Remembering Daniel Berrigan

Dan Berrigan Oct 2011
Dan Berrigan, October 2011 (photo: Jim Forest)

By Jim Forest

News of Dan Berrigan’s death reached me a few hours after he had breathed his last. Age 94, he had patiently awaited the event for several years while living at the Jesuit infirmary at Fordham University in the Bronx, New York.

It happened to be the 30th of April, the Feast of St Catherine of Siena. Not a bad day to be Dan’s last. Like Catherine, he had been a warrior against war. “We do not see how much harm there is to souls and dishonor to God in war,” Catherine declared. On occasions beyond counting, Dan had said much the same both in word and deed. Most famously, in 1968, protesting the Vietnam War, he had been one of nine people (another was his brother Phil) who burned draft records taken from a conscription office in Catonsville, Maryland, an action that put him in prison for two years. Dan said in a statement at the time, “Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise.” The same year Dan traveled to North Vietnam to bring home three U.S. prisoners of war.

After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the Berrigan brothers turned their gaze toward nuclear weapons. In 1980 the two of them plus six friends entered a General Electric plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania and hammered on nuclear weapon nosecones. Their “plowshare” action drew inspiration from the biblical prophet Isaiah: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not raise sword against nation, neither shall they train for war anymore.”

During the trial in 1981 Dan summed up the meaning of the group’s symbolic gesture: “The only message I have to the world is: We are not allowed to kill innocent people. We are not allowed to be complicit in murder. We are not allowed to be silent while preparations for mass murder proceed in our name… It’s terrible for me to live in a time where I have nothing to say to human beings except, ‘Stop killing’. There are other beautiful things that I would love to be saying to people. There are other projects I could be very helpful at. And I can’t do them. I cannot. Because everything is endangered… Our plight is very primitive from a Christian point of view. We are back where we started. Thou shalt not kill. We are not allowed to kill.” After the trial and the appeals that followed, the eight were paroled in consideration of time already served in prison.

Dan was born May 9, 1921, in Virginia, Minnesota, and grew up in Syracuse, New York. Drawn to the Society of Jesus, he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1946 from St. Andrew-on-Hudson, a Jesuit seminary, and a master’s from Woodstock College in 1952, the year of his ordination. He was the author of more than fifty books, fifteen of them poetry. In 1957, Time Without Number won the prestigious Lamont Poetry Prize, awarded by the Academy of American Poets. In addition he had served as chaplain in Manhattan at Saint Rose’s Home and later with cancer and AIDS patients at St. Vincent’s Hospital, experiences described in two of his books, We Die Before We Live and Sorrow Built a Bridge. In Steadfastness of the Saints, he wrote about his travels in Nicaragua and El Salvador where he witnessed the U.S.-assisted wars.

Perhaps Dan’s most notable quality was his immense compassion, which shaped his life one way or another on a daily basis, even late in life when it was a challenge just getting out of bed. I recall Dan once using the phrase “outraged love.” Many people are driven by rage, which rarely does them or anyone much good and often makes things worse. But outraged love is mainly about love. Dan loved his church, his Jesuit community, he even loved America — but there is much in all three zones that is outrageous, and Dan was never able to be silent or passive about our betrayals. This could have made him a ranter but the artist side of Dan always found ways to channel his outrage into one or another form of creativity, whether via poetry or a wide variety of acts of witness. He was also a profoundly pastoral person, the sort of person who visits the sick in the middle of the night and holds the hands of the dying. He was one of the most consistent voices of his generation for nonviolent approaches to change and conflict resolution — in that dimension of his life a spiritual child of Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day. His commitment to life excluded no one, from a child in the womb to a condemned murderer on death row.

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side box:

When a friend dies, memories come to life. I recall an encounter back in the early seventies that my friend Mel Hollander had with Dan. We were all living in Manhattan in those days. One of Dan’s activities was teaching a course at Union Theological Seminary on pastoral care of the dying. Mel, who was expecting to die soon from cancer, decided to take the class.

In his first encounter with Mel, Dan immediately noticed Mel’s unhealthy skin color and sunken eyes. Clearly something was seriously amiss. Not bothering with the polite nothings that people so often exchange, Dan’s first words to Mel were, “What’s the matter?” Deciding to respond with the same directness, Mel said, “I’m dying of cancer.” To which Dan replied, without hesitation or embarrassment, and just as briefly, “That must be very exciting.”

Mel later told me how Dan’s few words instantly cleared the dark sky he had been living under since he been told he had not more than six months to live. What had until then been a joyless journey on a short road to the cemetery suddenly was transformed into the most adventurous pilgrimage of his life.

As it happened, against all medical expectations, Mel’s cancer went into prolonged remission. Mel lived on for some years. He did in fact die young, not of cancer but of smoke inhalation caused by a fire.

Another memory:

In the early seventies the Jesuits had just rented and furnished several floors of an apartment building on West 98th Street. Dan, one of the residents, was showing me around. On one side of a spacious recreation area full of couches and arm chairs a bar had been set up that had been poshly decorated in a style reminiscent of a captain’s stateroom aboard an eighteenth century galleon — brass compasses, fishing nets, old maps, etcetera.

“If this is the holy poverty,” said Dan, “bring on the holy chastity.”

— Jim Forest

4 May 2016 / for The Tablet (London)

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Jim Forest worked closely with Dan Berrigan for more than fifty years. In 1964, they were co-founders of the Catholic Peace Fellowship. Forest is the author of biographies of Thomas Merton (Living With Wisdom) and of Dorothy Day (All Is Grace). His latest book is Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment.

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The “Our” in the Our Father

Savior (by Konstantin)By Jim Forest

Every word in the “Our Father” is a deep well. Just consider the very first word in the prayer: “our”. Not my Father and not your Father but our Father. Our. Think about the implications. The context is a question in which the disciples ask Jesus how to pray. Jesus responds by teaching us this most basic prayer, the first word of which embraces everyone. No one is excluded.

There is no private, one-on-one relationship with our Creator. What a challenge! Too often I see myself, my needs and my wants as having absolute priority. My view is the view that matters. The word “my” has priority over “our.”

But my salvation depends on my conversion from me to us — that is loving my neighbor in the same way that I love God. Who is my neighbor? Whoever happens to be standing in front of me, friend or adversary.

“What you do to the least person,” Jesus says in his teaching about the Last Judgment, “you do to me.”

In a section of The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky relates the story about a me-first woman who is almost saved by an onion. Merciless and selfish person that she was throughout her life, when she died she went to hell. You could say  that hell was her ambition. In her selfish actions she had chosen hell day after day for many years. Yet even after her death, her guardian angel sought to save her and so approached the Savior, saying a mistake had been made: “Don’t you remember? Olga once gave an onion to a beggar.” What the angel left unsaid was that the onion had started to rot and that it wasn’t so much given as thrown at the beggar. The Savior said, “You are right. I bless you to pull her out of hell with that onion.” So the angel flew into the twilight of hell — all those people at once so close to each other and yet so far apart — and there was the selfish woman, glaring at her neighbors. The angel extended the onion toward her and began to pull her out of hell with it. Others saw what was happening, saw the angel’s strength, and saw their chance. They grabbed the woman’s legs and so were being lifted with her, a ribbon of people being drawn out of hell by a powerful angel and just one onion. Only the woman, in death as well as life, had never wanted company. She began kicking, yelling at her uninvited guests, “Just for me! Just for me!” The angel wept. These three merciless words, “just for me,” are hell itself. And so the onion became rotten and the woman and all the others attached to her fell back into the disconnection — the me-ness — of hell.

Our Father…

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written for Lorraine Kisly
text as of 25 April 2016
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The Other Side of Silence

Road to Emmaus covera chapter from The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life

by Jim Forest

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.
— George Eliot, Middlemarch

There are times when good words are to be left unsaid out of esteem for silence.
— St. Benedict, The Holy Rule

We cannot find God in noise or agitation. Nature: trees, flowers, and grass grow in silence. The stars, the moon, and the sun move in silence.
— Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Voices. Voices. Listen, my heart, as only
saints have listened: until the gigantic call lifted them
off the ground; yet they kept on, impossibly,
kneeling and didn’t notice at all:
so complete was their listening. Not that you could endure
God’s voice — far from it. But listen to the voice of the wind
and the ceaseless message that forms itself out of silence.
— Rainer Maria Rilke, “Duino Elegies”

One of the hallmarks of pilgrimage is an attitude of silence and attentive listening, a state of being for which few of us are well equipped. We have been shaped by a society in which noise is normal and its absence disorienting.

If our medieval ancestors were to visit us, perhaps the biggest single shock that the world of the third millennium would pose for them would be the unrelenting noise that most of us endure. The noise of traffic. The noise of sirens. The noise of jet planes overhead. The noise of television and radio. The noise of machinery. The noise of over-loud conversation. The canned music pumped out of loudspeakers in so many stores. The thin ghostly sounds emitted by earphones. The noises made by mobile phones as they announce incoming calls, followed by the noise of one-way conversations.

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

Part of the asceticism of being a pilgrim is to search out places that encourage inner quietness and contemplative listening: churches, concerts, plays, museums, woods and parks, remote places, wilderness areas, monasteries, beaches and deserts.

Silence is not silent. It is more than the absence of noise. If you manage to escape the cacophony of urban life, you quickly discover that nature isn’t silent. There is a torrent of sound even at midnight on the driest, most remote desert: breezes scraping the sand, the tireless conversation of insects, the tidal sound of one’s own breathing, the drumming of one’s heart, the roar of being. What a pilgrim’s walk can provide is the silence that comes from doing without sound-generating devices, being attentive rather than speaking, praying rather than engaging in chatter. So long as our heart keeps beating, we will never hear absolute silence, but by avoiding distractions and listening to what remains, we discover that the door to silence is everywhere, even in Times Square and Piccadilly Circus. To listen is always an act of being silent.

Yet finding places of relative silence can help a pilgrim discover inner silence. As the poet Bob Lax, who in his later years made his home on the quiet Greek island of Patmos, once put it in a letter to a friend:

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

There are as many kinds of silence as there are varieties of ice. Some forms of silence are of God’s own making. Others are hostile to the spiritual life. Starting at the icy end of the spectrum, here’s my list:

Deadly silence: This is the almost murderous silence of people who refuse to speak to a spouse, a parent, a child or a neighbor: silence used as a weapon, silence meant to annihilate. One often witnesses it in teenagers in that period when nearly everything a parent says or does inspires homicidal glares. Not everyone outgrows it. Many a marriage has died of deadly silences.

Guilty silence: In which our failure to speak makes us silent collaborators in injustice or cruelty.

Ominous silence: This is the intimidating, belittling silence of a teacher or boss waiting for you to respond to a question they know you cannot — or dare not — answer.

Proud silence: This is the malignant silence of the person who regards himself as too important to speak to lesser mortals, at the same time communicating the message that the other, being so insignificant, had best shut up.

Anxious silence: This is the silence of fear, the silence of the paralyzed tongue. You are in the presence of someone with power over you and find yourself made dumb. Or you are face-to-face with someone famous and find your tongue has turned to wood.

Awkward silence: This is the strained, embarrassed silence of being with strangers and not having a clue what to say.

Graveyard silence: A silence in which nothing makes as much noise as your own heart beat. There is also the silence of the tomb, where every conversation has been interrupted by terror, calamity, or death.

Meek silence: This is the silence of respect, modesty and humility. It’s not bad advice to keep silent unless what you have to say is more interesting than silence.

Dumbfounded silence: This is the silence of awe — an awareness of the presence of God, of fathomless mystery, of the unspeakably beautiful.

Consoling silence: Faced with suffering or bereavement, words seem both inadequate and profane. What one has to say is best said with the eyes, tears, and mute gestures.

Enamored silence: The silence of love. No words seem equal to what you want to say. Each word or phrase you think of saying sounds like the dull noise of counterfeit coins.

Prayerful silence: This is a silence attentive to God’s presence, a human silence that participates in the divine silence. It is a silence that marks many experienced pilgrims.

Last but not least, evangelical silence: The Greek word for the Gospel is evangelion — good news. There are times when silence is better than words in communicating the truths that are ultimately beyond the reach of words. In a world of constant noise and endless verbal disputes, silence can sometimes communicate truths that are beyond assertion and argument.

An story of evangelical silence: Archbishop Theophilus of Alexandria, one of the principal cities of the ancient world, once traveled to the monastic colony at Skete in the Egyptian desert. The younger monks were distressed that their elder, Abbot Pambo, had nothing to say to their august and powerful visitor. “Say a word or two to the bishop,” they urged him, “that his soul may be edified in this place.” Abbot Pambo replied: “If he is not edified by my silence, there is no hope that he will be edified by my words.”[ii]

One can imagine that Archbishop Theophilus, a man who had heard endless words from the many people courting his attention, returned to Alexandria shaken by his encounter with a community of men who had completely resigned from chatter. The monks made no effort to convince him of anything or win any favors. For the length of his stay, their august guest was simply a fellow Christian who, in a climate of silence, found himself freed from the heavy burden of being an Important Person with all the words and gestures that importance involves. He was a visitor in a household of tranquil prayer. The monks bathed him in their own quietness.

One of the early saints who emphasized the place of silence in spiritual life was St. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, who died as a martyr late in the first century. In a letter written shortly before his death, he said:

He who possesses in truth the word of Jesus can hear even its silence.[iii]

Far from being a God who insists on being heard, overpowering the noise of the world with a heavenly roar, our creator seems chiefly to speak to us so quietly that the normal environment for hearing is inner silence. The prophet Elijah experienced God’s voice as being like a whisper. Elijah was hiding in a cave near what later became the city of Haifa. God made himself known to Elijah not in a rock-shattering wind, or in an earthquake, or in fire and lightning, but in “a still small voice.” (1 Kings 19:11-12)

The benefits of silence were stressed by St. Anthony the Great, the founder of desert monasticism. He wrote:

When you lie down on your bed, remember with thanksgiving the blessings and providence of God. Thereupon, filled with good thoughts, you will rejoice in spirit and the sleep of your body will mean sobriety of the soul; the closing of your eyes a true acknowledging of God, and your silence, brimming with awareness of all that is good, will wholeheartedly and with all its strength glorify almighty God, so that praise will rise to the heavens from your heart.

Another desert saint, John Climacus, a sixth century abbot of St. Catherine’s Monastery in the barren wilderness of Sinai, stressed the role of silence in prayer in his guidebook to the spiritual life, The Ladder of Divine Ascent:

Intelligent silence is the mother of prayer, freedom from bondage, custodian of zeal, a guard on our thoughts, a watch on our enemies, a prison of mourning, a friend of tears, a sure recollection of death, a painter of punishment, a concern with judgment, servant of anguish, foe of license, a companion of stillness, the opponent of dogmatism, a growth of knowledge, a hand to shape contemplation, hidden progress, the secret journey upward.[iv]

Silence is not something that can be measured with scientific instruments nor does it exclude all conversation. Spoken words can communicate divine silence just as silence can be a voice of enmity. As another of the great desert saints, Abba Poemen the Shepherd, said:

One man seems silent of speech, but is condemning other people within his heart — he is really talking incessantly. Another man seems to talk all day, yet keeps his silence, for he always speaks in a way that is useful to his hearers.

