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A round table discussion between a few of Merton’s friends – Tommie O’Callaghan, Donald Allchin, Jim Forest and John Wu, Jr.
(a conversation chaired by David Scott, chairman of the Thomas Merton Society of Great Britain and Irealnd)
David Scott: The title of this conference is Your Heart is My Hermitage. We didn’t pick it particularly because it has a particular resonance. But we chose a wide title. I think it does give us some sense certainly of the solitude of Merton and also the passion and the friendship involved in his life. We are beginning our conference by asking the four people sitting beside me who knew and met Thomas Merton, to talk about their memories of him. As the years go by, this gets less and less possible so we are very honoured and delighted to welcome John Wu, who is standing in for Ron Seitz but is certainly a member of the panel in his own right, Donald Allchin, Tommie O’Callaghan and Jim Forest. I’ll introduce them briefly each as they come to speak. We’ve asked Donald to start. He’s the President of our Society and it’s very good to have him, because he really got us going two years ago. Had it not been for him, I don’t think we would have galvanised ourselves into action. Donald visited Merton in the 1960’s and brought back to England a great enthusiasm for Merton, and I think, for Merton, encouraged him to look again at his Anglican roots, amongst many other things. So, Donald, if you’d like to begin …
Donald Allchin: This is a wonderful occasion and it is wonderful that so many people here have come and especially I want to second what David has said – we are so grateful to so many of our American friends and people who are very much at the heart of the International Thomas Merton Society for coming to be with us. It’s a most wonderful starter – it’s a kind of booster rocket – for this, our first gathering here. In the current Merton Seasonal, which is the periodical produced by Bob Daggy in the Merton Archive in Louisville, there’s a reference to two categories of people: people who really knew Merton well, and people who claim to have known Merton. Well, I suppose I come into the second category. I always feel so on such an occasion. I have once or twice spoken before with Tommie. And with someone like Tommie who knew Merton intimately over the years, then I feel I am rather one of those people who claim to have known Merton.
It is true that I went three times to visit the monastery in the 1960’s. Each time I had three or four days there and each time I did have opportunities – wonderful opportunities – for long conversations with Thomas Merton. I think that was partly because Englishmen are pretty rare in Kentucky and Anglicans even rarer.
I’ll tell you a little incident from my first visit which will show you how correct I was in those days. I was evidently wearing a cassock, a kind of typical Anglican wrapover cassock, and after I had been there for a day or two, one or two American people in the guest house said, “Are you a Redemptorist lay brother? We’ve been trying to make out what that cassock is.” And I said, ” No, I am an Anglican.” ” Oh, and what kind of an order is that ?”, they said.
I confess that in the sixties, in Merton’s lifetime, when I was in America, I never told people that I had met him and talked to him because I think most people would simply not have believed me. And those who did believe me would have been so jealous that I would not have been able to bear it. All one knew about Thomas Merton, apart from the fact that everybody read his books, was that you couldn’t get at him. So in that sense it was an enormous sense of privilege which I had in making those visits.
On my first visit, I was introduced by a professor from the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, a very fine New Testament scholar who had been working for a year in Oxford. Now in the 1990’s, to be introduced to a Cistercian monastery by a Southern Baptist professor is perhaps not so strange. In the 1960’s, it was really almost unbelievable. I stayed for some days with Dr Dale Moody, the man who introduced me to Merton. I stayed with him for my first ever visit to the United States and I started my first visit to the United States in Kentucky and it was a wonderful thing to have done. I didn’t know what a good thing it was to have done until much later in a way when I looked back on it.
The first Sunday I was there, Dale Moody said “You had better go to your own church” so I went to St Mark’s Episcopal Church, a little church under the wing of a huge Baptist cathedral, which was how the Episcopal church is in Kentucky, a little tiny minority group with all these Baptist cathedrals dominating the landscape. The rector of the church said “We’ve got a visitor from England, the Reverend Mr Allchin from Oxford, England”, making it quite clear that I wasn’t from Oxford, Mississippi, ” And he’s staying up there in the Baptist seminary,” and there was a kind of gasp from the congregation. And as they came out, they shook my hand and said “Don’t let them convert you up there, will you ?” I said to Dale Moody, “You didn’t tell them that I was going on to stay with the Trappists at Gethsemani,” “They wouldn’t have believed me,” he said.
Anyhow, I was introduced to Tom Merton by a Southern Baptist. And when Dale Moody had left and I was left there sitting talking to Merton for the first time and feeling a bit shy – here I was talking to this man who was an internationally known writer and one or two of whose writings had influenced me very deeply, Tom said, “What have you been doing for the last few days that you’ve been staying in Kentucky ?” And I said “Dale has been taking me around and showing me some of the places and I’ve really been learning a little bit about the history of Kentucky and a lot about the Kentucky Revival in 1804 and 1805. ” . And then I said, “We went to Shakertown, to the Shaker village at Pleasant Ville. I must say I found it quite overwhelming. The buildings – there was something so beautiful about them. Do you know about the Shakers ?”
I shall never forget. He got up. He went over to his filing cabinet. He pulled out a drawer. He pulled out a file and there was a whole file of photographs of Shaker architecture and Shaker furniture – which in those days was not very well known. There were one or two books published in the States and available on it but not very well known. But Merton was right into it. He said, “I want to write a book about them.” Well, he never did but he did write one or two very interesting essays about the Shakers and he made use of the Shaker materials to illustrate the logos doctrine of St Maximus the Confessor in an absolutely brilliant way in his lectures on aesthetical and mystical theology which haven’t ever been published. One of the most beautiful passages in that document is the way in which he uses … he says, “If you want to have the logos of a bed or the logos of a chair, look at a Shaker bed, look at a Shaker chair, you can see what the innermost meaning is …”
So we started off on Shakers and that got us going. And from that time we never stopped. Now one of the difficult things which I found, I think it must have been after the ’67 visit, I thought to myself – I must make some notes of what we talked about – and I just found I couldn’t. I actually wrote him a little note to say that I found I couldn’t. I suppose it was because our conversation ranged so widely and so rapidly. We talked about so many different things. I was in some sense able to bring news and sometimes books or letters from people who Merton knew in England. I was able to bring him some kind of personal contact with the Russian Orthodox circles in Paris, especially the circle round Vladimir Lossky. He’d read Lossky’s book and been greatly influenced by it. We talked about those things. We talked about some of the poets in Britain. He greatly loved Edwin Muir. I think probably I introduced him to R.S.Thomas and he became very interested in R.S.Thomas’ work. And then, I don’t think it was my doing, but he discovered David Jones and that was a real discovery. We talked about … there were so many things we talked about. It was very difficult to make a kind of catalogue of them. There was a kind of quicksilver quality about the conversation.
The only time that I ever went up to the hermitage was in 1963. In 1967 and 1968, when he was living at the hermitage, he didn’t take me up. He came down and we had all our meetings in the guest house except in 1968, when we actually went out from the monastery, the only time that we did that. I think it was in 1967 that while we were talking, a message suddenly came through, “Father Abbot says would you talk to the Community before Compline.” I was a bit overawed by the thought of doing so, especially as I had hardly any time to prepare what I was going to say and Tom said “You must say yes.” So I did. And then I said, “What am I going to say to them ?” “Well,” he said, “tell them that you think the monastic life is important.” “Well,” I said, “they know that better than I do because they’re living it.” “Yes.” he said, “But they need to hear it from somebody outside.” So that’s what I did talk about as far as I can remember. I remember the Abbot, Dom James Fox, leaning over to me after the talk and saying, “We are going to have a little service now. It’s called Compline. Ever heard of that ?”
The third visit was in April 1968 and on this occasion I went with a friend, a student at the theological seminary in New York, where I was teaching at that time. We drove out and on this occasion Merton said, “Well, let’s go out for the day,” a thing he’d never done before and we went precisely to Pleasant Ville to the Shaker village and from there we went to Lexington and there was a rather memorable incident in the restaurant where we were having lunch. I was very correctly dressed with a clerical collar and a black [suit], always very correct in those days. And of course that didn’t particularly stand out in the restaurant. What stood out in the restaurant was my voice, which is quite normal here but isn’t quite normal in a restaurant in Lexington. A very smartly dressed lady came up and said, ” Oh Father, you must be from England.” And I said, “Yes, I’m from Oxford.” “Oh, from Oxford. Have you met our bishop ?” Well I’d been specially warned by friends not to meet the episcopal bishop if I could help it, so I hadn’t. So I said, “Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance.” Well, she talked to me for a bit and then she turned to this curious farmer who was sitting next to me and said, “And do you come from England, too ?” and Merton said, “No, I come from Nelson County, lady.” And she wondered what the strange old redneck was doing talking to this rather elegant young man from Oxford.
On the way back we stopped in a roadside café and had a cup of coffee. We looked at the television news which was telling us that Martin Luther King was in Memphis and that there was a sense that everything wasn’t going right. It was a very dangerous situation. And then the next item, which Merton records in his diary, was an item saying that Christiaan Barnard, the South African surgeon, had just done the first successful heart transplant operation ever. And evidently the news item said that this was a white man with a black man’s heart. The interviewer had asked him, “Doesn’t that feel very odd?” or something. Merton was amused and appalled by this particular element of the thing and was rather surprised that neither I nor Jerry had apparently noticed it. I had not noticed it for the simple reason that, by one of these extraordinary coincidences, I was expecting all the time to see my sister appear on the screen because she was head of the radiology department in that hospital, Groote Schuur, in Cape Town, where Christiaan Barnard was a surgeon and where the operation had taken place. She’d told me the last time that I’d met her what a difficult man he was. Anyhow, we drove on and it was as we drove on that over the car radio we heard the news that Martin Luther King had been shot. And Merton at once said, “We must go in to Bardstown. We must go and call at Colonel Hawks’ Diner.”
So we went to this small restaurant, a very nice little restaurant, which was kept by an African-American, Colonel Hawks, who was himself a Catholic and a great friend of the monastery and someone who Merton knew. And Merton knew that as a black man he would be devastated and also very anxious about his two children who were away at college … the whole situation was at that moment in a sense very fragile. And so we went and spent the evening there. It was a very memorable occasion in many ways, particularly because it was the first time that I had really met a black American in any depth. Colonel Hawks kept coming back to us – he was busy organising his restaurant and seeing that his guests were being served – but he kept coming back to us and talking and talking and talking. So that was the third time and, of course, the next time I got a telegram at Pusey House in Oxford in December with this extraordinary thing that Merton had died. But I must say, my quite immediate reaction was, in a very mild and distant way, I suppose, what was evidently the immediate reaction of Jean Leclercq. People were really worried, when Jean Leclercq came back that afternoon, how he would respond to the news because, perhaps, he was the person there [in Bangkok] who knew Merton best. And, as you know, Jean Leclercq simply said, ” Quelle joie !” ” What joy !”
I’ve gone on far too long. I’m sorry.
David Scott: Thank you, Donald, very much indeed for that. We’ll have an opportunity later on to come back with some questions but can I now ask Jim Forest to speak. Just one or two sentences for those of you who don’t know anything about Jim. It’s unlikely, I think. Jim still maintains his work for the peace movement in the Orthodox Church and I’m sure that must have been sparked off by his meetings with Thomas Merton and the whole background of the Catholic Workers Movement.
Jim, it’s lovely to have you here again and would you like now to speak for ten minutes or so on your memories of Thomas Merton.
Jim Forest: I’ve been trying hard for some time to think what to say about Thomas Merton because I’ve said much too much about him and written too much about him and I don’t like hearing myself say the same things over and over again. So I’m not going to tell the story about Merton laughing because of the smell of unwashed feet, for example. I’d rather talk about some of his qualities, as they impressed me. And perhaps attached to those qualities, appropriate stories . . . if I can think of appropriate stories. The qualities I can vouch for, but whether I can think of the stories that bear witness to them or not remains to be seen, because this is an absolutely extemporaneous and unpremeditated talk and it will, I hope, be not longer than ten minutes.
I think that one of the most impressive things to me about Merton was how uncontentious he was. I have been involved in something called the Peace Movement, which is not an aptly named movement. Those of you who have read Bleak House will remember Mrs Jellyby and she is more typical of the kind of person that we often have in our “peace movements.” I have sometimes thought that the way the peace movement has protected the world from World War III is by taking the most dangerous people into the peace movement where they are safely away from weapons and where they can do the least possible harm.
Merton was one of the least contentious persons that I have ever met in my life. The story I will tell is one that I learnt first from Merton. It is simply a story he liked to tell. It is one of the Desert Father stories and it is included in the Wisdom of the Desert, of two fathers who had been living together for twenty years or more, One of the fathers said to the other, “You know, we’ve never had an argument. It’s not too late. Let us see what it is like because men in the world are always arguing.” And so they discussed this and the other one said, “I have no idea how to do it.” The first one said, “It’s very simple. All we need is a brick. I’ll put the brick between us and I will say it’s mine and you will say it’s yours and then we will have an argument.” So the other one reluctantly agreed – agreeable person that he was, he agreed to argue. The first father came with a brick and put it in the middle and said, “This is my brick.” The other one did his very best and said “This is my brick,” – very meekly. The first shouted, “No, it is my brick !” And the other one said, “Well, in that case . . . it’s your brick. ”
I think this is rather the way Merton was. He was the last person in the world to invite somebody outside the bar for a fist-fight. He was not somebody who wanted to shed blood over a disagreement. Within the tradition of Christianity, you can think of him as being in the tradition of Erasmus. The things that we can’t sort out in this life, we will sort out in the next life. Let’s be patient. We don’t have to solve all of our problems here and now. There are various ways of understanding certain aspects of the tradition but what is very clear is we have to love each other. We hear this all the time. But what was very impressive about Merton to me was that this was actually the way he was. I would connect this to a tradition which I didn’t know at the time but which has become very dear to me in the Orthodox Church. If any of you are familiar with the ritual life of Orthodoxy you will know that from time to time, the deacon, or if there is no deacon, the priest, will come out from the Sanctuary and offer incense to all the icons and then, once he’s done that, will do the very same thing to all the people in the church, the reason being that each of us is an icon. We are all made, actually painted by God, written by God. We are icons from the hands of God. This fabulous significance of each person – we don’t very often meet people who communicate so comfortably and so deeply and richly the sense of the significance of the other. I’m very happy to tell you this is something which was normal, absolutely normal, with Merton.
The story that we’ve just heard from Donald about being in the restaurant. It wasn’t as if he was in some kind of terribly self-effacing mood, but just to say, “I come from Nelson County” was enough. And this gift that he had which some people say he developed from the time he lived in England – this somewhat self-effacing quality – he certainly never insisted to anybody that he was particularly important because that would stand in the way of the intimacy of the relationship, whichever kind of relationship it happened to be.
One of the funniest experiences I had at the monastery in some way touches upon this quality. The abbot found me a bit alarming. I had come hitchhiking down from the Catholic Worker in New York City and we didn’t very often see the barber – in fact I don’t know if I ever went to the barber once at the Catholic Worker. I haven’t the faintest idea how my hair got kept in order. It was certainly a sort of intimation of what was to happen with the Beatles some years later. But the abbot had apparently never had a guest whose hair was in such need of immediate attention and the word came down. Merton said to me at some point, “You know, the abbot is a little distressed about your hair. He wonders if you would be willing to have a haircut, otherwise he has to ask you to leave.” “Oh”, I said, “it’s no problem. This is not a relic or anything. I’m perfectly willing to have my hair cut.” So all the novices in this room where the novices changed into their work-clothes gathered round me while the shears were applied to my hair. The monk who was doing this asked, “How much do you want off ?” I looked around at all the monks. They had practically nothing, just a little stubble. I said, “That looks fine.” So I went from one extreme to the other while the monks stood there, just laughing and laughing. The abbot was, I think, a bit shocked at the extreme that I’d gone to. But still there was something about being with Merton that made one feel literally quite detached from just about everything. This was another quality. I would call it the quality of fearlessness. That I think is one of the most important attributes of Merton: that he communicated to so many people what it is like to live a fearless life.
If you read, as I am at the moment, the first of these volumes of his journals that are being published, you might keep it in the back of your mind while you are reading it, how open he is, how unprotective he is about himself, his future, and so on. There is some place where he just says that you have to abandon yourself completely, to love God and love your neighbour. This sense of abandonment. Not to be worried about the future and what will happen. Will you have the house? Will you have this and will you have that? Will people care about you? Will you be important? Etc. etc.
Although he didn’t speak about it very often and perhaps never spoke about it so transparently as in these early journals, this theme that we see picked up very early in the journals is of simply abandoning yourself so that you can live very freely in the Resurrection because there is nothing actually to worry about. There’s nothing we can do to prevent our death. There’s absolutely nothing we can do to prevent a good deal of suffering in our own lives. It’s all going to happen. And so you just say well that’s going to happen. The form it will take remains to be seen. The only thing that actually matters is just simply living in obedience, living in attentiveness to this wonderful creation that’s been given to us and which will carry us along in whatever way is necessary. This sense of the providence of God.
Whenever you meet somebody like that, it’s a life-changing experience. As much as people talk about it, when you encounter the reality of somebody who lives with that kind of absolute confidence in the providence of God, you are never the same again. It’s very freeing.
The last thing I want to point out is a very significant gift that Merton gave me around 1963. In terms of cash value it was worth practically nothing. It was a photograph of an icon. And that gift has continued little by little to reverberate in my life ever since, although I must say it took some years before I paid any attention to it. But I would say the last quality that strikes me, that has to do with this icon, is the sense that Merton had of the unity of the church.
Now we can all see how deeply divided the church is, how mercilessly divided it has been by events in history. It’s quite amazing when you encounter somebody who was so deeply nurtured by what is at the root of Christianity, the traditions of spiritual life of which the icon is one example. It’s a very important one for him. That love of the stories of the early church, the spiritual practices of the early church, his readiness to receive from any part of the church, from Orthodox, from Baptist, from Episcopalians, Anglicans and so forth and so forth, and then we go outside Christianity to all the different traditions of spiritual life that he found so amazing, so interesting, so helpful, so important, this deep underlying sense of the connectedness, the oneness that stands beneath divisions. And it was never a denial of division but that the way to deal with this division was to go more deeply. That some events of a healing nature occur because we go more deeply. And it’s not to heal the divisions that we go there but simply because we are in a process of coming closer to God.
I’m trying to think of moments with Merton where one could see something of this. It may not seem immediately relevant but I recall sitting on the porch of his hermitage with a Polish visitor to the monastery who had come with me from the Catholic Worker – he had arrived a few days later – an artist who had had some difficulty in his relationship with the Catholic church and was asking Merton to explain the Mass. And I have never heard anybody explain the Mass the way Merton did that day. He explained it as a dance, which I would only understand much later in my life really. It would just continue to sit in the back of my mind some place. Because I frankly didn’t see the dance element very often in the Masses that I was attending, and less and less, one might say, as the years passed. But none the less gradually it became clear to me that it should be and sometimes is a dance. And how remarkable it was that he could see that and that it would occur to him at that moment to explain worship in terms of that graceful movement, the ancient ritual motions that we engage in if we are lucky.
It’s a very original way, it may seem, of explaining liturgical life but actually it’s simply a return. Merton who was seen by so many as a radical turns out to be one of the great conservatives of the twentieth century, bringing back to us so many forgotten bits and pieces of the church that we simply forgot were there, just crumpled up in some sack in the attic somewhere, thrown into a sea-chest, that he would lovingly recover and present to us as news, which it was.
David Scott: Thank you very much indeed. John, John Wu from Taiwan. Rather cold yesterday and he came without a coat, but warming up. There are two things about John. The first is that he spent his honeymoon at Gethsemani – and that must be a rare occurence. The second was that it was through his father’s connection with Thomas Merton in that wonderful work, the poems and writings of Chuang Tzu, that the relationship began. Obviously [to John Wu] in a way you bring your father with you, don’t you, when you talk. So it’s very good to have you, not only for stepping in at the last moment but also for yourself. Over to you, John, for ten minutes of your memories …
John Wu: As David has said, I met Merton because of my father. That’s true. In the sixties I wasn’t particularly interested in Merton’s spiritual writings. I was more or less involved in some social protests – first in civil rights and then in the anti-war movement. The first writings that I read were of course the Seven Storey Mountain, but that was quickly forgotten. Later I began to read some of the writings on his social involvement, especially the writings in the Catholic Worker, which still costs one cent. I am sure if you have read the wonderful letters from Merton to Jim Forest you will understand very, very well … it’s almost like a capsule of the history of the peace movement in the sixties. Wonderful letters. But when I say wonderful letters, I don’t mean that they were untroubled letters. They pointed out some of the really interesting and painful conflicts that people who were involved in the peace movement felt. And Merton felt it. Merton had this great compassion to understand what individuals in the peace movement were feeling.
But let me just talk a little about our trip to Gethsemani. Again I was really not very much prepared to meet Merton. I had started writing to him, really very silly puerile letters which I have read again … and they are, they are very painful to read. They are collected at Bellarmine and I suggest you never look up those letters! But he wrote very beautiful letters to me and always very, very encouraging. I myself was going through problems especially academic problems and other problems. He gave good advice to me often. He had started writing to my father in the early sixties, I think it was March of 1961. The correspondence consisted of over eighty letters between them and they were very beautiful letters, very spiritual. Merton was really interesting when he was writing to Jim Forest, of course. You could see all the topical things and so on but to my father he wasn’t. He knew that my father wasn’t really so much involved in such things. He wrote on a plane. He seemed to write to each person on the plane that the person could be receptive. And this is, I think extremely important. Even when you read, and someone mentioned this at the last conference, reading some letters to teenagers in California, Merton was a teenager, he became a teenager when he was writing those letters. It’s a kind of compassion I think and now that I’m in my fifties I try to do that too. When I write to teenagers, I try to be a teenager too. Not in a condescending way. Really in a joyous way too, reliving those years. When I write to my children I try to do that too.
I think that as the years go by, my wife and I … she was a bride at that time, we just saw him for a couple of days. We saw him one afternoon from noon until the next day. Merton took us to some place in the forest and we camped overnight. I don’t remember him setting up the camp for us so we were really on our own. We also spent some time in the hermitage which was a wonderful experience. And the hermitage really was a mess at that time. This was in June of ’68 and by that time he was reading just about everything and people were simply sending him things. He had so many friends, publishing friends especially. But not only publishing friends. Just friends from everywhere. And they sent him many, many things and I remember seeing some books . . . I had just finished college at the time so I had read some of the books that he was reading too, which indicates something about him. He was really up to date on everything. He was reading people that I was interested in. For example, Herbert Marcuse. He was interested in Hannah Arendt. I remember I was reading her monumental work on totalitarianism. He was really very deeply interested and of course he wrote about that too.
