Nonviolent Protest in Belgrade

Pavle leads Belgrade marchFebruary 5, 1997 / for Sojourners

by Jim Forest

The rivers of protesters flowing in the streets of Belgrade were as much a surprise to the world at large as they were to Slobodan Milosevic. Nonviolent Serbians? No less unexpected was the support the government’s opponents received from an institution many regarded as lost in the archives: the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Milosevic had rightly counted on the west looking the other way during Serbia’s elections in November — a reward for his having gone along with the program in Dayton — but he took the wrong measure of his own people. Overcoming years of bickering, opposition political groups forged a coalition called Zajedno (Together) and managed to win all but five of November’s municipal elections, including Belgrade. What to do? Government-appointed judges were hurriedly called upon by the ruling party to declare the results invalid.

Having tasted victory at the ballot box, voters proved to be less cooperative than the judges. They poured onto the streets, waving everything from protest signs to kitchen aprons, and did this every day — not just a few thousand but in numbers beyond counting. There were days when journalists estimated between 400,000 and half-a-million protesters in Belgrade alone.

No less surprising was the Gandhi-like creativity of the demonstrators, who ranged from students to pensioners. Often they threw rotten eggs at government building, among these the headquarters of state television, whose staff had scrupulously ignored the opposition during the elections and now refused to report the street protests. During the evening news broadcast, it became the daily custom for people throughout Belgrade to come to their windows and balconies and make noise — blowing whistles, banging on pots and pans. When street marches were banned for disrupting traffic, the protesters took to their cars, which _really_ disrupted traffic.

“Milosevic has created an image of us in the world as a nation of murderers, outlaws and ethnic cleansers. He has disgraced us as a people, but finally it seems the conscience of Serbia is awakening,” said Milorad Stojakovic, one of the egg throwers. Stojakovic lost his state job after expressing support of the demonstrators.

Perhaps the most unexpected participant in the opposition was the Serbian Orthodox Church. Like bishops nearly everywhere, the Serbian hierarchy has tended to express itself in generalities, but there was nothing vague about the declaration signed by Patriarch Pavle and 34 other bishops on January 2nd. They flatly condemned “the falsification of the people’s votes” and “the trampling on the people’s freedom . . . the beating and murdering of people on the streets.”

Four days later, Christmas Eve on the Serbian Church calendar, several hundred thousand people defied a police ban to gather with Patriarch Pavle and Zajedno’s leaders in front of unfinished St. Sava Church. “Respect for the law and for the spirit of justice,” Pavle said, “requires everyone to honor the freely expressed will of the people, to curb individual self-will and avoid aggression, which neither will nor can bring any good to the people and the state itself.”

Rallies continued in Belgrade the next day. In honor of the Prince of Peace, protesters kissed riot police.”People in police uniforms are also part of the people,” said opposition leader Vuk Draskovic. “It’s Christmas for you too. [The authorities] sent you here today to provoke bloodshed. But I say to you, ‘Divine peace, Christ is born’.”

A reporter covering the Christmas services in Belgrade heard worshipers express relief that the Church had taken on the Milosevic regime. “This is the first time in years that I went to church for Christmas Eve,” said Momcilo Lukic, holding the hand of his four-year-old daughter Maja.

There was a similar scene January 27, the Feast of St. Sava. Carrying bread and salt, traditional symbols of hospitality, Patriarch Pavel led a crowd of an estimated 300,000 people into the heart of Belgrade. Pavle had called for the procession in hopes participants would be allowed to pass through a police cordon that for days blocked students from marching in the center of the capital. After many tense hours, riot police withdrew, opening the way.

“Today,” the elderly monk said to the protesting citizens of Serbia, “eyes are watching us from the sky and ground and telling us to endure on the holy and righteous road.”

What the weeks ahead hold for Serbia remain unclear. Milosevic has counted on the police to obey orders. At their hands at least 100 people were injured, among them one of Zajedno’s leaders, Vesna Pesic. But the next day, Milosevic did an about-face, recognizing opposition electoral victories in Belgrade and other Serb cities. The opposition, having much past experience of unkept promises, seems determined to keep public protest going.

“For anyone visiting from other parts of the country,” writes conscientious objector Bojan Aleksov, “we must look like a city of lunatics, yet it must be said we’re some­times having lots of fun. With all these actions, Belgrade is the most interesting place in the world right now.”

= = =

Jim Forest, a contributing editor of Sojourners, is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and editor of its journal, In Communion. His newest book is Praying With Icons (Orbis).

* * *

Tell the truth, don’t be afraid

3a Rublev Pantocrator icon - Toronto lecturefor Sunday 12 June 2016 / John 17:1-13
at St Silouan the Athonite Church in Toronto

In today’s Gospel we hear Jesus praying to the Father for his disciples, that is to say praying for us, for all baptized people and for all those making their way to the Church — once again that’s us, for who can say he or she has yet arrived? Baptism is a border crossing, not a destination. We are each of us on our way, step by step, and sometimes misstep by misstep.

What’s the context of this prayer? It’s just before his passion. In sight of the cross — his execution is only hours away — Jesus tells his Father that he is no more of this world but that those whom he has gathered remain in the world. He calls on his Father to keep them — to protect them — in his name “that they may be one even as we are one.”

The third verse is the declaration that I find most striking: “This is eternal life, that they know you, Father, as the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

Knowing the only true God is eternal life.

Let’s look more closely at just a few key words, starting with “knowing”. This is much more than knowing the price of something or knowing the sun rises in the east. It is akin to marital knowing. “Adam and Eve knew each other,” we read in Genesis. Knowing God is living with God and in God. Knowing God is an ever-expanding intimate relationship.

And what about “true”? “True” and “truth” are words with infinite depths — not easy words to take on board.

A few nights ago my wife and I found ourselves reading a poem by Seamus Heaney that includes the line: “Tell the truth. Do not be afraid.” The next day we discovered that Heaney’s last words were in Latin, “Noli timere”, which means “Do not be afraid.”

Tell the truth. Do not be afraid. Not only is fear a potential obstacle for telling the truth — you can get into lots of trouble for telling the truth — but fear is an impediment to knowing the truth. The truth can be upsetting. It can uproot your life. It can make relationships but also destroy them. It can cost your job. It can subject you to ridicule. Just to admit you believe in God will, for some people, put you on their stupid people list.

We believe in the true God and in the one God we see an incomprehensible three-ness — Father, Son and Holy Spirit. One God, not a proliferation of gods. We reject as un-true and non-existent all the competing gods of antiquity. We reject the claims of all Caesars, the great and powerful rulers, to be regarded as divine. We have another ruler, the true God. “Put not your trust in princes,” we are reminded Sunday after Sunday in the Liturgy of St John of Chrysostom. Only God deserves our absolute trust.

We are called to center our lives around the one true God. That means we don’t just memorize sentences that reveal what God wants of us to do but we struggle to live those words, to translate them into life. As Metropolitan Anthony 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.”

One does not enter heaven by reciting the Creed correctly or by passing a theology test but by becoming a living channel of the divine mercy. Participating in God’s mercy we already have eternal life.

A major part of living in God’s mercy is not being merciless. That’s no so hard. When others have needs, try to help. When there is war, refuse to be part of it. Where there is deceit, tell the truth. For we know — Jesus made it clear — that what we do to the least person we do to him. For Christ is with us. He is and always shall be.

I am reminded of an exchange between the often-imprisoned Jesuit poet Daniel Berrigan and a reporter. The reporter asked, “Do you believe Jesus Christ will come again?” Dan’s answer was, “He never left.”

One key element of the prayer of Jesus, our gospel reading this morning, is that we, his disciples, will be one even as Jesus and his Father are one. It’s a prayer that requires our active collaboration. God does not force us into unity. What a sad spectacle it is to see how divided we are, not only Christian from Christian but child of God from child of God. Far from obeying Christ’s commandment to love our enemies we don’t even love our neighbor.

The walls that separate us are built of bricks of fear. Fear rather than the Gospel shapes so many of our choices, big and small. The toxic part fear plays in our lives is a point stressed by the prominent Greek Orthodox theologian and bishop, Metropolitan John Zizioulas:

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

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

Let me finish by repeating just six words: Tell the truth — don’t be afraid.

* * *

A man born blind

by Jim Forest

wood engraving: Eric Gill
wood engraving: Eric Gill

One of the events Saint John dwells on — it’s the whole of chapter nine in his Gospel — concerns a man blind from birth. A beggar, he is sitting on the Sabbath at his usual spot on a street in Jerusalem and becomes the object of a question put to Jesus as he passes by: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” The assumption was that a disability had to be a punishment.

You have to imagine the blind man simply listening in his lifelong darkness to the exchange, curious as to what the rabbi will say. He hears an unexpected answer from Jesus: “It was not this man who sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made visible in him.” Then Jesus adds enigmatically, “We must do the works of him who sent me while it is day. Night comes and then no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

The blind man says nothing and asks for nothing. He makes no verbal appeal for a miracle. He is as silent as the grave.

Then Jesus, as if working on the creation of Adam, makes a paste of earth and spit, applies it to the man’s tomb-like eyes, and tells him to wash his face in the nearby Pool of Siloam. The man’s one act of faith is to obey the unseen rabbi named Jesus.

“So he washed and came back seeing,” Saint John records. By then Jesus had walked on.

The miracle is described with economy. The main part of the chapter isn’t about the healing of a blind man’s eyes but how others respond to it.

There are those who doubt this is actually the blind beggar. “Some said, ‘It is he.’ Others said, ‘No, but he is like him.’” The man insists he is himself, then tells what happened, how a rabbi named Jesus made clay and anointed him with it and sent him to wash his face in the Pool of Siloam, and afterward he could see. They ask where is this rabbi, but the man doesn’t know.