No community of people is more aware than poets of the limitations of words. In a letter to a younger poet, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote:

Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe. Most experiences are unsayable. They happen in a space that no word has ever entered…[v]

Silence is an essential dimension of icons, which serve as wordless translations of the Gospel. It’s part of what distinguishes iconography from ordinary painting. Just as many paintings create an illusion of three dimensions, so can an artist suggest sound, even an eruption of noise. Stand attentively before a painting of a great battle done by a skilled artist and you can hear the explosions, the clash of weapons, the cries of wounded soldiers. Stand before an icon and you find yourself enveloped in deep silence, a silence that seems to contain the breath of the Holy Spirit. Take enough time and a good icon will help quiet your mind. As you move beyond intellectual exploration of an icon’s content, it may awaken a longing to pray. It may even assist you in resolving a problem you have been struggling with.

As Thomas Merton wrote to his Greek friend, Marco Pallis, thanking him for the gift of a hand-painted icon:

How shall I begin? I have never received such a precious and magnificent gift from anyone in my life. I have no words to express how deeply moved I was to come face to face with this sacred and beautiful presence granted to me…. At first I could hardly believe it…. It is a perfect act of timeless worship. I never tire of gazing at it. There is a spiritual presence and reality about it, a true spiritual “Thaboric” light, which seems unaccountably to proceed from the Heart of the Virgin and Child as if they had One heart, and which goes out to the whole universe. It is unutterably splendid. And silent. It imposes a silence on the whole hermitage. … [This] icon of the Holy Mother came as a messenger at a precise moment when a message was needed, and her presence before me has been an incalculable aid in resolving a difficult problem.[vi]

Merton brought an icon with him on what proved to be his final journey, his pilgrimage to Asia in 1968. Though traveling light, like so many pilgrims before him, he regarded an icon as essential baggage. He knew from repeated experience that icons radiate a “Thaboric” light — an intimation of the uncreated light the three apostles experienced on Galilee’s Mount Thabor when the transfigured Christ silently revealed to them his divinity.

Merton’s journey in the final weeks of his life was a time of silence and prayer, except in those brief periods when he was in conversation, and even then, prayer shaped the conversations. How appropriate that the few material possessions shipped back with his body included his beloved icon of Christ and his mother. “Traveling” icons — small icons mounted on cardboard or a thin piece of wood, or relief icons cast from bronze or some other metal — are part of the pilgrim tradition.

A pilgrimage without prayer is no pilgrimage at all. There is no prayer without silent, attentive listening. The invitational silence of an icon helps the pilgrim to keep praying. Place an icon next to your bed at night. In the daytime be aware of it in your pocket or backpack. It provides a quiet but insistent reminder of what the journey is all about.

Pilgrimage is an hour-by-hour school of inner listening that combines movement with seeing, attentiveness and prayer. Whether on the way to the market or on the way to Jerusalem, you see whatever there is to see: other people, traffic, garbage, flowers, weeds, wildlife, the natural world. You hear all the sounds the world around you is pronouncing: bird songs, the wind, cars, buses, trucks, planes overhead, the conversation of people along the way, the sound of your feet on various surfaces. Little that you see will imprint itself as a long-term memory. Most that you hear will come in one ear and go out the other. Mainly what we see and hear as pilgrims passes through us like light passing through glass, yet to pay attention is to be in a moment-to-moment state of communion.

Prayer, too, is rarely remembered. It is the unusual event, not the routine, that carves a place in memory. Prayer, to the extent that it becomes ordinary, is no more memorable than breathing.

I recall a conversation about silence with our daughter Wendy when she was four or five years old. She said, “You know what those little sounds are that you hear when you’re all alone?”

“What sounds?” I asked.

“You know, those sounds you hear when you’re alone.”

“What’s that, Wendy?” I replied.

“That’s God,” she said.

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

[ii] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, Benedicta Ward, translator and editor, London: Mowbray; Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications; p 81.


Epistle to the Ephesians, Chapter XV: Exhortation to confess Christ by silence as well as speech. See the online collection of writings of the Apostolic Fathers:

[iv] The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 11: On Talkativeness and Silence; Paulist Press, p 158.

[v] Ranier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, letter one; translation by Stephen Mitchell; New York: Modern Library, 2001, p 4.

[vi] Thomas Merton, The Hidden Ground of Love, pp 473-74. In Living With Wisdom: A Biography of Thomas Merton (Jim Forest, Orbis Books), there is a chapter on “Merton and the Christ of the Byzantine Icons.”

Bob Lax’s Circus of the Spirit

Bob Lax
Bob Lax

The Catholic Worker / January-February 2016

Bob Lax’s Circus of the Spirit

Review by Jim Forest

Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax

By Michael McGregor
Fordham University Press, 2015, 472 pages, hardcover, $35

In The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton recounted his memories of Bob Lax during their student years together at Columbia University. Lax was “a gentle prophet” who seemed to be meditating “on some impenetrable woe,” a born contemplative who could “curl his long legs all around a chair, in seven different ways, while he was trying to find the right word with which to begin.” Lax possessed “a natural, instinctive spirituality, a kind of inborn direction to the living God.” Lax saw Americans as a people “longing to do good but not knowing how,” waiting for the day when they could turn on the radio “and somebody will start telling them what they have really been wanting to hear and needing to know…. somebody who is capable of telling them of the love of God in language that will no longer sound hackneyed or crazy.” As Michael McGregor relates in this hard-to-put-down biography, in the course of Lax’s long life he became a quiet voice telling his readers about the love of God in language that is never hackneyed or crazy but is lean, surprising and drawn from deep wells.

It happens that Pure Act appears just as a 136-page anthology of Lax’s poetry and journal writing has been published by Templegate: In the Beginning was Love. The editor is my friend Steve Georgiou, who, like McGregor, also knew Lax in his later years and whose vocation as teacher was given its shape in large measure thanks to his mentor on Patmos.

Lax was one of the several friends who witnessed Merton’s baptism and it was Lax who, as the two of them were walking along Sixth Avenue not long afterward, asked Merton what he wanted to become. For Lax, the question wasn’t so much what to become as who to become. It was obvious to both of them that “Thomas Merton the well-known writer” or “Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of Freshman English” were not good enough answers. “I don’t know,” Merton finally said. “I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.”

“What do you mean,” Lax responded, “you want to be a good Catholic?” Merton was silent — he hadn’t figured that out yet. “What you should say,” Lax went on, “is that you want to be a saint.” That struck Merton as impossible. “How do you expect me to become a saint?” “By wanting to,” said Lax. “I can’t be a saint,” Merton replied with conviction. To be a saint, he imagined, would require a magnitude of renunciation that was light years beyond him. But Lax pressed on. “All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don’t you believe God will make you what He created you to be, if you will consent to let Him do it? All you have to do is desire it.”

It is not stretching the truth to say that both Lax and Merton spent the rest of their lives attempting to become the persons God created them to be — not aiming for capital S sainthood, complete with holy cards and a niche on the church calendar, but run-of-the-mill saints who have a talent for disappearing.

I met Lax at the Catholic Worker in Manhattan in 1961 and found him to be as lean as an exclamation mark, as tentative as a question mark and quiet as a comma. He occasionally came down for Friday night meetings and one evening read aloud some of the amazing poetry that eventually became part of his most treasured book, Circus of the Sun (now the first section of Circus Days and Nights). His circus poetry has ever since been a special love of mine, joyfully re-read more or less annually.

The Catholic Worker was a natural place for Lax to be. He had an affinity for the marginal and for those drawn to them. Earlier in his life he had been part of the community at Friendship House in Harlem. One winter Lax and Tom Cornell shared a $28-a-month apartment on Avenue A that seemed even colder inside than it was outside.

Another aspect of Lax’s affinity for the Catholic Worker was that he was a pacifist and had been one since his student days. Lax was one of those people who would far prefer to die than to end anyone’s life. When draft registration began shortly before the US entered World War II, both Lax and Merton declared themselves conscientious objectors. “Why,” Lax joked, “should I kill strangers when I have been so shy and polite about not killing unpleasant acquaintances?”

In that period of his life when our paths first crossed, Lax was editor-at-large of Jubilee magazine, an eye-opening, photo-intensive Catholic monthly that took an interest in people, places and topics widely ignored by the Catholic press as a whole: eastern Christianity, the works of mercy, lay communities, Christian art and artists, Church life in Europe, Asia and Latin America… No issue of Jubilee was ugly or boring, each issue a voyage of discovery.

One of the joys of life at that time was occasionally walking up to the Jubilee office and having a visit with Lax in his small white-washed cubicle that had, now that I think of it, something of a Greek look about it.

It was no surprise when not long afterward Lax made Greece his home, first Kalymnos beginning in 1964, an isle then famous for its sponge divers, and a decade later the monastic island of Patmos, where he remained until shortly before his death in 2000. By then Lax was something of a hermit, if one understands that many hermits are, as Merton was, intensely social people whose doors open both to friends and strangers nearly every day. But, apart from the cats who found Lax to be a good provider, Lax preferred to live alone.

Lax was born in Olean, New York in 1915 into a Jewish immigrant family. His remarkable mother, Betty, was both a founder of the local synagogue and a member of the Methodist and Presbyterian choirs, a combination that anticipated the wide spiritual reach of her son. During the Depression, Lax enrolled at Columbia where he formed life-shaping friendships with Merton and Ed Rice (later to found Jubilee), the poet Mark Van Doren (one of his professors) and radical abstract artist Ad Reinhardt. Lax also met his first holy man, a Hindu monk named Brahmachari who seemed far less interested in converting Christians to Hinduism than in converting Christians to Christianity. (It was thanks to Brahmachari’s influence that Merton read Augustine’s Confessions and Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ.)

Lax was eventually to give up much that his talents, education and background equipped him to do, but in the years following graduation from Columbia he was on the staff of The New Yorker (where some of his early poetry was published), wrote film reviews for Time, and endured a period of script-writing in Hollywood. What he mainly learned in those years was how unhappy he could be attempting to be someone he was not.

The circus had been where he got the clearest glimpse of who he really was. While at The New Yorker he had met the Cristianis, a renowned family of acrobats. The poems knit together in Circus of the Sun were mainly works that had grown out of traveling with their small circus when it was on tour in western Canada. Joining in, Lax proved to be a natural clown.

While not drawn to a fulltime circus life, he was attracted to walking the high wire of voluntary poverty while gradually learning to write a lean poetry which in many cases was a trickle of slim words or thinner syllables cascading down the page. It was a poetry of contemplation in which the word “you” may mean yourself or God or the secret places where the one disappears into the other.

Michael McGregor — who knew Lax well — has written a book I’ve waited a long time to read. It’s a story with many surprises and much beauty. McGregor has the biographer’s gift of not only keeping careful track of Lax’s long pilgrimage, both physically and spiritually, but of bringing the reader into a space in which Lax is permanently alive and well. It’s a luminous story told with love and skill.

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— Bob Lax
Circus Days and Nights
Overlook Press, p 110

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Getting Into the Stream: a visit with Thich Nhat Hanh in Fontvannes

Thich Nhat Hanh 1974 Paris (Jim Forest)
Thich Nhat Hanh, summer 1976 (photo: Jim Forest)

by Jim Forest

Doing some tidying up of papers yesterday, I came upon a copy of a letter I sent forty years ago to the staff of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in Nyack, New York. At the time I was editor of Fellowship, a monthly magazine of peacemaking published by the FOR.

June 9, 1976 / Fontvannes, near Troyes in France

Dear co-workers in Nyack:

Let me try to bring you up to date on the visit with our friends at Fontvannes.

The three principal residents here, Nhat Hanh, Phuong and Sudarat (the last a spirited young Thai woman who is preparing for work in Thailand similar in character to what the School of Youth for Social Service was doing in Vietnam), have an extremely solid communal life and one which, at the same time, seems unbelievably productive not only in the quality of the work but also in the quantity. They demonstrate well that time put into developing the human dimensions of common life and work pays off in what they, as a group, are able to accomplish. The cheerful name they have given the community is The Sweet Potatoes—Les Patates Douces.

The work is of several kinds. There is an extensive garden — and it is the primary source of the vegetables we eat. There is at least a large head of lettuce at both the afternoon and evening meals each day. And such lettuce! I’ve never eaten its equal. Remarkable. And there are carrots, onions, cabbage, various herbs, spinach, tomatoes, etc. But it all takes a good deal of time, mainly Thay’s time. (“Thay” is the Vietnamese word for teacher and is what Nhat Hanh is normally called within the community.) It‘s eye-stopping to notice him in the garden, often wearing an enormous Mexican sombrero, a startling substitute for the conical hat farmworkers wear in Asia, but it serves the same purpose quite well. His garden work is more demanding than it might otherwise be as Europe is suffering a very dry year; for England, the Herald Tribune reports, it is the worst drought in four centuries. Thus Thay was out last night, under the half moon at 1 a.m., watering the plants. He was very pleased when we saw him on waking this morning, because, he reported, the water pressure was so much stronger in the middle of the night than it is during the day. Besides the watering, there is the work of keeping the soil soft and comfortable for the roots. The soil here, even in more generous weather, is a challenge as it is mostly clay and seems generally of a mood to become hard as clay in a kiln. (When I’m back I can show you the blisters turned callouses on my hands, mute evidence.)

There is also the work of building the house. This dwelling was a barely habitable ruin when they first found it but for that reason it was extremely cheap, along with its (I would estimate) half acre of land on a steep bit of hillside. Bit by bit they have done remarkable things with it. No longer do mice run over one’s sleeping bag at night. The floors are no longer earth but cement, and now over that there is linoleum, and over other parts, in Vietnamese fashion, raised platforms covered either with bamboo mats or rugs. Though it isn’t needed during these August-like days, the fireplace is fixed and works well. There is a very beautiful meditation room with a small altar over which a photograph of a Quan Yin statue hangs (Quan Yin is the Bodhisattva who personifies compassion). An adjacent former stable, rather small, has been renovated and now serves both as a printing shop and as a room for Thay. That is to say, in one corner there is a bed and along one wall there are bookshelves. But the main impression the room gives is of a very crammed print shop — a press as one goes in, large and new, great quantities of paper, a large iron paper trimmer that looks like an old Franklin press, a device for making plates for the press, and an old but hard-working typesetting machine; and in between all these things, stacks of pages waiting to be collated, books under weights while the glue dries, and old yogurt jars now serving as glue jars, with tooth brushes sticking out of them which are used in applying the glue.

