Getting From There to Here

by Jim Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Text as revised 19 October 2016.

* * *

Between Constantinople and Istanbul

Istanbul faces

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

24 April 2003, Holy Thursday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

25 April, Good Friday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

26 April, Holy Saturday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christos anesti! Christ is risen!

27 April – Pascha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

28 April, Bright Monday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

30 April, Bright Wednesday

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 May, Bright Thursday

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

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

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

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

2 May, Bright Friday

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

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

St George monastery from the air

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

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

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

image of St George on the side of the monastery

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 May, Bright Saturday

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

* * *

addendum re St George Monastery

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

April 12, 2011

Muslims Who Venerate Saint George

by William Gourlay / Eureka Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Thomas Merton: a poster boy?

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

Jim

* * *

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

by Mark Shaw
Palgrave Macmillan, 256 pages, $27

review by Jim Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love Your Enemies As Yourself

by Jim Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Think about these two important words, love and prayer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Discovering Wormwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy the book.

— Jim Forest

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

a review by Jim Forest of Frank Scheaffer’s memoir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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March 2008
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We Will All Be Changed: Reflections on the Transfiguration

Transfiguration icon, 16th century, Russian (Hermitage Museum)

a sermon given by Jim Forest 8 March 2009 at the Canadian Memorial Church in Vancouver

 

And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves; and he was transfigured before them, and his garments became glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses; and they were talking to Jesus. And Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” For he did not know what to say, for they were exceedingly afraid. And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” And suddenly looking around they no longer saw any one with them but Jesus only. — Mark 9:1-8

As is usual in the shortest of Gospels, Christ’s Transfiguration is described by Mark with great economy — one prefatory verse with Jesus saying that some of those who were present would see the kingdom of God coming in power before they die, then seven verses on the Transfiguration. Not a wasted word, yet the importance of the event is not diminished. Both Matthew and Luke provide similar accounts of the same event.

In the Orthodox Church, to which my wife and I belong, a great deal of attention and reflection is focused on the Transfiguration. I doubt there is an Orthodox Church anywhere in the world in which you will fail to find a Transfiguration icon. The celebration has its own special day on the calendar, August 6. It’s one of the more important commemorations. There is a custom, dating from the early Church but with Jewish roots, of bringing grapes, dates, figs, wine and bread to the church that day for a special blessing after the Liturgy — then everyone shares in the food that was blessed. If grapes are not available locally, apples and other fruits are brought instead.

Here are a few examples of the Transfiguration icon. The first is modern, the others mainly Russian examples that dates from the 16th Century, but also one Coptic icon. While there are many variations of the Transfiguration icon, the basic elements are always the same. On either side of Jesus are the prophet Elijah and the law-giver Moses, the three standing on top of a mountain, and in the foreground the three apostles who are witnesses — John, James and Peter — each shown responding in a different way. In every version, there a suggestion of blinding light emerging from Christ. Some iconographers show this one way, some another. Occasionally black is used — one way of suggesting that the light is not the sort of light we’ve ever seen before. The Orthodox theological term is “uncreated light,” the light of divinity.

The challenge of iconography in general is to create an image that exists on the razor-thin border dividing “realistic” art from “abstract” art. In that sense, this oldest form of Christian art has become quite modern. It’s a tradition that inspired some of Chagall’s most well-known paintings in the last century — a world where lovers are no longer subject to gravity and where the rules of perspective are ignored or even tuned inside out.

Icons are intentionally two-dimensional. This helps the viewer realize that the event or person portrayed cannot be portrayed as in a snapshot. There is a conscious avoidance of any suggestion of motion — on the contrary, there is absolute stillness, profound silence and timelessness. What one “sees” in an icon is as much a mystical experience as it is an historical event.

In this instance, Jesus has allowed his three closest followers to have a revelation of the Kingdom of God even though they haven’t died. And what is the kingdom of God about which Christ has spoken so often throughout his ministry? It’s being permitted to see, even if only briefly, who Jesus Christ really is. Implied in the event is not only seeing Christ with eyes wide open, eyes freed for a time to see things more truly, but being made aware of own transfiguration and the transfiguration of all matter.

It’s a bit like the resurrection. In Christ’s resurrection, we see our own resurrection, just as the first light of dawn prefigures noon. It isn’t only Christ who is transfigured. We are intended to share in it. It isn’t only Christ who rises from death. We are intended to share in that as well.