The argument becomes so heated that the disputants bring the man before a council of Pharisees, a respected group among the Jewish people for whom the careful observance of the Law of Moses had absolute priority. For them, it was obvious that Jesus was a sinner because he had made mud on the Sabbath, a form of labor, however minor, in violation of the Sabbath statutes prohibiting all work.

To get to the bottom of things and reveal what they assume is an act of deception (we too tend to assume the worst of beggars), the Pharisees call the beggar’s parents. They affirm that he is their son and that he was always blind. Asked how is it possible that he now has his sight, they respond, “Ask him. He is old enough. He can speak for himself.” Saint John explains the parents were afraid. We can take for granted that they were among the city’s poor — otherwise their son wouldn’t have had to beg. They are poor and powerless — people intimidated by lawyers.

The man was questioned a second time. Lawyers know stories don’t always hold up under persistent questioning. They say to him, “Give God the glory. We know the man is a sinner.” “Give God the glory” is similar to the proverb, “Speak the truth and shame the devil,” for God is glorified whenever the truth is told and dishonored whenever the truth is denied.

The man bears witness to what has happened to him: “Whether the man who healed me is a sinner or not, I do not know. One thing I know — I was blind and now I see.”

More than his blind eyes have been healed — he doesn’t share the fear which afflicted his parents. When asked again how Jesus cured his blindness, he tells the interrogators that he has told them the truth, but they didn’t want to hear it. “Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples?”

The word disciple must have gone off like a firecracker. Those questioning him respond, “It’s you who are his disciple — we are disciples of Moses! We know God spoke to Moses but we do not know where this one is from.”

The beggar is reckless in his response: “This is amazing,” he says. “You don’t know where he is from, but he opened my eyes.” He points out the obvious — God doesn’t listen to sinners but only to the devout. Now here is someone who has healed a man blind from birth, something absolutely unheard of. “If this man were not from God, he would not be able to do anything.”

An uneducated beggar dares to argue with prominent and well-educated men and is rebuffed for his effrontery. “You were born totally in sin,” they tell him, the assumption being that his blindness was proof of that. “Now you try to teach us!” He is shown the door.

All the while Jesus is elsewhere, but he hears what has happened and seeks out the man who had been blind. The striking thing is that once again it is Jesus taking the lead. He finds him and says, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” “Son of Man” is a Messianic title, the new Adam, the long-awaited one who would rescue Israel. The healed man responds with his own question, “Who is he, sir, that I might worship him?”

Now, with this nameless man on his first day of seeing, we stand at the absolute heart of the Gospel. Jesus answers: “You have seen him and the one who is speaking with you is he.”

The healed man’s response is immediate. “He said, ‘I do believe, Lord,’ and he worshiped him.”

Worship is both an attitude and a physical action. We can assume the man either fell on his knees or prostrated himself, actions mirroring the awareness that he was the presence of the Savior.

The key verse in the narrative is Jesus saying, “I am the light of the world.” In icons of Christ holding open the Gospel, this verse is often the text displayed — a one-sentence summation of his identity.

The story can be read on more than one level. First of all it is a faithful account of a remarkable event which happened one day in Jerusalem nearly two thousand years ago; but it also has to do with us. Putting ourselves in the place of the blind man, we can see ourselves as blind from birth — not blind in the sense of being unable to see the material world around us but blind in our inability to see God, blind in not noticing the Creator in creation, blind in our inability to see God’s image in others. It is usually a worsening blindness; as we get older we tend to become less and less amazed so that things which were once astonishing become ordinary. Boredom can become a constant condition, relief being sought through distraction. We may be far less in touch with the world around us than the blind beggar who was sitting between the Temple and the Pool of Siloam.

Sitting in darkness, I happen to hear a circle of voices discussing why it is that I have this unfortunate condition. Someone is asking if it is my fault or someone else’s? Who is to blame? Then I hear a voice speaking with confidence about “making visible the works of God.”

I can’t understand what he means. What can my disability have to do with making visible the power of God? But as the wet clay is rubbed on my face and washed off in the waters of baptismal awakening, it dawns on me that the answer is not a theory or a principle about light or enlightenment. The answer is a particular person. Jesus is not just another teacher but Christ himself, the Messiah we have awaited, who reveals himself in word and action as the Light of the World.

It wasn’t easier to believe two thousand years ago in Jerusalem than it is here and now. This chapter in Saint John’s Gospel is mainly about people not believing what they had seen or which others had witnessed. It is a story of sighted people being blind and insisting on remaining blind. It is as if they were saying, “We see enough and know enough already. We don’t need any new prophets or street-corner messiahs. We have a lifetime supply of wisdom and rules. Take your miracles and beggars and go away. We have seen enough.”

To climb the ladder of the beatitudes, we need to be climbing toward the living Christ, not a dead body or an intellectual concept. Such climbing is worship, no different from the worship of the healed man who recognized Jesus as Lord. The first part of his healing was that he could see the objects and people around him, but the more important gift was that before the day was over he realized he was in the presence of the Son of Man, the Light of the World, he who had shaped Adam from dirt and spit.

* * *

a chapter from Ladder of the Beatitudes by Jim Forest (Orbis Books)

* * *

“Lord, that I might see”: Henri Nouwen’s Eye for Icons

(for the June 2016 Henri Nouwen conference in Toronto — due to illness I was unable to deliver it)

Henri Nouwen
Henri Nouwen

By Jim Forest

You know the story. A blind man named Bartimaeus encounters Jesus and makes an urgent appeal, “Lord, that I might see.” And Christ grants his wish.

“Lord, that I might see.” So simple, but what a prayer! It’s a prayer for each of us, for which of us can claim not to be blind? Yes, most of us can see. We can admire a painting, take photos, drive a car, even read the small type. But, no matter how eagle-eyed we think we are, there is so much we don’t see. Our eyes are open but most of the time not very widely. How often do we look at another human face and recognize the image of Christ?

One of the remarkable things about Henri Nouwen is how much he saw, how attentively, how thoroughly he saw, how unblind he was.

You probably recall the story of how Henri came to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and, hour after hour, gazed silently at Rembrandt’s painting of the Prodigal Son. His attentiveness so impressed the museum staff that Henri was brought a special chair so he could gaze at the painting more comfortably.

Henri developed a similar eye for icons. One of Henri’s achievements is that he played a significant role within Western Christianity in rediscovering and re-appreciating — perhaps we can say re-seeing — icons, the main art form of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, though for well over a thousand years icons were simply the liturgical art, East and West, of the undivided Church

The main monument to his love of icons that Henri left to us was his book Behold the Beauty of the Lord. This thin volume remains among the best introductions to icons — very accessible, not at all technical, with a directness and sobriety that one can describe as icon-like. With his usual immediacy, Henri explains how first one icon — Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon — and then several others — an icon of Mary holding Christ in her arms; an icon of the face of Christ; and a Pentecost icon — gained a place in his life and what he had learned from long periods of attentive living with them.

We are so used to what we think of as more realistic paintings — paintings that are more cinematic, paintings with a single vantage point and a single light source, paintings that we think of as three-dimensional — that icons often seem to many of us like kindergarten drawings. At one time it was the same for Henri. In the paintings of Rembrandt and Van Gogh, Henri found doors to heaven, but in the case of icons those doors were locked.

Of course he had seen icons in art history books, museums, churches and monasteries many times, but it wasn’t until his first visit to the L’Arche community in Trosly, France, in 1983 that he began to see icons with wide-open eyes. Barbara Swanekamp, assistant to L’Arche founder Jean Vanier, had put a reproduction of Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity on the table of the room where Henri was staying. “After gazing for many weeks at the icon,” Henri wrote in Behold the Beauty of the Lord, “I felt a deep urge to write down what I had gradually learned to see.”

[screen: Chagall painting]

Marc Chagall Untitled (Still Life with Fruit and Flowers), 1956-1957 Gouache, watercolor, and wax crayons on paper, 705 x 545 Gift of Victor and Anne-Marie Loeb, Bern, Switzerland B02.1630Henri’s sensitivity to the visual arts was a family trait. In the introduction to his book on icons, he recalls a Chagall painting his parents had purchased early in their marriage at a time when Chagall was hardly known — a watercolor of a vase filled with flowers placed on a sunlit window ledge, a simple yet radiant work, one easily recognized as the work of Chagall. (I have no photo of it to share with you but found this somewhat similar nighttime still life.) The painting made one aware not only of color and light and everyday beauty but of God’s silent, radiant life-giving energy. I recall seeing it when Henri brought me to stay with him at his father’s house. There were many other beautiful works of art in the house — the house was a small museum of fine art — but the Chagall watercolor stood out from the rest and still remains a fresh memory. “The flowers of Chagall,” Henri writes in Behold the Beauty of the Lord, “come to mind as I wondered why those four icons have become so important to me.”

The connection doesn’t surprise me. In fact Chagall’s work was deeply influenced by iconography. In some of his paintings the link is made explicit, but it is always there in more subtle ways. Chagall’s work was never held captive by the rules of perspective or the physics of gravity. People and animals fly. Fiddlers play on rooftops. Husbands and wives float in the kitchen. Like an iconographer, Chagall made his canvas a window revealing a hidden world charged with the divine presence. The Chagall painting Henri grew up with helped awaken in him a capacity to appreciate icons and understand their special language.

I remember Henri coming to visit us in the Dutch city of Alkmaar following his first stay at Trosly. He was very excited about the house gift he had brought with him, a print on heavy paper of the Holy Trinity icon. He had purchased it that morning at a religious art shop in Paris. Though he had not yet seen the actual icon — it was in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow — he was confident that the print came as close to the real thing as print technology would allow.

