My journey to the Orthodox Church: an interview with Jim Forest

An interview with Jim Forest made in mid-October 2007 by Elena Nazarova for Nikolaas in de Jordaan, the quarterly journal of St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church, located in the Jordaan district of Amsterdam. For more about the parish, see its web site: www.orthodox.nl.

EN: Dear Jim, we know you for a long time as a member of our parish, so I suppose it is time to get acquainted once again. What I mean is that fifteen years ago, when our family first appeared in a little chapel in Utrechtsedwaarsstraat, our parish consisted of no more than 30 people. You and Nancy were one of the first to greet us, and let us feel at home in church, and to offer your help and assistance in difficult times. We are very grateful for this, and very happy to know you both. But since then our parish has grown very much, and it is difficult for church members to know everyone even though we are praying side by side every week. So that’s why this interview.

Please tell about yourself. What are you — an American — doing here, in a Russian Orthodox church in Amsterdam? Let’s begin from the beginning. Where were you born and who were your parents? Were they believers? Tell us please about your childhood.

JF: I was born in 1941 in Salt Lake City, in the state of Utah, which is in the western part of the USA. It’s a city best known as the main center for the Mormons, a strange variety of Protestant Christianity that is based on what its founders regarded as a lost book of the Bible, The Book of Mormon. But it wasn’t because of the Mormons or their beliefs that we were there. My parents were people on the political left. My father had been sent to Utah to be the regional organizer of the Communist Party. I know I’m not the only member of our parish who grew up in such a home. Father Sergei is another, and I’m sure there are others.

EN: As the son of Communists growing during the Cold War, did you ever feel an outcast in America?

JF: Not exactly an outcast but certainly someone living under a shadow. While the interest of the FBI was focused in my parents, especially my father, there was one occasion when FBI agents finger-printed my brother and me. I think they did it just to alarm the family. Of course I never mentioned to friends anything about my parents ideological convictions, but the FBI had visited our neighbors and probably also spoke to teachers at the school my brother and I attended. I never felt I had lost a friend due to my parents’ activities and views, but it was a scary time. I recall the execution of the Rosenbergs, convicted of passing on information about nuclear weapons to the USSR, and my having the feeling that they might not have done anything except belong to the Communist Party — though as an adult I began to wonder if they might not have been guilty of the charges that were made against them. There certainly were Americans in the Communist Party who felt a greater loyalty to the Soviet Union than to the US — people for whom the USSR was a kind of paradise in the making and Stalin a saintly leader.

EN: Did your parents have strong anti-religious views?

JF: Luckily, no. Though in principle both parents regarded themselves as atheists, neither was in fact personally hostile to religion. I was fortunate. My father had a Roman Catholic past — he had once thought seriously of becoming a priest — and my mother had grown up in a devout Protestant home. At least twice a year, Christmas and Easter, my mother took my brother and me to church.

EN: How did you get involved in Christianity?

When I was about eleven, thanks to the invitation of a friend, I visited a local Anglican church and found myself amazingly at home there. What attracted me was the Eucharistic service, in its main elements similar to our Orthodox Divine Liturgy, only not so long. This made me ask to be baptized — I wanted to be able to receive communion. It was as a catechumen being prepared for baptism that I began to understand such Greek words as Eucharist, meaning an act of thanksgiving, and liturgy, a public work. On the day of my baptism, the priest gave me what I now think of as a prophetic gift, an ancient Byzantine coin with the image of Christ Pantocrator on one side. This period of my life was the beginning of my complicated journey that finally led me, many years later, to the Orthodox Church.

As for other aspects of my childhood — well, it was in many ways amazingly normal, except that for about half of 1953 my father was in prison, as were many Communists in those days, while our family was being closely watched by the FBI. Even so, it is remarkable how normal one can be in such an abnormal situation. I was a Boy Scout, I delivered newspapers, I read a great deal, I enjoyed school, I was active in the church where I had been baptized, serving at the altar.

EN: What happened then? Have you met special people and was there some special experience in your youth? Tell please about your participation in anti-war struggle.

JF: For the latter part of my teen-age years I fell away from the church and described myself as an agnostic. I had acquired the idea that churches were for the simple-minded and that nature provided better places to worship. My religious life rekindled when I was in the Navy. I had quite a strong religious experience. As a result I returned to the Anglican Church.

Several of the big events of my life happened while I was in the military. I had been trained in meteorology and was part of a Navy meteorological unit working at the headquarters of the US Weather Bureau, just outside Washington, DC. It was fascinating work — it was the time when we had use of the first weather satellite. I did well in my work and was glad to be stationed in Washington.

While in Washington, my religious life was in a state of transition. The more aware I became of how deep the theological and liturgical divisions were among Anglicans (called Episcopalians in the US), the more troubled I was. This led me finally to become Roman Catholic. In the Catholic Church one met the same Liturgy in every parish church, and the same beliefs. Also I was impressed by how Catholics were responding to social issues — homelessness, hunger, violence. It seemed to me a church touching people’s lives more deeply — and also that it was not an elitist church. Perhaps, had I known about Orthodox Christianity at the time, I would have become Orthodox much earlier than I did, but my single Orthodox encounter at the time was with a Greek parish that was not welcoming to people who weren’t Greek. If you didn’t speak Greek, why were you there?

About the same time the peace aspect of my life began to come into focus. It was really the consequence of reading the Gospel. Despite my family background, I wasn’t politically minded, in fact someone who kept his distance from anything political, but I could see that there were certain qualities any Christian has to try to bring into his daily life. One of the major themes of the Gospel is forgiveness. Another is love, including love of enemies. I could see both these qualities not only in the words of Jesus but in the way he related to people around him. It struck me that he killed no one and that he gave no one a blessing to kill. Instead again and again he reached out to people who opposed him. Even when he was dying on the cross, he appealed to his Father to forgive those who were responsible for his crucifixion.

About this time the US, through the CIA, arranged an invasion of Cuba — the Bay of Pigs Invasion. It was in the early spring of 1961. I was shocked and ashamed both about the event itself and also the fact that, in the days following, it was claimed by President Kennedy that the US had nothing to do with the invasion. Then, when the press was ready to publish evidence that it was in fact a CIA operation, Kennedy admitted the truth. A few days later, when I read in The Washington Post about a small group of people who were praying in silence in front of a CIA building in Washington to protest to invasion, it seemed to me what they were doing was an appropriate response. After work and wearing civilian clothes, I went down to the place they were standing and joined them. I thought, as a US citizen, that anyone could engage in peaceful protest. It didn’t cross my mind that I might be getting into trouble, but in fact I got into a great deal of trouble. Photos had been taken. I was recognized. My commanding officer was outraged. I was threatened with prison. Luckily, thanks to help from others including several supportive people in the Navy, instead I received an early discharge as a conscientious objector. It was only later in life that I had some times in jail.

EN: What happened when you left the Navy?

JF: The next stop was to join a small Christian community in New York, the Catholic Worker, which was helping people who were living rough in the streets in what was an especially poor part of Manhattan. We ran a free kitchen and gave out clothing. It was led by a remarkable woman, Dorothy Day. She is likely in the coming years to be recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church. One of my books is a biography of her.

EN: Maybe, it is very personal, but how did you find your way to God? I don’t mean joining the church yet, but just when was it possible for you to give a “yes” answer to a question of God’s existence? Was there a turning point?

JF: Even in those earlier times in my life when I was embarrassed to speak about belief in God, even then I had a sense of God’s existence and the fact that God was not distant. This may be partly due to my parents, especially my mother. I vividly remember, in my mother’s case, the sorrow in her voice when, answering my question about God, she said she didn’t think God existed. The answer was less important to me than the deep sorrow in her voice when she said it. Why was she so sad? Not many years later, while I was in the Navy, she managed to find her way back to her Christian roots. She had left the Communist Party some years earlier, when Soviet troops invaded Hungary. My father also eventually left the Communist Party, in his case late in his life.

EN: And the Orthodox Church? I suppose it was a long way before you found your way to the church. And as far as I know by this time you were looking for this way together with Nancy…

JF: Both Nancy and I were Catholics but not quite at home in any parish. By this time the Catholic Church, quite notably in Holland but in many other countries as well, was deeply divided. In its attempts to modernize, it had much too quickly changed its approach to worship. Practically everything that the Church had once taught was being challenged if not rejected. I envied what seemed to me the deeper roots and stability of Orthodox Christianity, but I still had the idea who had to be born in an Orthodox culture to be accepted as a fellow Orthodox.

EN: How did you make your living?

JF: After I left the Catholic Worker community, most of my jobs were in journalism. I worked for a time for a business magazine in New York, later for a daily newspaper, then for a news service, and later still edited a monthly magazine. I also did a lot of freelance writing. I also had what I joke about being my “sabbatical” — a year in prison in 1969-1970 for protest against the war in Vietnam. My life has been a mixture of writing, journalism, and also involvement in peace activities.

EN: Is the chaining-yourself-to-the-rails story true? I’ve heard you did something like this during the Vietnam war?

JF: I have never been chained to any rails! I was briefly in jail several times for acts of civil disobedience — for example in 1961 I was one of the people blocking the entrance to an office of the government agency responsible for making and testing nuclear weapons. It was a protest against atmospheric tests of the H-bomb. I was jailed for about a month. It was quite an interesting experience.

Later on, in 1969, when I was about 27, I had a much longer time in prison, about thirteen months. It was during the Vietnam War. I was one of a group of fourteen people who removed files from a the military conscription center for the city of Milwaukee and then burned the files in a nearby park.

EN: Looking back on that experience, can you say it gave you some special inner experience?

JF: Definitely! It became part of my daily discipline to read at least a chapter of the New Testament. I spent more time praying. I was fortunate to be in a prison that not only had a library but a library that was part of the state university library system. If they didn’t have a book I wanted, they could always get it for me. I had always wanted to read Russian literature but hadn’t had time. Now I had both the time and the opportunity. I started with Tolstoy’s War and Peace, then Anne Karenina, and went on to Gogol, Dostoevsky, Chekhov and others. “The Brothers Karamazov” and “Crime and Punishment” were particularly important. I also owe a debt to Gorky, especially the first volume of his autobiography, My Childhood, with its astonishing description of his very devout grandmother. All this reading eventually played a part in my finding mt way to the Orthodox Church.

EN: What brought you to Holland?

JF: I came here in 1977 to head the staff of a peace organization, the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, and also edit its journal. It was a job I had for twelve years.

It was in connection with that work that I went to Russia the first time in 1983 to take part in a small theological conference hosted by the Russian Orthodox Church. I had intentionally come a few days early. During those days, with the help of an English-speaking member of the staff of the External Affairs Department, I visited most of the active parishes in Moscow as well as Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Monastery. What I saw surprised and impressed me. For all the obstacles church life was confronted with, it was clear to me that there was a strength and vitality in the Russian Church that was not only quite different than what I had been led to expect by western press reports, in fact a vitality unlike anything I had ever personally experienced before in any church in any country. I proposed to the Moscow Patriarchate that I write a book about the Church in Russia. In 1983, because of the political restraints imposed on the Church, it wasn’t possible, but by 1985, after the election of Gorbachev, things changed rapidly. I was given the permission that I had been seeking and began to travel widely in Russia, assisted by an English-speaking priest from Kiev, Fr. Boris Udovenko. In 1988 the book was published: Pilgrim to the Russian Church. That was followed a year later by a second book, Religion in the New Russia, which included a detailed description of the celebration of the thousand year anniversary of the baptism of Russia.

EN: Did you have contact at the time with the Orthodox parish in Amsterdam?

JF: It must have been about 1983 that I first met Fr Alexis Voogd and his wife Tatiana. Both of them were teaching at the University of Amsterdam. They loaned me books and gave me advice about people and places I should visit in Russia. But it wasn’t until the December 1987 that Fr. Alexis pointed out to me that, having visited so many Orthodox churches in Russia, wasn’t it time to visit the Orthodox Church in Amsterdam?

That did it! Nancy and I came to the parish for the first time in January 1988. It was a small community in those days but very strong. Once we started coming, it became impossible to be anywhere else on Sunday. A few months alter, on Palm Sunday, I was chrismated and the same happened to Nancy on Pentecost. Next year will be our twentieth anniversary as Orthodox Christians.

EN: Tell please about the people who influenced you most to make your choice, to become Orthodox, and about your spiritual teachers.

JF: Fr. Alexis [Voogd], of course. Thank God for all his advice and encouragement. Also Tatiana [Voogd]. Then there was Margot Muntz, another of the founders of the parish. She had come to Amsterdam from the USA just after the Second World War and never left. Her husband, Pierre, was Russian. Margot had an amazing gift for noticing strangers and making them feel at home. And then there was Metropolitan Anthony [Bloom]. Nancy and I went year after year to the Sourozh diocesan conference in Oxford, partly just to hear him speak. I felt as if I had met one of the apostles — one of the people who had witnessed Christ’s miracles, someone who had seen the risen Christ.

EN: We know you as an editor of a magazine “In Communion”. Can you tell more about it and about the Orthodox Peace Fellowship? Also about your lectures in America and elsewhere.

JF: The Orthodox Peace Fellowship is an international association of Orthodox Christians who seek to practice the peace of Christ in everyday life. The group has its roots in the Amsterdam parish. Its existence has a lot to do both with Fr. Alexis Voogd and Fr. Sergei Ovsiannikov. Both thought that to be Orthodox shaped the way you live your life, how you relate to other people, what kind of work you do, how you respond to conflict and enemies. It was especially Fr. Sergei who gave me the blessing to do this work. Another member of the parish, Michael Bakker, is the OPF president, and the treasurer is parish member Silouan Duetekom.

It was from Fr. Sergei — in those days he was still a theological student in St. Petersburg — I learned the Russian word miloserdia — the works of mercy. Miloserdia is what we do to translate of the Liturgy into daily life. There is a great deal on this topic in the writings of the Church Fathers, such saints as John Chrysostom and Basil the Great, but also many others. The Orthodox Peace Fellowship journal, “In Communion”, is simply a means to explore these topics via the written word. “In Communion” also exists as a web site — www.incommunion.org — where all the articles in past issues are available as well as many other texts and resources. The lectures I sometimes give are just another means of doing the same thing, except in a way that permits dialogue. Also I’ve written a number of books. Books tend to generate invitations to speak.

EN: Books are in some way like children. You bear them, give them birth and care of them. Please tell us about your books for adults and books for children.

JF: Probably the most translated of the books is Praying with Icons — just this week we received the first copies of the Romanian edition. Ladder of the Beatitudes has also been widely read. There is a book on confession — Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness.  There are two biographies, one of Thomas Merton, the other of Dorothy Day. The most recent book is The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life — a book that looks at pilgrimage both as a physical journey to sacred places but also as a way of being even if you living the most ordinary life and never crossing a border. Also just published is a children’s book, Silent as a Stone: Mother Maria of Paris and the Trash Can Rescue, which is about a recently canonized Russian saint, Maria Skobtsova, who rescued many people who were in danger when the Nazis occupied France. She died in 1945 in a German concentration camp. One of her main collaborators was Fr. Dimitri Klépinin, who also perished in a concentration camp. Fr. Dimitri’s granddaughter, Tania Bos, is a member of our parish, so we have a special tie.

EN: We all know that you and Nancy have to undergo a serious operation soon. You have already written about your experience of illness — there is a chapter about it in your pilgrimage book. Can you tell us something in this respect?

JF: I’ve had kidney illness the last few years. Since January 2006 this has meant I have to have sessions of dialysis three times a week. At the end of October I’m due to receive a new kidney — Nancy is the donor. If the operation is successful, it will make it a lot easier to work and travel. Say a prayer!

EN: We all wish you and Nancy a lot of courage for the forthcoming events, we love you both and wish you God’s help for every moment of your life.

* * *
published in the December 2007 issue of Nikolaas in de Jordaan
* * *

A round-about journey to the Orthodox Church: an interview with Fr. Alexis Voogd

Fr Alexis and Tatiana Voogd

Interview made by Jim Forest at the Voogd apartment in Amsterdam on the fifth of April, 1990.

 

[starting the tape recorder]

This looks serious! But will my English make sense?

I admire your gift for languages.

Oh, Jim! There are blank spots in my English and they are getting more and more.

Can you tell us something about where and when you were born?

I was born on the 3rd of April 1927 in a house in newly-built part of The Hague, behind the dunes west of Scheveningen. The North Sea was nearby. With the windows open and the wind from the west, you could hear the unbroken roar of the beakers and, in fog, the melancholy sound of the foghorn. The first years of my life were closely bound up with the elements: the sea, gales, the smell of the sea and — not to forget — the little fishing port of Scheveningen, much less mechanized in those days. There were many things for a growing boy to be happy about in that little world behind the dunes — an endless source of discoveries!

Have you brothers or sisters?

A sister, Helena, two years older than me.

A very Orthodox name!

Yes. I can’t say that about mine — Alewijn — a name of Celtic origin.

Can you say something about your family?

My father and mother had very different backgrounds. My grandfather on my father’s side came from the shipping world. My father was a naval officer with years of service behind him in the Dutch East Indies — Indonesia as it is now. He had already retired when I was born. On my mother’s side, my grandfather was a university lecturer in Spanish — he compiled the first Spanish-Dutch dictionary. Before that he was for years a civil servant in the East Indies.

Were they people with a religious faith?

Neither were positively religious. Neither had been baptized. Nor were my grandparents connected with any church. Among my father’s books were a few about religion. I remember one title: “The Fool Says…”. It was about the Christian faith.

Did you ever talk to your parents about religion?

I can’t say that my parents had a harmonious marriage. Perhaps that’s a rather strange reply to your question. What I mean is that, where there is tension, it can be difficult to have intimate talks about, for example, religious belief. But I say this without any bitterness. My parents certainly did their best to give us a settled home life. There were a lot of creative activities going on in our home. My mother was a talented pianist and among her friends there were many professional musicians with whom she often played. There was much music in our house. It left a strong impression on us. My memories are tied up with music. In the evening we would ask her to play our favorite pieces. I was very fond of Grieg. Probably I felt in him a strong bond with nature.

When I look back on those years, I see myself always roaming around somewhere, in the dunes or by the sea. Here I had my first “religious” feelings, the feeling of the mystery behind things, as I see it now. Nature had a very strong influence on me. I often got up very early — very, very early! My parents were amazed and wondered: “Where on earth is the boy going at such an hour? The day hasn’t even begun and he’s already gone!”

I think of those blessed moments when the sun rises, the glow over everything, as if the world were being created anew, and I’m sitting on top of a tree, being gently rocked by the wind. I sit and sit, just looking, breathing and listening. Since then I have read about people who, in moments of intense concentration, experience the unity of all things. The unity of everything! In a flash the experience of the words, “And God saw that it was good.”

How old were you then?

Nine or ten.

These copses at the edge of the dunes — amazing what a child can make of them in his imagination! For me they were vast woods with pleasant and unpleasant places, trees with friendly and unfriendly faces. At that age I started reading about the North American Indians, the “Redskins.” Fascinating! I read everything I could find about their way of life and their beliefs. Through this reading I had the experience of how it’s possible to be completely carried away, to become one with, to identity with, persons and events. As far as the “Redskins” were concerned, this meant that I could so identify with their situation that sometimes, after an argument with other boys, I could hardly stop myself from threatening them with spear and arrow. Yes, really! Imagine it!

For a longtime I felt a sort of hate for those who destroyed the Indians.

Did you feel lonely as a boy?

I couldn’t share those nature-centered feelings with friends.

Now I realize that all these feelings had to do with my religious development. In those years I was inclined to have the same gods as the Indians had. I even prayed to those gods.

You asked about the feeling of loneliness. I think that this ability to identify — to be one with — makes it possible not to feel lonely. I had such a strong feeling of being part of everything, birds, the wind, leaves. All this filled me.

But it was all something that you experienced alone.

Yes, certainly. But I also had lots of friends in the neighborhood.

What later raised your interest in the Slavic countries?

I am sure that had to do with the war. In May 1940 our country was occupied by the Germans. I was 13. I had just finished primary school.

How did you experience the invasion?

In a childish way. It was something unusual, in a certain sense even fascinating. I longed for extreme situations, and here I had an extreme situation!

In terms of study, had you already decided what subject to concentrate on?

Not yet. I must say that school was a painful experience for me.

Were you happier as an Indian than a school boy?

Yes, most certainly. Especially in the last year of primary school and the first year of secondary. At the Lyceum I had no real friendships with other children. In general they were further on than I was. I hadn’t yet got “out of the woods.” Sitting at a school desk was torment. I promised myself that later I would never idealize my school years. Above all I had difficulty with the sciences. I found mathematics very difficult. My father secretly hoped that I would follow in his footsteps and become a naval officer, but for that I needed to do well in mathematics.

Was it difficult for him to accept that you were not going in the direction he wanted?

He didn’t complain and wasn’t angry. He was somewhat stoical in accepting disappointments. No, he never let me be aware of it. Nevertheless he did his best to give me some understanding of mathematics.

Meanwhile time was passing. The occupation meant that life became more and more difficult. Then in 1943 my father fell ill with cancer. At that a Jewish man was hidden in our house. One day the Germans discovered this. Someone had betrayed us. My sister and I came home from school to find the doors and windows wide open with mother gone, the Jew gone, and the house in chaos. After six weeks my mother was released from prison, and that only because of my father’s death — he died in March — and because there was no one else to look after my sister and me. Otherwise we would have been sent to Ravensbrück, a women’s concentration in Germany. But our Jewish guest was less fortunate. He never returned from Auschwitz. This event signaled a definite break between “before”and “after.”

Soon after followed the period when we had to make trips to find food. The summer of that year was the first that I spent in the countryside. It was somewhere in the Betuwe, the area between the two great rivers, the Rhine and the Waal. I watched farmers — how they worked their land. In those days they were still working with horses, loading their hay into splendidly-made carts, digging the ground, standing bent over for hours as they cut the corn, and milking their cows by hand. It was an overwhelming experience. That was life! From that time, every holiday I went to the country and worked on a farm. It didn’t take me long to make my decision. I wanted to go to an agricultural college so that I could become a farmer.

My mother was soon resigned to the decision. My father could no longer oppose it, but he would not have been happy about it.

The trouble was that, as a boy from the town, I couldn’t be accepted just like that into the agricultural college. First I had to work for a year on a farm. In October 1943 I managed to find a place on a farm in the northeast of our country. For the first time I had the feeling of being “abroad” — far from home, in a foreign land, among foreign people who spoke an almost incomprehensible dialect. At first I did all the dirty work, as would any apprentice, but quite soon I learned to milk cows and look after horses. Then came the day when I was allowed for the first time to take the cart to the field alone with “my own team of horses.” How proud I was!

If you include the years at the agricultural college, this part of my life lasted until 1951. After that I went to do something I had dreamed of in the dark time of the war.

What kind of dream was that?

I had a friend with whom I often spoke of what we were going to do after the war. One of our favorite past-times was looking at maps and imagining journeys to all sorts of countries. The strongest dream of was to go to Scandinavia. After I had finished college, this dream was fulfilled. I worked for a year as a lumberjack in the Swedish forest.

Did you learn Swedish?

Yes, I managed that fairly quickly. Swedish is in the same group of languages as Dutch.

Did you already have an interest in Russian at that time?

Actually that began during the war. In 1944, the year before the Liberation, I was taken away by the Germans and forced to work in the neighborhood of Assen, in the province of Drente. We had to dig trenches and build bunkers. Not far from the place where we worked was a camp of Russian prisoners of war who were being used as slave laborers. Every morning as we went to our place of work, we met them on the way to their work. They were going in the opposite direction under guard of German soldiers. They looked dreadful — dirty, emaciated, clothed in rags. But they sang! This made a deep impression on me.

I remember one of their songs. It was a song about a Cossack who, far from home, thinks about his country. These impressions meant a great deal to me. Something was born in me. Also the fact that Russia was our ally in the war against Germany played a role in this.

Another factor in my interest was Dostoevsky. In Sweden I read his short stories — not yet his novels — in Swedish. On the radio I found a station that often broadcast Russian music. A new world opened up for me — my interest in Russian language and the people. Back in Holland I began learning Russian on my own.

Why did you do that?

At first it was just a question of feeling. The Russians attracted me as a people. Also their literature and music. Russian became a passion for me. All my free time was given over to it. I was working then at the Agricultural Research Institute at Wageningen. The burning question was: Was I to stay there or start studying Russian? Finally I chose Russian.

That took me to the University of Amsterdam in the autumn of 1952. I had an appointment with Professor Becker, a Russian, the founder of the Department of Slavic Studies in the Philological Faculty. I had written him a letter from Wageningen telling him what had led to this decision. He asked me why wanted to do this study. It was hard to give him a clear and rational answer. And still I cannot do so. There are motives that are so deep-seated that it is difficult to say why you do something, but you have to do it! I felt that I had to study Russian. Intuitively I felt that this language could bring me to a deeper understanding of the meaning of life. I had the impression that Russians had a strong grasp of its essence — sometimes given positive expression, sometimes negative.

Professor Becker took me in. He was a teacher of the old school, very strict. You had to prepare carefully for his lectures. You had to be on time. But he gave himself fully to his students, lending them books from his own library. At that time it was often impossible to get the books you needed from the university library.

Was he Orthodox?

He wasn’t a believer. He was a real humanist. He respected anyone who has a genuine religious belief.

Was your interest in the Russian language connected with other aspects of Russian culture?

My interest in the language meant in the first place a feeling for the Russian people, for the country of Russia. I couldn’t at that time separate the Russians from their political system. Obviously it was necessary to make this distinction but I couldn’t — how it had all started, how it had developed, Stalin and so forth. I must admit that at first I thought that in Russia a new world, a new society was being built up and that they had solved the problem of capitalism.

Then in 1958 I went with Tatiana to Russia and came into real contact with actual life and the system there.

Did you think of yourself as a Marxist in those years?

No, not at all! But I wanted to know about everything out of a sort of curiosity: how was it possible for such a system to become established in Russia and how could part of the intelligentsia have accepted such an ideology?

Had you then thought at all about the Russian Orthodox Church, or was that still distant?

Actually I must turn back in time because I missed a most important moment. My coming to Amsterdam, to the university, meant that I met Tatiana. She came to the Netherlands from Odessa in 1944, had then studied and was appointed to a post in the university as assistant to Professor Becker. When I appeared there, she was already giving lectures. At that time there were only a few students studying Russian. Professor Becker was struck by my burning interest in Russian and spoke to his students about it. They decided to invite me to join the Slavic debating society. Tatiana was given the job of asking me. She found me and introduced herself. In this way we met each other in December 1952. The following June we married.

In order to become a member of the society, I had to give a talk. I decided to speak about a book I had read shortly before, Walter Schubart’s European Man of the Future. It was a book that was fairly popular in the years after the war.

In those years I did little else but study, continually study. I had started my studies fairly late ands felt that I had to make up for much lost time. I was very hungry for knowledge — about the Russian language and history and culture.

I worked for two years cataloging books in the Russian section of the library of the Institute of Social History. In this way many books about Russia passed through my hands. They were good years. I learned a great deal.

