Saying No to Caesar: St. Marcellus lecture, Notre Dame

the relics of St Marcellus are in the altar of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at the University of Notre Dame

Saint Marcellus lecture, delivered by Jim Forest at the University of Notre Dame 29 October 2017

Tomorrow is the feast of a saint who was once famous but isn’t widely known today, Saint Marcellus of Tangiers, a Christian martyr who was beheaded in the year 298 during the reign of the emperor Diocletian. In some strange providence, it happens that relics of St. Marcellus have ended up half a planet away from north Africa, right here in South Bend, Indiana, on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, placed within the high altar of the church in which we are gathered, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

St. Marcellus, a centurion, needn’t have died — it was due to what many sensible people would judge his imprudence, his foolishness, that he put his head on the chopping block.

It takes only a few sentences to tell the story. His unit was celebrating Diocletian’s birthday with a party. It must have been a very festive event. One can imagine the fervent, promotion-seeking toasts. The emperor was regarded as a god or at least the instrument of the gods who favored Rome and the vast areas under its rule. Surely sobriety quickly bit the dust. Everyone was having a good time. But suddenly Centurion Marcellus rose before the banqueters and denounced the celebration — in effect disparaging the deification of rulers. Tearing off his insignia of rank, Marcellus cried out, “I serve Jesus Christ the eternal King. I will no longer serve your emperors and I scorn to worship your gods of wood and stone, which are deaf and dumb idols.” This did not go down well with his military audience. Marcellus was immediately arrested and put in prison. The party proceeded without him. A few shocked friends must have wondered if Marcellus had lost his mind.

St Marcellus

Far from recanting, at his trial Marcellus freely confessed that he had done what his accusers charged him with and acknowledged that his mind was unchanged. The trial record quotes Marcellus as declaring to his judge, “It is not right for a Christian, who serves the Lord Christ, to serve in the armies of the world.” Marcellus was beheaded on the 30th of October in 298. His last recorded words, in fact a prayer, were addressed to the official — very likely a friend — who had ordered his execution: “May God be good to you, Agricolan.”

It’s no surprise that Marcellus is one of the patron saints of conscientious objectors, not only those who refuse to kill in war but anyone who refuses to take human life, full stop, whether in the womb or at any stage of life. Such people give witness to the much-ignored commandment entrusted by God to Moses: “You shall not kill.”

I think it’s fair to say that, for a great many Christians, saints like Marcellus are an embarrassment. After all being a soldier is an honorable vocation. Didn’t the Church long ago make its peace with war? Bishops and priests have blessed countless weapons of war and mounted pulpits to praise war and honor its warriors. We have had crusades blessed by popes and led by cardinals. We’ve had inquisitions, burned those judged heretics at the stake, and even dared describe some wars as holy. In western Christianity, beginning in the period of Ambrose and Augustine, we have a just war doctrine. True, if that doctrine is taken seriously, it invalidates the vast majority of wars ever fought, but when was the last time a bishop warned those in his pastoral care not to take part in a war because it failed to meet the conditions of a just war? America, ‘I can think of only one, Bishop John Michael Botean, who issued a pastoral letter condemning the Iraq invasion and warned his flock not to participate in it. But Bishop Botean is a hardly known bit player in the American hierarchy, responsible for nineteen Romanian Catholic parishes. (Not surprisingly, he is a longtime friend of the Catholic Peace Fellowship.)

For those whose identity is tightly bound to their nationality, Jesus is not, let’s admit, the ideal savior. There are many Christians who would prefer a different, tougher, more red-white-and-blue Jesus Christ. The Jesus we actually have just doesn’t measure up. He killed no one, blessed no wars and waved no flags. He wasn’t a patriot. He didn’t pledge allegiance. The Apostles were just as bad. The total number of people killed by the Apostles is also zero. They too failed to bless any wars or take part in them. One of the early theologians, Clement of Alexandria, described the Church as “an army that sheds no blood.” In those first centuries after Christ, one could say this as a simple matter of fact. But that was a long time ago.

Ought we not to ask ourselves if we really want to call ourselves Christians? Do we want to be followers of a man who is no one’s enemy? Who calls on his followers to love their enemies and to pray for them? Who, in the Beatitudes, blesses not the war makers but the peace makers? Whose last healing miracle before his crucifixion was to repair the wounded ear of one of the men, an enemy, who came to arrest him? Who not only failed to praise Peter for his brave effort to defend Jesus from an enemy but reprimanded him? “He who lives by the sword will die by the sword,” he said to the chief of the Apostles.

Marcellus took all this to heart. Jesus shaped his life. It’s a life that reminds me of a sentence from the Jesuit poet and priest Daniel Berrigan: “If you want to be follow Jesus you had better look good on wood.”

In this militarized world, Marcellus is a challenge to each of us. He is one of the saints who, in an especially focused way, reminds us that our primary obedience is to the kingdom of God, in which there is no slaughter and indeed in which everyone is a conscientious objector.

All this began to come clear in my own life while I was serving in the U.S. Navy. In that period of my life, I was seriously considering making the military a career. I liked the work I was doing — after graduating from the Navy Weather School I had been assigned to the U.S. Weather Service in Washington. I liked and respected the people with whom I was working. I was on track to become an officer. The problem was that I was also in the midst of becoming a Christian. In November 1960, just as I was being promoted to third class petty officer, I was received into the Catholic Church. On the one hand I was reading books on meteorology and on the other reading books by such authors as Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, and Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement. I was reading the Gospels closely and found the life Christ proposed to his disciples centered on love rather than enmity, the works of mercy rather than the works of war, conversion rather than coercion. It finally became clear to me that a career in the Navy wasn’t what God was calling me to.

What brought my brief military career to an early end was my incautiously deciding to take part in a silent vigil in front of a government building in downtown Washington protesting the CIA-arranged Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in the spring of 1961.

To make a long story short, I was fortunate to obtain an early discharge on grounds of conscientious objection. I left the Navy and joined the Catholic Worker community in New York, a border-crossing event that has shaped the rest of my life. But I have no regrets about the part of my life spent in uniform. I got to know several of the best people I’ve ever encountered. One of them, my executive officer, Commander John Marabito, a devout Catholic, probably never got his promotion to captain as a result of the support he gave me. Our commanding officer was furious.

The steps I took at the time were in part influenced by my awareness of such saints as Marcellus, who paid with their lives for their refusal to put duty to Caesar ahead of discipleship to Jesus. Marcellus challenged me, and challenges each of us, to consider — or reconsider — what direction we should go in life. He challenges us to put love of God and neighbor ahead of fear and ambition.

I mentioned the role fear plays in our lives. It’s a huge topic. “The root of war is fear,” wrote Thomas Merton in the first essay he submitted for publication in The Catholic Worker in the Fall of 1961. It was an essay that got him into a lot of hot water.

Fear not only makes us look at those around us with half-closed eyes but drives us to make vocational choices based on anxieties about future income rather than work that truly suits us, does no harm, and is rooted in our best self and embedded in a well-formed conscience. The best work we can do is life preserving and life enhancing. One should be able to read without shame Christ’s summary of the works of mercy: “I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me drink, naked and you clothed me, homeless and you welcomed me, sick and you cared for me, in prison and you came to visit me… I tell you solemnly, what you did to the least person you did to me.”

I mentioned the many ways in which much of Christianity, during the past fifteen or sixteen centuries, made its peace with war. But it pleases me that this is changing. One of the remarkable processes going on within the Catholic Church — to single out the largest Christian entity and, along with the Orthodox Church, the oldest — is the fact that what was typical of the early Church is steadily regaining ground in the Church today.

A dramatic early indication of this change was the publication in 1963 of the encyclical, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) by Pope John XXIII, now Saint John XXIII. Its release was front-page news in many countries. The thicker newspapers published extensive excerpts; some, like The New York Times, published the full text. Before long major conferences centering on Pacem in Terris were organized in many countries. Pope John was seen as having provided a bill of rights and duties for the human race.

Such unprecedented reception was due in part to this being the first encyclical addressed not only to Church members but to “all people of good will.” Here was a pope who, in the last months of his life, made an appeal for peace and did so at a time when millions of people were aware that they would more likely die of nuclear war than of illness or old age. It is fair to say that Pacem in Terris helped prevent a cataclysmic third world war, though it is still the case that such a war remains possible and, in present circumstances, not unlikely.

The primary human right, Pope John pointed out, the right without which no other right has any meaning, is the right to life. As no human activity so undermines the right to life as war, peacemaking is among the very highest and most urgent human callings.

One of Pope John’s major themes in his encyclical was conscience. “The world’s Creator,” he said in the opening section, “has stamped our inmost being with an order revealed to us by our conscience; and our conscience insists on our preserving it.” Quoting from St. Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome, he added, “Human beings show the work of the law written in their hearts. Their conscience bears witness to them.” (Rom 2:15)

The pope went on to declare that conscience could not be coerced either in religious matters or the relationship of the person to the state. “Hence,” he wrote, “a regime which governs solely or mainly by means of threats and intimidation or promises of reward, provides mankind with no effective incentive to work for the common good.”

“Authority,” John continued, “is before all else a moral force. For this reason the appeal of rulers should be to the individual conscience, to the duty which every person has of voluntarily contributing to the common good. But since all people are equal in natural dignity, no one has the capacity to force internal compliance on another. Only God can do that, for God alone scrutinizes and judges the secret counsels of the heart. Hence, representatives of the State have no power to bind people in conscience, unless their own authority is tied to God’s authority, and is a participation in it.” [48, 49]

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

“Governmental authority … is a postulate of the moral order and derives from God. Consequently, laws and decrees passed in contravention of the moral order, and hence of the divine will, can have no binding force in conscience, since ‘it is right to obey God rather than men.’ … A law which is at variance with reason is to that extent unjust and has no longer the rationale of law. It is rather an act of violence. … Thus any government which refused to recognize human rights or acted in violation of them, would not only fail in its duty; its decrees would be wholly lacking in binding force.” [51, 61]

The time is urgent, Pope John noted. All of us are living “in the grip of constant fear …. afraid that at any moment the impending storm may break upon them with horrific violence. And they have good reasons for their fear, for there is certainly no lack of … weapons [of mass destruction]. While it is difficult to believe that anyone would dare to assume responsibility for initiating the appalling slaughter and destruction that [nuclear] war would bring in its wake, there is no denying that the conflagration could be started by some chance and unforeseen circumstance.” [111]

Pope John gave particular attention to dangers posed by weapons of mass destruction, declaring that, in this context, it is absurd to regard war as just: “People nowadays are becoming more and more convinced that any disputes which may arise between nations must be resolved by negotiation and agreement, and not by recourse to arms…. This conviction owes its origin chiefly to the terrifying destructive force of modern weapons. It arises from fear of the ghastly and catastrophic consequences of their use. Thus, in this age of ours which prides itself on atomic power, it is irrational to believe that war is still an apt means of vindicating violated rightsi.” [italics added]

Pacem in Terris can be seen as an urgent appeal to governments, on the one hand, to work toward nuclear disarmament, and to individuals, on the other, not to obey orders which would make the person an accomplice to so great a sin as wars in which the innocent are the principal victims.

It was also Pope John who, early in his pontificate, and to the astonishment of many members of the College of Cardinals, had announced preparations for a Second Vatican Council. He did so in the hope that such a work of renewal would, as he put it, “restore the simple and pure lines that the face of the Church of Jesus had at its birth.”

The fourth and last session of the Council, held in 1965, took up the challenge of Pacem in Terris/, developing and expanding many of its themes in Gaudium et Spes, the Latin words for “joy and hope” with which the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World/ begins. Its publication on the 7th of December 1965 by Pope Paul VI was the Council’s final action. But work on this text — known in its drafting stages as Schema 13 — was far from easy. Cardinal Fernando Cento remarked that “no other [Council] document had aroused so much interest and raised so many hopes.” [The Third Session, Rhynne, p 116-7] And, one could add, such controversy.

One of the significant achievements of the Council is the definition of conscience contained in Gaudium et Spes:

“In the depths of conscience, the human being detects a law which we do not impose upon ourselves, but which holds us to obedience. Always summoning each of us to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to our hearts more specifically: do this, shun that. For each person has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is our very dignity; according to it we will be judged. Conscience is our most secret core and sanctuary. There we are alone with God whose voice echoes in our depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor. In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of humankind in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution of the numerous problems which arise in the lives of individuals and from social relationships. Hence, the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from individual ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares little for truth and goodness, or for conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.” [section 16]

It follows that conscientious objection to participation in war ought to be universally recognized. Gaudium et Spes endorsed that objective in this passage: “It seems right that laws make humane provision for the case of those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms, provided however, that they agree to serve the community in some other way.” (section 79.2)

The treatment of conscience marked a major turning point in Catholic teaching. Even during World War II, Catholics on all sides had been told to obey their rulers and had been assured that, were they made party to sin by their obedience, the blame would lie with their rulers rather than with themselves.

But in Gaudium et Spes, those who renounce violence altogether, seeking a more just and compassionate society by nonviolent means, were praised:

“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 to death were described as “criminal,” while the courage of those who disobey commands to participate in genocidal actions were described as meriting “supreme commendation.”

Though I am no expert on what went on behind the scenes as Guadium et Spes was being drafted, I do know some aspects of the story. Let me draw your attention to just one of these.

The first draft of Schema 13, eventually to become Guadium et Spes, was in circulation well over a year before the final text was approved by the bishops and signed by Pope Paul. During those months, not only were bishops and theologians present in Rome engaged in the debate, but so were others in distant parts of the world, including Thomas Merton, one of the most widely read Catholic authors of the twentieth century.

One of those quite attentive to Merton’s writings was John XXIII. Merton had begun writing to the pope just two weeks after his election in 1958. In a remarkable gesture, in April 1960, the Pope had shown his personal respect and affection for Merton by sending him, care of a Venetian friend, one of his papal stoles. (It can be seen at the Thomas Merton Center, located at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky.)

