Confession: A Sacrament of Healing

by Jim Forest

Confession. The word makes us nervous, touching as it does all that is hidden in ourselves: lies told, injuries caused, things stolen, friends deceived, people betrayed, promises broken, faith denied — these plus all the smaller actions that reveal the beginnings of sins.

Confession is painful, yet a Christian life without confession is impossible.

Confession is a major theme of the Gospels. Even before Christ began his public ministry, we read in Matthew’s Gospel that John required confession of those who came to him for baptism in the River Jordan for a symbolic act of washing away their sins: “And they were baptized by [John] in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” (Mt 3:6)

Then there are those remarkable words of Christ to Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Mt 16:19) The keys of binding and losing sins were given not only to a one apostle but to all Christ’s disciples, and — in a sacramental sense — to any priest who has his bishop’s blessing to hear confessions.

The Gospel author John warns us not to deceive ourselves. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins.” (1 John 1:8-9)

The sacrament of baptism, the rite of entrance into the Church, has always been linked with repentance. “Repent, and be baptized … in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins,” Saint Peter preached in Jerusalem, “and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). In the same book we read that “many of those who believed came forward confessing and divulging their deeds and practices.” (Acts 19:18)

The prodigal son: One Gospel story in which we encounter confession is the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). Here Christ describes a young man so impatient to come into his inheritance and be independent that in effect he says to his father, “As far as I’m concerned, you have already died. Give me now what would have come to me after your funeral. I want nothing more to do with you or with this house.”

With God-like generosity, the father gives what his son asks, though he knows his son well enough to realize that all that the boy receives might as well be burned in a stove. The boy takes his inheritance and leaves, at last free of parents, free of domestic morals and good behavior, free to do as he pleases.

After wasting his money, he finds himself reduced to feeding the pigs as a farm hand. People he had thought of as friends now sneer at him. He knows he has renounced the claim to be anyone’s son, yet in his desperation and misery dares hope his father might at least allow him to return home as a servant. Full of dismay for what he said to his father and what he did with his inheritance, he walks home in his rags, ready to confess his sins, to beg for work, and to ask for a corner to sleep in.

The son cannot imagine the love his father has for him or the fact that, despite all the trouble he caused, he has been desperately missed. Far from being glad to be rid of the boy, the father has gazed day after day in prayer toward the horizon in hope of his son’s return.

“But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” Had he not been watching he would not have noticed his child in the distance and realized who it was. Instead of simply standing and waiting for him to reach the door, he ran to meet him, embracing his child, pouring out words of joy and welcome rather than reproof or condemnation.

“And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ ” Here we have the son’s confession compacted into a single sentence. It is the essence of any confession: our return to our Father, who made us and constantly awaits our homecoming.

What is sin?

There have been countless essays and books in recent decades which have dealt with human failings under various labels without once using the three-letter word that has more bite than any of its synonyms: sin. Actions traditionally regarded as sinful have instead been seen as natural stages in the process of growing up, a result of bad parenting, a consequence of mental illness, an inevitable response to unjust social conditions, pathological behavior brought on by addiction, or even as “experiments in being.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the person who has committed a serious sin, there are two vivid signs — the hope that what I did may never become known; and a gnawing sense of guilt. At least this is the case before the conscience becomes completely numb as patterns of sin become the structure of one’s life to the extent that hell, far from being a possible next-life experience, is where I find myself in this life.

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

One of the oddest things about the age we live in is that we are made to feel guilty about feeling guilty. There is a cartoon tacked up in our house in which one prisoner says to another, “Just remember — it’s okay to be guilty, but not okay to feel guilty.”

A sense of guilt — the painful awareness of having committed sins — can be life renewing. Guilt provides a foothold for contrition, which in turn can motivate confession and repentance. Without guilt, there is no remorse; without remorse there is no possibility of becoming free of habitual sins.

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

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

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

A blessed guilt is the pain we feel when we realize we have cut ourselves off from that divine communion that radiates all creation. It is impossible to live in Godless universe, but easy to be unaware of God’s presence or even to resent it.

It’s a common delusion that one’s sins are private or affect only a few other people. To think our sins, however hidden, don’t affect others is like imagining that a stone thrown into the water won’t generate ripples. As Bishop Kallistos Ware has observed: “There are no entirely private sins. All sins are sins against my neighbor, as well as against God and against myself. Even my most secret thoughts are, in fact, making it more difficult for those around me to follow Christ.”

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

One of the most widely used prayers, the Jesus Prayer, is only one sentence long: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Short as it is, many people drawn to it are put off by the last two words. Those who teach the prayer are often asked, “But must I call myself a sinner?” In fact the ending isn’t essential — the only essential word is “Jesus” — but my difficulty identifying myself as a sinner reveals a lot. What makes me so reluctant to speak of myself in such plain words? Don’t I do a pretty good job of hiding rather than revealing Christ in my life? Am I not a sinner? To admit that I am provides a starting point.

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

Justification may be verbal, but mainly it takes the form of repetition: I do again and again the same thing as a way of demonstrating to myself and others that it’s not really a sin but rather something normal or human or necessary or even good. “Commit a sin twice and it will not seem a crime,” notes a Jewish proverb.

Repentance, on the other hand, is the recognition that I cannot live any more as I have been living, because in living that way I wall myself apart from others and from God. Repentance is a change in direction. Repentance is the door of communion. It is also a sine qua non of forgiveness. Absolution is impossible where there is no repentance.

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

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

Confession a social action

It is impossible to imagine a healthy marriage or deep friendship without confession and forgiveness. If you have done something that damages a relationship, confession is essential to its restoration. For the sake of that bond, you confess what you’ve done, you apologize, and you promise not to do it again, and you do everything in your power to keep that promise.

In the context of religious life, confession is what we do to safeguard and renew our relationship with God whenever it is damaged. Confession restores our communion with God and with each other.

It is never easy admitting to doing something you regret and are ashamed of, an act you attempted to keep secret or denied doing or tried to blame on someone else, perhaps arguing — to yourself as much as to others — that it wasn’t actually a sin at all, or wasn’t nearly as bad as some people might claim. In the hard labor of growing up, one of the most agonizing tasks is becoming capable of saying, “I’m sorry.”

Yet we are designed for confession. Secrets in general are hard to keep, but unconfessed sins not only never go away but have a way of becoming heavier as time passes — the greater the sin, the heavier the burden. Confession is the only solution.

To understand confession in its sacramental sense, one first has to grapple with a few basic questions: Why is the Church involved in forgiving sins? Is priest-witnessed confession really needed? Why confess at all to any human being? In fact, why bother confessing to God even without a human witness? If God is really all-knowing, then he knows everything about me already. My sins are known before it even crosses my mind to confess them. Why bother telling God what God already knows?

Yes, truly God knows. My confession can never be as complete or revealing as God’s knowledge of me and all that needs repairing in my life.

A related question we need to consider has to do with our basic design as social beings. Why am I so willing to connect with others in every other area of life, yet not in this? Why is it that I look so hard for excuses, even for theological rationales, not to confess? Why do I try so hard to explain away my sins until I’ve decided either they’re not so bad or might even be seen as acts of virtue? Why is it that I find it so easy to commit sins yet am so reluctant, in the presence of another, to admit to having done so?

We are social beings. The individual as autonomous unit is a delusion. The Marlboro Man — the person without community, parents, spouse, or children — exists only on billboards. The individual is someone who has lost a sense of connection to others or attempts to exist in opposition to others — while the person exists in communion with other persons. At a conference of Orthodox Christians in France a few years ago, in a discussion of the problem of individualism, a theologian confessed, “When I am in my car, I am an individual, but when I get out, I am a person again.”

We are social beings. The language we speak connects us to those around us. The food I eat was grown by others. The skills passed on to me have slowly been developed in the course of hundreds of generations. The air I breathe and the water I drink is not for my exclusive use but has been in many bodies before mine. The place I live, the tools I use, and the paper I write on were made by many hands. I am not my own doctor or dentist or banker. To the extent I disconnect myself from others, I am in danger. Alone I die, and soon. To be in communion with others is life.

Because we are social beings, confession in church does not take the place of confession to those we have sinned against. An essential element of confession is doing all I can to set right what I did wrong. If I stole something, it must be returned or paid for. If I lied to anyone, I must tell that person the truth. If I was angry without good reason, I must apologize. I must seek forgiveness not only from God but from those whom I have wronged or harmed.

We are also verbal beings. Words provide not only a way of communicating with others but even with ourselves. The fact that confession is witnessed forces me to put into words all those ways, minor and major, in which I live as if there were no God and no commandment to love. A thought that is concealed has great power over us.

Confessing sins, or even temptations, makes us better able to resist. The underlying principle is described in one of the collections of sayings of the Desert Fathers:

If impure thoughts trouble you, do not hide them, but tell them at once to your spiritual father and condemn them. The more a person conceals his thoughts, the more they multiply and gain strength. But an evil thought, when revealed, is immediately destroyed. If you hide things, they have great power over you, but if you could only speak of them before God, in the presence of another, then they will often wither away, and lose their power.

Confessing to anyone, even a stranger, renews rather than contracts my humanity, even if all I get in return for my confession is the well-worn remark, “Oh that’s not so bad. After all, you’re only human.” But if I can confess to anyone anywhere, why confess in church in the presence of a priest? It’s not a small question in societies in which the phrase “institutionalized religion” is so often used, the implicit message being that religious institutions necessarily undermine religious life.

Confession is a Christian ritual with a communal character. Confession in the church differs from confession in your living room in the same way that getting married in church differs from simply living together. The communal aspect of the event tends to safeguard it, solidify it, and call everyone to account — those doing the ritual, and those witnessing it.

In the social structure of the Church, a huge network of local communities is held together in unity, each community helping the others and all sharing a common task while each provides a specific place to recognize and bless the main events in life from birth to burial. Confession is an essential part of that continuum. My confession is an act of reconnection with God and with all the people and creatures who depend on me and have been harmed by my failings and from whom I have distanced myself through acts of non-communion. The community is represented by the person hearing my confession, an ordained priest delegated to serve as Christ’s witness, who provides guidance and wisdom that helps each penitent overcome attitudes and habits that take us off course, who declares forgiveness and restores us to communion. In this way our repentance is brought into the community that has been damaged by our sins — a private event in a public context.

“It’s a fact,” writes Fr. Thomas Hopko, rector of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, “that we cannot see the true ugliness and hideousness of our sins until we see them in the mind and heart of the other to whom we have confessed.”

Tools for Examining Conscience

From the first century, attending the liturgy and receiving communion on Sundays and principal feast days has been at the heart of Christian life, the event that gives life a eucharistic dimension and center point. But communion — receiving Christ into ourselves — can never be routine, never something we deserve no matter what the condition of our life may be. For example, Christ solemnly warns us against approaching the altar if we are in a state of enmity with anyone. He tells us, “Leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother…” (Mt 5:23). In one of the parables, he describes a person who is ejected from the wedding feast because he isn’t wearing a wedding garment: his tattered clothing is a metaphor for living a life which reduces conscience to rags (Mt 22:1-14).

Receiving Christ in communion during the liturgy is the keystone of living in communion — with God, with people, and with creation. Christ teaches us that love of God and love of neighbor sum up the Law. One way of describing a serious sin is to say it is any act which breaks our communion with God and with our neighbor.

It is for this reason that examination of conscience — if necessary, going to confession — is part of preparation for communion. This is an ongoing process of trying to see my life and actions with clarity and honesty — to look at myself, my choices, and my direction as known by God. The examination of conscience is an occasion not only to recall any serious sins committed since my last confession but, even the beginnings of sins.

The word conscience derives from a Greek verb meaning “to have common knowledge” or “to know with” someone, a concept that led to the idea of bearing witness concerning someone, especially yourself. Conscience is an inner faculty that guides us in making choices which align us with God’s will and which accuses us when we break communion with God and with our neighbor. Conscience is a reflection of the divine image at the core of each person. In The Sacred Gift of Life, Fr. John Breck points out that “the education of conscience is acquired in large measure through immersing ourselves in the ascetic tradition of the Church: its life of prayer, sacramental and liturgical celebration, and scripture study. The education of our conscience also depends upon our acquiring wisdom from those who are more advanced than we are in faith, love, and knowledge of God.”

Conscience is God’s whispering voice within us calling us to a way of life that reveals God’s presence and urges us to refuse actions that destroy community and communion.

Key elements in confession

Fr. Alexander Schmemann provided this summary of the three key areas of confession:

Relationship to God: Questions on faith itself, possible doubts or deviations, inattention to prayer, neglect of liturgical life, fasting, etc.

Relationship to one’s neighbor: Basic attitudes of selfishness and self-centeredness, indifference to others, lack of attention, interest, love. All acts of actual offense — envy, gossip, cruelty, etc. — must be mentioned and, if needed, their sinfulness shown to the penitent.

Relationship to one’s self: Sins of the flesh with, as their counterpart, the Christian vision of purity and wholesomeness, respect for the body as an icon of Christ, etc. Abuse of one’s life and resources, absence of any real effort to deepen life; abuse of alcohol or other drugs; cheap idea of “fun,” a life centered on amusement, irresponsibility, neglect of family relations, etc.

Tools of Self-examination

In the struggle to examine conscience, we have tools that can assist us, resources that help both in the formation and the examination of conscience. Among these are the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, and various prayers, as well as lists of questions written by experienced confessors. In this small booklet, we will look at only one of these, the Beatitudes, which provided a brief summary of the Gospel. Each Beatitude reveals an aspect of being in union with God.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Poverty of spirit is my awareness that I need God’s help and mercy more than anything else. It is knowing that I cannot save myself, that neither money nor power will spare me from suffering and death, and that no matter what I achieve and acquire in this life, it will be far less than I want if I let my acquisitive capacity get the upper hand. This is the blessing of knowing that even what I have is not mine. It is living free of the domination of fear. While the exterior forms of poverty vary from person to person and even from year to year in a particular life, depending on one’s vocation and special circumstances, all who live this Beatitude are seeking with heart and soul to live God’s will rather than their own. Christ’s mother is the paradigm of poverty of spirit in her unconditional assent to the will of God: “May it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). Similarly, at the marriage feast at Cana, she says to those waiting on the tables: “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5). Whoever lives by these words is poor in spirit.

Questions to consider: We are bombarded by advertisements, constantly reminded of the possibility of having things and of indulging all sorts of curiosities and temptations. The simple goal of poverty of spirit seems more remote than the moons of Neptune. Am I regularly praying that God will give me poverty of spirit? When tempted to buy things I don’t need, do I pray for strength to resist? Do I keep the Church fasts that would help strengthen my capacity to live this Beatitude? Do I really seek to know and embrace God’s will in my life? Am I willing to be seen as odd or stupid by those whose lives are dominated by values that oppose the Beatitudes?

Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Mourning is cut from the same cloth as poverty of spirit. Without poverty of spirit, I am forever on guard to keep what I have for myself, and to keep me for myself, or for that small circle of people whom I regard as mine. A consequence of poverty of spirit is becoming vulnerable to the pain and losses of others, not only those whom I happen to know and care for, but also those who are strangers to me. “When we die,” said Saint John Climacus, the seventh-century abbot of Saint Catherine’s monastery near Mount Sinai, “we will not be criticized for having failed to work miracles. We will not be accused of having failed to be theologians or contemplatives. But we will certainly have to explain to God why we did not mourn unceasingly.”

Questions to consider: Do I weep with those who weep? Have I mourned those in my own family who have died? Do I open my thoughts and feelings to the suffering and losses of others? Do I try to make space in my mind and heart for the calamities in the lives of others who may be far away and neither speak my language nor share my faith?

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Meekness is often confused with weakness, yet a meek person is neither spineless nor cowardly. Understood biblically, meekness is making choices and exercising power with a divine rather than social reference point. Meekness is the essential quality of the human being in relationship to God. Without meekness, we cannot align ourselves with God’s will. In place of humility we prefer pride — pride in who we are, pride in doing as we please, pride in what we’ve achieved, pride in the national or ethnic group to which we happen to belong. Meekness has nothing to do with blind obedience or social conformity. Meek Christians do not allow themselves to be dragged along by the tides of political power. Such rudderless persons have cut themselves off from their own conscience, God’s voice in their hearts, and thrown away their God-given freedom. Meekness is an attribute of following Christ no matter what risks are involved.

Questions to consider: When I read the Bible or writings of the saints, do I consider the implications for my own life? When I find what I read at odds with the way I live, do I allow the text to challenge me? Do I pray for God’s guidance? Do I seek help with urgent questions in confession? Do I tend to make choices and adopt ideas that will help me fit into the group I want to be part of? Do I fear the criticism or ridicule of others for my efforts to live a Gospel-centered life? Do I listen to others? Do I tell the truth even in difficult circumstances?

Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. In his teaching about the Last Judgment, Christ speaks of hunger and thirst: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink” (Mt 25:35). To hunger and thirst for something is not a mild desire but a desperate craving. Our salvation hinges on our caring for the least person as we would for Christ himself. To hunger and thirst for righteousness means to urgently desire that which is honorable, right, and true. A righteous person is a right-living person, living a moral, blameless life, right with both God and neighbor. A righteous social order would be one in which no one is abandoned or thrown away, in which people live in peace with God, with each other, and with the world God has given us.

Questions to consider: Does it disturb me that I live in a world which in many ways is the opposite of the kingdom of heaven? When I pray “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” am I praying that my own life might better reflect God’s priorities? Who is “the least” in my day-to-day world? Do I try to see Christ’s face in him or her?

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy. One of the perils of pursuing righteousness is that one can become self-righteous. Thus, the next rung of the ladder of the Beatitudes is the commandment of mercy. This is the quality of self-giving love, of gracious deeds done for those in need. Twice in the Gospels Christ makes his own the words of the Prophet Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice (Hos 6:6; Mt 9:13, 12:7). We witness mercy in event after event in the New Testament account of Christ’s life — forgiving, healing, freeing, correcting, even repairing the wound of a man injured by Peter in his effort to protect Christ and promising paradise to the criminal being crucified next to him. Again and again Christ declares that those who seek God’s mercy must pardon others. The principle is included in the only prayer Christ taught his disciples, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” He calls on his followers to love their enemies and to pray for them. The moral of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that a neighbor is a person who comes to the aid of a stranger in need (Lk 10:29-37). While denouncing hypocrisy and warning the merciless that they are condemning themselves to hell, in no passage in the Gospel do we hear Christ advocating anyone’s death. At the Last Judgment Christ receives into the kingdom of heaven those who were merciful. He is Mercy itself.

Questions to consider: When I see a stranger in need, how do I respond? Is Christ’s mercy evident in my life? Am I willing to extend forgiveness to those who seek it? Am I generous in sharing my time and material possessions with those in need? Do I pray for my enemies? Do I try to assist them if they are in need? Have I been an enemy to anyone?

Mercy is more and more absent even in societies with Christian roots. In the United States, the death penalty has been reinstated in the majority of states and has the fervent support of many Christians. Even in the many countries that have abolished executions, the death penalty is often imposed on unborn children — abortion is hardly regarded as a moral issue. Concerning the sick, aged, and severely handicapped, “mercy” killing and “assisted suicide” are now phrases much in use. To what extent have I been influenced by slogans and ideologies that promote death as a solution and disguise killing as mercy? What am I doing to make my society more welcoming, more caring, more life-protecting?

Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God. The brain has come up in the world while the heart has been demoted. The heart used to be widely recognized as the locus of God’s activity within us, the hub of human identity and conscience, linked with our capacity to love, the core not only of physical but also of spiritual life — the ground zero of the human soul. In our brain-centered society, we ought to be surprised that Christ didn’t say, “Blessed are the brilliant in mind.” Instead, he blessed purity of heart. The Greek word for purity, katharos, means spotless, stainless; intact, unbroken, perfect; free from adulteration or anything that defiles or corrupts. What, then, is a pure heart? A heart free of possessiveness, a heart capable of mourning, a heart that thirsts for what is right, a merciful heart, a loving heart, a heart not ruled by passions, an undivided heart, a heart aware of the image of God in others, a heart drawn to beauty, a heart conscious of God’s presence in creation. A pure heart is a heart without contempt for others. “A person is truly pure of heart when he considers all human beings as good and no created thing appears impure or defiled to him,” wrote Saint Isaac of Syria.

Opposing purity of heart is lust of any kind — for wealth, for recognition, for power, for vengeance, for sexual exploits — whether indulged through action or imagination. Spiritual virtues that defend the heart are memory, awareness, watchfulness, wakefulness, attention, hope, faith, and love. A rule of prayer in daily life helps heal, guard, and unify the heart. “Always keep your mind collected in your heart,” instructed the great teacher of prayer, Saint Theofan the Recluse. The Jesus Prayer — the Prayer of the Heart — is part of a tradition of spiritual life that helps move the center of consciousness from the mind to the heart. Purification of the heart is the striving to place under the rule of the heart the mind, which represents the analytic and organizational aspect of consciousness. It is the moment-to-moment prayerful discipline of seeking to be so aware of God’s presence that no space is left in the heart for hatred, greed, lust, or vengeance. Purification of the heart is the lifelong struggle of seeking a more God-centered life, a heart illuminated with the presence of the Holy Trinity.

Questions to consider: Do I take care not to read or look at things that stir up lust? Do I avoid using words that soil my mouth? Am I attentive to beauty in people, nature, and the arts? Am I sarcastic about others? Is a rhythm of prayer part of my daily life? Do I prepare carefully for communion, never taking it for granted? Do I observe fasting days and seasons? Am I aware of and grateful for God’s gifts?

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Christ is often called the Prince of Peace. His peace is not a passive condition — he blesses the makers of peace. The peacemaker is a person who helps heal damaged relationships. Throughout the Gospel we see Christ bestowing peace. In his final discourse before his arrest, he says to the Apostles: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you….Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (Jn 14:27). After the Resurrection, he greets his followers with the words, “Peace be with you” (Lk 24:36; Jn 20:19). He instructs his followers that, on entering a house, their first action should be the blessing, “Peace be to this house” (Lk 10:5). Christ is at his most paradoxical when he says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Mt 10:34; note that a similar passage in Luke uses the word “division” rather than “sword”). Those who try to live Christ’s peace may find themselves in trouble, as all those who have died a martyr’s death bear witness. Sadly, for most of us, the peace we long for is not the kingdom of God but a slightly improved version of the world we already have. We would like to get rid of conflict without eliminating the spiritual and material factors that draw us into conflict. The peacemaker is a person aware that ends never stand apart from means: figs do not grow from thistles; neither is community brought into being by hatred and violence. A peacemaker is aware that all persons, even those who seem to be ruled by evil spirits, are made in the image of God and are capable of change and conversion.

