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.
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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.
(This is similar to the afterword I wrote for my biography of Dorothy Day, All is Grace, published by Orbis Books.)
by Jim Forest
I first met Dorothy Day a few days before Christmas in 1960 while on leave from the U.S. Navy. After reading copies of The Catholic Worker that I had found in my parish library, and then reading Dorothy’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness, I decided to visit the community she had founded. I was based not so far away, in Washington, DC.
Arriving in Manhattan for that first visit, I made my way to Saint Joseph’s House — then in a loft on Spring Street, on the north edge of Little Italy in the Lower East Side of New York City. Discovering that it was moving day, I joined in helping carry boxes from an upstairs loft to a three-storey brick building at 175 Chrystie Street, a few blocks to the east. Jack Baker, one of the other people assisting with the move that day, invited me to stay in his apartment in the same neighborhood.
A few days later I visited the community’s rural outpost on Staten Island, the Peter Maurin Farm. Crossing Upper New York Harbor by ferry, I made my way to an old farmhouse on a rural road just north of Pleasant Plains near the island’s southern tip. In its large, faded dining room, I found half-a-dozen people, Dorothy among them, gathered around a pot of tea at one end of the dining room table.
At the time, Dorothy was only sixty-three, though to my young eyes she seemed old enough to have known Abraham and Sarah. But what a handsome woman! Her face was long, with high, prominent cheekbones underlining large, quick eyes, deep blue and almond shaped, that could be teasing one moment, laughing the next, then turn grave an instant later. Her gray hair, parted in the middle, was braided and circled the back of her head like a garland of silver flowers. She had a fresh, scrubbed look with no trace of cosmetics. The woolen suit she wore was plain but well-tailored and good quality. (I only recently learned from her goddaughter, Johannah Hughes Turner, that her suit was probably a gift from her sister, Della Spier. “Dorothy was tall and hard to fit,” Johannah told me. “Rarely did she find anything in the Catholic Worker clothing room that she could use. Della enjoyed dressing Dorothy and could afford to provide her with solid, classic suits and dresses.”)
I gave Dorothy a bag of letters addressed to her that had been received in Manhattan. Within minutes, she was reading the letters aloud to all of us.
The only letter I still recall from that day’s reading was one from Thomas Merton, the famous monk whose autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, had held many people in its grip, including me. In 1941, Merton had withdrawn from “the world” to a Trappist monastery in Kentucky with a slam of the door that eventually was heard around the world. I had assumed that he wrote to no one outside his family. Yet here he was in correspondence with someone who was not only in the thick of the world, but one of its more engaged and controversial figures.
In his letter, Merton told Dorothy that he was deeply touched by her witness for peace, which in recent years had five times resulted in her arrest and imprisonment for refusing to take shelter during civil defense drills. “You are right going along the lines of satyagraha [Gandhi’s term for nonviolent action]. I see no other way…. Nowadays it is no longer a question of who is right but who is at least not criminal…. It has never been more true than now that the world is lost in its own falsity and cannot see true values…. God bless you.” This was one of Merton’s first letters to Dorothy. Ten months later, he published an essay in The Catholic Worker — “The Root of War is Fear” — and immediately got into trouble with his religious superiors and others both inside and outside the monastery.
Merton was one of countless people drawn to Dorothy and influenced by her. She had a great gift for making those who met her, even if only through letters or her published writings, look at themselves in a new light, questioning previously held ideas, allegiances and choices.
I was another of those whose life took an unexpected turn thanks to Dorothy Day. Five months after that first encounter, I was granted an early discharge from the Navy on grounds of conscientious objection. At Dorothy’s invitation, I became part of the staff at Saint Joseph’s House in New York.
One of my predecessors was Jack English, who had joined the New York Catholic Worker in its early years and remained close to Dorothy into her old age. Recalling his first impressions of Dorothy in a taped interview with Deane Mowrer in 1970, he said he was still impressed with Dorothy’s ability to engage with so many individuals. “She occasionally talks in terms of the abstract, but she never talks or operates except person to person.” Jack had learned from her that “each human being is unique, totally unique, and that each time I meet and have a real encounter with another human being, I am changed somehow, whether for good or bad.”
The qualities that so impressed Jack were just as striking to me: her ability to focus on the person she was talking to, not to see just a young face but your face, not discerning just a vague, general promise, but your particular gifts. Through Dorothy, you glimpsed exciting possibilities in yourself that you hadn’t seen before.
When I joined the Catholic Worker, there was just one house in Manhattan, Saint Joseph’s. It was so cramped a building that only one person actually lived there as nighttime care-taker. The rest of us, Dorothy as well, lived in $25-a-month cold-water flats located nearby that were usually occupied by two people. By chance, Dorothy’s room (shared at the time with a woman we knew as Saint Louis Marie) was next to the one I shared with Stuart Sandberg, a recent graduate of Cornell University who, later in life, was ordained a priest. We were on the sixth floor of a Spring Street tenement. There were four small apartments per floor, each with a bathtub next to the sink. The one toilet on each floor was in a closet-sized space in the hallway.
As I had discovered that first day at the farm on Staten Island, Dorothy was a tireless story-teller, often using incoming letters as a starting point. I recall her reading a letter aloud one day from the Gauchat family, founders of a Catholic Worker community in Ohio. Dorothy told us how the Gauchats had taken in a six-month-old child who was expected to die at any time. The child, they were told, was deaf and blind, with a fluid-filled lump on his head larger than a baseball. “Bill Gauchat made the sign of the cross over that child’s face,” Dorothy said, “and he saw those dull eyes follow the motion of his hand. The child could see! Within a year David — that was his name — was well enough to be taken home by his real parents. His life was saved by the love in the Gauchat home.”
A letter from a Catholic Worker community that was trying to help a prostitute get free of her pimp reminded Dorothy of a prostitute named Mary Ann with whom she had been in jail in Chicago in the early 1920s. At the time, Dorothy had been living a bohemian life with no plans of ever becoming Catholic or joining any church. She hadn’t intended to be arrested and was terrified of the guards. “You must hold your head high,” Mary Ann advised her, “and give them no clue that you’re afraid of them or ready to beg for anything, any favors whatsoever. But you must see them for what they are — never forget that they’re in jail, too.”
Hearing stories like these, we were learning something about life that you don’t get in newspapers, classrooms or even in many churches. At the core of each story there were always just a few people, perhaps just one, for whom following Christ was the most important thing in the world.
Stories gave Dorothy occasion to draw on her massive supply of sayings. How many times have I heard her repeat Saint Catherine of Siena’s remark, “All the way to heaven is heaven, because Jesus said, ‘I am the way.’” There was a passage from George Bernanos’s novel, Diary of a Country Priest, that she often used: “Hell is not to love anymore.” Just as often, she made use of a saying from Saint John of the Cross, “Love is the measure by which we will be judged.” Another favorite was a sentence from Dostoevsky: “The world will be saved by beauty.” There was also Saint Augustine’s declaration: “All beauty is a revelation of God.”
Beauty! Dorothy had an astonishing gift for finding beauty in places where it was often overlooked — in determined flowers blooming in a slum neighborhood, in grass battling upward toward the sky between blocks of concrete, in the smell of an herb growing in a pot on a tenement window ledge, in the battered faces of people who survived on the economic fringes of society.
Music was important in Dorothy’s life, especially opera. One had to have a very good reason for knocking on her door on a Saturday afternoon when she was absorbed in the weekly radio broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera, though she was willing to have company to listen with her so long as no attempt was made at conversation. (Dorothy said once to Willa Bickham, a member of the community at the time, “If I am reincarnated, I hope I come back an opera singer. Then I’ll bring joy to everyone instead of always having to tell what’s wrong with the world.”)
More than anything else, Dorothy was a writer. There was always a notebook in her bag. She seemed endlessly to be taking notes and writing. Note-taking and journal-keeping were as much a part of Dorothy as breathing. Time and again every day she made note of something that had been said or jotted down a passage from the book she was then reading. During the weekly Friday night meetings at the Catholic Worker, Dorothy’s note-taking was usually nonstop. When she traveled, she kept track of everyone she met and what had been said. Her notes in turn became raw material for her monthly column, “On Pilgrimage.” (Dorothy’s more substantial work, the several books she wrote, were mainly written at the several Staten Island beach cottages she had lived in over the years, places of retreat and solitude.)
Dorothy was an avid reader. She had loved books since childhood. She once told me that “the hardest part of living in community is the loss of so many books.” In a 1952 diary entry, she reports with distress how she found her copy of the writings of Saint John of the Cross under an apple tree, soaked by rain. Her engagement in the world seemed only to fuel the reading side of her life — or was it that her reading fueled her engagement? She read certain Russian classics over and over again. She returned again and again to the novels of Charles Dickens. More than once she told young people like me that we could only understand the Catholic Worker by reading Dostoevsky.
Certain books had a huge impact on her life. One can wonder whether Dostoevsky shouldn’t be regarded as a co-founder of the Catholic Worker, so much did his books help shape Dorothy’s understanding of Christianity. In The Brothers Karamazov, the elderly monk, Father Zosima, made an exceptionally deep impression on her, especially his words, “Love in action is often a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams,” a passage Dorothy recited so often that she made it her own.
I have never known anyone more disciplined in her spiritual life than Dorothy — daily Mass, devotion to the rosary, frequent confession, times of private prayer and intercession each day. How often I have seen her on her knees at one of the nearby parish churches or at the chapel at the Catholic Worker farm. (The Archdiocese of New York permitted a chapel on the farm and reservation of the Blessed Sacrament within it.) While praying, I noticed she often referred to pieces of paper. One afternoon, Dorothy having been summoned from the farm chapel for an urgent phone call, I looked in the prayer book she had left on the bench and discovered page after page of names, all written in her careful italic script, of people, living and dead, for whom she was praying.
It seemed to me Dorothy prayed as if lives depended on it, and no doubt some did. The physician Robert Coles of the Harvard Medical School credited Dorothy’s prayers with the miraculous cure of his wife. She had been dying of cancer but — to the astonishment of her physicians — recovered.
Dorothy had a special list with the names of people who had committed suicide. I once asked Dorothy, “But isn’t it too late?” “With God there is no time,” she responded. She went on to say how a lot can happen in a person’s thoughts between initiating an action that will result in death and death itself — that even the tiny fraction of a second that passes between pulling a trigger and the bullet striking the brain might, in the infinity of time that exists deep within us, be time enough for regretting what it was now too late to stop, and to cry out for God’s mercy.
I recall a story Dorothy once told me about persistence in prayer. For many years, she said, she had been a heavy smoker. Her day began with lighting up. Her big sacrifice every Lent was giving up smoking, but having to get by without a cigarette made her increasingly irritable as the days passed, until the rest of the Catholic Worker household was praying she would light up a cigarette. One year, as Lent approached, the priest who heard her confessions at the time urged her not to give up cigarettes that year but instead to pray daily, “Dear God, help me stop smoking.” She used that prayer for several years, she told me, without it having any impact on her addiction. Then one morning she woke up, reached for a cigarette, and realized she didn’t want it. She never smoked another.
Without prayer and the sacraments, Dorothy felt, the Catholic Worker would be blown away like dust in the wind. “We feed the hungry, yes,” she told Bob Coles. “We try to shelter the homeless and give them clothes, but there is strong faith at work; we pray. If an outsider who comes to visit us doesn’t pay attention to our praying and what that means, then he’ll miss the whole point.”