One of Merton’s letters to John XXIII may have been a factor in the pope’s decision to write Pacem in Terris. Writing to the pope in November 1961, Merton spoke of the “grave threat” of nuclear war. The “lack of understanding, ignorance and violent and subtle propaganda … conspire together to create a very unsettling mood in the United States” with the result that “many hate communist Russia with a hatred that implies the readiness to destroy this nation.” War and preparation for war had now become so embedded in the economy that, for many people, disarmament would cause financial ruin. “Sad to say,” Merton continued, “American Catholics are among the most war-like, intransigent and violent.” Monsignor Loris Capovilla, the pope’s private secretary, later noted that John XXIII was especially impressed by this letter. [The Hidden Ground of Love, p 486]

After John’s death, Merton began an equally substantial correspondence with his successor, Paul VI. One of the papers Merton sent to Paul VI was a copy of an open letter on Schema 13 that Merton had addressed to members of the American hierarchy. It was written in the summer of 1965, just before the final session of the Council began. In his letter Merton urged the American bishops to embrace the opportunity provided by Schema 13 to challenge widespread belief in “the primacy of power and of violence.”

“We must,” he stated, “be resolutely convinced that this is one area in which the Church is bound not only to disagree with ‘the world’ in the most forceful terms, but intervene as a providentially designated force for peace and reconciliation. We must clearly recognize that the Church remains perhaps the most effective single voice speaking for peace in the world today. That voice must not be silenced or made ineffective by any ambiguity born of political and pragmatic considerations on the part of national groups.”

Merton reminded his readers that in time of war “the average citizen” feels he “has no choice but to support his government and bear arms if called upon to do so,” as was seen in World War II with the non-resisting participation of German Catholics “in a war effort that has since revealed itself to have been a monstrously criminal and unjust aggression.” He also noted that, even on the side fighting Hitler’s armies, “those who defended their nations in a manifestly just resistance … eventually found themselves … cooperating in acts of total, indiscriminate and calculatedly terroristic destruction which Christian morality cannot tolerate.”

Merton deserves a share of the credit for the fact that Gaudium et Spes contains a solemn condemnation, the only formal 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.”

This one-sentence condemnation focuses on one aspect of major threats against life. It connects with this longer declaration:

“Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where human beings are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, doing more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonor to the Creator.” [27]

Soon after the Council ended, Paul VI addressed the United Nations General Assembly. On the 4th of October, 1965, the feast St. Francis of Assisi, he gave powerful support to an organization whose main purpose is to make war less likely. The most memorable moment in his speech came when he spoke of the horrors of war. With deep emotion in his voice, he pleaded, “No more war! War never again! It is peace, peace that must guide the destiny of the peoples of the world and of all humanity.… If we wish to be brothers, let the weapons of war fall from our hands.”

Between publication of Pacem in Terris and the promulgation of Gaudium et Spes, the Catholic Church made a giant step toward becoming once again the church that shaped the conscience of such saints at Marcellus the Centurion. It could no longer be presumed that obedience to national leaders would be the automatic response of faithful Catholics, a fact that helps explain widespread Catholic resistance to war in subsequent years and also the fact that the largest number of conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War were Catholics.

The challenge of Pacem in Terris and Gaudium et Spes remains with us, as does the challenge of all those martyrs, men and women like Marcellus, whose lives were cut short because their obedience to Christ gave them the courage to say no to Caesar.

Saint Marcellus, pray for us.

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text as of 11 October 2017
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Climbing the Ladder of the Beatitudes

Anastasis – Christ Harrowing Hell (Chora Church in Istanbul)

by Jim Forest

I want to begin with a story, but first I have to preface it with a little information about how the liturgy is carried out in the Orthodox Church. During the service, there are two processions. During the first half, the liturgy of the word, a book containing only the four Gospels is carried through the church and is then placed on the altar. During the second half, the liturgy of communion, a similar procession carries bread and wine to the altar.

During the first procession, it’s the tradition in the Russian Orthodox Church to sing the Beatitudes. The reason is simple. The Beatitudes — the first ten verses of the Sermon on the Mount — are a compact summary of the teaching of Jesus. The Church wants everyone, even children, to know the Beatitudes by heart. Singing them at every liturgy makes memorization easy. There are Orthodox people suffering from dementia, people who can no longer remember family names or recall who is alive and who is dead or identify whose face they see when they look in the mirror, but who can still sing the Beatitudes.

The second fact I should mention is that, in the decades following the Bolshevik revolution, the Soviet state made a very serious effort to destroy the Church and to convert everyone to atheism. Religious education was forbidden, atheist education was compulsory. Churches and monasteries were turned to other uses or simply destroyed. In the 1980s and 90s, I often stood in the ruins of Russian churches. Many thousands of Christians were executed. Millions more died in the labor camps known as the Gulag Archipelago.

Now the story: In the Stalin years, a popular Russian comedian developed a stage act in which he played a drunken priest. Dressed in wine-stained priestly robes and armed with a censor exhaling thick clouds of incense, he did a comic imitation of the  liturgy. Part of his performance was to chant the Beatitudes but with distorted words —such alterations as “blessed are the cheese makers” and “blessed are they who hunger and thirst for vodka” — while struggling to manage his out-of-control censor and to remain more or less upright. He had done his act time and again and been rewarded by the authorities for his work in promoting atheism and in making worship seem ridiculous.

But on one occasion things didn’t go as planned. Perhaps he was actually drunk rather than pretending. Or perhaps he was ashamed of his many desecrations of piety and beauty. Instead of saying his garbled version of the Beatitudes in his well-rehearsed comic manner, he chanted the sentences as they are actually sung in a real Liturgy. His attention was focused not on the audience but on the life-giving words that were coming out of his mouth, words he had learned and sung as a child. He listened to the memorized words and something happened in the depths of his soul. After singing the final Beatitude, he fell to his knees weeping. He had to be led from the stage and never again parodied the sacred. Probably he was sent to a labor camp, but even so it’s a story of a happy moment in his life. He had begun a new life in a condition of spiritual freedom that no prison can take away. Whatever his fate, be brought the Beatitudes and his recovered faith with him.

Truly, the Beatitudes can change one’s life.

The Beatitudes are such a short text — eight of them and only ten verses long. “Blessed” is the most repeated word. What does it mean? To find out, let’s look at the oldest text of the Gospels, the Greek New Testament. Here the key word is makarios.

In ancient times, many Jews spoke Greek fluently and even used it as their first language. The oldest Bible that has come down to us, the Septuagint, was written not in Hebrew but in Greek by Jewish scholars in Alexandria about 650 years before Christ. It was before the end of the first century that the Greek text of Matthew’s Gospel was written down. It’s likely Matthew wrote it in Greek.

Here we encounter the beautiful Greek word makarios, a word derived from makar, a term referring to the state of the gods, a state beyond suffering and anxiety, a state that is free of death. For the Greeks the most impressive attribute of the gods was that they were immortal.

Adapted to Christian usage, makarios means participating in the life of God, a transformation which has its own Greek word, theosis, that is an intimate sharing in God’s Being, thus the ultimate joy, a happiness without the fault lines of death running through it. There is no higher gift. We are not simply capable of an intellectual awareness that God exists or of studying God as an astronomer might study the night sky all the while knowing the stars are unbridgeable distances away. The blessing extended to us is participation in the communion of the Holy Trinity, sharing in God’s immortality, and being endowed with qualities that seem humanly impossible.

How might we translate the word makarios in a way that makes its meaning clearer? I suggest “free from the fear of death” or, even simpler, “risen from the dead.” To the extent we follow Christ we become people whose choices are not driven by fear and death. Thus we can say:

Risen from the dead are the poor in spirit…
Risen from the dead are they who mourn…
Risen from the dead are the meek…
Risen from the dead are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness…
Risen from the dead are the merciful…
Risen from the dead are the pure of heart…
Risen from the dead are the peacemakers…
Risen from the dead are they who are persecuted for righteousness sake…

Keep in mind that, in the early Church, the New Testament had not yet been assembled as a canonical book. During the first few centuries of the Christian era, it was a major labor of the Church to decide which accounts of Christ’s life were authentic and which were false, unreliable, or were vehicles of heresy that undermined the Gospel.

When at last the New Testament became a canonical text, it was certainly not by accident that Matthew’s account of Christ’s life was made the first book. One result of that decision is that it put the Sermon on the Mount, and thus the Beatitudes, in a very prominent location — the gateway through which we enter into the book of good news. The Beatitudes are the first lengthy text in the Gospels from the mouth of Jesus — a distilled presentation of his teaching.

We are supposed not just to memorize the Beatitudes — that’s only a first step — but to let them burn in our thoughts like a row of candles. Quite literally, they are meant to illumine us.

Let’s look very briefly at the each of the Beatitudes.

First, think for a moment about their order. Do you see a kind of architecture in them? Would it make any difference if the beatitude of peacemaking came first and poverty of spirit came last? Can we arrange them any way we like? I don’t think so.

The Beatitudes connect with each other and depend on each other. Each Beatitude builds on the ones below. For example if you want to be a peacemaker but have an impure heart, what you will do in the name of peace will only drive people further apart and increase violence in the world. If you hunger and thirst for righteousness but have no mercy, your righteousness is likely to damage rather than heal.

We can describe the Beatitudes as a ladder reaching from the hard earth on which we live to a paradise more perfect than the Eden of Adam and Eve, what Christ calls the kingdom of God.

The first Beatitude is the foundation of all that follow: Risen from the dead are the poor in spirit…

Poverty of spirit is the essential beginning, the context of discipleship. None of the Beatitudes that follow are possible without poverty of spirit. But what does poverty of spirit mean? It’s my awareness that I cannot save myself, that I am basically defenseless, that neither money nor power will spare me from suffering and death, and that no matter what I achieve and acquire in this life, it will be far less than what I wanted. Poverty of spirit is my awareness that I need God’s help and mercy more than I need anything else. Poverty of spirit is getting free of the rule of fear, fear being the great force that restrains us from acts of love. Poverty of spirit is a letting go of all that keeps me locked in myself, imprisoned in myself. Being poor in spirit means letting go of the myth that the more I possess, the happier I’ll be. In the words of Dostoevsky, “Blessed are they who have nothing to lock up.”

Poverty of spirit is not something we can achieve by having no possessions. When you look closely at the life of the saints, you discover what they had, little or much, was part of their particular vocation and their particular obedience to Christ. All the saints are linked by poverty of spirit. All the saints lived an ascetic life. All of them approached God in a state of spiritual destitution, seeking as a matter of life or death to know God’s will in their lives and to live it, for God not only creates us but gives each of us a unique identity, a unique responsibility, a unique path to follow on the way to heaven. Poverty of spirit — the condition of being a spiritual beggar — is seeking to live God’s will rather than one’s own.

On to the second rung on the ladder: Risen from the dead are they who mourn…

Poverty of spirit is inseparable from mourning. Without poverty of spirit, I am always on guard to keep what I have for myself, and to keep me for myself. An immediate consequence of poverty of spirit is becoming sensitive to the pain and losses of people around me, not only those whom I happen to know and care for, but also people I don’t know and perhaps don’t want to know. To the extent I open my heart to others, I will do whatever I can to help — pray, share what I have, even share myself. Not only am I called to mourn the tragedies others suffer but to mourn for my sinful self, who so often has failed to see, to notice, to care, to respond, to share, to love.

The second Beatitude is the Beatitude of tears. Christ shed tears. The shortest verse in the Bible has just two words, “Jesus wept.” Christ stood before the tomb of his friend Lazarus and, before summoning him back to life, he cried.

This is not the only time he shed tears. The other occasion we know of happened as he stood gazing from a distance at Jerusalem. “And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it.” It must have been a puzzling experience for his disciples. They saw a shining, golden-walled city dominated by its great Temple, with people like themselves streaming busily in and out of the city’s gateways. Jesus saw what had not yet happened, Jerusalem’s destruction, the suffering of the city’s inhabitants, and the enslavement and deportation of its survivors. He wept for the victims of a catastrophe decades in the future, but very real to him, so immediate, so devastating, that he grieved as if it was happening at that moment. He said to those who were with him, “Would that today you knew the things that make for peace!”

Now up another rung on the ladder, the third Beatitude: Risen from the dead are the meek…

Often confused with weakness, in fact a meek person is neither spineless nor cowardly. Understood biblically, meekness is making choices and exercising power with a divine rather than a social reference point. Meekness is the essential quality of the human being in relationship to God. Without meekness, we cannot align ourselves with God’s will. In place of humility we prefer pride — pride in who we are, pride in doing as we please, pride in what we’ve achieved, pride in the national or ethnic or racial group to which we happen to belong.

Meekness has nothing to do with blind obedience or social conformity. A meek Christian does not allow himself to be dragged along by the tides of passions or propaganda or political power or fear or imposed obedience. Such a rudderless person has cut himself off from his own conscience, that is from God’s voice in his heart, and thrown away his God-given freedom. Meekness is an attribute of following Christ no matter what risks are involved.

The next rung, the fourth Beatitude: Risen from the dead are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness…

In his teaching about the Last Judgment, Christ speaks of hunger and thirst: “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me drink.” To hunger and thirst for something is not a mild desire but a desperate craving. Our salvation hinges on our caring — caring to the point of hunger and thirst — for the least person as we would for Christ himself. Did he not say, “What you have done to the least person you have done to me”?

To hunger and thirst for righteousness means to urgently desire that which is honorable, right and true. A righteous person is a right-living person, living a truthful, blameless life, right with both God and neighbor. A righteous social order would be one in which no one is abandoned or thrown away, in which people live in peace with God, with each other and with the world God has given us.

Up one more rung, the fifth Beatitude: Risen from the dead are the merciful…

One of the dangers of pursuing righteousness is that one can become self-righteousness. If all you have is a thirst for righteousness, how easy it is to become merciless. This is why the next rung of the ladder of the Beatitudes is the commandment of mercy. Mercy is the quality of self-giving love, of gracious deeds done for others.

