Give Peace a Chance: Peacemaking as common ground

Talk given by Jim Forest 10 March 2009 at Trinity Western University, Langley, British Columbia :

“All we are saying,” sang the Beatles, “is give peace a chance.” We sing it still, not only with a fond memory of John Lennon, who wrote the song in 1969, but remembering all the people who made it into an anthem of the peace movement during the long struggle to end the war in Vietnam.

“Give peace a chance” is a line notable for its modesty. It’s a polite invitation to live in a way that makes it more likely that we can do with our lives something constructive rather than destructive.

Perhaps those few words might be seen as a pop translation of the words of Jesus in the first part of the Sermon in the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

Blessed — that’s not a word we use very often. When’s the last time you used it in conversation? What does it actually mean?

The original New Testament texts are in Greek. The Greek word we translate as “blessed” is makarios. In classical Greek makar was associated with the gods. Kari means “fate” or “death,” but with the negative prefix ma the word means “deathless, immortal, no longer subject to fate,” a condition desperately longed for by mortals. It was because of their immortality that the gods, the hoi Makarioi, were the blessed ones. One way to translate makarios into English would be to say “Risen from the dead.” “Risen from the dead are the poor on spirit … Risen from the dead are the peacemakers…” Each of the eight beatitudes has to do with what it is like to be a person living in the kingdom of God, and not at some future time but here and now. Such a person is poor in spirit, such a person mourns, such a person is meek, such a person hungers and thirsts for righteousness, such a person is merciful, such a person is pure of heart, such a person is a peacemaker, such a person is ready to be insulted and persecuted for his or her their faith. Such a person as already risen from the dead — that is from the kind of mortuary life we experience every time we make choices based on fear rather than love.

The Beatitudes are a brief summary of the Gospel. Peacemaking is one of the most basic elements of Christian life. However many Christians fail to practice peacemaking, or even become war makers, peacemaking is one of the essential components of the life Christ calls his followers to lead. In fact it’s emphasized in other religious traditions as well — in Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism. While followers of these other traditions may be just as likely as Christians to participate in war, and even at times to regard war as a sacred duty, in fact they too belong to religions in which peace and mercy are supposed to be at the core of religious life.

The problem isn’t the principle, it’s our practice. We sing “all we are saying is give peace a chance,” and we approve of Jesus’ saying “blessed are the peacemakers,” while all the while doing very little in our day-to-day lives to be peacemakers. In fact many of us actively promote division and conflict. We argue over just about anything, from who took the biggest slice of pie to whose ideas about God are more correct. Not too may people these days would remark about Christians, “See how the love one another” — and still fewer would express amazement at how well Christians practice Jesus’s commandment to love our enemies.

But there are important examples of Christians who gave an extraordinary example of peacemaking. Earlier in the day I talked to students at the School of Education about one of them, Erasmus of Rotterdam, the 16th century academic and educator. Let me repeat here a little of what I said a few hours ago.

Erasmus was one of the great scholars of western civilization. His most famous book, The Praise of Folly, remains one of the most brilliant satires ever written. Erasmus lived in a time of war and extreme religious conflict — the Reformation — yet was one of the great peacemakers of all time. Through letters and his published works, Erasmus repeatedly strove to prevent war between nations and schism between Christians.

“There is nothing more wicked, more disastrous, more widely destructive [than war],” he wrote, “nothing more deeply tenacious or more loathsome. …Whoever heard of a hundred thousand animals rushing together to butcher each other, as men do everywhere?” One of his sayings was: “Man is a creature born without claws.” In common with many artists of the period, he saw death, portrayed as a skeleton carrying a scythe, striding triumphantly at the end of all military expeditions and parades.

In The Complaint of Peace, a book similar to The Praise of Folly, Peace herself rises to complain about how much her name is praised by everyone, including kings and generals, yet how few live peaceful lives. “Without me,” she points out, “there is no growth, no safety for life, nothing pure or holy, nothing agreeable,” while war is “a vast ocean of all the evils combined, harmful to everything in the universe.” It would be unfair to lions to compare them to human beings. “Only men, who above all other species should agree with one another and who need mutual understanding most of all, fail to be united in mutual love … not even by the awareness of the many evils resulting from war.”

Erasmus was also one of the great Christian reformers — a relentless critic of the sins and shortcomings of the Catholic Church as it was in the late 15th and early 16th centuries — but in this area too he fought to overcome enmity and promote unity. He wanted a reformation, but without a rush and without schism. His influence on Luther and other leading Protestants was huge, but Erasmus refused to sanction any solution that led to fragmenting the Church. Not only did he take seriously Christ’s commandment that his followers should remain together in unity, but he was also put off by the incivility and humorlessness of the Protestants he knew. “I have seen them,” he wrote, “return from hearing a sermon as if inspired by an evil spirit. Their faces all showed a curious wrath and ferocity.” And no doubt he had occasions of seeing Catholics in a similar state. It was not easy finding Christ-like people on either side of the wall that was being built.

While himself involved in many theological debates, Erasmus argued that not every question need to be given a final answer in this life. There are various ways of understanding certain aspects of Christian teaching, but what is very clear is we have to love each other even when we disagree. By all means let us debate our points of view, and learn what we can in the process, but then patiently wait until we reach the next world to find out who was right.

For all his criticism of popes who lived more like kings than ambassadors of Christ, Erasmus sought to hold the middle ground in the religious earthquakes of his time. While condemning corruption, he urged patience, dialogue and toleration. Ironically, in times of conflict, such a stand rarely gains friends. Leaders on both sides insist that whoever is not with them is against them. Luther was bitterly disappointed with Erasmus for failing to do as he had done. The fact that Erasmus remained Catholic didn’t, however, mean he was esteemed by the popes of the Counter-Reformation. When the Catholic Church decided to publish a list of prohibited books, all the works Erasmus were placed on the Index. Erasmus would have been grieved but not surprised. He knew what people are like when they get into combat mode.

One of the people who has most influenced my life, Thomas Merton, was very like Erasmus in many ways. Merton, also Catholic, was one of the most widely read Christian authors of the past half century — indeed, remains widely read even though it’s now 40 years since his death. There are passages in Merton that could have just as well been written by Erasmus.

Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, published in 1948, has sold millions of copies, appeared in numerous translations, and has never gone out of print. The Seven Storey Mountain is one of the most gripping accounts of religious conversion ever written, but it has its flaws. Every now and then Merton gets a little preachy. He tends to present the Catholic Church in an entirely uncritical light while only pointing out the shortcoming of Protestant Christianity. One has to keep in mind that he was a fairly young convert at the time and that, in those days, there was something a Berlin Wall separating Catholics and Protestants, and still another wall separating both Catholics and Protestants from the Orthodox Church.

What’s remarkable is how much Merton changed in the twenty years between publication of his autobiography and his death in 1968. He became one of the most prominent Catholic participants in dialogue with non-Catholic Christians, both Protestant and Orthodox, and then widened the circle even further to include people from other religious traditions. One of the last photos we have of Merton, taken just a few weeks before his death, shows him in the Himalayas side by side with the Dalai Lama. His friends came to include Protestant and Orthodox Christians, Jews, Moslems, Buddhists and Hindus.

There are a few passages in Seven Storey Mountain
that give a hint where Merton would be going in his later life. One of these concerns a Hindu monk named Bramachari whom Merton got to know when he was studying at Columbia University. It was Bramachari who encouraged Merton to read The Imitation of Christ — a book that was also important to Erasmus, by the way.

In Merton’s later writing there is a tremendous emphasis on opening doors that a lot of people prefer to keep closed and padlocked.

Merton came to see his own spiritual life as the place where one begins to overcome division. Here’s how he puts it in a key passage in one of my favorite Merton books, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:

“If I can unite in myself the thought and devotion of Eastern and Western Christendom, the Greek and the Latin Fathers, the Russian and the Spanish mystics, I can prepare in myself the reunion of divided Christians. From that secret and unspoken unity in myself can eventually come a visible and manifest unity of all Christians. If we want to bring together what is divided, we cannot do so by imposing one division upon the other. If we do this, the union is not Christian. It is political and doomed to further conflict. We must contain all the divided worlds in ourselves and transcend them in Christ.”

In fact Merton took the principle even further, to include not only with his fellow Christians but also non-Christians.

It’s striking to see how deep that dialogue was and also how wide open it was. For example, probably the best statement Merton ever wrote about how God is both One and a Trinity was not made to a fellow Christian but to a Moslem correspondent. It wasn’t that Merton forced the topic on his Moslem friend, but he was quite ready to answer a question like that when it was asked.

It is sometimes assumed that Merton’s deep interest in other religions suggests he was engaged in a search for a new spiritual home that met his needs better than Christianity, or perhaps was seeking to put religions into a blender and pour out of it his own “baptized Buddhism.” In fact for Merton the faith into which he had been baptized was never at issue. As he put it in a journal entry made three years before his death: “I may be interested in Oriental religions, etc., but there can be no obscuring the essential difference — this personal communion with Christ at the center and heart of reality as a source of grace and life.”

But it seemed to Merton that, thanks to the activity of the Holy Spirit, there was great wisdom to be found in other religious traditions and thus it was of mutual benefit for friendships to take root across all religious borders. At the very least, this kind of dialogue contributes to an increase of love and a lessening of enmity in the world.

One of the people Merton got to know was Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk and poet from Vietnam who has since become one of the best known Buddhist writers. In May 1967, Nhat Hanh spent two days at the monastery in Kentucky where Merton lived.

Merton immediately recognized Nhat Hanh as someone very like himself — a similar sense of humor, a similar outlook on the world and its wars, one of which was at the time killing many people in Vietnam. As the two monks talked, the different religious systems in which they were formed provided bridges. “Thich Nhat Hanh is my brother,” Merton wrote soon after their meeting. “He is more my brother than many who are nearer to me in race and nationality, because he and I see things exactly the same way.” When Merton asked Nhat Hanh what the war was doing to Vietnam, the Buddhist said simply, “Everything is destroyed.” This, Merton said to the monks in a talk he gave a few days later, was truly a monk’s answer, three words revealing the essence of the situation.

Merton described the formation of young Buddhist monks in Vietnam and the fact that instruction in meditation doesn’t begin early. First comes a great deal of gardening and dish washing. “Before you can learn to meditate,” Nhat Hanh told Merton, “you have to learn how to close the door.” The monks to whom Merton told the story laughed — they were used to the reverberation of slamming doors as latecomers raced to the church.

Less than two months before his death, Merton was in Calcutta to speak at a conference that brought together people belonging to various religions. In the talk he gave, Merton stressed that unity cannot be attained by “interminable empty talk, the endlessly fruitless and trivial discussion of everything under the sun.” This kind of “inexhaustible chatter,” which we imagine puts us in closer contact with each other, in fact is rarely remembered by anyone even a week later. “The deepest level of communication is not communication,” he said, “but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. What we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.”

But this didn’t mean, Merton added, that we can get closer to each other by minimizing differences or pretending they don’t exist. As he put it, “There can be no question of … a mishmash of semi-religious verbiage and pieties, a devotionalism that admits everything and therefore takes nothing with full seriousness.” Rather “there must be a scrupulous respect for important differences.”

Merton is not remembered by those whom he met in Asia in those last few months of his life as a post-Christian, but rather as a Christian with genuine interest and respect for non-Christians and a readiness to learn from them and enjoy their company. One of the signs of the significance such conversations had is the visit made to Merton’s monastery by the Dalai Lama in 1994. He arrived by helicopter, then sat in silent meditation on Merton’s grave. Once when he was asked his opinion of Jesus, he replied, “Whenever someone speaks to me about Jesus Christ, I think of Thomas Merton.” Asked on another occasion if he believed in God, a question many Buddhists find problematic, the Dalai Lama replied. “It depends on what you mean by ‘God.’ If you mean by ‘God’ what Thomas Merton means, then yes, I do.”

It’s not surprising that Merton had a special interest in Gandhi. Here was a Hindu who, partly inspired by the Sermon in the Mount, developed a nonviolent method of struggle which contributed hugely to India obtaining its freedom. It seemed to Merton that Christians could learn a great deal from such a man. One of Merton’s books has the title Gandhi and Nonviolence.

Merton also greatly admired Martin Luther King, a Baptist Christian who had been influenced by Gandhi. King was due to visit Merton in 1968 and would have done so had be not been murdered in Memphis.

We see in all these lives that “giving peace a chance” is not something that just happens. It’s a way of life made up of big and small choices that are based on respect for life, a respect for the other person, a refusal to dehumanize those whom we regard as opponents or enemies, a readiness to listen, an active effort to prevent division or overcome it once division occurs, and a real search for nonviolent alternatives in situations that otherwise could easily turn to violence. It’s a refusal to be dragged along like cattle being herded to wherever the trail boss wants to take us. We can see what these qualities look like in the lives of people like Erasmus, Merton, Gandhi and Martin Luther King — famous people — but we can also see what they look like in unfamous people whom we happen to know, perhaps someone in our family, some teacher or friend or neighbor. Such people exist and most of us know one or two or them.

Let me end with a story of how these qualities looked in the life of one ordinary family.

At the center of the story is an elderly black woman, Mrs. Louise Degrafinried, 73 years old at the time, and her husband, Nathan. They lived near Mason, Tennessee, a rural community northeast of Memphis. Both were members of the Mount Sinai Primitive Baptist Church. The other key participant is Riley Arzeneaux, a former Marine sergeant who was serving a 25-year prison term for murder. Along with four other inmates, he had escaped from Pillow State Prison several days before. Somehow they obtained weapons. Once on the run, Riley went his own way. The police were in active pursuit both in cars and helicopters — a massive manhunt. Riley had been sleeping rough. It was winter. There was ice on his boots. He was freezing and hungry.

Having come upon the Degrafinried home, Riley threatened Louise and Nathan with his
shotgun, shouted, “Don’t make me kill you!”

Here comes the astonishing part. Louise responded to their uninvited guest as calmly as a grandmother might respond to a raucous grandchild playing with a toy gun. She started out by identifying herself as a disciple of Jesus Christ. “Young man,” she said, “I am a Christian lady. I don’t believe in no violence. Put down that gun and you sit down. I don’t allow no violence here.”

She had a certain authority and also showed not a trace of fear. Riley obediently put the weapon on the couch. He said, “Lady, I’m hungry. I haven’t eaten in three days.”

Louise calmly asked Nathan to please get dry socks for their guest while she made breakfast. Within a few minutes she prepared bacon and eggs, toast, milk and coffee, setting the table not only for Riley but for Nathan and herself. A striking detail of the story is that she put out her best napkins.

When the three of them sat down to eat, Louise took Riley’s shaking hand in her own and said, “Young man, let’s give thanks that you came here and that you are safe.” She said a prayer and asked him if there was anything he would like to say to the Lord. Riley couldn’t think of anything so she suggested, “Just say, ‘Jesus wept.’”

Later a journalist asked how she happened to choose that text. She explained, “Because I figured that he didn’t have no church background, so I wanted to start him off simple; something short, you know.”

The story crosses yet another border with a confession of love. After breakfast Louise held Riley’s hand a second time. She had asked about his family and learned of the death of his grandmother. Riley, trembling all over, said that no one in this world cared about him. “Young man, I love you and God loves you. God loves all of us, every one of us, especially you. Jesus died for you because he loves you so much.”

All the while the police had been searching for Riley and the other convicts. Louise had been on the phone when Riley arrived — as a result of the abrupt ending of the call, the friend she had been talking with alerted the police. Now they could hear the approaching sirens of police cars.

“They gonna kill me when they get here,” Riley said. Louise told Riley to stay where he was while she went out to talk to the police.

Several police cars had surrounded the house. Guns ready, policemen had taken shelter behind their cars in expectation that Riley might open fire on them. Instead they found themselves face to face with Louise Degrafinried. Standing on her porch, she spoke to the police exactly as she had spoken to Riley. “Y’all put those guns away. I don’t allow no violence here.”

There are people who have a voice-from-heaven authority. The police were as docile in their response to this determined grandmother as Riley had been. They put their guns back in their holsters. With their arms around Riley, Louise and Nathan escorted their guest to one of the police cars. He was taken back to the prison. No one was harmed .

The story of what happened to two of the other escaped convicts is a familiar tragedy. They came upon a family preparing a barbecue in their backyard. The husband, having heard about the escaped prisoners on the radio, had armed himself with a pistol. He tried to use it but was himself shot dead. The men took his wife hostage, stole the family car, and managed to drive out of the state before they were captured and the widow was freed. Another of the five, Ronald Lewis Freeman, was killed in a shot-out with police the following month.

The Degrafinried story does not end with Riley’s return to prison. Louise and Nathan were asked to press charges against Riley for holding them hostage but refused to do so. “That boy did us no harm,” Louise insisted. As both she and Nathan refused to testify, the charges were dropped.

Thanks to the Degrafinrieds, Riley’s life was not cut short, though twenty more years were added to his prison sentence for having escaped. Louise initiated correspondence with Riley. She asked for his photo and put it in her family album. Throughout his remaining years in prison — he was freed in 1995 — Louise kept in touch with Riley and he with her. Louise actively worked for Riley’s release. “He usually called on her birthday and around Christmas time,” Louise’s daughter, Ida Marshall, related to a journalist after her mother’s death in 1998. It was Ida Marshall who wrote Riley with the news of Louise’s death.

Louise had enormous impact on Riley’s life. “After looking back over all my life in solitary, I realized I’d been throwing my life away,” he said in a 1991 interview. Riley recalls praying with Louise Degrafinried when she came to visit him in prison. “She started off her prayer,” he recalled, “by saying ‘God, this is your child. You know me, and I know you.’” “That’s the kind of relationship I want to have with God,” Riley said. In 1988, Riley became a Christian. “I realized,” he explained, “that meeting the Degrafinrieds and other things that happened in my life just couldn’t be coincidences. After all that, I realized someone was looking over me.”

Louise Degrafinried was often asked about the day she was held hostage. “Weren’t you terrified.” “I wasn’t alone,” she responded. “My Savior was with me and I was not afraid.”

It’s similar to a comment Riley made when explaining the events that led to his conversion. “Mrs. Degrafinried was real Christianity,” he told mourners at her funeral. “No fear.” Riley sat in the front pew at the service and was among those carrying Louise Degrafinried’s coffin to its burial place.

Riley Arzeneaux now lives in Nashville where he works as a foreman of a tent and awning company. He and his wife have a son. Not long ago Riley was invited to tell his story to the children of a local primary school in Mason, Tennessee, whose principal is one of Louise and Nathan’s children.

The story hasn’t yet reached an ending. The consequences of that extraordinary encounter in Mason back in 1984 are still underway. Thanks to the welcome extended by two elderly people, no guns were fired at the Degrafinried house. No one was looks back on that day with regret or grief. A man who might have remained a lifelong danger to others has instead become a respected member of society and a committed Christian. Louise and Nathan have died, but their pilgrimage from fear continues to touch the lives of others.

Time to end. Let me just suggest that you hang on to that story for a while and think about the Degrafinrieds and their unexpected guest. Think about it the next time you happen to hear “Give Peace a Chance” or the next time you read the words, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

* * *

Does Erasmus have anything to teach us in the 21st century?

portrait of Erasmus by Holbein

a talk given 10 March 2009 at Trinity Western University, in Langley, British Columbia, at the invitation of Kimberly Franklin, dean of the College of Teaching

By Jim Forest

My interest in Erasmus is long standing, though I’m not an Erasmus scholar. In fact, not being a Latinist, I can only read him in translation. Nonetheless Erasmus has been an influence in my life ever since I first read his best-known book, The Praise of Folly. What renewed my interest and inspired this text was attending a major Erasmus exhibition at the Boijmans Museum in Rotterdam this past January.

It was in Rotterdam that Erasmus was born in 1466, the illegitimate son of a priest and a physician’s daughter. His early education occurred mainly at a renowned school in the Dutch town of Deventer. His educators were the Brothers of the Common Life, best remembered for a book, The Imitation of Christ, written a generation earlier by one of the members of that community, Thomas à Kempis. Erasmus later went to Paris to further his education. He was ordained a priest in 1492, the same year that Columbus made his first voyage to the New World.

Erasmus became one of the greatest writers and scholars not only of his era but of western civilization. All Europe was his home. At various times he lived in Holland, England, Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy. No matter where he was, he seems never to have felt out of place. His friendships were numerous, one of the closest being with Thomas More, “the man for all seasons” who paid with his life for declining to support Henry VIII in the matter of the king’s divorce from his first queen, Catherine of Aragon, and Henry’s related decision to declare himself head of the Church in England.

The Praise of Folly, written in a week’s time as a gift for Thomas More, uses satire not only to expose — chiefly with sympathy — the irrationalities that ensnare so many of us, but also to reveal his most profound thoughts. In the book, Folly — dressed in the colorful, bell-embellished costume of a medieval professional fool — rises to the lector’s pulpit before a crowded assembly to defend herself from her detractors, pointing out that, after all, she alone “has the power to bring joy to both gods and men.” In her oration, she targets every sort of human being and social enterprise, from those who worship money to idolaters of power, from the sex-driven to those for whom the table provides the meaning and purpose of life.

The religious follies of Christians are among her targets — for example those who would rather venerate the relics of saints and walk to faraway shrines than live according to the example of Christ, for, as Erasmus said, “it is easier to kiss a bone than to forgive a neighbor.” In its mischievous way, The Praise of Folly is ultimately a defense of Christ’s Gospel, whose teachings — to love God and neighbor, to grant forgiveness, to heal, to care for those in need, to give rather than to take, to live in peace — are so often dismissed as foolishness but which, in fact, are the only true wisdom.

Hard as Erasmus’ book was on the rulers of state and church — it wasn’t a work many popes or kings would have offered to friends as a gift — it was so funny that it’s more than likely all Europe’s rulers read it themselves when no one was looking. The Praise of Folly went through numerous printings across Europe.

Few writers of Erasmus’ generation wrote or published so much. Erasmus is sometimes thought of as the first man to take full advantage of the printing press. Kenneth Clarke remarks that the printing press “made Erasmus, and unmade Erasmus” — made him in the sense of his being widely read and greatly respected, unmade him in the sense that he sometimes got into hot water for what he wrote. Clarke goes on to say that Erasmus “had all the qualifications [a writer requires]: a clear, elegant style (in Latin, of course, which meant that he could be read everywhere, but not by everyone), opinions on every subject, even the gift of putting things so that they could be interpreted in different ways. … [T]he extraordinary thing is what a huge following he had and how close Erasmus, or the Erasmian point of view, came to success. It shows that many people, even in a time of crisis, yearn for tolerance and reason and simplicity of life — in fact for civilization.”

Nothing is rarer than an academic celebrity, but Erasmus — though living in an age without publicists — belonged to that special category. Only the more important kings and queens of the period were the subjects of so many portraits. Paintings and engravings of Erasmus were to be found across Europe done by such artists as Holbein the Younger, Albrecht Dürer and Quentin Massys. Today these paintings are treasures of such museums as the Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid, the National Portrait Gallery in London, and the Palazzo Barberini in Rome.

Among Erasmus’ most important projects was a new Latin translation of the New Testament that corrected some of the errors made by St. Jerome and others translators in earlier centuries. He also edited a massive collection of proverbs and adages to many of which he added commentaries. He was the author of collections of colloquies — play-like conversations that were intended as teaching aids for students learning Latin and rhetoric, but which also served as a means for Erasmus to popularize his ideas, many of which had to do with the renewal of Christianity.

Erasmus was one of the great Christian reformers — a relentless critic of the sins and shortcomings of the Catholic Church as it was in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. His influence on Luther was huge, yet, unlike Luther and others who became advocates of schism, Erasmus refused to sanction splitting the Church or becoming part of any splinter group. Not only did he take seriously Christ’s commandment that his followers should remain together in unity, but he was put off by the incivility and humorlessness of the fierce Protestants he knew. “I have seen them,” he wrote, “return from hearing a sermon as if inspired by an evil spirit. Their faces all showed a curious wrath and ferocity.”

While himself involved in many debates, Erasmus argued that not every question need to be given a final answer in this life. There are various ways of understanding many aspects of Christian teaching, but what is very clear is we have to love each other. By all means let us debate our points of view, and learn what we can in the process, but then patiently wait until we reach the next world to find out who, if anyone, was right.

Pope Julius Excluded from Heaven

Even so, words can be as inflammatory as matches and Erasmus sometimes lit matches. In one of his most famous satires, “Julius Excluded,” the highly militaristic pope of the time, Julius II, is shown, just after death, standing impatiently at the gates of heaven, military armor gleaming under his papal robes, demanding that Peter open the door and roll out the red carpet. Julius has in his hand a golden key but unfortunately it doesn’t fit the lock. It turns out to be the key of worldly power, not a key to the kingdom of heaven. Despite Julius’ furious demands to clear the way, Peter — though a mere fisherman, as Julius has pointed out — won’t budge. “I admit only those,” Peter tells Julius, “who clothe the naked, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit the sick and those in prison.” One could get into very hot water by ridiculing a man as powerful as Pope Julius, who was very much alive at the time. Erasmus never actually denied writing “Julius Excluded,” but felt it was prudent to take distance from the text by asking such a rhetorical question as, “Who could possibly believe me so foolish as to author such imprudent words?”

For all his criticism of popes who lived more like kings and generals than ambassadors of Christ, Erasmus sought to hold the middle ground in the religious earthquakes of his time. He opposed the promoters of division, urging patience, dialogue and toleration. But such a stand is rarely popular in a time of conflict, with leaders on both sides insist that whoever is not with me is against me. Luther was bitterly disappointed with Erasmus for failing to do as he had done. The fact that Erasmus remained Catholic didn’t, however, mean that he was esteemed by the popes of the Counter-Reformation. When the Catholic Church decided to publish a list of prohibited books, all the works Erasmus were placed on the Index.

Erasmus was also the most articulate advocate of peace in his time. As someone who was read and respected by rulers and their advisers, through letters and published works Erasmus repeatedly strove to prevent war. “There is nothing more wicked, more disastrous, more widely destructive [than war], nothing more deeply tenacious or more loathsome.…Whoever heard of a hundred thousand animals rushing together to butcher each other, as men do everywhere?” One of his sayings was: “Man is a creature born without claws.” Like many artists of the period, he saw death itself striding triumphantly at the end of all military expeditions and parades.

In The Complaint of Peace, a small book that has much in common with The Praise of Folly, Peace herself rises to complain about how much her name is praised by one and all yet how few live peaceful lives. “Without me,” she points out, “there is no growth, no safety for life, nothing pure or holy, nothing agreeable,” while war is “a vast ocean of all the evils combined, harmful to everything in the universe.” Again and again, we turn our backs on peace and set off to kill those whom we currently regard as enemies or whose territory and wealth we covet. It would be unfair to lions to compare them to human beings. “Only men, who above all other species should agree with one another and who need mutual understanding most of all, fail to be united in mutual love … not even by the awareness of the many evils resulting from war.”

Erasmus was a scholar. Probably his best known words these days are, “When I have money, I buy books, then, if anything is left over, I buy food and clothing.” In his early years, he often didn’t have money, which is lucky for us as, thanks to his occasionally empty pockets, economic necessity forced him to turn to teaching, and thus not only to take an ever-deepening interest in how best to help students develop their gifts but also to take issue with teaching methods that he was convinced had little or no positive effect, or even did great harm. It seemed to him the future of the human race depended to a great extent on what happens in classrooms. “Education.” he said, “is of far greater importance than heredity in forming character.”