At the other end of the house is a kitchen and bathroom added two years ago. These adjacent rooms have a flat roof, unlike the very steep tiled roof over the rest of the house. In the attic they have, last year, divided the space into several rooms but it provides little protection from extreme temperatures.

And now there is another addition under construction, a large rectangular space out from the kitchen. Two of the villagers, and sometimes more, are up helping with this as their time allows, and Thay and Sudarat were at it bright and early this morning. Sudarat is particularly excited about the project because she wants to be able to build houses in Thailand. She has quickly become skilled in basic masonry. The new space will hold tools and equipment, provide storage space for paper and the books they are printing—and space, too, for one of their cottage industries: making maysing, a traditional Vietnamese candy, produced mainly in Hue, and beloved by Vietnamese in a special way. (When our artist friend Vo-Dinh received a box, we learned, he was so delighted and so overcome with nostalgia that he could barely bring himself to let anyone else in his family share it!) Once or twice a month they make another batch, singing as it is made. And in each small box they insert an explanation about maysing, telling the story of how they sing while making the candy and why the “company name” they have chosen for maysing is La Maison de la Demi-Sourire (the House of the Half Smile), the half smile being an element of the community’s meditative practice.

They encourage the maysing eater to read Nhat Hanh’s manual on meditation, The Miracle of Being Awake. So, a la Gandhi, they turn even these small projects of self-support into vehicles of teaching. (In a more subtle way, there is teaching on the box itself: a Vietnamese color woodcut of a fish leaping above the water and gazing at the reflection of the moon in the water. The image is really like a zen koan, a seemingly unanswerable question that draws the one who struggles with it toward enlightenment. Not exactly a Tide detergent box!)

But the main project here is the La Boi Press. La Boi: The Vietnamese words for the type of leaf on which the teachings of the Buddha were first written down. The La Boi Press has actually been twice-founded. La Boi was first begun by Thay in Saigon. It was one of the principal elements of the movement for socially-oriented Buddhist renewal that Nhat Hanh and Phuong have been so important a part of. Almost all of Thay’s books have been published in Vietnam by La Boi, sometimes, however, under pseudonyms, particularly since the banning of his writings by the Thieu government. But—in the ironies of “liberation” — the La Boi Press itself has been banned by the revolutionaries and apparently all its books were burned in those great bonfires of “corrupt” texts that were translated into smoke last year. One of the books to be thus recycled was the just-published first Vietnamese edition of The Miracle of Being Awake. [The English-language trade edition has the title The Miracle of Mindfulness.] Only today is the Vietnamese text again in print. A few feet from where I sit the glue is drying on the spines of the first few copies.

Their publication technology is, by any standard, labor intensive. Books are normally printed on very large sheets, 32 pages to each side of a sheet, then machine folded and trimmed into 64-page signatures, then the signatures machine collated and bound, a very rapid process in which the considerable expense involved is a result of costly equipment, the high salaries paid to those skilled in using such equipment, and, not least, the profit of the company. Here the main expense is time. Phuong sets the type and makes the plates for the press. Thay prints on the letter-size stationary the machine is designed to handle — two pages to a side. With its 120 pages, the Vietnamese edition of Miracle requires 60 plates and 60 passes through the press. To print 350 copies, Thay was at the press for much of the last two days. But printing is really the easier part of the process. Collating the sheets by hand comes next — 60 piles of sheets are put in available spaces on the floor. Then in groups of five or six copies, the backs of the books are scored with a hack saw, a rather demanding physical labor, but the groves add considerably to the holding strength of the glue. And then the gluing of the pages, the addition of the cover for each book, and finally the trimming.

But the final results are very attractive and the monetary expense very little. With their extremely limited financial means, the community is able to produce a durable, presentable product. In six months time, they have established a book list of fifteen titles, an extraordinary accomplishment for three persons with many other tasks.

first English-language edition; the title of the trade edition is "The Miracle of Mindfulness"
first English-language edition; the title of the trade edition is “The Miracle of Mindfulness”

What they are accomplishing with this immense physical labor is really of immeasurable importance. In Vietnam itself, doubtless, there are already various underground presses struggling against enormous odds to keep open some channels of uncensored communication, but it seems wildly unlikely that anyone is able to do much there at present to keep the literary or religious heritage alive. Of course it is still only a slight hope that some of the books printed here in France will find their way to Vietnam, at least for some time. The censorship of mail in and out of the country appears to be extremely rigorous. As the official cultural publication for all of Vietnam, Van Boa Nghe Thuat, published in Hanoi, says in the first issue of 1976, the “new colonialists” (that is, the Americans) made “use of religion” as a weapon, spreading “pessimistic thought” as a principal political force. “The reactionary anti-Communist band, disguised as religious people, work actively in the cultural field, using such slogans as ‘actualized religion,’ ‘bringing religion to life,’ ‘the religion of the poor,’ ‘using love to overcome hatred’ — all key points in the machinery of neo-colonialist culture … adapting religion to the American puppet policy.” Which is to say, the place of religion in the post neo-colonialist Vietnam will be to stick strictly to “cultic activities” — ceremonies inside religious buildings. Thus no books about “engaged Buddhism.” Nothing critical of the society. Doubtless if some Buddhist group emerges who will be seen as “patriotic”, that is, fully supportive of the government, they will be free to publish their support as much as they want. Only cheerleaders allowed.

I cannot help but write of the situation with bitterness. As Jean Lacouture, Le Monde‘s Vietnam correspondent and for so long one of the most enthusiastic journalistic voices of support for the Vietnamese revolution, says in his most recent reports from Vietnam, “one cannot speak so well of the victors as those who struggled for victory.” For while the Vietnamese government never ceases to reaffirm its commitment to reconciliation and national accord, in reality no one is allowed a public voice or a public role or access to a printing press who hasn’t proven to be completely loyal to the government and its ideology.

from the first English-language edition of "The Miracle of Being Awake"
from the first English-language edition of “The Miracle of Being Awake”
It is interesting to note that the new La Boi Press here in the French countryside, despite its editors’ deep anguish with the suppression of the religious press in Vietnam and the destruction of many literary as well as religious works, is not publishing anything critical of the Vietnamese government. They are enlivened with the hope that, over an extended period of time, their publishing work will not only be useful and encouraging to other Vietnamese exiles but that a respect toward the work will emerge from the Vietnamese government as it realizes, at last, the constructive and reconciling purpose of the project.

At times the hopes that Thay and Phuong express seem to me terribly naive. What is happening in Vietnam has happened in too many other countries. In the name of the people and of national security, governments both of the left and the right have restricted religion to the narrowest and most ineffectual roles, not hesitating to oppress and imprison those religious activists who, like Gandhi, insist that there is not and can never be a wall between religion and politics, in the sense of public life. But the only kind of politics that is welcomed from religious quarters is obedience. Vietnam, in this area as in so many others, seems no different than Chile, the Soviet Union, China or Brazil.

On the other hand, Thay and Phuong’s almost miraculous ability to remain hopeful even in the most hopeless situations makes me think again about what Jesus said about “the mustard seed” of faith: the tiniest seed becoming so large a plant, the smallest bit of genuine faith being able to move mountainous obstacles. Not that faith is magical, as if one with faith can order the universe around. But, in faith, one enters into a dialog with creation itself, in the way that Abraham is shown conversing with God, arguing, even bargaining, for the sparing of the city. So perhaps, in the mustard seed of the hope that surrounds me here, in that faith they have in the possibility of adversaries being slowly transformed, I am seeing something that is far rarer in the world than thousand carat diamonds, the kind of transforming faith that does move impossible loads, that does “shift mountains.” It’s a quality, I realize, that we desperately need in our own peace movement, in which so many of us act for peace but do so in a kind of sour obedience to values we are certain will never be accepted by anyone else. We seem, at times, to be perversely nourished by bad news and by rejection, in a cantankerous, Jonah-like way, not bargaining with God for the city’s salvation and transformation but egging on God’s wrath. But that quality, so familiar to me in the American dissident scene, is completely absent here.

On Friday Phuong goes into Paris in response to an invitation received earlier this week to discuss “national affairs” with the Vietnamese ambassador. She has no idea what has prompted the invitation, but goes in the hope that, at last, there will be news that the Buddhists will be allowed to renew their interrupted work with Vietnamese orphans and their adopted parents. Perhaps she even harbors the hope that she and Thay will be allowed to return home, an immensely unlikely prospect given the number of persons (like the novelist Doan Quoc Sy, one of the more recently arrested in Saigon) who are of similar convictions and who are now among the estimated 300,000 (this figure from various sources, including Jean Lacouture and the Agence France Presse) “students” being “re-educated” in Vietnam. But whatever her hopes are, she prepares for the encounter in a way very expressive of the atmosphere of the community. She plans to bring with her a newly-printed copy of Phep La Cua Su Tinh Thuc — The Miracle of Being Awake. And she is considering, as well, a gift of Vietnamese herbs, grown in the garden from seeds sent here by Buddhist monks in Vietnam. I try to imagine meeting in a similar spirit with some of the Americans officials who have imprisoned me and my friends.

What makes all this possible — their ability to work so well and so productively without the deterioration of community, their ability to function so creatively and hopefully — is clearly the meditative element in their lives. The method of their meditation practice is the subject of Thay’s book, The Miracle of Being Awake.

Usually, the community has tea together at about 10:30 at night and then starts sitting in a room lit by a single candle at 11. The sitting lasts about 40 minutes, beginning with Thay’s quiet chanting alternating with the ringing of a very sonorous bell and ending with a silent walk inside the house when it’s too dark or cold, but outside when the moon is bright and the air comfortable, as it was last night.

Thay says that meditative sitting ought to leave the individual feeling very deeply refreshed, if he or she sits comfortably and quietly follows the body’s breathing, not being attached to passing thoughts or moods. I was so exhausted last night, and suffering a headache after leaning over this typewriter yesterday writing the first two pages of this letter, that I was somewhat amazed with myself for joining in the meditation period. I was tempted to lie down.

I think what drew me to try, despite everything, was Thay’s explaining to me the last part of a poem he wrote several years ago and which I helped to translate into English while with him in Paris during the summer of 1972. The poem is called “Getting Into the Stream”:

Each monk has a corner of the mat
a place to sit
for meditation.
There, monk, sit still on it.
The spinning earth carries us all along.

The place you sit is like a seat on a second class train.
A monk will eventually get off at his station
and his place will be dusted for another.

How long is the monk to sit in the lotus position
at his corner of the mat?
Sit still on it anyway. .
Sit as if you will never give it up,
as if there is no station to arrive at.
The engine with its flames will carry you along.

Each monk will sit in the lotus position
at his corner of the mat.
The monk will sit like an ancient enormous mountain.
The mountain is still there
but like the monk is on the turning earth.
This train of ours
this fire-filled engine
is hurrying ahead.

This morning
the monk sits as usual
on his corner of the mat
but he grins.
“I shall not sit here forever,”
he tells himself.
“When the train arrives at the station
I will be elsewhere —
a corner of the mat
or an armful of grass
I am sitting down
just one more time.

Last night, over tea, keeping as still as possible so as not to jar my headache, Thay explained that enlightenment is irrevocably initiated when, in Buddhist terms, you “get into the stream.” For the Buddha, the endpoint of being carried along in the stream, finally to the point of being beyond birth and death, came when he decided that he would sit one more time and, even should he die and rot on the spot, not get up again until, as Thay says, “he got it.” A buffalo boy saw him getting ready to sit and was filled with awe at the Buddha’s beauty. He gave the Buddha the gift of a handful of grass. It was on that grass, the Buddha sat through the night. On seeing the morning star before dawn the next day, his illumination occurred, the point that Buddhists describe as “no return” was reached.

Meditation in the community is approached with that sort of life-and-death seriousness. It isn’t something that should be done whenever there is some extra time. It has priority over meals and over every aspect of work.

So I too sat with the community last night, worn out, and got up an hour later feeling as if I had been thirsty and had been drinking from a mountain stream. Thoughts had come and gone during the time. I had frequently strayed into mental noise and the mind’s calendar and its bulletin board department, yet I found myself letting go of the mental habits quietly and calmly each time I realized what I had drifted back to. Certain thoughts and reflections seemed to drift by. I noticed them, sometimes looking at them closely as at a postcard. Some were interesting and helpful. I let them all go by. When the meditation bell rang it seemed much too soon. I wanted to keep sitting. But we walked out into the garden, each following a different path, feeling the bricks of the pathway, enjoying the grass pushing up through the crevices, seeing the moonlight on the lettuce. I found myself silently singing a Gregorian alleluia verse.

It is in this element of the community’s life that its spirit is renewed. And my guess is that no element of life is more necessary for peacemakers in general — and nothing so undervalued by us, nothing more likely to be seen as a kind of luxury or pious affectation. But without it, here at least, not only the work but the hope that work expresses would be inconceivable. It would fail because they are dragged back, nearly each day, by so much very painful news. Not only are they no more welcome in “liberated” Saigon — now Ho Chi Minh City — than they were welcome in Thieu’s Saigon, but it is just as painful to bear the news of imprisonment and suppression after the American withdrawal and the collapse of the Thieu’s regime. And it is painful to see the collapse of the values in whose name the revolution was fought, albeit a familiar pattern in other societies. So many people dared hope that this revolution would be different, that these victors would do something unique in history and allow, within a revolutionary society, a space for diversity.

But I see even now I speak in too despairing a way. I am reminded by the hope that nourished these “sweet potatoes” that, even now, in the spiritual resources that evolved in Vietnam in the midst of its long agony of occupation and war, that there are many others like these few, that they are similarly nourished in their inner life, even in prison and “re-education” camps, and that they will quietly but stubbornly — like Phuong, with gifts in hand — make themselves felt in the future of Vietnam, and perhaps, I can’t help but hope, where we live as well.

Much love,


* * *

other Nhat Hanh-related links:

Only the Rice Loves You

Learning from Thich Nhat Hanh



Love of Enemies sermon

Jim preaching 18 Oct 2015 (trimmed)(I was asked to give a sermon on the Gospel text of the day — Luke 6:27-36 — in our parish in Amsterdam on 20 October 2015.)

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Every saying and every parable of the Gospels is both good news and difficult news.

The good news is that Jesus Christ assures us that God is not the emperor of hell but the lover of mankind — that God is merciful — and that God is eager to forgive.

The difficult news is that God calls on us, we who dare to call ourselves Christians, to be loving and merciful.

Love is not easy. Love challenges us to shift our attention from ourselves and our own needs and appetites to the needs of the other, and not just the other who loves us back and will answer gift with gift, but the other who is threatening and even hostile.