Questions to consider: In my family, in my parish, and among my co-workers, am I guilty of sins which cause or deepen division and conflict? Do I ask forgiveness when I realize I am in the wrong? Or am I always justifying what I do, no matter what pain or harm it causes others? Do I regard it as a waste of time to communicate with opponents? Do I listen with care and respect to those who irritate me? Do I pray for the well-being and salvation of adversaries and enemies? Do I allow what others say or what the press reports to define my attitude toward those whom I have never met? Do I take positive steps to overcome division? Are there people I regard as not bearing God’s image and therefore innately evil?

Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you. The last rung is where the Beatitudes reach and pass beyond the cross. “We must carry Christ’s cross as a crown of glory,” wrote Saint John Chrysostom in the fourth century, “for it is by it that everything that is achieved among us is gained….Whenever you make the sign of the cross on your body, think of what the cross means and put aside anger and every other passion. Take courage and be free in the soul.”

In the ancient world, Christians were persecuted chiefly because they were regarded as undermining the social order even though in most respects they were models of civil obedience and good conduct. But Christians abstained from the cult of the deified emperor, would not sacrifice to gods their neighbors venerated, and were notable for their objection to war or bloodshed in any form. It is easy to imagine that a community that lived by such values, however well-behaved, would be regarded as a threat by the government. “Both the Emperor’s commands and those of others in authority must be obeyed if they are not contrary to the God of heaven,” said Saint Euphemia in the year 303 during the reign of Diocletian. “If they are, they must not only be disobeyed; they must be resisted.” Following torture, Saint Euphemia was killed by a bear — the kind of death endured by thousands of Christians well into the fourth century, though the greatest number of Christian martyrs belongs to the twentieth century. In many countries religious persecution continues.

Questions to consider: Does fear play a bigger role in my life than love? Do I hide my faith or live it in a timid, half-hearted way? When I am ordered to do something that conflicts with Christ’s teaching, whom do I obey? Am I aware of those who are suffering for righteousness’ sake in my own country and elsewhere in the world? Am I praying for them? Am I doing anything to help them?

Finding a confessor

Just as not every doctor is a good physician, not every priest is a good confessor. Sometimes it happens that a priest, however good his qualities in other respects, is a person not well suited for witnessing confessions. While abusive priests are the exception, their existence must be noted. God has given us freedom and provided each person with a conscience. It is not the role of a priest to take the place of conscience or to become anyone’s drill sergeant. A good confessor will help us become better at hearing conscience and becoming more free in an increasingly God-centered life.

Fortunately good confessors are not hard to find. Usually your confessor is the priest who is closest, sees you most often, knows you and the circumstances of your life best: a priest of your parish. Do not be put off by your awareness of what you perceive as his relative youth, his personal shortcomings, or the probability that he possesses no rare spiritual gifts. Keep in mind that each priest goes to confession himself and may have more to confess than you do. You confess not to him but to Christ in his presence. He is the witness of your confession — you do not require and will never find a sinless person to be that witness. (The Orthodox Church tries to make this clear by having the penitent face not the priest but an icon of Christ.) What he says by way of advice can be remarkably insightful or brusque or seem to you a cliché and not very relevant, yet almost always there will be something helpful if only you are willing to hear it. Sometimes there is a suggestion or insight that becomes a turning point in your life. If he imposes a penance — normally increased prayer, fasting, and acts of mercy — it should be accepted meekly, unless there is something in the penance which seems to you a violation of your conscience or of the teaching of the Church as you understand it.

Don’t imagine that a priest will respect you less for what you reveal to Christ in the priest’s presence or imagine that he is carefully remembering all your sins. “Even a recently ordained priest will quickly find that he cannot remember 99 percent of what people tell him in confession,” one priest told me. He said it is embarrassing to him that people expect him to remember what they told him in an earlier confession. “When they remind me, then sometimes I remember, but without a reminder, usually my mind is a blank. I let the words I listen to pass through me. Also, so much that I hear in one confession is similar to what I hear in other confessions — the confessions blur together. The only sins I easily remember are my own.”

One priest told me of his difficulties meeting the expectations that sometimes become evident in confession. “I am not a psychologist. I have no special gifts. I am just a fellow sinner trying to stay on the path.”

A Russian priest who is spiritual father to many people once told me about the joy he often feels hearing confessions. “It is not that I am glad anyone has sins to confess but when you come to confession it means these sins are in your past, not your future. Confession marks a turning point and I am the lucky one who gets to watch people making that turn!”

* * *

This essay was published in booklet form by Conciliar Press. It condenses several chapters from the book Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness.

* * *
Jim Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands
e-mail: [email protected]
personal web: www.incommunion.org/forest-flier/
Forest-Flier Editorial Services: www.incommunion.org/forest-flier/ffes/
OPF web: www.incommunion.org
photos: www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/sets/
* * *

The Ultra-Resistance: on the trial of the Milwaukee 14 (part 2)

(part 1 is posted at: http://www.jimandnancyforest.com/2006/11/18/m14trial/)

The attitudes of this new vintage of raiders are more cynical than those of the witness movement’s pioneers. As the Ultra-Resistance grows younger and more secular, it expresses increasing frustrations with the narrowness of its audience. However brilliant the trials of the Catonsville Nine and the Milwaukee Twelve, they failed to produce the forum which the protesters had hoped to obtain. The trials seem like chamber music played to the intimate audience of the peace community. The acts themselves are felt to be symbolic and not political enough. There is a growing anguish among the young about the obscurity of the witness they will offer.

The leaders of their movement, the older, more established and more eloquent men like the Berrigans, O’Leary, Forest, will continue to expound their mystique of protest in the religious and Left press. But the jail terms of the Chicago Fifteen, the Pasadena Three, the Silver Spring Three will have little educational impact. Who ever hears about the Boston Two, Suzi Williams and Frank Femia? They were denied bail at their first arraignment, and have already been in jail for over a year. It is with people like them in mind that the Ultra-Resistance is starting to question its basic premise of witnessing in jail. It is debating whether the “stand-around” actions for which they will surely be arrested are really preferable to the more destructive possibilities of anonymous hit-and-run sabotage. “Is it going to be a stand-around or a hit-and-run?” is the new stock question.

In July a group of five women calling themselves Women Against Daddy Warbucks carried out what seemed to be a combination of the two styles of action — a hit-and-run at the central draft board in Manhattan followed a day later by a playful stand-around in Rockefeller Center Plaza. In August the tactics became more elaborate. Draft boards were ransacked during the night, first in the Bronx (where 75,000 files were upset) and then in Queens, where a note was left saying that those responsible would soon identify themselves. A week later, on August 21st, eight protesters, two of them Jesuits, called a press conference at the Overseas Press Club and introduced themselves as the New York Eight who had made the raids to “underscore the horror of the military system that drafts Americans that kill and die.”

Members of the New York Eight also delivered manila envelopes filled with mutilated draft records to the chairmen of the boards of W. R. Grace and Company, Anaconda, I.T.T., and Standard Oil of New Jersey to “regale them with complicity,” as a friend of the group put it. The corporations sent the draft files back to federal authorities with extraordinary speed. The New York Eight stressed the fact that six of them are Irish-Americans. In fact, the Ultra-Resistance, since the Berrigans’ early work, has been predominantly Irish and had a streak of the I.R.A. in the viscerality of its emotions and its tactics. “We liken the situation in this country to that of Northern Ireland,” the New York Eight said in their press statement, “where civil rights are not respected and where violence is considered an alternative to respect for human rights.” The group had a three-hour meeting with Bernadette Devlin on the second day after her arrival in New York. So far none of the Eight has been prosecuted; whether they are or not, it seems likely that their way of doing things will recur often during the coming months.

However, many young purists still hold out for the original pristine stand-around. “There is no point to running,” John Phillips writes in his PISS newsletter. “Repression is certain; if depersonalized, repression will be general…. We are demythologizers, in running we maintain the myths…. Do your thing but run means not doing your thing, unless your thing is running….”

If, as others predict, the hard core of the Movement moves away from the moral violence of witness actions to the physical violence of sabotage, it will retard the violence of the government but it will not expose it so well. Its concern for destroying property without harming persons — so far highly solicitous — will be harder to control. It will lose its moral force and its dimension of hope. The witness movement has been in the highest tradition of civil disobedience, which is based on the hope that the system can be changed through non-violent means, and which considers jail as a necessary measure to prove a moral point.

Actions such as those of the Milwaukee Fourteen’s have been a witness to hope. The hit-and-run actions will be a witness to despair. And whatever token moves are taken by the Nixon Administration to deescalate the Vietnam fighting, the most terrible toll taken on this country by this insane war is precisely the loss of hope, the sense that not only legal means but also the process of non-violent civil disobedience have been tried and left wanting in reforming various areas of injustice.

Resisters feel that the legal system is much at fault. The courts’ predictable unwillingness to let themselves be used as forums for the airing of anti-war views, the judges’ natural reluctance to inject issues of political morality into their charges to juries, the selected conservatism of the jurying classes, have helped to inject a mood of hopelessness into the most utopian faction of the Movement. “If you decide that the only issue in this courtroom is whether we intended to take and burn draft records,” James Forest had told the jury in his closing statement, “you will make non-violence less likely and more difficult than ever.”

The Federal trial of the Milwaukee twelve which began on June 9th, three days after the State sentencing, was brief, abortive, and totally unexpected in its results. The charges were destroying government property and interfering with the working of the Selective Service System. After a tedious voirdire of two and a half days in which he cross-examined 141 prospective jurors — mostly hostile to the defendants — Federal District Judge Myron Gordon dismissed the government charges against the twelve on grounds that “prejudicial pre-trial publicity” caused by modern press media had made a fair trial impossible. The decision was said to have no precedent. Other court rulings involving news coverage of criminal cases, such as the Sam Sheppard case, had never resulted in dismissal of charges, but in reversal of conviction followed by retrial. The Federal Court’s decision — favorable though it seemed on the surface — had ominous implications for the twelve men. The government immediately filed an appeal. If the twelve are tried and convicted in a Federal Court in six or eight months, as they are apt to be, there will be virtually no chance of their Federal sentences being served concurrently with their State sentences, as has been usual in civil disobedience cases. Judge Gordon’s ruling is predicted to add six or eight months to their stay in jail.

The fate of the Milwaukee twelve seems to have become enmeshed in local Wisconsin politics. Judge Gordon, a dour Harvard Law School graduate who would have run a much tighter trial than Judge Larson, has been fighting a political vendetta with the Milwaukee press for several years. He is known to be a close friend of the city’s mayor, Henry Maier, who had been instrumental in getting him appointed to the Federal bench. When the liberal Milwaukee Journal in 1967 criticized the Mayor’s stand on civil rights as being timid, Judge Gordon backed the mayor. He accused the Journal of running a monopoly press, and was attacked in turn by the paper. By dismissing charges against the war protesters on the grounds that the local press had made a fair trial impossible, Judge Gordon may have turned conservative elements in the city against his acknowledged enemy. By such vendettas are the lengths of men’s jail terms frequently dictated.

On the afternoon after the last day of the government trial, the wives of James Forest, Doug Marvy and Robert Graf drove to Waupun State Penitentiary, an hour north of Milwaukee, to make their first visits to their husbands. “We drove through miles of Wisconsin farmland,” Linda Forest told me, “and arrived at a place which looked very much like Maria Lach, very monastic — a wall some fifteen feet high, four blocks long, broken up by wrought iron arches. When they see you coming there’s a large humming and snapping sound coming from a watch tower, which issues a loud report when the gate swings open. You walk to the guard house across a large stretch of grass — there’s a lot of grass everywhere. We were cordially received by the guards, who took us to the sergeant. Everybody was polite to us, they kept saying ‘M’am, M’am.’

“The sergeant accompanied us through what looked like a series of cloisters, one building enclosed inside the other, past the chapel enclosure, the gymnasium enclosure, past a first set of dorms, you’re always walking on very soft grass. Prisoners were hanging out of windows, some windows had boxes of geraniums on them. We made the V sign at them and they flashed it back. The sergeant ushered us into a very neat building, the architecture was very clean, very modern. The guard on duty there was a Robert Young type with a pipe in his hand, extra friendly. ‘Linda,’ he said, ‘you have two hours of visiting time a month, you can have them both at once if you want.’ Finally he ushered us into the reception room, it was like a seminary, or a university. There were lots of century plants around, smart brown curtains, Danish-type modern chairs scattered around modern coffee tables. On each coffee table there was a plastic-coated slip of paper which said the following:

We have made a conscientious effort to create as much of a living room atmosphere as possible for you and your relatives. We hope that you won’t embarrass us by extreme displays of any sort. Visitors are allowed to embrace and kiss prisoners before and after each visit.

“Jim looked very well. He looked about nineteen years old with his head clean-shaven, and without his mustache. He says the food is very good, cafeteria-style, they are forced to eat everything on their plate. For the first few days he’s not allowed any books except his Bible and his breviary. He’s been saying his breviary every hour, he’s been saying his hours. We sat and talked about our marriage and about how we would grow through this, how it might be the best thing for our marriage. When I hugged Jim he smelled so good, a smell of clean plain soap and of fresh clean linen, he smelled like a nun, or like a child when you put him to bed.”

Notes

[*] in which a Massachusetts Federal District Court held that the present Selective Service System unconstitutionally discriminates against conscientious objectors who do not adhere to an institutionalized religion.

* * *

October 9, 1969: John H.E. Fried, MORAL CHOICE

Volume 13, Number 6 / October 9, 1969

Letter

MORAL CHOICE

By John H.E. Fried

In response to The Ultra-Resistance (September 25, 1969)

To the Editors:

Some of my testimony at the trial of the “Milwaukee Fourteen” was garbled in the court transcript. Hence the quotation in Francine du Plessix Gray’s article [NYR, Spetember 25, p. 17] could convey the erroneous impression that the Nuremberg International Tribunal left it to the individual to obey international law, or to obey rules of his Government that violate international law. This was not my testimony.

The Tribunal’s famous “moral choice” doctrine is that an individual who was ordered to commit an international wrong will be internationally responsible for obeying the order if a “moral choice” not to obey it existed for him — that is, if by the rules of morality he had a realistic choice. The gist of my testimony was: The International Tribunal at Nuremberg, at which the United States was represented, stated that it is the moral choice of the individual that counts. Obedience to the higher, the world order, is more important. He should feel that, and always endeavor not to violate it. If such moral choice is in fact not possible for him, he will not be personally punishable for violating the international rule. But if he feels that he must make the choice even at personal risk, then he has to make the moral choice and do the things he considers morally proper. That is the great ethical and moral message of Nuremberg.

For the benefit of readers, I quote pertinent passages from the Judgment:

“…the very essence of the [Nuremberg] Charter is that individuals have international duties which transcend the national obligations of obedience imposed by the individual state. He who violates the laws of war cannot obtain immunity while acting in pursuance to the authority of the state if the state in authorizing action moves outside its competence under international law…. The true test…is not the existence of the order, but whether moral choice was in fact possible.” (Trial of the Major War Criminals…Nuremberg, 1945/6. Vol. I, pp. 223/4.)

John H. E. Fried
Professor of Political Science,
Lehman College and Graduate Faculty
City University of New York
formerly Special Legal Consultant to the US War Crimes Tribunals, Nuremberg

* * *
For Jim Forest’s reflections about the Milwaukee 14, see:
http://incommunion.org/forest-flier/jimsessays/looking-back-on-the-milwaukee-14/
* * *

The Ultra-Resistance: on the trial of the Milwaukee 14

New York Review of Books
Volume 13, Number 5 / September 25, 1969

By Francine du Plessix Gray

On a warm spring day in 1966, a nineteen-year-old Minnesotan by the name of Barry Bondhus broke into his local draft board and dumped two large bucketfuls of human feces into a filing cabinet, mutilating several hundred I-A draft records in protest against the Vietnam war. The offender and his eleven brothers, sons of a machinist who had threatened to shoot anyone who attempted to induct his boys into the American army, had fastidiously collected their organic wastes for two weeks in preparation for the raid.

This primordial deed is known in the annals of the anti-war protest as The Big Lake One action, in honor of Barry Bondhus’s hometown, Big Lake, Minnesota. Barry Bondhus, who had calmly awaited arrest after his performance, served an eighteen-month sentence at Sandstone Federal Correctional Institution and came home in March of 1968 to run his father’s machine shop. Big Lake One was hardly mentioned in the press, but Bondhus’s was “the movement that started the Movement.”

Since Bondhus in 1966, over sixty Americans have awaited arrest after destroying government draft records with the less rustic media of blood, paint, and fire. The Big Lake One was followed by:

The Baltimore Four (600 draft records defiled with blood by Father Philip Berrigan, Reverend James Mengel, David Eberhardt, Thomas Lewis, October 1967);

The Catonsville Nine (Father Philip Berrigan strikes again in the company of his brother Father Daniel Berrigan and seven other Catholic priests and laymen, destroying 378 draft files with home-made napalm, May 1968);

The Boston Two (several hundred draft records mutilated with black paint by students Suzi Williams and Frank Femia, June 1968);

The Milwaukee Fourteen (some 10,000 draft records napalmed, September 1968);

The Pasadena Three (some 500 records burned, May 20, 1969);

The Silver Spring Three (several hundred records of a Maryland draft board mutilated with black paint and blood, May 21, 1969);

The Chicago Fifteen (some 40,000 draft records burned on May 25 of this year);

Women Against Daddy Warbucks (several thousand records mutilated in a Manhattan draft board by the first all-women band of draft board raiders, last July 2);

The New York Eight (some 75,000 records mutilated in a Bronx draft board on August 1st, and several thousand more in a Queens draft board on August 15th, by a group of four women and four men, three of them Catholic priests).

There is no name for this radical core of the peace movement. The only noun given to its forays is the word “action”; the participants are called “actors”; the only verb assigned to their gestures is “act.” “When is so and so going to act?” Men and women who believe they have exhausted every other means of protesting the Vietnam war raid a draft board, haul out records and burn them, stand around singing liberation songs while awaiting arrest. The draft board actions have elements of both terrorist strike and liturgical drama. They aim to destruct and to instruct; to impede in some small way the war machine; to communicate its evil, at a time when verbal and political methods have failed, by a morality play which will startle, embarrass the community; to shame the Movement to heightened militancy, perhaps to imitation. The word “witness” is used by members of this ultra-resistance, with its historical implications of sacrifice and penance, of moral primitivism, of romantic egoism, of psychological violence. The draft board actions in which the raiders demand arrest are called “stand around” to differentiate them from acts of “hit and run” sabotage; they are grounded in the non-violent mystique that a man’s witness in jail can move the conscience of a nation; that it can abate the violence of its rulers, and, like a monk’s years of passive prayer, aid to purify society. According to this mystique, the presence of the man awaiting arrest, sacrificing his freedom to witness to his moral indignation, is the ingredient that transforms sabotage into a religious and instructive act. As in tragedy and liturgy, sacrifice is conceived of as the most powerful means of communication.

At first this Ultra-Resistance involved men who — like Father Philip Berrigan and his brother Father Daniel Berrigan — were exempt from the draft either because of their clerical vocation or their age. Their average age was thirty-five, and their apostleship was to witness with and for the thousands of young Americans who have preferred jail to induction. These early draft board raiders were predominantly Catholic. The controversy that has rocked the American Catholic Church in the past decade has pitted a fanatically radicalized minority against a Catholic majority which still remains the most right-wing and hawkish segment of the nation. The desperately theatrical means of the Baltimore Four and the Catonsville Nine were aimed not only at the government’s war-making structure but at that most reactionary structure of all, the Catholic Church. The moral absolutism of the Catholic tradition, as the last few years have shown, can lend itself to satanizing the Vietnam war as fervently as it did Communism in the Fifties. No wonder then that many of the draft board raids, like political intrigues of Mazarin’s time, have been plotted in abbeys, monasteries, convents, the rectory next door.

Although draft-exempt men had originated this style of protest, the Ultra-Resistance is becoming more secular and youthful. The actions increasingly involve those young people who are threatened by the draft. The median age of the raiders came down from thirty-five to twenty-five in the Milwaukee action, to twenty-two in Chicago, Pasadena, and Silver Spring. The monastic stand-arounders, Barry Bondhus included, usually come from highly authoritarian and conservative backgrounds, which perhaps explains some of their differences from the permissively reared young people in the larger radical Movement.

Not the least of these differences is their disdain for amnesty, their sense that it is a positive act to go to jail. Many of them have had a more immediate exposure to the poor than the average college rebel, and feel drawn to the evangelic mystique of sharing, in jail, the powerlessness of the dispossessed. They place a greater stress on non-violence than the student movement – their symbolic destruction of property is meant, as a metaphor, to stress the sacredness of life. They incline to be apolitical — they tend to a personalistic Christian anarchism, or to Utopian socialism. And they claim to have a great distrust of rhetoric. “It’s not enough to just speak any more.” “I had to put my body on the line.” “It wasn’t just words, that’s basically it.” They reserve their rhetoric for the courtroom.

There is another important difference between the guerillas of the campuses and these jail-bound witnesses: however radical they are, the draft board raiders are distrustful of imported jargon. Their ideological heroes are apt to be Thoreau and A.J. Muste rather than Mao or Che; they want to do something “typically American”; and although they rebel as fiercely as the rest of the Movement against the familiar demons of capitalism, racism, colonialism, and militarism, they have chosen, up to now, to channel their protest against that uniquely American form of oppression, the Selective Service System.

The witness movement has thus created a curious form of non-violent guerilla activity. For beyond their symbolic, theatrical aspects the draft board raids do produce some tangible results. The files take some months to recompose, the boards remain closed for a few weeks or months, inductions temporarily cease. The protesters feel that they have liberated an area for a short while, that their acts will incite others to further and larger acts of liberation. The testimony of Robert Graf, a member of the Milwaukee Fourteen, at his trial last May describes the spiritual machismo of the witness actions:

I’m inside the draft board, and I’m taking files which I believe to be those of my brothers and neighbors… The only sensation I can remember that day was that of my arm being extremely tired as I was trying to do as much as possible to get as many people freed as I could. And in this act of liberation my arm was just getting tired, and I guess it’s like the stories you hear when someone is drowning and someone runs out to save him, his arm, his body, his whole body gets tired in the act of saving the drowning person. That’s how I felt, my arm, my body was at full extent of physical exertion in order to get those records out. I really felt within myself I was forming a small and simple but free act of liberation that day, something very immediate, taking pieces of paper that would free a great majority of my neighbors and brothers, people I love. So I took a bag or two, dragged them down the stairs and across the street into the center of the green, and I stood and waited for arrest, I stood in with my brothers quite joyfully, sang and listened to the Gospel, joining with my brothers in singing and rejoicing.