Holbein’s drawing of a teacher thrashing a young student

If you look at paintings or engravings of the classrooms of Erasmus’ day, one of the details rarely if ever left out is the bundle of birches held firmly in the teacher’s hand, ready at a moment’s notice to strike any offending pupil. In a margin of Erasmus’ own copy of The Praise of Folly, Holbein drew a teacher with a handful of birches beating a bare-bottomed child. In the same book, Erasmus notes how many classrooms were little more than “beating mills.” Many of the students’ talents and good qualities were destroyed rather than fostered. Erasmus would surely have agreed with Bob Dylan’s remark that “the only difference between schools and old age homes is that more people die in schools.” What was obvious to Erasmus was that dread of teachers completely undermines the climate of learning. Think of the David Copperfield in his childhood cowering before his stepfather, holding a rod and poised to beat the boy the moment his recitation falters.

What would Erasmus think of our school systems today? It was his view that the classroom isn’t for everyone. If a student consistently behaved in such a way that it made clear an aversion to study, then Erasmus thought it was best to free him from the classroom and send him back to the plow. What was needed were not birches but the development of an attitude on the part of the teacher, coupled with appropriate methods, methods that made learning, as much as possible, a delight for both student and teacher.

Because Erasmus believed in a close relationship developing between teacher and student, he believed in small classes — one teacher to five students was his ideal number. This is because the larger the class, the harder it is for a teacher to really know each student, and vice versa.

One gets a glimpse of Erasmus’ approach to building student-teacher relationships by reading a letter he sent in 1498 to one of his first students, Christian Northoff, who was apparently away at the time and had failed to write. “If you don’t break your silence,” Erasmus told him, “I will call you a scamp, hangman, rascal, rake, criminal, blasphemer, monster, phantom, manure pile … wastrel, jailbird, scourge, cat-of-nine-tails or any other abuse I can think of.” My guess is his student replied in equally funny terms. In the process, it was clearer than ever to him just how much he mattered to Erasmus.

Erasmus saw teaching as an art whose foundation is respect and love. The classroom must provide an environment of warmth and good humor. Several of the books for which Erasmus was to become famous in his lifetime were teaching manuals, books through which Erasmus sought to share with other teachers the methods he found most effective.

While these methods are not ones that could easily be copied in today’s educational world, it is nonetheless interesting to be aware of Erasmus’ reliance on memorizing adages — sayings and proverbs — and then discussing their meanings. His largest collection contained 3,000 adages, among them “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Then there is “the folly of taking owls to Athens.” One gets an impression of his method from a portrait of a young scholar painted in 1531, five years before Erasmus’ death, by Jan van Scorel. The proverb the boy has written on the paper he holds in his left hand reads, “The Lord provides everything yet has nothing less,” while the text at the base of the painting reads: “Who is rich? He who desires nothing. Who is poor? The man who is greedy.”

Education, of course, was far more than memorization of proverbs. Erasmus advocated a spirit of freedom and inquiry. As he wrote: “When faith came to be in writings rather than in hearts … contention grew hot and love grew cold. … That which is forced cannot be sincere, and that which is not voluntary cannot please Christ.”

The emphasis here is on freedom, not in the sense of simply doing as you please, but freedom in the sense of acts that occur in relations of love and respect.

Erasmus put great stress on conversation and the art of dialogue. Without dialogue, how could we become people capable of living in peace? He produced a steady stream of model conversations — colloquies, he called them — which provided those using them with models of well-framed communication while at the same time introducing a wide range of topics that stretched one’s intellectual and spiritual borders. Precisely because these were dialogues, at least two viewpoints were presented, and both sides at their best and most convincing. One side might be a series of arguments in favor of the monastic life and celibacy, the other of marriage and parenthood. The result for students was learning to see things from more than one point of view and developing a capacity to respect opinions other than one’s own.

One of the great admirers of Erasmus was Roland Bainton, longtime professor of ecclesiastical history at Yale. In his biography, Erasmus of Christendom, Bainton offers this observation: “Education for Erasmus did not consist in drawing out of the pupil what was not there. The student must first be steeped in the knowledge and wisdom of the ages. Only thereafter is he in a position to express himself.”

For Erasmus education was far more than a process of acquiring information, certain skills and a facility with languages, but of acquiring wisdom, or at least being in a state that makes one more capable of acquiring wisdom. A tall order. I cannot recall often hearing the word “wisdom” being used or its meaning discussed in any classroom in which I was a student.

One last comment regarding Erasmus as educator: Probably he would have loved the internet. What is certain is that he placed great value on visual aids and saw the printing press as a boon for teachers. What a difference it makes for a student to see and not simply hear about a fabulous creature. One can imagine Dürer’s famous engraving of a rhinoceros hanging in one of Erasmus’ classrooms. After all, Erasmus and Dürer were good friends. Erasmus owned some of Dürer’s engravings of biblical scenes. These would provided the sort of classroom imagery that Erasmus welcomed. Whether an image of an animal a student had never seen or of the Annunciation, pictures seen day after day in a classroom will never be forgotten and may contribute, each in its own way, to the development of wisdom. For finally what mattered most to Erasmus was that he might pass on to his students not only the love of learning, but the love of God and neighbor.

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a set of Erasmus-related photos is in this folder in my Flickr site:

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Thomas Merton: Peacemaker in a Divided Christendom

a talk given 7 and 14 March 2009 at conferences in Vancouver and Victoria of the Thomas Merton Society of Canada:

Thomas Merton: Peacemaker in a Divided Christendom

by Jim Forest

One of the important contributions Merton made in his lifetime was taking an active role in dialogue with non-Catholic Christians, both Protestant and Orthodox. In our own day this kind of dialogue has become so uncontroversial as hardly to be worth mentioning. It is startling to recall how much mistrust and misunderstanding, even enmity, stood in the way of dialogue just fifty years ago, especially between Protestants and Catholics. Dialogue with Orthodox Christians was less a problem if only because so many people in the West, both Protestant and Catholic, had only the blurriest awareness that the Orthodox Church existed and what it was all about. For them, the Orthodox Church — Eastern Christianity — was truly Terra Incognita.

America’s culture was largely shaped by Protestantism. When immigrants from traditionally Catholic countries began to arrive in great numbers, they found the welcome mat was not out. Even in the mid-20th century, a great many Protestants still tended to regard the Catholic Church, if not necessarily as the Whore of Babylon led by the Anti-Christ, at least as a form of Christianity that in fact wasn’t really Christian. The Catholic Church was a Church of practicing idolaters who sold entrance passes to heaven to whomever could purchase an indulgence. In 1960, when I was in the US Navy and stationed in Washington, DC, I recall being told in all seriousness by the Episcopal family with whom I was then living that there were tunnels connecting Catholic rectories and convents and that the aborted bodies of priest-fathered infants could be found buried in many a convent basement. That same year, with John Kennedy running for the presidency, Episcopal Bishop James Pike published his views on why a Roman Catholic had no place in the White House. Many who voted against Kennedy were voting to protect the nation from papal influence. The propaganda of the Reformation still flourished. The word “papist” was never a compliment. I once asked my Protestant-raised wife, “What did Protestantism mean to you when you were growing up?” “It meant,” she said, “that we were not Catholics.”

Catholics, of course, had their own deeply felt anti-Protestant bias, partly rooted in bitterness at the anti-Catholic prejudice that was so openly expressed by Protestants. Step inside any Catholic Church in the Fifties and one found a rack in the entrance hall full of booklets on various topics, from basic elements of Catholic religious practice to what Catholics ought never to do. At least one booklet would explain why the sin-avoiding Catholic should never attend services in a Protestant church, even if the occasion was the marriage or funeral of a dear friend.

Things began to change rapidly on both sides of the Protestant-Catholic border following John XXIII’s election as pope in 1958. John was a different sort of pontiff, exuding warmth, affection and respect for others no matter what their religious identity might be. He saw ecumenical dialogue as a significant contribution to a more peaceful world. One of his actions was the establishment in the Vatican of a Secretariat for Christian Unity. When the Second Vatican Council began its work in Rome in 1962, one of its many astonishing aspects was the presence of Protestant and Orthodox observers.

The new climate was felt at Thomas Merton’s monastery in Kentucky well before the Council began. In 1960, via Cardinal Domenico Tardini, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Pope John XXIII had send word to the abbey of support for the “special retreats with Protestants which Father Louis [Thomas Merton’s monastic name] was organizing at Our Lady of Gethsemani.” Pope John’s approval was amplified by a special gift for Merton: a richly embroidered priestly stole that had he himself had worn.

Would that I might have been the proverbial fly on the wall at those early Protestant-Catholic encounters at the Trappist monastery in Kentucky. These would have been exciting conversations! Merton was the sort of person able to create a space in which formality would not get the upper hand. Many ideas the abbey’s guests might have brought with them about the Catholic Church must have been dropped into the wastebasket within the first half hour.

This would have been due in part to Merton’s candor and good humor and the fact that he was not a PR man. He would not have wall-papered over the Catholic Church’s past sins or all that still remained in need of reform. Neither was he out to prove that Protestants were wrong and Catholics were right. He was at least as much a listener as a speaker and had developed a great gift for seeing what was of value in the tradition of the other and for finding common ground. He was, of course, well aware of doctrinal differences and was not dismissive of their significance. Was the bread and wine used for communion nothing more than bread and wine, or was Christ mysteriously present in these elements? Was the interpretation of biblical texts a work of the Church as a whole or something anyone could do? Was the Bible a work of the Church or the Church a work of the Bible? Had Protestantism, in its reaction to corruption in the Catholic Church, overreacted, and as a consequence thrown the baby out with the bath water?

These and many other questions were not unimportant, but without mutual affection and respect, without mutual sympathy, what headway could be made in resolving them? For such a dialogue, no one could have been a better delegate of the monks at Gethsemani and the Church they belonged to than Thomas Merton.

In a passage in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, he made the comment: “I will be a better Catholic, not if I can refute every shade of Protestantism, but if I can affirm the truth in it and still go further.” In the same book there is also this passage: “If I affirm myself as a Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it.”

Glenn Hinson, a Baptist who in 1960 brought some of his students to the abbey for a meeting with Merton, tells this story:

[Merton] made such a profound impression on me and my students when he talked to us about life in the monastery, and he seemed like such a “real human being,” [that] we couldn’t understand why he would be a monk. In fact, one student asked, “What is a smart fellow like you doing throwing his life away in a place like this?” I waited for Merton to open up his mouth and eat this guy alive. But he didn’t. He grinned that cheshire cat grin, let love flow out, and said, “I’m here because I believe in prayer. That is my vocation.” You could have knocked me over with a feather. I had never met anyone who believed in prayer enough to think of it as a vocation.

Not many years earlier Merton’s participation in such exchanges would have been hard to imagine. A significant conversion had occurred within him. No one who has read his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, written in his early thirties and published in 1948, would think of calling it an ecumenical book. It is a great book, one of the most engaging autobiographies ever written, but a book with significant weaknesses. On the plus side, it’s a hymn of grateful praise to the Catholic Church, which Merton rejoiced in finding as someone in danger of drowning at sea would rejoice to find a raft. It’s a book that can be compared to a love letter in which the object of one’s love is the most attractive, the most pleasing, the most virtuous person — not like all those others! The occasional digs at Protestantism, though accurately reflecting Merton’s own experiences, later came to embarrass him and occasionally made him deny, as he no doubt did with some of the abbey’s Protestant guests, that he even knew the author of The Seven Storey Mountain.

The original use of what eventually became Merton’s hermitage was to be a place for dialogue, especially for conversations with Protestants. There had already been a few such encounters at the monastery, but the abbot, Dom James Fox, and Merton could both see the benefits of a special building, however modest, to house such encounters, and there was the added benefit, as obvious to Dom James as it was to Merton, that the building might in time become the hermitage Merton had long been seeking, and in the meantime a place where it would be possible for Merton to write and even stay overnight on occasion. Sometimes called the Mount Olivet Retreat House, sometimes the Mount Olivet Hermitage, plans were made to erect a square cinder-block building with a broad porch running the length of it. A simple structure, lacking both electricity and plumbing, it was built in 1960 and stood about a mile from the main abbey buildings.

I look forward to doing more research on Merton’s dialogues with Protestants. No doubt it still goes on at the Abbey of Gethsemani, at least in the form of hospitality to Protestant visitors. After all, it is no longer only Catholics who go to monasteries for retreats. Times have changed. The Berlin Wall that once isolated Catholics and Protestants from each other is largely in a state of ruin.

Now let me shift gears and consider Merton’s contribution to ending the Great Schism of 1054. This is something that concerns us all, whatever church we belong to or even if we currently feel no connection with any church. The break in communion between Greek- and Latin-speaking Christians that occurred nearly a thousand years ago had devastating consequences that are still with us. While it was not the first rupture within Christianity, it was by far the most significant and the most enduring. It was the beginning of a millennium-long period of Christian abandonment of Jesus’ prayer that “they may all be one, Father, even as you and I are one.” How many of us take much interest in that prayer or feel challenged by it? Do we not tend to be deeply attached to our differences and more than willing to see them continue? On the occasions when we speak of unity, in fact don’t we tend to mean vague, ghost-like alliances?

Meanwhile Christian divisions continue to multiply. How many churches are there in this Year of Our Lord 2009? No one knows. The number enlarges day by day.

Among those who cared, and cared passionately, about Jesus’ prayer for unity was Thomas Merton.

The seed was planted early, when he was eighteen years old and made a journey to Rome. It wasn’t very long after his father’s death and Merton was still deeply in the shadow of that sad event, which had pulverized what little religious belief he had absorbed in his youth. His initial response to the Eternal City wasn’t enthusiastic. He found much of Rome’s monumentality boring if not irritating. The Rome of the Caesars, he decided, “must have been one of the most revolting and ugly and depressing cities the world has ever seen.” Nor was he impressed with the ecclesiastical monuments of the Renaissance and Counter-Reformation that he had visited as a dutiful tourist reading his Baedeker guidebook.

But after about a week his visit took a turn. He began to visit Rome’s most ancient churches. One of the first he found was the Church of Saints Cosmas and Damian, named after physician brothers who had refused to take any reward for their healing services and eventually died as martyrs. The sixth century Byzantine mosaic over the altar stopped Merton in his tracks. It’s the one mosaic in Rome he pauses to describe in The Seven Storey Mountain — “Christ coming in judgement against a dark blue sky with a suggestion of fire in the clouds beneath his feet.” Peter and Paul stand to the right and left of Christ, the two martyred brothers at their sides.

The impact of the mosaic on Merton was immense. “What a thing it was,” he wrote, “to come upon the genius of an art full of spiritual vitality and earnestness and power — an art that was tremendously serious and alive and eloquent and urgent in all it had to say. And it was without pretentiousness, without fakery, and had nothing theatrical about it. Its solemnity was made all the more astounding by its simplicity — and by the obscurity of the places where it lay hid, and by its subservience to higher ends, architectural, liturgical and spiritual ends which I could not even begin to understand, but which I could not avoid guessing, since the nature of the mosaics themselves and their position and everything about them proclaimed it aloud.”

Merton kept searching and found himself fascinated by the many similar Byzantine mosaics that had survived in other churches. “I began to haunt the churches where they were to be found,” he writes. “and all the other churches that were more or less of the same period. … Without knowing anything about it, I became a pilgrim.”

For anyone with a similar capacity to respond to such iconography, Rome is a pilgrim’s paradise. From the catacombs to all the churches that survive from Christianity’s first millennium, no city has a more complete record of the art that was once an aspect of Christian unity.

If Merton’s reason for seeking out such churches was at first perceived by him as more aesthetic than religious, still the religious aspect could not be ignored. The images that so arrested Merton were windows through which he experienced Christ’s gaze. One of its consequences was that Merton, for the first time in his life, bought a Bible. The next giant step was entering one of Rome oldest churches, Santa Sabina, and getting down on his knees to pray.

In the midst of the description of his search for the iconographic art to be found in Rome’s oldest churches comes one of the most electrifying passages in The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton’s attempt to describe his first awareness of Christ as the person who would give his life its meaning and center:

And now for the first time in my life I began to find out something of who this Person was that men call Christ. It was obscure, but it was a true knowledge of Him, in some sense truer than I knew and truer than I would admit. But it was in Rome that my conception of Christ was formed. It was there I first saw Him, Whom I now serve as my God and my King, and who owns and rules my life. It is the Christ of the Apocalypse, the Christ of the Martyrs, the Christ of the Fathers. It is the Christ of Saint John, and of Saint Paul, and of Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome and all the Fathers — and the Desert Fathers. It is Christ God, Christ King.

Again and again in his later life, Merton sought to express what it was about icons that continued to touch him so profoundly. In 1958, he wrote a small book, Art and Worship, intended to help the reader better understand and appreciate this earlier form of Christian art, often regarded dismissively as naive and primitive. As far as I know, Art and Worship is the only book Merton prepared for publication that has yet to be published.

One of the rare items in my Merton library is a set of the page proofs of that book — the project had gotten that far into production before the publisher, Farrar Straus, had second thoughts about issuing it and pulled the plug. The page proofs include the imprimatur of the archbishop of Louisville. Apparently the publisher’s worry was that such a backward-looking book would damage Merton’s reputation.

In the last section of Art and Worship, Merton makes the comment that, while the Renaissance “was an age of great art,” with a flowering of talent, “Christian art tended to a great extent to lose the highly sacred character it had possessed in earlier centuries.” He goes on to note that, while the more ancient tradition of sacred art did not equal the work of the Renaissance in representing the human form, the work of Renaissance artists failed to equal Byzantine iconography in conveying the sacred. The earlier masters, he said, were better able “to convey something of the sacred awe and reverence, the sense of holiness and of worship, which fill the soul of the believer in the presence of God or … the angels and the saints.”

“It is the task of the iconographer,” Merton wrote, “to open our eyes to the actual presence of the Kingdom in the world, and to remind us that though we see nothing of its splendid liturgy, we are, if we believe in Christ the Redeemer, in fact living and worshiping as ‘fellow citizens of the angels and saints, built upon the chief cornerstone with Christ’.”

Merton was never weaned from his love of this art form. Occasionally he returned to the topic of icons in letters. Only months before his death, he corresponded about icons with a Quaker friend, June Yungblut, in Atlanta. He confessed to her that books such as her husband was then writing, which presented Jesus as one of history’s many prophetic figures, left him cold. He was, he told her, “hung up in a very traditional Christology.” He had no interest, he wrote, in a Christ who was merely a great teacher who possessed “a little flash of the light.” His Christ, he declared, was “the Christ of the Byzantine icons.”

I don’t have a copy of June ‘s reply, but I can guess, based on Merton’s response to it, that she was put off by the phrase “the Christ of the Byzantine icons.” In our culture, the word “Byzantine” is rarely if ever used in a complimentary sense. Doesn’t “Byzantine” signify the worst both in Christianity and culture? And as for icons, weren’t they of about as much artistic significance as pictures on cereal boxes?

In a letter sent in March 1968, Merton explained to June what he meant by his phrase, the “Christ of the Byzantine icons.” The whole tradition of iconography, he said,

represents a traditional experience formulated in a theology of light, the icon being a kind of sacramental medium for the illumination and awareness of the glory of Christ within us. … What one ’sees’ in prayer before an icon is not an external representation of a historical person, but an interior presence in light, which is the glory of the transfigured Christ, the experience of which is transmitted in faith from generation to generation by those who have “seen,” from the Apostles on down. … So when I say that my Christ is the Christ of the icons, I mean that he is reached not through any scientific study but through direct faith and the mediation of the liturgy, art, worship, prayer, theology of light, etc., that is all bound up with the Russian and Greek tradition.

Even among Orthodox writers, one rarely finds a more insightful yet so succinct a presentation of the theology of icons.

What Merton had learned about icons was enriched by the gift from his Greek friend, Marco Pallis, of a hand-painted icon made by a monk on Mount Athos. It had arrived in the late summer of 1965, just as Merton was beginning his hard apprenticeship as a hermit. Pallis’ gift was one of the most commonly painted of all icons, an image of the Mother of God and the Christ Child. For Merton this gift was a kiss from God. He wrote to Pallis in response:

How shall I begin? I have never received such a precious and magnificent gift from anyone in my life. I have no words to express how deeply moved I was to come face to face with this sacred and beautiful presence granted to me…. At first I could hardly believe it…. It is a perfect act of timeless worship. I never tire of gazing at it. There is a spiritual presence and reality about it, a true spiritual ‘Thaboric’ light, which seems unaccountably to proceed from the Heart of the Virgin and Child as if they had One heart, and which goes out to the whole universe. It is unutterably splendid. And silent. It imposes a silence on the whole hermitage. … [This] icon of the Holy Mother came as a messenger at a precise moment when a message was needed, and her presence before me has been an incalculable aid in resolving a difficult problem.

We come upon a final clue to the importance icons had in Merton’s inner life when we consider the short list of personal effects that were returned with his body when it was flown back to the monastery from Thailand in December 1968:

1 Timex Watch
1 Pair Dark Glasses in Tortoise Frames
1 Cistercian Leather Bound Breviary
1 Rosary
1 Small Icon on Wood of Virgin and Child

Now one might ask what Merton’s appreciation of icons and Byzantine Christian art has to do with Christian unity? The answer is that, for many people, unity may more easily begin with the eyes and heart than with the mind. As we see in Merton’s case, the later development of his Christian life and his understanding of authentic Christianity began, not by academic research or attending lectures or hearing sermons, but with a wordless experience of Christ that was mediated by icons.

One thing leads to another. In time Merton’s love of icons helped open the way for his growing interest in the Church that produced such compelling Christian imagery. I sometimes wonder if we ever would have heard of Merton had it not been for the that stay in Rome when he was eighteen and the impact on him of mosaics he found there? Would he have later become a Christian, Catholic or otherwise? Would he have become a monk who wrote books?

It seems not unlikely that the earlier shaping of his faith by iconography was a factor in his later attraction to the writings of the great theologians of the Church’s first millennium, the Church Fathers, which in turn eventually opened the way for his close reading of a number of twentieth century Orthodox theologians, such writers as Paul Evdokimov, Olivier Clément, Alexander Schmemann and Vladimir Lossky. While in the hermitage’s small chapel there were eventually seven icons that had made their way to Merton, in his hermitage library, there were such titles as Early Fathers from the Philokalia, Writings from the Philokalia on the Prayer of the Heart, Treasury of Russian Spirituality, and Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers. In the last book there is a slip of paper on which Merton had copied the Jesus Prayer in Slavonic along with a phonetic interlinear transliteration.

The Philokalia, which I would guess not many people in this room have read or even heard of, was important to Merton. It is a substantial anthology of Orthodox writings that mainly has to do with the Jesus Prayer, or the Prayer of the Heart. In fact, on the back of the icon he had with him on his final journey, Merton had written in Greek a short passage he had discovered in the Philokalia:

If we wish to please the true God and to be friends with the most blessed of friendships, let us present our spirit naked to God. Let us not draw into it anything of this present world — no art, no thought, no reasoning, no self-justification — even though we should possess all the wisdom of this world.

Merton’s attentive reading from Orthodox sources went on for years. In one of the books published late in his life, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, there is an important passage on this theme that was based on a journal entry Merton had made on April 28, 1957, not long before he began writing Art and Worship. Here it is that passage in its finished form:

If I can unite in myself the thought and devotion of Eastern and Western Christendom, the Greek and the Latin Fathers, the Russian and the Spanish mystics, I can prepare in myself the reunion of divided Christians. From that secret and unspoken unity in myself can eventually come a visible and manifest unity of all Christians. If we want to bring together what is divided, we cannot do so by imposing one division upon the other. If we do this, the union is not Christian. It is political and doomed to further conflict. We must contain all the divided worlds in ourselves and transcend them in Christ.

Merton’s search for unity, his attempt to live within himself the unity he sought for the Church as a whole, should be regarded, not as something controversial, but as a normal Christian discipline. Christianity’s east-west division is a thousand-year-old scandal. It a living refutation of the words St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians. We who wish to follow Christ, he said, are called “to maintain unity of spirit in the bond of peace.” (Eph 4:3)

Merton spent the last decade of his life seeking to maintain unity of spirit in the bond of peace — and seeking it not simply within himself, but also as a shared unity of spirit in pilgrimage with others.

Merton rejoiced in reading the sayings and stories of the Desert Fathers, the monks of the early Church who were pioneers of the monastic life. For Merton these original monks living in the wastelands of Egypt and Palestine were not only a personal inspiration, as well as a challenge to modern monasticism, but a challenge to all followers of Christ. One of the stories he translated and included in The Wisdom of the Desert gives witness to how difficult it ought to be for the followers of Christ to contend with each other:

There were two old men who dwelt together for many years and who never quarreled. Then one said to the other: “Let us pick a quarrel with each other like other men do. “I do not know how quarrels arise,” answered his companion. So the other said to him: “Look, I will put a brick down here between us and I will say “This is mine.” Then you can say “No it is not, it is mine.” Then we will be able to have a quarrel.” So they placed the brick between them and the first one said: “This is mine.” His companion answered him: “This is not so, for it is mine.” To this, the first one said: “If it is so and the brick is yours, then take it and go your way.” And so they were not able to have a quarrel.

Merton’s search for the recovery of the undivided Church was not to an escape from tradition but a means to purify traditions which have over time been distorted or calcified or become meaningless. As Merton put it in a text entitled “Monastic Spirituality and the Early Fathers, from the Apostolic Fathers to Evagrius Ponticus”:

If for some reason it were necessary for you to drink a pint of water taken out of the Mississippi River and you could choose where it was to be drawn out of the river — would you take a pint from the source of the river in Minnesota or from the estuary in New Orleans? The example is perhaps not perfect. Christian tradition and spirituality does not [necessarily] become polluted with development. That is not the idea at all. Nevertheless, tradition and spirituality are all the more pure and genuine in proportion as they are in contact with the original source and retain the same content. [Thomas Merton: Cassian and the Fathers: Introduction to the Monastic Tradition, Cistercian Publications, 2005, p 5]

Certainly the Christians of the early centuries, standing as they did at the Minnesota rather than New Orleans end of the river, provide an example of the basics of Christian life — a simpler, poorer, less institutional Christian witness. Their hospitality, voluntary poverty, repentance and forgiveness is relevant to each of us, whatever our vocation and no matter how far from the desert we live, even if we live in New Orleans — or Vancouver.

It was in his exploration of the living traditions of the Eastern Church, which to this day is notably less structured and more decentralized, that Merton came upon the Jesus Prayer and began to practice it himself. Would that he had written more about this aspect of his own spiritual practice, but there are things even Merton didn’t put on paper. However one gets a glimpse of his own use of the Jesus Prayer in a 1959 letter to a correspondent in England, John Harris:

I heartily recommend, as a form of prayer, the Russian and Greek business where you get off somewhere quiet … breathe quietly and rhythmically with the diaphragm, holding your breath for a bit each time and letting it out easily: and while holding it, saying “in your heart” (aware of the place of your heart, as if the words were spoken in the very center of your being with all the sincerity you can muster): “Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me a sinner.” Just keep saying this for a while, of course with faith, and the awareness of the indwelling [Holy Spirit], etc. It is a simple form of prayer, and fundamental, and the breathing part makes it easier to keep your mind on what you are doing. That’s about as far as I go with methods. After that, pray as the Spirit moves you, but of course I would say follow the Mass in a missal unless there is a good reason for doing something else, like floating suspended ten feet above the congregation.