He wrote about things at the time which many people would be shocked to find out that he’d been writing about. Marcuse was very interesting. I was reading Marcuse and I wasn’t particularly struck by his political thinking. He was a Neo-Marxist and a kind of a darling of the students in the mid-sixties. I was very happy when I took up One Dimensional Man and I was leafing through it and then Merton said, “Oh, you’re interested in Marcuse.” And I said, ” Well, yes. I’m very interested in him.” And he said, “Isn’t he wonderful when he writes about language ?” You wouldn’t really expect that because Marcuse was really, as I said, a Neo-Marxist. What would a Neo-Marxist be writing about language for ? And I said, “Yes!” Because that’s exactly what struck me when I was in college, reading the book. Marcuse did a wonderful critique on language, you see, trying to save language as a poet would try to save language. This is the thing that struck me. I was happy for that. You know when you are in college you don’t really have much self-confidence in things until perhaps an older person or someone whom you really respect, tells you that these things are important. That’s not the only book. There were other things too that we seem to have shared. What has been important for me through the years, in reading Thomas Merton, is really each time that I read, even the journals, the journal Jim mentioned, Run to The Mountain, what struck me in reading through that particular journal was really the ideas at such an early age … he was 24, 25, 26, … the themes that he wrote about as a young man, simply stuck with him and in time they simply flowered. He had great insight even as a young man.
At lunchtime I was speaking to Erlinda Paguio, who will be giving a paper tomorrow in our session. I was talking to her about what Merton had said to me about China. And he simply said it in passing. He said to me – this is back in 1968 – , “Well, every Chinese has been affected by the Revolution.” That’s a simple enough statement and at the time I didn’t really think anything of it. I was living the good life in America. In that sense I was affected too and I didn’t think about it. I didn’t think about how affected I really was until I visited Beijing about a month and a half ago. And those words, Merton’s words, came back to haunt me when I was in Beijing and thinking about the history of the revolution. What struck me was that, as I was talking to the people in Beijing – I had a very interesting time there, I was talking with taxi-drivers and workers and so on -, what struck me was that I began to feel a certain deep empathy with the Chinese there, on the mainland, that probably would not have been possible if I had not gone to Beijing. And Merton’s words came in to my mind at that time. I said, “Yes, indeed, I have been affected by the Revolution and I will continue to be affected by the Revolution, the more I become involved with the Chinese”. And also I think, for the first time in Beijing, (although I am ethnically Chinese, I was raised in America), I really felt that I was Chinese for good or for worse. I was Chinese and that in some way I was more deeply involved in what has happened to the Chinese than I thought before. And that was kind of interesting.
There are many, many things that I would like to say but I think that I have said enough. Thank you.
David Scott: We’re doing very well on time so there will be opportunities to come back to our speakers with any questions you might have a bit later on. Our final speaker in this panel of friends of Merton is Tommie O’Callaghan. One of the great joys of this conference is meeting the people whose names one has known as names but not as people. And so it’s super to see you, Tommie, because there really is a Tommie O’Callaghan for us English people. You’re not just a photograph in a book or someone who had picnics with Thomas Merton. Alas, I suppose the great thing that one knows about you from the books are those amazing picnics and here is a little plug for a very, very rare edition of Thomas Merton.
This is the official Thomas Merton Cookbook. There are three editions. One is Esther de Waal’s, one is mine and one is Jim Forest’s. It’s a work in progress so if you know anything about Merton’s food just let me know and we’ll add a few pages on.
Jim Forest: We’ll have to make one for Tommie …
David Scott: We will. Because, Tommie, you’re in it under the heading “How to Make a Picnic”, if I can find it here – I’m sure you all know it:-
“Recipe for a Good Picnic: Call Tommie O’Callaghan in Louisville and take it from there. Special dietary requirements are crackers without milk, like saltines – and you must tell me more about them – chicken is no problem. Letters passim and for a full list of picnic contents, see The Hermitage Years, page 109, that’s the English version.”
Tommie, I’m sure there’s so much more than that. And particularly there’s his contact with your family and the way family life comes across in the memories, in the books. And that for us has been very important – to think that a family is something that mattered to Merton as much as everything else. So over to you now for your memories. It’s lovely to have you …
Tommie O’Callaghan: Thank you. Well, it’s lovely to be here. I think that one of the most interesting parts of this whole business of knowing Merton has been the travels to the different meetings, and meeting so many wonderful people who are so absolutely fascinated and interested in the whole Tom Merton – not as “saint”, not as a relic man, nor as a guru, but as a real person … and he certainly was. And he was in our life.
I first met Merton in the early fifties through some friends who had a cousin out at Gethsemani and it was a fleeting “Hullo and how are you ?” I had gone to school in Bardstown, to a boarding school, had finished in ’49, the year after Seven Storey Mountain came out. Our senior trip incorporated a trip to Gethsemani and at that time I thought ” Oh, gee, that holy monk is out there in those fields somewhere.” And that was that.
After college I left and went to Manhattanville Sacred Heart in New York where I met Dan Walshe who was my philosophy professor. Of course I immediately told him that I was from Kentucky and he said he knew it well. We kept in touch over the years. Dan became ill in the late fifties and came to Louisville to recover, teach at the monastery at the request of Dom Fox and teach at Bellarmine College. Dan was a very holy man. He was not a religious and he spent weekends in our home because he was not one that wanted to stay at the monastery seven days a week. And Dan was very generous with his friends’ time, believe me I know, and he told me one time that Tom wanted me to do something, wanted me to take some letters over to Bellarmine. And this started a communication between Merton and me and my family that continued until the time of Tom’s death.
How Dan brought Tom into my life, into our life, I’m not quite sure. But he arrived there to the tune of a telephone call in the morning saying “I’m at the doctor’s, will you pick me up ? I need to go here. I need to go there.” And I became a sort of a chauffeur. But I also had six children at the time so I was skilled in this sort of work. And we enjoyed Merton. I liked him. He was very easy to be with. He was not at all pompous. He was not any great writer. He was just a good friend and a very easy, fun person to have around. As time went on, we became closer in that my children loved picnics, he loved children and he would call and say ” Do you want to bring everybody out for a picnic this Friday or Saturday or Sunday or whatever . . .” And we got into the habit of going to the monastery for picnics. We did a lot of June picnics at the monastery because we have a daughter whose birthday is in May and Colleen always wanted to have her birthday party out at the monastery so June became the better date rather than May to go out there. So at least every June we were there for a picnic. And there were many others. Listening to me, you’d think that he was never within the hermitage, that he was never really under the rule of silence. So understand when I say these things, that he was. But he occasionally took breaks and the breaks happened often to be with the O’Callaghan family and he thoroughly enjoyed the children but I don’t think he wanted to keep them there.
We were friends through the era that he was getting the hermitage, not getting the hermitage, going around and around with Dom James, cussing Dom James up one side and loving him down the other. And I must explain this. Dom James was his excuse. If he wanted to do something, he probably did it. But if someone wrote and said would you come and do this, he could always say no, you know my abbot will not let me travel. So Dom James was the father figure for Merton and we all have used parental figures in our lives as excuses. And that’s exactly how I feel their relationship was. They were very close. They certainly had their disagreements. But, you know, he was Dom James’ confessor. I mean that is the closeness that was there. And I know in one of the letters that Berrigan wrote him after Dom James had left office and Father Flavian had come in, Dan Berrigan, who was teaching at Le Moyne in Syracuse at the time, wrote and said that now that you have a new abbot who is more lenient you can come to Le Moyne and teach a class. And Tom had to face the fact and write to say that, “Thank you, but really I can’t leave. I didn’t join the monastery to leave”. And he did. He had used Dom James as the excuse. You know how you used to complain about your parents, letting you do this and not letting you do that. That is the relationship Merton had with Dom James. I think Dom James was perfect for Merton. I’m not trying to eradicate another thought that you might have but I just feel like I always have to say that.
Father John Loftus who was Dean of Bellarmine College in the early sixties was very instrumental in starting up the Bellarmine Merton Centre. Dom James and Father John Loftus were close friends but Father John Loftus and Thomas Merton were very, very close. Dan Walsh continued to be a part of this. Dan was still teaching at the monastery. He was teaching at Bellarmine and he was also teaching with the Passionists. So Dan continued to live in Louisville until his death. His death was after Tom’s. I met Jim Forest in ’69 just after Tom had died and I was very curious about this job of mine as a trustee. I knew that there were going to be a lot of “do’s” and “don’ts” on this trustee business and many things could not be printed, published or what have you without the trustees’ permission, which I didn’t begin to understand. But I was out at the monastery at a trustee meeting – James Laughlin, Naomi Burton and myself – and “his honour” was there. He said something about he was going to do this and he was going to do that and I said ” Well, you know you have to get permission from the Trustees.” And Jim said, “Well, I’ve never got permission for anything in my life and I’m certainly not going to start now with Merton stuff.” And I thought, “Oh, boy, here we go !” I knew what I was in for.
When Tom asked me to be a trustee it was certainly not because of my literary knowledge or abilities, but he needed someone from Kentucky who was going to be able to be involved with both the monastery and Bellarmine College and who was a native or a person living in that area. When he asked me if I would do this, James Laughlin of New Directions would be one, Naomi Burton Stone would be the second – both of course very much involved in the publishing, editing and literary business – and I would be the third one. And I said yes I would do it. I would not promise that I was going to read all those things that he wrote. I would keep a shrine in the living room with two candles and a picture and teach all the children to genuflect. And was there anything else I was supposed to do ? He said no; that was fine, that was fine. We had a good relationship. I never expected to have to go to work as a trustee so quickly.
We kept all of the letters, all of the files, at our home for about two years after Tom’s death. Brother Pat sent them in with me. At that time I did count … there were 1820 files of correspondence. They’ve gone up now because Bob [Daggy] has gotten more in. But that was how many files we had of letters to or from Merton. Frank and I think he must have worked all day and night on his readings, his letters and the writings. He was absolutely a phenomenal man. A delightful person, would love being here with us, probably is, and I thank you all very much …
David Scott: Thank you, Tommie, very much indeed. I expect that’s whetted our appetites to ask any questions and add any comment. I think now’s the time to break it open.
Jim Forest: Could I just tell one story about Dom James? I want just to add to what Tommie said about Dom James because you might be left with a wrong impression from my story about my haircut, to think that I was annoyed with the abbot. I wasn’t. I found it all part of the adventure of being there. It was just something that happened as part of the special weather. It didn’t bother me at all. But after I had the haircut, I received an invitation from Dom James to come and to visit with him. Merton told me how to find the abbot’s office. I was a little alarmed – I was always a little nervous about people in authority, but of course I went. I cannot remember any more what we talked about but I remember a pile of Wall Street Journals on his desk which wasn’t a publication I read regularly. I think he was a graduate of the Harvard Business School and I think he’d succeeded in making the abbey solvent which was a rather significant achievement. I don’t know very much about those things and I don’t remember any more of what we talked about. But the one thing I remembered vividly, it was quite a wonderful experience to be with him. The strong fatherly quality that he had as abbot, which is all that the word means, was very apparent. And at the end of our time together, he asked if I would like a blessing. Of course I said, “Yes. ” I knelt down on the floor in front of him and he put his hands on my head. And I have never had anybody leave their fingerprints in my brain ! It was really something ! This was not an inconsiderable experience. It shows you how strong the bone is around the brain. It was a very powerful blessing and it continues to reverberate inside of my little head.
David Scott: Good. Are there any questions which anyone would like to ask and I’m sure the panel will be very pleased to try and answer them.
Question: Could I ask if the new journals that are being published, are they quite new or are they putting together old journals, some of which have already been published ?
Tommie O’Callaghan: Merton never wrote anything just once. Remember that. Like many authors. But he kept an absolute daily diary and actually what you are seeing in the journals are his daily diaries. Run to the Mountain, which was the first one was edited by Brother Pat[rick Hart]. Now I do know that there are some parts of that which were found later … found, in fact, within the last six months, up at St Bonaventure’s and I think the paperback edition is going to have to try to have those in there. I just heard about it the other day, that there were, not many, but several pages that were found later. He wrote many pamphlets and books from journal notes so, yes, you are going to see, by reading the journals all the way through, you are going to see duplications, if you’re a big Merton reader, of some other things.
Jim Forest: But there’s a lot that I’ve never seen before. Lots.
John Wu: I think your question is whether the journals are a rehashing. They are not. At least not Run to the Mountain.
Tommie O’Callaghan: You know, Merton was not as allergic to things as he said he was. He would tell me never to bring cheese and you know you were talking about those soda crackers. I took Brie. I took anything. And he ate it. He was not nearly as allergic a person as he would have liked to have been … maybe a little bit of a hypochondriac.
John Wu: He was not allergic to beer at all.
Tommie O’Callaghan: Nor rum.
John Wu: Nor, I think, vodka. I remember there was a Brother Maurice who used to take water down to Merton, he bought in a bottle of vodka or gin when we were at the hermitage. I was shocked. I thought that monks were not supposed to drink at all. It was your fault, Tommie. You never told us that he was doing all these things and we had this terrible image of him as a …
Tommie O’Callaghan: You know, Donald, when you say that he didn’t want anybody to know who he was – the man from Nelson County story – I had an occasion. I had taken my sister . . . I was very careful about going out and taking people to meet Merton or even discuss him. I felt that our friendship was not something built on his literary works, it was simply a friendship and that was that. But my sister was in town and he had said bring her out to the hermitage and I did. When we got there he said, “Listen. There’s this jazz band playing down on Washington Street and I’d like to go”. And I said “Tonight ?” And he said “Yes.” Well, my husband, Frank, who seems to disappear out of the country when anything big is going on, was in South America, I guess, so Megan and I drove Tom in (I had seven children at that point) and I fed them dinner. Tom helped Kathy with her homework and I gathered some mutual friends, Ron and Sally Seitz, Pat and Ben Cunnington, Megan, myself, my brother and his wife, and we all went down to Washington Street to this jazz band.
There was a bass fiddler there who Tom just thought was great and he insisted we bring him over and buy him drinks, and guess who’s buying the drinks? And Tom is just taken with this guy who’s from Boston and he’s saying to him, “I’m a monk.” “I’m a Trappist monk.” and [the bass player] he’s saying, “Well, I’m a brother too.” And Tom said ” I live out at the monastery.” and he said, “Oh, we have a church up in Boston”. And it goes on like, “Can you top this ?” and so Tom says, “I am a priest,” and this guy says, “Brother, I’m a preacher.” They’re hitting it right off and the man is, in the black vernacular, a great jazz musician, just great. And then Tom says, “I’m Thomas Merton.” And this guy says, “Well, I’m Joe Jones !” And I mean Tom could get absolutely nowhere and I loved it, I just loved it. I called my brother to take him back that night because I really did have to get home to the seven children and get them up for school the next day. As I’m getting ready to leave, Tom stops me and says “Wait a minute. Waitress, give her the bill !”
Question: You’ve spoken of a man of enormous freedom of spirit. But the other side of that was that he had an extraordinarily disciplined personal spirituality. I wonder from your personal knowledge of him whether any of you can say a bit more about that. The way you saw that very different and secret kind of side to his life, his personal discipline and spirituality.
Jim Forest: I remember one of the conversations I had the first time I was at the monastery was with a priest who was the guest master, Father Francis. And Father Francis asked me, “How does Father Louis write all those books ?” Of course I hadn’t the faintest idea. What was interesting to me was that he didn’t know. He was a member of the community and he could see that Merton was living a fairly normal monastic life, that he was celebrating mass every day, that he was participating in the offices that were being sung by the choir monks, that he was somebody living a normal monastic life from the point of view of a brother monk. And if you read the essays in the book, Thomas Merton, Monk, for example, you see one monk after another recalling what it was like to live in community with Merton. And you can understand that they were all probably quite bewildered in much the way that Father Francis was by his ability to write many books in a relatively short period of time.
I saw him writing once, and this may seem irrelevant to your question, but I hope it will prove relevant. I had brought down a letter from somebody at the Catholic Worker who was rather critical of the monastic vocation and was challenging Merton to come to live at the Catholic Worker Community in New York. I was reluctantly delivering this letter because I had said I would do so. I didn’t agree with its point of view at all. And Merton said “The abbot probably won’t agree to me receiving or answering this letter, so I’ll write the answer now and you can take it back with you.” I regret to this day that I didn’t keep a copy of it but I am very happy that I saw him write the letter, because I have never in my life — and I am a writer, I’m a journalist, I’ve worked with writing people on close terms for most of my adult life — I’ve never seen anybody write with the speed of Merton. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that it was as if the paper caught fire passing through the big mechanical typewriter that was sitting on the desk in the room adjacent to the room where he gave his lectures to the novices. It just flew through the typewriter being covered at high speed with letters from the alphabet as it passed and sort of dented the ceiling. An unbelievably quick mind and the ability to organise his thoughts and to express them verbally at a speed which I have never seen anybody come close to. This meant that in periods when most of us are getting around to the salutation, he has finished the letter.
When you talk about these 1820 files of correspondence and so forth, you can only appreciate his ability to carry on these kind of relationships with people — and this is only the letters, this isn’t the books, and a lot of Merton stuff you’d be surprised to know is unpublished, not just the tapes but a good deal of written material is unpublished — the output was just phenomenal — I think actually that it was impossible, had it not been for the monastic life, the disciplined life he was leading. The productivity that he was capable of probably would not have been achieved if he had gone on to simply live as a layperson. We joke about Thomas Merton’s bottles of this, that and the other thing, champagne, gin and vodka, many bottles of beer and so on. I personally think he would have become an alcoholic and would have died at an early age if he hadn’t become a monk. He needed to be in a situation where there were people who could help him to channel his many good qualities and protect him from his self-destructiveness. He needed to be in a situation where there was a very high degree of discipline, spiritual discipline and a structured life. He needed that as a matter of life and death. And as a result of it, his ability to realise his gifts was saved and purified. And the bits of time that he had available per day to use for his work, his correspondence and his writing of various essays and books came in the spaces that were created by this discipline. This is a short answer because one could also talk about what you learn from him as a spiritual father and what he encourages you to do and so forth and so forth, which reflects his values…
Donald Allchin: I just want to say that from the little I’ve seen and also from simply working a little bit in the archives with some of the unpublished material at Bellarmine, I just back up 100% what Jim has said. He was a man of extraordinary inner discipline and he must have been a man of extraordinary intellectual discipline. In those last seven or eight years, he had so many different ideas that, as I have said, it was a kind of non-disintegrating explosion which was going on, so many ideas at work, writing to so many people and in every case he is actually being the person he is writing to. So he has a fantastic capacity which of course other great writers have too, to be many people at once, and yet at the same time at the middle of it there is an extraordinary principle of unity and integration. And the spiritual discipline I think was very hidden which is I think the sign of just how true it was because I think that it is one of the signs of real spiritual discipline that it should be hidden. I remember, because it was in a way so not typical, the first time I was there, and we went up to the hermitage, this was before he was living in the hermitage, there must have been a fridge, because we had iced water, he made the sign of the cross over the water. I don’t ever remember him doing that on another occasion but just for a moment you saw this deeply traditional monastic person, before we drank. And that’s all part of what Tommie was talking about. That’s the person. And what you were saying, Jim, that’s absolutely true as well. That was the wholeness of the man.
John Wu: And getting to the point of things. Understanding what was authentic and what was not. Separating the kernel from the shell. I think that’s very, very important. Certainly in his writings, you can turn to any page in his writings and point your finger to it and it’s relevant somehow. It’s not a waste of words at all. And I think that’s great discipline, great training and it starts early.
Question: This is a follow up on this. Were there particular exercises, for example, that he used either in the early days of his monasticism in the forties or after he established the hermitage to retire from the community, fasts – Lenten fasts or fasts at other times of the year – when it’s known that he subjected himself to particular austerities.
Donald Allchin: I would have guessed he was very simple in following the rule. When he went to Gethsemani, the Trappist rule was very austere physically. I was enormously struck the first time I was there in August 1963 by the fact that in those days there was absolutely no air-conditioning in the church. The church was extremely hot and the monks were still wearing very heavy habits. That changed. On that outward austerity of the life, Merton said to me, ” I think that one of the tragedies of our life twenty or thirty years ago, ” and he was speaking in the mid-sixties, ” We were living a very genuine monastic life and many people came who had a real call to the monastic life but they didn’t have a call for living in the 13th Century !” Which was his way of saying there was a proper kind of adaptation. He wasn’t sure whether they were doing it very well but there was an adaptation which they needed to make.
The most revealing letters on the subject of his personal life of prayer in the Hermitage are the letters to Abdul Aziz, the Pakistani Moslem writer who in a very Pakistani/Indian way kept asking him , “I want to know exactly what you do, I want to know exactly what you do.” And Merton didn’t want to tell him but he went on asking, so eventually he does tell him. It’s very simple. Just a basic kind of …
Jim Forest: Let me add a little bit to that. One of the problems with the letters to Abdul Aziz is that it is a perfect example of this gift Merton had of writing to people from almost within their own skin. Here he is writing to somebody who is in a tradition which radically rejects the Trinity, the Holy Trinity, which for Merton is absolutely at the centre of spiritual life. And it’s a remarkable letter in terms of trying to explain the Holy Trinity to a Moslem and at the same time to reveal …. he has to do that because he’s been asked to explain his spiritual life and to do so without reference to the Trinity is inconceivable. It would be so profoundly deceitful as to be a lie. So you see in the context of that letter what he is doing.
But it’s not all there and one of the irritating things, I think, for many people is that in this flood of books that Merton produced, the most intimate aspects of his spiritual life are more or less hidden. You have to read between the lines. And you have to know something about the rhythm of monastic life, the discipline of monastic life, the fundamental features of monastic spirituality and take that for granted. Because for all of the writing that he did, he is not revealing all this – what he takes for granted. To that you would probably find it interesting to add his discovery in the late fifties, by the time that he and the O’Callaghans were starting to have their picnics, he became very interested in the Hesychasts. I think Donald was one of the people who at a certain point became involved in that area of exploration in his life.
Now who are the Hesychasts? This is a spiritual tradition, basically, of Mount Athos, the Holy Mountain, the monastic tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy. It comes from a Greek word having to do with silence, inner stillness, and it’s associated with the Jesus Prayer. One of the things which I wish I had time to do would be to explore very carefully with a fine toothcomb Merton’s lectures, his letters, a lot of the unpublished material which was written strictly for monastic use. It wasn’t even written in a finished prose form. A lot of it was more in the form of notes, outlines and scattered reflections. I would love to see what is there on the Jesus Prayer because I know that in the last ten or twelve years of Merton’s life, the Jesus Prayer which is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” became a very important part of his spiritual practice. There’s not time here to talk about it but it’s good to be aware of it.
Donald Allchin: I’d just like to add one thing to that. In the Archive at Bellarmine there is a copy of the book which I am sure many people here know called The Art of Prayer, which is a prayer anthology from the Russian monastery of Valamo in Finland which was edited by Bishop Kallistos, Timothy Ware, and I think published about 1966 or 1967. In other words it is a book which Merton received about a year or two before his death. It’s quite clear from looking at the way the book is and the way the underlinings are, that he was not using it as a study book, he was using it as a prayer book, as a meditation book. It is very striking, it is the passages from Simeon the New Theologian, it is the passages about the use of the Jesus Prayer which are underlined and emphasised. There are lots about how extremely important in the last years of his life, that Eastern tradition of the Jesus Prayer was.