Dorothy went to Mass every day until her body wasn’t up to it and, even then, received daily communion, carefully preparing before and giving plenty of time afterward for thanksgiving. She loved the rosary and prayed it often. “If we love enough,” she once noted, “we are importunate: we repeat our love as we repeat Hail Marys on the rosary.”
She could be as fierce and determined as one of those resolute Russian women who repaired Moscow streets and kept going to church even in the years of Stalin. Her direct, at times electrifying way of getting to the heart of things was much in evidence one night when she was speaking to a Catholic student group at New York University in a packed and smoky room in a building near Washington Square Park. It was in the fall of 1961 — the Cold War was at its most frozen. The explosion of nuclear weapons in the Nevada desert had become too ordinary an event to qualify as front-page news. A much repeated slogan of the time was, “Better dead than Red.” Clearly some of those present considered Dorothy a Red, meaning a faithful servant of the Kremlin with its blood-red flag. One student demanded to know what Dorothy would do if the Russians invaded the United States. Would she not admit, in this extreme, at least, that killing was justified, even a sacred duty? “We are taught by Our Lord to love our enemies,” Dorothy responded without batting an eye. “I hope I could open my heart to them with love, the same as anyone else. We are all children of the same Father.” There was a brief but profound stillness in the room before Dorothy went on to speak about nonviolent resistance and efforts to convert opponents rather than kill them. Which of his enemies had Christ slain?
Dorothy had an intense devotion to the saints — Christ’s mother Mary, first of all, but then to so many others. One of the least likely was Joan of Arc, famous for her military exploits (though, except in statues, she never wielded a sword) and finally for being burned at the stake for refusing to deny her visions. I once noticed a small statue of Joan, clad in armor, on the table next to Dorothy’s bed. Responding to my surprise at her devotion to a military saint, Dorothy explained, “Joan of Arc is a saint of fidelity to conscience.” This was, she said, her second such statue of Joan. The first had been stolen years earlier, but recently Bishop John Wright of Pittsburgh had given her another.
Joseph, the foster father of Jesus and patron saint of all working people, was among the most important for Dorothy. The Catholic Worker house of hospitality I had become part of was dedicated to Saint Joseph. We had a finely carved wooden statue of him that the artist had donated. Under it, during periods when the community’s financial well was dry or nearly so, Dorothy would place all the bills awaiting payment. “Keeping us going is your responsibility,” she would remind Saint Joseph.
Dorothy had much in common with another of her favorite saints, Teresa of Avila. Both Dorothy and Teresa had animated the foundation of many communities, and both were tireless travelers. Both were reformers who went through periods of being regarded with suspicion by the hierarchy. Both were outspoken and fearless.
Another saint that greatly inspired Dorothy was Therese of Lisieux, a contemplative Carmelite nun of the nineteenth century who, after her death, came to be known as “the Little Flower.” She lived an obscure life, never traveling and never founding anything, and had died only two months before Dorothy’s birth. So significant was she to Dorothy that the only completed biography Dorothy ever wrote was about Therese and her “little way.” What most impressed Dorothy was Therese’s certainty that nothing, even the most hidden action, is ever wasted. As she put in her “On Pilgrimage” column for the December 1965 issue of The Catholic Worker: “Paper work, cleaning the house, dealing with the innumerable visitors who come all through the day, answering the phone, keeping patience and acting intelligently, which is to find some meaning in all that happens — these things, too, are the works of peace, and often seem like a very little way.”
I don’t know when or how often Dorothy made her famous remark, “Don’t call me a saint — I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” Very likely it was only once, but since her death even the briefest article about her is almost certain to include it. It is the quotation from Dorothy Day. But what was the context? Dorothy found great inspiration in the lives of those people — saints — who had been placed on the calendar of the Church, and she had done what saints do: attempt to follow Christ. At the same time she didn’t want the word “saint” to be used in order to place people who attempted to live according to the Gospel in a special category of irrelevancy.
Dorothy believed we are all called to sanctity. In 1967, when Tom Cornell and I were editing the first edition of A Penny a Copy, an anthology of Catholic Worker writings, we read through thirty-four years of back issues. The front page that most impressed me had a banner headline — the kind of ultra-bold, all-caps headline that in a conventional newspaper would be used for the assassination of a president or the outbreak of war — that declared “WE ARE ALL CALLED TO BE SAINTS.” The headline sums up what Dorothy regarded as absolutely basic. Why else would anyone attending the liturgy receive communion? Why receive Christ unless you hope to become more Christ-like? Why call yourself a Christian if you have no interest in trying to live the Gospel? If someday Dorothy is added to the Church calendar, one benefit is that we will have a saint whose sins and shortcomings will be impossible to airbrush out. She will be a saint who really bears witness to the possibility of flawed people, with pasts that embarrass them, never giving up in their efforts to rise from their falls and stumble along in the general direction of the kingdom of God.
Dorothy’s embarrassment and sometimes annoyance in the face of admiration was only in part due to modesty. Rather she felt that many people would view her more critically if they knew her better — knew her faults, and knew more about her past. She felt she had helped create an idealized image of herself by leaving out of her autobiographical writings certain events preceding her entrance into the Catholic Church that she found particularly shameful, and also saying little about the faults she struggled with every day of her life.
Only years later did I come to realize that nothing in her past distressed Dorothy more than the decision to abort her first child, an event that took place in her early twenties, years before her conversion. I recall how distressed she was when I asked her if I might borrow her first book, The Eleventh Virgin. Somehow I had become aware that, as a young woman, she had written a novel with that title. She didn’t have a copy, she told me, regretted that it had ever been published, appealed to me not to mention it again, and asked me not to look for it. It wasn’t until late in her life that a friend who dealt in rare books presented me with a copy. Only when I read it did I understand why Dorothy had responded to my question with such anguish. The end point of this autobiographical novel was an abortion, carried out in the desperate hope that the man she was in love with at the time, her unborn child’s unwilling father, would not leave her. He left her even so.
In a letter to a young woman written in February 1973, Dorothy refers to her abortion as well as to two suicide attempts she made as a young adult: “Twice I tried to take my own life, and the dear Lord pulled me through that darkness — I was rescued from that darkness. My sickness was physical too, since I had had an abortion with bad after-effects, and in a way my sickness of mind was a penance I had to endure.” A few sentences later, Dorothy added, “I love you, because you remind me of my own youth, and of my one child and my grandchildren. I will keep on praying for your healing, writing your name down in my little book of prayers which I have by my bedside.” (This is one of many letters by Dorothy included in All the Way to Heaven, edited by Robert Ellsberg.)
Dorothy once told Robert Coles about the effort she had made earlier in her life to find and destroy every copy of The Eleventh Virgin. Finally she brought her book-burning effort to the attention of the priest who was then hearing her confessions. He laughed. “My, my,” he said. “I thought he was going to tell me to stop being so silly and mixed up in my priorities,” Dorothy told Coles. “I will remember to my last day here on God’s earth what the priest said: ‘You can’t have much faith in God if you’re taking the life He has given you and using it that way.’ I didn’t say a word in reply. The priest added, ‘God is the one who forgives us, if we ask Him; but it sounds like you don’t even want forgiveness — just to get rid of the books.’”
Normally Dorothy she went to confession every Saturday, not simply because it was, at that time, common Catholic practice, but because she always found that by the end of the week she had a lot to confess. A journal entry Dorothy made in 1951 makes a typical summary note: “This afternoon [I had] glimpses of my own ugliness, vanity, pride, cruelty, contempt of others, levity, jeering, carping. Too sensitive to criticism…” Weeks later she added other sins: “flippancy, criticalness, [a] gibing attitude, lack of respect and love for others.” The following year she wrote: “I fail people daily, God help me, when they come to me for aid and sympathy. There are too many of them, whichever way I turn … I deny them the Christ in me when I do not show them tenderness, love. God forgive me.”
Confession was part of the basic architecture of Dorothy’s life. On the first page of her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, she writes about what hard work it was going to confession, “hard when you have sins to confess, hard when you haven’t … you wrack your brain for even the beginnings of sins against charity, chastity, sins of distraction, sloth or gluttony. You do not want to make too much of your constant imperfections and venial sins, but you want to drag them out to the light of day as the first step in getting rid of them.” Note that sins against love top the list.
Confession was, for Dorothy, a means of overcoming the sense that she was fighting a losing battle. She once gave Joe Zarrella a card on which she had written: “We should not be discouraged at our own lapses … but continue. If we are discouraged, it shows vanity and pride. Trusting too much to ourselves. It takes a lifetime of endurance, of patience, of learning through mistakes. We all are on the way.” Rosalie Riegle tells me that Joe carried the card in his wallet until his death.
No one knew her shortcomings better than Dorothy herself, as has become clearer than ever following the recent publication of her diaries, The Duty of Delight. She was painfully aware that there were some who came to live in community with her who looked back on the experience with more pain than joy, nor could she blame them. She also felt that, due to the demands of leading the Catholic Worker movement, she had at times failed at being the ever-attentive, patient mother to her daughter Tamar that she so wanted to be. (On the other hand, given the circumstances and the fact that she was a single parent, it’s remarkable how good a mother Dorothy was, and later how devoted a grandmother. In 1964, she spent four months taking care of her grandchildren in Vermont while Tamar took a course in practical nursing.)
One of Dorothy’s most impressive gifts was that she was never reluctant to apologize when she felt she had been wrong or too harsh. She could do so with passion and without reservation or excuses. I am among those who received letters from Dorothy in which she begged forgiveness for something she had said or written or done which, on reflection, she deeply regretted. The last such letter I had from her along these lines was spattered with tears that had made the ink run. It had been written, she said, on her knees.
Confronted by a camera, Dorothy rarely smiled. If you study photos of her, you might form the idea that she had a dour personality. It’s easy to see that she was at times a person of the utmost seriousness, but it’s harder to imagine her warmth. In ordinary life, much of her time was spent sitting at a table, sipping tea or coffee, in comfortable conversation with whoever happened to join her — friend or stranger, sane or insane, young or old — often just listening, saying very little.
When Dorothy was present, she was completely present, but often she wasn’t there at all. She was away visiting other Catholic Worker houses, speaking at churches and colleges, writing at her beach cottage on Staten Island, visiting Tamar and her many grandchildren, or enjoying the relative peace and quiet that reigned at Peter Maurin Farm. In the New York house, her periods away left a hole that no one else could fill. Each member of staff had somehow acquired particular responsibilities: having charge of the kitchen, taking care of the address list, writing thank you notes, handling the household money, managing the paper — though, even in absentia, Dorothy was definitely the paper’s editor and publisher. But no one was in a position to make a significant decision in her absence that everyone else would accept. In the New York house, in our somewhat splintered state, Dorothy alone could lay down the law.
I look back on being part of the Catholic Worker in New York City in those days as a major blessing, but it was not an easy blessing. In the early sixties, the New York house probably was one of the least happy communities in the Catholic Worker movement. In fact we were hardly a community at all. We had no community meetings and not all of us got along with each other. There was no formation program for the integration of new volunteers and few conditions of engagement. Nor was there any pay – though whoever handled community money could dispense small amounts as needed. It was exhilarating and exhausting, inspiring and discouraging.
I recall a decision made by our two-person kitchen crew that the occasional pound of butter or box of eggs contributed to the house would go to those on “the line” rather than to “the family.” This was a change in custom, they recognized, but was, in their view, in line with the Gospel verse, “The last shall be first.”
