless sensible reasons for being fearful: the threat of crime, attack, war, illness, injury, job loss, destitution, homelessness… The list is as long as you care to make it. Such anxieties deserve sober attentiveness without becoming the mainspring of our lives. Fear is useful only when it serves as an alarm clock, a device that wakes us up by briefly ringing but which would drive us crazy if it rang all the time.

When fear takes over, it tends to rob of us creativity, resourcefulness and freedom. Consider how many students have chosen their subjects not because of a compelling personal interest but because there is likely to be more job opportunities and better pay in this or that field. How many people dare not raise hard and urgent questions with co-workers and bosses because of fear of what might happen were one to speak up? How many choose to have an abortion because of fear of what one’s life would be like were the child to be born? How many people fail to tell the truth because of fear? How many people do we fail to meet due to fear?

Many fears are manufactured or hugely inflated by those who find the creation of a climate of dread useful and profitable: fear of refugees, fear of Muslims, fear of terrorists, fear of minorities, fear of the poor, fear of criminals, fear of the police, even fear of our neighbors. Each day we hear reports of tragedies caused by fear and each day the news gives us a new set of reasons to be afraid. America’s craze for guns, even to possess weapons designed for battlefield use, is fear-driven. In fact weapons used in war are often fired, with irreversible consequences, because of panic. We now find ourselves in a state of fear-driven permanent war.

The toxic part fear plays in our lives is a point stressed by a prominent Greek Orthodox theologian and bishop, John Zizioulas:

The essence of sin is the fear of the other, which is part of the rejection of God. Once the affirmation of the “self” is realized through the rejection and not the acceptance of the other … it is only natural and inevitable for the other to become an enemy and a threat…. The fact that the fear of the other is pathologically inherent in our existence results in the fear not only of the other but of all otherness. This is a delicate point requiring careful consideration, for it shows how deep and widespread fear of the other is: we are not afraid simply of certain others, but even if we accept them, it is on condition that they are somehow like ourselves. Radical otherness is an anathema. Difference itself is a threat. That this is universal and pathological is to be seen in the fact that even when difference does not in actual fact constitute a threat for us, we reject it simply because we dislike it. Again and again we notice that fear of the other is nothing more than fear of the different. We all want somehow to project into the other the model of our own selves.[2]

What is the antidote for fear? Are there any remedies? How at least can fear play a smaller role in the choices we make? The development of a stronger, deeper spiritual life is surely at the core of an answer. If fear is not to have a dominant role in our lives, a great deal of inner strength is needed. Without it the voice of conscience — and the courage to follow it — will be suppressed.

Behind the popularity of Merton’s writing is that he is a door-opener and guide to a more contemplative spiritual life. He equips his readers with courage. He also makes it clear that one need nor be a monk to be a contemplative: As he wrote:

The contemplative life has nothing to tell you except to reassure you and say that if you dare to penetrate your own silence and dare to advance without fear into the solitude of your own heart, and risk the sharing of that solitude with the lonely other who seeks God through you and with you, then you will truly recover the light and capacity to understand what is beyond words and beyond explanations because it is too close to be explained: it is the intimate union in the depths of your own heart, of God’s spirit and your own secret inmost self, so that you and He are in truth One Spirit.[3]

Root of War coverYes, the world is scary, but also beautiful, magnificent, mysterious, still undiscovered. How long we live is not as important an issue as how we live.

At the heart of Merton’s writing is the message that fear need not rule our lives.

* * *

[1] The Culture of Fear by Barry Glassner (NY: Basic Books, 1999), 205-206.

[2] Extract from “Communion and Otherness”; full text:

[3] The Monastic Journey, ed. Patrick Hart (Kansas City: Sheed Andrews & McMeel, 1977), 173.

first two chapters of “The Root of War is Fear”

 Jonas in the belly of a paradox

Merton - Griffin portrait medIn The Sign of Jonas, Thomas Merton wrote: “Like Jonas himself I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.”[1] Paradox was a word Thomas Merton appreciated, in part because there were so many paradoxes within himself. One of these was that he belonged to a religious order with a tradition of silent withdrawal and near disappearance from the world, yet through his prolific writings millions of people became familiar with his life and convictions, his temptations and inner struggles, his humor and his epiphanies. He had a talkative vocation within the silent life. From a place of intentional isolation, he was deeply — often controversially — engaged with the outside world during the last decade of his life. It was a paradox he often wished would end in favor of silence, but it never did. Like the reluctant Jonas, who sought to evade a prophet’s role in saving Nineveh, Merton was delivered to the sinful city as if by whale.

As with the fabled blind men, each investigating a portion of an elephant, many people have a conception of Merton that is correct but incomplete. There are those for whom Merton is best known for his early writings, his autobiography and his books on prayer and spirituality. Others especially appreciate his later work, for example his exploratory essays on non-Christian religious traditions, and can be dismissive of “the early Merton.” Seeing Merton whole is no small task. Certainly there was a significant evolution in Merton’s writing in the late 1950s and early 1960s as he took on the responsibility of addressing the pressing social issues of his time while carving doors of dialogue in walls that divided major religious communities. Even so, for all these developments it is striking to note that a concern for peace runs like a red thread connecting his very earliest writing and his later work.

The horrors of the First World War provided the main reference point in the opening sentences of his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, published in 1948, when Merton, thirty-three, was seven years into monastic life:

On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God and yet hating Him; born to love Him, living instead in fear and hopeless self-contradictory hungers. Not many hundreds of miles away from the house where I was born, they were picking up the men who rotted in rainy ditches among the dead horses … in a forest without branches along the river Marne.[2]

Among the microcosmic consequences of that Great War was its impact on the Merton family. It tore their hopes and plans to shreds. Owen and Ruth Merton were expatriate artists who had met in Paris and, after their marriage, made their home in Prades, a town in the French Pyrenees. Though a New Zealander, Owen Merton would have been subject to French military conscription had he remained in France. Owen’s moral objections to war were of no consequence to the French authorities — no exceptions were made for foreigners or conscientious objectors. In the summer of 1916, Owen, Ruth and their year-old son, Tom, left France for the US, settling not far from Ruth’s parents in Douglaston, Long Island.

WWI poster wake up AmericaOwen arrived in an America that still regarded the battles on the far side of the Atlantic as a strictly European event, but in April 1917 the US declared war on Germany and the following month Congress authorized military conscription. Aliens were not exempt. As required by law, Owen Merton registered for the draft on the fifth of June 1917, declaring at the time that he was both a conscientious objector and the sole support of wife and child.[3] He was never called up. Once war was declared, the vast majority of Americans, very likely including Ruth’s family, came down with a severe case of war fever. The war was, after all, packaged as a holy crusade, nothing less than “the war to end all wars.” Able-bodied men like Owen who opposed the war and refused to take part in it were widely regarded as cowards and shirkers. [graphic: WWI recruitment poster]

Even a child knows that war produces dead bodies. While ordinarily death is a playground concept for children — bang, bang, you’re dead — that was not the case for Tom Merton. In 1921, when he was six, death became something all too real when his mother died of cancer. For young Tom, death meant a gaping absence, a collapse of the most basic structures of life. Death meant abandonment. His mother had been abducted by death. A decade later came a second blow. Just two weeks before his sixteenth birthday Tom became an orphan. After having moved to England with Tom, Owen died of a brain tumor in a London hospital in January 1931. Apart from grandparents, who were an ocean away, all that was left of Tom’s immediate family was a younger brother, John Paul, still living in America with Ruth’s parents. Tom’s guardian was a London physician.

At about the time of Owen’s death, Tom Merton became an admirer of Gandhi, then visiting England, and of his nonviolent campaign against British imperial rule in India. Rarely one to be part of any majority, Tom took Gandhi’s side in a formal debate at Oakham, his boarding school, arguing that India had every right to demand the end of British colonial rule. Merton’s side in the debate was easily defeated, but for the rest of Merton’s life he was to remain an advocate of Gandhi’s form of struggle, what Gandhi called satyagraha: the nonviolent, life-protecting power that comes from seeking the conversion of opponents rather than their humiliation and destruction.

Among the formative events that added another layer of meaning to the word “death” and also brought him close to the annihilating potential of toxic ideologies occurred in the spring of 1932. Now seventeen and still a student at Oakham, Merton went for a solo holiday walk along the Rhine River. It was an excursion that happened to coincide with Hitler’s campaign for the German chancellorship. One morning, while walking down a quiet country road lined with apple orchards, Merton was nearly run down by a car full of young Nazis. Tom dived into a ditch in the nick of time, the car’s occupants showering him with Hitler election leaflets as they sped past. His jump injured a toe that soon became too painful for him to complete the hike as planned. Back at his school and in worsening pain, a doctor found Merton’s veins were full of poisoned blood. Immediate hospitalization was needed. His brief encounter with German Nazis had nearly cost Merton his life.[4]

After Oakham, Merton did a year at Clare College, Cambridge — a time of “beer, bewilderment and sorrow,” in the words of his friend Bob Lax — then moved to his grandparents’ home on Long Island, near Manhattan, where he matriculated at Columbia. Like any university student of his day, Merton found himself in a whirlpool of radical political movements. The Great Depression had drawn millions of people to the Left. For a brief time Merton was attracted to Communism, but quickly found Marxist political ideology a dead-end street.