Both the three Gospel accounts and all the Transfiguration icons are about the discovery that the “reality” we think we are seeing so completely day after day is actually only a faint, incomplete, fog-shrouded sketch of reality — reality that is seen, in St Paul’s phrase, “through a glass darkly.” No matter how acute our eyesight, in fact we are living most of our lives on the frontier of blindness. Like the disciples Peter, James and John, there is so much we don’t see, so much we don’t hear.

It’s a little like one of my favorite scenes in the film “E.T.” A visitor from a distant planet is in the kitchen along with mom and her two children. The kids are well aware of the presence of this extraterrestrial botanist — but not mom. There this very odd-looking visitor stands, right next to the refrigerator. Mom, her arms full of groceries, opens the refrigerator door and in the process knocks E.T. over — thud — but she is too preoccupied to notice. There is an amazing visitor in the house, odder than odd, but she doesn’t see what, as far as she is concerned, couldn’t possibly be there. What can’t be isn’t. E.T. is off her radar.

The principal theologians of the early Church saw in the Transfiguration a promise. In the words of St. Athanasius, “God became a human being so that we human beings might become God.” The Greek word is “theosis.” We could translate that as deification. We are intended to enter more and more deeply into the sacred, into holiness. We are called to participate in Christ’s divinity. It’s an astounding idea. We are not just window-shoppers who get to look though the plate glass and see Christ on the other side, close but untouchable. We are meant to cross what seems to be an uncrossable barrier — to rub the glass so thin it isn’t there any more. Through God’s grace and our God-given longing, the glass wall evaporates, sometimes slowly, sometimes in a flash. It’s what St. Paul means when he speaks of how “we will all be changed, in a moment, in the blink of an eye.”

One of the most important texts in the Book of Genesis is the declaration that Adam and Eve, the fountainhead of the human race, were made in the image and likeness of God. Part of the way our transfiguration occurs is in our becoming more and more capable of seeing the image of God in other people, and not just in the attractive people, the people whose company we seek out, but in people we don’t especially like or even dislike, people whom we avoid, unattractive strangers, potentially dangerous people, people whom we might think of as our enemies.

Let me give you an example of what that conversion of vision looked like in the life of one person, Thomas Merton. You may have heard of him or even have read one or two of his books. You may even guess the story I am thinking of. It’s often called the Epiphany at Fourth and Walnut.

Fourth and Walnut is a busy intersection in downtown Louisville. It’s the spring of 1958. Here’s Thomas Merton, in the city on an errand, one of many people waiting for the light to change. He’s not in his monk’s robes — these would only be worn at the monastery where he has been living since 1941. He’s inconspicuously dressed in the black clothing of a Catholic priest. He appears to be no one special — in Louisville there are many Catholic priests — but probably a few people in the crowd would have recognized his name and perhaps have read his autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain. It’s a book in which Merton described growing up in a artistic, bohemian family, his eventual conversion to Christianity in its Catholic form, and finally his becoming a Trappist monk who left the world with a slam of the door.

Here’s what Merton has to say about what happened to him while waiting for the light to turn green:

“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.”

Think about it. We all know what’s it’s like to be waiting for a light to change. Probably you’re not in the best of moods. You may even be irritated — you have places to go and things to do and not much time and the bloody light is red. It’s not a condition of mind that would seem to clear the way for a mystical experience. Yet somehow it was the right moment in Merton’s life for a transfiguration. It might have taken just ten or twenty seconds, maybe less. Time seemed to stop. He wasn’t standing in expectation of something special occurring that day. But then the fog suddenly lifted and he saw something he had never seen before. It’s wasn’t a pious thought or fantasy but an intense experience of God-illumined reality.

It’s a vision to long for. All these people, none of them known to you by name, none of them familiar, none of them out of the ordinary — and we see them as bearers of the image of God.

One of the phrases Merton uses in his description is that “it was like waking from a dream of separateness.” All the barriers that we imagine separate us from each other — gone.

It’s an experience not just of the other as a person known to God and beloved of God, but an experience of God. To see God’s image in another is to be aware that we are, here and now, in the presence of God.

Here’s how one of the monks of the early Church, St. Dorothea of Gaza, put it. “Be aware. The further we are from each other, the further we are from God. The closer we are to each other, the closer we are to God.”