It is not that Merton lacked appreciation for aids to prayer and contemplation that have been so much a part of Catholic Christianity. In the same letter to John Harris, he goes on to recommend the rosary and other forms of devotion to the Mother of God:

I like the rosary, too. Because, though I am not very articulate about her, I am pretty much wound up in Our Lady, and have some Russian ideas about her too: that she is the most perfect expression of the mystery of the Wisdom of God … [and] in some way … is the Wisdom of God. (See the eighth chapter of Proverbs, for instance, the part about ‘playing before [the Creator] at all times, playing in the world.’) I find a lot of this “Sophianism” in Pasternak … (The Hidden Ground of Love, p 392)

Clearly neither Merton nor any of us lives in the undivided Church, certainly not in any visible sense. The shores between East and West in Christianity still remain fair apart and in some ways the distances widen, though recent popes have done much good work in building bridges, and there have been bridge-builders on the Eastern side as well, including the current Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew.

Nonetheless Merton helps us see that each of us can participate mystically in a spiritual life that brings us closer to the undivided Church. After all, Christ’s Body is one Body. We can help to heal the divisions in the Church by holding together in our own life those things which are best and by letting the saints of the early Church become our mentors, as they were Merton’s. And perhaps icons can be a help to us, as they were to Merton. Though it happened slowly, Merton played a role in opening my eyes to icons. I find them a great help to prayer and a deeper faith.

Merton shows us that this journey toward the recovery of Christian unity is not easy, yet we also see that the efforts of even one monk, done with persistence, have made a difference. Perhaps we might try to follow his example.

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text as of 26 February 2009
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Thomas Merton: Peacemaker in a Time of War

Draft of a lecture to be given at the Vancouver Public Library on 3 March 2009….

Thomas Merton: Peacemaker in a Time of War

by Jim Forest

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the latest Indiana Jones film — Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull — was the glimpse it gave of the open-air nuclear testing program the United States was conducting in the fifties, and then resumed for a time in the sixties.

We see Indiana Jones fleeing for his life in the wastelands of southern Nevada when he is astonished to stumble upon a tidy little town with houses that look fresh as daisies, complete with emerald-green lawns, ice cream trucks, laundry drying on the lines, and a newspaper boy on a bike that for some reason isn’t moving. Entering the nearest house, Jones sees a nuclear family — mother, father and son — sitting on their living room couch while watching The Howdie Doody Show. The family pays no attention to their guest because, as Jones quickly discovers, their eyes and ears are nothing but plaster and paint. They’re only shop-window mannequins. Then in the distance comes the far-away announcement of a count-down. Ten, nine, eight… It dawns on Jones that this is no town, only a set to be used for observing the impact of a nuclear test, and that test will occur in only a few seconds. The ever-resourceful Indiana Jones uses the refrigerator as a bomb shelter and, though hurtled through the air before crashing into a distant landing place, survives the blast unscathed. The houses, of course, and their mannequins and green lawns, are less than smoke. Looking up at Indiana Jones, we see the mushroom cloud and its molten, hellish center enlarging over his head.

In fact there was exactly such a test in 1953, when nuclear explosions had become almost an entertainment industry. Again and again, thousands came to Las Vegas so that they could get a good view of the mushroom cloud rising from the nuclear test site to the south. The explosions could be seen a hundred miles away. Millions watched on live TV from their homes, as I did as a child on the other side of the country, in New Jersey. I was eleven at the time. I’ll never forget the sudden flash-bulb illumination of those doomed buildings, the instant blackening of the outer walls with dense smoke pouring out of the clapboards, and then, a split-second later, the full impact of the explosion as the burning buildings were swept away by a nuclear hurricane.

It was a different sort of reality television, nothing less than a preview of the end of the world. But the politicians and generals were pleased. The bomb worked. The Atomic Bomb Show had a mass audience. The world could see our apocalyptic strength and already knew, thanks to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, America’s willingness to use it.

It’s not surprising that I watched those TV broadcasts. Anyone who had the opportunity did so. But not everyone had the chance. Among those not watching were the Trappist monks of the Abbey of Gethsemani living on their patch of rural Kentucky. They had no television, nor did they read the newspapers. The whole idea of Trappist life was to be cut off from the headlines. It was a life of prayer, meditation and labor, rising well before sunrise for the first prayers of the day and going to bed on their straw mattresses when the sky got dark. The Trappist attitude in those days was along the lines of Henry David Thoreau’s observation: “If you have read one newspaper, you’ve read them all.”

Even the bridge of correspondence was closed most of the time — letters were delivered and went out four times a year, in connection with four major feasts on the church calendar.

In those days of nuclear testing, the envelopes delivered to the monks would have been postmarked “Pray for Peace,” advice the monks didn’t need as they prayed for peace many times a day. In those days the US Postal Service was a major promoter of prayer.

Despite the barriers between the monastery and the rest of the human race, the world managed to make some of its activities known to the Trappists. Letters from friends and relatives inevitably related some of the main events of the day, if only to remind the monks how urgently their prayers were needed. And occasionally the abbot would make reports to the monks on some of the headlines — a new president or pope elected, the death of Stalin, war in Korea, the establishment of Communist China, or some other world crisis.

But Thomas Merton — or Father Louis, as he was known in the monastery — was a special case and had more access to correspondence and news sources and thus was able to pay closer attention to what was happening in the world, with its weapons and wars and nuclear tests. He had accidentally become famous. In 1948, an autobiography written by Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, had been published and quickly became a runaway bestseller. It’s one of those rare books that, more the sixty years later, has never gone out-of-print. It’s a page-turner — Merton’s account of his bohemian childhood, chaotic adolescence, conversion to Christianity in its Catholic form, then finally embracing a monastic vocation in a community so low-tech and so austere that it was nearly medieval. The book was a celebration of escape from a madhouse culture and finding refuge in a place of sanity, faith and prayer. The Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani, Merton wrote, was the real center of America, the place that was holding things together.

Most readers came away from The Seven Storey Mountain thinking of it as the author’s goodbye to the world. Any Merton books that might yet emerge from the other side of the monastic wall would surely be about aspects of the ascetic and silent life. Few could imagine that the author of The Seven Storey Mountain would, not many years later, become one of the prominent voices of protest against nuclear weapons and war in general, a passionate critic of racism, and an advocate of a society which relied on nonviolent methods to protect itself and overcome injustice. Still fewer could envisage the controversy that would surround his name or the fact that he would eventually be forbidden to publish articles or books on war and peace.

In the late summer of 1961 I happened to be one of the first to made aware of Merton as a voice of social engagement, protest and peacemaking. I had recently left the U.S. Navy with a special discharge as a conscientious objector and had joined the staff of the Catholic Worker community in New York City. Our main work was making meals and providing clothing to homeless people, many of them alcoholics or mentally ill, who were surviving on the streets of lower Manhattan. The founder of the community, Dorothy Day, had enlisted me to devote part of my time to helping with the newspaper we published, The Catholic Worker. It was issued monthly and had nearly a hundred thousand subscribers. Among other things, it addressed such issues as the Cold War, the arms race, racism and social injustice. It was a compelling voice for Christ-like living.

We did our best to practice what we preached. One consequence was that members of the staff, starting with Dorothy, were not strangers to jail cells. Dorothy had been locked up several times for sitting on a park bench in front of City Hall when, had she been obeying the law, she would have taken shelter in a subway station in a mass dress rehearsal for nuclear attack. It was the most bizarre ritual of life in New York City in those days. For a short time one day each year, the sirens howled, traffic stopped and the sidewalks and stores were emptied of their usual crowds, draining into subways or other designated fallout shelters. Instead of taking shelter, Dorothy and others who shared her view that such activities protected no one and even spread the illusion that nuclear war was survivable, quietly gathered in the little park on front of City Hall and awaited arrest. Ironically, they were charged with “disturbing the peace.”

We were out of step with many aspects of the society around us. The result was that the Catholic Worker was often dismissed as a group with “Communist leanings” — not that Marx, Lenin or Stalin would have had anything good to say about people with the sort of “God delusions” that motivated us.

One day a packet arrived from the Abbey of Gethsemani containing a letter from Thomas Merton with a submission, his first ever to our publication. It turned out to be a chapter — “The Root of War is Fear” — from the book he was then writing, New Seeds of Contemplation, which was a revised and expanded edition of an earlier work, Seeds of Contemplation. Seeds of Contemplation was the only book Merton ever rewrote. This particular chapter had been three-pages in the earlier edition, its meditative paragraphs only loosely connected. Merton had now transformed it into a ten-page chapter that contained only a few fragments from the earlier version.

One of the many additions was a comment on the cold-war mentality — the tendency of Americans to see only the best and purest motives in ourselves and to ascribe the very worst motives to our adversaries. As Merton put it: “In our refusal to accept the partially good intentions of others and work with them (of course prudently and with resignation to the inevitable imperfection of the result) we are unconsciously proclaiming our own malice, our own intolerance, our own lack of realism and political quackery.”

Merton asked, “What is the use of postmarking our mail with exhortations to ‘pray for peace’ and then spending billions of dollars on atomic submarines, thermonuclear weapons, and ballistic missiles? This, I would think, would certainly be what the New Testament calls ‘mocking God’ — and mocking Him far more effectively than atheists do. … Consider the utterly fabulous amount of money, planning, energy, anxiety and care which go into the production of weapons which almost immediately become obsolete and have to be scrapped. Contrast all this with the pitiful little gesture ‘pray for peace’ piously canceling our stamps! … It does not even seem to enter our minds that there might be some incongruity in praying to the God of peace, the God who told us to love one another as He had loved us, Who warned us that they who took the sword would perish by it, and at the same time planning to annihilate not thousands but millions of civilians and soldiers, men, women and children without discrimination… It may make sense for a sick man to pray for health and then take medicine, but I fail to see any sense at all in his praying for health and then drinking poison.”

In a preface to the chapter written especially for readers of The Catholic Worker, Merton made a call for action: “The duty of the Christian in this crisis is to strive with all his power and intelligence, with his faith, his hope in Christ, and love for God and man, to do the one task which God has imposed upon us in the world today. That task is to work for the total abolition of war.”

In this hard struggle, Merton saw the Church as being called to play a prominent part promoting nonviolent alternatives to conflict, leading the way “on the road to the nonviolent settlement of difficulties and toward the gradual abolition of war as the way of settling international or civil disputes. Christians must become active in every possible way, mobilizing all their resources for the fight against war.”

Not a great many people in the American Catholic Church in those days were ready to say “amen” to such ideas. In fact even now, nearly half a century later, Merton’s words are strong stuff, but in the climate of the time, when to display an interest in peacemaking or social justice could easily result in one being labeled a “Communist sympathizer” if not a “pinko” if not an outright “Red,” Merton was really putting his neck on the chopping block. That such thoughts should come from the most widely read Catholic author of his generation was more than startling.

At Dorothy Day’s encouragement, I began corresponding with Merton. In his first response, he mentioned that he had said the Mass in Time of War that morning. It definitely wasn’t, he said, a “belligerent Mass.” It fails to ask that anyone “be struck down.” Merton pointed out that “nowhere in [the text of the Mass] are there promises of blessings upon the strong and the unscrupulous or the violent.” The text, he said, suggested that “we 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.”

One sees a great deal of Merton’s basic outlook in that short letter. If he wasn’t in fact shutting up, he was attempting to speak as a Christian monk, with humility and clarity, and with trust that God would somehow find ways to make good use of our efforts for the good of everyone’s souls.

Regarding how a Christian should respond to war and what it might mean to be a peacemaker, Merton’s point of entry was neither political nor ideological but deeply rooted in the primary sources of Christian life — the Gospel and other biblical writings, the Mass plus all the offices of prayer that were an integral part of monastic life, and the lives and writings of the saints.

Early in 1962, at Merton’s invitation, I hitchhiked to the Abbey of Gethsemani where Merton gave me a warm welcome, seeing me daily until I left for New York to take part in a protest against US resumption of the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. (My next letter from Merton would be hand-delivered to me as I sat awaiting arrest on an icy pavement before the main entrance to the Manhattan offices of the Atomic Energy Commission. The A.E.C. was then the government agency responsible for manufacturing and testing all U.S. nuclear weapons.)

As I discovered during that first visit to the monastery in Kentucky, Merton’s attitude toward war was not shared by all his brother monks. One of them, seeing Merton and me walking together, demonstrated his opinion of The Catholic Worker and of Merton’s writing for that journal by compressing the latest issue into a ball about the size of a tangerine and hurling it into the garbage can that he happened to be standing next to.

While wandering about monastery guest house, I found a small booklet for sale that had to do with war and was addressed to young men like myself. It gives a much more typical impression of American Catholic thinking about war and soldiering in those days. The author, Father Raymond, was also a monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani and the community’s other noted author. I paraphrase, but the text began roughly along these lines:

“So, you’ve received an induction order and have to report for an Army physical? Well, there’s nothing to worry about. Only two things can happen. You either pass or you fail. So, you’ve passed your physical and you have to serve in the Army? Well, there’s nothing to worry about. Only two things can happen. You’re either sent into combat or you are assigned behind the lines. So, you’re sent into combat? Well, there’s nothing to worry about. Only two things can happen. You’re either injured or you’re not injured. So, you’re injured in combat? Now there’s something to worry about — you either recover or you die. So, it turns out to be a mortal injury and you die? Now at last there is something to worry about. You either go to heaven or you go to hell.”

The rest of the text was an exhortation to the hell-avoiding soldier not to curse or use profanities, not to commit fornication, to go confession regularly, to fast on Fridays, and to attend Mass on Sunday and Holy Days of Obligation. The Catholic soldier, if he practiced purity of mouth and groin and fulfilled his religious duties, could look forward to heaven. The author had nothing to say about the love of enemies. He offered no cautions about the possible abuse of obedience by the state or the soldier’s superiors. He said nothing about a soldier’s obligations to respect the lives of the innocent and to refuse participation in war crimes. While the author clearly believed in hell, not a word was said about war itself being hell.

What stood behind the turning in Merton’s mind that made the issue of war and peace so important, that he felt compelled to write about it? What led him to start publishing articles on these matters in such journals as The Catholic Worker, Jubilee and Commonweal? Or to write Cold War Letters and Peace in the Post-Christian Era? Or to play, as he did during the last several years of his life, an important role in developing the work of the Catholic Peace Fellowship?

It was a slow process with deep roots. There were many turning points in the development of Merton’s thinking about the world and his place in it.

Surely the beginning was with his anti-war parents. His New Zealand born father, Owen, was one of the relatively few men of war-fighting age not to take part in World War I or to have any sympathy with it. He had opted to leave France, Tom’s birthplace, and go to the US because in France even foreigners like himself might be drafted. As would be the case with his son, Owen was immune to propaganda, recruiting posters and military songs. So was his American-born wife, Ruth, who had become a Quaker. For Merton, failing to march to the drumbeat of war was something of a family tradition.

While Ruth Merton had died too young for Merton — who was only eight at the time — to understand or be influenced by her religious convictions, his father’s influence was considerable. Though he was put off by churches, which did little to remind Owen of Christ, Owen took Christ’s teachings very much to heart.

“I shall never forget,” Merton wrote in The Seven Storey Mountain, “a casual remark Father happened to make [to me as a boy] in which he told me of Saint Peter’s betrayal of Christ, and how, on hearing the cock crow, Peter went out and wept bitterly. … We were just talking casually, standing in the hall of the flat we had taken. … I have never lost the vivid picture I got, at that moment, of Peter going out and weeping bitterly.”

Merton recalled another occasion when Owen expressed indignation with a woman who had been speaking hatefully of a neighbor. “He asked her why she thought Christ had told people to love their enemies. Did she suppose God commanded this for His benefit? Did he get anything out of it that he really needed from us? Or was it rather for our own good that he had given us this commandment? [Father] told her that if she had any sense, she would love other people if only for the sake of the good and health and peace of her own soul.”

Perhaps there was also some influence from Gandhi. In the fall of 1930, Tom, then a fifteen-year-old student at a residential high school in England, took Gandhi’s side in a school debate, arguing that India had every right to demand its freedom from Britain. Later in his life, Merton came to see Gandhi’s use of nonviolent methods as a model for achieving justice without resorting to violence or incitement to hatred and edited a small book of selections from Gandhi’s writings.

Far more important was Merton’s encounter with Christ three years later, age eighteen, when he was on a solo visit to Rome. While the religious artwork of later periods tended to leave Merton cold, the Byzantine mosaic icons that he found in many of the city’s oldest churches arrested his attention in a way that later triggered within Merton a profound sense of the actual presence of Christ — not simply a legendary teacher who had lived in the days of the Caesars, been crucified and buried, but someone still living.

“For the first time in my whole life,” Merton wrote in The Seven Storey Mountain, “I began to find out something of who this Person was that men call Christ. It was obscure, but it was a true knowledge of Him. But it was in Rome that my conception of Christ was formed. It was there I first saw Him, Whom I now serve as my God and my King, and who owns and rules my life. It is the Christ of the Apocalypse, the Christ of the Martyrs, the Christ of the Fathers. It is the Christ of Saint John, and of Saint Paul, and of Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome and all the Fathers, and the Desert Fathers. It is Christ God, Christ King.”

This seems to have been Merton’s first mystical experience, in the sense of an experience of the reality of God. From that period of his life until his death, Christ remained for Merton not simply “a historical person,” as he explained in a letter to a Quaker correspondent, “but an interior presence in light, which is the glory of the transfigured Christ, the experience of which is transmitted in faith from generation to generation by those who have ‘seen,’ from the Apostles on down.”

It is one thing to study Christ and the Gospel, as one might study Plato and his books, and another thing to know — at least begin to know — that Christ rose from the dead and is the Lord of Creation: “Christ God, Christ King.” Such an event in one’s life may take years to be fully integrated, as was the case with Merton, but it shapes choices and decisions for the rest of one’s life. Merton’s religious conversion and reception into the Catholic Church came only a few years later.

Another factor was Merton’s experience, after finishing his studies at Columbia University, of doing volunteer work at Friendship House, a house of hospitality in Harlem. One of the hardest decisions Merton made as a young adult was choosing between work of that kind, in the poorest and most densely populated area of Manhattan, and going to the monastery. Harlem brought home to him the neglected beauty of people who had been marginalized by racism.

All the while, in the background of the choices Merton was wrestling with, was the widening war in Europe. Only one novel Merton wrote in that period has survived. It was finally published in 1968 with the title, The Journal of My Escape from the Gestapo. The text throws light on Merton decision to be a conscientious objector. “My sins have done this,” he wrote. “Hitler is not the only one who has started this war: I have my share in it too.” Devout Catholic that Merton had become, he understood that there are threads of connection between the relatively minor sins each person commits and the calamities of the world.

In writing The Seven Storey Mountain, with the dust of World War II still settling, Merton thought it important to write at length about his conviction that Christian response to war ought to reflect the example of Christ, who neither took part in war nor blessed his followers to do so. It is interesting to note that the Western Christian theological tradition of the “just war” was not of special interest to Merton and goes unmentioned. His question was simply: What would Christ do? Would he shoot others or drop bombs on them? Merton found it impossible to say yes.

It isn’t surprising that, just as America was entering World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Merton gave up his teaching job at St. Bonaventure’s College, gave away what little he had, traveled to Kentucky and entered the monastery.

The early years of his monastic life were years of formation. The world beyond the monastic enclosure seemed far away, though even then there were many reminders of the suffering of others and the death of many. Among the casualties of the war in Europe was Merton’s younger brother, John Paul, who had joined the Canadian Royal Air Force.

Merton came to look back on some aspects of his early monastic formation as flawed. The border between the world and the monastery had seemed a kind of chasm — the monk belonging to a holier species of being. Merton had allowed himself to think of monastic life not just as a form of Christian life but as the truest and best model of Christian life. He had felt free to regard “the world” with contempt rather than compassion.

During the Fifties, in a gradual conversion of attitude, Merton came to see the monastic vocation as an authentic Christian option without any longer regarding it as the highest tier of Christian life. For each person, what was important was to embrace whatever vocation God intended for you, and do so wholeheartedly. No one, simply by virtue of his vocation, however “religious” it may seem to be, has a special entrance to heaven or goes to the front of the line by virtue of wearing monastic robes.

No less than any Christian, Merton realized, the monk is called to love his neighbor, and that love can at times require dissent and protest of events and structures which endanger life and make it hellish. Merton writes of his new understanding in the preface to Seeds of Destruction: “The contemplative life is not, and cannot be, a mere withdrawal, a pure negation, a turning of one’s back on the world with all its sufferings, its crises, its confusions and its errors.”

From about 1958 onward, we see in Merton’s journals how far he had moved from the “enclosed mentality” of the early years of his monastic life. He found himself dismayed with the “loud bluster” of his early poems in which, even more than in the prose of the same period, he ranted about the “futility of ‘the world’.”

Merton felt a growing sense of connection with ordinary people and a deep gratitude for such lay Catholics as Dorothy Day, with whom he began corresponding in 1959. Here was a person whose life was a continuing response to Christ’s words, “What you have done to the least person, you have done to me.”

Merton notes that the “refusal of all political commitments is absurd.” In a letter to Dorothy Day, he told her, “I don’t feel that I can in conscience, at a time like this, go on writing just about things like meditation, though that has its point. I cannot just bury my head in a lot of rather tiny and secondary monastic studies either. I think I have to face the big issues, the life-and-death issues: and this is what everyone is afraid of.”

By 1961, when he had mailed his essay, “The Root of War is Fear,” to Dorothy Day, Merton saw himself not only as a voice for the contemplative life but understood the contemplative life as inspiring a compassionate response to threats to life and a shield against dehumanization and propaganda.

His spiritual journey was taking a turn not altogether welcomed either by his religious superiors or, for that matter, by all of his readers. How thin the ice that Merton had stepped out upon was soon made clear. Six months later after “The Root of War is Fear” was published in The Catholic Worker, the head of the Trappist order, Dom Gabriel Sortais, ordered Merton to stop writing on the topic of war and peace. But in that half-year period, and despite the obstacles of censorship within the Trappist order, Merton had managed to publish a flurry of peace essays.

The silencing order left Merton deeply dismayed and discouraged. The Abbot General’s decision, he said in a letter to me, reflected “an astounding incomprehension of the seriousness of the present crisis in its religious aspect. lt reflects an insensitivity to Christian and Ecclesiastical values, and to the real sense of the monastic vocation. The reason given is that this is not the right kind of work for a monk and that it ‘falsifies the monastic message.’ Imagine that: the thought that a monk might be deeply enough concerned with the issue of nuclear war to voice a protest against the arms race, is supposed to bring the monastic life into disrepute. Man, I would think that it might just possibly salvage a last shred of repute for an institution that many consider to be dead on its feet. … That is really the most absurd aspect of the whole situation, that these people insist on digging their own grave and erecting over it the most monumental kind of tombstone.”

Beneath the surface of the disagreement between Merton and his Abbot General was a different conception of the identity and mission of the Church and its monastic component. “The vitality of the Church depends precisely on spiritual renewal, uninterrupted, continuous, and deep,” Merton said in the same letter. “Obviously this renewal is to be expressed in the historical context, and will call for a real spiritual understanding of historical crises, an evaluation of them in terms of their inner significance and in terms of man’s growth and the advancement of truth in man’s world: in other words, the establishment of the ‘kingdom of God.’ The monk is the one supposedly attuned to the inner spiritual dimension of things. If he hears nothing, and says nothing, then the renewal as a whole will be in danger and may be completely sterilized.”

Those silencing him, he went on, regarded the monk as someone appointed not to see or hear anything new but “to support the already existing viewpoints … [The monk] has no other function, then, except perhaps to pray for what he is told to pray for: namely the purposes and the objectives of an ecclesiastical bureaucracy. … He must be an eye that sees nothing except what is carefully selected for him to see. An ear that hears nothing except what it is advantageous for the managers for him to hear. We know what Christ said about such ears and eyes.”

Despite his profound disagreement with the Abbot General’s order, Merton chose to obey. “In my own particular case,” he explained to me, disobedience and public protest “would backfire and be fruitless. It would be taken as a witness against the peace movement and would confirm these people in all the depth of their prejudices and their self complacency. It would reassure them in every possible way that they are incontrovertibly right and make it even more impossible for them ever to see any kind of new light on the subject. And in any case I am not merely looking for opportunities to blast off. I can get along without it.”

As events unfolded, Merton wasn’t altogether silenced. As things worked out, with the blessing and support of his own abbot, Dom James Fox, he was able to publish two books, Peace in the Post-Christian Era and Cold War Letters, in non-commercial, mimeographed editions that, as often happens with banned books, were all the more carefully read and shared by those who managed to obtain copies. In various ways, again with his abbot’s assistance and approval, Merton succeeded to writing and publishing new pieces on war and peace, in some cases under such pen names and Benedict Monk and Benedict Moore. Merton’s banned peace writings were circulated among the bishops and theologians taking part in the Second Vatican Council and played a part in shaping the Council’s final document, The Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, in which the Council’s only condemnation is included: “Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and humanity, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.” This solemn declaration was the most dramatic vindication of what Merton had been advocating and seeking.

If for the time being Merton was unable to publish his peace writings in book form, one of the doors that remained wide open for Merton was that of correspondence. Through correspondence, Merton became a source of encouragement and dialogue for a many people, for some a spiritual father, as he certainly was for me.

What is striking about all his letters is how free they are from jargon. Merton was not an ideological person. He hated slogans whether religious or political. Neither was he self-righteous nor did he seek to remake others in his own image. While he believed following Christ ideally involved for us, as it did for the first Christians, a renunciation of all killing, he didn’t deny the possibility that just wars might have occurred in earlier times, when the technology of warfare didn’t inevitably cause numerous noncombatant casualties, and might occur in the modern context in the case of oppressed people fighting for their liberation. But, as he wrote Dorothy Day in 1962, the issue of the just war “is pure theory…. In practice all the wars that are [happening] … are shot through and through with evil, falsity, injustice, and sin so much so that one can only with difficulty extricate the truths that may be found here and there in the ’causes’ for which the fighting is going on.”

As was made clear in his letters and other writings, what he found valuable in the just-war tradition was its insistence that evil must be actively opposed, and it was this that drew him to Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Hildegard and Jean Goss, and groups involved in active nonviolent struggle for social justice such as the Catholic Worker and the Catholic Peace Fellowship.

What was often missing in protest movements, Merton pointed out, was compassion for those who disagreed or felt threatened by protest. Those involved in protest tend to become enraged with those they see as being responsible for injustice and violence and even toward those who uphold the status quo. But without compassion, Merton pointed out, the protester tends to become more and more centered in anger and may easily become an obstacle to changing the attitudes of others. As he put it in one letter to me, “We have to have a deep patient compassion for the fears of men, for the fears and irrational mania of those who hate or condemn us. … [These are, after all] the ordinary people, the ones who don’t want war, the ones who get it in the neck, the ones who really want to build a decent new world in which there will not be war and starvation.”

Most people, Merton pointed out, are irritated or frightened by agitation even when it protests something — militarism, nuclear weapons, social injustice — which objectively endangers them. “[People] do not feel at all threatened by the bomb … but they feel terribly threatened by some . . . student carrying a placard.”

