Servant of God Dorothy Day: Saint and Troublemaker

[This lecture was presented 8 June 2013 at the Portsmouth Institute, held at Portsmouth Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Rhode Island. Photos taken at the monastery are included in this set: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/sets/72157634051717182/. This is an revised version of a lecture first written for a conference held on Marquette University in 1997 that marked the 100th anniversary of Dorothy Day’s birth.]

by Jim Forest

Let me begin by mentioning that Dorothy Day had a special link with the place of our meeting, having been a Benedictine oblate of this monastery. The connection was made thanks to her friend and fellow oblate Ade Bethune, the Catholic Worker’s principle artist for decades. It was Ade who designed the widely-recognized symbol of the Catholic Worker movement — Christ embracing two workers — and did countless illustrations for the paper, many of them during the years she was teaching art here at the priory school. I understand Ade is buried in the monastic cemetery and hope to visit her grave later today.

Can you think of a word that describes a person who devoted much of her life to being with people many of us cross the street to avoid? Who for half a century did her best to make sure they didn’t go hungry or freeze on winter nights? Who went to Mass every day until her legs couldn’t take her that far, at which point communion was brought to her? Who prayed every day for friend and enemy alike and whose prayers, some are convinced, had miraculous results? Who went to confession every week? Who was devoted to the rosary? Who lived in community with the down-and-out for nearly half-a-century? Whose main goal in life was to follow Christ and to see him in the people around her?

A saint.

Can you think of a word that describes a person who refused to pay taxes, didn’t salute the flag, never voted, went to prison time and again for protests against war and social injustice? Who spoke in a plain and often rude way about our “way of life”? Who complained that the Church wasn’t paying enough attention to its own teaching and on occasion compared some of its pastors to blowfish and sharks?

A troublemaker.

And there you have Dorothy Day in two words: saint and troublemaker.

Mostly saints lived in the distant past, that is before we were born, and have been presented to us with all blemishes removed. We are not surprised to learn that Saint Wonderbread of the North Pole, daughter of pious parents, had her first vision when she was four, joined the Order of the Holy Pallbearers at the age of 11, founded 47 convents, received the stigmata when she was 55, and that when she died 20 years later, not only was her cell filled with divine light but the nuns attending her clearly heard the angelic choir.

That’s hagiography. It presents Saint Wonderbread as only one percent less perfect than the Virgin Mary. But what about the actual Saint Wonderbread? What the hagiographer failed to mention is that she ran away from home, had a voice that could split rocks and a temper that could melt them back together again, experienced more dark nights of the soul than celestial visions, was accused of heresy by her bishop, narrowly escaped being burned at the stake, and, though she lived long enough to be vindicated, felt like a failure on her deathbed. But all these wrinkles were ironed out after she died. Who needs facts that might dull or dent her halo?

If Dorothy Day is ever canonized, the record of who she was, what she was like and what she did is too complete and accessible for her to be hidden in wedding-cake icing. She will be the patron saint not only of homeless people and those who try to assist them but also of people who lose their temper.

She may have been a saint, but Dorothy Day was not without rough edges.

To someone who told her she was too hot-headed, she replied, “I hold more temper in one minute than you will hold in your entire life.” To a college student who asked a sarcastic question about her recipe for soup, she responded, “You cut the vegetables until your fingers bleed.” To a journalist who told her it was the first time he had interviewed a saint, she replied, “Don’t call me a saint — I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”

On the other hand, as she said time and again, “We are all called to be saints.” She didn’t believe saints had different DNA than anyone else. Sanctity is merely loving God and your neighbor. It’s not that hard. Sanctity is something ordinary. The scandal is not being a saint.

I was nineteen years old the first time I met Dorothy. She was ancient, that is to say 62 years old — nine years younger than I am today. This means that for more than half-a-century she has been encouraging and scolding me on a daily basis. The mere fact of her having died in 1980 doesn’t seem to get in the way.

I met her at the Catholic Worker Farm on Staten Island in the days when the island still had rural areas and its only link to the rest of New York City was by ferryboat. I found her sitting with several other people at the battered table where the community had its meals. Before her was a pot of tea, a few cups, none of them matching, and a pile of letters that I had been charged to deliver from St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality in Manhattan. The Catholic Worker received a good deal of mail every day, much of it for Dorothy — and every now and then a letter for Doris Day. She often read the letters aloud, telling a story or two about the people who had written them. This was the Dorothy Day University in full swing, though I didn’t realize it at the time. She wrote countless letters and notes in response every year, but some letters she gave to others in the community to answer either because a personal reply wasn’t needed or because she wanted to connect the correspondent with someone else on staff. A good part of Dorothy’s life was spent reading and writing letters — even her monthly column, “On Pilgrimage,” was usually nothing more than a long letter. If ever she is canonized, she will be among the patron saints of letter-writers.

People sometimes think of her as the personification of the simple life, but in reality her days tended to be busy, complicated and stressful. Often she was away traveling — visiting her daughter and grandchildren, visiting other Catholic Worker communities, speaking at colleges, seminaries, local parishes, getting around by bus or a donated car on its last spark plugs.

Before an audience, she had a direct, unpremeditated, story-centered way of speaking — no notes, no rhetorical polish, a manner that communicated a certain shyness but at the same time wisdom, conviction, directness, modesty, faith and courage. She was never the kind of speaker who makes those she is addressing feel stupid or without possibilities.

Her basic message was stunningly simple: we are called by God to love one another as He loves us. Love one another. No exceptions.

One of the ways we love one another is by practicing hospitality. For Dorothy a house without what she called a “Christ room” was incomplete, as was a parish without what night be called a “Christ house.” For Dorothy, hospitality is simply practicing God’s hospitality to us with those around us. Christ is in the stranger, in the person who has nowhere to go and no one to welcome him. “Those who cannot see the face of Christ in the poor are atheists indeed,” she often said. Her words were similar to those of St. John Chrysostom, one of the great voices of Christianity in the fourth century: “If you fail to recognize Christ in the beggar outside the church, you will not find him in the chalice.”

Judging by the synoptic Gospels, the Last Judgment was not a topic Christ often addressed during the several years of public ministry that led up to his execution. The one place in the New Testament where we hear him speaking in detail about who is saved and who isn’t occurs in the 25th chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel: “Welcome into the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of all ages, because I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was naked and you clothed me, I was homeless and you took me in, I was sick and you cared for me, I was in prison and you came to be with me. I tell you solemnly that what you did to the least person you did to me … and what you failed to do for the least person, you failed to do for me.”

It’s an astonishing text. It turns out that we are not saved because we excelled at theology or were amazingly clever or received great honors or wrote books about sanctity or never got in trouble or never made mistakes. We are saved because we attempted to be channels of God’s love and mercy. Period.

It is a life inspired by the Gospel and sustained by the sacraments, the church calendar with it parade of saints, the rhythm of feasts and fasts.

The corporal works of mercy — each of them an aspect of hospitality — were at the center of Dorothy’s life and the basis of the Catholic Worker movement. In addition there was also the day-after-day practice of what the Catholic Church calls the spiritual works of mercy: admonishing the sinner, instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, comforting the sorrowful, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving all injuries, praying for the living and the dead.

Dorothy helped us understand that a life of hospitality has many levels: there is hunger not only for food but also for faith, not only for a place at the table but also for a real welcome, not only for assistance but also for listening, not only words said as if recited from a script but kind words. There is not only hospitality of the door but also hospitality of the face and heart. Hospitality of the heart transforms the way we see people and how we respond to them. Their needs become important to us.

A new words about Dorothy’s remarkable life:

From birth onward, nearly all of Dorothy’s adult life was spent in or near New York City. In 1916, when she was eighteen, she was hired as a journalist by The Call, a radical New York daily newspaper. Next she was on the staff of a radical monthly journal, The Masses, until it was closed by the federal government for its opposition to World War I. During the war, she trained as a nurse at a Brooklyn hospital and worked twelve-hour shifts during the great influenza epidemic.

Dorothy was close to many artists and writers, including Eugene O’Neill. She used to hang out at a Greenwich Village saloon locally known as the Hell Hole. It was an adventurous time in her life but without much of an anchor. She had a lover who wanted neither marriage nor children. In a desperate effort to preserve their ill-fated relationship, she had an abortion. Her lover abandoned her anyway. Dark times! Dorothy tried to commit suicide but a neighbor smelled the gas and saved her life.

By the time of her conversion to Catholic Christianity, in 1927 when she was 30, she had experienced and survived a great deal. By then, thanks to money from the sale of film rights for a novel she had written, she bought a beach house on Staten Island, a small dwelling heated by a cast iron stove in which she burned driftwood. It was in that small house that, with her lover Forster Batterham, she once again conceived a child. This time she was determined not to cut short her pregnancy, which she saw as nothing less than a first-class miracle as she thought she had been made sterile by her abortion. As her belly swelled, she was filled with longing that she and her child would cross the border into the Catholic Church. As a young mother-to-be walking on the beach or going to the post office, rosary in hand she prayed her way through her out-of-wedlock pregnancy, prayed her way through the Baltimore Catechism, prayed her way through the collapse of her relationship with her unborn child’s father, prayed her way to her daughter Tamar’s birth and baptism, and then to her own baptism, prayed her way through the incomprehension of her atheist friends who regarded all religion as snake oil, prayed her way through a good deal of loneliness.

If baptism was the first turning point, the second came six years later — a desperate appeal to God she made in the crypt of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. In her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, she wrote: “There I offered up a special prayer, a prayer which came with tears and anguish, that some way would open up for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers, for the poor.”

Occasionally prayers are answered quickly. The very next day Dorothy met Peter Maurin, an immigrant from France who was something of a modern-day St. Francis. It was Peter’s proposal that Dorothy found and edit a newspaper to make better known papal teaching on the social order and encourage its readers to build, “a new society within the old, a society in which it would be easier for people to be good.” Dorothy took to the idea like a duck to water. The first issue of The Catholic Worker was distributed five months later, the first of May 1933, and that December, the first house of hospitality — in fact initially an apartment of hospitality — was started. By December the paper’s print run, which had been 2,500 for the May issue, reached 100,000. Houses of hospitality were soon being founded in other cities.

In 1961, when I arrived, St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality was on Chrystie Street — a decrepit three-storey building a block from the Bowery, in those days one of the city’s grimmest areas, now the much yuppified East Village. As there wasn’t enough room inside, the down-and-out were often lined up at the door waiting their turn either for a place at one of the three bench-like tables or access to the clothing rooms on the next floor.

In the period I was there, Dorothy’s office at the Catholic Worker, just inside the front door, was hardly big enough for her desk. I served as managing editor of the paper for a short time, and it was in that office that she and I would sometimes discuss — occasionally argue — about what should be in the next issue. It wasn’t the easiest place for conversation. The ground floor was where food was prepared and meals served. From morning till night, it tended to be noisy. Sitting at her desk one afternoon, talking about the next issue, we could hardly hear each other. On one occasion, Dorothy got up, opened her office door and yelled “Holy silence!” For a minute or two, it was almost quiet.

On the second floor, site of the two clothing rooms, one for men, one for women, there was an area used for daily prayer — lauds, vespers, compline — as well as recitation of the rosary every afternoon. None of this was obligatory, but part of the community was always present, the community being a mixture of “staff” (as those of us who came as volunteers were called) and “family” (people who had once come in for clothing or a bowl of soup and gradually become part of the household).

It wasn’t a comfortable life. At the time I joined, Dorothy had a sixth-floor, $25-a-month, cold-water flat in a tenement on Spring Street — two small rooms, a bathtub next to the kitchen sink. There was a toilet in the hallway the size of a broom closet. This may sound uninviting, but Dorothy regarded the neighborhood as luxury enough. With an Italian bakery across the street, the smell of bread in the oven was often in the air, and there was always the intoxicating perfume of Italian cooking. The San Genaro Festival was celebrated annually just around the corner — for a week, our part of Manhattan became a neighborhood in Naples.

When climbing those five flights of stairs finally became too much for Dorothy’s aging knees, we moved her to a similar apartment on Ridge Street that was only one flight up. It was also $25 a month, but in a seedier neighborhood. The place was in appalling condition. Two of us went down to clean and paint the two rooms, dragging box after box of old linoleum and other debris down to the street, including what seemed to us a hideous painting of the Holy Family — Mary, Joseph and Jesus rendered in a few bright colors against a battleship grey background on a piece of plywood. We shook our heads before depositing it with the trash along the curb. Not long after Dorothy arrived carrying this primitive icon. “Look what I found! The Holy Family! It’s a providential sign, a blessing.” She put it on the mantle of the apartment’s bricked-up fireplace. It’s an example of Dorothy’s talent for finding beauty where others, in this case Jim Forest who has since written a book on praying with icons, saw only rubbish.

If Dorothy was one of the freest, least fear-driven persons I’ve ever known, she was also one of the most disciplined. This was most notable in her religious life. Whether traveling or at home, it was a rare day when Dorothy didn’t go to Mass, while on Saturday evenings she went to confession. Sacramental life was the bedrock of her existence. She never obliged anyone to follow her example, but God knows she gave an example. When I think of her, the first image that comes to mind is Dorothy on her knees praying before the Blessed Sacrament either in the chapel at the farm or in one of several urban parish churches near the Catholic Worker. One day, looking into the Bible and Missal she had left behind when she was summoned for an emergency phone call, I found long lists of people, living and dead, whom she prayed for daily. She had a special list of people who had committed suicide.

Occasionally she spoke about the importance of prayer: “We feed the hungry, yes,” she once explained. “We try to shelter the homeless and give them clothes, but there is strong faith at work. We pray. If an outsider who comes to visit us doesn’t pay attention to our praying and what that means, then he’ll miss the whole point.”

She was attentive to fast days and fast seasons. It was in that connection she told me a story about prayer. For many years, she said, she had been a heavy smoker. Her day began with lighting up a cigarette. Her big sacrifice every Lent was giving up smoking, but having to get by without a cigarette made her increasingly irritable as the days passed, until the rest of the community was praying with fervor that she would resume smoking. One year, as Lent approached, the priest who ordinarily heard her confessions told her not to give up cigarettes as usual but instead to pray daily, “Dear God, help me stop smoking.” She used that prayer for several years without it having any impact on her addiction. Then one morning she woke up, reached for a cigarette, and realized she didn’t want it — and never smoked another. Moral? God answers prayers but one often has to be persistent.

People sometimes tell me how lucky I am to have once been part of the community led by Dorothy Day. They seem to imagine a group of more or less saintly people having a wonderful time doing good works. In reality Catholic Worker community life in Manhattan in the early sixties had much in common with purgatory. The “staff” was made up of people with very different backgrounds, interests, temperaments and convictions, some quite pious, some on the borderline between Catholic and ex-Catholic. We ranged from the gregarious to the permanently furious. Agreement among us was as rare as visits by the President of the United States.

The most bitter dispute I experienced had to do with how best to use the small amounts of eggs, butter and other rarities that were sometimes donated to us. Should we use them for “the line” (people we often didn’t know by name who lined up for meals) or the “family” (people who might once have been on the line but gradually became part of the household). It had been the custom to save the treats for the family. Though we worked side by side, saw each other daily, and prayed together, staff tension had become too acute for staff meetings. Dorothy or office manager Charlie Butterworth handed out the jobs, and once you had a job, it was yours until you stopped doing it. The final authority was Dorothy Day, not a responsibility she wanted or enjoyed, but no one else could make a final decision that would be respected by the entire staff. (Tom, Cornell has remarked that Dorothy Day was well-suited to be an anarchist so long as she was the chief anarch.)

In this case, when Dorothy returned from a cross-country speaking trip, she told the two people running the kitchen that the butter and eggs should once again go to the family, which led to their resigning from kitchen work and soon after leaving the community trailing black smoke, convinced that the actual Dorothy Day wasn’t living up to the writings of Dorothy Day.

One of the miracles of Dorothy’s life is that she remained part of what was often a conflict-torn community for nearly half a century. Still more remarkable, she remained a person of hope and gratitude to the end. She often spoke of “the duty of hope.”

Even though the Archdiocese of New York launched a process in Rome for the formal recognition of Dorothy as a saint, and Rome has since given her the title Servant of God Dorothy Day, Dorothy was and remains a controversial lady. There was hardly anything she did which didn’t attract criticism and the criticism still lingers. There us something about her to both challenge and irritate anyone who considers her life, witness and writings. Even hospitality scandalizes some people. We were blamed for making people worse, not better, because we were doing nothing to “reform them.” A social worker asked Dorothy one day how long the down-and-out were permitted to stay. “We let them stay forever,” Dorothy answered rather testily. “They live with us, they die with us, and we give them a Christian burial. We pray for them after they are dead. Once they are taken in, they become members of the family. Or rather they always were members of the family. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Dorothy, who never seemed to be overly anxious about how little money there was in the community bank account, frequently set an example of passing on what was given as quickly as possible. In a memorable instance, a well-dressed woman visiting the Worker house one day gave Dorothy a diamond ring. Dorothy thanked the visitor, slipped the ring in her pocket, and later in the day gave it to an unpleasant old woman, a bitter complainer second to none who was known in the community as “the weasel.” We paid her rent each month. One of the staff suggested to Dorothy that the ring might better have been sold at the Diamond Exchange on West 47th Street and the money used for paying Catherine’s rent. Dorothy replied that the woman had her dignity and could do as she liked with the ring. She could sell and buy whatever she wanted or take a trip to the Bahamas — or she could enjoy having a diamond ring on her hand just like the woman who had given it to the Worker. “Do you suppose,” Dorothy asked, “that God created diamonds only for the rich?”

What got Dorothy in the most hot water was her social criticism. She pointed out that nationalism was a more powerful force in most people’s lives than the Gospel. While she hated every kind tyranny and never ceased to be thankful for America having taken in so many people fleeing poverty, repression and conscription, she was fierce in her criticism of capitalism and consumerism. She said America had a tendency to treat people like Kleenex — use them, then throw them away.

She had no kind words for war or anything having to do with it — for Dorothy war was simply murder wrapped in flags. She reminded us that the total number of people killed by Jesus and the apostles is zero. Dorothy was convinced Jesus had disarmed all his followers when he said to Peter, “Put away your sword, for whoever lives by the sword will perish by the sword.” A way of life based on hospitality and love, including love of enemies, left no room for killing. You couldn’t practice the works of mercy and healing with one hand and the works of violence and destruction with the other, giving drink to the thirst on Monday and on Tuesday bombing the water works. One must battle evil, as so many saints’ lives demonstrate, only by nonviolent means. Even the best of wars is a disaster.

No stranger to prison, she was first locked up as a young woman protesting with suffragettes in front of the White House in 1917, when she was nineteen, and was last jailed in 1975 for picketing with striking farm workers at the edge of a grape field in California. She took pride in the young people of the Catholic Worker who went to prison rather than be drafted — “Being in prison is a good way to visit the prisoner,” she pointed out. But she also welcomed back others who had left Catholic Worker communities to fight in the Second World War. They might disagree about the best way to fight Nazism, but the door was wide open for those who wished to return.

Dorothy was sometimes criticized for being too conservative a Catholic. How could she be so radical about social matters and so conservative about her Church? While she occasionally deplored statements or actions by members of the hierarchy and once picketed the New York chancery office in support of a strike by Catholic grave diggers, she was by no means an opponent of the bishops or someone campaigning for dogmatic changes in the Church. What was needed, she said, wasn’t new doctrine but our living the existing doctrine. True, some pastors seemed barely Christian, but one had to aim for their conversion, an event that would not be hastened by berating them but rather by helping them see what their vocation requires. The way to do that was to set an example.

“I didn’t become a Catholic in order to purify the church,” Dorothy once said to Robert Coles. “I knew someone, years ago, who kept telling me that if [the Catholic Workers] could purify the church, then she would convert. I thought she was teasing me when she first said that, but after a while I realized she meant what she was saying. Finally, I told her I wasn’t trying to reform the church or take sides on all the issues the church was involved in; I was trying to be a loyal servant of the church Jesus had founded. She thought I was being facetious. She reminded me that I had been critical of capitalism and America, so why not Catholicism and Rome? … My answer was that I had no reason to criticize Catholicism as a religion or Rome as the place where the Vatican is located…. As for Catholics all over the world, including members of the church, they are no better than lots of their worst critics, and maybe some of us Catholics are worse than our worst critics.”

Pleased as she was when the Liturgy was translated into English, she didn’t take kindly to smudging the border between the sacred and mundane. When a priest close to the community used a coffee cup for a chalice at a Mass celebrated in the soup kitchen on First Street, she afterward took the cup, kissed it, and buried it in the back yard. It was no longer suited for coffee — it had held the Blood of Christ. I learned more about the Eucharist that day than I had from any book or sermon. It was a learning experience for the priest as well — thereafter he used a chalice.

Dorothy’s sensitivity for the sacred helps explain her love, rare at the time, of the Orthodox Church, famous — or infamous — for its reluctance to modernize, rationalize, speed up or streamline its liturgical life. (A joke: How many Orthodox Christians does it take to change a light-bulb? Answer: none. “Change!? What is this ‘change’? And, by the way, what is a light bulb?”) Dorothy longed for the reunion of the Church. She occasionally took me to the meetings of a small group in New York City, the Third Hour it was called, that brought together Catholic and Orthodox Christians, as well as at least one Anglican, the poet W.H. Auden. It was Dorothy who brought me to visit the Russian Orthodox cathedral up on East 97th Street where she introduced me to the Russian priest serving there, Father Matvei Stadniuk, who was later appointed dean of the Epiphany Cathedral in Moscow and secretary to the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1988, it was Father Matvei who launched the first project of Christian volunteer hospital service in what was still Soviet Russia, and it was he, not I, who recalled our first meeting 26 years earlier, but only when I had given him a copy of my biography of Dorothy. “Dorothy Day? Did you know her?” And then he looked more closely at my face and said, “I knew you when you a young man, when Dorothy brought you to our church.”