Getting to know Tatiana meant that I was also introduced to the Orthodox Church. She was a practicing Orthodox. She took me to an Orthodox church here in Amsterdam, a parish of the Russian Church in Exile, which still exists. There were services once a month and choir practice every week. It was a surprise for me to discover that the services were conducted in Old Church Slavonic. Church Slavonic was an important part of Slavic studies at the university. Although I was not a believer I was allowed to sing in the choir. I had a good voice and could read music, though it was an unusual experience to sing in a language that I thought to be dead. I liked singing and was fond of the music even though having no idea what it really meant. My involvement in the service was restricted to the choir. It was impossible then for me to go deeper into the meaning of the Liturgy, to its essence.

Besides I was still in a state of admiration for life in Russia, not criticizing the system. I was, as it were, pulled in opposite directions. Morever I couldn’t close my eyes to the negative role the Church had played in the social history of Russia. The problem continued to bother me.

The attitude of the Church in Exile was a typical example of reactionary response to social problems, an attitude which, it seemed to me, was an important cause of the Russian revolution.

Only much later I came to understand that this “revolution” almost destroyed the Church, doing everything it could to annihilate it. But then it wasn’t important for me to understand why there was so strong a bond between Church and State and why the Church reacted so strongly against socialism and socialism against the Church.

In this frame of mind we went to Russia in 1958. For me it was the first time while Tatiana was returning after a thirteen-year absence. It was difficult to get a visa. It was the Khrushchev period. Stalin had been dead five years. While he was still alive Tatiana would never have dared to enter the Russian Embassy — she would have been counted among the traitors, those who weren’t willing to return to the fatherland. But in 1958 Khrushchev’s campaign against the Church hadn’t yet begun.

To go to Russia was a wish I had fostered for a long time — to be there, to see the people, to hear the language. I came to Russia not as a tourist through the official Soviet travel agency “Intourist” but as Tatiana’s husband. That was an impressive difference!

I found myself in an old-fashioned Russian family where I was welcomed unreservedly. All of them were believers and closely connected to the Church. To my brother-in-law, Nikolai Poltorazki, husband of Tatiana’s sister, I am deeply grateful. He had a profound knowledge of Russian religious philosophy — Berdyaev, Bulgakov, S. Frank, Florensky. Some of them he had known personally. His fervent interpretation of their writings has been of great importance to me on the way to the faith.

When I got back to Holland, I began in earnest to study Berdyaev. As I look back on that period now, I realize how much Berdyaev has meant for me, what a role he played in my life in those years. He inspired me, gave me a vision. As a young man Berdyaev, though not a Marxist, was not that distant from Marxists. I felt myself involved with the problems he was trying to solve — the truth of Russian Orthodoxy but also the untruth of Orthodoxy linked to the state — an unholy alliance. Berdyaev spoke about general social problems, about Eros, about the place of art in society. His style of searching appealed to me: “follow the way back.” He was a Russian who had thought deeply about the source of Russian culture, and this finally brought him to Orthodoxy. Gradually he came to a new understanding of Orthodoxy, an Orthodoxy freed from ties with the state and from the reactionary attitudes to progress.

This thinking was very enriching for me, though not that all aspects of his teaching are authentically Orthodox.

I have spoken already about my near-mystic experiences as a child. It was intuition without a clear idea about God. But after the trip to Russia, after the discovery of Berdyaev, I became convinced that I had to come to terms with the fundamental questions of life. I had a feeling of now or never! I realized that if I didn’t come to an understanding now, I should never do so. I would continue to read interesting books, piles of them, without making any real progress in my spiritual life.

There followed a time of intense search that brought me to a crisis.

In 1962 and ’63 a new system of language learning was introduced at the University of Amsterdam — the language laboratory. This meant a great deal of extra work designing and writing a new Russian course. The professor of Slavic languages, Carl Ebeling was — indeed still is — a brilliant man of tremendous energy. He was very enthusiastic about these innovations. He was also very patient about my way of teaching. I found it hard to concentrate only on language, because it was difficult for me at that time to separate out language from the spiritual problems in which I was immersed. Luckily Ebeling understood all this.

We worked together literally day and night on the new course, but this turned out to be more than I could stand. It led me unavoidably and suddenly to the point of a complete breakdown.

And into this crisis appeared the figure of Metropolitan Anthony…

How did that happen?

At the beginning of the ’60s, while in Moscow, Tatiana met the great Russian pianist, Maria Yudina. Yudina was a deeply religious woman, a convinced Orthodox Christian. She heard from Tatiana about the desperate situation I was in and said, “Why doesn’t he go to Metropolitan Anthony?” Tatiana asked, “Who is that?” Yudina’s answer was, “What! You live in the West and you don’t know who Metropolitan Anthony is? He has just been visiting Moscow and has helped many people with their problems! He is an exceptional preacher and moreover a physician. Let Alexei Jacovletisch go to him!”

Tatiana wrote a letter to him and shortly after I received an invitation to visit him in London.

My situation was this. I had read a great deal about the faith. Much had become clear to me. Intellectually I was convinced of the truth of the faith. But how to go further? It is amazing how you can be intellectually convinced of the truth of the Christian faith and yet not be in a state to embrace it, not able to give this rational conviction a place in your heart and soul. You can, for instance, be a great specialist in church music, but still that doesn’t make you a Christian.

I spent a few days in London with Metropolitan Anthony and told him my story. He listened very carefully, understood my problem and gave me a simple piece of advice. He asked if I knew the Gospel? Had I read it thoroughly and systematically? I said, “No.” He urged me to do this and gave me advice as to how to do this. It forced me to interiorize the Gospel, to find myself in the Gospel. It is the principle of identification. This had happened to me once before in my life, when I was a boy and read about Indians! Now I had to identify with all the people I met in the New Testament. It took me a year to go through the Gospel, word by word, story by story.

After this first visit Metropolitan Anthony sent me to Father Barnabas, a monk who had a small hermitage in Hastings, not far from London. This was my first experience of a monastery. There I met a young monk, Brother Vincent, a man with whom I could talk fully and at length. Father Barnabas had no objection to this, but now and then did want reassurance that we were talking about spiritual matters.

When I returned to Amsterdam I was already over the worst of my crisis, but I can’t say it was the end of my troubles. I was still dependant on tranquilizers. Metropolitan Anthony had warned me not to stop taking these drugs abruptly. He compared them to a stick that helps you walk — “Eventually you will be strong enough to walk without a stick.”

I did not follow his advice. While in Odessa a month later, I decided to stop taking the pills and threw them away. Thus put me into a wretched state. Suddenly I had to manage without medicine. Traveling alone, the journey I had to make back Holland via Romania, Austria and Germany was a nightmare. But then I spent ten days I spent in the countryside, immersed in the Gospel and in prayer, and this brought me back to health.

Can you tell me more about the way of reading the Gospel that Metropolitan Anthony recommended?

He gave me a booklet made by members of a Christian student organization in Petrograd on the twenties. This little book, written in Russian, I later translated into Dutch. The principle was — to transfer yourself into the given situation of the Gospel. When Christ heals a blind man, you are that blind man. When a man is robbed and beaten and left at the side of the road, you are that man. And you are also those who pass by without helping…

How long was it between your first meeting with Metropolitan Anthony and your entry into the Orthodox Church?

I was baptized in 1967 on the 22nd of July — Metropolitan Anthony’s name day. We were in Italy and heard about a French monastery in Provence given to the Orthodox Church and that Metropolitan Anthony would be there in July. Tatiana had not yet met him. So we traveled from Italy to see him in France. I still had doubts about being baptized. Was I actually ready for it? But Vladika Anthony said, “Here am I, here are you, here is Tanya, here’s the Gospel, there’s the river. Why shouldn’t we baptize you now?” And he baptized me in the river under the walls of the monastery.

How did the founding of the Amsterdam parish come about?

After my baptism we went more and more to the parish in The Hague. There was much to do there. For example there was hardly a choir. That had to be established. Father Benjamin gave me every opportunity to enlarge it and soon a reasonable choir was formed. I had to learn the services and arrange for the choir to practice during the week. That required yet another weekly journey to The Hague. To be able to prepare everything properly I used to stay over Saturday night. In the spring of 1973 I was ordained deacon and Anton du Pau — now Father Anton — was ordained reader.

Is that when you took the name Alexis?

No, earlier, at baptism.

Which Alexis?

Alexis, Man of God, a saint of the undivided early Church. He was born in Rome. The life of the Holy Alexis was very popular in the Middle Ages, also in the western Church. But now he is almost entirely forgotten in the West, along with Saint Mary of Egypt, though her name is connected with the tiny Synodal church in Amsterdam.

You sang in the Synodal church, but when you became Orthodox you changed to the Moscow Patriarchate. What was behind this change?

When we were in Russia and told the family that we sang in the choir of an Orthodox parish in Amsterdam, they asked at once, “In what church?” Tatiana answered, “In the Russian Orthodox Church.” “Yes, but which church? From which jurisdiction?” We had no idea what that meant. We knew nothing about all the divisions and jurisdictions in the Orthodox Church. That meant that we and our family in Russia were in different jurisdictions and were joined through the sacraments. So on our return to the Netherlands, we went to the parish in The Hague, St. Mary Magdalene, which is part of the Moscow Patriarchate. We wanted to belong to the Mother Church and not to a church that had broken away from it. That was our decision.

Of course by now I understood the reasons why the Synodal Church existed and why it regarded the Moscow Patriarchate with so much enmity. But I wanted to belong to the Mother Church, the suffering Church in Russia. There were people in the Synodal parish who maintained that we had been “brain-washed” in Russia and that for these reasons had gone to the Patriarchal parish in The Hague. Nonetheless, I have much to thank that little parish for!

Somewhere along the way you had also become a father…

Yes, that happened in Moscow at the end of our first trip in 1958 when Tatiana and I were taking part in the International Congress of Slavists. We had prepared everything for the birth of our child in Amsterdam. But Aliona decided to be born in Moscow where she was baptized shortly after.

When was the parish of Saint Nicholas founded?

In 1973 a small group had formed, five or six people — myself, Tatiana, our daughter Aliona and Stefan Royé, who was then not Orthodox but interested. There was also Anton du Pau, who had recently become Orthodox. We talked together about how good it would be to have an Orthodox parish in Amsterdam.

Through God’s providence we got to know a priest of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Father Janko Stanic, who had been given by his bishop the task of setting up a Serbian parish in Amsterdam. Thanks to the help of Pastor Boiten and influential friends from the Roman Catholic Church we obtained the use of a space in an annex of the big Saint Nicholas Church opposite Central Station. Father Janko was financially supported by the Diaconal Council of the Dutch Reformed Church. Father Anton had his own income, as did I from the university. Father Anton painted icons, was a good organizer and could turn his hand to everything. In a few months, a nice little parish was created! At the end of 1973 we started our choir practices. In 1974 on the 4th of May the first Vigil service was celebrated by Metropolitan Anthony. On the 5th — the Dutch Liberation Day as it happens — Metropolitan Anthony and Bishop Laventrie consecrated our church and celebrated the Divine Liturgy.

Was it a Serbian parish?

No, both Serbian and Russian. Originally we hoped to found a pan-Orthodox parish for Serbians, Romanians, Russians and Greeks, but it wasn’t possible. So a parish was formed under the joint direction of the Moscow and Serbian Patriarchates. Father Janko served with us twice a month. The other Sundays he was with Serbs in other parts of the country.

The problem for us in Amsterdam was that the Russian part of the parish had no priest. We solved this by inviting priests from other parishes for those Sundays when Father Janko was absent — — for example, Father Adrian from the monastery in The Hague or Father Stefan Bakker from Amersfoort or Father Jozef Lamien from Brussels. Once Father Vladimir, the former priest at the Russian parish in The Hague, came to celebrate. When no priest was available, I served as deacon at Vespers on Saturday and again at Matins on Sunday. In that way the continuity of the services was ensured. Unfortunately I could never serve as deacon at the Liturgy — I had to lead the choir.

How did the independent Russian parish come into being?

At the end of 1978, following a series of events. With a group of parishioners we went to London where I was ordained priest and Father Anton deacon by Metropolitan Anthony. My first Liturgy was in London the next day — the 19th of December, the Feast of Saint Nicholas.

It was a severe winter. In the Saint Nicholas Church in Amsterdam where we had our chapel the water pipes had burst. The chapel and the steps leading to it were all under water and then frozen. We couldn’t use it. We celebrated the Christmas Vigil on the 6th of January in the main part of the church and then the next day had the Nativity Liturgy in Pastor Boiten’s tiny Saint Joris Chapel at Ouderzijds 100.

What had led to your ordination as priest?

The Russian part of the parish had by then grown considerably. Though often on Sundays we had no priest, my serving as a deacon on Saturdays and Sundays was good experience.

Despite being without a priest, we were coming together, and that had a positive influence, spiritually speaking, on the formation of a parish. We worked also on the translation of liturgical texts into Dutch, since during the first five years of our existence the services were all in Old Church Slavonic.

I often return to the same point — the Russians have retained their rich traditions in a distinctive manner. They have the most complete services, rich services with a clear rhythm and incomparably beautiful vocal music. All this we must wanted to bring as much as possible it into the Dutch services. It’s not a question of imitation. Imitation in the spiritual life is not what we need — rather inspiration: illumination through the Spirit. I haven’t found better forms than the Russian ones. And I believe that, to a certain degree, we have managed to carry over the spirit of the Russian services into the Dutch ones.

Was it difficult to be both a university lecturer and priest at the same time?

Yes, that was difficult. But gradually I realized that my place was in the Church. I found it more and more difficult to be in academic circles. It is strange to have two identities. When we started the parish, I had already worked in the field of Slavic studies for thirteen years. I had studied and lived with academics — students and professors — for years, but in doing so I had missed a whole important aspect of life. Yet I know I owe an infinite debt of gratitude to many people with whom I came into contact via the university. It is a gift of fortune, the many years with them.

But — there’s always a “but” — it was all on the level of reason. Perhaps that’s why it was so difficult for me to make the jump from the theoretical to the living faith, the faith of heart and soul. Knowledge in itself is not enough to make a real believer — just as knowing what sickness you have doesn’t mean that you are cured of it.

When you spent that year reading the Gospel, was there a certain moment, a certain text, that gave you a feeling of a door opening?

I understand your question and it would have been natural for there to have been such a moment, but I cannot say there was. So many parts of the Gospel were a revelation to me. Yet I will cite one text: “My teaching is not Mine, but His who sent Me. If any man’s will is to do His will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking by My own authority.”

Metropolitan Anthony had taught me a most important principle: “Be attentive, be watchful. Every time you are touched by certain words you read, you must know that God has touched you, even if such a touch is not always pleasant.”

* * *

Meeting Thomas Merton

(a talk given in Prades, France, May 2006, in the course of a pilgrimage organized by the Thomas Merton Society of Canada)

Merton (30)
photo of Thomas Merton taken by John Howard Griffin (courtesy of the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University)

by Jim Forest

Each of us has a memory of Merton’s entrance into our lives. Usually it has to do with coming upon one of his books. It is the same for me.

I recall being an eighteen-year-old boy waiting for a bus in Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Terminal. It was 1959 and I was on leave from my Navy job at the U.S. Weather Bureau. Christmas was a few days away. I was en route to a monastery for a week-long stay. Until that moment, the closest I had come to monastic life was seeing a film called “The Nun’s Story” starring Audrey Hepburn. With a little time on my hands, I was browsing a carousel full of paperback books that was off to one side of the waiting room’s newsstand and came upon a book with the odd title, The Seven Storey Mountain by someone named Thomas Merton. The author’s name meant nothing to me. It was, the jacket announced, “the autobiography of a young man who led a full and worldly life and then, at the age of 26, entered a Trappist monastery.” There was a quotation from Evelyn Waugh, who said this book “may well prove to be of permanent interest in the history of religious experience.” Another writer compared it to Saint Augustine’s Confessions.

It proved to be a can’t-put-it-down read for me. In the bus going up the Hudson Valley, I can recall occasionally looking up from the text to gaze out the window at the heavy snow that was falling that night. Merton’s story has ever since been linked in my mind with the silent ballet of snow flakes swirling under street lights.

In 1948, the year The Seven Storey Mountain was published, Merton was only 33. His book had been in the shops eleven years when, in its umpteenth printing, it reached my hands.

Had I known it, the book’s author was now quite a different person than the Merton I envisioned on my first reading of his autobiography. The Thomas Merton I imagined had found his true home on the 10th of December 1941, the day he came to stay at the Abbey of Gethsemani, and was as firmly and peacefully rooted there as an oak tree in a national park. He was that blessed man who finds not only faith but the place to live that faith, and though accidentally made famous by a book, was living happily in medieval obscurity in rural Kentucky.

I would later discover that the actual Thomas Merton, far from being happily rooted, was in fact eager to transplant himself. It wasn’t something he mentioned in The Seven Storey Mountain, but he had found sleeping in a crowded Trappist dormitory hard going and often found his monastery factory-like. He had dreams of becoming a hermit, but there was no living tradition of solitary life in his order.

As it happens, 1959 was the year he made a major effort to get permission to move. His idea was to become a hermit associated with a more primitive monastery somewhere in Latin America, with Mexico the leading contender. On the 17th of December 1959, just a few days before I began reading The Seven Storey Mountain, he had been on his knees before the Blessed Sacrament opening a letter from Rome that told him, though his request was viewed with sympathy, permission could not be given for him to leave the Abbey of Gethsemani. “They were very sorry,” he noted in his journal later that day. “They wanted the right words to pour balm in certain wounds. But my departure would certainly upset too many people in the Order as well as outside it. They agreed with my superiors that I did not have an ermitical vocation. Therefore what they asked of me was to stay in the monastery where God had put me, and I would find interior solitude.” [The Intimate Merton, p 146] Two cardinals had signed the letter.

And yet the Merton I imagined was not altogether different than the actual Merton. He read the letter with detachment, without anger, resentment or the temptation to disobey. In his journal he commented: “The letter was too obvious. It could only be accepted. My first reaction was one of relief that at last the problem had been settled.” He found himself surprised that he wasn’t at all upset and felt no disappointment but rather “only joy and emptiness and liberty.” He saw the letter as bearing news of God’s will, which more than anything else was what he was desperate to know. “I accept it fully,” he wrote. “So then what? Nothing. Trees, hills, rain. Prayer much lighter, much freer, more unconcerned. A mountain lifted off my shoulders — a Mexican mountain I myself had chosen.”

Yet even that day he had in mind the importance of replying to the letter, if only to explain what he understood the hermit’s vocation to be and what drew him in that direction. If he was not to be allowed to become a hermit at another monastery, then perhaps the day might come when there would be a place for hermits within the Trappist context.

It was thanks to Dorothy Day, leader of the Catholic Worker movement, that I came in closer contact with Merton. I first met Dorothy a few days before Christmas in 1960, just a year after reading The Seven Storey Mountain. Once again I was on leave from my Navy job in Washington, D.C. My first few days were spent at Saint Joseph’s House in Manhattan, but one day I went to the Catholic Worker’s rural outpost on the southern tip of Staten Island, the Peter Maurin Farm. In the large, faded dining room of an old farmhouse, I found half a dozen people gathered around a pot of tea and a pile of mail at one end of a large table. Dorothy Day was reading letters aloud.

The only letter I still recall from that day’s reading was one from Thomas Merton. It amazed me that they were in correspondence. The Merton I had met in the pages of The Seven Storey Mountain had withdrawn from “the world” with a slam of the door that was heard around the world, while Dorothy Day was as much in the world as the mayor of New York. Also I recalled Merton’s description of the strict limits Trappists placed on correspondence. I had assumed he wrote to no one outside his family. Yet here he was exchanging letters with one of America’s more controversial figures.

Merton told Dorothy that he was deeply touched by her witness for peace, which had several times resulted in arrest and imprisonment. “You are right going along the lines of satyagraha [Gandhi’s term for nonviolent action; literally the power of truth]. I see no other way…. Nowadays it is no longer a question of who is right but who is at least not criminal …. It has never been more true than now that the world is lost in its own falsity and cannot see true values.” [The Hidden Ground of Love; New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1985; p 136-7]

In this letter, and many similar “Cold War letters,” Merton would write during the last decade of his life, one met a Merton who at first seemed quite different from than the Merton of The Seven Storey Mountain, yet in fact the reader looking for a more socially engaged, war-resisting Merton will find much evidence of him in the autobiography.

It was in The Seven Storey Mountain, after all, that he explained why he had decided not to fight in World War II, though he was prepared for noncombatant service as an Army medic. In a passage which must have startled many readers of the autobiography, appearing as it did just after the war, he explained:

[God] was not asking me to judge all the nations of the world, or to elucidate all the moral and political motives behind their actions. He was not demanding that I pass some critical decision defining the innocence and guilt of all those concerned in the war. He was asking me to make a choice that amounted to an act of love for His truth, His goodness, His charity, His Gospel…. He was asking me to do, to the best of my knowledge, what I thought Christ would do…. After all, Christ did say, “Whatsoever you have done to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” [SSM, 311-12]

In the same book, Merton had recorded the experience of being a volunteer at a house of hospitality on 135th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem in the months that proceeded his choosing the monastic life. He described Harlem as a

divine indictment against New York City and the people who live downtown and make their money downtown.… Here in this huge, dark, steaming slum, hundreds of thousands of Negroes are herded together like cattle, most of them with little to eat and nothing to do. All the senses and imagination and sensibilities and emotions and sorrows and desires and hopes and ideas of a race with vivid feelings and deep emotional reactions are forced in upon themselves, bound inward by an iron ring of frustration: the prejudice that hems them in with its four insurmountable walls. In this huge cauldron inestimable natural gifts, wisdom, love, music, science, poetry, are stamped down and left to boil … and thousands upon thousands of souls are destroyed. [SSM, 345]

It’s an easy leap from these sentences to his essays about racism written in sixties.

Anguish and rage warm many pages in The Seven Storey Mountain. The distress with structures of violence and social cruelty that is a major theme of his later writings is evident in the younger Merton as well. If there is a difference in later life, it is simply that the older Merton no longer regarded monastic life as a short cut to heaven. Rather he saw it as a place to which some are called, but in no way a “higher” vocation than any other state in life to which God calls His children. The question is thus not to seek a “best” vocation but rather to seek God’s will in the particular context of one’s own temperament and circumstances. The challenge God gives each of us is to become a saint.

After receiving my discharge from the Navy in the early summer of 1961, I joined the Catholic Worker community in New York City. I thought it might be a stopping point on the way to a monastery.

Dorothy knew of my interest in Merton’s book and the attraction I felt for monastic life. She shared Merton’s letters with me. Then one day she gave me a letter of his to answer. He had sent her a poem about Auschwitz and the Holocaust that he had written during the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, “Chant to Be Used Around a Site for Furnaces.” In his letter to Dorothy, Merton described it as a “gruesome” work. I wrote to tell Merton of our appreciation of the poem and our plans to publish it. It would serve, I commented, as The Catholic Worker’s response to the Eichmann trial.

Not many days later I had a response from Merton in which he noted that we live in a time of war and the need “to shut up and be humble and stay put and trust in God and hope for a peace that we can use for the good of our souls.” A letter to me from Thomas Merton! I could not have felt more elated had I received the map revealing the location of pirate gold.

Though I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, that single sentence revealed a great deal about the long-term struggles in which Merton was engaged. I thought what he said was aimed at me (how apt the advice was!), but, as was so often the case in his letters, he was addressing himself as well. He had enormous difficulty shutting up, feared he was lacking in humility, and often resisted staying put.

Though by now I had read several of his books, my own idea of Merton was still two-dimensional. I could not imagine he had problems being humble and staying put.

In December 1961, Merton suggested that perhaps I would like to come to the monastery for a visit. There was never any question in my mind about accepting though there was an issue of The Catholic Worker to get ready for publication and a night class in English Literature to finish at Hunter College. I was able to leave for Kentucky early in February 1962.

I had no money for such a journey — at the Catholic Worker one received room and board plus small change for minor expenses, subway rides and the like. I never dared ask even for a penny, preferring to sell The Catholic Worker on street corners in Greenwich Village, keeping a small portion of the proceeds for my incidental expenses and giving the rest to the community. A companion on the Catholic Worker staff, Bob Kaye, joined me. With our nearly empty wallets, we had no alternative but to travel by thumb. Before sunrise one damp winter morning we loaded up on Italian bread still warm from the oven of the Spring Street bakery and set off. I can still recall standing in nighttime sleet at the side of a highway somewhere in Pennsylvania watching cars and trucks rush past, many of them with colorful plastic statues of an open-armed Jesus on the dashboard. The image of Christ’s hospitality seemed to have little influence on the drivers. It took us two exhausting days to travel the thousand miles to the Abbey of Gethsemani.

But at last we reached the monastery. After the Guest Master showed us our rooms, my first stop was the monastery church. There was a balcony in the church that was connected to the guest house. Surviving such a trip, a prayer of thanksgiving came easily, but my prayer was cut short by the sound of distant laughter so intense and pervasive that I couldn’t resist looking for its source. I hadn’t expected laughter at a penitential Trappist monastery.

The origin, I discovered, was Bob Kaye’s room. As I opened the door the laughter was still going on, a kind of gale of joy. The major source was the red-faced man lying on the floor, wearing black and white robes and a broad leather belt, his knees in the air, hands clutching his belly. Though the monk was more well-fed than the fast-chastened Trappist monk I had imagined, I realized instantly that the man on the floor laughing with such abandon was Thomas Merton. His face reminded me of David Duncan’s photos of Pablo Picasso, not so much in details but a similar mobility of expression. And the inspiration for the laughter? It proved to be the heady smell of feet kept in shoes all the way from the Lower East Side to Gethsemani — the perfume of the Catholic Worker.

After that week-long stay at Gethsemani, The Seven Storey Mountain became a new and different book. No wonder the films of Charlie Chaplin were twice mentioned in The Seven Storey Mountain! Not only did I become aware that Merton was someone capable of hurricanes of laughter, but I learned that he was far from the only monk who knew how to laugh, though few of them exhibited the trait quite so readily as Merton.

The abbot, Dom James, though a hospitable man, was not initially quite so positive about a visitation of young Catholic Workers. In those days most American men had frequent haircuts, but haircuts seemed to Bob and me a massive waste of money. The next day Merton apologetically explained that our shaggy hair did not please the abbot. If we were to stay on at the abbey, Dom James insisted we have our hair trimmed. Merton hoped we wouldn’t object. A little while later I was sitting in a chair in the basement room where the novices changed into their work clothes; the room also served as a kind of barber shop. While the novices stood in a circle laughing, my hair fell to the concrete floor. Going from one extreme to the other, I was suddenly as bald as Yul Brinner.

After the haircut Merton took me to the abbot’s office. I can no longer recall what we talked about — it may well have been about Dorothy Day and community life at the Catholic Worker — but I will never forget the solemn blessing Dom James gave me at the end of our conversation. I knelt on the floor near his desk while he gripped my skull with intensity while praying over me. He had a steel grip. There was no doubt in my mind I had been seriously blessed. I have ever since had a warm spot in my heart for Dom James, a man who has occasionally been maligned by Merton biographers.