We are called by our Savior not just to love our friends — even that can often be hard — but to love our enemies. “Love your enemies,” Christ commands. “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” His words could not be plainer.

But what is love?

One thing we learn from the Gospels is that love is quite different than what is described in popular music. There is a Hebrew word for love in the biblical sense of the word: chesed. It means self-giving love. The primary religious symbol of chesed — of self-giving love — is the cross, the holy and life-giving cross.

An image of self-giving love is a parent holding a crying child in the middle of the night.

The exhausted parent does not appreciate being woken up by an unhappy baby — one is not always glad to be a mother or father at three in the morning — but nonetheless the parent gets out of bed, offers the baby a breast or a bottle, pats and stokes the infant’s back, sings lullabies, walks back and forth, prays for the child. It may take a long time. It’s hard work but it must be done.

Love is like that: you do for the other what you would wish to be done for yourself if the roles were reversed.

Love is not a comfortable feeling or a cheerful sentiment. Love is the good that God does for us and the good we do, in imitation of God, to each other.

Are there people I am not obliged to love? The short answer is no. We are told to love God with our whole heart and soul and our neighbor as our self. Who is my neighbor? My neighbor is whomever God has put in front of me, friendly or unfriendly.

When Jesus is asked the question, “Who is my neighbor,” he answers with a story of a badly injured man being helped by a stranger, someone who can even be called his enemy. In today’s terms it would be the story of the Good Moslem.

What is an enemy? Or better to ask: Who is an enemy?

An enemy is anyone we fear, try to avoid, don’t want to help, whose bad fortune doesn’t distress us, whose needs and problems we feel have nothing to do with us.

Praying for enemies opens the door to doing good to them. Let’s do it.

Let me offer a suggestion. Make a list of people you would rather not pray for — call it your Enemies List — and make it a discipline of your life to pray for them at least once every day. Pray that you can relate to them in such a way that Christ and his Gospel become visible to them.

It was Metropolitan Anthony, the spiritual father of this parish, who used to say: “We should try to live in such a way that if the Gospels were lost, they could be re-written by looking at us.”

Let me finish with a simple story. This happened in Novgorod in 1987.

I was at work on a book about the Russian Orthodox Church that was published in 1988, the year the church in Ukraine and Russia celebrated the 1000-year anniversary of the baptism of the people of Kiev in the Dnieper River.

Mikhail Gorbachev, then in his second year as Soviet head of state, had brought religious persecution to a halt. Ruined churches and monasteries were being given back. I was fortunate enough to be a witness to what was truly a miracle.

That evening I was having supper with a local priest named Father Mikhail. I asked him, “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 prayer, only we did not know when. I am only surprised that our prayer has been answered while I am still alive.”

I thought of all the countless people who had been shot or were taken to labor camps where they froze to death or died of exhaustion or disease.

“Still,” I said, “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.”

If we fail to love our enemies, we are not yet Christians. We are only people who have heard the words of Jesus and ignored them:

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

* * *

But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again. And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven. Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.
–Gospel of Luke 6:27-36

* * *

Only the Rice Loves You: a month with Thich Nhat Hanh In Paris

By Jim Forest

Thich Nhat Hanh, Paris 1975 (photo: by im Forest)
Thich Nhat Hanh, Paris 1975 (photo: by Jim Forest)

Note: The text which follows was written and published in the fall of 1972.

I have just returned from an extraordinary experience. I hardly dare try writing about it. Words sometimes seem a cruel instrument — little chance to use silences, a shaking voice, whispers, laughter, tears, body language. None of that here, Somehow it has to pass through the needle’s eye of a typewriter.

The experience was in Paris, with Vietnamese. I stayed for a month with the staff of the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation, a group that has no role in the negotiations and is almost unheard of in the United States, even within the anti-war movement. If we think of Vietnamese Buddhists, at best we may recall that, yes, there were many monks and nuns in demonstrations in the streets of Hue and Saigon nearly ten years ago. Or perhaps there is a flickering recollection of a monk sitting prayerfully within a wrapping of fire, communicating wordlessly the agonies of his people.

But more recently, what was once often referred to as the “Buddhist movement” in Vietnam seems to have evaporated from Western sight. We seem to see only the people who carry weapons. Perhaps there is a half-conscious assumption that the extreme suffering of the war has been such that even the Buddhists, and even the monks and nuns, are under arms or finding other ways to support the military struggle of the liberation army.

In fact there is, in Vietnam, a huge nonviolent struggle that continues, despite arrests, torture, imprisonment, despite the drafting of novices and monks, despite the seemingly ceaseless waves of violence, despite homelessness, injury and death.

Why do we hear nothing of it? Or imagine it isn’t there? Perhaps because we, too, more than we know, are victims of the war, to the extent that we have difficulty either seeing or even imagining a way of life that doesn’t respond in kind. Even in many homes, and certainly in most schools, churches, and places of work, the only way of life we know is of coercion, manipulation, threats, punishments; we use goodness as a word for the obedient: a “good” child is one who obeys. The violence may be subtle, but it is the only mainspring we know much about. How, then, to imagine nonviolence?

It is hard to imagine. And if it is hard to imagine for ourselves, how much more so for those who have experienced violence without any padding? Many Vietnamese families have seen their homes burned or bombed not once or twice but five or six times. Thousands of young women have been driven into prostitution in order to protect their families from starvation. Many children and aged people have suffered extreme malnutrition, Countless have been killed, wounded, driven insane, How could anyone’s rage not hunger to turn the suffering back toward those who have caused it and who profit from it?

Yet I have just spent a month reading the letters and seeing the photos that have come from a few of those whose experience of violence has only deepened their resolve to have no part of violence, who would sooner die than pass on to others the suffering they have known and witnessed. And I have lived with several of the persons they have sent out of Vietnam to speak for them. If I can only dimly understand the mystery of their non-vindictive courage, at least I cart try to listen and watch and attempt sharing with others the privilege that has somehow been given to me.

I was able to go to Paris only because a friend had paid for the ticket and because the Community for Creative Nonviolence in Washington had loaned me some expense money. My charter flight having been a week earlier than expected, I hadn’t yet received a response to a letter to Thich Nhat Hanh asking for hospitality. He was the only person I knew in Paris. I didn’t have his phone number, couldn’t find it, couldn’t speak French, and couldn’t even read the directions on how lo use the phone. But as I had come to Paris to represent the Catholic Peace Fellowship at a meeting, I did have the address of the meeting place — the Quaker International Center on rue de Vaugirard. After a bus ride and miles of walking, I got there, and with the help of an English-speaking staff person, called the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation. I was told to come right over, and given instructions for the Metro ride underground.

The Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation: with such a name, I imagined their offices in Paris’ diplomatic quarter, something simple of course, in keeping with their Buddhist affirmation, but nothing resembling what I found.

Their office is in the north of Paris, in a North African section not unlike the East Harlem I had lived in in New York, except here the streets were much narrower and, in these areas, twisted like railroad wrecks. The address was 11 rue de la Goutte d’Or — the street of the Drop of Gold. The building, freshly white-washed, was barely twice the width of a Volkswagen bus. Inside was a squeezed circular wooden staircase, old worn grey wood that looked often scrubbed.

The Delegation’s offices were on the top floor. An office. A small grey room, several desks, and two windows looking out over rooftops toward old gothic St. Bernard’s with its flying buttresses and charcoal black steeple. The only decoration, other than the view, was a pair of pine cones that were hanging on the wall — simple, wooden flowers.

Two people were there. One was blond and looked vaguely familiar. She smiled and said, “Do you remember me?” “You look familiar,” I said uncertainly. “I’m Laura Hassler.” We laughed. I hadn’t seen her since she was dividing her time between being a Swarthmore student, being part of a folk singing group, and trying to oppose the war. That had been five years ago. More recently she had been working for the Committee of Responsibility in Philadelphia raising medical help for the war’s civilian casualties.

The other person, laughing too, was Cao Ngoc Phuong. I had heard of her: a professor of biology from the Universities of Hue and Saigon. She had been a leader of peace actions, which led to her imprisonment by Saigon authorities. Protest from academic figures in several countries resulted in her release. When friends in the government let her know that she was about to be arrested again because of her involvement in the underground peace press, she was smuggled out of Vietnam (no exit visa was possible). She had traveled internationally since then, speaking for the peace community she had been a part of. Nhat Chi Mai, a young Buddhist nun who burned herself as “a gift for peace,” had been one of her closest friends, But I didn’t know Phuong was in Paris or part of the Delegation,

She wore traditional Vietnamese clothing — black silk trousers with a slim brown dress, open along the sides to the waist for ease of movement in chairless, couchless, rice-matted houses.

Such a welcome. I had worn large holes through my shoes and socks in my long pilgrimage through the streets of Paris. The borrowed suitcase, though it had seemed light when packed, had given blisters to both hands. I had lost my sleeping bag. I couldn’t have been feeling more insecure. And now these two women, born on different sides of the planet, were both laughing at the sight of me in this tiny office in the African section of Paris.

An hour later, at sunset, they took me home, driving around the edge of Paris in washing-machine traffic, our vulnerable selves protected from disaster only by our tiny car, which seemed made of tin foil.

We survived, finally arriving at Maisons-Alfort, a town of brick houses, a few modern apartment buildings and many trees. We were just southeast of Paris, near the joining place of the Seine with the Marne.

The apartment itself, however, was in Vietnam. It was mainly a large room with rice mats on the floor, a small corner table covered with books and papers, other books in rows at the floor’s edge, and a neatly blanketed mattress on the floor beneath the windows (a view of houses, a parking yard for trucks, trees and sky), Off to one side was a small kitchen. In a closet-sized space there was a toilet, and across from that a bathroom that had largely been taken over by a mimeograph.

Thich Nhat Hanh was there.

He is the main exception I know to the saying, “Adults are nothing more than deteriorated children.” He seems a living illustration of Jesus’ teaching, “Unless you are like children, you cannot enter into perfection.”

But Nhat Hanh is not childish. One senses the years he has lived, and the deep toughness within his vulnerability, but his eyes are so uncallused. I saw around and in his eyes an absence of tension that only children seem to have, as if adult eyes were inevitably located within a muscular pentagon of anxiety and the genuine mark of adulthood were a tense set of sentry muscles around the place light enters the head. Nhat Hanh doesn’t have those sentries.

I had first met him six years ago. Under the sponsorship of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, we had traveled together throughout the country, meeting with huge groups and small ones, from businessmen to poets — anyone who would listen.

As I usually introduced him, I came in know — of necessity — the main facts of his life.

It was from Vietnamese students, however, that I learned that Nhat Hanh (despite the official condemnation of his poetry by the Saigon and Hanoi governments, the National Liberation Front and Radio Peking) is one of the most popular living poets in his homeland, in a culture where the love of poetry is a national trait. Though in underground editions, his books sold in the tens of thousands of copies.

Nhat Hanh had become a monk at sixteen, now thirty years ago. We had often talked about it in the past, and did again (this time on a tape for contemplatives in the US) during the stay in Paris.

“I was initiated into the monastic life by a master,” he recalled, adding that his master had died in the Tel offensive of 1968. “He didn’t give me things to learn — he just put me into community life. We didn’t begin by doctrine. We began by living the community monastic life. So the very morning I came, they asked me to carry the water and to work in the garden. But they recommended to me that I look carefully at the others, to see the way they do things. You know, at that time I already had received some education of a Western nature, so I thought the kind of education in the monastery was not very advanced, because they gave me something to learn by heart. Not theory, but practice.

“For instance, when you wash your hands, you have to raise in your mind a thought that goes along with washing your hands. You would think to yourself, ‘While I wash my hands, I wish that everybody would have clean hands capable of handling the truth.’ So whatever you do, you have to become concentrated on it with a thought, and this is how we are trained for meditation. You get stronger concentration of mind.

“They had me learn things by heart. I thought it wasn’t very advanced, but I finally found it very important. The most important thing is that they don’t want to initiate you with philosophy, theory, doctrine; they want to push you right away into life, into that kind of monastic life. You learn better that way.”

After the first four years in the monastery near Hue, he was sent to a Buddhist institute. He continued monastic life through to profession, and later became founder of a new monastic community.

In the early 1960’s, he studied and lectured at Princeton and Columbia. In 1964, when he returned to Vietnam, the war had reduced most of Vietnamese monasticism to rubble. Where the monasteries had physically survived, the monks had either fled for their lives or been forcibly evicted by the Saigon government (then under the leadership of a Catholic Ngo Dinh Diem). The monks could have re-banded into lest visible monastic communities, continuing life as before. But they didn’t. Increasingly, they became opponents of the war and active in helping the victims — activities which would, from the viewpoint of most Catholic monks, be seen as un-monastic.

Nhat Hanh explained, “Well, there is really not much division between the two kinds of life. The monastery is like a laboratory. A scientist, if he wants to do his scientific work, has to be in his lab; he has to refrain from such things as smoking, listening to the radio, chewing gum — things like that. It is not because these things are evil. But if you want to work for something, you have to stop doing those things which interrupt your work. So monastic life is a lab in which you work hard to obtain something. It is not an end In itself — it is a means.

“Now, as you know, the essence of Buddhism is compassion and wisdom. But if that compassion and wisdom are not translated into life, it would not be called compassion and wisdom!

“So it is not a problem of speculation. If a man who has some compassion and wisdom finds himself in a situation of suffering, he will do what his conscience dictates. The only thing we believe is that action should be rooted in a non-action base, which is the spiritual source of wisdom and compassion. For without wisdom and compassion action would only further trouble the world.”

Nhat Hanh’s voice was quiet, with pauses between many words.

“That is why conserving monastic life is very, very important. But monastic life is also for life. There is really not such separation between monastic and non-monastic life. The hard thing is trying to find the needed work while preserving your spiritual strength.”

Thich Nhat Hanh is one of those monks who has been able to preserve his monastic essence even in the most non-monastic circumstances. During the weeks with him in France, I was again struck by a deep calm and quiet in him that was like the mysterious, prayer-compelling silence within the ancient cathedral at Chartres, or which lingers In the ruins of monasteries.

Out of his “non-action” base, Nhat Hanh founded Van Hanh University in Sargon, named for a monk of the eleventh century whose followers initiated a nonviolent movement which resulted in discouraging the Chinese from invading Vietnam, a chapter in nonviolent history unknown in the West. The university, along with La Boi Publishing House, also founded by Thich Nhat Hanh, became an intellectual and spiritual base for “engaged Buddhism,” a religious philosophy which remarkably resembles what the Catholic Worker in America has called “applied Christianity.”