I’m not sure what had given Dorothy such a warmth for Orthodox Christianity, but one of the factors was certainly her love of the books of Dostoevsky, most of all his novel, The Brothers Karamazov. Perhaps the most important chapter for Dorothy concerned a conversation between a wealthy woman and an elderly monk, Father Zosima. The woman asks him how she can be certain that God exists. Fr. Zosima tells her that no explanation or argument can achieve this, only the practice of “active love.” There is no other way, he assures her, to know the reality of God. The woman confesses that sometimes she dreams about a life of loving service to others — she thinks perhaps she will become a nun, live in holy poverty and serve the poor in the humblest way. It seems to her such a wonderful thought that it makes tears comes to her eyes. But then it crosses her mind how ungrateful some of the people she is serving will be. Some will complain that the soup she is serving isn’t thick enough, the bread isn’t fresh enough, the bed is too hard, the covers too thin. She doubts she could bear such ingratitude — and so her dreams about serving others vanish, and once again she finds herself wondering if there really is a God. To this Fr. Zosima responds with the words Dorothy often repeated: “Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” So important was that sentence to Dorothy that I think of Dostoevsky as being among the co-founders of the Catholic Worker.

Another writer important to her was Georges Bernanos. Dorothy often repeated a sentence from his novel, Diary of a Country Priest: “Hell is not to love anymore.”

From time to time she quoted St. Catherine of Siena, a woman who had much in common with Dorothy: “All the way to heaven is heaven because He said, ‘I am the Way’.”

Perhaps Dorothy Day’s main achievement is that she taught us the “Little Way” of love. It was chiefly through the writings of St. Therese of Lisieux that Dorothy had been drawn to the “Little Way.” No term, in her mind, better described the ideal Christian way of doing things. As she once put it, “Paper work, cleaning the house, dealing with the innumerable visitors who come all through the day, answering the phone, keeping patience and acting intelligently, which is to find some meaning in all that happens — these things, too, are the works of peace, and often seem like a very little way.”

“It is the living from day to day,” Dorothy remarked, “taking no thought for the morrow, seeing Christ in all who come to us, and trying literally to follow the Gospel that resulted in this work.”

I’m sometimes asked, “Dorothy Day gives a fine example for people who don’t have a family to take care of and mortgages to pay, but what about the rest of us?”

The rest of us includes my wife and me. We have six children and, at latest count, eight grandchildren. We have too much and give too little. But, in my own life, every time I have thought about the challenges of life in the bright light of the Gospel rather than in the gray light of money or the dim light of politics, Dorothy’s example has had its influence. Every time I try to overcome meanness or selfishness rising up in me, it’s partly thanks to the example of Dorothy Day. Every time I defeat the impulse to buy something I can get along without, Dorothy Day’s example of voluntary poverty has had renewed impact. Every time I give away something I can get along without — every time I manage to see Christ’s presence in the face of a stranger — there again I owe a debt to Dorothy Day. Every time I take part in efforts to prevent wars or end them, or join in campaigns to make the world a less cruel place, in part I am in debt to Dorothy. What I know of Christ, the Church, sacramental life, the Bible, and truth-telling, I know in large measure thanks to her, while whatever I have done that was cowardly, opportunistic or spiteful is despite her. She has even shaped my reading life — one could do worse than to get to know the authors whose books helped shape and sustain Dorothy’s faith and vocation.

It isn’t that Dorothy is the point of reference. Christ is. But I can’t think of anyone I’ve known whose Christ-centered life has done so much to help make me a more Christ-centered person.

She died 33 years ago but it seems more and more people are aware of her. This past Ash Wednesday, preaching in St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Benedict described Dorothy Day as “a model of conversion.” At a meeting I had with Cardinal Dolan a few days ago, he spoke of her as “a saint for our times.”

Writing in The Catholic Worker some years ago, one of her grandchildren, Kate Hennessy, talked of the impact on her own life of her remarkable grandmother: “To have known Dorothy means spending the rest of your life wondering what hit you. On the one hand, she has given so many of us a home, physically and spiritually; on the other, she has shaken our very foundations.”

I am one of the many whose foundations were shaken. I too am still wondering what hit me.

* * *

Photo courtesy of the Dorothy Day/Catholic Worker Archive at Marquette University.

Excellent web link: http://www.catholicworker.org/dorothyday — a treasure chest of Dorothy’s writings.

A Harsh and Dreadful Love: Dorothy Day's Witness to the Gospel

by Jim Forest

Early in The Brothers Karamazov, a wealthy woman asks Staretz Zosima how she can really know that God exists. The Staretz tells her that no explanation or argument can achieve this, only the practice of “active love.” He assures her that really there is no other way to know God in reality rather than God as an idea. The woman confesses that sometimes she dreams about a life of loving service to others — she thinks perhaps she will become a Sister of Mercy, live in holy poverty and serve the poor in the humblest way. It seems to her such a wonderful thought. It makes tears comes to her eyes. But then it crosses her mind how ungrateful some of the people she is serving are likely to be. They will probably complain that the soup she is serving isn’t hot enough or that the bread isn’t fresh enough or the bed is too hard and the covers too thin. She confesses to Staretz Zosima that she couldn’t bear such ingratitude — and so her dreams about serving others vanish, and once again she finds herself wondering if there really is a God. To this the Staretz responds with the words, “Love in practice is a hard and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”

I mention this story to you because I doubt any figure in literature had more importance to Dorothy Day than Father Zosima. How often I heard her repeat the words, “Love in practice is a hard and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” It was partly through Dostoevsky that she formed her understanding of Christianity, seeing it not simply as an institutional structure but as a way of life in which nothing was more important than seeing Christ in others.

I have no doubt she was a saint, that is someone who in a remarkable way shows us what it means to follow Christ. Thanks to the Claretian order, an effort is under way to promote her canonization, and this has the active support of the Cardinal O’Conner, head of the diocese in which she lived all her adult life. I think of her as a modern sister of St. Francis of Assisi.

The link with St. Francis is close. They have in common an attraction to the poor which led them to live among them and to practice what Dorothy called “voluntary poverty.” Like Francis, she formed a commitment to live out the most radical teachings of Jesus, including the renunciation of violence. Like Francis, she started a movement that could involve anyone, not only the unmarried. The Catholic Worker movement she began in 1933 has led to the foundation of houses of hospitality in many parts of the United States. The newspaper she edited until her death in 1980, The Catholic Worker, had and still has 100,000 subscribers.

Some biographical details: She was born in Brooklyn, New York, on November 8, 1897. Her father was a journalist and it was the profession nearly all of his children followed. She was eight years old when her family moved into a six-room tenement flat over a tavern on 37th Street on the South Side. It was a big step down for the Day family. They had been practically wiped out by the San Francisco earthquake. The family had lost their house and John Day was without a job. The curtains Dorothy’s mother Grace made from remnants were hung from fishing rods. Fruit crates served as book cases. Nail kegs became kitchen stools. Dorothy was so ashamed of her home that, returning from school, she would enter the door of a better, more impressive building so that her classmates wouldn’t know the kind of circumstances she was living in. Her mother suffered blinding headaches and went through several miscarriages. Dorothy’s understanding of the shame people feel when they aren’t making it surely dates from this time.

It was in this period of her life that Dorothy began to find in the Catholic Church, an institution despised by her father, something inspiring. Dorothy would often recall later in life the impact of discovering a friend’s mother, a woman named Mrs. Barrett, praying on her knees at the side of her bed. Without dismay or embarrassment, she looked up at Dorothy, told her where to find her daughter, and returned to her prayer. “I felt a burst of love toward Mrs. Barrett that I have never forgotten, a feeling of gratitude and happiness that warmed my heart,” Dorothy wrote in her autobiography, The Long Loneliness.

When John Day finally got the job of sports editor of a Chicago daily paper, the Day family moved into a large and comfortable house on Webster Avenue on the North Side. Dorothy need no longer be embarrassed by her domestic circumstances.

The great events in Dorothy’s life at the Webster Avenue house often had to do with books. Though her father was a man with many prejudices, he was a reader and book lover, and this rubbed off on his eldest daughter. In the library of the house, Dorothy first read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and Charles Dickens’ Bleak House and Little Dorritt, and many other books that stirred her awareness of injustice in the world and also offered images of sanctity, books she would read again and again for the rest of her life. Books remained Dorothy’s cherished companions throughout her life. She appreciated Erasmus’s confessional boast: “When I have money I buy books, and if anything is left over I buy food and clothes.”

The book that had the most impact on her in her mid-teens was Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Unlike books about social injustice by Dickens and Hugo, here was a story set in the present, and not in Europe but Chicago, in the area of the city’s stockyards and slaughter houses. Sinclair’s hero was a Lithuanian immigrant, the only member of his family not utterly destroyed by squalor and injustice. He finally commits himself to struggle for a just social order by joining the Socialist Party. Sinclair’s vivid description of filth and violence in the meat industry so shocked its readers that the book is given credit for Congressional passage of tough meat inspection laws, although what Sinclair had hoped for was to stimulate more profound social change. “I aimed at the public’s heart,” he said, “and by accident hit it in the stomach.”

But he did reach Dorothy Day’s heart. She had responsibility for much of the care of the newest addition to the family, her baby bother John Day, and stirred by Sinclair’s novel, began to push his baby carriage further and further southwest, not far from the parts of the city she had once been so glad to leave behind. “I walked for miles, exploring interminable grey streets, fascinating in their dreary sameness, past tavern after tavern, where I envisioned such scenes as the Polish wedding party in Sinclair’s story.”

As would be typical of Dorothy for the rest of her life, she found a kind of beauty in the midst of urban desolation. “There were tiny gardens and vegetable patches in the yards. Often there were rows of corn, stunted but still recognizable, a few tomato plants, and always the vegetables bordered by flowers.” Drab streets were transformed by pungent odors: geranium and tomato plants, garlic, olive oil, roasting coffee, bread and rolls in bakery ovens. “Here,” she said, “was enough beauty to satisfy me.”

Only 15 years old, she looked at the world with wide open eyes and a vulnerable heart many of us might envy. Pondering the lives of the people living in these hard-pressed neighborhoods, yet rich in so many ways, she had a vivid sense of who she would become. “From that time on my life was to be linked to theirs, their interests would be mine: I had received a call, a vocation, a direction in life.”

An exceptionally bright student, at age sixteen she won a full scholarship to the University of Illinois. She was delighted no longer to be living with her parents, but the academic world held her attention only briefly. Long before she might have received a degree, she abandoned her studies and moved to New York City where, at age of 18, she became a reporter for New York’s socialist daily newspaper, The Call. At the time she was probably the youngest working journalist on a New York paper, and also one of the very few woman journalists writing about something other than social news or cake recipes.

A year later, she joined the editorial staff of Masses, a radical publication silenced by the US government following America’s entry into World War I, for the publication was outspoken in its opposition to the war and encouraged men to refuse to fight in it. Just after her 19th birthday, Dorothy was jailed with other feminists who had gone to the White House to protest the exclusion of women from political affairs.

The horror of war challenged her to do something more concrete about suffering than simply to protest or write articles. Dorothy became a nurse in a Brooklyn hospital, but a love affair with a fellow journalist she met at that time led her back to Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan. The affair ended with an abortion. This was the catastrophe of her life, an event still causing her grief in her old age. Just after the war, she was briefly married to a New York literary figure and went with him to Europe, where she wrote her first book, an autobiographical novel, “The Eleventh Virgin,” that centered on the love affair that had led to her pregnancy and the abortion with which it ended.

Back in the US, Dorothy joined the staff of The Liberator, a Communist magazine in Chicago though Dorothy, always impatient with ideology, never joined the Communist Party or any other political association. In fact she never cast a vote in any election nor encouraged anyone also to do so as she was convinced that the only “vote” of significance was how she you lived her life day by day. Also she simply couldn’t imagine voting for someone whose views and priorities were so at variance with her own.

In 1922, she was arrested and jailed again, this time in one of the government’s “anti-red” raids. She went back to reporting work, first for a Chicago newspaper, then one in New Orleans. In 1925 — her novel published and film rights for the book sold to Hollywood — she returned to New York, where she met a British botanist and intellectual disciple of Kropotkin and fell deeply in love with him. The pregnancy that resulted from this relationship was the turning point in her life.

That she should be carrying a child again seemed to her not only remarkable but nothing less than a miracle. The abortion five years earlier left her feeling guilty. She also sensed that her body had been damaged and that she had been made sterile. She believed that she could never conceive again. Whether it was a miracle or not, I don’t know, but certainly it filled her with an overwhelming sense of God’s mercy that was to remain with her for the rest of her life.

She found that whenever she went walking, she was praying, and the prayers were entirely of joy and gratitude. As the months passed, she decided she wanted her child baptized in the Roman Catholic Church; and then she realized she wanted to become a Catholic herself. To the man she lived with, however, as to many radicals, the Catholic Church was one of the world’s more oppressive structures, complicit in almost every evil for many centuries. Dorothy saw it in quite a different way: for her it was the church of the poor, a church with ancient roots reaching back to the beginning of Christianity, a church free of the constraints of national borders. Arguments flared, doors slammed. Their relationship disintegrated.

Dorothy’s daughter, Tamar, was baptized in July, 1927, and Dorothy — now a single parent — was herself baptized in late December. Then began Dorothy’s six-year search for a vocation that could bridge her radical political convictions with her new-found religious commitment.

In May 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, Dorothy founded The Catholic Worker, initially intended only as a small monthly publication. This step had been proposed to her by a remarkable French immigrant, Peter Maurin, who looked like a bum and actually lived like a bum, but a brilliant and saintly man. The paper sold, and still sells, for a penny a copy — the smallest coin, what a kopek used to be in Russia, and perhaps what a ruble is today. Though there was much in it to interest intellectuals, the paper was aimed at ordinary people, many of them out of work in that period. Dorothy’s first editorial said The Catholic Worker would show its readers that the Catholic Church is concerned not only with spiritual welfare but material welfare. The paper caught on. Within a few months there were thousands of readers.

What had been launched only as a newspaper quickly became a movement. First in New York, then in other cities, Catholic Worker houses of hospitality were formed. They were both places of welcome for homeless people (the houses are in the down-out-and areas like New York City’s Bowery) and centers for dialogue about community, the Gospel and the Church, but also for what her collaborator Peter Maurin called a “green revolution” — efforts to inspire social change through entirely peaceful means.

While there were many people in the Catholic Church who supported the initiatives she was taking, not only lay people but priests and bishops, you can image that others found her some kind of strange Protestant or perhaps a Communist pretending to be a Christian.

Dorothy’s methods were also dismissed as “impractical” because of her non-institutional approach of hospitality for people who were living ragged lives on the street. A social worker visiting the Catholic Worker house in New York asked Dorothy how long her guests were “allowed” to stay. Dorothy answered, “We let them stay forever. They live with us, they die with us, and we give them a Christian burial. We pray for them after they are dead. Once they are taken in, they become members of the family. Or rather they always were members of the family. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Perhaps all would have gone quite well between the Dorothy and the Roman Catholic hierarchy in America had it not been for the stand she took in failing to support Franco’s side in the Spanish Civil War. Practically all Dorothy’s friend, being people on the left, whole-heartedly supported the Republican side, but Dorothy couldn’t support a force that was murdering priests and nuns and destroying churches. Similarly she could not in any way support the fascism that Franco represented, no matter how many bishops regarded him as their hero and protector. In fact there was a still deeper problem for Dorothy, for she could not imagine Christ blessing anyone to kill. She wrote essays about Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior, who has chosen to live in a society suffering military occupation by the Romans but had sent none of his disciples to join the Zealots, the national group undertaking violent resistance. He had responded mercifully to people on every side, even the Roman centurion who sought his help. She recalled the witness of Christians in the first three centuries, when it was regarded as far better to lay down one’s own life than to shed anyone’s blood.

There had been no overtly pacifist movement in the Catholic Church for centuries, until the Catholic Worker. Perhaps more than any Catholic since St. Francis, Dorothy Day began a process within her church that put Jesus, rather than the theologians of the just war, at the center of the church’s social teaching.

Dorothy was often imprisoned as a result of her activity in peace, civil rights, and labor demonstrations. Usually this happened in the fifties, when year after year she sat on a park bench in front of New York’s City Hall while air-raid sirens were howling and everyone was required by law to take shelter in what was nothing other than a mass dress rehearsal for nuclear war. But she was occasionally arrested for other reasons, for example with farm workers in California when they were founding a labor movement. One of my favorite photos of her, taken in 1973, shows her holding the dress she wore the last time she was a prisoner. All the women jailed with her signed their names on the rough prison garment, making it a treasure to her.

At the center of Dorothy’s faith was her certainty that we are saved not because we are clever or are often found in religious buildings (though mind you daily Mass was part of the structure of her life) but because of our loving response to “the least.” The Catholic Worker way of life is to practice daily “the works of mercy” that Jesus speaks of in the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, taking in the homeless, caring for the sick, and being with prisoners. This same teaching led Dorothy to oppose all those systems that cause suffering. “We see that the works of mercy oppose the works of war,” she said. Often she quoted St. John of the Cross: “Love is the measure by which we shall be judged.”

Dorothy died November 29, 1980. It was a widely marked event in America, not only noticed by Christians of every variety but by many people in other religious traditions, or outside every religion. By then many regarded her as one of Christianity’s great reformers and a modern saint, though Dorothy herself had sometimes said, “Don’t call me a saint–I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”

After the funeral, an editor of The Catholic Worker was asked whether the movement would be able to continue without its founder. “We have lost Dorothy,” Peggy Scherer said, “but we still have the gospel.”

The most extraordinary monuments to Dorothy Day are the many houses of hospitality that stretch from Oakland to Amsterdam, places of welcome that not only offer a caring response to the homeless and runaways but centers of work for a nonviolent society. We can say there is still a greater monument, though much less tangible, and that is a renewed understanding of Christianity. She was like a restorer of icons who, after removing layer upon layer of paint left by various generations, comes to the deepest level and finds an image painted by the hand of the Apostle Luke.

“It is the living from day to day,” she once commented, “taking no thought for the morrow, seeing Christ in all who come to us, and trying literally to follow the Gospel that resulted in this work.”

What can we learn from Dorothy Day?

First, we see in her that the heart of life is prayer.

I have never known anyone, not even in monasteries, who was more a praying person than Dorothy Day. When I think of her, I think of her first of all on her knees praying before the Blessed Sacrament. I think of those long lists of names she kept of people, living and dead, to pray for. I think of her at Mass, I think of her praying the rosary, I think of her going off for confession each Saturday evening.

“We feed the hungry, yes,” she said. “We try to shelter the homeless and give them clothes, but there is strong faith at work; we pray. If an outsider who comes to visit us doesn’t pay attention to our prayings and what that means, then he’ll miss the whole point.”

If you find the life of Dorothy Day inspiring, if you want to understand what gave her direction and courage and strength to persevere, her deep attentiveness to others, consider her spiritual and sacramental life.

Second, she reminds us that social justice is not just a project for the government or do-good agencies or radical movements designing a new social order in which all the world’s problems will be solved. It’s for you and me, here and now, right where we’re standing. Jesus did not say “Blessed are you who give contributions to charity” or “Blessed are you who are planning a just society.” He said, “Welcome into the Kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world, for I was hungry and you fed me . . .”

At the heart of what Dorothy did were the works of mercy. For her these weren’t simply obligations which the Lord imposed on his followers. As she said on one occasion to Bob Coles, “We are here to celebrate Him through these works of mercy.”

Third: The most important thing we can is to try to find the face of Christ in others, and not only those we find it easy to be with but those who make us nervous, frighten us, alarm us, or even terrify us. “Those who cannot see the face of Christ in the poor,” she used to say, “are atheists indeed.”

Dorothy was an orthodox Catholic. This means she believed that Christ has left himself with us both in the Eucharist and in those in need. “What you did to the least person, you did to me.”

Her searching of faces for Christ’s presence for Christ extended to those who were, at least in a functional sense, her enemies, but also, she always tried to remember, victims of the very structures they were in charge of. She sometimes recalled the advice she had been given by a fellow prisoner named Mary Ann, a prostitute, when Dorothy was in jail in Chicago in the early ‘twenties: “You must hold up your head high, and give them no clue that you’re afraid of them or ready to beg them for anything, any favors whatsoever. But you must see them for what they are — never forget that they’re in jail too.”

Fourth: We can learn from her that beauty is not just for the affluent.

Tom Cornell tells the story of a donor coming into the Catholic Worker and giving Dorothy a diamond ring. Dorothy thanked her for it and put it in her pocket. Later a rather demented lady came in, one of the more irritating regulars at the CW house. Dorothy took the diamond ring out of her pocket and gave it to the woman. Someone on the staff said to Dorothy, “Wouldn’t it have been better if we took the ring to the diamond exchange, sold it, and paid that woman’s rent for a year?”. Dorothy replied that the woman had her dignity and could do what she liked with the ring. She could sell it for rent money or take a trip to the Bahamas. Or she could enjoy wearing a diamond ring on her hand like the woman who gave it away. “Do you suppose,” Dorothy asked, “that God created diamonds only for the rich?”

Fifth, Dorothy teaches us that meekness does not mean being weak-kneed. There is a place for outrage as well as a place for very plain speech in religious life. She once said to a person who was counseling her to speak in a more polite, temperate way, “I hold more temper in one minute than you will hold in your entire life.” Or again her lightning-like comment, “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy rotten system.”