Another purpose of the draft board raids is to turn American courtrooms into political forums on the illegality and the immorality of the Vietnam war. The Baltimore Four and the Catonsville Nine, who fulfilled that goal with some success, have been tried, found guilty, and are free pending appeal. The Milwaukee Fourteen, which comprised twelve Catholics, five of them priests, was the most recent community of witness to come to trial, and it brought an important innovation to the Peace Movement. Twelve of the accused, a few days before they came to court, grandly dismissed a prestigious team of civil liberties lawyers headed by William Kunstler, and claimed their constitutional rights to defend themselves.

The Milwaukee Twelve’s decision in favor of lay advocacy was an intended blow at the State of Wisconsin, which had planned the trial in such a way as to prevent political issues from being raised in court. Wisconsin had been “out to get them,” as the protesters put it, ever since the day of the action, when a judge by the name of Christ Seraphim had arraigned them on State charges of burglary, arson, and theft and put the preposterous bail of $400,000 on their heads. The State of Wisconsin had been scheduled, from the start, to try them in May, a month before the Federal trial. The Fourteen had tried hard to get a Federal trial first, arguing through their lawyers that Federal charges took precedence in what was a clearly political act. For the consequences of a first trial by the State in such a civil disobedience case are grave. State judges are notoriously deaf to broad constitutional arguments. Conditions in State prisons are tougher than in Federal penitentiaries. There is less possibility of appeal in the State legal system. Most important, the State charges of arson, burglary, and theft obscured the Federal charges of interfering with the Selective Service System, and therefore the educational purpose of the witnesses was lost.

In fact, both of the Milwaukee District Attorneys assigned to the case recommended that the State trial be put aside in favor of the Federal trial, and Judge Charles Larson, on the morning of May 5th agreed to postpone his State trial until June 23rd, well past the Federal date. But three hours later, reportedly under the influence of “a political pressure very high up,” he broke his word and set the trial back to May 12th, a week away. During that morning, some of the defendants who had already flown home had to be paged at airports, and were recalled to Milwaukee the same day to prepare for the trial. Enraged by these machinations, twelve of the defendants proceeded to prepare their own defense. This was a new tactic and one that probably will be repeated in other movement cases coming to trial this year.

It is certainly the first time in legal history that gum-chewing seminarians cross-examined each other while walking barefoot to the water fountain. There was a bizarre contrast between the genteel provincial decorum of the Milwaukee County District Court and the aggressive, impertinent informality of these self-styled lawyers and of their frazzled supporters. One of the two district attorneys who carried on the prosecution was black, the other white and Jewish. They were both twenty-nine years old, both dressed with Edwards and Hanley nattiness, both noted doves who had supported Eugene McCarthy’s Wisconsin campaign. “The immorality of this war bothers me more than its unconstitutionality,” Deputy District Attorney Allen Samson would say during a court recess. “We have to accept the Viet Cong as a fact of life. We’re using Vietnam the way Russia used Hungary and Czechoslovakia. If I were boss I’d have our boys home by tomorrow noon. I’m more violently anti-war than any one in the courtroom, but I don’t burn draft records, it’s bad for the Peace Movement.”

“I’m as violently anti-war as anyone in the courtroom,” his assistant, Harold Jackson Jr., would say. He is from East Harlem and had gone through Groton and Colgate on scholarships. “Our draft laws are obscene. The Wyzanski decision[*] was great. It shows what one judge can do. But these draft-file burners are the worst thing that could happen to us liberals. They’ve polarized the community so I thought I would have to resign.” The two D.A.’s, looking lonely and uncomfortable at the prosecution bench, would glance apologetically, frequently, nervously at the Fourteen’s supporters behind them.

Confronting the shiny hardware of the Court, jamming its seats to capacity, sat the spectators from the Movement, whose rage at the system was intensified by the facts that D.A. Jackson was black, that D.A. Samson was a heavy contributor to Resist, that his radical kid brother was a prominent peace organizer at the University of Wisconsin, that they should not have taken the case. The priests, students, and defendants’ relatives were decorated as thickly as Bolivian generals with Resistance buttons.

There were several Movement celebrities: Tom Cornell, a prominent Catholic pacifist who had recently served a jail term for a protest career illuminated by the burning of nine consecutive draft cards; George McVey, the Movement dentist from Rochester who, out of devotion to his former Holy Cross classmate Philip Berrigan, drills resisters’ teeth at no charge late into the night; Father Bernard Meyer of the D.C. Nine, a group comprising four other priests and two nuns which had ransacked the offices of the Dow Chemical Company the preceding March in what was called “the first witness attack upon the military-industrial complex.” (“It’s very easy for us priests to go to jail after all those years of seminary,” observed Father Meyer, who faces a maximum sentence of thirty-five years, “three square meals and no women anyway.”) In the front row of the courtroom, chewing on raw carrots, pawing at each other like puppies in a litter, lounged a large contingent of pink-cheeked teenagers from a Summerhill-type school in Canada. Their year’s study consisted of a course in “Crime and Punishment,” and they had been taken to the Milwaukee trial as their school outing of the year.

The defendants sat at a long book-laden table at the left of the courtroom well, reading from law volumes, taking notes, raising their hands to address the Court, looking like a graduate seminar at a respectable university. The Milwaukee twelve were a mixed bag. Their ages ranged from twenty-two to forty-seven, they were dressed in a startling variety of attires — blue jeans, business suits, clerical blacks — and their only common denominator was their idealism and their rather formidable scholarship. A local sheriff had described them, with civic boastfulness, as “the classiest bunch of defendants ever.” One felt at times that Milwaukee was proud of them, as of its beer.

At the right of the table, by the prosecutor’s bench, sat the eldest and most scholarly of this brain trust, Christian Brother Basil O’Leary, head of the Economics department at St. Mary’s College in Minnesota, B.A. in economics from Loyola, M.A. in economics from the University of Chicago, PhD. in economics from Notre Dame. Brother O’Leary, forty-seven years old, a wry and spectacled scholastic in an impeccable pin-striped suit, was a contributor to Commonweal and an associate editor of Contin””””””uum, in which he had recently published an article entitled “The Role of Moral Theology in the Universe of the Person.” Referring to the events of September 24th, 1968, as “a symbolic, somewhat bizarre conduct to awaken my fellow citizens,” Brother O’Leary was to testify that he had gone into the Milwaukee action because, after due reflection, he had found no reason not to do so.

Others sitting around the defendants’ table:

Fred Ojile, 25, B.A. in philosophy from Catholic University, one year at the University of Michigan Law School, was a wiry youngster whose sunken cheeks, abundant hair, and stalking stride gave him a startling resemblance to Nureyev.

Doug Marvy, 28, the only Jewish member of the group, a graduate student in mathematics at Yale and at the University of Minnesota, was the author of several teachers’ manuals for grade school mathematics classes.

Robert Graf, 26, six years a Jesuit seminarian, B.A. in philosophy from St. Louis University, was completing his Master’s in sociology at Marquette.

Daniel Cotton, 25, also a former seminarian, had earned his B.A. in psychology at St. Louis University, where he had been a co-chairman of SDS, after two years of field work in Appalachia with the Glenmary Missionaries.

Father Alfred Janicke, 34, an enormously popular parish priest from St. Paul, Minnesota, had represented his archdiocese in the Minneapolis Urban Coalition.

Father James Harney, 28, who kept saying to the Court, “Don’t cut us up, Judge,” was an angular and inflammable Boston Irish curate.

Reverend Jon Higgenbotham of the Church of Scientology, 28, obese and bearded, the only defendant whose appearance bordered on the hippie style, had participated in the raid with particular elation, loudly singing “Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead” as he danced around the burning draft files.

Father Robert Cunnane, 35, a powerfully built, jovial Boston Irish priest with the remains of a brogue, had been provoked into joining the Milwaukee Fourteen by his rage at the six-year sentence imposed upon Philip Berrigan for the Baltimore Four action. (“I said to myself, wow, this country is really bad when a priest pours some blood on draft files and gets six years in prison, these courts are digging their own graves.”)

Father Lawrence Rosenbaugh, 34, a gentle, round-faced priest who had worked as a longshoreman on the Milwaukee docks, belonged to the Order of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a society which bans Commonweal, America, and Worship from its seminarians’ bookshelves as being subversive. Rosenbaugh, who joined the action “because Christianity wasn’t moving like a Movement should,” said he looked forward to prison life as being “just like seminary, with more time and freedom to read.”

Father Anthony Mullaney, 40, a tall, very handsome Benedictine monk with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, a former teacher at Boston University, had been radicalized by two recent years of social work in the Roxbury section of Boston. He used formidably scholastic language. “Picketing and burning draft files are not discrete variables, they are a continuum of action.”

James Forest, 28, whose bushy mustache and steel-rimmed glasses gave him the air of a Victorian intellectual, was a prominent Catholic pacifist to whom Thomas Merton had dedicated his last book. Son of a Communist Party organizer, a convert to Catholicism, Forest had almost become a Benedictine monk, and had been founder and co-chairman, along with Philip Berrigan, of the Catholic Peace Fellowship.

Four of the twelve — Graf, Marvy, Forest, Ojile — were married. The wives sat calmly through the trial, admiring their husbands’ competence at the bar. “Jim has six ways of making any one point and he always chooses the best way,” Linda Forest would say.

Two members of the original fourteen had decided to retain counsel: Jerry Gardner, 26, a graduate student of mathematics at Marquette University; and Michael Cullen, 27, an Irish immigrant who had left a lucrative job selling insurance for Omaha Mutual to start a Catholic Worker house of hospitality in Milwaukee, and had become a hero of the city’s peace movement after a much-publicized ten-day protest fast in the Milwaukee cathedral.

The defendants, on good days, referred to their judge as “grandpa,” a kinder name than the Movement has given to any other man on the bench. A benign, gauche man in his sixties, he was officially called “Ozaukee County Judge Charles Larson.” His manner evoked some folksy early morning TV show like Captain Kangaroo, on which a fumbling jurist presides over a court of rebellious puppets. He was tall, mournful-faced, heavy-lidded, thin-lipped, cauliflower-eared, and his favorite word was “inflammatory.” He was the Wisconsin Commander of the American Legion, and, at the time of being offered his first judgeship twelve years ago, had “reluctantly and with a heavy heart” stopped his campaign for the Legion’s National Commandership to step up to the bench. Former prosecutor at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, father of Vietnam veterans, chairman of the Wisconsin Chapter of Crusade for Freedom, little acquainted with the history of the Vietnam war, Judge Larson was also a devout Roman Catholic.

The presence at the defendants’ table of five priests, to all appearances the safest kind — regular guys, jovial, ball-playing, Bingo-organizing Irish curates — must have added much to the grief and confusion of his small blue eyes. One could not help pitying this pious provincial for whom priests were replete with an authority and sacredness undistinguishable from that of policemen and National Guardsmen, and whose allegiances to God-and-country were suddenly sundered by having to judge the saviors of his soul. For Judge Larson was a loyal, soft-hearted, sentimental man, an ardent amateur poet who was fond of quoting couplets he had written in honor of girls’ weddings: “She is blessed with qualities rare,/ Statuesque, impeccably attired/ Always knowing when to wear/ That which makes her most admired.”

“These defendants are very intelligent, honest men,” Judge Larson said one morning in his chambers, “but look, this morning at five a.m. I was reading Newsweek, and it said in Newsweek that Ho-Chi-Minh…what’s his post up there in North Vietnam?” “President of the Republic,” someone suggested. “Thank you,” he continued, “it says in Newsweek that their President Ho-Chi-Minh has executed fifty thousand people and jailed another one hundred thousand for not agreeing with his way of doing things, and if we pull out of there it will be wholesale slaughter. Why don’t we hear a bit about that too in the courtroom?”

Yet he looked more grieved than annoyed, and one felt that he was not so much a war-lover as a man who devoutly followed any dictate of his state or church. “Wyzanski, Wyzanski,” he muttered distantly when he was asked what he thought of the recent Massachusetts decision. “Never heard of the man. Never heard of the ruling. Don’t see how any part of the Selective Service laws could be found unconstitutional.” And upon that he had walked into the courtroom to preside over the trial of twelve men who were pleading that they were innocent in committing burglary, arson, and theft upon property which they “reasonably believed to be illegal and unconstitutional”; that they had committed these acts “with the intent of saving lives,” at the biddance of “a moral law higher than that of any nation”; and that they had been bound to act by their religious consciences, which they defined as “the contact point between an individual and God.”

Early in the trial the defendants moved that the charges of arson and theft against them must be dropped, arguing that 1) market value, not replacement value as the State defined it, determined the value of stolen property and that 2) the State had failed to prove that the market value of the draft records was beyond one hundred dollars, the sum which distinguishes felony from misdemeanor. The prosecution’s witness against this argument was Major Lane, a crew-cut, perspiring Army officer who serves as Administrative Officer of the State Selective Service System in Madison. He testified that it had cost him seventeen dollars a day to stay in Milwaukee during the time he was busy reconstructing the burnt draft files, thus hiking the State’s replacement cost to several hundred dollars.

Father Mullaney: Seventeen dollars a day for room and board for Mr. Lane, that’s kind of staggering to my imagination. I don’t know why that should be against us. That it takes seventeen dollars a day.

James Forest: I am flabbergasted by the price that he spent for room and board. I want to know if this was the cheapest he could find.

Doug Marvy: We are all living now, and have been for quite some time, on one, two, three dollars a day.

The Court: Yes. Well, if you register in any of these Wisconsin hotels, the Schroeder Hotel or the Pfister, or Holiday Inn…seventeen dollars a day is not an exorbitant figure, to meet those costs.

Robert Graf: I can’t afford that.

The Court: Son, I’m merely answering an inquiry…concerning the cost which they thought was exorbitant.

Fred Ojile: The reason for the surprise is that most of us live very well on twenty or thirty dollars a month, and that we see money as very much the root of the evil in society….

The Court: All right, fellows, all right.

A few minutes later the defendants tried to confront the Major with the morality of their action, which triggered the Court’s futile, hourly ruling that no discussion of the Vietnam war should be allowed in the courtroom.

Robert Graf: Just a very simple question. Would you consider the value of property to be more important than the value of human life?

Mr. Samson: If it please the Court, I object to the question on the grounds that it is not material and it’s not relevant and it’s inflammatory.

The Court: And it is, inflammatory.

Mr. Samson: No question about it being inflammatory.

Robert Graf: I’m inflamed about the deaths.

The Court: I just advise you, you must not ask a question that is intended to inflame the jury on an issue that is entirely apart from the subject matter the witness is testifying to.

Robert Graf: I think that’s a point of view. To me the lives of my brothers in Vietnam is not apart from the Selective Service System.

The Court: None of us like to see this happen. It is most sad and unfortunate … but this is not the issue before the Court.

Robert Graf: It’s my issue, and that’s why I’m here in Court. Those lives are my issue.

The Court: You tell that to the jury, Mr. Graf, at the time you wish to argue.

And the judge, mild in manner but predictable in his ruling, denied the defense’s motion for dismissal, ruling that the State had established a prima facie case against the defendants and that they were guilty of destroying property whose replacement value was over $100. The prosecution rested its case with a flourish of evidence — screwdrivers, policemen, cleaning women, photographers, charred draft records, gasoline cans. It was an academic display, since the defendants in this unorthodox case had readily admitted to having committed the material acts of which they were accused and were asking for acquittal on moral and political grounds.

As the defendants’ testimonies began to unfold on the sixth day of the trial, it became clear that the defense’s first tactic was to invoke the so-called “defensive privilege” — statute 939.48 in the Wisconsin legal code — which states that actions ordinarily punishable under the criminal code may be considered privileged, i.e., non-criminal, if the action is taken with the “reasonable belief” that it may prevent bodily harm to another party. Claiming “privileged” action, the defendants argued that the events of September 24th were “efforts to forestall injury to third persons, third persons being drafted into a war of doubtful legality.”

They also pleaded that they had tried every legal recourse they could to stop the war, and that their act of civil disobedience “had the purpose not of disobeying the law, but of demonstrating its unconstitutional character.” Crucial in the defense’s argument, because it involved the admissibility of evidence, was its contention that in order to prove “reasonable belief” the defendants were entitled to offer as exhibits scholarly opinions contained in books, documents, and legal journals testifying to the illegality of the Vietnam war, and to the Christian teaching that the individual must follow his own conscience when his government’s conduct is of doubtful legality.

The offered exhibits — some three dozen in number and all rejected by the Court — ranged from the Congressional Record’s list of the war dead and Pope John’s encyclical “Pacem in Terris,” to Gordon Zahn’s book on the Catholic Church in Hitler’s Germany and the New Testament. Judge Larson overruled the prosecution, which had agreed to admit the New Testament as an exhibit, on the grounds that “to admit [the New Testament] into evidence may create substantial danger of undue prejudice or of misleading the jury.”

“That’s beautiful,” Fred Ojile had yelled out.

Judge Larson also objected to the defendants’ plea of “privileged action.” “Anybody who’s about to cross the street here, Juneau Avenue,” he said, “runs a chance of being run over…shall we stop them crossing the street for that reason?” He preferred not to distinguish between acts against persons and acts against property. “Mr. Forest,” he asked, “was John Wilkes Booth justified when, believing he was acting for the welfare of the Confederacy, he shot and killed Abraham Lincoln?” Forest, a disciple of Eric Gill and of Prince Kropotkin, was a brilliant high school drop-out who had had a multifold career as free-lance writer, editor of the Catholic Worker, draft counselor, college lecturer and artist. He showed talent and evident relish in his new career as a self-styled lawyer.

I would simply point out that, one: the only charges against us are property damage, damage to property, not to persons, and that, in fact, we were trying to prevent people from getting killed. So, the direction is opposite. I’m not saying that the jury should find us innocent. I’m simply hoping that the Court will allow us to try to demonstrate the reasonableness of our belief and to decide for themselves whether, in fact, it was reasonable. The jury must determine whether the threat was apparent…whether we could reasonably believe as we do. Therefore, all the evidence relevant to establishing either one of these points we believe must be admitted into evidence, so that the jury can decide these points…. The Court, in Weston Versus State 28 Wisconsin 2nd, 136 of 1964, agrees with this analysis. The Court here allowed evidence to be introduced under 939.8, self-defense, and then, gave an instruction to the jury explaining that theory….

It was an admirable argument. But after four hours the prosecution objected that the defense still had failed to prove that Selective Service offices constituted an “imminent” threat to anyone’s life. Judge Larson upheld the objection, cleared his throat ominously, and ruled that section 939.48 of the Wisconsin penal code regarding privilege was “not applicable in this case.”

“Jesus Christ,” Reverend Higgen-botham blurted out.

Larson looked sadly at the defendant and said: “Well now, Reverend Higgenbotham, was that proper?” The judge let the impertinence pass without a threat of contempt, and he continued to do so until the end of the trial:

The Court: I shall not permit any testimony about the fairness of the draft or the fact that it discriminates against some, and as far as the Vietnam war is moral or anything else, it is not relevant here.

Fred Ojile: Oh for God’s sake, don’t give me that. What do you think we’re playing, tiddlywinks?

The Court: Who do you think you are talking to?

The Milwaukee defendants, earlier, had grandly subpoenaed General Hershey and the auxiliary bishop of St. Paul, Minnesota as defense witnesses. Declaring indigency (Reverend Higgenbotham testified that his sole worldly possession was an automobile with a market value of fifty-five dollars on which he still had two hundred dollars to pay), the twelve had asked that Milwaukee County pay for the witnesses’ transportation costs. This request went unfulfilled, and the accused used their defense funds to fly three expert witnesses from the East Coast to testify on the “reasonableness” of their views on the war and on civil disobedience. The three — Howard Zinn, John Fried, and Marvin Gettleman — seemed to make Judge Larson highly uncomfortable. Howard Zinn’s hour and a half on the witness stand was Grand Guignol. The prosecution objected at every few words that the defendants’ cross-examination was immaterial or that Dr. Zinn’s opinions were irrelevant; the judge sustained the objections, pounding the gavel like a Guignol policeman batting down the hobo when he tries to rise. Nevertheless the courtroom audience burst into frenzied applause at Zinn’s truncated testimony.

Howard Zinn: The tradition of civil disobedience goes as far back as Thomas Jefferson and it comes right up to today…people distinguished in the field of law and philosophy recognize that there’s a vast difference between a person who commits an ordinary crime and a person who commits an act which technically is a crime, but which in essence is a social act designed to make a statement….

[Wild clapping from the audience, a few shouts.]

Court: I must stop you. There was an objection to that…did someone cry out back there?

Father Mullaney: The whole American people are crying out, Your Honor.

A little later:

Doug Marvy: Do you as a historian see any connection between the Declaration of Independence and the act which has brought us twelve defendants here today?

Zinn: Yes, I….

Mr. Samson: I object to that…Mr. Marvy knows that these questions are immaterial, and that he is just asking them to inflame the jury.

Court: Objection sustained.

Marvy: I find that kind of a disgusting comment that [the prosecution] is able to read my mind. I’m not asking these questions because I think they’re immaterial…they are the most material things I can think of. Burglary, arson and theft are immaterial. The Court has ruled that screwdrivers are relevant and dead bodies aren’t. What the hell!

Doug Marvy’s voice was loud and threatening, but the Court preferred to threaten Zinn, rather than Marvy. (“I’m going to have you arrested and have you put in the place where persons are placed for contempt of court.”) Zinn was dismissed from the stand and took the next plane back to New York. “This is like being stoned to death with marshmallows,” cracked Father Cunnane, who spent idle moments in court reading “The Gospel According to Peanuts.” “It’s very soft, and it takes very long.”

The second star witness, John Fried, an imposing, silver-haired Vienneseborn scholar, had been chief consultant to the American judges at the Nuremberg trials, United Nations Adviser on International Law to the government of Nepal, and adviser on international law at the Pentagon. The defendants stated that they had called Fried to testify on “a hierarchy of law in the international world order.” The prosecution and the Court objected that testimony drawn from such documents as the UN Charter and the Nuremberg Principles concerning the United States’ violation of international law would be irrelevant to charges of burglary, arson, and theft. Fred Ojile replied that the defense’s purposes in calling expert witnesses was to show it had “reasonable belief” in the war’s illegality.

“That has been said over and over again, Mr. Ojile,” Judge Larson said in a tired voice.

“Well it will continue to be said until it’s understood by the Court,” Ojile answered grandly, stalking, panther-like and barefoot, from the defendants’ table to the water fountain. “I consider my state of mind, at the time of the action, very much related to Nuremberg principles, and I would like the witness to have the opportunity to explain that, and it’s not being allowed. At this rate, you know, it’s a travesty of justice.”

“That’s your opinion,” said Judge Larson.