To supplement the academic format of the university, Nhat Hanh went on to found the School of Youth for Social Service as a faculty of the university. The School has become one of the principal channels for relief and direct action through which increasing numbers of young people have found a way to assist refugees, to help in village reconstruction, to set up emergency medical centers, to teach better methods of agriculture and sanitation, and even to begin small schools.

In 1966, with the character of the University and School established, Nhat Hanh was encouraged by his friends In the Unified Buddhist Church to speak in America and elsewhere in the West on behalf of the war’s main victims, the peasants. (Asked by one American why he hadn’t stayed in Vietnam, if he were so interested in ending the Vietnam war, Nhat Hanh responded, “We try to go to the root of problems. If you want to help a tree to grow, you do not water the leaves.”)

Hours after Nhat Hanh had left his room at the School of Youth for Social Service, a hand grenade exploded there.

Despite the horrors of the war, there had seemed to be a tremendous hopefulness In Nhat Hanh. My first impression of Nhat Hanh In Paris was that much of that hope had wilted. There seemed an unspeakable sadness in him, as if he were a rabbi at Auschwitz. I discovered from Laura, however, that his depression was recent, and had to do with two things: an event and tendencies within the peace movement.

There was a clue to the event in the room in Maison-Alfort: against one wall was a small, low table, black in color, a simple altar. On it was a candle, some flowers, the ash of burned incense, and a photograph. It was of Thich Tanh Van. A young face. Tanh Van was the director, since Nhat Hanh’s departure, of the School of Youth for Social Service.

Laura gave me a mimeographed sheet announcing Thich Tanh Van’s death. It said that on June 2nd (less than forty days prior to my arrival in Paris), Thich Tanh Van was returning from relief work in Suoi Hgne when his small car was hit by a US Army truck. Tanh Van was refused admittance to an Army hospital. Two days later he died. Thousands came to the funeral, said the announcement.

It continued:

“During its seven years of service, the School has been able to relieve very little of the suffering of the people, but it has shared their suffering of all kinds. Great numbers of Vietnamese civilians have been killed by the warring parties. Great numbers of Vietnamese peasants are suspected, kidnapped and liquidated. Eight of our workers have been kidnapped. Great numbers of peasants suffer from the bombs — seven of our workers disappeared under the bombs in Quang Tri in April, 1972, because of their efforts to rescue people trapped between the two lines of fire. Thousands of Vietnamese are killed accidentally by irresponsible American soldiers — car accidents, “mistakes” of military targets, etc. — and there are no damages paid to their families, and no discipline for the killers. This kind of suffering is the least known to the world outside Vietnam. It seems as though our colleague, Thanh Van, chose to share this kind of suffering with those who die the most ignored deaths.”

There was another paragraph:

“During the funeral service of Thich Tanh van, members of the School community stated that they do not blame anyone for their colleague’s death: ‘Thich Tanh Van’s life was for love and giving: his death should be for the same,’ they said.”

I learned that Thich Tanh Van had been Nhat Hanh’s most loved student and friend, closer than a brother, and that both Nhat Hanh and Cao Ngoc Phuong had been devastated by this loss. “He cannot be replaced,” Nhat Hanh told me later, on a day when he was showing me pictures of the School and Thanh Van.

On a later day I was told of a conversation that was going on within the delegation staff regarding what Thich Tanh Van might choose to be in his next incarnation. It was implicit that Thich Tanh Van had reached that rare degree of wholeness in which it would be possible for him to freely choose. Some thought Tanh Van would now leave the world of suffering forever and enter the “pure land” of complete peace and final liberation. Others said — and, in saying, transformed my understanding of the Buddhists response in Vietnam — that Thich Tanh Van would return to Vietnam, and not to a future, peaceful Vietnam, but to the Vietnam of the present where once again he would voluntarily share in the suffering.

Yet there was another source of depression. Four years ago, there had been much interest in the US in the Buddhists’ nonviolent struggle. Many Americans seemed to find a new source of energy for peace work in response to their awareness of what the Buddhists were doing without weapons in Vietnam.

Now peace activists had seemed without any interest in the Buddhists’ struggle, though it was continuing as intensely as ever. Many peace movement leaders, in the US and elsewhere, were openly critical of the Buddhist for putting primary emphasis on a cease-fire rather than the nature and composition of a future government in South Vietnam. One peace periodical went so far as to attempt connecting the Buddhist movement in Vietnam to the American CIA. Representatives of the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation were not invited to several huge international peace gatherings (see WIN magazine, 9/15/1972). There was even a time last year when a pacifist leader informed Nhat Hanh that his invitation to speak at a rally had been withdrawn because he was “politically unacceptable.”

So, while Buddhist monks and nuns and lay people were in prison cells and tiger cages for their peace struggle, they were being made unwelcome in the world peace movement. While a leader of relief and peace work lay dead in Vietnam because there was no room for him in an American Army hospital, the American peace movement has quietly closed its eyes to the existence of the movement Thich Tanh Van had shared in making.

Cause for depression indeed.

One day an American war resister came to the office with several Europeans. A discussion evolved as to whether the Buddhists’ emphasis on a ceasefire did not actually help the American war effort; this was the American’s view, and one currently shared by a number of peace movement leaders in the US and elsewhere. Justice must come before peace, he told the delegation staff. He spoke of American imperialism and the history of deceit in Vietnam, as if these facts were unknown to the delegation staff. A ceasefire, he said, would merely be used by the Americans as an opportunity to entrench themselves more deeply. “Lives will be saved in the long run,” he said with assurance, “only if those who struggle for Vietnamese liberation settle for nothing less than absolute, unconditional US military withdrawal.” (The Buddhists, though with dwindling support from peace groups, had consistently made a ceasefire their first priority, even though they called for US military withdrawal, an interim coalition government and completely free elections as well. The ceasefire came first because the most crucial demand of the people was the right to continue living.) The American could not understand what he viewed as Buddhist indifference to the priority of liberation. In effect, he offered the familiar advice of all warriors throughout history: The way to peace is more killing; it’s sad, but there Is no other way.

Nhat Hanh’s usual feather-light voice was astonishing in its anger. “When you say that, it shows that you do not understand human suffering, that you are alienated from the feelings of those who are dying.” He spoke passionately of the way in which “the warring parties had created a wall of violence in which the peasants were trapped, caught in an agony that was endless so long as both sides relied on the same means.”

The visitors listened hard, the war no longer simply an abstract meeting ground of incompatible ideologies. In the urgency and pain of Nhat Hanh’s voice was implicit the conviction that explains every thought and action of those in the Vietnamese pacifist struggle; that every life is infinitely precious, that no one is replaceable, that no one’s life should be seized and destroyed so that another, in some theoretical future, might be given some leader’s idea of a “better life.”

Nhat Hanh’s voice calmed and conversation resumed. The farewell at the door, when the visitors finally left, was nearly tearful. Different people left the office from those who had arrived.

During the weeks we were together, the sorrow that I had sensed in Nhat Hanh and Phuong began to lift. Not that there hadn’t been moments of peace and even happiness, as when I arrived, but a new current gradually returned. I began to notice It over our meals together.

We were talking about rice one day. Laura had mentioned the Vietnamese saying, “Only the rice loves you.” I wondered if perhaps it would be better to say, “Of all foods, only the rice loves you,” for people might think the Vietnamese despair of love from any other source. But even in saying those things, I realized the words had to be left alone, a gift for meditation.

We talked about the rice we were eating. It hadn’t come from the food market but from a pet store. It was on broken grains of rice, not whole, and less than half the usual price — a good saving in a household where nearly everyone has at six bowls of rice a day. But the man at the pet store was puzzled by these huge purchases from the Vietnamese. “How do the birds you feed eat so much?” the shop owner asked Phuong. She told us her reply: “Well, they are very big birds.”

We laughed. Then Nhat Hanh offered me another bowl of rice. I shook my head no. He opened his eyes extra wide and said, “Don’t you want the rice to love you?” What could I say? He took my bowl, filled it, and handed it back, saying, “Special delivery!”

That night he was quiet again. He brought a book over and opened it for Laura and me. It was a reproduction of an old Zen master’s painting. Very simple: a dead twisted branch coming in from one side, and out of it, a new and fragile limb, very thin and covered with blossoms. There was no need to know the meaning of the Chinese words, or any words. A Christian might say it was a way of showing the resurrection: life rising out of death. A simple painting of hope, hope as experience, as evident in the gospel of trees as it is in the gospels of words, all oration affirming, if we listen: There is no death.

I remember some words of Nhat Hanh’s that were in the introduction to his play, “The Path of Return Continues the Journey,” about the assassination of four of the School’s workers in 1967. It had been written soon after Nhat Chi Mai’s death, an event that must have shaken Nhat Hanh deeply. Out of that shaking came the play, and finally its introduction. I read it on the way to Chartres my third day in France. It ends:

“Love enables us to see things which those who are without love cannot see. Who will be gone and who will stay? Where do we come from and where shall we go? Are the other shore and this shore one or two? Is there a river that separates the two sides, a river which no boot can cross? Is such an absurdly complete separation possible? Please come over to my boat. I will show you that there Is a river, but there Is no separation. Do not hesitate: I will row the boat myself. You can join me in rowing, too, but let us row slowly, and very, very quietly.”

All the while I was gazing at the Zen painting of the branches. Nhat Hanh turned the page. No word had been spoken. This time there was a painting of a monkey with large eyes and a face that seemed, in its few brush strokes, full of expectation. There was an oval shape in the water, just beyond the monkey’s reach. The Chinese ideographs along side were translated in text at the bottom of the page:

The monkey is reaching for the moon In the water.
Until death overtakes him, he’ll never give up.
If he’d let go the branch and disappear in the deep pool,
the whole world would shine with dazzling pureness.

I said to Nhat Hanh that it seemed to me that I had let go of the branch several times, and several times entered into dazzling pureness. That day, I think, Nhat Hanh had let go of the branch again; some new corner in his rebirth process had been turned. The seed had fallen into the ground, died, and now there was a bit of green breaking open the ground’s surface.

The next day Nhat Hanh asked if I would draw a picture for a new poem he had written. He gave me the English words:

Excitedly the sky gives birth to a new dusk.
The blue-eyed bird hops among crystal leaves.
Awakened from forgetfulness
my soul gives birth to a new dawn.
The lake of mind silently reflects a peaceful moon.

Nhat Hanh’s hand had certainly let go of the branch. There was a new momentum about him and in all of us. Perhaps Thich Tanh Van’s reincarnation was partly in ourselves.

The new sense of hope, of possibility, didn’t dilute, however, the painful words that came each day in envelopes from Vietnam. In particular there were detailed reports from the senior nun trying to help the refugees coming to Buddhist centers near Hue, fleeing U.S. obliteration bombing in Quang Tri province. B-52 raids were reducing towns and villages, and finally Quang Tri itself, to splinters. Those who were escaping did not dare go to Saigon-government refugee camps because these were often the target of attacks from the liberation army, which didn’t want the people to believe Saigon could offer them security even as refugees. But the Buddhist centers — schools, pagodas and monasteries — while being relatively safe from bomb and mortar attacks, had nothing to offer materially other than what could be begged door to door in the city.

One Sunday morning, another letter from the nun arrived — a desperate appeal. There were now 15,000 people, she said, 3,000 more than reported in the previous week’s letter. Still there was no rice and not even tins of condensed milk for the infants.

In the same mail was one other letter. It bore the return address of a large religious relief organization. The letter’s author, though expressing regret for the refugees’ difficulties, suggested that the problem be referred to another staff member. “Could you write so-and-so?” he wondered. In fact, the Delegation had written so-and-so weeks earlier it had been his suggestion to address the present correspondent.

“I am really angry,” Nhat Hanh said, “I am really angry.” His voice was quiet, but the words shook. He held the agency’s letter in his hand. On the floor were scattered photos that had come with the nun’s letter. There was a picture of the tents in which the refugees were staying; many others were of a mass funeral. The one that haunts me was of an old woman. She was wandering aimlessly, with a nun unobtrusively watching. One trouser leg was rolled up. Though the woman had lived her many decades in a modest culture, she had forgotten her shirt. Much of her hair was gone. All her relatives had been killed in the bombing, the nun had written on the back. Now, though in a refugee center, she was wandering with vacant eyes calling their names.

Before losing her sanity, she had stood for days in an underground shelter up to her chest in water as the earth shook continuously with the explosion of bombs.

Each day the mail seemed to bring a different range of news. Some days there was news of the draft resistance efforts in which the Buddhists were playing so decisive a part. Huge numbers of draft-age men and boys had been put in hiding; but with the letters of success came the painful news of arrests. When resisters were found in a family’s house, the whole family was arrested. Thousands were being arrested. Many were being tortured with needles hammered through fingers, electric shock applied to genitals and other acts that sometimes resulted in death.

Shortly before I left, another harsh blow was struck: the Saigon regime, whose president and many assistants are Catholic, had ordered the drafting of monks and novices between the ages of 18 and 43, a step never before taken. Pagodas and other Buddhist centers, the correspondents reported, had been surrounded by police in several areas, and the monks taken away at gunpoint. There was no further news of their fate, but it is likely that, as pacifists, they refused induction and were now paying the penalty, as the government must have predicted in advance. A new step In “Vietnamization.”

One day the mail brought a letter from a Vietnamese boy in Philadelphia. He had been brought to the US several years ago by a medical aid group. A number of operations were carried out to gradually rebuild his bomb-shattered mouth and jaw, but the group had recently dissolved in favor of “more relevant” political activities. Interest In the boy had waned. But he wrote not to complain of these things, or even to mention them (we knew these facts only because Laura had known him when she was working in Philadelphia), but to ask the Delegation if there was anything they could do to find his grandmother, or at least to discover whether she was still alive. He mentioned the name of the last village he thought she had been in, and the name of the village chief. His letter was signed with his name and, beneath that, “Hoa Binh.” The words, In Vietnamese, mean “peace.”

So it went. Each day was shaped by such letters. Events were never simply black type on newsprint or bits of film on television; they came to us in personal letters often sent at great risk. “Dear Thich Nhat Hanh” or “Dear Cao Ngoc Phuong,” they began. Or more often, “Dear Uncle” (or Sister, or Brother, or Master), for it would be dangerous to write actual names in case the letters were intercepted before leaving Vietnam.

So even though the depression of the first two weeks had lifted, and we were able to laugh with each other over meals and eat more bowls of “special delivery” rice, there were still nights when I watched tears slipping down the side of Phuong’s face as she lay under the window on the blankets, staring through the ceiling, Laura reaching out sometimes to touch her foot or hand.

One night, after a long day of work, we had only a candle for light. Laura played the guitar and sang ballads, all very quietly, almost like a wind-bell. Then she told a story about a bear that awoke from hibernation to find himself in a factory. “Once upon a time,” she began, “I think it was on a Thursday…” And we all lay on the floor in the dark, turned into children again.