Sixth: We see in Dorothy the value of the Little Way. The phrase was one Dorothy borrowed from St. Therese of Liseux, the Little Flower. Change starts not in the future but in the present, not in Washington DC or Wall Street but where I stand. Change begins in the ordinary actions of life, how I live minute to minute, what I do with my life, what I notice, what I respond to, the care and attention with which I listen, the way in which I respond. It happens when we practice hospitality of the face.

As she once put it, “Paper work, cleaning the house, dealing with the innumerable visitors who come all through the day, answering the phone, keeping patience and acting intelligently, which is to find some meaning in all that happens — these things, too, are the works of peace, and often seem like a very little way.”

What she tried to practice was “Christ’s technique,” as she put it, which was not to seek out meetings with emperors and important officials but “obscure people, a few fisherman and farm people, a few ailing and hard-pressed men and women.”

Seventh: Dorothy provides an example of love the Church. It is, of course, easy to see the faults of the Church — I mean not the Mystical Body of Christ but the social institution. Dorothy used to say that the net Peter lowered when Christ made him a fisher of men caught “quite a few blowfish and not a few sharks.” She said many times that “the Church is the Cross on which Christ is crucified.” She said that when she saw the Church taking the side of the rich and powerful, forgetting the weak, or saw bishops living in luxury while the poor are thrown the crumbs of “charity,” she knew that Christ was being insulted and once again being sent to his death. “The Church doesn’t only belong to the officials and bureaucrats,” she said. “It belongs to all people, and especially its most humble men and women and children.”

Instead of focusing on the human failings so obvious in every church. Dorothy concentrated on what the church sets it sights on. We’re not here to pass judgement on our fellow believers, whatever their rank or role in the church, but to live the Gospel as wholeheartedly as we can and make the best use we can of the sacraments and every other resource the church offers to us.

“I didn’t become a Catholic in order to purify the church,” Dorothy once told her friend Bob Coles. “I knew someone, years ago, who kept telling me that if [the Catholic Workers] could purify the church, then she would convert. I thought she was teasing me when she first said that, but after a while I realized she meant what she was saying. Finally, I told her I wasn’t trying to reform the church or take sides on all the issues the church was involved in; I was trying to be a loyal servant of the church Jesus had founded. She thought I was being facetious. She reminded me that I had been critical of capitalism and America, so why not Catholicism and Rome? . . . . My answer was that I had no reason to criticize Catholicism as a religion or Rome as the place where the Vatican is located . . . . As for Catholics all over the world, including members of the church, they are no better than lots of their worst critics, and maybe some of us Catholics are worse than our worst critics.”

I learned from Dorothy that the Church is more than this or that institutional structure but really is the Mystical Body of Christ and as such links together all those who struggle to follow Christ no matter what the shortcomings of the particular church they belong. She herself longed for the unity of the divided Church. She occasionally took me to the small meetings of a group in New York City, The Third Hour it was called, that brought together Catholic and Orthodox Christians, as well as at least one Anglican, the poet W.H. Auden. The first time I met an Orthodox priest and took part in the Orthodox Liturgy, it was thanks to Dorothy Day. I doubt Dorothy intended that I should become an Orthodox Christian, but that slow pilgrimage in my life had its beginning at the Catholic Worker.

Last but not least: I learned from Dorothy day that I am here to follow Christ. Not the Pope. Not the Ecumenical Patriarch. Not the President of the United States. Not even Dorothy Day or any other saint.

Christ has told us plainly about the Last Judgment and it has nothing to do with belonging to the right church or being theologically correct. All the church can do is try to get us on the right track and keep us there. But we will be judged not on membership cards but according to our readiness to let the mercy of God pass through us to others. “Love is the measure,” Dorothy said again and again, quoting Saint John of the Cross.

Hers was a day-to-day way of the cross, and just as truly the way of the open door. “It is the living from day to day,” she said, “taking no thought for the morrow, seeing Christ in all who come to us, and trying literally to follow the Gospel that resulted in this work.”

Joseph Brodsky: a Poetry of Nerve

Commonweal / 22 May 1992

Joseph Brodsky

by Jim Forest

Joseph Brodsky was introduced to an audience at the John Adams Institute in Amsterdam December 15 not as a poet but as the poet. “In him,” said his friend and translator Kees Verheul, “we are faced with the poet, or rather the carrier of the poet.” Listening impassively to the introduction, Brodsky fiddled with an unlighted filter cigarette, occasionally placing it in his lips, until after about ten minutes, ending a drawn out silent drama that upstaged his introducer, Brodsky finally lit it, inhaling deeply, then blowing out the smoke in a long thin stream. His toying with the cigarette resembled an erotic play.

His first task was the unveiling of a bronze bust of himself, the work of the sculptor Sylvia Willink. “The only respect in which this head differs from the one I carry on my shoulders,” Brodsky commented after admiring the Caesar-like image, “is that it can’t speak — and it can’t kiss.”

Brodsky’s English is fast, fluent, almost reckless, a special variety that has the smell of a Jewish bakery in Manhattan’s lower east side. He may have been born and raised in Leningrad/St. Petersburg but his voice is at home in the New World.

He started off reading with “A Song,” a poem with the refrain, “I wish you were here, dear,” which concludes, “What’s the point of forgetting / if it’s followed by dying?” (It was, he confessed, a pastiche of Auden’s “Twelve Songs.”) Then came “Epitaph to a Centaur” with the line “…his animal part turned out to be less durable than his humanity.” Then “The Butterflies” about a life one-day long, a space in time just right for the blaze of a poem.

Especially when reading in his native language, Brodsky recites like a deacon singing the Gospel in a Russian church, a kind of liturgical chant, the recitation of each line governed by strict rules of rhythm with definite places for rising and falling stresses, that are impartial to the content of the words. This way of reading creates a cathedral space around him and us and a sense of no longer being in ordinary time or space. He reminds me of watching Vladimir Horowitz performing in a concert hall in Moscow, playing with total detachment as if, far from playing, he was listening, and perhaps not even listening to this particular piano. His fingers moved, but hardly more than if he were absent- mindedly drumming a table top in a café while waiting for someone who was late. Similarly Brodsky’s face, even while he chants the poetry with such concentrated purpose, such spiritual discipline, seems a face in the audience rather than belonging to the poet. His eyes wander toward the large windows and the view they offer of the sky and street and other buildings, like a child in school waiting for recess.

In the pause I asked him to sign my copy of his book of essays, Less Than One. He looked with surprise at my pen, a black and green Pelikan I bought in Assisi in 1986 to mark the passage from organizational employment to the more adventurous life of freelance writing. He pulled from his shirt pocket an identical Pelikan and said, “I have two of them.” We agreed that there is something sacred about a good pen. I told him about how his way of reading reminded me of the chanting of the Gospel or the way a cantor sings the prayers in the synagogue. “Of course they are deeply related,” he said.

I made a similar comment in the public discussion that followed. The deacon, the cantor and the poet are all practicing the “melic art,” Brodsky responded, pausing like a good teacher to spell “melic”. [OED: “Melic: Of poetry; Intended to be sung; applied spec. to the strophic species of Greek lyric verse. Hence applied to poets who compose such verse.”] “It is quite deliberate. Meters are meters. There is music in poetry. I try to bring out the euphonic aspect of the poem. My manner of delivery goes back to the training I received in my Russian high school. A good teacher requires a lot of memorization of poetry and requires you to deliver. Your recitation makes it clear to the teacher what you have understood.”

The poet in the west in this century, Brodsky continued, has the problem “of almost always being on the defensive, aware of the sardonic listener who will smirk at the poet’s raptures.” Thus he tends to read diffidently, taking some distance from his poem. And this is a great pity because in fact “poetry is an act of mental aggression upon the audience. The self-effacing poet should perhaps take the next logical step and shut up altogether.”

A question was asked about nihilism. Brodsky replied that according to Aristotle there are four different temperaments and each has to do with the location of bile in the body. “I have no philosophy, only temperament.” (Later he quoted a Japanese poet: “I’ve got no principles, no convictions — just nerve.”) His own temperament leads him to shrug off the problem of death, as if to say, “You know you are going to lose. So what?” Someone with another temperament may be quite irritated and preoccupied with the problem and even develop a philosophy of nihilism. But for himself, he went on, “nothingness is a lousy subject. How can one make a philosophy out of it?”

“In Russian we have the word nichtoe — nothing. It’s an interesting word with too many consonants. It doesn’t give you a sense of limit. It suggests a journey.” (Later, commenting on the euphony that exists in every language, he noted that “Russian words are two, three syllables, minimum. To utter a Russian word is an acoustic event.”)

He noted that experience of extraordinary events does not necessarily produce a poem. “Extremes of experience have a tendency to bring out banal expressions. You can survive Hiroshima or 25 years in a concentration camp and not write a single line, or experience a one-night stand and write an immortal lyric.”

“Art,” he said, “is older than any form of social organization. It started, shall we say, a long time ago.”

The question was asked whether poetry could have anything to do with politics. Brodsky said no, the reason being that the task of the poet is to avoid cliches, to create precedents, to make something new. “The artist is trying not to repeat his predecessors, to say the least.” Thus it is sometimes said of a poet that he is ahead of his time. This is an incorrect perception, he explained. “A poet is never ahead or behind his time, just operating on his own frequency.”

He also said he hears people complain, “I don’t care for modern poetry.” He said the reason for this is that poetry builds on itself, it has a kind of development through time. You could understand modern poetry if you began with the poetry you do understand and work from there. Reading modern poetry “is like boarding a runaway train. You may decide you don’t like the train. Its route, well, it’s not yours, that’s all.”

Someone commented on how striking the contrast was between the original poems that Brodsky had recited, and the reading by the translator of the same poems in Dutch. Brodsky said this was due not so much to differences in the verbal content of the poem in its two forms but “how you read” and that this is greatly shaped by one’s national background. “Russian stresses the music. Otherwise you are just counting syllables.”

He was unhappy about the “big infusion of English words” into modern Russian. But language has its own life, refusing to behave according to the tastes of a balding poet, even when he has the Nobel Prize. “Language is a generational thing. You have very intimate pet words that have to do with your generation and place. It was different in my generation to be in St. Petersburg than to be in Moscow. In St. Petersburg we said ch-toe while in Moscow it was stow.”

Wasn’t it hard for the writer to have to live in exile, he was asked, and isn’t it a pity so many writers are exiles? Brodsky found it not so remarkable. “You have guest workers and boat people, not only exiled writers. This takes the orchid out of the writer’s lapel. To live elsewhere is a norm in the twentieth century. There’s nothing very significant about it. It’s just more palatable when it’s a writer than with those possessing other skills.” There was something to be said for the writer packing his bags. “The further away from his homeland the writer is, the better for literature.” One’s address isn’t so important.

“A poet,” he concluded, “is like a bird. He chirps no matter what twig he lands on — and mistakes the rustle of leaves for applause.”

* * *

Serbian Diary: March 1994

by Jim Forest

“And then came the dark times, when the clever shut up, fools were talkative, and the scum got rich.”—Ivo Andric (1892-1975), Serbian recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature for 1961; from Signs Along the Road

Wednesday, March 9, 1994, Belgrade

Because of sanctions there are no flights to Belgrade. Jim Douglass and I flew to Budapest, then took a minibus to Belgrade. Having with us two large cartons of medication for children contributed by Franciscan sisters in Rome, we waited on the Hungarian side of the border with anxiety. Under the sanctions, medicines are permitted into Serbia only by special permit obtainable through a complex UN bureaucratic process that takes months. After waiting an hour, there was spot checking of baggage in the van but luckily our two boxes were buried under suitcases and weren’t opened.

Several hours later we arrived at the flat of Women in Black in the center of Belgrade not far from a big outdoor market. The actual address is not publicized because of death threats the women have received. Their postal address is at the Center for Antiwar Action elsewhere in the city.

There must have been 15 or 20 women crowded into these two rooms plus a small kitchen. The place was bursting at the seams, everyone talking at once, the phone ringing constantly, and coffee being served. Among the many posters on the walls were photos of the vigil against the war that Women in Black have every Wednesday afternoon in the center of Belgrade. After years of being saturated with news about murderous Serbs, it’s refreshing to be talking with Serbs who kill no one, oppose all violence, and help the victims of war. Sadly such people are rarely noticed by the world press.

By midnight everyone was gone and we had the flat, suddenly intensely silent, to ourselves. For beds, we used two mattresses that serve as a couch during the day.

Thursday, March 10

Pavle on the bus
Pavle on the bus

We met with Patriarch Pavle, head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, for more than an hour this morning, as gentle a man as I’ve ever met. He is short, with attentive eyes and a white beard, and utterly modest in his manner. He is the only leader of any church I have heard of who normally travels by public bus and tram.

The main subject of the discussion was our hope that he and Pope John Paul, along with Moslem and Jewish leaders, would together go to Sarajevo in a joint witness of peace, repentance and forgiveness.

Patriarch Pavle began his response by recalling his ten years as a student in Sarajevo. “As a school boy my friends included Croatians and Moslems. I still have their photographs. When I think of Sarajevo and the suffering there, I think of my friends.” When Jim showed the Sarajevo banner with its western and eastern crosses, Moslem crescent and Star of David that he has been using on St. Peter’s Square whenever Pope John Paul appears, Patriarch Pavle immediately stood up and started to pray for all the religious communities of Sarajevo: Moslem, Jew, Catholic and Orthodox.

“Concerning me as a person, I am ready to meet Pope John Paul, here or in Sarajevo or anywhere,” said Patriarch Pavle. “I am really ready to meet with anybody for the sake of peace, even if we could only get one centimeter closer to peace. But I don’t represent only myself and my own opinions. I represent the whole Serbian Orthodox Church. According to the order of the our Church, the Patriarch is only the President of the Assembly of Bishops and of the Holy Synod. I have to think of the totality of the Church. The Patriarch cannot make such a decision by himself but rather with the Assembly. This has to do with the way conciliarity [sabornost in Serbo-Croatian, sobornost in Old Slavonic] is practiced in our Orthodox Church. Also I have to underline the fact that this would be the first meeting of the Serbian Patriarch with the Pope in history. Concerning this matter, our sister Orthodox Churches also have to be consulted as the Serbian Church is only a part of worldwide Orthodoxy.”

His view of the war is that not only Serbians but everyone shares in the blame, the governments of former Yugoslavia plus the rest of Europe and the United States. “Everyone is guilty.”

Speaking about war crimes, he said: “There are criminals on every side. God alone knows who has the greatest blame or who has committed the most sins.” As for the Church, “it must condemn all atrocities that are committed, no matter what the faith or origin of the person committing them may be. No sin committed by one person justifies a sin committed by another. We will all face the Last Judgment together where each of us must answer for his sins. No one can justify his sins by saying someone else is guilty of a crime.”

He recalled a letter he had received from a Moslem who quoted a passage from the Holy Koran: “Whoever kills another innocent person has killed the entire human race.” “This must also be the attitude of Orthodox believers,” the Patriarch commented.

Clearly the main obstacle to his taking part in an interfaith act of witness with the Pope is the poor state of relations between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. While the Patriarch has had meetings with Cardinal Franjo Kuharic, president of the Croatian Bishops’ Conference, the Pope is seen by the Serbian population as taking a partisan role in the war. (The non-Orthodox reader needs to be aware of the resentment toward the Catholic Church that still smolders within the Orthodox world. From the Crusader sacking of Constantinople to the missionary efforts the Catholic Church is currently making in Russia, Catholicism is seen as constantly using every method at its disposal to suppress the Orthodox Church.)

Even so the Patriarch reminded us that from the early days of Christianity the Bishop of Rome was regarded as first among equals among all bishops and that, despite the 1000-year of division between the Orthodox and Catholic Church, “he is still respected as such by our Church.”

A two-day meeting of the Holy Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church will be getting underway later today, we were told. The interfaith pilgrimage to Sarajevo is on the agenda, but an action of this significance will have to be decided by the Assembly of bishops, a group of about 30 that will meet in mid-May.

The fact that the Patriarch personally is prepared to meet the Pope, to go to Sarajevo, and that he was so welcoming to us, as was everyone we met and talked to at the Patriarchate, suggests that there may be a positive response even though it will take time. If it does happen, Patriarch Pavle’s involvement will not only be a personal gesture but an action of the Serbian Church done with the blessing of other Orthodox Churches.

After the meeting, Jim and I went across the street to pray in the cathedral, Saborna Tserkva, a church in good repair on the outside but desolated within, the walls of the church black as chimney smoke, the icons almost ruined, and decaying scaffolding in the cupola. One sees in the condition of the cathedral what the political events of this century have done to the Serbian Orthodox Church. It bears witness to what Serbian friends had told me in Holland, that Tito’s anti-religious policies had been less bloody but more effective than those used against religious believers in Russia.

Friday, March 11

While Belgrade literally means White City, this is definitely not the case. There is no city greyer than Belgrade. Maybe it’s cigarette smoke that has made the city the color of ashes. Those who don’t smoke are few and far between; it seems Serbs are born smoking. Except on a few streets every building seems to have an eroded facade. There aren’t many cars on the streets because of the shortage of fuel and its high cost — a small gain for the lungs of city dwellers. Buses are as packed as a Russian church for the Easter vigil.

Stores are well stocked but very little is being sold because people have nearly empty pockets and the prices are as high as anywhere in western Europe. One person’s monthly salary might be 40 New Dinars. I spent 8.44 New Dinars for three ordinary items at a nearby grocery store. It was 2.88 ND just for a jar of pickled red peppers. It isn’t uncommon to see a store in which there is no one inside but the person waiting by the cash register. There were six McDonalds in the city; only two remain open. Not enough people with money for hamburgers… Again, like the situation with cars, one might mark this up as a plus, but I doubt there are many people in the city would agree.

We had a long visit this afternoon with Father Andreas, secretary to Bishop Irinej, a young monk whose passionate love of Orthodox spirituality is very evident. At one point in our meeting he sang prayers in English to several saints.

We asked him in what ways the Church responds to conscientious objectors. Father Andreas said that while there are many avoiding military service, few seek recognition as conscientious objectors while those who go into the army are so caught up in the fever of war they don’t think about the issue. He added that soldiers in the Yugoslav army are not sent to Bosnia or Croatia and so the issue of soldiers in the Yugoslav army taking part in the war doesn’t exist at present. The combatants are mainly people from Bosnia-Herzegovina. Any non-Bosnian Serbs fighting in Bosnia, he said, go with paramilitary groups that cross the border illegally.

It remains hard to know to what extent and in what ways the Miloševic-led government helps Serbian forces in Bosnia and Croatia. Jasmina Arsova, a university student active in Women in Black who is our main helper and translator, has told me about a soldier from the Yugoslav army she has been visiting in the hospital who was forcibly sent to Bosnia for four months. However it’s possible, as claimed by Miloševic, that this form of intervention is no longer government policy.

Jasmina pointed out a helicopter flying overhead that at least once a day delivers badly wounded soldiers from the war in Bosnia to one of the city hospitals, but this sort of involvement in the war is regarded as humanitarian aid.

As we respond to questions about our meeting with Patriarch Pavle, we are told many stories about him. It was especially striking to hear how he took part in a huge demonstration in 1991 which protested the war and the policies of the Miloševic government. He was riding the tram on his way to visit his sister, as he does every Sunday afternoon, when he saw crowds of people with their protest signs. He got off the tram and walked with them for two kilometers.

We also saw a quotation from him which I gather has been ignored in the government-controlled mass media: “We do not need a greater Serbia paved with new mass graves such as those we had in World War II.”

Saturday, March 12

As I get to know Serbs better, I can better understand that many of them see a parallel between the suffering of the Jewish people and themselves. During World War II, Serbian resistance to the Nazis and their Croatian Ustasha allies cost them approximately one million lives. Earlier in their history they lived under oppressive Turkish rule that now contributes to anti-Moslem fears that help fuel the war.

There is a joke about a Serb meeting a Moslem and immediately hitting him on the head, though the Moslem had done nothing offensive. “What did you hit me?” the Moslem asked. “I was just recalling the fallen Serbs at the Battle of Kosovo,” the Serb replied. “But that was in 1389,” said the Moslem. “Yes, but I blame it on you,” the Serb said.

The past is very present here and with Serbs at least has to be very much taken into account when one talks about the present and future. The propaganda machine that Miloševic manipulates so skillfully reinforces terrible memories which have made many Serbs feel they are a people the rest of the world wants to be rid of, or at any rate a people left alone to defend a Europe that doesn’t yet understand the threat of Islamic expansion.

We had a visit this morning with Father Radomir Rakic, an editor and translator on the staff of the Patriarchate who is also active with the Church Relief Committee. He spends much of his time doing translation work for the Patriarch, but has to do it all on a typewriter half a century old. “This is my computer,” he said, pointing to the venerable black machine by his desk. “At least it was well made. You could drop it from an airplane and still it would type. Only the letter A gives me some problems.” I told him I would try to find some people in the Serbian Orthodox Church in Holland who would give him a real computer and printer.

Thanks to Father Radomir’s help we were able to visit with Bishop Lavrentije of Šabac, a member of the Holy Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church. He responded positively to the interfaith pilgrimage to Sarajevo. He went on to say that the Serbian memory is heavily burdened with tragedies in the past that stand in the way of such gestures. “We cannot forget but we must forgive. We must think how we can live together as neighbors. We have to think what is needed for body and soul. For the body we must end the embargo. For the soul we must forgive.”

Jim Douglass’s fast began in Rome February 12, a prayer for peace in former Yugoslavia and for the interfaith pilgrimage to Sarajevo. He has been on fruit juice ever since. To connect this first part of the fast to Ramadan, he has been drinking juice only after sundown.

