Iona: If you have a good map of Scotland you will find it among the Inner Hebrides off the southwest tip of Mull, a comma of land separated by a strait the width of an exclamation point.
If you enjoy discovering the mysteries old tales held in the silence of stone, then you may already know of Iona because, tiny though it is, its bulk is formed of some of the oldest exposed rock on earth. The imposing volcanic heights of Mull belong to a land just barely out of diapers: a mere 70 million years old. Iona is 35 times older: just under three billion years, give or take the tick of a grandfather clock.
If you like wandering in the mysteries and tales of history, then Iona may already have a niche in your memory as one of the principal centers of Celtic Christianity.
Or if you take a special joy in the work of artists in earlier times, then you will almost certainly know Iona as the likely birthplace of the greatest masterpiece of Celtic art, the illuminated Gospel text known as the Book of Kells.
Visitors are still drawn to this remote outpost on the western edge of the Scottish highlands; but perhaps the most important reason they come is not academic, geologic, or aesthetic, but religious. Iona has again become a center of deep and contagious Christian faith. This faith brought to birth the Iona Community, which has actively opposed racism, injustice, and war. Iona’s seeming distance from places of tangible crisis exists only on maps.
None of the island’s buildings, least of all those of the old abbey which serves as the Iona Community’s spiritual home, appear at first glance to have heard that there has been a 20th century at large in the world. The weathered wooden buildings of the small village gathered near the pier look as timeless as seagulls. At a monkish distance to the north, amid wide fields grazed by the island’s sheep, the monastery looks as it must have looked when the Benedictines finished the premises early in the 13th century: The plain square tower of St. Mary’s Cathedral and the austere rectangular masses of the adjoining buildings are all of enduring gray stone with deep-cut windows under steep slated roofs.
So solid does the monastery appear that it is hard to picture the ruined state it was in four centuries after the Scottish Parliament outlawed the monastic life in 1561. Had that Act of Suppression come two years later, it would have been a full thousand years since the first monks landed on Iona and began spreading the Christian faith in Scotland and beyonf.
It was in May, 563, that Columba and twelve fellow monks arrived from the north of Ireland. Columba was to Christianity in Scotland what Patrick had been two generations earlier to the Irish. Both were men of absolute faith in the power of Gad and of the revelation of God in Christ. Each taught, healed, did wonders, and spread his faith among primitive, battling peoples.
Out of such leadership a special kind of religious way, appropriate to the region, took root — Celtic Christianity. Missionaries went out from Iona to share the faith, to found schools and communities, and to win in the process such a reputation for holiness that, even in the sixth century, pilgrims came to the island base from as far away as Rome.
Columba’s monastic rule, eventually used by many similar communities, required that the monks own nothing but bare necessities, live in a place with but one door, center conversation on God and God’s Testament, refuse idle words and the spreading of rumor and evil reports, and submit to every rule that governs devotion. They were to prepare always for death and suffering, offer forgiveness from the heart to everyone, pray constantly for anyone who has been a trouble, put almsgiving before all other duties, not eat unless hungry or sleep unless tired, pray until tears came and labor to the point of tears as well, or if tears “are not free, until thy perspiration come often.”
It was in 1935, during the Great Depression, that latter-day Columba, George MacLeod, a minister of the Church of Scotland working in Glasgow, began to lay the foundation of what became the Iona Community. Glasgow is Scotland’s main industrial city and one of the world’s ugliest urban mazes. Its famous shipyards on the Clyde were largely shut in those years, and life was grueling for the poor and unemployed.
George MacLeod, turning 40, had a parish in Govan, one of the hardest hit districts in Glasgow. While many clergy began enjoying a degree of public respect at that age, MacLeod was moving in the opposite direction. How could he look at what thousands of families were suffering, how could he encourage them in hope and faith, without being furious with a social order that could cause such waste of life and ability? At the same time, how could the church dare read the Bible aloud without speaking out against the injustice so many were suffering?
The untroubled conscience of the church troubled him as much as the poverty and unemployment. It became clear to him that it was time for a new Christian reformation and that such a reformation must include a commitment to building a new, more just social order. “No one,” he said, “can suspend his Christianity in the evil hour, and then use it again when the sun shines.”
Like Gandhi, MacLeod was far less interested in protest — “mere protest,” he would say — than in a constructive program. A nearby ruined mill inspired an idea. Could not unemployed people bring their skills together, rebuild it, and make it useful again? The idea could hardly have been simpler: Let the jobless employ themselves, and let their ministers join in the labor and earn some callouses. It worked beautifully in practice as well as theory. The mill was rebuilt and became a community center.
The experience enlarged MacLeod’s vision. The Iona ruins of the first home of Christianity in Scotland were not far away. Could these not be rebuilt? And in the process, the conscience of the church, a still worse ruin, be rebuilt as well?
In 563 AD Columba arrived on Iona with his 12; in 1938 MacLeod arrived with another band of twelve, half craftsmen without jobs, half students for the ministry. They built a wooden shed to live in by the fallen monastery and began the work of rebuilding.
MacLeod recounts that the group needed money with which to get its project started: “I wrote the richest man I knew. He replied that I should go see a psychiatrist at once. Then I asked — me a pacifist, mind you — Sir James Lithgos, a builder of warships at his Govan shipyard. He was interested, but asked if I would give up my pacifism if he gave me the 5,000 pounds. I said, ‘Not on your life.’ ‘Then,’ he said, ‘I will give you your 5,000 pounds.’ ”
Materials were hard to obtain: “The war was on and the government commandeered all timber. But a ship coming from Canada struck a storm and jettisoned its cargo of lumber in the North Bea. The timber floated 80 miles, finally landed on Mull, opposite Iona — and all the right length! It roofs the Iona library today.”
As the group worked, they began to reinvent a contemporary monastic life, a mixture of prayer, hard labor, and study. Not everyone in the vicinity took kindly to the project. There was a kind of Berlin Wall between Protestant and Catholic, and the rebuilding of an old Catholic abbey by Protestants struck other Protestants as a sign of creeping papism. The long shed in which the community was housed was known locally for years as “the Rome Express.”
The work began each summer and carried through to the fall. Youth camps were started. An Iona house was founded in Glasgow to serve as a center for response to Glasgow’s problems of housing and unemployment and to bring people together for meetings as well as meals and celebrations.
It was clear from the start that the work should lead to community. The joining of work and prayer during the summer months on Iona was again and again a turning point in life for those who came. A commitment to a new church and to social justice took shape with the buildings’ restoration.
Those who had been brought together began to think in terms of a lifelong covenant. Although the idea made anti-Catholics nervous — it was one thing to rebuild a monastery, another to rebuild the way of life it had housed — gradually a rule of life for the Iona Community took form.
The rule was simple, adapted for a kind of community that would be even more widely scattered across the world than the Iona missionaries of a thousand years before. The obligations were in four areas.
* Common life: Members would begin with several months of experience at the abbey and seek to return for at least a week together each year.
* Common discipline: Members would read the Bible and pray for at least a half hour each day at set times each morning and evening. A discipline in the use of time for the rest of the day was also required, though the form of it was left for the individual or family to work out.
A discipline in the use of money was required. MacLeod had hoped all members of the community, wherever they lived, would be provided with their keep plus 60 pounds a year for pocket money, putting whatever else they earned in the care of the community. But as the community involved a growing number of families and widely different understandings of personal and family needs, the original idea was abandoned. In its place a plan has developed through which members are committed to give away at least 10 per cent of their income. That part which comes to the Iona Community is used for Third World development, peace work, and other community concerns. It is, as one community member puts it, a “very untidy discipline,” but with the vital purpose of challenging the members to live more simply and to give the needs of others an ever greater priority.
“The word ‘love’ has been only a form of mouthwash for many Christians,” says MacLeod. “We need to learn to put it into practice. This includes what we do with our money.”
* Participation in meetings: There are frequent regional meetings wherever there are a few members in reach of each other, in addition to annual meetings at Iona itself. The meetings provide, among other things, a context for working out the times of crisis within the Iona Community. One of these crises arose over an aspect of George MacLeod’s original vision: He had intended the community to be entirely of men, as it had been in Columba’s day. The community became convinced that its membership should include women, and when that view prevailed, the Iona Community was fundamentally altered.
* Commitment to peace: MacLeod brought to Iona his pacifism, a rare conviction to find in Scotland even today, but far rarer 40 years ago. It was his hope that those who became members of the Iona Community would come to share his refusal of violence and help the church find its way back to its pre-Constantine pacifism.
As World War II was breaking at the time the community was founded, the issue became more than academic debate. Some in the community became conscientious objectors, others fought in the war. But the community held together, and the discussion continued when the war ended, finally leading to a community commitment to peace which drew members to work for reconciliation between races and nations, to support the United Nations, to work to close the gap between the rich and the poor, and to promote international contact across lines of conflict.
* Healing: Although healing isn’t part of the rule, it is a major part of the community’s life. There is a healing service in the abbey church one evening each week. Often visitors, who are troubled by what seems at first glance to be so odd an event, sit and watch as others go forward, gathering near the altar of green-veined Iona marble while the warden of the community and all present join in the laying on of hands for those who seek the healing prayers of the others.
Healing is only another word for peacemaking, and one that is less abstract. Healing is restoring the harmony in things, whether in one’s body or in a family, a community, a nation, or the world.
Decades have past since the first group arrived at Iona and camped out in the abbey’s ruins. The community’s members are on every continent, and a few live year-round at the abbey. There are several hundred associate members as well — those who cannot stay long periods at the abbey or take part in regular meetings but who have committed themselves to the other aspects of the community’s rule.
Increasingly Iona has taken on an ecumenical character. What began entirely within the Church of Scotland now includes those of other Christian traditions, both Protestant and Catholic.
Thousands each year visit the abbey. A great many stay for a week or more, taking part in the various conferences and work weeks held between March and October. Dozens come as volunteers for a month or a summer or longer.
The youth camp has continued to flourish on the hillside above a coffee and cake shop which Iona has established. One group in the camp last summer was the first youth club in Glasgow to have both Protestant and Catholic together. It is this kind of reconciliation which, however slowly, has begun to happen in Scotland because of Iona.
Iona has its offshoots, including Kirkridge, in Bangor, Pennsylvania. Its founder, John Oliver Nelson, once spent a summer laying slate tiles on the roof of the Iona abbey refectory. “This place was the start of my life,” he says of Iona. “This is home.”
It is home for many. Still, Iona Community remains small, as big in the eye of the world as is the island itself on a world map. Small as a mustard seed, you might say. Small but potent and marvelous.
St. Columba must be glad with the sight of it, but little surprised. He had a gift for seeing the future and knew one day there would be nothing left of his foundation, but he saw beyond that time to its restoration. Poet as well as prophet, he left his prophecy as poem:
Iona of my heart. Iona of my love, Instead of monk’s voices, Shall be lowing of cattle, But ere the world comes to an end Iona shall be as it was.
Rosemary Lynch, a Franciscan nun beloved by many, died the January 9, 2011 at a hospice in Las Vegas, Nevada, four days after having being hit by a car that was backing out of a driveway. She was 93.
After retiring from work at the Franciscan headquarters in Rome, Rosemary accepted an assignment in Las Vegas working with refugees and the poor. Once there, she quickly became deeply engaged in organizing resistance to nuclear weapons and war, as a result of which she became a co-founder of Nevada Desert Experience. Over the years, she was often arrested at the Nevada nuclear test site for participation in nonviolent acts of civil disobedience.
I came to know her in 1985 when we co-taught a course at the Ecumenical Institute at Tantur, on the road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
by Jim Forest
When I think of people I have known who have shown extraordinary love and courage as well as a deep commitment to conversion, one of the people who springs to mind is Sister Rosemary Lynch, a Franciscan sister since she was seventeen. Until her death in January 2011, age 93, she and a fellow Franciscan, Sister Klaryta Antoszewska, lived in Las Vegas. Their Las Vegas wasn’t the familiar gambler’s mecca of bright lights and roulette wheels but a neighborhood without street lights where people live who clean hotel rooms, work in laundries, clear tables and wash dishes.
Those who met Rosemary were invariably impressed with her radiant smile and the interest she took in others, no matter how minor their position in life. She tended to call people “Honey.” Though preoccupied with some of the most troubling problems in the world, I have rarely met anyone over the age of ten who was so free of anxiety, a trait she credits to her parents. She recalls that, as a child, she misunderstood the words of a certain hymn. “The hymn started off, ‘O Lord, I am not worthy,’ but for years I thought the words were, ‘O Lord, I am not worried!’ And actually, in our home, that was our attitude toward the Lord and toward life. We weren’t worried — not about the Lord or anything else.”
Saint Francis inspired her from an early age. “He was almost a member of my family. In our home we had an understanding of that marvelous universality, that cosmic love, that integrity of creation that are at the heart of Saint Francis. While we didn’t fully understand how radical Francis was and what a reformation he started, in our home Francis hadn’t landed in the bird bath.”
In 1985, when Rosemary and I were teaching a course entitled “Making Peace, Serving Peace” at the Ecumenical Institute near Jerusalem, I asked her if seventeen hadn’t been too young an age to commit herself to a religious community.
“Not at all,” she assured me. “In those days we started just about everything younger. We took responsibility in our teens. It’s a pity that nowadays we seem to be developing a culture of permanent immaturity, permanent dependency. You find university students who haven’t the remotest idea what they want to do with their life. But when I was young, people had a goal that they were going toward. And this is what you still find among the refugee children.”
Rosemary said the most important educational experience in her life began in 1960 when she was elected to serve at her congregation’s headquarters in Rome, her home for sixteen years. “That’s where I lived, but actually I was traveling a lot, months at a time. I would be visiting the different places where our sisters were working — Europe, North America, Mexico, Africa, and Southeast Asia. I began to look at the world with different eyes. One of the life-changing events was my first encounter with starvation. I happened to be in Tanzania during a drought. For the first time I was surrounded by starving children. It was a conversion experience — the realization that things were terribly out of place in the world. For months afterward I could hardly enter a store in the consumer society of Rome and see all those nonessentials and all the people buying them. I wanted to scream out loud, ‘Doesn’t anyone know that I saw a child die of hunger — and you are buying false eyelashes!'”
Rosemary and Klaryta’s worked in Las Vegas centers on refugees, immigrant families, prisoners, and peace.
“We try to do these things on two levels, to combine immediate, necessary work in the community and work to change structures that cause suffering. Working with refugees, we have tried to change the notion of the State Welfare Board, which was denying refugees financial help. Visiting prisoners, we have worked for a pre-trial release program. Working for peace, we not only try to get rid of nuclear weapons but also to help victims of Nevada’s many nuclear tests. We don’t want just to apply band-aids, but neither do we want to lose contact with people by becoming too abstract.”
In the years when nuclear weapons were still being tested in mine shafts beneath the desert, Rosemary spent hundreds of hours standing in prayer on a highway adjacent to the nuclear test site and many more hours meeting with test-site employees. She helped initiate Desert Witness, which each Lent brought thousands of people to fast and pray at the nuclear test site until the explosions finally stopped. Time and again she crossed the property line and was arrested.
Despite her many arrests, Sister Rosemary won the respect of people who were among the most law-abiding citizens. In 1985 the governor of Nevada and the mayor of Las Vegas honored her with an officially proclaimed Rosemary Lynch Day. (However, not all the responses to Rosemary’s efforts were so appreciative. In February 1988, following another arrest at the nuclear test site, she lost her job with a social service agency. “I have observed that the more deeply a person enters into this endeavor of peace-serving,” she wrote the agency’s director, “the more the cost of discipleship goes up. For me to abandon my hours of prayer and fasting in the desert would be a betrayal of my own conscience.”)
Rosemary sees her peace activities as a continuation of the renewal of Christianity associated with Saint Francis. “Not only were the brothers and sisters forbidden to have weapons or to use them for any reason,” she often explained, “but so were the lay people who followed the rule he wrote for those living a family life.”
In 1989 she and several co-workers decided to focus more intensively on nonviolence as a means of personal and social transformation, founding a group that took its name from a phrase often used by Saint Francis: Pace e Bene (peace and goodness). “Even if nuclear weapons were abolished,” Rosemary pointed out, “unless we defuse the bombs in our own hearts, the human family is quite capable of finding other even worse means of destroying life.”
The refugees Klaryta and Rosemary received in the days when the United States was geared for war with the Soviet Union was a young Russian couple and their son. They had been given permission to leave because they had Jewish family backgrounds, though they were not active in synagogue or church.
“The man was a sculptor and graphics artist,” Rosemary recalled, “the woman a restorer of icons and an illustrator of children’s books — skills not in demand in Las Vegas! In the man’s case it seemed Sister Klaryta was lucky — she found him a job in a graphics studio, but all we could get for the woman was a job as a ‘bus person,’ clearing tables in a casino restaurant. It was a humiliating job for a sensitive woman and skilled artist. She accepted it, but it was very hard.
“We had found them a small apartment, but they often knocked on our door. We would make a pot of good strong tea and talk for hours. For both husband and wife it soon became obvious that they couldn’t continue with their jobs. It turned out that this ‘art studio’ wanted the husband to make posters for pornographic movies. But for him art is a sacred thing. This violated the nature of his being. We told him he had to stop.
“In his wife’s case, the crisis was caused by a state law requiring that bread left on the table must be thrown out, even if no one has touched it. She came home one night completely broken, in tears, saying, ‘They make me throw away the body of Christ!’
“That night I finally understood something basic in Slavic culture. They understand that all bread is holy, all bread is linked to the body of Jesus, not only bread consecrated on the altar. I’m sure our ancestors knew this too, but in the degenerate society that we now have, we no longer see this. We can easily throw bread into the garbage. But our friend could no longer violate her heart and her spirit by throwing away bread. So we told her, ‘You have to stop immediately.’ And she did. Finally Klaryta arranged for the family to go to New York, where there is a large Russian community and a much better chance to work as artists and icon restorers. It has never been very happy for them, but at least it’s better than it was.”
Rosemary regarded her activities not as making peace but as being in “the service of peace.” As she said, “None of us can make peace. Peace is God’s gift. But we can serve God’s peace.”
Nuclear weapons and warfare were not at all in her thoughts when she moved to Las Vegas. “But in Nevada, where so many nuclear weapons have exploded, you can’t not think about what a nuclear war would mean. Thank God so far there has been no World War III, but we have many victims of the preparations for World War III. They are all around us. Some are the people working at the testing site, where the cancer rate is much higher than the national average. Many employees have been radiated in nuclear accidents. In addition there are all those soldiers who were close to ground zero when there were above-ground tests. Many have died already, and many have had defective children — the greatest sorrow. There are also the ‘down-wind victims’ who were in the path of fallout clouds.”
Rosemary’s primary focus was always on people, not weapons. “Of course we hope our efforts make it more likely that the day will come when there will be no more testing and no nuclear weapons, but what we are doing has another, deeper meaning — the recognition that we too, not only those making and testing weapons, are in need of conversion. Our motto has always been, ‘Convert!’ What we are doing concerns conversion. We need to convert our own hearts. As long as the bombs are exploding in our hearts, we have little hope of even understanding what is going on in the world around us. We hope not only for our own conversion but for a conversion that will lead our whole society in a new direction. The desert is a place linked to conversion. The desert has always been the classical place of spiritual solitude. The prophets of old searched for the voice of God in the desert. This is true for us too. So we go out to the desert to fast and pray. In the winter it is often windy and frigid, but in the warmer seasons it comes to life. You should see the desert at Easter time!”
Rosemary developed a profound sympathy for those who work at the test site, many of whom she came to know personally. “They are hostages of the bomb, just as we are,” she commented. “Many friendships have taken root, especially with guards and police. Many people working at the site wave to us. I remember one worker who brought us a box of fresh donuts. He said, ‘I may be on the other side, but I have to admire your perseverance.’ Sometimes I am asked to help with very complex personal and family problems. There are people involved with nuclear weapons who have called me late at night with some personal crisis they needed to discuss. I have had sheriffs and military officers cry on my shoulder.”
“Isn’t there the danger of abusing people’s vulnerability in such situations?” I asked.
“I never say to them, ‘You should quit.’ I don’t have the right,” she responded. “This is something you have to come to on your own. With the economic situation in the country so bad, many are glad to have a job, no matter what it is. Even so, some have left the test site, even at the cost of a lot of personal and family sacrifice.”
When I asked how she justified breaking the law, she replied: “The real evil is perfecting methods of killing people and destroying God’s creation. Breaking a trespass law — crossing a white line in a road miles from the test site — respects the essence of civil law and is obedience to the higher law. Sometimes the law needs help. Of course, you have to have a certain amount of openness and patience with people who don’t see this and you must be willing to go to jail, which gives you a chance to ‘visit the prisoner,’ as Christ told us to do. But civil disobedience isn’t for everyone. It is a call, a vocation. I would never say to anyone, ‘You should do this.’ But I ask others to respect the force of conscience that compels us who commit civil disobedience.
“We always practice openness with the police and everyone concerned about what we are doing. One consequence of this is that the police have always been gentle and courteous with us. They have even had a sense of the joy of the occasion. They try not to hurt us when they put on the handcuffs. They assist us getting into the police buses. It’s remarkable.”
Rosemary always urged those who commit acts of disobedience to respect those who may feel threatened or be inconvenienced by such actions and to carefully avoid sarcasm, abrasive words, or rude gestures. “It is our policy never to have the kind of blockade where people go limp and thereby compel the police to have to carry us away. We don’t want to call forth hostility in other people. Sometimes people kneel down in the roads to pray. Sometimes we hold up the cross. But when they ask us to stand up, we do so.”
I asked Rosemary what she had learned from her years of talking to people whose life’s work is linked to weapons. She responded:
“The main thing is not to fear approaching anyone. We need to learn to approach those whom we or others regard as our enemies, whether people in another country or the White House or people anywhere in positions of political or religious leadership — people who have authority and power which could be used for the welfare of the human family. We need to think about the manner in which we approach them. If we can possibly imbibe a little of the spirit of Saint Francis, it will help. He always approached his opponents — even a wolf — in humility but also perfectly confident that he should go. He had a very great simplicity, something that we tend to lack today. We are far too complicated. We need to approach those we are trained to hate or resent or fear, and to do it on a very human level, in a loving way, seeing them, as Francis saw the sultan, as a brother given to him by God. If we can do that, what can we not accomplish?”
* * *
Rosemary Lynch and the Wolf of Gubbio
One of St. Francis’s efforts as a peacemaker concerns Gubbio, a town north of Assisi. The people of Gubbio were troubled by a huge wolf that attacked not only animals but people, so that the men had to arm themselves before going outside the town walls. They felt as if Gubbio were under siege.