Twice in the Gospels Christ makes his own the words of the Prophet Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” We witness mercy in event after event in the Gospel accounts of Christ’s life — forgiving, healing, freeing, correcting. Again and again Christ declares that those who seek God’s mercy must be merciful to others. The principle is included in the only prayer Christ taught his disciples, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” He calls on his followers to love their enemies and to pray for them. But how many enemies are we including in our daily prayers? The moral of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that a neighbor is whoever happens to be in front of us. Nowhere in the Gospel do we hear Christ advocating anyone’s death or blessing his followers to harm anyone. At the Last Judgment Christ receives into the kingdom of heaven those who were merciful.

Now we ascend to the next rung, the sixth Beatitude: Risen from the dead are the pure of heart…

Christ didn’t say, “Blessed are the pure in mind” or “Blessed are the brilliant in mind.” Instead he blesses purity of heart. But in our world the brain has come up in the world while the heart has been demoted. The heart used to be recognized as the center of God’s activity within us, the hub of human identity and conscience, linked with our capacity to love, the core of both physical and spiritual life — the zero point of the human soul. The Greek word for purity, katharos, means spotless, stainless, unbroken, perfect, free from anything that defiles or corrupts.

What then is a pure heart? A heart free of possessiveness, a heart capable of mourning, a heart which thirsts for what is right, a merciful heart, a loving heart, a heart not ruled by passions, an undivided heart, a heart searching for the image of God in others, a heart drawn to beauty, a heart aware of God’s presence in each face. A pure heart is a heart without contempt or hatred of others. In the words of Saint Isaac of Syria, “A person is truly pure of heart when he considers all human beings as good and no created thing appears impure or defiled to him.”

Opposing purity of heart is lust of any kind — for wealth, for recognition, for power, for vengeance, for using others as sexual or economic objects. A discipline of prayer in daily life helps heal, guard and unify the heart. “Always keep your mind collected in your heart,” instructed one of the great Russian teachers of prayer, Saint Theofan the Recluse. The Jesus Prayer — the Prayer of the Heart — is part of a tradition of spiritual life which helps move the center of consciousness from the mind to the heart: “Lord Jesus, have mercy on us.” Purification of the heart is the striving to place the mind under the rule of the heart, the mind representing the analytic and organizational aspect of consciousness. Purification of the heart is the lifelong struggle of seeking a more God-centered life, a heart illuminated with the presence of the Holy Trinity.

We’re well up the ladder now, almost at the top. Now comes the seventh Beatitude: Risen from the dead are the peacemakers…

Christ is often called the Prince of Peace. He calls us not simply to be in favor of peace — nearly everyone is — but makers of peace. The peacemaker is anyone who helps heal damaged relationships. Another word for peacemaking is healing. We could say, “Risen from the dead are those who heal and those who repair.” Throughout the Gospel we see Christ bestowing peace with healing words and actions. In his final discourse before his arrest, he says to the Apostles: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” After the Resurrection, he greets his followers with the words, “Peace be with you.” He instructs his followers that, on entering a house, their first action should be the blessing, “Peace be upon this house.” Christ kills no one and calls no one to kill. The one act of bloodshed committed by his apostles was caused by over-zealous Peter injuring the ear of one of those who came to arrest Jesus, while Jesus’s last miracle before his crucifixion was the healing of that wound. In the words of one of the earliest Christian theologians, Clement of Alexandria, “The church is an army that sheds no blood.”

Sadly, for most of us the peace we long for is not the Kingdom of God but a slightly improved version of the world we already have. We would like to get rid of conflict without seeking to eliminate the spiritual and material factors that give rise to conflict.

The peacemaker knows that ends never stand apart from means: figs don’t grow from thistles; neither is community brought into being by glares, hatred and violence. A peacemaker is aware that each person, even those who seem to be slaves of evil, is made in the image of God and is capable of change and conversion. So much depends on how I relate to adversaries and enemies. So much depends on hospitality of the face.

One of the things a peacemaker isn’t is a war maker. He or she doesn’t foment hatred or conflict, steers clear of war-justifying propaganda, and doesn’t dehumanize the adversary but sees in each person a brother or sister, albeit in some cases estranged. We are challenged by the example of early Christians, who, like the Savior, took no part in bloodshed. They regarded themselves as patriots only of the kingdom of God.

Only now do we reach the top of the ladder, the eighth Beatitude: Risen from the dead are the persecuted…

The last rung of the Beatitudes is where we reach the Cross. “We must carry Christ’s cross as a crown of glory,” wrote Saint John Chrysostom, “for it is by it that everything that is achieved among us is gained…. Whenever you make the sign of the cross on your body, think of what the cross means and put aside anger and every other passion. Take courage and be free in the soul.”

In the ancient world Christians were persecuted chiefly because they were regarded as undermining the social order even though in most respects they were models of civil obedience and good conduct. But Christians refused to treat kings and emperors as gods. They would not sacrifice to gods their neighbors venerated and were notable for their refusal to take part in war or bloodshed in any form. Is it surprising that a community that lived by such values, however well-behaved, would be regarded as a threat by the government? And it still goes on. One pays a price for following Jesus rather than Caesar.

“Both the Emperor’s commands and those of others in authority must be obeyed if they are not contrary to the God of heaven, but if they are, they must not only not be disobeyed; they must be resisted,”said Saint Euphemia in the year 303 during the reign of Diocletian. Following torture, Euphemia was killed by a bear — the kind of death endured by thousands of Christians well into the fourth century, though the greatest number of Christian martyrs belong to the twentieth century, in Russia most of all. In many countries religious persecution continues to this very day.

At the very top of the ladder of the Beatitudes, beyond the eight rungs, we reach the resurrection, the joy of no longer being a captive of fear and a prisoner of death. “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

We’ve made a speedy climb up a tall ladder. Just one last comment: Climbing the ladder of the Beatitudes is a daily task in which we often fail. Every time you fall off, all you need to do is start again. While climbing, it helps to know the Beatitudes by heart and think about them often. Recite them as a prayer. Breathe them in and breathe them out. Recite them with your heart. Let them question you. Let them renew and reshape your life.

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Jim Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands

[email protected]

15 August 2017

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One of Jim Forest’s books is “Ladder of the Beatitudes.” (Orbis)
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“I lost my fear”: a conversation with Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov

Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov (photo: Jim Forest)

Interview by Jim and Nancy Forest / 25 July 2017

Jim Forest: I recall that being in jail provided a turning point in your life…

Fr Sergei: I was in two jails while I was in the army. The first time I was accused of doing propaganda for the American style of life. In fact it wasn’t true — I knew almost nothing about the American style of life. What could I say about it? They also accused me of disobedience, and that was true. I was disobedient to the authorities. So I was sent to prison, originally just for a few weeks. That was nice. I was with other people and we had good discussions. But when we walked to work together, we were followed by a soldier with a machine gun. Not so pleasant. It was at this time I realized that we are always being followed by such a soldier, only usually he is invisible. In normal life you don’t see him. But somewhere inside of you he is controlling what you think and what you say, controlling your behavior. You had to become your own guard, your own censor. You must abide by the system.

J: And it’s all based on fear…

Yes. In fact the prison was to create fear. At some moment I shared this thought with someone else, another prisoner. He told one of the jail administrators what I had said and this resulted in my being put in solitary confinement. I was there three months. This was hard. You can do nothing. You can’t really sleep — the floor is wet. You cannot read — there are no books. You cannot write — no paper, no pencil. You have four walls and that’s it.

J: No window?

Yes. Light comes in but the window is too high to look through it. So all you can do is think. It was in this situation that I realized I didn’t know how to think. I had thought that thinking is a very easy thing. I used to be a physicist so I thought about physics, laws of physics, formulas. But after a few days, perhaps a week, these topics were exhausted. Finished! Then you have to really think, but I didn’t know how. Then something happened. I began to think about freedom. What happened next is very difficult to describe. Maybe I can say there was a kind of light. I heard the words “freedom is in God.” But — a big but — I knew nothing about God! I didn’t believe in God! (laughter) This was a problem — freedom is in God but I didn’t believe in God! But it seems God believed in me. I experienced joy. Only much later did I realize that it is comparable only to one thing, the joy you experience on the night of Pascha. Easter night. Finally I came to realize that the state you enter on Pascha night is intended to be the natural state of the human being. In fact many people experience this joy at the all-night Pascha service, but we lose it again and again, some after a few hours, some after a couple of months.

So I was given this joy while in solitary confinement. This kind of joy is indescribable and unbelievable. I lost my fear. That was he most important thing. I realized if they sent me to a labor camp with a long sentence it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because I was free. Of course gradually I came to realize freedom is not just given — you have to take responsibility for it. You have to do something about it every moment of your life.

Anyway it was a beginning. I understood that I had to know about God. I had to read the Gospel — it was difficult even to find a Bible in those days. But it was the real beginning of my life.

Finding my way into the Church was much more complicated. It was the beginning of the 70s. Not many churches were open and churches were watched closely.

Nancy: When you had that experience in prison, did you sense there were things they couldn’t take away from you any more?

Certainly. They couldn’t take away my freedom. They could do what they liked to my body but I was not afraid anymore.

J: What happened then, once you were out of solitary?

Their first plan was to send me to a labor camp, but then they realized there was no basis for convicting me of a crime. So they decided on a completely different course and instead sent me to school for officer training! Six months. Instead of being a good soldier they made me into a bad officer! School was wonderful. I spent many hours in the library and found a book by Solzhenitsyn — One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich — and books by other forbidden writers. Lucky for me the librarians had failed to remove such books.

J: I have noticed in your sermons how often you use the word “svaboda” — freedom.

Yes. Sometimes people tease me for speaking so often about freedom. It’s such an important topic. It is what we lost in the Garden of Eden. It’s at the center of the story of Adam and Eve. That’s where the problem started. After eating the forbidden fruit they tried to hide from God. God said to Adam, “Where are you?” And Adam responded, “I heard the sound of you in the garden and I was afraid.” This is the first time in the Bible we hear about fear. In place of freedom Adam and Eve got fear. Human nature was damaged. All of us are damaged. We are not born in freedom but there is the chance to find the way to freedom. We have to pass through the difficulties of life, but the chance is quite big. We have somehow to be born in freedom. Christ is awaiting our freedom. Christ wants only free people. Of course he accepts many other people too, but he wants free people.

Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov in Alkmaar 25 July 2017 (photo: Jim Forest)

N: As Christians we can say that without Christ there is no true freedom, yet there is the paradox that Christ only accepts free people. What comes first?

First comes the icon. Each person is an icon of God. In Genesis we read, “Let us create man according to our image.” The Greek word for image is icon. This was a favorite topic of Metropolitan Anthony [Bloom]. Everyone has this icon but the icon is damaged. Life is given to man in order to repair — restore — the icon. With the help of Christ to return to freedom.

J: Peacemaking is the removal of the smoke-darkened varnish that masks the icon…

This is why Christ is so often described as a physician. Perhaps the most important thing he does is heal the heart and open our eyes. One consequence is that we become capable of seeing beauty. One of the favorite sayings used by Metropolitan Anthony was “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” What does that mean? It doesn’t mean that beauty is something we can manipulate. Yes, you must open our eyes, but not only your eyes. You must enlarge your heart. Otherwise we see beauty only partially or not at all. If the heart is too narrow, the beauty that we see will seem ugly. What you see depends on you — on you and your spiritual condition.

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Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov, longtime rector of St Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam, died 6 January 2018. He was 65.

A Russian translation of this interview is posted at:

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Praying for Peace

On the 3rd of March, 2014, there was a special moleben (service of supplication) at St Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam for peace between Russia and Ukraine. Here is a summary of what was said at the end of the service by the rector of the parish, Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov:

Recently I heard this explanation of how evil happens. It is when two people, each convinced he is acting for a just cause, attack each other. We seek mercy from heaven, but we in this world seek justice by ourselves.

There is no war in which people on one side consider themselves unjust. People always are convinced that their side is the just side and that their going to war is justified and necessary.

The only way to peace is to make peace in your heart — in each heart and in all our hearts. That is what we are trying to do now.

A hundred years ago, in 1914, the First World War was started. Perhaps you remember how it happened. On the 28th of June, one good man, an Orthodox man, a Serbian man, decided to seek justice, and so he killed another man, Archduke Ferdinand. That was the beginning of the First World War. And when that first war finished, in 1918, it was not really the end because soon the Second World War began — a direct continuation of the First World War.

Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov (photo: Jim Forest)

Let me share with you a quotation: “We must defend our people, we must defend our brothers and sisters. They are suffering in another country, but it is our nation, our people. Our people are suffering.” Who do you think said these words? It was Hitler. It was in a speech he gave in the Reichstag, the German parliament. It was his justification for starting the Second World War.

The terrible thing is that we hear this words again and again and we don’t recognize them. We hear them once again and we think perhaps it is true — people are suffering and they need us to make justice. And in this way war begins once again.

The only chance we have is to ask God for a miracle, a miracle in our hearts that can prevent a new war. That is why we are here praying together. Let us pray, and keep on praying. Please pray.

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A Letter on Marriage and Hospitality

Recently I heard that my friend Henriette is getting married. Henriette is famous for hating housework. As a wedding surprise, a mutual friend has called around asking people to send in “household tips” which she plans to put together in a book to give to Henriette at her wedding. This was my contribution.

Dear Henriette,

The most valuable household tip I ever had came from a very special person, Dorothy Day. As a young single mother, a recent convert to the Catholic Church, she decided to spend her life practicing hospitality — feeding people who were hungry, finding places to sleep for people who had no home. In the early years these were mostly men out of work because of the Depression. It started in her own apartment. Later she found a building in lower Manhattan where she and a few friends opened a soup kitchen. They never preached to the people they fed — they just fed them, gave them clothes and made them feel welcome. Some stayed there until they died, and then she made sure they got a decent burial.

One of the stories about Dorothy that has been important in my life has to do with a woman who was going crazy trying to keep her house clean, take care of her large family, and receive many guests. She asked Dorothy for advice. Dorothy answered, “Lower your standards.”