David Scott: We’ve probably got time for one more area of thought and questioning. If there is anyone … Tommie would like to say something, anyway.
Tommie O’Callaghan: You might be interested. We have started in Louisville a Thomas Merton Centre Foundation. It’s lay people and monks. It’s in coordination with the monastery and Bellarmine College and the idea is to support Bob Daggy’s Merton Centre. This spring, Fernando Beltrán gave a lecture and Margy Betz was there too with scholars that came in for a scholastic retreat, which was not open to the public. In planning our program for next year, I asked Father Timothy if he would consider a round table of those monks who knew Merton. Now we’re going away from what we’ve tried to do, the intellectual or the literary Merton. We are going to have a round table, such as this, of people like Dom Flavian, Father Timothy, John Eudes [Bamberger], the monks that were there with Merton either in his novitiate, who worked with him or were taught by him. This has never been done and I was amazed that Father Timothy said he would do it. But I explained to him that we weren’t trying to bring Merton down as a relic again, but there were people who were really interested in what he was like in that monastery – what was it like living with him ? Was he a pain or you know ? So we are going to have that, sometime in September in 1997 in Louisville, and I invite any and all of you that are free to keep in touch and we’ll let you know when. But I’m excited about the prospect of that.
David Scott: Thank you. I’m very grateful for the four participants here to have set us off with their memories. Time past and time future are both contained in time present. I guess we need the past and we’ve got the present and I hope that in the course of the next couple of days that we shall take those memories and use them for some ideas and thoughts for our own development, for our thoughts about the world in which we live so that Merton can help us reach out . . . and I’m sure you’d like to thank with me the four who’ve been with us just now to do that . . .
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The voice of Archbishop Anastasios
Archbishop Anastasios has a white beard and moustache. His hair is silver. His glasses have tortoise-shell frames with gold stems and thick lenses, though what you notice most of all is the twinkle in his welcoming brown eyes. His words are often echoed by hand gestures. While he never seems to hurry, he leads a busy life, as I was to see at close range during many days of travel at his side or visiting him at his office at the archdiocesan headquarters in Tirana. He rarely glances at his watch, but when he does it is not so much to know the hour as to signal that it’s time for the next thing he has to do.
When Archbishop Anastasios flew to Tirana from Athens on July 16, 1991, he was arriving in what had until recently been the world’s most militant atheist state. The 440 clergy that had served the Orthodox Church 60 years earlier had been reduced to 22, all old and frail, some close to death.
While Archbishop Anastasios could recall occasionally citing Albania as providing one of the most extreme examples of religious persecution since the age of Diocletian, it had never crossed his mind that Albania might one day become his home and that he would become responsible for leading a Church that most of the world regarded as not only oppressed but extinct.
Born November 4, 1929, in Piraeus, Greece, it was by no means certain Anastasios Yannoulatos would become more than a nominal Christian. He grew up in a period when life seemed mainly shaped by secular ideologies, wars, politics and economics, with many of his peers regarding the Orthodox Church as little more than a decorative social vestige of the past.
When he was six, an army-backed dictatorship lead by General Ioannis Metaxas was established in Greece. Metaxas liked the titles “First Peasant,” “First Worker” and “National Father.” He led a fascist regime, though one independently minded and non-racist, resisting alliances with its counterparts in Germany and Italy. From bases in Albania, Italy invaded Greece in 1940. Anastasios was ten. While Italian forces were quickly pushed back into Albania, the following year the German army arrived in force. Greeks found themselves subject to a harsh tripartite German, Italian, and Bulgarian occupation, with civil war breaking out between factions of the resistance — the royalist right versus the Marxist left — even before occupation troops began to withdraw late in 1944. Anastasios was nearly 20 when civil conflict in Greece finally ended, the United States having weighed in on the side of democratic forces.
“I have many memories of the Second World War and the civil war in Greece that followed,” he told me. “This made me ask: Where is freedom and love? Many found their direction in the Communist movement, but I could not imagine that freedom and love could result from the Communist Party or any other party. Very early in my life there was a longing for something authentic. During the war we had no school — we were more free. I read a lot, so many books! Not all of them helped my faith — Marx, Freud, Feuerbach. But there was a turning point. I can remember as if it were yesterday kneeling on the roof of our home, saying, ‘Do you exist or not? Is it true there is a God of love? Show your love. Give me a sign.’
“When you say such a prayer, the answer comes. It does not come with angels singing but you realize God is there, in front of you and what He says is ‘I ask for you — not something from you.’ You understand in such a moment what is important is not to give but to be given.
“That prayer was when I was a teenager. You can see why I have such a respect for teenagers. It can be a time when you ask the most important questions and are willing to hear the answer that is without words. Love and respect is shown to young people not in words but in the way you approach them, how you see them. It is the same with very old people in difficult times, people who are suffering.”
In his teens Anastasios studied at a gymnasium in Athens. His main strength was in mathematics, but he had excellent grades in all his subjects. He graduated first in the school. “A certain path in life seemed obvious to everyone, but within myself there was a sense of being called toward the Church, not something everyone I knew sympathized with! At a critical moment, wrestling with the question what is essential, I turned toward freedom and love. It was a turn toward Christ, in whom I saw the only answer.”
Finally he applied for the Theological Faculty of Athens University. “It was, of course, the age of technology. My decision to become a theology student was a scandal. What a waste! This is what many of my friends and teachers thought at the time.”
While studying theology, he found himself drawn into Orthodox youth activities through which opportunities arose to meet young Orthodox Christians from other countries, an experience which made him realize that Christianity was far larger than Greece.
After being drafted into the Greek army for a term, where he served as a communications officer, he returned to academic life, now going further with developing communication skills — homiletics and journalism. At the same time youth work continued, which always included religious education. He began training other catechists, finally writing text books for a three-year program of religious education for youth. More than a quarter century and eight editions later, the books remained a standard in Greek Sunday schools.
I asked him about sources of inspiration in his childhood.
“As a young person I had been deeply moved by stories of Father Damian, a Catholic priest who served lepers in Hawaii, and also Albert Schweitzer. I asked myself whatever happened to our missionary tradition in the Orthodox Church? Where were the Orthodox missionaries? What are we doing to share our faith with others? What are we doing to reach all those people who have never heard the Gospel? I realized that indifference to missions is a denial of Orthodoxy and a denial of Christ. How had it happened that a Church called to baptize the nations was so indifferent to the nations? Saint Paul brought the Gospel to Greeks. Who were we bringing it to?”
It was a pivotal question that would shape the rest of his life.
In 1959 he founded a quarterly bi-lingual (Greek and English) magazine, Porefthendes (Go Ye), devoted to the study of the history, theology, methods and spirit of Orthodox mission. “With all my talk about mission, I was regarded at first as very romantic, but gradually people began to understand that a Church is not apostolic if it is not involved in mission activity. Apostolic means to be like the apostles, every one of whom was a missionary.” The journal lasted only a decade but its existence occasioned the resurrection of the mission tradition in the contemporary Orthodox Church.
In 1961, thanks to decisions made at the fifth assembly of Syndesmos, the Orthodox youth movement, a center also named Porefthendes was established in Athens with Anastasios as director. This in turn involved him in international ecumenical meetings on mission, events often organized by the World Council of Churches. Anastasios became a member of the WCC’s Working Committee on Mission Studies. He has since held a number of WCC leadership positions.
It was the desire to serve the Church as a missionary that finally brought him to ordination as a priest. “When I was 33, at Christmas time, I went to a remote monastic skete on the island of Patmos. This is a period of the year when there are few if any tourists. You experience absolute silence and isolation. During this time I again considered returning to missionary activity. The question formed in my mind: What about the dangers you will face? Then came the response: “Is God enough for you? If God is enough for you, go! If not, stay where you are.” Then a second question followed: “If God is not enough for you, then in what God do you believe?”
“In the evening of the day I was ordained a priest in May 1964, I flew to Uganda, which I had thought about so often and with such longing. I thought Africa would be my home for the remainder of my life, but malaria ended that dream. It was the malaria of the Great Lakes, which can attack the brain. The first symptom was loss of balance. Then I had a fever of 40 degrees. It was my first experience of being close to death. I remember the phrase that formed in my thoughts when I thought I would die: ‘My Lord, you know that I tried to love you.’ Then I slept — and the next day I felt well! But this was only a providential remission. There was a second attack when I went to Geneva to attend a mission conference. Fortunately doctors there were able to identify the illness and knew how to treat it. But I had a complete breakdown of health. When I was well enough to leave the hospital they said I must forget about returning to Africa.
This was like a second mortal wound for me. Friends said to me. ‘You don’t have to be a missionary — you can inspire others to be missionaries through your teaching.’ But it had always been clear to me that what you say you must also do — how could I teach what I wasn’t living?”
In the end Anastasios returned to his scholarly studies, but did not forget Africa. He received the prestigious “Alexander von Humboldt” scholarship and pursued post graduate studies at the Universities of Hamburg and Marburg, Germany from 1965-69. He specialized in the History of Religion, but also studied ethnology, missiology, and Africanology, with a main interest in studying African symbolism from the Orthodox perspective. His dissertation was entitled, The Spirits Mbandwa and the Frame of their Cult: A Research on the African Religion of Western Uganda.
In 1969, the WCC called Archimandrite Anastasios to accept a position created for him in the Commission of World Mission and Evangelism as the “Secretary for Research and Relation with the Orthodox Churches.”
By 1972 he was elected by the Faculty of Theology of Athens University as associate professor of the History of Religions. The same year, in recognition of the importance of his academic work, with his emphasis on mission, he was ordained Bishop of Androussa, with a special responsibility to be the general director of Apostoliki Diakonia of the Church of Greece. Four years later he became full professor.
Throughout the decade of the 1970s, he published four original studies on African religions, emphasizing the special respect we owe to the African past, and the necessity to properly understand it for any Orthodox witness among the Africans. He also made a special effort among his students to instill a sincere love and respect for the African people, and to understand the worldwide responsibility for an Orthodox witness. (Today, a number of these former students, including His Beatitude, Patriarch Petros, presently serve as Metropolitans under the Patriarchate of Alexandria in Africa.)
During this decade, he also became the first scholar in Greece to publish a general survey of Islam, a book in which he strongly advocated inter-religious dialogue, especially between Orthodoxy and Islam.
At the same period, he was involved in the ecumenical movement, serving as a member of the WCC’s theological working group on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies (1975-83). He later became the first Orthodox moderator of the Commission for Mission and Evangelism (1984-91), presiding over the San Antonio World Mission Conference in 1989.
In 1981, the Orthodox Church in East Africa was in a state of division and severe crisis. Patriarch Nicholas of Alexandria asked Bishop Anastasios for help restore the local African Church and become the acting archbishop of East Africa. In order to fulfill this task, he received permission from the University of Athens to restrict his academic work to one semester per year, and used the other semester, plus his vacation time, to live and work in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania.
After a fruitful decade in Africa, he could begin to contemplate eventually returning to the University of Athens and devoting himself to teaching and writing. Instead something altogether unimagined intervened in his life: neither Africa nor Athens but Albania.
In January 1991, one month after the government in Tirana had allowed the formation of non-Communist political parties, the Ecumenical Patriarchate took the initiative to re-establish the Church of Albania. Two months after his 61st birthday, Anastasios received a telephone call from the patriarchate in Constantinople asking if he would be willing to go to Albania as Exarch to see what if anything was left of the Orthodox Church. It was at the time intended not as a permanent assignment, only a reconnaissance effort to see if and how the local Church could be revived. It would require, however, a substantial interruption of his work in Africa.
After a time of prayer, he said yes, though it would take six months before the reluctant authorities in Tirana finally issued a visa, and that was only for one month. “The Communist times were over, but not completely. Attitudes formed in the course of many years of propaganda do not change quickly. However, once in the country, my visa was extended.”
Anastasios showed me several photos taken the day he arrived in Tirana. “It was a wonderful experience stepping off the airplane and being received by the people who had come to welcome me. It was a bright summer day, but the light seemed mainly to come from faces rather than the sun. Such joy!”
Delaying his arrival at an official reception arranged by Albania’s president, Anastasios’ first action was to visit Tirana’s temporary cathedral, though still in a devastated condition with a large hole in the roof. The old cathedral on the city’s main square had been demolished years before to make way for a hotel. The one church in Tirana that was beginning to serve as a place of public worship had been a gymnasium since 1967. Though the Easter season was past, on his arrival Anastasios gave everyone present the Paschal greeting, “Christ is risen!”, lit a candle and embraced local believers. “Everyone was weeping,” he remembers, “and I was not an exception.”
It was a far from easy life for Anastasios and those working with him. “When I first came to Tirana, I stayed in a hotel the first month. There was no other possibility. After that I was able to rent a small house with two floors, two rooms on each floor. I had a small office and bedroom above and a kitchen and meeting room below. There was a lack of water, lack of heat, lack of electricity. For me the cold was the most difficult. This was our Archdiocese at that time. I recall how surprised the government was that I had no bodyguards. It amazed them that I wasn’t interested in such ‘security’!”
He quickly discovered that in this corner of Europe a degree of poverty existed which he had not encountered before. “Of course there was great poverty in East Africa, but at least most people there had their own garden. Here that isn’t the case. Like so many Albanians, my diet that summer in Albania was chiefly watermelon, bread, tomatoes and oil.”
He had no idea when he stepped off the plane in Tirana that July day he had arrived at what would be his home for the rest of his life. “My mission as Exarch was only to discover what if anything of the local Church had survived the decades of extreme repression and to see if there were suitable candidates for consecration as bishops who had survived. Only later was I asked by authorities of the Patriarchate if I would be willing to accept election as Archbishop of Albania. After a period of reflection and prayer, I was open, depending on three conditions. The first was that it must be clear that this was the wish of the Orthodox in Albania. Second, that this was the desire of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Third, that the Albanian authorities would accept this decision. Otherwise the situation of the Church would only be made more difficult. My answer was much less than yes! I was like Jonah looking for a path of escape! But inside my prayer was, ‘Your will be done.’
“The Orthodox people were indeed pressing me to stay. They made it clear day after day. And how could I refuse them? How could I say I had a different plan for the rest of my life? Remaining in Albania would mean putting aside all the ideas I had about what I would be doing with the remainder of my life — a peaceful retirement in Greece, giving occasional lectures at the university and writing books. I had collected a vast amount of material on the history of religion in various countries and had a scholarly desire to elaborate and publish all that material. I knew that if I stayed I would have to give my undivided attention to Albania. All other plans and interests would have to be put completely aside.”
“On June 24, 1992, following the proposal of the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, the Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate unanimously elected me as head of the Orthodox Church of Albania. After overcoming serious difficulties, I accepted the appointment by giving the “Great Message” on July 12. The enthronement occurred on August 2, in the presence of all the clergy and lay leaders of Albania. In fact I was not so much accepting a throne — that sounds rather comfortable! — but embracing the Cross.
“Remarkably, the Berisha government had acceded to my election, but between their acceptance and the event itself around a month later, there was a renewed government-backed attack on the Church and on me personally.
“It was a time of constant crisis. Every day there was a critical decision. My constant prayer in those days was, ‘Illumine me Lord to know your will, give me humility to accept your will, and give me strength to obey and take the consequences’.”
The situation was to grow more critical. He was often the target of severe criticism and false reports in the Albanian press– a “verbal crucifixion,” in the words of one of the archbishop’s co-workers. A law was almost passed that would have forced any non-Albanian bishop to leave the country. His life has been repeatedly threatened. It is one of many Albanian miracles that he is still alive and well.
“The fact that I was Greek, not Albanian, was a daily theme in hostile press articles, speeches in Parliament and television reports. The message was very simple: If you are a Greek, you must be a spy. How else could an Albanian whose mind was shaped in the Hoxha period think? A mind entirely formed by an atheistic culture? Each person was seen exclusively in social-economic terms. You cannot imagine that a man in his sixties could be coming here because of love! Therefore, we cannot complain about such people. Their way of thinking is not their fault. It is an algebraic logic in which numbers exist below zero. But how to respond to hatred? Here you learn that often the best dialogue is in silence — it is love without arguments. Only remember you cannot love without cost, neither Christ nor anyone.”
The decisive attempt to remove the Archbishop was made in the Autumn of 1994. The intended means was the proposed insertion of a special paragraph in the new draft of the state Constitution. “At a certain point, when our situation seemed absolutely hopeless, I was packed and ready to depart the following morning, only trying to prepare others to carry on in my place while I did whatever was possible living outside Albania. It seemed to me and many people nothing less than a miracle that the new constitution was rejected in the national referendum in November 1994. This was not the result anyone expected!”
Another serious problem for the local church, that created numerous disputes, troubles and pain for several years, was the re-establishment of the Holy Synod.
“This issue was finally settled in July 1998, following persistent negotiations by representatives from the Ecumenical Patriarchate (especially Metropolitans Evangelos of Perges and Meliton of Philadelphia), the Church of Albania, and the Albanian authorities. In the end, Metropolitan Ignatius from Greece took his see in Berat, and two Albanians were chosen, Archimandrite John Pelushi as Metropolitan of Korça, and Fr. Kosma Qirio as Bishop of Apollonia. This solved a crucial problem for the proper functioning of an autocephalous Church.
“For the first seven hard years, I had to struggle alone as bishop, surrounded only by a General Ecclesiastical Council composed of thirteen clergy and lay members. Demanding needs in all dioceses and parishes were pressing. From this point onwards, I would continue the uphill road in communion with precious brothers. A Holy Synod, in which we are being, thinking and acting in His name, is a real divine gift and a spiritual security.”
His difficulties were not simply of a political nature. One of the hardest challenges was to overcome divisions within the Church. “There used to be great division within the Church. Our people come from various ethnic backgrounds. Our first goal was to create unity among Orthodox Christians. After so much persecution, we could no longer allow division. I recall in Korça saying, ‘Do you think the forest is more beautiful if there is only one kind of tree?’ All the various trees must grow freely under the rays of the sun.’ The key to proper development is love and freedom.”
One element in the process of breaking down borders inside the Church had to do with how the Church refers to itself.
“We do not call ourselves the Albanian Orthodox Church, but the Orthodox Church of Albania. In fact, we look upon ourselves as the Orthodox Church in Albania. We are part of the world Church. The Orthodox Church is not a federation of churches; the one Orthodox Church fully exists in particular places. We are going toward the kingdom of God together. No one can be an island, not even Britain, not even huge China. You cannot be isolated. On the other hand we point out that we are autocephalous, a word that means self-standing. We govern ourselves — our autocephalous status was recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarch in 1937. But we had to resume Church life after a long interruption, a process in which the Ecumenical Patriarchate played a vital role. The Orthodox in Albania are grateful to Patriarch Bartholomew for his continuous interest during these critical years.”
He struggled personally to give an example through the use of the Albanian language. “It has been important for me not only to learn Albanian but to take care that whenever I say something I say it not just in a way that can be understood but say it well. I must carefully pronounce each word and phrase. The first words I learned were, ‘Krishti u ngjall, Zoti eshte me ne, lavdi Zotit!’ — ‘Christ is risen, God is with us, Glory to God!’ It has been very important to use Albanian even in situations where the majority speak Greek, as is the case in many towns and villages in the south. I recall in Saranda, very close to the Greek border and in sight of the Greek island of Corfu, we had our first public prayer in the open air near the shore. It was suggested it could be done entirely in Greek — almost everyone would understand. But I said that even if only two persons need Albanian, we shall have Albanian.”
One of the most pressing tasks for Archbishop Anastasios was directing the effort to provide places for worship in a country in which churches had been methodically destroyed or turned to secular functions. His most visible achievements are all the churches erected or restored since his arrival. By the middle of 2001, 80 new churches have been build, 70 churches restored from ruin, more than 140 repaired, and five monasteries brought back to life.
In addition, more than twenty large buildings have been erected or renovated to house the theological academy in Durres, the office of the archdiocese in Tirana and diocesan centers and bishops’ residencies in Korça, Berat and Gjirokaster, the Holy Cross High School in Gjirokaster, a diagnostic center in Tirana, dispensaries, guest houses, schools, and the complex “Nazareth” housing the candle factory, printing house, icon atelier, restoration workshop and other church service facilities.
He recalled a recent visit to a place where local people come to pray even though not a single wall of the church that once stood there survives.
“Often you see with the Albanian people how a church still exists in a certain place even when you see only scattered fragments. It is amazing how people will treat a church as a church no matter how ruined it is — no matter what had been done to the building, no matter what else it was — it remains a church, it remains connected to the holy. Even in the times when it was dangerous, people went to places where churches once stood to pray and light candles.
“Many times in the first months the Liturgy was conducted out of doors as no indoor place of worship was available, but preferably in a place where a church formerly existed. Of course this was only possible when the weather cooperated.
“In the very beginning we had no alternative but to put up a number of prefabricated temporary churches in various locations, but in the years since then the churches are permanent structures built mainly of stone each with its own character. In some cases these are restored, often from a state of ruin, while others are built from the foundations up. Our goal has been not simply to put up adequate buildings but to make beautiful churches. Through the architecture of the church buildings we try to say something not only about the present but the future. It is work coordinated by the technical office, under the direction of Father Theologos, an Athonite monk who studied architecture, together with a staff of local, skilled collaborators. We have spent millions of dollars on church construction and restoration. The majority of these funds are donations from people in other countries, including some of my former students who have done well in their work and are able to be generous or who are active in trusts and foundations that can assist us. Sometimes I say I am an international beggar! We are a poor Church, but very rich in friends. And we are deeply grateful for all of them.”
The Church is, however, not rich in friends within the government.
“Rarely have the political authorities been quick to return confiscated church property in those cases where churches hadn’t been completely destroyed, or even land with church ruins on it. This is a problem that impedes us in many locations to this very day. Sometimes the only practical solution is to buy back what was stolen from us.”
Church building often involves more than just a structure for worship. “When we build or restore a church or monastery, often we also have to rebuild the road. I was once asked what gift I would like — I think they meant an icon. I said, ‘I would like a bulldozer.’ They were surprised! ‘But what can you do with a bulldozer?’ ‘We can make roads in the remote areas so that we make more humane the life of our people.”
“With all our construction projects, the Church has become a significant factor in the economic development of Albania. We are one of Albania’s most serious investors and job creators.”
There is not only the on-going task of providing church buildings where needed but helping those drawn to the church to learn to pray together after a long exile from church life in a rigidly secular society.
“Sometimes it was very difficult to conduct the Liturgy. Often people came more to watch than pray. It was like having the Liturgy in a place where cars are being repaired or where a football game was going on. Often it was impossible to have silence. Many times I was severe. I refused to go further with the Liturgy until the people were silent. I didn’t mean the children. Let them chatter like birds. But let the rest of the people pay attention to the service and not carry on as if they were in the market.”
At a Liturgy in a remote mountain village, in a cemetery church which had survived the Hoxha years by serving as a weapon depot, I saw how readily Archbishop Anastasios adapted himself to the enthusiasm of children, not only the noises they make but their eagerness to be close to him. One child approached him for a blessing and immediately all the children wanted the same thing. With so many children present, this meant a delay in the start of the service, but that was no problem.