Francis decided to help, though the local people, fearing for his life, tried to dissuade him. What chance could an unarmed man have against a wild animal with no conscience? But according to the Fioretti, the principal collection of stories of the saint’s life, Francis placed his hope in the Lord Jesus Christ, master of all creatures. Protected neither by shield or helmet, only arming himself with the sign of the Cross, he bravely set out of the town with his companion, putting his faith in the Lord who makes those who believe in him walk without injury on an asp . . . and trample not merely on a wolf but even a lion and a dragon.
Some local peasants followed the two brothers, keeping a safe distance. Finally the wolf saw Francis and came running, as if to attack him. The story continues:
“The saint made the sign of the Cross, and the power of God . . . stopped the wolf, making it slow town and close its cruel mouth. Then Francis called to it, ‘Brother Wolf, in the name of Jesus Christ, I order you not to hurt me or anyone.’
The wolf then came close to Francis, lowered its head and then lay down at his feet as though it had become a lamb. Francis then censured the wolf for its former cruelties, especially for killing human beings made in the image of God, thus making a whole town into its deadly enemy.
“But, Brother Wolf, I want to make peace between you and them, so that they will not be harmed by you any more, and after they have forgiven you your past crimes, neither men nor dogs will pursue you anymore.”
The wolf responded with gestures of submission “showing that it willingly accepted what the saint had said and would observe it.”
Francis promised the wolf that the people of Gubbio would henceforth “give you food every day as long as you shall live, so that you will never again suffer hunger.” In return, the wolf had to give up attacking both animal and man. “And as Saint Francis held out his hand to receive the pledge, the wolf also raised its front paw and meekly and gently put it in Saint Francis’s hand as a sign that it had given its pledge.”
Francis led the wolf back into Gubbio, where the people of the town met them in the market square. Here Francis preached a sermon in which he said calamities were permitted by God because of our sins and that the fires of hell are far worse than the jaws of a wolf, which can only kill the body. He called on the people to do penance in order to be “free from the wolf in this world and from the devouring fire of hell in the next world.” He assured them that the wolf standing at his side would now live in peace with them, but that they were obliged to feed him every day. He pledged himself as “bondsman for Brother Wolf.”
After living peacefully within the walls of Gubbio for two years, “the wolf grew old and died, and the people were sorry, because whenever it went through the town, its peaceful kindness and patience reminded them of the virtues and holiness of Saint Francis.”
Is it possible that the story is true? Or is the wolf a storyteller’s metaphor for violent men? While the story works on both levels, there is reason to believe there was indeed a wolf of Gubbio. A Franciscan friend, Sister Rosemary Lynch, tells me that during restoration work the bones of a wolf were found buried within the church in Gubbio.
[extract fromThe Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Lifeby Jim Forest]
an interview with a member of the Dutch Resistance of World War II
by Jim Forest
Hebe Kohlbrugge was one of the few Dutch people who had a clear idea of the nature of Nazism before the invasion of Holland in 1940. Working in Germany at the time of Hitler’s rise to power, she was arrested for her opposition to Nazism, imprisoned, and eventually deported to her native country, the Netherlands. There, following the Occupation, she became one of the organizers of the resistance, especially to Nazi anti-Jewish policies. Caught in 1944, she was sent first to a Dutch prison camp and later to Ravensbrück, Germany. There she developed friendships with Eastern European prisoners which, in the post-war years, drew her to work with human rights activists in the Warsaw Pact countries. She also plunged into material and spiritual aid for Germany on behalf of the Netherlands Reformed Church. Later, on the staff of the Department for Interchurch Aid with her work expanded to many other countries, including Vietnam, she was one of the first church leaders to offer support to the social service programs of Vietnam’s Unified Buddhist Church.
For her work on behalf of victims of war and racism, Hebe Kohlbrugge has received various awards. There is, however, no evidence of the awards in her home or on her person. She draws attention to them only when to do so might further her efforts for those persons in trouble today. Once, during the Vietnam War, while trying to arrange a meeting between a Vietnamese Buddhist representative and a Minister of the Dutch Cabinet, an assistant assured her the Minister was too busy. Hebe put on the desk the Bronze Lion Award she had received from the Dutch government for courage and gallantry in the resistance. The meeting with the Minister followed immediately.
Jim Forest: What were you doing when the war began? What drew you ln the direction of resistance?
Hebe Kohlbrugge: I was 25. I had been working in the “Bekennende Kirche” — the anti-Nazi Confessing Church — in Germany, and I had seen what was going on. I worked there until l was imprisoned in Berlin in 1939. Thanks to the Dutch ambassador, I was released. I was ordered out of Germany “für Ewig” — for eternity — and I came home. So in 1939 when the war started, I knew what was going to happen. I didn’t have to have it explained to me who Hitler was. I had seen him, and I had made up my mind when I went to the Confessing Church.
What was it that brought you to the Confessing Church in Germany to begin with?
I had originally gone to Berlin to study. I was very interested in what was going on politically. In Berlin I happened to live in the parish of Martin Niemöller, so I saw and heard Hitler, and Niemöller as well. Arriving in Berlin as someone very interested in what was going on — not at all against Hitler, just interested — I discovered from Niemöller and from what l saw myself that Hitler was quite the wrong man. So I decided that I had to take the side of Niemöller. When I finished my course, I wrote my parents, “I want to help where help is needed.” And they wrote, “Okay.” So I went and helped until I was thrown out.
Did you have any sense at all of what was coming for the Jews?
I was in Germany on Kristallnacht in 1938… Of course, in the Confessing Church we often talked of “the great sin of anti-Semitism.” I can remember Bonhöffer coming and talking about such things as: What does it mean to help Jews? It couldn’t be spoken of so openly, but it was talked about.
One of the reasons I was put into prison in 1939 was that I had told the groups of children I worked within the church that Jews were nice people. Of course, the kids had told their parents, and some of the parents were Nazis. “How do you know?” they would ask. “Well, Hebe said . . .”
What other reasons did they give for imprisoning you?
Not saying “Heil Hitler,” but saying “Good morning!” Ringing the bells for Niemöller together with the children.
Why the bells?
When Niemöller was imprisoned, all the churches of the Confessing Church began ringing the bells at six o’clock to think of Niemöller and pray for him. It was for Niemöller at first, but later for all the others in prison. I went with all the kids to the bell tower of our church and said, “Now you ring, and now I ring, and now you ring.” I wanted them, by doing it themselves, to understand what we were doing. We wanted to remind people that it was time to pray. And the kids loved it. Kids love ringing church bells. Of course they went home and said, “We did this for Niemöller.” So, it was Niemöller, it was the Jews, and it was “Guten Tag,” instead of “Heil Hitler.”
Tell me more about the Confessing Church.
As always in church life, what a church did depended a great deal on the individual pastor, the church members, and so on. But if I were to generalize, I would say there were regular meetings — sometimes a whole Saturday or Sunday, sometimes several evenings over a few weeks. There were many gatherings, many chances for people to get to know each other and become each other’s friends. Church life was far more intensive than I had ever known it at home.
In the Confessing Church, all questions of interest were taken seriously. Things like this are normal now, but at that time it was all new. What happened with the church offerings gives one illustration of how it was. All of a sudden the state began to confiscate them. So it became a question for us: What shall we do with our offerings? I had never before thought about that! This was new. Finally it was agreed the offering should be taken and put on the altar. The SS didn’t dare take it from the altar. They were afraid. Then the next day the pastor took the offering and put it where it had to go.
But before this decision was reached, there was much discussion. One pastor came saying, “I don’t want to be a member of the Confessing Church any longer, because I don’t think it is worthwhile to fight with the state over some money.” He brought biblical texts showing money is not so important in the church. It was a big question: “Have we to fight for money in the church?” In the end we saw that we were not to fight for our own money, but that we had to fight for the money people gave us, to use it in the right way — and that the state must not be allowed to steal it. Therefore we had to hide it from the stealer.
We talked about everything concerning life, including church and politics. This was a very new thing to think about. Far more openness came. In the Confessing Church for the first time it became clear that Reformed and Lutheran had to take Holy Communion together. This was new.
All these conversations seemed to be frightfully important. And they were.
In 1939 you were sent out of Germany. What next?
First, in April, I went to Basel and studied with Karl Barth — but only one semester, because then the war came. I was home on holiday in September 1939 when the war started and then I couldn’t go back. I had to earn some money, and the Council of Churches in Amsterdam hired me as secretary. It was a half-time job for very little money, but it was enough. Eight months later, in May 1940, the German army invaded Holland
Did you anticipate the invasion?
No. No one did.
What happened then?
I talked with friends about what we could do. I couldn’t say, “We must do this.” But to very good friends, I said, “We must do something. We can’t wait. What can we do?” These friends decided to come together as a group and talk things over. That was in July 1940. Such a meeting was still possible then — very openly writing letters: “Will you come to a conference?” So we came together, a group of 35 people, and talked over what we might possibly do. Practically nothing was agreed upon immediately. But all of those who came together could be relied upon later on.
What was the first action you took part in?
In October 1940 the Germans asked all those who were in official jobs to put down if they were Jews or not. Just a question: “Are you a Jew, or not?”
In our group of 35 there had earlier been discussions of secretly publishing samizdat papers and pamphlets. Now one person from the group came to me and said, “We have talked about samizdat publishing, and now we have to do it.” I agreed. So we wrote the first pamphlet. Together with my sister — we lived together at the time — we decided 30,000 copies would be the right number. We found a little printer and in a very short time he had printed them.
What was the first pamphlet called?
“Bijna te laat” — “It’s nearly too late.” Our group of 35 was able to distribute them all over Holland.
The main statement was: You are not allowed to answer nasty questions. Remember, we lived in a time when people were polite to one another. If you asked me, “Are you a Jew?” I answered, “No, I’m not,” or “Yes, I am.” So one of the main issues was that if a non-trustworthy person asks you a question like that; you answer: “That has nothing to do with you.”
That was new. Even today some people wonder about this sentence. When I received the Münster Prize, I had in my speech the sentence: “You do not have to answer all the questions.” The speech was sent to several friends in Rumania, and five different friends in Rumania wrote that this was the most important sentence. This was new to them, still.
Isn’t this still an issue for people everywhere? To dare to be silent before certain questions, certain orders?
And to say quite clearly, “This I will not answer. This is not your business.” You not only kept your mouth shut if they asked you with whom you worked. That was clear; you could not betray people. But even a Dutchman who resisted the Nazis said to me about the pamphlet: “You can’t send this! If someone asks you a question, you have to answer. Otherwise you are wrong, because then you are nasty.” He said you must answer; I said you can’t. He said, “No, if something happens to the Jews, then we will do something.” But then it was too late. And so it happened. “Nearly too late” became too late.
What effect did the first publication have?
It’s hard to say. This was not the very first action, though it was the first large one. I know the Nazis were furious that they couldn’t find where it came from and who had run the whole thing. We had done a thing that was rather clever at that time — we took the available lists of names from all the schools, and the addresses were done in many different handwritings and on many typewriters.
Then we posted the envelopes on the same night, between six and eight, from all the various places. So they tried to find out: “Does it come from Utrecht?” “No, it comes from Groningen.” “No, it comes from Zeeland.” “Oh no, it’s coming from Alkmaar! ”
Were you personally suspected by the Nazis at first?
No, not at all.
You continued with your job at the Council of Churches?
Yes. That was lovely. I had the whole church to hide my things — the Nieuwe Kerk, the biggest church in Amsterdam. No one could find anything. There was just myself there, and the custodian — and he didn’t know what I was doing.
What did you do after the first booklet?
We continued publishing. We had a series of subjects we had decided on.
How quickly did the German removal of Jews begin?
Almost immediately. In October they asked the question, and then the arrests began. They didn’t take them all together. If they had, they would have had a big fight in Holland. They took them one by one.
How did you feel when you first heard a Jew had been taken away?
To answer that, I have to remind you that we knew nothing about Auschwitz then. What we knew was that children were being taken, women were being taken, and whole families. We were afraid for their lives. Jews were taken to Westerbork in Holland, which was not nice but it was heaven compared to the death camps. We knew transports were taken from there to Germany — we did not know where. We did not know about gas.
What did your group do at that point?
The only thing we could do — we began to hide the Jews.
It was all very easy — and very difficult! You started with your parents, and after your parents you went to uncles and nieces and friends of parents and friends of nieces — and friends and friends of friends. We didn’t make big organizations. We went from one to the other. We just followed our own track.
How did Jews find you?
It happened. Holland is a small country. It happened like it happens today. A call comes: “Can you help . . . ?” As soon as you started, the connections were made.
Have you any idea how many, ultimately, were sheltered in this way? In the thousands?
Yes. But many were found halfway down — in hiding, like Anne Frank’s family. And there were others hiding who couldn’t stand it any longer and went out into the street.
Were there times when the Nazis were close to breaking your ring?
Very often. Practically all of my friends were shot.
How many were shot?
I never counted.
Yes. Some had a trial, some were just shot.
It was just a matter of fortune that you weren’t shot?
Some groups, of course, had a spy in them, and then the whole group was taken. Our group never had a spy. Some groups had the bad luck that one was taken and tortured so badly that he gave all the names. But we decided that, if one was taken, we would all leave our addresses, immediately.
We wouldn’t come back until we had a message from the person, or we heard what had happened. This arrangement was also a help for those who were arrested. If you finally gave in, you knew no one would be in danger — they would have left.
Did the Gestapo ever come for you?
Yes. In February 1942, the Gestapo found me at my office in the Nieuwe Kerk. I had with me a package of samizdat papers. Normally I never had anything with me, but I wanted to give these papers half an hour later to a boy who was to deliver them somewhere.
I walked into my office, and there sat three gentlemen from the Gestapo. I thought of my bag, and I thought, “This is the end.” They said, “We want to look through your office!” I said, “My office is upstairs.” This wasn’t true. At the time I was working downstairs because the upstairs was so cold. “Then we’ll go upstairs,” they said. “Take everything with you. Bring your bag.” (I had tried to leave it behind.) To go upstairs we had to climb an old spiral staircase. They wanted me to go first, but I said, “No, if you are gentlemen, you go first.” And they did! They wanted to be gentlemen. So on the way upstairs, while walking as loudly as I could, I threw the package of papers downstairs — hoping it wouldn’t bump too hard. It was the only chance I had. When we got upstairs, they said, “Open your bag.” Well, I opened it — and there was nothing but a dirty handkerchief!
Then they looked through my “office” — and there was nothing there, of course. When we came back downstairs, I dreaded that the package would still be where it fell, but the wife of the custodian had been so kind as to remove it. So the Gestapo found nothing at the church. But they insisted on going to the room where I lived. I said, “I must first call my boss, because he is due any moment and I can’t just go away like this.” They agreed, but of course they listened. I called my boss and said, “I am here with the German police. They want to go with me to my house, so I’m sorry, if you come I will not be in.” “Okay,” he said, and he immediately rang the house where I was staying to warn them I was coming with the police, and they were able to take certain things out of the house.
I was staying with a pastor and his wife. They had no children, and they were willing to take in young people who didn’t earn much money. Another girl and myself were staying there. I knew the other girl did nothing illegal — so I took the Gestapo into her room and said, “This is my room! ”
They searched her room up and down. The only thing they found was a picture of the Queen [who was with the government-in-exile in London]. They were furious, but that was not a thing for which they could take me to prison. They searched for three hours and finally left. The girl was furious with me! Ridiculous girl . . . She was angry because they made such a mess.
Then I knew it was dangerous for me and that it was now better for me to hide. I went to another address.
And there were no more encounters with the Gestapo?
After I had left, I remembered that I had left something at the house which I needed very badly. So I thought, “Well, it’s Friday evening — I will go and get it.” I went to the house, got to my former room, and at that moment the Gestapo arrived at the house and rang. I thought, “There they are! “You just feel it, you know?
I went out of the room up to the attic. It was the only thing I could do. I heard the very nice pastor’s wife say, “Yes, she must be in the house, because her bicycle is here.” She had the idea, like most people at that time, that no matter what, you had to be honest. They went up to my room. It was clean and in order. Then they began a search. For five hours they searched that house, and they didn’t find me. They were terrible hours. But I was lucky, I had found a small cupboard — just a crawl space under the eaves. I got in and put something in front of me and laid there and didn’t move. They went over the whole attic, but they did not open the door. I think they didn’t realize a door was there. It was all in the same color, and by the time they got to the attic they were tired.
By this time it was clear that they wanted to arrest you?
Yes, absolutely. As it was, they took the pastor’s wife. Three hours later I came out of the attic — after eight hours. I couldn’t stay there any longer. By then the pastor was frantic. “My wife! My wife! You have to go and turn yourself in.” But I said, “No. Nothing will happen to her, but for me there is great danger.” He was furious! She was released the next morning, as I expected.
For another day I had to stay there in the attic. There was at all times a Gestapo man posted in front of the house — we saw him walking up and down. Finally on Saturday evening at 5 o’clock, they had free time, and they left. So I was able to go. It was very dangerous, of course, and very frightening, but I went. From that time on, I lived underground.
What was your work then?
The same. Finding homes for Jews, helping with ration cards, helping with other things. First it was the Jews, then there were students, then laborers who didn’t want to go to forced labor in Germany, and then other underground people. We also went on with the samizdat papers, which came out regularly every four to six weeks.
What was in them?
News. Warnings. Information. Articles explaining in a popular way why we were fighting against Nazism. Then in July 1942, someone had to go to Switzerland, so I went.
How did you do that?
Walking, mostly — Holland to Belgium, then the train into northern France, and then walking into Switzerland.
What was the purpose of that trip?
To get information to London — to the Dutch Queen and the government in exile.
At that time they had several radio stations, like “Voice of Holland,” broadcasting to us. And sometimes they were sending absurd information. It was vital that the government should have clearer reports about what was happening, so they wouldn’t risk people’s lives. We also wanted to give them information about where troops were and what they were doing, and to remind them of the dangers.
What kind of dangers?
Well, you can drown a country like Holland if you blow up the electrical generators — because these run the pumps, and most of the country is below sea level. The Germans placed dynamite near all the power stations. We were always fighting this. We would steal the dynamite. We expected that all Holland would be drowned.
interviewer’s note: In 1944 Hebe Kohlbrugge was finally arrested, though she managed to give a false name and to convince her captors she was a German citizen. After a period in a Dutch prison camp, she was transferred to Ravensbrück, 80 kilometers north of Berlin — the concentration camp known as “the women’s hell.”
At least 50,000 persons died here, and many others were sent on to death camps. I once talked with a girl in Ravensbrück, and she was very down, and I said to her, “Keep your head up!” And she said, “You can. You know why you’re here. I’m here only because of my nose.” I think that’s very important. We knew why we were there; we had been fighting. This poor girl hadn’t. She was there only, as she said, because of her nose.
When were you at Ravensbrück?
From September 4, 1944, until February 1945.
What did you do there?
I worked in the hospital, as I had in the Dutch prison camp. I had to look after the babies. Their mothers were mainly from Poland. The Germans had taken whole villages, and some of the women, of course, were pregnant. Every day, one or two babies were born. I never had more than 35, so you can count how many died. Most were born beautifully. The births were like anywhere — the mothers rejoicing about their nice new babies, so beautiful. But the mothers did not have enough food. They couldn’t nurse. After three days the babies would begin to shrink. They died, generally very quietly. It was hard, especially for those mothers who had lost their husbands. The baby was all they had left.
But the ones who had perhaps the worst situation at Ravensbrück were the gypsies. They were even more crowded than the rest of us, more pressed together. The Nazis had decided that these people, like the Jews, should be wiped out. The mothers would be told that if they allowed their daughters to be sterilized, the daughters could be let free. The mothers would say, “Okay. Then my little girl gets out.” Then there were these girls — eight, nine, ten, twelve years old — who were sterilized with electric shock. It was too terrible for words. Their screams were unbearable. It was the most awful thing I experienced at Ravensbrück. It was torture of children.
But I don’t think one should stay too long with these old memories. Torturing is still going on. All the countries are doing it. In 1980 we can’t talk too much about the torturing by the Nazis. We cannot say they were the most evil. Black is black.
What was important in helping you survive the experience?
There were various things. One was that I wanted to overcome. I wanted to survive, not only because I was afraid of dying, but because I didn’t want to give the Germans the chance to rejoice! Secondly, I had come through the experiences of prison, of not giving names, of pretending to be a German, of being one of the many in the camps, and I had the feeling, “I have come through so far — I will come through to the end.” I didn’t want to die as Christina Dormann [her false name] — I wanted to go home as Hebe Kohlbrugge.
I was very busy with the mothers and babies, and trying to do something for them. I first heard from the Polish mothers about life in Poland in the war. I hadn’t known Poland had been so much worse than Holland. Much worse. So I started to realize that my experiences were not so important — in fact they were unimportant in light of what these Polish girls had to tell me. We had been busy only with ourselves; now we started to get busy with more important things.
Working for the babies, I really had to work from roll call in the morning until midnight. I hardly had any sleep. So I really hadn’t much time to think of what would keep me alive. I hadn’t even much time for religious life or praying. Probably not enough. I knew that I was a Christian, I knew that as a Christian I fought against the lie of Nazism, I knew that I tried to help these mothers, and I did what I could.
How do the sorts of experiences you had affect your religious faith?
There is a book which has recently been published here, How Can I Believe After Auschwitz? I think the question is ridiculous. Evil didn’t begin or end with the Nazis. There is all we know about Vietnam, Afghanistan, the Gulag Archipelago, Cambodia, Argentina, Chile, many countries in Africa . . . And there are events like these all through human history. How can we just talk about believing after Auschwitz? If we read the Revelation of St. John, we are told that history will go this way. And it does go this way. So if I believe, I believe. If I don’t, I don’t. We push away our present difficulties by thinking only of 1944-45.
What about the guards — people who kill and torture? Does this require a certain kind of person, or can it be anyone?
I remember at Ravensbrück one day there came new guards — ten or twenty. They were girls sent from a factory that had been closed. They came and were told what they had to do. And they said, “We don’t want to do that.” All of them. Then they were told, “Either you are a guard, or you are a prisoner.” Now what shall the normal factory girl do? Can you expect her to choose to be a prisoner? So she becomes a guard. And then what happens? She tries not to be too nasty. But they tell her she must be more nasty. “If you are not, we will send you to be a guard some place even worse.” So she starts shouting. But it wasn’t true for everyone. Not everyone became cruel. We knew some who would never tell what they had seen. But many just went along step by step. A few were real sadists, and they tried to push the rest.