That’s great advice but that isn’t my tip to you. My real tip is not to lower your standards, but to practice hospitality. I don’t mean you have to find outcasts living on the streets. I mean get to know people by inviting them into your home, inviting them for a meal or for dessert.

Interesting things happen when you practice hospitality. Here are a few:

1. Your house stays clean! It’s quite mysterious. There’s no better motivation for cleaning your house than knowing that guests are coming.

2. Your problems fall into perspective. When you invite people in and they start telling you their problems, your life doesn’t look so bad after all.

3. You pick up a few more household tips. As long as the dinnertime conversation doesn’t start to sound like a detergent commercial.

4. It’s great for your marriage. Hospitality is something that you both do together.

5. It increases your circle of friends.

6. It makes you realize what’s really important in life. If you start the day wringing your hands because your windows aren’t clean, there’s something wrong! Lighten up! Chill out! Cool your jets! The most important thing in your life is the people in it. We’ve been living on this street for 15 years and we almost never wash our windows, and our neighbors still smile at us (though they probably think we’re a little strange).

Jim and I both wish you a life full of friends, happy evenings, delicious meals, and plenty of time for the things that matter most.

all the best,

Nancy Forest

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At Play in the Lions’ Den: a biography and memoir of Daniel Berrigan

It is hard to deny that God prepares and then uses certain people for very special tasks. You will see that is eminently the case with Daniel Berrigan — but also for Jim Forest who seems to always know who is worth writing about — and how to do the writing. Read, and enter into a much larger world.
— Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation

Resurrection! Daniel Berrigan’s vim and vision and vitality crackle out of the pages of Jim Forest’s book. My uncle is alive in this book: in the stories and remembrances Forest collects, in the author’s sharing of his own long friendship with Dan and in his savvy situating of Dan’s life within the life of the Jesuit Order, the Catholic Church, and war and peace and countless movements for justice. Dan Berrigan, Presente!
— Frida Berrigan, author, “It Runs in the Family”

As Jim Forest’s biography demonstrates, Daniel Berrigan’s life was a full measure of grace which soared up and flowed out of all those times and places that witnessed his unyielding personal commitment in word and deed to peace and social justice, his deep compassion and disarming humor, and the consistently heroic levels of his nonviolent resistance that took our breath away and renewed the face of the earth.
— Martin Sheen

Who better than a literate peacemaker like Jim Forest to tell the story of dear Dan Berrigan and all his commitments to nonviolence? And tell it so well.
— Colman McCarthy, director, the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington, D.C. 

Thanks to Jim Forest’s faithful, joyful portrait of Dan Berrigan’s transforming life, here is Dan in our face and hearts all over again — challenging us, loving us, pushing us to give up war and every form of violence. Jim takes us on a walk with Dan and Jesus into that community of communities where everyone on earth is together, “laughing, drinking beer, and listening to rain battering the windows.” Thank you, Daniel. And thank you, Jim.
— Jim Douglass, author, “JFK and the Unspeakable”

At Play in the Lions’ Den takes us into the heart of this very human prophet on his journey where Jesus seems to tell him, as he told Peter, “You will stretch out your hands and somebody else will put a belt round you and take you where you would rather not go.” (John 21:18) And we know Dan Berrigan kept his joyful smile, even as he ended up in a difficult place, as prophets generally do. Jim Forest’s life has been deeply touched by Dan Berrigan and, after reading his memoir, you will know another dedicated and prophetic follower of Jesus.
— Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton

“If you want to follow Jesus, you better look good on wood!” Daniel Berrigan coined that phrase. In this extraordinary biography and memoir, Jim Forest, who knew Berrigan intimately, shows us that Daniel Berrigan looked every bit the good prophet on wood. This is a first-rate story that needs to be read. Highly recommended.
— Ronald Rolheiser, OMI

What is amazing about the Berrigans and their ever expanding family is that God continues to anoint them with suffering prophetic witnesses, writers, healers and artists. This beautiful, arresting book about Daniel by Jim Forest is an introduction into the many lives of a brilliant, holy genius who used all of his gifts for God and in that very way each of us can follow his loving example.
— William Hart McNichols, painter and iconographer

There is no better general introduction to the life of Dan Berrigan, one of the greatest Christians of our age, of any age, than this deeply researched, highly personal, beautifully written biography by his friend Jim Forest. He has captured Dan the poet, the prophet and the priest. And what a poet! What a prophet! What a priest!
— James Martin, SJ, author of “The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything”

Some critics have suggested that Berrigan threw away a prestigious career as a Catholic writer whose work was on a par with Flannery O’Connor and Thomas Merton to write against war. But in this insightful and inspiring biography, Forest suggests that Daniel Berrigan lived his poems, that his metaphors became stepping stones (and rocks) on the difficult path he chose.
— Diane Scharper, America magazine

I’m reading the new Dan Berrigan biography by Jim Forest and it’s wonderful, a model of what a biography ought to be. It brings back so many memories. Dan had a close relationship with my father. He often came to our home for Shabbat dinner, and we all loved his presence. What I really appreciate is the way Jim Forest brings Dan’s voice to the pages, quoting him often. This is one of the few biographies in which the subject is brought to life.
— Susannah Heschel, Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and daughter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

If you read ony one new biography this year, you’ll be hard pressed to find a more rollicking read than this spirited and intimate look at the life and faith of Daniel Berrigan (1921-2016) and the colorful cast of friends and associates who shared both with him, or crossed his path. (Think Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Thich Nhat Hanh, Martin Luther King, Ernesto Cardenal, and Martin Sheen, to list the best known). Celebrated as a rebel priest, poet, activist, and teacher, Berrigan was famous enough to make the cover of TIME. But he also belonged to a large and fascinating Irish Catholic family; and to a religious community that didn’t always appreciate him. And the strength of his personal beliefs was tested not only by his many well-publicized arrests for civil disobedience, but also by the zeitgeist. Fun-loving and generous he may have been; but he also took the confession – and forgiveness – of sins seriously; and he never wavered in his views that a vow made before God ought to be upheld; that violence can never be redemptive; and that every life is sacred. Packed with vivid anecdotes, rare photographs, and telling marginal quotes from Berrigan’s many books, Forest’s profile aptly illustrates why his fascinating subject chose the following epitaph for his gravestone – and not just in jest: “It was never dull. Alleluia!”
— Chris Zimmerman (Plough Quarterly)

At Play in the Lion’s Den is so readable, so strategic in its storytelling, so edifying, so wonderfully decorated with photographs. I am learning so much, history and context I wish I would have understood better as I attempted to learn from Dan over the years… I can’t imagine the labor that went into locating, compiling and ordering all of that material! Narratives of great lives are so daunting to try to capture, yet so important to a proper grasp of our common history. Jim Forest has done a masterful job. All of us who knew, loved and learned from Dan are deeply in Jim’s debt for serving so magnificently as a keeper of this story that has so shaped us, the church and the nation.
— Ched Myers, theologian, biblical scholar, author

In his compelling portrait of Daniel Berrigan, Jim Forest has given us a wonderful gift. He captures the amazing grace of Berrigan’s remarkable life as priest, poet, humanitarian, educator, anti-war activist and modern-day prophet. I could not put this book down. Forest spent time with Berrigan as a young man and kept in touch with him over the years after he moved to the Netherlands for work and where Dan visited him and his family. Theirs was a close bond. Consequently, his knowledge is firsthand. He succeeds in capturing the essence of Berrigan – his intellect, his humor, his compassion, his love for his community of Jesuits and his profound sense of humanity.
— Sabina Clarke, Irish Edition

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From the book’s preface:

Daniel in the lions’ den was a popular scene in Romanesque stone carving, a visual anticipation of Christ’s death and resurrection. In one of the capitals in the basilica of the French town of Vézelay, Daniel is shown as if he were resting on a bed of leaves within an almond-shaped mandorla of divine protection. He is no more threatened by the lions on either side of him than I am threatened by Beckett, our household cat.

Dan Berrigan spent much of his life in various lions’ dens — at home as a child when his father was in a rage, in paddy wagons and prisons, in demonstrations which were targets of violent attack, in a city under bombardment, in urban areas police would describe as hazardous — yet remarkably he lived to be 94, dying peacefully in bed, though he bore many invisible scars and scratches.

Like the biblical Daniel, Dan Berrigan was a man of prayer, both private and public. I never knew anyone gladder to celebrate the Eucharist. But, unlike the biblical Daniel, Dan was also a man of play, at play as much in courtrooms and jails as in his apartment assembling a meal for whoever happened to be his guests that night.

I recall him saying, “The worst thing is an omnivorous solemnity.” Dan was rarely solemn. I remember one night he and two other friends helped me push my decrepit VW beetle down a rain-soaked East Harlem Street, trying to bring the engine to life, all of us laughing till our bellies ached while Dan told a joke about a near-sighted, sex-starved elephant who mistook a VW for a female elephant who wanted to mate.

For many years Dan lived with a Jesuit community in a building at 220 West 98th Street in Manhattan. Dan had apartment 11L. Once through the door, the many people who were welcomed there found themselves in what might be described as the set for a small Off Broadway play. Posters and banners, flags and photos were decoratively placed here and there, but what I found most striking was a canticle-like quotation from the great Irish abbess, St. Bridget of Kildare, that Dan had inscribed on one wall, the calligraphy done in black magic-marker, the text wrapping around his refrigerator:

I should like a great lake of beer for the King of Kings.
I should like the angels of Heaven to be drinking it through time eternal.
I should like excellent meats of belief and pure piety.
I should like flails of penance at my house.
I should like the men of heaven at my house;
I should like barrels of peace at their disposal;
I should like vessels of charity for distribution;
I should like for them cellars of mercy.
I should like cheerfulness to be in their drinking.
I should like Jesus to be there among them.
I should like the three Marys of illustrious renown to be with us.
I should like the people of heaven, the poor, to be gathered around us from all parts.

Barrels of peace, cellars of mercy, meats of belief, flails of penance, the good company of the poor, an assembly brought together from far and near, all gathered with the King of Kings and the three Marys around a great lake of beer… One could shape one’s life around so magnetic a vision, so joyful a prophecy, so great an expectation — as compelling a glimpse of heaven as any I have heard. How suitable to discover these holy words in Dan Berrigan’s home, a grand central station of hospitality whose countless guests included many who were en route to prison or dying of AIDS.

Inventive man that he was, Dan helped, with his brother Phil, to develop more theatrical forms of protest, civil disobedience and resistance and then, as a writer, to transform prosaic events into poetry and theater, as he did in converting the courtroom drama of the trial of the Catonsville Nine into the often performed play of the same name.

And what could be more theatrical than slipping away, costumed as a giant apostle, from a crowd of F.B.I. agents poised to arrest and handcuff him, and thus beginning four months playing hide-and-seek as an underground priest?

Dan was a performer and artist but his art was rarely art for art’s sake. His was a life of lived-out translations of such biblical commandments as “thou shalt not kill” and “love one another.” How sadly rare it is to find a person — Dan was one of the exceptions — who regards such a straightforward mandate as obliging us to protect life rather than destroy it, even if that requires saying a costly “no.”

Perhaps Dan’s most notable quality was his immense compassion, which guided him one way or another on a daily basis, even late in life when it was a challenge just getting out of bed in the Jesuit infirmary at Fordham University that had become his last home.

I recall Dan using the phrase “outraged love.” Many people are driven by rage, which rarely does them or anyone much good and often makes things worse. But outraged love is mainly about love. Dan loved his imperfect church, his not always agreeable Jesuit community, he even loved America — but there is much in all three zones that is outrageous, and Dan was never able to be silent or passive about our betrayals. This could have made him a ranter but the artist side of Dan always found ways to channel his outrage into one or another form of creativity, whether via poetry or a wide variety of acts of witness. He became one of the most consistent voices of his generation for nonviolent approaches to change and conflict resolution — in that dimension of his life a spiritual child of Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day. His commitment to life excluded no one, from a child in the womb to a condemned murderer on death row.

Dan remarked of Dorothy Day, “She lived as if the Gospel were true.” The same could be said of Dan. He once said, “If you want to follow Jesus, you had better look good on wood.” He didn’t mean a Christian had to be a martyr, in the sense of dying for one’s faith, but a martyr in the literal meaning of the Greek word martyros: a witness. Part of that witness, Dan insisted, is refusing to use death as a means of improving the world, still less creating the Kingdom of God.

For the Christian, peacemaking is any action that bears witness to the risen Christ. As Dan said in a talk given at the Abbey of Gethsemani, “To be witnesses of the resurrection is to be contemplative and public all at once.”

Dan had countless friends. I was fortunate to be one of them. May this book become an occasion for friendship with him for those new to his name as we gather around the great lake of beer at which the King of Kings presides and where lions and lambs lie side by side.

— Jim Forest

True Free Choice

by Nancy Forest

The more I read about abortion, the more women I meet who have had an abortion or had a close brush with it, the more discussions I have with supporters and opponents, the more I am convinced that ours is not a society of death. We are a fearful society, we are cowardly, we are deeply confused about what constitutes the truth, and more than anything else we do not know what it means to really make a free choice — but we are not a society of death. If we were, the choice to abort would be regarded as morally neutral, and it is not. Even the Clintons agree — at least claim to agree — that fewer abortions would make for a better world. Statistics are cited about the way abortion is used as a means of birth control in Eastern Europe as evidence that something is terribly wrong with these societies. If we were a society of death, we wouldn’t care. If we were a society of death, we would allow women to abort their babies until they went into labor. There would be no discussion of “viability.” But this is not the case. Past a certain number of weeks abortion is just not an option because the baby is recognized as “viable” — so indisputably human that even the laws that defend choice will no longer permit ending a pregnancy.