“I rule that that’s so,” Fred Ojile answered loftily.

For once the defendants’ gambit worked. Whatever the reason — their unpredictable and agile tactics of self-defense, perhaps some growing anguish that seemed to gnaw at the prosecutors and a certain grandeur or glamor that the witness injected into this provincial courtroom — Fried’s testimony plunged more deeply into a discussion of the morality of the war than any yet tolerated at a resistance trial.

Fried: I say with a very, very grave heart and after very, very careful study that the U.S. military intervention in Vietnam does violate essential and basic provisions of the United Nations character, and this is not an isolated opinion of myself.

Brother O’Leary: What recourse does a citizen have…when his country pursues war in violation of international treaties which the citizen holds have been violated?

(“No objection,” said District Attorney Harold Jackson; “if he can answer that, God bless him.”)

Fried: The International Tribunal at Nuremberg, at which the United States was represented, stated that it is the moral choice of the individual if he feels that for him obedience to the higher order — to the world order — is more important,…then he has to take the moral choice and do the things which he considers morally proper. That is the great ethical and moral method of Nuremberg.

Brother O’Leary: One who breaks a law in the State of Wisconsin might well be called an arsonist or just a common criminal. One who conspires with his government to commit a crime in violation of the United Nations, I suppose, would be called a war criminal. In the perspective on international law, which would be the worse kind of criminal?

Fried: United Nations Charter does not give the rules for conduct during war time. There are other treaties, like the Hague Treaties of 1907 long preceding the Charters of the Geneva Conventions of 1929 and 1949. In the hierarchy of law, international world order as stipulated in treaties…is the highest. If, then, a dichotomy develops between international law and domestic law, the dilemma for the government and for the individual is great …”

Brother O’Leary: No more questions.

The defendants and the spectators were still. James Forest, whose conversion to Catholicism had been aided by seeing a shaft of sunlight filtering into the east window of a church at evening, looked as if he were repeating that experience. Fried’s testimony on the illegality of the war was something quite new in the brief history of war protesters’ trials, much stronger, for example, than any allowed in the Spock-Coffin trial. For a moment the courtroom had become the forum which the communities of witness desired it to be! And the incompetence of the courts to deal with any mature form of political conscience had been briefly exposed.

This delicate legal surgery had been performed by Brother Basil O’Leary, the most traditional of the defendants, a conservative economist, a strong believer in market economy. There was an amiable pedantry about this wry, slight, elegant man who wrote on natural law for arcane theological journals. Earlier the prosecution had asked, “Did you just say to yourself, ‘Okay, Basil, you can go in there today?’ “ “Well Basil doesn’t operate that way,” Brother O’Leary had answered. “Basil operates more in a reflective way in which he likes to know all the relevant factors to a situation. Basil weighs all the consequences of an act and then decides.”

By the end of John Fried’s unprecedented testimony, at mid-trial, both the Court and the State were visibly troubled by the unorthodox course of the twelve’s self-defense. The major advantages of lay advocacy for the accused in a Resistance case, and its drawbacks for the prosecution, can be summarized as follows:

1) Latitude of testimony: Self-defense exempts the accused from the traditional rules of evidence, procedure, and decorum which are enforced upon professionals. To moralize on Vietnam and expose political issues as impetuously as the Milwaukee twelve did, a professional lawyer would risk not only contempt of court, but disbarment.

2) Harass the D.A.’s: Defense counsels provide an emotional buffer zone between the accused and the system. An increasing number of State and Federal jurists are turning against the war. The absence of counsel confronts them directly with their own political allegiances and can lead to greater leniency.

3) Length of testimony: Each defendant has the right to confront the jury’s emotions with an opening and a closing statement — twenty-four in all in the Milwaukee trial — instead of the two statements allowed to a lawyer. The implications of lay advocacy for mass arrests are startling. If fifty or one hundred people arrested together for civil disobedience decided to defend themselves, a court would have the choice between trying each of them separately, or opening itself to the marathon of one or two hundred opening and closing statements.

4) The D.A.’s are made to look like villains: Self-styled lawyers like the Milwaukee twelve, with more ignorance than malice, will pursue lines of argument which have previously been ruled out by the Court. When the D.A. shuts off testimony, it looks like a blatant abuse of power.

“I’m constantly having to argue admissibility of evidence in front of the jury,” District Attorney Allen Samson complained at the twelve’s trial, “which makes me look as if I’m holding back all kinds of information which the jury is entitled to hear…. Back at the Safety Building where I have my office I’m called a radical and a commie. Here in the courtroom the kids call me a Nazi liberal, a capitalist pig, the way my kid brother does. I’m caught in the worst kind of liberal bag, being fired at from both sides.”

The arguments over admissibility of evidence also bothered Judge Larson the most. Because of the Milwaukee Twelve’s ignorance about how much the jury is allowed to hear, the jurors had been ordered in and out of court throughout the trial. They were a dour, impassive, perplexed bunch — eight men, four women, one of them black, eight of them Catholics. Only one detail in their composition, the fashionably long sideburns of a computer analyst, had given the defense any hope for a hung jury, and their colorlessness made one wonder why the defense objected so frantically to their recurring absences. The dispute over the jury’s absence came to a head the day after Fried’s testimony, when Marvin Gettleman, an expert on the history of the Vietnam war, was called by Doug Marvy to the witness stand. Upon Marvy’s first question to Gettleman — whether, on the basis of his expert knowledge, he was aware of the United States ever being attacked by North Vietnam — Judge Larson again dismissed the jury and asked Marvy what he intended to prove through this witness.

Marvy: I have no reason whatsoever to speak outside the presence of the jury on any matter whatsoever…. I am not interested in speaking to the Court.

The Court: It makes it difficult to proceed.

Marvy: Yes, it does, you make it difficult to proceed.

The Court: I’m merely following the procedure…I am employed in this and other courts in Wisconsin….

Marvy: I’ll speak when the jury is in the room.

The judge’s amazing patience was eroding. He struck at the defendants’ pride in their capacities as self-styled barristers. “Let the record show,” he said plaintively, “that while these defendants are in court without counsel, time and time again they have cited law which is very pertinent and relevant, law which requires a learned legal mind to ferret out…the Court therefore wants the record to show that although it does not appear so in the courtroom, that they are receiving legal assistance and considerable….” The defendants did not let him finish.

“You’re despicable!” Reverend Higgenbotham shouted.

“I did that research,” Ojile yelled, waving his arms like a windmill. “I had a year of law school, and I did every bit of research.”

“Let him lie,” Robert Graf said jadedly.

The defendants then went into a deafmute pantomime, refusing to speak in the absence of the jury. Some sitting, others standing, pencils poised in midair, books in hand, they stayed utterly motionless like statues. “Father Alfred Lawrence Janicke, will you state what you intend to prove through the testimony of this witness?” No response. “Do you refuse to answer, Father?” No response. “Let the record show,” the judge droned, “that Father is looking straight at the judge of this Court, that he is within easy hearing distance, and has refused to answer both questions….

It was the tensest day of the trial. The storm reached its peak after Father Rosenbaugh elaborated on how the Vietnam war was crippling the nation’s war on poverty. The Court interrupted the testimony as irrelevant. Samson, in an increasingly frequent moment of leniency, asked the Court to take notice of that testimony, even though it was immaterial, because “everyone knows that the war is taking money away from urban planning.” Judge Larson replied that the Court should shut off such testimony because it “would be giving dignity to their position, which I don’t think should be done.”

“How can you be a judge in this courtroom and say a thing like that?” James Forest cried, and walked threateningly toward the well of the courtroom.

“The Court had best explain what it means is that it does not want to give dignity to an irrelevant defense.”

“I don’t think you should explain,” Doug Marvy said, “I think you should resign.”

Gettleman was dismissed. He had traveled from New York to Milwaukee without being allowed to answer a question. The defendants henceforward had to rely on their extraordinary moral passion.

Robert Graf: I entered that building with much of the same intention with which I’d entered the Society of Jesus, in order to be of service in some way to other men….

Father Mullaney: There were three states of mind in particular which I think were important on September 24th. The first of these is a really felt need to be responsible. And there are three things I think that define a monk that are connected to responsibility:

The first of these is being a Benedictine with 1400 years of tradition, the motto of the order having always been peace. The second is that the vows of the monk can be summed up as a single vow to set up the conditions whereby man can be fully human….

The third characteristic of the monastic life that has defined it down through the ages is that the monk is supposed to be a sign of hope, he is supposed to be a sign that history can be moved in the direction laid down in the Gospels, and therefore a sign that we are responsible for history and the direction that history takes.

The Mullaney testimony went on some three hours and was composed in strict Thomist style, I-a, I-b, I-c. It was delivered in a luminous, booming voice into a suddenly still courtroom.

The second frame of mind that was very important that day was the anger that stems from a correct assessment of a present moment in history. My anger comes out of two places, one is the college scene, and the second is the urban scene. My anger on September 24th was very definitely based on first-hand evidence that I had that the draft was doing violence to the consciences of youg men, that it was doing real psychological damage to young men.

The second place that was very important in my life, in terms of my intent on September 24th, was the fact that two years ago I was granted a leave from St. Anselm’s Abbey to go to the city, an act, which, historically, is very common within the history of monasticism in time of social crisis. And I went to that section of Boston that is known as Roxbury, that section of the city where poverty is perhaps at its worst. At the abbey, with my books, I could and did build up an elaborate system of defenses that kept me from responding to the enormous injustices of our society. In Roxbury, your defenses are shattered the day you arrive….

The Court conducted a half-hour dispute about the “irrelevance” of poverty in Roxbury, Massachusetts. The clinical psychologist picked up at point three.

The third state of mind that I think was very important in my own case was what can only be described as fear…of a very deep and very pervasive polarization that is going on in the United States; by polarization I mean that we are a nation that’s very, very seriously divided…black-white, rich-poor, young-old, a pervasive and very, very deep polarization.

Now there are four reasons which give rise to this particular fear that grew out of polarization: Number one, the ineffectiveness of speech in American life. Secondly, the growing gap between the powerful and the powerless. Also, the growing priority of things over people. And finally, the distorted priorities — the Vietnam war versus the City…

And so, on September 24th, I participated in the burning of draft records as my attempt to say something about the polarization, which, if it is not checked, is going to lead to great disaster in this nation. I participated in what I considered a very beautiful liturgy, and this is the work of the monk….

The tall, grave priest continued, I-a-1, I-a-2….

Now through my participation, I intended the following:

Firstly, I intended to show in a society where speech is in such danger of being stifled, that man as public speaker is still alive.

Secondly, I intended to show in a society where the inadequacies of legal channels for redressing injustices is apparent, that civil disobedience is part of due process in that society, I acted to affirm that law in a free society compels obedience only when it furthers the justice that enables men to lead a more fully human life.

Third, I intended to show in a society whose structures are becoming so rigid, whose leaders are so intransigent, that social crises are not being confronted in a way proportionate to their magnitude, that organized controlled non-violent civil disobedience is still capable of effecting change in policy.

Fourthly, in a society where so many leaders act as though law and order are independent of justice, I acted to affirm my respect for law.

Fifthly, I intended to show, in a society where participation in critical decisions which affect one’s life and death are becoming less and less, that there must be an increase in one’s power to make what ought to be become a reality.

Sixthly, I intended to affirm that I was equally concerned as those who are in prison today, for reasons of conscience….

“Father,” Judge Larson interrupted very gently. Mullaney was the defendant whose grave and impeccable manner had most endeared him to the Court and the prosecution. “Father, are you still giving reasons why you participated on the 24th of September?”

Indeed Father Mullaney had a seventh reason to add to his Summa. It was a 1500-word press release which the Milwaukee Fourteen had handed to reporters at the time of their action. Notwithstanding some objections from the Court that Father was giving “an oration on social matters” he was allowed to read through this entire document.

“That’s the end of my statement,” Father Mullaney said modestly after three hours on the stand.

“Tony, Reverend Doctor,” Fred Ojile began his cross-examination, “when does the question of who determines destruction of property become pertinent in the decision-making process?”

“The decision to destroy property has to be confronted whenever the person has reasonably concluded that there is no longer any relationship between that property and the enhancement of those values to which he is committed, through his membership in various comunities such as the American community, the Family of Nations, and so forth. In other words, when property no longer enhances the dignity of the person. Property is an instrument, it does not have substantial value, it has instrumental value.”

(A definition of property straight out of St. Thomas Aquinas.)

At the beginning of the trial, Harold Jackson, Jr., the assistant District Attorney, had described his emotions toward the defendants as “one of intense anger and hatred, because I’m Catholic and violently against the war, and black, and their actions seem to polarize all the sentiments against us liberals.” But the defendants’ testimonies, however often he interrupted them, seemed to affect him even more deeply than they seemed to affect Samson. “I’m more torn by this case than at the beginning,” he admitted at mid-trial; “I see nothing but honesty and intelligence here, depth of perception and integrity, an atmosphere that I can only describe as very loving.”

Later, toward the end of the trial, after Mullaney had been speaking with particular moral passion, Jackson obviously upset, asked that the jury be dismissed from the room.

“The state is very much opposed to the position it finds itself in,” he said, “because both counsels for the State do not think that the war in Vietnam is irrelevant in and of itself. We find it to be irrelevant in terms of the act for which we are prosecuting. And we request that this Court instruct the jury as to the legal reasons why certain evidence is not admissible. We request that it not be done in terms of the customary lawyer’s nomenclature…it is impossible for the State represented by human beings to sit here any longer having it said that they believe in and of themselves that poverty and the war are irrelevant.”

His voice broke. “I just can’t take it,” he said.

But the defendants were merciless. “He’s put out,” Doug Marvy said, “and I think that’s just plain tough. We tried to put into evidence a list of war deaths, and the reason that this list is here is because of individuals who follow rules at the expense of individuals’ lives, and I think it’s tough if it’s really hard on him. He says he doesn’t know what to do, and I see four doors in this room and that’s a perfectly reasonable choice for him. He can quit any time.”

Two weeks later, after the State trial was over, Harold Jackson left his district attorney’s job to work exclusively with black civil rights cases. “Negroes in this country are being sent to jail like Jews to Auschwitz,” he said in his office on his last day there. “There’s not enough legal talent around to help them….

“That trial tore me up,” he said. “I’m still not sure what they accomplished politically. But whatever religion is, they’re where it’s at…. I suppose the essence of religiousness is to break rules at the proper time…. What the hell do you expect when a great priest like Mullaney leaves the monastery after nineteen years and sees what life is like in Roxbury, Massachusetts?”

On May 26th, the eleventh and last day of the trial, Judge Larson charged the jury, using almost the same words with which the judge of a Federal Court in Baltimore, seven months previously, had charged the jurors of the Catonsville Nine. “The law does not recognize political, religious or moral convictions, or some higher law, as justification for the commission of a crime, no matter how good the motive may be…people who believe that the Vietnam war is illegal or unconstitutional or morally wrong have the right to protest in various ways….”

The defendants went out for beer. There was a glimmer of hope for a hung jury in the sideburned computer analyst, and in two women jurors who had wept during Forest’s and Mullaney’s closing statements. But the twelve were soon recalled. The jury had deliberated for only seventy minutes before returning its verdict, charge by charge, defendant by defendant, thirty-six times in a row, as guilty of arson, burglary, and theft.

There was a half-minute of stunned silence in the courtroom. Judge Larson began to sum up the jury’s findings. Then, as if ignited by a slow fuse, pandemonium erupted in the courtroom. It was set off by a young spectator in the back row who yelled out, “If they are guilty I am too, from this day forward I am a draft resister!”

“We thank you, men and women of the jury,” shouted Sister Joanna Malone of the D.C. Nine raiders, a nun who specialized in liturgical dancing, “for finding Jesus Christ guilty again!”

The nun’s voice set off a burst of rhythmical applause by the two hundred people wedged into the courtroom, a chorus of sobbing and weeping, a melee of clenched fists and V signs. Dozens of spectators rose, linked arms throughout the courtroom, and swayed, singing “We Shall Overcome.” The jurors tried to pick their way out of the courtroom through the milling, swaying throng. “Clear the Court, I’ve got to have more sheriffs,” Judge Larson shouted, helplessly standing behind the bench. Eight frantic bailiffs started to drag limp spectators out of the courtroom. “Good God,” the judge cried again, “I’ve got to have more policemen!” As the courtroom began to clear, Judge Larson feebly attempted to restore decorum by repeating the jury’s findings. As he called out their names, the defendants refused to rise, and instead shouted a last protest to the Court. “I pity the nation that fears its young!” Father Mullaney blasted out.

Judge Larson proceeded to cite Fred Ojile, Doug Marvy, and Reverend Higgenbotham for contempt of court during the proceedings of the trial, the latter for having “uttered the name of the Son of God.” “You’ve lost your authority, Judge,” Father Harney snapped as the judge sentenced the three to ten extra days in jail for contempt, whereupon Judge Larson announced the same fines for Harney’s contempt. “Thanks a lot,” Harney said, “and good luck to you, too.”

In the hall outside the courtroom one hundred persons still milled about. Three young men burned their draft cards, and the supporters of the Milwaukee twelve made the sign of the cross on their foreheads with the remaining ashes. The trial ended, as it had proceded, in a bizarre mixture of burlesque and religious fervor.

The Milwaukee twelve were free on bail until June 6th, when they returned to Judge Larson’s court for sentencing. Judge Larson gave the men two years — a benign sentence compared to the six years given Philip Berrigan the previous spring, the three years given to most members of the Catonsville Nine, the four and five years still being given to men refusing induction. As the Judge began to sentence Father Mullaney, he choked on that good Irish name and fumbled among his black robes for a handkerchief. He wept for a few seconds, and then in a timorous voice resumed sentencing the monk, who stood before him triumphantly, dressed in clerical black, his arms folded as if he were the executioner.

This first attempt at legal self-defense raised the political issues as no previous resistance trial had done. It had tortured the consciences of a few in power. The defendants had been let off lightly. The twelve could be paroled, after all, in a mere fourteen months. Movement lawyers began to write manuals for lay advocacy.

During the second week of the Milwaukee twelve’s trial, three more acts of destruction and instruction took place. On May 20th, in Los Angeles, three young men removed and burned several hundred I-A draft files from a downtown induction center. They were all residents of Peace House in Pasadena, a community of draft resisters that had taken sanctuary at a local Quaker meeting house. The Quakers were definitely getting into the act. One of them, Walter Skinner, a former secretary of the American Friends Service Committee, participated in the raid a few days before he was scheduled to be sentenced for refusing induction. “We destroy draft records,” so read the statement of the “Pasadena Three,” as the group called itself, “because we wish to make a statement clear and precise, to the best of our abilities, that we shall continue to carry on non-violent resistance to this government… We urge others to responsible action.”

At seven the following morning, three young men, Michael Bransome, eighteen, Leslie Bayless, twenty-two, and his seventeen-year-old brother John Bayless, entered the Selective Service Office at Silver Spring, Maryland, and mutilated part of its records with a mixed medium of black paint and blood. “We accuse you, the American government,” the Silver Spring Three’s statement read, “of mass murder in Vietnam, of economic oppression in underdeveloped nations as well as in our own cities, of the creation of a life-style based on the priority of property over lives….” Leslie Bayless, like his Pasadena colleague, was about to be sentenced to five years in prison for refusing induction. The Bayless boys’ father, a Pentagon official, was unavailable for comment.

Five days later, at five a.m. on May 25th, thirteen men and two women entered a draft board in Chicago’s South Side, grabbed an estimated forty thousand draft records out of the filing cabinets, and celebrated Pentecost by burning them in a nearby alley. The group included two priests — a Carmelite monk and a curate from Father Groppi’s Milwaukee parish; a staff member of the American Friends Service Committee’s Chicago office; a twenty-three-year-old girl truckdriver; and two men, Charles Muse and John Phillips, who are the seasonal heroes of the Ultra Resistance for their sheer persistence in choosing to live in jail.

Twenty-year-old Charles Muse left Allenwood prison last December and had been discharged from parole supervision only eighteen hours before he took part in the Chicago Fifteen’s draft board raid in May. “I feel guilty about having it so good,” he told a friend a few days before the action. “It’s not really so different out here from in there.” As for twenty-two-year-old John Phillips, he had refused to leave jail when his term was up. He had been rolled out of Allenwood in a wheelchair, and had gone home to Boston to found an organization named the Prisoners’ Information and Support Service, called PISS for short. Its mottos are “Void where Prohibited,” and “Words are Shit.” In John Phillips’s style, the draft board witnesses have recaptured some of the scatological splendor of their origins.

The insouciance of Phillips and Muse are, at the moment, characteristic of the communities of witness. The Chicago Fifteen’s loot — 40,000 draft files — was the biggest to date. Yet the group had had only two briefing sessions before their foray. “We brought them out in pillow cases, in potato sacks,” Margaret Katroscik of the Fifteen describes it, “in shopping bags, in duffle bags, oh, it was gorgeous.”

Another member of the Fifteen, Charles Fullencampf of Milwaukee, who had been reclassified six times in six months by his draft board, says that the process of going through C.O. applications was much more painful than his decision to join in the Chicago action. “We had drunk and celebrated the night before most joyfully,” he reports. “We all slept in a pad a few floors below the draft board. Everyone was so relaxed, I got up to go to the john a few hours before the action was scheduled to go and I heard most of the guys snoring, fast asleep.”

text continues:
part 2 is posted at:
http://www.jimandnancyforest.com/2006/11/18/m14trial2/

* * *

Thomas Merton: A Western Pilgrim to the Christian East

[Lecture given 27 October 2006 at the Auditorio Municipal de San Francisco, Centro Internacional de Estudios Misticos, in Avila, Spain; conference theme: “Seeds of Hope: Thomas Merton’s  Contemplative Message.”]

by Jim Forest

Trappist monks travel very little. Going on pilgrimage, in the sense of travel to Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela or other great shrines, was not a part of Merton’s life once he began monastic life at the Abbey of Gethsemani on the 10th of December 1941. But in the more basic Pauline sense of the term, Merton was certainly a pilgrim — a stranger in a strange land en route to the Kingdom of God. In that sense, Merton was among the great pilgrims of the 20th century, someone who traveled vast distances in his spiritual life. Not many Christians contained so much within the borders of their souls. Not many of his generation knew so much about so many traditions of religious life nor regarded the spiritual life not only of non-Catholic Christians but of non-Christians with such profound respect.

One of the main threads of Merton’s inner pilgrimage in his 27 years of monastic life was his particular interest in what is sometimes called the Eastern or Orthodox Church — that form of Christianity on the other side of the chasm formed by the Great Schism in the eleventh century. Merton became a western pilgrim to the Christian east.