Related to the task of restoring the physical church and the understanding of what it means to pray together is the reformation of understanding the co-responsibility of each person in the Church for the life of the Church.
“We have three basic principles that I speak of again and again. The first is local leadership, next local language, and finally local finance. It is only on the last that we have had to compromise. The profound poverty of Albania has required help from outside to rebuild the churches and to undertake projects to relieve suffering. But even in this area we never undertake a project without financial sacrifice from Albanians as well. In order to receive God’s blessing, we have to offer what we have. Only zero cannot be blessed. With only two fish and five loaves, Christ fed 5,000 — but there had to be gift of what little people had.
“One of the most memorable gifts I received for the diaconal work of the Church came from two elderly women whose brother was killed during the Second World War in southern Albania. For fifty-five years these women carefully saved money to be used in some good way in memory of their brother. Fifty-five years! When I met them they presented all the money they had saved — also some flowers. I used the money for our girls’ high school near Gjirokaster and in the same village put the flowers they gave me at the base of a memorial for those who died in the war.”
Another immediate task was to do all that was possible to relieve suffering in Europe’s poorest country. The Church began to set up clinics in major population centers. There are programs to assist the disabled, a women’s rural health program, an agriculture developmental program, work with prisoners and the homeless, free cafeterias, and emergency assistance to the destitute. Most of this work is carried out through the Diaconal Agapes (Service of Love), a Church department set up by Archbishop Anastasios in 1992 and first led by Father Martin Ritsi [who now heads the Orthodox Christian Mission Center in the US], later by Penny Deligiannis, and now by an Albanian, Nina Gramo Perdhiku. These projects were never intended simply to benefit Orthodox Christians alone but any person in need, no matter what his or her faith — or lack of faith.
“We keep working to improve the standards of health care,” said Archbishop Anastasios. “The Annunciation Clinic here in Tirana now meets the highest European standards. People come from all over the country to use it.”
Another model project is a dental clinic housed in a large white van that travels from town to town. While accompanying Archbishop Anastasios on a visit to the Monastery of Ardenica, we happened to encounter the mobile clinic parked in the field of a nearby village. The archbishop decided not only to stop and greet the many local children waiting in line outside the van but to test the dental chair himself and invite the dentist to inspect his teeth under the bright light. The children watched with delight. Archbishop Anastasios quickly became a beloved uncle.
While his official title is Archbishop of Tirana and All Albania, Anastasios has occasionally been called the Archbishop of Tirana and All Atheists. It isn’t a title he objects to. “I am everyone’s archbishop. For us each person is a brother or sister. The Church is not just for itself. It is for all the people. As we say at the altar during each Liturgy, it is done ‘on behalf of all and for all. Also we pray ‘for those who hate us and for those who love us.’ Thus we cannot have enemies. How could we? If others want to see us as enemies, it is their choice, but we do not consider others as enemies. We refuse to punish those who punished us. Always remember that at the Last Judgment we are judged for loving Him, or failing to love Him, in the least person. The message is clear. Our salvation depends upon respect for the other, respect for otherness. This is the deep meaning of the Parable of the Good Samaritan — we see not how someone is my neighbor but how someone becomes a neighbor. It is a process. We also see in the parable how we are rescued by the other. What is the theological understanding of the other? It is trying to see how the radiation of the Son of God occurs in this or that place, in this or that culture. This is much more than mere diplomacy. We must keep our authenticity as Christians while seeing how the rays of the Son of Righteousness pass through another person, another culture. Only then can we bring something special.”
I noticed while traveling with him how each day he gives an example of love of non-Orthodox neighbors. To give but one instance, when we visited the Ardenica monastery, one of the very few religious centers to survive the Hoxha period with little damage (it had become a tourist hotel).
There was a group on Albanian tourists visiting when we arrived one of whom approached the Archbishop. “I am not baptized,” he said. “I am a Moslem. But will you bless me?” The man received not only an ardent blessing but was reminded by the archbishop that he was a bearer of the image of God.
Educational work was another key area of concern, first of all to prepare both men and women for service in the Church. “We are struggling with the problem of the shortage of priests. The young generation was raised in an atheistic climate, and after that came the capitalist dream, which made many decide to go to other countries. The scent of money is very powerful. Gradually some people realize money does not bring happiness, that happiness can only come from something deeper.
“To develop local leaders, in 1992 we immediately started a seminary, renting a hotel in Durres. What a place it was! Much of the time it had no heat, no electricity, no running water. But we were able to overcome the difficulties for several years, until our own seminary building was ready in October 1996. It was suggested we send our seminarians to study in Greece and America, but decided their formation should be here. In order to have a new forest, you plant the trees where they will grow, not somewhere else. Since the seminary was opened, there have been 120 ordinations.
“It is not easy finding promising candidates. In the Communist time many efforts were made to ridicule the clergy as an uneducated lower class, if not evil people, and still there are people who defame the clergy, though it has become more and more difficult to imagine priests as uneducated. But finding suitable candidates and giving them a good theological education is hard, tiring work.
“In earlier times the priest was at the center of village and town life — teacher, healer, judge, reconciler, a person who could call things by their true names. We hope in the future something of this tradition can be restored. Not to offend politicians, but the priest is a permanent silent leader.
“We need serious young people, capable of leadership, who will realize that being a priest is not a second of third choice and that it is a vocation that can make an enormous difference, no less significant than a physician or engineer.
“As you will have noticed, there are not only men but also women at the seminary, about a third of the enrollment. It used to be the vocation of women was mainly in the home, but now they have a public life and the Church must use their gifts. Women exercise another form of church service. There are many women who have graduated from the seminary and who are playing an important role in the activities of the Church in Albania — diaconal works of mercy, teachers, administration, mission activity, and so forth. We would have achieved much less without them.”
In addition to the seminary, schools have been started to meet other needs. A post-secondary “Institute for Professional Training” was recently opened in Tirana. In Gjirokaster for several years there has been a high school for boys and one for girls in a nearby town. Twelve kindergartens have been opened in various towns and cities. There are summer camps and many youth programs.
“Our first priority is children. We have opened many kindergartens, nurseries and schools. Our only regret is that we cannot help more young people. We do what we can with the staff and space we can afford.”
Archbishop Anastasios points out that education is far more than books to read and facts to memorize. The goal must be to help shape people who are not only capable intellectually or skilled in certain specializations, but motivated by respect and love rather than greed and fear. As he says: “God did not give us a spirit of fear but of power. Those who fear God fear nothing else.”
But Albania is still a country in which fear and greed shape many people’s lives.
“To get results we need people — holy people — people who don’t change things but change themselves. The Church has the power to create people capable of love and sacrifice, people above vendettas, people capable of forgiveness. Reconciliation is not easy. It needs help from the Church. Forgiveness and reconciliation are an essential part of the Christian life, especially during Lent. It gives us the power to forgive the other. More forgiveness, more community!
“The young generation was educated with systematic Communist propaganda. It was a culture of fear. Look at all the many bunkers littering the country that were built in the Communist era. Each one is like a large skull. When you see many of them near each other, it is like a cemetery of exposed bones. In the Hoxha period, the creation of enemies was essential to maintaining the discipline of the people. It was a diabolic method, the formation of a culture of fear. Fear, once learned, is hard to unlearn. Many people still are paralyzed by fear.
“Now they are subject to another propaganda — the idea that status in society equals having money. The new system says that the more money you have, the more important you are. But without love and sacrifice, people become wild animals. Today, without religious communities, there is no hope. Otherwise they cannot understand sacrifice motivated by love, by belief in Christ. It is a pity so many are held captive by the belief that happiness comes from money. Young people must know there is something more behind life. Now when such people look at those who are living sacrificial lives, they assume the other person is getting some secret material benefit. Often they imagine our helpers from other countries are making more money assisting us here than they would in their home country! Otherwise why would they be here? But finally they begin to see that our collaborators give up a great deal in coming to Albania — that the motive is not at all financial. In some cases this discovery gives young Albanians the motivation to stay here.
“I often ask people I meet, ‘What would you like to do?’ And often the answer is, ‘Emigrate!’ They don’t say what they want to do — only that they want to leave. At the present time there are about half a million Albanians in Greece alone, all arriving in the last decade, some going legally, many illegally. There are so many Albanians in other countries, in many cases not happy where they are, but thinking they have no alternative. Some of them are trying to help those who remain here. Of course often they are tempted to leave as so many of their friends have done. They ask me, ‘What about the future?’ Of course, I share their concern, but I emphasize, ‘Let us look at the present. Let us do our duty, only doing whatever is an expression of love of one for the other. This will shape the future.”
Still another dimension of the Church’s task is to teach forgiveness.
“This begins within the Church in the way we respond to those who denied or betrayed the Church, in the Communist period. Especially in earlier years, I was sometimes asked, what do we do when such people want to rejoin the Church after having been apostates? Our response must be to forgive and receive them back, not to turn anyone away. Following the fall of communism, the first church we opened in Berat has an inscription above the central door which says — ‘Whoever comes to me, I will not cast away.’ However difficult it is, we must be willing to forgive and forget. There can be no true forgiveness without forgetting.”
There have been several other areas of development in bringing the Church fully back to life. “We started a radio station and newspaper, both called Ngjallja — Resurrection. The newspaper is monthly, the radio station is on the air 24 hours a day. It broadcasts a mixture of spiritual programs, music, news and other programming. There is now a children’s hour. Recently an antenna was set up so that broadcasts can now reach the southern part of the country. Also we have a center just outside Tirana called Nazareth where icon painting and restoration are taught. In the same building there are also a printing house and a candle factory. The sale of candles provides local parishes with a steady source of income.”
He sees as another area of activity for the Church developing projects to foster local environmental responsibility.
“This year, we started an environmental protection program which includes training 15 post-graduate students, who have completed degrees in biology and forest or environmental engineering. They will set up programs to protect the eco-system in three areas of Albania. We are even establishing garbage management programs in two cities. Part of the vocation of the parish is to keep the village, town and city clean. We need to inspire the idea of a clean environment. Albania used to have it but it was imposed by a police state. Now it is not imposed but needs to be chosen.”
“What is necessary is that the Church should be present in all areas of life — with pilot programs in health care, education, social and relief efforts, developmental programs, culture and environmental concerns — all those things which are essential to civilization. In each area of life we must implant a spiritual dimension. Culture is more than technology! Most of all it is respect for the dignity of people. Culture requires respect for God’s creation. Where it exists, there is beauty.”
He paused to reflect on the importance of foreign volunteers in the work the Church is doing in Albania. So far they come mainly from Greece and the United States. Some come continually over a period of years, perhaps teaching in the seminary or taking key roles in church projects, others coming from time to time for specific tasks, like the architect Eva Papapetrou from Athens.
“Among our biggest blessings are the gifted people who have come to assist us, though it is not a success in every case. All who offer their services want to help, but not all who come are able to cope with the problems of daily life in Albania. It is not easy being here! We cannot romanticize it. Not everyone has the necessary patience. There are others who are full of their own ideas and too eager to import solutions. This only creates confusion. I ask people from abroad who come not to come with answers to all our problems but rather to come and see and listen and to discover first how to live when things are not working — when the water and electricity are not flowing. First they need to learn not why some people leave — that’s easy enough to understand — but why so many people stay even though they could easily emigrate. The list is too long to mention, and you already met some of them, but I feel the need to express, again and again my deep gratitude for the long-term collaborators who have stayed with us.”
One crucial dimension of life for the archbishop is helping maintain good relations between the several religious communities. During my stay there was a visit with national leaders of the Moslem community — “part of the normal rhythm of my life,” he explained, “and not only since arriving in Albania. During my long journey I have learned one must always respect the other and regard no one as an enemy. We must help each other for the sake of our communities. Tolerance is not enough — there must be respect and cooperation. If we turn our backs on each other, only atheism benefits. We also have to meet with respect those who have no belief.”
There are similar visits with Catholic bishops, clergy and lay people. Archbishop Anastasios helped welcome Mother Teresa when, in her old age, the Albanian-born nun was able to visit post-Communist Albania. It pleases him that one of the main streets in Tirana has been renamed in her honor and a postage stamp is graced with her portrait. (While visiting the Orthodox Church’s Annunciation Clinic in Tirana, I happened to meet one of the sisters from Mother Teresa’s community, the Missionary Sisters of Charity. The city’s Orthodox and Catholic cathedrals are nearly side by side.)
The Archbishop spoke about the ecumenical vision he is trying to transmit among the Orthodox in Albania.
“Beyond a Balkan, European perspective, we are trying to respectfully and lovingly embrace the whole church and the entire world that Christ himself has raised, redeemed and enlightened by His cross and resurrection. The ecumenical vision offers a special power, endurance and perspective — for every local and concrete situation. Besides this, the emphasis on the ecumenicity and catholicity of the church, and the gaze on the incarnate word of God in the Holy Spirit, offers to the Orthodox thought and conscience an open horizon with boundless majesty.”
Interfaith dialogue, he pointed out, is not simply exchanges of words.
“It helped being in the World Council of Churches’ committee for dialogue with other religions, but what we did was academic. Here you learn that often the best dialogue is in silence — it is love without arguments.”
His task, he has discovered, is not only to lead the Orthodox Church in Albania.
“You must bear in mind that Albania has had very little experience of being an independent country and even less experience of freedom. The Albanian state was created in 1912-13. Then there were 25 years of trying to build up that state in the poorest country in Europe.
“Killing here is not something rare — it easily happens that someone ‘disappears.’ There are complex rules of revenge that are still operative in many places. In such a setting it is necessary to think in larger terms, about social development as a whole, to think not in terms of decades but centuries. We must think not about luxuries but necessities and endurance. We must think what it means to be free.
“A passport does not give freedom. If God does not free us, we will have no freedom. I sometimes pray, ‘O Lord, free me from myself. Free me from fear! Let me be a free person in Christ.’ God is always a God of love and freedom. Love and freedom must come first in our lives and they lead us to God Himself. You cannot love the other if you are not free from yourself. It is not easy. It is never finished. It may happen that you are only free a small part of the time. I was free part of yesterday.”
As democracy was originally a Greek idea, perhaps it should not be surprising that a Greek bishop is not only a Christian missionary but a missionary of democracy.
“Part of my vocation here is to encourage fermentation in the society. We must ask the question how can Albania become a truly democratic society? Democracy is a complex phenomenon. It cannot be just one party which happens to be in power imposing its will. It is more than coming to power via elections. Democracy means respect for truth, respect for the other. It means not confusing words and slogans with reality. It means not thinking your violence is good, their violence is a crime. Words change but unfortunately the syntax remains as it was. We suffer from a vacuum of values and from a very rough form of capitalism — the capitalism you meet in Oliver Twist.”
Not all Albania’s calamities occurred before the end of the rigid Communism in 1991. In 1997, Albania was plunged into anarchy after the collapse of pyramid investment schemes in which many Albanians had risked and lost their life savings.
“The country was on the verge of civil war,” Archbishop Anastasios recalled. “It was a major disaster revealing all the fear and violence that had accumulated in so many people’s hearts. People who had come from other countries in most cases fled abroad or were airlifted out. During this period the Church provided emergency aid to 25,000 families and tirelessly repeated our appeal, ‘No to arms, no to violence’. We said that no act of violence can be justified by the Church.”
Ignoring the advice of many friends both in Albania and elsewhere, he refused to leave the country.
“Many had to leave but I realized I must stay and invited those to stay with me who were willing. In my own case, I am the captain of the ship. For me leaving was not an option. But the danger was very real”
He showed me a bullet that had lodged itself in the double-pane glass of his office, smashing the outer pane but being stopped by the inner pane.
“It was strange to see a bullet that had been halted like that! I’ve kept it there as a souvenir of those times in which we were tested, when each day could have been our last. In those days I was sleeping on the office floor in a corner below the windows.”
Carefully pulling the curtain further back, he drew my attention to a grey pigeon tending a single egg in a flower pot. “A bullet and an egg!” he commented. “Perfect symbols of Albania at the crossroads.”
“We must in every situation choose life and refuse the temptation to hate and harm others,” he said. “Many times, not only in 1997, I have repeated the message, ‘The oil of religion should be used to soothe and heal the wounds of others, not to ignite the fires of hatred’.”
Expanding on the theme of healing, he commented on the Gospel story in which Christ heals a paralytic who was lowered by friends through a hole in the roof when a crowd blocked the way.
“Notice that Christ heals the man not because of his faith but their faith. It is a revealing phrase, ‘seeing their faith.’ Faith is collaboration: thinking together, praying together, acting together. The Church is not the place of my prayer but of our prayer. We pray together and are responsible for each other. Paralysis is not only a physical condition. Some people are paralyzed in their inability to love, to believe in God, to forgive, to collaborate. To move from only doing this for my own benefit to acting in a way that benefits the community — this is being healed of paralysis. Then we become responsible for each other. Christ’s healing goes to the depth of life, to our need for forgiveness. Healing is another word for peace — Christ is the one who heals our brokenness.”
Another time of testing came in 1999, when NATO attacked Yugoslavia, bombing many targets in Serbia and Kosovo.
“Half a million Kosovar refugees fled to Albania in that period. The Church could not turn its back on them. While the majority of refugees were quickly taken into Albanian homes, we took responsibility for 32,000 people, and are still operating the last refugee camp in the country. It didn’t matter to us that few if any of the refugees were Christian. For some time we stopped classes at the seminary so all the students could participate in emergency work with the refugees.” I knew from photos that the archbishop was not only sending others to help but was also doing so himself, unloading boxes of food and medicine. “In this period, perhaps it became clearer to our critics that the Church is not here only for itself but for everyone.”
The Archbishop recalled how, at that time, some of the seminary students were initially afraid, worried some of the refugees might be hostile to Orthodox Christians, even if they were there to help.
“I said we must go in the middle of the crisis and see the face of Christ in those who suffer. There was one student who asked, ‘But will the cross I am wearing provoke some?’ I said to him that it was enough to wear the cross in his heart. More important than speeches about Orthodoxy are Orthodox actions. Obey the God of love, don’t be afraid. Don’t let fear become an idol. It is impossible to do theology without involvement.”
Late in my stay in Albania, sitting next to him one night as we drove along a narrow, winding mountain road, I asked if he could tell me about the prayer life that sustains him. After a long silence, he began to answer my question.
“The roots must remain hidden. There is a Trinitarian emphasis in my short repetitive prayers. I start with the verse in the Book of Revelation, ‘O Lord, who is, who was and who is to come, the Almighty, Glory to Thee.’ Then I continue with the Jesus Prayer — ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.’ And I finish with the invocation, ‘O Holy Spirit, give me your fruit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Gal 5:22-23].’ Notice that Paul says ‘fruit’ — not ‘fruits.’ Communion with the Holy Spirit gives birth to all these qualities.
“The experience of St. Paul in his apostolic endeavors remains a basic refuge and inspiration, while my prayer for my people and me culminates in his prayer — Ephesians 3:14-21. There is a special music in the Greek text that I don’t hear in translations, but the meaning is always clear. Our life is to be a ray of the Holy Spirit, to be used by Him. It is not our own activity that is important but what He does through us.
“Prayer summarizes a longing. The problem is that so often we become ego-centered, lacking humility. Thus it is good to pray, ‘Oh Lord, deliver me from myself and give me to Yourself!’ — a cry of the heart. It is similar to the prayer, ‘Lord, I believe, please help my unbelief.’ Often it is necessary to pray for forgiveness.
“Many times in my life there is no time for long prayers, only time to quickly go into what I call the ‘hut of prayer’ — very short prayers that I know by heart or to make a very simple request — ‘Show me how to love!’ Or, when you have to make a decision, ‘Lord, help me make the right estimation and come to the right judgment, to make the right action.’ Then there is the very simple prayer, ‘Your will be done.’ I have also learned, in Albania, what it means to be a foreigner, to come from a country many regard with suspicion. This, however, can help one become more humble. It helps one pray with more intensity, ‘Use me according to Your will.’ Often I pray, ‘Lord, illumine me so that I know your will, give me the humility to accept your will, and the strength to do your will.’ I go back to these simple prayers again and again.
“Many times the Psalms are my refuge. You realize that in the spontaneous arising of certain phrases from the Psalms you are hearing God speak to you. Perhaps you are reciting the psalm, ‘My soul, why are you so downcast…’ And then another phrase from the Psalms arises which is a response. It is an ancient Christian tradition that a bishop should know many psalms by heart. The Psalms provide a spiritual refuge. In each situation there is a psalm that can help you, in those critical moments when you have no place of retreat. Perhaps you remember the words, ‘Unless the Lord guards the house, they who guard it labor in vain.’ You are reminded that your own efforts are not decisive. You also come to understand that your own suffering is a sharing in His suffering. It is a theme St. Paul sometimes writes about. You come to understand that the resurrection is not after the Cross but in the Cross.
“Often in prayer we have no time to think what each word means. But prayer is not an analytical activity. It is in our intention, in our longing. You know you are far away from the ideal and you reach out in prayer. God does not need a detailed report about our efforts. Sometimes the only prayer that is possible is the prayer of silence, silence and cries of the heart asking the Holy Spirit to dwell in us.
“I have a secret corner, a tiny chapel next to my apartment, a place for thinking, praying, appealing for strength, for overcoming frustration, so that I can try to understand God’s will, and then find the humility and strength to obey.”
Archbishop Anastasios also spoke about what he called “Theotokos spirituality.”
“Theotokos simply means Mother of God or God bearer. This is Mary, Christ’s mother. Think of her! She became the first and best disciple and sets the perfect example for anyone who is trying to follow her Divine Son. There are three main elements in her witness. She said to the archangel, ‘Be it done to me according to your word.’ God’s will, not my own! She gives us this example and through it Christ enters our lives. She also said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord.’ We are asked to center our lives on the Lord, not ourselves. And she says, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ We learn from her another type of freedom — the freedom to be free of your own plans. We realize He becomes present in our lives, as he became present in hers, through obedience. It is the obedience of love, a gift of the Holy Spirit. In her silence, in her capacity to quietly consider events in her heart, we also learn much about prayer — face-to-face conversations with God in silence. Contemplating the Mother of God is a great help and is itself a form of prayer.”
The day I left Albania, there was time for one last conversation with the archbishop before Father Luke Veronis took me to the airport. I reminded him that he had been reluctant at first to make his home in Albania. This made him laugh. “People look at the difficulties of life here and say to me, ‘How can you stand it? It is so ugly!’ But for me it is so beautiful! It is God’s blessing to be here — not the blessing I imagined but the one I received.
“My origins are not with the humble people, but I learn from them to become more simple, more true, more honest, more ready to forgive and let go of past injuries. Humility is not an achievement but a development, a contiguous dynamism in our life. So often you meet here in Albania persons who absorb every word, every gesture. Their faces are like a thirsty land ready to absorb every single drop of rain. It is a surprising providence to be sent to serve such people, people you never knew, never expected to meet, and yet who receive you with such confidence. Thank God I was sent to live among such people, to be helped by them.”
“People sometimes ask me about my expectations, but I don’t know about the future! You can only do your job with love and humility. I am not the savior of Albania, only a candle in front of the icon of the Savior.”