What happened when you were released?
I went home — which took me a good week — and I had to go to bed immediately, because I had very bad tuberculosis. I had known in Ravensbrück that I had it; in fact I had already been sick in bed in the camp. It was not allowed to release sick people, but the doctor did. He liked me — I don’t know why. At home they looked after me and I had a good doctor. The war ended in May.
In the years since then, you have spent a great deal of time working for refugees and for people in trouble because of war. Was it inevitable that you should go on to do these kinds of things?
Immediately after I came back from Switzerland where I had been recuperating for two years, the churches of Holland asked me to take up contact with Germany. The churches were very much aware of the hatred Holland had for Germany, and aware that for the churches the hatred couldn’t go on. They wanted someone to build bridges, and they asked me. I did this work from 1948 to 1957.
How did you get involved in work in Eastern Europe?
I had so many friends, especially in Czechoslovakia and Poland. Most of the Polish friends I never found again after the war, but the Czech friends I did find. I was very interested in life in their countries, very interested in what Communism did when it was in the chair. They had convinced me everything would be fine in Czechoslovakia, so I wasn’t against it. I wanted to see what it would be like. Then I found out that it was not what they had promised it would be. Most of my friends were in charge of very important jobs in Czechoslovakia, and then they all went with Dubcek, and they were thrown out — out of their jobs, out of the party, and all of that. I have no personal contact anymore, because I am not allowed to go in.
What are appropriate ways for people in the West to gain an understanding of what is happening in Eastern Europe and do something to help?
People must read one or two books about the problems of Eastern Europe. Otherwise we are just like the Germans who said after the war, “We didn’t know it, and we didn’t want it.” I think of the book To Build a Castle: My Life as a Dissenter by [Vladimir] Bukovsky. He gives a clear account of how he came to be one of the dissidents, what happened to him, how he lived through prison. It’s not difficult to read, and there’s lots of humor in it, so you needn’t be afraid of reading it.
People are obliged to read books like that. You can’t live in one world and not know anything about it. You can’t know everything about everywhere, but people should have at least some basic information about what it’s like. What does it mean if you have lived through the lie of Nazism — which is not to compare that with Communism, for they are quite different — and if you know Communism, the “real existing socialism” as it is now, is also a lie and is forcing people into a lie? If you once have fought against a lie, for the truth, it is impossible to come home and say, “Now I will sit in my chair and not fight anymore.”
I am struck by the lack of bitterness in the way you speak about things which could, for other people perhaps, be rather embittering.
It is much easier for those who have been in it to be without rancor and bitterness than for those who have stood aside. Those who didn’t do anything — mainly out of fear — still have hatred, because they feel in some way that they themselves have not done the right thing. They hate those who hindered them from being as they know they ought to have been.
And of course if you have lost a husband or someone dear to you, it is different. You can’t make an absolute line. I had no husband, no children. My sisters did not die. My father and mother did not die. They all survived. My father was once driven around for half an hour with a pistol in his back, but at the last moment they did not shoot him. If he had been shot, I don’t know what I would feel now, what I would say.
We can only account for what has happened to us. Nothing very bad happened to me. I was not once beaten in prison, because they believed I was German. I went through no torment at all — except in the concentration camp, like everybody. I must state that very clearly, because otherwise I would give an impression that is not true.
In the thick birch woods south of Novosibirsk, Siberia’s largest city, is Akademgorodok — literally, Academic Town. Founded in the fifties by Soviet Academy of Science as a major research center, it accommodates the Institutes of Nuclear Physics, Biology, Economics, Pure and Applied Mathematics, and Organic Chemistry, and numerous similar establishments. The campus of the science-oriented University of Novosibirsk is located here. John Le Carré’s novel, The Russia House, fearures a free-thinking, vodka-soaked nuclear physicist from this scientific enclave.
It was taken for granted by the founders that Akademgorodok would be forever free of the “superstitions of religion.” In the past two years, however, religious life has sprung into the open, including a vital Orthodox Christian parish formed in Akademgorodok by scientists and babushkas together.
In 1991, when I was taking a Russian course at the university, I took part in the first Liturgy. It was Troitsa (Holy Trinity) Sunday, a day in June. Lacking a church building, the parish, plus various curious on-lookers, met for an outdoor service on the edge of the woods. We stood — part of the time kneeled — for several hours despite increasingly heavy rain. By the end of the Liturgy everyone was soaked to the bones, collective baptism by total immersion.
No one has played a larger part in bringing the church into being than Natasha Gorelova, a mathematician and geologist. The greatest treasure of my month in Akademgorodok was getting to know her.
She was born in a Siberian mining town. Though baptized as an infant, she never entered a church again during her childhood. As a student at the State University in Moscow, she was awarded the Lenin Prize. In 1971 she was sent to Akademgorodok where she did post-graduate work in cybernetics at the Computer Center. Still at the Computer Center, her present work concerns applied mathematics. She is the mother of three. Her son, 19, is a university student. She has two daughters, ages 13 and 10.
I asked her what was behind her conversion.
“It is typical for my generation. I always knew that God exists. I don’t remember any night going to sleep without praying, even as a Young Pioneer in summer camp. I remember if I didn’t pray before going to sleep, I would wake up in the night with a kind of shock, realizing that I had left this world without praying, though I didn’t use the word praying until I was an adult. I came to God without difficulty, but there is a distinction between coming to God and coming to Christ.
“When I was 25, I understood that I couldn’t survive anymore the way I was. Perhaps it was because of being born in Russia and the fate of this country — realizing the suffering of this country, the killing and murder, the terrible things that happened. I realized I couldn’t go on living in the same way. I felt depressed and thought about suicide. It wasn’t that I had bad luck. I was fortunate. I had a good husband, good friends, good children, interesting work. I had successfully defended my thesis.
“I was reading a lot of existentialist writers then and some eastern philosophy. These writers were explaining the world as best they good and perhaps even their explanations were quite correct, but they didn’t show the way out, only
another impasse. By my education I was a mathematician both professionally and in my thoughts. Reading all these things I was always aware of errors in logic. For example I came upon the statement that you cannot interrupt suffering by suicide because you will only be reincarnated in another life even worse than the present life. But I thought if I don’t remember any previous life, then I won’t remember this life in another life. In effect this “reincarnated self” will be someone else suffering, not me. So why bother about it?
“Then, while working on my doctoral degree, I happened to read about Christ in a book about cybernetics. The author, explaining positive and negative feedback, used a saying of Christ, `If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn the other cheek to him as well.’ He said the statement is quite sound and can be explained mathematically. If someone strikes you and you hit back, the consequence is that you only increase the amount of evil. If you want to reduce the amount of evil, you decrease it by refusing to repeat evil actions.
“I decided to test it. In Russia that’s easy to do! You know our buses and how crowded they are. So when someone shoved me or put his foot on mine, I didn’t say something offensive, only, `Please, why don’t you move to this side?’ or `Please sit here’ — speaking without sarcasm, in a kind voice. I saw how the tension in the bus immediately went down. I understood from my experiments that you can reduce the stress in a line or a crowd by refusing to respond to aggression with more aggression but instead with kindness. That was my first step to Christ. I began to think of the Gospel as a very wise book. The Resurrection of Christ, however, was something that I couldn’t understand.
“At this point, I accepted the formula: If the truth is not Christ, then I don’t need any other truth. Then I was thinking about what Christ said, `Knock and the door will be opened, ask and it shall be given.’ I decided to knock on the door until it opened. But I still didn’t know any believers. I had only books. My friends couldn’t understand why I was so preoccupied with these religious questions. They assumed it was a phase that I would eventually get through.”
In searching for a place within Christianity, it wasn’t clear what Church to join. Her first Bible she a gift from Baptists, her reading about liturgy and sacraments drew her intellectually to Orthodoxy. However becoming Orthodox seemed out of the question.
“I couldn’t imagine that I would find myself among babushkas with their covered heads, so old. Then while in Moscow, I went into an Orthodox church. Once inside, I was amazed at the care for me offered by the babushkas, the old women I had looked down upon.
“It was they who opened the way for me. The first time I was blessed to receive communion, they were waiting for me to approach the chalice. When I didn’t, some of the old women took me by their hands and brought me to the priest and so I received the holy gifts. Afterward they were all around me, kissing me, kissing my dress, crying. I had never before experienced so deeply my unity with the people around me and my love for them. It was in this way that I found out what the eucharist is, what communion is. From that moment on, I have loved babushkas! And from that moment I was a believer.”
Her conversion has touched many lives. She counts more than forty god-children, among them archaeologists, biologists, mathematicians. She takes pride that baptism wasn’t just a pious
gesture in their lives but that all are attentive church-goers.
I asked how the local Orthodox community came together.
“It began with some young people. Some were students, some had recently graduated. Somehow they knew about me and asked me whether I would join them and to help them organize a community. I was surprised. I asked them, `Why is it that I don’t see you in church?’ If some old women asked me to join their community, of course I would join. But I said I didn’t want to join a community just for the sake of going to meetings. It was a kind of wide ecumenical group, a religious discussion group. Some thought of themselves as Catholic. Some were curious about religion but more in non-Christian religions — the Hare Krishna prayer and Hinduism. But most were drawn to Orthodoxy. Those who weren’t finally left the group. When it was Orthodox, Father Boris from Novosibirsk became their chaplain. They had the community officially registered with the Council for Religious Affairs.”
I wondered what she thought of ecumenism.
“I am not against it. But for me, I feel like someone in a forest fire, running for my life to escape from the fire. I don’t stop and look at all the trees and bushes and fallen logs. I just run. I am running for my salvation. If you have the truth already, you go forward within that truth. I don’t think I have to change the world. All I am trying to do is to change myself. I am trying to do it even though I don’t seem to make much progress. As Saint Seraphim said, `Pray to the Holy Spirit and forgive everyone and you will be saved.’
“This way of thinking was different from the point of view some of the young people had in the community in the beginning. Some had the point of view that first you have to change the world and the church hierarchy, then you can change yourself. For me that was only politics. I didn’t want to come back to the things that I had left behind years before.”
I asked her how public worship started.
“In January 1990 we celebrated Theophany, the first time we were allowed to have a public service. It wasn’t a Liturgy but the solemn blessing of water. We built a little shelter and set it up behind the House of Scientists in the center of town. It was a cold day, more than 30 degrees below. Many came to receive blessed water. Father Boris’ hands were nearly frozen. By the time we finished, the water had ice in it. Ever since then, we have celebrated most of the important events on the church calendar. We put notices up on the doors on shops and publish announcements in the newspaper, `The Orthodox Christian Community of Akademgorodok named after All the Holy Saints of Russia invites you to such-and-such event.’ ”
I asked how local atheists respond to this outbreak of religion in Akademgorodok.
“Some stick with the old slogans, but you see in general quite a change in attitude. In May 1990, the Town Council voted 63 to 1 in favor of our request to build a church, though where it would be was a harder question to resolve.”
I asked her if she was troubled that the Orthodox bishops had often failed to stand up to the government during periods of persecution.
“I never expected anything good from the human part of the Church. I was sure that anything existing officially in this country couldn’t be good. In such a situation, from the human point of view, the Church couldn’t be good. So I had no expectations. But after becoming Orthodox I kept meeting good people. I never permit myself to judge those people in the Church whom I don’t like. Maybe their cross is even heavier than mine. Maybe their destiny is even more difficult, more complicated.”
I wondered if there were a link between the local church and Pamyat or other anti-semitic groups, for I have often encountered anti-Semites in the Christian community in the USSR.
“None. In fact many members of the church come from Jewish families and are targets of anti-Semites. Pamyat is like a lynch mob. One member of our group helped organize a meeting of Memorial, the organization to honor victims of Stalin. The meeting was in the theater of the House of Scientists. Almost a thousand came. But the meeting was disrupted by Pamyat. Their slogan was, `There was no Stalinism, only Judeo-Fascism.’ The Pamyat people came up onto the stage and stood behind the speakers like partisans of the Soviet type. A veteran of some of the prison camps tried to speak but they wouldn’t let him. Some spat on the man. Many in Pamyat are active in anti-drinking campaigns. Because of this you sometimes hear, `Better sclerosis of the liver than such a memory.’ ” [Pamyat means memory]
Our talk ended with Natasha serving a meal.
“It isn’t very good,” she said apologetically. “I can cook or speak but not both at the same time. I consider myself a bad housewife. The story about Mary and Martha is one of my great consolations.”
Unfortunately I haven’t yet been to the newly built church in Akademgorodok but a few days ago received a letter about it from Sophie Koulomzin, whose autobiography, Many Worlds (Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press), I have been reading lately. Sophie was born in Russia in 1904, but has been living in the west since the Bolsheviks took power 1917. After a lifetime of teaching, writing and translating, she was able to visit Russia this year in order to take part in a conference on spirituality held in Akademgorodok.
“As you can see from the enclosed photos,” she wrote me, “the church is really lovely and quite special — not a restoration of an old one but something new in a town where there never was a church before. It stands in the woods and is built from logs cut right on the spot. Inside and all around there is the intense smell of fresh wood. It is not quite finished. The icons are not hand-painted but printed in paper and mounted on boards — good reproductions of ancient icons, not horrible 19th century religious art. Services are well attended, a mixture of babushkas plus many students and faculty from the various institutes. Every Saturday about 50 people are baptized, adults and children. Every Thursday there is a preparatory talk for those getting read for baptism. The priest, Father Boris Pivovarov, is assisted in his teaching work by several woman, one of whom is Natasha Gorelova.”
The name of Thomas Merton means many things to many people: convert, monk, poet, photographer, participant in inter-religious dialogue, pacifist, defender of human rights, social critic, a person who was a thorn in the side not only of secular but religious establishments. Most of all we know him as a prolific writer. Few writers have touched so many lives. Were we to gather together all those who regard his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, as a life-changing book, a sports stadium would not hold them all. Though he died in 1968, his books remain in print in many languages while new books by and about Merton appear each year. There are Thomas Merton societies in several countries.
Yet we have this warning from him: “He who follows words is destroyed.” Thomas Merton approvingly quoted this Chinese proverb to the novices in his care at his monastery in Kentucky, the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani. “He who gets involved in statements will be completely lost,” he explained.
Merton’s name is linked with what is sometimes called “the contemplative life,” a condition of existence which sounds most attractive. Which of us wouldn’t prefer the occasional exodus, if not the permanent move, to a world free of rush hours, bus fumes and ulcer-creating employment? But as Merton pointed out in an essay on monastic spirituality, “The word ‘contemplation’ does not occur in the Gospel.” In the same essay Merton goes on to remark:
The idea of abstracting oneself from all things, purifying one’s mind of all images, and ascending by self-denial to an ecstatic intellectual contact with God the Supreme Truth ending up by being “alone with the alone” all this is characteristic of the neo-platonic approach. It has been taken over by a whole tradition of Christian writers and has been Christianized. But still we must remember in dealing with such writers that we are handling a characteristically Greek type of thought and must take care not to lose sight of Christ Himself and His teachings in order to follow a more or less pagan line of thought from which Christ is all but excluded.
Merton, the writer, was painfully aware of the limitations of words just as Merton the contemplative gradually came to see the danger that those pursuing contemplative life might lose contact with the actual Christ who, far from residing on Cloud Nine only to be glimpsed with a mystical telescope, participates moment by moment in our world of grime, sweat, fear and suffering.
It may be helpful for us to become more aware that the spiritual life of this noted writer was not very verbal even though he followed the traditional regimen of reciting the psalms and other prayers in the course of each day.
One aspect of his inner life had to do with icons, those sacred images produced by an ancient tradition of Christian art that many would be inclined to dismiss as primitive.
Merton’s interest in icons had a strange beginning. It was at his father’s death bed.
In 1931, Merton’s artist father Owen was suffering from a brain tumor that made him unable to speak. And yet he did manage “a last word.” Merton — age 16 at the time — came to see his father in his London hospital room and, to his amazement, found the bed littered with drawings of “little, irate Byzantine-looking saints with beards and great halos.” The younger Merton had no eye for icons at the time. He then regarded Byzantine art, he confessed in an unpublished autobiographical novel, The Labyrinth, as “clumsy and ugly and brutally stupid.”
With his father’s death, Thomas Merton had become an orphan. His mother, Ruth, had died of cancer when he was six.
It was on his 18th birthday, January 31, 1933, two years after his father’s death, having finished his studies at Oakham School and having most of a year off before entering Clare College in Cambridge in September, that Merton set off for an extended European holiday — a one man Grand Tour — with a visit to Italy the main event. He hiked along the Mediterranean coast of France, then took the train from Saint Tropez into Italy: first Genoa, then Florence, finally Rome.
Once in Rome, for days he followed the main tourist track, Baedeker guidebook in hand, but the star attractions, even St. Peter’s Basilica, left him either yawning or irritated. The architecture, statuary and painting of the Empire, the Renaissance and the Counter-Reformation struck him as vapid and melodramatic. “It was so evident, merely from the masses of stone and brick that still represented the palaces and temples and baths, that imperial Rome must have been one of the most revolting and ugly and depressing cities the world has ever seen,” Merton wrote in The Seven Storey Mountain. It was the Rome of Cecil B. DeMille’s film epics of the 1950s.
Perhaps we would never have heard of Thomas Merton had it not been for what happened when he found his way to the city’s most ancient churches: San Clemente, Santa Sabina, Santa Maria Maggiore, Saints Cosmas and Damian, the Lateran, Santa Costanza, Santa Maria in Trastevere, the Basilica of San Prassede. These moved him in an unexpected and extraordinary way. These were all churches of sober design whose main decoration were mosaic icons, images of simplicity and quiet intensity that have little in common with the more theatrical art that was eventually to take over in Rome. Many of the icons in Santa Maria Maggiore date from the fourth century.
“I was fascinated by these Byzantine mosaics,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I began to haunt the churches where they were to be found.”
Through these icons, he began to understand, and in a remarkable way, who Christ is: “For the first time in my whole life I began to find out something of whom this Person was that men call Christ. … It is the Christ of the Apocalypse, the Christ of the Martyrs, the Christ of the Fathers. It is the Christ of Saint John, and of Saint Paul, and of St. Augustine and St. Jerome and all the Fathers — and of the Desert Fathers. It is Christ God, Christ King.”
The intensity of the experiences that are reflected in this powerful litany may be due in part to the fact that Merton was alone in Rome. There is something about unmediated face-to-face contact that magnifies encounter. There is no schedule to keep, no one to explain and play sheep dog.
Eager to understand the iconographic images that so arrested his eyes, Merton put aside the D.H. Lawrence books that had weighted down his rucksack and bought a Bible. “I read more and more of the Gospels, and my love for the old churches and their mosaics grew from day today.”
The attraction of icons wasn’t simply due to Merton’s newly-gained appreciation of the aesthetics of iconography but a profound sense of peace he experienced within the walls of churches graced with such imagery. He had, he said, “a deep and strong conviction that I belonged there.”
Merton desperately wanted to pray, to light a candle, to kneel down, to pray with his body as well as his mind, but found the prospect of publicly kneeling in a church alarming.
Then one night, in his pensione room on the Piazza Barberini, he had an intense experience of his father’s invisible presence at his side, “as real and startling as if he had touched my arm or spoken to me.” The experience was over in a flash, “but in that flash, instantly, I was overwhelmed with a sudden and profound insight into the misery and corruption of my own soul. . . . And now, I think for the first time in my whole life, I really began to pray . . . praying out of the very roots of my life and of my being, and praying to the God I had never known.”
The next morning Merton climbed the Aventine Hill, crowned by the fifth century church of Santa Sabina. Once inside, he found he could no long play the guidebook-studying tourist.”Although the church was almost empty, I walked across the stone floor mortally afraid that a poor devout old Italian woman was following me with suspicious eyes.” He knelt down at the altar rail and, with tears, again and again recited the Our Father.
Leaving the church, Merton felt a depth of joy he hadn’t known in years if ever before. He was no longer “a heretic tourist,” he commented in The Labyrinth. He put it more positively in The Seven Storey Mountain: “Without knowing anything about it, I became a pilgrim.”
At age 18, Merton had undergone, without realizing exactly what it was, a mystical experience: he was stricken with a sense of Christ’s reality and living presence. From that moment he had something against which to measure everything, whether himself or religious art or the Church in history. He knew what was phoney, not because of some theory but because of an experience of Christ mediated through sacred imagery.
The pilgrimage that followed, of course, was nothing like an arrow’s direct flight. The coming winter at Clare College was to prove a disastrous time in his life, the “nadir of winter darkness,” leaving wounds from which I doubt he ever fully healed. It was so disastrous that his well-to-do guardian in London wanted no further responsibility for Owen Merton’s wayward son and sent him packing to his grandparents in America.
Four years after arriving in New York, Merton was received into the Catholic Church. In another three years later, head freshly shaven, he was a new member of the Trappist monastic community of the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky.
We can see that icons had their part to play in bringing Merton to religious belief. That’s clear to any attentive reader of The Seven Storey Mountain. But religious art in general, and icons especially, continued to figure in his religious development.
It is striking to discover that only one book of Merton’s was actually in the production stage and yet wasn’t published: Art and Worship. It was to have gone to press in 1959. The galleys sheets survive at the Thomas Merton Center in Louisville. Also on file there is the correspondence about the project. It makes for entertaining reading to see various friends struggling to bring Merton up-to-date on religious art. An expert, the art historian Eloise Spaeth, was enlisted as a kind of professor-by-post to ferry Merton’s tastes into the modern world. In the end she could see no way to rescue either Merton or his book. She was appalled with Merton’s “‘sacred artist’ who keeps creeping out with his frightful icons.”
Merton’s aesthetic heresy was his view that Christian religious art had been more dead than alive for centuries. What he had hoped to do with his small book was to sensitize some of his readers to an understanding of religious art that, in the west at least, had been abandoned in the Renaissance and afterward simply forgotten. It was, in brief, a work in praise of icons and their recovery.
“It is the task of the iconographer,” he wrote, “to open our eyes to the actual presence of the Kingdom in the world, and to remind us that though we see nothing of its splendid liturgy, we are if we believe in Christ the Redeemer, in fact living and worshipping as ‘fellow citizens of the angels and saints, built upon the chief cornerstone with Christ.'”
At the time there were few indeed who were eager to read such observations. I can recall my own indifference to the icon cards — photos of 15th and 16th century Russian icons — he sent me in the sixties. I assumed some donor had dumped these pious cards on the monastery and Merton was making use of them as note paper.