His was far more than an academic interest. His inner life drew deeply from the wells of Orthodox Christianity. He spent many years exploring primary sources that were shared by Christians both East and West before the Great Schism. As Merton put it an essay on monastic spirituality and the early Church Fathers written for his fellow monks:

If for some reason it were necessary for you to drink a pint of water taken out of the Mississippi River and you could choose where it was to be drawn out of the river — would you take a pint from the source of the river in Minnesota or from the estuary in New Orleans? The example is perhaps not perfect. Christian tradition and spirituality does not 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.

Along similar lines, there is this passage in 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.

This paragraph was based on a journal entry Merton made in April 1957 when he was in his sixteenth year of monastic life. But his encounter with what we think of as Orthodox Christianity had begun even before he entered university. It began with icons.

The same was true for me. The first icon I ever received was a gift from Merton. In 1962 he sent me a postcard with a photograph on one side of a medieval Russian icon: Mary with the child Jesus in her arms. Jesus, though infant-sized, looked more like a miniature man. It seemed to me formal, lifeless and absolutely flat. At the time I was not impressed and assumed Merton had no more interest in this kind of primitive Christian art than I did. I imagined some donor had given his monastery a box of icon postcards which Merton was using in the spirit of voluntary poverty. It was only in writing a biography of Merton, Living With Wisdom, that it at last dawned on me how crucial a part icons had played in Merton’s life and realized that no one could have been happier in sending out an icon photo to friends than Merton.

I had forgotten the role that icons played in his early life as recorded in The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton’s autobiography. Merton described one of the catastrophes of his unsettled childhood: his father’s illness and death when his son was in his mid-teens. Owen Merton was suffering from a brain tumor that produced a large lump on his head and made him unable to speak. His teenage son would occasionally go down to London from his residential high school in Oakham and sit in mute silence next to his father’s bed in Middlesex Hospital.

The young Merton could see no meaning in what was happening to his father, whose misshapen head seemed like “a raw wound for which there was no adequate relief.” Having already lost his mother to cancer ten years earlier and now on the verge of becoming an orphan, Merton responded with fury to the religious platitudes he heard from the chaplain of his Anglican school. It was all too obvious to Merton that there was no “loving God.” Clearly life had no meaning. His parents’ appalling fate was proof of that. “You had to take it like an animal,” he wrote in his autobiography. The only lesson he could draw from his parents’ early deaths was to avoid as much pain as possible and take what pleasure he could out of life. At chapel services at his school in Oakham, Merton could no longer join in reciting the Creed. “I believe in nothing” summed up his creed at this point in his life.

Yet Owen Merton apparently had another view of his own suffering which he finally managed to wordlessly communicate to his son through drawings, the only “last word” he could manage. Merton came to see his father in his hospital room and, to his amazement, found the bed littered with drawings of “little, irate Byzantine-looking saints with beards and great halos.” In a word, drawings of icons. The younger Merton didn’t know what to make of them. He had no eye for icons at the time. He regarded Byzantine art, he confessed in an unpublished autobiographical novel, The Labyrinth, as “clumsy and ugly and brutally stupid.”

Owen Merton died early in 1931. Two years passed. On Tom’s 18th birthday, January 31, 1933, having finished his studies at Oakham and with more than half a year off before entering Clare College in Cambridge, and with money in his pocket provided by his wealthy grandfather in America, Merton set off for an extended European holiday. It was a one man Grand Tour with an extended visit to Italy the main event. The last and longest stop was in Rome.

Once there, for several days he followed the main tourist track, a Baedeker guidebook in hand, but the big attractions, from the Roman Forum to St. Peter’s Basilica, left him either yawning or annoyed. The architecture, statuary and painting of the Roman Empire, the Renaissance and the Counter-Reformation struck him as vapid and melodramatic. “It was so evident, merely from the masses of stone and brick that still represented the palaces and temples and baths, that imperial Rome must have been one of the most revolting and ugly and depressing cities the world has ever seen,” Merton wrote in The Seven Storey Mountain, words that still sound like the reflections of a bright, hyper-critical teen-ager. It seemed to him that the best one could say of ancient Rome was that it would have been an ideal set for a Cecil B. DeMille film epic.

Perhaps we would never have heard of Thomas Merton had it not been for what happened when he made his way from the guidebook’s four-star attractions to those with three or two stars, or even one, and thus came to know Rome’s most ancient churches — among them San Clemente, Santa Maria Maggiore, Cosmas and Damian, the Lateran, Santa Costanza, Santa Maria in Trastevere, and San Prassede. These moved him in an unexpected and extraordinary way. On the walls of many of these churches he found the early Christian art that had inspired his father’s drawings.

These were all churches of sober design whose main decorations were mosaic icons, images of deep stillness, bold lines, vibrant colors and quiet intensity that have little in common with the more theatrical art that was eventually to take over in Rome. They house some of the best surviving examples of the art of Christianity’s first millennium. In Santa Maria Maggiore, two lengthy tiers of mosaic icons date from the fourth century.

Merton’s first such encounter with ancient Christian art was with a fresco in a ruined chapel. Later he discovered a large mosaic over the altar at Cosmas and Damian of Christ coming in judgement with a fiery glow in the clouds beneath his feet against a vivid blue background. This was not at all the effeminate Jesus he had so often encountered in English art of the Victorian period.

“I was fascinated by these Byzantine mosaics,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I began to haunt the churches where they were to be found, and, as an indirect consequence, all the other churches that were more or less of the same period. And thus without knowing anything about it, I became a pilgrim.”

The excited memory of those days of eager discovery was still fresh when he was writing The Seven Storey Mountain fifteen years later:

What a thing it was to come upon the genius of an art full of spiritual vitality and earnestness and power — an art that was tremendously serious and alive and eloquent and urgent in all that it had to say …. [an art] without pretentiousness, without fakery, that had nothing theatrical about it. Its solemnity was made all the more astounding by its simplicity … and by its subservience to higher ends, architectural, liturgical and spiritual ends which I could not even begin to understand, but which I could not avoid guessing, since the nature of the mosaics themselves and their position and everything about them proclaimed it aloud.

Through these icons, he began to understand, not simply who Christ was but who Christ is. In this crucial section of his autobiography, the crescendo comes in two intense paragraphs that read more like a litany than ordinary prose:

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

Eager to decipher the iconographic images that so arrested his eyes, Merton bought a Bible. “I read more and more of the Gospels,” he later recalled, “and my love for the old churches and their mosaics grew from day to day.”

The attraction of icons wasn’t simply due to Merton’s newly-gained appreciation of the aesthetics of iconography but a profound sense of peace he experienced within the walls of churches graced with such imagery. He had, he said, “a deep and strong conviction that I belonged there.”

Merton desperately wanted to pray, to light a candle, to kneel down, to pray with his body as well as his mind, but found the prospect of publicly kneeling in a church alarming.

Finally one morning he climbed to the top of the Aventine Hill and entered the fifth century church of Santa Sabina, one of the oldest churches in Rome. Once inside, he found he could no long play the guidebook-studying tourist: “Although the church was almost empty, I walked across the stone floor mortally afraid that a poor devout old Italian woman was following me with suspicious eyes.”

He knelt down at the altar rail and, with tears, again and again recited the Our Father.

At age 18, Merton had undergone, without realizing exactly what it was, a mystical experience: an encounter with the living Christ. From that moment he had something against which to measure everything, whether himself or religious art or the Church in history. He knew what was phoney, not because of some theory but because of an actual experience of Christ. Significantly, it was an experience mediated through iconography.

The pilgrimage that followed was nothing like an arrow’s direct flight to faith, baptism and the Church. The coming winter at Clare College, Cambridge, was to prove a disastrous time in his life, the “nadir of winter darkness,” as he put it later on, leaving wounds from which I doubt he ever fully healed. He did more drinking than studying and fathered an illegitimate child. His well-to-do guardian in London wanted no further responsibility for Owen Merton’s wayward son and sent him packing to his grandparents in America.

Yet, despite various detours, the journey that began in Rome continued. Four years after arriving in New York, Merton was received into the Catholic Church. Three years later, in December 1941, he was a new member of the Trappist monastic community of the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky.

For twenty years, beginning in the late 1940s, books poured from Merton’s pen and typewriter at the average of two a year. Many were best sellers. Many are still in print. It is striking to discover that only one book of Merton’s got as far as being set in type and yet wasn’t published: Art and Worship. It was to have gone to press in 1959. The galleys sheets survive at the Thomas Merton Study Center in Louisville. I have a photocopy in my home. But his publisher had second thoughts, fearing this icon-reverencing book would damage Merton’s reputation. The art historian Eloise Spaeth was enlisted by his publisher as a kind of professor-by-post to update Merton’s tastes in religious art, but in the end she threw up her hands. She was appalled with Merton’s “‘sacred artist’ who keeps creeping out with his frightful icons.”

Merton’s aesthetic heresy was his view that Christian religious art had been more dead than alive for centuries. What he had hoped to do with his small book was to sensitize his readers to an understanding of iconography, a tradition which in the West at least, had been abandoned since the Renaissance and all but forgotten. As he said in Art and Worship:

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

It seemed to his publisher that such opinions were embarrassingly dated. The iconoclastic sixties were about the unfold, but even in the fifties nothing could be more out-of-fashion than icons.

Faced with such incomprehension, Merton finally abandoned his efforts to publish Art and Worship, but he was never weaned of his love of icons. Occasionally he returned to the topic in letters. Only months before his death, he was in correspondence about icons with a Quaker correspondent, June Yungblut, in Atlanta. He confessed to her that books which presented Jesus simply as one of history’s many prophetic figures left him cold. He was, he told her, “hung up in a very traditional Christology.” He had no interest in a Christ who was merely a great teacher who possessed “a little flash of the light.” His Christ, he told her, was “the Christ of the Byzantine icons.”

June Yungblut would not be the only person, even today, who would regard as scandalous the phrase “the Christ of the Byzantine icon.” Icons belonged to the kindergarten of Christian art. As for the word “Byzantine,” didn’t Merton feel a shiver to use that word? Didn’t “Byzantine” signify the very worst in both Christianity and culture? A word synonymous with intrigue, scheming and the devious as well as anything that is hopelessly complex? And as for icons, weren’t they of about as much artistic significance as pictures on cereal boxes?

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

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

Even among Orthodox writers, one does not often find so insightful and yet succinct a presentation of the theology of icons.

What Merton had learned about icons had been hugely enriched by the gift from his Greek Orthodox friend, Marco Pallis, of a hand-painted icon, originally from Mount Athos. It had arrived in the late summer of 1965, just as he was beginning his hard apprenticeship as a hermit living in a small cinderblock house in the woods near the monastery. It was one of the most commonly painted of all icons, and image of the Mother of God and the Christ Child. For Merton it was like a kiss from God. He wrote Pallis in response:

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

Marco Pallis’ gift was the first of seven icons that made their way to Merton in his last three years of life and found a place in his small chapel, where they remain to the present day.

We come upon a final clue to the place 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

For Merton, the icon is the primary visual art of the Church — if not a door of the Church, as it had been for him, then a window revealing the Kingdom of God. Yet he was also aware that icons were not simply aesthetic objects but had both theological and ecclesiastical aspects. They were not meaningful apart from the totality of the Church and its sacramental life. The icon becomes a dead plant when it becomes simply a “work of art” or a collector’s item.

Like the Bible, the icon is made by the Church and guarded by the Church. The iconographer is not simply an independent creative agent but a faithful bearer of a multi-generational artistic tradition whose icons bear witness to the truths the Church lives by. Each icon has dogmatic content. For example any icon of Christ in the arms of his mother (like the one that Merton had sent me with that first postcard) reminds us that he took flesh in the flesh of her body. Christ’s bare feet seen in the Virgin of Vladimir icon are a reminder that he was fully man, walking on the same earth that we do. Though an infant, he is shown dressed as an emperor, because in reality he continually rules the cosmos.

Merton’s debt to Eastern Orthodox Christianity goes much further than his appreciation of icons. Not least important there is his devotion to the Desert Fathers and his pioneering efforts to make them better known in western Christianity. After all, these Egyptian and Palestinian monks were the founders of the monastic vocation. Merton had briefly referred to them in The Seven Storey Mountain. Later he was to translate a selection of sayings and stories from the ancient communities of the desert. In introducing his selections in Wisdom of the Desert, he wrote:

The Christians who fled to the deserts of the Near East in the Fourth Century were like people jumping off a sinking ship …. [They] believed that to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the tenets and values of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a disaster. The fact that the Emperor was now Christian and that the “world” was coming to know the Cross as a sign of temporal power only strengthened them in their resolve.

For Merton, desert monasticism was a personal challenge. In a letter to a friend, he wrote: “The Desert Fathers didn’t talk about ‘monastic spirituality’ but about purity of heart and obedience and solitude, and about God. The wiser of them talked very little about anything.”

We discover another aspect of Merton’s debt to Orthodox sources if we note the books he refers to in his letters, journal entries and lectures given to his fellow monks. He was a close reader of Orthodox teachers of prayer and carefully read such modern Orthodox theologians as Olivier Clement, Paul Evdokimov, Alexander Schmemann, Thomas Hopko and John Meyendorff. In A Retreat with Thomas Merton, Fr. Basil Pennington notes seeing in Merton’s hermitage library such titles as Early Fathers from the Writings from the Philokalia on the Prayer of the Heart, Treasury of Russian Spirituality, and Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers. In the last book, Fr. Basil found a slip of paper with a copy of the Jesus Prayer in Slavonic with phonetic interlinear transliteration.

Perhaps the most important Orthodox reference work Merton studied was the Philokalia, a massive anthology of writings, mainly from patristic sources, whose main topic is the Prayer of the Heart. Merton would often borrow a sentence from one of the authors included in the Philokalia, St. Theofan the Recluse:

Prayer is descending with the mind into your heart, and there standing before the face of the Lord, ever present, all seeing, within you.

The Prayer of the Heart is another term for the Jesus Prayer, a short prayer which centers on the name of Jesus and which is widely used both by monastics and lay people in the Orthodox Church, and which is gradually becoming well known in the West.

Merton’s use of the Jesus Prayer seems to have begun about 1950. It was well established in his life by 1959, when he wrote the following 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, 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.

The icon Merton carried with him while traveling in Asia provides its own last words, silent on the image side, and in the form of a text from the Philokalia that Merton had copied on the back:

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.

* * *
Jim and Nancy Forest
Kanisstraat 5 / 1811 GJ Alkmaar / The Netherlands
e-mail: [email protected]

* * *

Thomas Merton: 'The Root of War is Fear'

[A lecture given at the University of Alberta, Augustana Campus, in Camrose, on 13 October 2007; the context was a conference sponsored by the Chester Ronning Centre and co-sponsored by the Thomas Merton Society of Canada. This was the Augustana Distinguished Lecture for 2006. The event was made possible by the Hendrickson Family Endowment Fund.]

by Jim Forest

Living as we are in a period of endemic fear, it may help us to look back on an earlier period of extreme collective fear.

Some of you are old enough to recall the anxiety we were living with when the nineteen-sixties began, but for those whose memories don’t extend that far, let me mention some aspects.

In 1960, the period of social dislocation and counterculture known as “the Sixties” hadn’t really started. Culturally it was still “the Fifties.” Male hair was short. The Beatles were unheard of. There were no hippies. Millions of North American homes were still without a television. Marilyn Monroe’s latest film was “Let’s Make Love,” a phrase with a more innocent meaning than it has today. The Second Vatican Council had not yet started. Abortion was still illegal in nearly every country outside the Soviet bloc.

1960 was the year in which John Kennedy was elected President of the United States — the first Catholic in the White House. Stalin had died seven years earlier but, even in death, he was a political presence still shaping Western perceptions of the USSR. Nikita Khrushchev was in his third year as premier of the Soviet Union. Fidel Castro was in his first year as head of a Marxist government in Cuba. The C.I.A. was secretly preparing the Cuban Bay of Pigs invasion that was to occur in the spring of 1961. The Cuban Missile Crisis was nearly two years away.

The Cold War was blowing its icy winds across every border. American military involvement in Vietnam was in its early stages.

It was a time of keenly felt apocalyptic possibilities. Millions of people took it for granted that they would die in a fast-approaching nuclear war. It was only fifteen years since atom bombs developed in the U.S. had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and eleven years since the first nuclear weapon had been exploded in a Soviet test. It was eight years since the US tested the first hydrogen bomb, a weapon vastly more destructive that the atom bomb. Inevitably, the Soviet Union followed suit. It seemed that hardly a month passed without another open-air test of a nuclear weapon. Many have since died from cancers brought on by radioactive fallout fromn those texts. The toxic results are still with us and indeed will last for millennia to come.

Both the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. had developed intercontinental missiles that could deliver nuclear weapons to a broad range of targets in less than an hour. Politicians, generals and authors of editorials, while advocating building more and bigger missiles that could deliver bigger “payloads,” wrote anxiously about “missile gaps.” In 1960 the military strategist, Herman Kahn, published On Thermonuclear War, in which he argued that nuclear war, despite the death of millions, could be a winnable option. It was not regarded as insane for responsible people to use the Strangelovian term “mutually assured destruction” — M-A-D for short.

You can get a good idea of just how mad the times were by watching Stanley Kubrick’s film: Doctor Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” It may well be this work of satire helped prevent World War III. Kubrick should have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The development of bomb shelters was a major U.S. priority. Not only were there thousands of public shelters, but suburban families were encouraged to build them either in their basements or under their back yards. In 1961 a respected Catholic theologian, Fr. Lawrence McHugh, wrote an article in America magazine, a Jesuit journal, in which he argued that the occupants of fallout shelters had the right to use deadly force to keep out neighbors who had been improvident enough not to build shelters of their own.

My impression is that Canadians were not caught up in the shelter mania of the period, but children in the U.S. routinely participated in “duck and cover” exercises — practicing to survive nuclear war by diving under their schoolroom desks and, backs upward, getting into a fetal position, their hands over the backs of their necks.

What about myself as the sixties began? In 1960, I was in the military, part of a small Navy unit at the U.S. Weather Bureau headquartered just outside Washington, D.C. Our most disturbing weekly exercise was to plot the fallout pattern over 12-hour intervals across a three-day period should a 20 megaton nuclear explosion occur over the capitol in present weather conditions. For a young meteorologist, it made nuclear war quite real.

In the spring of 1961, having received a special discharge as a conscientious objector, I left the Navy. I had gotten into very hot water for taking part in a protest of the Bay of Pigs invasion. Once out of uniform, I joined the staff of the Catholic Worker in Manhattan, a community of hospitality for street people in what was then one of the most run-down areas of New York City. The community was led by Dorothy Day, a woman frequently jailed for acts of protest, most notably for refusing to take shelter during compulsory “civil defense” tests. Instead of seeking shelter in the subways, as was required, Dorothy would be found sitting quietly on a park bench directly in front of the mayor’s office.

The community also published a controversial but widely read newspaper, The Catholic Workee. About 70,000 copies were mailed out each month. For a time I served as the paper’s managing editor, proof that sometimes one’s main achievement in life comes early.

One of my chores that first summer was to deliver the mail addressed to Dorothy. In those days, while busy writing a book, she was mainly staying either at the Catholic Worker farm on Staten Island or at her nearby beach cottage. Her practice was, once the mail reached her, to make a large pot of tea, open the envelopes and then read the letters aloud to whoever was present, adding stories and background information as needed. Most letters she answered herself, but occasionally she would hand one over to someone at the table with suggestions about how to respond.

A letter from Thomas Merton was in a bag of mail I delivered to her one summer day in 1961. This amazed me. I had been reading Merton for nearly two years and knew from The Seven Storey Mountain, his autobiography, that Trappist monks were normally allowed to write only four letters a year. I had no idea that the rule had been completely relaxed for Merton, but even if I knew he was allowed unlimited correspondence, the last person in the world I would have expected him to be writing to was Dorothy Day. Her name was synonymous with engagement in the world while Merton’s name, thanks to his autobiography, was synonymous with withdrawal from the world. She represented the active life, he the contemplative. But as Dorothy read Merton’s letter aloud, I began to see how much common ground they shared.

His letter that day was confessional. “I become more and more skeptical about my writing,” he wrote. “There has been some good and much bad, and I haven’t been nearly honest enough and clear enough. The problem that torments me is that I can so easily become part of a general system of delusion … I find myself more and more drifting toward the derided and possibly quite absurd and defeatist position of a sort of Christian anarchist.”

As I was later to realize, Merton had a gift for finding bridge words between himself and his correspondents. Dorothy often called herself an anarchist (a Greek word meaning a person without a ruler). This was, as far as I know, the first and last time Merton ever described himself as an anarchist, though in an essay written that same year he also applied the term to the Desert Fathers, as the founders of monasticism are called. When Dorothy used the word “anarchist,” she meant a person whose obedience was not to secular rulers, states, or ideological systems, but to Christ. (It is interesting to note the qualifications Merton works into his use of the word “anarchist,” modifying it with “Christian” while noting it’s a derided, defeatist and possibly absurd designation. In fact Merton had a greater aversion to ideologically-charged labels than Dorothy.)

In a letter Merton sent to Dorothy a few weeks later, he expresses again the anguish he felt in failing to address publicly matters that had placed the human race in a situation of unprecedented danger:

“I don’t feel that I can in conscience, at a time like this, go on writing just about things like meditation, though that has its point. I cannot just bury my head in a lot of rather tiny and secondary monastic studies either. I think I have to face the big issues, the life-and-death issues: and this is what everyone is afraid of… ”

I later understood whom he was referring to by “everyone.” Chief among them was his Abbot General in Rome, Dom Gabriel Sortais. Dom Gabriel eventually ordered Merton to stop writing essays on war and peace; it wasn’t a topic, he said, that was appropriate for a monk. But in 1961, the silencing of Merton was still in the future, two years away.

It was about a month later, perhaps August 1961, that Merton submitted his first article to The Catholic Workee. For us this was a major event. Here was the best-known and most-respected Catholic writer in the English language joining forces with a journal that regularly raised issues that most religious publications carefully avoided: war and peace, social justice, voluntary poverty, conscientious objection, community, racism, hospitality, the works of mercy.

Merton’s submission to us was an expanded version of a chapter that had originally been part of Seeds of Contemplation, a book published in 1949. It is the only book Merton ever revised, and the revision was major. In the preface to New Seeds of Contemplation, Merton explained that the earlier book was written in isolation from other people, while in the years that followed his solitude had been modified “by contact with other solitudes; with the loneliness, the simplicity, the perplexity of novices and scholastics” as well as with “the loneliness of people outside my monastery; with the loneliness of people outside the Church.”