The child is protected by law once it is recognized as being capable of surviving outside the womb. But I wonder if this is the whole story, or indeed if this has anything at all to do with this arbitrary time limit on abortion. I wonder if, instead, the pregnancy has advanced to a stage at which we could no longer successfully suppress our horror at halting it. If we were a society of death, we would have no qualms about aborting at any phase of pregnancy. But abortion, despite all the support it seems to have, doesn’t affect us in the neutral way that a tooth extraction does. We know abortion is a nasty business. It is intrusive and profoundly unsettling. It is a frantic attempt to halt the inexorable development of something, ­which means making quick, irreversible decisions. It is extremely stress­ful. It is not a shrug of the shoulders.

If there is something about abortion that is deeply unsettling, and wide agreement that the fewer abortions, the better, then why does society allow the abortion option to remain in place?

Over the years I’ve received many letters from pro-choice friends expressing more or less the same sentiments: “Of course I’m not pro-abortion. Nobody wants to have an abortion. But we have to uphold a woman’s right to make this decision for herself. It’s a matter of free choice.” To this may be added a few points about whether a fetus is a human being, the problem over-population and so forth. But the bottom line is the defense of choice and freedom. Even if the choice is painful, even if it is harmful, even if abortion is socially damaging, even if the abortion procedure itself is horrific, even if the mother knows in her heart of hearts that it is the wrong choice and that she will be haunted for life by the experience: even so a woman must be free to choose.

Abortion is upheld on the principle of freedom of choice. To deny women the freedom to abort is somehow to seen as putting the axe to freedom itself.

But is this really the stark choice: defense of the unborn child versus defense of freedom?

Abortion involves violence and death. No one denies this. Whether you call it a human being or a bit of “fetal tissue,” it was once alive and now it is dead. That’s the whole point of abortion. We all know this, even the most militant pro-choice activist. Our problem is not that death doesn’t bother us as much as a perceived loss of freedom, but that we are willing to accept a certain level of death for the sake of what we believe to be “freedom.” And because ours is not a culture of death, this acceptance is highly unnatural; it is creating a catastrophic social trauma, because we can’t really swallow it. We feel a dull ache that we cannot name, we exhibit all the symptoms of someone who has been forced to commit dreadful crimes. And the triumphant cry of freedom is ever louder as a way of masking the real uncertainty, the real shame.

So what does it mean to make a free choice? To make a decision between two options? And how do we come to make that decision?

By rationally weighing the pros and cons of each side, and deciding on that which does the least harm, which does the most good?

But is that really what is involved in free choices? Do we really make free choices in a vacuum, into which we insert our rationality? Do we make free choices in isolation? Is freedom something that emanates from ourselves alone?

The word “free” has an interesting etymology. It is an ancient word. Freedom has been valued by human beings since the dawn of speech. There are sister words to our English word “free” in every Indo-European language, including Sanskrit. But the strange thing is that as you advance back in time, “free” loses its sense of individual, isolated decisions and instead describes a pattern of relation­ship. To say someone was “free” was to say something about a relationship: that the person was not a slave, that the person was “freely” related to another, defended that other – indeed, “loved” that other. In the Middle Ages, a “free” person gave his military services to the feudal lord, but he gave them freely, not as payment, not as a serf or a slave. A free person acted out of love, not compulsion. Other words in our language group that make this clear: Free is a sister word of friend. In other Indo-European languages, there are links with words for love, beloved, making love, and wife. Freedom and love are inextric­ably combined in the very soul of our culture, not to say in the very nature of things.

So perhaps the question we should be asking is, in the free choice that is being made for or against abortion, what is the freedom relationship? Is there such a relationship at all? Or is this “free” choice in fact the choice of a slave, a choice made under compulsion?

For many women, choice is hardly involved in their decision to have an abortion. They feel compelled by demands or threats from boy­friends, husbands, parents, employers, or sometimes simply by nameless social pressures that threaten women with an uncertain, unsupported future. In the tragic climax of William Styron’s novel Sophie’s Choice (written only a few years after the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of abortion, and surely in response to that ruling), Sophie is forced to decide which of her children to have killed, and the Nazi officer who cynically grants her this “choice” is named von Niemand — the German word for “No One.”

If someone — anyone, a faceless sense of doom — convinces you that abortion is your only choice, is it really a “free” choice?

As Christians, our understanding of free choice is inextricably combined with love. We struggle to make God, and the universe in which he manifests himself, the aim of our love, which becomes the criterion on which all our choices are based. In our ascetic struggle as Orthodox Christians we practice making free choices every day. Even the simplest ascetic practices — regular fasting — help teach us to make free choices based not on our appetites, or on our fears, or on the manipulative wishes and threats of other people, or on our own amorphous future plans, or on any other consideration, but on our love of God. The deeper you enter into the ascetic life, the more you realize that the Christian understanding of free choice is quite different from the commonly understood notion.

Whereas the common notion of free choice suggests doing whatever you please for any reason, as long as you don’t hurt anybody or break the law, the Christian understanding of free choice implies always choosing out of love — even if it means crucifixion. In fact, we know that our salvation depends on these choices, on our willingness to “lose our lives” in order to save them. These are the true free choices.

So in this abortion debate, it seems to me that there are some things that need to be straightened out. It is not a debate between those who support life and those who support death. It is a debate in which life and freedom are in the balance, and a very dubious sort of freedom at that. For we do not live in a society of death, no matter how deep we seem to be wading in blood. We live in a society of fear, where we have put all our faith in what we think “freedom” can gain for us and are willing to swallow enormous amounts of unpleasantness, bad consciences and nightmarish images haunting our dreams and our future. Making choices at this cost is doing untold damage to both the unborn and to our whole society. ?

Nancy Forest is a writer, editor and translator. She founded Forest-Flier Editorial Services in 1988. She is a member of St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam.

Reprinted from the Winter 2000 issue of In Communion, the journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.

A Conversation in Novgorod: ‘Let us call brothers even those who hate us and forgive all by the Resurrection’

Novgorod kremlin

Talk given by Jim Forest at the Belgian Congress of Orthodox Youth at their meeting in Leuven, Belgium, in February 2005:

“Let us call brothers even those who hate us and forgive all by the Resurrection.”

These are words we hear each year in the context of the most important feast on the Church calendar: the celebration of Christ’s triumph over death.

Again and again we are called by Christ’s Gospel, and by similar texts in the Sacred liturgy, to do something that, from a human point of view, seems completely impossible: to recognize familial bonds with our enemies and, drawing on the power of the Resurrection, to forgive those who hate us.

In fact, until we meet people who give an example of translating these words into actual life, it’s hard to imagine such a thing is possible.

I have been fortunate in my life to meet many people who treated their enemies as brothers or sisters and, empowered by the Resurrection, forgave all.

To give one example, I think of Fr. Michael, a priest I met in the Russian city of Novgorod in 1987. At the time I was working on a book published a year later with the title, Pilgrim to the Russian Church. Fr. Michael was born in 1924 in Pskov. At age 20, in 1944, he was badly wounded on the White Russian Front. After the war, he studied at the Leningrad Theological Seminary. When I met him, he had been a priest nearly 40 years, most of them in Novgorod. He was rector of one of the few living Orthodox parishes in the region in those still-Communist days, the Church of Saints Nicholas and Philip. Fr. Michael was a man with a very Russian face: pale skin, high forehead, the bone behind his eyebrows very pronounced, slate-blue eyes, hair combed straight back, huge hands, all-in-all a man built like a bear. I liked him immediately. A man with a great passion for his faith, he radiated welcome and warmth.

First he took me to his church, part of which dates from the twelfth century. These were originally two adjacent churches, facing different streets, but like an old married couple, they had grown into each other, becoming one structure, painted white, with shingled onion domes, wide log porches with rough wood stairs leading up to them, and two icons set into the outer walls of the church, with vigil candles flickering before them. It was winter time. We trudged together through the snow toward the candle-lit icons.

Inside the church I was amazed to find an exceptionally beautiful iconostasis done in a sixteenth-century style but recent work by contemporary iconographers from the famous village of Palekh. It was the first sign I had, in those late days of the USSR, that the artists of Palekh were becoming iconographers once again after decades of having to paint images that were acceptable to the Communist Party.

In the smaller church there was a saint’s body, Nikita of Novgorod. His relics were a place of prayer and veneration for many pilgrims. Fr. Michael lifted the coffins’s glass lid so that I could venerate St. Nikita. I confess this is not something I would have suggested or wished for. It was a year before my chrismation in the Orthodox Church– I was not yet even in the kindergarten of Orthodoxy. I had the usual American aversion to touching the dead, but managed to overcome my hesitations and found myself kissing the thin silk cloth covering St. Nikita’s face — and in that same moment inhaling a fragrance that seemed to come from heaven. After that I could never again regard the phrase, “the odor of sanctity,” simply as a line of poetry.

Later in the day, entering Novgorod’s kremlin, we went to St. Sophia’s Cathedral, one of Russia’s most ancient churches. It was built when Saint Prince Vladimir was still reigning in Kiev and the Russian Church was in its infancy. Sadly, in 1987, nearly a thousand years later, it had become a museum. Even so Fr. Michael had convinced the museum’s caretakers to allow the playing of recordings of Orthodox liturgical music so that visitors might have a faint idea of what it was like to be in a living church.

Fr. Michael pointed out the cathedral’s massive bronze doors gave a witness to the undivided church that still existed when this building was put up. The doors were covered with relief images of biblical scenes done in a Romanesque style, with inscriptions on one side of each panel in Latin, on the other side in Slavonic.

It was intriguing to discover in the back of the church a massive stone cross of the Celtic rather than Russian or Latin types. Connecting the four beams of the cross was a circle. Were it not for the crucifix in the center being six pointed, Russian style, one would guess the cross had been brought to Novgorod from the Scotland’s western islands or the mainland of Ireland. It seemed to give evidence that Irish or Scottish monks had come came this far east — or perhaps Novgorodian traders had found their way to the Christianity’s most western outposts? Novgorod, Fr. Michael explained, had been a great trading city for centuries, with business links that stretched from Scandinavia to Constantinople.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Novgorod was one of the few major Russian towns spared from the Tartar invasions, but the city’s good fortune ended in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In 1456, and again in 1471, war broke out between Moscow and Novgorod. In both cases, Novgorod was defeated. Up to that time, Novgorod was a remarkably cosmopolitan principality run on democratic lines. Princes were elected and often deposed, and bishops too. A parliament — veche — was assembled for town meetings by the ringing of a great bell. When Ivan III, father of Ivan the Terrible, subdued Novgorod the second time, he had the Veche Bell, symbol of the city’s republican tradition, removed. However, the great bell tumbled off the cart not far from the city walls and shattered into many pieces. Local tradition is that each fragment grew into a small version of the mother bell. “Ivan could take the bell and crush Novgorod’s traditions,” explained Fr. Michael, “but he could not take from the people their longing to freely choose their rulers, and if necessary reject them.” Small brass bells are still the city’s main souvenir. Fr. Michael gave me a set of three.

In 1570 Ivan the Terrible, accompanied by an army, came to visit. It was an experience from which the city never fully recovered. Many leaders as well as common people of Novgorod were tortured to death or drowned in the river. To make clear who was in charge, Ivan ordered the construction of an ornate throne to be placed inside the Cathedral of St. Sophia. It remains there to this day.

Fr. Michael was a storehouse of local memory and legends. One of them explained a curious feature of the River Volkhov — the fact that it rarely if ever freezes, even when everything else is encased in ice. The hero of the tale was the legendary Sadko, merchant prince of Novgorod, whose ship sank in a lake to the south. Under water, Sadko entered a watery kingdom and here he met a mermaid princess who fell deeply in love with him and wanted to become his wife. But Sadko missed his wife in Novgorod and longed for her so much that the compassionate mermaid princess allowed him to return to life in the mortal world. However the princess was so saddened after Sadko’s departure that her warm tears made the lake overflow its borders and form the river that now divides the city of Novgorod. The river, they say, is still full of her tears, and these warm the river so much that it cannot freeze.

Certainly many tears have flowed in that river. In the last world war Novgorod was all but destroyed. Only three of the city’s numerous ancient churches were left relatively intact. Now many of them have since been painstakingly rebuilt, including the Church of the Transfiguration, whose frescoes were painted by Theophanes the Greek, the teacher of St. Andrei Rublev. The reconstruction of churches was still going on during my visit. One married couple had spent their entire working life reassembling the fragments of the frescoes of a church that was blown up as the German army withdrew. By 1987, the walls had been entirely rebuilt and most of the frescoes put back in place. I hope the couple has lived to see the completion their work and to witness the church serving once again as a place of worship.

We ate our evening meal by candlelight in a small chamber, at one time a guard’s room, high in Novgorod’s kremlin wall where a tower has been turned into a restaurant. The narrow windows gave as a good view birch trees illumined by the sunset.

Now at last we come to the reason I connect Fr. Michael with the words, “Let us call brothers even those who hate us and forgive all by the Resurrection.”

After a day of intense conversation, we had reached a point of real trust and began to discuss the major changes then occurring in Russia — publication of books and release of films that had in the past been strictly forbidden, the creation of a social climate in which Russians could talk to foreigners without fear, and — most important of all — the end of state repression of the Church. All over Russia churches were being repaired and reopened, monasteries were coming back to life, more and more students were applying to study in the seminaries. There were even first-rate programs about the Church on state television. Thousands of people who had called themselves atheists were coming into the Church.

I asked is Fr. Michael if he was not amazed by all these changes, but especially those that had to do with the Church.

“No,” he answered, “not at all. Every believer has been praying for this every day. I always knew our prayer would someday be answered, only I am astonished that it is happening in my lifetime. I didn’t dare to believe it would happen so soon.”

Then I asked if he didn’t want to see punished in some way all those people who had caused such suffering to so many people, sent so many to the Gulag, even tortured and killed so many faithful people. “Punishment is God’s business,” Fr. Michael responded, “not ours. If God wants to punish, He will punish. But we are told to forgive, not to punish. This is what the Gospel orders us to do. What we always hoped and are still hoping is for the conversion of those who hated us, not their punishment. And now we see many conversions happening. It is a miracle.” He made the sign of the Cross.