The word most often used to describe the church in Albania is resurrection — ngjallja. Everywhere you turn in the Church, the word or one of its icons awaits you. The church’s seminary is dedicated to the resurrection. The church newspaper is called Resurrection. Many churches have been given the same name.
During my final visit with the archbishop before returning home, Archbishop Anastasios took me to the small chapel — his “hut of prayer” next to his apartment on the top floor of the Metropolia — and gave me a newly painted Resurrection icon.
“Let this remind you of Albania. The original model for this version of the icon comes from an ancient church in Istanbul, Chora. You have noticed the emphasis we have on resurrection. The power of the resurrection is linked to bearing and sharing suffering. The theme is Christ conquering death. You see Christ standing on the destroyed gates of hell while pulling Adam and Eve from their tombs. Adam and Eve represent the entire human race in which each woman is a daughter of Eve, each man a son of Adam, and all linked to each other in Christ. The icon also mirrors the experience of the Church in Albania. It too has been pulled out of the tomb. It is also an icon for the biblical text, ‘Unless the wheat falls into the ground and dies, it cannot bring forth new life’.”
He showed me the reverse side of the bishop’s pendant he wears. There was a simple engraving of the cross surrounded by two shafts of wheat — the same symbol I had noted on his stationery. “The image represents this Gospel text — Christ is the wheat that has been buried. His dying gives birth to the resurrection. People sometimes think of the cross as a death symbol, or as a stop along the way to the resurrection, a dark doorway leading toward the light. But the resurrection is not beyond the cross. It is in the cross.”
Extract from The Resurrection of the Church in Albania by Jim Forest, published in 2002 by the World Council of Churches. Do not reprint without the author’s permission.
Father Luke and Faith Veronis
Father Luke Veronis arrived in Albania in January 1994. He and Faith married the following August, a few months before his ordination. Both had been drawn to a mission vocation at a time when there were few Orthodox missionaries. Like so many others collaborating with Archbishop Anastasios, their first encounter with Orthodox mission work had been in East Africa. Both grew up in a Greek Orthodox parish in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where Luke’s father is pastor. Archbishop Anastasios ordained Luke to the priesthood soon after his arrival in Tirana. He is now co-rector of the Resurrection of Christ Theological Academy near Durres, Orthodox chaplain at the University of Tirana, one of the spiritual advisor for the youth movement of the Church, an assistant to Archbishop Anastasios, and often serves at the cathedral. Faith has been active with the Church’s pre-school program, catechism department, English language program, youth ministries, an abandoned babies program, and the women’s groups with its many projects of service to people in need. Both speak fluent Albanian. They have two children, Paul and Theodora.
“My husband often jokes that he took me to Albania for our honeymoon,” Faith told me, “and seven years later we’re still here! Not many people have a honeymoon that long.”
“My life changed during my last year of university,” Father Luke told me. “It was then that I went to East Africa on a short-term mission for the first time. God touched me in a dramatic way through the people of Kenya, the faith and love I witnessed while I was there, and the example of several missionaries, especially Archbishop Anastasios. That experience led me to change my life’s direction from being a math teacher to studying theology and committing my life to serve in the mission field. My later studies at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology and then Fuller’s School of World Mission opened my eyes to understand this call in a deeper way. Twenty-six percent of the world’s people have never even heard the Gospel. What are we doing about this? I realized indifference to missions is a denial of Orthodoxy and a denial of Christ. This is what made us ask Archbishop Anastasios if we could help in Albania.
“Faith and I have been fortunate. I won’t say that we haven’t had to face difficulties — lack of water and electricity shortages, mud everywhere in the winter and dust in the summer, political crises in Albania every few years — but the blessings have far outweighed any negative experience. We truly feel as if Albania has been our special home these past seven years.
“Now we have a nice apartment on the ground floor with a garden, but before this we lived in a cold-water flat five flights up. But the location was good, only a 15-minute walk to the cathedral. Of course the roads I had to walk along weren’t in great shape — I would sometimes arrive at the church in a very muddy state! — but at least the church wasn’t far away.”
“We have had some times of testing in the seven years since we arrived. The death of a parent, two miscarriages, being evacuated by the U.S. Marines in 1997 when the country fell into total anarchy and having to be apart from Luke for several months,” said Faith. “But these are so small compared to what others face. At the time the Kosovo War broke out, I was involved in an abandoned babies program at the local maternity hospital. I saw firsthand the plight of pregnant refugees and their newborns. These women had nothing when they arrived at the hospitals. I responded by gathering clothing from friends. Then, our Church began offering clothing and supplies, as well as necessary medical and emergency assistance. By the end, we helped more than 300 women and babies. Some of my visits turned into special friendships, which even continue today. From these women, I witnessed another side of motherhood — a painful, uncertain, yet courageous side. I will never forget these women.
“Paul was born in 1998 and then last year we were blessed with Theodora. I was carrying here during the time of the Kosovo War.
Motherhood deepened my bonds with many women from our church. I have developed a great respect for the Albanian mother — she is strong, sacrificial, protective, loving and caring.
“For us, being missionaries hasn’t been a great sacrifice. The hardest aspect for us is simply being far from our families. Yet I remind myself that such sacrifices can never compare with the crosses borne by early missionaries.
“Some people think that we sacrifice our children by living in Albania. True, our children do not have all the material possessions that many American children have, but they live in a unique setting, learning about life in a developing country, appreciating a new culture, and being surrounded by an abundantly loving Albanian and missionary community. I appreciate the simplicity of life here. It reminds me of my mother’s stories of village life in Greece. Such forced asceticism makes it easier to lead a spiritual life — with less distractions and temptations.”
“Visitors who come here are sometimes shocked about what they refer to as Albania’s ‘low standard of living’,” Fr. Luke said. “The Albanians may be poor in economic terms but in certain ways they are richer than people living in wealthy societies. I don’t know if you will ever be among people who are more hospitable. When refugees were flooding into Albania from Kosovo, an Albanian family with three rooms might take in as many eight or even twelve refugees. Roughly half the refugees were received into Albanian homes.
“I have learned so much from Albanians about courage and perseverance in the face of persecution and also what it means to live a eucharistic life. I recall a 98-year-old woman who heard there was a priest who would be celebrating the Liturgy. Despite her age, she fasted for two days so that she could receive communion for the first time in 30 years. It happened that we saw her coming to the church. She fell down and could not continue. We told her to return to her house and said we would bring communion to her after the Liturgy. I will never forget the joyful tears with which she received communion. She died within a year.
“Especially younger Albanians are ready to believe in God and are open to the Gospel. I have witnessed so many conversions. In my seven years as a priest, I have presided at more than a thousand baptisms, almost all young people and adults — sometimes thirty at a time. Every sort of person from every ethnic background and every condition of life, including beggars. In one case, we got to know a group of beggars when our youth arranged a special lunch for people begging outside our church. Through this outreach, we came to know them as friends, people we knew by name. We began visiting their homes and eventually performed some of our most moving baptisms with them.
“Although the Kosovo War was a terrible tragedy for many people, in fact it was a unique opportunity for our Church. The students at the Academy learned to see these mostly Muslim refugees as Christ in disguise. We visited their camps, volunteered help, gave aid to thousands housed in the village around the seminary. Our students began with fear and uncertainty toward Kosovars, but they discovered love and joy in newfound relationships. Some very special relationships formed. There was one Muslim family that was so grateful for the help the Orthodox Church gave that a week after returning to Kosovo, the father, Ramadan, came back to Tirana to give me an oil painting as a sign of gratitude for all the church had done for him. He said, ‘Through your work, I have come to understand what a Christian truly is.
“Another Moslem family of refugees allowed their daughters to go to the Orthodox summer camp so that they could be away from the refugee camp. These girls were afraid the first day of camp when they saw campers making the sign of the Cross. They had never interacted much with Christians and had a biased view against Orthodox from their experience in Kosovo. After two weeks, these girls cried as they departed. They told their parents, ‘We have never met people like this before.” Their father even told me, ‘Our contact with you have given us hope for the future of humanity. Muslims and Christians, even Albanians and Serbs, can live together, if people practice a faith like we witnessed here.”
I asked what is at the heart of being a missionary.
“To follow God means going where God calls you, no matter what the sacrifice, and that’s where you will find the greatest peace. This is what’s lacking in our comfortable western Christianity. We don’t like the Gospel message, ‘Sacrifice everything!’ we should never forget that the majority of saints lived lives of struggle, persecution, and self-denial, not of comfort and a pursuit of pleasure and happiness.
“Not everyone drawn to missionary service is able to adjust to culture shock, but for us it hasn’t been difficult. It has been a challenge, an adventure, full of blessings. What you need is humility and love. We can’t have the attitude that we are the savior, ready to help the poor people. Instead, we must see ourselves as co-sojourners in the walk of life. Let us go hand in hand, helping one another. Therefore, we must have a readiness to learn from the others. You need a readiness to adapt, respect for the people, a willingness to accept everything good in the culture. If your house burns down, you adapt. If you get robbed, you adapt.”
Indeed, while I was in Tirana, Father Luke was robbed by a pickpocket and his house was badly damaged in a fire caused by a defective transformer.
“Albania is not just where we live. It is home to us. What would be difficult for us would not be staying here but leaving.
“We have been asked to help at the Orthodox Christian Mission Center in Florida and are thinking about whether this is God’s will. We love Albania and its people. They are an integral part of our family. It’s a hard decision. Faith and I worry that if we go back to America the temptation will be so strong to simply adapt to the consumer life. The pressures are so powerful. Are we strong enough? We want to return only when we believe that we are strong enough to live a life based on our understanding of the Gospel, no matter how different or crazy it may appear to others. In some ways, it is easier to be a Christian in Albania.”
Extract from The Resurrection of the Church in Albania by Jim Forest, published in 2002 by the World Council of Churches. Do not reprint without the author’s permission.
by Jim Forest
While in Tirana several years ago to research a book on the Orthodox Church in Albania, one of the remarkable people I met was Raimonda Shqeva. Since 1995 she has worked full-time with the Service of Love Women’s Group, which has its office in a small building adjacent to the Annunciation Cathedral in Tirana. Here is a chapter from The Resurrection of the Church in Albania that concerns Raimonda and her work.
A woman in her late thirties, Raimonda Shqeva has black hair and large brown eyes that communicate immense sensitivity. She immediately made me a cup of coffee. As I drank it, she showed me photos of some of the group’s activities: women bringing clothes and money to orphans in Elbasan, assisting at the summer girls’ camp at the Monastery of St. John Vladimir, visiting people at an old age home who have no family to assist them.
“Here we are with street children and beggars. We found about 40 children who had no parents. Now they have a place to live and a family. And here is a photo of a group baptism – 27 people!”
“I grew up in a believing family. I remember my childhood with deep emotion – the carefulness of my father who believed so much in Jesus even in those very hard times. It was not in his nature to be silent about his faith but he had to tell me it was best not to speak to others about our faith. In 1967, when I was seven, all the churches were closed – not even one was left open. Thank God, I can remember the church before it was closed.
“When I was little, my father would tell me Bible stories but without explaining they were from the Bible. Time after time he told me the story of the Prodigal Son, always with so much love.
“I remember once asking my father about God, ‘This Father of all the world that you talk about – where does he live?’ My father was not an educated man and could not give clever answers, but he loved Jesus very much. I remember how red his face got when I asked my question, the anger he felt that I was thinking in such a way about God. ‘You must not ask such a question,’ he told me. ‘It is a mystery. No one knows where God lives. Only when you think about God, ask yourself, “Can you make yourself? Can you build something without work? How can things exist by themselves.” ‘ He spoke with conviction and feeling, in a simple way. I will never forget what he said! I hope I can pass on to my son and daughter, Spiro and Maria, the same fire in the heart. They are 11 and 9 years old.
Pauline Russell and Raimonda Shqeva at the Soup Kitchen in Tirana
“My father loved the Virgin Mary and always celebrated the Dormition on the 15th of August. He would explain, ‘This is the mother of all creation. We must pray especially to her because she can speak for us.’
“There were many promises I made to him about what I would do, how I would live. Sadly I did not keep all these promises. Now I try to keep them.
“When the Church reopened, I was 30 years old. By then my father had died but I had the fire of the loving God in my heart. I felt as if someone was pushing me forward, to some height. I dedicated myself to the Christian life.
“My husband is also a strong Christian. He never objects to the time I spend in church or involved in church projects – and it takes a lot of time!
“In 1994 I began my journey into diaconal service through involvement in the catechism program that was led by a nun from Athens, Sister Galini. She started this in 1992. This gave us confidence to bring the Gospel to others who don’t know it. Maybe they came from Orthodox families but they never heard the Gospel or only tiny fragments. We also began going to asylums for the blind, to people with other disabilities, to the very old, to prisoners.
“This is how our women’s group began. In the first year there were only seven of us, all very strong believers – now we are 25. Part of our work is cooking free meals and assisting needy and sick persons. We have special activities for Christmas and Easter. Also we organize special excursions to places like the Monastery of St. John Vladimir – the one with a church that was burned in the German time and which the government still refuses to return but where a few other buildings have been returned. We had a trip there not long ago for a group of blind people. We provide catechism lessons in several towns and villages to help people better understand the mysteries – the sacraments. You know there are many people who make the sign of the cross and kiss icons but don’t really understand the meaning of the cross or the meaning of icons. We also explain confession – how it is a way to clean yourself of sins. We explain the power of holy communion. We want people to see that it is possible to change the heart from a place of darkness to a place of light, to receive power from Christ so that you can follow his teaching.
“When Mother Theresa came to Tirana, I went to meet her and received her blessing. I am glad to be Orthodox and I believe the truth is in the Orthodox Church, but I respect all Christians. I don’t look down on anyone. It is a blessing to know Christians from other churches – some of them are very inspiring.
“Sometimes they are surprised I am Orthodox and ask me questions like why do we have icons? I tell them if you keep a photo of your father or mother or your children, you can also have an image of Jesus and his mother or those who followed him even to martyrdom. Sometimes I am asked why we Orthodox fast and I try to explain how this gives us strength to struggle against temptations and evil spirits. As Jesus said, there are some demons that can only be defeated through prayer and fasting. Fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays helps us remember the betrayal and suffering of Jesus.
“It is sometimes hard to learn not to hate, not to attack – you can convert only with love. We must be very careful of each other and never use force. If someone cannot hear us, then let us pray for him. We each go at our own speed. Archbishop Anastasios has taught us that each person is an icon of God. We must not judge others! We must help anyone in need no matter what.”
I asked what problems the women faced in their charitable work.
“A big problem for us is deciding how much to help a particular person or family. You can help too much, so that the person lives entirely from charity and takes no initiative, but you can also help too little. We don’t want people to become completely passive, but there are people who are so damaged that sometimes there is very little they can do for themselves. Not everyone is capable of having a job. Sometimes we spend hours discussing a particular person’s situation and how much help we should give. My own tendency is that it is better to give too much than too little. My father taught me never to judge someone who begs, never to think he may just be pretending. Just be a Christian and try to live the Gospel. When people say we give too much, I think that at the Last Judgement no one will be condemned for giving too much or for forgiving too much.”
The Resurrection of the Church in Albania is published by the World Council of Churches. Information about ordering a copy is on the web.
The voice of Metropolitan John Pelushi
My first encounter with Metropolitan John was at the seminary, an impressive complex of new stone buildings on a hilltop a short distance inland from the port city of Durres. Though his main responsibilities are in Korça, he comes to teach at the seminary as often as he can manage the six-hour journey. For several years he had been the seminary’s director before his other responsibilities became too heavy. He has translated a number of books into Albanian including On the Holy Spirit by Saint Basil, The Orthodox Faith (a four-volume catechism by Father Thomas Hopko), and a collection of writings by and about Saint Silouan of the Holy Mountain. Currently he is at work on an introduction to dogmatic theology, the first volume of which is now ready for publication. Two more are awaited. Born the first of January, 1956, he looks even younger than he is with his dense black hair and beard. His English is fluent. No translator was needed. He had studied for several years at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Theological School near Boston in the United States.
I asked how he had been able to study in the USA.
“I went there thanks to a scholarship established by Albanians in America in memory of Bishop Fan Noli. During this period, when I heard that Archbishop Anastasios had arrived in Albania, I contacted him. He was very receptive, encouraging me to return to Albania in order to meet him. I was very impressed with his person and his devotion for the cause of the Church in Albania. During this meeting, I even happened to be present at his enthronement on August 2, 1992.
“The following year, after graduating from Holy Cross with a Master’s of Theological Studies, I returned to Albania and the Archbishop appointed me to teach theology at the seminary, as well as serve in other capacities within the Church. He ordained me as a deacon on February 27, 1994, then as a priest on December 4 the same year. In 1995 I received a scholarship from him and returned to the United States to pursue further studies. When I returned in 1996, I was appointed as director of the seminary as well as elevated as an archimandrite on November 19th. On July 18, 1998, I was elected as Metropolitan of Korça and enthroned two days later.”
I mentioned how impressed I was with the architecture and stone construction of the various buildings crowning the hill where we met.
“If you had seen this hilltop a decade ago, you could not have imagined that it would soon be a church, monastery and theological school. It had been an important monastery, a place of pilgrimage, in the past, but in 1967 everything was destroyed. Only a fragment of one building survived — part of two walls but no roof — and a few trees. You could not even discern the shape of the former church, though secretly people continued to climb the hill at night in order to pray. It was recognized as a sacred place. All that you see here has been built through the continuous effort of the Archbishop.
“My life in some ways is like this hilltop. I was converted to Christianity in 1975 during my last year at high school after a friend — an underground Orthodox Christian — loaned me a copy of the New Testament in French. He said it was to help me learn French, but he was really an evangelist.
“Part of my journey to faith was through reading. There were many religious books in the main library in Tirana. Luckily I knew the librarian and was able to borrow them discreetly — books by Orthodox, Catholic, Moslem and Jewish authors — to me it didn’t matter. Anyone who believed in God was somehow my ally, just as for the state anyone who believed in God was an enemy. The state was at war God, nothing less.
“The next step was becoming part of a small underground church group. It was such a different time! Not only you but your whole family could pay dearly if you were found praying with another person. Yet it was such a great joy! At last came the day when Father Kosmas baptized me. Until then I was called Fatmir (which means, “good luck”). In baptism I received the name John, after John the Theologian.
“It’s amazing. When he was made a bishop, I — so much younger, his spiritual child, one of the people he had baptized — was one of the consecrating bishops! It was in 1979 that he baptized me — a dangerous time to do such a thing. There have been Albanian priests executed for that. It was in the cellar of his house. His son stood outside on guard, watching. Now he is a priest, Fr. Ilia.
“Our small community used to meet mostly at the home of the Cico sisters in Korça, though we only had liturgy and communion rarely. Some used to take Holy Communion once a year and some others four or five times a year. Once we managed to go to Father Kosmas’s village where there was a liturgy in the middle of the night.
“We had to be very cautious. The years 1974-81 were the worst period for believers, though the anti-religious repression had started in a serious way in 1967. The atheist campaign intensified in 1974 after a so-called secret group was ‘found’ — these supposed ‘enemies of the state’ gave the government the occasion to launch a campaign of terror.
“When I left school I got a job organizing occupational therapy at a psychiatric clinic — very good cover for me! What better task for a follower of Christ than care of the sick? In fact the ‘insane’ were sometimes not insane — a family member would declare a person insane to prevent him being arrested and condemned.
“I know so many people who went to prison. My father was in jail in 1944 — ‘an enemy of the state.’ Many times they nearly arrested me. Once the secret police were going to raid my office — someone told them I had a Bible — but the director of the clinic was able to stop them. He had sympathy for me — and because he was a cousin of the director of the secret police he could protect me.
“We have so many people in our country who have suffered persecution and now must try to prevent the persecuted from becoming persecutors. This is why learning to forgive is so important in our country. In the Kanon of Lek — a medieval text that remains a monument in our culture — it is written, ‘If you forgive, it is an act of courage.’ I am happy to say that last year a committee in the north of the country, with Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim representatives, were able to get 800 families to agree to reconciliation. There was a big event in Lezha to mark this achievement.
“It was important that the three main religious communities took part in this effort. The religions in Albania must co-exist. We don’t meet enough but at least we have contact on each other’s feast days. If you know someone, it is hard to fight him! In our small country we already have so many divisions, we don’t need any more.
“I come from a Bektashi family, a form of Shia Islam, actually a kind of crypto-Christianity, a form of Islam not far from open Christianity. Bektashis have a kind of baptism, a kind of communion, even three ranks of clergy just as we have. They venerate saints. They use icons. They drink wine. Clearly some of their roots are Christian. However there are also many Gnostic elements, including belief in reincarnation. Less than two centuries ago, after several centuries of Orthodox Christianity, my region became Bektashi so that they wouldn’t have to pay the tax that Christians were forced to pay in the Ottoman Empire, yet keep many Christian elements and maybe ease their conscience a bit. But they are somewhat suspect in the view of some other Moslems. Today, many of them are coming back to the Church.
“People often say they are this or that religion because of their name. If you have a certain name, you are Muslim, another name you are a Christian. But in fact you may be a nothing or an atheist. We have many atheists with Christian names, many with Moslem names! We have so many nothings — especially people between 40 and 60. A lost generation. It is very hard for them. They have nothing.
“The church concentrates its efforts on the young but it can happen that the young rescue their parents and even grandparents. I was told the strange story of a grandfather who became Orthodox because his grandchild said it was a pity he didn’t pray and cross himself before he ate his food. ‘They won’t let me eat unless I make the sign of the cross!’ the grandfather told me. He finally decided not only to make the sign of the cross but to be baptized!”
Our next meeting was in Korça, first in his office, a room that also held the core of his substantial library, later over the table as his guest for a Lenten meal. I expressed my surprise at the huge church that was under construction on the western edge of the city’s main square. It was not simply impressive and ideally located, but a work of art that inspires prayer.
“This church was built while I was teaching at the seminary. Through Archbishop Anastasios’ initiative, we finally received land in the center of the city — but it was not easy. We had previously accepted another plot of land, not nearly as well located, but the government took it away from us after some controversy. Following much prayer and effort by many, we received the best possible piece of land in the city — right in the center, next to city hall. For us, this was a miracle. We could not have asked for a better place to build our cathedral.”
I asked about the building where we were meeting, both the administrative center of the diocese and, in several rooms on the top floor, his residence.
“It was built by the church in the pre-Communist time and was used in the same way. Then in the Hoxha years it became the local Communist Party training center! Now it has been returned to us — there is no more Communist Party. This also was restored by the Archbishop.
“We have a great deal to do here. There are now 200 churches in this diocese — a very heavy administrative load. On the other hand, there were 400 churches in the diocese before 1967. Being a bishop is not easy. You have to make a lot of decisions, you need a lot of prayer. Thank God there are some stupid — or perhaps crazy — people willing to be bishops. Bishops today must no longer live like princes. We are no longer living in the Byzantine Empire. We must be close to the people. An episkopos must be someone who guides, not a ruler.”