Beyond compassion, there is love. Without love of opponents and enemies, neither personal nor social transformation can occur. As Merton wrote to Dorothy Day:

“Persons are not known by intellect alone, not by principles alone, but only by love. It is when we love the other, the enemy, that we obtain from God the key to an understanding of who he is, and who we are. It is only this realization that can open to us the real nature of our duty, and of right action. To shut out the person and to refuse to consider him as a person, as an other self, we resort to the ‘impersonal law’ and to abstract ‘nature.’ That is to say we block off the reality of the other, we cut the intercommunication of our nature and his nature, and we consider only our own nature with its rights, its claims, its demands. And we justify the evil we do to our brother because he is no longer a brother, he is merely an adversary, an accused. To restore communication, to see our oneness of nature with him, and to respect his personal rights and his integrity, his worthiness of love, we have to see ourselves as similarly accused along with him . . . and needing, with him, the ineffable gift of grace and mercy to be saved. Then, instead of pushing him down, trying to climb out by using his head as a stepping-stone for ourselves, we help ourselves to rise by helping him to rise. For when we extend our hand to the enemy who is sinking in the abyss, God reaches out to both of us, for it is He first of all who extends our hand to the enemy. It is He who ‘saves himself’ in the enemy, who makes use of us to recover the lost groat which is His image in our enemy.”

At the heart of Merton’s writings on peacemaking was his emphasis on the spiritual life that must sustain peace service. In another letter, he reminded me: “[What is needed is a] complete change of heart and [a] totally new outlook on the world …. The great problem is this inner change. … [Any peace action has] to be regarded … as an application of spiritual force and not the use of merely political pressure. We all have the great duty to realize the deep need for purity of soul, that is to say the deep need to possess in us the Holy Spirit, to be possessed by Him. This takes precedence over everything else.”

Merton was convinced that engagement was made stronger by detachment. Not to be confused with disinterest in achieving results, detachment meant knowing that no good action is wasted even if the immediate consequences are altogether different from what one hoped to achieve. In a letter on this theme, he advised me:

“Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing … an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end … it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything….

“As for the big results are not in your hands or mine, but they can suddenly happen, and we can share in them: but there is no point in building our lives on this personal satisfaction, which may be denied us and which after all is not that important. … The real hope … is not in something we think we can do, but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see. If we can do His will, we will be helping in this process. But we will not necessarily know all about it beforehand.”

Merton himself didn’t live to see the results of his efforts for peace. The war in Vietnam was raging when he flew to Asia in September, 1968. On December 10, just after addressing a conference of Trappist and Benedictine monks and nuns meeting near Bangkok, Merton died.

Merton’s was an untimely and tragic death — he was only 54 — and yet for the corpse of a peacemaker to be sent home as part of a cargo of dead bodies, all the others being soldiers who had died in the Vietnam War, seemed somehow appropriate. These strangers, victims of war and of an ill-judged policy, were among those whom Merton had come to see as brothers.

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text as of February 25, 2009
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An Army that Sheds No Blood: Thomas Merton’s Response to War

This is a talk given March 6, 2009, in Vancouver, British Columbia, and March 14 in Victoria, British Columbia, at conferences arranged by the Thomas Merton Society of Canada.

by Jim Forest

One of Thomas Merton’s lesser known publications is a small booklet produced in Italy, the Stamperia Valdonega in Verona, and issued by New Directions: Clement of Alexandria: Selections from the Protreptikos. It’s long out-of-print. If you are lucky enough to track down a copy, it almost certainly won’t cost the $1.50 it was sold for in 1962.

It appeared just two years after publication of a related book, The Wisdom of the Desert, Merton’s collection of stories and sayings from the inventors of Christian monasticism, the monks who, from the fourth century onward, populated the wastelands of Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean.

Both books reveal Merton’s attraction to the early Church and its writers. Clement was among the earliest. He was born in Athens about 150 AD, at the end of the Apostolic Age. He later made his home in Alexandria, the most cosmopolitan city of that period, where he became a renowned Christian teacher and apologist – and later came to be regarded as one of the Fathers of the Church, that community of renowned theologians of the early centuries who were not only scholars but articulate mystics.

Merton found in Clement a kindred soul — “one of the Fathers I like best, with whom I feel the closest affinity,” as he records in a journal entry made in the summer of 1961. The word Merton uses most frequently in regard to Clement is “serene.” The “serene interior light” of Clement’s writings reminded Merton of the Gospel of St. John and the Pauline epistles — “the light which burned clearly in the souls of the martyrs, kindled by the agape of the primitive Church.” Merton sees Clement as someone “who fully penetrates the mystery of the … Risen Christ. … a victory over death, over sin, over the confusions and dissension of this world, with its raging cruelty and its futile concerns, a victory which leads not to contempt of man and of the world, but, on the contrary, to a true, pure, serene love, filled with compassion, able to ‘save’ for Christ all that is good and noble in man, in society, in philosophy and in humanistic culture.” And Clement wrote his serene words, Merton points out, not in the desert but in the city, “amid its crowds.”

In presenting the case for Christ to his well-educated pagan contemporaries, Clement drew from various wells, not only from the Gospels, Paul’s letters and other Christian sources, but also from the work of the Greek philosophers, especially Plato. As Merton writes, “Clement was not a fanatic, but a man of unlimited comprehension and compassion who didn’t fear to seek elements of truth wherever they could be found, for the truth, he said, is one. … The full expression is to be found most perfectly in the Divine Logos, the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ.”

Clement’s theology, Merton stresses, is a theology of light, the nature of which is to banish darkness.

What Clement is not, Merton adds, is a Christian publicist, a PR man “with a bag full of spiritual slogans” or “a salesman representing a particular nation or culture.” Nor is he a self-promoter, using the Christian religion to draw attention to himself. Clement sees himself, a Christian philosopher and educator, as having a vocation to introduce others to “the true teacher, the Logos of God.”

Merton noted that Clement, even though recognized as one the Church Fathers, has been, at least for Western Christians, a somewhat controversial figure. At the beginning of the 17th century, Clement of Alexandria’s name was removed from the Roman Martyrology by Pope Clement VIII, an act later endorsed by Pope Benedict XIV, on the grounds that little was known of Clement’s life. But in that case not many names should be permitted to remain on our list of early saints, so little is known about nearly all of them. Typically all that can be said is that, following martyrdom, their graves became places of pilgrimage and prayer in the early Church.

For Merton, himself no stranger to controversy, Clement’s being not quite on the calendar of the saints was perhaps an attraction. Like Groucho Marx, Merton was nervous about belonging to any club that would have him for a member. But the real attraction was the purity of Clement’s writing, a transparency through which Christ shone like a sunrise. Clement writings, said Merton, were “a great treasury of authentic and profoundly Christian thought … whose culture, urbanity, simplicity, faith and joy welcomed all comers to the school of Christian philosophy.”

“The whole moral philosophy of Clement,” Merton writes, “can be summed up by his conviction that Christ is the true Master, the one who guides his disciple in every aspect of the Christian life.” Without the light of Christ, Merton continues, we human beings are little more than fowl being fattened in the dark for the butcher’s knife. But in Christ “everything is significant, everything comes to life, even the most simple and ordinary task acquires a spiritual and supernatural dimension.”

It is hard to think of anyone about whom Merton ever wrote in more glowing terms. His little book about Clement was a modest effort to make this all-but-forgotten name better known to readers of our own time, eighteen centuries later.

Not least appealing to Merton was the purity of Clement’s writings about war and peace. One line, as Merton translated it, provides a synopsis: The Church is “an army that sheds no blood.”

The final page of Merton’s translation of excerpts from Clement’s Protreptikos is headed “Soldiers of Peace.” The text is brief. Let me read it to you:

Now the trumpet sounds with a mighty voice calling the soldiers of the world to arms, announcing war:
And shall not Christ who has uttered His summons to peace even to the ends of the earth
Summon together His own soldiers of peace?
Indeed, O Man, He has called to arms with His blood and His Word an army that sheds no blood:
To these soldiers He has handed over the Kingdom of Heaven.
The trumpet of Christ is His Gospel. He has sounded it in our ears
And we have heard Him.
Let us be armed for peace, putting on the armor of justice, seizing the shield of faith,
The helmet of salivation,
And sharpening the “sword of the spirit which is the Word of God.”
This is how the Apostle prepares us peaceably for battle.
Such are the arms that make us invulnerable.
So armed, let us prepare to fight the Evil One.
Let us cut through his flaming attack with the blade which the Logos Himself has tempered in the waters (of baptism).
Let us reply to His goodness by praise and thanksgiving.
Let us honor God with His divine Word:
“While thou are yet speaking”, he says, “Here I am.”

The Church is “an army that sheds no blood.” Merton’s translation doesn’t lose the bright edge of the original Greek text. Sadly, while certainly there are a great many Christians today who give an impressive witness to being part of such an army, it’s not a remark many would apply to contemporary Christianity as a whole. For centuries Christians, by the hundreds of thousands, have been combatants in practically any war one can think of, killing each other when not killing non-Christians, and by and large doing so with the unreserved blessings of clergy — if not, as happened with the Crusades, at their actual summons.

Merton’s vision of peace was similar to that of Clement of Alexandria. He wanted to revive in Christianity, that is in each of us, those strengths that would equip us, we who are attempting to follow Christ, to become once again part of an army that sheds no blood.

Merton gave witness to wanting to be such a person well before becoming a monk. One of the many surprises in his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, is Merton’s thorough recounting of his decision, despite his disgust with Hitler and Naziism, to be a conscientious objector. As 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, 111-2]

Remarkable words. One very rarely heard anyone, still less Catholics, saying such things at the time, least of all when World War II was underway or in the years that immediately followed, which is precisely when The Seven Storey Mountain was published. In their struggle to be accepted in a society whose default setting was anti-Catholic, Americans Catholics were notable for being more red-white-and-blue than many of their neighbors, a people doubly grateful to have found a home in the United States. Not that Merton was being critical of his adopted country. But it wasn’t every day a Catholic writer, or indeed Christians from other major churches, talked about their behavior, in wartime no less than peacetime, being modeled on Christ’s example. Against whom did Christ raise a deadly weapon? No one. How many were killed by Jesus Christ? Not a single person. He both taught and practiced love of enemies. He rescued people from death. Far from killing others, he was renowned for acts of healing. Dying on the cross, he forgave his executioners. Having risen from the dead, his said to his disciples, “Peace be with you.”

Those who would cut Merton in two — the “early Merton,” author The Seven Storey Mountain and various books of the Fifties, versus the “later Merton,” author of Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander and all the other books he wrote in the Sixties — overlook how much that became major themes in Merton’s later writing and work, not only regarding peace but even his debt to people from non-Christian religious traditions, was already clearly expressed in The Seven Storey Mountain. There is development, of course. His early parochialism and convert zeal evaporated. Even more significantly, his understanding of what it meant to “be in the world but not of it” was gradually transformed. But important concerns that he had developed as a young man were not dropped. Merton had come to baptism not because of Christianity but because of Christ — “the Christ of the martyrs,” as he wrote in The Seven Storey Mountain, describing his first significant encounter with Christ when he was in Rome at age eighteen.

The Seven Storey Mountain is an account of conversion. What Merton was to discover, once his autobiography was out of his hands, is that conversion is never finished. It is on-ongoing process.

A significant part of Merton’s conversion in the last two decades of his life was his realization that a monk, in his place of relative refuge, is sometimes called to see the world with a clarity that often eludes those who are in the midst of the world, and not just to see what is happening but to attempt to speak up in a way that might prevent disaster. It has to do with the second of the two Great Commandments: love of neighbor. If you see your neighbor rushing towards a precipice and fail to warn him, his death may be more on your hands than his. He was blind — you were not.

Almost anyone who knows anything about Merton is likely to recall that moment of illumination when, in 1958, he waited for the light to turn green at a busy intersection in downtown Louisville. I need not recite the familiar text. In a moment that contained all the time in the world, he saw those around him as bearers of the divine image, as persons loved by God, each of them as dear to God as anyone in any monastery. He knew not one of these strangers by name but the fate of each of them became a matter of eternal significance.

That transfigured moment helps us better understand the final decade of Merton’s life. Bill Shannon, the general editor of Merton’s correspondence, told me that after that event Merton’s letter-writing took off. It seemed he was writing to just about everyone in the phone book, from popes to the authors of banned books, from great scholars to high school students, from politicians to people like me who sometimes went to prison for acts of protest.

Just three years later, not many months before his little book on Clement was issued, Merton submitted his first article to The Catholic Worker. This was easily one of the more controversial Catholic journals. Its editor, Dorothy Day, was an outspoken pacifist who saw the works of war as being the polar opposite of the works of mercy. It was not, in her view, a coherent life to feed the hungry one day and kill them the next.

The piece Merton submitted, “The Root of War is Fear,” was an expanded version of a chapter he had just finished writing for a forthcoming book, New Seeds of Contemplation. In it he observed:

It does not even seem to enter our minds that there might be some incongruity in praying to the God of peace, the God who told us to love one another as He had loved us, Who warned us that they who took the sword would perish by it, and at the same time planning to annihilate not thousands but millions of civilians and soldiers, men, women and children without discrimination. … It may make sense for a sick man to pray for health and then take medicine, but I fail to see any sense at all in his praying for health and then drinking poison.

In the additional introductory paragraphs written especially for The Catholic Worker, Merton saw “war-madness” as “an illness of the mind and spirit that is spreading with a furious and subtle contagion all over the world.” Perhaps in our ears this may sound a bit extreme, somewhat “unnuanced.” One has to recall that, at the time Merton was writing these observations, there were a great many Americans, Catholics prominent among them, who seriously repeated such apocalyptic slogans as “Better Red than dead” and “The only good Red is a dead Red.” Uttering such bumper-sticker sentences passed for moral discourse. Just a month before Merton’s essay was published in The Catholic Worker, October 1961, an essay by a distinguished Jesuit ethicist, Fr. L.C. McHugh, was published in America magazine in which the author argued that it was morally unobjectionable to kill your next-door-neighbor in defense of your private fall-out shelter. Meanwhile advocates of nuclear war were promoting the benefits of a preemptive nuclear attack on the Soviet Union using arguments similar to those we have heard more recently in justification of the US “preemptive” war on Iraq. Scores of US nuclear weapons tests were occurring, first in Nevada and then, after the weapons became too destructive for open-air detonation in United States, in the Pacific Ocean. Millions of children in US schools took part in “duck-and-cover” drills to learn how hiding under their desks with the hands over the back of their necks might save them in the event of a nuclear attack. The “war-madness” Merton spoke of was truly a mass psychosis. The world Stanley Kubrick satirized in “Doctor Strangelove” was the actual world in which we were living. Millions of people, myself among them, did not anticipate dying of old age but rather of nuclear war. Indeed I didn’t expect to live to be thirty. There was a poster on my room at the Catholic Worker that bore the simple message, “Get Ready to Die.” These words were perhaps the verbal equivalent of the skull one was supposed to find in the cell of a medieval hermit.

Here is Merton’s description of the times in his first Catholic Worker essay:

On all sides we have people building bomb shelters where, in case of nuclear war, they will simply bake slowly instead of burning quickly or being blown out of existence in a flash. And they are prepared to sit in these shelters with machine guns with which to prevent their neighbor from entering. This in a nation that claims to be fighting for religious truth along with freedom and other values of the spirit. Truly we have entered the “post-Christian era” with a vengeance. Whether we are destroyed or whether we survive, the future is awful to contemplate.

Merton went on sketch out a vision of how Christians should respond to the dangers facing us in the post-Hiroshima world:

What is the place of the Christian in all this? Is he simply to fold his hands and resign himself for the worst, accepting it as the inescapable will of God and preparing himself to enter heaven with a sigh of relief? Should he open up the Apocalypse and run into the street to give everyone his idea of what is happening? Or, worse still should he take a hard-headed and “practical” attitude about it and join in the madness of the war makers, calculating how, by a “first strike” the glorious Christian West can eliminate atheistic Communism for all time and usher in the millennium? I am no prophet and seer but it seems to me that this last position may very well be the most diabolical of illusions, the great and not even subtle temptation of a Christianity that has grown rich and comfortable, and is satisfied with its riches.

What are we to do? The duty of the Christian in this crisis is to strive with all his power and intelligence, with his faith, his hope in Christ, and love for God and man, to do the one task which God has imposed upon us in the world today. That task is to work for the total abolition of war. There can be no question that unless war is abolished the world will remain constantly in a state of madness and desperation in which, because of the immense destructive power of modern weapons, the danger of catastrophe will be imminent and probable at every moment everywhere. Unless we set ourselves immediately to this task, both as individuals and in our political and religious groups, we tend by our very passivity and fatalism to cooperate with the destructive forces that are leading inexorably to war. It is a problem of terrifying complexity and magnitude, for which the Church itself is not fully able to see clear and decisive solutions. Yet she must lead the way on the road to the nonviolent settlement of difficulties and toward the gradual abolition of war as the way of settling international or civil disputes. Christians must become active in every possible way, mobilizing all their resources for the fight against war.

First of all there is much to be learned. Peace is to be preached, nonviolence is to be explained as a practical method, and not left to be mocked as an outlet for crackpots who want to make a show of themselves. Prayer and sacrifice must be used as the most effective spiritual weapons in the war against war, and like all weapons, they must be used with deliberate aim: not just with a vague aspiration for peace and security, but against violence and war. This implies that we are also willing to sacrifice and restrain our own instinct for violence and aggressiveness in our relations with other people. We may never succeed in this campaign but whether we succeed or not, the duty is evident.

These basic ideas of Merton’s never wavered. As a writer aware that many people had great respect for his work and that he was one of the relatively few whose voice might make a difference, and also aware that he might not be given an extended opportunity to say what was on his mind before his superiors hit the off switch, he plunged ahead with other writings, including a poem — “Chant to Be Used Around a Site for Furnaces” — about Adolph Eichmann and the Holocaust that ends with Eichmann addressing the reader: “Do not think yourself better because you burn up friends and enemies with long-range missiles without ever seeing what you have done.” This too was published in The Catholic Worker and widely reprinted elsewhere.

Merton wasn’t finished with Eichmann or the implications of the death machine such bureaucrats served. In an essay published in Raids on the Unspeakable, Merton had this to say:

The sanity of Eichmann is disturbing. We equate sanity with a sense of justice, with humaneness, with prudence, with the capacity to love and understand other people. We rely on the sane people of the world to preserve it from barbarism, madness, destruction. And now it begins to dawn on us that it is precisely the sane ones who are the most dangerous. It is the sane ones, the well-adapted ones, who can without qualms and without nausea aim the missiles and press the buttons that will initiate the great festival of destruction that they, the sane ones, have prepared. … No one suspects the sane, and the sane ones will have perfectly good reasons, logical, well-adjusted reasons, for firing the shot. They will be obeying sane orders that have come sanely down the chain of command.

Merton’s peace writings provoked a good deal of criticism. Given the climate of the time, it’s not surprising that some — many of them Catholics — saw him as having become “a Communist dupe,” a popular phrase in those days. A monk, it was said, should write about prayer and meditation, the rosary and fasting, not about such “political”issues as war. Who does Thomas Merton think he is? What happened to the author of The Seven Storey Mountain?

It was quite a storm and achieved its goal. Merton, having been accused of writing for “a Communist-controlled publication,” was silenced. But it’s remarkable how much Merton was able to write and publish before the plug was pulled. Merton’s Abbot General, Dom Gabriel Sortais — a Frenchman who was in many ways an outstanding and courageous individual — decided to lower the curtain. Merton had just finished writing a full-length book, Peace in the Post-Christian Era, when he received a letter from the Dom Gabriel ordering him not to continue publishing articles on war and peace. Only six months had passed since the publication of Merton’s first peace essay in The Catholic Worker.

As the focus of these reflections is Merton’s vision of peace, not his troubles in trying to communicate that vision, I am not going to into all that followed. It’s another story. But to sum it up, Merton obeyed the order in the sense that Peace in the Post-Christian Era was not published in book form in his lifetime. But Merton’s abbot, Dom James Fox, made it possible for Peace in the Post-Christian Era, and also a collection of letters, Cold War Letters, both to be published by the monastery in mimeographed editions that were privately circulated, widely read and proved influential. Dom James decided the such privately circulated books were not covered by the silencing order, only work sold commercially on the open market. (On the inside cover of both of the mimeographed books was the notation: “Strictly confidential. Not for Publication.”) Merton also continued to write and publish shorter pieces on war and peace, but using various pen names. Some were laconic but revealing, like Benedict Monk, while others playful. Who else but Thomas Merton could have written something signed Marco J. Frisbee?

Eventually, after Dom Gabriel’s death late in 1963, quite a lot of what Merton wanted say about peace to people whose only access to his writings was via book stores was published in such volumes as Seeds of Destruction, Raids on the Unspeakable and Faith and Violence.

It is noteworthy that the not-quite-silenced Merton did all this without abandoning his vocation or his religious order. His actions reflected his conviction that he would do very little good for peace in the world if it was at the cost of scandalizing and alienating his own community. As he put it to me in a letter sent at the end of April 1962:

If I am a disturbing element, that is all right. I am not making a point of being that, but simply of saying what my conscience dictates and doing so without seeking my own interest. This means accepting such limitations as may be placed on me by authority, and not because I may or may not agree with the ostensible reasons why the limitations are imposed, but out of love for God who is using these things to attain ends which I myself cannot at the moment see or comprehend.

What is striking about all this is Merton’s determination to do whatever he could for peace, coping with all sorts of limitations as best he could.

Throughout those next several difficult years, what Merton was able to do without interruption, in his own name and also without the heavy burden of censorship, was to carry on a great deal of significant correspondence with people like Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan, Tom Cornell, myself and others deeply engaged in efforts to prevent war or reduce conflict. These were never letters of the how-are-you-I-am-fine variety. The full text of nearly all them is available in The Hidden Ground of Love, and now exist, in an abbreviated form, in a section of the one-volume anthology, Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters. Meanwhile, Orbis Book has brought out both Cold War Letters and Peace in the Post-Christian Era.

Correspondence is important work. Evelyn Waugh so admired Merton-the-letter-writer that he once advised Merton to give up writing books in order to have more time for correspondence. Letters matter — certainly Merton’s did. I can recite by heart parts of certain letters Merton sent me. Through his letters, Merton played the role of spiritual father to many people engaged in the world.

In my own case, I don’t know how I would have gotten through that nightmarish time without those letters. Peace work is not always, or even often, peaceful. Peace groups attract all sorts of people. The peace activist is at least as subject to passions and vanities as anyone else. There are countless opportunities for self-righteousness, self-pity, arrogance, ambition, neglect of relationships, and despair. The religiously-motivated peace activist can come to decide that the Church is not worthy of his or her presence. Ideology can take the place of spiritual life and faith. Attending the liturgy, participating in eucharistic life, praying the rosary, prayer of any kind, going to confession, fasting — all such things can be seen as unimportant or even a waste of time. In such a context, more than most others, the peacemaker is desperately in need of a the kind of patient guidance I was fortunate enough to receive from Merton, who was motivated by a genuine vision of peace and not simply driven by anger at the makers of war.

One of Merton’s main stresses, in my case at least, was to acquire a deeper compassion. Without compassion, he pointed out, protesters tend to become more and more centered in anger and, far from contributing to anyone’s conversion, can actually become an obstacle to changing the attitudes of others. As he put it in one of his early letters to me,

We have to have a deep patient compassion for the fears of men, for the fears and irrational mania of those who hate or condemn us…. [These are, after all] the ordinary people, the ones who don’t want war, the ones who get it in the neck, the ones who really want to build a decent new world in which there will not be war and starvation.

Another letter that came to mean a great deal to me went to a level deeper, from compassion to love. This one was sent to Dorothy Day:

Persons are not known by intellect alone, not by principles alone, but only by love. It is when we love the other, the enemy, that we obtain from God the key to an understanding of who he is, and who we are. It is only this realization that can open to us the real nature of our duty, and of right action.

Not least important to me was a letter I received at a time when I was feeling that the work we were doing was having no positive impact whatsoever. Here is a brief extract from his response, written in 1966:

Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.

These letters are really about stages of conversion. Merton won his original renown for a book about conversion. It’s hardly surprising that he realized that, for all of us, conversion is ultimately our only hope. To become a peaceful person, to live in a way that contributes to peace, to live in a way that helps save life rather than in a way that contributes to the killing of others, to live in such a way that others may decide to live differently — that is an extraordinary achievement. Indeed it is never fully achieved. It’s an ongoing process, as all conversion is. Along the way we make mistakes, some of them serious. Repentance, confession, reconciliation, and many fresh starts are needed.

This was true in the early Church and remains true in our own time. All armies are built one-by-one. This is also true of the army that sheds no blood.

Though his own commitment was obvious, it’s striking that Merton never demanded that anyone, Christian or otherwise, was obliged to join the army that sheds no blood. You will never find him insisting that a Christian is duty-bound to be a conscientious objector. He had great sympathy for those who felt they had no viable nonviolent alternative to taking part in bloodshed. With his aversion to labels, it is hardly surprising that he avoided calling himself a pacifist. Yet again and again Merton made clear his conviction, echoing Clement of Alexandria, that the highest form of Christian discipleship presupposed the renunciation of violence.

This is how he put it in an important passage included in “The Christian in World Crisis”, an essay included in Seeds of Destruction:

The Christian does not need to fight and indeed it is better that he should not fight, for insofar as he imitates his Lord and Master, he proclaims that the Messianic Kingdom has come and bears witness to the presence of the Kyrios Pantocrator [Lord of Creation] in mystery, even in the midst of the conflicts and turmoil of the world. [p 129]

Merton’s good friend, Clement of Alexandra, could have written the same words.

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Text as of March 2, 2009

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Jim & Nancy Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands

Jim & Nancy site:

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A Three-Letter Word

by Jim Forest

There is no need to preach constantly on sin, to judge and to condemn. It is when a man is challenged with the real contents of the Gospel, with its Divine depth and wisdom, beauty and all embracing meaning, that he becomes ‘capable of repentance,’ for true repentance is precisely the discovery by the man of the abyss that separates him from God and from His real offer to man. It is when the man sees the bridal chamber adorned that he realizes that he has no garment for entering it.
—Fr. Alexander Schmemann

There have been thousands of essays and books in recent decades which have dealt with human failings under various labels without once using the one-syllable, three-letter word that has more bite than any of its synonyms: sin. Actions traditionally regarded as sinful have instead been seen as natural stages in the process of growing up, a result of bad parenting, a consequence of mental illness, an inevitable response to unjust social conditions, pathological behavior brought on by addiction, or even as “experiments in being.” Sin, we’ve also been told, is an invention of repressed, hypocritical clerics who want to keep the rest of us in bondage — “priests in black robes binding with briars our joys and desires,” in the chiming syllables of William Blake.

But what if I am more than a robot programmed by my past or my society or my economic status and actually can take a certain amount of credit — or blame — for my actions and inactions? Have I not done things I am deeply ashamed of, would not do again if I could go back in time, and would prefer no one to know about? What makes me so reluctant to call those actions “sins”? Is the word really out of date? Or is the problem that it has too sharp an edge?