In Art and Worship, Merton sought to explain what he regarded as the seven qualities of sacred art:
It is hieratic. That is it is concerned solely with the sacred, seeking to convey the awesomeness of the invisible and divine reality and to lead the beholder to awareness of the divine presence.
It is traditional. Far from being merely conventional, tradition constantly renews the everlasting newness of revelation. The icon is not the personal meditation of an individual artist but the fruit of many generations of belief uniting us to the witnesses of the resurrection. The icon is as much an instrument of the transmission of Christian tradition as the written or spoken word. Such art has much in common with bread-baking. No loaf of bread is signed and none is the work of a single generation.
It is living. It communicates a life of prayer, a life rooted in worship.
It is sincere, simple, direct, unaffected, unmanipulative, and unpretentious.
It is reverent, not seeking to draw attention to itself or sell anything. It guards against a too easy or too human familiarity with the divine. For example, a Savior icon is not a painting merely of “our dear friend Jesus” but at once portrays both his divinity as well as his manhood, his absolute demands on us as well as his infinite mercy.
It is spiritual. The icon is not an art object and has nothing to do with the commercial world, but exists only as an evangelical expression and an aid to worship. “The Spirit of God speaks to the faithful in between the lines of divine revelation, telling us things that are not evident to the inspection of scholarship or reason,” Merton comments. “So too the Spirit of God speaks behind the lines and colors of a sacred painting, telling the worshipper things the art critic cannot see.”
It is pure. It is not the work of a person who seeks to draw attention to himself. The iconographer, having been blessed by the church to carry on this form of silent evangelical activity, willingly and with gratitude works under the guidance of tradition.
I would add to Merton’s list three other qualities of sacred art:
It is silent. Over the past 800 years, most Western religious art has been increasingly full of action, often like a movie poster. In the icon there is a conscious avoidance of movement or theatrical gesture. It is rendered in the simplest manner. The stillness and silence of the icon, in the home setting no less than the church, creates an area of silence. The deep silence characteristic of a good icon is nothing less than the silence of Christ. St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch in the second century, made the observation: “He who possesses in truth the word of Jesus can hear even its silence.”
The icon is a revelation of theosis and transfiguration. We were made in the image and likeness of God but the image has been damaged and the likeness lost. The icon shows the recovery of wholeness. Over centuries of development, iconographers gradually developed away of communicating physical reality illuminated by Christ. The icon suggests the transfiguration that occurs to whomever has acquired the Holy Spirit. The icon is thus a witness to theosis, meaning deification. It is an ancient Christian teaching that “God became man so that man could become God.” Not that we become our own Creator but that we actually participate in God’s life.
It bears witness to the incarnation. The iconoclastic heresy of the 7th and 8th centuries, which resulted in the destruction of countless icons and persecution of those making or using them, was rooted in the idea that the humanity of Christ had been absorbed into his divinity; therefore to draw an image of Christ, representing as it did aspects of his physical appearance, stressed his humanity while obscuring his divinity.
The great theologian affirming the place of icons in Christian life was St. John of Damascus, writing from Mar Saba Monastery in the desert southeast of Jerusalem. In his essay On the Divine Images, he argues:
“If we made an image of the invisible God, we would certainly be in error … but we do not do anything of the kind; we do not err, in fact, if we make the image of God incarnate who appeared on earth in the flesh, who in his ineffable goodness, lived with men and assumed the nature, the volume, the form, and the color of the flesh…. Since the invisible One became visible by taking on flesh, you can fashion the image of him who you saw. Since He who has neither body nor form nor quantity nor quality, who goes beyond all grandeur by the excellence of his nature, He, being of divine nature, took on the condition of a slave and reduced himself to quantity and quality by clothing himself in human features. Therefore, paint on wood and present for contemplation Him who desired to become visible.”
From time to time Merton returned to the subject of sacred art in his letters. In the last year of his life, for example, there are two letters of importance to us that were addressed to a Quaker correspondent, June Yungblut. She had sent him the manuscript of a book by her husband on great prophets of history in which one chapter was devoted to Jesus of Nazareth. June hoped Merton might read and comment on the Jesus chapter.
Merton replied with the confession that he was still “hung up in a very traditional Christology.” He wasn’t drawn, he went on, to a Christ who was merely an historical figure possessing “a little flash of the light” but to “the Christ of the Byzantine icons.”
In her response June Yungblut expressed dismay with the phrase, “the Christ of the Byzantine icons.” Didn’t Merton feel a shiver to use the word Byzantine? Didn’t “Byzantine” signify the very worst in both Christianity and culture? And weren’t icons of about as much artistic significance as pictures on cereal boxes?
In March 1968 Merton replied explained what he meant in linking himself with the “Christ of the Byzantine icons.” The whole tradition of iconography, he said,
represents a traditional experience formulated in a theology of light, the icon being a kind of sacramental medium for the illumination and awareness of the glory of Christ within us. . . . What one ‘sees’ in prayer before an icon is not an external representation of a historical person, but an interior presence in light, which is the glory of the transfigured Christ, the experience of which is transmitted in faith from generation to generation by those who have ‘seen,’ from the Apostles on down. . . . So when I say that my Christ is the Christ of the icons, I mean that he is reached not through any scientific study but through direct faith and the mediation of the liturgy, art, worship, prayer, theology of light, etc., that is all bound up with the Russian and Greek tradition.
It is with such words as these, still bearing the stamp of his experience of many years before in Rome, that we can better understand the significance for Merton of the hand-written icon, originally from Mount Athos, that he was given in 1965, the year he was beginning his hard apprenticeship as a hermit living in a small cinderblock house in the woods near the monastery.
The icon of the Mother of God and the Christ Child — the unexpected gift of his Greek friend, Marco Pallis, a scholar of Tibetan Buddhism — was for Merton like a kiss from God. He wrote Pallis in response:
“How shall I begin? I have never received such a precious and magnificent gift from anyone in my life. I have no words to express how deeply moved I was to come face to face with this sacred and beautiful presence granted to me. . . . At first I could hardly believe it. . . . It is a perfect act of timeless worship. I never tire of gazing at it. There is a spiritual presence and reality about it, a true spiritual ‘Thaboric’ light, which seems unaccountably to proceed from the Heart of the Virgin and Child as if they had One heart, and which goes out to the whole universe. It is unutterably splendid. And silent. It imposes a silence on the whole hermitage . . . [This] icon of the Holy Mother came as a messenger at a precise moment when a message was needed, and her presence before me has been an incalculable aid in resolving a difficult problem.”
One final document draws attention to the place the silent icon had in the life of this tireless writer. It is a list of the few personal possessions that Merton had brought with him on his trip to Asia, the journey that led to sudden death by electrocution at a conference near Bangkok. These same small items accompanied his body when it was flown back to his monastery in America in December 1968:
1 Timex Watch
1 Pair Dark Glasses in Tortoise Frames
1 Cistercian Leather Bound Breviary
1 Small Icon on Wood of Virgin and Child
From his father’s deathbed in London to the most ancient churches of Rome to his hermitage in Kentucky to his dying day in Thailand, icons figured in Merton’s life, not merely as art objects but as witnesses to the Incarnation and aids in the mystical life.
One of the most haunting phrases in Thomas Merton’s writing is a passage in The Sign of Jonas in which he speaks of God as “mercy within mercy within mercy.” It suggests that God is like a Russian matryoshka doll: open one and there is the surprise of another nested within. In life too the shell of the word “God” keeps breaking open only to reveal our unbroken, merciful maker still there: always present, always elusive.
It’s not only God who is elusive. From infancy onward, each of us is vast, mysterious, unmapped continent. Thomas Merton, for example. His books fill several library shelves, including not only what he personally prepared for publication but five volumes of letters plus a seven-volume set of his unexpurgated journals. And now there is The Intimate Merton, a selection of journal highlights. In the history of Christianity there is no monk about whom we know so much, yet Merton is still evading us like a matryoshka doll containing an infinity of selves.
It’s more than half a century since, with the publication of The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton first found himself in the limelight. It was the autobiography of a young man born in France as the First World War was breaking out, who lost his parents at an early age, who was raised with the most modern ideas current in Europe between the wars, a lonely young man constantly testing life’s borders, crossing the ocean to the New World when his London guardian gave up on him. Finally he found his way to the Catholic Church and then to a Trappist monastery — a religious community which was, when he joined it, a twentieth century outpost of medieval culture in which silence-guarding monks communicated with each other chiefly by sign language and slept in dormitories on straw-filled mattresses, going to bed at sunset and starting their day with Latin chant at the dark hour of 2 A.M.
The Seven Storey Mountain was the runaway bestseller publishers dream of but rarely experience. The first printing was a modest 7,500 copies, but a second printing of 20,000 was needed prior to the official publication day in September 1948. The next month, orders for 5,900 more copies were received; in November, 13,000; in December, 31,000. On one record-breaking day, 10,000 copies were ordered. In May 1949 Merton’s editor, Robert Giroux, hand-delivered copy number 100,000, specially bound in leather, as a gift for the author. The book has sold millions of copies, been translated into many languages, and never gone out of print.
Other books followed, one or two a year, among them: Seeds of Contemplation, The Sign of Jonas, No Man is an Island, The Silent Life, Disputed Questions, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Raids on the Unspeakable and many more — meditations, poetry, essays, literary criticism, translations, books based on extracts from his journals. The fact that Merton died in 1968, age 54, while attending a monastic conference in Thailand, has not interrupted the flow of books. Merton has been prolific even in death. (There is still at least one book yet to be published, Art and the Sacred.)
I’m one of those who knew him, a relationship mainly of correspondence begun at the encouragement of Dorothy Day. I was 20 years old at the time, a new member of the Catholic Worker staff in New York City. Merton was 46. For seven years, until his death, we exchanged many letters. During two visits to the monastery, we met repeatedly. His care, advice and prayers helped keep me from getting altogether lost in the celebrated, notorious, disorienting, bewildering Sixties.
During that first visit early in 1962, when I admired the white woolen choir robe Merton was wearing for winter use in the church, he immediately took it off so I could try it on. Its weight and solidity astonished me. Now I reflect on the intimacy in the gesture, like a father who lets his son turn the car’s ignition key even through his legs are not yet long enough to reach the gas pedal. I felt very much his care and protection.
His letters were often deeply personal, at times full of anguish. Some had a confessional quality, as did many of mine. Thus it’s possible to say that, despite the difference in age, I knew him well, though in another sense I began to know him only after his death. I recall what a surprise it was, several years after the last letter arrived, re-reading them all in sequence. It seemed I was reading them for the first time. They still surprise me whenever I go back to them. The same thing has happened with his books: as I get older, they seem to open their covers more widely. The first time I read The Seven Storey Mountain, I overlooked his sense of humor. The second time I noticed how funny he was, but was put off by the Catholics-Are-Best pages and by his occasional outbursts of preaching. Three or four readings later, I finally came to see the book as mainly belonging to the category of love letters.
Now his journals, kept under lock and key for 25 years after his death, are available to anyone who cares to read them. These, in combination with the letters, give both friend and stranger the opportunity to meet a very private Merton. On many pages it’s a Merton who previously was known only to fellow monks who heard his confessions.
Many of the confessional pages have to do with being a writer. Merton the Writer was often struggling with his archenemy, the Merton whom God had called to solitude and silence. No one is more struck or deeply troubled by the irony of a supposedly silent Trappist monk being a loud voice in the world than Merton himself, yet even this battle is recorded with words written on paper. It was an argument which went on year after year. He found himself writing his life rather than living it. In October, 1961, when an editor arrived at the monastery to work with him on The Thomas Merton Reader, Merton noted that such an anthology made it clear that he is “a writer who has arrived” but wonders what that actually means. “Arrived where? Void. Has there ever been anything else in my life but the construction of this immense illusion?” In another entry, he accused himself of being nothing more than a “publicist of emptiness.” No one was better than Merton himself in justifying his vocation to write, yet at the same time no one was more suspicious of his own defenses. He suffered from wanting to be noticed and to matter in the world, to aspire through the printed word to be a someone rather than a nobody. At other times he realized that writing was the door God had given him to a deeper spiritual and even mystical life. Of the various paradoxes in his life, none caused him more affliction than the tension between word and silence. He kept writing — and kept vowing to write less, so that he might finally disappear into silence.
There were also his grave doubts about remaining at Gethsemani, to which he committed himself by the traditional Benedictine vow of stability when he took his final vows in 1947. At the age of 26, during his first visit to Gethsemani, the abbey had seemed to him to be the secret place whose Christ-centered purity held the country together and even “kept the universe from cracking in pieces and falling apart … the only real city in America … the axle around which the whole country blindly turns.” He had found himself in the court of the Queen of Heaven and wanted nothing so much as to live there for the rest of his life. But by the time he was a fully professed monk, he was often more aware of the community’s faults than its virtues, filling many journal pages with complaints about Trappist shortcomings and other pages with his ideas about better places to pursue the contemplative life. There were bitter moments when he felt “like a duck in a chicken coop.” His longings to leap over the wall are not news to anyone who knows Merton’s biography, but the journals bring home how often and desperately Merton’s eyes rested on what he imagined to be finer, greener pastures: monasteries he regarded as simpler, poorer, smaller, more hidden, more silent, less busy. At the same time the journals underline the astonishing fact that, for all his temptations to leave, he remained a monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani until his dying day — the 27th anniversary of his arrival at Gethsemani, as it happened.
Merton also records his failures as a monk. To those acquainted with his life, the most well known was his poignant, short-lived affair with a nurse he met while a patient in a Louisville hospital. It is hard to imagine a personal record of anyone’s experience of love being more complete than Merton’s journal in the spring of 1966 — one moment savoring a visit with his beloved at a café in Louisville, the next lashing himself for the deceit and the breaking of vows such meetings required. But many other defects are recorded in his journals, the most compelling of which is his failure to love others in his community.
The journals give us many examples of Merton’s tendency first to embrace, then take distance. For example at the end of March, 1968, we find him beside himself with enthusiasm for one of the most controversial comedians of the Sixties. Merton writes that the previous evening he had been reading The Essential Lenny Bruce and that it “almost blew” his mind. “Completely gone in laughter, the kind that doubles you up and almost makes you roll on the floor. Surely that is some indication of the healthiness, the sanity of this satire which so many people regard as ‘obscene’.” Merton comments that Bruce is actually “one of the few who are really clean.” Eighteen days later, his zeal has taken a nosedive. “Last evening I finished Lenny Bruce. Sometimes he is really inspired — sometimes just dull. And though he is in some sense a kind of ‘martyr’ for honesty, yet I think his gospel of excess was delusive and self-destroying.” It’s a typical pattern — an initial burst of wild, unchecked enthusiasm followed by a sharply critical assessment often followed by a sober recognition of the pluses and minuses of the particular author or movement or whatever had caught his eye.
In the journals we often meet the first state of passages and essays we know through other books, shined up and expanded but sometimes lacking griddle-hot freshness. There is, for example, his “Fourth and Walnut Epiphany” when, waiting for the light to change at a busy intersection, he was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization “that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs … even though we were total strangers.” In the form published in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Merton felt that he had awaked from a dream of separateness, “of spurious self-isolation in a … world of renunciation and supposed holiness.” He found that “the whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream” and noted that his “sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud.” For a moment he had been able to see the image of God in unknown people. “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun …” He had discovered that “the gate of heaven is everywhere.”
It’s a fine passage revealing a great compassion opening within him. Now, thanks to the publication of the journals, we have access to his first attempt to put in writing what had happened to him on March 18, 1958, and find in it a remarkable paragraph which didn’t make its way into Conjectures. Here he writes about the women who were among the strangers at Fourth and Walnut:
“I am keenly conscious, not of their beauty (I hardly think I saw anyone really beautiful by special standards), but of their humanity, their womanness. But what incomprehensible beauty is there, what secret beauty that would perhaps be inaccessible to me if I were not dedicated to a different way of life. It is as though by chastity I had come to be unafraid of what is most pure in all the women of the world and to taste and sense the secret beauty in their girls’ hearts as they walked in the sunlight — each one secret and good and lovely in the sight of God … as good as and even more beautiful than life itself. For the womanness that is in each of them is at once original and inexhaustibly fruitful, bringing the image of God into the world. In this each one of them is Wisdom and Sophia and Our Lady…”
It’s also at the end of the Fifties that Merton begins to take note of his dream life. It’s here that we find Sophia — Wisdom — as an occasional nighttime guest whose visits illumine his waking hours. Merton, like a number of Russian theologians of the last century whose work attracted him, is held captive by those passages in the Book of Proverbs concerning Wisdom — Wisdom “playing in the world before the face of the Creator.” Like much in Merton’s later spiritual development, streams flowing through the Orthodox Church had touched him. It was in Constantinople that the principal church was dedicated to Holy Wisdom: Hagia Sophia. At a time when few Catholics were interested in Eastern Christianity, the journals make clear how often Merton was dropping a pail into the Orthodox well through such writers as Paul Evdokimov, Olivier Clément and Sergei Bulgakov and how they in turn were helping bring Sophia to life in his dreams.
There is also the day-by-day record of his study of Zen and other schools of Buddhism, of the mystic movements in Islam, the writing of the Chinese sage Chuang Tzu, and on and on. In these activities, Merton seems at times like a cat exploring every corner and crawlspace of a great mansion with many wings — even though his explorations had to be carried on mainly through reading and correspondence rather than direct experience of other religious traditions. He never participated in the Liturgy in an Orthodox Church, and only at the end of his life did he briefly experience the culture and practice of Buddhism as it is lived rather than written about.
For all his absorption in non-Christian religious traditions, the journals give witness to the Christ-centered life Merton lived down to very end, saying Mass daily in Asia just as he had in Kentucky, praying the rosary, traveling with his Trappist breviary, keeping the monastic offices and at night setting a small Greek icon of the Mother of God with Christ in her arms next to his bed.
It is in his journals more than any other book that his own hidden religious life is made visible, with the Liturgy at its center — something so basic, so ordinary, so daily that while it is often mentioned, it’s mainly in passing. Notably, the final paragraph in his journals, written in Bangkok on the 8th of December, is this:
“Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. In a little while I leave the hotel. I’m going to say Mass at St. Louis Church [St. Louis was his patron saint], have lunch at the Apostolic Delegation, and then to go on to the Red Cross place [for the monastic conference] this afternoon.”
We have that one final matter-of-fact reference to the Liturgy, an event as ordinary for him as breathing. Two days later the monks who had come to hear him speak were singing the prayers for the dead over his stilled body. Thomas Merton had finally entered the great silence.
At the end of 1965, Merton noted in his journal, “I live a flawed and inconsequential life, believing in God’s love.” It is finally a sense of God’s love and mercy which pervades the journals and marks the life of this remarkable if elusive monk whose writings have touched so many lives.
* * *
This essay was written for the April 2000 issue of U.S. Catholic and may not be reprinted without the permission both of the author and Claretian Publications in Chicago. The photo of Thomas Merton by John Howard Griffin.
Merton’s friend, Bob Lax, says Jim Forest’s biography of Thomas Merton, Living With Wisdom, is the book about Merton he gives to his nephews and nieces. Jim’s most recent books are The Ladder of the Beatitudes and Praying with Icons. He is now working on a book about confession.
[lecture given at Boston College 13 November 1995]
by Jim Forest
“I believe in one God.” These few words overturn an ancient perception in which each fragment of existence — stars, ocean, winds, trees, animals, grasses, this or that region, this or that people — was at odds with everything else, and each attached to autonomous, competing deities. To speak not of gods plural but of God singular is to realize the connection that exists beneath all the chasms of apparent separation. The discovers of the oneness of God, the Jews, brought an idea into human history that remains as challenging today as ever it was: we are one people belonging to one God and in that oneness are sewn together: living, dead and yet to be born.
An overwhelming fascination with the underlying oneness of God and the implications of that oneness in both the spiritual life and the social order is at the core of Thomas Merton’s journey.
In the life of Thomas Merton, the words “I believe in one God” are connected to a mystical experience that happened to him in the year just prior to his becoming a monk. In was the spring of 1940. A rather innocent America was inching its reluctant way into World War II. Merton, 25-years-old, a graduate student at Columbia University, had gone to Cuba during the Easter recess, pilgrimage and vacation intertwined.
The event happened among crowds of school children at Mass in the Church of Saint Francis in Havana. Having only moments before been full of irritation with the intrusive noises of urban life outside the church, not least the repeated cry “quatro mil quatro ciento quatro” by a vendor selling lucky numbers, Merton suddenly had an overwhelming experience of the divine presence:
The bell rang again, three times. Before any head was raised the clear cry of the brother in the brown robe cut through the silence with the words “Yo creo…” [“I believe”] which immediately all the children took up after him with such loud and strong and clear voices, and such unanimity and such meaning and such fervor that something went off inside me like a thunderclap and without seeing anything or apprehending anything extraordinary through any of my senses (my eyes were open on only precisely what was there, the church), I knew with the most absolute and unquestionable certainty that before me, between me and the altar, somewhere in the center the church, up in the air (or any other place because in no place), but directly before my eyes, or directly present to some apprehension or other of mine which was above that of the senses, was at the same time God in all His essence, all His power, all His glory, and God in Himself and God surrounded by the radiant faces of the uncountable thousands upon thousands of saints contemplating His glory and praising His Holy Name. And so the unshakable certainty, the clear and immediate knowledge that Heaven was right in front of me, struck me like a thunderbolt and went through me like a flash of lightning and seemed to lift me clean up off the earth.
To say that this was the experience of some kind of certainty is to place it as it were in the order of knowledge, but it was not just the apprehension of a reality, of a truth, but at the same time and equally a strong movement of delight, great delight, like a great shout of joy, and in other words it was as much an experience of loving as of knowing something, and its love and knowledge were completely inseparable. All this was caused directly by the great mercy and kindness of God when I heard the voices of the children cry out “I believe” in front of the altar…. It was not due to anything I had done for my own part, or due to any particular virtue in me at all but only to the kindness of God manifesting itself in the faith of all those children. Besides, it was in no way an extraordinary kind of experience, but only one that had greater intensity than I had experienced before. The certitude of faith was the same kind of certitude that millions of Catholics and Jews and Hindus and everybody that believes in God must have felt much more surely and more often than I, and the feeling of joy was the same kind of gladness that everybody who has ever loved anybody or anything has felt; there is nothing esoteric about such things, and they happen to everybody, absolutely everybody, to some degree or other. These movements of God’s grace are peculiar to nobody, but they stir in everybody, for it is by them that God calls people to Him[self], and He calls everybody…. [T]hey are common to every creature that ever was born with a soul. But we tend to destroy these effects, and bury them under our own sins and selfishness and pride and lust so that we feel them less and less.