I said at the beginning it is impossible to write of these recent weeks in a way that doesn’t brutalize their reality. My words and the experience are as different as witch hazel is from good French wine. As Nhat Hanh once said to a student in Texas who wanted suggestions for books to read on Zen, “It is better to look into the eyes of a Zen master than to read all the books.” There is no way to tell you about Nhat Hanh’s eyes, or his voice, or the touch of his hand, or the way he cuts vegetables or says “air mail!” with a big smile when he presents a fourth (completely unsolicited) bowl of rice. Nor can I tell you much about Phuong’s tears, or her face when she is listening to an anti-war visitor explain how the war must continue so that liberation can be assured, or the compelling voice with which she sings traditional Vietnamese songs, or what it is like to hear her describe how monks and nuns, wearing saffron ceremonial robes above their usual clothes, formed a double column as an escape channel for peasants caught between lines of fire. I can’t even say much about my American friend Laura, who is paid nothing but given a place to live and meals to share in, who is able to be there because of the help of family and friends and savings, and who sings in a way that seems to make the universe whole again despite the Humpty Dumpty falls our eyes have taken during the day.

So I will try to say no more, at least not here or now.

Coming back, it was hard readjusting to knives and forks. Chop sticks are a gentler way to eat. Knives and forks felt like artillery pieces afterward, and many meals tasted like gunpowder.

I hope some of the people who read this will at least send some money to the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation to help the refugees who have found themselves treated as political objects by everyone except the Buddhists. Surely some of us could not buy some things, not eat some meals, not pay some bills and with the money saved do something to keep a few Vietnamese alive. God knows we do enough to help them die.

(Posted with the request that the readers will drop me a note about typos that crept in due to scanning)

copyright by the author

* * *

Thomas Merton a poster boy?

Often works of biography reveal more about the author than about his subject. Mark Shaw’s recent book about Thomas Merton strikes me as a case in point. Here is the review I wrote for the Winter 2009 issue of The Merton Seasonal.


* * *

Beneath the Mask of Holiness:
Thomas Merton and the Forbidden Love Affair That Set Him Free

by Mark Shaw
Palgrave Macmillan, 256 pages, $27

review by Jim Forest

While still a young, aspiring writer who had not yet set his sights on becoming a monk, Merton lamented his latest rejection letter in a journal entry with which any writer can identity: “Other people’s bad books get published,” he noted in his journal. “Why can’t my bad book get published?” Mark Shaw has much to celebrate. Despite (or perhaps because of) his purple prose style and sensationalist approach to the life of Thomas Merton, his particular bad book has gotten published.

The book centers on what Shaw presents as shocking revelations of closely-guarded secrets. The reader learns that, while a college student in England, Merton had a sexual liaison that resulted in the birth of an out-of-wedlock child; and then later in life, long after becoming a monk, fell in love with a nurse he met while recovering from surgery.

Is there anyone with the remotest interest in Merton’s life who is unaware of Mark Shaw’s headline news? Soon after Merton’s death in 1968, his friend Ed Rice became the first to write, in The Man in the Sycamore Tree, about Merton fathering a child while at Clare College, Cambridge. No subsequent biographer has ignored the event. As for his affair with the nurse when he was 50, it was first described a quarter century ago by Michael Mott in The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton. It is now more than a decade since Merton’s journals about the affair, included in Learning to Love, were published.

Shaw is indignant that Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, published in 1948, referred in only “watered down” terms to the more serious sins he committed before he became a monk. This is nothing less than intentional misrepresentation, Shaw asserts, “the result of a concerted effort to disguise a tormented sinner as some sort of plastic saint rehabilitated through monastic practices.” (21) The real Merton was transformed into a Catholic “poster boy.” (p vii)

Continuing in the same vein, Shaw sees the lack of detail as nothing less that the result of “a quiet conspiracy, a cover up, if you will, by not only Merton, but also the Catholic Church hierarchy stretching from the United States to the Vatican, Abbot Frederic Dunne [Merton’s abbot when he wrote the book], Merton’s literary agent, and his publisher, none of whom did anything other than promote the book as factual even though critical parts did not disclose the whole truth. Strict censorship, in effect, issued a restraining order on Merton’s true story, omitting crucial information about him, and readers were hoodwinked and misled into believing that while Merton may have been a sinner prior to entering Gethsemani, he was not ‘that bad’ a sinner.” (21)

Thus the book’s title: Beneath the Mask of Holiness. Shaw sees “holiness” as a disguise that the Catholic Church and the Trappist Order managed to squeeze Merton into. But, thanks to his affair in 1965, Merton finally discovered what life was all about and thus was no longer “a schizophrenic persona, passive on the outside while pangs of anguish and fear patrolled within him.” (9)

If such over-heated sentences appeal to you, either for content or prose style, I urge you to rush out and buy a copy. Otherwise save your time and money for a better book.

Perhaps it’s not entirely accidental that the reader is reminded of Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code, populated by evil Catholics whose goal in life is to conceal the truth. In Shaw’s book, Merton is assigned the starring role in an anti-Catholic tract. (In the book’s last chapter, Shaw speculates that Merton may have been murdered, in which case “the logical suspects would be directives hired by the Catholic Church hierarchy, who were afraid of a scandal if Merton were to return to his lover or leave Gethsemani.” [213-4])

If you want to know about actual Merton’s life, including those events that he brought to confession, read Merton himself or one of his less conspiracy-minded biographers.

Regarding his year at Cambridge, Merton asked aloud in The Seven Storey Mountain, “Shall I wake up the dirty ghosts under the trees of the Backs and out beyond the Clare New Building and in some rooms down on Chesterton Road?” He decided to let the ghosts slumber. “There would certainly be no point whatever in embarrassing other people with the revelation of so much cheap sentimentality mixed up with even cheaper sin,” as he put it in an earlier draft of the autobiography. It was characteristic of Merton to take pains not to embarrass others.

What Merton makes crystal clear in The Seven Storey Mountain, as published, is that it was a hellish interval in his life, “an incoherent riot of undirected passion,” as he put it — a time of “beer, bewilderment and sorrow,” in the words of his friend, Bob Lax. “I had fallen through the surface of old England,” Merton wrote, “into the hell, the vacuum and the horror that London was nursing in her avaricious heart.” He remembers reading Freud, Jung, and Adler, struggling to understand “the mysteries of sex-repression.”

Though clearly something dreadful occurred, the reader was left guessing exactly what actually happened — something to do with the mysteries of sex-repression, clearly, but what? On the other hand, what Merton shared with his readers is a great deal more than is provided by most authors of autobiographies. In Charlie Chaplin’s autobiography, to give one typical example, Chaplin simply skipped over some of the more painful or humiliating moments in his life, while inventing or radically revising others.

For all its sorrows, Merton’s year at Cambridge wasn’t a total loss. Perhaps the high point was Professor Edward Bullough’s class on Dante. Canto by canto, Merton read his way to the frozen core of hell, finally ascending through purgatory toward the bliss of heaven, a “slow and majestic progress of … myths and symbols.” It was purgatory’s seven storey mountain that provided Merton with the metaphor for his autobiography.

While Shaw provides a compact if voyeuristic chronicle of how Merton fell in love with a young nurse and what occurred between them in the weeks that followed, by far the best and most vivid and three-dimensional account of the same story is related by Merton himself in Learning to Love. Here the reader gets both a day-by-day history of what happened as well as a poignant account of his struggle to make sense of what all this meant, his justifications side-by-side with his self-recriminations. Here one can also can read about the very human community Merton was a part of and his frustrations with his abbot, James Fox – and then hear him express his gratitude for both.

Unfortunately, Shaw seems to have no understanding of or sympathy with Merton’s basic choices: to become a Christian, to be baptized in the Catholic Church, and then to embrace monastic life in a penitential order. It was ultimately because of Merton’s renewed realization that he had a monastic vocation, not a vocation to marriage, that made him end the affair.

It wasn’t, in my opinion, Merton’s finest hour. Many priests suffer from extreme loneliness and have affairs which, in most cases, end as Merton’s did. I have known several women at the other end of similar stories who felt abandoned, suffered from a deep sense of rejection for years afterward, and even wrestled with thoughts of suicide. The fact that this particular story involves Thomas Merton doesn’t make it better and mean that, thanks to the special magic of the Merton factor, it became an encounter sprinkled with pixie dust for the young woman who so desperately loved him.

“God writes straight with crooked lines,” says a Portugese proverb. After the affair, Merton realized he needed not only a hermitage but also vital relationship with several Kentucky families he had begun to know. Never a hard-hearted man, he became even more compassionate. One hopes the nurse he loved was also able to make good use of the intense relationship she had with Merton in that period of her life. (In the past, biographers have shielded her identity, either using the initial “M,” as Merton did in his journals, or her first name, Margie. To his shame, Shaw reveals her family name.)

One could write much more about Shaw’s book and its thesis that it was only thanks to his affair that the true Merton at last emerged from hiding rather than remaining a masked counterfeit coined by the Catholic Church. But then I would have to discuss every chapter, the reading of which is a penance I leave only to those who find ordinary penances inadequate.

* * *

Catholics and Conscientious Objection

Catholics and CO cover[This was first published as a booklet by the Catholic Peace Fellowship in April 1966, updated two years later; more than 300,000 copies were printed between 1966 and the end of the Vietnam War nine years later. The booklet had the imprimatur of the Archbishop of New York.]

By Jim Forest

The Catholic attempting to discover the Church’s teaching on war may find himself confronted with historical and theological confusion. On the one hand we are clearly enjoined to love our enemies as ourselves; we are under orders to feed our enemy if he hungers, to provide drink if he thirsts. On the other hand, the vast majority of Catholics have, for seventeen centuries, taken an active part in their nations’ wars, often battling against each other. In the stained glass windows of our churches, it would be no surprise to find the sandaled St. Francis of Assisi side-by-side with an armor-vested St. Joan of Arc. “Love does no evil to neighbor,” we read in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. Yet we have the Crusades to look back upon. Speaking at the United Nations, we hear the Holy Father state, “If you wish to be brothers, let the weapons fall from your hands.” Yet we have to admit the caustic accuracy of an observation made by the Jesuit biblical scholar, John L. McKenzie: “We shall have peace, but we have no hope and no intention of achieving it by peaceful means.”

The contrasts are sharp indeed. The problem is a real one. Where does the Christian who seeks to better shape his mind and conscience in regard to war begin? What is the mind of Christ? Was Christ only address-ing Peter when He said, “Put away your sword”?


From Apostolic times to 170 A.D. no evidence has been unearthed of Christian participation in military service. The Christian community was in fact reproached for this. In 173, the Roman Celsus, a pagan, challenged the Christian community with these words: “If all men were to do as you, there would be nothing to prevent the emperor from being left in utter solitude and desertion and the forces of the empire would fall into the hands of the most lawless barbarians.” Speaking of the Christian community, Church Father Origen replied, “Christians have been taught not to defend themselves against their enemies; and because they have kept the laws which command gentleness and love to man, they have received from God that which they would not have achieved if they had been permitted to make war, though they may have been quite able to do so.” (Contra Celsum, III, 8.) Origen argued that the Christian refusal of military service did not indicate an unwillingness to bear their fair share in the common life and its responsibilities, but said theTJhristian role was spiritual and transcendent: “The more pious a man is, the more effective he is in helping the emperor—more so than the soldiers who go into the lines and kill all the enemy troops that they can.” He went on to add, “The greatest warfare, in other words, is not with human enemies but with those spiritual forces which make men into enemies.”

Justin Martyr wrote along similar lines: “We who were filled with war and mutual slaughter and every wickedness have each of us in all the world changed our weapons of war . . . swords into plows and spears into farming tools.” (Trypho, CX.) Elsewhere Justin Martyr wrote, “We who formerly murdered one another now not only do not make war upon our enemies, but—that we may not lie or deceive our judges—we gladly die confessing Christ.” (I Apol. XXXIX.)

Church Father Clement of Alexandria, sometimes considered the father of Christian humanism, saw the Christian community as “an army which sheds no blood.” (Protrepticus, XI, 116.) “In peace, not in war, we are trained.” (Paedagogus, I. 12.) “If you enroll as one of God’s people, heaven is your country and God your lawgiver. And what are his laws? . . . Thou shalt not kill. . . . Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. To him that strikes you on the one cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Prot. X.)


As even a superficial examination of history makes clear, the Cross and the sword were not to remain permanently apart. Yet the transition from the early period of Christian pacifism to the days of holy wars and inquisitions was quite slow, beginning quietly during the last few decades of the Second century.

It is at that period that the tombstones of Roman Christians indicate some of the deceased to have been milites—soldiers. Though this was precisely the period that saw Celsus condemning the Christians for refusing military service, it seems evident that there were in fact at least a few who remained in the army after their conversions. No doubt their particular duties required no more than what police today would call “restraining force,” not the violence and bloodshed associated with war. St. John the Baptist, in his admonition to the soldiers on guard duty, suggested the possibility of such justifiable military service: “Do not use men roughly, do not lay false information against them; be content with your pay.” (Luke 3, 14.) It took more than a century, however, for canonical recognition to be given Christian military service; such a canon was approved at the regional Council of Aries in 314. (In 416, the Emperor issued a proclamation excluding non-Christians from military service.)

Still the question of Christians actually killing was hardly resolved. It was not until the latter part of the Fourth Century, in fact, that theologians began discussing the just war theory. St. Ambrose (d. 397) and St. Augustine (d. 430), both Church Fathers, continued to emphasize the primacy of love, even stating that Christians as individuals had no right to self defense. At the same time, they found it permissible for Christians to participate in communal defense, even to the point of bloodshed. The only limitation, an obvious one, was that the war must be just. The just war theory (whose later developers include St. Thomas Aquinas and Suarez) required that a war could be considered justifiable only if it met, without exception, certain basic conditions: It must be declared by just authority, for a just cause, using just means and have reasonable expectation of success. Clergy were not to take part. The lives of innocents and non-combatants were to be protected. The means were to be no more oppressive than the evil being remedied. The burden of guilt was to be on one side of the dispute; the pot-calling-the-kettle-black wars were not to receive any moral sanction.


It would be a misreading of history, however, to maintain that violence and Christianity ever became synonymous.

In the Acta Sanctorum, a confrontation in 295 between a 21-year-old draft refuser, St. Maximilian, and a Roman Proconsul in North Africa is recorded: “I will not be a soldier of this world,” Maximilian said, “for I am a soldier of Christ.” Reminded that other Christians were serving as soldiers, he replied, “That is their business. I also am a Christian and I cannot serve.” Sentenced to be beheaded, Maximilian proclaimed, “God liveth!”