Fr. Michael recalled writings of a second century theologian: “According the Church Father Tertullian, every soul is, of its original nature, Christian. This means that if you dig deeply enough, you will always find something of the image of God in each person. It’s always there. You see it where you never think you will find it. Look at Gorbachev, the head of the Communist Party! They say that his mother is a believer, and you know that babushkas have influence! The image of God is present in every person. I have seen this myself all my life. You find it in people who are certain that they are unbelievers, certain there is no God…. The longing for Christ’s peace is something deep in each person’s soul. It is natural for the soul to want to live in peace, to do things for peace. In our church, all my life, I have always heard it taught that we must love everyone — believers, non-believers, Russian people, people from other countries. We are told to love people no matter what. Everyone is in your family. So it is natural for a Christian to think about how to live in peace with those around him.”

I thought of the countless people who had been shot or were taken to labor camps where they froze to death or died of disease or exhaustion. I had visited places of mass execution. I said to Father Mikhail, “But surely you must hate those who caused so much suffering and who killed so many people.” Father Mikhail gave me an answer that I did not expect. “Christ doesn’t hate them,” he said. “Why should I? How will they find the way to belief unless we love them? And if I refuse to love them, I too am not a believer.”

In those days I had not yet encountered the words, “Let us call brothers even those who hate us and forgive all by the Resurrection,” at least not in a language I could understand, but I met them in Fr. Michael. For Fr. Michael, there was no one who is not a brother or sister. No matter how much a person seemed to hate the Church and to oppress its members, in his eyes that person was a potential convert. Forgiveness of enemies was an essential aspect of their longed-for and prayed-for conversion.

It was in meeting people like Fr. Michael — I found there were many others like him — that I realized it is possible for ordinary people to love their enemies, to regard them as brothers, to forgive them, and to play a role in helping them find their way to Christ.

If we were to remove from the Gospel all that Christ says about forgiveness, and all his actions of forgiveness, there would be not much Gospel left. Again and again we are called by Christ’s Gospel to do something that, from a fallen human point of view, seems completely impossible: to recognize our bonds with our enemies and, drawing on the power of the Resurrection, to forgive them.

Consider the word “brother.” This is a word normally associated with deeply positive, loving feelings. It is a word with emotional currents flowing through it, which in the end make the word problematic to use when we think about enemies. Part of our problem about recognizing the other as brother lies in the emotions. We think of love and brotherhood in emotional terms. As the Church Fathers remind us so often, the emotions are like quicksand. Love that depends on the emotions will fail in hard times, not only in relations with enemies but even in relations with friends, and even in family life.

If we think about the human race biblically, we are all in fact brothers and sisters. Each of us is a descendent of Adam and Eve. It is impossible not to be related as each and every family tree has the same parents at the source.

If we think of it scientifically, we find the same thing. All superficial differences are of little account when weighed against the bonds that unites us. DNA itself bears witness to the unity of the human race. The blood of a Moslem from Arabia can save the life of a Christian from Alaska. The marriage of a Belgian to a Pacific islander can produce healthy children. Our regional genetic distinctions are extremely minor.

The reality is that we are brothers even if we are as divided from each other as Cain was from his brother Abel. It is because we are brothers and sisters that Christ taught us to say the words “Our Father.”

In fact, as the story of Cain and Abel makes clear, all conflicts are between brothers. There is no other kind of warfare than fratricidal warfare.

Think about the word “love,” another word flooded with emotional content. But, understood biblically, love is not a matter of fleeting emotions but of unshakeable commitment to the life and well-being of the other, whether you like him or not. It can happen that this commitment is made easier by emotions, but it can just as easily happen that the emotions are an obstacle to love. The love that Christ speaks of and bears witness to is, he says, like sunlight falling equally on the just and on the unjust — or like rain falling equally on good grain and weeds. These are not just pleasant metaphors. Time and again we see in the Gospel Christ’s readiness to receive and care for anyone who opens the door even in the smallest way: an officer of Rome’s occupying army, tax collectors, prostitutes, people with contagious diseases, people possessed by demons, women no less than men, a temple guard who is one of those arresting him in the Garden of Gethsemani, etc.

In the same short text we have been considering, we are called on to “forgive all by the Resurrection.”

Consider forgiveness. Like so many things of ultimate importance, forgiveness is beyond our capacity to understand or explain, yet we know it is one of the principle themes of the Gospel. Forgiveness is what Christ offers again and again to people seeking his mercy. In what may be the most surprising prayer in the New Testament, Christ appeals while on the Cross for his Father to forgive those responsible for his crucifixion.

Forgiveness is an act of freeing the other from debt or from punishment. We offer forgiveness to others and seek it for ourselves. It is what each of us is hoping for whenever we confess our sins in the week-by-week struggle to clear away any obstacles between ourselves and the chalice. Forgiveness doesn’t mean we forget what we have done or what others have done, but it’s the letting go of obligations associated with those events. If I forgive you the debt you owe me, what was a loan is converted into a gift. In people like Fr. Michael, one witnesses a more difficult forgiveness: not simply the excusing of a debt, but pardoning people who crucified believers, destroyed churches, and were missionaries of atheism, poisoning many people’s souls.

We see forgiveness at work in countless stories that come down to us from the saints. For example there was the desert abbot whose only valuable treasure was stolen: his Gospel book. In those days, long before printing presses, such a book was worth a fortune. The thief takes the stolen Gospel to Alexandria and offers it for sale. The merchant asks if he might have a few days to decide what price to offer for so rare an object. The thief agrees. The merchant than goes out to the desert to see the abbot, carrying the Gospel book with him. The abbot looks at it, never mentioning it is in fact his own property, and suggests a price — a certain number of gold coins. The merchant goes back to Alexandria, meets the thief and offers the suggested payment. It is more than the thief expects. “How did you decide on such a price?” he asks the merchant. “I took the book to abbot so-and-so and he told me what it was worth.” The thief is struck in the heart by these words. He apologizes to the merchant for all the troubles he had caused but says he can no longer sell the Gospel. The thief then rushed back to the abbot he had robbed, returns the precious book, begs forgiveness, and asks to join the brotherhood. In fact the abbot had forgiven the thief even before forgiveness was sought. He happily welcomes the repentant thief into the community.

On the other hand, the refusal to forgive poisons one’s own heart. As St John Chrysostom taught:

“Just as with maniacs, who never enjoy tranquility, so also he who is resentful and retains an enemy will never have the enjoyment of any peace; incessantly raging and daily increasing the tempest of his thoughts calling to mind his words and acts, and detesting the very name of him who has aggrieved him. Do you but mention his enemy, he becomes furious at once, and sustains much inward anguish; and should he chance to get only a bare sight of him, he fears and trembles, as if encountering the worst evils, Indeed, if he perceives any of his relations, if but his garment, or his dwelling, or street, he is tormented by the sight of them. For as in the case of those who are beloved, their faces, their garments, their sandals, their houses, or streets, excite us, the instant we behold them; so also should we observe a servant, or friend, or house, or street, or any thing else belonging to those We hate and hold our enemies, we are stung by all these things; and the strokes we endure from the sight of each one of them are frequent and continual. What is the need then of sustaining such a siege, such torment and such punishment? For if hell did not threaten the resentful, yet for the very torment resulting from the thing itself we ought to forgive the offences of those who have aggrieved us. But when deathless punishments remain behind, what can be more senseless than the man, who both here and there brings punishment upon himself, while he thinks to be revenged upon his enemy!” (Homily 20)

St Gregory the Great addresses us with a similar urgency in these words:

“When our hearts are reluctant we often have to compel ourselves to pray for our enemies, to pour out prayer for those who are against us. Would that our hearts were filled with love! How frequently we offer a prayer for our enemies, but do it because we are commanded to, not out of love for them. We ask the gift of life for them even while we are afraid that our prayer may be heard. The judge of our soul considers our hearts rather than our words. Those who do not pray for their enemies out of love are not asking anything for their benefit.

“Jesus, our advocate, has composed a prayer for our case. And our advocate is also our judge. He has inserted a condition in the prayer that reads: Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Sometimes we say these words without carrying them out. Thus our words bind us more tightly.

“What are we to do then, my friends? We must bestow our love on our brothers and sisters. We must not allow any malice at all to remain in our hearts. May almighty God have regard for our love of our neighbor, so that He may pardon our iniquities! Remember what He taught us: Forgive, and you will be forgiven. People are in debt to us, and us to them. Let us forgive them their debts, so that what we owe may be forgiven.” (Homily, “Be Friends of God”)

One could spend the whole weekend simply reading aloud passages about forgiveness from the Bible, the Liturgy and the Fathers of the Church.

What is it finally that gives us the strength, the freedom, the love to forgive? Surely it is Christ himself, risen from the dead.

It is these last few words that are the axis of the text we’ve been looking at: “… and forgive all by the power of the Resurrection.”

One has to be slightly demented to imagine saying anything new about Pascha to an Orthodox Christian. We know from experience that this is not simply the great feast of all feasts but the axis on which the Church calendar turns and the revelation of the greatest of all mysteries: that the grave does not have the last word. In a famous poem, Dylan Thomas said that we ought not to go silently “into that good night” but rather should “rage, rage against the falling of the light.” But Pascha reveals to us the truth is that the “good night” of death leads not to non-being, as Dylan Thomas seems to fear, but into Christ’s presence and, with him, a transfigured life more radiant than anything we can imagine.

Here is how the great Irish saint, the abbess Bridget, speaks of what awaits us. A text that seems especially apt in a conference in Belgian, home of the world’s best beer:

“I should like a great lake of beer for the King of Kings. I should like the angels of Heaven to be drinking it through time eternal. I should like excellent meats of belief and pure piety. I should like threshers of penance at my house. I should like the men of Heaven at my house; I should like barrels of peace at their disposal. I should like vessels of charity for distribution. I should like for them cellars of mercy. I should like cheerfulness to be in their drinking. I should like Jesus to be there among them. I should like the three Marys of illustrious renown to be with us. I should like the people of Heaven, the poor, to be gathered around us from all parts.”

The first Orthodox Pascha I participated in was in Kiev in 1986. I think it was only that night that I fully realized that Christ’s resurrection was a fact, and even more than a fact. Facts you can find in history books and newspapers. Here was an encounter with something far truer and more basic than the table of elements or the rules of geometry.

The next day, Bright Monday, I attended Vespers and heard a remarkable Paschal sermon that, with my translator’s help, I managed to write down.

“Today we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and we rejoice in it. And we see in it not only his resurrection but our resurrection. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the same as our resurrection. We believe that. We believe that in Christ each one of us will stand up.

“Many people do not believe in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ or in the Resurrection of anyone. I don’t want to give them proof or argue with them. The main thing about their conviction, the thing their unbelief is founded on, is that it’s impossible for a dead person to come back to life. How can it happen? How can something that is just dust and bones live again? And what about bodies that are now only ashes? Or were cut into many pieces? Or were eaten by beasts or fish? How can such people’s bodies be made whole and come back to life? Our brain can’t overcome this dilemma. How is it possible?
“But then we can ask another question: What about everything that exists? All this beauty? There are so many things we don’t understand and can’t explain. Most things we can’t explain. What do you think? Isn’t this huge miracle we live in as big a miracle as the resurrection? Do you think creation is easier than resurrection? If God is strong enough to create everything from nothing, to create the whole world and the whole universe, do you think it is difficult to resurrect what he has already created?

“So don’t be discouraged by anyone who says it’s impossible. God has the power to create everything.

“So, brothers and sisters, we believe in eternal life. But it isn’t an easy belief. It is a belief that gives us responsibilities. We have to realize that each person, whether or not he wants God, must answer to God for his life — what he did, what didn’t do. He must stand judgment.

“It is a weakness not to believe in eternal life. Even if you don’t believe, it is no justification when you stand before God with sins and horrible deeds. Don’t imagine that you will be unjudgeable.

“Our people have lived by great ideals. The big ideal that has been living in our people for a thousand years is to live in God’s truth. Not human truth. God’s truth. Our ancestors mostly wanted to live according to God’s truth. They suffered greatly. Many terrible things happened. There were dreadful persons. But somehow, no matter what sorrows there were, they were still trying to live according to God’s truth.

“We need this too. God’s truth has to lead us. We have to have a spiritual life even if we are surrounded by an unspiritual life. We need to have Christian families even if we are surrounded by families that are breaking down. We need to work hard and sincerely, not for praise or money, but for the heart and soul of our neighbors. We have to work for our people.

“Let us not think about bread for ourselves. Bread is something we need, yes, but the person who thinks about bread for himself has lost the spiritual dimension of life. But if he thinks of bread for his neighbors, then he is leading a spiritual life — a life of love, a life of caring for others. This is the spiritual life.

“The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is not only a joy for us, it is a great responsibility and a great task. It leads us to prepare for the Last Judgment. Let the Resurrection fill our hearts with belief in eternal life so that truth can take root in our hearts. Let us not only think about it in our minds but feel it in our hearts.”

* * *

Remembering My Brother: Richard Forest

Dick on the railway 6 Oct 2011
Dick riding the rails — photo by Beth Forest (click on photo to enlarge)

(for a memorial service to be held 26 October 2013)

By Jim Forest

Remembering my brother, I recall a little boy, half-a-head shorter than I was, almost hidden in a cloud of steam while a train pulls into the southbound track of the Red Bank train station just as the sun is setting. It’s sometime in the late 1940s. Dick is gazing up in silent awe at the huge steam engine and the two powerful men who share its cab. Our ears are still echoing with the wailing hoots of the steam whistle that seconds ago announced the train’s impending arrival. Now there’s the shrill noise of the brakes as the tall steel wheels pull the commuter-loaded train to a shuddering halt. No kid at any circus — no saint in the midst of a mystical experience — could be more enthralled than my brother. I’m fascinated too, but my attention is partly held by my steam-wrapped brother who, in his state of pure amazement, is just as astonishing as the train.