In The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton again sought once again to describe what he had experienced in Havana:
It was a light that was so bright that it had no relation to any visible light and so profound and so intimate that it seemed like a neutralization of every lesser experience. And yet the thing that struck me most of all was that this light was in a certain sense “ordinary” — it was a light (and this most of all was what took my breath away) that was offered to all, to everybody, and there was nothing fancy or strange about it…. It disarmed all images, all metaphors … it ignored all sense experience in order to strike directly at the heart of truth … it … belonged to the order of knowledge, yes, but more still to the order of love.
Surely this was, for Merton, what later in life he sometimes referred to as a “kiss from God.”
If the event was consoling, the times were not. While Merton was listening to the Creed being sung in Havana, France, where he was born at the beginning of World War I, was already occupied by Germany, while England, where he went to high school and began his higher education, was under German bombardment. Places in London that had once been Merton’s haunts — record shops, cinemas, cafes, the homes of friends — had been demolished by bombs. Former classmates from Clare College were at war, no doubt some of them dead. In his diaries and autobiographical writings, we notice how much time and thought Merton was giving to the widening war in Europe. As was often the case in his life, his personal response was unusual. He registered with Selective Service as a conscientious objector, though prepared for noncombatant service as a medic. In such a role, he wrote in his journal, “I would not have to kill men made in the image and likeness of God” but could obey the divine law of “serving the wounded and saving lives.” Even if it turned out that he would only dig latrines, he considered this “a far greater honor to God than killing men.”
Writing his autobiography fifteen years later, he expanded on his decision in a text which startled many readers, appearing as it did in the early days of the Cold War:
[God] was not asking me to judge all the nations of the world, or to elucidate all the moral and political motives behind their actions. He was not demanding that I pass some critical decision defining the innocence and guilt of all those concerned in the war. He was asking me to make a choice that amounted to an act of love for His truth, His goodness, His charity, His Gospel…. He was asking me to do, to the best of my knowledge, what I thought Christ would do…. After all, Christ did say, “Whatsoever you have done to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”
December 10, 1941, a year-and-a-half after his sojourn in Havana, only two days after US entry into World War II, we find Merton, nearly 27 years old, not waiting his turn at the local recruiting office but entirely by himself, ringing the gatehouse bell at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in the farmland of Kentucky.
His first 27 of life years were bracketed by two world wars: mega-death, death on the scale of plague. But he also knew of death at closer quarters. His mother died of cancer when he was six, his father when he was sixteen. While Merton’s father was lying on a London hospital bed in an dreadful silence imposed by a brain tumor, we find the son in tight-lipped silence as the Creed was being recited in the school chapel. “I believe in nothing” was his bitter view at age fifteen.
Then there was Merton’s own close brush with death in 1932, soon after Owen Merton’s burial. Merton, age seventeen, had gone hiking in Germany along the Rhine River and been run off the road by a car full of young Nazis waving their fists and throwing Hitler leaflets. What seemed at first a minor injury proved nearly fatal — a gangrenous toe and blood poisoning. Thus Merton came to know the main facts about people and movements that regarded murder as socially cleansing — or simply a form of entertainment.
Merton’s sense of evil in the world was not limited to evil beyond the walls of his life but informed by a sense of his own capacity to harm others. He had come to America following a disastrous year at Cambridge where his major achievement was to father an illegitimate child. It was a hellish interval in Merton’s life, “an incoherent riot of undirected passion,” said Merton; a time of “beer, bewilderment and sorrow,” says his compassionate friend, Bob Lax.
It was out of the wreckage of his year at Clare College that Merton struggled to make a fresh start as a student at Columbia in New York City. Here, partly thanks to the influence of remarkable teachers and an attraction to books on medieval Europe, he had found his way to Christian faith and into the Catholic Church. It was the major turning point in his life, but one which only made more dramatic the fundamental question of what to do with the rest of his life. The trip to Cuba, a country in which religious life and Catholicism were taken for granted, was a part of his search for a glimpse of his vocation.
The mystery of death, the problem of war, the experience of making destructive choices, his encounter with structures of institutionalized evil — all these were to become major themes in Merton’s work, but always with a sensibility informed by the oneness of God.
“I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ.” Mystical experiences are powerful realizations of the presence of God and probably happen in most people’s lives, though we may not recognize them for what they are, or explain them away because they don’t fit, or relegate them to a sea chest in the attic of memory. At times the word mysticism impedes our understanding of mystical life — it has become a kind of perfumed cloud bank within which edges are blurred and everything melts together, a word disconnected from the incarnational. Merton was never one to smudge the edges of reality. His mystical experiences gave existence a razor sharpness.
We know of a several mystical experiences in Merton’s life because it was his writer’s nature to record them. The first he records happened in February 1933 when, having finished high school early, he set off for an extended holiday in Italy.
What his brush with death the year before hadn’t done, Rome did. It was not the usual sights that moved him, neither the “vapid, boring, semi-pornographic statuary of the Empire” nor the ecclesiastical monuments of the Renaissance and Counter-Reformation that he had first sought out as a dutiful tourist. Rather, it was the city’s most ancient churches.
“I was fascinated by these Byzantine mosaics. I began to haunt the churches where they were to be found, and … all the other churches [among them Saints Cosmas and Damian, Santa Maria Maggiore, Santa Sabina, the Lateran, and Santa Costanza] that were more or less of the same period…. Without knowing anything about it, I became a pilgrim.”
The principal icons were windows through which he felt Christ’s gaze. “For the first time in my whole life I began to find out something of who this Person was that men call Christ…. It is the Christ of the Apocalypse, the Christ of the Martyrs, the Christ of the Fathers. It is the Christ of St. John, and of St. Paul…. It is Christ God, Christ King.”
Eager to understand iconography, he bought an English translation of the New Testament. Perhaps he recalled his father’s efforts to interest him in the Bible when he was ten. “I read more and more of the Gospels, and my love for the old churches and their mosaics grew from day to day.” Their attraction wasn’t simply his appreciation of the aesthetics of iconography but a profound sense of peace he experienced within such walls. He had a “deep and strong conviction that I belonged there.”
Alone one night in his pensione room on the corner of Via Sistina and Via Tritone, trying to record in his journal his thoughts about Byzantine icons, he sensed his father’s presence, “as real and startling as if he had touched my arm or spoken to me.” The experience was over in a flash, “but in that flash, instantly, I was overwhelmed with a sudden and profound insight into the misery and corruption of my own soul…. And now, I think for the first time in my whole life, I really began to pray … praying out of the very roots of my life and my being, and praying to the God I had never known.”
The next day, still overwhelmed by contrition, he visited the Church of Santa Sabina. Once inside, he knew that he had to pray there. It was impossible to play the guidebook-studying tourist any longer. Yet public prayer was intensely embarrassing. All he could manage that first day was to cross himself with blessed water as he entered and to recite with tears the Our Father over and over again as he knelt down at the altar rail. “That day in Santa Sabina, although the church was almost empty, I walked across the stone floor mortally afraid that a poor devout old Italian woman was following me with suspicious eyes.” For all his fears, he walked out feeling reborn. His final week in Rome was a time of joy such as he hadn’t known in years.
Icons continued to play a significant role in Merton’s life. In letters written in 1967 and 1968, he said that he wasn’t drawn to a Christ who was merely a historical figure possessing “a little flash of the light” but to “the Christ of the Byzantine icons” who “represents a traditional experience formulated in a theology of light, the icon being a kind of sacramental medium for the illumination and awareness of the glory of Christ within…. What one ‘sees’ in prayer before an icon is not an external representation of a historical person, but an interior presence in light, which is the glory of the transfigured Christ, the experience of which is transmitted in faith from generation to generation by those who have ‘seen,’ from the Apostles on down…. So when I say that my Christ is the Christ of the icons, I mean that he is reached not through any scientific study but through direct faith and the mediation of the liturgy, art, worship, prayer, theology of light, etc., that is all bound up with the Russian and Greek tradition.” One of the few personal objects Merton carried with him on his pilgrimage to Asia, where he died in 1968, was a small icon of Mary and Christ.
From Italy Merton went on to the United States for a family visit. He brought his Bible along, but the embarrassment he had felt in trying to pray that first day in Santa Sabina still haunted him. He read the Bible surreptitiously, afraid someone would make fun of him. Nonetheless he began to window-shop for a church. Despite the at-homeness he had felt in Roman churches, a long-standing aversion to Catholicism remained. He tried the Zion Episcopal Church to which his grandparents belonged and where his father had once been organist, but the service only irritated him. He next went to a Quaker Meeting in Flushing. His mother had been a Quaker and had meditated there. He enjoyed the silence while it lasted but was annoyed by what one member had to say about the virtues of the Swiss but even if it been George Fox risen from the dead and preaching with earthquake force it’s unlikely Merton would have found his spiritual home in among Quakers. What had thrilled him in those iconed churches in Rome wasn’t here. He didn’t return.
It took another five years before Merton had overcome the primary barriers to conversion. It was in November 1938 that he was received into the Church. But his expereince in Rome in 1933 would for the rest of his life keep him from shrinking Christ down to just one more of the long-dead luminaries of antiquity. He had experienced the Christ of the Byzantine icons: the Risen Christ, the Christ who has the power to raise to heal the blind and bring the dead back to live, the Christ who will come again in glory, the Christ of the Last Judgment.
“I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” At the heart of Merton’s vocation was what might be called his search for “the undivided Church.” This is something more than the Church before division a thousand years ago or the Church brought back into union at a future time, but the Church as it always exists in communion beneath its divisions, the Church that is one, holy, catholic and apostolic despite countless broken relationships among the followers of Jesus. To the extent we live in Christ, to the same extent we are drawn into a deeper communion.
His search was less hampered than would be the case for many others. One of the unusual factors in his life was that he grew up without a strong sense of nationally-defined identity. Growing up on both sides of the Atlantic, he had an experience of the world and its cultural variety that was rare among Americans, an experience not only of what divides people but what connects them. He had lived in France, England and America, and there was also an extended period of his childhood spent in the Caribbean. Not only did he live in these places but there is a sense in which he also escaped from each of them. By the time he made America his home, he was a British subject, but it was only long after becoming a monk that he applied for US citizenship, a happy event in his life when it happened, but he was never one drawn to the pseudo-religion of nationalism. He had experienced the revival of nationalism under the Nazis in Germany and encountered the “my country right of wrong” way of thinking in both Britain and America.
He was far more interested in a religious than a national community and this was no doubt a factor in his attraction to Catholicism: truly a world church. Within it he found his monastery home — a community, as it turned out, with French roots in which his facility with the French language was at times a helpful resource, especially when the Abbot General, a Frenchmen, came to visit.
One finds in Merton an ever-deepening longing for a unity that exists not only beneath geographical borders but beneath the borders drawn by details of personal identity, borders of belief, even the borders left by events in the past: truly a longing to be catholic — lower case c — in the deepest sense of the word.
But it was only 17-years into his monastic life that Merton was able to overcome a sense of radical separation from those who didn’t share his religious faith or have an affinity for the monastic life. In this regard, we note another mystical experience in his life, in March, 1958, when he was on an editorial errand in Louisville, the city nearest the monastery:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream…. This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud…. It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake…. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun…. There are no strangers!…. If only we could see each other [as we really are] all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…. I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other…. the gate of heaven is every-where.
Seen in the context of sacramental life, Merton’s experience was eucharistic. To receive communion is to be in communion, and while we use the phrase “in communion” to refer to people able to receive the Eucharist, its significance is wider. Eucharistic life leads us gradually to discover how unalterably we are wedding to each other. While not many of us are graced with the experience of actually seeing that we are each of us made in the image of God (it is hard to see when most of is have so disfigured the likeness), still each of us has had at least occasional moments of awareness through which we know the truth of John Donne’s phrase, “no man is an island.” We discover, or re-discover, that we are part of a social organism in which God has identified Himself and in which God is present.
As he stood at that busy urban intersection, Merton was given an experience of communion with those around him which had the brilliance of lightning. “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun,” he remarks. No, there isn’t. But his contribution to us is that he tried to do so, not only sharing that days’s gift from God but a day-by-day record of spiritual experience.
It was after this event, Msgr. William Shannon, the editor of several collections of Merton’s letters notes, that Merton’s correspondence takes off.
One of those he started writing to was Dorothy Day, founder the Catholic Worker movement, someone as much identified with the world as he was associated with leaving the world. It became clear to Merton, though it was no surprise to Dorothy Day, that the monastic life on the edges of society and the life of hospitality in the midst of urban life were deeply connected. For the rest of his life Merton was linked with the Catholic Worker movement and other several groups and communities seeking to care for abandoned members of society and to oppose economic and military structures that can throw people away without batting an eye.
In a talk he gave in Calcutta a few weeks before he died, Merton said, “The deepest level of communication is … communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear brothers [and sisters], we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. What we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.”
One groundbreaking element of Merton’s life was passion for dialogue with conteplatives of other religious traditions, not so much to discuss doctrine as methods of prayer, meditation and mystical experience. His interest in the eastern religions had deep roots in his life. When he was 15, he took Gandhi’s side in student debate. Living in New York seven years later, it was a Hindu monk from India, Bramachari, who encouraged Merton to read The Imitation of Christ. While drafting his dissertation on William Blake, Merton had discovered Chuang Tzu, the Chinese storytelling sage who had lived several hundred years before Christ.
In the late fifties Merton’s thinking led him back toward Asia. In 1956 he had begun reading everything he could find by D.T. Suzuki, the Japanese Zen Buddhist scholar. Three years later Merton initiated a correspondence with Suzuki, confessing he did not pretend to understand Zen but nonetheless owed a great debt to Suzuki. “Time after time, as I read your pages, something in me says, ‘That’s it!’ Don’t ask me what. I have no desire to explain it to anybody…. So there it is, in all its beautiful purposelessness.” He took the occasion to send Suzuki a collection of sayings of the Desert Fathers, the Zen Masters of the early church.
While Suzuki never came to Gethsemani, in 1964 Dom James had allowed Merton a short trip to New York to meet Suzuki, then age 94 and deaf but still the lively, responsive man Merton had anticipated. They drank green tea and talked. The main thing for Merton was “to see and experience the fact that there really is a deep understanding between myself and this extraordinary and simple man whose books I have been reading now for about ten years with great attention.” Suzuki told Merton a story about a great master’s dream in which his mother appeared to him with two mirrors, one in each sleeve. One was black, the other contained all things; the master found “himself among them, looking out.” Being with Suzuki, Merton “felt as if I had spent a few moments with my own family.”
Suzuki’s essays had revived Merton’s interest in Chuang Tzu. In 1961 he had enlisted the help of John Wu in preparing The Way of Chuang Tzu. “I have enjoyed writing this more than any other book I can remember…. I simply like Chuang Tzu because of what he is,” Merton commented in the book’s preface.
In the midst of the Vietnam War, in 1967, he had a visit from Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Zen Master and poet. For Merton it was like meeting Chuang Tzu in the flesh. As the two monks talked, the different religious systems in which they were formed didn’t seem to matter. “Thich Nhat Hanh is my brother,” Merton said a preface for a book by Nhat Hanh. “He is more my brother than many who are nearer to me in race and nationality, because he and I see things exactly the same way.” When Merton asked Nhat Hanh what the war was doing to Vietnam, the Buddhist said simply, “Everything is destroyed.” This, Merton said to the monks of Gethsemani, was truly a monk’s answer, revealing the essence without wasting a word. Merton described the rigorous formation of Buddhist monks in Vietnam and the fact that instruction in meditation doesn’t begin early. “Before you can learn to meditate,” he said, quoting Nhat Hanh, “you have to learn how to close the door.” The monks laughed; they were used to the reverberation of slamming doors as latecomers hurried to church.
Because Merton was drawn to develop relationships with non-Christians — Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists — casual readers occasionally form the impression that Merton’s bond with Christianity was wearing thin during the latter years of his life and that he was window-shopping for something else. It is not unusual to meet people who think that, had he only lived longer, he would have become a Buddhist. But as you get to know Merton’s life and writing more intimately, you come to understand that his particular door to communion with others was Christ Himself. Apart from times of illness, he celebrated Mass nearly every day of his life from the time of his ordination in 1949 until he died in Thailand 19 years later. Even while visiting the Dalai Lama in the Himalayas, he found time to recite the usual Trappist monastic offices. One of the great joys in the last years of his life was his abbot permitting the construction of a chapel adjacent to the cider block house that became Merton’s hermitage — he was blessed to celebrate the Liturgy where he lived. If there were any items of personal property to which he had a special attachment, they were the several hand-written icons that had been given to him, one of which traveled with him on his final journey. Few people lived so Christ-centered a life. But his Christianity was spacious. The Dalai Lama has remarked, “When I think of the word Christian, immediately I think — Thomas Merton!”
For Merton, his approach to Christ was nourished by the traditions of spiritual life that are associated more with the early than the modern Church. As he wrote in an as yet unpublished essay that was circulated in mimeographed form chiefly among Trappist monks:
If for some reason it were necessary for you to drink a pint of water taken out of the Mississippi River and you could choose where it was to be drawn out of the river would you take a pint from the source of the river in Minnesota or from the estuary in New Orleans?
The example is perhaps not perfect. Christian tradition and spirituality does not become polluted with development. That is not the idea at all. Nevertheless, tradition and spirituality are all the more pure and genuine in proportion as they are in contact with the original source and retain the same content.
He was drawn to the hesychast traditions of Mount Athos, especially the practice of the Jesus Pryer, or the Prayer of the Heart: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The goal in using this prayer is that it becomes an integral part of life so that truly one prays without ceasing. To breathe finally is the same as to pray.
We find Merton not altogether pleased with what happened to the Liturgy in the Catholic Church after the First Vatican Council. There are barbed comments in his writing about the decline of music and the loss of Latin — what one might call the Macdonald-ified Mass; fast-food worship. But at least of the Abbey of Gethsemani, prayer was not all a hurried event. But singing such hymns as “A Mighty Fortress is our God” had no attraction to Merton.
The liturgical changes associated with Vatican II resulted from decisions made at the Council’s first session. It was the latter work of the Council that Merton most identified with, especially the document that was approved at the Council’s last session, Guadium et Spes — the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. We see him taking an active role, insofar as correspondence allowed, in shaping this remarkable text which contains the one and only condemnation to emerge from the Council: “Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and humanity, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.” Emphasizing the role of conscience, the bishops called on states to make legal provision for those “who, for reasons of conscience, refuse to bear arms, provided that they agree to serve the human community in some other way.” Those who renounce violence altogether, seeking a more just and compassionate society by non-violent means, were honored: “We cannot fail to praise those who renounce the use of violence in vindication of their rights and who resort to methods of defense which are otherwise available to weaker parties too, provided this can be done without injury to the rights and duties of others or to the community itself.” Those who, in the name of obedience, obey commands which condemn the innocent and defenseless were described as “criminal,” while those who disobey such corrupt commands merit “supreme commendation.”
The final results followed closely what Merton had urged in an “open letter to the American hierarchy” published shortly before the last session of the Council.
Given Merton’s life and temperament, it is hardly surprising that the issues of war and peace mattered so much to him, that his vision was so unclouded by nationalism, and that these topics could not be separated from his understanding of what it meant to be a follower of Christ seeking the deepest levels of contemplative life.
Perhaps there is a certain providence not only in his dying where and when he did: one border removed from the war in Vietnam, and the 27th anniversary of his arrival of the Abbey of Gethsemani in 1941 in the days following US entry into World War II. There is also the significane of the way his body was brought back home — one more body in a US Air Force plane bringing back the dead from the war in Vietnam.
Let us thank God what Thomas Merton achieved in 54 years living among us: a Christian monk who responded with such joy to God’s presence in others and who could not be silent when his brothers and sisters were being made to suffer. He gave a witness to Christ, who killed no one and blessed no one to kill; who only healed. He brought many to faith and still more to a deeper faith. He helped to overcome divsion among Christians and left bridges which have helped bring Christians and non-Christians into dialogue at the level of spiritual experience. At the heart of his life we find a witness to God’s oneness, in which we find oneness. Not least, he gave a witness to catholic and apostolic life.
A lecture given by Jim Forest at the Thomas Merton conference held December 10, 2008, at the Cistercian abbey of Santa Maria di Chiaravalle di Fiastra, near Tolentino, Italy.
My contact with Thomas Merton, or Father Louis as he was known by his fellow monks, started in the summer of 1961. I had recently joined the Catholic Worker community in New York City, a house of hospitality mainly for street people in that part of Manhattan. Now called the East Village, it has become a fashionable area in which to live. In those days it was the Lower East Side, one of New York’s poorest and most avoided areas. In 1961, a cold-water flat could be rented for just $25 a month, sometimes a few dollars less.
It was thanks to Dorothy Day, leader of the Catholic Worker movement, that I came in contact with Merton. Dorothy — perhaps one day St. Dorothy, as the Archdiocese of New York is actively promoting her inclusion in the Church calendar — was one of Merton’s correspondents. Knowing of my interest in monastic life and my enthusiasm for Merton’s books, Dorothy suggested I write to him.
Not many days later I had a response in which Merton noted that we live in a time of war and the need “to shut up and be humble and stay put and trust in God and hope for a peace that we can use for the good of our souls.”
Our correspondence was to last seven years, until shortly before his death December 10, 1968, forty years ago today. (It’s also the 67th anniversary of his arrival at Gethsemani to begin monastic life: December 10, 1941.)
In December 1961, Merton suggested that perhaps I would like to come to the monastery for a visit. First I had to prepare the February issue of The Catholic Worker, our monthly newspaper, for publication — an issue that included an essay on nuclear weapons written by Merton. Early in February 1962, I was able to leave for Kentucky, hitchhiking all the way, a three-day journey, and then stay at the monastery, Our Lady of Gethsemani, for a week or two. Merton and I saw each other repeatedly each day. I was also able to sit in on his classes with the novices. I met him face-to-face only one more time, for a small retreat on peacemaking two-and-a-half years later. Otherwise our contact was entirely by letter — usually a letter or two per month from Merton — plus an occasional postcard.