Because of his fast and the need to conserve energy, as he now tires easily, Jim stayed in Belgrade while I went with Jasmina Arsova to Pancevo to visit the Peace Action Group “M” (M for Mir, meaning peace). Pancevo is a 20-minute train ride northeast of Belgrade across the Danube River. It’s in Vojvodina, which under Tito was an autonomous republic with its own president, but which has now been merged with Serbia.

The actions of Peace Action Group “M” include lighting candles and displaying a banner for half an hour every Saturday night in the town square, the text of which is “For All the Victims of War.” The person chiefly responsible for this simple witness, which has been going on since the war began, is Senka Mandrino. As we were carrying the banner to the square, she told me, “I do this for my country, the old Yugoslavia, not the new one, but the Yugoslavia for everyone.”

Senka described a larger action they organized recently when there wasn’t only the one banner but another on which all the besieged and destroyed cities and towns of former Yugoslavia were listed: Sarajevo, Mostar, Vukovar and many more. Candles were lit for each place. That evening the vigilers were approached by a soldier from the Bosnian Serb army. “I worried he would shout at us ‘Traitors, why don’t you tell it to the Moslems and Croatians’ or that he would tear up our signs. Instead he hugged us and thanked us, saying, ‘Why don’t you do more like this, then this stupid war will end.’ ”

Senka has a sister in Sarajevo and her husband, Mirko, one of the leading members of the group, is a conscientious objector. “I will continue with the Saturday night vigil until the war ends,” Senka told me.

Using a local book shop as a meeting room, Mirko and Jasmina co-chaired a crowded public meeting that evening at which two journalists from the independent magazine Vreme, Dimitrije Boarov and Zoran Jelecic, were discussing the impact of the war on the economy and the current campaign to stabilize the dinar after more than a year of hyper-inflation. Inflation was 60 to 70 percent per day much of last year. As a souvenir of that period I have a 50,000,000 dinar note in my wallet which was worth about one Deutsch Mark before it became completely worthless; there was even a bill issued for 500,000,000,000 dinars — eleven zeros! Now you see them tacked to walls as grim reminders of the economic chaos of 1993. The New Dinars now in circulation seem to be stable; at present one New Dinar equals one DM.

According to the journalists from Vreme, hyper-inflation was a government-organized method of skimming off huge amounts of money, in the form of the stable Mark, for war related and other purposes, or simply to line a few pockets. The end result is that the middle class no longer exists in the new, shrunken Yugoslavia; the mass of people are either poor or desperately poor.

While most of those at the meeting were clearly educated people, at least one was a working man in ragged clothes who turned up in the hope that someone present might help him find the medication — Forma Berbiton — for his 13-year-old epileptic son. Senka Mandrino talked with him after the meeting, taking down his address and promising to try to find what he needs but warning him she had no idea if she would succeed.

Living near the Mandrino flat, Dirko Mandrino told me, is a grandmother and granddaughter who share one room without electricity or running water. The little girl needs insulin. So far the Mandrinos have been able to find it but it is a month-to-month struggle.

Sunday, March 13

After leaving the St. Sava Church today, Jasmina Arsova told me more about her visits to people in hospitals. One of those she sees every week is a young woman of Serbian nationality, a refugee from Bosnia, who was raped by some of her Moslem neighbors in her village after the war had created a climate of mutual hatred. (The word “Moslem” in former Yugoslavia has nothing to do with religious belief, only what is regarded as nationality.) “She became pregnant, came to Belgrade as a refugee, and gave birth to her child. For two months afterward everything seem fine in her life. Then she had a breakdown and became dangerous to herself and her child. SOS Telephone found a family to take care of the baby. Everyday people are coming to see the mother, but she is still not at all well.”

Today Jim fast entered its second phase: water only until April 3, Easter on the western calendar. As Ramadan is over, he allows himself to drink water at any time in the day. While definitely on the lean side, Jim is in good spirits and health but tires easily.

Monday, March 14

Trivo Indji, a sociologist we met today in the Women in Black office, shares the view that regular soldiers of the Yugoslav army are no longer being sent to Bosnia by the Miloševic government, and also no weapons. He said the only material help sent by the government as such is humanitarian aid. Bosnia has long been one of the most war-prepared areas in all of Europe. Tito saw Bosnia as the impregnable fortress of Yugoslavia and for that reason much of the arms industry was established there. Jim responded that things look very different from Sarajevo. He finds it hard to believe there could be a siege of Sarajevo were it not for Miloševi.

Trivo said one of the worrying events of late in Belgrade is publication of the notoriously anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a book Hitler used to justify sending Jews to concentration camps. He had seen a copy in a local book shop.

A high point today was meeting Father Arsenije Nikitovi, a monk with a weather-beaten but radiant face who is the Belgrade director of an Orthodox Church program — the People’s Kitchen — that distributes food to a thousand families who are otherwise in danger of starvation. His office, in a building linked to the main railway station, has been loaned to him gratis. “It isn’t hard to find families desperately in need of food,” he said. “And now we stretch what we give to 1100 families, but it is far from enough.” He hoped we might help find someone to give them a van because they have a lot of delivery problems. And they need more donations of food. At present the main donor is the Lutheran Church in Germany.

Father Arsenije was overjoyed when he heard what Jim’s wife Shelley is doing in Birmingham, Alabama, where Mary’s House provides a temporary home for homeless families. He immediately gave Jim a big hug.

We talked briefly about the war. “Who is most guilty,” he said, “I have no right to judge. Only we must do what Jesus said, to feed the hungry, to help and visit those who are sick. God will judge us for what we do and what we fail to do, and he will judge those who caused this suffering. He will judge, I cannot and don’t even want do.”

He told us something someone told him many years ago that has meant a great deal to him: “When you think there is no way out, keep looking and you will find three more possibilities.” “I have learned he was right, thank God,” Father Arsenije said. He also told us, “Whoever hits another person is not courageous, but rather the one who refuses to hit back.”

We had a long visit at the end of the day with Dragiša Krsmanovic, who has written occasional reports from Belgrade for Peace Media Service, and Milan Radovanovi, a student at the Orthodox Theological School here in Belgrade, a decrepit building across the street from the Patriarchate. A conscientious objector, Milan decided it wasn’t enough not to fight in the war. He wanted to get to know some of those people many Orthodox regard as the “enemy,” that is Catholics, and so has been a volunteer with the Catholic relief organization here, Caritas.

Tuesday, March 15

Jim and I talked with Saša Kovacevic about her life, her two years as a student in Sarajevo (leaving literally on the eve of the outbreak of war) and what brought her to Women in Black. At age 22, she is one of the group’s youngest members.

Saša told us what a relief it had been going from her home in Montenegro to the far more open atmosphere of Sarajevo where she began her university studies in journalism. “In Montenegro everything is hermetically closed, everything locked in custom. It is especially hard for women as they have an old view of women. There were times when I really thought people would beat me on the street. How different Sarajevo is! You can’t imagine how easy it was to live there. No one told me what was wrong with me. I quickly found many friends. I only hope they are all still alive. Now I am in Belgrade, still studying journalism, but I am here with only half my heart. The other part is in Sarajevo. If you are there for only two years, you feel as if you were born there because of the way they accept you.”

She discovered Women in Black through her friend and fellow student, Jasmina Arsova, and quickly became part of the group. “It was not just because of their protest against war and the work with refugees, but because I found they had a name for every opinion I had in my head about women’s rights. In Montenegro they just said I was crazy. But here I found a name for what I believed. Can you imagine that happiness? To find a name for what you had in your head a long, long time, since you were small, and you then come here and find a name for it. So I was really happy to find these women.”

She is not optimistic about the Miloševic government losing power in the near future. “He and his regime may stay in power another five or even ten years. He has succeeded in making everything — all the pressures, even the sanctions — work for him. He has managed to make himself into a hero. The opposition is weak, totally exhausted. They have no new ideas about how to put another government into power. Just imagine, a couple of years ago people were thinking normally, but now you get the impression no one remembers that time. You see what propaganda can do. People are afraid if they say anything critical, they will be accused of wanting to sell the country to its enemies. In many people you see a mentality of total paranoia — the whole world against us, enemies everywhere: Croatians, Moslems, Catholics, Jews, everyone not Serbian. For many people it was the UN sanctions that proved to them everything Miloševic was saying. They accepted the idea that the only solution is for the Serbian people to be completely united — otherwise who knows what will happen to us. So people get very irritated when you try to say that Miloševic didn’t help us but destroyed us.”

“What destroys us is hating people,” Saša added. “When you are born, no one asks you what you would like to be. So how can we hold it against another person in what family she is born?”

At mid-day we had a two-hour meeting with Rabbi Cadik Danon, Chief Rabbi of Yugoslavia. “I was Chief Rabbi of big Yugoslavia and am now Chief Rabbi of small Yugoslavia,” he said when making us welcome in his apartment across the river in New Belgrade.

Discussing the possibility of Pope John Paul coming to Belgrade, Rabbi Danon felt that there would be a welcome here only if there were preliminary actions taken by the Pope that would convince the Serbs the Pope is not their enemy. If he spoke out against the sanctions, that would immediately change public opinion in his favor. In that connection he described the appalling situation in local hospitals. “In some cases operations have to be performed without anesthesia. Whole sections of hospitals have been closed. The mortality rate goes up and up.”

He also said a visit by the Pope to the Jasenovac concentration camp would have tremendous impact on Serbs and no doubt many others. Jasenovac, east of Zagreb, was a huge concentration camp where a vast number of Serbs, Jews and gypsies were killed. How many is a point of contention but 700,000 is the figure one often hears. The camp was mainly staffed by Hungarian Nazis and Croatian Ustashi. “The way people were murdered at Jasenovac was even worse than in Polish camps,” Rabbi Danon said. Among the victims were his mother and father. In all he lost 60 members of his family. If the Pope were to go there, as he has gone to Auschwitz, it would be a very powerful symbolic action.

Rabbi Danon also mentioned, as Trivo Indjic had yesterday, the publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He had heard the book was published by the Orthodox Theological Faculty.

It was providential that in the evening while Jasmina Arsova, Jim and I were out walking on Knez Mikhajlova, the wide pedestrian shopping street in the heart of the city. There we ran into Milan Radovanovic, from the Theological Faculty, and Dragiša Krsmanovic, the two people we had been visiting with last night. I asked if they knew anything about the publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Not only did they know about it but said they would show it to me in Plato, the book shop we were standing in front of. In fact the shop had no more copies; staff had bought 30 copies a few days before but they were sold out.

It turned out the publisher — Vladimir Maksimovic, whose press is called Velvet — was in the shop at the time. He was pointed out to us browsing in a section of used English-language books. He is a man of about 30 with short black hair and a harsh face who said neither he nor his press had any connection to the Orthodox Church.

I asked him why he published a book which was well known as a forgery and which had cost so many lives. “Because it’s the truth,” he said. “It’s no forgery.” I said I would be glad to send him information on the history of the text and how it was produced by the Czarist Secret Service in the 1890s, if he would give me his address. After some hesitation he gave me his card and I gave him mine. I asked when the book had been published. Three days before, he said, in an edition of 3,000 copies. This was the fourth Serbian edition in this century, he added. The last one was published in 1941 — in other words in the time of Nazi occupation.

Afterward Milan and Dragisa took us to a nearby book shop where a copy of the book was on display in the window, a yellow book subtitled “The Jewish Conspiracy.” I took a photo.

While it was a relief to know that the book has nothing to do with the Orthodox Church, still it is alarming to think this murderous book so dear to Hitler is for sale in Serbia for the first time since the Nazi occupation.

Jasmina and I called Rabbi Danon as soon as we got back to the Women in Black office to tell him what we had learned and to give him the publisher’s name and address.

Wednesday, March 16

In a small building next to an ancient mosque in central Belgrade, we were warmly received by the Grand Mufti of Yugoslavia, Shiek Yusufspahic. He was delighted to be photographed with Jim’s Sarajevo banner, though his mind was less on Sarajevo than the needs of the Belgrade’s Moslem community. A new, larger mosque is needed but permission to build it has been refused year after year.

From the mosque we went to the offices of B92, Belgrade’s independent radio station. Discussing sanctions with Veran Matic, the stations’ editor-in-chief of, he told us “the one and only thing sanctions haven’t touched has been the flow of weapons. That sanctions have had a disastrous effect on health care and have made it extremely hard for independent structures like ours to survive.”

Standing on Republic Square in the heart of Belgrade in mid-afternoon, watching the weekly one-hour vigil of Women in Black, I was relieved that they were not the object of harassment and that many people passing by accepted their leaflet.

Sanctions again came up when we met Dubravka Velat of the Center for Antiwar Action, a large, well-equipped office coordinating many projects for the defense of human rights, help to refugees, and opposition to the war. Dubravka said sanctions have only convinced Serbs that Miloševic was right in saying the world is trying to destroy the Serb people. “Sanctions didn’t work. The international community wanted to punish the government but only punished the ordinary people and made Miloševic stronger. It isn’t so bad now as it was last year, when there was pure hysteria, but still there is a widespread feeling, people believing the whole world is against them, a new conspiracy against Serbs. On the one side you have sanctions being used as a way of trying to get people to change the government, and on the other the government using the sanctions as a way to shatter its opposition, and that is basically what has happened. If you go to the hospitals or any social institution, you will see what sanctions have done. More than 50 percent of the people are now below the poverty line. There are 600,000 refugees in the new, small Yugoslavia, and for almost all of them, their situation is desperate. Now there is a stable dinar and for the first time in two years you see the shelves in the stores aren’t bare, but only the rich can buy anything but absolute necessities. The only sanctions that should be applied are against importing weapons into any part of former Yugoslavia.”

She doesn’t accept the claims of the Miloševic government that it has nothing to do with the war is Bosnia. “It’s no longer so open as it was, but it’s common knowledge that the government is involved in the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, for example allowing men in refugee camps to be recruited into the Bosnian Serb army.”

I asked if she was worried about the Center for Antiwar Action being banned. “They regard people like us as traitors, but they don’t suppress us because we serve as a proof this is a democracy.”

I asked if sometimes fear kept her awake at night. “Only once, when my husband, a television director, broadcast a program about the Serbian Radical Party, analyzing the reasons for that party’s political success. That night I put the table and chairs against the front door.”

Thursday, March 17

At 9:30 we were at the mansion of the Italian ambassador for a meeting with Monsignor Vincenzo Paglia, Pope John Paul’s personal emissary, who was due to meet with Patriarch Pavle, Bishop Lavrentije, Bishop Irinej and Bishop Danielou at 11. Msgr. Paglia is pastor of the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome, a church Nancy, Anne and I visited in the summer. We felt especially at home there; its ancient mosaic icons make it a place where the eastern and western churches still embrace each other.

We found Msgr. Paglia had a similar understanding of the obstacles to Pope John Paul being welcomed by the Serbian Orthodox Church and a similar approach to overcoming them. He said Pope John Paul made a statement critical of the sanctions while in Denver last year but his statement was ignored by the press because President Clinton met the Pope that day and used the occasion to make a speech in favor of bombing Serb positions in Bosnia. The press managed to make it look like the Pope was Clinton’s Amen Chorus.

Msgr. Paglia thinks there are practical difficulties about the Pope going to Jasenovac concentration camp, one being that it is close to the front lines. It is hard enough, he said, for the Pope to get to the three cities he hopes to visit: Sarajevo, Zagreb and Belgrade. But he thought other symbolic gestures by the Pope were possible, for example upon arriving in Belgrade going as a pilgrim directly to the Church of St. Sava, founder of the Serbian Church and recognized by the Orthodox Church as Equal to the Apostles, and praying there for repentance and forgiveness. I assume this event would happen in the ancient Church of St. Sava next to which a huge new church in the style of Hagia Sofia has been under construction since 1986. The Pope could make at this time a gift for the new church.

Both before coming and also while here in Belgrade the Pope could speak out against the suffering being caused by the sanctions. He told us the Pope is acutely aware of the grim situation in the hospitals, the malnutrition touching those in the lower strata of society, and has been speaking to various ambassadors and guests about it. It was the first topic he raised during a recent meeting in Rome with Theovald Stoltenberg, co-chairman of the Geneva Conference responsible for the UN presence in former Yugoslavia.

Visiting Father Andreas at the Patriarchate later in the day, we found Bishop Danielou, a member of the Holy Synod, and met with him in a quiet corner of another office. We gather from his report that what Msgr. Paglia had said to us in the morning was repeated in his meeting with Patriarch Pavle, with stress on Pope John Paul’s dismay with sanctions. In contrast, Bishop Danielou compared a recent statement by WCC General Secretary, Konrad Raiser, in which he said that the World Council of Churches still supports sanctions against Serbia, with Pontius Pilate washing his hands to clear himself of responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus. (On several occasions bishops and clergy in Belgrade expressed bewilderment and shock about Raiser’s statement.)

We visited the small church of St. Sava, next to the vast new church now under construction, where we prayed that the Pope and Patriarch will embrace each other and pray side by side for peace, repentance and reconciliation.

In the late afternoon we met for nearly an hour with Mons. Salvatore Pennacchio, the Apostolic Vice Nuncio (the nuncio is in Rome). It turned out that Jim and he have a mutual friend in Father Tom Michel, SJ, who heads the Office of Islam of the Pontifical Commission for Interreligious Dialogue at the Vatican; Father Michel is one of the signers of the call for the Interreligious Fast and Pilgrimage to Sarajevo.

Coming and going from that meeting, we rode in buses in which I felt like a sardine in an unopened tin. To my amazement Jasmina told me that buses are relatively spacious compared to the situation two or three months ago. “Now you can breathe,” she said.

Returning to the flat of Women in Black, I talked with Jadranka Milicevic, much involved in refugee work, and Jasmina Mustovi, the group’s press officer.

“I got involved in Women in Black,” Jasmina said, “because it gave me a way to take a stand against violence. Earlier I was a volunteer with SOS Telephone which was helping women and children in danger from violent men. But then some of us wanted to do something to protest against war, and that’s how Women in Black began. Our first vigil was on October 9, 1991. We were following the example of Women in Black in Jerusalem where Jewish and Palestinian women protest together every week against the occupation. Since then we continue with the vigil but we have also started other projects — work with refugees, publications work and so forth.”

Like so many people in former Yugoslavia, Jasmina cannot claim a single nationality. Her father is Moslem and her mother from a mixed marriage. “I never had the idea that there was any group I should hate.”

Jadranka arrived in Belgrade from Sarajevo in May, 1992. At first she lived in a camp and now lives in her cousin’s house.

“As soon as I heard about Women in Black I wanted to be part of it. In the beginning I was also active in SOS Telephone but now the work of Women in Black takes all my time. I wanted to be part of a group that could take a stand against the war and also protest the arrest of dissidents.”

Jadranka has never been arrested herself but several times has been ordered by the police to appear for questioning. “They wanted to know how we get the money for our work, how we function, how we get the medicines we bring to refugee camps. They asked why I, as a refugee, am taking part in such a group. They wanted information about my relatives in Sarajevo.”

Jadranka said that many groups in other countries which are trying to help refugees have lost confidence in big official structures like the Yugoslav Red Cross, because aid intended for refugees is sometimes delivered to non-refugees in place of a salary. “It means part of refugee aid is used not for refugees but to buy social peace. So foreign groups sometimes are looking for independent groups they can trust will really give the aid to refugees.”

“The refugees are mainly women and children,” said Jadranka. “Our work with them is not just to give medicines but to help them feel their own worth. So we have a project to make things which we sell for them, especially knitting and embroidery. Now we are also thinking about what we can do with women whose skills are mainly verbal and intellectual. So we started the ‘I Remember’ program which asks them to write stories about what was important in their lives before the war: love, family, home, work. We are making what they write into booklets, postcards and posters. It is good work we are doing, only not enough. We are active in four refugee camps, but there are 235 camps.”

The response of the state-controlled media to Women in Black has been uniformly hostile. “We are described as atheists, marginal people, traitors, even as people who are not ‘racially clean’ because ‘true Serbian woman would never act like that.’ The ‘true’ Serbian woman gives birth to warriors, she doesn’t protest against war.”

I asked about the impact of sanctions. “Right now Yugoslavia isn’t even the third world,” said Jasmina. “We are actually being used for experiments — to see how long one diabetic can survive without insulin, or to study the spread of typhus and tuberculosis under these circumstances. They’re spreading fast. We have less and less basic medical equipment that can be used. Machines in hospitals and clinics break down and replacement parts cannot be obtained because of the sanctions, or even if they can be obtained no one can afford to buy them.”

Meanwhile the armies on every side seem to have no end of money. “You know one bullet costs one mark,” Jasmina said. “If they shoot one bullet in one second, you can imagine how many marks are spent just for those bullets in four years? I don’t want to calculate it. And I’m not even talking about grenades and bombs and all the other military equipment.”

She said people are becoming numb to violence. “It’s no longer shocking when you hear on the radio that people were killed in the war yesterday. It’s awful. We hear the news. It’s no longer people’s names, just numbers. In the beginning there were names. Now there are only numbers. People are just numbers. We hear that in Sarajevo 60 people were killed and 200 injured. Just numbers. I keep thinking, maybe tomorrow I will be one of those numbers.”

Despite his fast, Jim is his usual self, his sense of humor thriving and persistent as ever. The water he drinks is either boiled before use or is bottled mineral water.

Friday, March 18

Jim and Jasmina took the train to Voljevo this morning, a three-hour train ride to the southeast. The train station was filled with brass bands seeing off hundreds of 18- and 19-year-old conscripts heading for training camps. In Voljevo they visited the wife and son of a friend Jim has in Sarajevo, a deserter from the Bosnian army who lives in hiding. The wife and son escaped two years ago. A moving and painful day, Jim says.