The Hebrew verb chata’, “to sin,” like the Greek word hamartia, literally means straying off the path, getting lost, missing the mark. Sin — going off course — can be intentional or unintentional. “You shoot an arrow, but it misses the target” a rabbi friend once explained to me. “Maybe it hits someone’s backside, someone you didn’t even know was there. You didn’t mean it, but it’s a sin. Or maybe you knew he was there — he was what you were aiming at. Then it’s not a matter of poor aim but of hitting his backside intentionally. Now that’s a sin!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

So eroded is our sense of sin that even in confession it often happens that people explain what they did rather than admit they did things that urgently need God’s forgiveness. “When I recently happened to confess about fifty people in a typical Orthodox parish in Pennsylvania,” the Orthodox theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote, “not one admitted to having committed any sin whatsoever!”

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

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

Guilt is not quite the same thing.

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

Max tells More,

“We found out what the hangup was and we are getting ready to condition you out of it.”

“What hangup?”

“Your guilt feelings.”

“I never did see that.”

Max explains that More’s guilt feelings have to do with adulterous sex.

“Are you speaking of my fornication with Lola…?” asks More.

“Fornication,” repeats Max. “You see?”

“See what?”

“That you are saying that lovemaking is not a natural activity, like eating and drinking.”

“No, I didn’t say it wasn’t natural.”

“But sinful and guilt-laden.”

“Not guilt-laden.”

“Then sinful?”

“Only between persons not married to each other.”

“I am trying to see it as you see it.”

“I know you are.”

“If it is sinful, why are you doing it?”

“It is a great pleasure.”

“I understand. Then, since it is ‘sinful,’ guilt feelings follow even though it is a pleasure.”

“No, they don’t follow.”

“Then what worries you, if you don’t feel guilty?”

“That’s what worries me: not feeling guilty.”

“Why does that worry you?”

“Because if I felt guilty, I could get rid of it.”


“By the sacrament of penance.”

“I’m trying to see it as you see it.”

“I know you are.”

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

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

Yet there are forms of guilt that are dead-end streets. If I feel guilty that I have not managed to become the ideal person I occasionally want to be, or that I imagine others want me to be, then it is guilt that has no divine reference point. It is simply me contemplating me with the eye of an irritated theater critic. Christianity is not centered on performance, laws, principles, or the achievement of flawless behavior, but on Christ himself and participation in God’s transforming love.

When Christ says, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48), he is speaking not about the perfection of a student always obtaining the highest test scores or a child who manages not to step on any of the sidewalk’s cracks, but of being whole, being in a state of communion, participating in God’s love.

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

A blessed guilt is the pain we feel when we realize we have cut ourselves off from that divine communion that radiates all creation. It is impossible not to stand on what Thomas Merton called “the hidden ground of love” but easy not to be aware of the hidden ground of love or even to resent it.

Like Dr. Thomas More, we may find ourselves hardly able to experience the guilt we know intellectually that we ought to feel not only for what we did, or failed to do, but for having fallen out of communion with God.

“Guilt,” comments my Romanian friend Ioana Novac, “is a sense of fearful responsibility after realizing we have taken the wrong step and behold its painful consequences. In my experience, unfortunately not many people can tolerate this insight. My hunch is that many people these days experience less and less love, less and less strengthening support from their families and communities. As life gets more harried and we become more afflicted, the burden of guilt increases while our courage to embrace repentance — to look ourselves straight in the mirror and face the destructive consequences of our blindness and wrong choices — decreases.”

It’s a common delusion that one’s sins are private or affect only a few other people. To think our sins, however hidden, don’t affect others is like imagining that a stone thrown into the water won’t generate ripples. As Bishop Kallistos Ware observed:

There are no entirely private sins. All sins are sins against my neighbor, as well as against God and against myself. Even my most secret thoughts are, in fact, making it more difficult for those around me to follow Christ. (1)

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

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

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

Again he contemplates his neighborhood:

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

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

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

Far from being hidden, each sin is another crack in the world.

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

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

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

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

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

Repentance, on the other hand, is the recognition that I cannot live any more as I have been living, because in living that way I wall myself apart from others and from God. Repentance is a change in direction. Repentance is the door of communion. It is also a sine qua non of forgiveness. In the words of Fr. Alexander Schmemann, “There can be no absolution where there is no repentance.” (2)

As St. John Chrysostom said sixteen centuries ago in Antioch:

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

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This is an extract from Jim Forest’s book, Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness (Orbis).

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1. Bishop Kallistos Ware, in a talk “Approaching Christ the Physician: The True Meaning of Confession and Anointing” at an Orthodox Peace Fellowship retreat in Vézelay, France, in April 1999; the full text is posted at on the web.

2. Fr. Alexander Schmemann, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, vol. 5, no. 3 (Fall 1961): 38-44; also posted on the web —

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The Way of the Pilgrim

[a talk given at the Center for Spiritual Development in Orange, California, on 18 October 2008; parts of the text are adapted from “The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life”]

by Jim Forest

Walker Percy, in his novel, The Moviegoer, made the comment, “The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life…. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”

There is a great deal of information in those few words about being a pilgrim. Not to be on a search is not to be a pilgrim. What keeps us from living a life of pilgrimage is the problem of “everydayness” — the sense of being trapped on a mobius strip of days that seem as interchangeable as fast-food restaurants.

To be a pilgrim is who we become when we step off the mobius strip. Most of us are pilgrims at least some of the time. Thomas Merton noted about his trip to Cuba in 1940, the year before he became a monk, that he had been ninety percent tourist, ten percent pilgrim. I can identify with those numbers.

Occasionally we step off — or are pulled off — the conveyor belt of everydayness into a pilgrim state of mind. At least for a short time, we actually see what’s around us with an almost mystical intensity, or become hyper-aware of some small detail of the world that we had previously glanced at a thousand times without really seeing it, and we find ourselves amazed, as if we had been struck by lightning.

We all have these moments, and when we have them we suddenly realize they happen too rarely and wish they were not so few and far between. All too soon, we find ourselves back on the conveyor belt of everydayness — a depressing state to be in, one that can bring on despair.

To be a pilgrim, to be someone who is trying as much as possible to be onto something, is not just a good idea but is even a matter of life and death. Not to be onto something, not to be a pilgrim, means to be more than half in the tomb. It’s a problem Jesus spoke of — eyes that don’t see, ears that don’t hear.

Anyone can be a pilgrim. It’s a potentiality that goes back as far as Adam and Eve. Being a pilgrim requires no particular religious identity — it’s absolutely ecumenical. Christianity is not the only religion with a pilgrimage tradition. Thanks mainly to St. Paul, there is a Christian theology of pilgrimage.

Paul put it this way in his letters to the Hebrews:

[Our spiritual ancestors, beginning with Abraham and Sarah] all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city. (Hebrews 11:13-16)

St. Paul was definitely onto something. Following his encounter with Christ while on the road to Damascus, everydayness does not seem to have been a problem for Paul.

Even if we live the most stationary of lives, we can desire and actively seek what Paul calls “a better country.” This is what it means to be “in the world but not of it.” We are definitely here, living every minute of our life in this world, doing our best to make it better, but all the while attempting to make choices that are shaped not by nationalism or ideology, but by the reality of the kingdom of God, of which occasionally we get glimpses as we go about our daily lives.

These glimpses can come at the most unlikely moments. For example, consider a very important moment on the life of Thomas Merton. It happened suddenly and at a prosaic location, not at the monastery with all its reminders of the kingdom of God, but while he was on an errand that brought him to Louisville where he found himself standing at a busy intersection waiting for the light to change.

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream….

This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud…. It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake….

There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun…. There are no strangers! … If only we could see each other [as we really are] all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…. I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other….

At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.

I have no program for this seeing. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.” [Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p. 141-142]

You don’t have to be a contemplative monk who has spent years in a monastery for something like this to happen to you. My guess is that such events are common and that each of us can look back at moments in our lives when suddenly the lights snapped on and we found ourselves in an intensely wide awake, astonished condition, a million light years from everydayness. In these moments, we are a hundred percent pilgrim.

When we hear the word pilgrimage, perhaps we think of Chaucer’s story-telling pilgrims making their unhurried way on horseback from London to Canterbury, or perhaps we think of all those people down through the centuries who have made their way, usually on foot, to places like Jerusalem and Santiago de Compostela.

One of the advantages of that kind of step-by-step pilgrimage from here to a far-off place is that whoever sets off on such a journey quite literally become a stranger to those he meets along the way. Every day the pilgrim is seeing and hearing things he has never seen or heard before. This makes it more likely for the pilgrim to be in a high state of alertness. Freed from many ordinary chores and having access to many hours of quiet time while walking, meditation and contemplation come easier. Traveling an unfamiliar route is a way of living in a state of surprise and openness.

The harder challenge for anyone attempting to be a pilgrim while going nowhere special — on your way to work or to the supermarket, or stuck in traffic, or standing at a street corner waiting for the light to change — is to see and hear all that is familiar with a similar alertness.

One of the most important pilgrimage routes has nothing to with travel to distant places, but simply with seeing faces more attentively.

My wife and I know a nun who lives in Chicago, Sister Mary Evelyn Jegen. As she never got a driver’s license, she travels on public buses back and forth from her convent to the university where she teaches. City buses have become for her both a means of pilgrimage and a school of prayer. At the heart of her spiritual practice is the awareness that each person, without exception, is a bearer of the image of God and that this image is most visible in faces.

Her approach is discrete. She respects the privacy of the people she travels with. Being careful not to make anyone uncomfortable by staring, she briefly glances at a face, holding the image while trying to be sensitive to whatever that face reveals — happiness, boredom, anxiety, fear, anger, love, irritation, impatience, confusion, depression, despair — all the while praying for that person. She often uses a simple variation of the Jesus Prayer. Instead of the usual form of the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner, “she says, ”“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy [on him, on her, on the woman in the blue blouse, on the man who is so upset, etc].”

“It’s amazing how much faces on buses reveal,” she says.

She calls her way of looking at others “benevolent glancing,” a phrase she first encountered in a press account of Pope John Paul’s meeting with the Buddhist Patriarch in Thailand. The first part of their encounter, it was reported, was an extended period of silence during which the two men “exchanged benevolent glances.”

One of the most challenging of pilgrimage routes is right in your own house — the pilgrimage to the front door.

I became aware of this one morning when Nancy and I were having breakfast. She asked, “What’s the most important thing in the house?” I mentioned several of our hand-painted icons, certain treasured books, and works of art that hang on our walls. “That’s not it,” Nancy said. “The most important thing is the front door. The front door is the place where whoever knocks is made welcome or kept distant. The front door is directly connected to the Last Judgment.”

There is no pilgrim who wouldn’t agree. Just as important as setting out on a journey is finding open doors and welcoming faces along the way. For the traditional hotel-avoiding pilgrim following the route to Santiago de Compostela, without its many hospices along the way, few would be able walk those paths, least of all those with little money. Hundreds of volunteers staff the hospices, providing meals, bandaging blisters, giving advice, telling stories and listening to them.

Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, founders of the Catholic Worker movement, urged every Christian family to have a Christ Room — a place in the home for at least one guest. As they pointed out again and again, Christ is hidden in the stranger — don’t turn Christ away from your home. The Greeks have a word for the spiritual force behind such hospitality: xenophilia, literally love of the outsider, the foreigner, the stranger, the pilgrim.

The pilgrimage to the front door can be hard or easy. We’ve had countless guests in our home over the years. The vast majority have been people we were happy to welcome and sorry to see leave, but not all.

We’re now engaged in a different sort of hospitality, taking care of an elderly person. This can be at the tougher end of the spectrum. For the past 18 months, since the death of my brother-in-law, our principal guest has been Nancy’s mother, age 91.

Hard or easy, hospitality is at the center of life. Each of us depends on the care of others, especially care that is given freely — care that expresses love. Where would I be in life had it not been for the hospitality and loving care of others: parents, teachers, friends, co-workers, nuns, clergy, doctors and nurses, and also strangers?

In some countries, hospitality is a deeply embedded tradition. In a memoir of her pilgrimage from atheism to baptism, Tatiana Goricheva, a philosophy student who was then doing graduate studies in Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was called in the Soviet era, relates a story of going on pilgrimage to the village of Pechory to visit one of the very few living monasteries that still survived in the Soviet Union. “Where will I stay?” she asked friends. “There are no hotels.” “All you need to do is knock on any door and say, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’.” To Tatiana’s amazement, it worked. The response of the person answering the first door she knocked on was, “Amen!” She immediately became a most welcome guest. It was a significant moment on her journey to Christian belief.

As a model of hospitality, I think of a nun who gave me a ride from Louisville to Lexington when I was in Kentucky to give a few lectures and whose attitude about being on the road was certainly that of a person on pilgrimage. I no longer remember her name, but I will never forget the spirit of welcome that she radiated or her old, battered car. It would have been worth little at a used-car lot, but in her care it had become a house of hospitality on wheels.

As we drove along the highway, the glove compartment door in front of me kept popping open. I closed it repeatedly, each time noticing a pile of maps inside and also a book. At last the text on the spine of the book caught my eye: “Guests.” I pulled it out, discovering page after page of signatures, most of them giving the impression that the person signing was barely literate. Some were in shaky block letters.

“What is this?” I asked.

“Oh that’s my guest book.”

“But why keep it in the car?”

“Well, of course, I always pick up hitchhikers, so I need a guest book.”

I was astonished. Though I had been a hitchhiker myself back in my late teens and early twenties, I knew picking up hitchhikers was not without risks, all the more so for women.

“But isn’t that dangerous?” I asked.

“Well, I’ve had many guests sitting where you are now, most of them men, and I never felt I was in danger.”

She went on to explain that when she pulled over to offer a ride, she immediately introduced herself by name, and then asked, “And what’s your name?”

The exchange of names, she explained, was a crucial first step in hospitality and one likely to make for safety. “Once two people entrust their names to each other,” she explained, “there is a personal relationship.”

Her next step was to ask the guest to put his name in writing: “I would be grateful if you would sign my guest book.”

She didn’t have to explain to me that few of the people she had given rides to had ever been regarded as anyone’s guests, and fewer still had ever been invited to sign anyone’s guest book.

“I’ve met many fine people,” she told me, “people who have been a blessing to me. I never had any troubles, though you could see that most of them had lived a hard life.”

She had come to no harm, and there was also the factor of her nun’s habit, but it need hardly be said that pilgrimage as way a life involves risks. Countless pilgrims who went for long journeys to holy places died along the way, some from illness, some from violence, some from the rigors of old age.

There is, of course, the pilgrimage of dying.

If you ever have walked any of the great pilgrimage routes, perhaps you became aware that they are very long, very thin cemeteries. Over the centuries, hundreds of thousands of people have died along these paths. In earlier times when people set off on pilgrimage, the farewells didn’t hide the possibility that the pilgrim would not live to return.

On the topic of dying, I often think of a meeting in the early seventies that my friend Mel Hollander had with the Jesuit priest and poet, Dan Berrigan. In that first encounter with Mel, Dan immediately noticed Mel’s unhealthy skin color and sunken, dark-shadowed eyes. Clearly something was seriously amiss. Not bothering with the polite nothings that people so often exchange, Dan’s first words to Mel were, “What’s the matter?” Deciding to respond with the same directness, Mel said, “I’m dying of cancer.” To which Dan replied, without hesitation or embarrassment, and just as briefly, “That must be very exciting.”

Mel later told me how Dan’s few words instantly cleared the dark sky he had been living under since he had been told he had an untreatable cancer and had not more than six months to live. What had until then been a joyless journey on a short road to the grave suddenly was transformed into the most engaging pilgrimage of his life. (As it happened, against all medical expectations, Mel’s cancer went into prolonged remission. Mel lived on for some years. He did in fact die young, not of cancer but of smoke inhalation caused by fire.)

Sometimes we don’t journey to death — death journeys to us.

In my own family, my stepmother Carla made what I would call a daily pilgrimage to a center in San Francisco that was set up to help people struggling with alcoholism and other addictions. Caring and patient person that Carla was, she was just the right person for the work she was doing. Waiting for a bus to return home after work late one afternoon in 1968, someone with a gun in a passing car took aim at her and she died as a consequence. It’s a sort of crime Americans have become all too familiar with. Who shot her? Why did he do so? I have no idea. But I think of it as a pilgrim’s death. She was a pilgrim whose life centered on the works of mercy. She chose to work in a neighborhood that had more than its share of violence. She wouldn’t have given up what she was doing in order to live in greater safety.

None of us know when or where or how we are going to die, but what a sad life one would live if our choices were governed by an effort to be as safe as possible. What Walker Percy called “the search” would be out of the question. Instead we would be suffering chronic everydayness.

Being safe is impossible anyway. Assuming we find ways to avoid all the people we think might pose a danger, and assuming we manage to avoid wars, riots, fires, auto accidents, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornados, explosions, etc., we have a pretty good chance of eventually being seriously ill and at some point terminally ill.

One of the main pilgrimage routes in my life these past five years has been the pilgrimage of illness.

Back in 2003 routine blood tests that had been arranged by our family doctor revealed that my kidneys were failing. Following further tests at the local hospital, an internist, Dr. Bax, told me that I might have six months or so before needing to begin dialysis. “We will be seeing a great deal of each other,” he told me, “for the foreseeable future.”

Dialysis was a word that I knew nothing about. I quickly learned that it was an alternate method of filtering the blood when kidney function has either dropped below a minimal level or the kidneys have altogether stopped working. Without such an alternate method of getting rid of the wastes that ordinarily are filtered out by the kidneys, kidney failure is a death sentence. In every cemetery there are the tombstones of those who died because their kidneys gave out. Even since the development of dialysis in the latter half of the twentieth century, many such deaths still occur.

Things moved more slowly than the doctor had estimated — six months became a year, one year became two. During those two years there had been many prayers, from me and from others, that I might be healed. While not expecting a miracle, I was definitely not opposed to one. Meanwhile I did everything my wife and I plus our friends could think of to stave off dialysis. But at last the day came when the doctor, having reviewed the blood test of the previous day, said dialysis would have to begin tomorrow.

Ironically, while feeling sorry for myself, I was at work writing a book on pilgrimage — The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life. How funny! I had been writing about pilgrimage without being aware that the situation I so desperately wanted to avoid and whose demands on me I so deeply resented and resisted could do more for me than walking in prayer to Jerusalem.

Sickness is time-consuming; it stops you in your tracks. It’s an opportunity to learn a great deal and to do a lot of growing.

The pilgrimage of illness made me more conscious than ever before of a basic reality in everyone’s life: our profound dependence on the care of others. Raised as I was in a culture which prizes individuality and independence, I was reluctant to realize just how much I relied on others, though actually there had never been a day of my life when this wasn’t the case. I started that dependence the instant I was conceived and it will continue without interruption until I draw my last breath. I depend on others for love, for encouragement, for inspiration, for food. I depend on others for the words and gestures that make communication possible. I have others to thank for all the skills I acquired while growing up. Whatever wisdom I have is largely borrowed from others. Sickness makes it all but impossible to nourish the illusion of being autonomous and a having a right to whatever good things might come my way.

There is an easily memorized short summary of the Gospel. It’s called the Beatitudes — ten short sentences placed at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. The verses form a kind of ladder. Illness almost automatically puts you on the first rung of the ladder of the Beatitudes: poverty of spirit.

When everything seems to come easily, as if by right, the phrase “thank you” may not always reflect a deeply felt attitude. Being sick changes that. Gratitude rises from the depths of the heart.

In the community of the sick, there aren’t many people unaware how much they depend on the care of others, even if we know only a few of them by name. It’s not only dependence on the doctors and nurses who directly care for us, but all those who have such unheralded tasks as doing laboratory analyses in rooms we never enter or those who quietly keep the hospital clean. I still find it cheering to recall a young Moslem woman, mop in hand, who always gave me the warmest smile when we happened to pass each other in the hallway. Such a radiant face!

Among kidney patients, I’m one of the extremely lucky ones. After two years of dialysis, last October one of my wife’s kidneys made the journey from her body to mine where it has been living happily ever since. I no longer have be at the hospital every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for three-hour sessions of dialysis. I’ll be a hospital patient for life, but my sickness currently involves a lot less of my time. I can do things I couldn’t do not so long ago. I can travel without having to work out medical care along the way. I have more energy. I don’t have to sleep so long at night. I don’t need a daily nap. I can be more productive as a writer. I can do lots of walking and biking. All this is a kind of miracle. I feel a bit like Lazarus pulled out of his tomb. Of course Lazarus will in time get sick and die once again, but he has had a preview of life after death and, as a consequence, has a different take on the gift of life.

It’s not surprising that my appreciation for all the people involved in health care has grown a great deal these last five years. Directly or indirectly, what all these people are doing day after day is trying to keep those of us in their care alive a little longer and, in the case of those we meet face to face, even trying to raise our spirits in the process.

They are professional life-savers, people doing heroic work yet do not consider themselves heroic.They do what they do with the matter-of-factness of a teacher writing 2 + 2 = 4 on a classroom blackboard or a plumber unclogging a stopped-up sink. Yes, there are those for whom health work seems to be nothing more than a job, and not one they especially like doing or have a talent for. But my experience suggests that they are the exception rather than the rule. However, much depends on the esprit de corps of the hospital or clinic in which they work.

It’s not only the professional care-givers who make a hospital holy ground, but also those who visit the sick. Though the regulations in most hospitals attempt to restrict visits to predetermined hours that pose the least inconvenience for staff, in practice visitors arrive and depart throughout the day and, in many hospitals, are only told to come back later if their timing is especially bad. Typically they arrive carrying flowers, though some bring books, magazines, chocolates, juice, balloons, music or all sorts of other things they hope will communicate their love and give the patient a little extra energy for coping with illness.

It’s holy work, and often done despite a temptation not to be there. Hospitals, after all, are places exploding with reminders about human mortality. The most death-denying person knows that every day there are people breathing their last under this very roof. Though hospitals are not the healthiest places to be, crowds of people each day manage to overcome their hesitations, even their fears, and cross the border. After all, it’s not easy to communicate the bond of love while physically avoiding the person you love. Greeting cards and phone calls aren’t bad, but they can never equal the reality of being there.

On the pilgrimage of illness, I came to appreciate better what a healing work it is to visit the sick — as crucial and powerful an action as what the doctors and nurses are doing. There is nothing more healing than love. Love can be expressed far more openly by the visitor than the health-care professional. Whether visitors sit silently or talk non-stop, they manifest how much the sick person they are visiting matters to them. Whoever visits the sick is a pilgrim, for they are meeting not only someone familiar but Christ as well. It was he who said, “I was sick and you visited me.”

Perhaps I’ve said enough. If we are tired of being in a state of everydayness, if we are drawn to the search, clearly we are on pilgrimage.

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text as of October 19, 2008
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The Way of the Holy Fools

St Basil the Blessed, Holy Fool of Moscow

[a talk given at the Center for Spiritual Development in Orange, California, 18 October 2008]

by Jim Forest

In the Beatitudes, Jesus blessed the pure of heart, but — let’s be frank — this is now out of date. But what can one expect of so old a book? Jesus didn’t even use e-mail. What Jesus should have said is, “Blessed are the clever of mind. Blessed are the smart.” This would suit us much better. The heart has gone down in the world while the brain has ascended.

The result of this shift is that few taunts are sharper than those which call into question someone’s intelligence and still more his sanity: “He’s crazy. He’s a fool. He’s an idiot. He’s out of touch. He’s missing a few nuts and bolts. He isn’t playing with a full deck. There are some bulbs missing in the marquee. There are bats in his belfry.”

Yet there are saints whose acts of witness to the Gospel fly in the face of what most of us regard as sanity. The Russian Church has a special word for such saints, yurodivi, meaning holy fools or, as it’s sometimes put, Fools for Christ’s sake. These are wild souls whose odd behavior many people would regard as madness.

In Leo Tolstoy’s memoir of his childhood, he fondly recalls Grisha, a holy fool who sometimes wandered about his parent’s estate and even came into the mansion itself without knocking on the door. “He gave little icons to those he took a fancy to,” Tolstoy remembered.

Among the local gentry, some regarded Grisha as a pure soul whose presence was a blessing. Others, including Tolstoy’s father, dismissed Grisha as a lazy peasant. “I will only say one thing,” Tolstoy’s mother said at table one night, opposing her husband’s view that Grisha should be put in prison. “It is hard to believe that a man, though he is sixty, goes barefoot summer and winter and always under his clothes wears chains weighing seventy pounds, and who has more than once declined a comfortable life …. It is hard to believe that such a man does all this merely because he is lazy.”

We meet two other holy fools in Dostoevsky’s novel, Crime and Punishment.

First there is Lizaveta, one of the women murdered by Raskolnikov. Lizaveta is a simple-minded young woman who has an absolutely pure soul. She regards no one with enmity and is loved by many.

What a contrast she is to Raskolnikov, who kills Lizaveta simply because she has the misfortune to witness his murder of a money-lender. Raskolnikov is a bitter young scholar who has lost his Christian faith. The name Dostoevsky assigned to his anti-hero is based on the Russian verb meaning “to cut off” or “slice,” as in cutting a slice from a loaf of bread. Raskolnikov’s name suggests that he is a person cut off from the whole, a man who has broken communion with others. He has convinced himself that certain people — the clever, the brilliant, the born leaders — are not subject to the same pedestrian moral code imposed on ordinary people. For such people, for someone like himself, good can be achieved through evil means.

Dostoevsky’s other holy fool is Sonya, ultimately Raskolnikov’s rescuer, who has been pressed into prostitution for the sake of her impoverished family. Sonya is the novel’s heroine.

“Were you friends with Lizaveta?” Raskolnikov asks Sonya. “Yes,” she responds. “She and I used to read and talk. She will see God.”

Dostoevsky comments: “How strange these bookish words sounded to [Raskolnikov]; and here was another new thing: [Sonya’s] mysterious get-togethers with Lizaveta — two holy fools.”

“One might well become a holy fool oneself here,” exclaims Raskolnikov. “It’s catching!” [The translation is from Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation.]

Grisha, Lizaveta and Sonya represent the rank-and-file of Russia’s yurodivi. Few such men and women are canonized, just as few of the saints we happen to meet in life are canonized, but nonetheless they inspire and even give new direction to many of those around them. In their unconventional ways of life, they are surprising reminders of God’s presence.

While there is great variety among them, holy fools in every case are ascetic Christians living well outside the borders of ordinary social behavior, including conventional religious behavior. They are people who in many countries would be locked away in asylums or simply ignored until the elements silenced them, after which they would be thrown into unmarked graves.

While this type of saint is chiefly associated with Eastern Christianity, the Western Church also has an impressive supply of holy fools, even if it rarely applies to them a label suggesting foolishness.

St Francis of Assisi
St. Francis of Assisi is chief among the holy fools of the west. Think of him stripping off his clothes and standing naked before the bishop in Assisi’s main square, or preaching to birds, or taming a wolf, or during the Crusades walking unarmed across the Egyptian desert into the Sultan’s camp where he had every reason to expect his own death. What at first may seem like charming scenes, when placed on the rough surface of actual life, become mad moments indeed.

The most famous of Russia’s holy fools was a Muscovite, St. Basil the Blessed, after whom the colorful cathedral on Red Square takes its name. In an ancient icon housed in that church, Basil is shown clothed only in a lengthy beard. In the background is the Kremlin’s Savior Tower. Basil’s hands are raised in prayer toward a small image of Jesus revealed in an opening in the sky. Basil the holy fool has a meek quality but also a single-minded, intelligent face.