I recall another monk at the monastery who had much less sympathy for me and still less, it seemed, for Thomas Merton — or Father Louis, as Merton was known within the community. This was the abbey’s other noted author, Father Raymond, whose books were well known to Catholics at the time though they had never reached the broad audience Merton’s books had. Merton and I were walking down a basement corridor that linked the guest house kitchen to the basement of the main monastery building. There was a point in the corridor where it made a leftward turn and standing there, next to a large garbage container, was an older monk who was not so much reading as glaring at the latest Catholic Worker, which he held open at arm’s length as if the paper had an unpleasant smell. There was an article of Merton’s in it, one of his essays about the urgency of taking steps to prevent nuclear war. Father Raymond looked up, saw us coming his way, balled the paper up in his fist, hurled into the garbage container, and strode away without a word leaving a trail of smoke.

Once again, Merton’s response was laughter. Then he explained that Father Raymond had never had a high opinion of Merton’s writings and often denounced him at the community’s chapter meetings. “In the early days Father Raymond said I was too detached from the world, and now he thinks I’m not detached enough.” Merton laughed once again.

During that visit I had my first glimpse of Merton’s openness to non-Catholics and, more striking, non-Christians. It happened the first evening I was there. There was a hurried knock on the door of my room in the guest house. Merton was standing there, but in a rush as he was late for Vespers. He wanted me to have the pile of papers in his hands, a collection of Jewish Hasidic stories that a rabbi had left with him a few days before. “Read these — these are great!” And off he hurried to Vespers without further explanation, leaving me with a collection of amazing tales of mystical rabbis in Poland generations before the Holocaust.

I recall another evening a day or two later when Merton was not in a hurry. He was in good time for Vespers and already had on the white woolen choir robe the monks wore during winter months while in church. It was an impressive garment, all the more so at close range. I reached out to feel it thickness and density. In a flash Merton slid out of it and placed it over my head. I was astonished at how heavy it was! Once again, Merton laughed. The robe met a practical need, he explained. It was hardly warmer in the church than it was outside. If you wore only the black and white garments that were standard attire, you would freeze to death.

The guest master, a monk named Father Francis, knew I was at the monastery at Merton’s invitation and thought I might be able to answer a question which puzzled him and no doubt many of the monks: “How did Father Louis write all those books?” I had no idea, no more than he. But I got a glimpse of an answer before my stay was over. A friend at the Catholic Worker had sent a letter to Merton in my care. He urged Merton to leave the monastery and do something “more relevant,” such as join a Catholic Worker community. (Over the years Merton received quite a few letters telling him that he was in the wrong place.) What is memorable to me about this particular letter was the experience of watching Merton write. He had a small office just outside the classroom where he taught the novices. On his desk was a large grey typewriter. He inserted a piece of monastery stationery and wrote a reply at what seemed to me the speed of light. I had never seen anyone write so quickly. You will sometimes see a skilled stenographer type at such speed when copying a text, but even in a city news room one doesn’t often see actual writing at a similar pace. I only wish I had made a copy of his response. I recall that he readily admitted that there was much to reform in monasteries and that monastic life was not a vocation to which God often called His children, yet he gave an explanation of why he thought the monastic life was nonetheless an authentic Christian vocation and how crucial it was for him to remain faithful to what God had called him to. It was a very solid, carefully reasoned letter filling one side of a sheet of paper and was written in just a few minutes.

When I first met Merton, more than two years had passed since the Vatican’s denial of his request to move to another monastery where he might live in greater solitude. In March 1960, nearly a year before my visit, Merton had been given his own small cell in the monastery and soon after plans were made for the construction of a small cinder block building — in principle a conference center where Merton could meet with non-Catholic visitors, but Merton called it his hermitage — on the edge of the woods about a mile north of the monastery. Merton had lit the first fire in the fireplace several months before, on December 2nd. There was a small bedroom behind the main room. Merton occasionally had permission to stay overnight, but it would not be until the summer of 1965 that it became his full-time home. At that point he became the first Trappist hermit.

By the time I came to visit, it already had a lived-in look. It was winter so there was no sitting on the porch. We were inside, regularly adding wood to the blaze in the fireplace. I recall a Japanese calendar on the wall with a Zen brush drawing for every month of the year, also one of his friend Ad Reinhart’s black-on-black paintings. Of course there was a bookcase and, next to it, a long table that served as a desk placed on the inside of the hermitage’s one large window. There was a view of fields and hills. A large timber cross had been built on the lawn. On the table was a sleek Swiss-made Hermes typewriter. Off to one side of the hermitage was an outhouse which Merton shared with a black snake, a harmless but impressive creature.

What Merton took the most pleasure in when he showed me the hermitage was a sheet of parchment-like paper tacked to the inside of the closet door in his bedroom — a colorful baroque document such as one finds in shops near the Vatican: a portrait of the pope at the top in an oval with a Latin text below and many decorative swirls. In this case it was made out to “the Hermit Thomas Merton” and was signed by Paul VI.

The week ended abruptly. A telegram for me came from New York with the news that President Kennedy had announced the resumption of atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, thus another escalation of the Cold War and yet another indication that nuclear war might occur in the coming years. Anticipating such a decision, I was part of a group of New Yorkers who had planned to take part in an act of civil disobedience, a sit-in at the entrance to the Manhattan office of the Atomic Energy Commission, the federal agency then responsible for making and testing nuclear weapons. The abbey provided money for our return to New York by bus rather than thumb. Not many days later, now with a slight stubble of hair, I was in a New York City jail known locally as “The Tombs.”

Merton had a part even in that event. I recall a letter from him, sent care of the Catholic Worker, being hand delivered to me during the hour or two that we sat on the pavement awaiting arrest. (My monastic haircut made me interesting enough to be featured on the front page of one of New York’s daily newspapers the following morning.)

I was to meet with Merton face to face only one more time. The next occasion was a small retreat at the monastery on the spiritual roots of protest in November 1964. Would that we had time to talk about that as well! But from the summer of 1961 until his death in 1968, we carried on a busy correspondence. (Most of his side of it is published in The Hidden Ground of Love.) On average there was a letter or note from him nearly every month. There were also many envelopes containing copies of essays he had written and sometimes larger works, such as the manuscript of Peace in the Post-Christian Era, and Cold War Letters, a collection of letters on topics of the day. (Peace in the Post-Christian Era was at last published in 2004; Cold War Letters is due out this year.)

I didn’t know the phrase in those days, but, looking back, I realize he became for me what in the Orthodox Church is called a “spiritual father” — someone to whom you open your soul and who in turn can help you stay on the path of the Gospel and help you find your way back to that path when you stray, as I certainly did time and again. If I had understood spiritual fatherhood better, perhaps I would have made better use of his readiness to help me see the way forward and would have made fewer false steps, but even so it was a extraordinarily fruitful relationship. I was one of Merton’s adopted children. (In actual fact, as I would later realize, I was about the right age to be one of his children. I was born in November 1941, just five weeks before he left his teaching post at St. Bonaventure’s to make his way to the monastery. Merton was then 26.)

What keeps Merton so fresh all these years after his death? Why is he still such a helpful presence in so many lives? Mine too! He is a long time dead yet remains quite a lively presence in my life.

In Thomas Merton we meet a man who spent the greater part of his life trying with all his being to find the truth and to live a truthful life. Though he chose a celibate vocation in an enclosed monastic environment, he nonetheless, mainly thanks to his several abbots, had a voice which reached far beyond the abbey’s borders. With tremendous candor, he exposed through his writings his own on-going struggles and the fact that he was like the rest of us, often wracked with uncertainties, and was no stranger to the temptations each of us faces. At a time when there was little inter-religious contact, he challenged his readers to find God not only within their particular community but across national as well as cultural and religious borders. He did this while giving an example of how one could at the same time remain deeply rooted in Christian belief and faith. He was a man of dialogue, as we see in the hundreds of letters he wrote to an astonishing variety of people in all parts of the world, including Soviet Russia. We also see in him one of the healers of Christian divisions. He did this not by renouncing anything a Catholic Christian would normally believe, but by allowing himself to become aware of anything of value in other parts of the Christian community, whether something as big and deeply rooted as the Orthodox Church or as small as the Shaker movement whose craftsmen made chairs fit for angels to sit on.

We see in him a pilgrim. As pilgrims tend to do, he crossed many borders, but the greater part of that journey was lived in a small corner of Kentucky. During his 26 years as a monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani, he rarely traveled further than Louisville. For all his temptations to move elsewhere, he remained a member of his particular monastic community until his dying day. He is a model of uncomfortable stability. His pilgrimage was one that didn’t require hiking boots.

Merton gives us a model of someone with an unshakable love not only of Christ but of Christ’s mother and also his grandmother. Whenever he had a building in need of a dedication such as his hermitage or other shelters of solitude, it was either to Mary or Anne. In the communion of saints, they were his permanent patrons. Everything he did or represents is rooted, in part, in his devotion to them.

Sometimes I am asked: Is Thomas Merton a saint? I know him too well to say a glib “yes,” but also too well to say “no.” Certainly he was not a perfect person. But the same is true of other saints. With the possible exception of Christ’s mother, there are no perfect persons in the calendar of saints. In Merton’s case we know his imperfections because he made a point of writing them down for us to read.

Yet I think the answer is yes. Few people have done so much to help so many find their way toward Christ and a deeper faith. Few people have drawn so many toward the mercy of God.

* * *

Remembering Thomas Merton

A round table discussion between a few of Merton’s friends – Tommie O’Callaghan, Donald Allchin, Jim Forest and John Wu, Jr.

(a conversation chaired by David Scott, chairman of the Thomas Merton Society of Great Britain and Irealnd)

David Scott: The title of this conference is Your Heart is My Hermitage. We didn’t pick it particularly because it has a particular resonance. But we chose a wide title. I think it does give us some sense certainly of the solitude of Merton and also the passion and the friendship involved in his life. We are beginning our conference by asking the four people sitting beside me who knew and met Thomas Merton, to talk about their memories of him. As the years go by, this gets less and less possible so we are very honoured and delighted to welcome John Wu, who is standing in for Ron Seitz but is certainly a member of the panel in his own right, Donald Allchin, Tommie O’Callaghan and Jim Forest. I’ll introduce them briefly each as they come to speak. We’ve asked Donald to start. He’s the President of our Society and it’s very good to have him, because he really got us going two years ago. Had it not been for him, I don’t think we would have galvanised ourselves into action. Donald visited Merton in the 1960’s and brought back to England a great enthusiasm for Merton, and I think, for Merton, encouraged him to look again at his Anglican roots, amongst many other things. So, Donald, if you’d like to begin …

Donald Allchin: This is a wonderful occasion and it is wonderful that so many people here have come and especially I want to second what David has said – we are so grateful to so many of our American friends and people who are very much at the heart of the International Thomas Merton Society for coming to be with us. It’s a most wonderful starter – it’s a kind of booster rocket – for this, our first gathering here. In the current Merton Seasonal, which is the periodical produced by Bob Daggy in the Merton Archive in Louisville, there’s a reference to two categories of people: people who really knew Merton well, and people who claim to have known Merton. Well, I suppose I come into the second category. I always feel so on such an occasion. I have once or twice spoken before with Tommie. And with someone like Tommie who knew Merton intimately over the years, then I feel I am rather one of those people who claim to have known Merton.

It is true that I went three times to visit the monastery in the 1960’s. Each time I had three or four days there and each time I did have opportunities – wonderful opportunities – for long conversations with Thomas Merton. I think that was partly because Englishmen are pretty rare in Kentucky and Anglicans even rarer.

I’ll tell you a little incident from my first visit which will show you how correct I was in those days. I was evidently wearing a cassock, a kind of typical Anglican wrapover cassock, and after I had been there for a day or two, one or two American people in the guest house said, “Are you a Redemptorist lay brother? We’ve been trying to make out what that cassock is.” And I said, ” No, I am an Anglican.” ” Oh, and what kind of an order is that ?”, they said.

I confess that in the sixties, in Merton’s lifetime, when I was in America, I never told people that I had met him and talked to him because I think most people would simply not have believed me. And those who did believe me would have been so jealous that I would not have been able to bear it. All one knew about Thomas Merton, apart from the fact that everybody read his books, was that you couldn’t get at him. So in that sense it was an enormous sense of privilege which I had in making those visits.

On my first visit, I was introduced by a professor from the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, a very fine New Testament scholar who had been working for a year in Oxford. Now in the 1990’s, to be introduced to a Cistercian monastery by a Southern Baptist professor is perhaps not so strange. In the 1960’s, it was really almost unbelievable. I stayed for some days with Dr Dale Moody, the man who introduced me to Merton. I stayed with him for my first ever visit to the United States and I started my first visit to the United States in Kentucky and it was a wonderful thing to have done. I didn’t know what a good thing it was to have done until much later in a way when I looked back on it.

The first Sunday I was there, Dale Moody said “You had better go to your own church” so I went to St Mark’s Episcopal Church, a little church under the wing of a huge Baptist cathedral, which was how the Episcopal church is in Kentucky, a little tiny minority group with all these Baptist cathedrals dominating the landscape. The rector of the church said “We’ve got a visitor from England, the Reverend Mr Allchin from Oxford, England”, making it quite clear that I wasn’t from Oxford, Mississippi, ” And he’s staying up there in the Baptist seminary,” and there was a kind of gasp from the congregation. And as they came out, they shook my hand and said “Don’t let them convert you up there, will you ?” I said to Dale Moody, “You didn’t tell them that I was going on to stay with the Trappists at Gethsemani,” “They wouldn’t have believed me,” he said.

Anyhow, I was introduced to Tom Merton by a Southern Baptist. And when Dale Moody had left and I was left there sitting talking to Merton for the first time and feeling a bit shy – here I was talking to this man who was an internationally known writer and one or two of whose writings had influenced me very deeply, Tom said, “What have you been doing for the last few days that you’ve been staying in Kentucky ?” And I said “Dale has been taking me around and showing me some of the places and I’ve really been learning a little bit about the history of Kentucky and a lot about the Kentucky Revival in 1804 and 1805. ” . And then I said, “We went to Shakertown, to the Shaker village at Pleasant Ville. I must say I found it quite overwhelming. The buildings – there was something so beautiful about them. Do you know about the Shakers ?”

I shall never forget. He got up. He went over to his filing cabinet. He pulled out a drawer. He pulled out a file and there was a whole file of photographs of Shaker architecture and Shaker furniture – which in those days was not very well known. There were one or two books published in the States and available on it but not very well known. But Merton was right into it. He said, “I want to write a book about them.” Well, he never did but he did write one or two very interesting essays about the Shakers and he made use of the Shaker materials to illustrate the logos doctrine of St Maximus the Confessor in an absolutely brilliant way in his lectures on aesthetical and mystical theology which haven’t ever been published. One of the most beautiful passages in that document is the way in which he uses … he says, “If you want to have the logos of a bed or the logos of a chair, look at a Shaker bed, look at a Shaker chair, you can see what the innermost meaning is …”

So we started off on Shakers and that got us going. And from that time we never stopped. Now one of the difficult things which I found, I think it must have been after the ’67 visit, I thought to myself – I must make some notes of what we talked about – and I just found I couldn’t. I actually wrote him a little note to say that I found I couldn’t. I suppose it was because our conversation ranged so widely and so rapidly. We talked about so many different things. I was in some sense able to bring news and sometimes books or letters from people who Merton knew in England. I was able to bring him some kind of personal contact with the Russian Orthodox circles in Paris, especially the circle round Vladimir Lossky. He’d read Lossky’s book and been greatly influenced by it. We talked about those things. We talked about some of the poets in Britain. He greatly loved Edwin Muir. I think probably I introduced him to R.S.Thomas and he became very interested in R.S.Thomas’ work. And then, I don’t think it was my doing, but he discovered David Jones and that was a real discovery. We talked about … there were so many things we talked about. It was very difficult to make a kind of catalogue of them. There was a kind of quicksilver quality about the conversation.

The only time that I ever went up to the hermitage was in 1963. In 1967 and 1968, when he was living at the hermitage, he didn’t take me up. He came down and we had all our meetings in the guest house except in 1968, when we actually went out from the monastery, the only time that we did that. I think it was in 1967 that while we were talking, a message suddenly came through, “Father Abbot says would you talk to the Community before Compline.” I was a bit overawed by the thought of doing so, especially as I had hardly any time to prepare what I was going to say and Tom said “You must say yes.” So I did. And then I said, “What am I going to say to them ?” “Well,” he said, “tell them that you think the monastic life is important.” “Well,” I said, “they know that better than I do because they’re living it.” “Yes.” he said, “But they need to hear it from somebody outside.” So that’s what I did talk about as far as I can remember. I remember the Abbot, Dom James Fox, leaning over to me after the talk and saying, “We are going to have a little service now. It’s called Compline. Ever heard of that ?”

The third visit was in April 1968 and on this occasion I went with a friend, a student at the theological seminary in New York, where I was teaching at that time. We drove out and on this occasion Merton said, “Well, let’s go out for the day,” a thing he’d never done before and we went precisely to Pleasant Ville to the Shaker village and from there we went to Lexington and there was a rather memorable incident in the restaurant where we were having lunch. I was very correctly dressed with a clerical collar and a black [suit], always very correct in those days. And of course that didn’t particularly stand out in the restaurant. What stood out in the restaurant was my voice, which is quite normal here but isn’t quite normal in a restaurant in Lexington. A very smartly dressed lady came up and said, ” Oh Father, you must be from England.” And I said, “Yes, I’m from Oxford.” “Oh, from Oxford. Have you met our bishop ?” Well I’d been specially warned by friends not to meet the episcopal bishop if I could help it, so I hadn’t. So I said, “Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance.” Well, she talked to me for a bit and then she turned to this curious farmer who was sitting next to me and said, “And do you come from England, too ?” and Merton said, “No, I come from Nelson County, lady.” And she wondered what the strange old redneck was doing talking to this rather elegant young man from Oxford.

On the way back we stopped in a roadside café and had a cup of coffee. We looked at the television news which was telling us that Martin Luther King was in Memphis and that there was a sense that everything wasn’t going right. It was a very dangerous situation. And then the next item, which Merton records in his diary, was an item saying that Christiaan Barnard, the South African surgeon, had just done the first successful heart transplant operation ever. And evidently the news item said that this was a white man with a black man’s heart. The interviewer had asked him, “Doesn’t that feel very odd?” or something. Merton was amused and appalled by this particular element of the thing and was rather surprised that neither I nor Jerry had apparently noticed it. I had not noticed it for the simple reason that, by one of these extraordinary coincidences, I was expecting all the time to see my sister appear on the screen because she was head of the radiology department in that hospital, Groote Schuur, in Cape Town, where Christiaan Barnard was a surgeon and where the operation had taken place. She’d told me the last time that I’d met her what a difficult man he was. Anyhow, we drove on and it was as we drove on that over the car radio we heard the news that Martin Luther King had been shot. And Merton at once said, “We must go in to Bardstown. We must go and call at Colonel Hawks’ Diner.”

So we went to this small restaurant, a very nice little restaurant, which was kept by an African-American, Colonel Hawks, who was himself a Catholic and a great friend of the monastery and someone who Merton knew. And Merton knew that as a black man he would be devastated and also very anxious about his two children who were away at college … the whole situation was at that moment in a sense very fragile. And so we went and spent the evening there. It was a very memorable occasion in many ways, particularly because it was the first time that I had really met a black American in any depth. Colonel Hawks kept coming back to us – he was busy organising his restaurant and seeing that his guests were being served – but he kept coming back to us and talking and talking and talking. So that was the third time and, of course, the next time I got a telegram at Pusey House in Oxford in December with this extraordinary thing that Merton had died. But I must say, my quite immediate reaction was, in a very mild and distant way, I suppose, what was evidently the immediate reaction of Jean Leclercq. People were really worried, when Jean Leclercq came back that afternoon, how he would respond to the news because, perhaps, he was the person there [in Bangkok] who knew Merton best. And, as you know, Jean Leclercq simply said, ” Quelle joie !” ” What joy !”

I’ve gone on far too long. I’m sorry.

David Scott: Thank you, Donald, very much indeed for that. We’ll have an opportunity later on to come back with some questions but can I now ask Jim Forest to speak. Just one or two sentences for those of you who don’t know anything about Jim. It’s unlikely, I think. Jim still maintains his work for the peace movement in the Orthodox Church and I’m sure that must have been sparked off by his meetings with Thomas Merton and the whole background of the Catholic Workers Movement.

Jim, it’s lovely to have you here again and would you like now to speak for ten minutes or so on your memories of Thomas Merton.

Jim Forest: I’ve been trying hard for some time to think what to say about Thomas Merton because I’ve said much too much about him and written too much about him and I don’t like hearing myself say the same things over and over again. So I’m not going to tell the story about Merton laughing because of the smell of unwashed feet, for example. I’d rather talk about some of his qualities, as they impressed me. And perhaps attached to those qualities, appropriate stories . . . if I can think of appropriate stories. The qualities I can vouch for, but whether I can think of the stories that bear witness to them or not remains to be seen, because this is an absolutely extemporaneous and unpremeditated talk and it will, I hope, be not longer than ten minutes.

I think that one of the most impressive things to me about Merton was how uncontentious he was. I have been involved in something called the Peace Movement, which is not an aptly named movement. Those of you who have read Bleak House will remember Mrs Jellyby and she is more typical of the kind of person that we often have in our “peace movements.” I have sometimes thought that the way the peace movement has protected the world from World War III is by taking the most dangerous people into the peace movement where they are safely away from weapons and where they can do the least possible harm.

Merton was one of the least contentious persons that I have ever met in my life. The story I will tell is one that I learnt first from Merton. It is simply a story he liked to tell. It is one of the Desert Father stories and it is included in the Wisdom of the Desert, of two fathers who had been living together for twenty years or more, One of the fathers said to the other, “You know, we’ve never had an argument. It’s not too late. Let us see what it is like because men in the world are always arguing.” And so they discussed this and the other one said, “I have no idea how to do it.” The first one said, “It’s very simple. All we need is a brick. I’ll put the brick between us and I will say it’s mine and you will say it’s yours and then we will have an argument.” So the other one reluctantly agreed – agreeable person that he was, he agreed to argue. The first father came with a brick and put it in the middle and said, “This is my brick.” The other one did his very best and said “This is my brick,” – very meekly. The first shouted, “No, it is my brick !” And the other one said, “Well, in that case . . . it’s your brick. ”

I think this is rather the way Merton was. He was the last person in the world to invite somebody outside the bar for a fist-fight. He was not somebody who wanted to shed blood over a disagreement. Within the tradition of Christianity, you can think of him as being in the tradition of Erasmus. The things that we can’t sort out in this life, we will sort out in the next life. Let’s be patient. We don’t have to solve all of our problems here and now. There are various ways of understanding certain aspects of the tradition but what is very clear is we have to love each other. We hear this all the time. But what was very impressive about Merton to me was that this was actually the way he was. I would connect this to a tradition which I didn’t know at the time but which has become very dear to me in the Orthodox Church. If any of you are familiar with the ritual life of Orthodoxy you will know that from time to time, the deacon, or if there is no deacon, the priest, will come out from the Sanctuary and offer incense to all the icons and then, once he’s done that, will do the very same thing to all the people in the church, the reason being that each of us is an icon. We are all made, actually painted by God, written by God. We are icons from the hands of God. This fabulous significance of each person – we don’t very often meet people who communicate so comfortably and so deeply and richly the sense of the significance of the other. I’m very happy to tell you this is something which was normal, absolutely normal, with Merton.

The story that we’ve just heard from Donald about being in the restaurant. It wasn’t as if he was in some kind of terribly self-effacing mood, but just to say, “I come from Nelson County” was enough. And this gift that he had which some people say he developed from the time he lived in England – this somewhat self-effacing quality – he certainly never insisted to anybody that he was particularly important because that would stand in the way of the intimacy of the relationship, whichever kind of relationship it happened to be.

One of the funniest experiences I had at the monastery in some way touches upon this quality. The abbot found me a bit alarming. I had come hitchhiking down from the Catholic Worker in New York City and we didn’t very often see the barber – in fact I don’t know if I ever went to the barber once at the Catholic Worker. I haven’t the faintest idea how my hair got kept in order. It was certainly a sort of intimation of what was to happen with the Beatles some years later. But the abbot had apparently never had a guest whose hair was in such need of immediate attention and the word came down. Merton said to me at some point, “You know, the abbot is a little distressed about your hair. He wonders if you would be willing to have a haircut, otherwise he has to ask you to leave.” “Oh”, I said, “it’s no problem. This is not a relic or anything. I’m perfectly willing to have my hair cut.” So all the novices in this room where the novices changed into their work-clothes gathered round me while the shears were applied to my hair. The monk who was doing this asked, “How much do you want off ?” I looked around at all the monks. They had practically nothing, just a little stubble. I said, “That looks fine.” So I went from one extreme to the other while the monks stood there, just laughing and laughing. The abbot was, I think, a bit shocked at the extreme that I’d gone to. But still there was something about being with Merton that made one feel literally quite detached from just about everything. This was another quality. I would call it the quality of fearlessness. That I think is one of the most important attributes of Merton: that he communicated to so many people what it is like to live a fearless life.

If you read, as I am at the moment, the first of these volumes of his journals that are being published, you might keep it in the back of your mind while you are reading it, how open he is, how unprotective he is about himself, his future, and so on. There is some place where he just says that you have to abandon yourself completely, to love God and love your neighbour. This sense of abandonment. Not to be worried about the future and what will happen. Will you have the house? Will you have this and will you have that? Will people care about you? Will you be important? Etc. etc.

Although he didn’t speak about it very often and perhaps never spoke about it so transparently as in these early journals, this theme that we see picked up very early in the journals is of simply abandoning yourself so that you can live very freely in the Resurrection because there is nothing actually to worry about. There’s nothing we can do to prevent our death. There’s absolutely nothing we can do to prevent a good deal of suffering in our own lives. It’s all going to happen. And so you just say well that’s going to happen. The form it will take remains to be seen. The only thing that actually matters is just simply living in obedience, living in attentiveness to this wonderful creation that’s been given to us and which will carry us along in whatever way is necessary. This sense of the providence of God.

Whenever you meet somebody like that, it’s a life-changing experience. As much as people talk about it, when you encounter the reality of somebody who lives with that kind of absolute confidence in the providence of God, you are never the same again. It’s very freeing.

The last thing I want to point out is a very significant gift that Merton gave me around 1963. In terms of cash value it was worth practically nothing. It was a photograph of an icon. And that gift has continued little by little to reverberate in my life ever since, although I must say it took some years before I paid any attention to it. But I would say the last quality that strikes me, that has to do with this icon, is the sense that Merton had of the unity of the church.

Now we can all see how deeply divided the church is, how mercilessly divided it has been by events in history. It’s quite amazing when you encounter somebody who was so deeply nurtured by what is at the root of Christianity, the traditions of spiritual life of which the icon is one example. It’s a very important one for him. That love of the stories of the early church, the spiritual practices of the early church, his readiness to receive from any part of the church, from Orthodox, from Baptist, from Episcopalians, Anglicans and so forth and so forth, and then we go outside Christianity to all the different traditions of spiritual life that he found so amazing, so interesting, so helpful, so important, this deep underlying sense of the connectedness, the oneness that stands beneath divisions. And it was never a denial of division but that the way to deal with this division was to go more deeply. That some events of a healing nature occur because we go more deeply. And it’s not to heal the divisions that we go there but simply because we are in a process of coming closer to God.