Merton’s search for deeper waters took a religious turn. Memories of his father’s churchless Christianity must have haunted him, as well as his own encounters with ancient churches and their remarkable mosaics when he visited Rome two years after Owen’s death. Before returning to England he had been moved to pray with tears in one of Rome’s oldest churches, Santa Sabina. Later, as a university student in New York, he was on his way to Catholic Christianity. In November 1938, Merton was baptized at Corpus Christi Church in Manhattan. It was the most important border crossing of his adult life. From then on, every question was to be viewed in the light of Christ.

One of the saints who most inspired Merton was Francis of Assisi, whose radical witness to Christ’s Gospel in the thirteenth century included opposition to all killing. In a declaration that resonated for Merton, Francis once explained to his bishop why the members of his community renounced ownership of property:

If we held property, armed force for protection would become necessary. For property gives rise to lawsuits and to wars which in various ways destroy all love of God and of our fellowmen. Our membership, therefore, will not hold property.[5]

Francis founded a movement not only of celibate brothers (and, with Saint Clare, of sisters) who lived in poverty, but he also created a “third order” of lay people, married and single, whose original rule forbade members to possess or use any weapons of war, in effect a vow that obliged them to be conscientious objectors. During the Fifth Crusade and at the risk of his own life, Francis himself gave an example of unarmed peacemaking, traveling to Egypt to meet with one of Christendom’s chief opponents, Sultan Malik-al-Kamil.

While teaching at a Franciscan college, Saint Bonaventure’s, in Olean, New York, Merton took vows as a lay Franciscan. Like other third order members, Merton wore a simple scapular under his clothes as a reminder of his commitment — two chords over the shoulders attached to two small squares of brown material similar to the coarse fabric used in Franciscan robes.

Despite his strong Franciscan bent, at times even Merton felt the powerful tides that were drawing so many others to become soldiers in the war going on in Europe, including his own brother, John Paul. After seeing a film about the impact of the Blitz on London, Merton wrote in his journal:

For the first time in my life, I think, I momentarily wanted to be in the war…. Bombs are beginning to fall into my own life…. [The film] was propaganda, but good propaganda…. For the first time I imagined that maybe I belonged there, not here.[6]

What especially brought the horror of city bombing home to him was a picture of a bombed-out London clothing shop in which, when he was sixteen, he had purchased a gray herringbone tweed suit.

The industrial impersonality of modern war horrified Merton:

There is not even much hatred. If there were more hatred the thing would be healthier. But it was just filthy, this destruction…. This is just a vile combat of bombs against bricks, attempts to wipe out machines and to bury men lying in tunnels under tons of stone and rubble. It is not like a fight, it is like a disease…[7]

Even in the placid countryside surrounding Olean, Merton saw strands of connection with war:

The valley is full of oil storage tanks, and oil is for feeding bombers, and once they are fed they have to bomb something, and they generally pick on oil tanks. Wherever you have oil tanks, or factories, or railroads or any of the comforts of home and manifestations of progress, in this century, you are sure to get bombers, sooner or later. Therefore, if I don’t pretend … to understand the war, I do know this much: that the knowledge of what is going on only makes it seem desperately important to be voluntarily poor, to get rid of all possessions this instant.[8]

Merton’s inner wrestling with war found expression in a novel he wrote while teaching at Saint Bonaventure’s, The Journal of My Escape from the Nazis to “(published posthumously in 1969 as My Argument with the Gestapo). The story followed Merton’s imagined return from America to war-ravaged London. Though coming from America, Merton sees himself as a stateless person. “I have lived in too many countries,” he explains, “to have a nationality.” Why do you come back, he is asked. “Not to fight,” he says. He admits he has come to write. “What will you write?” “I will say that … the things I remember are destroyed, but that does not mean as much as it seems, because the destruction was already going on before, and destruction is all I remember.”

Later the question is posed: But isn’t the war Germany’s fault? “In the sense that they began fighting it, yes.” Doesn’t that mean Germany is guilty? “I don’t know the meaning of the word guilty, except in the sense that I am also guilty for the war, partly.” But is it not nations rather than persons that are guilty of war? “Nations don’t exist. They can’t be held responsible for anything. Nations are made up of people, and people are responsible for the things they do.” In that case, he is told, Hitler is the guilty one. “He might be. Only I don’t know enough about it. He might be more guilty than any other one person, but he isn’t the only person guilty of the war…. All I know is, if anything happens to the world, it is partly because of me.”

The narrator explains to an officer who is interrogating him:

You think you can identify a man by giving his date of birth and his address, his height, his eyes’ color, even his fingerprints. Such information will help you put the right tag on his body if you should run across his body somewhere full of bullets, but it doesn’t say anything about the man himself. Men become objects and not persons. Now you complain because there is a war, but war is the proper state for a world in which men are a series of numbered bodies. War is the state that now perfectly fits your philosophy of life: you deserve the war for believing the things you believe. In so far as I tend to believe those same things and act according to such lies, I am part of the complex of responsibilities for the war too. But if you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I think I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for.[9]

Merton, Thomas, Exemption, 1941, p.1The question of how to respond as individuals should the US join the war was the subject of long-running conversations Merton had with such close friends as Bob Lax and Ed Rice. For Merton it was a question that had to be answered not in terms of political or ideological theory or the accidents of national identity but in terms of being a follower of Christ, who killed no one, waved no flags and blessed no wars. This led him to formulate a response — conscientious objection — that, for a Roman Catholic at that time, was unusual, to say the least. As he explained to his draft board in March 1941:

As a Franciscan Tertiary I am bound to follow a rule which is intended to help me imitate in every detail the lives of Christ and Saint Francis, who did not kill men, but went among the sick and the poor doing good. Christ told us we must love our enemies, and Saint Francis wrote in the Rule of the Tertiaries that they must love peace and heal all discord. I cannot conceive how killing a man with a flame thrower, a machine gun or a bomb is compatible with a life of Christian perfection along these lines… [first page of Merton’s letter to his draft board]

Merton wrote of his willingness to undertake non-combatant duty under certain conditions:

[I am willing to serve so long as it involves] no part in the machinery that produces the death of men. Merely being a non-combatant member of a combatant unit is not enough…. I am willing and eager to serve in any post where the work is saving lives and helping those in suffering: ambulance work, hospital work, air raid protection work, etc. I do not ask for any position that would necessarily be remote from the line of fire, or “out of danger.”[10]

The same day Merton made an exultant entry in his journal recording the relief he felt after posting his declaration to his draft board:

This has been a very remarkable day to have looked in the face. I don’t think of the contents of a day as “a day,” ordinarily; but this one has to be seen that way. To begin with, it is a day I have feared — it is the day I got all of my notions together about war, and said them briefly all at once, on a few sheets of paper, on a prepared blank and put them in the mail for the Draft Board.

… I made out my reasons for being a partial conscientious objector, for asking for noncombatant service, so not having to kill men made in the image of God when it is possible to obey the law (as I must) by serving the wounded and saving lives — or that may be a purely artificial situation: by serving the humiliation of digging latrines, which is a far greater honor to God than killing men.

The thing was that I wrote these things out without trepidation, and was amazed.[11]

Here is how Merton described his conscientious objector stand in The Seven Storey Mountain, published three years after the war ended:

[God] was not asking me to judge all the nations of the world, or to elucidate all the moral and political motives behind their actions. He was not demanding that I pass some critical decision defining the innocence and guilt of all those concerned in the war. He was asking me to make a choice that amounted to an act of love for His truth, His goodness, His charity, His Gospel…. He was asking me to do, to the best of my knowledge, what I thought Christ would do…. After all, Christ did say, “Whatsoever you have done to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”[12]

Conscientious objectors have always been a rare breed. In the course of World War II, 34.5 million American men between the ages of 18 and 44 registered for the draft. Out of these millions, only 72,354 applied for conscientious objector status. Of these, 27,000 failed to pass the physical exam and were exempted, as seems to have been the case for Bob Lax. Of those who were found physically fit, 25,000 served in non-combatant roles in the military, the form of conscientious objection for which Merton applied, thus agreeing to work for the Army Medical Corps or in anything that did not involve actual combat. Opposed to any military role, approximately 12,000 men performed alternative service in the Civilian Public Service program. More than 6,000 men either chose not to cooperate with the draft outright or failed to gain recognition as conscientious objectors and went to prison.[13]

To appreciate how exceptional Merton’s choice of conscientious objection was, one must bear in mind that, right up to the period of John F. Kennedy’s election as president twenty years later, the patriotism of American Catholics was regarded as suspect by the Protestant majority. Catholics bent over backwards to make clear their gratitude for having found a home in America. One would find the slogan Pro Deo et Patria — For God and Country — over the doors of many Catholic schools. Catholics were outshining their neighbors in doing whatever was required to be recognized as “good Americans.” Merton, however, wasn’t thinking of social acclimation and acceptance or even of being seen as “a good Catholic.” Rather, he was trying to make choices that resembled those he believed Christ would make.

In 1941 Merton found himself at a vocational crossroads. One possibility was to become a fulltime staff member of Friendship House, a Catholic Worker-like house of hospitality in Harlem at which he had been volunteering. This would mean a life centered in the works of mercy: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, caring for the sick and the imprisoned. The other was to become part of the monastic community of a Trappist abbey, Our Lady of Gethsemani, in Kentucky, which he had visited that Spring and which impressed him so profoundly that in a journal entry he described Gethsemani as the true “center of America.”[14]

A secondary attraction of a monastic vocation was that, as a monk, he would automatically be exempted from military service. His draft status had just been changed — despite too many extracted teeth, he was no longer classified as physically unfit. Nor could he reasonably expect that any draft board would be willing to recognize a Catholic as a conscientious objector, a stand that was at the time mainly associated with several small Protestant “peace churches” such as the Quakers and Mennonites.