“The line” referred to those people who turned up for meals but whose names were unknown to most of us. “The family” was the much smaller group of people who had become regulars, were known by name, were living at the Catholic Worker and, in many cases, had chores to do within the household. “The family” ate after “the line.” Traditionally anything special that turned up in small quantities was saved for them. As a result of this change in policy, members of the family, who had seen many volunteers come and go, were outraged, and the staff itself — six or eight people at the time — divided. Conflicting quotations from Dorothy’s writings began to appear on the community bulletin board, each faction hurling verbal fragments of Dorothy at the other. On the one hand there might be a quotation from Dorothy declaring that we must be ready to roll up in old newspapers, giving our beds to those who needed them — and, on the other hand, a text in which Dorothy humbly reflected that voluntary poverty sometimes meant accepting one’s limitations.
Dorothy was soon back again. Without bothering to sort out the paradoxes posed by the quotations from her writings, she said — with the finality of a monastery’s abbess — that the butter and eggs were to go, as before, to the family. In the end, two people resigned, disappointed that Dorothy had failed to live up to some of her own quotations.
Such events, while petty and even comical when viewed from the outside, were grueling from the inside. There were many staff blow-ups during the forty-seven years that lay between the founding of the Catholic Worker and Dorothy’s death in 1980, not to mention divisive controversies within the Catholic Worker movement as a whole, such as the debate about pacifism during World War II. It is an endless cause of wonder to me that, despite all these trials, she nonetheless retained her capacity for faith, hope and love down to the last day of her life. She occasionally spoke of “the duty of hope.”
Perhaps her survival was not only thanks to remaining resolutely hopeful, but also to her taking time away, whether in the solitude of her Staten Island beach cottage or in Vermont visiting Tamar and her grandchildren.
It was in the aftermath of “the great butter crisis,” late in 1961, that Dorothy appointed me as managing editor of the paper. She had to find someone — one of the two who had just left was my predecessor. Having just turned twenty, I was the youngest person ever to have held that post. Eventually, I too became a casualty of the early-sixties stress within the New York Catholic Worker community. When I was poised to get arrested for participating in an act of civil disobedience protesting U.S. resumption of nuclear weapons tests, Dorothy insisted that I instead go south to Tennessee and write about a civil rights project she admired. I said that, having been one of the organizers of the protest, I couldn’t back out. I would have to go to Tennessee afterward. It wasn’t a good moment to work out a compromise with Dorothy — earlier that same day she had been infuriated by the irresponsible actions of several other staff members. She gave me an ultimatum: “Either go to Tennessee or you are no longer part of this community.” At the time, I felt I had no option but to do what I had helped plan and had promised to take part in. From Dorothy’s point of view on that short-tempered day, I was simply being self-willed.
Only later in life, having gone through the white water of parenthood and having worked with many young volunteers in other contexts, did I realize that, had I gone back to Chrystie Street once I completed my month in jail, no one would have been happier to see me than Dorothy. But I was too young to realize the about-face adults can make after a good night’s sleep. Moving timidly, it took me the better part of a year to renew my relationship with Dorothy.
Dorothy often described the Catholic Worker as a school. Certainly it was for me. One of the things I learned was that the poverty-stricken, the addicted and the insane — the people for whom our house of hospitality existed — were often easier to live with, and more patient and compassionate, than young volunteers who knew more about ideology than love. Yet for all our shortcomings and conflicts, we volunteers managed to get a great deal done: food begged or purchased, meals cooked and served, clothing received and given away, dishes washed, floors scrubbed, sheets laundered, the paper mailed out, those with medical needs assisted, hospital patients visited, and thank-you notes sent out to each and every donor, no matter how small the gift — all that and much more.
Not the smallest problem in the house was the noise. I recall one day trying to carry on a conversation with Dorothy about an article we were thinking about using in the next issue of the paper. We were at her desk in a tiny office next to the front door of the house on Chrystie Street, adjacent to the area in which meals were served, easily the noisiest part of the house. We could hardly hear each other. In the middle of a sentence, Dorothy got out of her chair, opened the door, and yelled, “Holy silence!” Silence briefly reigned at Saint Joseph’s House such as a Trappist monk might admire.
One of Dorothy’s striking qualities was her respect for Christians of other churches, especially those in the Orthodox Church. What was at the root of her affinity to Orthodoxy, I don’t know. Perhaps it had to do with her Russian friendships and the special role Dostoevsky had played in the formation of her faith and vocation. The first time I visited an Orthodox church, it was with Dorothy, and the first time I attended the magnificent Orthodox Liturgy, it was with her as well. In the early sixties, she was a friend of a priest serving at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral on East 97th Street in Manhattan, Father Matthew Stadniuk from Moscow. (In 1988, having returned to Moscow some years before, he was the first priest in Russia who got his parishioners into publically-visible voluntary service at a local hospital, thanks to the new climate of religious tolerance inaugurated by Gorbachev. For the first time since Lenin, religious believers were no longer excluded from openly performing the works of mercy.)
Dorothy’s longing for the repair of the centuries-old schism dividing Eastern and Western Christianity drew her into the Third Hour group, founded by her Russian friend, Helene Iswolsky. This may have been the only association in America at the time in which people of various churches came together who had in common a deep respect, even love, for the Orthodox Church. I remember sitting next to Dorothy at a Third Hour meeting at an apartment in mid-town Manhattan, trying to make sense of the Russian words and phrases she and others used so comfortably. Among those present were the poet W.H. Auden, the Orthodox theologian, Alexander Schmemann, and Alexander Kerensky, who nearly half a century earlier had been prime minister of Russia in the brief period between the last tsar’s abdication and the Bolshevik Revolution.
Dorothy’s own commitment to the Catholic Church was never at issue — she wasn’t window-shopping for another, “better” Church. In fact it disturbed many people, including many in the Catholic Worker movement, that Dorothy was so conservative a Catholic — so wholehearted in her acceptance of Catholic teaching and structure. She was critical not of what the Church taught, but rather of its failures in living out its own teaching. “I didn’t become a Catholic in order to purify the Church,” Dorothy once explained to Robert Coles. “I knew someone, years ago, who kept telling me that if we [Catholic Workers] could purify the Church, then she would convert. I thought she was teasing me when she first said that, but after a while I realized she meant what she was saying. Finally, I told her I wasn’t trying to reform the Church or take sides on all the issues the Church was involved in; I was trying to be a loyal servant of the Church Jesus had founded. She thought I was being facetious. She reminded me that I had been critical of capitalism and America, so why not Catholicism and Rome? … My answer was that I had no reason to criticize Catholicism as a religion or Rome as the place where the Vatican is located…. As for Catholics all over the world, including members of the Church, they are no better than lots of their worst critics, and maybe some of us Catholics are worse than our worst critics.”
Though there are millions of Catholics who seem to be more nationalist than Christian in their core identity, Dorothy found Catholicism the Christian body least contaminated by nationalism. Even the most nation-centered, flag-waving Catholic was at least vaguely aware of being part of a Church that was confined by no national or linguistic borders. Still more significant to Dorothy, it was a church crowded with the poor. Most important of all, it was a dispenser of sacraments without which life, for her, was barren. Part of the value of the Church for Dorothy was that it brought people together across many lines of division — political, ideological, economic, geographic, even the borders drawn by time. She agreed with G.K. Chesterton’s remark that “tradition was democracy extended through time” — a democracy in which not only the living had a vote, but the dead as well.
Dorothy often stressed obedience (the root meaning of which is “listening”), insisting that if she were ordered by her bishop to stop publishing The Catholic Worker, she would do so, though not without trying first to change the bishop’s mind. “Would that mean,” I asked her one day, “if Cardinal Spellman says we have to give up our stand on war, we give it up?” “Not at all,” she said. “But then we might only use quotations from the Bible, the sayings of the saints, extracts from papal encyclicals, just nothing of our own.” But she said that if there was no alternative but to stop publishing the paper, she would do so, hoping others might carry on in some way. Then she quoted the Gospel: “Unless the seed fall into the ground and die, it cannot bring forth new life.”
Dorothy’s devotion to the Church was rock solid but not without a critical edge. Borrowing from Romano Guardini, she sometimes spoke of the Church as being “the cross on which Christ was crucified.” Though the metaphor sounds poetic, it was no compliment. Similarly Dorothy occasionally remarked that the net Peter had lowered into the human sea, once Jesus made him a fisher of men, “caught many a blowfish and quite a few sharks.” There were priests and bishops who reminded her “more of Cain than of Abel.”
Dorothy had very little sense of owning anything — she regarded what she possessed as being “on loan.” What she had was often given away. A friend complained that none of the sweaters she had specially knit as gifts remained with Dorothy for long — sooner or later, usually sooner, each was given away. The same happened with many books. As far as I could see, Dorothy never indulged herself, though she often accused herself of being self-indulgent, as she did one afternoon when we had gone for a walk in the neighborhood. I don’t recall any goal, only that it was a warm day. Passing a small kosher restaurant at a corner somewhere along Ridge Street, Dorothy suggested we stop for a glass of cold beet borscht with a spoonful of sour cream. Once it had been served, Dorothy was slightly scandalized at herself – “Borscht with sour cream! What luxury! This isn’t voluntary poverty.” But then she laughed. The voluptuous treat was only ten cents a glass.
Dorothy, who never seemed to be overly anxious about how little money there was in the community bank account, frequently set an example of passing on what was given as quickly as possible. In one memorable instance, a well-dressed woman visiting the Worker house one day gave Dorothy a diamond ring. Dorothy thanked the visitor, slipped the ring in her pocket, and later in the day gave it to an unpleasant old woman — Catherine Tarengal. Catherine, a bitter complainer second to none, was known in the community as “the weasel.” She lived with her handicapped son and often ate meals at Saint Joseph’s. We paid her rent each month. One of the staff suggested to Dorothy that the ring might better have been sold at the Diamond Exchange on West 47th Street and the money used for paying Catherine’s rent. Dorothy replied that the woman had her dignity and could do as she liked with the ring. She could sell and buy whatever she wanted or take a trip to the Bahamas — or she could enjoy having a diamond ring on her hand just like the woman who had given it to the Worker. “Do you suppose,” Dorothy asked, “that God created diamonds only for the rich?”
In the early days of the Catholic Worker, those who came to the door were often the unemployed rather than the unemployable. Dorothy’s attitude toward hospitality, much admired during the Depression, often came under criticism in later years on when those being helped struck many observers as considerably less worthy. We were no longer helping the “deserving poor,” we were told, but no-account drunkards, addicts, loafers and thieves. Why did we have no employment or rehabilitation programs? Didn’t we realize that the clothes the Worker gave away were often sold or bartered for drink or drugs? Dorothy responded by pointing out that those who ask such questions also use their money and possessions as they please, and often no more wisely than the down-and-out.
Another often repeated objection was, “Didn’t Jesus himself say that the poor would be with us always? Why make such a fuss about them?” “Yes,” Dorothy replied again and again, “but we are not content that there should be so many of them. The class structure is our making and by our consent, not God’s, and we must do what we can to change it. We are urging revolutionary change.”
There was a social worker who asked Dorothy how long “clients” of the Catholic Worker were permitted to stay. “We let them stay forever,” Dorothy answered testily. “They live with us, they die with us, and we give them a Christian burial. We pray for them after they are dead. Once they are taken in, they become members of the family. Or rather they always were members of the family. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ.”
While Dorothy was an enthusiastic and unapologetic borrower of other people’s ideas, her way of seeing was very much her own. I think, for example, of what happened one day when my room-mate, Stuart Sandberg, and I were clearing out rubbish from a small apartment one flight up in a cold-water tenement on Ridge Street. Dorothy was having increasing trouble managing the five flights to the apartment on Spring Street. These two rooms could be reached without such a climb, but first many layers of linoleum and wallpaper had to be removed and white paint applied to the walls.