I’m trying to think of moments with Merton where one could see something of this. It may not seem immediately relevant but I recall sitting on the porch of his hermitage with a Polish visitor to the monastery who had come with me from the Catholic Worker – he had arrived a few days later – an artist who had had some difficulty in his relationship with the Catholic church and was asking Merton to explain the Mass. And I have never heard anybody explain the Mass the way Merton did that day. He explained it as a dance, which I would only understand much later in my life really. It would just continue to sit in the back of my mind some place. Because I frankly didn’t see the dance element very often in the Masses that I was attending, and less and less, one might say, as the years passed. But none the less gradually it became clear to me that it should be and sometimes is a dance. And how remarkable it was that he could see that and that it would occur to him at that moment to explain worship in terms of that graceful movement, the ancient ritual motions that we engage in if we are lucky.

It’s a very original way, it may seem, of explaining liturgical life but actually it’s simply a return. Merton who was seen by so many as a radical turns out to be one of the great conservatives of the twentieth century, bringing back to us so many forgotten bits and pieces of the church that we simply forgot were there, just crumpled up in some sack in the attic somewhere, thrown into a sea-chest, that he would lovingly recover and present to us as news, which it was.

David Scott: Thank you very much indeed. John, John Wu from Taiwan. Rather cold yesterday and he came without a coat, but warming up. There are two things about John. The first is that he spent his honeymoon at Gethsemani – and that must be a rare occurence. The second was that it was through his father’s connection with Thomas Merton in that wonderful work, the poems and writings of Chuang Tzu, that the relationship began. Obviously [to John Wu] in a way you bring your father with you, don’t you, when you talk. So it’s very good to have you, not only for stepping in at the last moment but also for yourself. Over to you, John, for ten minutes of your memories …

John Wu: As David has said, I met Merton because of my father. That’s true. In the sixties I wasn’t particularly interested in Merton’s spiritual writings. I was more or less involved in some social protests – first in civil rights and then in the anti-war movement. The first writings that I read were of course the Seven Storey Mountain, but that was quickly forgotten. Later I began to read some of the writings on his social involvement, especially the writings in the Catholic Worker, which still costs one cent. I am sure if you have read the wonderful letters from Merton to Jim Forest you will understand very, very well … it’s almost like a capsule of the history of the peace movement in the sixties. Wonderful letters. But when I say wonderful letters, I don’t mean that they were untroubled letters. They pointed out some of the really interesting and painful conflicts that people who were involved in the peace movement felt. And Merton felt it. Merton had this great compassion to understand what individuals in the peace movement were feeling.

But let me just talk a little about our trip to Gethsemani. Again I was really not very much prepared to meet Merton. I had started writing to him, really very silly puerile letters which I have read again … and they are, they are very painful to read. They are collected at Bellarmine and I suggest you never look up those letters! But he wrote very beautiful letters to me and always very, very encouraging. I myself was going through problems especially academic problems and other problems. He gave good advice to me often. He had started writing to my father in the early sixties, I think it was March of 1961. The correspondence consisted of over eighty letters between them and they were very beautiful letters, very spiritual. Merton was really interesting when he was writing to Jim Forest, of course. You could see all the topical things and so on but to my father he wasn’t. He knew that my father wasn’t really so much involved in such things. He wrote on a plane. He seemed to write to each person on the plane that the person could be receptive. And this is, I think extremely important. Even when you read, and someone mentioned this at the last conference, reading some letters to teenagers in California, Merton was a teenager, he became a teenager when he was writing those letters. It’s a kind of compassion I think and now that I’m in my fifties I try to do that too. When I write to teenagers, I try to be a teenager too. Not in a condescending way. Really in a joyous way too, reliving those years. When I write to my children I try to do that too.

I think that as the years go by, my wife and I … she was a bride at that time, we just saw him for a couple of days. We saw him one afternoon from noon until the next day. Merton took us to some place in the forest and we camped overnight. I don’t remember him setting up the camp for us so we were really on our own. We also spent some time in the hermitage which was a wonderful experience. And the hermitage really was a mess at that time. This was in June of ’68 and by that time he was reading just about everything and people were simply sending him things. He had so many friends, publishing friends especially. But not only publishing friends. Just friends from everywhere. And they sent him many, many things and I remember seeing some books . . . I had just finished college at the time so I had read some of the books that he was reading too, which indicates something about him. He was really up to date on everything. He was reading people that I was interested in. For example, Herbert Marcuse. He was interested in Hannah Arendt. I remember I was reading her monumental work on totalitarianism. He was really very deeply interested and of course he wrote about that too.

He wrote about things at the time which many people would be shocked to find out that he’d been writing about. Marcuse was very interesting. I was reading Marcuse and I wasn’t particularly struck by his political thinking. He was a Neo-Marxist and a kind of a darling of the students in the mid-sixties. I was very happy when I took up One Dimensional Man and I was leafing through it and then Merton said, “Oh, you’re interested in Marcuse.” And I said, ” Well, yes. I’m very interested in him.” And he said, “Isn’t he wonderful when he writes about language ?” You wouldn’t really expect that because Marcuse was really, as I said, a Neo-Marxist. What would a Neo-Marxist be writing about language for ? And I said, “Yes!” Because that’s exactly what struck me when I was in college, reading the book. Marcuse did a wonderful critique on language, you see, trying to save language as a poet would try to save language. This is the thing that struck me. I was happy for that. You know when you are in college you don’t really have much self-confidence in things until perhaps an older person or someone whom you really respect, tells you that these things are important. That’s not the only book. There were other things too that we seem to have shared. What has been important for me through the years, in reading Thomas Merton, is really each time that I read, even the journals, the journal Jim mentioned, Run to The Mountain, what struck me in reading through that particular journal was really the ideas at such an early age … he was 24, 25, 26, … the themes that he wrote about as a young man, simply stuck with him and in time they simply flowered. He had great insight even as a young man.

At lunchtime I was speaking to Erlinda Paguio, who will be giving a paper tomorrow in our session. I was talking to her about what Merton had said to me about China. And he simply said it in passing. He said to me – this is back in 1968 – , “Well, every Chinese has been affected by the Revolution.” That’s a simple enough statement and at the time I didn’t really think anything of it. I was living the good life in America. In that sense I was affected too and I didn’t think about it. I didn’t think about how affected I really was until I visited Beijing about a month and a half ago. And those words, Merton’s words, came back to haunt me when I was in Beijing and thinking about the history of the revolution. What struck me was that, as I was talking to the people in Beijing – I had a very interesting time there, I was talking with taxi-drivers and workers and so on -, what struck me was that I began to feel a certain deep empathy with the Chinese there, on the mainland, that probably would not have been possible if I had not gone to Beijing. And Merton’s words came in to my mind at that time. I said, “Yes, indeed, I have been affected by the Revolution and I will continue to be affected by the Revolution, the more I become involved with the Chinese”. And also I think, for the first time in Beijing, (although I am ethnically Chinese, I was raised in America), I really felt that I was Chinese for good or for worse. I was Chinese and that in some way I was more deeply involved in what has happened to the Chinese than I thought before. And that was kind of interesting.

There are many, many things that I would like to say but I think that I have said enough. Thank you.

David Scott: We’re doing very well on time so there will be opportunities to come back to our speakers with any questions you might have a bit later on. Our final speaker in this panel of friends of Merton is Tommie O’Callaghan. One of the great joys of this conference is meeting the people whose names one has known as names but not as people. And so it’s super to see you, Tommie, because there really is a Tommie O’Callaghan for us English people. You’re not just a photograph in a book or someone who had picnics with Thomas Merton. Alas, I suppose the great thing that one knows about you from the books are those amazing picnics and here is a little plug for a very, very rare edition of Thomas Merton.

This is the official Thomas Merton Cookbook. There are three editions. One is Esther de Waal’s, one is mine and one is Jim Forest’s. It’s a work in progress so if you know anything about Merton’s food just let me know and we’ll add a few pages on.

Jim Forest: We’ll have to make one for Tommie …

David Scott: We will. Because, Tommie, you’re in it under the heading “How to Make a Picnic”, if I can find it here – I’m sure you all know it:-

“Recipe for a Good Picnic: Call Tommie O’Callaghan in Louisville and take it from there. Special dietary requirements are crackers without milk, like saltines – and you must tell me more about them – chicken is no problem. Letters passim and for a full list of picnic contents, see The Hermitage Years, page 109, that’s the English version.”

Tommie, I’m sure there’s so much more than that. And particularly there’s his contact with your family and the way family life comes across in the memories, in the books. And that for us has been very important – to think that a family is something that mattered to Merton as much as everything else. So over to you now for your memories. It’s lovely to have you …

Tommie O’Callaghan: Thank you. Well, it’s lovely to be here. I think that one of the most interesting parts of this whole business of knowing Merton has been the travels to the different meetings, and meeting so many wonderful people who are so absolutely fascinated and interested in the whole Tom Merton – not as “saint”, not as a relic man, nor as a guru, but as a real person … and he certainly was. And he was in our life.

I first met Merton in the early fifties through some friends who had a cousin out at Gethsemani and it was a fleeting “Hullo and how are you ?” I had gone to school in Bardstown, to a boarding school, had finished in ’49, the year after Seven Storey Mountain came out. Our senior trip incorporated a trip to Gethsemani and at that time I thought ” Oh, gee, that holy monk is out there in those fields somewhere.” And that was that.

After college I left and went to Manhattanville Sacred Heart in New York where I met Dan Walshe who was my philosophy professor. Of course I immediately told him that I was from Kentucky and he said he knew it well. We kept in touch over the years. Dan became ill in the late fifties and came to Louisville to recover, teach at the monastery at the request of Dom Fox and teach at Bellarmine College. Dan was a very holy man. He was not a religious and he spent weekends in our home because he was not one that wanted to stay at the monastery seven days a week. And Dan was very generous with his friends’ time, believe me I know, and he told me one time that Tom wanted me to do something, wanted me to take some letters over to Bellarmine. And this started a communication between Merton and me and my family that continued until the time of Tom’s death.

How Dan brought Tom into my life, into our life, I’m not quite sure. But he arrived there to the tune of a telephone call in the morning saying “I’m at the doctor’s, will you pick me up ? I need to go here. I need to go there.” And I became a sort of a chauffeur. But I also had six children at the time so I was skilled in this sort of work. And we enjoyed Merton. I liked him. He was very easy to be with. He was not at all pompous. He was not any great writer. He was just a good friend and a very easy, fun person to have around. As time went on, we became closer in that my children loved picnics, he loved children and he would call and say ” Do you want to bring everybody out for a picnic this Friday or Saturday or Sunday or whatever . . .” And we got into the habit of going to the monastery for picnics. We did a lot of June picnics at the monastery because we have a daughter whose birthday is in May and Colleen always wanted to have her birthday party out at the monastery so June became the better date rather than May to go out there. So at least every June we were there for a picnic. And there were many others. Listening to me, you’d think that he was never within the hermitage, that he was never really under the rule of silence. So understand when I say these things, that he was. But he occasionally took breaks and the breaks happened often to be with the O’Callaghan family and he thoroughly enjoyed the children but I don’t think he wanted to keep them there.

We were friends through the era that he was getting the hermitage, not getting the hermitage, going around and around with Dom James, cussing Dom James up one side and loving him down the other. And I must explain this. Dom James was his excuse. If he wanted to do something, he probably did it. But if someone wrote and said would you come and do this, he could always say no, you know my abbot will not let me travel. So Dom James was the father figure for Merton and we all have used parental figures in our lives as excuses. And that’s exactly how I feel their relationship was. They were very close. They certainly had their disagreements. But, you know, he was Dom James’ confessor. I mean that is the closeness that was there. And I know in one of the letters that Berrigan wrote him after Dom James had left office and Father Flavian had come in, Dan Berrigan, who was teaching at Le Moyne in Syracuse at the time, wrote and said that now that you have a new abbot who is more lenient you can come to Le Moyne and teach a class. And Tom had to face the fact and write to say that, “Thank you, but really I can’t leave. I didn’t join the monastery to leave”. And he did. He had used Dom James as the excuse. You know how you used to complain about your parents, letting you do this and not letting you do that. That is the relationship Merton had with Dom James. I think Dom James was perfect for Merton. I’m not trying to eradicate another thought that you might have but I just feel like I always have to say that.

Father John Loftus who was Dean of Bellarmine College in the early sixties was very instrumental in starting up the Bellarmine Merton Centre. Dom James and Father John Loftus were close friends but Father John Loftus and Thomas Merton were very, very close. Dan Walsh continued to be a part of this. Dan was still teaching at the monastery. He was teaching at Bellarmine and he was also teaching with the Passionists. So Dan continued to live in Louisville until his death. His death was after Tom’s. I met Jim Forest in ’69 just after Tom had died and I was very curious about this job of mine as a trustee. I knew that there were going to be a lot of “do’s” and “don’ts” on this trustee business and many things could not be printed, published or what have you without the trustees’ permission, which I didn’t begin to understand. But I was out at the monastery at a trustee meeting – James Laughlin, Naomi Burton and myself – and “his honour” was there. He said something about he was going to do this and he was going to do that and I said ” Well, you know you have to get permission from the Trustees.” And Jim said, “Well, I’ve never got permission for anything in my life and I’m certainly not going to start now with Merton stuff.” And I thought, “Oh, boy, here we go !” I knew what I was in for.

When Tom asked me to be a trustee it was certainly not because of my literary knowledge or abilities, but he needed someone from Kentucky who was going to be able to be involved with both the monastery and Bellarmine College and who was a native or a person living in that area. When he asked me if I would do this, James Laughlin of New Directions would be one, Naomi Burton Stone would be the second – both of course very much involved in the publishing, editing and literary business – and I would be the third one. And I said yes I would do it. I would not promise that I was going to read all those things that he wrote. I would keep a shrine in the living room with two candles and a picture and teach all the children to genuflect. And was there anything else I was supposed to do ? He said no; that was fine, that was fine. We had a good relationship. I never expected to have to go to work as a trustee so quickly.

We kept all of the letters, all of the files, at our home for about two years after Tom’s death. Brother Pat sent them in with me. At that time I did count … there were 1820 files of correspondence. They’ve gone up now because Bob [Daggy] has gotten more in. But that was how many files we had of letters to or from Merton. Frank and I think he must have worked all day and night on his readings, his letters and the writings. He was absolutely a phenomenal man. A delightful person, would love being here with us, probably is, and I thank you all very much …

David Scott: Thank you, Tommie, very much indeed. I expect that’s whetted our appetites to ask any questions and add any comment. I think now’s the time to break it open.

Jim Forest: Could I just tell one story about Dom James? I want just to add to what Tommie said about Dom James because you might be left with a wrong impression from my story about my haircut, to think that I was annoyed with the abbot. I wasn’t. I found it all part of the adventure of being there. It was just something that happened as part of the special weather. It didn’t bother me at all. But after I had the haircut, I received an invitation from Dom James to come and to visit with him. Merton told me how to find the abbot’s office. I was a little alarmed – I was always a little nervous about people in authority, but of course I went. I cannot remember any more what we talked about but I remember a pile of Wall Street Journals on his desk which wasn’t a publication I read regularly. I think he was a graduate of the Harvard Business School and I think he’d succeeded in making the abbey solvent which was a rather significant achievement. I don’t know very much about those things and I don’t remember any more of what we talked about. But the one thing I remembered vividly, it was quite a wonderful experience to be with him. The strong fatherly quality that he had as abbot, which is all that the word means, was very apparent. And at the end of our time together, he asked if I would like a blessing. Of course I said, “Yes. ” I knelt down on the floor in front of him and he put his hands on my head. And I have never had anybody leave their fingerprints in my brain ! It was really something ! This was not an inconsiderable experience. It shows you how strong the bone is around the brain. It was a very powerful blessing and it continues to reverberate inside of my little head.

David Scott: Good. Are there any questions which anyone would like to ask and I’m sure the panel will be very pleased to try and answer them.

Question: Could I ask if the new journals that are being published, are they quite new or are they putting together old journals, some of which have already been published ?

Tommie O’Callaghan: Merton never wrote anything just once. Remember that. Like many authors. But he kept an absolute daily diary and actually what you are seeing in the journals are his daily diaries. Run to the Mountain, which was the first one was edited by Brother Pat[rick Hart]. Now I do know that there are some parts of that which were found later … found, in fact, within the last six months, up at St Bonaventure’s and I think the paperback edition is going to have to try to have those in there. I just heard about it the other day, that there were, not many, but several pages that were found later. He wrote many pamphlets and books from journal notes so, yes, you are going to see, by reading the journals all the way through, you are going to see duplications, if you’re a big Merton reader, of some other things.

Jim Forest: But there’s a lot that I’ve never seen before. Lots.

John Wu: I think your question is whether the journals are a rehashing. They are not. At least not Run to the Mountain.

Tommie O’Callaghan: You know, Merton was not as allergic to things as he said he was. He would tell me never to bring cheese and you know you were talking about those soda crackers. I took Brie. I took anything. And he ate it. He was not nearly as allergic a person as he would have liked to have been … maybe a little bit of a hypochondriac.

John Wu: He was not allergic to beer at all.

Tommie O’Callaghan: Nor rum.

John Wu: Nor, I think, vodka. I remember there was a Brother Maurice who used to take water down to Merton, he bought in a bottle of vodka or gin when we were at the hermitage. I was shocked. I thought that monks were not supposed to drink at all. It was your fault, Tommie. You never told us that he was doing all these things and we had this terrible image of him as a …

Tommie O’Callaghan: You know, Donald, when you say that he didn’t want anybody to know who he was – the man from Nelson County story – I had an occasion. I had taken my sister . . . I was very careful about going out and taking people to meet Merton or even discuss him. I felt that our friendship was not something built on his literary works, it was simply a friendship and that was that. But my sister was in town and he had said bring her out to the hermitage and I did. When we got there he said, “Listen. There’s this jazz band playing down on Washington Street and I’d like to go”. And I said “Tonight ?” And he said “Yes.” Well, my husband, Frank, who seems to disappear out of the country when anything big is going on, was in South America, I guess, so Megan and I drove Tom in (I had seven children at that point) and I fed them dinner. Tom helped Kathy with her homework and I gathered some mutual friends, Ron and Sally Seitz, Pat and Ben Cunnington, Megan, myself, my brother and his wife, and we all went down to Washington Street to this jazz band.

There was a bass fiddler there who Tom just thought was great and he insisted we bring him over and buy him drinks, and guess who’s buying the drinks? And Tom is just taken with this guy who’s from Boston and he’s saying to him, “I’m a monk.” “I’m a Trappist monk.” and [the bass player] he’s saying, “Well, I’m a brother too.” And Tom said ” I live out at the monastery.” and he said, “Oh, we have a church up in Boston”. And it goes on like, “Can you top this ?” and so Tom says, “I am a priest,” and this guy says, “Brother, I’m a preacher.” They’re hitting it right off and the man is, in the black vernacular, a great jazz musician, just great. And then Tom says, “I’m Thomas Merton.” And this guy says, “Well, I’m Joe Jones !” And I mean Tom could get absolutely nowhere and I loved it, I just loved it. I called my brother to take him back that night because I really did have to get home to the seven children and get them up for school the next day. As I’m getting ready to leave, Tom stops me and says “Wait a minute. Waitress, give her the bill !”

Question: You’ve spoken of a man of enormous freedom of spirit. But the other side of that was that he had an extraordinarily disciplined personal spirituality. I wonder from your personal knowledge of him whether any of you can say a bit more about that. The way you saw that very different and secret kind of side to his life, his personal discipline and spirituality.

Jim Forest: I remember one of the conversations I had the first time I was at the monastery was with a priest who was the guest master, Father Francis. And Father Francis asked me, “How does Father Louis write all those books ?” Of course I hadn’t the faintest idea. What was interesting to me was that he didn’t know. He was a member of the community and he could see that Merton was living a fairly normal monastic life, that he was celebrating mass every day, that he was participating in the offices that were being sung by the choir monks, that he was somebody living a normal monastic life from the point of view of a brother monk. And if you read the essays in the book, Thomas Merton, Monk, for example, you see one monk after another recalling what it was like to live in community with Merton. And you can understand that they were all probably quite bewildered in much the way that Father Francis was by his ability to write many books in a relatively short period of time.

I saw him writing once, and this may seem irrelevant to your question, but I hope it will prove relevant. I had brought down a letter from somebody at the Catholic Worker who was rather critical of the monastic vocation and was challenging Merton to come to live at the Catholic Worker Community in New York. I was reluctantly delivering this letter because I had said I would do so. I didn’t agree with its point of view at all. And Merton said “The abbot probably won’t agree to me receiving or answering this letter, so I’ll write the answer now and you can take it back with you.” I regret to this day that I didn’t keep a copy of it but I am very happy that I saw him write the letter, because I have never in my life — and I am a writer, I’m a journalist, I’ve worked with writing people on close terms for most of my adult life  — I’ve never seen anybody write with the speed of Merton. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that it was as if the paper caught fire passing through the big mechanical typewriter that was sitting on the desk in the room adjacent to the room where he gave his lectures to the novices. It just flew through the typewriter being covered at high speed with letters from the alphabet as it passed and sort of dented the ceiling. An unbelievably quick mind and the ability to organise his thoughts and to express them verbally at a speed which I have never seen anybody come close to. This meant that in periods when most of us are getting around to the salutation, he has finished the letter.

When you talk about these 1820 files of correspondence and so forth, you can only appreciate his ability to carry on these kind of relationships with people — and this is only the letters, this isn’t the books, and a lot of Merton stuff you’d be surprised to know is unpublished, not just the tapes but a good deal of written material is unpublished — the output was just phenomenal — I think actually that it was impossible, had it not been for the monastic life, the disciplined life he was leading. The productivity that he was capable of probably would not have been achieved if he had gone on to simply live as a layperson. We joke about Thomas Merton’s bottles of this, that and the other thing, champagne, gin and vodka, many bottles of beer and so on. I personally think he would have become an alcoholic and would have died at an early age if he hadn’t become a monk. He needed to be in a situation where there were people who could help him to channel his many good qualities and protect him from his self-destructiveness. He needed to be in a situation where there was a very high degree of discipline, spiritual discipline and a structured life. He needed that as a matter of life and death. And as a result of it, his ability to realise his gifts was saved and purified. And the bits of time that he had available per day to use for his work, his correspondence and his writing of various essays and books came in the spaces that were created by this discipline. This is a short answer because one could also talk about what you learn from him as a spiritual father and what he encourages you to do and so forth and so forth, which reflects his values…

Donald Allchin: I just want to say that from the little I’ve seen and also from simply working a little bit in the archives with some of the unpublished material at Bellarmine, I just back up 100% what Jim has said. He was a man of extraordinary inner discipline and he must have been a man of extraordinary intellectual discipline. In those last seven or eight years, he had so many different ideas that, as I have said, it was a kind of non-disintegrating explosion which was going on, so many ideas at work, writing to so many people and in every case he is actually being the person he is writing to. So he has a fantastic capacity which of course other great writers have too, to be many people at once, and yet at the same time at the middle of it there is an extraordinary principle of unity and integration. And the spiritual discipline I think was very hidden which is I think the sign of just how true it was because I think that it is one of the signs of real spiritual discipline that it should be hidden. I remember, because it was in a way so not typical, the first time I was there, and we went up to the hermitage, this was before he was living in the hermitage, there must have been a fridge, because we had iced water, he made the sign of the cross over the water. I don’t ever remember him doing that on another occasion but just for a moment you saw this deeply traditional monastic person, before we drank. And that’s all part of what Tommie was talking about. That’s the person. And what you were saying, Jim, that’s absolutely true as well. That was the wholeness of the man.

John Wu: And getting to the point of things. Understanding what was authentic and what was not. Separating the kernel from the shell. I think that’s very, very important. Certainly in his writings, you can turn to any page in his writings and point your finger to it and it’s relevant somehow. It’s not a waste of words at all. And I think that’s great discipline, great training and it starts early.

Question: This is a follow up on this. Were there particular exercises, for example, that he used either in the early days of his monasticism in the forties or after he established the hermitage to retire from the community, fasts – Lenten fasts or fasts at other times of the year – when it’s known that he subjected himself to particular austerities.

Donald Allchin: I would have guessed he was very simple in following the rule. When he went to Gethsemani, the Trappist rule was very austere physically. I was enormously struck the first time I was there in August 1963 by the fact that in those days there was absolutely no air-conditioning in the church. The church was extremely hot and the monks were still wearing very heavy habits. That changed. On that outward austerity of the life, Merton said to me, ” I think that one of the tragedies of our life twenty or thirty years ago, ” and he was speaking in the mid-sixties, ” We were living a very genuine monastic life and many people came who had a real call to the monastic life but they didn’t have a call for living in the 13th Century !” Which was his way of saying there was a proper kind of adaptation. He wasn’t sure whether they were doing it very well but there was an adaptation which they needed to make.

The most revealing letters on the subject of his personal life of prayer in the Hermitage are the letters to Abdul Aziz, the Pakistani Moslem writer who in a very Pakistani/Indian way kept asking him , “I want to know exactly what you do, I want to know exactly what you do.” And Merton didn’t want to tell him but he went on asking, so eventually he does tell him. It’s very simple. Just a basic kind of …

Jim Forest: Let me add a little bit to that. One of the problems with the letters to Abdul Aziz is that it is a perfect example of this gift Merton had of writing to people from almost within their own skin. Here he is writing to somebody who is in a tradition which radically rejects the Trinity, the Holy Trinity, which for Merton is absolutely at the centre of spiritual life. And it’s a remarkable letter in terms of trying to explain the Holy Trinity to a Moslem and at the same time to reveal …. he has to do that because he’s been asked to explain his spiritual life and to do so without reference to the Trinity is inconceivable. It would be so profoundly deceitful as to be a lie. So you see in the context of that letter what he is doing.

But it’s not all there and one of the irritating things, I think, for many people is that in this flood of books that Merton produced, the most intimate aspects of his spiritual life are more or less hidden. You have to read between the lines. And you have to know something about the rhythm of monastic life, the discipline of monastic life, the fundamental features of monastic spirituality and take that for granted. Because for all of the writing that he did, he is not revealing all this – what he takes for granted. To that you would probably find it interesting to add his discovery in the late fifties, by the time that he and the O’Callaghans were starting to have their picnics, he became very interested in the Hesychasts. I think Donald was one of the people who at a certain point became involved in that area of exploration in his life.

Now who are the Hesychasts? This is a spiritual tradition, basically, of Mount Athos, the Holy Mountain, the monastic tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy. It comes from a Greek word having to do with silence, inner stillness, and it’s associated with the Jesus Prayer. One of the things which I wish I had time to do would be to explore very carefully with a fine toothcomb Merton’s lectures, his letters, a lot of the unpublished material which was written strictly for monastic use. It wasn’t even written in a finished prose form. A lot of it was more in the form of notes, outlines and scattered reflections. I would love to see what is there on the Jesus Prayer because I know that in the last ten or twelve years of Merton’s life, the Jesus Prayer which is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” became a very important part of his spiritual practice. There’s not time here to talk about it but it’s good to be aware of it.