The postcards were not unimportant. It was thanks to these that I first became aware of Merton’s interest in eastern Christianity and his own journey to the undivided Church. In the summer or fall of 1962 a postcard came, the image side of which I look back on as quite significant but at the time I regarded in vaguely negative terms: a black and white photograph of a sixteenth-century Russian icon: Mary with the child Jesus in her arms. Jesus, though infant-sized, looked more like a miniature man.
The image seemed to me formal, lifeless and absolutely flat, without artistic significance. Compared to the masterpieces of the Renaissance, this sort of thing struck me as little more than a child’s painting left over from the kindergarten of Church history.
Shortly after his death, when I made a complete set of photocopies of all Merton’s notes and letters to me, I didn’t bother to photocopy the image side of this or any of the other icon postcards he had sent me. I always assumed that Merton had no more taste for this kind of primitive Christian art than I did. I imagined some donor had given his monastery a box of icon postcards which Merton was using in the spirit of voluntary poverty.
It was only many years later, while writing Living With Wisdom, my biography of Merton, that it finally dawned on me how crucial a role icons had played in his life. No one could have been happier in sending out an icon photo to friends than Merton.
In fact I should have been aware of this side of Merton even before I met him. It’s something he writes about in The Seven Storey Mountain, in describing one of two catastrophes of his childhood. The first was his mother’s death from cancer when her son was only six. The second was his father’s death, ten years later, when Tom was a student at a residential high school in rural England. Owen Merton was suffering from a brain tumor that produced a large lump on his head and made him unable to speak. His sixteen-year -old son would occasionally go down to London and sit in mute silence next to his father’s bed in Middlesex Hospital while gazing at his father’s eyes.
Merton could see no meaning in what his happening to his father, whose misshapen head seemed to him like “a raw wound for which there was no adequate relief.” Having already lost his mother to cancer ten years earlier and now on the verge of becoming an orphan, he responded with fury to the religious platitudes he heard from the chaplain of his Anglican school. Clearly there was no “loving God.” Clearly life had no meaning. His parents’ fate was proof of that. “You had to take it like an animal,” he later wrote. The only lesson he could draw from his parents’ fate was to avoid as much pain as possible and take whatever pleasures you could out of life. At chapel services at his Anglican school in Oakham, Merton would no longer join in reciting the Creed. “I believe in nothing” summed up his creed at this point in his life.
Yet Owen Merton had another view of his own suffering which he finally managed to communicate to his son through drawings, the only “last word” he could manage in the silenced condition imposed by his brain tumor. Merton came to see his artist father in his hospital room and, to his amazement, found the bed littered with drawings “of little, irate Byzantine-looking saints with beards and great halos,” as he puts in is his autobiography. The younger Merton at the time didn’t know what to make of them. He had no eye for icons. He regarded Byzantine art, he later confessed in an unpublished autobiographical novel, The Labyrinth, as “clumsy and ugly and brutally stupid.”
Owen Merton died early in 1931. Two years passed. On Tom’s 18th birthday, January 31, 1933, having finished his studies at Oakham early, with more than half a year off before entering Clare College in Cambridge and with money in his pocket from his wealthy grandfather in America, Merton set off for an extended visit to France and Italy. He hiked along the Mediterranean coast of France, then took the train from St. Tropez to Genoa, then on to Florence and finally to Rome.
Once in Rome, for days he followed the main tourist track, a Baedeker guidebook in hand, but the big attractions, from the Roman Forum to St. Peter’s Basilica, left him bored or irritated. The architecture, statuary and painting of the Roman Empire, the Renaissance and the Counter-Reformation struck him as vapid and melodramatic. “It was so evident, merely from the masses of stone and brick that still represented the palaces and temples and baths, that imperial Rome must have been one of the most revolting and ugly and depressing cities the world has ever seen,” Merton wrote in The Seven Storey Mountain, words that still sound like the reflections of a bright, hyper-critical teenager. It seemed to him that the best one could say of ancient Rome was that it would have been an ideal set for a Hollywood film with a cast of thousands.
Perhaps we would never have heard of Thomas Merton had it not been for what happened when he made his way from the guidebook’s four-star attractions to those with three or two stars, or even one, and thus came to know some of Rome’s most ancient churches — San Clemente, Santa Sabina, Santa Maria Maggiore, Cosmas and Damiano, the Lateran, Santa Costanza, Santa Maria in Trastevere, San Prassede and others. These moved him in an unexpected and extraordinary way. On the walls of many of these churches he met extraordinary examples of the iconographic art he had seen in his father’s mysterious drawings made not long before Owen’s death.
These were all churches of sober design whose main decoration were mosaic icons, images of deep stillness, bold lines, vibrant colors and quiet intensity that have little in common with the more theatrical, illustrative art that was eventually to take over in the West. These ancient churches house some of the best surviving examples of the art of Christianity’s first millennium. In Santa Maria Maggiore, two long tiers of mosaic icons date from the fifth century.
Merton’s first such encounter with ancient Christian art was with a fresco in a ruined chapel in the Forum. Later he discovered a large mosaic over the altar at the church of Cosmas and Damiano, on the edge of the Forum, showing a calm, commanding Christ, with a fiery glow in the clouds beneath his feet. This was not at all the effeminate Jesus he had so often encountered in English art of the Victorian period. Along with Peter and Paul, the two unmercenary physicians stand on either side of Christ.
“I was fascinated by these Byzantine mosaics,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I began to haunt the churches where they were to be found, and, as an indirect consequence, all the other churches that were more or less of the same period. And thus without knowing anything about it, I became a pilgrim.”
“What a thing it was,” as he recalls in The Seven Storey Mountain, “to come upon the genius of an art full of spiritual vitality and earnestness and power — an art that was tremendously serious and alive and eloquent and urgent in all that it had to say …. [an art] without pretentiousness, without fakery, that had nothing theatrical about it. Its solemnity was made all the more astounding by its simplicity … and by its subservience to higher ends, architectural, liturgical and spiritual ends which I could not even begin to understand, but which I could not avoid guessing, since the nature of the mosaics themselves and their position and everything about them proclaimed it aloud.”
Through these icons, he began to understand not simply who Christ was but, far more important, who Christ is. In this crucial section of his autobiography, the crescendo comes in two intense paragraphs that read more like a litany than ordinary prose:
And now for the first time in my whole life I began to find out something of who this Person was that men call Christ. It was obscure but it was a true knowledge of Him, in some sense, truer than I know and truer than I would admit. But it was in Rome that my conception of Christ was formed, It was there I first saw Him, Whom I now serve as my King, and Who owns and rules my life. It is the Christ of the Apocalypse, the Christ of the Martyrs, the Christ of the Fathers. It is the Christ of Saint John, and of Saint Paul, and of St. Augustine and St. Jerome and all the Fathers — and of the Desert Fathers. It is Christ God, Christ King.
The intensity of the experiences reflected in this powerful litany may be due in part to the fact that Merton was alone in Rome, not part of a tour group. There is something about unhurried, unmediated, intimate face-to-face contact that can increase one’s vulnerability when standing before a great work of art. There is no schedule to keep; there are no guides or professors to explain, no handbooks, no captions, no bus to board in fifteen minutes, no idle chatter with people more interested in menus than mosaics.
Eager to decipher the iconographic images that so arrested his eyes, Merton bought a Bible. “I read more and more of the Gospels,” he wrote, “and my love for the old churches and their mosaics grew from day to day.”
The attraction of icons wasn’t simply due to Merton’s newly-gained appreciation of the aesthetics of iconography but a profound sense of the living Christ he experienced within the walls of churches graced with such imagery. Merton experienced, he said, “a deep and strong conviction that I belonged there.”
He desperately wanted to pray, to light a candle, to kneel down, to pray with his body as well as his mind, but found the prospect of publicly kneeling in a church alarming.
Finally one morning he climbed to the top of the Aventine Hill on the east side of the Tiber, crowned by the fifth-century church of Santa Sabina, one of the oldest and least spoiled churches in Rome. Once inside, he found he could no long play the guidebook-studying tourist: “Although the church was almost empty, I walked across the stone floor mortally afraid that a poor devout old Italian woman was following me with suspicious eyes.” He knelt down at the altar rail and, with tears, again and again recited the Our Father.
At age eighteen, Merton had undergone a mystical experience: an encounter with the living Christ. From that moment he had something against which to measure everything, whether himself or religious art or the Church in history. He knew what was counterfeit, not because of some theory but because of an experience of Christ mediated through iconography.
The pilgrimage that followed was nothing like an arrow’s direct flight to faith, baptism and the Church. The coming winter at Clare College was to prove a disastrous time in Merton’s life, the “nadir of winter darkness,” as he put it later on. He did more drinking than studying and fathered an illegitimate child. His well-to-do guardian in London wanted no further responsibility for Owen Merton’s wayward son and sent him packing to his grandparents in America.
Four years after arriving in New York, while a student at Columbia, Merton was received into the Catholic Church. Three years later, in 1941, he was a new member of the Trappist monastic community of the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Yet his encounter with icons was far from finished nor were icons the only aspect of the connection he developed with the “eastern” form of Christianity, the Orthodox Church.
For twenty years, beginning in the late 1940s, books poured from his pen at the average of two a year, many of them best sellers, many of them still in print.
It is striking to discover that only one book of Merton’s got as far as being set in type yet remained unpublished: Art and Worship. It was to have gone to press in 1959. The printer’s proof sheets survive at the Thomas Merton Study Center in Louisville. I have a photocopy in my home. But his publisher had second thoughts, fearing such a book would damage Merton’s reputation. The publisher enlisted the art historian, Eloise Spaeth, as a kind of professor-by-post to ferry Merton’s tastes into the modern world, but in the end she threw up her hands. She was appalled with Merton’s “sacred artist” who “keeps creeping out with his frightful icons.” Merton made an attempt at revising his book to please his publisher, but in the end gave up the project. I am hoping that sometime in the future the book will at last be printed.
Merton’s aesthetic failure was his view that Christian religious art had been more dead than alive for centuries and that what one found in the average Catholic parish church on the mid-twentieth century was third rate and sentimental. One of the his goals for his small book was to help his readers understand and value the icon, so much a part of Christian worship for the greater part of Christian history. But it was a tradition which, in the west at least, had been abandoned since the Renaissance and all but forgotten.
“It is the task of the iconographer,” Merton wrote in Art and Worship, “to open our eyes to the actual presence of the Kingdom in the world, and to remind us that though we see nothing of its splendid liturgy, we are, if we believe in Christ the Redeemer, in fact living and worshiping as ‘fellow citizens of the angels and saints, built upon the chief cornerstone with Christ’.”
It seemed to his publisher that such an opinion was embarrassingly dated. The sixties were about the unfold, but even in the fifties nothing could have been more out-of-fashion than classic iconography.
Yet Merton was never weaned of his love of this art form. Occasionally Merton returned to the topic of icons in letters. Only months before his death, he was in correspondence about icons with a Quaker correspondent, June Yungblut, in Atlanta. He confessed to her that books such as her husband was writing, which presented Jesus as one of history’s many prophetic figures, left him cold. He was, he told her, “hung up in a very traditional Christology.” He had no interest in a Christ who was merely a great teacher who possessed “a little flash of the light.” His Christ, he told her, was “the Christ of the Byzantine icons.”
June Yungblut was hardly alone in regarding the phrase “the Christ of the Byzantine icons” as scandalous. In our culture, the word “Byzantine” is rarely if ever used in a complimentary sense. Didn’t Merton feel a shiver to use the word “Byzantine”? Didn’t “Byzantine” signify the very worst both in Christianity and culture? And as for icons, weren’t they of about as much artistic significance as pictures on cereal boxes?
In a letter sent in March 1968, Merton explained what he meant by the “Christ of the Byzantine icons.” The whole tradition of iconography, he said,
represents a traditional experience formulated in a theology of light, the icon being a kind of sacramental medium for the illumination and awareness of the glory of Christ within us. … What one ’sees’ in prayer before an icon is not an external representation of a historical person, but an interior presence in light, which is the glory of the transfigured Christ, the experience of which is transmitted in faith from generation to generation by those who have “seen,” from the Apostles on down. … So when I say that my Christ is the Christ of the icons, I mean that he is reached not through any scientific study but through direct faith and the mediation of the liturgy, art, worship, prayer, theology of light, etc., that is all bound up with the Russian and Greek tradition.
Even among Orthodox writers, one rarely finds so insightful and yet so succinct a presentation of the theology of icons.
What Merton had learned about icons had been hugely enriched by the gift from his Greek Orthodox friend, Marco Pallis, of a hand-painted icon, originally from Mount Athos. It had arrived in the late summer of 1965, just as he was beginning his hard apprenticeship as a hermit living in a small cinderblock house in the woods near the monastery. It was one of the most commonly painted of all icons, an image of the Mother of God and the Christ Child. For Merton like a kiss from God.
He wrote Pallis in response:
How shall I begin? I have never received such a precious and magnificent gift from anyone in my life. I have no words to express how deeply moved I was to come face to face with this sacred and beautiful presence granted to me…. At first I could hardly believe it…. It is a perfect act of timeless worship. I never tire of gazing at it. There is a spiritual presence and reality about it, a true spiritual ‘Thaboric’ light, which seems unaccountably to proceed from the Heart of the Virgin and Child as if they had One heart, and which goes out to the whole universe. It is unutterably splendid. And silent. It imposes a silence on the whole hermitage. … [This] icon of the Holy Mother came as a messenger at a precise moment when a message was needed, and her presence before me has been an incalculable aid in resolving a difficult problem.
Marco Pallis’s gift was the first of seven icons that made there way to Merton in his last three years of life and found a place in the small chapel of the small hermitage that became his home the last three years of his life.
We come upon a final clue to the place icons had in his inner life when we consider the short list of personal effects that were returned with his body when it was flown back to the monastery from Thailand:
1 Timex Watch
1 Pair Dark Glasses in Tortoise Frames
1 Cistercian Leather Bound Breviary
1 Small Icon on Wood of Virgin and Child
I don’t want to focus only on Merton’s love of icons and their place in his life. It’s no less important to be aware of his study over many years of early monasticism, his devotion of the theologians of the Church’s first millennium, and also his close attention to Orthodox theologians of the twentieth century, such writers as Paul Evdokimov, Olivier Clement, Alexander Schmemann and Vladimir Lossky. In the small library Merton kept in his hermitage, one finds such titles as Early Fathers from the Philokalia, Writings from the Philokalia on the Prayer of the Heart, Treasury of Russian Spirituality, and Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers. In the last book, there is a slip of paper on which Merton had copies the Jesus Prayer in Slavonic along with a phonetic interlinear transliteration.
The Philokalia was quite important to him. It is massive anthology of Orthodox writings that mainly has to do with the Jesus Prayer or, as it is also called, the Prayer of the Heart. In fact, on the back of the icons he had with him on his final journey, he had written in Greek a short passage he had discovered in the Philokalia:
If we wish to please the true God and to be friends with the most blessed of friendships, let us present our spirit naked to God. Let us not draw into it anything of this present world — no art, no thought, no reasoning, no self-justification — even though we should possess all the wisdom of this world.
Merton’s attentive reading from these sources went on for many years. In one of the books published late in his life, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, there is an important passage on this theme that was based on a journal entry Merton had made on April 28, 1957, nearly a decade earlier. Here it is in its finished form:
If I can unite in myself the thought and devotion of Eastern and Western Christendom, the Greek and the Latin Fathers, the Russian and the Spanish mystics, I can prepare in myself the reunion of divided Christians. From that secret and unspoken unity in myself can eventually come a visible and manifest unity of all Christians. If we want to bring together what is divided, we cannot do so by imposing one division upon the other. If we do this, the union is not Christian. It is political and doomed to further conflict. We must contain all the divided worlds in ourselves and transcend them in Christ.
Merton’s search for unity, his attempt to live within himself the unity he sought for the Church as a whole, should be regarded, not as something controversial, but as a normal Christian discipline. Christianity’s east-west division is a thousand-year-old scandal. Followers of Christ are required, St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians, “to maintain unity of spirit in the bond of peace.” (Eph 4:3)
Merton spent much of his life seeking to maintain unity of spirit in the bond of peace — and seeking it not simply within himself, but also as a shared unity of spirit in pilgrimage with others.
Merton rejoiced in reading the sayings and stories of Desert Fathers, the monks of the early Church who were pioneers of the monastic life. For Merton these original monks of the east were both a personal inspiration and also a challenge to modern monasticism. As he wrote in introducing one of his books, The Wisdom of the Desert, he would not compare the monastic life he knew first hand with the Egyptian example. As he said:
With us it is often rather a case of men leaving the society of the “world” in order to fit themselves into another kind of society, that of the religious family which they enter. They exchange the values, concepts and rites of the one for those of the other. And since we now have centuries of monasticism behind us, this puts the whole thing in a different light. The social ‘norms’ of the monastic family are apt to be conventional, and to live by them does not involve a leap into the void — only a radical change of customs and standards. The words and examples of the Desert Fathers have … been turned into stereotypes for us, and we no longer notice their fabulous originality. We have buried them, so to speak, in our own routines …
This touches on another aspect of Merton’s search for the undivided Church. It is a search not to escape from tradition but to purify traditions which have over time been distorted or calcified. As he puts it in a text entitled “Monastic Spirituality and the Early Fathers, from the Apostolic Fathers to Evagrius Ponticus,” written for his fellow monks:
If for some reason it were necessary for you to drink a pint of water taken out of the Mississippi River and you could choose where it was to be drawn out of the river — would you take a pint from the source of the river in Minnesota or from the estuary in New Orleans? The example is perhaps not perfect. Christian tradition and spirituality does not [necessarily] become polluted with development. That is not the idea at all. Nevertheless, tradition and spirituality are all the more pure and genuine in proportion as they are in contact with the original source and retain the same content. [Thomas Merton: Cassian and the Fathers: Introduction to the Monastic Tradition, Cistercian Publications, 2005, p 5]
One can say the monastics of the early Church were at the Minnesota rather than New Orleans end of the river and that they provide a prophetic example of certain aspects of basic Christian life for our own day: for example, a simpler, poorer, less institutional monastic witness. At the same time, their example of prayer-centered life, poverty, labor, hospitality, repentance and forgiveness is relevant to each of us, whatever our vocation and no matter how far from the desert we live, even if we live in New Orleans.
It was in his exploration of the living monastic tradition of the Eastern Church, which to this day is far less structured than in that of the West, that Merton came upon the Jesus Prayer and began to practice it himself. One gets a glimpse of his own use of the Jesus Prayer in a 1959 letter to a correspondent in England, John Harris:
I heartily recommend, as a form of prayer, the Russian and Greek business where you get off somewhere quiet … breathe quietly and rhythmically with the diaphragm, holding your breath for a bit each time and letting it out easily: and while holding it, saying “in your heart” (aware of the place of your heart, as if the words were spoken in the very center of your being with all the sincerity you can muster): “Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me a sinner.” Just keep saying this for a while, of course with faith, and the awareness of the indwelling [Holy Spirit], etc. It is a simple form of prayer, and fundamental, and the breathing part makes it easier to keep your mind on what you are doing. That’s about as far as I go with methods. After that, pray as the Spirit moves you, but of course I would say follow the Mass in a missal unless there is a good reason for doing something else, like floating suspended ten feet above the congregation.
It is not that Merton is without appreciation for the aids to prayer and contemplation that have been so much a part of Western Christianity. In the same letter to John Harris, he goes on to recommend the rosary and other forms of devotion to the Mother of God:
I like the rosary, too. Because, though I am not very articulate about her, I am pretty much wound up in Our Lady, and have some Russian ideas about her too: that she is the most perfect expression of the mystery of the Wisdom of God … [and] in some way … is the Wisdom of God. (See the eighth chapter of Proverbs, for instance, the part about ‘playing before [the Creator] at all times, playing in the world.’) I find a lot of this “Sophianism” in Pasternak ... (The Hidden Ground of Love, p 392)
Clearly neither Merton nor any of us lives in the undivided Church in a visible sense. The shores between East and West in Christianity still remain fair apart, though recent popes have done much good work in building bridges and there have been bridge-builders on the eastern side as well, including the current Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew. Nonetheless Merton helps us see that each of us can participate mystically in the undivided Church. After all, the Body of Christ is one Body. We can help to heal the divisions in the Church by holding together in our own prayer life those things which are best and by letting the saints of the early Church become our teachers, as they were Merton’s.
Merton shows us that this journey is not easy, yet we also see that the efforts of even one monk, done with persistence, can make a difference.
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Jim Forest is the author of Living With Wisdom: a Biography of Thomas Merton, an expanded, revised edition of which was published in 2008, and The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers (2016). His other books include Praying with Icons, also newly reissued in an expanded all-color edition.
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The book you hold in your hands was intended for publication in 1962. While Thomas Merton would be pleased that 42 years later this labor of love is at last in bookshops and libraries, it would distress him that, far from being a poignant memento of a bygone era, it remains both timely and relevant.
1962: Culturally it was still the fifties. What would be known as “the Sixties” hadn’t quite started. “West Side Story” had won the Academy Award for best film of 1961. The Beatles were unheard of.
John F. Kennedy was serving his second year as President of the United States. Nikita Khrushchev was in his fourth year as premier of the Soviet Union. It was three years since the revolution led by Fidel Castro had taken charge of Cuba. American military involvement in Vietnam was steadily building. The Cold War was still blowing its icy winds across every border. Russians en masse were regarded as godless Communists. The United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France were the only countries with nuclear weapons. It was ten years since the first hydrogen bomb had been exploded, seventeen years since the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by much less powerful atom bombs. Americans were spending hundreds of millions of dollars on fallout shelters as a means of surviving nuclear war.
Politicians, generals, and experts of the period spoke of “missile gaps” when they advocated building missiles that flew further and delivered bigger payloads.
Nuclear weapons were by no means the only systems of mass destruction. Both the United States and the Soviet Union had large programs for the development and stockpiling of chemical and biological weapons.
“Peace” was a suspect word. Those who used it risked being regarded as “reds” or “pinkos.”
Yet profound change was underway in the United States. Racism was being challenged. Activists in America’s Civil Rights movement were struggling to integrate schools, public transport, and restaurants. Martin Luther King had acquired an international reputation.
The Roman Catholic Church in America in 1962, after many years of struggle with anti-Catholic prejudice, could be relied on to have a supportive attitude regarding America’s economic system and foreign policy. Over many a Catholic parish or school entrance were carved the words, Pro Deo et Patria — for God and country. Many Catholics had made a career in the military, the FBI and the CIA. For the first time, there was a Catholic in the White House.