The title of the chapter sent to us — “The Root of War is Fear” — was unchanged from the earlier book, but what had been just over three pages in 1949 had been developed, in the 1961 revision, into a thirteen-page essay. In addition, Merton added four paragraphs of new text written specifically for The Catholic Workee. This addendum, as we later discovered, had not gone through the usual process of Trappist scrutiny. It may have been the only text by Merton to reach an unrestricted reading public without having passed first under the eyes of one or more censors.

Among my first significant editorial jobs at The Catholic Workee was to decide whether to put these special paragraphs at the end of the essay or at the beginning. Merton wasn’t sure which order was better. Neither was Dorothy. I ended up putting the new material up front, but if I were doing the editing today, I would put it at the end — not to bury it, but to allow the text to lead off with essay’s key sentence: “At the root of war is fear; not so much the fear that men have of one another as the fear they have of everything. It is not that they do not trust one another; they do not even trust themselves.”

Merton went on to say that “the first real step toward peace would be a realistic acceptance of the fact that our political ideals are perhaps to a great extent illusions and fictions to which we cling out of motives that are not always perfectly honest: that because of this we prevent ourselves from seeing any good or any practicality in the political ideals of our enemies — which may, of course, be in many ways even more illusory and dishonest than our own. We will never get anywhere unless we can accept the fact that politics is an inextricable tangle of good and evil motives in which, perhaps, the evil predominate but where one must continue to hope doggedly in what little good can still be found.”

In the context of the Cold War, in which most Americans preferred to see pure good on one side, their own, and the most profoundly concentrated evil on the other, these were challenging words. But The Catholic Workee addendum was still stronger stuff. Here it is in full:

The present war crisis is something we have made entirely for and by ourselves. There is in reality not the slightest logical reason for war, and yet the whole world is plunging headlong into frightful destruction, and doing so with the purpose of avoiding war and preserving peace! This is true war-madness, an illness of the mind and spirit that is spreading with a furious and subtle contagion all over the world. Of all the countries that are sick, America is perhaps the most grievously afflicted. On all sides we have people building bomb shelters where, in case of nuclear war, they will simply bake slowly instead of burning quickly or being blown out of existence in a flash. And they are prepared to sit in these shelters with machine guns with which to prevent their neighbor from entering. This in a nation that claims to be fighting for religious truth along with freedom and other values of the spirit. Truly we have entered the “post-Christian era” with a vengeance. Whether we are destroyed or whether we survive, the future is awful to contemplate.

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

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

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

What I would like to do now is take a closer look at these four paragraphs. Forty-five years have passed, but they have not become less timely. In a compact form, they prefigure themes Merton was to develop in his extensive writing on war and peace in later essays.

Merton began by observing that “the present war crisis is something we have made entirely for and by ourselves.”

The point here is the necessity of breaking our ingrained habit of blaming others. Taking personal responsibility is the essential first step toward becoming the peacemakers that Christ called his followers to be. We cannot simply blame other nations or the President or the Prime Minister or God or the devil for the situation of mortal danger in which we find ourselves. This is not to say that personally we had anything to do with the development of weapons of mass destruction (Canadians have wisely chosen not to have them), still less that we are among the few who have a finger on the button of mass killing. And yet we are all complicit in various degrees with the sins of our nation and our world.

It’s interesting that in one of Merton’s early letters to Dorothy Day, he mentioned his particular admiration for Elder Zosima in Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, a book that had greatly influenced Dorothy Day. At the heart of the Zosima narrative is the old monk’s confession to his cell attendant, Alyosha Karamazov, that “each is guilty of everything before everyone, and I most of all.” This is an insight reflected in the Orthodox prayer recited aloud before communion at the Liturgy each Sunday, in which the communicant identifies himself as the “worst of sinners.”

What was currently happening in the U.S.A., Merton insisted in his Catholic Worker text, is “true war-madness, an illness of the mind and spirit that is spreading with a furious and subtle contagion all over the world.”

The question of sanity versus madness was one Merton would return to in what he wrote in the last eight years of his life. What was regarded as sanity often turned out to be nothing more than blind obedience.

In his essay on Adolf Eichmann, chief bureaucrat of the Holocaust, Merton emphasized that Eichmann, far from being a psychotic madman, had been found perfectly sane by the Israeli psychiatrists who examined him before his trial. It seemed to Merton that Eichmann was the perfect archetype of all those who were designers or operators of technologies of mass murder, people for whom it was enough that those in higher authority had authorized what they were doing.

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

Returning to The Catholic Workee version of “The Root or War is Fear,” Merton stepped onto very thin ice in asserting that “of all the countries that are sick, America is perhaps the most grievously afflicted.”

Merton would be the first to insist that America has no monopoly on great sins, or that it is unique in its readiness to commit mass murder, yet one must ask if the United States wasn’t then and isn’t still imbedded up to its eyebrows in a vision of itself as being a uniquely virtuous and righteous nation, a messianic nation, a nation everyone envies? In reality, it is a country that has developed nuclear weapons and various other methods of mass destruction, a country that engages in “preemptive war,” a country in which millions live in extreme poverty and huge numbers are without health care. (We now find many Americans coming by the busload into Canada where the medications they depend upon can be bought more cheaply.) Is it likely that the United States would be the special object of God’s favor, admiration and blessings?

Merton points out: “This is a nation that claims to be fighting for religious truth along with freedom and other values of the spirit.”

The truth is that, under cover of idealistic rhetoric about democracy, human rights, liberty and the rule of law, America is fighting to maintain its wealth and power. Would there have been war over Kuwait or the current war in Iraq if the principal natural resource of the two countries was cauliflower? Were it not for the oil factor, would U.S. troops, along with military forces from several U.S. allies, be occupying Iraq today? Or would the U.S. have been far more patient about the U.N. inspection process?

Merton goes on: “Truly we have entered the ‘post-Christian era’ with a vengeance. Whether we are destroyed or whether we survive, the future is awful to contemplate.”

When I first read the manuscript Merton had sent us, I recall being disturbed by his use of the phrase “post-Christian era.” How could one speak of a society in which so many people were attending Christian churches as being post-Christian? Yet on reflection I had to admit that much of American Christianity was something like a western town on a Hollywood movie lot. The fronts of the buildings were convincing, more real than the real thing, but there was an emptiness behind the facades. How many people were practicing Christ’s commandment to love enemies and pray for them? Weren’t these words of Jesus simply shrugged off? How many Christians were feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, welcoming the homeless, caring for the sick and visiting the prisoner? Not many. Yet, according to Christ, these were the main themes of the Last Judgment. It turns out we will be judged not for what we claim to believe, but rather for how we respond to the least person. How many us do without luxuries so that others might have necessities? Christianity is not a label or an attendance record or an association or an ideology. It is a way of life that centers in love of God and neighbor. The love of God minus the love of neighbor will not save us. And who is my neighbor? Any stranger in desperate need. Do we not have to admit that, despite our plenitude of churches, we not only live in a post-Christian culture, but that most of us qualify as exemplars of post-Christianity in which the national flag has far more to do with our definition of identity and choices than the Gospel?

Then Merton asks a hard question: “What is the place of the Christian in all this? Is he simply to fold his hands and resign himself for the worst, accepting it as the inescapable will of God and preparing himself to enter heaven with a sigh of relief? Should he open up the Apocalypse and run into the street to give everyone his idea of what is happening? Or, worse still, should he take a hard-headed and ‘practical’ attitude about it and join in the madness of the war makers, calculating how, by a ‘first strike’ the glorious Christian West can eliminate atheistic communism for all time and usher in the millennium?”

Indeed there were, and are, many Christians who seem untroubled by the wars in progress, the daily slaughter, not to mention the vast numbers of people who, while limitless money is available for war, lack food, clean water and the most basic health care. But the message in many churches is: Don’t be upset. Behave yourself. Go to church on Sunday. Put money in the collection plate. Pray before meals. Vote for the candidate who says “God” most often. Do this and you will eventually be one of the fortunate ones to be welcomed into heaven. Meanwhile pay no attention to the troubles of this world.

There are even those who see war as God’s holy work in which the good Christian is called to cooperate. We have theologians who will eagerly explain war as God’s will, as foretold in the Bible. The message many Christians hear is not “Blessed are the peacemakers” but “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.”

While the number of people killed by Christ is zero, many Christians have made themselves at home with killing not only their enemies but the parents of their enemies, the children of their enemies, the neighbors of their enemies, and even their anticipated enemies. Apparently it is no problem for them that, given the nature of modern weapons, those most likely to survive modern war are the soldier and political leaders while those most likely to die are the most vulnerable members of society — the youngest, the oldest, the least healthy, the poorest. These are the people whose deaths or injuries are now referred to with the antiseptic phrase, “collateral damage.”

Merton continues: “I am no prophet and seer but it seems to me that this last position [that is the Christian who justifies or advocates war] may very well be the most diabolical of illusions, the great and not even subtle temptation of a Christianity that has grown rich and comfortable, and is satisfied with its riches.”

Merton denies being a prophet and seer, yet in fact he was one of the few prominent Christians of his time expressing the realization that we are prisoners of fear walking a suicidal path in the general direction of Hell.

Merton asks another question: “What are we to do?” His response is clear and remains as relevant today as it was when published in October 1961 issue of The Catholic Workee:

“The duty of the Christian in this crisis is to strive with all his power and intelligence, with his faith, his hope in Christ, and love for God and man, to do the one task which God has imposed upon us in the world today. That task is to work for the total abolition of war. There can be no question that unless war is abolished the world will remain constantly in a state of madness and desperation in which, because of the immense destructive power of modern weapons, the danger of catastrophe will be imminent and probable at every moment everywhere. Unless we set ourselves immediately to this task, both as individuals and in our political and religious groups, we tend by our very passivity and fatalism to cooperate with the destructive forces that are leading inexorably to war.”

Did Merton go a bit overboard in saying that the top priority for Christians today is the abolition of war? I would say no, not if we understand how close we were — and still are — to a creation-destroying catastrophe, and also if we understand the phrase “abolition of war” in a deep sense.

The process of abolishing war is not a task only for politicians and specialists. It involves each of us. It has to do with daily life, how we pray, and what we do — and refuse to do. It requires us to identify item by item all those things which, unattended to, contribute to war.

The roots of war are deep. They reach far and wide. War is connected to abusive words and actions in one’s home. War is connected to a lifestyle of selfishness. War is connected to environmental destruction. War is connected to aggressive driving. War is connected to our locked doors, our privately owned weapons, our unwelcoming faces, and our fear of hospitality. War is connected to racism and other forms of hatred, contempt and dehumanization. Is there any one of us who, looking closely at his or her life, cannot find some of the roots of war?

Merton continues: “[The abolition of war] is a problem of terrifying complexity and magnitude, for which the Church itself is not fully able to see clear and decisive solutions. Yet she must lead the way on the road to the nonviolent settlement of difficulties and toward the gradual abolition of war as the way of settling international or civil disputes. Christians must become active in every possible way, mobilizing all their resources for the fight against war.”

Merton may have been a pacifist, a word with Latin roots meaning peacemaker, but certainly he was no passive-ist. Passivity will not turn the tide. Merton’s view regarding evil is that it must be actively resisted. The question is not whether but how. How can we live without becoming either victims or executioners? In common with Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Merton stressed the development of methods for the nonviolent settlement of conflict. He was not a utopian who envisioned a world in which there is no conflict, but he could imagine a world in which nonviolent options were seen as effective rather than dismissed as naive, idealistic or unrealistic. When we think of the immense and irreparable harm war does, how realistic is war?

In his final paragraph, Merton notes that there is much to be learned. “Peace is to be preached, nonviolence is to be explained as a practical method, and not left to be mocked as an outlet for crackpots who want to make a show of themselves.”

In fact how often do we hear anyone, whether in church or in the legislature, speak about nonviolent alternatives? We are captives of a fatalistic, fear-driven culture in which it is taken for granted that human beings must sooner or later kill. This is our basic story.

It’s the Gospel According to John Wayne: the story of the decent man who at last has to take the gun out of the drawer, strap it on, and dispatch evil people to the graveyard. The hero is a good man who hates violence, but the story makes clear that he has no honorable alternative. Violence is the only language evil people understand. Regrettably, their deaths provide the only solution. What else can you do? Movie by movie, we see just how evil the evil people are — evil right down to their most minute strands of DNA. Thousands of films repeat the story, setting it not only in the Wild West of the nineteenth century but in contemporary urban ganglands and in space dramas in which six-shooters become laser guns. The details change but the story of necessary violence against irredeemably evil people is retold to us on a daily basis.

Nonviolence, on the other hand, has a biblical foundation: According to Genesis, no one is genetically evil. Each person bears the image of God, even the most damaged person, the most hardened criminal. Each person is capable of change, a phenomenon known in the New Testament as repentance and conversion.

It’s a truth the Russian writer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, discovered while among Stalin’s prisoners in the Gulag Archipelago. He later wrote:

“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of hearts, there remains … an un-uprooted small corner of evil.”

Solzhenitsyn had been a convinced Communist and an atheist, but in the hell of a prison camp, he became aware of God’s presence and underwent conversion, becoming an Orthodox Christian. Much the same had happened to Dostoevsky while a Siberian prisoner in the nineteenth century. For both men, life was set on an entirely new course.

Conversion is a possibility for each of us. Ideally each life is a series of conversions. But conversion is no longer a possibility for those we have killed. The triumph of the early Church was that Christians, far from seeking the death of their enemies, sought their conversion and salvation.

In his Catholic Worker essay, Merton goes on to stress the spiritual aspect of the struggle against mass killing in war: “Prayer and sacrifice must be used as the most effective spiritual weapons in the war against war, and like all weapons, they must be used with deliberate aim: not just with a vague aspiration for peace and security, but against violence and war. This implies that we are also willing to sacrifice and restrain our own instinct for violence and aggressiveness in our relations with other people.”

The search for nonviolent methods of confronting evil is a struggle for conversion, not only the conversion of my adversary, but my own conversion, for these two events are bound up in each other. Neither I nor my enemy is yet the person God intends us to become. Prayer and sacrifice are ordinary tools of spiritual life meant to help us overcome our selfishness and vanity, our inability to love, our unwillingness to forgive. Such basic tools of spiritual life help equip us for combat against war, whether the micro-wars that occur within families or the macro-wars that fill vast cemeteries with the dead.

Merton’s final sentence in his essay is not sanguine: “We may never succeed in this campaign but whether we succeed or not, the duty is evident.”

Merton was no optimist. ‘He didn’t assume that, by being better followers of Christ, we would inevitably produce a world without war. As he put it to me in a letter five years later:

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

“You are fed up with words, and I don’t blame you. I am nauseated by them sometimes. I am also, to tell the truth, nauseated by ideals and with causes. This sounds like heresy, but I think you will understand what I mean. It is so easy to get engrossed with ideas and slogans and myths that in the end one is left holding the bag, empty, with no trace of meaning left in it. And then the temptation is to yell louder than ever in order to make the meaning be there again by magic. Going through this kind of reaction helps you to guard against this. Your system is complaining of too much verbalizing, and it is right.

“The big results are not in your hands or mine, but they suddenly happen, and we can share in them; but there is no point in building our lives on this personal satisfaction, which may be denied us and which after all is not that important.

“The next step in the process is for you to see that your own thinking about what you are doing is crucially important. You are probably striving to build yourself an identity in your work, out of your work and your witness. You are using it, so to speak, to protect yourself against nothingness, annihilation. That is not the right use of your work. All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love. Think of this more, and gradually you will be free from the need to prove yourself, and you can be more open to the power that will work through you without your knowing it.

“The great thing after all is to live, not to pour out your life in the service of a myth: and we turn the best things into myths. If you can get free from the domination of causes and just serve Christ’s truth, you will be able to do more and will be less crushed by the inevitable disappointments. Because I see nothing whatever in sight but much disappointment, frustration and confusion … .

“The real hope, then, is not in something we think we can do but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see. If we can do His will, we will be helping in this process. But we will not necessarily know all about it beforehand …”

End of letter.

It’s interesting that a certain detachment from achieving quick results can equip us to persevere so that, in the long run, we may help achieve something that seemed absolutely impossible.

What might Merton have to say if he were with us today and could update “The Root of War is Fear”?

Not much would require revision, but I take it for granted Merton would stress face-to-face contact with Muslims, especially those who are living in our own communities. Islam is largely unexplored territory for most of us, and while books on Islam can help us overcome our ignorance, there is nothing that takes the place of actual face-to-face encounter. Islam is as complex as Christianity, with its major traditions and numerous sects. My own experience is that Muslims tend to know as little about Christianity as most Christians know about Islam. It is, on both sides, a dangerous ignorance.

Merton would probably have had more to say about fear. Given his interest in the work of twentieth century Orthodox theologians, he would have become familiar with the work of Metropolitan John Zizioulas and might well have incorporated this paragraph or a paraphrase of it into his essay:

The essence of sin is the fear of the Other, which is part of the rejection of God. Once the affirmation of the “self” is realized through the rejection and not the acceptance of the Other — this is what Adam chose in his freedom to do — it is only natural and inevitable for the other to become an enemy and a threat. Reconciliation with God is a necessary pre-condition for reconciliation with any “other.” … The fact that the fear of the other is pathologically inherent in our existence results in the fear not only of the other but of all otherness. This is a delicate point requiring careful consideration, for it shows how deep and widespread fear of the other is: we are not afraid simply of certain others, but even if we accept them, it is on condition that they are somehow like ourselves. Radical otherness is an anathema. Difference itself is a threat. That this is universal and pathological is to be seen in the fact that even when difference does not in actual fact constitute a threat for us, we reject it simply because we dislike it. Again and again we notice that fear of the other is nothing more than fear of the different. We all want somehow to project into the other the model of our own selves.

To sum up: Even more than was the case in the Sixties, we live in a culture of fear, the post-nine-eleven world. The sale of pills to treat stress and depression is thriving as never before — the use of tranquilizers and similar medications for anxiety and sleeplessness has reportedly nearly doubled since New York City’s World Trade Center was destroyed.

A recent study has shown that every time the Bush administration rachets up the fear level, President Bush’s job approval rating goes up. The constant message of the White House is: Be afraid! Be very afraid! The Bush administration has discovered that if people are afraid enough they will make any sacrifice of liberty — especially the liberty of others. We are used to living in “code orange” and “code red” contexts. Just to fly from one city to another, each of us must now be regarded as a possible terrorist. God forbid you should look something like a Muslim! I know an Orthodox bishop living in Oxford, a man as English as Queen Elizabeth, who is often subjected to body searches when he travels abroad — suspiciously, he wears a black robe and has a beard. We now have the monitoring of e-mail and phone calls. An unknown number of men and women have been held at Guantanamo and other prisons without charges and without legal rights. In the body politic, we argue as to whether the beating or near-drowning of suspects should be regarded as torture. Meanwhile, while seeking to prevent others from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, American weapons of mass destruction are numerous and poised for use.

Ours is in many ways a more frightening and dangerous world than Merton addressed in 1961. It is encouraging to notice, however, that articulate dissent can make a great difference. The worldwide nuclear war that seemed so close at hand as the Sixties began has not yet happened. Merton was one of the many people whose articulate opposition was a significant factor in preventing an unprecedented catastrophe. That we are alive today is thanks to such people. May we provide a similar service to future generations.

* * *

Mother Maria Skobtsova: Saint of the Open Door

On January 18, 2004, the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul recognized Mother Maria Skobtsova as a saint along with her son Yuri, the priest who worked closely with her, Fr. Dimitri Klépinin, and her close friend and collaborator Ilya Fondaminsky. All four died in German concentration camps. Their canonization was celebrated in Paris on the 1st and 2nd of May 2004 at the cathedral of St. Alexander Nevsky.

The essay that follows serves as the introduction to Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings, published by Orbis Books.

Mother Maria Skobtsova: Saint of the Open Door

by Jim Forest

“No amount of thought will ever result in any greater formulation than the three words, ‘Love one another,’ so long as it is love to the end and without exceptions.”

Those who know the details of her life tend to regard Mother Maria Skobtsova as one of the great saints of the twentieth century: a brilliant theologian who lived her faith bravely in nightmarish times, finally dying a martyr’s death at the Ravensbruck concentration camp in Germany in 1945.

Elizaveta Pilenko, the future Mother Maria, was born in 1891 in the Latvian city of Riga, then part of the Russian Empire, and grew up in the south of Russia on a family estate near the town of Anapa on the shore of the Black Sea. In her family she was known as Liza. For a time her father was mayor of Anapa. Later he was director of a botanical garden and school at Yalta. On her mother’s side, Liza was descended from the last governor of the Bastille, the Parisian prison destroyed during the French Revolution.

Her parents were devout Orthodox Christians whose faith helped shape their daughter’s values, sensitivities and goals. As a child she once emptied her piggy bank in order to contribute to the painting of an icon that would be part of a new church in Anapa. At seven she asked her mother if she was old enough to become a nun, while a year later she sought permission to become a pilgrim who spends her life walking from shrine to shrine. (As late as 1940, when living in German-occupied Paris, thoughts of one day being a wandering pilgrim and missionary in Siberia again filled her imagination.)

When she was fourteen, her father died, an event which seemed to her meaningless and unjust and led her to atheism. “If there is no justice,” she said, “there is no God.” She decided God’s nonexistence was well known to adults but kept secret from children. For her, childhood was over.

When her widowed mother moved the family to St. Petersburg in 1906, she found herself in the country’s political and cultural center — also a hotbed of radical ideas and groups.

She became part of radical literary circles that gathered around such symbolist poets as Alexander Blok, whom she first met at age fifteen. Blok responded to their unexpected meeting — Liza had come to visit unannounced — with a poem that included the lines:

Only someone who is in love
Has the right to call himself a human being.

In a note that came with the poem, Blok told Liza that many people were dying where they stood. The world-weary poet urged her “to run, run from us, the dying ones.” She replied with a vow fight “against death and against wickedness.”

Like so many of her contemporaries, she was drawn to the left, but was often disappointed that the radicals she encountered. Though regarding themselves as revolutionaries, they seemed to do nothing but talk. “My spirit longed to engage in heroic feats, even to perish, to combat the injustice of the world,” she recalled. Yet no one she knew was actually laying down his life for others. Should her friends hear of someone dying for the Revolution, she noted, “they will value it, approve or not approve, show understanding on a very high level, and discuss the night away till the sun rises and it’s time for fried eggs. But they will not understand at all that to die for the Revolution means to feel a rope around one’s neck.”

Liza began teaching evening courses to workers at the Poutilov Plant, but later gave it up in disillusionment when one of her students told her that he and his classmates weren’t interested in learning as such, but saw classes as a necessary path to becoming clerks and bureaucrats. The teen-age Liza wanted her workers to be every bit as idealistic as she was.