Though I had seen icons from time to time, until that day I confess I had taken little more than an academic interest in them. I was aware of Thomas Merton’s enthusiasm for them — he sometimes had sent me icon post cards — but for me this side of Merton had been hidden in a fog bank. It wasn’t until Henri’s visit that finally I began to see them with an excitement similar to his own.

[screen: Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon]2 Holy Trinity icon - Toronto lecture

I vividly recall Nancy and me sitting at Henri’s side as he explored, with childlike fascination, each detail of the Holy Trinity icon. I think he remarked first on the utterly submissive faces of the three angelic figures, each inclined toward the other, in a silent dialogue of self-giving love — three young beardless figures, so alike, three and yet in such a state of oneness. Such love. Such submissiveness. Henri spoke of their profound stillness, their deep silence, and yet also their warmth and vitality. Then we looked at the colors Andrei Rublev had chosen, though even the best reproduction can only hint at what Rublev had actually achieved, as I was to see for myself not long afterward when I first came to Moscow and visited the Tretyakov Gallery.

This icon, Henri reminded us, has its roots in the story told in Genesis in which Abraham and Sarah, under the oak of Mamre, are visited by angels. Their angelic guests are not the Holy Trinity but — in their oneness-threeness — an angelic revelation of the Trinity. Henri traced the perfect circle that invisibly contains the three angels. Then he traced a cross within the circle and then the triangle it also contained. All this significant geometry reveals the icon’s theology, yet none of it is heavy-handed. Then there was the table around which the three figures were placed — no longer just a plank of wood on which Abraham and Sarah ate their simple meals but transformed into the Eucharistic altar with a golden chalice. Above the three figures were three significant objects: a house with a doorless entrance, a tree, and a mountain. The doorless building, Henri said, is the Church, which one may enter without needing a key. The tree is the Tree of Life and also the Life-giving Cross. The mountain bending toward the angels is both Mount Sinai and the Mount of the Beatitudes.

Henri spoke about the history of this icon, how Rublev had painted it as the principal icon for the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity where the body of St. Sergius of Radonezh had been placed. St. Sergius, one of Russia’s most beloved saints, was a monk, woodworker and toy-maker who, in the 14th Century, founded a monastery in the dense forests north of Moscow. He left no writings. The only words that come down to us from St. Sergius are these: “The contemplation of the Holy Trinity destroys all enmity.” Through this icon, which for centuries was placed a few meters from the entombed body of St. Sergius, Rublev sought to provide an opportunity for the contemplation of the Holy Trinity.

It may have been from Henri that I first heard the comment of one of the martyrs of the Soviet era, the physicist, mathematician, theologian and priest, Pavel Florensky, who wrote: “Because of the absolute beauty of Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon, we know that God exists.” Henri understood this way of thinking — beauty bears witness to the existence of God.

For Henri, the Holy Trinity icon was an icon of “the house of love” — the Church as God intends it to be, the doors of which are never closed. All are invited.

Henri linked icons with the question: “What do we really choose to see?” It is a matter of enormous importance what we look at and how we look at it. “It makes a great difference,” Henri noted, “whether we see a flower or a snake, a gentle smile or menacing teeth, a dancing couple or a hostile crowd. We do have a choice. Just as we are responsible for what we eat, so we are responsible for what we see. It is easy to become a victim of the vast array of visual stimuli surrounding us. The ‘powers and principalities’ control many of our daily images. Posters, billboards, television, videos, movies and store windows continuously assault our eyes and inscribe their images upon our memories. We do not have to be passive victims of a world that wants to entertain and distract us. We can make decisions and choices. A spiritual life in the midst of our energy-draining society requires us to take conscious steps to safeguard that inner space where we can keep our eyes fixed on the beauty of the Lord.”

Henri proposed a theology of seeing — or gazing. Gazing was the verb he preferred. To really see something beautiful, such as a well-painted icon, so that its beauty becomes a sacramental reality, one has to do much more than glance. For Henri, the icon is the primary visual art of the Church. Nor could icons be divorced from the totality of the Church. The icon becomes a dead plant when it becomes simply a “work of art,” a “collector’s item,” an aesthetic object. For both Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen, icons were intimately connected with eucharistic life and daily prayer, with the Church calendar and its feasts and fasts.

[on screen: Vladimir Mother of God icon]2a Vladimirskaya icon - Toronto lecture

Like the Bible, the icon is a multi-generational creation made by the Church and also guarded by the Church. The icon is a witness to the truths the Church lives by. Each icon has dogmatic content.

For example, as Henri pointed out, any icon of Christ in the arms of his mother reminds us that Jesus took flesh in the flesh of her body. Christ’s bare feet, as seen for example in the Virgin of Vladimir icon, are a reminder that he was fully human, a boy and then a man who walked the same earth that we do. Though shown as an infant in size, he has the proportions of an adult. His clothing is metaphorical — he is dressed as an emperor, a reminder that in reality he rules the cosmos and invites each of us into his kingdom of mercy and love.

[screen: Rublev’s Pantocrator icon]3a Rublev Pantocrator icon - Toronto lecture

It’s quite a different Christ we see in images of the Savior as an adult. Such icons have in common the living memory of Christ’s face as seen by his disciples. Consider the Savior icon done by Rublev, only the face of which survived the iconoclasm of the Soviet period. It was found in a barn and was lucky not to have been used as firewood. As is always the case in icons of Christ, he has brown eyes, long brown hair parted in the center, a closely cropped beard, prominent cheek bones, Semitic features, olive skin, a high forehead. The quiet intensity of his gaze is both startling and challenging. This version of the icon is sometimes described as “Christ the Peacemaker.” It is certainly not a face of condemnation but rather a face of great expectation, a face that challenges. We see Christ’s face, Henri pointed out, as if we had opened a door and found him standing there. It’s remarkably similar to one of the oldest surviving Savior icons, one from the sixth century that is in the safekeeping of the monks of St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Desert.

[screen: Pantocrator icon from of St. Catherine’s Monastery]3b Sinai Pantocrator icon - Toronto lecture

Henri realized that the icon, far from being an artistic image intended to direct our attention away from the world we live in with all its agonies, is a school of active seeing. It helps reshape the way we see and relate to other people. The icon serves as a reminder that each person, no matter how damaged, is a bearer of God’s image and, like those whom we regard as saints, has the capacity to reclaim the lost likeness.

It is one thing to believe intellectually that each person is made in the image of God, no less than Adam and Eve, and yet another to actively seek that image and to relate to the other in ways that bear witness to that awareness. How changed we would be, how changed the world would be, if we saw each other as we really are. But, in glancing at each other, we tend to see the frames, not the paintings.

But not Henri.

[screen: contemporary Pantocrator icon]3c Pantocrator icon - Toronto lecture

Perhaps the most important event in the last phase of Henri’s life was his taking responsibility at Daybreak for Adam Arnett, a young man of twenty-five who could not speak, suffered frequent epileptic seizures and was utterly dependent on help from others. Adam was a person whom many would regard as a first-class case for abortion or, having managed to be born, an excellent candidate for what is euphemistically called “mercy killing.” It was no easy thing for Henri, far from the world’s most practical or physically well coordinated person, a man who had difficulty frying an egg or operating a washing machine, to center his life on attending to Adam’s numerous practical needs. Yet Adam became both physically and spiritually a person at the center of Henri’s life, one of Henri’s most important teachers. As Henri wrote:

“His heart, so transparent, reflected for me not only his person but also the heart of the universe and, indeed, the heart of God. After my many years of studying, reflecting and teaching theology, Adam came into my life, and by his life and his heart he announced to me and summarized all I had ever learned.” [Adam, p 38]

For Henri, Adam was the man of many needs he was but, at the same time, a living icon of Christ.

[screen: Chora Anastasis icon]4 Anastasis icon - Toronto lecture

Speaking of Adam, let’s end with an icon in which both Adam and Eve are portrayed. It’s an image especially linked with Easter — the harrowing of hell. Having died on the Cross, a triumphant and radiant Christ takes charge of the kingdom of death, overthrowing its governor, Satan, binding him in chains and then letting him fall with all his locks and keys into the abyss, while raising the righteous ancestors, first of all Adam and Eve, from their tombs. Amazing! Adam and Eve, the original troublemakers, the refugees from Eden, are the first objects of Christ’s infinite mercy.

The message? There is hope for each of us.

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Holy Disobedience

No!by Jim Forest

“No” is a word we should use more often.

Perhaps the most difficult “no” I ever pronounced happened while I was in the U.S. Navy, stationed in Washington, D.C. Having taken part in a peace demonstration in my free time and out-of-uniform, I quickly found myself in hot water. Afterward I was required to fill out a security form in which I was asked if there were any circumstances in which I might not “perform the duties which you may be called upon to take.” I read the question with dread, realizing that I could not find a way to answer that question honestly in a manner that would be acceptable to the Navy.

Getting back to my base along the Potomac, I went to the Catholic chapel to pray, read the New Testament, and think. Skipping supper, I remained there until at least midnight. For months I had been aware that the serious application of Catholicism’s just war doctrine would condemn any modern war if only because non-combatants had become war’s main casualties. Also how could anyone, Christian or otherwise, in or out of the military, promise automatic obedience to each and every future command? I thought of the many Germans who justified their obedience to demonic demands of the Hitler regime with the words: “I was only following orders.” I thought of Anne Frank and the Holocaust. But at the same time I was anxious about what would happen to me if I failed to commit myself to unqualified obedience. What would my colleagues think? How would they treat me? Finally I composed this paragraph:

“I would have to refuse to obey any order or fulfill any duty which I considered to be immoral, contrary to my conscience or in opposition to the teaching of my Church, as a Catholic. It is highly conceivable that there are duties that would be imposed on me during war time which I could not obey…. I would not assist in any attack or war effort which necessarily involved the death of non-combatants. I would obey no order in conflict with my convictions.”