Stuart and I dragged box after box of debris down to the street, including a hideous — so it seemed to us — painting of the Holy Family. Mary, Joseph and Jesus had been painted in a few bright colors against a battleship gray background on a piece of plywood. We shook our heads, deposited it in the trash along the curb, and went back to continue cleaning. Not long afterward Dorothy arrived carrying the rejected painting. “Look what I found! The Holy Family! It’s a providential sign, a blessing.” She put it on the mantle of the apartment’s extinct fireplace. I looked at it again and this time saw it was a work of love and faith, however crudely rendered. If it was no masterpiece of iconography, it had its own unlettered beauty, but I wouldn’t have thought so if Dorothy hadn’t seen it first.
Dorothy is no longer with us. We can’t sit down and have a cup of coffee with her anymore, or send her a letter and await her response. But she remains a vital presence. Many regard her as a saint, and not as a way of keeping her at a safe distance or because of ignorance regarding the darker moments in her life. If by the word “saint” we mean a person who helps us see, by both precept and example, what it means to follow Christ, surely Dorothy is such a person.
Dorothy helped bring about a conversion of heart that greatly influenced many people in the Church, especially in America, but has reached far beyond it. It is not a reformation of theological doctrine, but one rooted in the sacredness of life. Dorothy has helped us better understand one of the primary biblical truths: that each person, no matter how damaged or battered by the events and circumstances of life, is a bearer of the image of God and deserves to be recognized and treated as such. She has reminded us of the real presence of Christ in the least person. “Those who fail to see Christ in the poor,” Dorothy said, “are atheists indeed.” Thanks to her, many have come to realize that the opposite of the works of mercy are the works of war. Dorothy gave an astonishing example of hospitality and mercy as a way of life. “We are here to celebrate Him,” she said time and again, “through the works of mercy.”
In my own life, every time I think about the challenges of life in the bright light of the Gospel rather than in the gray light of money or the dim light of politics, her example has had its influence. Every time I try to overcome meanness or selfishness rising up in myself, it is partly thanks to the example of Dorothy Day. Every time I defeat the impulse to buy something I can get along without, Dorothy Day’s example of voluntary poverty has had renewed impact. Every time I give away something I can get along without — every time I manage to see Christ’s presence in the face of a stranger — there again I owe a debt to Dorothy Day. Every time I take part in efforts to prevent wars or end them, or join in campaigns to make the world a less cruel place, in part I am in debt to Dorothy. What I know of Christ, the Church, sacramental life, the Bible, and truth-telling, I know in large measure thanks to her, while whatever I have done that was cowardly, opportunistic or cruel, is despite her. She has even shaped my reading life — one could do worse than to get to know the authors whose books helped shape and sustain Dorothy’s faith and vocation. It isn’t that Dorothy is the point of reference. Christ is. But I can’t think of anyone I’ve known whose Christ-centered life has done so much to help make me a more Christ-centered person.
In 1997, seventeen years after Dorothy’s death, one of her grandchildren, Kate Hennessy, wrote in The Catholic Worker: “To have known Dorothy means spending the rest of your life wondering what hit you. On the one hand, she has given so many of us a home, physically and spiritually; on the other, she has shaken our very foundations.”
I am one of the many whose foundations were shaken. I am still wondering what hit me.
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Jim Forest / Alkmaar / text as of August 2010
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Dorothy Day at draft card burning Union Square NYC 6 Nov 1965 (photo by Jim Forest)
[This lecture was presented 8 June 2013 at the Portsmouth Institute, held at Portsmouth Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Rhode Island. Photos taken at the monastery are included in this set: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/sets/72157634051717182/. This is an revised version of a lecture first written for a conference held on Marquette University in 1997 that marked the 100th anniversary of Dorothy Day’s birth.]
by Jim Forest
Let me begin by mentioning that Dorothy Day had a special link with the place of our meeting, having been a Benedictine oblate of this monastery. The connection was made thanks to her friend and fellow oblate Ade Bethune, the Catholic Worker’s principle artist for decades. It was Ade who designed the widely-recognized symbol of the Catholic Worker movement — Christ embracing two workers — and did countless illustrations for the paper, many of them during the years she was teaching art here at the priory school. I understand Ade is buried in the monastic cemetery and hope to visit her grave later today.
Can you think of a word that describes a person who devoted much of her life to being with people many of us cross the street to avoid? Who for half a century did her best to make sure they didn’t go hungry or freeze on winter nights? Who went to Mass every day until her legs couldn’t take her that far, at which point communion was brought to her? Who prayed every day for friend and enemy alike and whose prayers, some are convinced, had miraculous results? Who went to confession every week? Who was devoted to the rosary? Who lived in community with the down-and-out for nearly half-a-century? Whose main goal in life was to follow Christ and to see him in the people around her?
Can you think of a word that describes a person who refused to pay taxes, didn’t salute the flag, never voted, went to prison time and again for protests against war and social injustice? Who spoke in a plain and often rude way about our “way of life”? Who complained that the Church wasn’t paying enough attention to its own teaching and on occasion compared some of its pastors to blowfish and sharks?
And there you have Dorothy Day in two words: saint and troublemaker.
Mostly saints lived in the distant past, that is before we were born, and have been presented to us with all blemishes removed. We are not surprised to learn that Saint Wonderbread of the North Pole, daughter of pious parents, had her first vision when she was four, joined the Order of the Holy Pallbearers at the age of 11, founded 47 convents, received the stigmata when she was 55, and that when she died 20 years later, not only was her cell filled with divine light but the nuns attending her clearly heard the angelic choir.
That’s hagiography. It presents Saint Wonderbread as only one percent less perfect than the Virgin Mary. But what about the actual Saint Wonderbread? What the hagiographer failed to mention is that she ran away from home, had a voice that could split rocks and a temper that could melt them back together again, experienced more dark nights of the soul than celestial visions, was accused of heresy by her bishop, narrowly escaped being burned at the stake, and, though she lived long enough to be vindicated, felt like a failure on her deathbed. But all these wrinkles were ironed out after she died. Who needs facts that might dull or dent her halo?
If Dorothy Day is ever canonized, the record of who she was, what she was like and what she did is too complete and accessible for her to be hidden in wedding-cake icing. She will be the patron saint not only of homeless people and those who try to assist them but also of people who lose their temper.
She may have been a saint, but Dorothy Day was not without rough edges.
To someone who told her she was too hot-headed, she replied, “I hold more temper in one minute than you will hold in your entire life.” To a college student who asked a sarcastic question about her recipe for soup, she responded, “You cut the vegetables until your fingers bleed.” To a journalist who told her it was the first time he had interviewed a saint, she replied, “Don’t call me a saint — I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”
On the other hand, as she said time and again, “We are all called to be saints.” She didn’t believe saints had different DNA than anyone else. Sanctity is merely loving God and your neighbor. It’s not that hard. Sanctity is something ordinary. The scandal is not being a saint.
I was nineteen years old the first time I met Dorothy. She was ancient, that is to say 62 years old — nine years younger than I am today. This means that for more than half-a-century she has been encouraging and scolding me on a daily basis. The mere fact of her having died in 1980 doesn’t seem to get in the way.
I met her at the Catholic Worker Farm on Staten Island in the days when the island still had rural areas and its only link to the rest of New York City was by ferryboat. I found her sitting with several other people at the battered table where the community had its meals. Before her was a pot of tea, a few cups, none of them matching, and a pile of letters that I had been charged to deliver from St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality in Manhattan. The Catholic Worker received a good deal of mail every day, much of it for Dorothy — and every now and then a letter for Doris Day. She often read the letters aloud, telling a story or two about the people who had written them. This was the Dorothy Day University in full swing, though I didn’t realize it at the time. She wrote countless letters and notes in response every year, but some letters she gave to others in the community to answer either because a personal reply wasn’t needed or because she wanted to connect the correspondent with someone else on staff. A good part of Dorothy’s life was spent reading and writing letters — even her monthly column, “On Pilgrimage,” was usually nothing more than a long letter. If ever she is canonized, she will be among the patron saints of letter-writers.
People sometimes think of her as the personification of the simple life, but in reality her days tended to be busy, complicated and stressful. Often she was away traveling — visiting her daughter and grandchildren, visiting other Catholic Worker communities, speaking at colleges, seminaries, local parishes, getting around by bus or a donated car on its last spark plugs.
Before an audience, she had a direct, unpremeditated, story-centered way of speaking — no notes, no rhetorical polish, a manner that communicated a certain shyness but at the same time wisdom, conviction, directness, modesty, faith and courage. She was never the kind of speaker who makes those she is addressing feel stupid or without possibilities.
Her basic message was stunningly simple: we are called by God to love one another as He loves us. Love one another. No exceptions.
One of the ways we love one another is by practicing hospitality. For Dorothy a house without what she called a “Christ room” was incomplete, as was a parish without what night be called a “Christ house.” For Dorothy, hospitality is simply practicing God’s hospitality to us with those around us. Christ is in the stranger, in the person who has nowhere to go and no one to welcome him. “Those who cannot see the face of Christ in the poor are atheists indeed,” she often said. Her words were similar to those of St. John Chrysostom, one of the great voices of Christianity in the fourth century: “If you fail to recognize Christ in the beggar outside the church, you will not find him in the chalice.”
Judging by the synoptic Gospels, the Last Judgment was not a topic Christ often addressed during the several years of public ministry that led up to his execution. The one place in the New Testament where we hear him speaking in detail about who is saved and who isn’t occurs in the 25th chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel: “Welcome into the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of all ages, because I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was naked and you clothed me, I was homeless and you took me in, I was sick and you cared for me, I was in prison and you came to be with me. I tell you solemnly that what you did to the least person you did to me … and what you failed to do for the least person, you failed to do for me.”
It’s an astonishing text. It turns out that we are not saved because we excelled at theology or were amazingly clever or received great honors or wrote books about sanctity or never got in trouble or never made mistakes. We are saved because we attempted to be channels of God’s love and mercy. Period.
It is a life inspired by the Gospel and sustained by the sacraments, the church calendar with it parade of saints, the rhythm of feasts and fasts.
The corporal works of mercy — each of them an aspect of hospitality — were at the center of Dorothy’s life and the basis of the Catholic Worker movement. In addition there was also the day-after-day practice of what the Catholic Church calls the spiritual works of mercy: admonishing the sinner, instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, comforting the sorrowful, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving all injuries, praying for the living and the dead.
Dorothy helped us understand that a life of hospitality has many levels: there is hunger not only for food but also for faith, not only for a place at the table but also for a real welcome, not only for assistance but also for listening, not only words said as if recited from a script but kind words. There is not only hospitality of the door but also hospitality of the face and heart. Hospitality of the heart transforms the way we see people and how we respond to them. Their needs become important to us.
A new words about Dorothy’s remarkable life:
From birth onward, nearly all of Dorothy’s adult life was spent in or near New York City. In 1916, when she was eighteen, she was hired as a journalist by The Call, a radical New York daily newspaper. Next she was on the staff of a radical monthly journal, The Masses, until it was closed by the federal government for its opposition to World War I. During the war, she trained as a nurse at a Brooklyn hospital and worked twelve-hour shifts during the great influenza epidemic.
Dorothy was close to many artists and writers, including Eugene O’Neill. She used to hang out at a Greenwich Village saloon locally known as the Hell Hole. It was an adventurous time in her life but without much of an anchor. She had a lover who wanted neither marriage nor children. In a desperate effort to preserve their ill-fated relationship, she had an abortion. Her lover abandoned her anyway. Dark times! Dorothy tried to commit suicide but a neighbor smelled the gas and saved her life.