In Merton’s case, while waiting for the light to turn green, he was freed from the illusion that, by virtue of his monastic vocation, he belonged a category of people — holy monks — who were dearer to God than those with more ordinary vocations.

What happened to Merton afterward was a great turning toward the world. Not that he was less a monk. Not at all. But Merton began to better understand that monastic life is not a life that exempts the monk from love of neighbor so that he can concentrate more single-heartedly on love of God. Merton was 44 that day. He was totally unaware that he had only ten years left before his death. 1968 would be his last year of life in this world.

What he did in that last decade of his life had a great deal to do with responding to his eye-opening moment at Fourth and Walnut. He began corresponding with a lot more people. One of them was Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement with its many houses of hospitality for street people. She was also editor of a newspaper that challenged its readers to live lives of hospitality with all that hospitality implies, a life built on seeing Christ in the least person. Merton began to see that all the preparations for nuclear war that had been going on since the end of World War II posed an issue which he, as a Christian writer, could not ignore.

The lead article in the October 1961 issue of The Catholic Worker was the first of a series of articles by Merton on the our duty as Christians to strive with all our power and intelligence, with all our faith, all our hope in Christ, and love for God and neighbor, “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 1961, the Cold War being arctic cold, there were many people not at all pleased that Thomas Merton was writing about such matters — a monk criticizing his nation’s military policies, a monk protesting nuclear weapons, a monk condemning war. Who does he think he is? Write about the rosary, please, not about war. The consequences made the years that followed far from easy for Merton. Six months later, he was forbidden to publish a book he had written, Peace in the Post-Christian Era. It finally got into print just a few years ago, more than four decades after it was written.

Even so, when one door is locked, another opens, and one door leads to another. Merton’s peace work continued if much of it in a more intimate form. By the time Merton died, he had become one of the rare Catholics of the time who were in frequent contact with all sorts of people Catholics in those days — not to say Catholic monks — would ordinarily ignore and avoid: Protestant and Orthodox Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Moslems, believers and non-believers, even a fellow writer in Russia, Boris Pasternak.

Merton became one of the great letter writers. Happily, a great many of his letters are now available in books. Merton has died but not his voice. His letters are still being delivered to anyone who wishes to receive them.

The point here is not to single out Merton as one of those rare souls who gets to see something many of us can hardly imagine exists, but rather to stress the point that all of us are intended to see the world around us more clearly than we do, and that means seeing in others the presence of God no matter how thoroughly it may be hidden.

Consider ordinary moments on ordinary days and how much we look at the people around us through narrowed eyes.

You’re walking down a street and see a man in stained clothing sitting on the pavement, a paper coffee cup in front of him. As you pass by, he asks if you could contribute something toward his next meal. Though unshaven and in need of a shower, he’s young and muscular, apparently healthy and capable of working. You’ve just walked past a dozen help-wanted signs. What thoughts pass through your mind? What do you see? Who do you see? How do you respond?

As the sun is setting you notice several teenagers down the street, speaking abusively in voices that can be heard 50 yards away. They seem to be looking for trouble. What do you think and feel as you look at them? Do you continue on the same path or find an alternate route? What do you see? Who do you see? How do you respond?

You turn on the news and hear a report concerning the murder of a young woman. There’s a photo of her taken from her high school year book — a beautiful face and bright smile, a face full of life and promise. She reminds you of your own children. Based on information from witnesses, a drawing of a man seen running from the crime scene is shown along with a telephone number you should call if you have seen anyone resembling the suspect. You are warned not to approach him as he is regarded as armed and dangerous. The drawing lingers in your mind. What are your thoughts about the man being sought? When you look at his picture, what do you see? Who do you see? How do you respond?

It is in such ordinary moments that we need transfigured eyes — not only to see the ruined state of so many people around us, but that hidden person who, for all that has gone wrong in his or her life, is beloved by God but probably hasn’t been very fortunate in being loved and cared for by human beings.

Maybe this is something we need to pray for, even on a daily basis. Let me leave you with this brief prayer:

Lord, please give me transfigured eyes. Give me a readiness to see in others a little of what you see in them, so that I might respond in such a way that your love may be more evident, and that my fear will not get in the way of your love.

Amen.

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photos of several Transfiguration icons are in this folder:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/sets/741533/

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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.”

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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:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/sets/72157613109469667/

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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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