Donald Allchin: I’d just like to add one thing to that. In the Archive at Bellarmine there is a copy of the book which I am sure many people here know called The Art of Prayer, which is a prayer anthology from the Russian monastery of Valamo in Finland which was edited by Bishop Kallistos, Timothy Ware, and I think published about 1966 or 1967. In other words it is a book which Merton received about a year or two before his death. It’s quite clear from looking at the way the book is and the way the underlinings are, that he was not using it as a study book, he was using it as a prayer book, as a meditation book. It is very striking, it is the passages from Simeon the New Theologian, it is the passages about the use of the Jesus Prayer which are underlined and emphasised. There are lots about how extremely important in the last years of his life, that Eastern tradition of the Jesus Prayer was.

David Scott: We’ve probably got time for one more area of thought and questioning. If there is anyone … Tommie would like to say something, anyway.

Tommie O’Callaghan: You might be interested. We have started in Louisville a Thomas Merton Centre Foundation. It’s lay people and monks. It’s in coordination with the monastery and Bellarmine College and the idea is to support Bob Daggy’s Merton Centre. This spring, Fernando Beltrán gave a lecture and Margy Betz was there too with scholars that came in for a scholastic retreat, which was not open to the public. In planning our program for next year, I asked Father Timothy if he would consider a round table of those monks who knew Merton. Now we’re going away from what we’ve tried to do, the intellectual or the literary Merton. We are going to have a round table, such as this, of people like Dom Flavian, Father Timothy, John Eudes [Bamberger], the monks that were there with Merton either in his novitiate, who worked with him or were taught by him. This has never been done and I was amazed that Father Timothy said he would do it. But I explained to him that we weren’t trying to bring Merton down as a relic again, but there were people who were really interested in what he was like in that monastery – what was it like living with him ? Was he a pain or you know ? So we are going to have that, sometime in September in 1997 in Louisville, and I invite any and all of you that are free to keep in touch and we’ll let you know when. But I’m excited about the prospect of that.

David Scott: Thank you. I’m very grateful for the four participants here to have set us off with their memories. Time past and time future are both contained in time present. I guess we need the past and we’ve got the present and I hope that in the course of the next couple of days that we shall take those memories and use them for some ideas and thoughts for our own development, for our thoughts about the world in which we live so that Merton can help us reach out . . . and I’m sure you’d like to thank with me the four who’ve been with us just now to do that . . .

* * *

Getting From There to Here

by Jim Forest

Jim Forest photo by Maria Kokkinou
Jim Forest
photo by Maria Kokkinou

My parents were people radically out of step with the America of the cold-war fifties. In those days they both belonged to the Communist Party. This made me a “red-diaper baby.” Yet religious inspiration played a major part in the lives of my parents as long as I can remember.

An orphan raised by a Catholic farming family in Massachusetts, my father became active in the local Catholic parish, serving as an altar boy. Inspired by a saintly pastor, he was preparing to become a priest. But the old priest was sent to another parish and his successor was a rigid man who ordered my father to resign from the local Protestant-sponsored Boy Scout troop. His strict eyes picking out my father at Mass on Sunday, he preached against Catholic engagement with those who were not in communion with Rome. My father walked out on Mass that day and never returned. Yet I gradually became aware that underneath the bitterness he had acquired toward Catholicism was grief at having lost contact with a Church which, in many ways, had shaped his conscience. Far from objecting to my own religious awakenings, he cheered me along.

My mother had been raised in a devout Methodist household but was also disengaged from religion. When I was eight, I recall asking her if there was a God and was impressed by the remarkable sadness in her voice when she said there wasn’t. Some years later she told me she had lost her faith while a student at Smith College when a professor she admired told her that religions were only a patchwork of myths but were nonetheless fascinating to study. Again, as she related the story, I was struck by the sadness in her voice. Why such sadness?

I wonder if my parents’ love of wild life and wilderness areas had to do with a sense of God’s nearness in places of natural beauty? For their honeymoon, they had walked a long stretch of the Appalachian Trail. Our scrap books were full of photos Dad had taken of national parks, camps sites, and forest animals. Mother used to say that Dad was a wonderful hunter, except the only thing he could aim at an animal was a camera. The idea of owning a gun was anathema to both of them.

They had a similar reverence for human beings, especially those in need or in trouble. In this regard they were more attentive to the Gospel than many who are regularly in church. Christ taught that what you do for the least person you do for him even though you may not realize it or believe in him. In this regard, my parents were high on the list of those doing what God wants us to do even if their concern for the poor had led them away from churches and into the political left. A great deal of their time went into helping people.

While I often felt embarrassed coming from a family so different from others in the neighborhood, my spiritual life was influenced by my parents’ social conscience far more than I realized at the time. They helped make me aware that I was accountable not only for myself, my family, and friends, but for the down-and-out, the persecuted, and the unwelcome.

My parents were divorced when I was four. Afterward my mother, younger brother and I moved from Colorado to New Jersey. Our new home was in the town in which my mother had grown up, Red Bank,though not the same neighborhood as her wealthy parents had lived. (Both were dead by the time of her return.)

Mother’s identification with people on the other side of the tracks had brought us to live on the other side of the tracks, in a small house in a mainly black neighborhood where indoor plumbing was still unusual and many local roads still unpaved. One neighbor, Libby, old as the hills and black as coal, had been born in slavery days. Earlier in her life she had worked in my grandparents’ house.

Among my childhood memories is going door-to-door with my mother when she was attempting to sell subscriptions to the Communist paper, The Daily Worker. I don’t recall her having any success. This experience left me with an abiding sympathy for all doorbell ringers.

We received The Daily Worker ourselves. It came in a plain wrapper without a return address. Occasionally Mother read aloud articles that a child might find interesting. But as the cold winds of the “McCarthy period” began to blow, the time came when, far from attempting to sell subscriptions, the fact that we were on its mailing list began to worry Mother. It was no longer thrown away with the garbage like other newspapers but was saved in drawers until autumn, then burned bit by bit with the fall leaves.

One of the nightmare experiences of my childhood was the trial and electrocution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the couple accused of helping the Soviet Union obtain US atomic secrets. My mother was convinced that the Rosenbergs were scapegoats whose real crimes were being Jews and Communists. Their conviction, she felt, was meant to further marginalize American Communists, along with other groups critical of US structures, for the government wasn’t only after “reds” but also “pinkos,” as anyone slightly to the left was labeled. The letters the Rosenbergs sent to their children from prison were published in The Daily Worker and these Mother read to my brother and me. How we wept the morning after their death as she read the newspaper accounts of their last minutes of life.

Music was part of our upbringing. Mother hadn’t much of a voice, but from time to time sang with great feeling such songs as “This Land is Your Land,” “Joe Hill” and “The Internationale” with its line, “Arise ye prisoners of starvation, arise ye wretched of the earth, for justice thunders condemnation, a better’s world’s in birth.” On our small wind-up 78 rpm record player, we played records of Paul Robeson, the Weavers, Burl Ives (who was a bit to the left in those days), and, of course, Pete Seeger. From these recordings I also learned many black spirituals. The music of the black church was the one acceptable source of religion in the American left. I also sometimes heard spirituals when I walked past a nearby black church.

Despite my mother’s alienation from religion, she missed the Methodist Church in which she had been raised. During the weeks surrounding Easter and Christmas, her religious homesickness got the best of her and so we attended services, sitting up in the church balcony. One year she sent my brother and me to the church’s summer school. While this was a help for her as a working mother (she was a psychiatric social worker at a mental hospital), I have no doubt she hoped my brother and I would soak up the kind of information about the deeper meaning of life that she had received as a child.

The minister of the church, Roger Squire, was an exceptional man whose qualities included a gift for noticing people in balconies and connecting with children. His occasional visits to our house were delightful events. Only as an adult did it cross my mind how remarkable it was that he would make it a point to come into our neighborhood to knock on the kitchen door of a home that contained not members of his parish or even church-goers but a Communist mother and her two sons.

One of the incidents that marked me as a child was the hospitality of the Squire family to two young women from Hiroshima and Nagasaki who had survived the nuclear bombing but were badly scarred. American religious peace groups had brought them and others to the United States for plastic surgery and found them temporary homes in and near New York City, not an easy undertaking for the hosts in the fifties when the word “peace” was a suspect word and when many people had no desire to think about, not to say see with their own eyes, what American nuclear bombs had done to actual people. In fact, I could only guess at the results myself, as the two women’s faces were hidden behind silk veils. I had the idea that their faces were partly melted. Thanks to the Squires’ hospitality, I learned about the human cost of war and the effects of nuclear weapons, and through the Squire family I had a sturdy idea of what it meant to conform one’s life to the Gospel rather than to politics and the opinions of neighbors.

Yet the Methodist Church as such didn’t excite me. While I prized time with Rev. Squire and enjoyed the jokes he sprinkled in sermons to underline his points, long-time sitting was hard work for a child. I felt no urge to be baptized. Neither was I won over by the nearby Dutch Reformed Church which for some forgotten reason I attended for a few weeks or months and which I remember best for its unsuccessful attempt to get me to memorize the Ten Commandments.

The big event in my early religious development was thanks to a school friend inviting me to his church in Shrewsbury. It was among the oldest buildings in our region, its white clapboard scarred with musket balls fired in the Revolutionary war. The blood of dying soldiers had stained the church’s pews and floor, and though the stains could no longer be seen, it stirred me to think about what had happened there.

What engaged me still more was the form of worship, which centered on the altar rather than the pulpit. It was an Episcopal parish in which sacraments and ritual activity were the main events. (Being a parent has helped me realize that ritual is something that children naturally like; for all the experiments we make as children, we are born conservatives who want our parents to operate in predictable, patterned, reliable ways. We want meals to be on the table at a certain time and in a specific way, and in general like to know what to expect. We want the ordinary events of life to have what I think of now as a liturgical shape.)

The parish was relatively “high church” — vestments, acolytes, candles, processions, incense, liturgical seasons with their special colors, fast times, plain chant, communion every Sunday. I got a taste of a far more ancient form of Christianity than I had found among Methodists. I loved it and for the first time in my life wanted not just to watch but to be part of it. It was in this church that, age ten, I was baptized. I became an acolyte, thus getting to wear a bright red robe with crisp white surplice, and learned to assist the pastor, Father Lavant, at the altar. I learned much of the Book of Common Prayer by heart and rang a bell when the bread and wine were being consecrated. In Sunday school after the service I learned something of the history of Christianity, its sources and traditions, with much attention to Greek words. I remember Father Lavant writing “Eucharist” on the blackboard, explaining it meant thanksgiving, and that it was made up of smaller Greek words that meant “well” and “grace.” The Eucharist was a well of grace. He was the sort of man who put the ancient world in reaching distance.

But the friendship which had brought me to the church in the first place disintegrated sometime the following year. I no longer felt welcome in my friend’s car, and felt awkward about coming to their church under my own steam though it would have been possible to get there by bike. Perhaps the reason the car-door no longer opened to me so readily was my friend’s parents became aware of our family’s political color. Given the times, it would have been hard not to know.

I had little grasp of the intense political pressures Americans were under, though I saw the same anti-communist films and television programs other kids saw and was painfully aware that my parents were “the enemy” — the people who were trying to subvert America — though I couldn’t see a trace of this happening among the actual Communists I happened to know.

It was about that time that the FBI began to openly exhibit its interest in us, interviewing many of the neighbors. One day, while Mother was out, two FBI agents came into our house and finger-printed my brother and me. “Say hello to your mom,” one of them said on leaving. Such were the times.

My father’s arrest in 1952 in St. Louis, where he was then living, was page-one news across America. Dad faced the usual charge against Communists: “conspiracy to advocate the overthrow of the United States government by force and violence.” I doubt many read this hair-raising assembly of phrases closely enough to notice that in fact the accused were not being charged with any violent or revolutionary actions or even with planning, preparing or advocating such activities, but with being part of a conspiracy to advocate them sometime in the future.

The afternoon of Dad’s arrest, my Uncle Charles drove up to our house, came to the door, and yelled at my mother while waving a newspaper that had the banner headline: Ten Top Reds Arrested in Missouri. He stormed off the porch, got back into his car, a black Buick, and drove away. I never saw him again. Until then he had been a frequent visitor though I was aware Mother took pains to avoid political topics when we were with him.

Dad was to spend half a year in prison before being bailed out. Several years passed before the charges against him were finally dropped by the Justice Department.

While it was never nearly as bad for dissenters in the US as it was in the USSR — no gulag, no summary executions, no Stalin — nonetheless I came to feel a sense of connection with the children of religious believers in Communist countries; they too know what it is like to have their parents vilified by the mass media and imprisoned by the government.

Though it was bad enough that Dad was in prison, I was still more aware of the pressures my mother was facing. The FBI had talked with her employers. Many Communists were losing or had lost their jobs; she took it for granted it would happen to her as well. This expectation was a factor in her not buying a car until well after my brother and I were full-grown, even though we lived pretty far off the beaten track and really needed one. Mother took the bus to work and back again or found colleagues who would give her a lift. When I pleaded with her to get a car, she explained we shouldn’t develop needs that we might not be able afford in the future.

Her only hope of keeping her job was to give her employers no hook on which to justify dismissal. Night after night she worked at her desk writing case histories of patients with whom she was involved. No matter how sick she might be, she never missed a day of work, never arrived late, never left early. I doubt that the State of New Jersey ever got more from an employee than they got from her. And it worked. She wasn’t fired.

My religious interest went into recess. Within a year or two I was trying to make up my mind whether I was an atheist or an agnostic. I decided on the latter, because I couldn’t dismiss the sense I often had of God being real. Like my parents, I loved nature, and nature is full of news about God. Wherever I looked, whether at ants with a magnifying glass or at the moon with a telescope, everything in the natural order was awe-inspiring, and awe is a religious state of mind. Creation made it impossible to dismiss God. But it was a rather impersonal God — God as prime mover rather than God among us.

It wasn’t until late in 1959, when I was turning 18, that I began to think deeply about religion and what God might mean in my life.

At the turning point in his life, St. Paul was struck blind on the road to Damascus. The equivalent moment in my own life is linked to a more prosaic setting: Saturday night at the movies. Just out of Navy boot camp, I was studying meteorology at the Navy Weather School at Lakehurst, New Jersey. The film at the base theater happened to be “The Nun’s Story,” based on the autobiography of a young Belgian woman who entered a convent and later worked at a missionary hospital in the African Congo. In the end, the nun (played by Audrey Hepburn) became an ex-nun. Conscience was at the heart of the story: conscience leading a young woman into the convent and eventually leading her elsewhere, but never away from her faith. I later discovered the film was much criticized in the mainstream Catholic press for its portrayal both of loneliness and of the abuse of authority in religious community.

If it had been Hollywood’s usual religious movie of “The Bells of St. Mary’s” variety, it would have had no impact on my life. But this was a true story, well-acted, honestly told, and without a happy ending, though in the woman’s apparent failure as a nun one found both integrity and faith. Against the rough surface of the story, I had a compelling glimpse of the Catholic Church with its rich and complex structures of worship and community.

After the film I went for a walk, heading away from the buildings and sidewalks. It was a clear September evening. Gazing at the stars, I felt an uncomplicated and overwhelming happiness such as I had never known. This seemed to rise up through the grass and to shower down on me in the starlight. I was floating on God’s love like a leaf on water, deeply aware that everything that is or was or ever will be is joined together in God. For the first time in my life, the incomprehensible blackness beyond the stars wasn’t terrifying.

I didn’t think much about the film itself that night, except for a few words of Jesus that had been read to the novices during their first period of formation and which seemed to recite themselves within me as I walked: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you have, and give it to the poor, and you will have great treasure in heaven, and come, follow me.”

I went to sleep that night eager to go to Mass. I knew I wanted to be a Christian and was strongly drawn to Catholicism.

The next morning I went to a nearby Catholic church but found the Mass disappointing. I felt like an anthropologist observing a strange tribal rite. I had only a vague idea what was happening. There seemed little connection between the priest and the congregation. Most of the worship was in mumbled, hurried Latin, except for the sermon, which probably I would have preferred had it been in Latin. People in the pews seemed either bored or were concentrating on their rosaries. At least they knew when to sit, stand, and kneel. I struggled awkwardly to keep up with them. At the end of Mass, there was no exchange of greetings or further contact between people who had been praying together. Catholic worship seemed to have all the intimacy of supermarket shopping.

Still resolved to become a Christian, I started looking for a church where there was engagement and beauty and at least something of what I had hoped to find in Catholicism. The Anglo-Catholic segment of the Episcopal Church, which I had begun to know as a child, seemed the obvious choice, and it happened that another sailor at the Weather School had been part of a “high church” parish. He shared his Book of Common Prayer with me and in the weeks that followed we occasionally read its services of morning and evening prayer together.

After graduating, I spent a two-week Christmas leave in an Episcopal monastery on the Hudson River, Holy Cross, not far from West Point. It was a joyous experience in which I thought I had found everything I was hoping for in the Catholic Church: liturgy, the sacraments, and a religious community that combined prayer, study and service. I was now part a Navy unit at the U.S. Weather Bureau just outside Washington, DC. I joined an Episcopal parish in downtown Washington, St. Paul’s, which the monks had told me about.

Those months were full of grace. So why am I not writing an essay on “Why I am an Episcopalian”? One piece of the answer is that I had never quite let go of the Catholic Church. I could never walk past a Catholic church without stopping in to pray. A hallmark of the Catholic Church was that the Blessed Sacrament was reserved on or near the altar awaiting anyone who came in. Its presence meant this wasn’t just a room that came to life from time to time but a place where many of the curtains that usually hide God are lifted, even if you were the only person present. In those days the doors of Catholic churches always seemed open.

Another factor were Catholic books that found their way into my hands, including Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, and The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement.

But there were negative elements as well. One of these was an experience at the Episcopal monastery I occasionally visited. On the last day of an Easter stay one of the monks asked to see me. Once in the visiting room, he aggressively embraced me. I struggled free and later in the day left the monastery in great confusion. Back in Washington, I wrote to the prior of the community, telling him what had happened. His reply wasn’t helpful. He might have pointed out that monks, like everyone else, suffer loneliness and have sexual longings of one sort or another and sometimes don’t manage them very well. Instead the prior commented that homosexuality was often an indication of a monastic vocation. As my own sexual orientation was of the more common variety, I wondered if the prior meant I wasn’t the right sort of person to be visiting. After his letter, I had no desire to return. The experience underscored my growing doubts about remaining in the Episcopal Church.

Yet I still had reservations about becoming Catholic and so began to explore the varieties of Christianity in Washington, visiting every sort of church, black and white, high and low. Among them was a Greek Orthodox cathedral, but it seemed a cool, unwelcoming place; I sensed one had to be Greek to be a part of it. I returned several times to the black church on the campus of Howard University, a friendly place with wonderful singing, but felt that, as a white person, I would always be an outsider. If I could have changed skin color by wishing, I would have turned black in the Howard chapel.

As the weeks went by I came to realize that the Catholic churches I so often stopped in to pray were places in which I felt an at-homeness I hadn’t found anywhere else. On November 26, 1960, after several months of instruction, I was received into the Catholic Church.

What had most attracted me to Catholicism was the Liturgy. Though in some parishes it was a dry, mechanical affair, there were other parishes where the care taken in every aspect of worship was profound. While for some people worship in an ancient language was a barrier, in my own case I came to love the Latin. I was happy to be participating in a language of worship that was being used simultaneously in every part of the world and which also was a bridge of connection with past generations spanning many centuries. I learned the principal Latin prayers by heart, especially anything that could be sung, and still sometimes sing Latin prayers and hymns. “To sing is to pray twice,” one of the Church Fathers says. How true!

In the early stages of liturgical change following the Second Vatican Council, I felt a complex mixture of expectation and anxiety. Despite my private love of Latin, I could hardly disagree with the many arguments put forward for scrapping it. I didn’t want to hang onto what got in the way for others.

Unfortunately the Englishing of the Liturgy was not carried out by poets. We ended up with the English language in its flattest state. We also lost not only Latin but Gregorian chant, a great pity. Most of the music that took its place was fit for shopping malls and elevators. The sand blasting of ritual life had also removed incense. The body language of prayer was in retreat. The holy water fonts were dry. Many bridges linking body and soul were abandoned.

Yet, like most Catholics, I uttered few words of complaint. I knew that change is not a comfortable experience. And I thought of myself as a modern person; I was embarrassed by my difficulties adjusting to change. Also I had no sense of connection with those who were protesting the changes. These tended to be the rigid Catholics of the sort who were more papal than the Pope. (I had never been attracted to that arctic wing of Catholicism that argued one must be a Catholic, and a most obedient Catholic, in order to be saved.)

If one has experienced only the modern “fast-food” liturgy of the Catholic Church, perhaps the typical modern Mass isn’t so disappointing. But for me there was a deep sense of loss. For many years I often left Mass feeling let down.

All this said, there was a positive side to Catholicism that in many ways compensated for what was missing in the Liturgy. For all its problems, which no church is without, the Catholic Church has the strength of being a world community in which most members see themselves as being on the same footing as fellow Catholics on the other side of the globe; in contrast many Protestant and Orthodox Christians see their church, even Christ himself, primarily in national terms. The Catholic Church also possesses a strong sense of co-responsibility for the social order, and a relatively high degree of independence from all political and economic structures.

This aspect of the Catholic Church finds many expressions. After receiving a conscientious objector discharge from the Navy in 1960, I joined one of them, the Catholic Worker movement.

Founded by Dorothy Day in 1933, the Catholic Worker is well known for its “houses of hospitality” — places of welcome in run-down urban areas where those in need can receive food, clothing, and shelter. It is a movement not unlike the early Franciscans, attempting to live out the Gospels in a simple, literal way. Jesus said to be poor; those involved in the Catholic Worker struggle to have as little as possible, embracing voluntary poverty. Jesus said to do good to and pray for those who curse you, to love your enemies, to put away the sword; and Catholic Workers try to do this as well, refusing to take part in war or violence. The Catholic Worker view of the world is no less critical than that of the Prophets and the Gospel. There was a remarkable interest in the writings of the Church Fathers, the principal theologians of the early Church. One often found quotations from St. John Chrysostom, St. Gregory Nazianzen, Saint Basil and other voices of the early Church in the movement’s widely read publication, The Catholic Worker.

I found in Dorothy Day a deep appreciation of the richness and way of worship of the Eastern Church. She also had a special love for Russian literature, most of all the work of Dostoevsky. At times she recited passages from The Brothers Karamazov that had shaped her understanding of Christianity; mainly these had to do with the saintly staretz Father Zosima (a figure modeled in part on Father Amvrosi who was canonized by the Russian Church in 1988) and his teaching on active love. Dorothy inspired me to read Dostoevsky. It was Dorothy who first took me into a Russian Orthodox Church, a cathedral in upper Manhattan where I met a priest who, many years later, I was to meet again in Moscow, Father Matvay Stadniuk. (In 1988, back in Moscow, he launched the first public project of voluntary service by Church members since Soviet power had launched its war on religion.) At a Liturgy Dorothy took me to I first learned to sing the Old Slavonic words, “Gospodi pomiloi” (Lord have mercy), one of the main prayers of Orthodoxy.

One evening Dorothy brought me to a Manhattan apartment for meeting of the Third Hour, a small Christian ecumenical group founded by a Russian émigré, Helene Iswolsky. The conversation was in part about the Russian word for spirituality, dukhovnost. The Russian understanding of spiritual life, it was explained, not only suggests a private relationship between the praying person and God but has profound social content: moral capacity, social responsibility, courage, wisdom, mercy, a readiness to forgive, a way of life centered in love. I recall talk about iurodivi, the “holy fools” who revealed Christ in ways that would be regarded as insanity in the west, and stralniki, those who wandered Russia in continuous pilgrimage, begging for bread and reciting with every breath and step the silent prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” But much of the discussion flew over my head. At times I was more attentive to the remarkable face of the poet W.H. Auden and the wavy hair of Alexander Kerensky, prime minister of Russia between the abdication of the last czar and the Bolshevik revolution; both were members of the Third Hour group.

One of the people Dorothy was in touch with was the famous Trappist monk and author, Thomas Merton, whose autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, had been a factor in my becoming a Catholic. Through Dorothy I came to be one of his correspondents and later his guest at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Besides many letters, Merton used to send me postcard photographs of Russian and Greek icons. Icons had played an important part in his conversion to Christianity and, as I was to discover in writing a book about him, in his continuing spiritual life.

Thanks to Merton and Dorothy Day, I was more aware than many western Christians of the eastern Church, but Orthodoxy seemed to me more an ethnic club than a place for a multi-ethnic American, more a living museum than a living Church. My eyes were slow in opening to icons, which for a long time I regarded as merely primitive. While the music in Russian churches was amazingly beautiful, Orthodox services seemed too long and the ritual too ornate. I was in a typical American hurry about most things, even worship, and had the usual American aversion to trimmings. Orthodoxy seemed excessive.

As much of my adult life has been spent editing peace movement publications, one might imagine such peace work would have opened many east-west doors for me. Ironically, however, through most of the Cold War the peace movement in the United States was notable for its avoidance of contact with the Soviet Union. Perhaps because we were so routinely accused of being “tools of the Kremlin,” peace activists tended to steer clear of the USSR and rarely knew more about it than anyone else. Even to visit the Soviet Union was to be convicted of everything the Reader’s Digest had ever said about KGB direction of peace groups in the west.

In the spring of 1980, after three years heading the staff of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation in Holland, I was on a speaking trip that took me to twenty American cities. While in Cambridge, after seeing a Russian-made romantic movie called “Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears,” it occurred to me, as an American active in the peace movement, how odd it was that people like myself knew more about nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles than about the people at whom such weapons were targeted. The question arose in my mind: Might not the world be a slightly less dangerous place if we had more face-to-face contact with those whom we regarded as mortal enemies and whom we were prepared to kill by the millions? If we saw them as human beings instead of as gray political objects?

At the time the Nuclear Freeze movement was gathering strength. It advocated a bilateral end to nuclear testing, freezing the manufacture of nuclear weapons, and halting development of new weapons systems. Millions of people, both Democrat and Republican, supported the Freeze. Yet I came back to Holland convinced that its prospects for success were slight. The Freeze, like many peace campaigns during the Cold War, was built mainly on fear of nuclear weapons. Practically nothing was being done to respond to relationship issues or fear of the Soviet Union. All that was needed was one nasty incident to burst the balloon, and that came when a Soviet pilot shot down a South Korean 747 passenger plane flying across Soviet air space. The image of the west facing a barbaric and ruthless enemy was instantly revived. The Freeze movement crashed with the 747 jet.

I began to look for an opportunity to visit the Soviet Union.

At the time it wasn’t easy to find an opening. The Soviet Union was then at war in Afghanistan, an event condemned by the organization I was working for. A seminar we had arranged in Moscow was abruptly canceled on the Soviet side. An editor of Izvestia whom I met in Amsterdam candidly explained that Kremlin was guarding itself from western pacifists unveiling protest signs in Red Square.