I asked if he hadn’t been tempted to stay in the United States after his studies were completed. The large Albanian community there would have certainly found a parish for him.
“It was suggested to me a number of times. I have other family members who moved to the US, but I decided to come back to Albania. This is my country. This is the Church that really needs me. Here I can make a difference. Yes, it is difficult here, but where is it not difficult? I was baptized here and had my first communion here. There were many good friends there who thought I was crazy to return, and there are people here who think the same — even people who say I am a CIA spy or that I get a lot of money by being a bishop. Otherwise why would I have come back? They cannot imagine any motive but financial gain.
“But what can we offer to the world as Orthodox Christians? Not money, but the spirit of sacrifice. We must teach the people the responsibility that comes with freedom — the Albanian word is liria. Such an important word!
“In a recent sermon I tried to explain that the Lord’s commandments are not the enemy of freedom — I compared the commandments to the barriers on mountain roads which help prevent cars from falling off cliffs. Now we are in the process of understanding that freedom is not mass debauchery. Freedom is not just to do as you please with no thought of consequences, no care for others. It is not a life free of love. The Prodigal Son thought he would become free and ended up as a slave. Without transformation and asceticism, freedom is not possible.
“Instead of a culture of freedom, we are in a culture of addictions. We find many people more and more addicted. Everything becomes uniform. Here in Albania it used to be done by force while in the west it was done voluntarily. Now we are following the western style. We think we achieve freedom by money.”
He went on to speak about obstacles to the spiritual life.
“The great sin is fear of the other. In a state of fear, everyone seems to be a threat. There are many symptoms of fear among Christians. The real meaning of the English word ‘gospel’ is good news, but one can find those who are more attracted to the Bad News Gospel. You can find religious circles more interested in the anti-Christ than in Christ, more interested in the number 666 than the Holy Trinity. This is a fear-driven, bad news orientation. Where such a mentality thrives, the Christian contribution to society is meager. Where faith, hope and love flourish, transformation occurs. Faith changes life. If life doesn’t change, clearly there is no faith. Saint John Chrysostom, preaching to perhaps 400 people in Antioch, told them, ‘If all of you were Christians, there would be no more pagans in the world.’ If you want to understand how Christianity spread so rapidly in the early centuries, it was because Christians were Christian.
“Sadly, in our time, we have lost the idea of the holy. Pagans at least understood the holy. They had a sense of the sacred. We have lost this capacity. This is our tragedy because more than ever the world needs the light of Christ, the genuine light.”
I asked how the Church in Albania communicates the faith to others? Metropolitan John laughed.
“We try everything! If you have a suggestion, we will try that too. This is why the Church is doing so many things that are valuable and useful in themselves but not essential, you might think, to the life of the Church. For example we are now preparing to offer an English course for young people in the region of Prespa. It is not an essential task of the Church to teach languages but this is another way of trying to make contact with young people who have nothing to do, nowhere to go, and cannot imagine pushing open the door of the Church. Of course this sometimes irritates people in the government. They wonder what the church has to do with school. Their idea is that we should only stand at the altar.
“It is not that we are trying to manipulate others into belief through this or that project. What we are trying to do is help young people see certain possibilities, certain paths. Our task is to guard their freedom so that they can choose their own path. In general they want to be told what to do. This is the fear of freedom. But they imagine they are free and that the Church is an enemy of their freedom.”
I noticed on a bookshelf several collections of stories and saying of the early monks, the Desert Fathers.
“For me these men and women of the desert have been a constant source of inspiration. For example there is the story of an elder and his young disciple going to Alexandria to preach. They shopped. They walked about. Finally the elder said to the younger monk, ‘Let’s return to our cells.’ The disciple said, ‘But weren’t we going to preach?’ And the elder said, ‘But we preached all day long — how we walked, how we spoke, how we ate. What more could we say?’
“Then there is the story of the theologian who went to St. Anthony the Great. He asked about the meaning of a certain text. Anthony said, ‘What is your opinion?’ The theologian gave a very detailed answer. Then Anthony asked another monk, ‘Abba Joseph, what is your opinion?’ He responded, ‘I don’t know.’ To this Anthony replied, ‘Blessed are you, Abba Joseph, you have understood because you said I don’t know.’
“The words ‘I don’t know’ are wonderful! This is why in the Orthodox Church we refer to any sacrament with the Greek word mysterion — mystery. We do this because there is the danger of putting boundaries to God. It is the academic danger: to pretend — to imagine — that you know. In reality the more you know, the more you don’t know.
“It is not through scientific investigation that you know another person. It is only through love. Only love can discover something unique. If you don’t love, you cannot discover the person. Love is a state of being. Love is a sacrament of being. The moment you feel a need to explain, love is gone.
“A problem we face is the cult of individualism. The Church doesn’t exist to make individuals but persons. An individual is someone in a state of separation, someone out of communion. A person is unique but at the same time exists in relationship with others. You cannot divide him from the whole. A person is a being who can never be repeated yet whose being includes others — without the other, the person does not exist. Without communion there is no being.”
I asked if he could imagine if, after all these years of destruction of faith, that Albania could become a religious society.
“I am not a staretz [spiritual elder, often a person who can foretell events yet to happen] — I cannot see the future. We must do what we can and not be overly attached to achieving results.”
I wondered if monastic life had been a hard choice for him.
“I didn’t see becoming a monk as a choice. It was for me what I must do — not to be better than others! — but because no other life seemed to fit me. I never encourage young people to embrace a celibate life. You do this only if you find that you have no other choice. But a celibate vocation is only possible if you live an ascetic life. This is why we have no TV in the house. Even if you are strong, it’s better not to put yourself in the path of temptation. When an ascetic discipline is missing, there is the problem of extreme loneliness suffered by many celibates. If you are full of the love of the Holy Spirit, you do not need other kinds of love.”
He told me a story of a community of exceptionally holy monks who, unfortunately, were also terrible singers.
“They sounded like a chorus of crows. But a gifted singer happened to visit. The monks were so impressed by his fine voice that they wouldn’t let him leave. He would sing the services so that heaven would no longer have to suffer from their awful singing. Days and days passed. Each service was beautifully sung by the professional singer. But one night an angel appeared in a dream to one of the monks and asked why they no longer heard the monks’ prayers. What had happened? The monk said the angel was a mistaken — ‘There is now a wonderful singer offering the prayers so much better than we can!’ ‘All the same,’ said the angel, ‘we hear nothing in heaven.’ The monk told the brothers his dream. Afterward the monks resumed their singing.
“I am like one of these monks with an awful voice, but it is the only voice I have and I must use it as best I can.”
He commented that one of the problems for priests in the modern world is a tendency to be embarrassed by the priestly vocation.
“We have to take care that in our desire to be close to people we try to become so like them that they hardly see us. The priest has to be visible, though taking care not to obstruct Christ’s presence.”
I asked about people and events that had shaped his life.
“I think this can be divided in two periods, first when religion was forbidden, and then when the church regained its freedom. In the first period, one of the most important persons for me was a man named Petro Zhei. I met him through providence. He was a translator but, more than that, he was a genius, an erudite man with a deep experience in the spiritual life. I was about 18 years old when a friend introduced us. He was 25 years older than I was. Despite the difference in age and experience, we had many deep conversations. The exchanges with him opened so many doors within me.
“In school I went through a very deep spiritual crisis. It brought on a kind of melancholy — depression — the feeling I was losing my childhood. I was reading books about psychology and philosophy that were really killing childhood. What finally saved my childhood was the Gospel. Reading it, I felt again a childlike happiness. I rediscovered something. Thank you, Gospel, for saving my childhood. Thank you for giving me back real joy. You can become an expert but it is of no value if you lose the joy. The Gospel so moved me whenever I read it. Even the memory of it moved me. As a child I had always loved adventure books — the Gospel was the fulfillment of this love. This was the ultimate adventure book. Perhaps someday I can find time to write about the theology of adventure stories and fairy tales.
In the second period, the one who most influenced me was Archbishop Anastasios. It happens both he and Petro Zhei were born in the same year. Often it’s not enough to have a clear idea and dedication, a spirit of sacrifice. We also need models to see our ideals actualized. The Archbishop was such an example for me. Through him I was able to see a concrete example of how to combine our dedication to God and man.
Our conversation shifted toward Church response to the poor, the homeless and the sick.
“There is no Christian community where there is no service of love. If we fail to respond to those who suffer, we turn our back on Christ. I will not be congratulated by God for writing a fine book about theology. I will be asked: ‘What about that poor old woman you ignored?’
“This is why we opened the ‘Service of Love’ free restaurant just across the street, to give one example. You can see it out the window. This was opened two times a week in 1995, through the initiative of the Archbishop. We have expanded it now to five meals a week. Normally we have forty to eighty people for lunch. All this is done by volunteers, a mixture of young and old, four or five in each group. Next we want to start a home for the elderly — people who are often completely alone. We are already helping old people in their homes or apartments, for example an old woman who had surgery and had no one to care for her. But they give us more than we give them. At the same time, we cannot romanticize the service of love. Often people with needs are somewhat mentally disturbed. They may curse you, curse the Church, even threaten you.
“There is the spiritual danger of seeing people as if they were carvings — it is a break in communion. The closer you get to another person, the more you understand this could be you. Everything can become a sacrament, the mystery of God’s presence.
“We look for many ways to help — we can never say we have finished. A week ago Sunday the Gospel of the Last Judgement was read during the liturgy — ‘What you did to the least person, you did to me.’ In my sermon I asked for volunteers to help us expand our Service of Love program — after the liturgy there were 28 volunteers, many of them young people. This means we can do more.
“You will not be saved by doctrine if you don’t practice it. If you believe in the power of medicine but only keep it in bottles, it will not save you. Saint Gregory the Theologian said that the knowledge of God starts with obeying the commandments; if you begin the journey you will experience the mysteries — the sacraments. Like Moses, we are granted an oblique view of God. This is a quest that surpasses every fairy tale, every legend.
“One of the things we learn in any project of service is that we cannot do it alone. Christ said he will be present whenever there are at least two or three gathered in his name — one is not enough.
“From such work we also learn gratitude. This is essential. The deep meaning of the word Eucharist is thanksgiving. Complaining is the disease of our time. Our sin is not being grateful. I visited recently an 83-year-old woman who had been blind since she was three. I have never met anyone as grateful as she is, someone so thankful. Whenever you met the Cico sisters, you would notice that each time they mentioned Christ, their faces were illuminated. Such gratitude! They have lived in the other world — they have enjoyed it and we experience their joy. This kept them alive. But in our present world if you don’t complain you are regarded as an idiot.”
I was reminded of the words a French Catholic poet, Leon Bloy, who said that joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.
“Yes! One Christmas I went to a cave in the mountains near here, a place many people were afraid to go to because of superstitions about ghosts. I built a small a fire and prayed. In that cave I was so full of joy! People who have not had such an experience cannot imagine. Joy? Joy in a cold cave in the middle of winter? They will think you are crazy. But I felt a great joy, and within me overflowed a deep prayer. This joy overwhelmed me for days — I could hardly work.”
Our conversation returned to the Hoxha years, when one would be very lucky to be regarded as crazy rather than criminal.
“Those years of persecution were hard but helpful. You certainly didn’t get a medal for being religious! In 1948 the head of our Orthodox, Archbishop Kristofor, was arrested and confined to the church of St. Prokopios in Tirana. Four years later, it was reported in the press that the bishop he had been found dead, but it is generally assumed he was poisoned. He died a martyr’s death.
“Another bishop, Irineos, had the courage to refuse to ordain as bishop a person nominated by the government and for this was exiled to the Ardenica monastery. Bishop Irineos was from Skodra in the north of Albania. He studied theology in Paris and Belgrade.
Irineos never wanted to be a bishop or even to be ordained as a deacon or priest, but accepted it during the Italian occupation of Albania to prevent a Uniate bishop being imposed on us. The Italians had intended to put a Uniate in the Synod as soon as there was a vacancy. After a week of prayer, Irineu accepted the proposal though he was a layman at the time. He was quickly ordained deacon, then priest, then bishop, all in one week! He served as bishop in Kosovo and part of Macedonia. Bishop Irineu was arrested and exiled to the Ardenica Monastery where he died in 1973.
“Religious life was something dangerous for many years. But in those days I felt strongly that you cannot live without religion. Such a life is a mutilated life. Now we have the impression that we can live without religion or that religion can be a hobby. We lived through a time of collective madness. You were condemned for any form of religion — it was a war against the idea of the holy, the idea of God.
“Yet to tell the truth, I often felt sorry for the persecutors — and still feel sorry for them. Really, they were the victims. They became sub-human. I don’t know how they feel now, but they have been badly damaged. Hell is life apart from God — it begins in this life. If we don’t become familiar with God in this life, how will we do it in the next?”
I mentioned that some of those who once persecuted religion are not only alive and well but still in government.
“Our sad history in the Balkans — so many invasions and occupations and acts of cruelty — taught people not to trust. Here there has always been war. It is regarded as normal. We who are Christians have to stop these endless cycles of hatred.”
Extract from The Resurrection of the Church in Albania by Jim Forest, published in 2002 by the World Council of Churches; do not reprint without the author’s permission.
The voice of Marika Cico
Despite the extreme religious repression that reigned in Albania for so many years, thousands of people lived a carefully-hidden religious life. A few even dared to organize hidden churches, among them two sisters living in Korça, the principal city in the southeast of Albania. One of the sisters is still alive — Marika Cico (pronounced Tsitso), 95 years old when I met her. The Cico home — an old house behind a small courtyard in the center of Korça — was the location of many secret liturgies, baptisms, chrismations, confessions and marriages. These events normally happened late at night in a back room in which religious activity would least likely be noticed.
The trip from Tirana to Korça (19 km from the Greek border) was an unforgettable, at times nerve-wracking, experience, providing my first substantial encounter both with Albania’s mountains and the devastated condition of Albania’s roads. Though occasionally we encountered European-financed road improvement projects that provide a glimpse of a future day when travel will not be such a trial, for drivers at present travel in Albania is an endless search for that elusive part of the road that is least pitted.
But we had our rewards. There were amazing — also terrifying — vistas from narrow mountain ridges of unfolding valleys and other, still more dramatic peaks in the distance. Occasionally we looked down abrupt drops not just on one side of the road but both. It was along the narrow, winding route between Tirana and Elbasan that a young priest, Father Sotiri, his wife Marianna and one of their two sons was killed when their car plunged over the unguarded ledge of a cliff. (Remarkably, their other son survived the accident and is now living at the seminary near Durres.)
Later, driving along the edge of Lake Ochrid toward Pogradec, we stopped at a small restaurant, Shen Naumi, and ate freshly grilled koran, a fish for which Lake Ochrid has been famous since ancient times. A local fisherman had caught only three koran that morning.
It was in the late afternoon, after a first short visit with Metropolitan John, that my translator, John Lena, and I rang the bell of the Cico house.
Opening the door, Marika Cico crossed herself before leading us inside, bringing us into the kitchen. She was wearing a back dress and cap, in mourning not for a deceased husband — she never married — but for her dear sister Demetra who died in 1996. Yet there was no trace of sorrow or mourning in her face. Nearly blind, her wide eyes were made all the wider by the thickness of her glasses. She knew John already, clearly regarded him as a near relative, and assumed the very best of me as well. As it happened, there were two other visitors in the house, Frangji Kosti, a sister-in-law, and her niece, Anne Fiku.
“It is a blessing you came!” she said as we sat down at the kitchen table. She made her sign of the cross once again, then rested her hand on mine.
“First I wanted to thank God for two people, my parents. I thank God who made my mother and father faithful and who gave us a religious education. Our mother was very religious and gave all of us this joy. Mother always wanted a church here dedicated to Saint Anne, the mother of the Blessed Virgin, and now it is being built in the center of the city! It is a miracle. We suffered but God held us up high.
“Whatever we suffered we always remained happy because we had God. When we were little girls, my mother often read to us — she read the Gospels, not the newspapers. The important things in our lives were parents, Gospel, Church. We all suffered — Turks, King Zog, wars, many trials, Communists, property taken away — but God was always with us in our suffering.”
She sent Franji to bring a photo of her mother so we could see her face. As it happened, she and her sister Demetra were on either side of their mother in the photo.
“Also I thank God for my sister.” Again she crosses herself. “Until she died, she had the Gospel in her hand day and night. She was a woman of great wisdom and strength. She was able to strengthen me and many others.”
I mentioned to her the admiration Archbishop Anastasios has for her and her late sister.
“There is no bishop like this anywhere. He is a new saint God has sent to Albania. When he arrived, we were so happy we flew! He saved Orthodoxy in Albania. He brought us out of darkness. He has done so much for us — built churches, given us priests, helped people who were suffering. When refugees came from Kosovo, he helped them. The government wanted to kick him out but he is still with us! We could hardly believe it when we heard a bishop was coming here. My nephew said, ‘Make yourself ready. The bishop is coming.’ We three sisters — myself, Demetra and Berta, our sister in Christ — went to meet him. Then we were introduced to him! He embraced us with tears.” Again she crossed herself. “And when he saw we had health problems — eyes, heart, throat — he sent us to Athens for healing.”
Her niece Anne interrupted to pour tea, but Marika hardly paused.
“I must tell you more about my mother. When I was little, I had a very poor memory. I couldn’t remember any of the things I was supposed to learn in school though I tried and tried. I started crying. My mother heard me, came and gave me a blessing. ‘Why are you crying?’ she asked. When I told her, she said to go to the church and ask the Virgin Mary to help me remember things. I did as she said. I went to the church, prayed before the icon of the Mother of God, took courage — and my memory became better! After that I stopped in the church every morning. Of course in those days the church still existed and the doors were always open. You could pray day and night.
“But in 1967 they came and told us that the church would be closed. My sister heard it first — she was a chanter in the church. Now there would be no churches to sing in! They told us to get rid of the icons, so we hid them all right here — behind curtains, in drawers. Later they searched, but God made them blind and they didn’t find them! Then a theologian we knew brought us a statue of Jesus the Italians that left in Korça. We hid this also, right in the closet behind some clothing. Again they searched and even then they didn’t find it! God closed their eyes. God did not allow them to see what was under their noses. Because they were frightened, other people brought icons to us and we hid these as well.”
I asked how it was possible that liturgies were celebrated in their house.
“It happened that a friend from Vlora came and told us about a faithful priest, Father Kosmas [Qirjo], and asked if we would like to meet him. We learned it was his custom once a week to wake at midnight, walk to another house, sometimes as much as 10 km away, to read from the Bible with others and to celebrate a secret liturgy. The windows were covered with blankets and the candle put under rather than on the table.
“In 1967 he watched as his church was burned down — the Church of the Five Martyrs in the village of Bestrova, near Vlora. Afterwards, with his wife and two sons, he was sent to do forced labor on a cooperative farm. Finally they were allowed to return to their village but he had to do manual labor 14 hours a day beginning at 6 AM, often working in bare feet.
“He was very poor. His black raisa [priest’s robe] was so faded, it was almost white. He had seven children and lived in a muddy hut with only one window. It was a very poor family, but when we talked with him we realized he was an apostle. He talked with us all night long — night was the only time one could have such a conversation. We asked him what he needed and helped him and his family in every way we could. He had not been well-educated but he read the Bible by the light of the moon and God enlightened him. Like other priests in those years, he became a laborer, but he never gave up being a priest. ‘I am a priest,’ he said, ‘and I will remain in the church even if the church has no building. In my house I will dress as a priest, outside I will wear pants’.”
A cookie tin was opened and more tea poured.
“People wanted to be baptized, people wanted to be crowned [married], people wanted to confess — they would go to him in the middle of the night. He was far from here, on the other side of Albania near the Adriatic Sea. We could not easily communicate. We would send him a message — ‘Please find wool from the sheep so Frangji can make clothing for the children.’ This meant we are fasting — can you bring us Holy Communion? In the beginning there were about ten women in our group, all fasting through the week. On Thursday we would make candles and prosphora [bread for the Eucharist]. This was the day when Father Kosmas would arrive. Then on Friday night we could receive Communion!
“Five or six times a year, especially in the summer, he was able to come to Korça — to celebrate the Liturgy, baptize, bless marriages, hear confessions, and teach. One time he was stopped by the police and taken to the police station but they never looked in his bag — if they had, they would have found his vestments. God closed their eyes.”
Marika held her hand over her glasses so that I might see what God had done.
I asked how often Father Kosmas managed to come to Korça.
“When he came, the children would come very close to him. ‘Talk to us! Talk to us!’ they said. They didn’t want to leave him. They went to sleep. Our friends would arrive, coming one by one so as not to be noticed. The door was locked and the windows were closed with blankets. We slept a short time, then my sister made a table into an altar. She had everything that was needed. Father Kosmas would bring the wine. Then we did the Liturgy, celebrating until three in the morning. It was so beautiful. We were in heaven!”
Marika crossed herself three times.
“When we finished, we ate a little bread. Then one at a time, so that no one would notice, those who had come would go home. Sometimes there were baptisms, sometimes crownings. We did this regularly, contacting Father Kosmas whenever he was needed, though it was not easy to come — travel was difficult and there were always dangers.”
She told me that Father Kosmas had become the second Albanian-born bishop after the Communist time (the first was Metropolitan John of Korça, a spiritual child of Father Kosmas).
“Archbishop Anastasios wanted very much to have bishops who were born here, but when he arrived there were not even twenty priests still alive, many of them very weak, some close to death. It is the Orthodox rule that a bishop should be living a monastic rather than a married life. But in 1998 Father Kosmas and his wife embraced a celibate life, living apart so that he could serve as a bishop. Our dear Father Kosmas died on August 11, 2000, and we miss him. He lived the Liturgy every day. We were one body, this life we were living. I believe he was a saint.”
Marika paused. Tears were glistening in her eyes.
“For 23 years, from 1967 to 1990, this is how we lived. There was not one church open in all of Albania. Of course for many years before 1967 it was difficult — arrests, people exiled, even people shot — but still many churches were open.”
One of the people whom she had met before 1967 was Bishop Irineos, who was then living in exile.
“He was an educated man. He had studied in Belgrade. The Communists had taken everything from him. My sister sent me to him with olives and cheese. He was so happy when he saw me! So we sat at the table and talked and talked. I said, ‘With your blessing, please teach me something. Tell me what we should do, how we should act.’ It was because of this question that Bishop Irineos suggested to me what he called unsleeping prayer. He said there was a monastery in Yugoslavia that was in danger of being destroyed by a forest fire and that we should do unsleeping prayer to save it. I asked him, ‘What is unsleeping prayer? How can we do this? How is it possible with Communists all around?’ He said it was something we could do in turns. If you have 24 people, each person has one hour in the day — it could be 12 to 1 at night, for example. One hour, one person. When there are 12, each takes two hours. I returned to Korça and we agreed to do what he said. We did unsleeping prayer and on the sixth day the fire changed direction and the monastery was not destroyed. Even after the fire changed direction, we continued our prayer day and night for 40 days.”
She paused to sip her tea and catch her breath.
“That was the beginning — that was when churches were still open in Albania. When they were closed, many times afterward we did unsleeping prayer that the churches would reopen — and now they have! But we had to wait many years.”