On the 10th of December 1941, just three days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as it happened, Merton rang the bell of the monastery’s gatehouse door over which was written the Latin words Pax Intrantibus — peace to all who enter. He was embracing a life that, in its totality, was an act of conscientious objection not just to war but to a war-driven world.Gethsemani 3

Once he was within the relatively unworldly enclosure of monastic life and out of harm’s way, one might have thought Merton’s interest in the issue of war would fade, even vanish. Not so. The hellishness of war was a topic in a number of the poems he wrote as a young monk, beginning with those collected in his first book, Thirty Poems, published by New Directions in 1944, and it remained a major topic in A Man in the Divided Sea (1946), Figures for an Apocalypse (1947) and Tears of the Blind Lions (1949).[15]

Writing his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, a project begun in 1944 at the request of his first abbot, Dom Frederick Dunne, what Merton had to say about conscientious objection was not at all what readers, especially Catholics, were used to hearing.

Just before the epilogue, the book included a poem, “To My Brother, Missing in Action,” written after John Paul Merton — his plane shot down — became a casualty of war in April 1943. One of Merton’s finest works, it is not only an expression of grief for his slain brother but a cry of anguish for all who inhabit the cruel world of battlefields:

Sweet brother, if I do not sleep

My eyes are flowers for your tomb;

And if I cannot eat my bread,

My fasts shall live like willows where you died.

If in the heat I find no water for my thirst,

My thirst shall turn to springs for you, poor traveller.

Where, in what desolate and smokey country,

Lies your poor body, lost and dead?

And in what landscape of disaster

Has your unhappy spirit lost its road?

Come, in my labor find a resting place

And in my sorrows lay your head,

Or rather take my life and blood

And buy yourself a better bed —

Or take my breath and take my death

And buy yourself a better rest.

When all the men of war are shot

And flags have fallen into dust

Your cross and mine shall tell men still

Christ died on each, for both of us.

For in the wreckage of your April Christ lies slain,

And Christ weeps in the ruins of my spring:

The money of Whose tears shall fall

Into your weak and friendless hand,

And buy you back to your own land:

The silence of Whose tears shall fall

Like bells upon your alien tomb.

Hear them and come: they call you home.[16]

Mother dead, father dead, now his only brother killed in war… Merton was like the Ishmael of Moby Dick, a sole survivor.

Perhaps it was John Paul’s death in war that amplified the issue of war in Merton’s thoughts, even during the years when he regarded monks as people who had divorced themselves from the world and its self-inflicted wounds.

Reminders of war frequently entered the monastic enclosure. The noise and vibrations of artillery practice at nearby Fort Knox literally shook the hills of Gethsemani. In his poem “The Guns of Fort Knox” Merton meditated on

Explosions in my feet, through boards

Wars work under the floor. Wars

Dance in the foundations.

The poem concludes:

Guns, I say, this is not

The right resurrection. All day long

You punch the doors of death to wake

A slain generation. Let them lie

Still. Let them sleep on,

O Guns. Shake no more

(But leave the locks secure)

Hell’s door.[17]

Hell’s door was being made all the wider by the development of weapons of mass destruction, especially the hydrogen bomb, yet many people failed to see hell’s door for what it was. As Merton wrote to the philosopher 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.[18]

Little by little the world, its beauty and its troubles reshaped Merton’s spiritual life. In his journals Merton records several intense experiences of God opening his eyes in a life-changing way. One of the most significant happened on 18 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 makes 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.[19]

This awakening marked the opening of a greater compassion within Merton. The consequences became obvious in the years that followed.

One aspect of the deeper sense of connection with the world and its people was a heightened consciousness of threats to life. He became increasingly aware that many American Christians, Catholics not least among them, were resigned to military catastrophe and were even advocates of a preemptive nuclear attack on Soviet Russia. “Better dead than Red” proclaimed a popular slogan of the period. Another was “The only good Red is a dead Red.”

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...[20]


A book in a bus terminal

Merton entered my life in December 1959 just after I had graduated from the Navy Weather School and was on a two-week leave before reporting for work with a Navy unit at the headquarters of the US Weather Service near Washington, DC. Waiting at New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal, I noticed a carousel full of paperbacks at a newsstand and came upon a book with an odd title, The Seven Storey Mountain. The author’s name, Thomas Merton, meant nothing to me. It was, the jacket announced, “the autobiography of a young man who led a full and worldly life and then, at the age of 26, entered a Trappist monastery.” There was a quotation from Evelyn Waugh, who said this book “may well prove to be of permanent interest in the history of religious experience.” Another writer compared it to Saint Augustine’s Confessions. I bought a copy.

It proved to be a can’t-put-it-down book for me. In the bus going up the Hudson Valley, I recall occasionally looking up from the text to gaze out the window at the heavy snow that was falling that night. Merton’s story has ever since been linked in my mind with the silent ballet of snowflakes swirling under streetlights.

Cosmas & Damien mosaicIn The Seven Storey Mountain I discovered that Merton, when he was precisely my age, had also been on the road, in his case in Italy. He too was on a search, while having no clear idea what it was he was seeking. It was while in Rome that a mosaic icon in the apse behind the altar of one of the city’s most ancient churches, Saints Cosmas and Damian, triggered in Merton an overwhelming awareness of the presence of God and the reality of Christ. He wrote:

For the first time in my whole life, 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.[21]

While Merton’s religious journey was only beginning, he had been given a first glimpse of the path he was to follow.

The Seven Storey Mountain awakened in me an interest in monastic life — I saw it as a possible vocation — and incidentally also made me think more critically about war and the implications of my being in the military.

In the months that followed, I read another autobiography, Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness. Here was a young writer and journalist in the thick of New York’s bohemian subculture who, to the bewilderment if not horror of many leftist friends, found her way into the Catholic Church. Several years later she founded a newspaper, The Catholic Worker, which soon gave birth to a house of hospitality for the homeless and rapidly evolved into a widespread movement that linked the works of mercy with efforts to promote a more compassionate social order. Like Merton, Day saw war as profoundly unchristian, a rejection of Christ’s example and teaching. For Dorothy, hospitality in all its forms was at the heart of Christian life. As she wrote:

The early Christians started with the works of mercy and it was this technique which converted the world. The corporal works are to feed the hungry; to give drink to the thirsty; to clothe the naked; to harbor the harborless; to ransom the captive; to visit the sick; to bury the dead. The spiritual works are to instruct the ignorant; to counsel the doubtful; to admonish sinners; to bear wrongs patiently; to forgive offense willingly; to comfort the afflicted; to pray for the living and the dead. Not all of these works are within the reach of all — that is understood. But that we should take part in some of them is a matter of obligation, a strict precept imposed both by the natural and Divine law.[22]

Dorothy Day Civil defense protest,Washington Square Park, 7-20-56 (Robert Lax photo)In the early fall of 1960, while still in the Navy, I began visiting the Catholic Worker at its center in lower Manhattan. It was during one of those visits that I first met and talked with Dorothy Day, who turned out to be as curious about me as I was about her. Among my surprises was the discovery that she and Merton were correspondents. I had imagined Merton was far more cut off from the outside world than was actually the case.

One letter from Merton that Dorothy shared with me soon after we met, but written by him the previous year, began with a reference to the Catholic Worker’s main peace witness in those years — its annual refusal to take shelter as required by New York State Law as an exercise in civil defense. Dorothy saw such drills (conducted between 1955 and 1961) as a dress rehearsal for nuclear war with the Soviet Union. For her, civil defense was, really, a cruel joke, as subways and basements offered protection only from conventional weapons, but the ritual had the effect of making nuclear war seem survivable and even winnable. Dorothy had chosen instead to sit on a park bench in front of New York’s City Hall. She had been jailed several times for her act of quiet civil disobedience, until the crowds that gathered with her became so large that the war game was abandoned. But that end was still not in sight when Merton wrote:

I am deeply touched by your witness for peace. You are very right in doing it along the lines of Satyagraha [literally “truth-force,” Gandhi’s word for what Western people often call nonviolence]. I see no other way, though of course the angles of the problem are not all clear. I am certainly with you on taking some kind of stand and acting accordingly. Nowadays it is no longer a question of who is right but who is at least not a criminal — if any of us can say that anymore. So don’t worry about whether or not in every point you are perfectly all right according to everybody’s book; you are right before God as far as you can go and you are fighting for a truth that is clear enough and important enough. What more can anybody do? … It was never more true that the world cannot see true values.[23]

I don’t suppose many people today can readily appreciate the significance of this and similar letters Merton was sending to Dorothy and others in the outside world whose work he admired. Partly thanks to Merton and Day, the Catholic peacemaker, then a rarity, was to become far more common in the years ahead and to receive support from the highest levels of the Church, as we saw with Pope Francis choosing them to spotlight in his historic address to Congress. But at that time, when the Cold War might at any moment become a nuclear war, the Catholic Worker movement was viewed with considerable suspicion for its talk of “the works of mercy versus the works of war.” It was tolerated because of its orthodoxy in all other respects and its direct, simple and unpretentious commitment to the humanity of impoverished people. New York’s Cardinal Francis Spellman, a reliable supporter of whatever war America was engaged in, had at times been under pressure to suppress the Catholic Worker, or at least to forbid use of the word “Catholic” in the title of its newspaper, but remarkably never did so. Perhaps he sensed that, in Dorothy Day, he had a saint in his diocese and that he had better not play the match-lighter’s part in the trial of a modern-day Joan of Arc. Maybe he just sensed, puzzling though it must have been, that the Church needed the Catholic Worker movement.