By the time of her conversion to Catholic Christianity, in 1927 when she was 30, she had experienced and survived a great deal. By then, thanks to money from the sale of film rights for a novel she had written, she bought a beach house on Staten Island, a small dwelling heated by a cast iron stove in which she burned driftwood. It was in that small house that, with her lover Forster Batterham, she once again conceived a child. This time she was determined not to cut short her pregnancy, which she saw as nothing less than a first-class miracle as she thought she had been made sterile by her abortion. As her belly swelled, she was filled with longing that she and her child would cross the border into the Catholic Church. As a young mother-to-be walking on the beach or going to the post office, rosary in hand she prayed her way through her out-of-wedlock pregnancy, prayed her way through the Baltimore Catechism, prayed her way through the collapse of her relationship with her unborn child’s father, prayed her way to her daughter Tamar’s birth and baptism, and then to her own baptism, prayed her way through the incomprehension of her atheist friends who regarded all religion as snake oil, prayed her way through a good deal of loneliness.
If baptism was the first turning point, the second came six years later — a desperate appeal to God she made in the crypt of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. In her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, she wrote: “There I offered up a special prayer, a prayer which came with tears and anguish, that some way would open up for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers, for the poor.”
Occasionally prayers are answered quickly. The very next day Dorothy met Peter Maurin, an immigrant from France who was something of a modern-day St. Francis. It was Peter’s proposal that Dorothy found and edit a newspaper to make better known papal teaching on the social order and encourage its readers to build, “a new society within the old, a society in which it would be easier for people to be good.” Dorothy took to the idea like a duck to water. The first issue of The Catholic Worker was distributed five months later, the first of May 1933, and that December, the first house of hospitality — in fact initially an apartment of hospitality — was started. By December the paper’s print run, which had been 2,500 for the May issue, reached 100,000. Houses of hospitality were soon being founded in other cities.
In 1961, when I arrived, St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality was on Chrystie Street — a decrepit three-storey building a block from the Bowery, in those days one of the city’s grimmest areas, now the much yuppified East Village. As there wasn’t enough room inside, the down-and-out were often lined up at the door waiting their turn either for a place at one of the three bench-like tables or access to the clothing rooms on the next floor.
In the period I was there, Dorothy’s office at the Catholic Worker, just inside the front door, was hardly big enough for her desk. I served as managing editor of the paper for a short time, and it was in that office that she and I would sometimes discuss — occasionally argue — about what should be in the next issue. It wasn’t the easiest place for conversation. The ground floor was where food was prepared and meals served. From morning till night, it tended to be noisy. Sitting at her desk one afternoon, talking about the next issue, we could hardly hear each other. On one occasion, Dorothy got up, opened her office door and yelled “Holy silence!” For a minute or two, it was almost quiet.
On the second floor, site of the two clothing rooms, one for men, one for women, there was an area used for daily prayer — lauds, vespers, compline — as well as recitation of the rosary every afternoon. None of this was obligatory, but part of the community was always present, the community being a mixture of “staff” (as those of us who came as volunteers were called) and “family” (people who had once come in for clothing or a bowl of soup and gradually become part of the household).
It wasn’t a comfortable life. At the time I joined, Dorothy had a sixth-floor, $25-a-month, cold-water flat in a tenement on Spring Street — two small rooms, a bathtub next to the kitchen sink. There was a toilet in the hallway the size of a broom closet. This may sound uninviting, but Dorothy regarded the neighborhood as luxury enough. With an Italian bakery across the street, the smell of bread in the oven was often in the air, and there was always the intoxicating perfume of Italian cooking. The San Genaro Festival was celebrated annually just around the corner — for a week, our part of Manhattan became a neighborhood in Naples.
When climbing those five flights of stairs finally became too much for Dorothy’s aging knees, we moved her to a similar apartment on Ridge Street that was only one flight up. It was also $25 a month, but in a seedier neighborhood. The place was in appalling condition. Two of us went down to clean and paint the two rooms, dragging box after box of old linoleum and other debris down to the street, including what seemed to us a hideous painting of the Holy Family — Mary, Joseph and Jesus rendered in a few bright colors against a battleship grey background on a piece of plywood. We shook our heads before depositing it with the trash along the curb. Not long after Dorothy arrived carrying this primitive icon. “Look what I found! The Holy Family! It’s a providential sign, a blessing.” She put it on the mantle of the apartment’s bricked-up fireplace. It’s an example of Dorothy’s talent for finding beauty where others, in this case Jim Forest who has since written a book on praying with icons, saw only rubbish.
If Dorothy was one of the freest, least fear-driven persons I’ve ever known, she was also one of the most disciplined. This was most notable in her religious life. Whether traveling or at home, it was a rare day when Dorothy didn’t go to Mass, while on Saturday evenings she went to confession. Sacramental life was the bedrock of her existence. She never obliged anyone to follow her example, but God knows she gave an example. When I think of her, the first image that comes to mind is Dorothy on her knees praying before the Blessed Sacrament either in the chapel at the farm or in one of several urban parish churches near the Catholic Worker. One day, looking into the Bible and Missal she had left behind when she was summoned for an emergency phone call, I found long lists of people, living and dead, whom she prayed for daily. She had a special list of people who had committed suicide.
Occasionally she spoke about the importance of prayer: “We feed the hungry, yes,” she once explained. “We try to shelter the homeless and give them clothes, but there is strong faith at work. We pray. If an outsider who comes to visit us doesn’t pay attention to our praying and what that means, then he’ll miss the whole point.”
She was attentive to fast days and fast seasons. It was in that connection she told me a story about prayer. For many years, she said, she had been a heavy smoker. Her day began with lighting up a cigarette. Her big sacrifice every Lent was giving up smoking, but having to get by without a cigarette made her increasingly irritable as the days passed, until the rest of the community was praying with fervor that she would resume smoking. One year, as Lent approached, the priest who ordinarily heard her confessions told her not to give up cigarettes as usual but instead to pray daily, “Dear God, help me stop smoking.” She used that prayer for several years without it having any impact on her addiction. Then one morning she woke up, reached for a cigarette, and realized she didn’t want it — and never smoked another. Moral? God answers prayers but one often has to be persistent.
People sometimes tell me how lucky I am to have once been part of the community led by Dorothy Day. They seem to imagine a group of more or less saintly people having a wonderful time doing good works. In reality Catholic Worker community life in Manhattan in the early sixties had much in common with purgatory. The “staff” was made up of people with very different backgrounds, interests, temperaments and convictions, some quite pious, some on the borderline between Catholic and ex-Catholic. We ranged from the gregarious to the permanently furious. Agreement among us was as rare as visits by the President of the United States.
The most bitter dispute I experienced had to do with how best to use the small amounts of eggs, butter and other rarities that were sometimes donated to us. Should we use them for “the line” (people we often didn’t know by name who lined up for meals) or the “family” (people who might once have been on the line but gradually became part of the household). It had been the custom to save the treats for the family. Though we worked side by side, saw each other daily, and prayed together, staff tension had become too acute for staff meetings. Dorothy or office manager Charlie Butterworth handed out the jobs, and once you had a job, it was yours until you stopped doing it. The final authority was Dorothy Day, not a responsibility she wanted or enjoyed, but no one else could make a final decision that would be respected by the entire staff. (Tom, Cornell has remarked that Dorothy Day was well-suited to be an anarchist so long as she was the chief anarch.)
In this case, when Dorothy returned from a cross-country speaking trip, she told the two people running the kitchen that the butter and eggs should once again go to the family, which led to their resigning from kitchen work and soon after leaving the community trailing black smoke, convinced that the actual Dorothy Day wasn’t living up to the writings of Dorothy Day.
One of the miracles of Dorothy’s life is that she remained part of what was often a conflict-torn community for nearly half a century. Still more remarkable, she remained a person of hope and gratitude to the end. She often spoke of “the duty of hope.”
Even though the Archdiocese of New York launched a process in Rome for the formal recognition of Dorothy as a saint, and Rome has since given her the title Servant of God Dorothy Day, Dorothy was and remains a controversial lady. There was hardly anything she did which didn’t attract criticism and the criticism still lingers. There us something about her to both challenge and irritate anyone who considers her life, witness and writings. Even hospitality scandalizes some people. We were blamed for making people worse, not better, because we were doing nothing to “reform them.” A social worker asked Dorothy one day how long the down-and-out were permitted to stay. “We let them stay forever,” Dorothy answered rather testily. “They live with us, they die with us, and we give them a Christian burial. We pray for them after they are dead. Once they are taken in, they become members of the family. Or rather they always were members of the family. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Dorothy, who never seemed to be overly anxious about how little money there was in the community bank account, frequently set an example of passing on what was given as quickly as possible. In a memorable instance, a well-dressed woman visiting the Worker house one day gave Dorothy a diamond ring. Dorothy thanked the visitor, slipped the ring in her pocket, and later in the day gave it to an unpleasant old woman, a bitter complainer second to none who was known in the community as “the weasel.” We paid her rent each month. One of the staff suggested to Dorothy that the ring might better have been sold at the Diamond Exchange on West 47th Street and the money used for paying Catherine’s rent. Dorothy replied that the woman had her dignity and could do as she liked with the ring. She could sell and buy whatever she wanted or take a trip to the Bahamas — or she could enjoy having a diamond ring on her hand just like the woman who had given it to the Worker. “Do you suppose,” Dorothy asked, “that God created diamonds only for the rich?”
What got Dorothy in the most hot water was her social criticism. She pointed out that nationalism was a more powerful force in most people’s lives than the Gospel. While she hated every kind tyranny and never ceased to be thankful for America having taken in so many people fleeing poverty, repression and conscription, she was fierce in her criticism of capitalism and consumerism. She said America had a tendency to treat people like Kleenex — use them, then throw them away.
She had no kind words for war or anything having to do with it — for Dorothy war was simply murder wrapped in flags. She reminded us that the total number of people killed by Jesus and the apostles is zero. Dorothy was convinced Jesus had disarmed all his followers when he said to Peter, “Put away your sword, for whoever lives by the sword will perish by the sword.” A way of life based on hospitality and love, including love of enemies, left no room for killing. You couldn’t practice the works of mercy and healing with one hand and the works of violence and destruction with the other, giving drink to the thirst on Monday and on Tuesday bombing the water works. One must battle evil, as so many saints’ lives demonstrate, only by nonviolent means. Even the best of wars is a disaster.
No stranger to prison, she was first locked up as a young woman protesting with suffragettes in front of the White House in 1917, when she was nineteen, and was last jailed in 1975 for picketing with striking farm workers at the edge of a grape field in California. She took pride in the young people of the Catholic Worker who went to prison rather than be drafted — “Being in prison is a good way to visit the prisoner,” she pointed out. But she also welcomed back others who had left Catholic Worker communities to fight in the Second World War. They might disagree about the best way to fight Nazism, but the door was wide open for those who wished to return.
Dorothy was sometimes criticized for being too conservative a Catholic. How could she be so radical about social matters and so conservative about her Church? While she occasionally deplored statements or actions by members of the hierarchy and once picketed the New York chancery office in support of a strike by Catholic grave diggers, she was by no means an opponent of the bishops or someone campaigning for dogmatic changes in the Church. What was needed, she said, wasn’t new doctrine but our living the existing doctrine. True, some pastors seemed barely Christian, but one had to aim for their conversion, an event that would not be hastened by berating them but rather by helping them see what their vocation requires. The way to do that was to set an example.