I went with Jadranka, Rada and Violeta to a refugee camp northwest of the city, Kovilovo, where about 135 people from Bosnia are living. With running water and showers, a dispensary and a large garden, it is regarded as one of the best camps and as such has been displayed to visiting UN officials.

While there we visited with a middle-aged woman named Sena Markovi, a former teacher. She is one of 12 people sharing a room filled with narrow beds. The most grueling aspect of life in a refugee camp must be the complete lack of privacy.

As part of its “I Remember” project, Women in Black has just published a small multi-lingual booklet with a short essay be Sena. Here it the text:

AFTER THE LAST CLASS

The 3rd of April, 1992. Friday. My first class: a test in V13. The little pupils are half-blue and half-asleep but serious. The auxiliary verb to be: I am, I shall be, it was… Their cheeks are flushed with — strain. In the second row near the window the twins: Ivana and Bozo, Samir and Sanela. The sisters are trying to help their brothers who are a little less good than they. I pretend not to see…I never had a brother. Because of the war — fifty years ago.

“The children are to go home” — a colleague announces hurriedly, unbelievably serious. Oh, yes. That morning, at the crack of day, a grenade had exploded near my bed — or so it seemed to me. The first grenade on the Kupres Plateau…

April 3rd, 1992… Our colleague D has been taken away! It is true that I cursed both Croatia and Serbia — and God! It’s not true that two snipers were found in my house. What would I do with them? I taught your parents…

Never again will I go into the classroom. After the last class I don’t have anything more to say.

Do you remember the time when we read touching texts? We were so quiet. If we could read them to the end…

You used to say: “Teacher, crying is not shameful!”

Had my words not become speechless, I wish we had only one more class: we would scream, scream so much that the whole world would hear us. We would scream to heaven, to God, my children!

Your teacher, Sena

Sena showed me a drawing she had made of her house and garden, the house burning and the flowers broken. Apparently the charge that snipers had been hiding in her house was the pretext for burning her home. She said, “I don’t know why they wanted to destroy the garden as well. All those beautiful flowers!” Another drawing showed several houses burning on the hillside.

Rada told me that for a long time after becoming a refugee, Sena was truly speechless, living in silent, deep depression. Now she has become a vital person again, a human fireplace warming her crowded room at the refugee camp. She hugged us all, made us coffee, and was full of joy to see the first copy of her booklet. Later we had lunch in the austere cafeteria: a plate of beans, a little sauerkraut and two slices of bread.

Rada (who comes form Mostar, the town once famous for its ancient bridge and now famous for the bridge’s destruction) had a letter today from someone very close to her. Inside was a pressed rose and a four-page letter. The letter contained news that someone close to her had been killed in the war. Jadranka and Violeta were crying after Rada read the letter aloud.

Rada always wears a necklace that has a copper image of the Mostar bridge as it was before its destruction.

In the late afternoon, back in Belgrade, I went to one of the university buildings in central Belgrade to meet with Sonja Prodanovic, Zdenka Milivojevic and Marina Blagojevic. Sonja is a well-known architect and also active in Women in Black. Marina and Zdenka are professors of sociology. They want to start a center that at the present they call the Museum of Antiwar Resistance. Their symbol is the Mostar Bridge.

What they have in mind isn’t a museum in the usual sense, more a place, as Marina said, “which in a variety of ways would treat what is usually called history — that is mainly the history of wars — as the history of failures, but failures which can help us learn how to live together without more such failure.”

“People here have become more and more compartmentalized, every little group in its own small box,” Marina said. “We need to develop projects that draw people together and that generate energy — for example concerts and exhibitions.”

“We want to make the other side of history visible,” Sonja explained. “What is not generally known in the world, and even to most of the public in ex-Yugoslavia, is how many people opposed the war and how many people did what they could to help others during the war.

“Official pro-war ideologies in ex-Yugoslavia have relied on the negative picture of the ‘other’ created in mass media, with each nation pictured as a victim of another nation. Peaceful history was reinterpreted as a history of hidden hatred. But in reality many people continued to live together and to help each other, even during the war. Many of us have survived owing to help and solidarity from other people. Many of us still believe that peace is still possible. We believe that human solidarity is stronger than hatred.

“Although we have been constantly exposed to stories of violence and destruction, we still tell each other ‘little’ stories about good will, help and sacrifice. In this way we know there is another side of a history. It is exactly in the time of war that peace initiatives should be supported. It is exactly now that we must start remembering and preserving that other side of our history.”

“Just as war was created by an interpretation of history as a history of wars and hatred,” said Marina, “peace can be created and nourished by the interpretation of history as a history of living together. Even in the Balkans, people were living together longer in peace than fighting wars.”

Their vision, I realized, has much in common with the work of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, which is not just a place to remember Anne Frank and her family or what the Nazis did in the areas they ruled, but a place that tries to equip visitors to respond to Nazi-like movements of the present time: to save the Anne Franks alive today. I proposed they contact the Anne Frank staff and see if they could be invited to come to Amsterdam. I also suggested they try to make arrangements to bring the Anne Frank travelling exhibition to Belgrade.

Saturday, March 19

Again and again people I talked with in Belgrade insisted that Jim and I had to visit at least one monastery. Bojan Aleksov, a draft refuser and member of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship who is one of the several men working with Women in Black, told me it was a sin to come to Serbia and not to experience one of its centers of spiritual life.

With all our meetings in Belgrade, such a trip seemed impossible. Then Bishop Irinej of Novi Sad — sometimes described as the Foreign Minister of the Serbian Orthodox Church, the “right hand of Patriarch Pavle” — invited us to come with Father Andreas to the Kovilj Monastery and meet with him there after Vespers.

At the Kovilj Monastery, which lies in southern Vojvodina, we found a finely-made stone church in the Byzantine style. The fifteen monks living here, most of them adult converts to Orthodoxy, are a young community. In the last part of the Tito era, only two elderly monks lived here. For years the monks’ cells were used by Serbian artists, and still there is a close link between the monastery and both intellectuals and artists.

Bells summoned us, along with about a dozen other guests, to join the monks for Vespers in a small dimly lit chapel. Through several small windows there was a view of an orchard.

Bishop Irinej, spiritual father of Kovilj, was present for Vespers. At the end of the service he spoke in his surprisingly quiet voice about the deeper meaning of the Great Fast that had begun that week. “It is the season to clean our hearts.”

With the abbot, Father Porfirijie, and several other monks, Jim and I talked for more than an hour with Bishop Irinej, meeting in an upstairs room. He is a young bishop, thin, with a long dark beard, wearing thick glasses, speaking in a quiet, reflective voice. There is about him a profound gravity and a sense of grief.

Like Patriarch Pavle, he stressed that the Church must practice conciliarity — sabornost — in its actions, not unilateral gestures. If the Patriarch meets the Pope, it must be an action of the whole Church. “We Bishops must listen to each other, listen to our people, and listen to the other Orthodox Churches.” He spoke of encounters involving the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church in Croatia as well as his own recent meeting with Pope John Paul in Rome. Regarding the latter, which happened “despite protests from our own people,” he wasn’t convinced Pope John Paul yet understands the principle of conciliarity that stands at the center of Orthodoxy.

He felt a large share of the blame for the tragedy of former Yugoslavia belongs to the mass media. “Our situation is so complex that even we cannot understand it, so we know how difficult it is for any reporter. But I have come to the conclusion that there are no morals at all in the profession of journalism. In their oversimplifying of what has happened here, the world is given the image of Serbs as a demonic people. And what this does to the Serbian people is convince them that outside political powers want to destroy them. It is a common feeling. We see ourselves being made to fill a role formerly played by Soviet Russia. My personal opinion is that the West has behaved like an elephant, and the result has been a much longer and much more cruel war. Neither do I think the Vatican, which so quickly took the western, German position, can be proud of its role so far. I am aware that the Pope himself doesn’t call for the bombing of the Serbs, yet he doesn’t object to those who make it seem this is his position. In Belgrade, people were preparing to be bombed and thinking that the Pope was one of those who wanted that to happen.”

Returning to criticism of the media, he noted that the activities of the Serbian Orthodox Church in opposition to war and to help the war’s victims are almost entirely unreported. “People in other countries are given the idea that the Church is actually in support of the war, even fomenting it. Whatever we do to save the lives of others, not only Serbs but Moslems and Catholics, is ignored. The western press says not one word about any good deed. And this of course makes it easy to justify and maintain the sanctions.”

“Sanctions kill people just as effectively as weapons of war,” he said. “Please understand, people are suffering, children are dying, unborn children are punished in their mothers’ wombs because they cannot get the medication needed. Truly Christ is suffering. It is a kind of brutality such as was practiced by the Gestapo of Hitler. Hitler had the idea of collective guilt which he assigned to the Jews. Now it is the Serbs who are guilty as a people and must be punished. Our nation has been made into a ghetto. In principle the sanctions are not supposed to be a barrier to medicines but in reality they are. We have seen shipments of medicines wait on the border for months before being permitted into our country, and by that time many of them were too old to be used. Though we know the Pope has made some statements critical of sanctions, somehow they are never reported and so his opposition to them remains unknown to the public and perhaps even to political leaders.”

Bishop Irinej noted there were indications that the Vatican is changing direction and may become outspoken on the issues of sanctions. Days before the Serbian Orthodox Church had received a large gift of medical aid from the Catholic relief agency, Caritas, and there were meetings underway with Msgr. Paglia, a personal emissary of Pope John Paul. “What we wait for now is a clear public statement from the Pope so that our people and the world will know he opposes what sanctions are doing to us. We need prophetic steps from him.”

He spoke about the political double standard. “We know the Croatian army is fighting in Bosnia, but Croatia is not under sanctions. Not that we want such a thing to happen! Only we want a single standard of morality, not one for Serbs and another for everyone else.”

He said America’s “new world order” was another kind of prison. “In the Soviet prison you got to sleep on the ground. In the American prison you get a bed and a TV. But it is still prison.”

I asked what signs of hope he saw. “There is no hope in politicians. They say one thing today, and tomorrow the opposite. If there is an act of terrorism, they immediately blame it on the Serbs and then, if later they find they were mistaken, they lose not a minute of sleep. Except for Christian acts of witness, I don’t see any other light. There is a planetary illness. The only cure is spiritual. It needs prayer and fasting to make a decisive step toward repentance.”

The symbolic and prayerful action of Patriarch Pavle and Pope John Paul being together in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Zagreb is clearly something that Bishop Irinej recognizes as potentially contributing to a cure to the planetary illness which Sarajevo has come to symbolize. If only Pope John Paul can work in the coming weeks and months to help remove the obstacles and misunderstandings that impede Catholic-Orthodox relations…

Toward the end of our conversation monks sang for us in Serbo-Croatian, Greek and English. Then outside the monastery we looked up at a sky whose stars, even to my book-worn eyes, seemed to be no further away than the roof of the church.

Sunday, March 20, Novi Sad

The city cathedral is in the Catholic architectural tradition and the iconography inside also shows the unfortunate influence of the baroque period and the era when Novi Sad was under Austrian rule, but the Liturgy itself, a three-hour celebration, was intensely Orthodox. The church gradually filled until there were hundreds of standing people filling the building, men and women, old and young. It was impressive to see nearly everyone receive communion. Afterward we had lunch with Bishop Irinej — for Jim consisting of one glass of mineral water — and then hurried to the train station with Father Andreas, catching the 2 o’clock train to Budapest with one minute to spare.

* * *

War and Peace: an Orthodox Christian view

lecture for the annual meeting of the Fellowship of Saint Andrew, given by Jim Forest at the Cathedral in Dunblane, Scotland, March 11, 2000

Christ healing the blind man (engraving by Eric Gill)
Christ healing the blind man (engraving by Eric Gill)

Several years ago I was among the speakers at a conference on war and peace in Europe, an event sponsored by Syndesmos, the Orthodox youth movement, in cooperation with the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. We met in the newly opened diocesan conference center in Chania, Crete. Our host was the local bishop, Metropolitan Irinaios of Kydonia and Apokoronas.

Those of you who know Crete are aware how bitterly Cretans recall the humiliations and sufferings of their ancestors during the period of Turkish rule and how proud they are of their forebears’ success at finally expelling the invader, but I confess that until my visit this aspect of European history was simply a distant fact, not something haunting my thoughts. After all, though transplanted in Europe 23 years ago, I come from a country which has only invaded other countries, never itself been invaded since Europeans took control centuries ago. Unless we were sent away to battlefields in Europe or Asia, war was an abstract topic, something we learned about from films, books and news reports. One could climb without bruises to the high moral plain of pacifism, or, for that matter, think of war in idyllic terms without ever having to experience its hellish reality.

For the people of Crete, though untroubled by war since May 1945, the ground is still damp with blood. There are many painful memories of the German occupation during World War II, yet it is their long struggle with the Turks that seems to press hardest in their memories. Everyone remembers the costly struggle to drive the Turks back to Turkey which began in the 17th century and ended in 1898. The island’s motto is “Freedom or death.” Events of the 18th and 19th centuries are described with such immediacy that I had the impression I was listening to witnesses.

The battle for freedom is preserved in patriotic folk songs which Cretans still sing. Metropolitan Irinaios would sometimes translate the words for me as these ballads were being sung. In one of them, Cretan freedom fighters announce joyfully that they are setting off “to make women into widows and children into orphans.” The words of this rousing anthem were sung with enthusiasm by members of a local Orthodox parish — good Christian people who had no plans to take up arms, glared at no one, and certainly didn’t intend to startle or scandalize their guests.

I had been asked to give the conference’s opening lecture, the theme of which was Orthodox teaching about war. I pointed out that the Orthodox Church has never embraced the just war doctrine, that the Church regards war as inevitably sinful in nature, that priests are forbidden by canon law to kill or cause the death of others, and that under all circumstances and at all times we are commanded by Christ to love our enemies. There was nothing remarkable in what I said, certainly no novel doctrines, yet the lecture stirred up a controversy not only in the hall in which I was speaking but into the city itself, as the translator’s words were being broadcast live over the diocesan radio station, Martyria. Before I had finished, one person following the conference by radio arrived to take passionate issue with me. (I am happy to say we eventually parted on good terms.)

The debate continued that night when Metropolitan Irinaios and I took part in a radio conversation with listeners. Responding to a man who called in to denounce Turks as barbarians who only understood violence, I summarized what Christ had to say on the subject of loving one’s enemies and pointed out that Christ lived, died and rose from the dead in a country suffering occupation, yet he neither blessed nor took part in the Zealots’ armed struggle against the occupiers. “That’s all very well,” the caller responded, “but now let me tell you about a real saint.” He preceded to relate the story of a priest who, in the 19th century, played a valiant role in the war to drive the Turks off the island.

I have often thought since then how that late-night exchange in Crete revealed the usual contours of Christian discussion about war: we feel the need to justify wars fought by ourselves or our forebears and often turn to the calendar of saints — or people we think of as saints — rather than the Gospel to do so.

Let us consider the saints. To a certain extent, we can find whatever we like among those included in the Church’s calendar. Their company ranges from kings and emperors to desert hermits and holy fools, from those who wore armor to those who wore nothing. Some were soldiers, others had given up their lives by refusing to be soldiers. Still others were already soldiers when they were baptized and became martyrs because of disobedience. Still others, like Martin of Tours and Alexander Nevsky, had been able to leave their military attire behind and devote the remainder of the lives to the Church. Yet for all their astonishing variety, each saint gives us an example of heroic discipleship, of death to self and the readiness to lay down their lives for others. If you study the acts of canonization, you discover that no one has ever been canonized for his success in killing or for his exploits in war. They are placed on the calendar because, despite all their imperfections, Christ shines through them.

And yet saints have at times been made into the heavenly patrons of war and defenders of those under arms, the best known being the Great Martyr George, who so far as we know never killed anyone and in fact didn’t even kill the dragon he battled with. It is impossible to imagine an Orthodox church without the icon in which we see a beardless young man on a white horse in combat with a dragon.

It is very nearly seventeen hundred years since George’s martyrdom, time enough for all sorts of stories and traditions to have attached themselves to his name. According to a medieval legend that became well-known throughout Europe, a dragon lived in a lake in the province of Lybia, a region of Cappadocia in Asia Minor, who “envenomed all the country” and was worshiped by the terrified local people, who fed him first their sheep and later their children to assuage his appetite and subdue his rage. Finally it was the turn of the king’s daughter Elizabeth to be sacrificed. She was going toward the lake to meet her doom when providentially the young knight Saint George appeared on horseback. He prayed to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then wounded the dragon with his lance, afterward leading the vanquished creature into the city. According to the Legenda Aurea written by Blessed James de Voragine, the wounded creature followed Elizabeth “as if it had been a meek beast.” Afterward George called on the local people to be baptized. The king offered George great treasures but he asked that these be distributed to the poor.

Such wonderful tales came centuries after George had died a martyr’s death. The actual George never saw a dragon. Living in the time of the persecutions of Diocletian and Maximian, when many Christians were being arrested and taken away to torturers and executioners, this young man, possibly a newly baptized soldier, had the courage to walk into a public square and shout, “All the gentile gods are devils. My God made the heavens and is the true God.” For this he was arrested and, like so many other Christians in that period, put to death after suffering from red-hot irons. His witness is said to have led to the conversion of many and given courage to others who were already baptized.

The familiar icon of Saint George slaying the dragon, while not based on an actual event, reveals through symbols the most essential elements of a true story. The icon also offers symbolic metaphors for our own struggle. The dragon represents the power of evil and the rule of fear in our lives. The white horse Saint George rides is the courage God gives us when we overcome our fear and refuse submission to evil. The pencil-thin lance the saint holds is not a weapon of war but the holy and life-giving Cross: the power of self-giving love. Notice that the cross-topped lance it is not tightly grasped but rests lightly in George’s hand — it is the power of God, not the power of man, that overcomes evil. George’s face shows not a trace of anger, hatred or anxiety. In the upper corner of the icon the hand of the Savior is extended from heaven in a sign of blessing.

The dragon myth offers yet another level of meaning. In the legend, the people came to worship the dragon, feeding him first their livestock, then their children. Is there not a familiar human tendency to worship power — to seek survival by submitting to those powers which destroy property and, through war, eat our children? Yet the myth is given a profoundly Christian treatment. Its theme is conversion, not retribution. The Christ-like Saint George battles and defeats the dragon but doesn’t take its life. The princess — an image of Christ’s mother — leads the pacified dragon into the town. The people will afterward have the opportunity to take care of the dragon just as the wolf tamed by Saint Francis afterward became the guest of his former enemies, the inhabitants of Gubbio.

We may think stories of saints like George and Francis make wonderful bedtime stories but have little bearing on real life, “real life” meaning the world we live in — the world of wars and “ethnic cleansing” — the world that again and again gives birth to such human dragons as Hitler and Stalin plus all the murderers and maniacs close at hand who speak our own language and roam the domestic headlines — armed people who go into schools and shopping center and start shooting — such a person as Thomas Hamilton, who shot dead 16 children and one teacher here in Dunblane four years ago.

The basic message we run into all the time, not only in the objections of others but in our own thoughts, is that the Gospel, sadly, doesn’t help us very much in our relations with the world we live in. The dragons are too real — in fact far more terrifying than the reptile in the icon. In any event we are not Saint George and have no fearless white horse.

Yet we are called not to be well-adjusted, respected, dragon-fearing citizens but God-fearing saints, and must work out as best we can, with the help of the Holy Spirit, what this means in our own lives, times and circumstances.

It is worth paying attention to the heroic example others are giving in our times, for example the monks of Decani Monastery in Kosovo who, while civil war was being fought around them, set about rescuing neighbors who might otherwise have been murdered.

Just a year ago in the area of Decani monastery, local ethnic Albanians fled their homes and hid in the woods. “The Serbs were setting all the houses and our apartment building on fire,” aid Imer Lokaj, a school principal. “They wanted to burn us alive.” Father Sava and another monk came down from the monastery in a van, searching for those who were hiding. “Come with us,” they said. “We will keep you safe.” Vanload after vanload of local Albanians were brought to safety within the monastery walls. “Without them,” said the 58-year-old Albanian painter and art teacher Nimon Lokaj, “my whole family would be dead.”

As you may have heard, this community of monks, like Kosovo’s Bishop Artremije, has been outspoken in its criticism of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and for years has sought a solution for Kosovo which would allow for every ethnic community to live in security and peace side by side.

As you can imagine, hatred still simmers in Decani, yet Nimon Lokaj’s 24-year-old son, Artan, said he will always be grateful to the monks of Decani even though they are Serbs.

“Our mission is fighting against evil,” explained Decani’s abbot, Theodosie. “Now I think we will have more of a job to do.”

The abbot’s comment is central to our understanding of peacemaking. It is not enough that we try to live peaceful lives. We are called on to combat evil. As one of the rector of our parish in Amsterdam, Fr. Sergei Ovsiannikov, has said, “It may be that a Christian should not be a soldier but it is essential that he be a warrior.”

For Christians, our combat is first of all spiritual combat. We are obliged by Christ not only to love our enemies but to pray for them. Without prayer, without God’s help, love of enemies is not possible.

Our great hope in this spiritual combat must be for the conversion rather than destruction of our adversary. This is certainly not a utopian fantasy. It was this great struggle without weapons in the early Church which brought about so profound a change of heart within both people of the Roman empire and barbarian tribes outside the empire’s borders as far away as Ireland.