As the Sixties began, Merton was not a controversial figure. His books were available in bookshops, libraries, drugstores, newsstands, train and bus terminals as well as churches, and each bore the Imprimatur (Latin for “let it be printed,” a bishop’s certification that the book was free of theological error). Many thousands owed their faith, and millions its deepening, to the stimulus of Merton’s writings. His writings had been published in more languages than we had staff members and volunteers in our Catholic Worker house of hospitality. His books were read by the convinced and the unconvinced. His readers ranged from popes to prostitutes.

The letters from Merton that Dorothy shared with me were factors in the decision I made in April 1961 to take part, though not in uniform, in a protest of the CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. A week later, having found myself in very hot water with my commanding officer and the Naval Intelligence Service, I filed an application for early discharge from the Navy as a conscientious objector. The request was quickly granted. In late May, at Dorothy’s invitation, I became part of the Catholic Worker community in New York.

If it is hard now to fully appreciate what Merton’s letters meant to their recipients, it may be harder still to understand the apocalyptic worldview many people — Merton among them — had at the time. No one following the headlines could reasonably expect to die of old age. Many people today seem to have gotten used to living in a world heavily stocked with nuclear weapons. The fact that none have been used in warfare since the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 is seen as proof that deterrence works. In the short measure of human life and memory, and in a time crowded with other disasters, Hiroshima is a long way off. We have begun to count on generals and their subordinates restraining themselves from pressing the nuclear button. We imagine that, for the first time in human history, weapons are being produced and made ready for use — are in fact poised for use — yet will never be used. May it be so. Yet it didn’t seem to Merton or those engaged with the Catholic Worker that human nature had changed since Hiroshima or that those who see reality in purely abstract ideological terms, a mentality not uncommon in political and military leadership, no matter what the nationality, could be counted on to leave nuclear weapons on the shelf if other methods failed to achieve the desired goal — or someone with a launch code gets a Doctor Strangelove itch to take “decisive action.”

Patchen Get Ready to DieA small poster tacked to my apartment wall bore a four-word message: “Get ready to die.” In 1961, when even monasteries were building fallout shelters, each time I heard New York’s sirens being tested I expected to be shredded into radioactive particles. The sirens would begin their coordinated howling, the blasts punctuated by silences so severe the city suddenly seemed desert-like in stillness. Stunned, momentarily paralyzed by the significance of the noise, I would stop whatever I was doing in the Catholic Worker’s third-floor office and wait at the front window, gathering a final view of our battered neighborhood with its few scarred trees struggling for light and air — even here, a kind of beauty. Shortly it would all be consumed by fire. There was no need to think about a hiding place. Even were there a massive barrier against the blast and radiation, the blast’s firestorm would consume all the oxygen. Last moments are too important to be wasted. We were Christians who had done our best to take Jesus at his plain words in our awkward Catholic Worker way. We believed in the resurrection and hoped in God’s mercy. Ours was a faith that seemed bizarre if not insane to many, but it gave these moments a certain tranquility, despite the sadness for this immense funeral we humans had so laboriously brought upon ourselves.

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

In July 1961 Dorothy received a letter from Merton that accompanied a poem about Auschwitz and the Holocaust — “Chant to Be Used in Procession Around a Site With Furnaces.” Merton had written it during the trial of Adolf Eichmann then going on in Jerusalem. In his letter Merton described the poem as a “gruesome” work. It was written in the staccato voice of Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, who catalogued the many efficiencies he had introduced to the concentration camp so that its assembly line might produce its quota of dead bodies:

How we made them sleep and purified them

How we perfectly cleaned up the people and worked a big heater…

All the while I had obeyed perfectly.

In its final razor-edged sentence, the mass-murderer’s gaze turned from himself to the reader:

Don’t think yourself better because you burn up friends and enemies with long-range missiles without ever seeing what you have done.[24]

It was thanks to the Auschwitz poem that my own correspondence with Merton had its genesis. Dorothy astonished me by handing me his letter and asking me to answer it. “Tell Father Louis [Merton’s name as a monk] we will use the poem in the upcoming [August] issue — it will serve as our response to the Eichmann trial.”

To my even greater amazement, Merton responded to my brief letter. The several paragraphs included news of how he had begun the day, August 9, anniversary of the nuclear destruction of Nagasaki:

This morning I said the Mass in Time of War. Might as well face it. [The text of the war-time mass] is a very good formulary. Nowhere in it are there promises of blessings upon the strong and the unscrupulous or the violent. Only suggestions 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. It is certainly not a very belligerent Mass, and it asks no one to be struck down. But it does say that we don’t have to worry too much about the King of Babylon. Are we very sure he has his headquarters in Moscow only?[25]

Looking back, little in my experience of Dorothy Day impresses me so much as her willingness to open the door to a relationship between a young volunteer and so significant a friend. It may have been her way of encouraging my interest in a monastic vocation plus her awareness of my appreciation of Merton’s books. Also she was increasingly involving me in the production of the paper.

In late September 1961 Dorothy received Merton’s first-ever prose submission to The Catholic Worker, “The Root of War Is Fear.” The phrase was familiar. One of the Merton books I had read while still in the Navy was Seeds of Contemplation, published in 1949, which included a chapter with the same title but in content quite different. Now twelve years later, the book had been expanded and substantially revised (an additional hundred pages were added) and rechristened New Seeds of Contemplation.[26]

“The Root of War is Fear,” just four pages in the 1949 version, was now ten pages long. While retaining a fragment of the original material, the text was deeper and more developed. In it Merton stressed recognition of the human tendency to accuse the other rather than to accuse oneself, so that, failing to recognize our own co-responsibility for evils that lead toward war, we come to see war — even nuclear war — as necessary and justified. Merton wrote of the irony of the American government promoting “Pray for Peace” as a slogan (for years it was used for canceling postage stamps) while spending a “fabulous amount of money, planning, energy, anxiety and care” on the production of weapons of mass annihilation. “It does not even seem to enter our minds,” Merton wrote, “that there might be some incongruity in praying to the God of peace, the God who told us to love one another as He had loved us, who warned us that they who took the sword would perish by it, and at the same time annihilate not thousands but millions of civilians and soldiers, women and children without discrimination.” Only love, he wrote, “can exorcise the fear which is at the root of war.”

Merton asked Dorothy if this might be something suitable for use in The Catholic Worker. Dorothy handed Merton’s typescript to me, telling me to put in subheads and send it to the printer for typesetting. “Also write to Father Louis and tell him his article will be in the next issue.”

In fact the text Merton sent Dorothy included several additional paragraphs especially written for the Catholic Worker version “to situate these thoughts in the present crisis.” He wrote:

The present war crisis is something we have made entirely for and by ourselves. There is in reality not the slightest logical reason for war, and yet the whole world is plunging headlong into frightful destruction, and doing so with the purpose of avoiding war and preserving peace! This is true war-madness, an illness of the mind and spirit that is spreading with a furious and subtle contagion all over the world. Of all the countries that are sick, America is perhaps the most grievously afflicted. On all sides we have people building bomb shelters where, in case of nuclear war, they will simply bake slowly instead of burning quickly or being blown out of existence in a flash. And they are prepared to sit in these shelters with machine guns with which to prevent their neighbor from entering.[27]

As it happened, just as we were going to press with Merton’s article, The New York Times gave front page attention to an essay, “Ethics at the Shelter Doorway” that had been published in the Jesuit magazine, America,[28] in which the theologian Father L.C. McHugh, SJ, justified just such a deadly response to improvident neighbors. McHugh argued: “If a man builds a shelter for his family, then it is the family that has the first right to use it. The right becomes empty if a misguided charity prompts a pitying householder to crowd his haven in the hour of peril, for this conduct makes sure that no one will survive.” (“No doubt,” Merton commented soon after, “the case could be made for St. Peter to kill St. Paul if there was only enough food for one of them to survive winter in a mountain cave.”)

Merton’s supplementary Catholic Worker text continued:

This in a nation that claims to be fighting for religious truth along with freedom and other values of the spirit. Truly we have entered the “post-Christian era” with a vengeance. Whether we are destroyed or whether we survive, the future is awful to contemplate.

Then came a challenge to become more than passive bystanders:

What is the place of the Christian in all this? Is he simply to fold his hands and resign himself for the worst, accepting it as the inescapable will of God and preparing himself to enter heaven with a sigh of relief? [29] Should he open up the Apocalypse and run into the street to give everyone his idea of what is happening? Or, worse still, should he take a hard-headed and “practical” attitude about it and join in the madness of the war makers, calculating how, by a “first strike,” the glorious Christian West can eliminate atheistic communism for all time and usher in the millennium? I am no prophet and seer but it seems to me that this last position may very well be the most diabolical of illusions, the great and not even subtle temptation of a Christianity that has grown rich and comfortable, and is satisfied with its riches.