At that period of our young lives welcoming the train is a ritual. Dick is probably seven, which makes me eight. Monday through Friday, with our Aunt Douglas, we meet the train that brings our Uncle Bob back from his bank job in Jersey City.

Red Bank Station - JF drawing
Red Bank Station (drawing: Jim Forest, 1966)

My guess is that Dick’s linkage with trains goes back to when he was four and the three of us traveled via the rails from our former home in Denver to Jersey City where we were met by Aunt Douglas and Uncle Bob. It was our move to Mother’s hometown, Red Bank, following her divorce. In fact we must have had some sleep, but I have the impression Dick and I were awake every inch of the way, our noses pressed to the window glass making islands of condensation while watching the ever-changing view: farms, houses, horses, cows, trees, rivers, fields of corn and wheat, gullies, huge clouds, lightning storms, cloudless skies, train stations, blurred villages, fast-passing towns, snap-shot glimpses of people in their homes, all the while the train rushing relentlessly forward, the steel wheels beating a sweet jazzy music out of the tracks. Even long after sunset, it was a constant visual adventure, better than any movie. Is there a finer way to see the world than from a train?

Dick’s marriage to trains took root in childhood and lasted until he breathed his last, seventy years of age. While Dick was allergic to religion, perhaps he wouldn’t object to me saying that he was a devout member of the Church of the Sacred Stream Engine.

Richard Forest - drawing by Jim Forest
Richard Forest in train yard tower (drawing made in 1966 by Jim Forest)

Eventually be became a lawyer and was, by all accounts, an excellent one, but I think the job he had enjoyed most was the one he had before he passed his bar exam — the years when he worked for the railroad running switching towers. When we were both young men, I made a drawing of him in command in one of them. It was an October day in 1966. The tower windows gave a sweeping view of the train yard. Close at hand were the long levers that were used to slide the tracks below us into the right positions as engines and freight cars moved back and forth. It was a demanding job that required being wide awake every minute and which allowed no errors. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man happier in his work.

I never had the chance to see him in court but I have no doubt he was equally at home in that environment. God knows he loved talking about it. As did everyone who knew him, I heard no end of stories from him about many of the cross-examinations he conducted of witnesses who weren’t inclined to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Reviewing the e-mail Dick and I exchanged over the last quarter century, I found one courtroom story of the sort my brother relished. It comes from a U.S. District Court in Texas. Let me share with you the extract from the transcript he forwarded to me:

Lawyer: So, Doctor, you determined that a gunshot wound was the cause of death of the patient?

Doctor: That’s correct.

Lawyer: Did you examine the patient when he came to the emergency room?

Doctor: No, I performed the autopsy.

Lawyer: Okay, were you aware of his vital signs while he was at the hospital?

Doctor: He came into the emergency room in shock and died in the emergency room a short time after arriving.

Lawyer: Did you pronounce him dead at that time?

Doctor: No, I am the pathologist who performed the autopsy. I was not involved with the patient initially.

Lawyer: Well, are you even sure, then, that he died in the emergency room?

Doctor: That is what the records indicate.

Lawyer: But if you weren’t there, how could you have pronounced him dead, having not seen or physically examined the patient at that time?

Doctor: The autopsy showed massive hemorrhage into the chest, and that was the cause of death.

Lawyer: I understand that, but you were not actually present to examine the patient and pronounce him dead, isn’t that right?

Doctor: No, sir, I did not see the patient or actually pronounce him dead, but I did perform an autopsy and right now his brain is in a jar over at the county morgue. As for the rest of the patient, for all I know, he could be out practicing law somewhere.

I only wish I had recorded some of my brother’s accounts of his own courtroom exchanges. Many of them were every bit as funny.

Because I’ve lived in Holland the last 37 years, I saw less of Dick than I would have liked, on average just two of three times a year, but one of the treats for me, when back in the U.S., was asking him about recent courtroom events. It was like turning on a radio and listening to a comedy show with my brother doing all the voices. He was a down-to-earth, no-frills New Jersey boy who could have been part of the cast of “The Sopranos.”

He loved certain movies and television shows. He seemed to have memorized the scripts for both. I think his most beloved TV show was the Archie Bunker comedy, “All In The Family.” Even when he was laid low in the hospital, suffering considerable pain and feeling like a prisoner, there were times when he could recite substantial chunks of scripts, and also had a large collection of brief exchanges and one-liners. One of these was Archie Bunker saying, “You’d better start mixing toothpaste with your shampoo. You’re getting a cavity in your brain.” Also from Archie Bunker, “Whatever happened to the good old days when kids was scared to death of their parents?” His favorites films included “The Godfather” and “Doctor Strangelove.” Possibly his favorite line from “Doctor Strangelove” came from President Merkin Muffley as played by Peter Sellers: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room.”

In contrast to our parents, both of whom were passionate social activists, I wouldn’t call my brother a cause-oriented person, though he was sometimes enlisted by our mother to do pro bono work in her battles with local politicians. He hated war and was dead set against capital punishment. One of my treasured memories of Dick is his declining to shake the hand of a certain governor who had authorized a number of executions and who was standing in front of Dick with his hand extended and a smile on his face. My brother said, “Sorry, Governor, but I don’t shake hands that have blood on them.” I’m sure the governor, if he is still alive, thinks about that brief encounter from time to time.

As I mentioned, Dick hated war. He managed to avoid participation in the Vietnam War and spoke out against it with his usual vigor. Yet he loved guns and had a collection of rifles. For much of his adult life, he was a devoted member of the National Rifle Association. For years one of his hobbies was to bait me into ranting against the NRA. Much to his amusement, I always fell for the bait like a bull chasing a red flag. One year I begged him, for the sake of my blood pressure, not to mention the NRA any more. To my astonishment that was the end of our semi-annual argument about guns.

Like so many of us, Dick had a hard time finding the ideal marital partner. At last he met Adele and married her in the spring of 1997. This not only made him a happy man but also greatly lengthened his life. It was Adele who managed to help him lose weight, a thankless job as my brother, when in the presence of food and soft drinks, was a man without brakes who wasn’t notably appreciative of anyone else applying the brakes on his behalf, even though, after his first heart attack, he knew that major weight loss was an absolute necessity. It wasn’t easy, but Adele was persistent. And it worked. My guess is that Adele added a decade to his life.

Let me close by recalling one of my favorite memories of my brother. Nancy and I live on a narrow lane in one of the oldest parts of a small Dutch city named Alkmaar. Not only is there no traffic but not that many people walk by, probably under a fifty a day. As home is our principal work place — I’m a writer, Nancy is a translator — we’re there most of the time. When someone passes by we often notice. During our coffee break one morning 25 years ago we happened to see two people passing by. I said to Nancy, “They look just like Dick and Beth.” She agreed. Neither of the two stopped at our front door, but not long afterward there was a knock. I opened the door and there stood Dick and Beth! It turned out that Dick had made a last-minute decision to ride some trains in Europe and invited Beth to join him. “Sorry to come unannounced,” Dick said. “It was all last-minute. And it’s in secret. You must not tell Mother. She doesn’t know I’m here”

I never did find out why Mother was not to know. Both of us were a great many years past the age when one sought parental permission for any undertaking. It’s one of the family mysteries that will go unanswered.

* * *
text as of 14 October 2013
* * *

Marked for Life: an interview with Hildegard Goss-Mayr

Hildegard Goss-Mayr (Graz)
Hildegard Goss-Mayr

[published in the November 1988 issue of Reconciliation International, journal of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation]

During the past four decades, Hildegard and Jean Goss-Mayr have served the International Fellowship of Reconciliation as Travelling Secretaries, Vice Presidents and now, since the meeting of the IFOR Council in Assisi earlier this year, as Honorary Presidents. Several times they have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by others who have been awarded that honor.

In the nomination statement of Mairead Corrigan Maguire, leader of the Peace People movement in Northern Ireland, she writes: “Peace work has been a team effort for this French/Austrian couple since their marriage in 1958. The Goss-Mayrs are well known and admired for their courage, persistence and vision as they initiate and participate in nonviolence work. They have given nonviolence seminars in Eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America and more recently in the Philippines and Bangladesh. Their lives and personal commitment to nonviolence are an inspiring example and a light of hope in a world where violence and militarism continue to sap the energy and hope of many. With their own lives, dedicated as they are to active nonviolence, they are planting the seeds which will someday create the disarmed, reconciled world so yearned for by millions in our world today.”

In 1986 I interviewed Hildegard in Alkmaar. The section that follows concerns crucial early experiences that contributed to the formation of her values. She is, in her own words, a person “marked for life,” both by the senseless destruction of war and by her father’s deeply-held pacifist convictions. (There is a book-length conversation with Hildegard and Jean conducted by Gerard Houver, Nonviolence: c’est la vie. It has been published in France, Italy, Austria and Brazil. In December, an English translation will be available in Britain from Marshalls.

—Jim Forest

Please tell me about your parents.

My father, Kasper Mayr, was born in 1892 in a village near Salzburg on the German side of the Austrian border. His father was a peasant farmer. When my father was ten, he left the farm to begin studies. At that time if you came from a village and you wanted to study, it was either to become a medical doctor or a priest—for my father the latter. After secondary school he began theological studies. When the First World War broke out, he was drafted. Eventually he was sent to the front near Verdun where hundreds of thousands died in the trenches. He was taken prisoner by the French and didn’t return home until 1919. The experience, first in the trenches, then in prison, was a tremendous shock. It led him to realize that war was unacceptable for a Christian. While in prison he met Father Max Josef Metzger, one of the first Christian ecumenists on the Catholic side.

After his release, my father went to Graz, southeast Austria, to join Father Metzger’s Community of the White Cross. This community tried to live in the example of St. Francis. It was something truly remarkable at that time, a nonviolent community of priests and lay people, some of them married. It was here that my father decided to marry and to devote his life to peace work. He met my mother and they married in 1923. They remained part of the community. My brother Richard was born there in 1924. Then they moved to Switzerland. It was here that my father first heard about the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Father wrote to the international office in London. From this contact he was appointed IFOR General Secretary.

Our family was in London from 1925 to ’28. At that time there were few Catholics in IFOR, but from the beginning it was ecumenical. At the time this was revolutionary. There were many new Christian groups that sprang up after the war, but I think IFOR was the only one that had both an ecumenical basis and a commitment to the way of nonviolence. In IFOR there was the conviction that, whatever differences exist among us, we have a common basis in Jesus Christ and we can and must work together. This perspective attracted my father. What also attracted him was that people in IFOR combined theological reflection with the practice of their faith—living out the faith in situations of friction and violence. In this IFOR was unique.

How had IFOR come to London?

A few British people had gone through a radical change and were willing to make it possible for this young movement to have a start. Lillian Stevenson was one of these. She became a close friend of our family. Another leading figure in IFOR was Muriel Lester. She had been well off but had put everything at the disposal of this new movement.

What were IFOR’s priorities in those first years?

Even then one of them was East-West relations. At that time there was the strike between Germany and Poland. With the IFOR movement it was realized that unless these two countries were reconciled, the conflict could start a new war. It was because of this that in 1928, two years before I was born, IFOR moved its headquarters to Vienna where it could more easily direct its work towards the other eastern European countries. There was a leadership team. My father and Donald Grant were among them. My father’s main task was to work for German-Polish reconciliation. He took many trips building up contacts in both countries. The discussions he helped arrange were both theological and political—in the latter case, for example, about practical matters such as access to the Baltic Sea. IFOR had proposals for the shared use of the harbor at Gdansk which we felt would greatly reduce tension in the region. My father established contact with Cardinal Pacelli, then the Papal Nuncio in Berlin, later Pope Pius XII. Father hoped to open him to the necessity of working actively for friendship between Germany and Poland. Pacelli was not unresponsive. He was a person who tried to understand. But we still don’t know what result my father’s contact with Pacelli may have had.

What of IFOR’s work in Poland?

There were several conferences in Poland between 1929 and 1933. But the Depression had grave consequences for IFOR. In 1934 it was necessary to close the Vienna office. In 1933 Hitler came to power in Germany. That same year my father was stopped in Germany and his documents were taken away. He was on the “subversive” list—people that the Nazis did not like. The kind of work IFOR was doing in Poland was unacceptable. The Nazis insisted on viewing the Poles, and any people of “Slavic races,” as inferior, people to be annihilated.

Where did IFOR go after Vienna?

A small office in Paris with Henri Rosser as General Secretary. My father stayed in Austria working with the Catholic Action Movement. He was also a journalist with a religious-cultural periodical. It was an unstable time in Austria. The monarchy ended in 1919. The empire was gone and Austria was just a small country with a big capital. With the world economic crisis it became impossible. There was radicalization among the workers, many of whom were unemployed. At the same time the Christian Democrats came increasingly under fascist influence. The Nazis were actively infiltrating the government. In 1934 the Austrian Chancellor was assassinated. In 1938, there was a national election and Austria merged into the German Third Reich.

How well do you remember these events?

One of my first memories was the day of the assassination. I was standing under the veranda. Airplanes were flying overhead. There was an atmosphere of fear. I was four years old.

What was it like growing up in your family?

Because of my father, we always knew a great deal about politics. I can remember that we children made games out of political events, even the assassination of the Chancellor! And we played the Japanese-Chinese war! These were events being discussed in our home.

After the Austrian union with Germany, did your family have difficulties?

We were among those who were persecuted. Many friends died in concentration camps. It is astonishing that father wasn’t one of these. I vividly remember him saying to us, after the war started and all that terrible killing was going on, “We have the responsibility to strengthen those who are in the resistance against Hitler. We have to live the biblical shalom. We live that shalom with the people of God, which is to say, we live it with those who resist. We must try to strengthen and help each other.” He was giving us a theological formation.

There were always people in our house. My father was a stronghold for them, affirming everyone who stood against Hitler. But he insisted that resistance was not enough. He said that in a situation where everything is going to pieces, where so many are being killed, we have to give witness that God is the Father of us all. We must not only care for those who think as we do, but we must give witness to those who do not think as we do. How will the Nazis ever change if we do not give them a witness of truth and of respect? We must not respond with hatred to their hatred.