St. Martin of Tours was apparently not opposed to military service per se, only to participation in battle. Remaining in the army two full years after Baptism, he resigned in 336 only when battle seemed imminent: “I am a soldier of Christ; to fight is not permissible for me.” In response to the charge that he was simply afraid, he offered to face the enemy troops unarmed. Inexplicably, however, the enemy sued for peace, and St. Martin was granted his discharge.

Later in the same century, St. Basil the Great (d. 379) prescribed three years abstinence from Holy Communion for those soldiers who actually killed anyone.

Even with the seeming consecration of violence during the Crusades, there were still to be found such men as St. Francis of Assisi, who not only renounced violence but incorporated the renunciation in the founding constitution for his lay order: “They are not to take up lethal weapons or bear them about against anybody.” (Rule for the Third Order, Chapt. 5.) While the controversial section was eventually deleted, during the Saint’s lifetime it was upheld by Papal Bull.

The rejection of military service, it is important to note, did not always imply a rejection of war so much as a personal vocational decision. Such was likely the case with St. John Vianney—the Cure of Ars—who deserted the French army and hid in the forests. His principal reason seemed to be his determination to attain ordination to the priesthood. His decision to desert, he said on his deathbed, was something he had never come to regret.

Others, while not addressing themselves to the problem of war in general, have suffered death rather than take a military oath which seemed to place obedience above conscience, or which required service in what the individual saw as an unjust war. Such was the case of Franz Jaegerstaetter, an Austrian farmer and family man beheaded by the Nazi government in 1943 for his refusal to take the military oath, even with the promise of noncombatant service in the army.

Yet despite the lengthy procession of Catholics who have for one reason or another refused to take up the sword—or wear a military uniform or take a military oath—the question continues to be asked: Does a Catholic have the right to withhold his services from the government in its wars or preparations for war? Can a Catholic be a conscientious objector? Can a Catholic be a draft resister?


The teaching of the Church regarding the primacy of conscience, the Church’s application of this teaching in defense of Catholic conscientious objectors and, not least, the continued presence of such objectors throughout Church history would indicate that the answer is unqualifiedly yes. In defining conscience, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council wrote into the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World the following:

“In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. (Rom. 2, 15-16.) Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of man. There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths. (Pius XII, March 23, 1952.) In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor. (Matt. 22, 37-40; Gal. 5, 14.) In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals and from social relationships. Hence, the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by the objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.” (Sec. 16.)

Addressing themselves more specifically to the problem of war, in the same document, the Council Fathers called for legal recognition of the rights of conscientious objectors to war’:

“It seems right that laws make humane provisions for those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms, provided, however, that they agree to serve the human community in some other way.” (Sec. 79.)

Many countries, including the United States, provide some form of exemption from military service for conscientious objectors. U.S. provisions will be outlined later in this text.

Those who renounce violence altogether, selecting the tools of nonviolent defense instead, are praised in the text, as long as the choice does not imply a desire to ignore one’s public responsibility:

“… we cannot fail to praise those who renounce the use of violence in the vindication of their rights and who resort to methods of defense which are otherwise available to weaker parties too, provided this can be done without injury to the rights and duties of others or of the community itself.” (Sec. 78.)

After decrying as “criminal” those who, in the name of obedience, obey commands which conflict with the “all embracing principles” of natural law, the Council Fathers praised those who refuse such obedience:

“The courage of those who fearlessly and openly resist such commands merits supreme commendation.” (Sec. 79.)

Those who choose military service, the Council Fathers added, “should regard themselves as the agents of security and freedom of peoples. As long as they fulfill this role properly, they are making a genuine contribution to the establishment of peace.” (Sec. 79.)

Of course the positions of the Council Fathers as stated in the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World are in no case new but merely a restatement of definitions and positions deeply rooted in Church history.


While there has been a steady stream of conscientious objectors in the past, it is interesting to note that their numbers have been swelling in recent years, in the United States and elsewhere. This tendency, in the U.S. at least, became obvious to conscientious objector counseling agencies during the last year of Pope John’s reign. The question is frequently asked, why?

As the reasons for coming to the conscientious objection position vary from person to person, generalization is difficult. Some base their convictions on a new appreciation of Christian tradition, the witness of the Early Church, the inspiration of such individuals as St. Francis and Pope John. Often study of the New Testament plays a decisive role. With others it seems rooted in a more profound sharing in the liturgical life of the Church and in the Sacraments. Still others are moved by personal contact with other conscientious objectors, others by the study of theology, others by the discovery of such nonviolent methods of resolving conflict as have been used by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Certainly it is a rare conscientious objector who is not particularly aware of the suffering and death inflicted upon the innocent in recent and current wars: the incineration of villages, the destruction of crops, area or obliteration bombing, the possibility of sudden death hanging over whole nations, and in the background always the shadow of far larger and perhaps suicidal wars, a threat cited in the concluding sections of the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World:

“… we should not let false hopes deceive us. For unless enmities and hatred are put away and firm, honest agreements concerning world peace reached in the future, humanity, which already is in the middle of a grave crisis, even though it is endowed with remarkable knowledge, will perhaps be brought to that dismal hour in which it will experience no peace other than the dreadful peace of death.” (Sec. 82.)

A number of Catholic conscientious objectors come to their position via a stringent application of the just war ethic, most concluding that a just war in the modern world is inconceivable.

In support of this position, Pope John’s statement in Pacem in Terris is frequently cited:

“Therefore, in this age of ours which prides itself on its atomic power, it is irrational to believe that war is still an apt means of vindicating violated rights.” (para. 127.)


“It wasn’t I who persecuted the Jews,” the planner of German death camps, Adolph Eichmann, told his jurors. “That was done by the government. Obedience has always been praised as a virtue. I accuse the rulers of abusing my obedience.” Millions today realize that there is often an unbridgeable chasm between conscience and obedience—even between common sense and obedience. The realization has been stimulated in large measure by public horror at the crimes committed by otherwise good and decent, citizens—all acting under the seal* of obedience and patriotism—during recent times just as during the era of Adolph Eichmann.

On the floor of the Second Vatican Council, Bishop John Taylor of Stockholm emphasized the particular responsibility of Christians to place intelligence and conscience above the demands of authority:

“In view of the monstrous crimes committed by both sides in war and Christians’ past involvement in these through unquestioning submission to authority, Christians confronted today by the possibility of even more terrible crimes cannot surrender their moral judgment on wars to civil authorities. They have instead the responsibility, in justice and charity, to examine the orders of authority and to bear witness, as conscience demands, to the peace of Christ and the sacredness of human life.”

It must be admitted that in times past Church leaders have given only sporadic emphasis to the Church’s age-old teachings in regard to conscience. Even less have those leaders sought to apply its common-sense criteria (earlier cited) in ascertaining the justice (if any and on which side) of a particular war. Those who have found no sustaining justice in their nation’s current wars seldom found a welcome at their chancery office. As for secular authorities, the American Congress has never erected a legal sanctuary for objectors to war unless their objection was to war in general.

Within the Christian community, however, the tide has been changing. The American Catholic bishops, in a pastoral letter of November, 1968, have called for laws recognizing the objector to particular wars.

“As witnesses to a spiritual tradition which accepts enlightened conscience, even when honestly mistaken,” they declared, “we can only feel reassured by this evidence of individual responsibility and the decline of uncritical conformism … if war is ever to be outlawed, and replaced by more humane and enlightened institutions to regulate conflict between nations, institutions rooted in the universal common good, it will be because the citizens of this and other nations have rejected the tenets of exaggerated nationalism and insisted on principles of nonviolent political and civic action in both the domestic and international spheres.”

Citing the present legal provisions for conscientious objection to war in general, they go on to say, “We consider that the time has come to urge that similar consideration be given those whose reasons of conscience are more personal and specific.”

Men professing objection on such grounds can now hope for effective support not only from such unofficial groupings as the Catholic Peace Fellowship but from chancery offices as well.


The Congress has exempted from military service those who, “by reason of religious training and belief,” are “opposed to participation in war in any form.” Those opposed to military service in any capacity, combatant or non-combatant, are required to perform alternative service under the auspices of a civilian agency carrying out work serving “the national health, safety or interest”—a broad definition encompassing employment in many areas of public service. Those opposed only to combatant military service are inducted into the armed forces but are not trained in the use of weapons; they are usually assigned to medical or office work. A growing number of objectors—some opposed to war in general, some not—are in various ways, and for various reasons, refusing to cooperate with the Selective Service System; they are generally known as resisters.

Some are covered by no handy labels. There are those who go to other countries, just as many came to America to escape conscription elsewhere. There are those who would cooperate with conscription if it recognized objectors to particular wars, such as the wars in Vietnam and Thailand. There are those who cannot contemplate taking part in wars abroad when justice has yet to be won for all Americans. The groupings are numerous.

Alternative Service

The majority of conscientious objectors, though often objecting to conscription in principle, are willing to undertake compulsory alternative service for a two-year period in lieu of the armed forces or prison. The draft classification for such men, while pending work assignment and after other classification eligibilities have been exhausted, is 1-0.

The most common C.O. assignment is to hospital work. However any area of work in the public interest may qualify. Usually the registrant is expected to relocate for the performance of his work.

Among international agencies providing alternative service employment are the American Friends Service Committee, the Mennonite Central Committee, the Brethren Service Committee and Catholic Relief Services.

Non-combatant Military Service

For those C.O.S willing to serve as non-combatants in the armed forces, most are assigned to the Army Medical Corps, though other assignment is possible as long as the work does not require the use of weapons. When other classification possibilities are exhausted, such registrants are classified 1-A-O. Those contemplating this position should be aware that the armed forces view all branches in uniform as committed to a common responsibility and goal: “The primary duty of medical troops as of all other troops,” the Army Field Manual states, “is to contribute their utmost to the success of the command of which they are a part.” (FM 8-10, P. 195.)

Resistance or Non-cooperation

The reasons for draft resistance (or non-cooperation, as it is sometimes called) vary considerably from person to person. Many cannot in good conscience cooperate with the institution of involuntary servitude, which they see as simply one more form of human slavery; they are unwilling to concede to the state or other body the important decisions of life. Some, less certain about the broader issues of conscription, withhold cooperation because of their objection to the particular functions of the Selective Service System: filling uniforms on the one hand, and “channelling” young men in a multitude of other ways; a Selective Service System memo refers to “the club of induction” being used to keep men in certain areas of study and vocational pursuit and states that the draft accomplishes in the “indirect or American way” precisely what is accomplished by more overt direction in Communist countries.

Some withhold cooperation because they believe that present Selective Service provisions are grossly unfair, not only in failing to provide conscientious objection provision for those who object—for whatever reasons—to a particular military conflict in progress, but because the draft places an unfair burden of military responsibility upon the poorer and less-advantaged members of the populace.

Those who chose not to cooperate with Selective Service—to resist illegitimate authority, as the statement of Dr. Spock and others put it—face up to five years in prison plus a possible $10,000 fine.


More than 15,000 potentially draftable American men, plus many friends and relatives, have emigrated to Canada, their decisions to do so often having been motivated by objections to the draft and war; smaller numbers have gone to other countries. Information on this alternative may be obtained from most peace organizations (including the Catholic Peace Fellowship) or from overseas offices of the various countries.

The CO. in the Armed Forces Many do not think seriously about the questions of war, peace and personal responsibility until actually in the armed forces. For those who become conscientious objectors while in uniform, there are provisions either for discharge or reassignment, according to the individual conscience. Information on the procedures may be obtained from the Catholic Peace Fellowship.


The law requires men to register with their local draft board within 10 days of their 18th birthday. At that time, or later, those who register may request SS Form 150, a special form for conscientious objectors which contains four questions and which requests other personal information. (Sample copies may be obtained, with other information, from the CPF.) The form must be returned within 30 days.

It is well to write the answers on separate sheets of paper in order to discuss them with an experienced draft counsellor before incorporating them into the form. It is also advisable to obtain four to five supporting letters from known members of the community, persons able to attest to the registrant’s character and sincerity (the letter writer need not agree with the registrant’s convictions) and his reasons for taking his particular position. For those taking the 1-0 position, the letters might mention the registrant’s reasons for objecting to non-combatant duty in the armed forces. Letters from priests should further emphasize the validity of Catholics being conscientious objectors.

The local board frequently does not approve requests for CO. classification, even after a personal appearance before the board’s members. Board members sometimes do not feel competent to make the necessary judgment. Sometimes one or more of the board members is hostile to the position and would urge disapproval no matter who asked for it.

If the local board does not provide the classification, an appeal should be made in writing within 30 days. This puts the case in the hands of the State Selective Service Board; it is at this level that most Catholic CO. claims have been recognized.

It is important to read the Handbook for Conscientious Objectors, a detailed manual dealing with the draft and appeal processes from the local through Presidential Appeal levels, as well as court procedures (should they prove necessary) and other information; see the reading list at the end of this booklet.


Up to this point these pages have been impersonally concerned with facts. An effort has been made to avoid the present. But the times cannot help but intrude. In Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Peru and Guatemala, Americans are fighting wars large and small. The threat of other wars is constantly present. Even where there are presently no bombs falling and no napalm-charred bodies, there is a more subtle violence, institutionalized and gunless—what some have termed the violence of the status quo. This is the form of violence which allows exhaustion to rob men and women of half their lives in order that a relative handful may live in luxury and which gives arms production priority over health and education.

The draft is the most serious and immediate point of contact most Americans have with the machinery of war, an institution compelling us to confront the life-and-death realities from which millions of others have no hope of escaping. Point after point decisions have to be made, and by no means easy ones: to register, or not to register; to fill out, or not to fill out draft forms; to accept or reject various classifications; to report—or not to—for draft board hearings, physicals, induction itself, and there whether to take the step forward into uniform.

Making a responsible decision is no easy matter. Not only must decision be an act of intelligence and will, it must be rooted in man’s most crucial and mysterious faculty, that of conscience. It is not unlikely that great courage may be required.

At least it is now clear that none of us can any longer accept as God’s will what congressmen, generals and draft officials might wish of us. Unthinking obedience has at last been made to stand without a virtuous or even patriotic facade; our concepts, both regarding love of man and love of native land, have been considerably enriched and expanded. In the words of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, we have learned that “Man’s dignity demands that he act according to a free choice that is personally motivated and prompted from within, not under blind internal impulse nor by mere external pressures.'” (Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Section 17.) We have come to realize, though sometimes at great cost in suffering, that freedom and happiness ultimately spring from the individual’s willingness to take responsibility for the use of his life.

The study and listening, the prayer and meditation that go into the decision-making process need hardly be described here. Obviously the peacemaker is first of all one who can listen and is eager to learn, one who is willing to try and see the world as others see it, no matter how incomprehensible other cultures or persons may seem.