The same commandment that calls on us to pray for enemies instructs us to do them good. A significant example of this was recently given by Greeks in their compassionate response to the devastating earthquakes that occurred in Turkey last year. Far from rejoicing in the suffering of their historic enemy, Greeks quickly raised great sums of money to help earthquake victims. Turks responded in kind when an earthquake caused destruction in Athens. The result is that for the first time in many years relations between Greece and Turkey have taken a turn for the better. In January Patriarch Bartholomeos said, while visiting Thessaloniki, that he believed “Turkey will now have a rapid course toward integration with the European Union.” Days later the Greek Foreign minister visited Ankara, the first such visit in 38 years. “There are very difficult problems that have not been solved,” said his Turkish counterpart, “but looking back six months ago, if we had said we could have achieved what we have achieved today, no one would have believed us.” In a situation so often tending toward war, one can begin to hope that peaceful relations may occur.

What impedes us as peacemakers?

First there is the failure of our imaginations. Though we have changed, thanks to the help of others and God’s grace, too often we cannot imagine others changing. We are convinced they are always going to have all the faults we currently perceive in them. We see all efforts to change them, even prayers on their behalf, as a waste of time. While it’s true that leopards don’t change their spots, thank God people do.

Then there is the factor of fear. “The root of war is fear,” wrote the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. My Marxist father disagreed, arguing that the root of war is bad economics, but years later told me that he come to realize that the root of bad economics is fear. The opposite of love is not hatred but fear. So many decisions in our lives are the consequence of fear — the vocation one is drawn to rejected out of fear, trips not taken because of fear, words left unsaid because of fear, gestures of love not offered because of fear, the faces of strangers hiding rather than revealing the image of God because of our fear. If you are wondering what to confess the next time you go to confession, you might think about the role of fear in your life, not fear of God but fear of others. “The essence of sin,” observes Metropolitan John Zizioulas,”is the fear of the Other, which is part of the rejection of God.”

Not only do we need to be aware of the way fear tends to impede God’s love in our lives, but how much our actions and even thoughts are unconsciously shaped by social forces which may be demonic rather than divine in character. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, we abhor being cut off from those around us. It isn’t because of an innate attraction to evil that so many Germans and Austrians once cooperated in Hitler’s wars and assisted in the Holocaust, nor because white South Africans are worse than us that so many of them embraced apartheid. Through slogans, propaganda, fear, the manipulation of pride and prejudice, the idea of national or racial superiority, the individual can find himself drawn into social movements that acquire a tidal force so overwhelming that finally hardly anyone dares utter a word of dissent. I mention this not simply as an interesting observation but because we too are carried along by various currents of ideology, class, career, peer group pressure, propaganda, national identity, etcetera, and often hardly realize how cramped our spiritual life becomes in the squeeze of all these other items.

And then there is the problem of nationalism. Nation is an ancient word but nationalism is a modern term. Thank God, at least in Britain, nationalism is something one can occasionally laugh at. “The English, the English, the English are best, so up with the English and down with the rest,” Flanders and Swann used to sing. This is nearly every nation’s song, except of course the principal noun has to be changed to match the particular border. Americans are second to none in this regard. It astonishes and distresses most Americans I talk to in my travels if they discover that Nancy and I are now Dutch citizens. It is as if one has a national identify only by virtue of possessing a passport to prove it. Not that there is anything wrong with having a national identity. What a sad thing it would be not to have one. But national identity is not nationalism. On the one hand, for Americans like me, there is the annual feast of stuffed turkey with cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving, on the other — malignant — hand, there is believing I belong to a new chosen people, a super people, for whom ordinary morals don’t apply. We Americans bask in our power and wealth, regarding ourselves as the greatest of democracies, the society most dedicated to the defense of human rights, the society which provides a model for others to emulate and imitate — God protect them if they decline. It is not that we are a people without redeeming qualities, but our collective vanity is massive.

Not that one need be American to experience the problem. Some of you will recall that war fever that swept through Britain at the time of the Falklands War. People who one day couldn’t have located the Falkland Islands on the world map had you paid them five pounds were ready and eager a day or two later to go to war on their behalf. O what a lovely war! My Argentine friend, Nobel Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel, was barred from entering Britain in that period. It was counted an act of journalistic courage for The Times to publish an article by Adolfo while the war was being fought.

We have seen lately the appalling price paid for the collision of nationalisms in Kosovo. NATO intervened, siding with the Kosovo Albanian side. As a result Serbia was massively bombed, the Danube is still blocked by fallen bridges, the economy of the entire region is in ruins, and now Kosovo is under occupation. Ethnic cleansing continues, with NATO forces seemingly powerless to protect the Serb minority, which probably is regarded as deserving whatever violence comes its way. It is a situation in which on is hard pressed to find heroes, though one is pleased to say that the Serbian Orthodox Church has been remarkable in the depth and breadth of its response, condemning extremists on both sides, again and again raising its voice in opposition both to the policies of the Serbian government and also NATO’s actions, and assisting the war’s victims no matter what their ethnic or religious identity might be.

In Russia, by contrast, the Russian Orthodox Church repeatedly expressed its enthusiastic support for the war in Chechnya, saying not a word of protest against the destruction of Grozny or any other population center. One can assume there have been Russian conscientious objectors to the war, but one cannot presently imagine the Church offering them any support or encouragement. One understands that Russia has been fighting forces in Chechnya that seem to have no moral scruple, but neither has the Russian side been notable for its respect for the lives of those caught in the middle. One senses within the Russian Church a habit of uncritical support for the government no matter what. Not since the Bolshevik revolution and the civil war that followed has the Church raised its voice against whatever the government was doing.

But the purpose of this talk is not to criticize the failures of the leaders of national churches — bishops often make an easy target — but to focus on what we can do ourselves as persons trying to live the Beatitudes, including the Beatitude of peacemaking. How dare we to expect more of our bishops than we do of ourselves? Our main problem is what to do with the face in the mirror. How can I respond to conflict — within my family, within my parish, within my diocese, between the various jurisdictions and Churches, between segments of society, between nations? How can I live the peace of Christ?

It is not learned in a classroom or from a book or from a guru. We have the Liturgy to both teach and nourish us in this undertaking.

In the Liturgy we have no sooner heard the priest announce “Blessed is the kingdom of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” then find ourselves confronted with the first petition, “In peace let us pray to the Lord.” Peace is a precondition of worship — peace with God, peace with each other. How can we love God if we despise his image in others? We go on to ask “for the peace from above, and the salvation of our souls. . . . For the peace of the whole world, for the welfare of the holy churches of God, and for the union of all. . . . For seasonable weather, for abundance of the fruits of the earth, and for peaceful times. . . . For our deliverance from all affliction, wrath, danger and necessity,” finally asking God to “help us, save us, and have mercy on us, and keep us . . . by your grace.” Later, as the eucharistic liturgy begins, we attempt “to lay aside all worldly cares” — all hostile feelings toward any other person, all division, all fear and personal anxiety in order to approach God in a state of profound peace.

Repeatedly during the service the priest offers a blessing of peace to all who are present, and they immediately return the blessing of peace to him. The Gospel reading is introduced with the words, “Peace be unto all.” Then in the Litany of Supplication we appeal to God “that the whole day may be perfect, holy, peaceful and sinless.” We ask for “an angel of peace, a faithful guide, a guardian of our souls and bodies.” We call on God for “all things that are good and profitable for our souls, and for peace in the world.” We ask God’s blessing “that we may complete the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance.” Later we are summoned to “stand upright and stand in fear . . . that we may offer the Holy Oblation in peace.” Finally, at the end of the Liturgy, we are sent away in peace. Having been privileged to take part in the Eucharist, we are returned to the world as ambassadors of Christ’s peace among those who, in many cases, hardly know who Christ is.

The Liturgy is our school, our hospital, our place of healing, where peace — the Person of Christ — reenters our lives. Afterwards we bear Christ into the world through deeds of peace which reveal his presence.

Prayer for busy people

notes for opening talk by Jim Forest at a retreat at La Casa de Maria, Santa Barbara, CA; Nov 8-10, 1996

We all regard ourselves as busy people or we wouldn’t be taking part in a weekend retreat on prayer for busy people. I have been wondering, though, in what way, if any, would the actual content of the weekend be different if had been called Prayer for People with Lots Free Time on Their Hands. Or Prayer for Lazy People. Of course some of you — maybe most of you — wouldn’t be here. You would be too busy.

But prayer is prayer whether you have a simple or complicated life.

We cannot say prayer would be easy if we were not busy people. A life that isn’t busy probably means we’re in ill health, unemployed or retired. But for most people here and now, life is heavily loaded. Most of us probably feel like the pair of jeans in the Levis symbol being pulled by horses in opposite directions, only we are being pulled in more than two directions. We have perhaps half a dozen horses testing our rivets: work, family, friends, religious life, recreation, health … plus perhaps one or to addictions or semi-addictions, passions we can either just barely control, or can’t control.

Probably we sometimes feel a little guilty about being so busy. But even more often we feel guilty that, busy though we are, we aren’t doing more.

The truth is: busy-ness by itself is not a bad thing. We shouldn’t aspire to anything less than life full to the brim. we are meant, as human beings, to live an engaged and responsible life, a life in which we have keep making choices that stretch us intellectually and spiritually.

On the other hand, the word “busy” can suggest another definition. It can mean being frantic — too many things happening, no sense of control, no sense of life having a center or of the pieces fitting together and reinforcing each other.

Probably for many of us life is more than busy. A lot of people feel harried, exhausted, frightened, powerless, with little or no sense of meaning.

Probably this is something that rings a few bells for us. But we are, after all, people of our time and place. We live in an age that in many ways is hard on the spiritual life — or just plain hard on life.

Let’s think about what we are up against.

There is the problem of living in the “information age.” No previous generation had to absorb so much information that had to do with events that were beyond the range of sight and sound or had such access to information resources. First newspapers, then radios, then television, now the Internet and the World Wide Web. The positive aspect of these tools is that we’re more aware of inter-connection and inter-dependence; we are better able to respond to needs and build relationships. Within hours we know about important events happening in any part of the world — a scientific discovery, a hurricane or earthquake, a war, an act of heroism. The negative aspect is that we become simply information junkies. We know far more than our grandparents but understand less than they did and live less responsible lives.

You probably saw the film “Amadeus” and so recall the scene where the Emperor told Mozart there were “to many notes” in his opera, “The Marriage of Figaro.” “The human ear can only absorb so many notes.” In fact there seems no limit to the number of notes we can absorb but there is a limit to have much information we can usefully absorb and respond to. I can easily get into a numbing state of information exhaustion.

Another factor that seems more modern than ancient is the pace of life. Things change and change at unprecedented speed. Technology changes. Family patterns change (to the point that there is hardly any family life).

If we were looking for a symbol for our era perhaps the clock would be a good choice. There aren’t many of us not wearing a watch. If we start counting the time-keeping devices in the average home, it will at least equal the number of icons you might find in the home of a pious Orthodox family of the old school.

At it’s best, the clock is simply a benign and essential tool of social coordination. At its worst, it is a tool of social disconnection. How many things of real importance do we fail to do because we haven’t got time?

I often think about an experience I had during the late sixties when I was accompanying Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who was giving lectures in the United States. We were at the University of Michigan, waiting for the elevator doors to open. I noticed my brown-robed companion was looking at the electric clock above the elevator doors. Then he said, “You know, Jim, a few hundred years ago it would not have been a clock, it would have been a crucifix.”

He was right. The clock is a religious object in our world, one so powerful that it can depose another.

I also recall a story related in his journal by Daniel Wheeler, a Quaker engineer who had come from Britain to Russia at the time of Tsar Alexander I to take charge of draining swampland near St. Petersburg. A group of peasants was sent to his house with an urgent message, knocked on the door, got no response, and went inside to look for the engineer. First things first, however. Once inside, one’s first duty as an Orthodox Christian is to find the icon corner and say a few prayers, but this proved difficult. Nothing looked like an icon. The peasants knew things were different in other countries. What would a British icon look like? What impressed them most was the mantelpiece clock. They decided this was a British icon and so crossed themselves, bowed before the clock, and recited their prayers.

In a way the peasants were right. They had identified a machine which has immense power in the lives of “advanced” people.

I think too of an experiment in the sixties at a theological school in America. A number of students were asked to prepare sermons on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. These weren’t to be publicly delivered but recorded on tape for grading by a professor of homiletics. It seemed an ordinary assignment, but those responsible for the project were interested in more than what the aspiring pastors would say about the parable. Without their knowledge, the students had been divided into three groups. Some were to be called on a certain morning and told that they could come to the taping room any time in the day; others were to be told that they had to be there within the next few hours; and the rest were to be told that they had to come without delay.

The testers had arranged that, as each student arrived at the building where the sermons were being recorded, they would find someone lying on the ground by a bench near the entrance, seemingly unconscious and in need.

What were the results? Among all those preaching sermons on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, barely a third took the time to stop and do anything for the person lying on the ground. Those who did stop, it was discovered, were mainly the ones who had been told they could come any time that day. They felt they had time, and that sense of having time gave them time to be merciful. They weren’t overwhelmed with deadlines and overcrowded schedules — the constant problem of many people, not least clergy and lawyers, which perhaps is why Jesus cast a priest and Levite in those unfortunate parts in his parable.

In reality everyone has time but people walking side by side on the same street can have a very different sense of time, so that one of them is so preoccupied by worry or fear or plans for the future that he hardly notices what is immediately at hand while the next person is very attentive. Each person has freedom — to pause, to listen, to pray, to change direction. Learning to pray in an unhurried way can help us become less hurried people.

Another crucial factor effecting us is fear. Fear is reinforced by the front page of every newspaper, every TV news program, by events in daily life that reach us directly, and even by most of what we call “entertainment.” A great deal of what we see and hear seems to have no other function than to push us deeper into a state of dread. Being fearful seems to be a reasonable state to be in — fear of violent crime, fear of job loss, fear of failure, fear of illness, fear for the well-being of people we love, feat of failure in our primary relationships, fear of collapse of our pollution-burdened environment, fear of war, and finally fear of death. Fear itself becomes a kind of death sentence. There were many elderly people who died in a heat wave in Chicago one summer simply because they didn’t dare leave their apartments, for fear of muggers, in order to get to the air-conditioned shelters the city had provided. They died of fear.

It is a fact that fear impedes spiritual life. I don’t mean the fear of God. Paradoxically, the fear of God puts all other fears in their place. The fear of God is nothing like all those fears which undermine our being. It means to stand in awe of the incomprehensible, the Creator of the universe with all its wonders and mysteries, God who is both more intimate than breath and as remote as the darkness beyond the furthest star. But a person overwhelmed with anxiety tends to limit prayer to complaints and appeals. Keep in mind the advice that angels give in nearly every biblical account we have about them: “Be not afraid.” A vital prayer life opens the door for God gradually to help us move fear from the center to the edge of daily life.

Still another problem confronting is embarrassment about being seen to be a religious person. Isn’t religion for stupid people? If smart people believe in God, it had better be some blind force, something as impersonal as gravity. This is the age of the Jesus Seminar — the age of people with doctorates who have buried the Bible in footnotes. The G word itself is a problem. The G word is God.

So let’s look at the G word. How are we going to talk about prayer if we don’t? To whom are we praying? And better yet with whom are we praying? We mainly find out who (rather than what) God is by praying.

Buy often times we are impeded in finding an answer because we think we already know it. We know who God is. We learned it as children . He is, for starters, all powerful. We’ve heard it thousands of time. In fact we have quite a few words about God we’ve heard a thousand times. God is love. God is just. God is truth. We also have a few images of God that are somehow very familiar. The God of the White Beard: the Lord Chief Justice God. The image of Gentle Jesus with the children; or Teaching Jesus on the hillside preaching the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus on the Cross. Jesus in the manger. The Child Jesus in the arms of his mother.

But often we know God no better than we know the Great China Wall. Or, in case you have been there, then say no better than we know the North Pole. We know it exists though we haven’t been there. We know God as a fact of reality. And so far as it goes, thank God for that. It’s a lot better than imagining there is no God.

But prayer is what we do not simply to show respect to the idea of God or to recite to God a list of God’s various qualities. It is more than anything else our effort to experience the reality of God, so that finally we come to know the truth about God that the Evangelist John insists on again and again as being most central: God is Love. God is not a concept, a principal, an organizing force — God is love. If we don’t know that yet, prayer will more and more bring us to that love. If we know it already, prayer will taker is more deeply into that love.

Prayer is the on-going discovery of God.

Through prayer the real bridges are built. The same John who says God is love says this: “Whoever says he loves God and hates his neighbor is a liar.” John is a bit rude, isn’t he. Just how loving was he to speak in that way? But real love is truthful. Love doesn’t lie. Love doesn’t mislead. Love doesn’t take us off the track. Love is not a door into the fog.

“We who says he loves God and hates his neighbor is a liar.” Plain speech. It can’t get any plainer.

It turns out the door to God is the very same as the door to my neighbor. We can’t love someone and not pray for that person. Acts of love have their roots in prayer.

Many people pray and don’t even realize they are praying and would be embarrassed to think of their caring thoughts as prayer. But they pray from the core of being. Because we are human, we are not capable of not praying, though it may be that we can be so damaged that the faculty is practically destroyed — just as an ear can be too damaged to hear. But we are born to pray. It is even more central to the design than the faculties of hearing and seeing.

Confession in the Age of Self Esteem

Talk for the Fellowship of Saint James, All Saints Orthodox Church, Chicago, 7 November 2002

by Jim Forest

Among the hottest best-sellers of the 1970s was a book that had the catchy title, I’m Okay, You’re Okay. One of its enthusiastic readers, a young priest in Boston, gave a sermon about it which was a rave review. He wished he could give everyone he knew a copy. The book’s message was simple: To love others started with loving yourself, and loving yourself meant acquiring self-esteem.

At the end of Mass, standing at the door, the priest asked one of his older parishioners how he had liked the sermon. The man wasn’t eager to criticize but responded, “I haven’t read the book. If what you say is true, it’s better than the Bible. My only problem was that I kept thinking of Christ on the Cross saying to those who were watching him die, ‘If everybody’s okay, what in blazes am I doing up here?'”

The problem is I’m not okay and the chances are neither are you.

I’m Okay, You’re Okay was one of the pioneering books in launching the self-esteem movement which has gone on to produce a Niagara Falls of books, magazine articles and television shows that remind us that, to the extent that we lack self-esteem, we are unhappy, our marriages doomed, our careers stunted, while a society whose citizens are blessed with high levels of self-esteem will be more stable, more prosperous, and less troubled with anti-social or criminal behavior. In 1986 the California State Legislature created the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility.

Unfortunately recent studies in America and other countries suggest that self-esteem isn’t delivering on its promises.

“A preoccupation with self-esteem may be inevitable in a society where self-worth is often defined by a diploma from Harvard, a size 4 dress or a mansion in Southampton,” commented New York Times journalist Erica Goode in a report published in October 2002. She noted that one of the findings of recent self-esteem studies is that criminals often have more self-esteem than people who are not a danger to their neighbors.

One of the researchers she quoted, Dr. Jennifer Crocker, a psychologist at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, argues that the frantic pursuit of self-worth as measured through external trappings exacts a high personal and social toll.

“The pursuit of self-esteem has short-term benefits but long-term costs,” says Crocker, “ultimately diverting people from fulfilling their fundamental human needs for competence, relatedness and autonomy and leading to poor self-regulation and mental and physical health.”

Crocker found that people whose sense of self-esteem is based on good looks, favorable reception of others, academic or vocational achievement, recreational performance or similar yardsticks are actually more at risk of difficulties, relationship conflicts, aggression and an increased likelihood of drug or alcohol dependence.

In a study of 642 college freshmen, Crocker found that students whose self-regard was based heavily on academic performance reported more stress and more conflicts with their teachers than did their peers. They spent more time studying than other students but did no better in their classes. Freshmen who invested heavily in appearing attractive reported more aggressiveness, anger and hostility than others, more alcohol and drug use and more symptoms of such eating disorders. They also became more depressed as the year wore on.

In contrast, it’s striking that students who judged themselves by more internal measures such as religious faith or virtue were less likely to show anger and aggression and more restrained in their use of alcohol and drugs even though some of them had to cope with greater feelings of loneliness for being outside the main currents of social life on campus.

While it should hardly come as headline news, Dr. Crocker’s studies show that an obsession with external markers of self-worth leads to self-absorption. The correction for an exclusive focus on the self, Crocker argues, cannot be found in self-esteem classes that encourage children to believe that their personal success and happiness are of paramount importance. “Not everything is about ‘me,’ ” Dr. Crocker said. “There are sometimes bigger things that we should be concerned about.”

While I hardly dare imagine that publication of such a report in The New York Times suggests the high water mark has been reached in the self-esteem movement, still it is encouraging to see this pseudo-gospel being challenged.

A different, more intimate kind of evidence that self-esteem mania is being challenged greeted me a few days ago at the Matthew 25 House in Akron, Ohio. The founder is Joe May, a member of Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in the same city and a graduate of Holy Cross Orthodox Seminary. In what was formerly a crack house, Joe and those who work with him take in homeless men. At the moment the guests include a number of refugees from Latin America and also some US-born ex-convicts. In the house library there was no sign of the I’m Okay, You’re Okay type of book, but in adjacent bathroom, next to the mirror, was a small sign that read:

I am not a big deal.
I am not a big deal.
I am not a big deal.

Over lunch I asked what was behind this surprising message. Joe explained that during confession his priest once suggested that every morning he repeat the words “I am not a big deal” three times. Just to make sure he remembered, Joe put the text in the place where he shaves each morning.

One might also say:

I am not okay.
I am not okay.
I am not okay.

Not only am I not okay but it may well be that I will never be okay this side of heaven. In fact I am, to put it bluntly, a sinner. I am not just a sinner but I dare to say I am an expert sinner. At my age, I’ve had a lot of practice.