While my commanding officer was furious, to my relief nearly all my colleagues treated me well, some of them even singing “Ain’t gonna study war no more.” My parish priest backed me up as did a professor of theology at Catholic University. Even my military chaplain, though puzzled, gave his approval, while noting, “I never heard about this sort of thing in seminary.” Within weeks I was granted an early discharge as a conscientious objector and went from the Navy directly to the Catholic Worker community in New York.

How lucky I was! Not many Catholic priests in those days would have been so supportive as the ones I turned to. But just two years later, in 1963, the pope himself, John XXIII, wrote an encyclical, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), in which conscience and disobedience were central topics. It was the first papal encyclical addressed not just to Catholics but to all people of good will.

The primary human right, Pope John pointed out, is the right to life. Without that no other right has any meaning. As no human activity so undermines the right to life as war (with abortion a close second), peacemaking is among the highest and most urgent human callings.

Pope John stressed the role of conscience: “The world’s Creator has stamped our inmost being with an order revealed to us by conscience.” He went on to declare that conscience could not be coerced either in religious matters or the relationship of the person to the state: “A regime which governs solely or mainly by means of threats and intimidation or promises of reward, provides no effective incentive to work for the common good…. Since all people are equal in natural dignity, no one has the capacity to force internal compliance on another. Only God can do that, for God alone scrutinizes and judges the secret counsels of the heart. Hence representatives of the state have no power to bind men in conscience, unless their own authority is tied to God’s authority, and is a participation in it.”

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

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

Peacemaking was the encyclical’s core issue. Pope John gave particular attention to dangers posed by weapons of mass destruction, declaring that, in this context, it is absurd to regard war as just:

“People nowadays are becoming more and more convinced that any disputes which may arise between nations must be resolved by negotiation and agreement, and not by recourse to arms…. This conviction owes its origin chiefly to the terrifying destructive force of modern weapons. It arises from fear of the ghastly and catastrophic consequences of their use. Thus, in this age of ours which prides itself on atomic power, it is irrational to believe that war is still an apt means of vindicating violated rights.”

More than half-a-century has passed. Conscientious objection and civil disobedience are not nearly so rare today as they were when Pope John’s encyclical was published. It’s no longer hard to find a priest who will speak up for those whose conscience leads them to say no to war, abortion or unjust social structures.

But saying no to those who can punish the noncompliant will always be hard, all the more when saying no violates a law. It becomes even harder when one feels obliged to commit acts of civil disobedience in order to challenge laws, policies and social structures which threaten life. Not just the law but immense social pressure makes us long to disappear into the crowd. Fear rather than love too often shapes our actions. “The root of war,” Thomas Merton famously observed, “is fear.”

Martin Luther King in jail
Martin Luther King in jail

Each January Americans celebrate as a national holiday the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., a pastor who was no stranger to jail cells. His Letter from Birmingham Jail has become required reading for anyone wanting to understand the civil rights movement. In it he declared: “One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

Conscience-led dissenters are rarely honored in their lifetimes but often are remembered with gratitude later on. Not many years ago a postage stamp was issued bearing the image of Henry David Thoreau, who coined the phrase “civil disobedience” and was jailed for refusing to pay an obligatory war tax. Who knows, perhaps one day we’ll have stamps honoring Dorothy Day, patron saint of no-sayers and jailbirds, and that troublesome Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan, who died just a few months ago after many years of consistent pro-life activity.

One lesson that can be distilled from such lives is very simple: Don’t be bullied or manipulated either into obedience or disobedience. God has given each of us a conscience. Form it well and learn to hear it. No one can hear it for you.

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Jim Forest has been jailed several times for acts of civil disobedience, on one occasion for more than a year after burning draft records as a protest against the Vietnam War. His latest book is The Root of War is Fear: Tomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers. Earlier books include biographies of Thomas Merton (Living With Wisdom) and Dorothy Day (All Is Grace) and Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment.

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For U.S. Catholic / draft as of 21 May 2016
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Nhat Hanh: Seeing with the Eyes of Compassion

Thich Nhat Hanh with my son Daniel, Paris 1974

by Jim Forest

[afterword to the first edition of Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness]

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

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

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

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

“If you care so much about your people, Mr. Hanh, why are you here? If you care so much for the people who are wounded, why don’t you spend your time with them?” At this point my recollection of the man’s words is replaced by the memory of the intense anger that overwhelmed me.

When he finished, I looked toward Nhat Hanh in bewilderment. What could he—or anyone—say? The spirit of the war itself had suddenly filled the room, and it seemed hard to breathe.

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

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

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

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

“Why not be angry with him,” I asked. “Even pacifists have a right to be angry.”

“If it were just myself, yes. But I am here to speak for Vietnamese peasants. I have to show them what we can be at our best.”

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

Until the mid-1970s, Nhat Hanh made no attempt to teach Western people any of the skills of meditation—what he calls mindfulness. Only in 1974, first with a few Western friends helping the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation in Paris, later with a group at that city’s Quaker International Center, did he begin to teach meditation. It was in this year that he wrote published The Miracle of Mindfulness, a small manual on meditation.

Nhat Hanh is a poet, Zen Master, and a cochairman of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. In Vietnam, he played a major role in the creation of “engaged Buddhism”—a profound religious renewal rooted in compassion and service out of which emerged countless projects that combined to help the war’s victims with nonviolent opposition to the war itself. For their work, thousands of Buddhists—nuns, monks, and laypeople—were shot or imprisoned.

His work in Vietnam gave birth to several institutions: a small monastery that was an early base of the nonviolent movement, the School of Youth for Social Service, Van Hanh University, and the La Boi Press, one of the principal vehicles for cultural and religious renewal.

Nhat Hanh’s poetry provides the words of many of the most popular songs in contemporary Vietnam, songs of hope surviving grief.

Even in exile, representing overseas the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, he has continued to be a force for nonviolence and reconciliation in his homeland and an organizer of supportive responses from other countries. (His friendship with Martin Luther King Jr. was a factor in Dr. King’s decision to ignore the advice of many colleagues and contributors who opposed his “mixing issues” and to join in the opposition to the Vietnam War. Shortly before his assassination, Dr. King nominated Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Prize for Peace.)

During conversations with Nhat Hanh and his coworkers in Paris, our thoughts turned to the absence of a meditative dimension in much of the American peace movement. Its absence helped explain why so much of the “peace” movement had exhibited such slight and superficial interest in the Buddhists’ nonviolent campaign against the war. The weaponless Buddhists were judged as not truly “political,” as “merely” a religious movement: admirable, unusually courageous when compared to other religious groups, but peripheral.

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

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

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

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

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

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text and photo copyright by Jim Forest

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Daniel Berrigan: The Poet and Priest as Prophet

Dan & Phil Berrigan cover of Time magazine 1971
Dan & Phil Berrigan cover of Time magazine 1971

a chapter from Witness of the Berrigans, edited by Stephen Halpert & Tom Murray (NY: Doubleday, 1972)

By Jim Forest

It was nearly midnight. Dan Berrigan and I, pushed along by a damp wind, were walking back toward the Jesuits’ Manhattan townhouse after a meeting with college students at a West Side hotel.

It must have been a confessional blackness, or some haunting within me pulling introspection toward judgment. Perhaps it was simply the awareness that this friend was also priest.

It wasn’t that Dan’s clothing announced the fact; there were no tipped hats, no Hello-Father exclamations as we walked along. Yet Dan’s priesthood was an unshedable fact, as if there were a cathedral dimension to him, a mysterious projection of there being—in himself—a large, safe, candled place, a kind of border station between our own routinized Flatland and the bottomless but gravity-held universe.

Confession was rare—in the constant raising of theological hemlines, it had become an unfashionable sacrament. Events that had once been seen as morally catastrophic were now often found suitable for a secularized Te Deum. As it was 1965, the Aquarian Age had not yet been announced, but there were multiplying assurances that guilt was as immobilizing to our potential selves as cinder blocks tied to helium-filled balloons. Guilt’s only surviving validity was public: America guilty of war crimes, the Russians guilty of making Stalinism equivalent to revolution, corporations guilty of ripping off the poor and peddling addictions (to consumption rather than heroin), the churches guilty of struggling for life only while it remained in the Eden of the womb, the schools guilty of burying alive the minds of children.

All true. But here was a tide of the obsolescent variety, that guilt knowing gravely the ways in which one’s personal, seemingly apolitical promises are edited down to “for better … for richer … in health … until ….”

Dan listened. Births always hard, my words were coming hard. But he seemed a cheerful midwife. I finished. Except for our stride against the pavement and the wet echo from the streets, we seemed to be a walking Quaker meeting.

“Hey, Jimmy, look at this!” We stopped. I had never been invited to window-shop in any confessional before. We were looking at every sort of sleep gear in a store window in a particularly wealthy zone of the Upper East Side: lace-trimmed, silk and velvet eye masks, pillows with radios inside, another with a tape recorder playing the sounds of rain and water, down-filled pajamas, Swiss-made ear plugs, cashmere slippers, fur-trimmed blankets, satin sheets. Dan was delighted, pointing from item to item. “Look at that, Jimmy! Mink ear muffs!”

The sleep-store window tour was Dan’s comment, I realized, on the confessionless, unexamined life, his particular way, that night, of laughing at the cushioned way-of-death we are patriotically assured is life, the granting of civic virtue to our daily, stand-up sleep. And it was a celebration. “Look, Jimmy!” Which is to say, Jimmy, now you can look, and this is where you were.

“With the authority I have received from the church, in the name of Jesus Christ, I absolve you from all your sins.”