It is hard to find the actual man beneath the thicket of tales and legends that grew up around his memory, but according to tradition Basil was clairvoyant from an early age. Thus, while a cobbler’s apprentice, he both laughed and wept when a certain merchant ordered a pair of boots, for Basil saw that the man would be wearing a coffin before his new boots were ready. We can imagine that the merchant was not amused at the boy’s behavior. Soon after — perhaps having been fired by the cobbler — Basil became a vagrant. Dressing as if for the Garden of Eden, Basil’s survival of many bitter Russian winters must be reckoned among the miracles associated with his life.

A man either naked, or nearly naked, wandering the streets — it isn’t surprising that he became famous in the capital city. Especially for the wealthy, Basil was not a comfort either to eye or ear. In the eyes of some, he was a trouble-maker. There are tales of him destroying the merchandise of dishonest tradesmen at the street market that used to fill Red Square. At times he hurled stones at the houses of the wealthy — yet, as if reverencing icons, he sometimes kissed the stones on the outside of houses in which evil had been committed, as if to say that no matter what happens within these walls, there is still hope of repentance and conversion.

Basil, a contemporary of Tsar Ivan the Terrible, was one of the few who dared warn the tsar that his violent deeds were dooming him to hell. According to one story, in the midst of Lent, when Russians keep a rigorous vegetarian fast, Basil presented the tsar with a slab of raw beef, telling him that there was no reason in his case not to eat meat. “Why abstain from meat,” asked Basil, “when you murder men?”

Ivan, whose irritated glance was a death sentence to others, is said to have lived in dread of Basil. He would allow no harm to be done to him and occasionally even sent gifts to the naked prophet of the streets, but Basil kept none of these for himself. Most that he received he gave to beggars, though in one surprising instance a gift of gold from the tsar was passed on to a merchant, a man others imagined was well off, but whom Basil knew had been ruined and was actually starving while maintaining a facade of wealth. Once Basil poured vodka on the street, another royal gift. He wanted, he said, to put out the fires of sin.

Basil was so revered by Muscovites that, when he died, his thin body was buried, not in a pauper’s grave on the city’s edge, but next to the newly erected Cathedral of the Protection of the Mother of God. From that time people began calling the church St. Basil’s, for to go there meant one would pause to pray at Basil’s grave. Not many years passed before Basil was formally canonized by the Russian Church. A chapel built over his grave became an integral part of the great building, adding one more onion dome to the eight already there.

Another Fool for Christ was the heir to Ivan the Terrible’s imperial throne, Tsar Theodore. Regarded by Western diplomats of the time as a weakling and idiot, Theodore was adored by the Russian people. Brought up in an environment of brutality, reviled by his father, regarded with scorn by courtiers, he became a man of simplicity, prayer, and quiet devotion to his wife. Much of his time was spent in church. It is said that throughout his fourteen years as tsar he never lost his playfulness or love of beauty. He sometimes woke the people of Moscow in the hours before dawn by sounding the great bells of the Kremlin, a summons to prayer. “He was small of stature,” according to a contemporary account, “and bore the marks of fasting. He was humble, given to the things of the soul, constant in prayer, liberal in alms. He did not care for the things of this world, only for the salvation of the soul.”

“This simpleton robed in gorgeous vestments,” Nicholas Zernov observed in The Russians and their Church, “was determined that bloodshed, cruelty and oppression must be stopped, and it was stopped as long as he occupied the throne of his ancestors.”

St Xenia of Petersburg, Holy Fool for Christ

In the summer of 1988, I was present at a Council of the Church in Russia for the canonization at the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra north of Moscow of someone very like Basil and Theodore: Xenia of St. Petersburg.


Early in her long life Xenia had been married to an army colonel who drank himself to death and who may have been an abusive, violent husband. Soon after his funeral, she began giving away the family fortune to the poor, a simple act of obedience to Christ’s teaching: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you have and give it to the poor … and come, follow me.” In order to prevent Xenia from impoverishing herself, relatives sought to have her declared insane. However the doctor who examined her concluded Xenia was the sanest person he had ever met.

Having given away her wealth, for some years Xenia disappeared, becoming one of Russia’s many pilgrims walking from shrine to shrine while reciting the Jesus Prayer. Somewhere along the way during those hidden years, she became a Fool for Christ. When Xenia finally returned to St. Petersburg, she was wearing the threadbare remnants of her late husband’s military uniform — often shown in icons of her — and would answer only to his name, not her own. One can only guess her motives. In taking upon herself his name and clothing, she may have been attempting to do penance for his sins. Her home became the Smolensk Cemetery on the city’s edge where she slept rough year-round and where finally she was buried.

Xenia became known for her clairvoyant gift of telling people what to expect and what they should do. She might say to a certain person she singled out, “Go home and make blini [Russian pancakes].” As blini are served after funerals, the person she addressed would understand that a member of the family would soon die.

She never begged. Money was given to her but she kept only an occasional kopek for herself; everything else was passed on to others.

When she died, age seventy-one, at the end of the 18th century, her grave became a place of pilgrimage and remained so even through the Soviet period, though for several decades the political authorities closed the chapel over her grave site. The official canonization of this Fool for Christ and the re-opening of the chapel were vivid gestures in the Gorbachev years that the war against religion was truly over in Russia.

Why does the Church occasionally canonize people whose lives are not only completely at odds with civil society but who often barely fit ecclesiastical society either?

The answer must be that holy fools dramatize something about God that most Christians find embarrassing but which we vaguely recognize is crucial information.

Perhaps there is a sense in which each and every saint, even those who were scholars and whom we might regard as paragons of sanity, would be regarded as foolish, if not insane, by many in the modern world because of their devotion to a way of life that is completely senseless if viewed apart from the Gospel. Most saints embrace poverty. None are careerists. Every saint is troubling. Every saint reveals some of our fears and makes us question our fear-driven choices.

It is the special vocation of holy fools to live out, in a rough, literal, breath-taking way, the “hard sayings” of Jesus. Like the Son of Man, they often have no place to lay their heads, and, again like him, they live with empty pockets (thus Jesus, in responding to a question about paying taxes, had no coin of his own with which to display Caesar’s image; he had to borrow a coin from the man asking the question).

While never harming anyone, many holy fools raise their voices against those who lie and cheat and do violence to others, but at the same time they are always ready to embrace these same greedy and ruthless people. They take everyone seriously. In their eyes, absolutely no one is unimportant. In fact, the only thing always important for them, apart from God, are the people around them, whoever they are, no matter how limited or damaged they may be. Their dramatic gestures, however shocking, always have to do with revealing the person of Christ and his mercy.

For most people, clothing serves as a message of how high they have risen and how secure — or insecure — they are. holy fools wear the wrong clothes, or rags, or perhaps nothing at all. This is a witness that they have nothing to lose. There is nothing to cling to and nothing for anyone to steal. The Fool for Christ, says Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, “has no possessions, no family, no position, and so can speak with a prophetic boldness. He cannot be exploited, for he has no ambition; and he fears God alone.”

The rag-dressed (or sometimes undressed) holy fool resembles Issa, the wandering Japanese poet who lived 200 years ago. Issa enjoyed possessing only what could not be taken away. In one tiny poem. He declares:

The thief left it behind
The moon in the window.

You can strip a house bare, right down to the wallpaper, even burn it to the ground, but the cosmos remains.

Inevitably, the voluntary destitution and absolute vulnerability of the holy fool challenges us with our locks and keys and schemes to outwit destitution, suffering and death.

While some holy fools may be people of lesser intelligence, this is the exception rather than the rule. Some were regarded as quite brilliant in their earlier life, but were led to wear the disguise of foolishness as a way of overcoming pride and a need for recognition of intellectual gifts or spiritual attainments.

A noted scholar of Russian spirituality, George Fedotov, pointed out that for all who seek mystical heights by following the traditional path of rigorous self-denial, there is always the problem of vainglory, “a great danger for monastic asceticism.” For such people a feigned madness, provoking from many others contempt or vilification, saves them from something worse: being honored.

One thinks of Dorothy Day’s famous comment: “Don’t call me a saint — I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” Nothing made her more uncomfortable than recognition.

Clearly, holy fools challenge an understanding of Christianity, more typical in Western than Eastern Christianity, that gives the intellectually gifted people a head start not only in economic efforts but spiritual life. But the Gospel and sacramental life aren’t just for smart people. At the Last Judgment we will not be asked how clever we were, or how highly regarded and successful, but how merciful. Our academic ability won’t save us.

It is revealing to note that, in Western Christianity, the idea gradually took hold that participation in eucharistic life presupposed having reached “the age of reason” and the communicant had the ability to understand and explain his or her faith. I would guess this practice goes back at least to the Reformation. Thus in the West children below “the age of reason” — seven or eight years old — have long been barred from receiving communion. It is quite the opposite in the Orthodox Church, where, following baptism, the younger the child, the closer he or she is to the front of the communion line. (From an Orthodox Christian point of view, it is far from certain that anyone, even the most brilliant, ever reaches the age when the primary mysteries of existence can be understood or explained. In the Orthodox Church, the sacraments are referred to as the Mysteries.)

In their outlandish behavior, holy fools pose a question each of us needs to consider: Are we keeping heaven at a distance by clinging to the good regard of others and what those around us regard as “sanity”?

What is generally regarded as sanity may have little or nothing to do with holiness. The psychiatrists who examined Adolph Eichmann, the chief administrator of Hitler’s extermination camps, was found to be “perfectly sane.” This led Thomas Merton to write an essay in which he made this comment:

The sanity of Eichmann is disturbing. We equate sanity with a sense of justice, with humaneness, with prudence, with the capacity to love and understand other people. We rely on the sane people of the world to preserve it from barbarism, madness, destruction. And now it begins to dawn on us that it is precisely the sane ones who are the most dangerous. It is the sane ones, the well-adapted ones, who can without qualms and without nausea aim the missiles and press the buttons that will initiate the great festival of destruction that they, the sane ones, have prepared…. No one suspects the sane, and the sane ones will have perfectly good reasons, logical, well-adjusted reasons, for firing the shot. They will be obeying sane orders that have come sanely down the chain of command.” [Raids on the Unspeakable (New York: New Directions, 1966), pp 45-53.]

Surely the same psychiatrists who interviewed Eichmann would have found St. Basil the Blessed, St. Xenia of Petersburg and St. Francis all insane. And what would they conclude about that most revered of all mad men, Jesus of Nazareth, who foolishly went to Jerusalem well aware that, as surely as apples fall to the ground, he would be led to the cross and die one of Rome’s most painful and humiliating deaths?

The holy fools shout out with their mad words and deeds that to seek God is not necessarily the same thing as to seek sanity.

We need to think more critically about sanity, a word most of us cling to with a steel grip. I am not recommending any of us should embrace madness, but I do ask the question whether fear of being regarded by others as less than sensible confines me in a cage of “responsible” behavior that limits my freedom and cripples my ability to love?

Henry David Thoreau was by no means the most conventional man of his time. There must have been those who questioned his sanity. He lost a teaching job because of his refusal to whip disobedient children. One of his gestures, an act of protest against the Mexican-American War, was to spend a night in jail for refusing to pay a tax. For two years he lived alone in a tiny cabin next to Walden Pond. How astonished Thoreau would be to discover that his face eventually landed on a U.S. postage stamp! He lamented on his death bed, “What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?”

Thoreau would have felt a bond with holy fools, those men and women who remind us of a deeper sanity that is sometimes hidden beneath apparent lunacy: the treasure of a God-centered life.

Holy fools like St. Basil, St. Xenia and St. Francis are God-obsessed people who throw into the bonfire anything that gets in the way or leads them down blind alleys.

But where does their path actually lead them? It is easier to say where they are not headed and what they are not taking with them than to describe where they are going. One can use a phrase like “the kingdom of God.” but this reveals no more about what it is to live in the Holy Spirit than a dictionary entry on oranges reveals about the taste of an orange.

Still there is the question: Were at least some of the holy fools, after all, not crazy? The answer must be maybe so. While the Fools for Christ who have been canonized are regarded by the Church as having worn madness as a mask, in fact no one knows how much a mask it really was, only that Christ shone brightly through their lives.

For most Russian people, as the scholar Fedotov pointed out, “the difficulty [confronting many others] does not exist. Sincere [lunacy] or feigned, a madman with religious charisma … is always a saint, perhaps the most beloved saint in Russia.”

As Paul wrote to the newly-founded church in Corinth: “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound those who are mighty.” (1 Cor 1:27)

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This text is an expanded version of a chapter in Jim Forest’s book, Praying with Icons (Orbis).

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Jim Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands
e-mail: jhforest /at/
Jim & Nancy Forest web site:
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A Pilgrimage in Peacemaking

[draft of a lecture to be given in California in October 2008]

by Jim Forest

Having given too many sermon-like talks on peace and peacemaking, let me try something a little different. I’d like to share some stories about war and peace rooted in my particular life — my own pilgrimage of peacemaking. My purpose is not to put myself in the spotlight but to try to avoid drifting off into clouds of abstraction.

My first recollection of thinking about peace was noticing, when I was ten or eleven years old, about 1951 or ?52, the cancellation mark on one of the rare envelopes addressed to me personally. I think it contained a birthday card. Part of the cancellation mark was a three-word message: “Pray for Peace.” Roughly 57 years later, I’m trying to reconstruct why that invitation to pray for peace so arrested my attention that I still see that envelope in my hands.

No doubt one factor was my mother, a social worker employed at a nearby mental hospital. She followed the news closely and talked about it, on the assumption that kids should be aware of what’s going on in the world. As a result I was aware that something called the Cold War was going on and knew that the Cold War might very well become a hot war. Mother worried about World War III.

But even if my mother had been less informed and not so communicative, there was the fact of all the nuclear weapon tests going on in Nevada. These provided one of the great live television spectacles of the early fifties, reality TV with a vengeance. I was among the millions watching an almost featureless desert — colorless as there was no color television — and then the sudden explosion, the expanding ball of white light, then the cloud bubbling upward, rising high into the sky until the upper tier spread out in a mushroom-like shape.

One test included placing an ordinary house within a few miles of ground zero. We in the TV audience got to watch its instant demolition, wood going suddenly black and erupting with smoke before the hurricane-like blast swept it away. Yet it wasn’t intended as a doomsday program — rather a sort of “best bomb” exhibit to make Americans feel as proud of our weapons technology as of our Fords and Chevrolets.

In at least one test, Operation Bravo, hundreds if not thousands of soldiers were within miles of the explosion, an exercise to prepare the Army for battle conditions in the nuclear era. Many of those soldiers later died of cancer.

After the tests, there were interviews with generals and politicians pleased everything had gone so well. There was also the happy news that bigger and better bombs were in the works.

The Amazing Atom Bomb Show. In those days, no one seemed to be worrying about the radioactive atomic dust that was being carried wherever the winds took it, which, as any meteorologist will tell you, was more or less everywhere. Nor did anyone in those days speak of “downwind victims,” that is all the people and animals who really got fried. It’s disturbing to look at a US map that highlights where thyroid cancer was most prevalent in the fifties and sixties. Hardest-hit were Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa — the downwind states.

Yet, as the fifties began, the tests were an occasion of national pride. The big message was that the US was on top, the richest, freest, most powerful country in the world. I wasn’t immune from national pride. Though my parents were people on the left who viewed nuclear weapons with alarm, I was eager to connect with the mass culture around me rather than with my parent’s minority opinions. No doubt I was reading the times in a child’s totally non-ideological, practical way and saw how the political winds were blowing. When Eisenhower ran for president in 1952, I proudly wore an “I Like Ike” button and, once he was in the White House, sent him a snapshot of me holding a paint-by-numbers Eisenhower portrait that I had made. I was thrilled to get a thank-you letter back — the envelope once again bore the “Pray for Peace” cancellation mark — signed by Ike himself on White House stationery.

“Pray for Peace.” At that age I wasn’t praying for anything except the occasional odd prayer that went something like, “God, if you exist, could you please make yourself a little more obvious?” This may have had to do the fact that both my parents, scandalized with how house-broken and flag-adjusted Christianity had become, regarded themselves as atheists. It wasn’t a view that appealed to me, yet I couldn’t entirely shrug it off.

In 1955, when I was thirteen, Mother took my brother and me to see a major photo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was called “The Family of Man.” It was an amazing array of images. Each photo seemed a revelation of the human mystery — children, the aged, dark skinned and light, naked and clothed, joyful, in grief, praying, playing, dancing, standing still, on battlefields, in city parks, alone, in crowds, dancing, making music, making love, just out the womb, just breathing their last, in classrooms, in cemeteries. Seeing these photos was my first experience of being astonished at being a member of the human race. How pleased I was that mother gave me a book with all the exhibition’s photos. It was my first Bible. There are few books I’ve ever looked at so closely and returned to again and again. A few years ago, my original copy falling to pieces, I was relieved to find a fresh copy in a California book shop.

I could speak at length about many photos included in that exhibition, but one that burned itself into my memory was a child’s face — a boy about three years old. The caption only indicated the place it was taken and the photographer’s name: “Nagasaki, Japan. Yosuke Yamahata.”

It’s an icon-like picture, absolutely still. The boy gazes full-face toward the viewer. He stands erect. No one is holding him. What is it about his stillness? About his emotionless eyes? Only the fact that the photo was taken in Nagasaki and the child’s face has many small scratches and thin lines of dried blood gives away the event outside the image. It’s the face of a child who has survived a nuclear explosion. It is the face of a child who has witnessed a rehearsal for the end of the world. It is a photo of unspeakable desolation mirrored in a child’s eyes.

About the time I saw that photo, the pastor of the Methodist Church and his wife in the town where I lived — Red Bank, New Jersey — took in as long-term guests two young women who were survivors of the nuclear bomb dropped on Nagasaki. American peace groups had brought them and others like them to the United States for plastic surgery and found them temporary homes in and near New York City. It wasn’t an easy kind of hospitality in the fifties, when the word “peace” was regarded by many as a synonym for “Communism” and when most 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 each of the women wore a broad-brimmed hat from which was draped a veil of silk. They could see out but we couldn’t see in.

My mother, who wasn’t a full-time atheist, sometimes took us to services at the Methodist Church. We never missed Easter and Christmas. As a result I saw these two very poised, meek women sitting side-by-side in a pew near the front of the church, their faces hidden behind their silk veils. I couldn’t stop staring. They were a bridge into a nightmarish event on the other side of the world that happened when I was four. Along with the Nagasaki photo I had seen in New York, these two women helped me understand the human cost of war, the effect of nuclear weapons, and the fact that the victims of war are mainly the innocent. The designers of empire, the engineers of war and its generals usually have the privilege of dying of old-age. Some, like Napoleon, are buried in tombs that are architectural celebrations of national honor.

I began to understand that to pray for peace is to pray that such events will not happen again. But is prayer really prayer if it isn’t connected to how we live and the choices we make? Perhaps by then I was old enough to be aware that, while many people said “amen” to prayers for peace, actually to work for peace was extremely controversial. Just to open one’s door to two bomb-damaged women, as the Squire family had done, was a brave action at the time.

That wasn’t all I gained from the witness of the Squire family. Thanks to them, I began to understand that following Christ was not, as it had seemed to me in the past, for the faint-hearted. While in many cases the church in one’s neighborhood might be an association of people dedicated to respectability, there were Christians who actually did adventurous things, actions that revealed the Gospel, a major theme of which is hospitality: “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was naked and you clothed me, I was a stranger and you took me in…”

While I wasn’t drawn to Methodism as such — interest in sermons has never been my strong point — what I saw in that particular Methodist church was certainly a factor in my taking Christianity more seriously. This was true for my mother as well. Not many years later — just after reading Thomas Merton’s autobiography, as it happened — she was fully cured of her atheism and returned to the Methodist Church, becoming one of its pillars in Red Bank. For the rest of her life, she missed services only when she was sick.

Given such events in my childhood, it’s not surprising that concerns about war and peace played a major part in my thoughts as I was growing up.

When I was fourteen, I took part in the regional Science Fair, but what I brought to the exhibition had less to do with science than anxiety. Using plywood, cardboard, plaster, raw bleached cotton and ink spray, I built a foot-high model of a nuclear explosion about 30 seconds after detonation — a fiery mushroom cloud rising vertically from a plywood base on which, using a thin later of plaster, I had painted the destruction at ground level. Attached to all this was a carefully-lettered text explaining what I had learned about how nuclear weapons were made (very little) and what they did (about which I was better informed). My exhibit failed to win a prize, but it was a worthwhile experience building the model and writing the text. The finished work attracted a gratifying amount of attention when it was shown.

Two years passed. I was now living in southern California with my father, step-mother and half-sister and was a student at Hollywood High School.

A good part of my reading in my mid-teens was science fiction. Many books in that genre had to do with what the world might be like for the survivors of nuclear war. It was in some respects grim reading, but such apocalyptic books were thought-provoking. The authors took seriously where the human race was headed. It was a kind of prophetic literature whose authors were trying to bring us to our senses.

Meanwhile I had joined Hollywood High School’s debating society and as a consequence was required to deliver a lecture. The idea of standing up in front of other students plus several teachers to make a speech was daunting.

I ended up writing a lecture with the title, “A Generation in the Shadow,” the shadow being the darkness under a mushroom cloud in which kids my age were standing. I wish I still had the text — it would be interesting to read it again. It might be better than the talk I’m giving today. I’m guessing the main theme was the problem of living in a world in which it wasn’t at all obvious that any of us would die of old age. It seemed unlikely that anyone in my generation would live to be 30.

Such an expectation has consequences. Who wants to paint a house that will be burned down tomorrow? But perhaps by then I had already heard those helpful words of Martin Luther’s: “Even if I knew the world was going to end tomorrow, I would go out an plant apple trees today.” This was a sentence that would have been a good ending, and indeed would have reflected my view that today is the only day available to us and offers the only opportunity we have to shape what happens next.

In 1957, the Beat Generation was suddenly in the press — a generation that had abandoned the social conveyor belt. I found the Beats fascinating. I managed to buy a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl, at that time banned in California, from a newsstand in west Hollywood that did a brisk business in under-the-counter items. Poetry was not its usual trade, but Howl was at the time a hot item. There’s nothing like a book being banned to perk up reader interest! If certainly perked up mine.

In a world daily preparing the means and strategies of destroying itself, Ginsberg was a writer whose howl I could identify with. In fact, as my wife pointed out to me recently while reading Howl, one line was almost prophetic in my case. It’s about a guy “who coughed on the sixth floor of Harlem crowned with flame under the tubercular sky surrounded by orange crates of theology.” While I have yet to be crowned with flame, I was part of a house of hospitality in Harlem, have done my share of coughing, and have had many orange crates of theology.

I look back on that part of my life and am a bit astonished how well I did living under the nuclear shadow, given my sense that World War III was practically inevitable and that few would survive. Russia and the US were frequently testing nuclear weapons and France and Britain had also joined “the nuclear club.”

This was part of the background for my making some unusual choices.

During the Christmas holiday in 1958, soon after my 17th birthday, I dropped out of high school.

Five months later, the spring of 1959, still trying to find out what came next and influenced by posters that read “Join the Navy and See the World,” I joined the Navy. It was not exactly a Beat choice, but the idea of going to sea made me think of books like Moby Dick. After basic training, I was sent to the Navy Weather School for training as a meteorologist. From there, having graduated first in my class, I was sent not to sea, as I had hoped, but to Washington, D.C., where I became part of a small Navy unit at the headquarters of the U.S. Weather Bureau.

Even in the weaponless Weather Bureau, it was not all isobars. World War III proved not to be so far away. In our Navy unit, one of our daily exercises was to plot the fallout pattern at 12-hour intervals for the coming three days should a 20-megaton nuclear weapon explode at noon today over the center of Washington.

But something else was now going on in my life. It had started while I was studying meteorology. It would require a separate talk for me to explain how it came about, so let me instead cut to the headline. I became a Christian. While it was not easy discovering where exactly I fit on the Christian map, a year later, in November 1960, I was received into the Catholic Church.

Being a Christian put everything I had been thinking about in a new light. The subject was no longer only war. It was also peace. Fear, though not banished, was no longer at the center of my life.

One of the big events in 1960 was the finding Dorothy Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness, for sale in a rack of paperback books at my parish church, St. Thomas Apostle. I read it in a day or two.

During time off from work at the Weather Bureau, for several months I spent many hours helping out at a home for children whose parents, for one reason or another, were not able to take care of them. Among my tasks was taking the Catholic kids to Mass on Sunday. The nearest parish was Blessed Sacrament. One of its attractions was the fact that it had, on the ground floor of a house next door, a substantial library. And what library it was! I used it intensively.

Among its many treasures was a stack of back issues of the paper Dorothy Day edited, The Catholic Worker, an eight-page tabloid. I didn’t bother taking one or two at a time — a took the whole pile back to my Navy base on the Potomac and read each issue cover to cover.

Reading the paper made me want to visit the New York Catholic Worker. On my next free weekend, instead of helping out at the home for children, I hitchhiked to Manhattan, sleeping at night on the floor of one of the Catholic Worker apartments while helping out during the day with the soup kitchen. Other visits followed.

Being at the house on Chrystie Street, the Catholic Worker’s New York base in the early sixties, was roughly equivalent to riding the rails as a Jack-London-ish tramp in Depression days. Here was a collection of wild souls, a far from homogeneous bunch, who managed to feed and clothe — and in some cases house — a good many street people who had few allies. The community of volunteers itself lived a kind of anarchic monastic life, sustained up by the Liturgy, daily prayer, the rosary, and a shared intellectual life. It was an extraordinary place to be.

All the while I was reading the Gospel as if it were a long letter written to me personally, plus quite a few books from the Blessed Sacrament parish library. In the background of my reading was the pressing question, “What should I do with the rest of my life?”

At the very beginning of my conversion, the Gospel sentence that had astonished me most and continued to haunt me was, “If you would be perfect, go sell what you have and give it to the poor and come follow me.” I wasn’t quite sure what this might mean in my own life, but it didn’t strike me as an invitation to a military career and the things that the armed forces exist to do. If you were following Jesus, even if you were deaf to what he had to say about love of enemies, wouldn’t the fact that he had killed no one and had nothing to do with war suggest that his followers should kill no one and have nothing to do with war?

The Gospel text that Dorothy Day referred to again and again had to do with the works of mercy and ended with the sentence, “What you did the least person you did to me.” What one would not want to do to Jesus, and therefore not to the least person, was let allow him to starve to death, die of thirst, live in rags, freeze on the streets, be sick and uncared for, or be in prison without visitors.

This took me to another level of understanding peacemaking. Peacemaking was anything you do to protect human life, no matter how young or old, no matter how sane or insane, no matter how attractive or ugly, no matter how clean or unclean.

Within half a year of reading Dorothy Day’s autobiography, and after getting into a good deal of trouble for taking part in a vigil protesting the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, the Navy granted me an early discharge as a conscientious objector. I immediately became part of the Catholic Worker community in Manhattan.

Becoming part of the Catholic Worker gradually changed my understanding of peacemaking, in large measure thanks to Dorothy Day and the example she gave.

There was first of all her amazingly disciplined spiritual life — daily Mass, frequent use of the rosary, pausing to pray monastic offices during the day, weekly confession.

I was also struck by Dorothy’s wide-ranging interests, not least opera, which she listened to on the radio on Sundays whenever possible — definitely not a good time to knock on her door.

She also had a gift for giving significant responsibilities to quite young people such as myself. Not only did Dorothy eventually appoint me as managing editor of The Catholic Worker, but she also involved me in some of her own activities.