I asked what actions they had undertaken in 1967.
“When the evil time came, I said, ‘Let us do unsleeping prayer again.’ We did it with twelve people and experienced a joy we had never felt before! We suffered many things, but still we were saved! One of my two brothers was sent into exile for five years in the worst village in Albania, but he survived. We also fasted. God took fear away from us! My brother said we must be careful, and we were, but we never stopped. This is how we were saved. And now, thank God, Communism has died and we are alive! And God gave us a big gift, these two bishops [Archbishop Anastasios and Metropolitan John of Korça]!”
Was their activity only in Korça, I asked.
“Sometimes we would go looking for mountain churches. There was an old villager who showed the way to one but he warned us to be careful — ‘They are listening!’ he said. We found the rocks where the church had been and we saw a woman kneeling there, praying in tears. She was frightened when she saw us but we told her not to be scared, we were also believers and we too had come to pray. In the night the old man who showed us the way let us stay in his own simple shed, an earth floor covered with hay. He said, ‘You sleep here.’ He shared his bread with us. In the morning we woke up early and said our prayers.”
A major event in the life of Korça’s hidden church was the arrival of Theofan Popa.
“Theofan Popa was a strong Christian well educated in theology and art history and employed with the Ministry of Monuments. He was able to save many churches by having them classified as monuments of culture. It was too obvious to his superiors that he was a Christian. As punishment, he was sent from Tirana to exile in Korça — but for us his arrival was a gift from God. At first he stayed in a hotel and there he asked someone he met in the hotel restaurant if there was anyone religious in the town and in this way he heard about my sister and me. We two were a choir, he was told. We came to our house and we talked for three hours. After that, we told him, ‘This is your house. Come whenever you wish. Don’t even ask.’ He was an angel to us. He was able to save many churches by having them recognized as monuments — also many icons were saved as ‘works of cultural importance’ because of him. They are still in the museum here in Korça. Had it not been for him, they would have been destroyed.”
The future bishop of Korça also found his way to the choir-of-two, the Cico sisters, and the hidden church that had formed around them.
“His name was Fatimir when we first met him — John after his baptism. He worked in a mental hospital because this was a place where he could do some good. When Father Kosmas baptized him, he said, ‘You will be like Saint John the Theologian.’ This is why he gave him the name John, and this is what happened — he became a theologian. I love him like a son.
“I remember there was an old woman in the hospital where he worked who wanted her legs washed — otherwise she would go crazy, she said. So he stayed at the end of each day to care for her. When a doctor found him staying late, he was surprised but respected the motives and gave him support afterward when support was needed. He even was ready to help him go to another country to study medicine at a time when travel abroad was almost impossible but he didn’t want to leave. He said, ‘But who will care for them? It is better to stay here. I can do more.’ And today he is Metropolitan John!”
She paused, crossed herself, and then remembered another important member of their community.
“I must not leave out our dear Papa Jani. We pray for him every day. Now he is a priest, one of the very first ordained after the time of no churches. In the hard years, he worked in a metal factory where he was able secretly to make crosses which he left in churches for visitors to find and take away.”
I asked when she could first sense the prohibition against religious life would finally end.
“Sometimes we would go in secret to roofless churches with no icons, only ruins, and pray in them. Once we did this when we had a sick nephew — we prayed and slept in a ruined church and he got better. That night there were two other people who came secretly with a candle to pray there and so discovered us. They were so frightened. The man was someone high in the government. We reassured them, ‘We are here for the same reason. You have nothing to fear.’ So we prayed together in that mountain church. The man told us that in one year the government would allow churches to be open again — we were so happy to know this! We started kissing his hand. But he said we must not tell anyone. It was a secret. I only told Father Kosmas.
“Finally [in 1990] the Communist time began to end. We were so happy, but all the churches were closed. In response to our request, the government in Korça decided we could have one church back and that we would be permitted to have the Liturgy there. The first service we prepared was for Theophany on the 6th of January in 1991. We had been preparing everything but we needed a bell! Then we found the solution, a large brass mortar used for grinding garlic! It rang perfectly.”
Franji got the mortar and together they demonstrated what a fine bell it could be in place of a real bell. Marika was beaming.
“You see how God helps us! But it was not possible for Father Kosmas to come to Korça for this event. We turned to another priest who lived near us in Korça, Father Kosta Kotnani. He had been afraid to act as a priest in the Communist time. He wanted to say yes to us but his sons were too frightened what might happen to their father if he served in public as a priest. They were not sure the danger was past. We had to pull Father Kosta out of the house. You could say we kidnapped him! Then in Korça everyone came out to take part. They heard the bell. The roads were filled. Everyone was trying to touch Father Kosta. Everyone was blessed with water, the whole city.”
“I am 95 years old and I no longer have any strength. I have little education but I have faith and love. Who knows why God has allowed me to live so long. It is a miracle. I would like to die in a monastery. I always wanted to live a monastic life but it was not possible. I can die tonight, I can die tomorrow. Blessed be God! I love you very much. God kept me alive so that I could talk to you, and I have never talked so much! God does wonders!”
Once again Marika crossed herself three times, tears spilling down her face. Then she led me by the hand into the book-lined room which had been used for liturgies so often from 1967 until 1990. We prayed silently in front of the icon corner before I took a photo of Marika, Franji and Anne.
“Now you are a person always welcome in our house,” she said as I left. “You are part of our family. God makes miracles!”
Extract from The Resurrection of the Church in Albania by Jim Forest, published in 2002 by the World Council of Churches; do not reprint without the author’s permission.
How much does it cost?
I try to clear $1200 a day ($2500 for weekends) plus travel costs. Some hosts can manage more; sometimes I agree on less. While my default setting is yes, keep in mind the biblical injunction: “The laborer is worthy of his hire.” Also bear in mind that it isn’t just the time I’m speaking. A great many hours of preparation go into these trips. (Travel costs are shared out between hosts.)
At least a few weeks beforehand, place an order with Orbis so that copies of my recent books can be on hand: The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life, The Ladder of the Beatitudes, Praying With Icons, Living With Wisdom, and Love is the Measure. Orbis will send them at a bookseller discount with the right to return unsold books. To place an order, call the marketing department at Orbis: (914) 941-7636, ext. 2575. (For details about ordering my book on the resurrection of the Church in Albania, see the corresponding article.)
If you need a speaker photo and/or a biography, two are available on this web site: “Jim Forest: an alphabet of his own design” — a short biography, and “Getting From There to Here” — a longer biography of Jim Forest.
What sort of accommodation is required?
I try to avoid hotels and, even more, motels, preferring to stay in a host family’s guest room.
Special dietary needs?
Apart from being on a low salt diet, I am not a fussy eater.
It is helpful to have some quiet times for prayer, reading and correspondence between speaking events. If an art museum is not too distant, and there is time to visit it, I always welcome such opportunities.
by Jim Forest
My parents were people radically out of step with the America of the cold-war fifties. In those days they both belonged to the Communist Party. This made me a “red-diaper baby.” Yet religious inspiration played a major part in the lives of my parents as long as I can remember.
An orphan raised by a Catholic farming family in Massachusetts, my father became active in the local Catholic parish, serving as an altar boy. Inspired by a saintly pastor, he was preparing to become a priest. But the old priest was sent to another parish and his successor was a rigid man who ordered my father to resign from the local Protestant-sponsored Boy Scout troop. His strict eyes picking out my father at Mass on Sunday, he preached against Catholic engagement with those who were not in communion with Rome. My father walked out on Mass that day and never returned. Yet I gradually became aware that underneath the bitterness he had acquired toward Catholicism was grief at having lost contact with a Church which, in many ways, had shaped his conscience. Far from objecting to my own religious awakenings, he cheered me along.
My mother had been raised in a devout Methodist household but was also disengaged from religion. When I was eight, I recall asking her if there was a God and was impressed by the remarkable sadness in her voice when she said there wasn’t. Some years later she told me she had lost her faith while a student at Smith College when a professor she admired told her that religions were only a patchwork of myths but were nonetheless fascinating to study. Again, as she related the story, I was struck by the sadness in her voice. Why such sadness?
I wonder if my parents’ love of wild life and wilderness areas had to do with a sense of God’s nearness in places of natural beauty? For their honeymoon, they had walked a long stretch of the Appalachian Trail. Our scrap books were full of photos Dad had taken of national parks, camps sites, and forest animals. Mother used to say that Dad was a wonderful hunter, except the only thing he could aim at an animal was a camera. The idea of owning a gun was anathema to both of them.
They had a similar reverence for human beings, especially those in need or in trouble. In this regard they were more attentive to the Gospel than many who are regularly in church. Christ taught that what you do for the least person you do for him even though you may not realize it or believe in him. In this regard, my parents were high on the list of those doing what God wants us to do even if their concern for the poor had led them away from churches and into the political left. A great deal of their time went into helping people.
While I often felt embarrassed coming from a family so different from others in the neighborhood, my spiritual life was influenced by my parents’ social conscience far more than I realized at the time. They helped make me aware that I was accountable not only for myself, my family, and friends, but for the down-and-out, the persecuted, and the unwelcome.
My parents were divorced when I was four. Afterward my mother, younger brother and I moved from Colorado to New Jersey. Our new home was in the town in which my mother had grown up, Red Bank,though not the same neighborhood as her wealthy parents had lived. (Both were dead by the time of her return.)
Mother’s identification with people on the other side of the tracks had brought us to live on the other side of the tracks, in a small house in a mainly black neighborhood where indoor plumbing was still unusual and many local roads still unpaved. One neighbor, Libby, old as the hills and black as coal, had been born in slavery days. Earlier in her life she had worked in my grandparents’ house.
Among my childhood memories is going door-to-door with my mother when she was attempting to sell subscriptions to the Communist paper, The Daily Worker. I don’t recall her having any success. This experience left me with an abiding sympathy for all doorbell ringers.
We received The Daily Worker ourselves. It came in a plain wrapper without a return address. Occasionally Mother read aloud articles that a child might find interesting. But as the cold winds of the “McCarthy period” began to blow, the time came when, far from attempting to sell subscriptions, the fact that we were on its mailing list began to worry Mother. It was no longer thrown away with the garbage like other newspapers but was saved in drawers until autumn, then burned bit by bit with the fall leaves.
One of the nightmare experiences of my childhood was the trial and electrocution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the couple accused of helping the Soviet Union obtain US atomic secrets. My mother was convinced that the Rosenbergs were scapegoats whose real crimes were being Jews and Communists. Their conviction, she felt, was meant to further marginalize American Communists, along with other groups critical of US structures, for the government wasn’t only after “reds” but also “pinkos,” as anyone slightly to the left was labeled. The letters the Rosenbergs sent to their children from prison were published in The Daily Worker and these Mother read to my brother and me. How we wept the morning after their death as she read the newspaper accounts of their last minutes of life.
Music was part of our upbringing. Mother hadn’t much of a voice, but from time to time sang with great feeling such songs as “This Land is Your Land,” “Joe Hill” and “The Internationale” with its line, “Arise ye prisoners of starvation, arise ye wretched of the earth, for justice thunders condemnation, a better’s world’s in birth.” On our small wind-up 78 rpm record player, we played records of Paul Robeson, the Weavers, Burl Ives (who was a bit to the left in those days), and, of course, Pete Seeger. From these recordings I also learned many black spirituals. The music of the black church was the one acceptable source of religion in the American left. I also sometimes heard spirituals when I walked past a nearby black church.
Despite my mother’s alienation from religion, she missed the Methodist Church in which she had been raised. During the weeks surrounding Easter and Christmas, her religious homesickness got the best of her and so we attended services, sitting up in the church balcony. One year she sent my brother and me to the church’s summer school. While this was a help for her as a working mother (she was a psychiatric social worker at a mental hospital), I have no doubt she hoped my brother and I would soak up the kind of information about the deeper meaning of life that she had received as a child.
The minister of the church, Roger Squire, was an exceptional man whose qualities included a gift for noticing people in balconies and connecting with children. His occasional visits to our house were delightful events. Only as an adult did it cross my mind how remarkable it was that he would make it a point to come into our neighborhood to knock on the kitchen door of a home that contained not members of his parish or even church-goers but a Communist mother and her two sons.
One of the incidents that marked me as a child was the hospitality of the Squire family to two young women from Hiroshima and Nagasaki who had survived the nuclear bombing but were badly scarred. American religious peace groups had brought them and others to the United States for plastic surgery and found them temporary homes in and near New York City, not an easy undertaking for the hosts in the fifties when the word “peace” was a suspect word and when many people had no desire to think about, not to say see with their own eyes, what American nuclear bombs had done to actual people. In fact, I could only guess at the results myself, as the two women’s faces were hidden behind silk veils. I had the idea that their faces were partly melted. Thanks to the Squires’ hospitality, I learned about the human cost of war and the effects of nuclear weapons, and through the Squire family I had a sturdy idea of what it meant to conform one’s life to the Gospel rather than to politics and the opinions of neighbors.
Yet the Methodist Church as such didn’t excite me. While I prized time with Rev. Squire and enjoyed the jokes he sprinkled in sermons to underline his points, long-time sitting was hard work for a child. I felt no urge to be baptized. Neither was I won over by the nearby Dutch Reformed Church which for some forgotten reason I attended for a few weeks or months and which I remember best for its unsuccessful attempt to get me to memorize the Ten Commandments.
The big event in my early religious development was thanks to a school friend inviting me to his church in Shrewsbury. It was among the oldest buildings in our region, its white clapboard scarred with musket balls fired in the Revolutionary war. The blood of dying soldiers had stained the church’s pews and floor, and though the stains could no longer be seen, it stirred me to think about what had happened there.
What engaged me still more was the form of worship, which centered on the altar rather than the pulpit. It was an Episcopal parish in which sacraments and ritual activity were the main events. (Being a parent has helped me realize that ritual is something that children naturally like; for all the experiments we make as children, we are born conservatives who want our parents to operate in predictable, patterned, reliable ways. We want meals to be on the table at a certain time and in a specific way, and in general like to know what to expect. We want the ordinary events of life to have what I think of now as a liturgical shape.)
The parish was relatively “high church” — vestments, acolytes, candles, processions, incense, liturgical seasons with their special colors, fast times, plain chant, communion every Sunday. I got a taste of a far more ancient form of Christianity than I had found among Methodists. I loved it and for the first time in my life wanted not just to watch but to be part of it. It was in this church that, age ten, I was baptized. I became an acolyte, thus getting to wear a bright red robe with crisp white surplice, and learned to assist the pastor, Father Lavant, at the altar. I learned much of the Book of Common Prayer by heart and rang a bell when the bread and wine were being consecrated. In Sunday school after the service I learned something of the history of Christianity, its sources and traditions, with much attention to Greek words. I remember Father Lavant writing “Eucharist” on the blackboard, explaining it meant thanksgiving, and that it was made up of smaller Greek words that meant “well” and “grace.” The Eucharist was a well of grace. He was the sort of man who put the ancient world in reaching distance.
But the friendship which had brought me to the church in the first place disintegrated sometime the following year. I no longer felt welcome in my friend’s car, and felt awkward about coming to their church under my own steam though it would have been possible to get there by bike. Perhaps the reason the car-door no longer opened to me so readily was my friend’s parents became aware of our family’s political color. Given the times, it would have been hard not to know.
I had little grasp of the intense political pressures Americans were under, though I saw the same anti-communist films and television programs other kids saw and was painfully aware that my parents were “the enemy” — the people who were trying to subvert America — though I couldn’t see a trace of this happening among the actual Communists I happened to know.
It was about that time that the FBI began to openly exhibit its interest in us, interviewing many of the neighbors. One day, while Mother was out, two FBI agents came into our house and finger-printed my brother and me. “Say hello to your mom,” one of them said on leaving. Such were the times.
My father’s arrest in 1952 in St. Louis, where he was then living, was page-one news across America. Dad faced the usual charge against Communists: “conspiracy to advocate the overthrow of the United States government by force and violence.” I doubt many read this hair-raising assembly of phrases closely enough to notice that in fact the accused were not being charged with any violent or revolutionary actions or even with planning, preparing or advocating such activities, but with being part of a conspiracy to advocate them sometime in the future.
The afternoon of Dad’s arrest, my Uncle Charles drove up to our house, came to the door, and yelled at my mother while waving a newspaper that had the banner headline: Ten Top Reds Arrested in Missouri. He stormed off the porch, got back into his car, a black Buick, and drove away. I never saw him again. Until then he had been a frequent visitor though I was aware Mother took pains to avoid political topics when we were with him.
Dad was to spend half a year in prison before being bailed out. Several years passed before the charges against him were finally dropped by the Justice Department.
While it was never nearly as bad for dissenters in the US as it was in the USSR — no gulag, no summary executions, no Stalin — nonetheless I came to feel a sense of connection with the children of religious believers in Communist countries; they too know what it is like to have their parents vilified by the mass media and imprisoned by the government.
Though it was bad enough that Dad was in prison, I was still more aware of the pressures my mother was facing. The FBI had talked with her employers. Many Communists were losing or had lost their jobs; she took it for granted it would happen to her as well. This expectation was a factor in her not buying a car until well after my brother and I were full-grown, even though we lived pretty far off the beaten track and really needed one. Mother took the bus to work and back again or found colleagues who would give her a lift. When I pleaded with her to get a car, she explained we shouldn’t develop needs that we might not be able afford in the future.
Her only hope of keeping her job was to give her employers no hook on which to justify dismissal. Night after night she worked at her desk writing case histories of patients with whom she was involved. No matter how sick she might be, she never missed a day of work, never arrived late, never left early. I doubt that the State of New Jersey ever got more from an employee than they got from her. And it worked. She wasn’t fired.
My religious interest went into recess. Within a year or two I was trying to make up my mind whether I was an atheist or an agnostic. I decided on the latter, because I couldn’t dismiss the sense I often had of God being real. Like my parents, I loved nature, and nature is full of news about God. Wherever I looked, whether at ants with a magnifying glass or at the moon with a telescope, everything in the natural order was awe-inspiring, and awe is a religious state of mind. Creation made it impossible to dismiss God. But it was a rather impersonal God — God as prime mover rather than God among us.
It wasn’t until late in 1959, when I was turning 18, that I began to think deeply about religion and what God might mean in my life.
At the turning point in his life, St. Paul was struck blind on the road to Damascus. The equivalent moment in my own life is linked to a more prosaic setting: Saturday night at the movies. Just out of Navy boot camp, I was studying meteorology at the Navy Weather School at Lakehurst, New Jersey. The film at the base theater happened to be “The Nun’s Story,” based on the autobiography of a young Belgian woman who entered a convent and later worked at a missionary hospital in the African Congo. In the end, the nun (played by Audrey Hepburn) became an ex-nun. Conscience was at the heart of the story: conscience leading a young woman into the convent and eventually leading her elsewhere, but never away from her faith. I later discovered the film was much criticized in the mainstream Catholic press for its portrayal both of loneliness and of the abuse of authority in religious community.
If it had been Hollywood’s usual religious movie of “The Bells of St. Mary’s” variety, it would have had no impact on my life. But this was a true story, well-acted, honestly told, and without a happy ending, though in the woman’s apparent failure as a nun one found both integrity and faith. Against the rough surface of the story, I had a compelling glimpse of the Catholic Church with its rich and complex structures of worship and community.
After the film I went for a walk, heading away from the buildings and sidewalks. It was a clear September evening. Gazing at the stars, I felt an uncomplicated and overwhelming happiness such as I had never known. This seemed to rise up through the grass and to shower down on me in the starlight. I was floating on God’s love like a leaf on water, deeply aware that everything that is or was or ever will be is joined together in God. For the first time in my life, the incomprehensible blackness beyond the stars wasn’t terrifying.
I didn’t think much about the film itself that night, except for a few words of Jesus that had been read to the novices during their first period of formation and which seemed to recite themselves within me as I walked: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you have, and give it to the poor, and you will have great treasure in heaven, and come, follow me.”
I went to sleep that night eager to go to Mass. I knew I wanted to be a Christian and was strongly drawn to Catholicism.
The next morning I went to a nearby Catholic church but found the Mass disappointing. I felt like an anthropologist observing a strange tribal rite. I had only a vague idea what was happening. There seemed little connection between the priest and the congregation. Most of the worship was in mumbled, hurried Latin, except for the sermon, which probably I would have preferred had it been in Latin. People in the pews seemed either bored or were concentrating on their rosaries. At least they knew when to sit, stand, and kneel. I struggled awkwardly to keep up with them. At the end of Mass, there was no exchange of greetings or further contact between people who had been praying together. Catholic worship seemed to have all the intimacy of supermarket shopping.
Still resolved to become a Christian, I started looking for a church where there was engagement and beauty and at least something of what I had hoped to find in Catholicism. The Anglo-Catholic segment of the Episcopal Church, which I had begun to know as a child, seemed the obvious choice, and it happened that another sailor at the Weather School had been part of a “high church” parish. He shared his Book of Common Prayer with me and in the weeks that followed we occasionally read its services of morning and evening prayer together.
After graduating, I spent a two-week Christmas leave in an Episcopal monastery on the Hudson River, Holy Cross, not far from West Point. It was a joyous experience in which I thought I had found everything I was hoping for in the Catholic Church: liturgy, the sacraments, and a religious community that combined prayer, study and service. I was now part a Navy unit at the U.S. Weather Bureau just outside Washington, DC. I joined an Episcopal parish in downtown Washington, St. Paul’s, which the monks had told me about.
Those months were full of grace. So why am I not writing an essay on “Why I am an Episcopalian”? One piece of the answer is that I had never quite let go of the Catholic Church. I could never walk past a Catholic church without stopping in to pray. A hallmark of the Catholic Church was that the Blessed Sacrament was reserved on or near the altar awaiting anyone who came in. Its presence meant this wasn’t just a room that came to life from time to time but a place where many of the curtains that usually hide God are lifted, even if you were the only person present. In those days the doors of Catholic churches always seemed open.
Another factor were Catholic books that found their way into my hands, including Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, and The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement.
But there were negative elements as well. One of these was an experience at the Episcopal monastery I occasionally visited. On the last day of an Easter stay one of the monks asked to see me. Once in the visiting room, he aggressively embraced me. I struggled free and later in the day left the monastery in great confusion. Back in Washington, I wrote to the prior of the community, telling him what had happened. His reply wasn’t helpful. He might have pointed out that monks, like everyone else, suffer loneliness and have sexual longings of one sort or another and sometimes don’t manage them very well. Instead the prior commented that homosexuality was often an indication of a monastic vocation. As my own sexual orientation was of the more common variety, I wondered if the prior meant I wasn’t the right sort of person to be visiting. After his letter, I had no desire to return. The experience underscored my growing doubts about remaining in the Episcopal Church.
Yet I still had reservations about becoming Catholic and so began to explore the varieties of Christianity in Washington, visiting every sort of church, black and white, high and low. Among them was a Greek Orthodox cathedral, but it seemed a cool, unwelcoming place; I sensed one had to be Greek to be a part of it. I returned several times to the black church on the campus of Howard University, a friendly place with wonderful singing, but felt that, as a white person, I would always be an outsider. If I could have changed skin color by wishing, I would have turned black in the Howard chapel.