Later we sat in the kitchen in the Jesuit house, laughing in the high-ceilinged space with its faded walls and ancient fixtures, drinking beer and watching the rain fall.

It was in the fall of 1961 that we first met. Dan had come down from Le Moyne in Syracuse and I had come up with Dorothy Day from the Catholic Worker’s house of hospitality near the Bowery; we met at a high-rise apartment in the Columbia University area, our host being William Robert Miller, jazz critic and then editor of the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s pacifist magazine, Fellowship.

Dan was wearing traditional, carefully tailored, dry-cleaned clericals, a small, lean man, short hair, pink skin. He was introduced to us as poet-theologian now founding an “international house” at which students would live in community in preparation for work in America’s economic colonies, particularly in Latin America. Dorothy was introduced, though we all knew, as Catholic Worker founder and presiding abbess of applied Christianity. Some comments were made linking the two with the ecclesiastical thaw that was astonishing the world as Pope John began proving to be something more providential than a pope between popes.

The introductions over, memory is perhaps caricaturing reality in having Dan immediately pull a sheaf of notes from a jacket pocket, proceeding at length to analyze the evolution of Catholic social teaching from scriptural times through the current instant.

Undoubtedly, it was an excellent paper, even suggestive, in style and content, of all that has since become so widely appreciated in Dan. For better or worse, however, honesty requires my admission of boredom. Dorothy, however, was less bored than annoyed. “Just like a priest!” she snapped as we began making our way back to the Lower East Side. “He didn’t leave room for anyone else to talk!”

We didn’t meet again until July of 1964. It was under the auspices of John Heidbrink of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a flamboyant Presbyterian minister more taken with Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, and Dorothy Day than with Calvin, Luther, or Tillich. John had gotten together contributions enough to bring Dan, Catholic lay-theologian Jim Douglass, myself, and a number of others to an international convocation of peace-concerned Christians to be held in Prague, this at a time when the Czechs’ secular aggiornamento seemed to be bringing together the best in religious and socialist thought and lifestyle.

Dan was already in Paris when we arrived, in fact standing in the gilded lobby of the Grand Hotel. The truth is, I didn’t recognize him. The tailored clericals had been replaced with a black cotton turtle neck, trim black chino slacks, a faded green windbreaker jacket, and a share-cropper-made leather tote bag slung over his shoulder (which we later discovered to be a mobile library and wine cellar).

But the transformation of vestments was less striking than that in face and aura. In 1961, despite the years of austerity and struggle, he seemed an unencumbered man, despite everything a well-scrubbed, secure American. Now the face seemed blizzard-worn. The pink had been blown away. It suggested bleached Maine rock, warm in summer, but etched with its experiences of winter. In our fervent embrace, once identities were known, there was also some tangible experience of an esprit that seemed in contrast to the earlier encounter, as if his flesh were now irrigated not with blood but with good French wine.

In fact some survivals had occurred. The Berrigan of 1961 was two or three generations removed from the Berrigan of 1964. Dan’s liturgical innovations (saying parts of the Mass in English well before such was officially authorized) and his militant involvement in the Syracuse civil rights scene (jeopardizing certain local contributions to the university) had caused considerable tension between him and his immediate superiors, a tension that was further irritated when permission could not be obtained for Dan to co-author a book with his Josephite brother, Philip (instead, two books eventually emerged, Philip’s No More Strangers and Dan’s They Call Us Dead Men).

The abuse of authority was such that Dan’s continuity in his Jesuit vocation seemed uncertain to close friends. Thomas Merton felt called upon, in correspondence with Dan, to warn him of the danger that “a violent break with superiors would tend to cast discredit on all the initiatives you have so far taken and render them all suspect as part of a dangerous process leading inevitably to radicalism and defection. If you allow this to happen … you must consider that you are turning adrift those who have begun to follow you and profit by your leadership, and you are also, at the same time, wreaking havoc in the minds of superiors who were perhaps timidly beginning to go along with you.” He urged Dan instead to separate himself from the situation and scout anew “the best Catholic opinion in Europe,” such individuals as Pere Regamey, the Dominican advocate of Gandhian nonviolence.

Dan had asked for, and had received, permission for a sabbatical in Paris, and it was here we found him. The stay included street-searching, river-walking, bread-buying, and there were meetings, particularly with two priest-workers. Impressive men. That they were priests caught me by complete surprise. We were in the Grail house and the smell of paint in the building had led me to assume these two were painters who happened to be taking a break in the room into which we had been ushered. One of them was very brawny, with a butcher’s arms and back, the other lean and quick, with a knife-fighter’s tense alertness. Both were formidable. It required Dan’s introduction for me to absorb the notion that they were priests, but I was again in for a surprise as I assumed they would talk in a gruff way. Instead they were very much like Dan — and, again, like Dan, shattering my stereotypes. The impact such men had had upon Dan was suddenly not academic at all; I had never imagined such a priesthood, never thought such a genuine worker-scholar synthesis (to use the Catholic Worker’s phrase) was possible.

Our last morning we were taken by Dan to breakfast with a crowd of university students who were running a Catholic Worker-style hospitality program in the thirteenth-century crypt of St. Severin Church near Notre Dame in the Latin Quarter of Paris. The church’s ancient cloister was used as a soup-serving area once each day, and the students had created a number of jobs—scrubbing grave markers and stonework was the major employment. Before our breakfast, we trooped into the church and, with Dan as celebrant, proceeded to celebrate a mass in English, my first such experience. Presbyterian John Heidbrink read the Gospel, and everyone—Protestant, Quaker, and Catholic—joined in sharing the consecrated bread and wine, “the living bread which has come down from heaven.” “Taste and see how good the Lord is,” Dan announced with a joyous face.

A.J. Muste has often used the phrase “holy disobedience.” Dan’s mass was such, for we were climbing over several of the fences in canon law, not disrespectfully but in recognition of what seemed a Spirit-warranted exception, the kind of transitional event that is inseparable from the process of making something new. Indeed we walked out of St. Severin’s gothic innards of cool, ancestral stone into the summer light, to see Notre Dame lifting her spires above the green treetops very much as our own spirits had been set to flight by our unanimous breaking of the bread of Christ.

The same day we arrived in Rome, crowding into a Vatican-owned hotel hanging over the Tiber. Over the coming days we had further walks and meetings, one in a regal palace library that had been the study of a Renaissance cardinal. One afternoon we wandered about in the archaeological excavations beneath a church near the Coliseum where water was rushing through stoneworks fitted together since before the angel declared unto Mary. The experience most engraved in memory is a trolley ride to the Vatican during which Dan astounded the Roman citizenry on board by announcing that the least the five or six Americans on board could do for international good will was offer some music, and that, in any event, public transportation required a liberation from its dourness. Dan immediately launched into leading us in Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” (Several years later, Dan began an introduction to a book by Sister Corita Kent with the comment, “The worst thing is an omnivorous solemnity.”)

In the midst of our continuing European explorations, we became increasingly preoccupied with the need to bring together some effort in the United States that could supplement the Catholic Worker’s established witness; there was an obvious need for much more to be done in providing support to Catholic conscientious objectors and draft resisters, and in encouraging nonviolent direct action to impede our society’s more murderous institutions; and more assistance was needed in building up new nonlethal structures. John’s encyclical Pacem in Terris, a revolutionary document, was in our hands, with such appeals from him as, “With all the authority we have received from Jesus Christ, we say, ‘Shun all thought of force!'” A great crossing in Christian consciousness seemed to have occurred, making official the hitherto prophetic recognition that the religious life was one of reconciliation—restoring communion—and that reconciliation presupposed effective response to injustice—an end to unnecessary suffering, if “injustice” is too abstract a word.

Peace, we were saying, is a particularly good word for revolution—if we understand peace well enough to know it is as much verb as noun, something other than a synonym for the passive acceptance of the intolerable.

The motivation was found not only in the issuing of Pacem in Terris but in less encouraging news. America’s involvement in Vietnam was much more on view in the French press than in our own. It was impossible not to realize that, however much competition existed between countries for lead place, America ranked first in disturbing the peace just as it ranked first in nearly every other measurable zone of human effort.

We resolved to found the Catholic Peace Fellowship. At the same time Dan hoped that, on returning to the United States in the fall, he might give at least a day a week to work at the Catholic Worker, with the soup line and the free-clothing room. He wanted to be more a priest-worker himself.

In fact, with his return and his assignment to the editorial staff of Jesuit Missions magazine in New York, the international crisis was such that there was no time left in Dan’s life for help with the soup line. The quicksand of Vietnam—the Land of Burning Children, as Dan would rename that country at Catonsville—was pulling under ever more life, and bringing to a boil all of America’s long-simmering internal difficulties.

We pushed forward with every scrap of energy in us to forge the Catholic Peace Fellowship into a new tool of consciousness-raising—and courage-freeing—in the American religious community. Thomas Merton, Gordon Zahn, and Phil Berrigan joined with us in pooling names and addresses from our various listings, and then along came Tom Cornell and Marty Corbin, both of the Catholic Worker newspaper staff.

a page by Dan from a journal I was keeping in September 1981
a page by Dan from a journal I was keeping in September 1981

We met together often, usually in Dan’s top-floor apartment in a townhouse that had been Emily Post’s at one time. His small room had hardly enough space for bed, desk, file cabinet, books, and electric typewriter, yet it was large enough to be stamped with Dan’s style, any available bit of wall or ceiling being used as area for a continually shifting collage of signs, posters, found objects, photos and postcards, a delicately balanced kaleidoscope that was a form of psychic self-portraiture, more revealing than the shapes of nose and ear. By January of 1965, we had an office about the size of Dan’s room, rented for twenty-five dollars a month from the War Resisters League, and enough to keep first me, and then Tom Cornell as well, going on a subsistence salary of $60 a week. Dan, Phil, and Hermene Evans, who had been on pilgrimage with us in Europe, were largely responsible for the funding.