One day she took me with her when she was visiting a priest from Moscow who was serving at the Russian Orthodox cathedral in uptown Manhattan. Along the same lines, on at least one occasion she brought me to an eastern-rite Slavonic liturgy in a small, candle-heated chapel not far from the Catholic Worker. One evening she brought me with her to a meeting of a small group she belonged to called the Third Hour, a discussion group that brought together Catholic and Orthodox Christians plus one Anglican, the poet W.H. Auden.

Such activities not only made me aware that Christianity is divided along east-west lines but also widened my understanding of peacemaking. Some of the roots of war are religious. The Great Schism not only split the Church but multiplied the flash points for war. Thus one important area of peace work is to do all one can to end the Schism, now nearly a thousand years old.

Dorothy loved books. One of the hardest things about living in community, she once told me, was that so many of her books disappeared. But her most valued books, even if no longer in her small library, never disappeared from her memory. She could recite long patches of Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov. It was a book that Dorothy regarded as a kind of fifth Gospel. She very much wanted me to read it but it was only during a year in prison that I at last read it from start to finish for the first time.

Beauty was a important word for Dorothy. In the days when she was becoming Catholic while living with her common-law husband Foster Battersham, a passionate atheist, she would say to him, “How can there be no God when there is all this beauty?” I don’t think anyone could be close to Dorothy for any length of time without becoming better equipped to see beauty even in unbeautiful places. Once beauty is recognized, it becomes a sacred duty to protect it — one of the most important motives of peacemaking.

Dorothy shared her friends. One of the other extraordinary things Dorothy did was to involve me in her friendship with Thomas Merton, with whom she corresponded. One day in the late summer of 1961, she gave me a manuscript he had sent to her for possible publication in The Catholic Worker and asked me to get it ready for publication. It must have had something to do with her awareness that I liked Merton’s books. Thus I became involved in publishing Merton’s first Catholic Worker essay and also, again thanks to Dorothy’s suggestion, in writing to him. It was the beginning of a correspondence that lasted until Merton’s death seven years later. How many editors would turn over to a very junior assistant a manuscript from one of the most renowned writers of the time? Just one, in my experience.

Merton’s essay had the title “The Root of War is Fear.” It was an expanded version of a chapter for a book he was then working on, New Seeds of Contemplation. What he had to say in those six or eight pages had great impact on my understanding of peacemaking. From then on I became increasingly aware of the many ways we are shaped, or rather deformed, by fear. I became more conscious of how so many of our choices, even the work we choose to do and how we live, are driven by fear. War itself is driven by fear.

I sent Merton’s essay to my father, who earlier in his life had been Catholic and had even considered becoming a priest. He was genuinely appreciative, amazed that a Catholic of Merton’s stature was writing for The Catholic Worker and was tackling the hot issue of preventing war. Nonetheless he had to disagree with Merton’s main thesis. “The root of war,” Dad wrote me, “is bad economics.” Much to my surprise, several years later I had a letter from my father in which he said he was still thinking about Merton’s essay and wanted me to know he had concluded “that the root of bad economics is fear.”

Part of the weekly rhythm of life at the New York Catholic Worker when I was there was going uptown once a week to the headquarters of the Civil Defense Agency on Madison Avenue. Here we stood on the four corners of the nearest intersection handing out copies of a leaflet. I can’t recall the leaflet’s text in detail, but no doubt it pointed out that going into cellars and fallout shelters, or hiding under desks, would not save you in the event of nuclear war. Even should you exit your shelter alive, the world we would be returning to would not be hospitable to the human presence. Probably it also argued that our best protection was in dialogue with adversaries rather than in preparations for a nuclear holocaust.

It was something of a miracle to find any takers for the sheet. The big discovery I made in my attempts to pass it out was that, given the fact that the red light system created waves of people instead of a steady flow, should I succeed in getting the leaflet into the hands of the first person in a group coming my way, my chance of getting others who were following to take it were hugely improved. Though few if any people following the leader knew each other — all they had in common was the fact that they were pedestrians going from one place to another in Manhattan — they tended to imitate the response of the person up front. I actually prayed for the person in front — invariably a man in a hurry — to notice my friendly face and take my very important leaflet.

It was a useful lesson for any would-be peacemaker. All of us are constantly taking cues from one another. Not many people are inclined to solitary gestures. Like many varieties of fish, we prefer to swim in schools. The result is that we are easily influenced by the society in which we happen to live, not only by nationalism, in the sense of unswerving devotion to nation, but also by the ideologies the nation promotes at a given time. Had I been a German in the Hitler years, I would have been under immense social pressure to greet my neighbor with a raised right hand and the words, “Heil Hitler!” Had I been a Russian in the Lenin and Stalin years, I might have succumbed to atheist propaganda and been someone destroying icons rather than kissing them. Had I been a white South African in the apartheid years, going along with apartheid would have been much easier than opposing it. Had I been born in a slave-owning society and been among those benefiting from such cheap labor, the arguments (some of them biblical) in favor of slavery might have seemed convincing.

Peacemaking, then, involves becoming more aware of the myriad ways manipulation occurs and finding ways to help ourselves and others not be so easily manipulated.

Having said so much about the first twenty years of my life, and wanting to have time for dialogue before we go our various ways, let me summarize what has happened to me in the years since being part of the New York Catholic Worker, then focus on one item that seems to me to have been especially significant. This requires skipping over my activities during the Vietnam War, several stays in prison for acts of civil disobedience, and much else that I wish we had time for.

My work after leaving the Catholic Worker has been a mixture of journalism, writing books and essays, occasional teaching at colleges and seminaries, and being on the staff of several peace organizations — the Catholic Peace Fellowship, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, and, most recently, after joining the Orthodox Church in 1988, the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.

My final story has to do with what was perhaps the most important aspect of my work with the International Fellowship of Reconciliation.

It was work with the IFOR that brought me from the US to Holland in 1977, and, life being full of unplanned events, it’s Holland that has been my home ever since. For twelve years, from 1977 until 1988, I was General Secretary of IFOR.

In 1982, I was back in the US for a speaking trip. One of the stops was in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, an area of the US where there were — perhaps still are — many underground silos housing nuclear-armed missiles kept in constant readiness for launching. Also nearby was the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command, whose nuclear-armed B52s were in the air 24 hours a day.

On the stage with me in Sioux Falls was an interesting array of speakers, including a retired Marine Corps general and a rancher whose vast property was adjacent to the main runway of the Strategic Air Command. The well-attended event we were part of had been organized by the Nuclear Freeze movement. For the speakers present, our common cause was advocacy of freezing the development, manufacture and testing of nuclear weapons — an idea that came to win immense popular support that cut across political and ideological lines. For a time it was a proposal that seemed to have a real chance of becoming an area of agreement for the US and the USSR. But the following year, 1983, when Soviet jet fighters shot down a 747 passenger plane that had strayed over the Kamchatka Peninsula, not only did that airplane go down but the idea of a nuclear freeze with it. The temperature of the Cold War plunged.

One of my subsequent stops on that same 1982 trip was in Massachusetts where I had a lecture to give at the Harvard Divinity School. I was staying with my friend Robert Ellsberg, now editor-in-chief of Orbis Books, but at that time studying at Harvard. One evening Robert invited me out for a film. The one we happened to choose was “Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears,” winner of the Academy Award for best foreign film. It’s a story set in the Brezhnev years that follows the friendship of three quite different women who originally meet by chance, having been assigned to the same room in a Moscow residence for women. It’s a great film — see it if ever you have the chance. My wife and I have it on DVD and still watch it from time to time.

What was so important to me at the time about this non-political film was the window it opened on ordinary Russian life. Walking out of the theater with Robert, I realized I had spent a large part of my life trying to prevent war between the US and the Soviet Union but had never been to Russia. The awful truth was that I knew more about American weapons than about the people at whom they were aimed — and that the same was true of everyone I knew who was involved in peace work. It was a shocking realization.

I wondered how we could regard what we were doing as peace work if it mainly had to do with informing people what nuclear war would do to the planet we live on? If Merton’s insight about fear being the root of war was true, would it not be better if we who sought peace in the world focused on building bridges rather than trying to prevent war by selling a nightmare? After all, the weapons and missiles we knew so much about were symptoms of fear.

That night at the movies in Cambridge was a major turning point for me. The following years of my life mainly had to do with trying to open east-west doors, doors that had long been locked on both sides. On the Russian side, there was a lot of worry about letting in people whom they knew opposed Russia’s war in Afghanistan, then in the middle of its decade-long run, and who were critical of the Soviet political system. No doubt they worried that we would demonstrate on Red Square.

It took more than a year of hard work to arrange a small conference (the theme was liberation theology) organized by the International Fellowship of Reconciliation and hosted by the Russian Orthodox Church. It was probably the first such event in Russia since the Bolshevik overthrow of the Russian government in 1917– an event that was religious rather than political in content, and whose agenda came from the west. All things considered, it was quite an achievement.

But its greatest value was not the conference itself but opening a door that afterward opened much more easily. Our initiative helped make east-west work a priority for others, and not only peace groups. Many organizations, academic bodies and businesses began to develop their own contacts and arrange their own events and programs in Soviet Russia. What happened in the decade that followed helped create a climate for greatly improved relations between the US and Russia, which in turn led to still more face-to-face contact. Thousands of people from the US and its western allies began to visit Russia for business, cultural and purely touristic reasons, and more and more Russians came to the west. Eventually there were inter-governmental breakthroughs that resulted in treaties that significantly reduced the number of nuclear weapons and missiles.

In 1988, while at work on a book about dramatic changes in Russian religious life in the Gorbachev period, I visited the city of Ulan Ude in the far east of Russia. I stayed in a guest house in the city center which at the time was the residence of an American couple and their children. The guest house, they told me, had been built in the thirties in the off chance that Stalin might come to visit Ulan Ude. Were that dreaded event to happen, this would have been his little palace for a few days. But Stalin never came.

The couple were both members of the staff of the US embassy in Moscow. They had been sent to this remote part of the country for an extended period in order to witness firsthand the destruction of Russian missiles and nuclear weapons under the terms of the US-Soviet treaty.

I thought back to my childhood — the blasts in Nevada I had witnessed on live television, the model of a nuclear explosion I had built, the high school lecture I had given about a generation living in the nuclear shadow, the years of my life I had spent doing all I could to prevent nuclear war, various programs I had been part of introduce Americans and Russians to each other, and here were two Americans whose job it was, on behalf of the US administration, to watch Soviet missiles and nuclear weapons being scrapped, while their Russian counterparts were in US on a parallel mission.

I had no illusions that the danger of nuclear war was over — many hundreds of nuclear bombs and an array of weapons of mass destruction remain intact in both countries, not to mention in all those countries which followed the US-Soviet example in developing their own nuclear weapons.

Yet it was something of a miracle to see that, partly thanks to the peace work of many people who had no governmental role, such a major breakthrough had occurred, and therefore could occur again.

One way of describing what happened in the eighties and nineties is to note that a lot of people learned to love their enemies — love in the biblical sense of caring about them and regarding their lives as worth preserving. Remarkably, the friendships that were formed were a factor in bring about a world that was, for a time, much safer than the world I grew up in.

Love of enemies is supposed to be one of the Christ’s all but impossible teachings, but it turns out to be quite possible. But before love of enemies can occur, it’s necessary to meet that enemy. It’s not only a work to be carried out by diplomats but by ordinary people.

Right now we’re back in a more familiar situation, lost in a labyrinth of enmity just about as bad as we faced during the Cold War, and now it involves not only the Russians, once again, but all the countries who are part of what the current administration has labeled “the empire of evil.”

Time’s up. The monologue is over. Time for conversation…

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text as of September 23, 2008
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Franz Jägerstätter: a solitary witness

[This is the introduction to Franz Jägerstätter: Letters and Reflections from Prison, edited by Erna Putz and published by Orbis Books.]

By Jim Forest

Human beings have at least one trait in common with fish: we tend to move in schools. When the drums of war are beating and the latest slogan of mass destruction is announced (“for God and country,” “the war to end all wars,” “the war to make the world safe for democracy,” “the war to defeat the axis of evil,” “the war on terror”), few and far between are those who, having been summoned, refuse to take up weapons.

On every side, there are those who go willingly, convinced of the war’s rightness or at least confident their government knows what it is doing and would not spend human lives for anything less than the survival of the nation. There are still others who have their doubts but avoid knowing better — they rightly sense that it’s dangerous to look beyond the slogans. There are also those who know that the war at issue is deeply flawed or even unjustified, but who go along anyway, knowing there is always a price to pay for saying no and not wishing to pay that price.

For many the idea of disobedience simply doesn’t occur. There is the joy — at least the sense of security — of being in step with others and acting in unity, even if it turns out that such unity is being put to tragic or murderous uses. We’re human beings, after all, and thus — for worse as well as better — profoundly social. We like to bond with those around us — to cheer for the same teams, to see things in a similar way, to be “good citizens,” to do “what is expected of us.” Those of us who are Christians may well find ourselves being urged “to do our part” even by our bishops, pastors and theologians.

Franz Jägerstätter was one of the least likely persons to question the justifications for war being announced daily by those in charge or to say to no to the demands of his government. What did he know? And, for that matter, who would care about his perceptions? He was only a farmer. He had never been to a university or theological school. His formal education had occurred entirely in a one-room schoolhouse. Though active in his parish, which he served as sexton, he was not a person whose name would ring a bell for his bishop. No priest or bishop or theologian, no matter how critical of Nazi doctrine, was announcing it was a sin to obey the commands of the Hitler regime when it came to war. So far as he knew none of his fellow Catholics in Austria, even those who openly disagreed with Nazi ideology, had failed to report for military duty when the notice came.

How could so unimportant a person dare to have such important convictions? How could a humble Catholic farmer imagine he had a clearer conscience than those who led the Church in his homeland? And, in any event, didn’t his responsibility to his wife and children have priority over his views about war and government?

Indeed Franz Jägerstätter did his best, insofar as his conscience allowed, to survive the war and the Hitler years. Submitting to military training, he was in uniform for nearly a year but never took part in the actual war. For an extended period, he was allowed to return to his farm and family, but when summoned to active service, he saw no option but to refuse further compliance. He was immediately arrested and imprisoned. After just over five months in prison, on the 9th of August 1943, he was taken to a place of execution near Berlin and was beheaded by guillotine.

Franz Jägerstätter was just one more on the long list of the dead. There were so many others who perished in those years that one more fatality was not worth noticing. There were no press reports, no interviews with his grieving wife. But a significant entry was made in the register of his parish in the village of St. Radegund: “Franz Jägerstätter died on 9 August 1943 in Brandenburg [an der Havel, a town near Berlin] the death of a martyr.”

Years after the war was over, the name “Franz Jägerstätter” gradually came to light almost by chance. Gordon Zahn, an American sociologist, had written a book, German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars. In the course of his research, he had found a reference to an Austrian peasant who had paid with his life for refusing any part in Hitler’s wars. With the one book finished, he started researching what became In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jägerstätter.

Zahn’s book generated a great deal of discussion, especially in the Catholic Church. How was it possible that “a man of no importance” could have possessed a moral clarity absent from those who were supposed to provide spiritual leadership to Austrian and German Catholics? Had any bishop expressed the view that Hitler’s wars were unjust? Answer: not one.

At the Second Vatican Council, Archbishop Thomas Roberts, a Jesuit who had formerly been archbishop of Bombay, recounted Jägerstätter’s life, pointing out that the heroic stand taken by this remarkable Austrian could not be credited to pastoral guidance from those leading the Church in Austria or Germany or from the text of any existing Catholic catechism. In fact rulers could count on their Catholic subjects to obey them no less unquestioningly than they obeyed their Church.

Should not the Church, asked Archbishop Roberts, speak more clearly about the responsibility for its members to say no when they were required by their rulers to commit sins or be part of a system based on lies and injustice? Should the Church not make clear that conscientious objectors to war have the support and admiration of their Church for bearing witness to the Gospel? Should the Church not rejoice that Franz Jägerstätter had given such a witness against an unjust war — a witness Roberts compared to that of another beheaded hero of the Church, St. Thomas More? Should not the Church express itself in such a way that it would be more likely that Catholics in the future would be better equipped by their Church to take a similar stand, even if, like Jägerstätter, it cost them their lives? Was not a martyr’s death far preferable to complicity in evil?

Archbishop Roberts’ intervention was not without effect. While it was simply a bishop’s reflection on the life of an as-yet uncanonized saint and the implications of that saint’s witness, it turned out to be a factor in the direction taken by the bishops in the final document issued by the Second Vatican Council, known as Gaudium et Spes (its first three Latin words) or the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, as it was called in its more lengthy English title.

The Council declared, “Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and humanity, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.” The Council also condemned other crimes against life: abortion, euthanasia, slavery and torture among them.

Emphasizing the role of conscience, the Council called on states to make legal provision for those “who, for reasons of conscience, refuse to bear arms, provided that they agree to serve the human community in some other way.” Those who renounce violence altogether, seeking a more just and compassionate society by nonviolent means, were honored: “We cannot fail to praise those who renounce the use of violence in vindication of their rights and who resort to methods of defense which are otherwise available to weaker parties too, provided this can be done without injury to the rights and duties of others or to the community itself.” Those who, in the name of obedience, obey commands which condemn the innocent and defenseless were described as “criminal,” while those who disobey such corrupt commands merit “supreme commendation.”

It was a text that would have made Franz Jägerstätter rejoice. So too all the other Christian martyrs down through the centuries who have obeyed God rather than man.

For nearly every bishop who came to Rome to attend the Council, the name of Franz Jägerstätter was unknown before Archbishop Roberts made his intervention. Today there are few if any bishops in the Catholic Church who are unaware of Jägerstätter’s name and story. On the 26th of October 2007, Franz Jägerstätter was officially beatified. His wife and descendants were among those taking part in the event. Franz Jägerstätter is now known throughout his Church as Blessed Franz. Perhaps before too many years it will be Saint Franz.

* * *

Though Franz Jägerstätter’s life has come to be a matter of significance in the history of the 20th century, and his beatification a vivid indication that the Catholic hierarchy today is taking to heart what the bishops who took part in the Second Vatican Council had to say about war, peace and individual conscience, few people on the calendar of saints had a more unpromising beginning in life.

Franz Jägerstätter was born in on May 20, 1907 in the Austrian village of St. Radegund. His mother was an unmarried farm servant, Rosalia Huber. His father, Franz Bachmeier, was the unmarried son of a farmer from Tarsdorf in the Austrian province of Salzburg; he died in the First World War. After Franz’s birth, Rosalia’s mother, Elisabeth Huber, shoemaker’s widow, took charge of Franz’s care.

It was not uncommon for those with little money or property to conceive children outside marriage, but marriage often followed. It wasn’t so in this case, perhaps due to parental objections regarding one or the other potential partner. When Rosalia Huber at last married years later it was in 1917, a decade after Franz’s birth, and not to Franz’s father but to Heinrich Jägerstätter. He was a man of property — the owner of the Leherbauernhof farm in St. Radegund. In addition to marrying Rosalia, Heinrich Jägerstätter adopted her son, thus giving him the family name we know him by. They were to have no children of their own.

Franz’s formal education was slight and brief. From 1913 to 1921, he attended the one-room school in St. Radegund where a single teacher taught seven grades. At a given time, there were about 50 to 60 children in all. But one sees from his writing that he was a quick learner with a well-organized and independent mind.

Franz’s birthplace was as inauspicious as his education. The village of St. Radegund, on the River Salzach, is on the northwestern edge of Austria. The village, with a population of about five hundred, appears only on the most detailed maps of Austria. Mozart’s Salzburg is to the south, Linz to the east, Vienna much further east. The closest major German city is Munich. Hitler’s birthplace, the Austrian town of Braunau, isn’t far from St. Radegund. St. Radegund’s major claim to fame for many years was the four-hour Passion Plays it organized from time to time, the last one occurring in 1933. Like nearly everyone in the community, Franz had a part to play — he was one of the Roman soldiers involved in the crucifixion of Christ.

Franz grew up mainly among farmers. The Jägerstätter farm was one among many in the area. It was a region in which Catholicism was deeply embedded. The idea of not being Catholic was, for nearly everyone Franz knew, as unthinkable as moving to another planet, though he did have a cousin who became a Jehovah’s Witness.

One reads in the accounts of saints’ lives how amazingly pious some of them were from the cradle to the grave. The stories local people tell of Franz as a young man go in the opposite direction. In his teens he wasn’t hesitant to get involved in fist fights. He enjoyed all the pastimes that his friends enjoyed. Along with all his neighbors, he went to church when everyone else did, but no one would have remarked on his being a saint in the making.

In 1930, age 23, Franz worked for a time in the Austrian mining town of Eisenerz. This was his first encounter with a secularized factory culture. Here he met people who didn’t bother with church or have any good words to say about Christianity. Under their influence, in that period Franz slept in on Sunday mornings, skipping Mass.

Returning to St. Radegund, Franz surprised his family and neighbors by arriving on a motorcycle he had purchased with money he earned in the city. No one else in the area had a motorcycle.

Far more important, though the most attentive neighbor would have realized it in the early stages, was the fact that after his return to St. Radegund Franz’s religious life not only revived but gradually came into sharper focus. Unfortunately, letters that might give a clue about this period of his life either do not survive or were never written. It may be that Franz’s brief encounter with a more secular culture in his time away ultimately have the effect of bringing him closer to a faith he had previously taken for granted.

Not that anyone would have regarded Franz as notably pious or altogether converted from his former rowdy ways. In August 1933, a local farm maidservant, Theresia Auer, gave birth to a daughter, Hildegard. Franz was the child’s father. The fact that there had been no marriage before the birth, or would be afterward, was attributed locally to the determined opposition of Franz’s mother, who seemed to doubt that Franz was in fact Hildegard’s father. What is striking is that for the rest of his life, Franz not only provided material support for Hildegard, but remained very close to her, visiting her often. Just before his marriage to Franziska Schwaninger, Franz and his wife-to-be offered to adopt Hildegard, but Hildegard’s mother and grandmother (who was raising the child) declined.

According to local consensus, the most important single factor attributed to bringing about a change in Franz was his marriage to Franziska Schwaninger. Nearly everyone who lived in the area saw this as the main border-crossing event of his adult life. Franz was, neighbors said, “a different man” afterwards, a fact most of all reflected in the intensity of his religious life.

But in fact the transition was not quite as abrupt as it seemed to neighbors. Prior to marriage, Franz had thought seriously of entering a monastery. One of Franziska’s initial concerns regarding Franz, once they met, was to make sure he had a more than superficial commitment to his faith. She was relieved not only that he attended Mass regularly, but also that he was a committed and thoughtful Catholic.

Franziska Schwaninger, six years younger than Franz, had grown up on a farm in the village of Hochburg, about five miles (12 km) away from St. Radegund. She came from a deeply religious family — her father and grandmother were both members of the Marian Congregation. Her grandmother also belonged to the Third Order of St. Francis. Before Franziska’s marriage, she had considered becoming a nun.

After a short engagement, the two were married on the April 9, 1936. Franz was almost 29, Franziska 23. The honeymoon that followed startled everyone in or near St. Radegund. The couple went to none of the usual places visited by the newly married, but opted instead to go as pilgrims to Rome, at the same time ignoring deeply-embedded local tradition by declining to have a wedding feast. Married at 6 in the morning, before noon they were on their way to Rome, a city crowded with churches built over the tombs of martyrs of the early Church or the locations of their execution. To be in so many martyr-linked places of worship must have helped prepare the newly married couple for what would happen in the years to come.

The Roman pilgrimage had been Franz’s idea, but Franziska had eagerly agreed. Returning home, Franz proposed to Franziska that they go on a similar pilgrimage every ten years. It wasn’t to be.

While Franz was already a committed Catholic Christian, in the early months of their marriage it was Franziska whose spiritual life was the most developed. Franziska went to Mass on many weekdays, often received communion, and kept the Friday devotions associated with the Sacred Heart of Jesus. But Franz was quickly influenced by her example. Neighbors were surprised and in many cases critical. The general view was that it was all right for women to do these things, if they had the time, but a man must give priority to his farm and keep the Church and its services in their place. Franz, while remaining a productive and efficient farmer, increasingly put the Church first.

It was a happy marriage. Franz once told his wife, “I could never have imagined that being married could be so wonderful.” In one of his letters to Franziska during his period of army training in 1940, he mentions how “fortunate and harmonious” have been their years of marriage. “This good fortune is unforgettable, and will accompany me through time and eternity. You also know how the children bring me joy. For this reason, a feeling of good fortune often comes over me here so that tears of joy flow from my eyes when I think about our reunion.”

Years after her father’s death, the Jägerstätters’ eldest daughter, wondering aloud whether she would ever marry, recalls her mother warning her that married couples often fight. Her daughter responded, “But you and daddy didn’t fight.”

Looking back on the days when her husband was still alive, Franziska observed, “We helped one another go forward in faith.” Indeed, Franziska was not only an equal partner in their marriage, someone whose example brought Franz closer to a fearless Christian faith, but also a partner in her husband’s martyrdom, even while hoping against hope that Franz’s refusal to be a soldier would not lead to his execution.

The Jägerstätters had three children, all daughters: Rosalia (Rosi) in 1937, Maria in 1938, and Aloisia (Loisi) in 1940.

Theirs was not a marriage out of touch the world beyond their farm. Franz and Franziska were attentive to what was going on just across the river from St. Radegund in Germany where Hitler had been German chancellor since 1933. They were aware of Hitler’s pagan ideology, the brutality of his followers, and also knew of the intensive effort underway to build up Germany’s military. They also were aware of the anti-Nazi writings of the Bishop of Linz, Johannes Maria Gföllner, who in 1933 had stated in a pastoral letter read aloud in every parish of the Linz diocese: “Nazism is spiritually sick with materialistic racial delusions, un-Christian nationalism, a nationalistic view of religion, with what is quite simply sham Christianity.” The racial purity so dear to the Nazis was condemned by Bishop Gföllner as “a backsliding into an abhorrent heathenism… The Nazi standpoint on race is completely incompatible with Christianity and must therefore be resolutely rejected.” In 1937, four years later, he declared, “It is impossible to be both a good Catholic and a true Nazi.” (By 1941, Linz had a new bishop who was to speak much more cautiously.)

Meanwhile, Nazism’s dark shadow was spreading in Austria as well. There was more and more talk of Austria fully incorporating itself into Germany, though in St. Radegund, as in many places throughout Austria, the Nazis had little support.

One important factor in helping people keep their distance from Nazism was the widespread awareness that the Nazi movement was only a degree less hostile to Christianity than the Bolsheviks in Soviet Russia. Nazis regarded the values of the New Testament with contempt and saw those who attended church as stupid and weak. In Germany, they knew, Christians found themselves living in a steadily tightening noose of restrictions. The Nazis had made clear that one of their most urgent priorities was to separate children and young people from the Church and in its place make them into Hitler Youth members.

The Nazis didn’t hide their hostility to the teachings of Christ and the churches that spread his teaching. In the words of one prominent Nazi, Roland Freisler, State Secretary of the Reich Ministry of Justice: “Christianity and we are alike in only one respect: we lay claim to the whole individual. … ‘From which do you take your orders? From the hereafter or from Adolf Hitler? To whom do you pledge your loyalty and your faith?’”