In October 1983, a few representatives of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation joined with several leaders of the Christian Peace Conference for a dialogue on the subject of “Violence, Nonviolence and Liberation.” We met in Moscow in an old one-story wooden building used at that time by the External Church Affairs Department of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The meeting would have been useful no matter where it had happened. But for me it had an unexpected spiritual significance because it was in Russia. I experienced a particular sense of connection with the Russian Orthodox believers and longed to have the chance for more prolonged contact. (A year later I was in Moscow once again, this time for an exchange, sadly not real dialogue, with hardline Communists in the Soviet Peace Committee.)

For me the primary significance of the first trip was the contact I was able to arrange with Orthodox believers.

The high point was the Liturgy at the Epiphany Cathedral. This isn’t one of the city’s oldest or most beautiful churches, though it has an outstanding choir. The icons, coming from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were a far cry from those by Rublev and Theofan the Greek. And yet being in that throng of devout worshipers was a more illuminating experience than I have had in far more beautiful churches. The place became beautiful for me simply because it was such a grace to be there.

The church was crowded as a church in the west would be only on a major feast day. As is usual in the Russian Orthodox Church, there were no pews. There were a few benches and chairs along the walls for those who needed them, but I found it freeing to be on my feet. Though at times it was uncomfortable to be standing up for so long, being upright made me more attentive. It was like a move from the bleachers to the field. (I’d like one day to learn how chairs and benches made their way into churches. Is it connected with the Reformation’s re-centering of services around  never-ending sermons?)

I was fascinated by the knitting together of spiritual and physical activity. Making the sign of the cross and half bows were ordinary elements of prayer. Orthodox believers seemed to cross themselves and bow almost continually. As I watched the rippling of bowing heads in the tightly packed congregation, I was reminded of the patterns the wind makes blowing across a field of wheat.

All the while two choirs, in balconies on either side of the huge cupola, were singing. For the Creed and Our Father, the congregation joined with the choirs, singing with hurricane force.

At first I stood like a statue, though wanting to do what those around me were doing. It seemed so appropriate for an incarnational religion to link body and soul through these simple gestures. It must have taken me most of an hour before I began to pray in the Russian style.

The sense of people being deeply at prayer was as tangible as Russian black bread. I felt that if the walls and pillars of the church were taken away, the roof would rest securely on the prayers of the congregation below. I have very rarely experienced this kind of intense spiritual presence. Though there are many superficial differences, in its intensity I can only compare it to the black church in America.

The experience led me to write Pilgrim to the Russian Church, a book which required a number of Russian trips; on one of these I was joined by my wife, Nancy.

In the course of my travels I came to love the slow, unhurried tradition of prayer in Orthodoxy, deeply appreciating its absent-mindedness about the clock. The Liturgy rarely started on time, never ended on time, and lasted two hours, or even three on great feasts — five at the all-night Pascha service. I discovered that Orthodox believers are willing to give to worship the kind of time and devotion that Italians give to their evening meals.

I became increasingly aware of how deep and mindful is Orthodox preparation for communion, with stress on forgiveness of others as a precondition for reception of the sacrament.

I enjoyed watching confession in Orthodox churches. The penitent and priest weren’t tucked away in confessional closets but stood on the side of the church in sight of one and all, faces nearly touching. There is a tenderness and intimacy about it that never ceases to amaze me. (While I still don’t find confession easy, I don’t envy those forms of Christianity that do without it.)

I quickly came to appreciate Orthodoxy for taking literally Jesus’ teaching, “Let the children come to me and hinder them not.” In our Catholic parish in Holland, our daughter Anne had gone from confusion and hurt to pain and anger after many attempts to receive communion with Nancy and me. She hadn’t reached “the age of reason” and therefore couldn’t receive the instruction that was considered a prerequisite to sacramental life. Does anyone ever reach the age of reason? A child in an Orthodox parish is at the front of the communion line.

I came to esteem the married clergy of Orthodoxy. While there are many Orthodox monks and nuns, and celibacy is an honored state, I found that marriage is more valued in Orthodoxy than Catholicism. Sexual discipline is taken no less seriously, yet one isn’t left feeling that the main sins are sexual or that sex is innately sinful.

I came to cherish the relative darkness usual in many Orthodox churches, where the main light source is candles. Candlelight creates a climate of intimacy. Icons are intended for candlelight.

Praying with icons was an aspect of Orthodox spirituality that opened its doors to us even though we weren’t yet Orthodox. During a three-month sabbatical in 1985, when we were living near Jerusalem while I taught at the Ecumenical Institute at Tantur, we bought a small hand-painted Russian “Vladimirskaya” icon of Mary and Jesus and began praying before it. The icon itself proved to be a school of prayer. We learned much about prayer by simply standing in front of our icon.

Not least significant, I learned a great deal from Russian Christians about love of enemies. I will never forget a conversation with an elderly priest, Father Mikhail, whom I met in the ancient city of Novgorod in 1987. Mikhail Gorbachev was then in his second year as Soviet head of state. To his everlasting credit, he had brought religious persecution to a halt. Ruined churches and monasteries were being given back to the Church. Many thousands of people were seeking baptism. It was truly a time of miracles. A long winter of persecution was ending, a springtime of religious rebirth was occurring. Over supper with Father Mikhail, I asked, “Aren’t you surprised?” ”Not at all,” he replied. “All believers have been praying for this every day of our lives. We knew God would answer our prayers, only we did not know when. I am only surprised that our prayers have been answered while I am still alive.” I thought of the countless people who had been shot or were taken to labor camps where they froze to death or died of disease or exhaustion. I had visited places of mass execution. I said to Father Mikhail, “But surely you must hate those who caused so much suffering and who killed so many people.” Father Mikhail gave me an answer that I did not expect. “Christ doesn’t hate them,” he said. “Why should I? How will they find the way to belief unless we love them? And if I refuse to love them, I too am not a believer.”

Back in Holland, Nancy and I continued our frustrating search for a Catholic parish that we could be fully a part of. On the one hand there were parishes that seemed linked to the larger Church only by frayed threads; parishes were abandoning ritual, traditions and lines of connection which seemed to us worth preserving, and going their own way. There were other parishes that, in ritual life, were clearly part of a larger church but where there was no sense of welcome or warmth.

Finally we became part of a parish where, by joining the choir, we felt more a part of a church community, though we were far and away the youngest members of the choir. Apart from Anne, none of our children were willing to come, and Anne became increasingly upset about her exclusion from communion

How I envied the Orthodox believers I had met in Russia! Oddly enough it didn’t occur to me that there might be a similar quality of worship in Orthodox churches in the west. I thought that Orthodoxy was like certain wines that must be sipped at the vineyard. I also had the idea that Russian parishes in the west must mainly be populated by bitter refugees preoccupied with hating Communists.

Then in January 1988, at the invitation of Father Alexis Voogd, pastor of the St. Nicholas of Myra Church in Amsterdam, Nancy and I took part in a special ecumenical service to mark the beginning of the Orthodox Church in Russia and Ukraine’s millennium celebration: a thousand years since the baptism of the citizens of Kiev in the Dnieper River. Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox, we were packed into the tiny church for a service that was a hodge-podge of speeches by clergy from various local churches interspersed with beautiful Russian hymns sung by the parish choir.

If it was just that ecumenical service, perhaps we would not have returned. But at the reception in the parish hall that followed, we were startled to experience a kind of interaction that I had rarely found in any church in any country, not to say in, restrained, understated, neo-Calvinist Holland.

Walking to the train station afterward, we decided to come back next week and see what the Liturgy was like. The following Sunday we discovered it was every bit as profound as it was in Russia. And that was that. We managed only once or twice to return to Mass in our former Catholic parish. Before a month had passed we realized that a prayer we had been living with a long time had been answered: we had found a church we wholeheartedly could belong to and couldn’t bear not going to even if it meant getting out of bed early and traveling by train and tram to Amsterdam every week.

On Palm Sunday 1988, I was received into the Orthodox Church by chrismation; Nancy made the same step on Pentecost.

In many ways it wasn’t such a big step from where we had been. Orthodoxy and Catholicism have so much in common: sacraments, apostolic succession, the calendar of feasts and fasts, devotion to the Mother of God, and much more. Yet in Orthodoxy we found an even deeper sense of connection with the early Church and a far more vital form of liturgical life. Much that has been neglected in Catholicism and abandoned in Protestant churches, especially confession and fasting, remain central in Orthodox life. We quickly found what positive, life-renewing gifts they were, and saw that they were faring better in a climate that was less legalistic but more demanding.

Postscript: The religious movement in my life, which from the beginning was influenced by my parents, also influenced them. While neither followed me into Catholicism or Orthodoxy, in the early sixties, after reading The Seven Storey Mountain, my mother returned to the Methodist Church and remained active in it for the rest of her life. (She had resigned from the Communist Party at the time the Soviets put down the Hungarian uprising.) Despite her age and failing eyesight, she continued in her struggle for the poor, often to the consternation of local politicians. Dad eventually became a Unitarian. He enjoyed the joke about Unitarians believing at most in one God. In the last two decades of his life he was especially active in developing low-income and inter-racial housing projects in California. A cooperative he helped found in Santa Rosa was singled out for several honors, including the Certificate of National Merit from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Always deeply supportive of my religious commitment, I recall with particular happiness hearing him reading aloud to my stepmother from my book, Pilgrim to the Russian Church. On his deathbed in the spring of 1990, he borrowed the small crucifix I normally wear around my neck. It was in his hands when he died.

Jim Forest is international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. His books include All Is Grace (a biography of Dorothy Day), Living With Wisdom (a biography of Thomas Merton), The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers, Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment, Praying With Icons, The Road to Emmaus, The Wormwood File, Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness, and The Ladder of the Beatitudes. Earlier books include Religion in the New Russia and Pilgrim to the Russian Church. His most recent children’s book is Saint Nicholas and the Nine Gold Coins. He has lived in the Netherlands since 1977 and is a member of the St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam.

Text as revised 19 October 2016.

* * *

Between Constantinople and Istanbul

Istanbul faces

This is the journal Nancy and I kept during a ten-day stay in Istanbul in 2003. Some of the photos taken in that period are here:

24 April 2003, Holy Thursday

Are we in Istanbul? Or Constantinople? Winston Churchill had no doubt it was the latter. As he wrote in a memo to the Foreign Office on the 23rd of April 1945: “I do not consider that names that have been familiar for generations in England should be altered in England to study the whims of foreigners living in those parts. Where the name has no particular significance, the local custom should be followed. However, Constantinople should never be abandoned, though for stupid people Istanbul may be written in brackets after it…”

We will however tilt toward the whims of the foreigners living in those parts and opt for Istanbul.

We arrived at Ataturk Airport at about 3:00 and had to pay 10 euros for an entrance visa (while those with US passports are required to pay a whopping $100). Ali Gulkaynak, manager of the Artemis Hotel where we will be staying, was there to meet us. Ali is a friend of Beth Forest, Jim’s niece, who put us in touch with him and spoke of him in glowing terms. Ali drove us back to the hotel in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. Along the way we passed by many kilometers of ancient city wall erected in the age of Emperor Theodosius II (405-450). They withstood many sieges before a breach was made by Crusaders in 1202. In 1261 Constantinople was retaken by the Byzantines, though the city — stripped of every treasure — never recovered from its occupation by the Latins. Then in May 1453 Mehmet the Conqueror smashed though the walls and Byzantium, by then only a shadow of what it had been, gave up the ghost.

The Artemis Hotel proved to be a very attractive place, a modest size, slightly off the streets frequented by tourists. From the terrace on the top of the hotel we had an amazing view — the Blue Mosque with its six minarets above us, the blue Sea of Marmara below. Under the watchful eye of several mothers, children were playing in the street below. We unpacked and freshened up, then went for a walk with Ali.

Our route took us through the Hippodrome, on the north side of the Blue Mosque, where Ali explained the various monuments around which charioteers once raced. First (on the west end) was the column of Constantine Porphyrogenitus, still called the Brazen Column, though the Crusaders stripped its bronze covering eight centuries ago. Next there was the Serpentine Column, made in 479 BC and originally placed in Delphi — one of many ancient monuments Constantine ordered brought to the new capital of the Roman Empire. Then, in the center of the Hippodrome, the most impressive monument of all, an Egyptian obelisk now 3500 years old, selected by Constantine to symbolize where the center of the world was now located. The base set up to hold the obelisk was carved on all sides with images of Constantine presiding at games in the Hippodrome. The stadium itself, said to have held up to 100,000 people, is long gone, though the roadway around the Hippodrome follows the route of the chariots. But many of the treasures that once were here have vanished. These include the famous four bronze horses now at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice.

It was here that the Nika Riot exploded in 532. Before it was over many of city’s buildings were destroyed, including a smaller Hagia Sophia, at the east end of the Hippodrome, and large parts of the Great Palace, where the Blue Mosque now stands. It was here that, when Justinian’s troops struck back at the rioters, 35,000 were killed.

We next walked into the courtyard of the Blue Mosque, an enclosed square of calm and beauty with a fountain in its center. We noticed an old man with a white beard and kindly face, sitting on the steps to one side, knitting. He gave Jim permission to take his photos (Ali acting as translator). Smiling warmly he showed us some of what he had been knitting: a whole cloth bag full of hats and children’s booties. Ali bought a cap.

Then we walked out of the courtyard and there in front of us we saw Hagia Sophia for the first time, a red building made even redder by the setting sun. Breathtaking!

Ali, having to return to the hotel, pointed the way to a money changer on the main avenue — Divanyolou Caddesi — where we exchange euros for Turkish lira. One euro equaled more than 1,700,000 lira. At long last we are millionaires! Afterward we stopped at the small shop of a local art dealer and bought an Islamic miniature of Noah’s Ark ($30). Instead of a halo, a design of red flames surrounds Noah’s head. The background, icon-like, is of gold leaf.

We walked back to the hotel and went across the street to the Marmara Café, which Ali had briefly shown us before we had walked up to the Hippodrome. Exotic, ornately decorated water pipes lined the front window. There was the faint smell of sweet tobacco. It seemed at first to be an all-male hangout, but then we noticed women and children among the clientele. The back part of the café is a broad open porch with a sweeping view of the Sea of Marmara. We had tea while watching a procession of ships, some about to enter the Bosphorus, others exiting.

At about 7:00 our friend Shannon Robinson, just arrived from Albania, was brought over by Ali. She comes from Chicago but for the past five months has been principal of a newly opened primary school in Tirana founded by the Orthodox Church of Albania. She had tea with us, then we all went back to the hotel for a vegetarian supper. We agreed to meet for breakfast at the hotel the next day, then walked the short distance to her hostel, the Sinbad (its slogan: “world peace is inevitable”).

25 April, Good Friday

We had breakfast with Shannon, then walked back to the Hippodrome where we were hounded by postcard sellers and various venders, the first of many similar experiences. We walked through the Blue Mosque courtyard again and went on to Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), the world’s largest building for many centuries and still astonishing both inside and out. It is always a stunning experience to see for the first time something that you have only heard about, and perhaps seen pictures of. We had expected to see a great city edifice engulfed by even bigger modern structures, an anachronism and a mosque to boot, with little bits of the Christian past tucked away in corners. But what we saw was an almost pastoral setting, beautiful gardens and the surrounding waters, no other great buildings except the Blue Mosque, which does not conflict with it or overshadow it, and Hagia Sophia rising brick red and solid out of the earth. Only a little of the church’s mosaic iconography has survived but what remains is profoundly impressive. It is not tucked away in corners; you see it immediately as soon as you walk in. Nancy stood in the doorway and wept.

On the gallery on the west side we found the Pantocrator icon that is so often seen in books and postcards but which, even though so familiar, was surprising in its intensity and freshness. Christ’s eyes have the same authority as his spoken word.

After several hours in Hagia Sophia, we went for coffee to a nearby café with many colorful lamps hanging from the ceiling, then took a taxi to the Church of the Savior in Chora (Chora meaning “in the fields”). The church originally stood outside the walls that Constantine erected but is just inside Theodosius’ walls. During the time of Crusader rule, it was the only church in Constantinople where Orthodox Christians were not under Roman domination, though in that period the church was in a badly decayed condition. After the Latin defeat Theodore Metochites, then Prime Minister of the Byzantine Empire, used his wealth to subsidize the church’s restoration during what is known as the Byzantine Renaissance. This included not only repairing the building but commissioning mosaics and frescoes, many of which have survived even though the church had been made into a mosque after the Islamic Conquest. Today it is museum.

Chora’s amazing images remain among the most beautiful treasures of iconography to survive the fall of Byzantium. Perhaps the most stunning is the Anastasis icon filling the apse of a funeral chapel on the west side of the church: Christ effortlessly lifting Adam and Eve from their tombs. In another section of the church there is a complex series of mosaics of events leading up to the birth of Mary and finally Christ’s Nativity. Chora alone is reason enough to come to Istanbul.

We had a good vegetarian lunch at a hotel restaurant — the Asitane — next to the church: our first glimpse of a Turkish cuisine of a level we never imagined existed going by our occasional visits to Turkish restaurants in Alkmaar. A place to return to after Pascha.

We took a taxi to the Grand Bazaar and its adjacent book market. The Grand Bazaar is similar to certain districts of Jerusalem’s Old City, including the experience of many offers to stop and have a cup of tea or coffee. Shannon bought a lacquer box for a friend in Tirana.

From the Bazaar we walked on to a city park close to the Hippodrome where a persistent and rather cunning shoeshine boy tried to get money out of us.

We sat for a while in the sun for awhile, then caught a taxi for the Good Friday service at the Orthodox Patriarchate at the Fener. The taxi driver had a great deal of difficulty finding the place, but — after stopping several times for local help — was at last successful. Entrance to the walled compound requires passing through a police guard and metal detector. Tiny though the Greek community is in modern Istanbul, there are still those who seek the expulsion of all Greeks. Bombs have been exploded here in recent years, while a patriarch was once executed by hanging at the compound gate. The church — St. George’s Cathedral — is surprisingly small, considering that it is the home church of the Ecumenical Patriarch. The building dates from 1710: practically new by local standards.

When we arrived, shortly before the Good Friday service started, not many people were yet present but gradually the church filled up until finally there was an overflow in the courtyard. Most of the crowd seemed to be people who had come by bus from Greece. Patriarch Bartholomeos presided, assisted by six bishops. The icon of the body of Christ was a cloth over which was a canopy covered with white flowers. There was no real procession as we know it (such processions not being permitted in Turkey), but the patriarch and bishops carried the cloth down the aisle and into the courtyard, then back in again, and anyone standing near it tried to reach out and touch it.

We stayed at the church for about two hours, then went to a nearby restaurant for a late dinner made up of vegetarian appetizers. By midnight, having taken a taxi to the square in front of Hagia Sophia, we were back at the hotel after walking Shannon to her hostel.

26 April, Holy Saturday

Shannon came over and we walked toward the Topkapi Palace complex whose many buildings fill the eastern heights of the old city just beyond Hagia Sophia, all within its own set of ancient walls. Before entering the gate we walked along the outside of the wall where we noticed a promising café that doubles as a school of traditional crafts — a place to come back to on another day.

Then we walked down a hill along an appealing narrow street and came upon a small gift shop that was remarkable for the simple fact that the owner didn’t hound us. He quietly read his newspaper, leaving us to gaze in the window. His passivity was so refreshing that we went inside to browse. Nancy ended up buying a scarf and a striped cotton shirt. The owner turned out to be Iranian.

We then walked back along the Topkapi wall past a row of well restored Ottoman wooden houses painted in soft colors, then entered the Topkapi gate.

Just inside the entrance is a large park and just to the left stands Hagia Eirene Church, the same age as Hagia Sophia — sixth century. Both the earlier Hagia Sophia and Hagia Eirene were destroyed by fire during the Nika Revolt in 532, and both rebuilt at the orders of Justinian. Hagia Eirene — reconsecrated in 537 — means Holy Peace, but it may be that the name of the church refers to one of the saints of the same name, possibly St. Eirene the Great Martyr, executed in Thessalonika in the early fourth century. We have been told that it’s the one ancient church in Istanbul that was never made into a mosque. After the conquest of 1453 the church was placed behind the wall enclosing Topkapi and was turned into an armory.

Now used occasionally as a concert hall, it is otherwise closed, but our guardian angel came to the rescue. We found the custodian and, in exchange for five million lira (about three euros), we were allowed to enter. For at least an hour we had the vast church to ourselves! In a gallery upstairs we recited some prayers for Holy Saturday and read aloud from the Gospel of Matthew. The church’s main surviving decoration is a large mosaic cross in the apse. The original mosaic icons were destroyed not by Moslems but by Christians in the era of iconoclasm. Below the apse, in what would have been the sanctuary, is a synthronon — several tiers of seats in a half circle around the periphery of the apse. The altar is no more, though one can see stones that once served as the altar’s foundation.

Once outside in the park and on our way to the admission gate, we passed one of the many groups of school children waiting to enter the museum. Throughout our time in Istanbul, we passed such groups, many of them in neat school uniforms, who liked to practice their limited English with us. This group was no different. They called out, “Hello!” and Shannon, ever the school teacher, decided to respond. She stood in front of them and said, “What is your name?” That floored them, but one little boy was able to tell her the answer. She talked with them a bit, and then said, “Now I want you to sing me a song,” so they sang a Turkish song for her.

Near the admission gate, we were accosted by a man who wanted to be our guide. Jim engaged him, but soon after entering we realized this was a mistake. The man talked too fast for us to absorb what he was saying, and we could not walk through the exhibit at our own unhurried pace. A lesson learned. If we are to hire a guide again, it will only be after making sure his pace matches ours. After one part of the exhibit — a collection of ornate carriages used by sultans in days gone by and an exhibition of porcelain — Jim released and paid him, and he went off to find other customers. On our own, we paid a second entrance for the harem quarters and joined a group to see this maze of tiled rooms and pavilions, fountains and ponds, where the sultan and his many women, waited upon by slave eunuchs both black and white, once lived a life one can barely imagine.

We had lunch at the little restaurant on a terrace at the far end of the Topkapi grounds, giving us a broad view of the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and the Mamara Sea, then left, but not before visiting several more buildings along the way, including one that contains relics of Mohammed, and the Treasury with case after case of diamond and ruby-encrusted objects, among which is the dagger that was the thieves’ goal in the film “Topkapi” and the 86 carat “Spoonmaker’s Diamond” (found uncut in a rubbish heap in the 17th century and traded for three spoons before making its way to the sultan’s hands). None of these famous objects stopped us in our tracks; rather, they made us feel relief not to be drawn to such things. But then in one room we came upon a display case like all the rest except the treasures in this case weren’t gems but relics of John the Baptist’s skull and arm, one of the few major relics in Constantinople that escaped removal by the Crusaders but at last found their way to the sultan. We were staggered. Though taking photos in the Treasury is prohibited, Shannon managed to get a photo of the relics with her digital camera. All of us prayed.

We walked back to the hotel by way of the “White Moustache Street” where a young Kurd named Ozgur, who works at the Time Out Restaurant, invited us in to have tea. Something about his shy manner and quiet eyes made us say yes. We had a long talk with him on the rooftop terrace area of the restaurant. When we left, we promised to come back for a meal after Pascha.

Then we walked back to the hotel (and Shannon to her hostel) and took a nap in preparation for the all-night service. We were awakened at 7:30 by Ali, who had decided to take us to dinner at a restaurant near an ancient aqueduct, to the northwest of the Grand Bazaar, in what was a Moslem medreses — a religious school — founded in the 16th century. Much like a cloister, the rooms surround a paved square with a fountain in the center. We hadn’t planned on an evening meal on Holy Saturday but could not say no. It was a wonderful dinner where we sat on cushions on the floor in a small former classroom, leaving our shoes in a box at the doorway. Ali ordered the food, carefully choosing vegetarian dishes. It was all splendid. Our drink is ayran: salted yoghurt thinned with water. As it was a chilly evening, the waiter lit a fire in a little fireplace. Very cozy.

Before coming to Istanbul we had assumed we would attend the All Night Service at St. George Cathedral, but the crowds last night made us instead opt for a service in a parish church, Holy Archangels, in the more “European” part of the city on the other side of the Golden Horn, the parish of an American couple, David and Margo, with whom we have had contact via e-mail, thanks to a mutual friend. They have also invited us for a Paschal meal at their home Sunday afternoon.

Ali drove us to Margo and David’s apartment, and from there, with their three-year-old son, Diedrich, we drove on to Holy Archangels Church, which we found under police guard. The building wasn’t crowded when we arrived, about 10:30, but by 11 it was packed. At the moment of the Paschal proclamation an hour later we were startled by bomb-like explosions in the upper part of the church. It was ear-splitting and disturbing — we thought the church was under attack, but David assured us this was only a Greek custom. A little later we noticed a couple of young men trailing the smell of gunpowder coming downstairs with big smiles on their faces. We stayed for the liturgy, but not many others did. Where there had been two or three hundred people there were perhaps 20 left in the church. One of them, a young woman, seemed to spend most of the liturgy focused on her mobile phone, either exchanging messages or busy with games. Having received a blessing before the service, we were able to receive Communion. Margo told us the local priests do not encourage frequent Communion — normally only four times a year.

It was an interesting experience, but we did not have the great jubilant sense of Pascha that we have in our own parish in Amsterdam. There were no repeated shouts of “Christ is risen,” no repeated singing of the Paschal hymn, no red eggs, no carefully arranged flower decorations. However, when the priest read St. John Chrysostom’s Paschal sermon, we knew what it was even though it was being read in Greek, the language St. John himself would have spoken, and that was very moving indeed.

Finally, at about 2 in the morning, we took a taxi back to the Sultanahmet and got to bed by about 3:00.

Christos anesti! Christ is risen!

27 April – Pascha

We went out for breakfast with Shannon to break the Lenten fast. Shannon, having eaten almost nothing since yesterday afternoon, longed for something resembling an American breakfast, but also didn’t want to spend a lot of money. We searched and searched, asking several people where we could find an American breakfast. One man responded, “But this is Turkey!” Finally we had omelettes at an open-air café called the Dervish near the Blue Mosque.

After breakfast we set off for the Suleymaniye Mosque, widely regarded as Istanbul’s most beautiful mosque. It’s a vast structure that crowns a hill adjacent to Istanbul University just to the northwest of the Grand Bazaar. Along with an associated hospital, school and hospice for travelers, the mosque was built in the 1550s by the famous architect Sinan.

While walking there Jim asked directions of an older man who volunteered to show us the way. We learned he is a Kurdish rug merchant whose home is near the Iraqi border, We stopped for tea at a small street café adjacent to the mosque, inviting the man, Salih Cefin, to sit with us. He accepted, only insisted on paying for the tea, telling us that when he comes to our country we can pay for his tea. After saying goodbye, we entered the mosque, a place as quiet as it is huge. Hundreds of lights are suspended not far above head level giving the impression of a border of light between our ordinary world and the divine presence — something not unlike the iconostasis, except the border here is overhead and horizontal. Like so many mosques in Istanbul, this one clearly drew its architectural inspiration from Hagia Sophia.

Finally we walked around the grounds, then sat in the sun for a while — our first warm day in Istanbul — eating bananas and strawberries that Shannon had just bought from a nearby shop.