A ritual of nearly weekly regularity soon emerged—Dan and I, usually joined by Tom Cornell —gathered in Dan’s room, celebrated a simple liturgy of the day, then went on to sort through letters, problems, ideas, and—not least—lunch. The style of our bread-breaking was as simple and graceful in line as a Shaker chair, and quiet enough to keep a silent-meeting Quaker from excessive anxiety. We took our turns reading from a worn paperback edition of the Phillip’s translation of “that old book,” as Thoreau called it. And then silence. Then some reflection, usually initiated by Dan, on the readings, perhaps even another reading—from Neruda or Auden or Peguy or Teilhard or Brecht or Merton. Then a simple canon prayer, most often from the Bible Missal which was then in wide use. Finally, after the unspectacular miracle of consecration, came the sharing in that miracle, and more silence, perhaps some prayer, and a Deo gratias-saying embrace at the end.

Apparently some valiant soul kept a stethoscope to the wall during these liturgical moments, for the day came when I found Dan in considerable depression, having just been told these eucharists were absolutely not allowed. There had, in fact, been a number of mild proddings to the same effect during previous weeks. So we sat forlorn, trying to talk about those things which would have come later on. In the midst of a half-hearted sentence, Dan stood up abruptly, went downstairs, and returned with two slices of rye bread. From its usual place in the file cabinet, a bottle of wine and a glass were removed, the books and papers on the desk-used drawing board pushed back, the bread and wine put in place, the Gospels taken up. Not a word was spoken. I was handed the book and thumbed around for what might be an appropriate reading. We each read and perhaps there was some dialogue. The memories are of silence and hurt and yet a granite-hard determination to go forward with an unpasteurized conscience. At last the bread on its plate was taken in hand, and the glass with its red wine in the other, silence where a canon prayer would ordinarily have been spoken, until a few intense but quiet words were spoken, “Let the Lord make of this what he will.”

And so we ate and drank, and with reverence.

Flak from the authorities was nearly our daily bread those days. Only because of a postal lag—a stop-order from Dan coming too slow in the mail—did his first anti-war speech make it into print in the Catholic Worker of March, 1965.

He had already become, a month earlier, one of many signatories to a “declaration of conscience” pledging “to encourage those who can conscientiously do so to refuse to serve in the Armed Forces.” The declaration urged others “to refuse … to take part in the manufacture or transportation of military equipment, or to work in the fields of military research and weapons development.” Very significantly, as few of the signers have yet proved to take the notion so seriously as Dan, they stated, “We shall encourage the development of nonviolent acts, including acts which involve civil disobedience, in order to stop the flow of American soldiers and munitions to Vietnam.”

He explained his decision to sign the declaration at a rally in New York’s Community Church the night of February 18:

It is astonishing to reflect how in time of war, the word of God tends to become complicated and diffuse. Suddenly, his word has a thousand footnotes, refining, clarifying, explaining away. The powers of the state show a mysterious concern for the integrity of the word of God. They issue their own tracts and texts. Believers must see that the God of all has suddenly taken sides for and against. A universal Love has narrowed itself to accept hate and to command hate. The message of peace is interpreted in favor of nationalism, of the ideologies of the moment, of the frenzies of human causes. The purity and simplicity of the Bible are clouded; it becomes a complicated and even devious thing to be a believer. One must approach God through a thousand others who speak for God, who talk another language than his, who issue commands counter to his commands.

So the question of where believers stand in wartime is of crucial moment, as it could never be in normal times. For in time of war, another god declares himself. His name is total war. He is determined to claim all men and everything that is in man. He claims conscience, consciousness, and community; he claims life and limb. He will have the world devastated, in the image of his own chaos and fury; the destruction of man is his universal and unassailable will.

For those who choose to reject this monstrous idol, there is small space in this world. Total war excommunicates the man of peace. It casts him out of his community, out of the human family, out of his future. It offers him a life of shame and, perhaps, death in disgrace.

Men of maturity and conscience are obliged to judge the actions of their society and to speak up. And where it is necessary, they are obliged to pay the price of their speech, to put their bodies where their words are, to stand in peaceable conflict with the powers of the state…

Our community today is a gathering together of peacemakers. We pray that the God of peace may cleanse us of our will to war, that he may bestow on us some measure of his wisdom and steadfastness in the tasks of peace. We gather, we pray together, and we disperse again, knowing that the work of peace cannot be accomplished in the churches; it can only begin here. The making of peace implies the will to return to our world in love, to stand firm in public, to confront the powers and principalities, to assert in time of war that no government which makes war can govern well; that we ourselves will not submit before a governing hand that would thrust weapons into our hands and command us away from the paths of peace.

Two days later he wrote me, “Probably it would be better if we killed the statement in the Catholic Worker… There is every indication publication of this would only exacerbate things … I suppose there is no restriction on mimeo’ed stuff.” But the letter arrived too late, the speech was in print, and the exacerbations occurred.

On March 5, he wrote, “These are very mysterious and dark waters we are walking. The question is, what next? … But it seems sure now the order is not going to take an all-out fallout position, probably due to many modifying pressures…”

Travels around the country and further writing were increasing his visibility. In editorial attacks on the “declaration of conscience,” with its support of nonviolent resistance, a number of editorial writers were calling for indictment and imprisonment of the signers.

On July 2, Dan, in a letter, reported the news that he was officially persona non grata in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. “I am in New York today, which is to say, I am not in Los Angeles. Which is to say, I was banned from there last week, a call arriving from Sister Corita [Kent] on Saturday with the sad news that the chancery had called and made it evident that I was unwelcome. It seems to me, without undue personal chagrin (I hope I have gotten beyond all that), that there may be a small footnote here for the Catholic community at large. But I leave the decision to you.” He then listed details of the topics he had hoped to discuss at the eight-day seminar at Immaculate Heart College (“on liturgical renewal, on crisis and community, on the beatitudes, the Mystical Body—and necessarily on the moral consequences in race and peace questions”). He went on, “It seems to me that the day when such tactics of intervention can be used undercover ought to be ended, as soon as can be done. At least it may be a service to church renewal to give the public the facts.”

An article Dan had written for the Association for International Development, a small Third World-oriented Catholic service agency, resulted in ties with the Kennedy family and visits with the family of Sargent Shriver, then director of the Peace Corps. Dan had begun the piece with the admission that

I am a member of a deprived and ever impoverished church, a church which is too poor in virtue to become poor in fact, too unsure and unconvinced to preach the gospel with clarity and vision, childishly attached to the bric-a-brac of honors, the double talk of diplomacy, the degrading favors of the rich, the idolatry of structures, the price of place.

I am a member of a deprived nation. I speak here of a moral poverty of the most frightful and pervasive kind. It is a poverty which clings with the grasp of death itself, to material well-being. It clings to its static goods, and fears mightily the winds of revolution. . . .

On October 15, a former LeMoyne student of Dan, shy of public speaking, had reached the decision that he could only offer a symbolic act in representing the Catholic Worker at a demonstration the next day. David Miller, in suit and tie, with close-cropped Nordic hair, stood on a truck in front of the lower Manhattan induction center, pulled out his draft cards and lit them in flame. Such acts had occurred often enough before, very frequently in Catholic Worker hands, but it had only been a few weeks since a furious congressman, seeing such card-burning in a Life magazine photo, had gotten the Congress specifically to outlaw “willful mutilation or destruction” of draft cards. A more general prohibition had previously existed. Even so, David’s act resulted in astonishing international attention.

Neither Dan nor Phil hesitated in leaping forward in articulate defense of David’s act and, for that matter, any form of non-violent resistance to the nation’s military processes.

On November 10, Roger LaPorte, a student and occasional volunteer at the Catholic Worker, sat down on the avenue facing the United Nations, poured kerosene upon himself, and struck a flame. When he died several days later in Bellevue Hospital, the priest who had been with him at the end reported, with tears, “He made the most devout confession I have ever heard.”

The Catholic Peace Fellowship, and Dan personally, refused to characterize Roger’s act as suicide. We saw him not choosing death but trying to make us choose life. He had hoped that, in seeing the routine consequence of war the moral and physical catastrophe of war might be less abstract to Americans. Our failing to see Roger’s act within the simplistic category of suicide brought nearer the noose of bureaucratic ecclesiastical judgment.

During those same days, a new, interfaith peace group was in formation—Clergy Concerned about Vietnam (later Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam)—with Dan, Rabbi Abraham Heschel and Reverend Richard Neuhaus, as co-chairmen. Its first public meeting, in a New York Protestant church, was scheduled to take place on November 30.

On November 16, Dan’s immediate superior, Father James Cotter, walked into Dan’s room saying, “The fat’s in the fire.”

Dan responded, “I haven’t got much fat, and Where’s the fire?”

“You’ve got to go on a trip.”

Dan called me at the CPF office, voice choked, and asked me to come up immediately. The memory now is only of the enormous burden of the decision that had immediately to be made, whether to accept the departure order, or to refuse it. In refusing it, there seemed reason to believe, the Society might not have the courage to overcome archdiocesan pressures for a solution more severe than an exodus order, and that Dan would be found canonically dispensable and dropped overboard by the Jesuits. “After all, we do have to get along with the cardinal,” a Jesuit commented.

My own view was that very little could be gained by resisting the order except divisive controversy in the church regarding the limits of authority; the issues that preoccupied Dan and the rest of us—nonviolent resistance to the war—would be largely ignored. Publicizing the situation, on the other hand, still allowed the issue of authority to be raised, and with it that of conscience, while keeping Dan in formal communion with both the Jesuits and the Church. There might even be some providence in going south for a while.