Forty years ago, when I was a catechumen preparing to be received into the Catholic Church, I recall what a hard struggle I had in trying to understand the word “sin.” I was bewildered with the idea that, if you knew God didn’t want you to do something, you might do it anyway. How could any sane person consciously and intentionally disobey God?

A legalistic definition of sin, which was what my catechism provided, never quite cleared the air for me. It helped later on coming to know the Hebrew and Greek words — chata’ and hamartia — normally translated as “sin” simply mean staying off the path, losing your way, going off course. “You shoot an arrow, but it misses the target,” as a rabbi once explained to me. “Maybe it hits someone’s backside, someone you didn’t even know was there. You didn’t mean it, but still it’s a sin. Or maybe you knew he was there — his backside was what you were aiming at. Now that’s a sin!”

The Jewish approach to sin tends to be concrete. The author of the Book of Proverbs lists seven things which God hates:

A proud look, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that plots wicked deeds, feet that run swiftly to evil, a false witness that declares lies, and he that sows discord among the brethren. (6:17-19)

As in so many other lists of sins, pride — that is to say, self-esteem — is given first place. “Pride goes before destruction, and a disdainful spirit before a fall” is another insight in the Book of Proverbs (16:18). In the Garden of Eden, Satan seeks to animate pride in his dialogue with Eve. Eat the forbidden fruit, he tells her, and “you will be like a god.”

Pride is regarding oneself as god-like. In one of the stories preserved from early desert monasticism, a younger brother asks an elder, “What shall I do? I am tortured by pride.” The elder responds, “You are right to be proud. Was it not you who made heaven and earth?” With those few words, the brother was cured of pride.

The craving to be ahead of others, to be more valued than others, to be more highly rewarded than others, to be able to keep others in a state of fear, the inability to admit mistakes or apologize — these are among the symptoms of pride. Pride opens the way for countless other sins: deceit, lies, theft, violence, and all those other actions that destroy community with God and with those around us.

“We’re capable of doing some rotten things,” the Minnesota storyteller Garrison Keillor remarks, “and not all of these things are the result of poor communication. Some are the result of rottenness. People do bad, horrible things. They lie and they cheat and they corrupt the government. They poison the world around us. And when they’re caught they don’t feel remorse — they just go into treatment. They had a nutritional problem or something. They explain what they did — they don’t feel bad about it. There’s no guilt. There’s just psychology.”

So eroded is our sense of sin that even in confession it often happens that people explain what they did rather than admit they did things that urgently need God’s forgiveness. “When I recently happened to confess about fifty people in a typical Orthodox parish in Pennsylvania,” the Orthodox theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote, “not one admitted to having committed any sin whatsoever!” [Fr. Alexander Schmemann, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, vol. 5, no. 3 (Fall 1961): 38-44; also posted on the web — www.schmemann.org/byhim/reflectionsonconfession.html. ]

Confession is not a rite of self-esteem but is rather the recognition that there is rubbish in my life — things done and undone — that damage my connection with God and with those whom God has given me to live among, people I know and people I don’t know, people I love and people I fear. Confession is facing up to all in my life that I find it painful to know about myself and struggle to keep hidden or camouflaged from those whom I want to love or respect me. It is a gradual return to wholeness, a return to communion, not because I have been made admirable by the church’s sacraments but at least am pointed in the right direction and am trying not to delude myself about how excellent I am when left to my own devices.

For the person who has committed a serious sin, there are two vivid signs — the hope that what he did may never become known; and a gnawing sense of guilt. At least this is the case before the conscience becomes completely numb as patterns of sin become the structure of one’s life to the extent that hell, far from being a possible next-life experience, is where I find myself in this life. (Rod Steiger in the film The Pawnbroker, in a desperate action to break free of numbness, slammed a nail-like spindle through his hand so he could finally feel something, even if it meant agonizing pain — a small crucifixion.)

It is a striking fact about our basic human architecture that we want certain actions to remain secret, not because of modesty but because there is an unarguable sense of having violated a law more basic than that in any law book — the “law written on our hearts” that St. Paul refers to in his Letter to the Romans. [2:15] It isn’t simply that we fear punishment. It is that we don’t want to be thought of by others as a person who commits such deeds. One of the main obstacles to going to confession is dismay that someone else will know what I want no one to know.

Sin is linked with guilt, which is one of the themes of Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins. The central figure of the novel is Dr. Thomas More, a descendent of St. Thomas More, though the latest More is hanging on to his faith by a frayed thread. The latest More doesn’t seem to be in danger of becoming a martyr for the faith. Dr. More is both a physician and a patient at a Louisiana mental hospital. From time to time he meets with his colleague Max, a secular psychologist eager to cure More of guilt.

Max tells More, “We found out what the hangup was and we are getting ready to condition you out of it.”
“What hangup?”
“Your guilt feelings.”
“I never did see that.”
Max explains that More’s guilt feelings have to do with adulterous sex.
“Are you speaking of my fornication with Lola…?” asks More.
“Fornication,” repeats Max. “You see?”
“See what?”
“That you are saying that lovemaking is not a natural activity, like eating and drinking.”
“No, I didn’t say it wasn’t natural.”
“But sinful and guilt-laden.”
“Not guilt-laden.”
“Then sinful?”
“Only between persons not married to each other.”
“I am trying to see it as you see it.”
“I know you are.”
“If it is sinful, why are you doing it?”
“It is a great pleasure.”
“I understand. Then, since it is ‘sinful,’ guilt feelings follow even though it is a pleasure.”
“No, they don’t follow.”
“Then what worries you, if you don’t feel guilty?”
“That’s what worries me: not feeling guilty.”
“Why does that worry you?”
“Because if I felt guilty, I could get rid of it.”
“How?”
“By the sacrament of penance.”
“I’m trying to see it as you see it.”
“I know you are.”
[For the full text, see pages 110-20 of the Farrar Straus & Giroux edition of Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins published in 1971.]

Percy’s novel reminds us that one of the oddest things about the age we live in is that we are made to feel guilty about feeling guilty. Dr. Thomas More is fighting against that. He may not yet experience guilt for his sins, but at least he knows that a sure symptom of moral death is not to feel guilty.

Dr. Thomas More — a modern man who can’t quite buy the ideology that there are no sins and there is nothing to feel guilty about — is battling to recover a sense of guilt, which in turn will provide the essential foothold for contrition, which in turn can motivate confession and repentance. Without guilt, there is no remorse; without remorse there is no possibility of becoming free of habitual sins.

Yet there are forms of guilt that are dead-end streets. If I feel guilty that I have not managed to become the ideal person I occasionally want to be, or that I imagine others want me to be, then it is guilt that has no divine reference point. It is simply me contemplating me with the eye of an irritated theater critic. Christianity is not centered on performance, laws, principles, or the achievement of flawless behavior, but on Christ himself and participation in God’s transforming love. When Christ says, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48), he is speaking not about the perfection of a student always obtaining the highest test scores or a child who manages not to step on any of the sidewalk’s cracks, but of being whole, being in a state of communion, participating in God’s love.

This is a condition of being that is suggested wordlessly by St. Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity: those three angelic figures silently inclined toward each other around a chalice on a small altar. They symbolize the Holy Trinity: the communion that exists within God, not a closed communion restricted to them selves alone but an open communion of love in which we are not only invited but intended to participate.

A blessed guilt is the pain we feel when we realize we have cut ourselves off from that divine communion that radiates all creation.

The figure of Dr. Thomas More in Walker Percy’s novel at least doesn’t suffer from the common delusion that one’s sins are private or affect only a few other people. To think our sins, however hidden, don’t affect others is like imagining that a stone thrown into the water, so long as it’s small enough, won’t generate ripples.

This is a topic Garrison Keillor addressed in one of his Lake Wobegon stories.

A friend — Keillor calls him Jim Nordberg — writes a letter in which he recounts how close he came to committing adultery. Nordberg describes himself waiting in front of his home for a colleague he works with to pick him up, a woman who seems to find him much more interesting and handsome than his wife does. They plan to drive to a professional conference in Chicago, though the conference isn’t really what attracts Nordberg to this event. He knows what lies he has told others to disguise what he is doing. Yet his conscience hasn’t stopped troubling him.

Sitting under a spruce tree, gazing up and down the street at all his neighbors’ houses, he is suddenly struck by how much the quality of life in each house depends on the integrity of life next door, even if everyone takes everyone else for granted. “This street has been good for my flesh and blood,” he says to himself. He is honest enough to realize that what he is doing could bring about the collapse of his marriage and wonders if in five or ten years his new partner might not tire of him and find someone else to take his place. It occurs to him that adultery is not much different from horse trading.

Again he contemplates his neighborhood:

As I sat on the lawn looking down the street, I saw that we all depend on each other. I saw that although I thought my sins could be secret, that they are no more secret than an earthquake. All these houses and all these families — my infidelity would somehow shake them. It will pollute the drinking water. It will make noxious gases come out of the ventilators in the elementary school. When we scream in senseless anger, blocks away a little girl we do not know spills a bowl of gravy all over a white table cloth. If I go to Chicago with this woman who is not my wife, somehow the school patrol will forget to guard the intersection and someone’s child will be injured. A sixth grade teacher will think, “What the hell,” and eliminate South America from geography. Our minister will decide, “What the hell — I’m not going to give that sermon on the poor.” Somehow my adultery will cause the man in the grocery store to say, “To hell with the Health Department. This sausage was good yesterday — it certainly can’t be any worse today.”

[Garrison Keillor, News from Lake Wobegon, “Letter from Jim,” on the first of four compact discs, a Prairie Home Companion recording, 1983, PHC 15377.]

By the end of the letter it’s clear that Nordberg decided not to go to that conference in Chicago after all — a decision that was a moment of grace not only for him, his wife, and his children, but for many others who would have been injured by his adultery.

“We depend on each other,” Keillor says again, “more than we can ever know.”

Far from being hidden, each sin is another crack in the world. As Bishop Kallistos Ware observed:

There are no entirely private sins. All sins are sins against my neighbor, as well as against God and against myself. Even my most secret thoughts are, in fact, making it more difficult for those around me to follow Christ.

[Bishop Kallistos Ware, in a talk “Approaching Christ the Physician: The True Meaning of Confession and Anointing” at an Orthodox Peace Fellowship retreat in Vézelay, France, in April 1999.]

One of the most widely used prayers, the Jesus Prayer, is only one sentence long:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, be merciful to me, a sinner!

Short as it is, many people drawn to it are put off by the last two words. Those who teach the prayer are often asked, “But must I call myself a sinner?” In fact that ending isn’t essential, but our difficulty using it reveals a lot. What makes me so reluctant to speak of myself in such plain words? Don’t I do a pretty good job of hiding rather than revealing Christ in my life? Am I not a sinner? To admit that I am provides a starting point.

There are only two possible responses to sin: to justify it, or to repent. Between these two there is no middle ground.

Justification may be verbal, but mainly it takes the form of repetition: I do again and again the same thing as a way of demonstrating to myself and others that it’s not really a sin but rather something normal or human or necessary or even good. “After the first blush of sin comes indifference,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. [“On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.”] There is an even sharper Jewish proverb: “Commit a sin twice and it will not seem a crime.”

Repentance, on the other hand, is the recognition that I cannot live any more as I have been living, because in living that way I wall myself apart from others and from God. Repentance is a change in direction. Repentance is the door of communion. It is also a sine qua non of forgiveness. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann points out, “There can be no absolution where there is no repentance.” Repentance, on the other hand, is the gateway to heaven. As St. John Chrysostom said sixteen centuries ago in Antioch:

Repentance opens the heavens, takes us to Paradise, overcomes the devil. Have you sinned? Do not despair! If you sin every day, then offer repentance every day! When there are rotten parts in old houses, we replace the parts with new ones, and we do not stop caring for the houses. In the same way, you should reason for yourself: if today you have defiled yourself with sin, immediately clean yourself with repentance.

It is impossible to imagine a vital marriage or deep friendship without confession and forgiveness. If you have done something that damages a deep, loving relationship, confession is essential to its restoration. For the sake of that bond, you confess what you’ve done, you apologize, and you promise not to do it again.

In the context of religious life, confession is what we do to safeguard and renew our relationship with God whenever it is damaged. Confession restores our communion with God.

The purpose of confession is not to have one’s sins dismissed as non-sins but to be forgiven and restored to communion. As the Evangelist John wrote: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn 1:9). The apostle James wrote in a similar vein: “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (Jas 5:16).

Confession is more than disclosure of sin. It also involves praise of God and profession of faith. Without the second and third elements, the first is pointless. To the extent we deny God, we reduce ourselves to accidental beings on a temporary planet in a random universe expanding into nowhere. To the extent we have a sense of the existence of God, we discover creation confessing God’s being and see all beauty as a confession of God. We discover that faith is not so much something we have as something we experience — and we confess that experience much as glass confesses light. The Church calls certain saints “confessors” because they confessed their faith in periods of persecution even though they did not suffer martyrdom as a result. In dark, fear-ridden times, the faith shone through martyrs and confessors, giving courage to others.

In his autobiography, Confessions, Saint Augustine drew on all three senses of the word. He confessed certain sins, chiefly those that revealed the process that had brought him to baptism and made him a disciple of Christ and member of the Church. He confessed his faith. His book as a whole is a work of praise, a confession of God’s love.

But it is the word’s first meaning — confession of sins — that is usually the most difficult. It is never easy admitting to doing something you regret and are ashamed of, an act you attempted to keep secret or denied doing or tried to blame on someone else, perhaps arguing — to yourself as much as to others — that it wasn’t actually a sin at all, or wasn’t nearly as bad as some people might claim. In the hard labor of growing up, one of the most agonizing tasks is becoming capable of saying, “I’m sorry.”

Yet we are designed for confession. Secrets in general are hard to keep, but unconfessed sins not only never go away but have a way of becoming heavier as time passes — the greater the sin, the heavier the burden. Confession is the only solution.

To understand confession in its sacramental sense, one first has to grapple with a few basic questions: Why is the Church involved in forgiving sins? Is priest-witnessed confession really needed? Why confess at all to any human being? In fact, why bother confessing to God even without a human witness? If God is really all-knowing, then he knows everything about me already. My sins are known before it even crosses my mind to confess them. Why bother telling God what God already knows?

Yes, truly God knows. My confession can never be as complete or revealing as God’s knowledge of me and all that needs repairing in my life.

A related question we need to consider has to do with our basic design as social beings. Why am I so willing to connect with others in every other area of life, yet not in this? Why is it that I look so hard for excuses, even for theological rationales, not to confess? Why do I try so hard to explain away my sins until I’ve decided either they’re not so bad or might even be seen as acts of virtue? Why is it that I find it so easy to commit sins yet am so reluctant, in the presence of another, to admit to having done so?

We are social beings. The individual as autonomous unit is a delusion. The Marlboro Man — the person without community, parents, spouse, or children — exists only on billboards. The individual is someone who has lost a sense of connection to others or attempts to exist in opposition to others — while the person exists in communion with other persons. At a conference of Orthodox Christians in France not long ago, in a discussion of the problem of individualism, a theologian confessed, “When I am in my car, I am an individual, but when I get out, I am a person again.”

We are social beings. The language we speak connects us to those around us. The food I eat was grown by others. The skills passed on to me have slowly been developed in the course of hundreds of generations. The air I breathe and the water I drink is not for my exclusive use but has been in many bodies before mine. The place I live, the tools I use, and the paper I write on were made by many hands. I am not my own doctor or dentist or banker. To the extent I disconnect myself from others, I am in danger. Alone I die, and soon. To be in communion with others is life.

Because we are social beings, confession in church does not take the place of confession to those we have sinned against. An essential element of confession is doing all I can to set right what I did wrong. If I stole something, it must be returned or paid for. If I lied to anyone, I must tell that person the truth. If I was angry without good reason, I must apologize. I must seek forgiveness not only from God but from those whom I have wronged or harmed.

We are also verbal beings. Words provide not only a way of communicating with others but even with ourselves. The fact that confession is witnessed forces me to put into words all those ways, minor and major, in which I live as if there were no God and no commandment to love. A thought that is concealed has great power over us.

Confessing sins, or even temptations, makes us better able to resist. The underlying principle is described in one of the collections of sayings of the Desert Fathers, the Gerontikon:

If impure thoughts trouble you, do not hide them, but tell them at once to your spiritual father and condemn them. The more a person conceals his thoughts, the more they multiply and gain strength. But an evil thought, when revealed, is immediately destroyed. If you hide things, they have great power over you, but if you could only speak of them before God, in the presence of another, then they will often wither away, and lose their power.

Confessing to anyone, even a stranger in an airport, renews rather than contracts my humanity, even if all I get in return for my confession is the well-worn remark, “Oh that’s not so bad. After all, you’re only human” — something like the New Yorker cartoon in which a psychologist reassures a Mafia contract killer stretched out on the couch, “Just because you do bad things doesn’t mean you’re bad.”

But if I can confess to anyone anywhere, why confess in church in the presence of a priest? It’s not a small question in societies in which the phrase “institutionalized religion” is so often used, the implicit message being that religious institutions necessarily impede or undermine religious life. Yet it’s not a term we seem inclined to adapt to other contexts. Few people would prefer we got rid of institutionalized health care or envision a world without institutionalized transportation. Whatever we do that involves more than a few people requires structures.

Confession is a Christian ritual with a communal character. Confession in the church differs from confession in your living room in the same way that getting married in church differs from simply living together. The communal aspect of the event tends to safeguard it, solidify it, and call everyone to account — those doing the ritual, and those witnessing it.

In the social structure of the Church, a huge network of local communities is held together in unity, each community helping the others and all sharing a common task while each provides a specific place to recognize and bless the main events in life from birth to burial. Confession is an essential part of that continuum. My confession is an act of reconnection with God and with all the people and creatures who depend on me and have been harmed by my failings and from whom I have distanced myself through acts of non-communion. The community is represented by the person hearing my confession, an ordained priest delegated to serve as Christ’s witness, who provides guidance and wisdom that helps each penitent overcome attitudes and habits that take us off course, who declares forgiveness and restores us to communion. In this way our repentance is brought into the community that has been damaged by our sins — a private event in a public context.

“It’s a fact,” writes Orthodox theologian Fr. Thomas Hopko, rector of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, “that we cannot see the true ugliness and hideousness of our sins until we see them in the mind and heart of the other to whom we have confessed.”

Though we often dread it, confession itself is something beautiful.

I think of Zacharia, a large, round-faced Ethiopian woman of a grandmotherly age with a faded cross tattooed on her forehead, who is often the first person in line for confession in our parish in Amsterdam. The priest receives her, as he does all penitents, by reciting words that remind her that he is only a witness to the confession about to be made and that it is Christ the physician, invisibly present, who heals and forgives. Zacharia speaks little Dutch, still less English, and not a word of Russian, Greek, or German — thus no language that any of our priests understands. It doesn’t matter. She stands before the icon of Christ, her upraised hands rising and falling rhythmically, relating in her incomprehensible mother tongue whatever is burdening her. As the priest grasps not a word of what she is saying, he does nothing more than quietly recite the Jesus Prayer until Zacharia is finished. Then she kneels down while he places the lower part of his priestly stole over her head and recites the words of absolution: “May our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, by the grace and compassion of his love for man, pardon all your faults, child Zacharia, and I, the unworthy priest __________, by his authority given me, pardon and absolve you of all your sins: in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

With these last words, he traces the sign of the cross on the head of this African woman who misses the liturgy only if ill. Then Zacharia rises, turns to face him, and receives a final blessing before the next person comes forward and the confessions continue.

Parents often bring infants and children with them when they confess. This is their gradually unfolding introduction to the sacrament. On a recent Sunday in our parish I noticed Fr. Sergei Ovsiannikov, rector of our parish, hearing a young mother’s confession while holding her baby in his arms.

I recall of an over-crowded church, St. Cosmas and Damien, in Moscow on a Sunday morning. Three priests are hearing confessions. There is a long line for each of them. The priest I happen to be standing nearest was Fr. Georgi Chistiakov, an ascetic man who looks something like a Russian Icabod Crane, only Fr. Georgi’s face seems mainly full of a joy. Penitents, aware of how many people are awaiting their turn, tend to be brief. In some cases they simply hand Fr. Georgi a piece of paper on which they have written what they have to confers. In these cases he reads the paper, tears the paper in half, and gives the fragments back to the person, as if to say, “Your sins are now in the rubbish bin.”

Blessed

Christ Pantocrator (Lord of Creation) icon

by Jim Forest

In English the first verses of the Sermon on the Mount are called “the beatitudes.” The traditional Russian phrase is “the commandments of blessedness.” The first word of each beatitude isn’t an everyday word. We have to ask ourselves before going further what blessed and beatitude mean.

Beatitude comes from the Latin word beatus, meaning happy, fortunate, blissful. In the context of the gods in Elysium, it meant supremely happy, in a state of pure bliss. In the late fourth century, beatus was the word Saint Jerome opted for in his translation of the “blessed are” verses.

“I would expect that, like so many other Latin writers, Jerome was assuming that the meaning would enlarge within its textual context,” Latin scholar Harold Isbell tells me. “However don’t overlook the possibility that because Greek is a more nuanced language, it conveys degrees of meaning which the hard-headed Roman would not suspect. Then there is ‘beatific,’ as in ‘beatific vision,’ which in the Christian tradition of the west refers specifically to the vision of God, an entirely appropriate but quite unmerited fruit of God’s creative act.”

While most English Bibles use “blessed,” some modern translations prefer “happy”: “How happy are the poor of spirit . . .”