Then we headed downhill toward the Galata Bridge, which spans the Golden Horn. On the way Shannon stopped to buy some kebab skewers and paused to see a smaller mosque next to the Spice (or Egyptian) Market while we waited for her in the courtyard of the New Mosque facing the Galata Bridge. The square before the mosque was packed with locals and flocks of birds. Not a tourist group in sight! In fact this part of town is a continuous street market, a micro economy in high gear. Shannon came back and we walked across the bridge, watching the people fishing as we made our way towards the Galata Tower, a massive medieval structure put up in 1348 when the Genoese had this patch of the city — their reward for helping end the Latin occupation. The most direct way to the tower requires climbing a long, steep set of stairs.

This is the city’s Beyoglu district whose main street is the Istiklal Caddesi, where there are many fine bookshops. In one of them Jim found a particular guide book — the Istanbul volume in the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Travel Guide series — he’d been looking for all over the city. We then hailed a taxi and took it to a large modern shopping mall, Akmerkez, near Margo and David’s apartment, a landmark easier for taxi drivers to find than the actual address we were going to. (Ali notes that one need have nothing more than a driving license to drive a taxi in Turkey; no special knowledge of the streets is required. Neither do any drivers we have come upon possess a street atlas.)

The only obvious difference between this shopping mall and similar malls in America is that everyone entering this cavernous building has to be checked as if he were at an airport. The mall has security guards and metal detectors at every entrance. Once admitted we found ourselves in a cathedral of consumer products that’s much more elaborate than anything we’ve seen in the Netherlands. We headed for a supermarket on the third level, as Shannon hoped to find a few things that were unavailable in Tirana, and then called David on Jim’s mobile, who talked us from the mall to their nearby apartment complex.

We found it no easy task getting past the apartment complex’s security guard, a young uniformed woman. Finally Jim called David, who came down to rescue us. Margo and David’s apartment was beautifully decorated for Easter, with an egg tree, carefully laid table and a handsome book of Chora photos that had been opened to the Anastasis icon. There was an older American-Greek couple there, as well as Paul Gikas from the Patriarchate (also American) and his Turkish girlfriend, a beautiful young woman on her way to becoming Orthodox. Diedrich was very happy with all the company and attention.

The meal was exceptional — lamb, spare ribs, chicken, salad, delicious cake. The Turkish wine was excellent. The entire meal was wonderful and the company around the table even better. It was hard to leave, but finally we took a taxi back home and crashed into bed, since our previous night’s sleep had been brief.

28 April, Bright Monday

We agreed with Shannon to do separate things today as this was her last day and she had to find gifts for various people, both relatives and colleagues. We had breakfast, then walked to the outer courtyard of Topkapi Palace. The Archeology Museum was closed but a sarcophagus (early Byzantine?) near the entrance caught our eye with its simple, very sober bas relief of a married couple and their two children. Back in the Topkapi park, we walked over to the executioner’s fountain where swords and hands were washed after beheadings — our joke is that the occasional rude tourist is still dispatched here from time to time. Then we paused to shop in a government-run craft store to buy a few small gifts: a black alabaster cat for Anne, a small copper coffee pot for Cait, a meerschaum pipe for Jim, a leather bag for Nancy. We then went to the café that caught our eye two days earlier, the Cafer Aga Courtyard, in the 16th century a Moslem school, now a school of traditional crafts with an inexpensive restaurant in the center. Our waiter is learning to make marbled paper; he is also a kick-boxer who aspires to Hollywood.

In the afternoon, accepting an invitation from Ali, we drove with him to Eyup, a section of the city on the Golden Horn just beyond the Theodosian walls. After lunch at a beautiful traditional restaurant in which we seem to be the only non-Turks — an inspiring meal — we walked the short distance to the Eyup Mosque, one of the holiest shrines in the Islamic world as one of the principal collaborators of Mohammad is buried there: Eyup Ensari, who took part in the first Moslem siege of Constantinople in the 7th century. When the city finally fell to Mehmet the Conqueror eight centuries later, one of Mehmet’s first actions was find the place where Eyup Ensari was buried and build a mosque and tomb. Most of the people we saw were either locals or pilgrims. There was an intense sense of devotion in the vicinity of the mosque. Both inside and out we were hit by a powerful sense of sacred space. The Dutch and French tour groups that arrived while we were there tended to underscore the inappropriateness of purely secular interest in such an environment. While people nearby were at prayer, the guides were pointing out details in the mosque’s decoration. But soon the two groups were back in their buses and the disruption was over.

We left, deeply moved, and made our way home.

We met Shannon for our last dinner together in Istanbul. We had promised Ozgur that we would have a meal in his restaurant (”If you eat here, you will not be sorry”), and so went to Time Out for a simple meal. Ozgur spent a lot of time with us, talking. He is both shy and eager to talk, an unusual combination. As we left, he asked Jim if we would come back before we left as he wanted to talk to us about something important.
29 April, Bright Tuesday

We had breakfast with Shannon at the Artemis Hotel, then helped get her on the tram to the airport. After seeing her on her way, we stopped at a bookshop and bought Strolling in Istanbul, a thick guide with few pictures but an immense amount of detail, and a well-illustrated Turkish cookbook, as Nancy has taken to Turkish cooking and wants to bring something of Istanbul back to our table in Alkmaar.

Back at the hotel, Ali introduced us to Gabi, his wife, whom he met in Hungary when he had a business there. All four of us drove up the Bosphorus on its European side, stopping at a massive castle built in 1452 by Mahmet II — Rumeli Hisan, also known as the Fortress of Europe — in preparation for the attack on and conquest of Constantinople the following year. Those final months before the city fell its citizens must all have felt like condemned prisoners around whose necks a rope was being slowly tightened. The weakened city fell on the 29th of May after a 54-day siege. Ottoman cannons had carved a huge hole in Theodosius’ walls.

After scaling some of the fortress walls, we drove up to the Bosphorus Bridge and crossed over to the Asian side, driving south with the goal of a late lunch at the Maiden Tower restaurant, a former Istanbul lighthouse which can only be reached by ferry. We then took a much larger ferry that accommodated cars across the Bosphorus to the south shore of the Golden Horn near the Galata Bridge.

That evening we had a light supper at the café near the southwestern edge of the Hippodrome after a young man belonging to the owner’s family came out and gave us his pitch. We went in and had kebabs. Afterward our host sat with us, ordering coffee and baklava as his treat, and told us about what a special restaurant this is. He pointed to a monument by the restaurant entrance that was erected in remembrance of victims of terrorism. His brother was among those who were killed. His father is a political journalist. Everyone working at the restaurant is a member of the family. Our host had studied architecture but now wants to be more politically involved. His family borrowed money from all over to buy the restaurant.

30 April, Bright Wednesday

We found a fruit and vegetable street market had been set up along the White Moustache Street. On each stand the display of vegetables was a work of art. Then we went to the Museum of Archeology, an amazing collection of ancient pieces beautifully lit and exhibited. The sarcophagi from Sidon were especially amazing, so perfectly preserved, and the large Byzantine collection was also extremely good.

We had tea in the museum’s tea garden, then walked to the crafts center near Hagia Sophia where our kick-boxer waiter, Josh, served us and gave us a piece of marbled paper he had made himself.

On the way back to the hotel we stopped at a Ministry of Culture shop and bought a silver spoon as a baptismal present for Alexander Bakker, Jim’s latest god-son. His baptism will be this Sunday. From there we headed for the Museum of Mosaics just behind the Blue Mosque where the Great Palace had stood in the Byzantine era. Along the way we stopped to admire a large pilaf platter, beautifully painted. The shop owner came out and offered to sell it for 37 euros, too good a price to refuse. We took it, and the man wrapped it up in bubble wrap for us.

Then we walked to the Museum of Mosaics and admired the beautifully preserved mosaics that had graced the imperial palace. It was thanks to Harry and Lyn Isbell that we had put this on the “must see” list. Harry had written: “It’s amazing what can happen when good taste meets up with unlimited money. Though the mosaics are huge, as would befit an Imperator Deluxe, the museum and its capacity are quite small because one views them from a narrow catwalk built over and around the edges.”

We next walked to the nearby Time Out restaurant for talk with Ozgur over tea — he wanted to discuss his struggle with depression — and then walked back through the street market, where Jim bought prayer beads made of green stone (just over one euro). We went back to the hotel, then spent some time at the Marmara Café where we had apple tea, tried a water pipe (very cool and mild, with an apple flavor), and wrote postcards.

The day ended with dinner at Ali and Gabi’s home. The main dish was some delicious and spicy Hungarian goulash that Gabi had cooked herself. Ali’s business partner was there as well, and a young woman who is a friend of theirs and also works in the hotel business.

1 May, Bright Thursday

Jim’s day started with a long taxi drive to a post office building that handles packages — he had to pick up copies of his Albania book that had been sent by the World Council of Churches. Fortunately one of the hotel staff came with him to help or Jim would still be waiting at one of the many windows to obtain yet another stamp on yet another form. If this is a typical experience of Turkish bureaucracy, one feels immense compassion for the Turkish people. Apart from the time in the taxi, it took about an hour to receive the box of books. There was a 10-million lira payment to be made (about six euros), and the taxi fare coming and going was 20-million. All for eight copies of a book that we had hoped to have waiting for us at the hotel on arrival in Istanbul so that Shannon could take them back to Albania. Now the books will fly back with us to Holland. Mailing anything more substantial than a letter from Istanbul is out of the question.

We walked to the Spice Market where we purchased of Iranian saffron, sweet paprika, cardamon, sumak, dried apple (for making apple tea), and a pound of Turkish delight, then walked across the Galata Bridge, this time on the lower level, where which is filled with shops and fish restaurants. Rather than climb the hill on the other side we took the Tünel (one of Europe’s earliest subways), then took the tram to Taksim Square (full of police because of May Day demonstrations in the area). From there we walked back more or less the same route but with numerous detours, among them a nice visit to the Armenian Church — Holy Trinity — where we were given a warm welcome by a church official complete with tea. We had a light lunch in a restaurant in the Cicik Pasaji; stopped in at the Robinson Crusoe bookshop where we bought a Turkish-language Amsterdam guide book for Ali and Gabi (to make more real our invitation to them to come stay with us sometime in the future) and a copy of Hamlet for Ozgur. We had a first-rate cappuccino at the Pera Palas Hotel (built in 1892 to receive passengers of the Orient Express) but had no encounter with Agatha Chrystie or Graham Greene. It was at the Pera Palas in 1926 that Chrystie started writing Murder on the Orient Express.

We then went down hill on foot from the Galata Tower, walking back across the bridge but this time on the lower southern side, pausing occasionally to watch the many ferries and smaller boats and also admire the many fish restaurants.

Having been at the Pera Palas, we stopped briefly at the train station which is the departure point for the Orient Express, lately revived, Ali tells us. Then another walk through the Topkapi grounds followed by a brief pause at the Time Out Restaurant to give Ozgur his Hamlet. We had a cup of tea with Ali and Gabi on the Artemis roof, giving them both the Amsterdam guide book and Jim’s Albania book, then went out to supper with Ali and Gabi at the Asitane restaurant next to the Chora Church — at last they were our guests…

2 May, Bright Friday

We woke early and taxied to the ferry in time to catch the 9:15 ferry for passage to the Princes Islands in the Sea of Marmara. The weather was sunny and cool, but it promised to be perfect weather for a day outdoors. We passed the three smaller islands and after about an hour and fifteen minutes got off at the largest — Buyukada — once a place of semi-imprisonment in Byzantine times for princes and princesses who had fallen out of the emperor’s good will. More recently Leon Trotsky, on the run from Stalin, lived for five years in one of the island’s finest mansions — from Bolshevik terrorism to luxurious exile! There are at least two monasteries on the island.

We bought a map of the island at a shop on the quay as well as a cloth hat for Jim and stopped for cappuccino (not nearly Pera Palas quality). We decided to go to St. George’s Monastery in the south end of the island, going part of the way by horse-drawn carriage and walking the rest of the way. There are no cars permitted on the island, except for service vehicles like ambulances and police cars and a few small delivery trucks. The main road is filled with these horse-drawn carriages, quite colorful and fun. As we drove along we were passed by a carriage carrying four young people, the elderly driver tearing down the road and urging his horses on at a gallop. The kids in the carriage seemed delighted, but it was way too fast for such a road and such a vehicle. (A few hundred meters further we came upon an accident — the galloping carriage had lost a wheel, both horses were lying on their sides, the four kids were walking around dazed, and the driver had a gash on his cheek and looked very disoriented. Our driver stopped and helped get the horses up and pull the wrecked carriage out of the road. An ambulance soon arrived to take the driver away.)

St George monastery from the air

We passed many beautiful old wooden houses, some nicely restored, some showing signs of great wealth, some urgently in need of restoration. The island is covered with beautiful trees and seems almost Caribbean.

We finally arrived at the beginning of the road up to the monastery. It wasn’t clear from the map, but this is a long uphill climb on a cobblestone path. We started up and noticed that all along the path there were pieces of fabric and napkins tied to the branches of bushes lining the pathway, and lots of thread running along the path. It reminded Jim of the prayer flags in Tibet. We saw this all the way up the mountain. We also came across a chain of marching caterpillars trying to cross the path, one after the other front to back, as if they were physically connected. Quite amazing.

The view was wonderful, and there were several places along the way where you could sit and rest. Finally we reached the top, but unfortunately the church was locked. We discovered a back corner of the monastery where many people had lit candles. When we arrived, some older Turkish women were there clearly at prayer, hands together, palms up — one of those instances where Muslims worship at Christian shrines. On one side of the monastery a large family gathering was underway around a long table. Behind the monastery we found a small café where we shared a bottle of beer and sat in the shade, admiring the scenery and resting. Then we walked to the place where the candles were — many were lit — and lit two ourselves, praying. Then we walked back down the hill and took another carriage back to the village.

image of St George on the side of the monastery

A member of the staff at the Artemis Hotel had told us to look for the Milano restaurant for lunch, and we found it — one of the several restaurants all lined up along the water’s edge running south from the boat dock. Sitting right on the waterside, we had an exceptional lunch of grilled bluefish. Then we walked around the village a bit, making our way to the boat landing, found an ice cream stand whose homemade product was astonishingly good, bought return tickets and took the 3:35 boat back to the city. It was 5:20 by the time we got back, and we walked to the hotel to rest.

At 8:00 Ali called us to let us know that he and Gabi were taking us to “Istanbul’s best restaurant.” We took a taxi to a kebab shop in Sultanahmet just a little way down the street from one of the city’s oldest mosques, where we were met by Ali’s partner, Metin Sidirtmac. To enter, you had to walk down a couple of steps. It was a single small room with a grill built into the wall. There was a counter and a table where the cooks — father and son — were preparing kebabs. Two round knee-high tables for provided for customers. We sat on little reed-seated stools. There were photos on the wall from the town where Ali grew up — Gaziantep — which was where the owner also came from. Jim told Ali if we had to find this place, looking only for Istanbul’s best restaurant, he would have walked past it several times without imagining this was it.

The cook was making kebabs on a charcoal oven in the wall. Ali told us he trims all the fat off the meat so it’s very lean, and took us outside to show us where the fatty scraps had been left for the street cats. The cook makes kebabs from lamb chunks and a kind of sausage meat, nicely spiced. In a few minutes he brought our meal to the table — a huge tray with long oval sheets of bread on the bottom, covered by the two kinds of kebabs plus grilled eggplant, onions, garlic, tomatoes and peppers. You tear off a piece of bread, arrange all these things inside, roll it up and eat it. Because you’re sitting so low, it’s easy to sort of hunker over your meal without too much mess. We drank ayran (the standard Turkish drink of yogurt, water and salt), which was perfect with the spicy food. There was also water at the table. The forks were plastic — there’s no place to wash dishes. The owner and his son were busy making more vegetables and kebab and a wonderful salad of chopped tomatoes, parsley and onions with sumak sprinkled over them. He made this on a big thick chopping block that had been used so much it had a well in the center. His knife was a big cleaver. The atmosphere in the place was great.

Ali asked them to play a particular CD of a famous Turkish poet and singer — also from Gaziantep — who had recently died. One of the songs he was singing was a song demanding that America leave Turkey alone. The guys at the next table smiled at us, and we just smiled back, fully agreeing that the world has had more than enough empires.

After a huge meal we walked back to the hotel, passing Constantine’s Column on the way, 35 meters high, standing next to a tram stop. In the fourth century it was the pedestal — at the time even higher — of a large bronze statue of Constantine but this is long gone.

Back at the hotel we sat in the lobby and drank some wine, then Ali suggested we go up on the roof terrace. His partner brought a bottle of Hungarian wine — Black Bull — he had hidden away for a special event and we sat around a table under the stars, watching dozens of birds circle around the lights of the Blue Mosque, drinking wine and telling stories, until about 11:30. Our last night in Istanbul. Perfect.

3 May, Bright Saturday

After packing there was time to visit the Blue Mosque — we had walked past it time and again but never entered — followed by a final cup of tea at the Marmara Café. Then off in Ali’s car to the airport…

* * *

addendum re St George Monastery

http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2011/04/muslims-who-venerate-saint-george.html

April 12, 2011

Muslims Who Venerate Saint George

by William Gourlay / Eureka Street

On an island known to the Greeks as Prinkipo, Ayshe Özakcam spends six months of the year attending a small stall beside a steep cobbled path. She sells home-grown plums, and apples, which she peels and quarters deftly with a sharp knife, to pilgrims passing en route to the Orthodox Church of Ayios Giorgios (St George) on the summit of the island.

What is intriguing about this is not that Ayshe ekes out a living by selling apples, or that she sits all day in the full glare of the Mediterranean sun, but that she is a Muslim, that the island is off the coast of Istanbul, the great Turkish metropolis, and that the majority of visitors to the Orthodox church are in fact Ayshe’s fellow Turks.

Ayshe sees nothing remarkable in this. She doesn’t appear to dwell on the faith or motivations of those puffing past her up the hill. When I ask her who the most common visitors are here she can’t answer definitively. ‘Greek, Turks,’ she shrugs. ‘Everybody!’

On the day of my visit, in late summer, she may not be far wrong. On the island (called Büyükada by the Turks), I encounter well-healed Istanbul locals, Turkish matriarchs in headscarves and dour gabardines, a black-garbed Greek widow, and a gaggle of Iranian tourists who offer around pistachios.

But the busiest day of the year is St George’s Day, April 23, when Turks come by the thousands, taking advantage of the fact that the date coincides with a national public holiday, Independence Day. Crowding onto ferries in Istanbul, they arrive on Büyükada early in the morning, Muslim pilgrims en route to a Greek Orthodox church to ask favours of St George.

‘The path to the monastery is packed with bodies,’ recalls long-term Turkish resident and journalist Pat Yale of her visit on St George’s Day last year. A festive air reigns. At the base of the hill pilgrims buy charms and trinkets designated for whatever they may be praying for: health, love, marriage, children. ‘People unspool cotton along the lower slopes,’ says Pat, ‘and some hand out cubes of sugar.’

These are Muslim customs; cotton threads in white, red or green signify wishes for peace, love or money; the sharing of sugar and sweets is characteristic of Turkish hospitality and communal gaiety.

At the top of the hill pilgrims bustle forward to be allowed into the church in small groups where, with hands upturned in an attitude of prayer, they pass slowly before Greek icons and place handwritten entreaties to St George in a wish box. Outside again they form an orderly queue to be blessed by an Orthodox priest and then proceed on their way.

But aren’t the Greeks and Turks mortal enemies? Isn’t their mutual antagonism prima facie evidence of the ‘clash of civilisations’, the incompatibility of Muslim and Christian cultures? On the face of this, perhaps not. No one is sure when the Muslim practice of venerating St George began, but it is well documented.

In the early 1900s, Edith Durham encountered Albanian Sufis who observed St George’s feast day. In his much-lauded travelogue, From the Holy Mountain, William Dalrymple tells of Palestinian Muslims crowding into a musty Church of St George near Jerusalem. These are just a few of countless instances of Muslim-Christian symbiosis throughout the Balkans and the Levant.

After enjoying one of Ayshe’s tart apples, I continue up the path towards the church, enjoying sweeping views of the Sea of Marmara and the Asian and European shores of Istanbul. Along the route, remnant cotton threads linger on the trunks of scrubby oak and pine trees, and votive rags flutter from the branches of wild olives.

The church itself is not of architectural note, but it too offers panoramic views. Nearby the Turks have, perhaps inevitably, built a teahouse and restaurant. The site seems quintessentially Mediterranean to me, combining the Greek genius for building places of worship in remote locales with the Turkish predilection for tea and other such sedate pleasures in picturesque landscapes.

A Turkish teahouse abutting a Greek church, and Muslim pilgrims receiving blessing from Orthodox priests strike me as powerful evidence that civilisations do not inevitably clash, that where faiths meet the result need not be a tussle whereby one must cancel the other out. Through long interaction and mutual respect, cultures can fuse and meld, adopting and adapting from each other.

St George, the ‘warrior saint’, may be puzzled by all of this. Known for smiting the dragon he offered inspiration to belligerent Crusaders, but for countless years on Büyükada he has brought members of different faiths together. On April 23rd, as at many times during the year, their prayers in different languages will again intermingle and rise heavenwards.

* * *

Thomas Merton: a poster boy?

Often works of biography reveal more about the author than about his subject. Mark Shaw’s recent book about Thomas Merton strikes me as a case in point. Here is the review I wrote for the Winter issue of The Merton Seasonal.

Jim

* * *

Beneath the Mask of Holiness:
Thomas Merton and the Forbidden Love Affair That Set Him Free

by Mark Shaw
Palgrave Macmillan, 256 pages, $27

review by Jim Forest

While still a young, aspiring writer who had not yet set his sights on becoming a monk, Merton lamented his latest rejection letter in a journal entry with which any writer can identity: “Other people’s bad books get published,” he noted in his journal. “Why can’t my bad book get published?” Mark Shaw has much to celebrate. Despite (or perhaps because of) his purple prose style and sensationalist approach to the life of Thomas Merton, his particular bad book has gotten published.

The book centers on what Shaw presents as shocking revelations of closely-guarded secrets. The reader learns that, while a college student in England, Merton had a sexual liaison that resulted in the birth of an out-of-wedlock child; and then later in life, long after becoming a monk, fell in love with a nurse he met while recovering from surgery.

Is there anyone with the remotest interest in Merton’s life who is unaware of Mark Shaw’s headline news? Soon after Merton’s death in 1968, his friend Ed Rice became the first to write, in The Man in the Sycamore Tree, about Merton fathering a child while at Clare College, Cambridge. No subsequent biographer has ignored the event. As for his affair with the nurse when he was 50, it was first described a quarter century ago by Michael Mott in The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton. It is now more than a decade since Merton’s journals about the affair, included in Learning to Love, were published.

Shaw is indignant that Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, published in 1948, referred in only “watered down” terms to the more serious sins he committed before he became a monk. This is nothing less than intentional misrepresentation, Shaw asserts, “the result of a concerted effort to disguise a tormented sinner as some sort of plastic saint rehabilitated through monastic practices.” (21) The real Merton was transformed into a Catholic “poster boy.” (p vii)

Continuing in the same vein, Shaw sees the lack of detail as nothing less that the result of “a quiet conspiracy, a cover up, if you will, by not only Merton, but also the Catholic Church hierarchy stretching from the United States to the Vatican, Abbot Frederic Dunne [Merton’s abbot when he wrote the book], Merton’s literary agent, and his publisher, none of whom did anything other than promote the book as factual even though critical parts did not disclose the whole truth. Strict censorship, in effect, issued a restraining order on Merton’s true story, omitting crucial information about him, and readers were hoodwinked and misled into believing that while Merton may have been a sinner prior to entering Gethsemani, he was not ‘that bad’ a sinner.” (21)

Thus the book’s title: Beneath the Mask of Holiness. Shaw sees “holiness” as a disguise that the Catholic Church and the Trappist Order managed to squeeze Merton into. But, thanks to his affair in 1965, Merton finally discovered what life was all about and thus was no longer “a schizophrenic persona, passive on the outside while pangs of anguish and fear patrolled within him.” (9)

If such over-heated sentences appeal to you, either for content or prose style, I urge you to rush out and buy a copy. Otherwise save your time and money for a better book.

Perhaps it’s not entirely accidental that the reader is reminded of Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code, populated by evil Catholics whose goal in life is to conceal the truth. In Shaw’s book, Merton is assigned the starring role in an anti-Catholic tract. (In the book’s last chapter, Shaw speculates that Merton may have been murdered, in which case “the logical suspects would be directives hired by the Catholic Church hierarchy, who were afraid of a scandal if Merton were to return to his lover or leave Gethsemani.” [213-4])

If you want to know about actual Merton’s life, including those events that he brought to confession, read Merton himself or one of his less conspiracy-minded biographers.

Regarding his year at Cambridge, Merton asked aloud in The Seven Storey Mountain, “Shall I wake up the dirty ghosts under the trees of the Backs and out beyond the Clare New Building and in some rooms down on Chesterton Road?” He decided to let the ghosts slumber. “There would certainly be no point whatever in embarrassing other people with the revelation of so much cheap sentimentality mixed up with even cheaper sin,” as he put it in an earlier draft of the autobiography. It was characteristic of Merton to take pains not to embarrass others.

What Merton makes crystal clear in The Seven Storey Mountain, as published, is that it was a hellish interval in his life, “an incoherent riot of undirected passion,” as he put it — a time of “beer, bewilderment and sorrow,” in the words of his friend, Bob Lax. “I had fallen through the surface of old England,” Merton wrote, “into the hell, the vacuum and the horror that London was nursing in her avaricious heart.” He remembers reading Freud, Jung, and Adler, struggling to understand “the mysteries of sex-repression.”

Though clearly something dreadful occurred, the reader was left guessing exactly what actually happened — something to do with the mysteries of sex-repression, clearly, but what? On the other hand, what Merton shared with his readers is a great deal more than is provided by most authors of autobiographies. In Charlie Chaplin’s autobiography, to give one typical example, Chaplin simply skipped over some of the more painful or humiliating moments in his life, while inventing or radically revising others.

For all its sorrows, Merton’s year at Cambridge wasn’t a total loss. Perhaps the high point was Professor Edward Bullough’s class on Dante. Canto by canto, Merton read his way to the frozen core of hell, finally ascending through purgatory toward the bliss of heaven, a “slow and majestic progress of … myths and symbols.” It was purgatory’s seven storey mountain that provided Merton with the metaphor for his autobiography.

While Shaw provides a compact if voyeuristic chronicle of how Merton fell in love with a young nurse and what occurred between them in the weeks that followed, by far the best and most vivid and three-dimensional account of the same story is related by Merton himself in Learning to Love. Here the reader gets both a day-by-day history of what happened as well as a poignant account of his struggle to make sense of what all this meant, his justifications side-by-side with his self-recriminations. Here one can also can read about the very human community Merton was a part of and his frustrations with his abbot, James Fox – and then hear him express his gratitude for both.

Unfortunately, Shaw seems to have no understanding of or sympathy with Merton’s basic choices: to become a Christian, to be baptized in the Catholic Church, and then to embrace monastic life in a penitential order. It was ultimately because of Merton’s renewed realization that he had a monastic vocation, not a vocation to marriage, that made him end the affair.