One of America’s most widely read religious writers was a Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. Orphaned in his youth, a convert to the Catholic Church while studying at Columbia University, in December 1941 he had given up a teaching job at St. Bonaventure’s College in western New York State in order to begin monastic life at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in rural Kentucky. When his abbot became aware of his talents as a writer, he was encouraged to write an autobiography. Published in 1948, The Seven Storey Mountain became a runaway best-seller. Merton, only six years a monk and only 33 years old, found himself a famous man. Every subsequent book he wrote was assured excellent sales both in English and in translation. For years his main themes were the monastic vocation, contemplation, prayer, sacramental life, the lives of saints and the quest for holiness, but there were also books that revealed his struggles as a monk. Though he occasionally revealed critical social views — there was a blast at racism in The Seven Storey Mountain — many of his readers were unprepared for his criticisms of the arms race and the Cold War that began appearing in Catholic journals in 1961.
There was also the Catholic Worker movement, let by Dorothy Day, another convert. Founded during the Depression in 1933, it had not only brought into existence many houses of hospitality to welcome the down-and-out but often took part in protests against preparations for war. While regarded as marginal by most of the hierarchy, it was a center of much ferment and enthusiasm. It was one of the few Catholic groups at that time deeply engaged in the Civil Rights movement. Its publication had many thousands of readers.
Thomas Merton was one of those who had a high opinion of Dorothy Day and the movement she led. In the summer of 1961 he submitted the first of a series of articles — “The Root of War is Fear” Endnote — to The Catholic Worker. It appeared in the October issue. (At the time I was part of the Catholic Worker community in New York. Dorothy Day, aware of my interest in Merton’s writing, asked me to prepare his essay for publication and also encouraged me to correspond with him. Thus began a relationship of letters and occasional visits that was to last until Merton’s death in December 1968.)
In April 1962 Merton completed Peace in the Post-Christian Era. He had hoped it would be released by Macmillan in the Fall. Instead it was banned by Dom Gabriel Sortais, Abbot General of Merton’s order: the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, better known as the Trappists. Just days after completing work on Peace in the Post-Christian Era, a letter from Dom Gabriel was delivered to Merton which forbade him to do any further writing on the subject of war and peace. Endnote
The following day, Merton sent me the most distressed letter that I ever received from him:
Now here is the axe. For a long time I have been anticipating trouble with the higher superiors and now I have it. The orders are, no more writing about peace…. In substance I am being silenced on the subject of war and peace.
The decision, he said, reflected
an astounding incomprehension of the seriousness of the present crisis in its religious aspect. It reflects an insensitivity to Christian and Ecclesiastical values, and to the real sense of the monastic vocation. The reason given is that this is not the right kind of work for a monk and that it “falsifies the monastic message.” Imagine that: the thought that a monk might be deeply enough concerned with the issue of nuclear war to voice a protest against the arms race, is supposed to bring the monastic life into disrepute. Man, I would think that it might just possibly salvage a last shred of repute for an institution that many consider to be dead on its feet… That is really the most absurd aspect of the whole situation, that these people insist on digging their own grave and erecting over it the most monumental kind of tombstone.
Beneath the surface of the disagreement between Merton and his Abbot General was a different conception of the identity and mission of the Church. For Merton the monk was obliged to be among the most attentive to what was going on in the world at large and had a role to play in renewal:
The vitality of the Church depends precisely on spiritual renewal, uninterrupted, continuous, and deep. Obviously this renewal is to be expressed in the historical context, and will call for a real spiritual understanding of historical crises, an evaluation of them in terms of their inner significance and in terms of man’s growth and the advancement of truth in man’s world: in other words, the establishment of the “kingdom of God.” The monk is the one supposedly attuned to the inner spiritual dimension of things. If he hears nothing, and says nothing, then the renewal as a whole will be in danger and may be completely sterilized.
But these authoritarian minds believe that the function of the monk is not to see or hear any new dimension, simply to support the already existing viewpoints precisely insofar as and because they are defined for him by somebody else. Instead of being in the advance guard, he is in the rear with the baggage, confirming all that has been done by the officials. The function of the monk, as far as renewal in the historical context goes, then becomes simply to affirm his total support of officialdom. He has no other function, then, except perhaps to pray for what he is told to pray for: namely the purposes and the objectives of an ecclesiastical bureaucracy. The monastery as dynamo concept goes back to this. The monk is there to generate spiritual power that will justify over and over again the already pre-decided rightness of the officials above him. He must under no event and under no circumstances assume a role that implies any form of spontaneity and originality. He must be an eye that sees nothing except what is carefully selected for him to see. An ear that hears nothing except what it is advantageous for the managers for him to hear. We know what Christ said about such ears and eyes.
Merton wondered aloud if it he should obey:
Now you will ask me: how do I reconcile obedience, true obedience (which is synonymous with love) with a situation like this? Shouldn’t I just blast the whole thing wide open, or walk out, or tell them to jump in the lake?
But he was convinced disobedience would do more harm than good and that, in any event, it could not be his path:
Let us suppose for the sake of argument that this was not completely excluded. Why would I do this? For the sake of the witness for peace? For the sake of witnessing to the truth of the Church, in its reality, as against this figment of the imagination? Simply for the sake of blasting off and getting rid of the tensions and frustrations in my own spirit, and feeling honest about it?
In my own particular case, every one of these would backfire and be fruitless. It would be taken as a witness against the peace movement and would confirm these people in all the depth of their prejudices and their self-complacency. It would reassure them in every possible way that they are incontrovertibly right and make it even more impossible for them ever to see any kind of new light on the subject. And in any case I am not merely looking for opportunities to blast off. I can get along without it.
I am where I am. I have freely chosen this state, and have freely chosen to stay in it when the question of a possible change arose. If I am a disturbing element, that is all right. I am not making a point of being that, but simply of saying what my conscience dictates and doing so without seeking my own interest. This means accepting such limitations as may be placed on me by authority, and not because I may or may not agree with the ostensible reasons why the limitations are imposed, but out of love for God who is using these things to attain ends which I myself cannot at the moment see or comprehend. I know He can and will in His own time take good care of the ones who impose limitations unjustly or unwisely. That is His affair and not mine. In this dimension I find no contradiction between love and obedience, and as a matter of fact it is the only sure way of transcending the limits and arbitrariness of ill-advised commands.
Behind the silencing, Merton wrote me a few weeks later, was the charge that he had been writing for “a communist-controlled publication,” as The Catholic Worker was said to be by some of its opponents. Endnote
Merton responded to Dom Gabriel’s letter with the promise of obedience but also a defense of his book. In mid-May Merton received a reply in which the Abbot General renewed his order, stressing the difference between religious orders which teach and those that pray. “I am not asking you to remain indifferent to the fate of the world,” Dom Gabriel insisted. “But I believe you have the power to influence the world by your prayers and by your life withdrawn into God more than by your writings. That is why I am not thinking about hurting the cause you are defending when I ask that you give up your intention of publishing the book you have finished, and abstain from now on from writing on the subject of atomic warfare, preparation for war, etc.” Endnote
Ironically, as Merton points out in Peace in the Post-Christian Era, Machiavelli’s The Prince, an unabashedly immoral book, “has never been on the Index of books forbidden to Catholics.” Endnote
Merton obeyed Dom Gabriel, if in a limited way. Never given to a publisher nor vetted by Trappist censors, Peace in the Post-Christian Era remained generally unknown, yet was not altogether buried. Merton resorted to samizdat methods for putting his book in the hands of others, much as a Russian might in that same era. Dom James Fox, Merton’s abbot, though far from a radical, decided that Dom Gabriel’s ruling only barred publication in a widely-distributed commercial form. He also saw no need for the order’s censors to review material that wasn’t being offered to the general public — thus anything mimeographed or offered to publications with a small circulation. Endnote
Dom James gave one of the abbey’s young monks the job of typing the book on stencils for a mimeographed edition. In the first printing, several hundred copies of Peace in the Post-Christian Era were produced by this means. By June Merton began mailing copies to a wide variety of his correspondents, including Ethel Kennedy, sister-in-law of President Kennedy, and Cardinal Montini in Milan, later to become Pope Paul VI. Not long afterward, a second printing was run off. By the end of 1962 there were five or six hundred copies of the book in circulation. Hot item that it was, few of them stayed long at any one address. Merton’s banned book must have reached thousands of attentive readers within a few months. Many of them were people of influence.
Part of the distribution of Peace in the Post-Christian Era was in my hands. In the course of the summer of 1962, by which time I was on the staff of Catholic Relief Services, Merton sent me at least twenty copies to distribute to others. I still have one copy that wasn’t given away, though I can see from marginal notes in it that I shared it with at least one other reader.
I no longer have a carbon of my letter to Merton responding to the book nor has it survived in the Merton archives in Louisville, Endnote but I see from a reply dated July 7 that I had put forward a number of suggestions for revision in the event he was ever able to do more work on the book. I expressed disappointment that Merton’s own convictions about war, so similar to Dorothy Day’s, were not expressed more explicitly, and proposed he add a section about Francis of Assisi, a saint particularly important to Merton. During the Fifth Crusade, Francis had given an example of unarmed peacemaking, traveling to Egypt to meet with one of Christianity’s chief opponents, Sultan Malik-al-Kamil. Francis had also founded a “third order” for lay people whose members were forbidden to possess or use weapons of war.
Merton wrote in reply:
What a mess one gets into trying to write a book that will get through the censors, and at the same time say something. I was bending in all directions to qualify every statement and balance everything off, so I stayed right in the middle and perfectly objective . . . [at the same time trying] to speak the truth as my conscience wanted it to be said. In the long run the result is about zero. … Certainly if I ever get to work over the book again, I will bear in mind your requests. Endnote
Reading this again after all these years, I am struck by how the white-hot anger Merton has expressed in his previous letter had either receded or been put under wraps. I’m also impressed by his reluctance to defend his book in the face of the criticisms I had voiced. There is a stunning modesty in his reply to a reader not half his age. Yet one sees in Merton’s journal entries and letters to other friends how hard the struggle was to come to terms with being silenced on what he remained convinced was a crucial issue. Certainly he did not believe that he had been wasting his time in writing the book nor could he agree that it was just as well that it went unpublished.
Had publication not been blocked, perhaps there might have been a final round of revisions, but in its broad outlines I doubt the final text would differ significantly from the book as now published.
Fortunately much that Merton had been forbidden to say was being said by Pope John XXIII. Endnote A succession of papal statements critical both of the arms race and nuclear weapons culminated in the publication of Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), issued in April 1963. It quickly became the most widely discussed papal encyclical of modern times. Addressed not only to Catholics but to all people of good will, Pope John stressed that the most basic human right is the right to life. John spoke out passionately against such threats to life as the arms race, said that war was no longer “an apt means for vindicating violated rights,” and called for legal protection of conscientious objectors to military service. Far from sanctioning blind obedience to those in authority, the pope stressed the individual responsibility to protect life and uphold morality: “If civil authorities legislate or allow anything that is contrary to the will of God, neither the law made nor the authorization granted can be binding on the conscience of the citizens since God has more right to be obeyed than man.” Endnote
Writing to the Abbot General to say “it was a good thing that Pope John didn’t have to get his encyclical through our censors: and could I now start up again,” Endnote Merton asked if he might now return to work on Peace in the Post-Christian Era so that it might finally be published. Unmoved, Dom Gabriel renewed the prohibition. Merton commented in his journal, “At the back of [Dom Gabriel’s] mind obviously is an adamant conviction that France [of which Dom Gabriel was a citizen] should have the bomb and use it if necessary. He says that the encyclical [Pacem in Terris] has changed nothing in the right of a nation to arm itself with nuclear weapons for self-defense.” Endnote
A Council of the Roman Catholic Church, the first one in nearly a hundred years, had been announced by Pope John in January 1959 and had gotten underway in October 1962 — the same month, as it happened, of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the United States and the Soviet Union found themselves on the verge of nuclear war.
Seeking a way to play a role in the Council’s discussions, in December 1962 Merton sent copies of Peace in the Post-Christian Era to Hildegard and Jean Goss-Mayr, secretaries of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation. The Goss-Mayrs were in close contact with Cardinal Ottaviani, Secretary of the Holy Office and the member of the Curia most responsible for the process of preparing first drafts of Council documents. One of these was Schema 13, as it was known in the drafting stage — a document on the church’s role in the modern world, including the issue of war.
After two years of drafting and redrafting and many hours of debate, Schema 13 at last was published in 1965 as the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes).. The culminating work of the Council, it contained the only specific condemnation issued by the Second Vatican Council:
Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and humanity, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.
It was a sentence not very different than this passage in Peace in the Post-Christian Era:
I wish to insist above all on one fundamental truth: that all nuclear war, and indeed massive destruction of cities, populations, nations and cultures by any means whatever is a most serious crime which is forbidden to us not only by Christian ethics but by every sane and serious moral code. Endnote
Those who renounce violence altogether, choosing the tools of nonviolence instead, won the Council’s approbation:
We cannot fail to praise those who renounce the use of violence in the vindication of their rights and who resort to methods of defense which are available to the weaker parties too, provided that this can be done without injury to the rights and duties of others in the community itself. Endnote
Supporting legislation for conscientious objectors, the Council urged all governments to make “humane provision for those who, for reasons of conscience, refuse to bear arms, provided that they accept some form of service to the human community.” Endnote
Echoing another major theme Merton had explored in Peace in the Post-Christian Era, the Council Fathers declared that orders which conflict with the “all-embracing principles of natural law” were criminal, stating further that “blind obedience cannot excuse those who yield to them,” and that “the courage of those who fearlessly and openly resist such commands merits supreme commendation.” Endnote
How much Merton’s writings played a role in the Council we may never know, but without a doubt he was a significant influence, mainly thanks to effective distribution of the mimeographed edition of Peace in the Post-Christian Era.
Now, forty-two years after it was written and thirty-six years after the author’s death, the first copy of Peace in the Post-Christian Era bearing a publisher’s imprint is coming off the press. These pages have slept even longer than Rip van Winkle.
How does a book addressing issues that were current in 1962 hold up in a world in which the Soviet Union is no more and the Cold War a chapter heading in history books? Despite many close calls, there has been no use of nuclear weapons in war since 1945. Indeed American and Russian stockpiles of nuclear weapons have been hugely reduced and nuclear tests have gone underground and become a rarity. We no longer hear an ominous phrase that was repeatedly used in the sixties to describe the lynchpin of deterrence strategy: “mutually assured destruction.” Endnote Few remember the names of Herman Kahn and Edward Teller, men mentioned repeatedly in Peace in the Post-Christian Era.
Yet the means of fighting nuclear war are still with us. Despite all the weapons that have been eliminated thanks to a series of treaty agreements of the past thirty years, the United States retains an estimated 10,400 nuclear warheads in its arsenal and Russia a similar number. Endnote Meanwhile, in the United States, the Bush administration has called for development of a “new generation” of nuclear weapons “better suited” to battlefield use. The number of countries known to possess nuclear weapons has grown to include not only Britain and France but China, India, Pakistan, and Israel, while several other countries are suspected to have nuclear weapons or are known to have taken steps toward obtaining them. There is in addition the grave danger of nuclear weapons being procured by such terrorist organizations as Al-Qaeda. The issue of nuclear weapons and other means of mass destruction is not only still with us but the possibility of their use in war is growing.
Merton did not foresee the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disintegration of the USSR’s Warsaw Pact alliance in Eastern Europe. Neither did he anticipate the current “War on Terror,” as the Bush administration has defined its response to the events of September 11, 2001. Nothing similar to the Taliban or Al-Qaeda existed in 1962. Yet, as one reads Peace in the Post-Christian Era, it is striking how often the word “terrorism” appears — referring not to the activities of secret groups but rather to the acceptance by governments of tactics of war that result in large numbers of non-combatant casualties.
It is interesting how, when Merton speaks of Communism, references to terrorism often work well in its place. For example:
The struggle against totalitarianism is directed not only against an external enemy — Communism — but also against our own hidden tendencies towards fascist or collectivist aberrations. Endnote
The same would make sense today with only a slight alteration:
The struggle against totalitarianism is directed not only against an external enemy — such terrorist groups as Al-Qaeda — but also against our own hidden tendencies towards fascist or collectivist aberrations.
In many ways the world is hardly different than it was in 1962. Then as now, one need not have an overactive imagination to envision Doomsday. Death by nuclear explosion is only one of many grim futures we can all too easily imagine for ourselves.
Always sensitive to the language of propaganda, Merton would not be surprised with such current phrases as “the axis of evil,” nor that Americans still take it for granted that evil is committed by it enemies, not themselves.
The willingness of the United States to participate in the United Nations and other international bodies only when doing so suits national interests would not surprise him. As he wrote in Peace in the Post-Christian Era:
Indeed the big powers have been content to use the UN as a forum for political and propagandist wrestling matches and have not hesitated to take independent action that led to the discrediting of the UN whenever this has been profitable to them. Endnote
The same mind-set is linked with the temptation to initiate pre-emptive war “based not on the fact that we ourselves are actually under military attack, but that we are ‘provoked’ and so ‘threatened’ that even the most drastic measures are justified. Endnote
Also unchanged despite the passage of time is American bewilderment that so good-willed a people are the object of so much enmity:
Faced by the supercilious contempt of friends as well as the hatred of our avowed enemies, and wondering what there is in us to hate, we have considered ourselves and found ourselves quite decent, harmless and easygoing people who only ask to be left alone to make money and have a good time. Endnote
One of Merton’s still-relevant themes is the way that those moral restrictions which warriors pledge to apply to their conduct as they contemplate conflict in the abstract gradually recede and finally completely evaporate as events in actual war push them toward more drastic measures. In the early days of World War II America and Britain vowed not to replicate the city bombing committed by their enemies, but in the end didn’t hesitate to regard entire cities as legitimate targets. As Merton writes:
Moral thinking guided by pragmatic principles tends to be very vague, very fluid. Moral decisions were now a series of more or less opportunistic choices based on short term guesses of possible consequences, rather than on definite moral principles. Endnote
When the first mimeographed copy arrived by post, I recall being startled with the book’s title. Was I really living in a post-Christian world? After all, most Americans professed a belief in God and one didn’t have to travel far to find well-attended churches. I couldn’t deny, however, that our religious life in many ways resembled a Hollywood set: a thin veneer of impressive facades supported by scaffolding in back. As Merton put it:
Whether we like it or not, we have to admit we are already living in a post-Christian world, that is to say a world in which Christian ideals and attitudes are relegated more and more to the minority. … It is frightening to realize that the facade of Christianity which still generally survives has perhaps little or nothing behind it, and that what was once called “Christian society” is more purely and simply a materialistic neo-paganism with a Christian veneer. Endnote … Not only non-Christians but even Christians themselves tend to dismiss the Gospel ethic on nonviolence and love as “sentimental.” Endnote
Yet not all is as it was when Merton finished writing Peace in the Post-Christian Era. One of the changes that would greatly please Merton is that among Christians the word “peacemaking” is no longer the suspect term it was in 1962, a profound change in attitude that is partly thanks to him.
A striking sign of the times is the fact that several years ago the Archdiocese of New York formally proposed that Dorothy Day be recognized as a saint and placed on the calendar of the Catholic Church. The Vatican has already given her the title, “Servant of God.”
The Catholic Church has been a consistent voice for peace since Merton’s time. Its commitment to seek peace has not wilted despite such events as the terrorist attacks of September 11 or America’s subsequent “pre-emptive” war in Iraq.
Were he alive and no longer hobbled by censorship, perhaps Merton would set to work on updating Peace in the Post-Christian Era. But many paragraphs, even chapters, would remain unaltered. He would remind us once again that Christ waves no flags and that Christianity belongs to no political power bloc. He would affirm once again that “an essential part of the ‘good news’ is that nonviolent and reasonable measures are stronger than weapons. Indeed, by spiritual arms, the early Church conquered the entire Roman world.”
At different periods of my life, Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen were spiritual parents to me. Both were excellent confessors and counselors. Both made it possible for me to share parts of myself that were painful, awkward and embarrassing. Each helped me survive hard times and survive close encounters with despair. So I say at the beginning that whatever light I can shine on them is not the result simply of studying their writing, identifying major themes, trying to see where their thoughts converge or diverge, or analyzing them as if I were studying them through a telescope. They were both people who played — indeed still play — a significant role in my life.
For all their differences, they had a great deal in common. Both were Europeans who made their home in North America. Both lived a life that centered in the Eucharist. Both were Catholic priests. Both were deeply responsive to the suffering of others. Both were involved in opposition to war, racism and social injustice, for which they were sometimes regarded as liberals or even radicals, yet both took a dim view of popular political ideologies, for which they were sometimes regarded as conservatives. Liberal? Conservative? Neither label fits.
Both were restless, searching men.
Thomas Merton entered the limelight after the publication of his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. In it he recounts one of the hardest decisions he faced as a young man — whether to become a monk or to be a full-time member of a community of hospitality, Friendship House, in Harlem. He had been volunteering at Friendship House while teaching at St. Bonaventure’s University. Even after deciding on the monastic path, a part of Merton continued to feel a powerful connection with those who cenetered themselves in the works of mercy, especially the Catholic Worker movement that Dorothy Day had founded.
Once grafted into monastic life at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, he seemed to say there was no better place on earth to be than his contemlative outpost in rural Kentucky. But in fact it wasn’t easy for him to maintain stability. Some of Merton’s letters in later years almost catch fire with complaints about the shortcoming of life in his chosen monastery. On several occasions Merton sought permission to leave Gethsemani with the idea of sharing in the life of a poorer, smaller, more primitive monastery either in Latin America or some other part of the world. Yet one of the remarkable achievements of his life was how steadfast he was in his monastic; he remained a monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani from 1941 until his death his in 1968. Still there was a basic restlessness. It is somehow appropriate that he should die while on pilgrimage on the other side of the planet while attending a monastic conference in Thailand after weeks of travel in India and Sri Lanka.
Henri had no monastic vows to limit his travels nor was his bishop in Utrecht inclined to rein him in. His restlessness brought him from Holland to America. He taught at Notre Dame, then Yale, then Harvard, but could not bring himself to stay at any of these distinguished institutions. Searching for community, he was for an extended period a temporary brother at a Trappist monastery, but found monastic life, though it helped clear his mind and re-center him, wasn’t what he was searching for. He had a sabbatical in Latin America and for a time thought he was perhaps called to remain there, but then decided this also wasn’t his calling. He finally found a home for himself not in academia or monastic life but with the L’Arche community in Canada — not among the best and the brightest but the mentally disadvantaged plus their downwardly-mobile assistants. But even there he was often on the move.