But what is more difficult to speak of is the centrality of love, a much-abused word. “Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams,” Dostoevsky wrote. Where love is, no token response will suffice. It is the opening of one’s whole self to the pressing needs of others. It is to understand that French proverb which declares, “When we die, we carry in our clutched hands only that which we have given away.”

The Council Fathers speak of this activized love in the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World:

“This Council lays stress on reverence for man; everyone must consider his every neighbor without exception as another self, taking into account first his life and the means necessary to living it with dignity, so as not to imitate the rich man who had no concern for the poor man Lazarus. In our time a special obligation binds us to make ourselves the neighbor of every person without exception, and of actively helping him when he comes across our path…” (Section 27.)

That in the end love is the measure, there is no doubt:

“Come you blessed of my Father and take possession of the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you brought me home, naked and you clothed me, sick and you cared for me, a prisoner and you came to me . . . Believe me, what you did to the least of my brothers, that you did to me.” (Matthew 25.)

Against the invitation to love and care stand the ceaseless commands of those—and they are found in every country and across all ideological frontiers—who believe power comes out of the barrel of a gun. Their commands—to burn, to starve, to make homeless and naked, to imprison, to march in step, to obey without pause—remain eternally in conflict to the ways of mercy, peace and justice.

The rewards for a life founded in the works of mercy are not pictured in magazine advertisements. The “reward” granted Jesus, though turned into an ornament and made synonymous with comfort and respectability, is still the criminal’s cross. And for all the reverence showered upon those who have taught the way of liberation and the power of love, few are yet free enough to follow that path no matter where it may lead. For us, as for the disciples at the foot of the cross, the resurrection still seems incomprehensible.


You are your own yes-sayer and no-sayer. For all the generals in the world and for all the judges, no one can force a free man to walk across a room, or wear a uniform, or speak when he chooses silence. What precise form your own response to life in these times ought to be no one should even guess. It can only be hoped that the decision will favor life and that from each person, each complicated gathering of intellect, skill, enthusiasm and imagination, will come a gift which will help some and force harm upon no one.

Though decision is ultimately a matter of conscience, an interior perception of mandates we do not impose upon ourselves, for those entering upon the less-traveled path, or thinking about it, there is a community at hand which can help in a multitude of ways, ranging from friendship to study and legal resources. Among such communities are the Catholic Peace Fellowship and the Catholic Worker.

Relatively few give more than a small portion of their energies to the service of life. Even fewer see the putting aside of violence and coercion as an integral part of such a life commitment. For someone making the first difficult steps along the way of peace it is often surprising to find how many others have begun. But better than the proximity of friends is the immediacy of that within us, nothing less than the Spirit, the lord and giver of life.

* * *
“Let us take this opportunity of saying clearly that the Church, the People of God, does not seek protection from its enemies, whoever these may be—in war, and especially not in war of the modern type. We are the mystical body, and Christ is our Head. He refused to defend Himself and His mission by the swords of His disciples, or even by legions of angels, the ministers of God’s justice and love. The weapons of the Gospel are not nuclear but spiritual, and it wins its victories not by war but by suffering. Let us indeed show great sympathy for statesmen in their immense difficulties; let us gratefully acknowledge their good intentions. But let us add a word of reminder that good ends do not justify immoral means; nor do they justify even a conditional intention of meeting immoral attack with immoral defense. Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”
— Rt. Rev. Christopher Butler, O.S.B.
Abbot of Downside, England
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Robert T. Kennedy, J.U.D. Censor Deputatus
IMPRIMATUR: + Terence J. Cooke, D.D. Vicar General Archdiocese of New York March 10, 1966

The nihil obstat and imprimatur are official declarations that a book or pamphlet is free from doctrinal or moral error. No implication is contained therein that those who have granted the nihil obstat and imprimatur agree with the contents, opinions or statements expressed.

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The Blessings of Theophany

Theophany in Amsterdam 2011
Theophany in Amsterdam 2011

by Nancy Forest-Flier

At the back of our refrigerator, among the jams and mustards, is a Heinz Sandwich Spread jar filled with water. The hand-lettered label on the jar reads “blessed water.” I collected the water last January during the Feast of Theophany at the Great Blessing of the Waters, the second Theophany Liturgy I had attended after becoming Orthodox. I know that many of the people in our church used blessed water for anointing themselves or their family members at times of sickness. Some people drink small amounts of it before departing on a journey. For me, still a newcomer to the rich traditions of Orthodoxy, the little Heinz jar represents those truths which I found so complete two years ago when I was received into the Christian community at the St. Nicholas Church in Amsterdam.

Theophany is one of my favorite feasts. I wasn’t surprised to learn that, after Pascha and Pentecost, the third greatest feast among Orthodox Christians is Theophany. I love to watch Father Alexis, our priest, dip the Precious Cross with such dignity and grace three times into the tub of water in the center of the church. I love to join the procession of parishioners and take a long drink of the cold January water, just blessed. I love to stand as our priest sprinkles us with the great bunch of basil dripping with water; I love his vigor and joy as he sprinkles us. I love the priest’s attempts to sprinkle the choir members, singing in the loft above us. He hurls the droplets up as far as he can, and the choristers lean way over the choir rail, singing and laughing; I love to watch everyone in the church strain forward and take off their glasses, eager to be drenched in the glorious, festive waters of Theophany.

I understand that many Orthodox parishes celebrate Theophany outdoors. Although Holland is a country of water — nearly two-thirds of it would be deluged if the sophisticated dike system failed — we keep our Theophany celebration inside. Our church is just off the Prinsengracht, one of the ancient canals in the heart of Amsterdam, and in this tightly-packed Dutch city being “outdoors” might put us to tottering right on the edge of the Prinsengracht itself. Still I enjoy seeing the documentaries from Russia, where priests of vast proportions wearing nothing over their vestments stand outside in the freezing cold, dip the Cross into the tub and intone the Slavonic blessing with deep, sonorous voices. Around them a cluster of solid babushkas with heads wrapped in woolen shawls, cheeks glowing with cold, clutch their empty bottles, jars and buckets.

It would make sense to bless the waters outdoors. Jesus was baptized, after all in the waters of the Jordan River. The Jordan was just a river until Jesus submitted to John’s baptism on our behalf. All of the created world was fallen and foreign until Jesus stepped into the water and made all things new. Now every time a priest blesses the waters at a Theophany Liturgy he is continuing Jesus’ original blessing through time. This re-creation of Creation, this blessing of material things, was one of the truths that so attracted me to Orthodoxy in the first place. In my Heinz jar in the fridge there’s more than a little blessed water; the news of the Incarnation in there as well.

The impact that this has had on my life has been profound. It means that the other categories of “sacred” and “secular” that I grew up with as a western Protestant no longer hold. All the world and everything in it is shimmering with God’s grace and mercy, and it’s only my sad spiritual condition that keeps me from seeing it. The waters of Theophany give me something to live for. Every time I pray or fast I can anticipate the day when I will see things “face to face” for what they are, and not “darkly” as I do now. Every time we reach for the Heinz jar and take a teaspoon of water for a sore throat or a troubled mind, every time we rub a bit of blessed water over my asthmatic son’s body, we acknowledge the ubiquitous mercy of God and His insisting love for His creation.

I think of these things every time I reach for the blessed water in our fridge. But there’s a great deal more than just happy memories in that jar. It holds for me, as a recent convert to Orthodoxy, a new understanding of the mercy of God and His manifestation in all the created universe.

Theophany is the commemoration of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptizer in the Jordan River, when it was first publicly revealed that this was the second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Incarnate Word. The feast’s significance and grandeur surpass that of Christmas, which is difficult for many Western Christians to comprehend. This is understandable, since the Feast of Holy Theophany has been celebrated in the East since the fourth century. It came later in the West. The Roman Church at that time grouped Christ’s baptism together with the adoration of the Magi and the wedding at Cana, all on one day, but in the end the Magi won out. In some Western European countries, 6 January is still celebrated as Three Kings’ Day.

Why is Theophany so important? Why is Jesus’ baptism a greater revelation than the celebration of His birth? What does Theophany teach us about the Christian life, and what graces does it impart? What, indeed, does it mean when we take water that has been blessed at this great feast and use it as a means of healing?

As with many great milestones marking the way through the Liturgical year, this feast can be understood on several levels. First, we learn something about the nature of the Incarnation: Jesus is both humiliated and glorified. In submitting to baptism over John’s protests and on our behalf, Jesus shows Himself to be a Man among men, one of us. And through His humility He is glorified before everyone, He is manifested as the Son of God. Theophany teaches us that the way of humility is the way of glory. Father Lev Gillet, in his commentary on Theophany, has written: “If I desire Christ to be manifested in me, in my life, this cannot come about except through embracing Him Who is also God, King, and Conqueror.” We as Christians, as Christ-bearers, are called to reflect this same humility.

This moment is all the more profound because it reveals to humankind the Holy Trinity: both the Father, whose words of approval and love can be heard, and the Spirit descending in the form of a dove, confirm and witness Christ’s glory. In fact, the event of Theophany is such a brilliant revelation that the early Church called it “The Feast of Lights.” In the words of the Troparion for Theophany, “When Thou, O Lord, was baptized in Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest.” Human knowledge of the Trinity, the basis of Christian belief, the mystery of God as three dynamic Persons bound together in love, was born on this day.

Theophany is also a time for renewing our own baptisms. We know that immersion in the waters of baptism means death to our old, sinful nature; reappearance from the waters means new life in Christ. Bishop Kallistos Ware writes that Jesus’ baptism was accomplished on our behalf; we are the ones who are cleansed in the Jordan. When we stand together to be sprinkled at the Blessing of the Waters, we can pray that God will enliven the grace given to us at the moment of our baptisms.

The actual blessing of the waters is the act which might give most new Orthodox, especially those from Protestant backgrounds like myself, some difficulty. And it is the aspect of the Theophany that I had to grasp most carefully before I filled my Heinz jar with water last January. What makes this water “special?” Will it really heal people? Doesn’t this smack of magic, of relic worship?

First of all, writes Bishop Kallistos, it isn’t the priest who effects the blessing of the waters, it is Christ Himself. “It is Christ Who has blessed the waters once for all at His baptism in the Jordan: the liturgical ceremony of blessing is simply an extension of Christ’s original act.” Water itself is at once a most ordinary and most mysterious substance. All life depends on water. Where there is water, there is life. Water is God’s precious gift to us, hence it is a means of communion with Him. As Orthodox we believe that the Fall involved all of creation, not just human beings. Cut off from God, men and women had to struggle to survive in the fallen world. What once had been a Paradise became a hostile environment. But when Christ, the new Adam, condescended to become one of us, when He submitted to baptism in the Jordan, bearing our sins and seeking cleansing on our behalf, the waters were blessed by this presence.

Father Alexander Schmemann has written that in baptism, water is “the sign and presence of the world itself.” Thus, all of fallen creation was renewed and restored when Christ was baptized. When we are present at the Great Blessing of the Waters during the Theophany Liturgy, we witness this endless act of Christ blessing the waters and transforming them in the words of Bishop Kallistos, into “an organ of healing and grace.” The world of matter becomes a means of communion with God.

Father Alexander Schmemann writes, “The blessing of water signifies the return or redemption of matter to this essential meaning. By accepting the baptism of John, Christ sanctified the water — made it the water of purification and reconciliation with God.”

Father Alexander goes on further to say that all the world exists as an “epiphany” of God. All the created world is sacrament. “We need water and oil, bread and wine in order to be in communion with God and to know Him.” So the little jar of blessed water in our fridge contains a bit of this grace-filled universe; it is a sign of God’s infinite mercy and love; it is a lesson that God’s intention is a world of unity, love, humility, and healing.

In his essay on “Worship in a Secular Age,” Father Alexander explains that it is at this point that Orthodox and Western theology differ significantly. Most of us raised in Western Christian denominations understand that there is a “secular” world of ordinary matter and a “sacred” world of spiritual things. But the Good News of the Resurrection is a message of unity and universal blessing, not of duality. “The Holy Spirit makes ‘all things new’ and not ‘new things’.” Father Alexander explains that this dualistic understanding of the universe has effectively cut off “religion” from the rest of the world and has been the source of countless difficulties. In his book, For the Life of the World, he writes:

“To bless water, make it ‘holy water,’ may have two entirely different meanings. It may mean, on the one hand, the transformation of something profane, and thus religiously void or neutral, into something sacred, in which case the main religious meaning of ‘holy water’ is precisely that it is no longer ‘mere’ water, and in fact opposed to it — as the sacred is to the profane. Here the act of blessing reveals nothing about water, and thus about the matter or world, but on the contrary makes them irrelevant to the new function of water as ‘holy water.’ … On the other hand, the same act of blessing may mean the revelation of the true ‘nature’ and ‘destiny’ of water, and thus of the world -it may be the epiphany and the fulfillment of their ‘sacramentality.’ By being restored through the blessing to its proper function, the ‘holy water’ is revealed as the true, full, adequate water, and matter becomes again means of communion with and knowledge of God.”

So the water in our Heinz jar is “special” because it represents the whole of the redeemed universe. When we anoint our children with it or drink a bit of it at times of pain or stress, we involve ourselves in communion with God Whose love for us is boundless.

This has profound significance for us. When we acknowledge that the water blessed at Theophany is holy, we must acknowledge that all water everywhere is destined for holiness. For people in Orthodox countries, this way of thinking is nothing new. For instance, it is not uncommon for Eastern Europeans to pick up a piece of bread that has fallen on the ground, kiss it, and eat it. A friend of ours, Franciscan nun Rosemary Lynch, tells the story of a Russian couple who had migrated to the United States and were sent to Las Vegas, where Rosemary works helping refugees settle into American life. The wife finally found a job as a bus person in a casino, cleaning off the restaurant tables of uneaten food and dirty dishes. One day she called Rosemary in tears and told her she could no longer keep her job. Why not? “Because they make me throw away the body of Jesus,” the Russian woman sobbed. Every time she had to throw out uneaten bread from the tables, she felt herself committing an act of sacrilege. (Sister Rosemary found the woman another job.)

Another story my husband heard from Father Timothy Shaidarov at the Pokrovsky Monastery in Kiev about a woman who walked to a monastery in Ukraine to fetch some water from a healing spring for a Jewish friend with an eye disease. “But it was a hot day,” said Father Timothy. “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.”

How differently we would live our lives if we could do it with this sense of Theophany. How differently we would face the enormous environmental problems today. How careful we would be with the material things of the earth. How our sense of beauty would change, our sense of wealth. For the Christian, writes Bishop Kallistos, nothing is trivial. Nothing is wasted. Nothing is superfluous. Everything contains within it the capacity to glorify God and to be a bridge to Him for us. Everything is Theophany.

[published in “One Church,”  journal of  Parishes of the Moscow Patriarchate in the United States, vol. XLV, No. 1, 1991]

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