He showed us the oneness of all humanity. This oneness, he taught us, is God’s vision of us, but it cannot come into existence unless we live it. It was very difficult for us to live this, but this was the task he gave us—not to hate our colleagues or fellow students who were fascist, but to try to give a witness to them. Really, he asked us to love our enemy. We did not call it this at the time, but now I am very aware of this seed that he planted in our hearts. Our answer must never be hatred—it must be to challenge the adversary to become a new person.

We had to struggle hard with this because there was a great deal of bitterness within us. I remember we once did a solemn burning of a doll dressed in an SS uniform. We were careful that my father didn’t see it. It was natural for us to feel as we did; revenge is in the nature of every human being. But we knew my father’s conviction, with St. Paul, that the whole universe is awaiting salvation, that all human beings are included in the liberating act of Jesus, and that we must live this out ourselves. This really marked me. I had to grow, to undergo many ups and downs, but I was never able to give it up.

Did you ever see Hitler?

He came to Vienna when I was 12. All the students of the city were brought to one of the main roads to welcome him. I was one of those in that big crowd. The convoy of cars appeared and there was Hitler standing in one of them. Everyone around me was lifting their hands and shouting, “Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler!” It was the first time that I felt that there really is a strength of evil, something that is stronger than any individual being. I experienced the fascination that came from Hitler, that manipulation of masses of people. Evil can have a tremendous attraction. I knew I was not allowed to lift my hand or to join in the shouting. I thought, “Even if they kill me, I am not going to lift up my hand.” It was extremely hard. It was a personal decision at that moment to stand against it. It was an important moment of struggle within myself, a struggle with violence, and a struggle with justice and truth and love.

It was a struggle that, in a way, wounded me. Not only that day but in the years that followed, this struggle continued with great intensity. When I was 17, I felt that I could not go on living if men behaved so terribly toward each other. It touched even my willingness to live. It marked my soul. From 17 until I was 19, I really had to struggle, to make a choice to go on living, to find the will to live. But then I could build on the little seed that my father had planted, his belief in the power of love, that God has given us the vision of the unity of life. But throughout my life I have been very sensitive to the force of evil and have had to struggle with despair. My temptation has been to despair.

What happened when the Russians took Vienna?

I left Vienna in September 1944. All the schools were evacuated. I went to my uncle’s farm, near a concentration prisoners. They came out to work and I saw them. I gave them news I had heard from the BBC.

When the Russians took over, my father and mother, along with one of my sisters and some friends who had sought refuge in our home, were still in Vienna. In April, 1945, there was a ten-day siege—German soldiers in the city, Russians around it, shooting from the other side of the Danube. Then the Russians moved in, taking one section after another, house by house. Our house is on the edge of the city. People in the city expected the worst. Here was a victorious army that would take revenge, that would rape its way to the center of the city. When the Russians approached and pounded on the door with their guns, father opened it and stood before them in a way they could not have expected. He pushed aside their rifles and gestured that they should come in. It was a gesture of hospitality. Of course a soldier’s attitude at such a moment is one of suspicion. He has seen six years of war and wants to survive. He is ready to shoot before he is shot. But they saw in my father’s gesture that perhaps their fear was not necessary. They looked in the house to see if it was a trap. They found it wasn’t. My father could see that they were relieved. They took off their rifles. And then my father called the others up from the basement. He was able to create an atmosphere of welcome, of trust, of love, of belonging. The soldiers could see how thin and hungry we were—the city had been cut off for quite some time. The soldiers shared their own food with our family and guests.

How different from what people usually do when they think they are in danger!

People often tell me that when you are attacked, you have to defend yourself. I agree, but then I point out that there are different ways to do that. I tell the story about what my father did. Without violence, without hatred, my father was able to protect everyone in the house. If he had used a weapon, the women in the house might have been raped and everyone killed. If my father had been armed, the Russian soldiers would have been affirmed in their fears. Instead, out of his inner strength and calm, he was able to affirm their humanity and to take them out of the terrible way of war. Nobody is an angel, and often war brings out the worst in people. My father’s approach made it more likely to bring out the best—but of course you can never know beforehand what will happen. Those soldiers might have acted violently no matter what my father did. Still, when you believe in the strength of truth and love, you must respond in this way no matter what the danger is. You have to prefer to be killed yourself rather than to kill another.

Another part of that story had to do with my brother, Richard, and the Russian icon that was on our wall. From the time Richard was six or seven, he had a great love of Russian culture and started to learn Russian when he was eight. He wanted to work for a closer unity between Christians of East and West. He was drafted and sent to the front in Russia. For Richard this was deadly. How could he fight against the Russians, whom he loved and whose language he knew? So he decided to desert. It was in 1943. The Battle of Stalingrad was over. The German retreat was underway. We don’t know how he was killed, whether he was shot for his desertion or if he was killed by partisans. He was 19 when he died. Before his death he managed to save a small icon of Mary and Jesus from a burning Russian house. It was sent to our home, and we hung it on the wall. When the Russian soldiers left that day, one of them stayed behind and prayed before the icon, bowing and crossing himself.

Your brother’s interests continue in you.

We were very close. I remember he used to say, “I will go and work for unity, and you will help me!” Later on, I was able to work for unity.

What came next for you?

I was still at the farm in Germany where we saw the last part of the German army break down. We lived between Salzburg and Munich where troops were passing in their retreat. It was the region of the last fighting. I remember American tanks on one side of us and German troops on the other. The German troops came out with the white flag, but the Americans thought it was a trick. They looked at everything with suspicion. I remember there was a boy on a neighboring farm who had been discharged from the army because of an injury but the Americans suspected him. They took him, and me because I was the only one who spoke English and so I became their translator. I was 14 or 15. An American officer accused him of having hidden weapons and he said, “Unless you give the weapons to us, I will shoot you.” I had to translate this to him! It was a long interrogation. Finally we were taken to a wood. They said that this was where they would shoot him, but in the end they released him. I succeeded in explaining to the officer the story of the boy. I remember that there was also an enlisted man, a Negro who was the officer’s driver. He must have noticed how upset I was, my fear about what was going to happen. The next day he came to our farm and gave me two bottles of wine!

Did you return to Vienna immediately after the American occupation began?

No. The Austrian frontier was reestablished so I had to wait from May until October until a transport of repatriated Austrian children was allowed. Finally I got home, went back to school, graduated high school in 1948, and went to the university. That is the part of your life when the child’s face is replaced by the adult face, and you have to undergo some real challenges. Together with many other young people, I was questioning the very sense of my life—because of all the destructive things I had witnessed. We had lived with death and a sense of complete powerlessness, just waiting for the bomb to fall which will kill you. This life-and-death struggle with the most fundamental questions is something that marks you for the rest of your life. It pointed me in the direction of active nonviolence and the work we have been doing within the International Fellowship of Reconciliation.

* * *

The Gospel According to John Wayne

[a work in progress — text as of August 2013]John Wayne

by Jim Forest

One of the unique aspects of being human is the role stories play in our lives and have played as far back as the human story is told. Stories inspire, enlighten, connect, delight, warn, admonish and surprise. We need them with an urgency that resembles hunger. Stories can save lives or turn us into killers.

In 1955, when I was thirteen, I went to the Museum of Modern Art in New York to see a photo exhibition that has haunted me ever since. Its theme was “The Family of Man.” The curator, Edward Steichen, brought together a vast sequence of photos that not only asserted but demonstrated that, for all the diversity of culture, skin color, local economy and development, varieties of religion and differences of clothing, we are indeed one human family bound together in love, pain, labor, awe, anger, gratitude and death. I bought the exhibition book and have hung onto it through many moves, returning to it ever since as if it were a Bible without words. Taken as a whole, the collection has as its golden thread the radical us-ness of being. It helped me understand that beneath our separateness is our unity. It’s about the “our” in the Our Father.

story teller - Nat Farbman (small)Among the images that I especially love is one of an old African storyteller in a fire-illuminated hut. We see him at the top of a circle of young people, boys and girls, listening to the old man with absolute attention and wonder. The storyteller’s eyes are wide open, his mouth a perfect O, his eyebrows arched high into his forehead, his hands raised above his head, all ten fingers outstretched. If he were telling the story of Jesus’s life, this might be the moment when the disciples discover the empty tomb.

The photo is an icon of the power of story telling.

“In traditional African cultures, not even the chief or the healer is as important as the storyteller,” Joseph Donders, a Dutch priest who had spent much of his life in Africa, once told me. “The survival of the tribe from generation to generation depends on stories, only the stories have to reveal truth. With truth-revealing stories the storyteller becomes the guardian not only of his actual audience but of those not yet born. This is because, in times of crisis, people are guided not by theories or principles but by stories. True stories are life-saving, false stories lead toward disaster. Stories are proven true by the test of time. An old story that has been told for centuries and has been tested in many times of crisis can be regarded as true.”

“The testing of stories,” he added, “requires the passage of many generations. In fact two thousand years is about right.”

Our conversation led us to consider the question of what was the most basic story in the modern world. We quickly agreed that, in its purest form, it’s the western movie and decided to call it the Gospel According to John Wayne. (Not John Wayne the man, who may have been as nonviolent as Gandhi, but John Wayne the actor in the gunslinger roles he often played.)

At that the core of the Gospel According to John Wayne is a good man with a gun defeating bad men with guns.

The story needn’t be set in the Old West. The core elements adjust to any setting: rural or urban, past or present, or a Star Wars future set in other galaxies where distances are measured in light years. The Gospel According to John Wayne can also be the Gospel According to Luke Skywalker or the Gospel According to Batman. The moral is the same in any case: We are saved by deadly weapons and the courage of those community defenders who aim and shoot.

In the classic Western version, it’s the story of men who are evil to their core threatening decent people in a newly-settled town in the lawless West in which there is a battered saloon at one end of the street and a newly painted and school house at the other. Endangered by pathological killers, the wellbeing of the townspeople depends on the courage of one brave man and those, if any, that he is able to rally behind him. The iconic scene is the gunfight on Main Street — one man with a gun facing another man with a gun and both pulling the trigger. There is sometimes a prefatory scene before the shoot-out in which we see the reluctant hero open a drawer and grasp his revolver, a weapon he once put away with the hope of never using it again. He is not, such scenes make clear, a man of violence but now there is no alternative. He straps on his holster, inserts six bullets in the gun’s chambers and walks out the door knowing he may be dead within the hour. In fact he survives. Thanks to courage plus good aim, goodness triumphs. It’s the men who love killing whose day ends in coffins.

It’s far from an ignoble story. There is real courage in it — the readiness of an honorable man to risk his life to protect his defenseless neighbors from wicked men whose death we who watch the film cannot help but wish for and, once it happens, welcome. If only briefly, it seems the world has been made a safer place.

The big problem with the Gospel According to John Wayne is that it hides from us the troubling fact that there is no such thing as a completely evil person — also, apart from Christ, the uncomfortable fact that there is no such thing as a completely good person.

Few biblical texts have more profound implications than this passage in the first chapter of Genesis: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:27)

If so, then there are no bad seeds. Our DNA does not oblige us to be murderers. No matter how damaged a person becomes in the process of growing up and entering adulthood, all of us are born bearing the divine image and can never entirely lose it.

For John of Kronstadt, one of the Russian saints of the nineteenth century, to become aware of this was one of the main challenges of Christian life. “Never confuse the person,” he said, “formed in the image of God, with the evil that is in him, because evil is but a chance misfortune, illness, a devilish reverie. But the very essence of the person is the image of God, and this remains in him despite every disfigurement.” St. John’s insight was not developed at a comfortable distance from the rough side of life — he was parish priest in Kronstadt, a port city with thousands of sailors and more than its share of drunkenness, crime and violence of every kind.

In common with many ordinary Russians at the time, Saint John of Kronstadt avoided dehumanizing labels for men who had been convicted of criminal actions. They were instead commonly referred to as “unfortunates.” It was this attitude that helps explain why so few executions occurred in pre-revolutionary Russia. Those who committed murder and other grave crimes were instead sent to labor camps in Siberia.

The inability to see Christ in the other is the most common form of spiritual blindness, as one of the most prominent saints of the fourth century, John Chrysostom, often stressed. “If you fail to recognize Christ in the beggar outside the church door,” he said, “you will not find Christ in the chalice.” Or as Dorothy Day put it, “Those who do not see Christ in the poor are atheists indeed.”

Yet the Gospel According to John Wayne remains a compelling story — the lone man who puts himself in the line of fire and kills a human monster whose death is a blessing for every decent person. The story reminds us that that the community can only be protected by good guys — or good women — killing bad guys.

In the latter part of “Gone With the Wind,” a film that presents slavery as having been not so bad, the heroine, Scarlett O’Hara, returns to her family plantation, Tara, after Southern defeat. Though the Civil War has caused much death and devastation, Scarlett finds the mansion intact even though the crops have been burned, her mother has died of typhoid, her father is insane with grief, her two sisters are ill, and most of the (formerly happy) slaves have run off. Forced to take up work that in better days had been done by slaves, Scarlett’s life now centers on reviving the plantation through blood, sweat and tears, even if the paradise that the Tara plantation once had been is lost indeed. When a drunken Yankee soldier arrives and seems poised to rape Scarlett, she stands on the mansion’s grand curved staircase, revolver hidden behind her back, then, at the last moment raises the weapon and shoots him in the face. Afterward, in shock, she says to her sister-in-law, “I’ve done murder.” To her credit and the credit of the storytellers, Scarlett uses a razor-sharp word, murder, that doesn’t mask what she has done. After pulling the trigger and seeing at close range the death she has caused, perhaps Scarlett realizes she might have aimed at the man’s legs and protected herself without becoming a murderer.

How rare is the movie in which the hero is allowed to aim for the legs or, rarer still, find a bullet-free, nonviolent solution. Film after film, the implicit message is that, in confrontations with evil, there are no non-lethal — still less nonviolent — solutions. It’s a kill-or-be-killed world, period, next subject.

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