Without doubt Dan talked with others. It was, and has remained, his style to do hard thinking in a communal context, not turning his conscience over to others for programming but making sure all the possibilities have been explored, and his own leanings adequately tested. Somehow out of all that came the decision to take the one-way ticket.

At the Clergy Concerned meeting November 30, an empty chair on the stage had a sign on it reading, “Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J.”

On December 5, a full-page ad blasting Dan’s removal and with an extended list of prestigious signers, appeared in the New York Times. Editorials criticizing the transfer action appeared in Ave Maria and Commonweal as well as many other periodicals.

The following day the New York chancery office was picketed with such signs as, “St. Paul was a Rebel Too,” “Jesus was Arrested for Stirring Up the People,” “Free the Church from Stalinism,” and “Merry Christmas, Dan, Wherever You Are.”

On December 7, Dan wrote from Ivan Illich’s Centro de Investigaciones Culturales in Cuernavaca, Mexico, that “Letters coming in here, phone calls, and, yesterday, the copy of the National Catholic Reporter make it clear that great things are in the wind. And yet with their cost too. Phil wrote that Tom [Cornell] had been beaten after the Washington march… This is a terrible cost to pay for being a peacemaker, and one never gets to the point of not being appalled by the violence against those he loves… I am going along from day to day here, marveling at the strange ways of Providence… There is nothing to be worried over on my score. According to present reports, I will be going south from here in a week or ten days… Are people in good spirits? We have in a sense been through a lot since Roger’s death, but what a time of strength and joy too! … Mucho love to all…”

From Chile, February 17, as the proliferation of protests regarding Dan’s exile continued, Dan wrote, “A letter from my Provincial assures me I will be welcome back to NY for my work—that was a great relief indeed. I think all the fuss has helped some anchorites come to a better mind and brought a breath of freedom to more priests and laymen.” Characteristically, Dan continues: “Is this so?”

One of the more crushing experiences of the pilgrimage occurred in Rio de Janeiro, when a tropical storm of rare intensity tore into the city. Just after midnight, January 8, “the heavens opened.” The torrent continued through the night and through four days, sweeping the slum favellas of tin and cardboard down the hillsides into, as Dan described it at the Catonsville trial, “a stew of death.” It was, he wrote for his magazine, Jesuit Missions, “as though over the crest of the hills, a gigantic volcano had poured. The people were stricken like Pompeians in their beds, in darkness, without warning… The rickety houses shuddered and collapsed into pitiful matchwood debris, too insubstantial to be called rubble. One hundred and sixty are known dead.”

Recounting the experience at the trial, in an effort to gather those events that had prodded him toward resistance, Judge Thomson interjected, “What? Are you saying that the United States Government caused the flood?” “I think,” Dan answered, “the fact was a bit more subtle than that … [I] was saying, the resources of America, which belong in justice to the poor of the world, are squandered in war and war preparation.”

While in Brazil, news arrived of the death on February 15 of a fellow priest, Camillo Torres, reportedly shot to death by government troops while helping a wounded comrade in the ELN (the Army of National Liberation of Colombia). Again the question was raised: can the price of peacemaking be less than that exacted from those who opt for violent means in responding to injustice?

Dan returned to New York March 8, the one-way ticket now made round-trip, finding Jesuits—including Father Cotter—there to receive him with joy. The office of Jesuit Missions is doubtless still engraved with the celebration it endured.

At a press conference March 11, occasioned by publication of They Call Us Dead Men (essays) and No One Walks Waters (poems), it was made newly clear there would be no trimming of moral canvas. “Our presence in Southeast Asia,” Dan said, “represents a contempt for the rights of innocent individuals and constitutes a continuing divergence for the purposes of destruction of resources that are badly needed in other parts of the world… When I left in November, everything seemed so closed. Now the peace movement has grown in numbers and quality.” Wasting no time in putting his body where his words were, he was in the front ranks of a New York peace march March 30 in company with sixty priests, nuns, rabbis, and ministers, processing from synagogue, to Protestant church, to cathedral, then on to the United Nations.

The following day he was writing the CPF staff, suggesting we think more seriously about priests in the military. “The traditional idea [is] that the state throws bombs with its right hand and with its left calls on priests to succor the troops. But what of Popes John and Paul and the Council?” He suggested we work to open up the issue by getting some article and letters into print.

Yet increasingly Dan was becoming impatient with processions from church to church or new rounds of sparring in the press. In June he was thinking of the potential value of getting some Vietnamese Catholics into the country for a speaking tour.

Something of his mindset comes through in his comments that month on a draft of the CPF fund-appeal letter that he had been working on editorially: “The letter seems to me OK except I miss in it a note of urgency and push which the NY Times gives me each morning, the latest madness saying with a gargoyle grin, What are you going to do with this one, bud? The letter sounds a bit as though we were keeping house in normal times. Ha. Can’t you give … some hint of the wash of suffering the war is bringing home to our doorstep? Give us a bit of anguish, or why talk about hope?”

On the draft itself were penciled such additions or changes as, “You can read the extent of our need in your daily paper. The noise of violence is louder each day. How to declare peace as loudly as our government declares war? … how to raise in the religious community the painful questions the war itself has brought on so urgently, a religious community which has in the past expended far more energy on its internal welfare than on the question of whether and how man is to survive.”

Back in Paris again in October he reported on visits with Archbishop Thomas Roberts and a Mass with Cardinal Beran, long a political prisoner in Eastern Europe; Dan took heart in the use of liturgical symbol: barb wire surrounding a candle in a Jesuit chapel. “The night I arrived [here in Paris] I went to mass at St. Severin & afterward ate … at a little Vietnamese restaurant nearby, a room that somehow seats 12 people by a window where you can lean out & touch the building on the opposite side of the street … Luckily, I was wearing my beret & [my] French is passable so I do not think they knew I was a bomber-member.”

The idea of bringing Vietnamese Catholics to the United States was again raised. The Vietnamese in France “feel that part of our minority status as peace people is due to the massive American ignorance about Vietnam, while France, in spite of all else, always had a Vietnamese community, intermarriage, students here, etc…. Today I meet with priest-workers & friends in another part of town, then on to supper & meeting tomorrow with a French expert on China & his Chinese wife.” Dan’s good humor continued to survive his ever heightening sense of moral crisis. He confessed that part of the charm of France “is being able to move on—the French for a steady diet would be like Martel before breakfast.”

The momentum continued with few breaks and little shift in the style of life, except that a continuing effort was begun to “get under the bombs”—to go to North Vietnam. While in Paris he had gone to see some friends it was hoped could assist in obtaining a visa, but the effort seemed futile.

A letter to a Hiroshima survivor, the Jesuit’s father general, Pedro Arrupe, and then a visit, both undertaken in the hope of his providing more energetic encouragement of the American Jesuit community regarding opposition to the war and action to impede injustice, were successful only in the sense that Dan was given a close hearing. (Arrupe would later visit Dan in prison.)

Close ties had developed with the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, largely a consequence of friendship with Sister Jogues Egan, then president of Marymount Manhattan and later provincial for that region of the society. In June 1967, Dan was invited by the community to lead their retreat (retreat guidance had long been one of Dan’s most persistent activities) at the Benedictine monastery, St. Paul’s, near Newton, New Jersey.

Toward the end of the retreat, several of us from the Catholic Worker and the Catholic Peace Fellowship responded to an invitation to join them for a day, and to celebrate a baptism. The baptism was in the nearby lake; Dan was in a bathing suit, and wore a silver fish as a medal. Later Dan proposed to drive back to the city. “Then we could talk.” He had been on the road a great deal and there had been little chance for the regular closeness of the past. “We could talk—as the chorus girl said to the bishop, combining business with pleasure.”

One of the things we talked about, then and on other days, was whether or not he ought to go to Cornell. He had been invited to come up as an associate director of Cornell United Religious Work. He was torn between that and going south to a largely black campus. Receiving the message that it was more than due for whites to do a little work on whites, the choice was finally made for Cornell.

Arriving in September, it was little more than a month before Dan’s first experience of prison. With a contingent of Cornell students, he was arrested at midnight, October 22, for refusing, as ordered by police, to leave the Pentagon vicinity. He was one of the many thousands that had gathered at the military junction, doubtless bringing to the event more than sympathy with the idea that the five-walled city needed exorcism.

In jail, he records, two reflections occurred:

1. Why was I so long retarded from so crucially formative a happening?
2. What’s the big joke, You there?

In the diary he kept in prison appears the notation, “For the first time I put on the prison blue jeans and denim shirt; a clerical attire I highly recommend for the new church.”

The notation for October 27: “This is the day of Phil’s action in Baltimore. Oremus pro fratribus in periculo.” [Phil and three others had poured blood on draft files in Baltimore.]

Dan left prison the day Phil entered, a new tide free in him, a tormenting tide, for he was beginning to see a new life emerging.

On December 3 he wrote us

The question is whether we are helping people get radical, [whether we are] content to stay small and do things and encourage actions which will be evangelical and identifiable as such. Or are we trying to present an opposite “power” in the image of the opposite number, or at least something “presentable” to large numbers of Catholics, and therefore morally neutral—or liberal— but not radical, [not] at the roots.

All this is very painful to me because it’s so personal; one has experiences, such as the jailing and the threats of jail to those we love; and becomes convinced that equivalent risk is going to be the only source of community worth talking about. And that “expressive” acts such as Phil’s, once they are thoughtful and proceed from a sacrificing heart, must be multiplied. And that the masses may catch up as they wish, or not. But many will; at the invitation of such acts, which are educative in themselves, in the total sense.