“I didn’t become a Catholic in order to purify the church,” Dorothy once said to Robert Coles. “I knew someone, years ago, who kept telling me that if [the Catholic Workers] could purify the church, then she would convert. I thought she was teasing me when she first said that, but after a while I realized she meant what she was saying. Finally, I told her I wasn’t trying to reform the church or take sides on all the issues the church was involved in; I was trying to be a loyal servant of the church Jesus had founded. She thought I was being facetious. She reminded me that I had been critical of capitalism and America, so why not Catholicism and Rome? … My answer was that I had no reason to criticize Catholicism as a religion or Rome as the place where the Vatican is located…. As for Catholics all over the world, including members of the church, they are no better than lots of their worst critics, and maybe some of us Catholics are worse than our worst critics.”
Pleased as she was when the Liturgy was translated into English, she didn’t take kindly to smudging the border between the sacred and mundane. When a priest close to the community used a coffee cup for a chalice at a Mass celebrated in the soup kitchen on First Street, she afterward took the cup, kissed it, and buried it in the back yard. It was no longer suited for coffee — it had held the Blood of Christ. I learned more about the Eucharist that day than I had from any book or sermon. It was a learning experience for the priest as well — thereafter he used a chalice.
Dorothy’s sensitivity for the sacred helps explain her love, rare at the time, of the Orthodox Church, famous — or infamous — for its reluctance to modernize, rationalize, speed up or streamline its liturgical life. (A joke: How many Orthodox Christians does it take to change a light-bulb? Answer: none. “Change!? What is this ‘change’? And, by the way, what is a light bulb?”) Dorothy longed for the reunion of the Church. She occasionally took me to the meetings of a small group in New York City, the Third Hour it was called, that brought together Catholic and Orthodox Christians, as well as at least one Anglican, the poet W.H. Auden. It was Dorothy who brought me to visit the Russian Orthodox cathedral up on East 97th Street where she introduced me to the Russian priest serving there, Father Matvei Stadniuk, who was later appointed dean of the Epiphany Cathedral in Moscow and secretary to the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1988, it was Father Matvei who launched the first project of Christian volunteer hospital service in what was still Soviet Russia, and it was he, not I, who recalled our first meeting 26 years earlier, but only when I had given him a copy of my biography of Dorothy. “Dorothy Day? Did you know her?” And then he looked more closely at my face and said, “I knew you when you a young man, when Dorothy brought you to our church.”
I’m not sure what had given Dorothy such a warmth for Orthodox Christianity, but one of the factors was certainly her love of the books of Dostoevsky, most of all his novel, The Brothers Karamazov. Perhaps the most important chapter for Dorothy concerned a conversation between a wealthy woman and an elderly monk, Father Zosima. The woman asks him how she can be certain that God exists. Fr. Zosima tells her that no explanation or argument can achieve this, only the practice of “active love.” There is no other way, he assures her, to know the reality of God. The woman confesses that sometimes she dreams about a life of loving service to others — she thinks perhaps she will become a nun, live in holy poverty and serve the poor in the humblest way. It seems to her such a wonderful thought that it makes tears comes to her eyes. But then it crosses her mind how ungrateful some of the people she is serving will be. Some will complain that the soup she is serving isn’t thick enough, the bread isn’t fresh enough, the bed is too hard, the covers too thin. She doubts she could bear such ingratitude — and so her dreams about serving others vanish, and once again she finds herself wondering if there really is a God. To this Fr. Zosima responds with the words Dorothy often repeated: “Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” So important was that sentence to Dorothy that I think of Dostoevsky as being among the co-founders of the Catholic Worker.
Another writer important to her was Georges Bernanos. Dorothy often repeated a sentence from his novel, Diary of a Country Priest: “Hell is not to love anymore.”
From time to time she quoted St. Catherine of Siena, a woman who had much in common with Dorothy: “All the way to heaven is heaven because He said, ‘I am the Way’.”
Perhaps Dorothy Day’s main achievement is that she taught us the “Little Way” of love. It was chiefly through the writings of St. Therese of Lisieux that Dorothy had been drawn to the “Little Way.” No term, in her mind, better described the ideal Christian way of doing things. As she once put it, “Paper work, cleaning the house, dealing with the innumerable visitors who come all through the day, answering the phone, keeping patience and acting intelligently, which is to find some meaning in all that happens — these things, too, are the works of peace, and often seem like a very little way.”
“It is the living from day to day,” Dorothy remarked, “taking no thought for the morrow, seeing Christ in all who come to us, and trying literally to follow the Gospel that resulted in this work.”
I’m sometimes asked, “Dorothy Day gives a fine example for people who don’t have a family to take care of and mortgages to pay, but what about the rest of us?”
The rest of us includes my wife and me. We have six children and, at latest count, eight grandchildren. We have too much and give too little. But, in my own life, every time I have thought about the challenges of life in the bright light of the Gospel rather than in the gray light of money or the dim light of politics, Dorothy’s example has had its influence. Every time I try to overcome meanness or selfishness rising up in me, it’s partly thanks to the example of Dorothy Day. Every time I defeat the impulse to buy something I can get along without, Dorothy Day’s example of voluntary poverty has had renewed impact. Every time I give away something I can get along without — every time I manage to see Christ’s presence in the face of a stranger — there again I owe a debt to Dorothy Day. Every time I take part in efforts to prevent wars or end them, or join in campaigns to make the world a less cruel place, in part I am in debt to Dorothy. What I know of Christ, the Church, sacramental life, the Bible, and truth-telling, I know in large measure thanks to her, while whatever I have done that was cowardly, opportunistic or spiteful is despite her. She has even shaped my reading life — one could do worse than to get to know the authors whose books helped shape and sustain Dorothy’s faith and vocation.
It isn’t that Dorothy is the point of reference. Christ is. But I can’t think of anyone I’ve known whose Christ-centered life has done so much to help make me a more Christ-centered person.
She died 33 years ago but it seems more and more people are aware of her. This past Ash Wednesday, preaching in St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Benedict described Dorothy Day as “a model of conversion.” At a meeting I had with Cardinal Dolan a few days ago, he spoke of her as “a saint for our times.”
Writing in The Catholic Worker some years ago, one of her grandchildren, Kate Hennessy, talked of the impact on her own life of her remarkable grandmother: “To have known Dorothy means spending the rest of your life wondering what hit you. On the one hand, she has given so many of us a home, physically and spiritually; on the other, she has shaken our very foundations.”
I am one of the many whose foundations were shaken. I too am still wondering what hit me.
* * *
Photo courtesy of the Dorothy Day/Catholic Worker Archive at Marquette University.
Early in The Brothers Karamazov, a wealthy woman asks Staretz Zosima how she can really know that God exists. The Staretz tells her that no explanation or argument can achieve this, only the practice of “active love.” He assures her that really there is no other way to know God in reality rather than God as an idea. The woman confesses that sometimes she dreams about a life of loving service to others — she thinks perhaps she will become a Sister of Mercy, live in holy poverty and serve the poor in the humblest way. It seems to her such a wonderful thought. It makes tears comes to her eyes. But then it crosses her mind how ungrateful some of the people she is serving are likely to be. They will probably complain that the soup she is serving isn’t hot enough or that the bread isn’t fresh enough or the bed is too hard and the covers too thin. She confesses to Staretz Zosima that she couldn’t bear such ingratitude — and so her dreams about serving others vanish, and once again she finds herself wondering if there really is a God. To this the Staretz responds with the words, “Love in practice is a hard and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”
I mention this story to you because I doubt any figure in literature had more importance to Dorothy Day than Father Zosima. How often I heard her repeat the words, “Love in practice is a hard and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” It was partly through Dostoevsky that she formed her understanding of Christianity, seeing it not simply as an institutional structure but as a way of life in which nothing was more important than seeing Christ in others.
I have no doubt she was a saint, that is someone who in a remarkable way shows us what it means to follow Christ. Thanks to the Claretian order, an effort is under way to promote her canonization, and this has the active support of the Cardinal O’Conner, head of the diocese in which she lived all her adult life. I think of her as a modern sister of St. Francis of Assisi.
The link with St. Francis is close. They have in common an attraction to the poor which led them to live among them and to practice what Dorothy called “voluntary poverty.” Like Francis, she formed a commitment to live out the most radical teachings of Jesus, including the renunciation of violence. Like Francis, she started a movement that could involve anyone, not only the unmarried. The Catholic Worker movement she began in 1933 has led to the foundation of houses of hospitality in many parts of the United States. The newspaper she edited until her death in 1980, The Catholic Worker, had and still has 100,000 subscribers.
Some biographical details: She was born in Brooklyn, New York, on November 8, 1897. Her father was a journalist and it was the profession nearly all of his children followed. She was eight years old when her family moved into a six-room tenement flat over a tavern on 37th Street on the South Side. It was a big step down for the Day family. They had been practically wiped out by the San Francisco earthquake. The family had lost their house and John Day was without a job. The curtains Dorothy’s mother Grace made from remnants were hung from fishing rods. Fruit crates served as book cases. Nail kegs became kitchen stools. Dorothy was so ashamed of her home that, returning from school, she would enter the door of a better, more impressive building so that her classmates wouldn’t know the kind of circumstances she was living in. Her mother suffered blinding headaches and went through several miscarriages. Dorothy’s understanding of the shame people feel when they aren’t making it surely dates from this time.
It was in this period of her life that Dorothy began to find in the Catholic Church, an institution despised by her father, something inspiring. Dorothy would often recall later in life the impact of discovering a friend’s mother, a woman named Mrs. Barrett, praying on her knees at the side of her bed. Without dismay or embarrassment, she looked up at Dorothy, told her where to find her daughter, and returned to her prayer. “I felt a burst of love toward Mrs. Barrett that I have never forgotten, a feeling of gratitude and happiness that warmed my heart,” Dorothy wrote in her autobiography, The Long Loneliness.
When John Day finally got the job of sports editor of a Chicago daily paper, the Day family moved into a large and comfortable house on Webster Avenue on the North Side. Dorothy need no longer be embarrassed by her domestic circumstances.
The great events in Dorothy’s life at the Webster Avenue house often had to do with books. Though her father was a man with many prejudices, he was a reader and book lover, and this rubbed off on his eldest daughter. In the library of the house, Dorothy first read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and Charles Dickens’ Bleak House and Little Dorritt, and many other books that stirred her awareness of injustice in the world and also offered images of sanctity, books she would read again and again for the rest of her life. Books remained Dorothy’s cherished companions throughout her life. She appreciated Erasmus’s confessional boast: “When I have money I buy books, and if anything is left over I buy food and clothes.”
The book that had the most impact on her in her mid-teens was Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Unlike books about social injustice by Dickens and Hugo, here was a story set in the present, and not in Europe but Chicago, in the area of the city’s stockyards and slaughter houses. Sinclair’s hero was a Lithuanian immigrant, the only member of his family not utterly destroyed by squalor and injustice. He finally commits himself to struggle for a just social order by joining the Socialist Party. Sinclair’s vivid description of filth and violence in the meat industry so shocked its readers that the book is given credit for Congressional passage of tough meat inspection laws, although what Sinclair had hoped for was to stimulate more profound social change. “I aimed at the public’s heart,” he said, “and by accident hit it in the stomach.”
But he did reach Dorothy Day’s heart. She had responsibility for much of the care of the newest addition to the family, her baby bother John Day, and stirred by Sinclair’s novel, began to push his baby carriage further and further southwest, not far from the parts of the city she had once been so glad to leave behind. “I walked for miles, exploring interminable grey streets, fascinating in their dreary sameness, past tavern after tavern, where I envisioned such scenes as the Polish wedding party in Sinclair’s story.”