Merton then addressed the question of making an appropriate response:

What are we to do? The duty of the Christian in this crisis is to strive with all his power and intelligence, with his faith, his hope in Christ, and love for God and man, to do the one task which God has imposed upon us in the world today. That task is to work for the total abolition of war. There can be no question that unless war is abolished the world will remain constantly in a state of madness and desperation in which, because of the immense destructive power of modern weapons, the danger of catastrophe will be imminent and probable at every moment everywhere. Unless we set ourselves immediately to this task, both as individuals and in our political and religious groups, we tend by our very passivity and fatalism to cooperate with the destructive forces that are leading inexorably to war. It is a problem of terrifying complexity and magnitude, for which the Church itself is not fully able to see clear and decisive solutions. Yet she must lead 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. First of all there is much to be studied, much to be learned. Peace is to be preached, nonviolence is to be explained as a practical method, and not left to be mocked as an outlet for crackpots who want to make a show of themselves. Prayer and sacrifice must be used as the most effective spiritual weapons in the war against war, and like all weapons, they must be used with deliberate aim: not just with a vague aspiration for peace and security, but against violence and war. This implies that we are also willing to sacrifice and restrain our own instinct for violence and aggressiveness in our relations with other people. We may never succeed in this campaign, but whether we succeed or not, the duty is evident. It is the great Christian task of our time. Everything else is secondary, for the survival of the human race itself depends upon it. We must at least face this responsibility and do something about it. And the first job of all is to understand the psychological forces at work in ourselves and in society.

The expanded 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.”[30] Notably, the additional text had not been vetted by Trappist censors.

DD October 1961We placed “The Root of War” essay on page one of the October issue alongside a line-drawing of Saint Francis of Assisi. The same day the issue was delivered from the printer, I sent out a press release that contrasted Merton’s essay with Father McHugh’s article in America — probably the first Catholic Worker press release issued in many a year.

In a letter to me sent soon after receiving copies of the October issue, Merton said he had now read the McHugh article, which seemed to him scandalous:

Not that men renounce the right to defend themselves, but it is a question of emphasis and viewpoint. Are we going to … fix our eyes on the lowest level of natural ethics, or are we going to be Christians and take the Gospel seriously…. Now is the chance for us to be Christians, and it may be the last chance. If we let this go, the world may be destroyed…. The big question is indeed to save the Christian faith, but if we strive to save it with bombs and nuclear submarines we are going to lose it. If we are going to save Christendom, there must be some Christendom to save, not just nominal Christianity.

While not denying that violent methods of national defense may be necessary when nonviolent methods are impractical, Merton stressed the need to carefully explore the nonviolent alternative:

[We] have a serious obligation … to investigate the meaning and feasibility of nonviolent defense not only on the individual but on the national level…. We have got to see things the way the Gospel sees them, the way the saints see them, the way the Church sees them, not just from the viewpoint of natural ethics….[31]

Merton ended his letter with a request for another twenty copies of the October Catholic Worker.

Two days later Merton made a lengthy entry in his journal describing his sense of having crossed a border:

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.

In a way I think the position of the Order is in fact unrealistic and absurd. That at a time like this no one in the Order should seem to be concerned with the realities of the world situation in a practical way — that monks in general, even those [Benedictines] who can speak out fully — are immersed in little scholarly questions about medieval writers and texts of minor importance even to scholars, and this is in the greatest moral crisis in the history of man: this seems to me incomprehensible. Especially when it is the definite policy of the Cistercian Order to impede and obstruct every expression of concern, every opinion, in published written form, that has reference to the crisis. This seems to me extremely grave. The futility of taking the issue up and solving it is evident; I talked to Fr. Clement, the [Abbot] General’s secretary about it, and it was like talking to a wall. Total incomprehension and lack of sympathy. The General himself is more understanding and Dom James[32] too sees the point somewhat (they surprisingly released Original Child Bomb [Merton’s poem about the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki] after the censors had definitively blocked it).

And the Jesuit who condoned — even apparently encouraged — the business of sitting in your fallout shelter with a machine gun to keep others out! This is the best Catholic theology has had to offer in this country, so it appears.

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. The sense of abandon and home-going joy, love for the novices, whom I see as though dwelling in light and in God’s blessing — as we go home together. And the thought is not negative or destructive — for it is a fulfillment, and whatever happens to the world, its infinitely varied dance of epiphanies continues: or is perhaps finally transfigured and perfected forever.[33]

In its 25 November issue, America published eleven pro and con letters responding to the McHugh article. The same month a follow-up essay by Merton, “The Shelter Ethic,” was featured in The Catholic Worker. In it Merton argued that Christian responsibility involved more than building a shotgun-equipped fallout shelter:

It seems to me that at this time … instead of wasting our time in problematic ways of saving our own skin, we ought to be seeking with all our strength to act as better Christians, as men of peace, dedicated wholeheartedly to the law of love which is the law of Christ…. We are in the midst of what is perhaps the most crucial moral and spiritual crisis the human race has ever faced during its history. We are all deeply involved in this crisis, and consequently the way each individual faces the crisis has a definite bearing on the survival of the whole race…. [W]hile each individual certainly retains the right to defend his life and protect his family, we run the risk of creating a very dangerous mentality and opening the way to moral chaos if we give the impression that from here on out it is just every man for himself, and the devil take the hindmost….

[L]et us get rid of this poisonous viewpoint that … one is being noble and dutiful if one is ready to shoot his neighbor. There are higher ideals we can keep in mind. Let us not forget that the supreme example of nonviolent resistance to evil is the crucifixion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in which the Incarnate Son of God destroyed sin by taking the sins of the world upon Himself and dying on the Cross, while forgiving the men who were putting Him to death. Far from being an act of mere helpless passivity, as Nietzsche and other moderns claim, this was a free and willing acceptation of suffering in the most positive and active manner. The activity in this case was hidden and spiritual. It was an exercise of the supremely dynamic spiritual force of divine love.

A Christian is committed to the belief that Love and Mercy are the most powerful forces on earth. Hence every Christian is bound by his baptismal vocation to seek, as far as he can, with God’s grace, to make those forces effective in his life, to the point where they dominate all his actions. Naturally no one is bound to attain to the full perfection of charity. But a Christian who forgets that this is his goal, ceases by that fact to live and act as a genuine Christian. We must strive, then, to imitate Christ and His sacrifice, in so far as we are able. We must keep in mind His teaching that supreme love consists in laying down one’s life for one’s friends.

This means that a Christian will never simply allow himself to develop a state of mind in which, forgetting his Christian ideal, he thinks in purely selfish and pragmatic terms. Our rights certainly remain, but they do not entitle us to develop a hard-boiled, callous, selfish outlook, a “me first” attitude. This is that rugged individualism which is so unchristian and which modern movements in Catholic spirituality have so justly deplored.[34]
Root of War cover

[1] SJ, 2.

[2] The Seven Storey Mountain (SSM), 3. Pope Francis quoted from this passage in his address to both houses of the US Congress.

[3] My thanks to Anne Klejment for discovering this information.

[4] Thomas Merton, My Argument with the Gestapo (MAG), 5.

[5] Francis of Assisi – The Founder: Early Texts (vol. 2), edited by Regis J. Armstrong et al (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2000), 41. The quotation is from The Anonymous of Perugia, Chapter 3, and The Legend of the Three Companions, Chapter 9. After the founder’s death the no-property rule was modified but the vow of voluntary poverty was never abandoned.

[6] Run to the Mountain: The Journals of Thomas Merton 1939-1941 (RM), entry dated 27 October 1940, 244-5.

[7] Ibid., entry dated 28 November 1940, 264.

[8] Ibid., entry dated 16 June 1940, 231-2.

[9] MAG, 160-61.

[10] The typescript is in the collection of the Rare Book and Manuscripts Room, Butler Library, Columbia University, New York.

[11] RM, 316-7; entry dated 4 March 1941.

[12] SSM, 311-12.


[14] RM, journal entry dated 7 April 1941, 333.

[15] See Patrick O’Connell’s essay “Landscape of Disaster: The War Poems of Thomas Merton” in the 2006 edition of The Merton Annual.

[16] SSM, 404.

[17] The Strange Islands (SI), 21.

[18] HGL, letter dated 13 March 955, 311.

[19] Conjectures of A Guilty Bystander (CGB), 140-42.

[20] Turning Toward the World (TTW), entry dated 29 August 1961, 257. A few days later, responding to a letter from Ethel Kennedy, the president’s sister-in-law, Merton expressed his “very strong objection to the resumption of testing nuclear weapons.” HGL, letter dated 4 September 1961, 443.

[21] SSM, 109.

[22] Dorothy Day, The Catholic Worker, February 1935;

[23] HGL, 136.

[24] Emblems of a Season of Fury (ESF), 43-47.

[25] HGL, 255.

[26] New Seeds of Contemplation (NSC).

[27] PFP, 11-13.

[28] Issue dated 30 September 1961.

[30] PFP, 11.

[31] HGL, letter dated 21 October 1961, 256-7.

[33] TTW, journal entry dated 23 October 1961, 172-3.

[34] PFP, 21-26.

Dorothy Day, Dan Berrigan and the Coffee Cup Mass

cup 1
drawing: Jim Forest

Question from the Dorothy Day Guild: “We are reviewing a story that I know you are familiar with — perhaps witnessed — Dan Berrigan or another priest used a coffee cup as a chalice, Dorothy buried it in the yard, and so on. Our question is—did it really happen? And were you a witness? Have others said they witnessed this? Seems to be some disagreement among people we talk to. Thanks for any light you can shine.”