…The constituency of those who could stomach us, or even join us, is always ready for anything but the one needful thing; which seems to me pretty much the definition of a liberal anyway. I am trying to say that to be ready with the act that fits the moment, like having an eyeball for a garden or an ear for the Beatles, and then to see or hear, is always in the nature of things something for a few. And that as the need of the time passes from being in public to being locked up against the public and the jailbird sings sweetest of all—who will come along with us then?

It was pure Zen, but Zen for life in time of plague. In fact the Zen spirit was needed, as events were rushing toward us at a pace we hadn’t yet endured.

The preparations for the trial of the Baltimore Four would have been enough to keep all of us fully occupied, but it was at this point that the invitation to North Vietnam at last arrived. With historian Howard Zinn, Dan had been invited to represent the American peace movement in bringing home three captured American flyers. Zinn and Dan left on their journey January 31,1968.

“In Hanoi I think we were the first Americans to undergo an American bombing attack,” he reported during the Catonsville trial. “When the burned draft files were brought into court as evidence, I could not help but recall that I had seen in Hanoi evidence of a very different nature. I saw, not boxes of burned papers—I saw parts of human bodies, preserved in alcohol.”

He returned saying he had “graduated from innocence.”

In April came the trial of the Baltimore Four. Listening to the judge “droning on, angry and fretful,” in the questioning of Phil’s prospective jurors, he recalled in writing how he himself had been safely “tucked away in a seminary in the Maryland hills” following the war with maps and radios, while Phil was in that war, “a soldier’s soldier, decorated and commissioned in the European theater.” He recalled his brother’s “boot camp training” in the ghettos of Washington, New Orleans, and Baltimore, and his later experience at the seminary in New York’s Hudson Valley—the surrounding community “racist to its bones”; and yet there was in Phil, Dan said, no vengefulness, not “even in his dark hours.”

“He was nobody’s fool,” Dan wrote on, “knowing so well through his own suffering the difference between pronunciamentos and performance. The poor, I think, had conferred on him that wisdom which sees through the big talk of little minds … despair is not the word for this man. Indeed, in a time of the breaking of men, is it not strange that one hears, in such lives, in such hands, in a room where justice is corrupted and the innocent are under ordeal, the sound of the breaking of bread?”

With Easter came a new wounding of consciousness, the self-immolation—as with Roger LaPorte—of a high school student in Syracuse. Again, Dan speaking at the trial: “The boy had come to a point of despair about the war. He had gone into the Catholic cathedral, drenched himself with kerosene, and immolated himself in the street. He was still living a month later. I was able to gain access to him. I smelled the odor of burning flesh, and I understood anew what I had seen in North Vietnam. … He died shortly thereafter. I felt my senses had been invaded in a new way … this boy’s death was being multiplied a thousand-fold in the “Land of Burning Children.”

The Catonsville action was already on its tracks, but Dan was not a passenger. Fear has its masks, many of them reasonable enough to keep a Jesuit mind at bay: However heroic resistance might be, does it not, after all, only add new fuel to reaction? Is there not some special value in one brother serving as an unimprisoned voice for the other? Can a frame less rugged than Phil’s endure in prison? (Though when one writer suggested Dan hesitated because he realized he “lacked physical stamina” and was “thin after years of fasting” and was also “prone to pneumonia,” Dan wrote down, “I really have a good deal of stamina; this makes me sound like La Boheme”)

On May 12, Dan sat down with Phil until four in the morning. At the end Phil announced, “Dan’s in.”

In explaining his decision to Father Paul Mayer, former retreat master at St. Paul’s Abbey in New Jersey, later the coordinator of the Catonsville Nine and Milwaukee Fourteen Defense Committees, he said, “They slap me on the back and tell me how great I am—and nothing happens.”

Or as he said during the trial, “I saw suddenly, and it struck with the force of lightning, that my position was false, that I was threatened with verbalizing my moral substance out of existence. I was placing upon young shoulders a filthy burden, the original sin of war. I was asking them to enter a ceremony of death. Although I was too old to carry a draft card, there were other ways of getting in trouble with a state that seemed determined upon multiplying the dead. … So I went to Hanoi, and then to Catonsville, and that is why I am here.”

Until 1968, May 17 was celebrated—if celebrated at all—as the Feast of Sts. Paschal, Ratho, Bruno, and Andrew Abellon. A liturgical calendar recently published by the Free Church in Berkeley (a sub-cultural but doctrinally orthodox Christian community that sees the church “as a party in competition with other parties” whose trouble presently springs from the bureaucrats who “have sold out on the Book’s party line”) lists May 17 as the Feast of the Catonsville Draft-Record Burning.

In the view of theologian James Douglass, it is a date to be kept in company with Jesus’ raid on the money-changers in the Temple courtyard and with Gandhi’s bending down, feloniously as the British court would quickly judge, to lift up a handful of sea salt for which no tax had been paid. In both instances, with extraordinary drama, a route back to ourselves was being demonstrated, for nothing happens—not the draft, not the war, not the schools or supermarkets—unless it is done by ourselves. We become a free people insofar as we dare to act as free persons, though the first to act freely will pay the price of extra wear, very much as does the cutting edge of any axe.

The nine chose to act in daylight and to wait. It could have been done more easily at night and anonymity would have been simply achieved even by amateurs. Yet the easier way would have merely endorsed the fears they chose to disinherit, for themselves, for others. Anonymous action breeds fear—it is, in fact, a dramatic endorsement of the fear that so effectively inhibits others, a declaration that trials and prison are an unendurable consequence. But that is just what wasn’t said. As Dan put it to us in the first formative sessions of the defense committee, “Our defense is simply this: we did it, we are glad we did it, and this is why we did it.”

One summer day between the Catonsville and Milwaukee actions, Linda Henry and I drove up to Dan’s apartment in Ithaca. The door was ajar—no Dan in sight. When we found him and mentioned the unlocked door, he said it was always open. “But won’t someone steal your things?” “If they do that, I suppose they need them.” He wasn’t solemn, but smiling. He busied himself cooking and pouring drinks. The ulcer he had during the months before Catonsville, he reported, had evaporated. “If it starts up again I am going to send the doctor bills to the White House—it is their ulcer, not mine.”

My notebook of the day records, above a drawing of bread crumbs, empty earthen chalice, and a copy of an old resister’s book, Prison Etiquette, “Tales of smoke and drink and friends. ‘It’s not the end, it’s the beginning and the middle I find difficult,’ Dan says.”

From the next day, on the following journal page, there is a drawing of Dan’s office—an American flag hanging from the ceiling, with four words written in large letters across the white stripes


Behind a lamp, on bright felt, toy handcuffs and a plastic billy club were hanging, as well as buttons—the largest one white on blue, proclaiming simply:


It happened this was a button in jeopardy, and so the talk was not entirely cheerful. There seemed considerable reason to believe that a decision had been reached in Rome, involving at least the Jesuit leadership, that Dan had become, in his felony, intolerable cargo. I wrote beneath a quotation from Allen Ginsberg (“Beware of all governments—Russia and the U.S. and China all abhor the blushing peony”) a poem for the day:

a way of saying
(the kingdom of
heaven is inside
of you, is a great
meal, is a mustard
seed, makes everything
brand new)
or one would hope
one would hope
but what is meant
is black beret perhaps
for Dan in Rome an
axe has been dispatched.

In fact the coming attractions proved far less grim, but that wasn’t to be learned for several weeks. Though many Jesuit doors were closed to him (even the society’s own St. Louis University), a Jesuit Committee of Conscience sprang into being, and with surprising speed the executioner’s axe was alchemized to marshmallow. Father Provincial Mitchell, using the theme “Our Brother Is in Need,” joined in efforts to stand by Dan and help in the financial burden of the defense. Where complete rejection had been feared, the final consequence was the first sign of official Jesuit support since Dan’s first entry into the peace movement.

All that has happened since is too widely known to require detailed recitation. There has been a trial, there have been appeals, there were four months in which he was available to nearly everyone but J. Edgar Hoover and his associates, there have been those seventy FBI agents disguised as bird-watchers—in the midst of a storm, no less —who gathered around Bill Stringfellow and Anthony Towne’s house on tiny Block Island where Dan was guest. And there is now the secularized monasticism of prison.

Yet—rightly—the day after Dan’s arrest was marked far less by mourning than with celebration. “DAN BERRIGAN IS FREE,” New York leaflet declared. “Would that more of us were as free of prison as is he.”

As he wrote to relatives from prison, “No point in mourning. Though I did myself, at first. It is dreadful that good friends suffer. But how else will anything get accomplished? We have had years and years trying to find just that other way. And then it came to this. Now my feeling is that, if we entertain regrets, it will be because we did not take it in the neck earlier. But better late than not at all.

“Of course we miss you. But in war people are always separated—and unarmed and killed, and we learn to bear with it. The worst has by no means happened to us—we are clothed and fed and have books, time, freedom to pray. The little we are asked to endure would be considered good fortune by millions of the world’s poor.

“It is in that spirit we try to go forward, to hearten our friends. Certainly for priests and nuns to be jailed is an honor in such days—it will be one of the few honors the Church can point to in years ahead. We are honored to know and love them.”

The question that is woven in and through everything he has said and done, the question still posed, is an invitation to leave the bleachers, to pull away from the television screen, to bury our fears of living an uninsured, nongovernment-inspected life. As he wrote in the meditation for Catonsville:

When, at what point, will you say No to this war?

Words to be read and sung, over and over, aloud and silently, as if it were a mantra.

Or as he put it in on the petals of a paper daisy that has disappeared along the way of prison and pilgrimage:

Don’t be like those humans, the Lord of the flowers said. Don’t give a damn about tomorrow.

* * *

some photos of Dan:

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.”