As would be typical of Dorothy for the rest of her life, she found a kind of beauty in the midst of urban desolation. “There were tiny gardens and vegetable patches in the yards. Often there were rows of corn, stunted but still recognizable, a few tomato plants, and always the vegetables bordered by flowers.” Drab streets were transformed by pungent odors: geranium and tomato plants, garlic, olive oil, roasting coffee, bread and rolls in bakery ovens. “Here,” she said, “was enough beauty to satisfy me.”
Only 15 years old, she looked at the world with wide open eyes and a vulnerable heart many of us might envy. Pondering the lives of the people living in these hard-pressed neighborhoods, yet rich in so many ways, she had a vivid sense of who she would become. “From that time on my life was to be linked to theirs, their interests would be mine: I had received a call, a vocation, a direction in life.”
An exceptionally bright student, at age sixteen she won a full scholarship to the University of Illinois. She was delighted no longer to be living with her parents, but the academic world held her attention only briefly. Long before she might have received a degree, she abandoned her studies and moved to New York City where, at age of 18, she became a reporter for New York’s socialist daily newspaper, The Call. At the time she was probably the youngest working journalist on a New York paper, and also one of the very few woman journalists writing about something other than social news or cake recipes.
A year later, she joined the editorial staff of Masses, a radical publication silenced by the US government following America’s entry into World War I, for the publication was outspoken in its opposition to the war and encouraged men to refuse to fight in it. Just after her 19th birthday, Dorothy was jailed with other feminists who had gone to the White House to protest the exclusion of women from political affairs.
The horror of war challenged her to do something more concrete about suffering than simply to protest or write articles. Dorothy became a nurse in a Brooklyn hospital, but a love affair with a fellow journalist she met at that time led her back to Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan. The affair ended with an abortion. This was the catastrophe of her life, an event still causing her grief in her old age. Just after the war, she was briefly married to a New York literary figure and went with him to Europe, where she wrote her first book, an autobiographical novel, “The Eleventh Virgin,” that centered on the love affair that had led to her pregnancy and the abortion with which it ended.
Back in the US, Dorothy joined the staff of The Liberator, a Communist magazine in Chicago though Dorothy, always impatient with ideology, never joined the Communist Party or any other political association. In fact she never cast a vote in any election nor encouraged anyone also to do so as she was convinced that the only “vote” of significance was how she you lived her life day by day. Also she simply couldn’t imagine voting for someone whose views and priorities were so at variance with her own.
In 1922, she was arrested and jailed again, this time in one of the government’s “anti-red” raids. She went back to reporting work, first for a Chicago newspaper, then one in New Orleans. In 1925 — her novel published and film rights for the book sold to Hollywood — she returned to New York, where she met a British botanist and intellectual disciple of Kropotkin and fell deeply in love with him. The pregnancy that resulted from this relationship was the turning point in her life.
That she should be carrying a child again seemed to her not only remarkable but nothing less than a miracle. The abortion five years earlier left her feeling guilty. She also sensed that her body had been damaged and that she had been made sterile. She believed that she could never conceive again. Whether it was a miracle or not, I don’t know, but certainly it filled her with an overwhelming sense of God’s mercy that was to remain with her for the rest of her life.
She found that whenever she went walking, she was praying, and the prayers were entirely of joy and gratitude. As the months passed, she decided she wanted her child baptized in the Roman Catholic Church; and then she realized she wanted to become a Catholic herself. To the man she lived with, however, as to many radicals, the Catholic Church was one of the world’s more oppressive structures, complicit in almost every evil for many centuries. Dorothy saw it in quite a different way: for her it was the church of the poor, a church with ancient roots reaching back to the beginning of Christianity, a church free of the constraints of national borders. Arguments flared, doors slammed. Their relationship disintegrated.
Dorothy’s daughter, Tamar, was baptized in July, 1927, and Dorothy — now a single parent — was herself baptized in late December. Then began Dorothy’s six-year search for a vocation that could bridge her radical political convictions with her new-found religious commitment.
In May 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, Dorothy founded The Catholic Worker, initially intended only as a small monthly publication. This step had been proposed to her by a remarkable French immigrant, Peter Maurin, who looked like a bum and actually lived like a bum, but a brilliant and saintly man. The paper sold, and still sells, for a penny a copy — the smallest coin, what a kopek used to be in Russia, and perhaps what a ruble is today. Though there was much in it to interest intellectuals, the paper was aimed at ordinary people, many of them out of work in that period. Dorothy’s first editorial said The Catholic Worker would show its readers that the Catholic Church is concerned not only with spiritual welfare but material welfare. The paper caught on. Within a few months there were thousands of readers.
What had been launched only as a newspaper quickly became a movement. First in New York, then in other cities, Catholic Worker houses of hospitality were formed. They were both places of welcome for homeless people (the houses are in the down-out-and areas like New York City’s Bowery) and centers for dialogue about community, the Gospel and the Church, but also for what her collaborator Peter Maurin called a “green revolution” — efforts to inspire social change through entirely peaceful means.
While there were many people in the Catholic Church who supported the initiatives she was taking, not only lay people but priests and bishops, you can image that others found her some kind of strange Protestant or perhaps a Communist pretending to be a Christian.
Dorothy’s methods were also dismissed as “impractical” because of her non-institutional approach of hospitality for people who were living ragged lives on the street. A social worker visiting the Catholic Worker house in New York asked Dorothy how long her guests were “allowed” to stay. Dorothy answered, “We let them stay forever. They live with us, they die with us, and we give them a Christian burial. We pray for them after they are dead. Once they are taken in, they become members of the family. Or rather they always were members of the family. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Perhaps all would have gone quite well between the Dorothy and the Roman Catholic hierarchy in America had it not been for the stand she took in failing to support Franco’s side in the Spanish Civil War. Practically all Dorothy’s friend, being people on the left, whole-heartedly supported the Republican side, but Dorothy couldn’t support a force that was murdering priests and nuns and destroying churches. Similarly she could not in any way support the fascism that Franco represented, no matter how many bishops regarded him as their hero and protector. In fact there was a still deeper problem for Dorothy, for she could not imagine Christ blessing anyone to kill. She wrote essays about Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior, who has chosen to live in a society suffering military occupation by the Romans but had sent none of his disciples to join the Zealots, the national group undertaking violent resistance. He had responded mercifully to people on every side, even the Roman centurion who sought his help. She recalled the witness of Christians in the first three centuries, when it was regarded as far better to lay down one’s own life than to shed anyone’s blood.
There had been no overtly pacifist movement in the Catholic Church for centuries, until the Catholic Worker. Perhaps more than any Catholic since St. Francis, Dorothy Day began a process within her church that put Jesus, rather than the theologians of the just war, at the center of the church’s social teaching.
Dorothy was often imprisoned as a result of her activity in peace, civil rights, and labor demonstrations. Usually this happened in the fifties, when year after year she sat on a park bench in front of New York’s City Hall while air-raid sirens were howling and everyone was required by law to take shelter in what was nothing other than a mass dress rehearsal for nuclear war. But she was occasionally arrested for other reasons, for example with farm workers in California when they were founding a labor movement. One of my favorite photos of her, taken in 1973, shows her holding the dress she wore the last time she was a prisoner. All the women jailed with her signed their names on the rough prison garment, making it a treasure to her.
At the center of Dorothy’s faith was her certainty that we are saved not because we are clever or are often found in religious buildings (though mind you daily Mass was part of the structure of her life) but because of our loving response to “the least.” The Catholic Worker way of life is to practice daily “the works of mercy” that Jesus speaks of in the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, taking in the homeless, caring for the sick, and being with prisoners. This same teaching led Dorothy to oppose all those systems that cause suffering. “We see that the works of mercy oppose the works of war,” she said. Often she quoted St. John of the Cross: “Love is the measure by which we shall be judged.”
Dorothy died November 29, 1980. It was a widely marked event in America, not only noticed by Christians of every variety but by many people in other religious traditions, or outside every religion. By then many regarded her as one of Christianity’s great reformers and a modern saint, though Dorothy herself had sometimes said, “Don’t call me a saint–I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”
After the funeral, an editor of The Catholic Worker was asked whether the movement would be able to continue without its founder. “We have lost Dorothy,” Peggy Scherer said, “but we still have the gospel.”
The most extraordinary monuments to Dorothy Day are the many houses of hospitality that stretch from Oakland to Amsterdam, places of welcome that not only offer a caring response to the homeless and runaways but centers of work for a nonviolent society. We can say there is still a greater monument, though much less tangible, and that is a renewed understanding of Christianity. She was like a restorer of icons who, after removing layer upon layer of paint left by various generations, comes to the deepest level and finds an image painted by the hand of the Apostle Luke.
“It is the living from day to day,” she once commented, “taking no thought for the morrow, seeing Christ in all who come to us, and trying literally to follow the Gospel that resulted in this work.”
What can we learn from Dorothy Day?
First, we see in her that the heart of life is prayer.
I have never known anyone, not even in monasteries, who was more a praying person than Dorothy Day. When I think of her, I think of her first of all on her knees praying before the Blessed Sacrament. I think of those long lists of names she kept of people, living and dead, to pray for. I think of her at Mass, I think of her praying the rosary, I think of her going off for confession each Saturday evening.
“We feed the hungry, yes,” she said. “We try to shelter the homeless and give them clothes, but there is strong faith at work; we pray. If an outsider who comes to visit us doesn’t pay attention to our prayings and what that means, then he’ll miss the whole point.”
If you find the life of Dorothy Day inspiring, if you want to understand what gave her direction and courage and strength to persevere, her deep attentiveness to others, consider her spiritual and sacramental life.
Second, she reminds us that social justice is not just a project for the government or do-good agencies or radical movements designing a new social order in which all the world’s problems will be solved. It’s for you and me, here and now, right where we’re standing. Jesus did not say “Blessed are you who give contributions to charity” or “Blessed are you who are planning a just society.” He said, “Welcome into the Kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world, for I was hungry and you fed me . . .”
At the heart of what Dorothy did were the works of mercy. For her these weren’t simply obligations which the Lord imposed on his followers. As she said on one occasion to Bob Coles, “We are here to celebrate Him through these works of mercy.”
Third: The most important thing we can is to try to find the face of Christ in others, and not only those we find it easy to be with but those who make us nervous, frighten us, alarm us, or even terrify us. “Those who cannot see the face of Christ in the poor,” she used to say, “are atheists indeed.”
Dorothy was an orthodox Catholic. This means she believed that Christ has left himself with us both in the Eucharist and in those in need. “What you did to the least person, you did to me.”
Her searching of faces for Christ’s presence for Christ extended to those who were, at least in a functional sense, her enemies, but also, she always tried to remember, victims of the very structures they were in charge of. She sometimes recalled the advice she had been given by a fellow prisoner named Mary Ann, a prostitute, when Dorothy was in jail in Chicago in the early ‘twenties: “You must hold up your head high, and give them no clue that you’re afraid of them or ready to beg them for anything, any favors whatsoever. But you must see them for what they are — never forget that they’re in jail too.”
Fourth: We can learn from her that beauty is not just for the affluent.