Like Merton, Henri died while traveling — two heart attacks in his homeland, Holland, while en route to Russia where he intended to make a film about Rembrandt’s painting of the Return of the Prodigal Son.
There are still other Merton-Nouwen similarities:
Both Merton and Nouwen produced a flood of books, many of which refuse to go out-of-print. Few writers on religious life have been so widely read or so often translated into other languages as these two. Thanks to their writings, both still have a huge influence on the lives of many people decades after their deaths. Both had a remarkable gift for communicating to others the fact that to follow Christ is a journey of endless pilgrimage.
Both of them died relatively young. Merton age 53, Henri at 64.
Another commonality: They had a shared appreciation of the Orthodox Church and deep distress regarding the Great Schism. Both felt that the healing of East-West divisions within Christianity could be assisted by a process of East-West integration in one’s spiritual life. As Merton put this in one of his journal-based books, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:
If I can unite in myself the thought and devotion of Eastern and Western Christen-dom, the Greek and the Latin Fathers, the Russian and the Spanish mystics, I can prepare in myself the reunion of divided Chris¬tians. From that secret and unspoken unity in myself can eventually come a visible and manifest unity of all Christians. If we want to bring together what is divided, we cannot do so by imposing one division upon the other. If we do this, the union is not Christian. It is political and doomed to furth¬er conflict. We must contain all the divided worlds in ourselves and transcend them in Christ.
Both of them had a perceptive appreciation of icons as focal points of prayer and contemplation and as non-verbal theological declarations. It’s this commonality I’d like to focus on today. Merton and Nouwen have played a major role in this quiet movement of rediscovering icons and their role both in private and communal prayer. It is partly thanks to the two of them that, in recent years, one often finds icons — an art form chiefly associated with Orthodox Christianity — in Catholic and even Protestant churches as well as in retreat centers, monasteries, homes and offices.
Before going further, let me explain how these two gifted men enter my life.
My contact with Merton started in the summer of 1961 not long after I had been granted an early discharge from the U.S. Navy as a conscientious objector and had joined the Catholic Worker community in New York City, a house of hospitality mainly for homeless street people. At the time I had the idea that the Catholic Worker would be a way station en route to the monastery, a vocational aspiration that had been in part nurtured by reading Merton’s autobiography.
I was astonished to discover that Dorothy Day, leader of the Catholic Worker, was one of Merton’s correspondents. Aware I was a Merton reader, she shared with me his letters to her. It was Dorothy who urged me, indeed instructed me, to write to Merton. To my surprise, he responded. The first letter led to many more. From 1961 until his death in 1968 I wrote to Merton often, and he to me, perhaps on average a letter per month in both directions. In The Hidden Ground of Love, an anthology of Merton letters, his letters to me take up sixty pages. There were not only letters from him, but cards and copies of manuscripts. There were also occasional packages — I recall a box of monastery-made cheese with a gift card signed “Uncle Louie and the boys.” (In monastic life, Merton was Father Louis.) I also had two visits with Merton at the monastery, one early in 1962, another late in 1964.
It was Merton who introduced me to icons. In the summer or fall of 1962 a postcard came, the image side of which I look back on as quite significant but at the time I regarded in vaguely negative terms: a photo of a medieval Russian icon — Mary with the child Jesus in her arms. Jesus, though infant-sized, looked more like a miniature man. It seemed to me formal, lifeless and somehow even flatter than the postcard that bore the image. Compared to the masterpieces of the Renaissance, this sort of painting seemed to me, at best, something left over from the kindergarten of art history. Years later, when I had reason to make a complete set of photocopies of all Merton’s notes and letters to me, I didn’t bother to photocopy the image side of this or any of the other icon postcards he had sent me. I assumed that Merton had no more taste for this kind of primitive Christian art than I did. I imagined some donor had given the monastery a box of icon postcards which Merton was using in the spirit of voluntary poverty.
It was only years after his death, in writing a biography of Merton, Living With Wisdom, that it finally dawned on me how crucial a role icons had played in Merton’s life and conversion and realized that no one could have been happier in sending an icon photo to friends than Merton.
In fact I should have been aware of this side of Merton even before I knew him personally. It’s something he writes about in The Seven Storey Mountain, when he describes one of the catastrophes of his unsettled childhood, his father’s death when Tom was a student at Oakham, a residential high school in rural England. Owen Merton, on the edge of significant recogniton as an artist, was suffering from a brain tumor that produced a large lump on his head that made him unable to speak. Tom, fifteen years old, would occasionally go down to London and sit in anguished silence next to his father’s bed in Middlesex Hospital. Gazing into his father’s eyes, he must have thought with bitterness of his mother’s death from cancer ten years earlier.
Merton could see no meaning in what was happening to his father, whose misshapen head seemed to him like “a raw wound for which there was no adequate relief.” Now on the verge of becoming an orphan, he responded with anger to the religious platitudes he heard from the chaplain of his public school, Oakham. Clearly there was no “loving God.” Clearly life had no meaning. His patents’ fate was proof of that. “You had to take it like an animal,” he wrote in his autobiography. The only lesson he could draw from his parents’ fate was to avoid as much pain as possible and take what pleasure you could out of life. At chapel services at his school, Merton would no longer join in reciting the Creed. “I believe in nothing” was his anti-creed at this point in his life.
Yet Owen Merton had another view of his own suffering which he managed to communicate to his son through drawings, the only “last word” he could manage in his silenced condition. Shortly before Owen’s death, Tom came to see his father in his hospital room and, to his bewilderment, found the bed littered with drawings of “Byzantine-looking saints with beards and great halos.” In a word, drawings of icons. The younger Merton didn’t know what to make of them. He had no eye for icons at the time. He then regarded Byzantine art, he confessed in an unpublished autobiographical novel, The Labyrinth, as “clumsy and ugly and brutally stupid.”
Owen Merton died early in January 1931, days before Tom’s sixteenth birthday. Two years passed. In 1933, having finished his studies at Oakham and with more than half a year to fill before entering Clare College in Cambridge in September, Merton set off for an extended European holiday, a one man Grand Tour with an extended visit to Italy the main event. He hiked along the Mediterranean coast of France, then took the train into Italy: first Genoa, then Florence, finally Rome.
Once in Rome, a Baedeker guidebook in hand, he spent days following the main tourist track, but the big attractions, from the Roman Forum to St. Peter’s Basilica, left him either yawning or annoyed. The architecture, statuary and painting of the Roman Empire, the Renaissance and the Counter-Reformation struck him as vapid and melodramatic. “It was so evident, merely from the masses of stone and brick that still represented the palaces and temples and baths, that imperial Rome must have been one of the most revolting and ugly and depressing cities the world has ever seen,” Merton wrote in The Seven Storey Mountain. It seemed to him that the best one could say of ancient Rome was that it would have been an ideal set for a Cecil B. DeMille film epic with a cast of thousands.
Perhaps we would never have heard of Thomas Merton had it not been for what happened when he made his way from the guidebook’s four-star attractions to those with three or two stars, or even one, and thus came to know some of Rome’s most ancient churches — Cosmas and Damian, San Clemente, Santa Sabina, Santa Maria Maggiore, the Lateran, Santa Costanza, Santa Maria in Trastevere, San Prassede and others. These moved him in an unexpected and extraordinary way. On the walls of many of these churches he was meeting his father’s deathbed drawings.
These were all churches of sober architecture whose main decorations were mosaic icons, images of profound stillness, bold lines, vibrant colors and quiet intensity that have little in common with the more theatrical art that was eventually to take over in Rome. They house some of the best surviving examples of the art of Christianity’s first millennium. In Santa Maria Maggiore, two lengthy tiers of mosaic icons date from the fifth century.
Merton’s first such encounter with ancient Christian art was with a fresco in a ruined chapel. Later he discovered a large mosaic over the altar at Cosmas and Damian of Christ coming in judgment with a fiery glow in the clouds beneath his feet against a vivid blue background. This was not at all the gravity-free, effete Jesus that he had so often encountered in art of the baroque period down to the Pre-Raphaelites.
“I was fascinated by these Byzantine mosaics,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I began to haunt the churches where they were to be found, and, as an indirect consequence, all the other churches that were more or less of the same period. And thus without knowing anything about it, I became a pilgrim.”
The excited memory of those days of eager discovery was still fresh when he was writing The Seven Storey Mountain fifteen years later:
What a thing it was to come upon the genius of an art full of spiritual vitality and earnestness and power — an art that was tremendously serious and alive and eloquent and urgent in all that it had to say …. [an art] without pretentiousness, without fakery, that had nothing theatrical about it. Its solemnity was made all the more astounding by its simplicity … and by its subservience to higher ends, architectural, liturgical and spiritual ends which I could not even begin to understand, but which I could not avoid guessing, since the nature of the mosaics themselves and their position and everything about them proclaimed it aloud.
Through these icons, he began to understand, not simply who Christ was but to experience who Christ is. In this crucial section of his autobiography, the crescendo come in two intense paragraphs that read more like a litany than ordinary prose:
And now for the first time in my whole life I began to find out something of whom this Person was that men call Christ. It was obscure but it was a true knowledge of Him, in some sense, truer than I know and truer than I would admit. But it was in Rome that my conception of Christ was formed. It was there I first saw Him, Whom I now serve as my King, and Who owns and rules my life.
It is the Christ of the Apocalypse, the Christ of the Martyrs, the Christ of the Fathers. It is the Christ of Saint John, and of Saint Paul, and of St. Augustine and St. Jerome and all the Fathers — and of the Desert Fathers. It is Christ God, Christ King.
The intensity of the experiences reflected in this powerful litany may be due in part to the fact that Merton was alone in Rome. There is something about solitary, unmediated, face-to-face contact that can increase one’s vulnerability to a work of art. There is no schedule to keep, no guide or professor to explain, no bus to board in fifteen minutes, no idle chatter with people more interested in menus than mosaics.
Eager to decipher the iconographic images that so arrested his eyes, Merton put aside the D.H. Lawrence novels that had weighed down his rucksack and bought a Bible. “I read more and more of the Gospels,” he recalled, “and my love for the old churches and their mosaics grew from day to day.”
The attraction of icons wasn’t simply due to Merton’s newly-gained appreciation of the aesthetics of iconography but to a profound sense of peace he experienced within the walls of churches graced with such imagery. He had, he said, “a deep and strong conviction that I belonged there.”
Merton desperately wanted to pray, to light a candle, to kneel down, to pray with his body as well as his mind, but found the prospect of publicly kneeling in a church alarming and, even worse, embarrassing. Finally one morning he climbed to the top of the Aventine Hill on the east side of the Tiber, crowned by the fifth century church of Santa Sabina, one of the oldest and least spoiled churches in Rome. Once inside, he found he could no longer play the guidebook-studying tourist. “Although the church was almost empty,” he later wrote, “I walked across the stone floor mortally afraid that a poor devout old Italian woman was following me with suspicious eyes.” He knelt down at the altar rail and, with tears, recited the Our Father over and over again.
At age eighteen, Merton had undergone, without realizing exactly what it was, a mystical experience: that is an encounter with the living Christ. From that moment he had something against which to measure everything, whether himself or religious art or the Church in history. He knew what was phony, not because of some theory but because of an experience of Christ that, in his case, had been mediated through iconography.
The pilgrimage that followed was nothing like an arrow’s direct flight to faith, baptism and the Church. The coming winter at Clare College was to prove a disastrous time in his life, the “nadir of winter darkness,” as he put it in Seven Storey Mountain. He did more drinking than studying and seems to have fathered an illegitimate child. His guardian in London wanted no further responsibility for Owen Merton’s wayward son and sent him packing to his grandparents in America.
Four years after arriving in New York, while a student at Columbia, Merton was received into the Catholic Church. Three years later, in December 1941, he arrived at the Trappist monastic community of the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Yet his encounter with icons was far from finished.
Of the many books Merton wrote during his years at the Abbey of Gethsemani, it is striking to discover that only one of them got as far as being set in type and yet wasn’t published. The title was Art and Worship. It was to have gone to press in 1959. The galleys sheets survive at the Thomas Merton Center in Louisville. Unfortunately his publisher had second thoughts about the project, fearing the book would damage Merton’s reputation.
What Merton had hoped to do with his small book was to sensitize his readers to an appreciation of iconography, a tradition which in the West, at least, had been abandoned since the Renaissance and was all but forgotten. “It is the task of the iconographer,” he declared in Art and Worship, “to open our eyes to the actual presence of the Kingdom in the world, and to remind us that though we see nothing of its splendid liturgy, we are, if we believe in Christ the Redeemer, in fact living and worshipping as ‘fellow citizens of the angels and saints, built upon the chief cornerstone with Christ’.”
An art expert who had read galleys of the book convinced the publisher that such an opinion was disconcertingly dated. The iconoclastic Sixties were about to unfold, but even in the Fifties nothing could have been more out-of-fashion than icons.
Merton reluctantly gave up on the book, yet he was never weaned of his love of this art form. Occasionally he returned to the topic of icons in letters. Only months before his death, he was in correspondence about icons with a Quaker friend, June Yungblut, in Atlanta. He confessed to her that books which presented Jesus as simply one of history’s prophetic figures left him cold. He was, he wrote to her, “hung up in a very traditional Christology.” He had no interest in a Christ who was merely a great teacher who possessed “a little flash of the light.” His Christ, he told her, was “the Christ of the Byzantine icons.”
June was puzzled. In a letter sent to her in March 1968, Merton explained what he meant by the “Christ of the Byzantine icons.” The whole tradition of iconography, he said,
represents a traditional experience formulated in a theology of light, the icon being a kind of sacramental medium for the illumination and awareness of the glory of Christ within us. … What one ‘sees’ in prayer before an icon is not an external representation of a historical person, but an interior presence in light, which is the glory of the transfigured Christ, the experience of which is transmitted in faith from generation to generation by those who have “seen,” from the Apostles on down. … So when I say that my Christ is the Christ of the icons, I mean that he is reached not through any scientific study but through direct faith and the mediation of the liturgy, art, worship, prayer, theology of light, etc., that is all bound up with the Russian and Greek tradition.
We come upon a final clue to the place icons had in his inner life when we consider the short list of personal effects that were returned with his body when it was flown back to the monastery from Thailand. Among the items was “1 Small Icon on Wood of Virgin and Child.”
Now what about the place of icons in the life of Henri Nouwen?
First, an icon-related aside: A few days after his death, I learned from his brother Laurens that, while on his final trip, Henri had been reading page proofs of a book of mine, Praying With Icons. A friend teased me that my writing had done Henri in, but then kidly reassured me that it was Henri’s ultra-vulnerable heart that was to blame. “If anyone had a heart that wasn’t made of stainless steel,” she said, “it was Henri Nouwen.”
Henri managed not only to write but to publish a book on icons that Merton would have loved: Behold the Beauty of the Lord. This thin volume remains among the best introductions to icons — very accessible, not at all technical, with a directness and sobriety that one can only describe as icon-like. With his usual immediacy, Henri explains how one icon and then several others gained a place in his life. He shares with his readers what he had so far learned from long periods of living with four of them: St. Andrei Rublev’s “Holy Trinity” icon, an icon of Mary holding the Christ child in her arms, an icon of the face of Christ (also by Rublev), and finally an icon of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles at Pentecost.
Of course Henri had seen icons in art history books, museums, churches and monasteries many times, but it wasn’t until his first visit to the L’Arche community in Trosly, France, in 1983 that he began to see icons with wide-open eyes. Barbara Swanekamp, assistant to L’Arche founder Jean Vanier, had put a reproduction of Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity on the table of the room where Henri would be staying. “After gazing for many weeks at the icon,” Henri noted in Behold the Beauty of the Lord, “I felt a deep urge to write down what I had gradually learned to see.”
Those of you who knew Henri or are familiar with him through his books know that he was profoundly sensitive to the visual arts. It was a family trait. In the introduction to his book on icons, he remembers a Chagall painting his parents had purchased in Paris early in their marriage when Chagall was little known — a watercolor of a vase filled with flowers placed on a sunlit window ledge, a simple yet radiant work that made one aware of God’s silent energy. I recall seeing it when Henri brought me with him to stay overnight at his father’s house. There were many other beautiful works of art in the house — the house was a small museum of fine art — but the Chagall watercolor stood out from the rest and still remains a fresh memory. “The flowers of Chagall,” Henri writes, “come to mind as I wondered why those four icons have become so important to me.”
The connection doesn’t surprise me. Chagall was deeply influenced by iconography. In some of his paintings the link is explicit, but it is always there in more subtle ways. Chagall was never a slave to the rules of perspective or to the physics of gravity in his work. People and animals fly. Fiddlers play on rooftops. Husbands and wives embrace while floating in the kitchen. There is no vanishing point. Like an iconographer, Chagall made his canvases windows opening onto the invisible world and the life of the soul. It may be that the Chagall painting Henri grew up with helped awaken in him a capacity to appreciate icons and understand their special language.
I remember Henri coming to visit us in Holland following his stay at Trosly, a year or two before publication of Behold the Beauty of the Lord. He was very excited about the gift he had brought with him, a reproduction of the Holy Trinity icon he had purchased that morning at a shop in Paris. Though he had not yet seen the actual icon — it is in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow — yet he was confidant that the print came as close to the real thing as print technology would allow.
Though I had seen icons from time to time, no icons or icon prints were hanging in our house. Until that day I had taken only a meager interest in them. I hadn’t yet written Living With Wisdom, still less Praying With Icons. Merton’s enthusiasm for icons was still a mystery to me. It wasn’t until Henri’s visit that finally I began to see them with a similar excitement.
I vividly recall sitting at Henri’s side as he explored, with childlike enthusiasm, every detail of the Holy Trinity icon. It was, he explained, inspired by Abraham and Sara’s hospitality to the mysterious guests they received under the oak of Mamre, a story told in Genesis. Throughout the Genesis account, the three angelic guests act in perfect unity and speak with one voice. They are both guests, plural, and also guest, singular; they are both one and three. It’s the first biblical hint of the Holy Trinity. Henri remarked on the utterly submissive, sister-like faces of the three angelic figures, each inclined toward the other in a silent dialogue of self-giving love. He commented on their profound stillness, yet their warmth and vitality. Then we looked at the colors Andrei Rublev had chosen, though I later discovered that even the best reproduction can only hint at what Rublev had actually achieved, as I was to see for myself not long afterward when I first visited the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. The colors are thinly layered — their transparency cannot be reproduced in photography. Henri traced the circle of perfect unity that subtly, invisibly contains the three angels. Then he traced a cross within the circle and then the trinitarian triangle it also contained. All this quiet geometry reveals key elements of the icon’s theology, yet none of it is heavy-handed. Then there is the table around which the three figures are placed — the eucharistic altar with golden chalice. Above the three figures are three objects: a house with an open door, a tree, and a mountain. The open-doored building on the upper left is both the Church and a house of hospitality. For Henri the Holy Trinity icon was an icon of “the house of love” — the Church as God intends it to be, the doors of which are never close and which need no locks. The tree in the center is the Tree of Life and also the Life-giving Cross. The mountain is the both Mount Sinai and the Mount of the Beatitudes.
Henri also spoke about the history of the icon, how Rublev had painted it as the principal icon for the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity at a monstery north of Moscow where the body of one of Russia’s most beloved saints, St. Sergius of Radonezh, had been placed. St. Sergius was a monk, woodworker and toymaker who lived in the 14th Century. He left no writings. The only words that come down to us from St. Sergius are these: “The contemplation of the Holy Trinity destroys all enmity.” Through this icon, placed in a iconostasis adjacent to the resting place of St. Sergius, Rublev sought to provide the opportunity for the contemplation of the Holy Trinity.
It may have been from Henri that I first heard the comment of one of the martyrs of the Soviet era, the physicist, mathematician, theologian and priest, Pavel Florensky, who wrote: “Because of the absolute beauty of Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon, we know that God exists.” Henri understood this way of thinking — beauty bears witness to the existence of God. Again and again he found works of art that were windows to heaven. One thinks of the place in Henri’s life of Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son and many paintings by Van Gogh.
Henri linked his response to icons with the question: “What do we really choose to see?” In Behold the Beauty of the Lord, Henri stresses that it is a matter of enormous importance what we look it and how we look at it. He writes:
It makes a great difference whether we see a flower or a snake, a gentle smile or menacing teeth, a dancing couple or a hostile crowd. We do have a choice. Just as we are responsible for what we eat, so we are responsible for what we see. It is easy to become a victim of the vast array of visual stimuli surrounding us. The “powers and principalities” control many of our daily images. Posters, billboards, television, videos, movies and store windows continuously assault our eyes and inscribe their images upon our memories. We do not have to be passive victims of a world that wants to entertain and distract us. We can make decisions and choices. A spiritual life in the midst of our energy-draining society requires us to take conscious steps to safeguard that inner space where we can keep our eyes fixed on the beauty of the Lord.
Henri proposed a theology of seeing, or gazing, the verb he preferred. To really see something beautiful, such as a well-painted icon, so that its beauty becomes a sacramental reality, one has to do much more than glance.
For both Merton and Nouwen, the icon is the primary visual art of the Church. Nor could they see icons as meaningful apart from the Church. The icon becomes a rootless plant when it becomes simply a “work of art,” a “collector’s item,” an aesthetic object. For both Merton and Nouwen, icons were intimately connected with eucharistic life and daily prayer. They saw icons as aids to prayer.
In both their lives there was a realization that the icon, far from being merely an artistic image that directs our attention away from the world we live in with all its agonies, is a school of seeing. It is meant to help reshape the way we see and relate to other people. The icon — the Greek word for image — is a reminder that each person, no matter how damaged in his or her life, is a bearer of God’s image and, like those whom we regard as saints, has the potential to reclaim the lost likeness.
It is one thing to believe intellectually that each person is made in the image of God, no less than Adam and Eve, and yet another to actively seek that image and to relate to the other in ways that bear witness to that awareness. It’s the most basic and challenging task that’s given to us. Each of us is an icon — each of us bears the image, the icon, of God, even if we hide it well. Nothing is more basic than the connection between spiritual life and our response to our neighbor, even when that neighbor is an enemy. If the burning of icons and the vandalizing of mosaics distresses us, how much more should be horror-struck at the destruction of human beings, icons bearers made by God?
Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton: two contemplative men with a great deal in common. Both were explorers of eastern Christianity. Both were drawn to icons both on wood and in flesh. Both never ceased trying to open their eyes a little bit wider. May they encourage us to do the same.