Aware that my memory is not always reliable and that these events occurred half-a-century ago, I’ll do my best…

Dan Berrigan was the celebrant, as happened from time to time at St Joseph’s House. His liturgical style was simple and not entirely by the book. He might on occasion choose readings according to what he judged appropriate to the day and the historic moment rather than the church calendar and do some of the prayers with a degree of improvisation, though always preserving the core elements.

At least on one occasion he used a very plain ceramic coffee cup and a matching small plate as chalice and paten. I recall glancing at Dorothy and noting a grimace. But she made no complaint and indeed took part in communion and afterward, as far as I recall, only expressed her gratitude. But then, when nearly everyone had gone, she took the cup and plate and said it must be buried as, having held the body and blood of Christ, should not any longer be used for coffee. (I didn’t see her actually bury the cup and plate.)

Soon afterward I was at Mount Saviour Benedictine monastery near Elmira in upstate New York. After telling their famous potter, Brother Thomas, what I had witnessed, he gave me one of the chalice sets he had made for sale in the monastery shop, entrusting me to give the set to Dan, which I did soon after, at which time I told him about what Dorothy’s response to the coffee cup Mass had been. I recall Dan was very touched with the gift chalice and paten and used them on many occasions afterward, and not only at the Catholic Worker….

When did the coffee cup Mass that I happened to witness happen? I’m not sure. My best guess was late 1965 or January 1966, as Dorothy writes, in her February 1966 “On Pilgrimage” column, “I am afraid I am a traditionalist, in that I do not like to see Mass offered with a large coffee cup as a chalice.” However Dorothy makes no reference to a specific priest or Mass. The Mass that Francene Gray describes so vividly in Divine Disobedience (Knopf, 1970) occurred the day after Tom Cornell started serving his six-month sentence for draft card burning — that would put the Mass on June 27, 1968. Francene’s account makes no mention of Dan using a coffee cup as a chalice but it may be that he did.

— Jim Forest / June 29, 2016 (with some slight revision 11 July 2016)

* * *

Forth, Pilgrim (a bicycle pilgrimage from Iona to Canterbury)

pilgrimage booklet cover drawing by John Hutchinson
pilgrimage booklet cover drawing by John Hutchinson

In 1981, there was a bicycle pilgrimage for disarmament that set out on Easter Monday from the abbey on the island of Iona in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland and ended seven weeks later at Canterbury Cathedral in the southeast of England where a peace festival had been organized for Pentecost (Whitsun) weekend. There were nightly church-hosted public meetings along the way in such places as Clydebank, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Derby and Oxford. The core group numbered twelve but at times many others mounted their bikes for shorter distances. The project involved many national and local peace groups; the sponsor was the British branch of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation. Joan Baez did a concert for the group at Saint’s Margaret’s Church, next to Westminster Abbey, when the bikers reached London, while guitarist John Williams did a concert in Canterbury Cathedral Whitsun Eve. Through much of the night the pilgrims plus many others prayed both in the cathedral crypt and in the upper church. A single candle placed in front of the main altar gently illumined that vast space bearing witness to the potential significance of small deeds.

The original impetus for the pilgrimage was to protest the UK government’s decision in 1980 to house 64 American cruise missiles at Molesworth Air Base. I biked with the group the first and last portions and wrote a short piece on pilgrimage for a booklet distributed along the way.

* * *

Forth, Pilgrim

By Jim Forest

Forth, pilgrlm, forth! Forth, beste,

out of they stal! Know thy contree, look up, thank God of al;

Hold the heye wey, and lat thy gost thee lede;

And trowth thee shal delivere, it is no drede.

— Geoffrey Chaucer (Balade de Bon Conseyle)

Could Chaucer imagine, six centuries past the writing of his poem, such a band of pilgrims setting out between those ancient seats of pilgrimage, Iona and Canterbury? Our “bestes” have not four legs but two airy wheels and completely lack an appetite for grass and wildflowers.

The “gost” leading us upon today’s “heye weys”, however, was familiar to Chaucer, the Holy Spirit, “the Lord and Giver of Life” as it is put with grace and wonder in the Creed, that Spirit without which life has forever been trapped in dread— “drede” in Chaucer’s spelling.

drawing by John Hutchinson
drawing by John Hutchinson

The pilgrim travels in time and place. How to describe the time and place which occasions this particular and peculiar pilgrimage, this outbreak of pacifists on the road? It is an age of high technology: I am hardly less baffled with the inner working of a quartz watch than Chaucer might have been. It is an age of much family wreckage, of graffiti, of dislocation, breakup and immense confusion, doubt and cynicism: the children of the ’80s, sings Joan Baez, are “gentle as a lotus and tougher than stone.” It is an age of unparalleled military might and destructive potential with weaponry that neither Attila the Hun nor Hitler could have imagined in their grimmest nightmares. Yet is is also an age of communication and unrivaled contact: never before has the human race been so inter-connected and interdependent, so self-conscious, so much in sight of itself.

And it is an age of fear. Of course it isn’t the first age of fear, and probably not the worst. Doubtless London knew fear far better when faced with the Black Plague, which many survived, than it knows today as a major target of thermonuclear weapons, which would be far less generous to life. Nonetheless, the fear is deep in us and is well tended and encouraged—fear of the Russians, for many, and the possibility of a future Soviet domination. That fear is the bedrock of the present military structure, In the west in which so much wealth and talent and hard work is daily invested.

But under the immediate, specific fear of the Soviet Union one finds older, more general fears: among these, the fear of being unarmed in a world that has so often been immensely dangerous and even vicious, so full of catastrophes, the worst of which are human-made.

We have become so deeply rooted in these fears, and so attached to the structures of fear, that a great many still I barely notice that there is no social evil threatening us which would be nearly as cruel and unhealable as the results of the kind of war we are now ready to fight. The very instruments which are supposed to make our lives more secure have become the chief danger to security.

This small pilgrimage from Iona to Canterbury is a modest attempt to challenge such fear.

drawing by John Hutchinson
drawing by John Hutchinson

It is a peace project drawing deeply on a neglected but still valued tradition. Participation in pilgrimages marked high points of our ancestors’ lives. The pilgrimage tradition is associated with convictions about going, often in penance and always in hope, to places regarded as founts of the sacred, as places of wonder, of healing and restoration. In search of miracles, small or large, the pilgrim was willing to travel lightly and live at the mercy of the elements, the communities and households along the way.

Pilgrimage is also something of a missionary tradition: even if they don’t utter a word, the pilgrim’s passage expresses certain convictions, certain possibilities, certain hopes. Pilgrims carry a message. They are ambassadors of God.

“Know thy country,” advised Chaucer. This is especially good counsel for this particular band of pilgrims. One must know it both with affection and resistance—know what to love, what to maintain, what to endure and what to change.

But Chaucer goes on. “Know thy country, look up, thank God of all.” The knowing of one’s country, even in the worst of times, is altered in such looking up. The God we look towards is, after all, not a national God or the great blesser of any particular economic or political system or party. God is the “God of al.” God is as concerned with the life of a Russian child as one in Britain, and as caring for Moscow as for Glasgow. Often to our embarrassment, our God is a God of love, longing for, even insisting on forgiveness and reconciliation. To know the God of all is to know love itself and to become in the world’s life, including its political life, a channel of love. It is, however, not always an endearing sort of love. “Love in practice,” Dostoevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov, “is often a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.”

When Christians, for example, start taking seriously and putting into practice Jesus’ requirement about love of enemies, they will widely be accused of having left religion behind and become politicians, but fuzzy-headed politicians “out of touch with the real world.”

Despite the travel revolution that has happened in this century, allowing contact across borders of a kind no internationalist of earlier times could imagine, this is still an age of nationalism and regionalisms. But the pilgrimage tradition has always been international. Pilgrim routes had no regard for borders. The pilgrimage tradition helped restrain and break down the nationalist mentality. The pilgrim’s encounters along the way, the pilgrim’s dependence on voluntary help and hospitality from strangers, allowed a far more intimate and intense experience of other peoples and cultures than most jet-carried tourists experience today.

drawing by John Hutchinson
drawing by John Hutchinson

Pilgrimage is not only an event but a way of life, a way of life which is God-centered and which draws special attention to the power of God, the God who ordered us not to kill, and who replaces dread with thankfulness: “and trowth thee shal delivere, it is no drede.”

This is a pilgrimage of disarmed life and it carries with it a very specific invitation, a brief text which we have made our own and to which we invite others. We say we are ready to live without the protection of armaments. The statement is not made possible because of naiveté. Evil is doing well, hideously well, in the world. We say it because we know that dreadful weapons will eventually be put to dreadful uses, and that it is neither capitalism nor communism which is destroyed but hundreds of millions of ordinary people. Our own weapons have become more dangerous to us than any opposing system or human enemy.

We are also pilgrims because we see not only what is wrong but what would work better. We have found in nonviolence another way of opposing injustice and defending human values. Should we ever have the Russians to contend with—in fact a most unlikely event—we would far rather arm ourselves against them with the nonviolent methods the Polish people have taken up than with the incinerating methods of nuclear war.