Tom Cornell tells the story of a donor coming into the Catholic Worker and giving Dorothy a diamond ring. Dorothy thanked her for it and put it in her pocket. Later a rather demented lady came in, one of the more irritating regulars at the CW house. Dorothy took the diamond ring out of her pocket and gave it to the woman. Someone on the staff said to Dorothy, “Wouldn’t it have been better if we took the ring to the diamond exchange, sold it, and paid that woman’s rent for a year?”. Dorothy replied that the woman had her dignity and could do what she liked with the ring. She could sell it for rent money or take a trip to the Bahamas. Or she could enjoy wearing a diamond ring on her hand like the woman who gave it away. “Do you suppose,” Dorothy asked, “that God created diamonds only for the rich?”
Fifth, Dorothy teaches us that meekness does not mean being weak-kneed. There is a place for outrage as well as a place for very plain speech in religious life. She once said to a person who was counseling her to speak in a more polite, temperate way, “I hold more temper in one minute than you will hold in your entire life.” Or again her lightning-like comment, “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy rotten system.”
Sixth: We see in Dorothy the value of the Little Way. The phrase was one Dorothy borrowed from St. Therese of Liseux, the Little Flower. Change starts not in the future but in the present, not in Washington DC or Wall Street but where I stand. Change begins in the ordinary actions of life, how I live minute to minute, what I do with my life, what I notice, what I respond to, the care and attention with which I listen, the way in which I respond. It happens when we practice hospitality of the face.
As she once put it, “Paper work, cleaning the house, dealing with the innumerable visitors who come all through the day, answering the phone, keeping patience and acting intelligently, which is to find some meaning in all that happens — these things, too, are the works of peace, and often seem like a very little way.”
What she tried to practice was “Christ’s technique,” as she put it, which was not to seek out meetings with emperors and important officials but “obscure people, a few fisherman and farm people, a few ailing and hard-pressed men and women.”
Seventh: Dorothy provides an example of love the Church. It is, of course, easy to see the faults of the Church — I mean not the Mystical Body of Christ but the social institution. Dorothy used to say that the net Peter lowered when Christ made him a fisher of men caught “quite a few blowfish and not a few sharks.” She said many times that “the Church is the Cross on which Christ is crucified.” She said that when she saw the Church taking the side of the rich and powerful, forgetting the weak, or saw bishops living in luxury while the poor are thrown the crumbs of “charity,” she knew that Christ was being insulted and once again being sent to his death. “The Church doesn’t only belong to the officials and bureaucrats,” she said. “It belongs to all people, and especially its most humble men and women and children.”
Instead of focusing on the human failings so obvious in every church. Dorothy concentrated on what the church sets it sights on. We’re not here to pass judgement on our fellow believers, whatever their rank or role in the church, but to live the Gospel as wholeheartedly as we can and make the best use we can of the sacraments and every other resource the church offers to us.
“I didn’t become a Catholic in order to purify the church,” Dorothy once told her friend Bob Coles. “I knew someone, years ago, who kept telling me that if [the Catholic Workers] could purify the church, then she would convert. I thought she was teasing me when she first said that, but after a while I realized she meant what she was saying. Finally, I told her I wasn’t trying to reform the church or take sides on all the issues the church was involved in; I was trying to be a loyal servant of the church Jesus had founded. She thought I was being facetious. She reminded me that I had been critical of capitalism and America, so why not Catholicism and Rome? . . . . My answer was that I had no reason to criticize Catholicism as a religion or Rome as the place where the Vatican is located . . . . As for Catholics all over the world, including members of the church, they are no better than lots of their worst critics, and maybe some of us Catholics are worse than our worst critics.”
I learned from Dorothy that the Church is more than this or that institutional structure but really is the Mystical Body of Christ and as such links together all those who struggle to follow Christ no matter what the shortcomings of the particular church they belong. She herself longed for the unity of the divided Church. She occasionally took me to the small meetings of a group in New York City, The Third Hour it was called, that brought together Catholic and Orthodox Christians, as well as at least one Anglican, the poet W.H. Auden. The first time I met an Orthodox priest and took part in the Orthodox Liturgy, it was thanks to Dorothy Day. I doubt Dorothy intended that I should become an Orthodox Christian, but that slow pilgrimage in my life had its beginning at the Catholic Worker.
Last but not least: I learned from Dorothy day that I am here to follow Christ. Not the Pope. Not the Ecumenical Patriarch. Not the President of the United States. Not even Dorothy Day or any other saint.
Christ has told us plainly about the Last Judgment and it has nothing to do with belonging to the right church or being theologically correct. All the church can do is try to get us on the right track and keep us there. But we will be judged not on membership cards but according to our readiness to let the mercy of God pass through us to others. “Love is the measure,” Dorothy said again and again, quoting Saint John of the Cross.
Hers was a day-to-day way of the cross, and just as truly the way of the open door. “It is the living from day to day,” she said, “taking no thought for the morrow, seeing Christ in all who come to us, and trying literally to follow the Gospel that resulted in this work.”
Joseph Brodsky was introduced to an audience at the John Adams Institute in Amsterdam December 15 not as a poet but as the poet. “In him,” said his friend and translator Kees Verheul, “we are faced with the poet, or rather the carrier of the poet.” Listening impassively to the introduction, Brodsky fiddled with an unlighted filter cigarette, occasionally placing it in his lips, until after about ten minutes, ending a drawn out silent drama that upstaged his introducer, Brodsky finally lit it, inhaling deeply, then blowing out the smoke in a long thin stream. His toying with the cigarette resembled an erotic play.
His first task was the unveiling of a bronze bust of himself, the work of the sculptor Sylvia Willink. “The only respect in which this head differs from the one I carry on my shoulders,” Brodsky commented after admiring the Caesar-like image, “is that it can’t speak — and it can’t kiss.”
Brodsky’s English is fast, fluent, almost reckless, a special variety that has the smell of a Jewish bakery in Manhattan’s lower east side. He may have been born and raised in Leningrad/St. Petersburg but his voice is at home in the New World.
He started off reading with “A Song,” a poem with the refrain, “I wish you were here, dear,” which concludes, “What’s the point of forgetting / if it’s followed by dying?” (It was, he confessed, a pastiche of Auden’s “Twelve Songs.”) Then came “Epitaph to a Centaur” with the line “…his animal part turned out to be less durable than his humanity.” Then “The Butterflies” about a life one-day long, a space in time just right for the blaze of a poem.
Especially when reading in his native language, Brodsky recites like a deacon singing the Gospel in a Russian church, a kind of liturgical chant, the recitation of each line governed by strict rules of rhythm with definite places for rising and falling stresses, that are impartial to the content of the words. This way of reading creates a cathedral space around him and us and a sense of no longer being in ordinary time or space. He reminds me of watching Vladimir Horowitz performing in a concert hall in Moscow, playing with total detachment as if, far from playing, he was listening, and perhaps not even listening to this particular piano. His fingers moved, but hardly more than if he were absent- mindedly drumming a table top in a café while waiting for someone who was late. Similarly Brodsky’s face, even while he chants the poetry with such concentrated purpose, such spiritual discipline, seems a face in the audience rather than belonging to the poet. His eyes wander toward the large windows and the view they offer of the sky and street and other buildings, like a child in school waiting for recess.
In the pause I asked him to sign my copy of his book of essays, Less Than One. He looked with surprise at my pen, a black and green Pelikan I bought in Assisi in 1986 to mark the passage from organizational employment to the more adventurous life of freelance writing. He pulled from his shirt pocket an identical Pelikan and said, “I have two of them.” We agreed that there is something sacred about a good pen. I told him about how his way of reading reminded me of the chanting of the Gospel or the way a cantor sings the prayers in the synagogue. “Of course they are deeply related,” he said.
I made a similar comment in the public discussion that followed. The deacon, the cantor and the poet are all practicing the “melic art,” Brodsky responded, pausing like a good teacher to spell “melic”. [OED: “Melic: Of poetry; Intended to be sung; applied spec. to the strophic species of Greek lyric verse. Hence applied to poets who compose such verse.”] “It is quite deliberate. Meters are meters. There is music in poetry. I try to bring out the euphonic aspect of the poem. My manner of delivery goes back to the training I received in my Russian high school. A good teacher requires a lot of memorization of poetry and requires you to deliver. Your recitation makes it clear to the teacher what you have understood.”
The poet in the west in this century, Brodsky continued, has the problem “of almost always being on the defensive, aware of the sardonic listener who will smirk at the poet’s raptures.” Thus he tends to read diffidently, taking some distance from his poem. And this is a great pity because in fact “poetry is an act of mental aggression upon the audience. The self-effacing poet should perhaps take the next logical step and shut up altogether.”
A question was asked about nihilism. Brodsky replied that according to Aristotle there are four different temperaments and each has to do with the location of bile in the body. “I have no philosophy, only temperament.” (Later he quoted a Japanese poet: “I’ve got no principles, no convictions — just nerve.”) His own temperament leads him to shrug off the problem of death, as if to say, “You know you are going to lose. So what?” Someone with another temperament may be quite irritated and preoccupied with the problem and even develop a philosophy of nihilism. But for himself, he went on, “nothingness is a lousy subject. How can one make a philosophy out of it?”
“In Russian we have the word nichtoe — nothing. It’s an interesting word with too many consonants. It doesn’t give you a sense of limit. It suggests a journey.” (Later, commenting on the euphony that exists in every language, he noted that “Russian words are two, three syllables, minimum. To utter a Russian word is an acoustic event.”)
He noted that experience of extraordinary events does not necessarily produce a poem. “Extremes of experience have a tendency to bring out banal expressions. You can survive Hiroshima or 25 years in a concentration camp and not write a single line, or experience a one-night stand and write an immortal lyric.”
“Art,” he said, “is older than any form of social organization. It started, shall we say, a long time ago.”
The question was asked whether poetry could have anything to do with politics. Brodsky said no, the reason being that the task of the poet is to avoid cliches, to create precedents, to make something new. “The artist is trying not to repeat his predecessors, to say the least.” Thus it is sometimes said of a poet that he is ahead of his time. This is an incorrect perception, he explained. “A poet is never ahead or behind his time, just operating on his own frequency.”
He also said he hears people complain, “I don’t care for modern poetry.” He said the reason for this is that poetry builds on itself, it has a kind of development through time. You could understand modern poetry if you began with the poetry you do understand and work from there. Reading modern poetry “is like boarding a runaway train. You may decide you don’t like the train. Its route, well, it’s not yours, that’s all.”
Someone commented on how striking the contrast was between the original poems that Brodsky had recited, and the reading by the translator of the same poems in Dutch. Brodsky said this was due not so much to differences in the verbal content of the poem in its two forms but “how you read” and that this is greatly shaped by one’s national background. “Russian stresses the music. Otherwise you are just counting syllables.”
He was unhappy about the “big infusion of English words” into modern Russian. But language has its own life, refusing to behave according to the tastes of a balding poet, even when he has the Nobel Prize. “Language is a generational thing. You have very intimate pet words that have to do with your generation and place. It was different in my generation to be in St. Petersburg than to be in Moscow. In St. Petersburg we said ch-toe while in Moscow it was stow.”
Wasn’t it hard for the writer to have to live in exile, he was asked, and isn’t it a pity so many writers are exiles? Brodsky found it not so remarkable. “You have guest workers and boat people, not only exiled writers. This takes the orchid out of the writer’s lapel. To live elsewhere is a norm in the twentieth century. There’s nothing very significant about it. It’s just more palatable when it’s a writer than with those possessing other skills.” There was something to be said for the writer packing his bags. “The further away from his homeland the writer is, the better for literature.” One’s address isn’t so important.
“A poet,” he concluded, “is like a bird. He chirps no matter what twig he lands on — and mistakes the rustle of leaves for applause.”
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