It wasn’t, in my opinion, Merton’s finest hour. Many priests suffer from extreme loneliness and have affairs which, in most cases, end as Merton’s did. I have known several women at the other end of similar stories who felt abandoned, suffered from a deep sense of rejection for years afterward, and even wrestled with thoughts of suicide. The fact that this particular story involves Thomas Merton doesn’t make it better and mean that, thanks to the special magic of the Merton factor, it became an encounter sprinkled with pixie dust for the young woman who so desperately loved him.

“God writes straight with crooked lines,” says a Portugese proverb. After the affair, Merton realized he needed not only a hermitage but also vital relationship with several Kentucky families he had begun to know. Never a hard-hearted man, he became even more compassionate. One hopes the nurse he loved was also able to make good use of the intense relationship she had with Merton in that period of her life. (In the past, biographers have shielded her identity, either using the initial “M,” as Merton did in his journals, or her first name, Margie. To his shame, Shaw reveals her family name.)

One could write much more about Shaw’s book and its thesis that it was only thanks to his affair that the true Merton at last emerged from hiding rather than remaining a masked counterfeit coined by the Catholic Church. But then I would have to discuss every chapter, the reading of which is a penance I leave only to those who find ordinary penances inadequate.

Love Your Enemies As Yourself

by Jim Forest

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…
– Jesus Christ (Matthew 5:44)

Passenger planes taken by terrorists fly into the two towers of the World Trade Center; the buildings collapse and thousands are killed. Many more are wounded. Still more now suffer from having breathed in the toxic airbourne debris.

During the Second World War, entire cities — London, Manchester, Birmingham, Dresden, Hamburg, Berlin, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki — become targets of war. Everyone without exception was a target — children, the ill, grandparents, ordinary people. They died in countless thousands.

In the Soviet era, millions were taken away, some for immediate execution, some to labor camps in which it was a miracle not to die of disease, exposure, abuse, or violence. I recall visiting a place of executions in a Belorussian forest. Here, during the Stalin years, people were brought by the truck-load each day and one by one were shot in the back of the head and thrown into pits. When one pit was filled, another was dug. There were many pits and many similar places of execution.

We still aren’t sure how many millions were killed under the Hitler regime — Jews, gypsies, political dissidents, homosexuals, Christians who dared to resist or people simply regarded as inconvenient. As in the Soviet gulag, many died simply of the consequences of living in such condition and being worked like slaves. A vast number were simply executed. The murders were done not only in concentration camps but also in hospitals. In the latter, people regarded as genetically or mentally inferior were killed. It was regarded as “mercy killing.”

In Communist Albania just to make the sign of the cross, to have an icon in one’s home. or to dye an egg red at Easter were regarded as criminal activities. Every church, monastery and seminary without exception was closed. The smallest indication of religious belief could be severely punished. Most priests and many lay people died in concentration camps.

One could spend hour upon hour briefly describing, country by country, the many horrors of violence that human beings have suffered just in the past hundred years. I mention a few examples only to point out that, when we talk about Christ’s commandment to love one’s enemies, the beginning point is the recognition that we have enemies and that evil deeds occur every minute of the day. Often times nationalistic, racial or ideologically-driven movements develop in such a way that enormous numbers of people find themselves in grave danger.

There are people who seem to have entirely lost any sense of the sacredness of life and abuse and murder innocent people, even children — some on a large scale, others as a kind of hellish past-time. I think of my stepmother, Carla, who was shot and killed as she stepped off the bus one evening in San Francisco in 1966 after a day of service in a center for alcoholics. Such events were once rare; in more recent years they have become more common. While the rate of homicide is much lower in Canada than in the USA, probably here, too, most of us have stories to tell of awful things that happened — grave danger, abuse, or violence — to ourselves or to people we know. I am equally sure that many of us have memories of dreadful things we have done or said to others, under obedience, out of fear, or in a state of rage.

The reality of enmity is a central theme in the Gospels. The peaceful, star-illumined Bethlehem we see in Christmas cards tells us nothing at all about the hard life the people who lived there were enduring when Jesus was born. The years of Christ’s life described in the Gospels occurred in a small land under heavy, often brutal, military occupation. There was no concept of human rights. Torture and crucifixion were not rare punishments. It’s no wonder that there was a serious movement of Jewish armed resistance, the Zealots, and that conflict between Israel and Rome not many years later resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the enslavement of thousands of Jews.

So when Jesus instructed his followers, as he did in his Sermon on the Mount, to love their enemies and pray for them, it was not a teaching that would have been offered in a state of naiveté by someone living in an oasis of peace, nor was it a teaching that would have been easily embraced by the suffering people who were listening to him. It’s not a teaching anyone, even in situations of relative social tranquility, takes to easily. What most of us do when we are abused by others is look for a way to return the abuse, even doing so in double measure. Say an irritating word to me and I’ll give you irritation back, multiplied by two. Hit me and I’ll hit you twice as hard. Few Jews had a kind thought regarding the uninvited Romans. Occupation troops are resented and despised. They often become the targets of deadly violence. (We see this even in cases where an occupation is meant to be humanitarian. Though on a mission that is in principle meant to be one of peacemaking and reconstruction, many Canadian soldiers have been killed or wounded in Afghanistan.)

Jesus is never just a man of words. Can you think of anything he taught that he didn’t give witness to in the way he lived and interacted with other people? I cannot.

He called on his followers to be peacemakers. In the Beatitudes, he says they will be known as God’s own children. In his own life, again and again we see examples of peacemaking and at the same time of courage and nonviolence. He repeatedly gave the witness of refusing to return evil for evil. His most violent action was to use a whip of chords to chase money-lenders from the Temple because they were profaning sacred space. Many were upset, but no one was harmed. The only life endangered by his action was his own. The total number of people killed by Jesus Christ is zero.

While many people are driven by anger and vengeance, Christ taught forgiveness and again and again gave the example of forgiving others. When asked by his disciples if they must forgive as much as seven times, Christ replied: seventy times seven. Forgiveness is one of the main themes of the Lord’s Prayer, in which we ask God to forgive us only insofar as we have forgiven others. Perhaps nothing is more impressive than seeing Christ praying for his enemies as he hung nailed to the cross: “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” Indeed, it seems that none of those involved in crucifying him had any idea what they were doing. The idea that Jesus was king of the Jews and son of God was, for his executioners, nothing more than a joke. For some, a heretic was being punished. For others, he was a threat to the Jewish people. For the Roman soldiers, it was simply a grim duty they were under orders to perform.

Jesus also gave the witness of healing. Healing is another word for peacemaking. Peacemaking is the healing of damaged or broken relationships. On one occasion an act of healing was done in response to an appeal not from a fellow Jew but from an officer of the Roman occupation forces, the centurion who appealed to Jesus on behalf of a critically ill servant. Jesus was prepared to come to the officer’s home, but the man said there was no need for that; Jesus’ word was all he needed. Jesus later said that he hadn’t seen such faith in all of Israel. Can you imagine how annoyed, even scandalized, some of the witnesses to this exchange would have been? Doing a good deed for a Roman? Then speaking admiringly of a Roman’s faith?

If you take Jesus’s teaching about love of enemies out of the Gospel, you have removed the keel from the ship.

But then how do we go about living an enemy? The answer is given to us by Christ. He doesn’t simply command us to love our enemies, but to pray for them.

Without praying for our enemies, how would it be possible to love them?

Think about these two important words, love and prayer.

The love so often spoken of by Christ is not romantic love. Love is not about how we feel regarding the other but how we respond to the other. If you say you love someone, but you let him starve to death when it is in your power to give him food, in fact you do not love him. love. If you say you love God, but you abandon your neighbor, you love neither God nor neighbor.

Love is not the acquisition of pleasant feelings for an enemy, the kind of feeling we have for a sweetheart, a member of your family, or a cherished friend. The love Christ speaks of has very little to do with feelings and much to do with actions. Love is to do what you can to preserve another life and to bring that person toward salvation. Christ uses a metaphor: God’s love is like the rain falling equally on both wheat and weeds; or it is like the sun shining on both the just and the unjust. This doesn’t mean God doesn’t distinguish between the just and the unjust; but so long as a person lives, the possibility of repentance and conversion lives.

Think about the word prayer. Prayer is the giant step of taking into your heart, the center of your life, your appeal to God for the well-being and healing of another person’s life. It is not a sentimental action but an act of will and an obedience to God, knowing that God seeks the well-being and salvation of each person. After all, each person, no matter how misguided, no matter how damaged, is nonetheless a bearer of the image of God. If it pains you to imagine the intentional destruction of an icon, how much more distress should we feel when an human being is harmed or killed?

I’m talking now about the Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — not the Gospel according to Hollywood. The latter provides us with a never-ending parade of stories about evil people killed by good people. The basic story tempts us to prefer armed heroism to the heroism of sanctity, or to confuse the two. A basic element of The Gospel According to Hollywood is that the evil people are so evil that there is no real solution short of hastening their death. Confronted by such pure evil, what else can one do?

But the teaching of Christ is not to kill enemies but to overcome enmity. It’s like the transformation of water into wine that Christ performed at the wedding feast in Cana. We are commanded to convert our enmity into love, and it starts with prayer.

But to pray for an enemy is no small or easy step. The fact is that the last people in the world we want to pray for are the people we fear or hate or regard with disgust. You know you have an enemy whenever you discover a person or community of people for whom you hesitate to pray. But once you recognize enmity, take note of it. Keep a list of the people you find it hard to pray for and then pray for them anyway. Do it as a religious duty.

Prayer is an invisible binding together. The moment I pray for another person, a thread of connection is created. I have taken that person into myself. Praying for him means to ask God to bless him, to give him health, to lead him toward heaven, to use me to help bring about his salvation. As soon as this occurs, my relations with that person or community of people is changed. You look differently at a person you are praying for. You listen differently. It doesn’t mean you will necessarily agree. You may disagree more than ever. But you struggle more to understand what is really at issue and to find solutions that will be for his good as well as your own. In fact, the saints tell us, that the deeper we go in the life of faith, the freer we become from worrying about our own welfare, and the more we worry about the welfare of others.

Some years ago, at a conference on the Greek island of Crete, I gave a talk in which I summarized Orthodox teaching about war. I pointed out that the Orthodox Church has never embraced the just war doctrine, a doctrine that evolved in the west. The Orthodox Church, I said, regards war as inevitably sinful in nature even in cases where no obvious alternative to war can be found. No one has ever been canonized for killing. Priests, deacons and iconographers are forbidden by canon law to kill or cause the death of others. Anyone who has killed another human being, even by accident, is barred from serving at the altar. Under all circumstances and at all times, every baptized person is commanded by Christ to love his enemies.

There was nothing remarkable in what I said, no novel doctrines, nothing borrowed from non-Orthodox sources, yet the lecture stirred up a controversy not only in the hall in which I was speaking but into the city itself as my talk and the translator’s words were being broadcast live over the diocesan radio station.

The debate continued that night when the local bishop, Metropolitan Irinaios, and I took part in a radio conversation with listeners phoning in with their comments or questions. Responding to a man who called in to denounce Turks as barbarians who only understood the language of violence, I summarized what Christ had to say on the subject of loving one’s enemies. “That’s all very well,” the caller responded, “but now let me tell you about a real saint.” He proceeded to tell me about a priest who, in the 19th century, played a valiant role in the war to drive the Turks off the island. I suggested he not dismiss the teaching of Jesus so readily and asked if he wasn’t perhaps confusing heroism and nationalism with sanctity.

In fact we have soldier saints, like Great Martyr George. But when we study their lives in order to find out why the Church canonized them, it was never for their courage and heroism as soldiers, but for other factors. Most were martyrs — people who died for their faith without resistance. There are saints who got in trouble for refusing to take part in war, in some cases dying for their disobedience. St. George dared to confess his faith publicly during a time of imperial persecution. The “dragon” he fought was Caesar. One saint, Martin of Tours, narrowly escaped execution after refusing to take part in battle; he went on to become a great missionary bishop. There is Ireland’s renowned Saint Columba, who is on the Church calendar not because he was co-responsible for a great battle in which many were slaughtered, but because he went on to live a life of penance in exile, in the process converting many to Christ.

All of what I’m saying probably sounds fine. It isn’t hard to admire saints. Most people realize that the Gospel is not a summons to hatred or violence. But what about our ordinary selves living here and now? What does this have to do with how we carry on our lives?

A beginning point is to admit we are only partial Christians — that is to say, our conversion has begun but is far from complete. When we go to confession, many of us don’t even try confessing all of our sins because no priest in the world would have time to hear them all. We try to identify the main ones, the sins that are most urgent and problematic, and focus on them, saving other sins for a later confession. Each of us is painfully aware that we have far to go. As the cartoon character Pogo used to say, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

One of the great obstacles were up against is that it’s easier to be more nation-centered than Christ-centered. The culture we live in is a powerful influence. One is less likely to be shaped by the Gospel than by the particular economic, social, political and cultural milieu we happen to be part of.

If I am a German living in Germany in the 1930s, there is a good chance I will gravitate toward Nazism. If I am a white South African living in the era of apartheid, it’s more than likely that I will accept the justifications for racism, and the benefits that come from being part of a racist society. Our thoughts, values, choices, our “life style” — all these tend to be formed by the mass culture in which we happen to be born and reared. If we are Christians, we will try to adjust Christ and the Gospel to the national flag and the views of the people around us.

Yet we have in the Church many saints who provide us with models of what it means to follow Christ wholeheartedly — without holding anything back, without compromising with the demands of money or politics.

One such saint — canonized only two years ago — is Mother Maria Skobtsova, a Russian refugee in France who devoted herself to the care of the homeless and destitute, and also to the renewal of the Church. She and the community she was part of helped save the lives of many people, especially Jews, when France was occupied by the Third Reich. On one occasion she managed to smuggle children awaiting deportation out of a stadium in which thousands of Jews had been rounded up. It is hardly surprising that eventually she was arrested and ended her life in a German concentration camp, Ravensbrük, dying on Good Friday. Yet we find in her many letters, essays and the acts of her brave life not a trace of hatred for Germans or Austrians, even those who were captive of Nazi ideology. She was part of the resistance to Nazism and Hitlerism, but was no one’s enemy, not even Hitler’s. Her small community produced three other martyrs: the priest who assisted her, Fr. Dimitri Klepenin, her son, Yuri, who was then just entering adulthood, and her good friend Ilya Fondaminsky, a writer, editor and publisher.

At the core of their lives and many courageous actions was the conviction, as Mother Maria put it, that “each person is the very icon of God incarnate in the world.” This is not some new idea that was discovered by a few saintly Christians in Paris in that grim time, but what C.S. Lewis referred to as “mere Christianity.” It is because each person is an icon of God that everyone in the church is honored with incense during the Liturgy.

Mother Maria had been married and become a mother before taking the monastic path. Before that happened, her husband left her and one of her children died of illness. She embraced a celibate vocation, but her understanding of monastic life was not the traditional one of withdrawal. Her desert was the city. She was opposed to living a life that might impose “even the subtlest barrier which might separate the heart from the world and its wounds.” Like any Orthodox Christian, the Liturgy was at the heart of her life, not as an end in itself but because it gave daily life a divine imprint.

“The meaning of the Liturgy must be translated into life,” she said. “It is why Christ came into the world and why he gave us our Liturgy.”

She was determined to live a life in which the works of mercy were central. As she wrote: “At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked, Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked.”

No one has lived in a more violent time than she, a time in which there were powerful temptations to keep one’s head down and quietly survive, making whatever compromises the demands of survival required. Yet instead she and those who worked with her give us a model of centering one’s life on those whose lives are threatened.

In Europe in those days it was especially the Jews. In our time the list of those in danger is much longer, including not only the born but the unborn as well as those who are handicapped or old. We live in what many people have come to identify as a culture of death. The only question each of us must struggle with is where to focus our life-saving activity. It is not just a question of saving lives but making clear to others, through our response to them, that they bear God’s image — thus we proclaim that there is a God, and that God is love.

We have met the enemy and he is us, as Pogo said. But the self is no small foe. In the days when India was struggling for independence, Gandhi sometimes said he had only three enemies — the British nation, his favorite enemy; the Indian people, a much more difficult adversary, and finally a man named Gandhi, the hardest enemy of all.

Each of us sees our most difficult enemy when we look into a mirror. Yet if we will only cooperate in Christ’s mercy, struggling day by day to die to self, day by day our conversion will continue, which will be good not only for ourselves but good for everyone else as well.

Let me close with these words from St. Cyprian of Carthage:

You have many things to ponder. Ponder paradise, where Cain, who destroyed his brother through jealousy, does not return. Ponder the kingdom of heaven to which the Lord admits only those of one heart and mind. Ponder the fact that only those can be called the sons of God who are peacemakers, who, united by divine birth and law, correspond to the likeness of God the Father and Christ. Ponder that we are under God’s eyes, that we are running the course of our conversion, and life with God Himself looking on and judging, that then finally we can arrive at the point of succeeding in seeing Him, if we delight Him as He now observes us by our actions, if we show ourselves worthy of His grace and indulgence, if we, who are to please Him forever in heaven, please Him first in this world. [“On Jealousy and Envy”, chapter 18]

Christ called on his followers to be peacemakers, calling such people the children of God. May each of us labor to become the peacemaker Christ intends. May each of us become people who love our enemies and pray for them with fervor.

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Discovering Wormwood

Here is a copy of a preface I’ve written for the forthcoming Romanian edition of The Wormwood File: E-Mail from Hell.

A page about the English-language edition of the book is here: http://www.jimandnancyforest.com/2005/01/03/the-wormwood-file-e-mail-from-hell/

A few years ago I was thinking of sending a copy of C.S. Lewis’s book, The Screwtape Letters, to a cousin who lives in a culture in which Christianity is the opposite of trendy. The Screwtape Letters is a classic that has sold millions of copies and helped countless people either become Christians or become better Christians.

Before sending the book, however, I decided to re-read it and only then realized it would probably not be a good match for my cousin. The world in which The Screwtape Letters had been written is hugely different than the world we live in today.

Lewis would be astonished at how much change, in many ways for the worse, has occurred since the publication of The Screwtape Letters in 1943. Ours is a world in which, in many countries, most marriages fail, in which the lives of many unborn children are ended before birth, in which pornography is available to anyone able to make use of the internet, in which we bury ourselves in consumer products while ignoring those who lack the necessities of life, in which computers and television challenge us all in a wide variety of ways, and in which war has become even more destructive than it was in Lewis’ day.

This inspired me to think of a new book similar to The Screwtape Letters — correspondence between an apprentice demon and a far more experienced elder — but addressing some of the issues we face in the highly-secularized world that challenges us each day.

My premise was simple: What if Lewis’ Wormwood, the demon-in- training in The Screwtape Letters, had not, after all, been dismissed from his position as an up-and-coming tempter and had now himself become mentor to junior devils, as Screwtape had been to him?

In the actual writing of the book, it was disturbing to see how easy it was to look at things from a demonic point of view — almost as easy as clicking a switch. I didn’t have to dig deeply within myself to hear Wormwood’s voice loud and clear.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. How quick we human are to find arguments that justify whatever it is we want to do. This is one of the main themes of Dostoevsky’s novels, especially Crime and Punishment.

A friend recently asked what my favorite chapter was in the book? This is like asking someone what’s their favorite color or their favorite movie. These things change according to mood and circumstances. Today the answer is Wormwood’s message 4 on “true religion.” But ask me again tomorrow and I may have a different answer.

The same friend wanted to know which chapter was the most difficult to write? Here I can be more definite. It was hardest writing about abortion — see message 8 on choice.

“Choice” is a hot word in our culture. We like “to keep our options open.” Those in favor of abortion rarely describe themselves as “pro-abortion.” That would be putting things much too plainly. Instead, at least in the English-speaking world, they call their position “pro-choice” and that works. The reality is the same with either term — an unborn child is killed — but “pro-choice” sounds morally neutral, even positive.

Yet in speaking plainly about what abortion really means, a Christian writer has at the same time to be compassionate about the incredible pressures a young woman often faces if she become pregnant, especially if she isn’t married — pressure from parents, friends, her boyfriend, social workers, not to mention herself. It’s easy to give in to others, and it’s easy to give in to one’s own panic. The reader also must also be reminded, even if she has had an abortion, that the only unforgivable sin is to reject God’s mercy.

We live in a culture that pays a lot of attention to packaging. Finding the right words to wrap around killing is an activity no less popular among politicians than pro-abortionists. Today wars are mainly presented as actions in defense of human rights.

Another question I have been asked: Do I have special hopes for what the reader will take away from this book?

Perhaps the main thing is that we live our entire life on a battlefield. This is true for everyone no matter how poor or well off they happen to be, even if lucky enough to have loving parents, food on the table, a sense of security, and abilities and talents that suggest a promising future.

In fact every day we have hard choices to make, and the fact is that there are powerful temptations to make wrong choices, choices that are destructive for ourselves and others. As people who are attempting to live a more Christ-centered life, we need to equip ourselves spiritually and intellectually to resist the arguments and slogans that in fact drag us away from the Gospel.

This is a book about becoming more aware of how easily we are influenced, not only by the seductive whisper of unseen demons, but by the economic and political structures in which he happen to live. We tend to be much like fish — swimming in schools. We are inclined to make choices decided for us and either imposed by threats or infiltrating our thoughts through advertising, propaganda and peer- group pressure.

A final word about laughter: Perhaps the thing I like best about The Wormwood File is that it’s built on the premise that one of the best ways to deal with demons is to laugh them off. Demons really don’t like being laughed at. While I was writing the book, every time a chapter was finished, I would read it aloud to my wife Nancy before we went to bed. The more she laughed, the more pleased I was. And we had some really good laughs.

Enjoy the book.

— Jim Forest

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text as of 21 May 2009
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Crazy for God: Frank Schaeffer's Honest and Surprising Memoir

a review by Jim Forest of Frank Scheaffer’s memoir

Frank Schaeffer doesn’t really fit into a brief description. An American, he grew up in rural Switzerland. His parents were fervent Calvinist missionaries living in a Catholic culture which they regarded as barely Christian. Their chalet, known as L’Abri, became a house of hospitality in which a never-ending seminar on culture and Christianity was the main event. Though an Evangelical, a strain of Protestantism usually hostile to the arts, Frank’s father was an avid lover of art done in earlier centuries by, in most cases, Catholic artists — an enthusiasm that in time inspired his son to become an artist. Later Frank gave up the easel to makes films, first documentaries in which his father was the central figure, then more general evangelical films, and finely several unsuccessful non-religious films aimed at a general audience. Eventually — profoundly disenchanted with the form of Christianity his parents had embraced, and still more alienated from the shrill varieties of right wing Evangelical Christianity that both he and his parents had helped create, Frank joined the Orthodox Church, where he still remains, though no longer in what he refers to as the stage of “convert zeal.” After his son, John, became a Marine, Frank became something of a missionary for the Marine Corps, and the military in general, at the same time avidly supporting the war in Iraq in which his son was a participant. A statement I helped to write that urged George Bush not to attack Iraq was the target of a column (published in The Washington Post and many other newspapers) that Schaeffer wrote in the early days of that war. Now Schaeffer regards the Iraq War as a disaster and has become an outspoken critic of George Bush.

“Crazy for God” is a gripping read, both candid and engaging. More than anything else, I was touched by Schaeffer’s unrelenting honesty. There are pages in which you feel as if you are overhearing a confession. Yet it’s a very freeing confession to overhear, in the sense that it allows the reader to make deeper contact with painful or embarrassed areas of his own wounded memory. The book also serves as an admonition not to create a self for public display which is hardly connected to one’s actual self.

Being raised in a hothouse of Calvinist missionary zeal, in which Schaeffer and his three sisters became Exhibit A (especially whenever their mother wrote or spoke about Christian Family Life) is not something I would wish on any child. I expect Frank Schaeffer will always be in recovery from that aspect of his childhood.

Those — and they are many — who still revere his parents (or for that matter Schaeffer’s earlier self, in the period of his life when he was a hot voice packing in the evangelical/Christian Right crowds) are furious at this lifting of the curtain.

Yet I found Schaeffer much harder on himself than on his parents, whom he sees as having been damaged, in some ways made crazy, by the burden of a harsh Calvinist theology. Nonetheless his parents emerge as real Christians whose loving care for others, including people whom many Christians would cross the street to avoid, was absolutely genuine. (I was impressed by the book’s account of his parents’ response to homosexuals who came to visit L’Abri. They were as warmly received as any other guest.)

While objecting to his parents’ theology and the distortions that it created in their lives and in the lives of many influenced by them, clearly he loves them passionately and deeply respects the actual Christian content of their lives — their “grace, generosity, love and unconditional support.”

Schaeffer’s book also reminds me that it’s one of the recurring tragedies of US history that, from time to time, various movements of self-righteous, ideology-driven Christians decide it’s time to try to impose their ideas on society at large. Schaeffer has to live with the painful memory of having been one of the key figures helping to create one of the constituencies that did the most to put George Bush in the White House in their one-issue hope that he would find ways to make abortion, if not illegal, at least less frequent. After eight years in the Oval Office, in fact abortion is no less deeply embedded in American life than it was before Bush’s election. Little if anything was done by his administration to help women who felt they had no option but abortion find alternatives.

I was touched by Schaeffer’s comments about the powerful influence children can have on their parents, far more than the children usually realize. As Schaeffer has come to understand, in reflecting on his relationship with his father, that influence is sometimes far from positive.

Schaeffer — now far more caring about the quandaries others face than he was earlier in his life — has in the process become aware that self-righteousness is often the hallmark of each and every “movement,” whether religious or secular, and whether for the unborn, for peace, for those on death row, for animal welfare, for the environment, etc., etc.

In putting the book down, I find myself profoundly grateful for where Frank Schaeffer’s journey has taken him so far, yet hope for further evolution in his views in regard to the military and how those in the armed forces are used. I take it as a given that he is aware there are men and women who died or live crippled lives in part because of the impact on their lives of several of Schaeffer’s earlier books which viewed the military uncritically and seemed unaware of how often those sent into battle — because of accidents, misinformation, panic, bad orders, or even the passion for vengeance — kill innocent people. Nor does he seem aware of the damage, often unhealable, done to those who bear responsibility for such deaths. I hope Schaeffer will give more thought to why the early Church took such a radical stand in regard to warfare and other forms of killing, accidental or intentional, and what that might mean for any Christian in our own day.

Also I would have been glad to hear more about what drew him to the Orthodox Church and what keeps him there, now that he is past what he calls the “zealous convert” stage. In his autobiography, being Orthodox is a minor topic.

As “Crazy for God” bears witness, life is mainly shaped by one’s parents and family, peer group pressure, and — not least — the white water of ambition. Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. I was reminded several times of one of Kurt Vonnegut’s insights: “Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be.” It’s something of a miracle that Frank Schaeffer escaped from the highly profitable world of the Television Church.

“Crazy for God” also reminds me of what a dangerous vocation it is, more perilous than mountain climbing, when one becomes a professional Christian, writing or speaking about the Gospel, Jesus Christ, the kingdom of God, making some or all of your living doing this. It’s a danger I live with too.

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March 2008
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