In 1910, Liza married Dimitri Kuzmin-Karaviev, a member of Social Democrat Party, better known as the Bolsheviks. She was eighteen, he was twenty-one. It was a marriage born “more of pity than of love,” she later commented. Dimitri had spent a short time in prison several years before, but by the time of their marriage was part of a community of poets, artists and writers in which it was normal to rise at three in the afternoon and talk the night through until dawn.

She not only knew poets but wrote poems in the symbolist mode. In 1912 her first collection of poetry, Scythian Shards, was published.

Like many other Russian intellectuals, she later reflected, she was a participant in the revolution before the Revolution that was “so deeply, pitilessly and fatally laid over the soil of old traditions” only to destroy far more than it created. “Such courageous bridges we erected to the future! At the same time, this depth and courage were combined with a kind of decay, with the spirit of dying, of ghostliness, ephemerality. We were in the last act of the tragedy, the rupture between the people and the intelligentsia.”

She and her friends also talked theology, but just as their political ideas had no connection at all to the lives of ordinary people, their theology floated far above the actual Church. There was much they might have learned, she reflected later in life, from “any old beggar woman hard at her Sunday prostrations in church.” For many intellectuals, the Church was an idea or a set of abstract values, not a community in which one actually lives.

Though still regarding herself as an atheist, little by little her earlier attraction to Christ revived and deepened, not yet Christ as God incarnate but Christ as heroic man. “Not for God, for He does not exist, but for the Christ,” she said. “He also died. He sweated blood. They struck His face … [while] we pass by and touch His wounds and yet are not burned by His blood.”

One door opened to another. Liza found herself drawn toward the religious faith she had jettisoned after her father’s death. She prayed and read the Gospel and the lives of saints. It seemed to her that the real need of the people was not for revolutionary theories but for Christ. She wanted “to proclaim the simple word of God,” she told Blok in a letter written in 1916. The same year her second collection of poems, Ruth, appeared in St. Petersburg.

Deciding to study theology, she applied for entrance at the Theological Academy of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St. Petersburg, in those days an entirely male school whose students were preparing for ordination as priests. As surprising as her wanting to study there was the rector’s decision that she could be admitted.

By 1913, Liza’s marriage collapsed. (Later in his life Dimitri became a Christian, joined the Catholic Church, and later lived and worked among Jesuits in western Europe.) That October her first child, Gaiana, was born.

Just as World War I was beginning, Liza returned with her daughter to her family’s country home near Anapa in Russia’s deep south. Her religious life became more intense. For a time she secretly wore lead weights sewn into a hidden belt as a way of reminding herself both “that Christ exists” and also to be more aware that minute-by-minute many people were suffering and dying in the war. She realized, however, that the primary Christian asceticism was not self-mortification, but caring response to the needs of other people while at the same time trying to create better social structures. She joined the ill-fated Social Revolutionary Party, a movement that, despite the contrast in names, was far more democratic than Lenin’s Social Democratic Party.

On a return visit to St. Petersburg, Liza spent hours visiting a small chapel best known for a healing icon in which small coins had been embedded when lightning struck the poor box that stood near by — it was called the Mother of God, Joy of the Sorrowful, with Kopeks. Here she prayed in a dark corner, reviewing her life as one might prepare for confession, finally feeling God’s overwhelming presence. “God is over all,” she knew with certainty, “unique and expiating everything.”

In October 1917, Liza was present in St. Petersburg when Russia’s Provisional Government was overthrown by the Bolsheviks. Taking part in the All-Russian Soviet Congress, she heard Lenin’s lieutenant, Leon Trotsky, dismiss people from her party with the words, “Your role is played out. Go where you belong, into history’s garbage can!”

On the way home, she narrowly escaped summary execution by convincing a Bolshevik sailor that she was a friend of Lenin’s wife. It was on that difficult journey of many train rides and long waits at train stations that she began to see the scale of the catastrophe Russia was now facing: terror, random murder, massacres, destroyed villages, the rule of hooligans and thugs, hunger and massive dislocation. How hideously different actual revolution was from the dreams of revolution that had once filled the imagination of so many Russians, not least the intellectuals!

In February 1918, in the early days of Russia’s Civil War, Liza was elected deputy mayor of Anapa. She hoped she could keep the town’s essential services working and protect anyone in danger of the firing squad. “The fact of having a female mayor,” she noted, “was seen as something obviously revolutionary.” Thus they put up with “views that would not have been tolerated from any male.”

She became acting mayor after the town’s Bolshevik mayor fled when the White Army took control of the region. Again her life was in danger. To the White forces, Liza looked as Red as any Bolshevik. She was arrested, jailed, and put on trial for collaboration with the enemy. In court, she rose and spoke in her own defense: “My loyalty was not to any imagined government as such, but to those whose need of justice was greatest, the people. Red or White, my position is the same — I will act for justice and for the relief of suffering. I will try to love my neighbor.”

It was thanks to Daniel Skobtsov, a former schoolmaster who was now her judge, that Liza avoided execution. After the trial, she sought him out to thank him. They fell in love and within days were married. Before long Liza found herself once again pregnant.

The tide of the civil war was now turning in favor of the Bolsheviks. Both Liza and her husband were in peril, as well as her daughter and unborn child. They made the decision many thousands were making: it was safest to go abroad. Liza’s mother, Sophia, came with them.

Their journey took them across the Black Sea to Georgia in the putrid hold of a storm-beaten steamer. Liza’s son Yura was born in Tbilisi in 1920. A year later they left for Istanbul and from there traveled to Yugoslavia where Liza gave birth to Anastasia, or Nastia as she was called in the family. Their long journey finally ended in France. They arrived in Paris in 1923. Friends gave them use of a room. Daniel found work as a part-timer teacher, though the job paid too little to cover expanses. To supplement their income, Liza made dolls and painted silk scarves, often working ten or twelve hours a day.

A friend introduced her to the Russian Student Christian Movement, an Orthodox association founded in 1923. Liza began attending lectures and taking part in other activities of the group. She felt herself coming back to life spiritually and intellectually.

In the hard winter of 1926, each person in the family came down with influenza. All recovered except Nastia, who became thinner with each passing day. At last a doctor diagnosed meningitis. The Pasteur Institute accepted Nastia as a patient, also giving permission to Liza to stay day and night to help care for her daughter.

Liza’s vigil was to no avail. After a month in the hospital, Nastia died. Even then, for a day and night, her grief-stricken mother sat by Nastia’s side, unable to leave the room. During those desolate hours, she came to feel how she had never known “the meaning of repentance, but now I am aghast at my own insignificance …. I feel that my soul has meandered down back alleys all my life. And now I want an authentic and purified road. Not out of faith in life, but in order to justify, understand and accept death …. No amount of thought will ever result in any greater formulation than the three words, ‘Love one another,’ so long as it is love to the end and without exceptions. And then the whole of life is illumined, which is otherwise an abomination and a burden.”

The death of someone you love, she wrote, “throws open the gates into eternity, while the whole of natural existence has lost its stability and its coherence. Yesterday’s laws have been abolished, desires have faded, meaninglessness has displaced meaning, and a different, albeit incomprehensible Meaning, has caused wings to sprout on one’s back …. Before the dark pit of the grave, everything must be reexamined, measured against falsehood and corruption.”

After her daughter’s burial, Liza became “aware of a new and special, broad and all-embracing motherhood.” She emerged from her mourning with a determination to seek “a more authentic and purified life.” She felt she saw a “new road before me and a new meaning in life, to be a mother for all, for all who need maternal care, assistance, or protection.”

Liza devoted herself more and more to social work and theological writing with a social emphasis. In 1927 two volumes, Harvest of the Spirit, were published in which she retold the lives of many saints.

In the same period, her husband began driving a taxi, a job which provided a better income than part-time teaching. By now Gaiana was living at a boarding school in Belgium, thanks to help from her father. But Liza and Daniel’s marriage was dying, perhaps a casualty of Nastia’s death.

Feeling driven to devote herself as fully as possible to social service, Liza, with her mother, moved to central Paris, thus closer to her work. It was agreed that Yura would remain with his father until he was fourteen, though always free to visit and stay with his mother until he was fourteen, when he would decide for himself with which parent he would live. (In fact Yura, found to be in the early stages of tuberculosis, was to spend a lengthy period in a sanatarium apart from both parents.)

In 1930, the same year her third book of poetry was published, Liza was appointed traveling secretary of the Russian Student Christian Movement, work which put her into daily contact with impoverished Russian refugees in cities, towns and villages throughout France and sometimes in neighboring countries.

St Maria Skobtsova of Paris

After completing a lecture in some provincial center, Liza might afterward find herself involved in confessional conversations with those who had come to hear her and who sensed that she was something more than an intellectual with a suitcase full of ideas and theories. “We would embark on frank conversations about émigré life or else about the past …. A queue would form by the door as if outside a confessional. There would be people wanting to pour out their hearts, to tell of some terrible grief which had burdened them for years, of pangs of conscience which gave them no peace.”

She took literally Christ’s words that he was always present in the least person. “Man ought to treat the body of his fellow human being with more care than he treats his own,” she wrote. “Christian love teaches us to give our fellows material as well as spiritual gifts. We should give them our last shirt and our last piece of bread. Personal almsgiving and the most wide-ranging social work are both equally justified and needed.”

“If someone turns with his spiritual world toward the spiritual world of another person,” she reflected, “he encounters an awesome and inspiring mystery …. He comes into contact with the true image of God in man, with the very icon of God incarnate in the world, with a reflection of the mystery of God’s incarnation and divine manhood. And he needs to accept this awesome revelation of God unconditionally, to venerate the image of God in his brother. Only when he senses, perceives and understands it will yet another mystery be revealed to him — one that will demand his most dedicated efforts …. He will perceive that the divine image is veiled, distorted and disfigured by the power of evil …. And he will want to engage in battle with the devil for the sake of the divine image.”

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, who later became Russian Orthodox bishop in London, was then a layman in Paris where he was studying to become a physician. He recalls a story about Mother Maria as she was in this period that he heard from a friend:

[S]he went to the steel foundry in Creusot, where a large number of Russian [refugees] were working. She came there and announced that she was preparing to give a series of lectures on Dostoevsky. She was met with general howling: “We do not need Dostoevsky. We need linen ironed, we need our rooms cleaned, we need our clothes mended — and you bring us Dostoevsky!” And she answered: “Fine, if that is needed, let us leave Dostoevsky alone.” And for several days she cleaned rooms, sewed, mended, ironed, cleaned. When she had finished doing all that, they asked her to talk about Dostoevsky. This made a big impression on me, because she did not say: “I did not come here to iron for you or clean your rooms. Can you not do that yourselves?” She responded immediately and in this way she won the hearts and minds of the people.

While her work for the Russian Student Christian Movement suited her, the question was still unsettled in her life what her true vocation was. She began to envision a new type on community, “half monastic and half fraternal,” which would connect spiritual life with service to those in need, in the process showing “that a free Church can perform miracles.”

Father Sergei Bulgakov, her confessor, was a source of support and encouragement. He had been a Marxist economist before his conversion to Orthodox Christianity. In 1918 he was ordained to the priesthood in Moscow, then five years later was expelled from the USSR. He settled in Paris and became dean at the newly-founded St. Sergius Theological Institute. A spiritual father to many people, he was a confessor who respected the freedom of all who sought his guidance, never demanding obedience, never manipulating.

She also had a supportive bishop, Metropolitan Evlogy Georgievsky. He was responsible from 1921 to 1946 for the many thousands of Russian expatriates scattered across Europe, with the greatest number in France. “Everyone had access to him,” recalled Father Lev Gillet, “and placed on his shoulders all the spiritual or material burdens . . . . He wanted to give everyone the possibility of following his or her own call.” Metropolitan Evlogy had become aware of Liza through her social work and was the first one to suggest to her the possibility of becoming a nun.

Assured she would be free to develop a new type of monasticism, engaged in the world and marked by the “complete absence of even the subtlest barrier which might separate the heart from the world and its wounds,” Liza said she was willing to take such a step, but there was the obvious problem of her being married, even if now living alone. For a time it seemed the obstacles were insurmountable, as Daniel Skobtsov did not approve of his estranged wife taking monastic vows, but he changed his mind after Metropolitan Evlogy came to meet him. An ecclesiastical divorce was issued on March 7, 1932. A few weeks later, in the chapel at St. Sergius Theological Institute, Liza was professed as a nun. She was given the name Maria.

She made her monastic profession, Metropolitan Evlogy recognized, “in order to give herself unreservedly to social service.” Mother Maria called it simply “monasticism in the world.”

Here is an impression by Metropolitan Anthony of what Mother Maria was like in those days:

She was a very unusual nun in her behavior and her manners. I was simply staggered when I saw her for the first time in monastic clothes. I was walking along the Boulevard Montparnasse and I saw: in front of a café, on the pavement, there was a table, on the table was a glass of beer and behind the glass was sitting a Russian nun in full monastic robes. I looked at her and decided that I would never go near that woman. I was young then and held extreme views.

From the beginning Mother Maria’s intention was “to share the life of paupers and tramps,” but exactly how she would do that wasn’t yet clear to her. She lived in room made available to her by Lev and Valentina Zander as she contemplated the next step in her life.

That summer she set out to visit Estonia and Latvia on behalf of the Russian SCM where, in contrast to Soviet Russia, convents and monasteries still flourished. Here she had a first hand experience of traditional monastic life. The experience strengthened her conviction that her own vocation must follow a different path. It seemed to her that no one in the monasteries she visited was aware that “the world is on fire” or sensed that the times cried out for a new form of monasticism. In a time of massive social disruption, she wrote, it was better to offer a monastic witness which opened its gates to the desperate people living outside and in so doing participate in Christ’s self-abasement. “Everyone is always faced … with the necessity of choosing between the comfort and warmth of an earthly home, well protected from winds and storms, and the limitless expanse of eternity, which contains only one sure and certain item … the cross.”

It was clear to her that it was not only Russia which was being torn to shreds. “There are times when all that has been said cannot be made obvious and clear since the atmosphere around us is a pagan one and we are tempted by its idolatrous charms. But our times are firmly in tune with Christianity in that suffering is part of their nature. They demolish and destroy in our hearts all that is stable, mature, hallowed by the ages and treasured by us. They help us genuinely and utterly to accept the vows of poverty, to seek no rule, but rather anarchy, the anarchic life of Fools for Christ’s sake, seeking no monastic enclosure, but the complete absence of even the subtlest barrier which might separate the heart from the world and its wounds.”

Mother Maria had a particular devotion to saints who were classed as Holy Fools: people who behaved outrageously and yet revealed Christ in a remarkable way — such Holy Fools as St. Basil the Blessed, whose feast on August 2nd she kept with special attentiveness. An icon she painted contains scenes from his life. The Holy Fools were, she wrote, saints of freedom. “Freedom calls us to act the Fool for Christ’s sake, at variance with enemies and even friends, to develop the life of the Church in just that way in which it is most difficult. And we shall live as Fools, since we know not only the difficulty of this way of life, but also the exaltation of sensing God’s hand on our work.”

She saw that there were two ways to live. The first was on dry land, a legitimate and respectable place to be, where one could measure, weigh and plan ahead. The second was to walk on the waters where “it becomes impossible to measure or plan ahead. The one thing necessary is to believe all the time. If you doubt for an instant, you begin to sink.”

The water she decided to travel on was a vocation of welcoming and caring for those in desperate need. She began to look for a house of hospitality and found it at 9 villa de Saxe in Paris.

Metropolitan Evlogy remained deeply committed to Mother Maria’s activities. In 1932, when she had to sign the lease and had found no other donors, he paid the required 5000 francs. On another occasion, riding in the Paris Metro with the bishop, she voiced her discouragement about problems she was then facing. At that exact moment the Metro exited a tunnel and was bathed in the light of day. “You see,” said Metropolitan Evlogy, “it is the answer to your question.”

The house was completely unfurnished. The first night she wrapped herself in blankets and slept on the floor beneath the icon of the Protection of the Mother of God. Donated furniture began arriving, and also guests, mainly young Russian women without jobs. To make room for others, Mother Maria gave up her own room and instead slept on a narrow iron bedstead in the basement by the boiler. A room upstairs became a chapel, its icon screen painted by Mother Maria, while the dining room doubled as a hall for lectures and dialogues.

The house soon proved too small. Two years later a new location was found — a derelict house of three storeys at 77 rue de Lourmel in the fifteenth arrondisement, an area where many impoverished Russian refugees had settled. While at the former address she could feed only 25, here she could feed a hundred. The house had the additional advantage of having stables in back which were now made into a small church. Again the decoration was chiefly her own work, many of its icons made by embroidery, an art in which Mother Maria was skilled. Sh saw the new property as a modern Noah’s Ark able to withstand the stormy waves the world was hurling its way. Here her guests could regain their breath “until the time comes to stand on their two feet again.”

Her credo was: “Each person is the very icon of God incarnate in the world.” With this recognition came the need “to accept this awesome revelation of God unconditionally, to venerate the image of God” in her brothers and sisters.

As the work evolved she rented other buildings, one for families in need, and another for single men. A rural property became a sanatorium.

By 1937, there were several dozen women guests at 77 rue de Lourmel. Up to 120 dinners were served each day, normally soup plus a main course that included meat plus plenty of bread supplied gratis by a sympathetic baker.

Mother Maria’s day typically began with a journey to the Les Halles market to beg food or buy cheaply whatever was not be donated. The cigarette-smoking beggar nun became well known among the stalls. She would later return with a sack of bones, fish and overripe fruit and vegetables.

On rue de Lourmel she had a room beneath the stairs next to the kitchen. Here on one occasion a visitor found her collapsed in an arm chair in a state of exhaustion. “I can’t go on like this,” she said. “I can’t take anything in. I’m tired, I’m really tired. There have been about 40 people here today, each with his own sorrow and needs. I can’t chase them away!”

She would sometimes recall the Russian story of the ruble that could never be spent. Each time it was used, the change given back proved to equal a ruble. It was exactly this way with love, she said: No matter how much love you give, you never have less. In fact you discover you have more — one ruble becomes two, two becomes ten.

She enjoyed a legend concerning two fourth-century saints, Nicholas of Myra and John Cassian, who returned to earth to see how things were going. They came upon a peasant, his cart mired in the mud, who begged their help. John Cassian regretfully declined, explaining that he was soon due back in heaven and therefore must keep his robes spotless. Meanwhile Nicholas was already up to his hips in the mud, freeing the cart. When the Ruler of All discovered why Nicholas was caked in mud and John Cassian immaculate, it was decided that Nicholas’ feast day would henceforth be celebrated twice each year — May 9 and December 6 — while John Cassian’s would occur only once every four years, on February 29.

Mother Maria felt sustained by the opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount: “Not only do we know the Beatitudes, but at this hour, this very minute, surrounded though we are by a dismal and despairing world, we already savor the blessedness they promise…”

It was no virtue of her own that could account for her activities, she insisted. “There is no hardship in it, since all the relief comes my way. God having given me a compassionate nature, how else could I live?”

In addition to help from volunteers, in 1937 another nun came to help: Mother Evdokia Meshcheriakova. Later Mother Blandina Obelenskaya entered the community. There was also Father Lev Gillet, thanks to whom the Liturgy was celebrated frequently. Father Lev lived in an outbuilding near the stable until his departure to London in 1938.

Yet life in community was not easy. Conflicting views about the relative importance of liturgical life were at times a source of tension. Mother Maria was the one most often absent from services or the one who would withdraw early, or arrive late, because of the pressing needs of hospitality. “Piety, piety,” she wrote in her journal, “but where is the love that moves mountains?”

Mother Evdokia, who had begun her monastic life in a more traditional context, was she not as experimental by temperament as Mother Maria. As the community had no abbess, there was no one to arbitrate between the two. For Mother Evdokia, though always in awe of Mother Maria’s endurance and prophetic passion, the house at rue de Lourmel was too much an “ecclesiastical Bohemia.” Mother Maria’s view was that “the Liturgy must be translated into life. It is why Christ came into the world and why he gave us our Liturgy.” (In 1938 Mother Evdokia and Mother Blandina departed to establish a more traditional monastery at Moisenay-le-Grand; today it flourishes as the Monastery of the Protection of the Mother of God in Bussy-en-Othe.)

Mother Maria clung to her experiment. “In the past religious freedom was trampled down by forces external to Christianity,” she wrote. “In Russia we can say that any regime whatsoever will build concentration camps as its response to religious freedom.” She considered exile in the west a heaven-sent opportunity to renew the Church in ways that would have met repression with in her mother country.

“What obligations follow from the gift of freedom which [in our exile] we have been granted? We are beyond the reach of persecution. We can write, speak, work, open schools …. At the same time, we have been liberated from age-old traditions. We have no enormous cathedrals, [jewel] encrusted Gospel books, no monastery walls. We have lost our environment. Is this an accident? Is this some chance misfortune?… In the context of spiritual life, there is no chance, nor are there fortunate or unfortunate epochs. Rather there are signs which we must understand and paths which we must follow. Our calling is a great one, since we are called to freedom.”

For her, exile was an opportunity “to liberate the real and authentic” from layers of decoration and dust in which Christ had become hidden. It was similar to the opportunity given to the first Christians. Of paramount importance, “We must not allow Christ to be overshadowed by any regulations, any customs, any traditions, any aesthetic considerations, or even any piety.”

Mother Maria’s difficulties at times made her feel a terrifying loneliness. “I get very depressed,” she admitted. “I could desist, if only I could be convinced that I stand for a truth that is relative.”

She was sustained chiefly by those she served — themselves beaten down, people in despair, cripples, alcoholics, the sick, survivors of many tragedies. But not all responded to trust with trust. Theft was not uncommon. On one occasion a guest stole 25 francs. Everyone guessed who the culprit was, a drug addict, but Mother Maria refused to accuse her. Instead she announced at the dinner table that the money had not been stolen, only misplaced, and she had found it. “You see how dangerous it is to make accusations,” she commented. At once the girl who stole the money burst into tears.

“It is not enough to give,” Mother Maria might say. “We must have a heart that gives.” If mistakes were made, if people betrayed a trust, the cure was not to limit giving. “The only ones who make no mistakes,” she said, “are those who do nothing.”

Mother Maria and her collaborators would not simply open the door when those in need knocked, but would actively seek out the homeless. One place to find them was an all-night café at Les Halles where those with nowhere else to go could sit as long as they liked for the price of a glass of wine. Children were also cared for. A part-time school was opened at several locations.

Fortunately for the community, their prudent business manager, Fedor Pianov, formerly general secretary of the Russian Christian Student Movement, at times intervened in cases where a trusted person was systematically violating the confidence placed in him, as sometimes happened.