On the 12th of March 1938, the 8th Army of the German Wehrmacht crossed the German-Austrian border. Assisted by the local Nazi movement and supported by the vast majority of the Austrian population, German troops quickly took control of Austria, then organized a national plebiscite on April 10 to confirm the union with Germany. With few daring to vote against what had already been imposed by military methods, the annexation (Anschluss) of Austria by Germany was even ratified by popular ballot. Austria, now an integral part of the Third Reich, ceased to exist as an independent state. What had been Austria was renamed Ostmark.

Well before the Anschluss, Franz had been an anti-Nazi, but the event that brought his aversion to a much deeper level was a remarkable dream he had in January 1938. Perhaps it was triggered by a newspaper article he had read a few days earlier reporting that 150,000 more young people had been accepted into the Hitler Youth movement.

In the dream he saw “a wonderful train” coming round a mountain. The gleaming engine and carriages seemed especially attractive to children, who “flowed to this train, and were not held back.” Then a voice said to him, “This train is going to hell.” He woke Franziska to tell her of his dream and continued to think about it long afterward. The train, he realized, symbolized the glittering Nazi regime with all its spectacles and its associated organizations, Hitler Youth being one of the most important and spiritually corrupting.

The dream seemed to Franz a clarifying message from heaven. The Nazi movement — with its racism, its cult of violence, its elimination of those members of society regarded as unfit, its efforts to suppress Christianity — was satanic. It was nothing less than a gateway to hell.

In St. Radegund it was widely known that Franz, ignoring the advice of his neighbors, had voted against the Anschluss, but, in reporting the results to the new regime in Vienna, Franz’s solitary vote was left unrecorded. It was seen as endangering the village to put on record that even one person had dared raise a discordant voice.

After all, as Franz was painfully aware, even Austria’s Catholic hierarchy had advocated a yes vote. Afterward Cardinal Innitzer, principal hierarch of the Catholic Church in Austria, signed a declaration endorsing the Anschluss. The words “Heil Hitler!” were above his signature. Innitzer was among the first to meet Hitler following the Führer’s triumphant entry into what was now the Ostmark region of Germany. That same year, in honor of Hitler’s birthday, he ordered that all Austrian churches fly the swastika flag, ring their bells, and pray for Hitler. Presumably the cardinal hoped such an action on his part would be repaid by the Nazi regime with a more tolerant attitude toward the Church. In fact, following the Anschluss, the situation for Austrian Catholics proved to be even worse than it was for their counterparts in Germany. Many priests were jailed or sent to concentration camps, youth education by the Church was all but eliminated, church newspapers were closed, church processions were banned, and, in many parish churches, Mass on important feast days, even Christmas, was prohibited unless the feast fell on a Sunday.

If someone greeted Franz with the Nazi salute and the words “Heil Hitler,” Franz would respond, minus the salute, with the words “Pfui Hitler.” As Franz saw it, the Anschluss was similar to what had happened in Jerusalem during Passion Week: the crowd had chosen the criminal Barabas rather than their savior, Christ.

The Anschluss was only the beginning of a rapid campaign of German territorial expansion. Following the annexation of Austria, Germany occupied the Sudetenland, a region of Czechoslovakia. In March 1939, the rest of Czechoslovakia was taken over. In September 1939, Hitler began the invasion of Poland, at which point Britain and France responded with declarations of war and World War II began. In May 1940, France and the Low Countries were invaded. In June 1941, Germany launched its war on the “eastern front” with the Soviet Union, at the same creating for itself an urgent need for a much larger army.

Having become citizens of Germany, every able Austrian was subject to conscription. Franz was called up in June 1940, taking his military vow in Braunau, Hitler’s birthplace, but a few days later was allowed to return to his farm, as farmers were needed no less than soldiers. In October he was called back for training as an army driver, but in April 1941, six months later, was again allowed to return to his farm.

While in the army, Franz made a significant commitment: he joined the Third Order of St. Francis in December 1940. He may not have known that the Order’s original rule, as written by Francis, obliged those who joined not to possess or use deadly weapons, but without doubt he knew that Francis was a man who, following his conversion, never threatened or harmed anyone.

Franz’s brief period in the army, coupled with his recognition that to assist the Nazi movement in any way was to oppose Christ and his Church, made him realize that a return to the army was not possible for him. If he were summoned again, even at the cost of his life, he would have to say no.

Returning home from the army, Franz was ready for a deeper engagement in his parish. He agreed to become sexton, a responsibility that involved keeping the church and its grounds in good repair, assisting at daily Mass, and helping arrange baptisms, weddings and funerals. His priest was surprised at how quickly Franz learned all the Latin responses.

It was not possible for Franziska to offer her wholehearted endorsement — how could she sanction a course of action that would result in the death of her beloved husband? — but she was equally determined not to seek to change Franz’s mind. She knew her husband was simply following Christ in the same way as the martyrs at whose tombs in Rome they had prayed in the days following their wedding.

Franz readily talked about his views with anyone who would listen. Most often he was told that his main responsibility was to his family and that it would be better to risk death in the army on their behalf than to take steps which would almost certainly guarantee his death. While he would certainly do what he could to preserve his life for the sake of his family, Franz noted that self-preservation did not make it permissible to go and murder other people’s families. He pointed out that to accept military service also meant leaving his family without any assurance he would return alive. If he had to risk his life, was it not better to do so for Christ rather than Hitler? As for his family, surely God would not forget them. How good a husband and father would he be if he chose social conformity over obedience to Christ’s teaching? Did not Christ say, “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me”?

Most of all Franz sought advice from the Church’s pastors. At the time Fr. Ferdinand Fürthauer was the priest in St. Radegund, filling in for Fr. Josef Karobath, who in 1940 had been jailed for delivering an anti-Nazi sermon, then banished from the district. Far from encouraging Franz, Fr. Fürthauer — a young man who felt unprepared for such a situation — wondered if refusing military service, given that execution was the almost certain penalty, was not the same as committing the mortal sin of suicide. In later years Fr. Fürthauer wrote to Franziska, “I wanted to save his life, but he did not want any pretense and rejected all falsehood. I often pray that Franz Jägerstätter may forgive me.”

Franz turned for guidance to his former pastor, Fr. Karobath. “We met in the Bavarian town of Tittmoning,” Karobath recalls. “I wanted to talk him out of it [Franz’s decision to refuse further military service], but he defeated me again and again with words from the scriptures.”

Franz even managed to meet with the Bishop of Linz, Joseph Fliesser, successor to Bishop Gföllner. A list of questions Franz had written down in preparation for the encounter has survived. Franz asked if it was not sinful to support an ideology (Nazism) whose goals included eradicating Christianity; if “the predatory raids” which Germany was making in various countries could be regarded as acts of “a righteous and holy war”; how is it possible for the Church, in burying the remains of German soldiers killed in the war, to permit its priests to describe the fallen as heroes and even saints; would it not be truer to regard as heroes those who defended their homelands rather than those who invade other countries; could the Church regard as righteous and good whatever the crowd happens to be shouting; and, finally, can one be both a soldier of Christ and a soldier of Nazism, thus both fighting for the victory of Christ and his Church while at the same time fighting for the victory of Nazism?

While Franz met with Bishop Fliesser, Franziska was in the adjacent waiting room, no doubt praying. When Franz came out of the bishop’s consulting room, Franziska recalls that he “was very sad and said to me: “They don’t dare commit themselves or it will be their turn next.” Franz had the impression that the bishop didn’t discuss his questions because it was possible that his visitor might be a Gestapo spy.

In later years, Bishop Fliesser said, “In vain, I explained to him the basic principles of morality concerning the degree of responsibility which a private person and citizen bears for the actions of those in authority, and reminded him of his far higher responsibility for those within his private circle, particularly his family.”

It was, in fact, an answer any Catholic might have heard from any bishop in any country at the time: If not a doctrine found in any catechism, it was widely believed that any sins you commit under obedience to your government are not your personal sins but are regarded by God as the sins of those who lead the state. God would judge the leader, not those who had obeyed his orders. But for Franz it seemed obvious that, if God gives each of us free will and a conscience, each of us is responsible for what we do and fail to do, all the more so if we are consciously aware we have allowed ourselves to become servants of evil masters.

Franz later made the compassionate observation that “the bishop has not experienced the grace that has been granted to me.”

In a notebook entry Franz made early in 1942, he remarks, “They [the bishops and priests] are human beings of flesh and blood as we are, and they can be weak. Perhaps they are even more tempted by the evil foe than we are. Perhaps, too, they were too little prepared to take on this struggle and decide for themselves whether to live or to die.”

Having gone through training, nearly two years went by without Franz’s receiving a summons to return to the army. Throughout that period, each time mail was delivered to the Jägerstätter farm, both husband and wife were in dread. Finally on February 23, 1943, the fateful letter arrived. “Now I’ve signed my death sentence,” Franz remarked while putting his signature on the postal receipt. He was ordered to report to a military base in Enns, near Linz, two days later.

The same day he wrote to Fr. Karobath, whom he still regarded as his pastor even though the priest had been sent to another parish, “I must tell you that soon you may be losing one of your parishioners…. Today I received my conscription orders…. As no one can give me a dispensation for the danger to the salvation of my soul which joining this movement [the Nazis] would bring, I just can’t alter my resolve, as you know…. It’s always said that one shouldn’t do what I am doing because of the risk to one’s life, but I take the view that those others who are joining in the fighting aren’t exactly out of life-threatening danger themselves. Among those fighting in Stalingrad, so I’ve heard, are also four or five people from St. Radegund …. My family won’t forsake God and the Blessed Virgin Mary…. It will be difficult for my loved ones. This parting will surely be a hard one.”

It was indeed a hard parting. At the station in Tittmoning, Franz and Franziska could not let go of each other until the train’s movement forced them to separate. The conductor was furious.

Even as he boarded the train, Franz was already two days late for his appointment at Enns. But, after all, there was no need to arrive on time — once he reached Enns, he and Franziska had every reason to think, it might be only days or weeks before his execution. His late arrival could not make the punishment any worse.

Arriving at Enns the next morning, March 1, even then Franz took his time, attending Mass in the local church before reporting to the barracks. He also took time to send a letter to Franziska. It ended, “Should it be God’s will that I do not see you again in this world, then we hope that we shall see each other soon in heaven.” So far as Franz knew, this was his last letter.

The following day, Franz having announced his refusal to serve, he was placed under arrest and transported to the military remand prison in nearby Linz. Franz’s stay in Linz lasted three months. Though many others were tried and sentenced at Linz (a Catholic priest who visited prisoners there recalled having accompanied 38 men to their execution), Franz was not one among those tried.

Among prisoners at the Linz military prison from that period who survived, there were those who vividly recalled Franz — how often they saw him praying the rosary and his readiness to share with others his meager food ration. Giving away a piece of bread on one occasion, he claimed that a cup of coffee was enough for him.

No one knew better than Franziska how carefully thought out was the position Franz was taking and what a determined man he was in matters of faith. Even so, it was impossible for her not to encourage him occasionally to search for some alternate path that might not violate his conscience but perhaps would save his life. She wrote to him while he was in Linz, “One does God’s will even when not understanding it.” Even so, she confessed that she nurtured “the small hope that you would change your decision … because you have compassion for me, and I cannot help [being] me. I shall pray to the loving Mother of God that she will bring you back to us at home if it is God’s will.”

“I want to save my life but not through lies,” wrote Franz to his wife. “In [the army base at] Enns people wanted to trap me by means of trick questions and thus to make me once again into a soldier. It was not easy to keep my conviction. It may become even more difficult. But I trust in God to let me know if it would be better for me to do something different.”

In a letter dated March 11, he told Franziska that he was willing to serve in the army medical corps “for here a person can actually do good and exercise Christian love of neighbor in concrete ways,” but apparently such a noncombatant alternative was never opened to him by those responsible for his case.

Despite the heavy workload at the farm (in Franz’s absence, for the first time Franziska had to till the fields), on the feast of Corpus Christi she sought spiritual strength by making a pilgrimage on foot to the Bavarian town of Altötting, home of the Chapel of the Miraculous Image, one of Germany’s most visited shrines since medieval times — a place long associated with miracles.

Franz’s last Easter before execution was spent in the Linz prison. He wrote that day to Franziska: “‘Christ has risen, alleluia,’ so the Church rejoices today. When we have to endure hard times, we must and can rejoice with the Church. What is more joyful than that Christ has again risen, and gone forth as the victor over death and hell. What can give us Christians more comfort than that we no longer have to fear death.”

Without warning, on May 4 Franz was taken by train to the prison at Tegel, a suburb of Berlin. It had been decided that Franz’s was “a more serious case” requiring a Reich Court Martial in the capital rather than a provincial trial. Here Franz would spend the last three months of his life in solitary confinement. (Among Franz’s fellow prisoners at Tegel was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Protestant theologian who was arrested in April 1943 after money was traced to him that had been used to help Jews escape to Switzerland. After eighteen months a prisoner, Bonhoeffer was executed in 1945.)

Franz says almost nothing in his letters about the conditions of life at Tegel, but a priest, Fr. Franz Reinisch, who had been in the same prison a year before Franz described it as “a foretaste of purgatory and hell: the thoughts and experiences: never a friendly face, never to feel any love, always only hard words – if this were to go on forever! And then the screaming of some prisoners who can’t bear the loneliness and the wrongful loss of their freedom, the constantly keeping silent, the small cell, etc. and also, in the case of certain men, the spiritual distress that weighs heavily on their hearts, the enchainment of those condemned to death.”

On July 6 a brief trial occurred. Franz was convicted of “undermining military morale” by “inciting the refusal to perform the required service in the German army.” This was a capital offense. Franz was sentenced to death. From this point on, he was kept in handcuffs. In a letter to Franziska, Franz notes that he is writing with his “hands in chains” (echoing the words of St. Paul when he was a prisoner in Rome).

On July 8, Franz wrote home, “It is a joy to be able to suffer for Jesus and our faith. We have the joyful hope that the few days in this life when we have been separated will be replaced by thousands of days in eternity, where we shall rejoice with God and our heavenly Mother in untroubled joy and good fortune. If we can only remain in the love of God when difficult tests of our faith come to us.” Perhaps to spare his family pain, or because the court sentence had not been confirmed, he said nothing in his letter about the trial that had just occurred.

In a final effort to save Franz’s life, his court-assigned lawyer, Friedrich Leo Feldmann, arranged a visit by Franziska and the priest of St. Radegund, Fr. Fürthauer, in the hope they could convince his client to change his mind. Were he to do so, Feldmann was confident the court would withdraw its sentence.

Their 20-minute meeting was Franz and Franziska’s last. It happened on July 9 in the presence of armed guards. Not to their surprise, the visitors found that Franz saw no honorable alternative but to continue with his refusal of military service. Fr. Fürthauer later recalled his attempt to persuade Franz to accept army service for his family’s sake. “He [Franz] said to me: ‘Can you promise me that if I join that movement [the Nazi regime] that I shall not fall into mortal sin?’ ‘That I cannot do’, I answered. ‘Then I won’t enlist,’ was his reply.” (In 2006, Fr. Fürthauer was asked if he would still say the same to Franz were he able to go back in time. “Today,” he responded, “I would not try to persuade him to change his resolve, but would just give him my blessing.”)

Back in St. Radegund, Franziska wrote to Fr. Karobath to report on the meeting with Franz in Berlin, commenting with bitterness, “They [the military officials] could easily have assigned him to the medical corps, but they were naturally too proud for that, for it might have looked like a compromise on their part.”

On July 14, Franz’s death sentence was confirmed by the Reich’s War Court. On August 9, Franz was taken to Brandenburg/Havel where, at about 4 PM, he was killed by guillotine.

The priest who accompanied Franz to his execution, Fr. Albert Jochmann, standing in that day for the chaplain at Brandenberg, later told a community of Austrian nuns about Franz’s final hours. In the early 1960s, one of them, Sr. Georgia, having learned that Gordon Zahn was at work on a biography of Franz Jägerstätter, wrote to Zahn to relate what the chaplain had said. Visiting Franz shortly after midnight on August 9, he noticed on a small table in Franz’s cell a document which, should Franz sign it, would allow him to leave prison and return to the army. When Fr. Jochmann pointed it out, Franz pushed it aside, saying, “I cannot and may not take an oath in favor of a government that is fighting an unjust war.”

Sr. Georgia continued: “Later he was to witness the calm and composed manner in which he [Franz Jägerstätter] walked to the scaffold.” He told the sisters, themselves Austrian, “I can only congratulate you on this countryman of yours who lived as a saint and has now died a hero. I can say with certainty that this simple man is the only saint that I have ever met in my lifetime.”

During his time in Berlin, Franz was permitted to write only one letter to Franziska each month, plus a fourth that was written on the day of his execution. The four letters bear witness to his extraordinary calm, conviction and even happiness.

Part of the happiness he experienced was thanks to the support he found in the Catholic chaplain, Fr. Heinrich Kreutzberg. It was a great consolation for Franz to hear from him that a priest, Fr. Franz Reinisch, had, just a year earlier, been in the same prison and died a similar death for similar reasons. After Franz’s death, Fr. Kreutzberg wrote a long letter to Franziska in which he noted, “I have seen no more fortunate man in prison than your husband after my few words about Franz Reinisch.”

Franz’s final letter home was written the morning of his execution. In it he appeals for the forgiveness of anyone he may have pained and hurt. He adds: “Dearest wife and mother, it was not possible for me to free both of you from the sorrows that you have suffered for me. How hard it must have been for our dear Lord that he had given his dear mother such great sorrow through his suffering and death! And she suffered everything out of love for us sinners. I thank our Savior that I could suffer for him, and may die for him. I trust in his infinite compassion. I trust that God forgives me everything, and will not abandon me in the last hour. … And now all my loved ones, be well. And do not forget me in your prayers. Keep the Commandments, and we shall see each other again soon in heaven!”

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Franz Jägerstätter was a solitary witness. He died with no expectation that his sacrifice would make any difference to anyone. He knew that, for his neighbors, the refusal of army service was incomprehensible — an act of folly, a sin against his family, his community and even his Church, which had called on no one to refuse military service. Franz knew that, beyond his family and community, his death would go entirely unnoticed and have no impact on the Nazi movement or hasten the end of the war. He would be soon forgotten. Who would remember or care about the anti-Nazi gesture of an uneducated farmer? He would be just one more filed-away name among many thousands who were tried and executed with bureaucratic indifference during in the Nazi era.

In refusing to change his no to yes, the only thing that Franz could be sure of was that to betray his conscience would put his immortal soul at risk.

If the bishops of Austria had done nothing to sanction conscientious objection, and indeed done a great deal to discourage it, one must note that Franz did not simply invent the stand he took or did he feel abandoned by the Church. He drew strength from the sacraments and from the awareness that he was walking the same path many saints, some in the recent past, had followed — men and women who had obeyed God rather than man and paid with their lives for doing so. Before his death Franz had the profound consolation of learning that a Catholic priest, Fr. Franz Reinisch, had been held in the very same prison and executed for similar reasons.

Like all the witnesses who had gone before him, Franz was equipped with an acute sensitivity to forgotten or neglected notes of the Gospel. He had read the New Testament countless times and had thought long and hard about its stories and teachings. Given the war-related questions he was facing, no doubt it had impressed him that Jesus neither killed anyone nor called upon anyone to do so.

Aware of such basic Gospel themes and responding to them with uncompromising courage and faith, Franz in turn has made it possible for others to hear them too.

In the Franz Jägerstätter narrative, there are two conversion stories.

The first was his own. Franz had been converted from being the sort of assembly-line Catholic who does what is expected of him within his native Catholic community into a rarer sort of Catholic who actually makes a conscious effort to understand the Gospel and to follow Christ wholeheartedly despite antagonistic social structures prepared to punish severely anyone who fails to stay in line.

The other conversion occurred within his Church.

Far from being lost in the past, Franz’s witness proved to be a seed cast in the wind, carried along until a time, nearly two decades later, when it would it at last take root and find fitting soil. As a consequence, Franz Jägerstätter helped the Catholic Church change direction. How providential it was that the story of Franz’s life began to circulate during the Second Vatican Council and played a part in giving shape to what the Catholic Church today teaches about war, peace, conscience and individual responsibility — guidance in stark contrast to what was taught in Franz’s day: trust your rulers and do as you’re told — it is no sin to obey.

Nor did Franz’s influence end with a reform of Church teaching about war and individual responsibility. Half a century after Franz’s death, the Church had he loved so much, but which had deeply disappointed him, beatified him. The Church had moved from interest in Franz’s challenging life to recognizing it as a model of sanctity, a life that rendered nothing less than a modern translation of the Gospel. “Franz Jägerstätter,” said Cardinal Christoph Schönborn on the day of Franz’s beatification, “is a living page of the Gospel. The Gospel is not only an authoritative report of that which was taking place at that time in Galilee and in Jerusalem. It is a living book… Franz Jägerstätter was and is for me the most concrete and illustrative commentary on the Beatitudes that I have ever heard.”

No one would have been more astonished than Franz to hear himself, or any conscientious objector, described by the Cardinal of Vienna in such terms.

Within the cathedral there was resounding applause for Franziska Jägerstätter, who had lived to hear a solemn declaration read aloud recognizing as a model of sanctity a man who had once been dismissed as a model of insanity. Then there was the sight of so many bishops rising to their feet as a 30-foot banner with Franz’s photo was unfurled. But perhaps the high point for all present was to witness Franziska, tears streaming from her eyes, kiss a bronze urn containing some of the Franz’s ashes before presenting the reliquary to Cardinal Schönborn.

One of the persons missing in the Linz cathedral was Gordon Zahn, absent due to infirmity (Alzheimer’s disease) and close to death. It was thanks to Zahn that the name of Franz Jägerstätter had been lifted from obscurity. For someone’s life to be formally recognized as saintly by the Church, there must first be at least one person who takes special note of that life, recognizes its importance, gathers the available details, and makes it his or her business to bring that life to the attention of others. In the case of Franz Jägerstätter, Gordon Zahn was that person. Had he not written In Solitary Witness, it is far from certain that the name of Franz Jägerstätter would be remembered today.

Side by side with Gordon Zahn, we are in debt to an Austrian, Erna Putz. Building on Zahn’s research, beginning in 1979 she devoted herself to making Franz better known, obtaining important documents, writing a full-scale biography of Franz Jägerstätter, and collecting all his letters and other writings, now gathered together in the book you hold in your hands.

The impact of Franz’s life was not only on the Second Vatican Council and its final document, The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. The year In Solitary Witness was published, 1964, happened to coincide with the early stages of U.S. military involvement in the war in Vietnam. In Solitary Witness was widely read by the young men, potential or actual soldiers, who were struggling with the question of how to respond to that war. Having been a draft counselor during that period, I can recall how many of young people I talked with had read Zahn’s book and found themselves deeply challenged by Franz Jägerstätter’s life. It was one of the reasons that the Catholic Church in the United States produced so many thousands of conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War. While none of them faced the guillotine, many faced prison, exile or other hardships. How important it was for them to discover that they were not alone; that someone like Franz Jägerstätter, under far more difficult circumstances, had read the Gospel as they did and faced the consequences, despite the incomprehension of their contemporaries.

Franz Jägerstätter remains a challenge, and not only because of his costly refusal to surrender his conscience to the Nazis.

One aspect of that challenge is Franz’s deeply traditional faith, an example far from fashionable today even among Catholics. While certainly not unaware of the Church’s human shortcomings and the ways so many bishops compromise the Gospel in order to be on good terms with political leaders, Franz Jägerstätter was a grateful Catholic devoted to the Church and its sacramental and devotional life. It is no minor detail of his life that he and Franziska began their marriage by going as pilgrims to Rome, a journey which they could barely afford. No two people were so often seen at Mass in St. Radegund. Both husband and wife were devoted to the rosary; in prison Franz prayed the rosary much of the time. The Jägerstätter household kept all the Church-appointed fasts. Both Franz and Franziska made frequent use of the sacrament of confession. It was remembered in St. Radegund that Franz sometimes paused while at work in the fields in order to pray. He not only served his parish as sexton, a voluntary and time-consuming responsibility, but refused to accept any financial rewards offered to him by parishioners for his role in arranging baptisms, weddings and funerals. Both Franz and Franziska had a special devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, with its stress on Christ’s self-giving love for each person. Franz was a member of the Third Order of St. Francis.

Without doubt the hardest part of saying no to further army service was Franz’s love of his wife and their children. Franz knew his execution would make many aspects of life harder for his family, especially for Franziska, as indeed it did.

While the widows of soldiers won the widespread sympathy of Austrians, Franziska was shunned. Not only had she lost her husband, but many of her neighbors tuned their back on her. Some blamed Franz’s death on her over-zealous religious influence.

When Gordon Zahn interviewed Franziska in 1961, she described with composure her last meeting with Franz in Berlin three weeks before his execution, but she broke down in tears while describing the subsequent behavior of her neighbors. Few offered her the help she so badly needed after Franz’s death.

In the Nazi period, subsidies and privileges were distributed to compliant farmers; poor and hard-pressed though she was, none of these came to her. An application for cement was once rejected as soon as it was noticed that her family name was Jägerstätter.

Even after the war officials penalized many of those who had opposed Hitler. In the entire period of rationing, Franziska received no coupons for clothing or shoes for herself or her children. She knitted clothes from the wool of angora rabbits.

In post-war Austria, for years she was denied the pension allocated to war widows. The authorities argued that the legislation compensating victims only applied to those who had fought for a free and democratic Austria. This did not include Franz, they argued. Franziska only won her right to a pension in 1950, after enlisting the help of a lawyer, Franz’s cousin, Franz Huber.

Yet she bore her difficulties bravely and with unwavering respect for her husband’s stand.

Throughout her life, Franziska Jägerstätter has been a person who never drew attention to herself. It is only in reading the letters the couple exchanged that the outsider begins to realize how deep the bond was between them.

Franz and Franziska loved each other passionately. It was an extraordinary love, with an all-or-nothing dimension of faithfulness that had as its foundation their shared love of God. What became clear to Franz, once he married Franziska, was that he could truly be a Christian husband and father only to the extent that following Christ stood at the center of his life. What better love could a man give to his family than, by his own example, to follow Christ without fear even to the Cross?

While her neighbors may have over-estimated Franziska’s influence, she did much to encourage the faith that finally led Franz to martyrdom, though the stand he took was not something she ever advocated. “In the beginning,” she once explained, “I really begged him not to put his life at stake, but then, when everyone was quarreling with him and scolding him, I didn’t do it any more. … If I had not stood by him, he would have had no one.”

“I have lost a dear husband and a good father to my children,” Franziska wrote soon after Franz’s death, “but I can also assure you that our marriage was one of the happiest in our parish — many people envied us. But the good Lord intended otherwise, and has loosed that loving bond. I already look forward to meeting again in heaven, where no war can ever divide us again.”

After the war Franz’s ashes where brought to St. Radegund and buried beneath a crucifix by the church wall. Little by little, his grave became a place of pilgrimage.

Franziska, still a pilgrim herself, celebrated both the 50th and 60th anniversaries of her wedding by returning to Rome, the city where she and Franz spent the first days of their marriage.

Perhaps what would have astonished Franz more than anything would have been to see, among the five thousand people packed into the Linz cathedral on the day of his beatification, that not only was Franziska (then 94) present, but their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren — sixty family members in all.

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Jim Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands

e-mail: jhforest @

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text as of 10 September 2008
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