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In time of war

Delivered into Resistance coverAn essay that was included in Delivered Into Resistance, an 80-page booklet published in April 1969 by the Catonsville Nine-Milwaukee Fourteen Defense Committee.

by Jim Forest

To be born to create, to love, to win at games is to be born to live in time of peace. But war teaches us to lose everything and become what we are not. It all becomes a question of style. — Albert Camus

At most times and places in history, Camus’ observation would seem as newsworthy as announcing fire burns! But for Americans in 1968, especially those Americans for whom welfare is a tax irritant rather than food on the table, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that war need change anything or that old priorities need be stirred or shifted. Indeed, were visitors from some distant planet to descend upon almost any American community or campus, it is unlikely they would stumble upon evidence suggesting that America is in the midst of its longest, most costly and least popular war, or that there is resistance to it. The “good life” lunges forward. The refrigerators are crammed. Marlboro country is bigger than ever.

Our only rub has been the draft. But even there, for those not exempted by reason of sex or age or disability, there remain a variety of government-approved alternatives — legal dodges ranging from academic and certain vocational pursuits to alternative service for conscientious objectors. Beyond the pale of legitimacy, but enjoying various shades of toleration, are a number of other dodges which, from the government’s point of view, have the altogether salutary effect of reducing the number of head-on collisions with the American coercive process. The government has done all but roll out a red carpet for those taking their quarrelsome opinions to Canada (15,000 by count of the Southern Ontario Commission on War Immigrants, plus a good many friends, wives and relatives). And for those determined enough to enter induction centers singing Alice’s Restaurant or handing out valentine cards, the resultant 1-Ys and 4-Fs are not so much big favors to the individuals involved as acts of mercy to the sergeants and petty officers who will shortly be attempting to take charge of all those who take the obedient step forward.

And yet there is, despite the legal and not-so-legal dodges, despite the availability of the consumer life to those clever enough to grab it and addicted enough to make the necessary compromises… and yet there is a resistance: resistance to the war, resistance to the draft which fuels it, and resistance to coercion and de-humanization even in its more digestible forms.

Resistance has even reached the point of draft boards being raided of their indispensable 1-A files; in two major incidents such files have been burned with homemade napalm prepared according to a recipe provided in the Special Forces Handbook.

“In time of war,” Camus wrote, “everything is changed.” No longer is that true only of the conscript and his family, living in dread for the duration. It begins to be true of those whose allegiance is not with war.

It wasn’t long ago that dissent was almost entirely on a verbal or symbolic level:   letters, petitions, articles, speeches, marches, and vigil lines.

Peanuts - help stamp outIt was not unlike the Peanuts cartoon in which Linus, a grim SDS sort of expression on his face, marches forward with a placard in his hands proclaiming:


But following along a few paces to the rear was Snoopy, a drowsy, clerical expression on his face. He, too, is carrying a sign:


Many of us considered the war in Vietnam, the draft, racism and poverty intolerable. We didn’t hesitate to say Amen to Linus’ sign. But we marched behind Snoopy.

It was made easier because few of us had serious questions about America. Civil rights appeared reachable, the war on poverty sure of victory, the Peace Corps more expressive than the Marine Corps of America’s future, Johnson a cultural embarrassment but a man with a good domestic policy, Vietnam a tragedy but not indicative of a more serious malady affecting our national values, history and priorities.

In 1965, however, despite campaign assurances, the Johnson administration was forced to conclude that the only alternative to military catastrophe in Vietnam required a massive escalation of the war, in terms of bombing and equipment, in terms of area (the war moved into North Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and even Thailand) and finally in terms of the numbers of GIs to be committed. The war was consequently redefined as a case of aggression from the North. As it proved impossible to hide from public view the utter corruption of the Saigon government and its succession of opportunistic regimes, and as American casualties began to climb sharply upward, American opposition to the war became widespread. Teach-ins were conducted on hundreds of campuses. Increasingly large numbers of draft-age men filed with their draft boards as conscientious objectors. Books on the war began to appear, though interestingly none by Vietnamese (subsequently Thich Nhat Hanh’s anti-war book, Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire was published by Hill & Wang).

That same year a very few — David Miller, Tom Cornell, Jim Wilson and David McReynolds among them — burned their draft cards; such action had just been outlawed by Congress. All but McReynolds—in his mid-30s, apparently considered too old—were almost immediately arrested, tried and (following appeals) jailed.

With the draft card burnings, and the furor they stirred, a line of demarcation seemed crossed and, looking backward, one realizes that the Resistance was born.

It didn’t come out of the thin air. There had always been considerable opposition to conscription in America. When the Congress authorized a draft of “able-bodied male citizens” in 1863, 100,000 infantry, three batteries of artillery and a division of the National Guard were required to put down the anti-draft riots in New York on the 13th through the 16th of July. At least, 1,200 people were killed; property damage totaled $500,000 — at a time when several dollars bought a fine woolen suit. (Provision was made the following year for conscientious objectors to work in hospitals. Substitutes were allowed on payment of $300; in the south there was similar provision, but for $500.)

On May 18, 1917, six weeks after the United States declared war, conscription was resumed. Non-combatant service was permitted to those who belonged to pacifist churches. Those who refused to cooperate with the draft, or who were found ineligible for exemption as objectors, faced the most severe penalties. Seventeen men were sentenced to death, 142 to life imprisonment, three to 50 years, four to 40 years and 57 to 25 years; after considerable protest, the death sentences were commuted to life; those still serving time in 1933 were granted a presidential pardon. One of the resisters of that time, Ammon Hennacy, later to be associated with the Catholic Worker movement, served seven months of his term in solitary confinement as a consequence of having refused to register and for having published a leaflet urging others to do likewise — a leaflet which would still be usable today:



It is better to go to jail

than to rot on a foreign battlefield.


while the rich men who have brought on

this war stay at home and get richer by

gambling on food stuffs…

There was a statement to sign:


Conscription was repealed in 1919.

On September 16, 1940, more than a year before the U.S. entered World War II, conscription was again enacted. Conscientious objection was more broadly defined. Nearly 50,000 men accepted noncombatant service in the armed forces, 12,000 performed alternative service at Civilian Public Service camps and 12,000 were sent to prison. Some — such men as Dave Dellinger, Jim Peck, Lowell Naeve and Ralph DiGia — were in prison for having refused to register or in other ways cooperate with the draft. (One Italian resister, asked by the director of prisons why he had refused induction, replied without even looking up from the magazine in his hands, “Because I refuse to kill my mother.”)

Those still serving time in 1947 were pardoned by President Truman.

With only a one-year pause in 1947-48, conscription has been a permanent fixture since 1940. But until 1965, draft resistance — up to that time usually given the more passive description, non-cooperation — was almost purely a witness position: something undertaken with the long-range hope that sooner or later people would see that one war only leads to the next, that the next is always worse and more dangerous than the war which proceeded it, that the anti-fascist becomes fascist, that the real problems only get worse, and that any country which could only defend itself by threatening its populace with prison either wasn’t fighting a war worth fighting or wasn’t defending a nation worth preservation.

But without witness, futile as it is judged at the time, there is little reason to hope a societal breakthrough will eventually be achieved.

There is the example of the Catholic Worker’s protest in the mid-50s. The Worker’s New York staff openly refused to take shelter during compulsory air raid drills, instead, sitting on park benches in front of City Hall, because, they argued, cooperation with civil defense tests only gave sustenance to the myth that atomic war, like any other kind of war, might be survivable for those who ducked into a subway station. Cooperation, in effect, helped make the idea of nuclear war, if not palatable, at least survivable.

Many agreed with the Catholic Worker’s position, but for several years no more than a few individuals would join with them in their protest. Annually the eight or ten protesters, invariably Dorothy Day and Ammon Hennacy among them, would be carted off to jail. But it made people think. When in 1960, in the midst of extensive atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, the government began to place much greater stress on civil defense preparations, the gravity of the issue became inescapably apparent. At last various groups began to respond. 500 persons gathered at City Hall Park, refusing to take shelter when the sirens droned. Several paddy wagons were filled with those the police selected as leaders. The following year 2,000 gathered in defiance. More paddy wagons were filled, but New York has never again conducted a compulsory civil defense test.

Would this have been the case had it not been for the isolated — almost everyone called it futile — witness of a handful of people during more arid, apathetic years? “There is nothing so powerful as an idea whose hour has come,” the proverb goes. But for the hour to arrive, a few, at the price of jeers and rejection, must translate into life style and deed the insights they have achieved. In Dan Berrigan’s phrase, it is a matter of putting our bodies where our words are; which is to say, putting body and head together.

In the summer of 1965, Life magazine published a spread of photos of war protestors. Most of them had been taken in Washington at the Congress of Unrepresented People, an event which took place almost entirely on the streets. Across the page from a large color picture of Staughton Lynd and Dave Dellinger (the two having just been doused with red paint by a war supporter) was a less conspicuous picture of the Catholic Worker’s Christopher Kearns burning a draft card. Draft cards had often been burned by protesters, at least as far back as World War II; almost no one had paid it much attention, though presumably such acts were illegal, as the law obligates registrants to be in constant possession of their draft cards. But in Congress, the picture caught a few eyes. A bill was quickly introduced and approved which specifically forbade the willful destruction or mutilation of draft cards.

At the time the law was passed, David Miller, a recent graduate of LeMoyne College, a tall, Nordic athlete who could grace any recruiting poster, was asked to represent the Catholic Worker at an anti-war rally to be held October 15 at the Whitehall Street Induction Center in Manhattan. Dave, in suit and tie, said very quietly that action speaks louder than words and proceeded to burn his draft card.