“‘Happy’ isn’t good enough,” Rabbi Steven Schwarzschild once told me. “The biblical translator who uses such a word should change jobs, maybe write TV comedies with nice, tidy, happy endings. The problem is that, if you decide you don’t like ‘blessed,’ there isn’t a single English word which can take its place. You might use a phrase like ‘on the right track’ or ‘going in the right direction.’ Sin means being off the track, missing the target. Being ‘blessed’ means you aren’t lost — you’re on the path the Creator intends you to be on. But what you recognize as a blessing may look like an affliction to an outsider. Exchanging ‘blessed’ for ‘happy’ trivializes the biblical word. You might as well sum up the Bible with a slogan like, ‘Have a nice day .’”

“Happy” in some respects makes for an unhappy translation. Its root is hap, the Middle English word for “luck.” The word happen is a daughter word. A happenstance approach to life is to let things happen as they will, to depend on the roll of the dice. To act in a haphazard manner is to do things by chance. To be hapless is to be unlucky, but to have good luck is to be a winner. The lucky person, the happy person, has things going his way. We say certain people were born under a lucky star — they seem to get all the breaks, everything from good looks to money in the bank.

The founding fathers of the United States, in declaring independence from Britain, recognized “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as inalienable rights. For them, the pursuit of happiness meant each person had the right to seek his own good fortune and not simply be the servant of another. In our era, in which happiness is somewhere between a human right and a social duty, many people feel guilty for failing to be continually happy.

But what about the word “blessed”? This was the word chosen by the translators of the Authorized Version in the seventeenth century. Blessed meant something consecrated to or belonging to God.

All the Gospels were first written in Greek. In those passages where “blessed” is a verb, the Greek is eulogeo (“to bless”) — an action associated with praise, thanksgiving and consecration, and therefore used in liturgical contexts. For example: “And as they ate, Jesus took bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘Take, eat, this is my body’.” (Mark 14:22)

Where “blessed” is used as an adjective, it is a translation of makarios. It is makarios which is used throughout the beatitudes. We also hear it also in such texts as, “Blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear” and, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” (Mt 13:16, 16:17)

In classical Greek makar was associated with the immortal gods. Kari means fate or death, but with the negative prefix “ma” the word means being deathless, no longer subject to fate, a condition both inaccessible and longed for by mortals. It was because of their immortality that the gods, the hoi Makarioi, were the blessed ones.

“The interesting thing about ashre [the Hebrew word for blessed] is that it is never, so far as I know, applied to God,” Archimandrite Ephrem Lash points out. “On the other hand the Greek makar starts life as precisely something which the gods are, though the related adjective makarios is more commonly applied to humans.”

In Christian use, makarios came increasingly to mean sharing in the life of God, the ultimate joy, a happiness without the fault lines of happenstance running through it. There is no higher gift. We are not simply capable of an abstract awareness that God exists or of studying God as an astronomer might study the night sky all the while knowing the stars are unbridgeable distances away, that their light may be centuries old by the time it reaches our eyes and that the objects which produced the light may no longer exist. The blessing extended to us is participation in the communion of the Holy Trinity, sharing in God’s immortality, and being blessed with qualities which seem humanly impossible.

So what does “blessed” mean? It means those who are already, in this life, risen from the dead, people whose choices are not driven by fear and death. “Risen from the dead are the poor in spirit… Risen from the dead are they who mourn…”

* * *

[This is a slightly shortened extract from The Ladder of the Beatitudes by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Books, 1999; not to be published without the author’s permission]

* * *

Resurrecting Easter

by Jim Forest

Anastasis (Chora Church in Istanbul)

In his book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton describes a British explorer setting off to discover a new island in the South Seas but by miscalculation landing instead at the Pavilion at Brighton — a pagan temple, he assumes, used by the local cannibals.

The explorer who merely discovers his own back yard may look like a blockhead to the detached observer, Chesterton comments, but his mistake is really an enviable one. For “what could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again?”

Chesterton’s point was that it is time for Christians to rediscover their own religion, at the very center of which is Christ risen from the dead.

Easter is, of course, as familiar to us as the Brighton Pavilion is to the English. Pascha (from the Hebrew word for Passover) is celebrated in every church whatever its theological and liturgical tendency. In even the most holiday-resistant Quaker Meeting, at least one voice will be raised out of the silence on Easter Sunday to take note of the resurrection.

But within Christianity today, the great guardians and celebrators of Easter are the Orthodox.

It is striking that in the western Church the preeminent holiday is Christmas, though this wasn’t always the case. In fact there was no celebration of the nativity of Jesus in the early Church.

Perhaps the reason we in the west have especially taken to Christmas is because of the Age of Reason and all that led up to it and has been stamped by it. The birth of Jesus is something the most reasonable person can accept effortlessly — if Jesus lived, surely he was born. Whether we think he was God Incarnate or simply an itinerant rabbi who unintentionally created a movement we call Christianity, still we can celebrate his birthday. But nothing is more at odds with reason than believing a murdered man rose from the dead. Therefore Easter is an embarrassment to many, something best explained allegorically: “The disciples had an inner experience of Christ after he was dead and buried…”

Meanwhile, down through the centuries the Orthodox have centered their religious lives on the most ancient and central of Christian feasts. Go to any Orthodox Church for the last hour or two of Lent and you will find it so packed that, as they say in Russia, “an apple cannot fall.”

My first experience of such an Easter occurred in 1987 at a parish church on the outskirts of Kiev. I was staying with one of the parish priests and therefore arrived somewhat early — 10 pm — but already a steady stream of people was walking up the dark hillside. By the time the service began these must have been 2,000 people jammed inside and again as many around the church.

My host, Father Boris, thought it best to put me on the altar side of the iconostasis where there was space and even a few ancient chairs. I was, at first, disappointed. A true Orthodox Easter is spent standing in the crowd. But at that time I was new to the Orthodox tradition of standing prayer and perhaps wouldn’t have been able to take a full five hours on my feet at a time when normally I would be asleep.

Through the central doors of the iconostasis, I had a view of a table heaped with Easter bread — kulich — and beyond it a sea of faces illumined by candle light.

Among those who stood out from my vantage point was a group of teen-agers who seemed never to have been in church before. Unlike those around them, they didn’t engage in the body language of Orthodox prayer: didn’t cross themselves, didn’t bow. The girls were without scarves. The tallest, a young woman, had short blond hair cut in punkish style and blue-shadowed eyes. What alert eyes! — round as saucers, watching everything with wonder. Now and then she pointed out to the boy next to her something that had caught her attention. There was great excitement in her face. I wondered if someday I might return and discover her wearing a scarf and crossing herself.

Four priests and a deacon were gathered around the altar. The dean of the church, Father Nicholas, was a handsome man with a moustache and goatee. Across from him was an older priest, an especially joyous character, despite a stroke that gave him little use of his left arm and leg. With his right hand, the old man directed the clerics in their singing, offering many gestures of encouragement and appreciation.

At times it seemed like anarchy at the altar, with whispers and sign language about what to do next. One of the priests would start singing something and another would cut him off with an urgent whisper, “Not yet, not yet!” Then someone else would take the lead. The scene at times was wild and disordered but always amiable.

Lent ran its final hour in a somber tone yet charged with expectancy. We were like people standing outside the tomb containing Christ’s dead body, at the same time awaiting a flash of lightning that would shatter death itself.

Easter itself began with a procession, three slow turns around the church. Those already outside parted to make way for the procession. In every hand was a candle. Then came a sung reading of the resurrection story from the Gospel. After incensing the icon of Christ standing on the broken gates of hell while raising Adam and Eve from their tombs, the dean sang out the announcement, “Christos voskresye!” Christ is risen! To this everyone responded in one voice, “Veyeestino voskresye!” Truly he is risen! The procession made its way back into the church, everyone singing again and again the Easter hymn:

“Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death
by death, and upon those in the tomb bestowing life.”

During the procession there was an explosion of bell-ringing. Russian bells sing their own Easter hymn in a particular pattern of sound that rejoices in the victory of life over death.

It is impossible to put on paper how this mixture of singing and bell-ringing sounds in the dead of night amidst many hundreds of candles and clouds of incense. The sound was like a deep shudder in the earth.

Back inside the church there was hardly air to breathe. The priests arranged themselves in front of the iconostasis and sang the opening five verses of the Gospel According to St. John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God …. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” This was done first in Church Slavonic, then in Ukrainian, Russian, Greek, Latin, English, French and German. “The more languages we use in singing the Easter Gospel,” a friend from Moscow explained, “the better we like it. I was in a church once where they sang the Gospel text in twelve languages. It made the whole world present.”

Later came the traditional reading of the Easter sermon of St. John Chrysostom: “Enter then, all of you into the joy of our Lord. First and last, receive alike your reward. Rich and poor, dance together. You who have fasted and you who have not fasted, rejoice today. The table is fully laden: let all enjoy it…[and] let none go away hungry. Let none lament his poverty; for the universal Kingdom is revealed. Let none bewail his transgressions; for the light of forgiveness has risen from the tomb. Let none fear death; for the death of the Savior has set us free….”

After the five-hour service — vespers, Easter proclamation, morning prayer, Eucharist — the crowd outside parted to form a pathway about two yards wide which was lined with baskets full of food, each basket feebly lit by a candle struggling against the wind. A priest lavishly dowsed every basket with water blessed at the Easter service, at the same time showering everything and everyone. So many people were there to have their baskets blessed that the circles kept reforming. It took more than an hour for the four priests, working in turns, to bless every basket.

Even then the night was far from over. While the congregation walked back to Easter morning meals in their own apartments, the staff went into the parish house, an old one-storey wooden building that clung precariously to the edge of the hill, where a heavily laden table awaited us: brightly painted Easter eggs, high loaves of kulich, a pyramid-like mound of pascha (in this case referring to a treat made from butter, icing sugar, cream cheese and a bit of congnac), home-made sausage, sliced meat, wine and vodka. We remained together until after dawn.

That night in Kiev in 1987 was far from my first Easter, and yet (here I am like Chesterton’s explorer) it was. My exhaustion, my entrapment in the ordinary, my preoccupations, ambitions and worries — all had vanished into joy.

If the main gift I have received again and again from the Orthodox Church has been nothing less than Easter, this is something that has become inseparable from the austere richness of Great Lent. I have come to understand that Orthodoxy guards the treasure of the resurrection by preserving the disciplines of spiritual life that make us more capable of experiencing Easter.

In Orthodoxy, Lent doesn’t begin abruptly but takes root gradually over several weeks. The Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee is followed by the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, both of which point to the season of repentance the Church will soon enter upon. Next comes “Meat-fare Sunday” after which abstention from meat begins. And then “Cheese-fare Sunday,” after which the fast excludes dairy products and eggs. This day marks the final border crossing into Great Lent.

In my own mind, the real entry into Lent is Cheese-fare Sunday, also known as Forgiveness Sunday. On this day, directly after the Liturgy or later in the day at vespers time, each person is called upon to seek forgiveness from everyone else in the parish, and to offer forgiveness to them. “Let us call brothers even those who hate us,” declares one of the Easter verses sung in Orthodox churches, “and forgive all by the Resurrection.”

This annual face-to-face asking for forgiveness is a ritual as yet hardly known outside of Orthodoxy, though perhaps in time it will become part of ecumenical life. It is certainly not a ritual anyone could dismiss as empty. In my parish this year, before the whole congregation, one of our priests begged his wife to forgive him for his neglect and frequent times away. Each of us has something quite burdensome to confess to at least one other person in the church. There are many tears and much embracing.

Orthodox see mutual forgiveness as an essential precondition to our individual and corporal passage through Lent toward Easter. Fast by all means, for we live our spiritual life in body as well as soul, but even more important, repent and forgive.

One of the most striking characteristics of Orthodox spiritual life is the way in which the spiritual and physical are always connected — just as the spiritual life is seen as connecting us to those around us and requiring our physical as well as spiritual response to their urgent needs. (As I heard it put in an Easter sermon in Kiev that year of my first Russian Easter: “Bread for myself is a material question. Bread for my neighbor is a spiritual question.”)

Christ was raised from the dead in body and soul. Easter underlines the oneness of body and soul. This is why Orthodox pray not only in soul but in body, inner activity finding its outer “clothing” in various gestures, from making the sign of the cross to occasionally prostrating oneself on the floor. We bow toward the Gospel as it is carried through the church, for Christ is present in his Word. We kiss the icons and the cross: these are signs of connection to the communion of saints and the instruments of salvation. We light candles: the flame of prayer struck within us becomes one with the main source of light in the church. Again and again, inner action is reinforced by outer action, and vice versa. There is something of Easter in all these linkages.

Similarly there are also specific physical actions associated with each liturgical season. In a season especially set aside for repentance and forgiveness, the meatless Lenten diet is a proclamation of peace with the animal kingdom. At least for the 50 days or so leading up to Easter, we eat the fare of Adam and Eve.

If one is used to eating meat, it is something of a jolt to ban it from one’s table. We live in a secular age that tends to regard religious belief as more or less odd, and religious ritual as even worse, while fasting (unless justified for reasons of health) is a word that seems to belong to another century. But once the step is made, and not only meat but wine and beer and other treats disappear from the table, the freshness of mind that one experiences reveals unarguably the wisdom contained in liturgical tradition and its associated disciplines. Dietary restrictions entered upon for penitential reasons prove not to be hairshirts after all. Thus one begins not only to look forward to Easter but to Great Lent as well.

And the reason is simple: What makes us ready for the resurrection is itself illuminated by the resurrection.

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ELEVENTH HOUR JOY

the Easter sermon by St. John Chrysostom traditionally read during the all-night Easter service in Orthodox churches

If any be a devout lover of God, let him partake with gladness from this fair and radiant feast. If any be a faithful servant, let him enter rejoicing into the joy of his Lord. If any have wearied himself with fasting, let him now enjoy his reward. If any have labored from the first hour, let him receive today his rightful due. If any have come after the third, let him celebrate the feast with thankfulness. If any have arrived after the sixth, let him not be in doubt, for he will suffer no loss. If any have delayed until the ninth, let him not hesitate but draw near. If any have arrived only at the eleventh, let him not be afraid because he comes so late. For the Master is generous and accepts the last even as the first. He gives rest to him who comes at the eleventh hour in the same way as to him who has labored from the first. He accepts the deed, and commends the intention.

Enter then, all of you into the joy of our Lord. First and last, receive alike your reward. Rich and poor, dance together. You who have fasted and you who have not fasted, rejoice today. The table is fully laden: let all enjoy it. The calf is fatted: let none go away hungry. Let none lament his poverty; for the universal Kingdom is revealed. Let none bewail his transgressions; for the light of forgiveness has risen from the tomb. Let none fear death; for the death of the Savior has set us free.

He has destroyed death by undergoing death. He has despoiled hell by descending into hell. Hell was filled with bitterness when it met thee face to face below: filled with bitterness, for it was brought to nothing; filled with bitterness, for it was mocked; filled with bitterness, for it was overthrown; filled with bitterness, for it was put in chains. It received a body, and encountered God. It received earth, and confronted heaven. O death where is thy sting?

O hell, where is thy victory? Christ is risen, and thou art cast down. Christ is risen and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns in freedom. Christ is risen, and there is none left dead in the tomb. For Christ, being raised from the dead, has become the first-fruits of those that slept. To him be glory and dominion to the ages of ages.

Bright Week in Kiev: Seeing Repentance

scene from the film “Repentance”

This is an extract from Pilgrim to the Russian Church, originally published in 1988 by Crossroads Books, New York

Kiev, 22 April 1987: In the afternoon Fr. Boris, Lydia, Volodya and I went to see Pokayaniye (“Repentance”). Last February, in Moscow, I tried to get a ticket to see the film. It was showing in seventeen cinemas around the city but tickets were completely sold out. It was easier to see the Bolshoi Ballet. Tickets were unavailable in Leningrad as well — instead Fr. Boris and I went to the opera. But here Fr. Boris finally succeeded in getting tickets. Even then there were only a few vacant seats in the theater despite the early hour and the fact that it was a weekday. “It’s said that Gorbachev ordered enough copies of the film to be made so that everyone will see it,” Volodya told me. If the rumor is true, Gorbachev must be pleased.

The film, directed by Tengiz Abuladze, was made in 1984 in Georgia, the Soviet Republic where Stalin was born. It ended up on ice with all but a few prints destroyed. That even one print survived is credited mainly to Eduard Shevardnadze, who backed Abuladze in making the movie. At the time Shevardnadze was First Secretary of the Communist Party in Georgia. Now he is Foreign Minister of the USSR and one of those most identified with Gorbachev. Following Gorbachev’s election and the subsequent overthrow of the Brezhnev-era old guard in the film-makers’ union, Goskino, the film was finally released.

Ostensibly about the mayor of a Georgian city, Repentance is really about Stalin. The dictator is a parable-like figure named Varlam who not only resembles Stalin but Hitler, Mussolini and Napoleon. Varlam is one of those people who, even after death, have a continuing awful presence among the living, becoming objects of veneration to those who are dazzled by cruelty and raw power. Their death is a kind of nap. In one scene we see Varlam/Stalin waking up in a lidless coffin, grinning dangerously at the camera, then rolling over to make himself more comfortable.

After Varlam’s burial his body, black boots and all, keeps re-appearing, propped up in the garden of the family villa. Death seems unable to contain this man responsible for the deaths of millions. The family, who thought they had seen the last of the Great Man, become increasingly distressed and call in the police to put an end to all these undesirable resurrections. A night watch in the cemetery reveals that there is nothing magical about Varlam’s post-mortem mobility. The daughter of two of his victims has been digging up the corpse and is using it to haunt Varlam’s slick, modern, high-living descendants.

The story centers on the parents of the grave-digger. We meet them earlier in their lives, when their daughter was eight or nine. They are a young couple, both artists. In our first glimpse of the couple their faces are lined with apprehension as they watch Varlam give a speech from a balcony facing their home. On a gallows in the background a vulture sits complacently on the cross beam. In the sky, Varlam’s portrait is suspended from a balloon. (In fact there were similar pictures of Stalin decorating the Soviet sky fifty years ago.)

The man has a Christ-like face, the woman looks like Mary and wears a cross. In a prophetic dream suffered by the mother she sees herself and her husband buried in the earth. Only their faces are uncovered, their eyes open and alive.

The couple are trying to save a local church that has been turned into a scientific laboratory — Fr. Boris guessed it was meant to represent the huge Savior Cathedral that once stood across the Moscow River from the Kremlin, now the site of an outdoor swimming pool. The camera slowly explores the peeling frescoes of biblical scenes before it discovers the shining apparatus of high technology that has taken the place of worshippers.

Varlam, flowers in hand, visits the artists’ home and seeks to win their support with an excess of charisma. In fact Stalin occasionally sent flowers to those whom he had added to his death list. Varlam pretends sympathy with their desire to save old buildings, but after his departure, the church is burned and the two artists — first the husband, then the wife — are swallowed up in the gulag. We see the man again when he is dying under torture. As the camera closes in on his suffering face, one realizes that it is also the face of Christ dying on the cross.

There is a heart-rending scene of his wife, warned that she is about to be arrested, trying to escape with her daughter in the dead of night, but grabbed as she steps out the door of their dingy flat.

The couple’s daughter survives. By the time of Varlam’s death, she is devoted to baking cakes modeled as churches, each steeple crowned with a golden baptismal cross such as her mother wore. One of Varlam’s admirers in the film is a curiously stunted man wearing an old soldiers’ uniform who, paying more attention to the newspaper than what he is doing, takes the steeple from one of her edible churches and, cross and all, stuffs it in his mouth. His eyes are held by the headline announcing Varlam’s death.

The film’s images have the brilliant clarity of dreams. In one scene people are waiting in line at a prison gate to deliver letters to relatives. If a letter is accepted, relief floods the face of the person who brought it. But for many the voice behind the gate refuses the letter, saying only, “Left, no forwarding address.” Those who wait know the awful meaning of the words. This is no film-maker’s visualization of nightmares but simply how it was.

In another scene several women are in a muddy timber yard searching the ends of the logs. One fortunate woman finds her husband’s name and, weeping, caresses the rough wood as if it were her husband’s face. Over supper I asked Fr. Boris if this was a dream scene. “It was no dream,” Fr. Boris said. “It was common for people to search among logs for names. Prisoners working in the forests carved their names and dates as a sign that, at least until the date on the log, they were still alive. What you saw happened many times.”

Repentance spans three generations. So little of the terrible truth has reached the third generation that Varlam’s privileged grandson has no idea of the horrors that are buried in the family past. His discovery of them leads him to accuse his father, a powerful man living elegantly in his mansion. “You don’t understand,” the father angrily tells the son, “you don’t know how it was! We did our best!” The boy barricades himself in his room and shoots himself.

His death drives the father to repentance. He goes into the cellar of the house where paintings that had belonged to the murdered young artists are stored. The room is now a kind of chapel illumined by vigil candles. In this setting the paintings resemble icons. Varlam’s son gazes at himself in a cracked mirror and watches his own image dissolve into the face of Varlam leering at him, laughing satanically. The image fades. In the darkness near the mirror a half-visible figure silently raises a fish to his shadowed face — the face of Christ — and eats it. In the darkness, in repentance, there is eucharist and forgiveness.

More than anything else, this is a religious film. In the final scene we see an old lady asking the woman who makes church-like cakes, “Does this street go to the church?” “No, it is Varlam Street — a street named after Varlam can’t lead to a church.” “What good,” asks the old lady, “is a street that doesn’t lead you to a church?” The film ends as we watch this babushka hobbling down the barren street.

Repentance is destined to be seen in many countries but only in the Soviet Union can one see not only the film but the stunned faces of the audience as it files silently out of the theater.

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