As the weeks went by I came to realize that the Catholic churches I so often stopped in to pray were places in which I felt an at-homeness I hadn’t found anywhere else. On November 26, 1960, after several months of instruction, I was received into the Catholic Church.
What had most attracted me to Catholicism was the Liturgy. Though in some parishes it was a dry, mechanical affair, there were other parishes where the care taken in every aspect of worship was profound. While for some people worship in an ancient language was a barrier, in my own case I came to love the Latin. I was happy to be participating in a language of worship that was being used simultaneously in every part of the world and which also was a bridge of connection with past generations spanning many centuries. I learned the principal Latin prayers by heart, especially anything that could be sung, and still sometimes sing Latin prayers and hymns. “To sing is to pray twice,” one of the Church Fathers says. How true!
In the early stages of liturgical change following the Second Vatican Council, I felt a complex mixture of expectation and anxiety. Despite my private love of Latin, I could hardly disagree with the many arguments put forward for scrapping it. I didn’t want to hang onto what got in the way for others.
Unfortunately the Englishing of the Liturgy was not carried out by poets. We ended up with the English language in its flattest state. We also lost not only Latin but Gregorian chant, a great pity. Most of the music that took its place was fit for shopping malls and elevators. The sand blasting of ritual life had also removed incense. The body language of prayer was in retreat. The holy water fonts were dry. Many bridges linking body and soul were abandoned.
Yet, like most Catholics, I uttered few words of complaint. I knew that change is not a comfortable experience. And I thought of myself as a modern person; I was embarrassed by my difficulties adjusting to change. Also I had no sense of connection with those who were protesting the changes. These tended to be the rigid Catholics of the sort who were more papal than the Pope. (I had never been attracted to that arctic wing of Catholicism that argued one must be a Catholic, and a most obedient Catholic, in order to be saved.)
If one has experienced only the modern “fast-food” liturgy of the Catholic Church, perhaps the typical modern Mass isn’t so disappointing. But for me there was a deep sense of loss. For many years I often left Mass feeling let down.
All this said, there was a positive side to Catholicism that in many ways compensated for what was missing in the Liturgy. For all its problems, which no church is without, the Catholic Church has the strength of being a world community in which most members see themselves as being on the same footing as fellow Catholics on the other side of the globe; in contrast many Protestant and Orthodox Christians see their church, even Christ himself, primarily in national terms. The Catholic Church also possesses a strong sense of co-responsibility for the social order, and a relatively high degree of independence from all political and economic structures.
This aspect of the Catholic Church finds many expressions. After receiving a conscientious objector discharge from the Navy in 1960, I joined one of them, the Catholic Worker movement.
Founded by Dorothy Day in 1933, the Catholic Worker is well known for its “houses of hospitality” — places of welcome in run-down urban areas where those in need can receive food, clothing, and shelter. It is a movement not unlike the early Franciscans, attempting to live out the Gospels in a simple, literal way. Jesus said to be poor; those involved in the Catholic Worker struggle to have as little as possible, embracing voluntary poverty. Jesus said to do good to and pray for those who curse you, to love your enemies, to put away the sword; and Catholic Workers try to do this as well, refusing to take part in war or violence. The Catholic Worker view of the world is no less critical than that of the Prophets and the Gospel. There was a remarkable interest in the writings of the Church Fathers, the principal theologians of the early Church. One often found quotations from St. John Chrysostom, St. Gregory Nazianzen, Saint Basil and other voices of the early Church in the movement’s widely read publication, The Catholic Worker.
I found in Dorothy Day a deep appreciation of the richness and way of worship of the Eastern Church. She also had a special love for Russian literature, most of all the work of Dostoevsky. At times she recited passages from The Brothers Karamazov that had shaped her understanding of Christianity; mainly these had to do with the saintly staretz Father Zosima (a figure modeled in part on Father Amvrosi who was canonized by the Russian Church in 1988) and his teaching on active love. Dorothy inspired me to read Dostoevsky. It was Dorothy who first took me into a Russian Orthodox Church, a cathedral in upper Manhattan where I met a priest who, many years later, I was to meet again in Moscow, Father Matvay Stadniuk. (In 1988, back in Moscow, he launched the first public project of voluntary service by Church members since Soviet power had launched its war on religion.) At a Liturgy Dorothy took me to I first learned to sing the Old Slavonic words, “Gospodi pomiloi” (Lord have mercy), one of the main prayers of Orthodoxy.
One evening Dorothy brought me to a Manhattan apartment for meeting of the Third Hour, a small Christian ecumenical group founded by a Russian émigré, Helene Iswolsky. The conversation was in part about the Russian word for spirituality, dukhovnost. The Russian understanding of spiritual life, it was explained, not only suggests a private relationship between the praying person and God but has profound social content: moral capacity, social responsibility, courage, wisdom, mercy, a readiness to forgive, a way of life centered in love. I recall talk about iurodivi, the “holy fools” who revealed Christ in ways that would be regarded as insanity in the west, and stralniki, those who wandered Russia in continuous pilgrimage, begging for bread and reciting with every breath and step the silent prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” But much of the discussion flew over my head. At times I was more attentive to the remarkable face of the poet W.H. Auden and the wavy hair of Alexander Kerensky, prime minister of Russia between the abdication of the last czar and the Bolshevik revolution; both were members of the Third Hour group.
One of the people Dorothy was in touch with was the famous Trappist monk and author, Thomas Merton, whose autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, had been a factor in my becoming a Catholic. Through Dorothy I came to be one of his correspondents and later his guest at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Besides many letters, Merton used to send me postcard photographs of Russian and Greek icons. Icons had played an important part in his conversion to Christianity and, as I was to discover in writing a book about him, in his continuing spiritual life.
Thanks to Merton and Dorothy Day, I was more aware than many western Christians of the eastern Church, but Orthodoxy seemed to me more an ethnic club than a place for a multi-ethnic American, more a living museum than a living Church. My eyes were slow in opening to icons, which for a long time I regarded as merely primitive. While the music in Russian churches was amazingly beautiful, Orthodox services seemed too long and the ritual too ornate. I was in a typical American hurry about most things, even worship, and had the usual American aversion to trimmings. Orthodoxy seemed excessive.
As much of my adult life has been spent editing peace movement publications, one might imagine such peace work would have opened many east-west doors for me. Ironically, however, through most of the Cold War the peace movement in the United States was notable for its avoidance of contact with the Soviet Union. Perhaps because we were so routinely accused of being “tools of the Kremlin,” peace activists tended to steer clear of the USSR and rarely knew more about it than anyone else. Even to visit the Soviet Union was to be convicted of everything the Reader’s Digest had ever said about KGB direction of peace groups in the west.
In the spring of 1980, after three years heading the staff of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation in Holland, I was on a speaking trip that took me to twenty American cities. While in Cambridge, after seeing a Russian-made romantic movie called “Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears,” it occurred to me, as an American active in the peace movement, how odd it was that people like myself knew more about nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles than about the people at whom such weapons were targeted. The question arose in my mind: Might not the world be a slightly less dangerous place if we had more face-to-face contact with those whom we regarded as mortal enemies and whom we were prepared to kill by the millions? If we saw them as human beings instead of as gray political objects?
At the time the Nuclear Freeze movement was gathering strength. It advocated a bilateral end to nuclear testing, freezing the manufacture of nuclear weapons, and halting development of new weapons systems. Millions of people, both Democrat and Republican, supported the Freeze. Yet I came back to Holland convinced that its prospects for success were slight. The Freeze, like many peace campaigns during the Cold War, was built mainly on fear of nuclear weapons. Practically nothing was being done to respond to relationship issues or fear of the Soviet Union. All that was needed was one nasty incident to burst the balloon, and that came when a Soviet pilot shot down a South Korean 747 passenger plane flying across Soviet air space. The image of the west facing a barbaric and ruthless enemy was instantly revived. The Freeze movement crashed with the 747 jet.
I began to look for an opportunity to visit the Soviet Union.
At the time it wasn’t easy to find an opening. The Soviet Union was then at war in Afghanistan, an event condemned by the organization I was working for. A seminar we had arranged in Moscow was abruptly canceled on the Soviet side. An editor of Izvestia whom I met in Amsterdam candidly explained that Kremlin was guarding itself from western pacifists unveiling protest signs in Red Square.
In October 1983, a few representatives of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation joined with several leaders of the Christian Peace Conference for a dialogue on the subject of “Violence, Nonviolence and Liberation.” We met in Moscow in an old one-story wooden building used at that time by the External Church Affairs Department of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The meeting would have been useful no matter where it had happened. But for me it had an unexpected spiritual significance because it was in Russia. I experienced a particular sense of connection with the Russian Orthodox believers and longed to have the chance for more prolonged contact. (A year later I was in Moscow once again, this time for an exchange, sadly not real dialogue, with hardline Communists in the Soviet Peace Committee.)
For me the primary significance of the first trip was the contact I was able to arrange with Orthodox believers.
The high point was the Liturgy at the Epiphany Cathedral. This isn’t one of the city’s oldest or most beautiful churches, though it has an outstanding choir. The icons, coming from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were a far cry from those by Rublev and Theofan the Greek. And yet being in that throng of devout worshipers was a more illuminating experience than I have had in far more beautiful churches. The place became beautiful for me simply because it was such a grace to be there.
The church was crowded as a church in the west would be only on a major feast day. As is usual in the Russian Orthodox Church, there were no pews. There were a few benches and chairs along the walls for those who needed them, but I found it freeing to be on my feet. Though at times it was uncomfortable to be standing up for so long, being upright made me more attentive. It was like a move from the bleachers to the field. (I’d like one day to learn how chairs and benches made their way into churches. Is it connected with the Reformation’s re-centering of services around never-ending sermons?)
I was fascinated by the knitting together of spiritual and physical activity. Making the sign of the cross and half bows were ordinary elements of prayer. Orthodox believers seemed to cross themselves and bow almost continually. As I watched the rippling of bowing heads in the tightly packed congregation, I was reminded of the patterns the wind makes blowing across a field of wheat.
All the while two choirs, in balconies on either side of the huge cupola, were singing. For the Creed and Our Father, the congregation joined with the choirs, singing with hurricane force.
At first I stood like a statue, though wanting to do what those around me were doing. It seemed so appropriate for an incarnational religion to link body and soul through these simple gestures. It must have taken me most of an hour before I began to pray in the Russian style.
The sense of people being deeply at prayer was as tangible as Russian black bread. I felt that if the walls and pillars of the church were taken away, the roof would rest securely on the prayers of the congregation below. I have very rarely experienced this kind of intense spiritual presence. Though there are many superficial differences, in its intensity I can only compare it to the black church in America.
The experience led me to write Pilgrim to the Russian Church, a book which required a number of Russian trips; on one of these I was joined by my wife, Nancy.
In the course of my travels I came to love the slow, unhurried tradition of prayer in Orthodoxy, deeply appreciating its absent-mindedness about the clock. The Liturgy rarely started on time, never ended on time, and lasted two hours, or even three on great feasts — five at the all-night Pascha service. I discovered that Orthodox believers are willing to give to worship the kind of time and devotion that Italians give to their evening meals.
I became increasingly aware of how deep and mindful is Orthodox preparation for communion, with stress on forgiveness of others as a precondition for reception of the sacrament.
I enjoyed watching confession in Orthodox churches. The penitent and priest weren’t tucked away in confessional closets but stood on the side of the church in sight of one and all, faces nearly touching. There is a tenderness and intimacy about it that never ceases to amaze me. (While I still don’t find confession easy, I don’t envy those forms of Christianity that do without it.)
I quickly came to appreciate Orthodoxy for taking literally Jesus’ teaching, “Let the children come to me and hinder them not.” In our Catholic parish in Holland, our daughter Anne had gone from confusion and hurt to pain and anger after many attempts to receive communion with Nancy and me. She hadn’t reached “the age of reason” and therefore couldn’t receive the instruction that was considered a prerequisite to sacramental life. Does anyone ever reach the age of reason? A child in an Orthodox parish is at the front of the communion line.
I came to esteem the married clergy of Orthodoxy. While there are many Orthodox monks and nuns, and celibacy is an honored state, I found that marriage is more valued in Orthodoxy than Catholicism. Sexual discipline is taken no less seriously, yet one isn’t left feeling that the main sins are sexual or that sex is innately sinful.
I came to cherish the relative darkness usual in many Orthodox churches, where the main light source is candles. Candlelight creates a climate of intimacy. Icons are intended for candlelight.
Praying with icons was an aspect of Orthodox spirituality that opened its doors to us even though we weren’t yet Orthodox. During a three-month sabbatical in 1985, when we were living near Jerusalem while I taught at the Ecumenical Institute at Tantur, we bought a small hand-painted Russian “Vladimirskaya” icon of Mary and Jesus and began praying before it. The icon itself proved to be a school of prayer. We learned much about prayer by simply standing in front of our icon.
Not least significant, I learned a great deal from Russian Christians about love of enemies. I will never forget a conversation with an elderly priest, Father Mikhail, whom I met in the ancient city of Novgorod in 1987. Mikhail Gorbachev was then in his second year as Soviet head of state. To his everlasting credit, he had brought religious persecution to a halt. Ruined churches and monasteries were being given back to the Church. Many thousands of people were seeking baptism. It was truly a time of miracles. A long winter of persecution was ending, a springtime of religious rebirth was occurring. Over supper with Father Mikhail, I asked, “Aren’t you surprised?” ”Not at all,” he replied. “All believers have been praying for this every day of our lives. We knew God would answer our prayers, only we did not know when. I am only surprised that our prayers have been answered while I am still alive.” I thought of the countless people who had been shot or were taken to labor camps where they froze to death or died of disease or exhaustion. I had visited places of mass execution. I said to Father Mikhail, “But surely you must hate those who caused so much suffering and who killed so many people.” Father Mikhail gave me an answer that I did not expect. “Christ doesn’t hate them,” he said. “Why should I? How will they find the way to belief unless we love them? And if I refuse to love them, I too am not a believer.”
Back in Holland, Nancy and I continued our frustrating search for a Catholic parish that we could be fully a part of. On the one hand there were parishes that seemed linked to the larger Church only by frayed threads; parishes were abandoning ritual, traditions and lines of connection which seemed to us worth preserving, and going their own way. There were other parishes that, in ritual life, were clearly part of a larger church but where there was no sense of welcome or warmth.
Finally we became part of a parish where, by joining the choir, we felt more a part of a church community, though we were far and away the youngest members of the choir. Apart from Anne, none of our children were willing to come, and Anne became increasingly upset about her exclusion from communion
How I envied the Orthodox believers I had met in Russia! Oddly enough it didn’t occur to me that there might be a similar quality of worship in Orthodox churches in the west. I thought that Orthodoxy was like certain wines that must be sipped at the vineyard. I also had the idea that Russian parishes in the west must mainly be populated by bitter refugees preoccupied with hating Communists.
Then in January 1988, at the invitation of Father Alexis Voogd, pastor of the St. Nicholas of Myra Church in Amsterdam, Nancy and I took part in a special ecumenical service to mark the beginning of the Orthodox Church in Russia and Ukraine’s millennium celebration: a thousand years since the baptism of the citizens of Kiev in the Dnieper River. Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox, we were packed into the tiny church for a service that was a hodge-podge of speeches by clergy from various local churches interspersed with beautiful Russian hymns sung by the parish choir.
If it was just that ecumenical service, perhaps we would not have returned. But at the reception in the parish hall that followed, we were startled to experience a kind of interaction that I had rarely found in any church in any country, not to say in, restrained, understated, neo-Calvinist Holland.
Walking to the train station afterward, we decided to come back next week and see what the Liturgy was like. The following Sunday we discovered it was every bit as profound as it was in Russia. And that was that. We managed only once or twice to return to Mass in our former Catholic parish. Before a month had passed we realized that a prayer we had been living with a long time had been answered: we had found a church we wholeheartedly could belong to and couldn’t bear not going to even if it meant getting out of bed early and traveling by train and tram to Amsterdam every week.
On Palm Sunday 1988, I was received into the Orthodox Church by chrismation; Nancy made the same step on Pentecost.
In many ways it wasn’t such a big step from where we had been. Orthodoxy and Catholicism have so much in common: sacraments, apostolic succession, the calendar of feasts and fasts, devotion to the Mother of God, and much more. Yet in Orthodoxy we found an even deeper sense of connection with the early Church and a far more vital form of liturgical life. Much that has been neglected in Catholicism and abandoned in Protestant churches, especially confession and fasting, remain central in Orthodox life. We quickly found what positive, life-renewing gifts they were, and saw that they were faring better in a climate that was less legalistic but more demanding.
Postscript: The religious movement in my life, which from the beginning was influenced by my parents, also influenced them. While neither followed me into Catholicism or Orthodoxy, in the early sixties, after reading The Seven Storey Mountain, my mother returned to the Methodist Church and remained active in it for the rest of her life. (She had resigned from the Communist Party at the time the Soviets put down the Hungarian uprising.) Despite her age and failing eyesight, she continued in her struggle for the poor, often to the consternation of local politicians. Dad eventually became a Unitarian. He enjoyed the joke about Unitarians believing at most in one God. In the last two decades of his life he was especially active in developing low-income and inter-racial housing projects in California. A cooperative he helped found in Santa Rosa was singled out for several honors, including the Certificate of National Merit from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Always deeply supportive of my religious commitment, I recall with particular happiness hearing him reading aloud to my stepmother from my book, Pilgrim to the Russian Church. On his deathbed in the spring of 1990, he borrowed the small crucifix I normally wear around my neck. It was in his hands when he died.
Jim Forest is international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. His books include All Is Grace (a biography of Dorothy Day), Living With Wisdom (a biography of Thomas Merton), The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers, Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment, Praying With Icons, The Road to Emmaus, The Wormwood File, Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness, and The Ladder of the Beatitudes. Earlier books include Religion in the New Russia and Pilgrim to the Russian Church. His most recent children’s book is Saint Nicholas and the Nine Gold Coins. He has lived in the Netherlands since 1977 and is a member of the St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam.
Text as revised 19 October 2016.
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Jim Forest’s activity as a writer began in New Jersey at age five, in 1946, when he produced a handwritten family newspaper using an alphabet of his own design. It was an excellent publication whose only shortcoming was that no one could read it.
A few years after achieving literacy, he was often found hanging around the office of the town’s weekly newspaper, watching linotypers set type from molten zinc, a form of typesetting now associated with Age of Gutenberg. Before long he was hawking The Red Bank Register on Broad Street, delivering newspapers door to door, and starting his own mimeographed publication, now using an alphabet accessible to others.
His engagement in Christianity began about the same time that he was selling newspapers. At age ten he was baptized in an Episcopal parish in Shrewsbury, New Jersey, though it wasn’t until he was in the U.S. Navy that he began to see his vocation in religious terms.
In 1960, while working at the U.S. Weather Service headquarters near Washington as part of a Navy meteorological unit, he joined the Catholic Church.
In 1961, after obtaining an early discharge from the Navy on grounds of conscientious objection, he joined the Catholic Worker community, led by Dorothy Day, in New York City; during that period he became managing editor of The Catholic Worker.
Later he was a reporter a New York City daily newspaper, The Staten Island Advance, and worked for Religious News Service, a press bureau.
Jim is the author of many books, including The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers, Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment, Living With Wisdom: a biography of Thomas Merton, All Is Grace: a biography of Dorothy Day, The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life, Praying with Icons, The Ladder of the Beatitudes, The Wormwood File: E-Mail from Hell, and Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness. Earlier books include Religion in the New Russia and Pilgrim to the Russian Church. He has written several children’s books, most recently Saint Nicholas and the Nine Golden Coins, Saint George and the Dragon and Silent as a Stone: Mother Maria of Paris and the Trash Can Rescue (a story set in Nazi-occupied Paris). With Fr Hildo Bos, he co-edited For the Peace from Above: an Orthodox Resource Book on War, Peace and Nationalism. With Tom Cornell and Robert Ellsberg, he co-edited A Penny a Copy: Readings from The Catholic Worker. Translations of his books have been published in Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Swedish, Danish, Polish, Korean, Japanese, Greek and Romanian.
Another dimension of Jim’s life has been peace work.
In 1965, he founded the Catholic Peace Fellowship, a group whose work in making known the option of conscientious objection was a factor in the remarkable fact that no religious community produced so many conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War as the Catholic Church.
In the late sixties, Jim was responsible for Vietnam program activities of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. One aspect of his work was to travel with and assist Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and poet.
In 1969-70, Jim was imprisoned for thirteen months as a consequence of his involvement in the “Milwaukee Fourteen,” a group of Catholic priests and lay people who burned draft records.
After leaving prison, he was a member of the Emmaus Community in East Harlem, New York.
In 1973, he was appointed editor of Fellowship, the magazine of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
In 1977, he moved to Holland to head the staff of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation. He was IFOR’s General Secretary for twelve years.
In connection with work on two books about Russian religious life, in the 1980s Jim traveled widely throughout the former Soviet Union and was a witness to the final days of the USSR. His experiences in Russia were a factor in his becoming, in 1988, an Orthodox Christian.
Jim is international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and, for 21 years, edited its quarterly journal, In Communion. He is now Associate Editor.
An influential factor in Jim’s life was his friendship with Thomas Merton, who dedicated Faith and Violence to Jim. Merton’s letters to Jim have been published in The Hidden Ground of Love.
Jim has led retreats in the USA and England and has lectured at hundreds of parishes, theological schools, colleges and universities.
In 1989, he received the Peacemaker Award from Notre Dame University’s Institute for International Peace Studies. In 2007, he was the recipient of the St. Marcellus Award presented annually by the Catholic Peace Fellowship. In 2011, at the University of Wroclaw in Poland, he was presented with the Prince Constantine Ostrogsky Award for “promotion of peace and justice and efforts to safeguard life and creation through life-protecting methods.” In 2014 he was honored with the Esse Non Videri (“to be and not to seem”) Award by St. Joseph’s College on Long Island, NY. In 2015 he was given the Peace and Justice Award of the Thomas Merton Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Regarding his academic credentials, Jim is one of those rare birds known as an auto-didact. He dropped out of high school when he was seventeen. The only formal education he has had since then were meteorology studies while in the Navy (he graduated first in his class from the Navy Weather School) and occasional classes (English literature and art history) at two colleges in New York City, Hunter and the New School for Social Research.
An occasional teacher, in the early seventies, Jim taught at New York Theological Seminary and the College of New Rochelle. In 1985, during a sabbatical, he taught at the Ecumenical Institute, Tantur, near Jerusalem, and in 1999 was part of the summer faculty of the Department of Religion at the University of Dayton.
After several years of being treated for kidney illness, in October 2007 Jim received a transplanted kidney donated by his wife, Nancy.
He is the father of six children and grandfather of ten.
Since 1977 his home has been in Alkmaar, Holland, a city northwest of Amsterdam.
Want to know more?
Here’s an autobiographical essay, “Getting From There to Here.”
page updated in January 2017