The next morning it was front-page news throughout the world. Davie’s picture, the antithesis of the traditional editorial-page cartoon of long-haired, unwashed protester, became a symbol of resistance, the embodiment of a more recent slogan, “Not with my body you don’t!” A few days later he was arrested; he is now serving a two-year sentence.

More draft cards flickered during the following months, especially in New York and Boston. During 1966, conferences were convened in various parts of the country to discuss draft resistance and to find ways to better support resisters and their families—”prison widows”—and beyond that to build a resistance movement which could make the draft inoperable and intolerable, a movement which could remove to the museum one of the principal remaining vestiges of slavery. Getting rid of one’s draft card became the symbol of the movement: the cards were sometimes burned, sometimes ripped up, sometimes sent to government officials. The acts were made as visible as possible, as if such actions were not merely private events but something for public celebration — ceremonies of freedom and life.

On April 15th, 1967, the first massive burning and turn-in occurred — nearly 500 persons publicly unburdened themselves of their membership cards in the war club. On October 16th, 1,400 more followed suit, acting simultaneously in 30 cities. Within the next two months, another 600 were turned in, with local resistance groups founded and working effectively in almost every section of the country. By the time the Supreme Court got around to upholding the congressional prohibition of draft card destruction (they ruled that card destruction was not symbolic speech and hence not protected by the First Amendment), the law was for all effects and purposes inoperable; at least 3,500 cards had openly been destroyed, mutilated and turned in. “Please take my name off your mailing list” was a frequent instruction to local Selective Service officials. “I am no longer willing to be a card-carrying war monger.”

Draft card burning was never an end in itself. As was put by Michael Ferber, a Boston resistance organizer and the only one of draft-age to be convicted with Dr. Spock, “Turning in one’s draft card and refusing to cooperate with the Selective Service was the beginning — the first large, and perhaps existentially crucial act — but only the first act in a whole way of life, in the construction of a whole movement that would be different from the other student and left movements that had previously existed in America.”

Getting rid of one’s draft card also came to be seen as a way of getting at the problem of fear in American life. As Dave Harris, soon to start serving a three-year term for refusing induction, put it, “What that draft card has taught people from day to day in their lives is how consistently to live under the auspices of fear…. If we were to dispense with words like ‘left’ and ‘right’ then what you and I can say in the world today is that we live in the unanimous organized politics of fear. That fear has made men blind. That blindness has made people starve. That blindness is the fact of lives around the world today.

“What you and I can reasonably do, then,” Harris continued, “is not to say that we won’t be afraid, because I’ve never met a man who wasn’t afraid. What you and I can say is that we refuse to make that fear the central fact of our lives.”

Jeff Jacobs of the Berkeley Resistance has described resistance to the draft as “an act of decolonization, which frees people from exploitation, both physical and spiritual, which the Selective Service System represents. Non-cooperation radicalizes the people involved, frees them from ties to traditional middle-class values, and involves resisters strongly in radical action. As a result, we identify more directly with the struggles of other oppressed and gain a more revolutionary potential and perspective.”

Joining a community of risk, joining symbolized by the open severance of relations with the Selective Service, has also had the inevitable effect of making visible, or where visible more vivid, the extent to which America — in classroom, in church, in supermarket, at work — is manipulative and coercive from top to bottom. We discover that, so far as the institutions of society are concerned, we were born to be used: used as energy sources in the economy, used as purchasing waste-baskets at the end of the assembly line, used to extend the brainwashing process to our children, used to fight and kill in countries few of us could write a 250-word essay about.

No agency has been more helpful in spelling out those coercive realities than Selective Service — not only in deed but in word as well. In a providentially unabashed moment-again, in 1965 — Selective Service issued a memo for internal distribution to local board members, a detailed explanation of the wider purposes of conscription:

While the best known purpose of the Selective Service System is to procure manpower for the armed forces, a variety of related processes take place outside delivery of manpower to the active armed forces. Many of these may be put under the heading of “channeling manpower.” Many young men would not have pursued a higher education if there had not been a program of student deferment Many young scientists, engineers, tool and die-makers and other possessors of rare skills would not remain in their jobs in the defense effort if it were not for the program of occupational deferment. Even though the salary of a teacher has historically been meager, many young men remain in that job seeking the reward of deferment…

Delivery of manpower, the process of providing a few thousand men with transportation to an induction center, is not much of an administrative challenge. It is in dealing with the other millions of registrants that the system is heavily occupied, developing more effective human beings in the national interest… [stress added]

The application of the manipulative process as regards students and graduates was given particular stress:

Throughout his career as a student, the pressure, the threat of loss of deferment, continues. It continues with equal intensity after graduation. His local board requires periodic reports to find out what he’s up to. He is impelled to pursue his skill rather than embark on some less important enterprise, and he is encouraged to apply his skill in an essential activity in the national interest.

Having made it clear that “more effective human beings” do not take off time for reflection, community organizing, painting or writing, the Selective Service cinches it all by putting it under the reassuring heading, “It’s the American Way”:

The psychology of granting wide choice under pressure to take action is the American or indirect way of achieving what is done by direction in foreign countries where choice is not allowed.

As more and more began to wonder whether the American (or indirect) way of life was in fact a way of life, and as such was worth living for—not to say dying for—it simultaneously became apparent that the draft had been used to funnel enormous power from the people to the administration, with only a remote check on its use. Were it not for the draft, large numbers of Americans could never have been sent to Vietnam—there simply have never been that many Americans willing to risk their lives for such “leaders” as General Thieu and Air Marshall Ky. It is even highly questionable that there are presently a sufficient number of Americans who would hire themselves out as mercenaries were military wages to be drastically increased; this, despite the bleak prospects this nation presently extends to so many of its citizens.

In short, more of us came to realize not only that conscription is intolerable to free men in any society, but that the draft is the indispensable and lethal keystone in the American way of packaged, channeled, homogenized, government-inspected life, and death. To rid America of conscription would not only be a gift to ourselves, an opportunity to give freedom some content within America’s borders, but also would help enormously in making the planet safe for mankind.

And so it is that at the beginning of December, 1968, when this is written, 729 are in prison for refusing the Selective Service the allegiance it claims, with another 1,200 under or awaiting indictment for induction refusal; that (according to both Resist and the Harris Poll) 25,000 college seniors will refuse to be inducted if ordered; that, according to resistance organizers within the armed forces, 8.7% of the Marine Corps is presently over the hill; that tens of thousands of persons, in civil disobedience, have signed statements confessing their complicity with and economic support of the resistance; that a movement encouraging non-registration has begun in the high schools; that approximately 15,000 1-A draft files and related documents have been burned.

The tragedy is that it has taken so many deaths, so many mutilations, so many napalm-burned children, so many refugees and orphans, broken minds and suicides for resistance to develop to the point it has. Vietnam has had to be raped for us to notice the rape of ourselves. The Vietnamese have had to endure napalm for us to take note of the napalming of Guatemalans and Peruvians, and, figuratively, the napalming of our own brains. 30,000 Americans have had to die for a few parents to begin sharing with their sons the risks which resistance entails.

Yet even now, visible as the resistance is, the screams which stirred us to consciousness have penetrated too few. And even among those of us who dare listen, how much, how closely are we listening? How many minutes of the day do our lives reflect, even inadequately, the times we inhabit? Brecht said it: “Indeed I live in the dark ages. A smooth brow betokens a hard heart. He who laughs has not yet heard the terrible tidings.” Not that we join the ranks of the ashen, not that we become volcanoes of depression and discouragement. But the By-your-leave-sir mind still prospers in our nation; the number of frightened, usable men, obediently filling uniforms or filling out deferment forms, is overwhelming. And even we who struggle against the persistent, senile habits of killing and dying, even we who have had the good luck to be somewhat liberated from political myth and fiction, we too are ruled by fear, living most of our lives as if no one were being burned, no famines being suffered, as if working at change were a kind of hobby, a way of keeping the conscience polished, perhaps even a fashionable way to use up spare time.

But imagination stirs, and conscience and courage. More of us discover that to the extent that we amputate from consciousness the agonies which have been decreed for others, to that same extent we ironically remain too sightless and numb to know much of joy or love or freedom.

The liberations multiply. There is a general inching away from the Life magazine existence. Where one or two had the courage to ignite their own draft cards, communities of nine and fourteen celebrate life and freedom in the burning of those forms and papers which oppress and threaten the lives of many. Those who lived in fear and genuflected before “Void where prohibited by law” signs, now proclaim “Imagination is power” and “Be realistic — demand the impossible.”

We begin to understand. There is a prison break going on from the penitentiary of words. We begin to understand that to live at this time, in this society, and not to be delivered into resistance is not yet to be born.

* * *

the inscription I made in my mother's copy of the booklet
the inscription I made in my mother’s copy of the booklet

Jim Forest is a co-chairman of the Catholic Peace Fellowship and one of those indicted for the destruction of Milwaukee draft records. In 1961 he was discharged from the Navy on grounds of conscientious objection. He has worked on the staff of the Catholic Worker’s New York house of hospitality and is a past managing editor of their publication. With Tom Cornell he edited A Penny a Copy: Readings from The Catholic Worker. He has written for Commonweal, The National Catholic Reporter, Ramparts, Win and other publications.

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December 1968

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