Turning her attention toward Russian refugees who had been classified insane, Mother Maria began a series of visits to mental hospitals. In each hospital five to ten percent of the Russian patients turned out to be sane and, thanks to her intervention, were released. Language barriers and cultural misunderstandings had kept them in the asylum.

An inquiry into the needs of impoverished Russians suffering from tuberculosis resulted in the opening in 1935 of a sanatorium in Noisy-le-Grand. Its church was a former hen house. Her efforts bore the unexpected additional fruit of other French TB sanatoria opening their doors to Russian refugees. The house at Noisy, no longer having to serve its original function, then became a rest home. It was here that Mother Maria’s mother Sophia ended her days in 1962. She was a century old.

Another landmark was the foundation in September 1935 of a group christened Orthodox Action, a name proposed by her friend, the philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev. In addition to Mother Maria and Berdyaev, the co-founders included the theologian Father Sergei Bulgakov, the historian George Fedotov, the scholar Constantine Mochulsky, the publisher Ilya Fondaminsky, and her long-time co-worker Fedor Pianov. Metropolitan Evgoly was honorary president. Mother Maria was chairman. With financial support coming not only from supporters within France but from other parts of Europe as well as America, a wider range of projects and centers were made possible: hostels, rest homes, schools, camps, hospital work, help to the unemployed, assistance to the elderly, publication of books and pamphlets, etc.

Mother Maria’s driving concern throughout the expansion of work was that it should never lose either its personal or communal character: “We should make every effort to ensure that each of our initiatives is the common work of all those who stand in need of it,” she wrote, “and not [simply part of] some charitable organization, where some perform charitable actions and are accountable for it to their superiors while others receive the charity, make way for those who are next in line, and disappear from view. We must cultivate a communal organization rather than set up a mechanical organization, Our concept of sobornost [conciliarity] commits us to this. At the same time we are committed to the personal principle in the sense that absolutely no one can become for us a routine cipher, whose role in to swell statistical tables. I would say that we should not give away a single piece of bread unless the recipient means something as a person for us.”

She was certain that there was no other path to heaven than participating in God’s mercy. “The way to God lies through love of people. 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. About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person the Savior says ‘I’: ‘I was hungry and thirsty, I was sick and in prison.’ To think that he puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need. . . . I always knew it, but now it has somehow penetrated to my sinews. It fills me with awe.”

Russians have not been last among those enamored with theories, but for Mother Maria, theory always had to take second place. “We have not gathered together for the theoretical study of social problems in the spirit of Orthodoxy,” she wrote in 1939, “[but] to link our social thought as closely as possible with life and work. More precisely, we proceed from our work and seek the fullest possible theological interpretation of it.”

Yet time was also given to abstract inquiry. Sunday afternoons were normally a time for lectures and discussions at rue de Lourmel. Berdyaev, Bulgakov and Fedotov were frequent speakers. In addition there were courses set up during the week, including sessions of the Religious-Philosophical Academy that Berdyaev had founded.

While many valued what she and her co-workers were doing, there were others who were scandalized with the shabby nun who was so uncompromising to the duty of hospitality that she might leave a church service to answer the door bell. “For church circles we are too far to the left,” Mother Maria noted, “while for the left we are too church-minded.” Those on the left also saw no point in efforts to relieve individual cases of suffering, still less in time given to prayer. One must rather devote all one’s efforts to bringing about radical social change. There were also supportive friends, Berdyaev among them, who had little understanding of her monastic vocation, though for Mother Maria this remained at the core of her identity. “Thanks to my being clothed as a nun,” she commented, “many things are simpler and within my reach.”

Fr Dimitri Klepinin

In October 1939, Metropolitan Evlogy send a new priest to rue de Lourmel: Father Dimitri Klepinin, then 35 years old. He was a spiritual child of Father Sergei Bulgakov, who had also been one of his teachers. A man of few words and great modesty, Father Dimitri proved to be a real partner for Mother Maria. [photo of Fr Dimitri at right]

The last phase of Mother Maria’s life was a series of responses to World War II and Germany’s occupation of France.

It would have been possible for her to leave Paris when the Germans were advancing toward the city, or even to leave the country to go to America. Her decision was not to budge. “If the Germans take Paris, I shall stay here with my old women. Where else could I send them?”

She had no illusions about the Nazi threat. It represented a “new paganism” bringing in its wake disasters, upheavals, persecutions and wars. It was evil unveiled, the “contaminator of all springs and wells.” The so-called “master race” was “led by a madman who needs a straightjacket and should be placed in a cork-lined room so that his bestial wailing will not disturb the world at large.”

“We are entering eschatological times,” she wrote. “Do you not feel that the end is already near?

Death seemed to rule the world. “Now, at this very minute, I know that hundreds of people have encountered death, while thousands upon thousands more await their turn,” she wrote at Easter in 1940. “I know that mothers wait for the postman and tremble when a letter is delayed by more than a day.” But she saw one gain in all this: “Everything is clearly in its place. Everyone must make their choice. There is nothing disguised or hypocritical in the enemy’s approach.”

Paris fell on the 14th of June. France capitulated a week later. With defeat came greater poverty and hunger for many people. Local authorities in Paris declared the house at rue Lourmel an official food distribution point — Cantine Municipale No. 9. Here volunteers sold at cost price whatever food Mother Maria had bought that morning at Les Halles.

Paris was now a great prison. “There is the dry clatter of iron, steel and brass,” wrote Mother Maria. “Order is all.” Russian refugees were among the particular targets of the occupiers. In June 1941, a thousand were arrested, including several close friends and collaborators of Mother Maria and Father Dimitri. An aid project for prisoners and their dependents was soon launched by Mother Maria.

Early in 1942, their registration now underway, Jews began to knock on the door at rue de Lourmel asking Father Dimitri if he would issue baptismal certificates to them. The answer was always yes. The names of those “baptized” were also duly recorded in his parish register in case there was any cross-checking by the police or Gestapo, as indeed did happen. Father Dimitri was convinced that in such a situation Christ would do the same.

When the Nazis issued special identity cards for those of Russian origin living in France, with Jews being specially identified, Mother Maria and Father Dimitri refused to comply, though they were warned that those who failed to register would be regarded as citizens of the USSR — enemy aliens — and be punished accordingly.

In March 1942, the order came from Berlin that the yellow star Jews must be worn by Jews in all the occupied countries. The order came into force in France in June.

There were, of course, Christians who said that the law being imposed had nothing to do with Christians and that therefore this was not a Christian problem. “There is not only a Jewish question, but a Christian question,” Mother Maria replied. “Don’t you realize that the battle is being waged against Christianity? If we were true Christians we would all wear the Star. The age of confessors has arrived.”

She wrote a poem reflecting on the symbol Jews were required to wear:

Two triangles, a star,
The shield of King David, our forefather.
This is election, not offense.
The great path and not an evil.
Once more in a term fulfilled,
Once more roars the trumpet of the end;
And the fate of a great people
Once more is by the prophet proclaimed.
Thou art persecuted again, O Israel,
But what can human malice mean to thee,
who have heard the thunder from Sinai?

In July Jews were forbidden access to nearly all public places. Shopping by Jews was restricted to one hour per day. A week later, there was a mass arrest of Jews — 12,884, of whom 6,900 (two-thirds of them children) were brought to the Velodrome d’Hiver sports stadium just a kilometer from rue de Lourmel. Held there for five days, the captives in the stadium received water only from a single hydrant, while ten latrines were supposed to serve them all. From there the captives were to be sent via Drancy to Auschwitz.

Mother Maria had often thought her monastic robe a God-send in aiding her work. Now it opened the way for her to enter the stadium. Here she worked for three days trying to comfort the children and their parents, distributing what food she could bring in, even managing to rescue a number of children by enlisting the aid of garbage collectors and smuggling them out in trash bins.

The house at rue de Lourmel was bursting with people, many of them Jews. “It is amazing,” Mother Maria remarked, “that the Germans haven’t pounced on us yet.” In the same period, she said if anyone came looking for Jews, she would show them an icon of the Mother of God.

Father Dimitri, Mother Maria and their co-workers set up routes of escape, from Lourmel to Noisy-le-Grand and from there to other, safer destinations in the unoccupied south. It was complex and dangerous work. Forged documents had to be obtained. An escaped Russian prisoner of war was also among those assisted, working for a time in the Lourmel kitchen. In turn, a local resistance group helped secure provisions for those Mother Maria’s community was struggling to feed.

On February 8, 1943, while Mother Maria was traveling, Nazi security police entered the house on rue de Lourmel and found a letter in her son Yura’s pocket in which Father Dimitri was asked to provide a Jew with a false baptismal document. Yura, now actively a part of his mother’s work, was taken to the office of Orthodox Action, soon after followed by his distraught grandmother, Sophia Pilenko. The interrogator, Hans Hoffman, a Gestapo officer who spoke Russian, ordered her to bring Father Dimitri. Once the priest was there, Hoffman said, they would let Yura go. His grandmother Sophia was allowed to embrace Yura and give him a blessing, making the sign of the cross on his body. It was last time she saw him in this world.

The following morning Father Dimitri served the Liturgy in a side chapel at rue de Lourmel dedicated to St. Philip, a bishop who had paid with his life for protesting the crimes of Tsar Ivan the Terrible. Fortified by communion he set off for the Gestapo office on rue des Saussies. Interrogated for four hours, he made no attempt to hide his beliefs. A fragment of their exchange survives:

Hoffman: If we release you, will you give your word never again to aid Jews?

Klepinin: I can say no such thing. I am a Christian and must act as I must. (Hoffman struck Klepinin across the face.)

Hoffman: Jew lover! How dare you talk of helping those swine as being a Christian duty!

(Klepinin, recovering his balance, held up the cross from his cassock.)

Klepinin: Do you know this Jew?

(For this, Father Dimitri was struck on the face.)

“Your priest did himself in,” Hoffman said afterward to Sophia Pilenko. “He insists that if he were to be freed, he would act exactly as before.”

The next day, February 10, Mother Maria was back in Paris and was also arrested by Hoffman, who brought her back to Lourmel while he searched her room. Several others were called for questioning and then held by the Gestapo, including a visitor to the home of Father Dimitri. His wife, Tamara, sensing the danger she was in and aware that she was powerless to free her husband, left Paris with their two young children, one four, the other six months old. The three survived.

Arrested a week later at rue de Lourmel, Mother Maria saw her mother for the last time. “We embraced,” he mother recalled. “I blessed her. He had lived all our life together, in friendship, hardly ever apart. She bade me farewell and said, as she always did at the most difficult moments, ‘Mother, be strong’.”

Mother Maria was confined with 34 other woman at the Gestapo headquarters in Paris. Her son Yura, Father Dimitri and their co-worker of many years, Feodor Pianov, were being held in the same building. Pianov later recalled the scene of Father Dimitri in his torn cassock being taunted as a Jew. One of the SS began to prod and beat him while Yura stood nearby weeping. Father Dimitri “began to console him, saying the Christ withstood greater mockery than this.”

In April the prisoners were transferred to Compiegne, and here Mother Maria was blessed with a final meeting with Yura, who crawled through a window in order to see her. In a letter Yura sent to the community at rue de Lourmel, he said his mother “was in a remarkable state of mind and told me … that I must trust in her ability to bear things and in general not to worry about her. Every day [Father Dimitri and I] remember her at the proskomidia … We celebrate the Eucharist and receive communion each day.” Hours after their meeting,Mother Maria was transported to Germany.

“Thanks to our daily Eucharist,” another letter from Yura reported, “our life here is quite transformed and to tell the honest truth, I have nothing to complain of. We live in brotherly love. Dima [Father Dimitri] and I speak to each other as tu [the intimate form of ‘you’] and he is preparing me for the priesthood. God’s will needs to be understood. After all, this attracted me all my life and in the end it was the only thing I was interested in, though my interest was stifled by Parisian life and the illusion that there might be ‘something better’ — as if there could be anything better.”

In a letter Father Dimitri sent to his wife, he reported that their church was “a very good one.” It was a barrack room transformed, as many other unlikely structures had been in the past. They even managed to make an icon screen and reading stand.

For nine months the three men remained together at Compiegne. “Without exaggeration,” Pianov wrote after being liberated in 1945, “I can say that the year spent with [Father Dimitri] was a godsend. I do not regret that year…. From my experience with him, I learned to understand what enormous spiritual, psychological and moral support one man can give to others as a friend, companion and confessor…”

On December 16, Yura and Father Dimitri were deported to Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany, followed several weeks later by Pianov. In January 1944, Father Dimitri and Yura — now in striped prison uniforms and with shaved heads — were sent to another camp, Dora, 40 kilometers away, where parts for V-1 and V-2 rockets were being manufactured in underground factories. Within ten days of arrival, Yura contracted furunculosis, a condition in which large areas of the skin are covered in boils. On the 6th of February, he was “dispatched for treatment” — a euphemism for sentenced to death. Four days later Father Dimitri, lying on a dirt floor, died of pneumonia. His body was disposed of in the Buchenwald crematorium.

A final letter from Yura, written at Compiegne, was discovered in a suitcase of his possessions returned from the camp to rue de Lourmel:

My dears, Dima [Father Dimitri] blesses you, my most beloved ones. I am to go to Germany with Dima, Father Andrei [who also died in a concentration camp] and Anatoly [Vishkovsky]. I am absolutely calm, even somewhat proud to share mama’s fate. I promise you I will bear everything with dignity. Whatever happens, sooner or later we shall all be together. I can say in all honesty that I am not afraid of anything any longer. . . . I ask anyone whom I have hurt in any way to forgive me. Christ be with you!

Mother Maria, prisoner 19,263, was sent in a sealed cattle truck from Compiegne to the Ravensbruck camp in Germany, where she endured for two years, an achievement in part explained by her long experience of ascetic life. She was assigned to Block 27 in the large camp’s southwest corner. Not far away was Block 31, full of Russian prisoners, many of whom she managed to befriend.

Unable to correspond with friends, little testimony in her own words has come down to us, but prisoners who survived the war remembered her. One of them, Solange Perichon, recalls:

“She was never downcast, never. She never complained…. She was full of good cheer, really good cheer. We had roll calls which lasted a great deal of time. We were woken at three in the morning and we had to stand out in the open in the middle of winter until the barracks [population] was counted. She took all this calmly and she would say, ‘Well that’s that. Yet another day completed. And tomorrow it will be the same all over again. But one fine day the time will come for all of this to end.’ … She was on good terms with everyone. Anyone in the block, no matter who it was, knew her on equal terms. She was the kind of person who made no distinction between people [whether they] held extremely progressive political views [or had] religious beliefs radically different than her own. She allowed nothing of secondary importance to impede her contact with people.”

Another prisoner, Rosane Lascroux, recalled:

“She exercised an enormous influence on us all. No matter what our nationality, age, political convictions — this had no significance whatever. Mother Maria was adored by all. The younger prisoners gained particularly from her concern. She took us under her wing. We were cut off from our families, and somehow she provided us with a family.”

In a memoir, Jacqueline Pery stressed the importance of the talks Mother Maria gave and the discussion groups she led:

“She used to organize real discussion circles … and I had the good fortune to participate in them. Here was an oasis at the end of the day. She would tell us about her social work, about how she conceived the reconciliation of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. We would question her about the history of Russia, about its future, about Communism, about her frequent contacts with young women from the Soviet army with whom she liked to surround herself. These discussion, whatever their subject matter, provided an escape from the hell in which we lived. They allowed us to restore our depleted morale, they rekindled in us the flame of thought, which barely flickered beneath the heavy burden of horror.”

Often, Pery wrote, she would refer to passages from the New Testament: “Together we would provide a commentary on the texts and then meditate on them. Often we would conclude with Compline… This period seemed a paradise to us.”

Yet, as was recalled by another prisoner, Sophia Nosovich, Mother Maria “never preached but rather discussed religion simply with those who sought it, causing them to understand it and to exercise their minds, not merely their feelings. Whatever and however she could, she would sustain the as yet incompletely extinguished flame of humanity, no matter what form it took.”

The same former prisoner wrote that “it was not submissiveness which gave [Mother Maria] strength to bear the suffering, but the integrity and wealth of her interior life.”

And all this happened in what Mother Maria described not as a prison but as hell itself, nothing less, a bestial place in which obscenity, contempt and hatred were normal and where hunger, illness and death was a daily event. In such a climate, many opted for the numbing of all feeling and withdrawal as a survival strategy while others, in their despair, looked forward only to death.

“I once said to Mother Maria,” wrote Sophia Nosovich, “that it was more than a question of my ceasing to feel anything whatsoever. My very thought processes were numbed and had ground to a halt. ‘No, no,’ Mother Maria responded, ‘whatever you do, continue to think. In the conflict with doubt, cast your thought wider and deeper. Let it transcend the conditions and the limitations of this earth’.”

One prisoner even recalled how Mother Maria had used the ever-smoking chimney’s the camps several crematoria as a metaphor of hope rather than being seen as the only exit point from the camp. “But it is only here, immediately above the chimneys, that the billows of smoke are oppressive,” Mother Maria said. “When they rise higher, they turn into light clouds before being dispersed in limitless space. In the same way, our souls, once they have torn themselves away from this sinful earth, move by means of an effortless unearthly flight into eternity, where there is life full of joy.”

Anticipating her own exit point from the camp might be via the crematoria chimneys, she asked a fellow prisoner whom she hoped would survive to memorize a message to be given at last to Father Sergei Bulgakov, Metropolitan Evlogy and her mother: “My state at present is such that I completely accept suffering in the knowledge that this is how things ought to be for me, and if I am to die, I see this as a blessing from on high.”

In a postcard she was allowed to send friends in Paris in the fall of 1944, she said she remained strong and healthy but had “altogether become an old woman.”

Her work in the camp varied. There was a period when she was part of a team of women dragging a heavy iron roller about the roads and pathways of the camp for 12 hours a day. In another period she worked in a knitwear workshop.

Her legs began to give way. At roll call another prisoner, Inna Webster, would act as her crutches. As her health declined, friends no longer allowed her to give away portions of her own food, as she had done in the past to help keep others alive.

Friends who survived recalled that Mother Maria wrote two poems while at Ravensbruck, but sadly neither survive. However a kerchief she embroidered for Rosane Lascroux, made with a needle and thread stolen from the tailoring workshop at last came out of the camp intact. In the style of the medieval Bayeux Tapestry, it was a depiction of the Allies’ Normandy Landing in June 1944. Her final embroidered icon, purchased with the price of her precious bread ration, was of the Mother of God holding the infant Jesus, her child already marked with the wounds of the cross.

With the Red Army approaching from the East, the concentration camp administrators further reduced food rations while greatly increasing the population of each block from 800 to 2,500. “People slept three to a bunk,” a survivor recalls. “Lice devoured us. Typhus and dysentery became a common scourge and decimated our ranks.”

By March 1945, Mother Maria’s condition was critical. She had to lie down between roll calls and hardly spoke. Her face, as Jacqueline Pery recalled, “revealed intense inner suffering. Already it bore the marks of death. Nevertheless Mother Maria made no complaint. She kept her eyes closed and seemed to be in a state of continual prayer. This was, I think, her Garden of Gethsemane.”

In November-December 1944, she accepted a pink card that was freely issued to any prisoner who wished to be excused from labor because of age or ill health. On January all who had received such cards were rounded up and transferred to what was called the Jugendlager — the “youth camp” — where the camp authorities said each person would have her own bed and abundant food. Mother Maria’s transfer was on January 31. Here the food ration was further reduced and the hours spent standing for roll calls increased. Though it was mid-winter, blankets, coats and jackets were confiscated, and then even shoes and stockings. The death rate was at least fifty per day. Next all medical supplies were withdrawn. Those who still persisted in surviving now faced death by shootings and gas, the latter made possible by the construction of a gas chamber in March 1945. In this 150 were executed per day.

It is astonishing that Mother Maria lasted five weeks in the “youth camp,” and was finally sent back to the Jugendlager to the main camp on March 3. Though emaciated and infested with lice, with her eyes festering, she began to think she might actually live to return to Paris, or even go back to Russia.

That same month the camp commander received an order from Reichsfuhrer Himmler that anyone who could no longer walk should be killed. While such orders had been anticipated and many already killed, the decree accelerated the process. With the help of Inna Webster and others to lean on, Mother Maria managed to continue standing at roll calls, but this became far more difficult when groups of prisoners were ordered into ranks of five for purposes of selecting those to be killed that day. Within her block, Mother Maria was sometimes hidden in a small space between roof and ceiling in expectation of raids in which additional “selections” were made.

On the 30th of March Mother Maria was selected for the gas chambers — Good Friday as it happened. She entered eternal life the following day. The shellfire of the approaching Red Army could be heard in the distance.

Accounts are at odds about what happened. According to one, she was simply one of the many selected for death that day. According to another, she took the place of another prisoner, a Jew, who had been chosen. Her friend Jacqueline Pery wrote afterward:

“It is very possible that [Mother Maria] took the place of a frantic companion. It would have been entirely in keeping with her generous life. In any case she offered herself consciously to the holocaust … thus assisting each one of us to accept the cross …. She radiated the peace of God and communicated it to us.”

Although perishing in the gas chamber, she did not perish in the Church’s memory. Survivors of the war who had known her would again and again draw attention to the ideas, insights and activities of the maverick nun who had spent so many years coming to the aid of people in desperate straights. Soon after the end of World War II, essays and books about her began appearing, in French and Russia. A Russian film, “Mother Maria,” was made in 1982. There have been two biographies in English and little by little the translation and publication in English of her most notable essays. A 22-page bibliography of Mother Maria-related writings has been assembled by Dr. Kristi Groberg.

Controversial in life, Mother Maria remains a subject of contention to this day, a fact which explained the slowness of the Orthodox Church in adding her to the calendar of saints. While clearly she lived a life of heroic virtue and is among the martyrs of the twentieth century, her verbal assaults on nationalistic and tradition-bound forms of religious life still raise the blood pressure of many Orthodox Christians.

At last, in 2004 the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul recognized Mother Maria Skobtsova as a saint along with her son Yuri, Fr. Dimitri Klépinin, and her close friend and collaborator, Ilya Fondaminsky. Their canonization was celebrated in Paris on the 1st and 2nd of May 2004 at the Cathedral of St. Alexander Nevsky.

Mother Maria — now St. Maria of Paris — remains an indictment of any form of Christianity that seeks Christ chiefly inside church buildings.

* * *

The main part of this essay is the introduction to Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings, published by Orbis Books. The principal source of biographical material used in this text is Fr. Serge Hackel’s book, Pearl of Great Price, published in Britain by Darton Longman & Todd and, in America, by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Jim Forest is editor of In Communion, international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, and author of various books, including Praying with Icons, Ladder of the Beatitudes, Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness, and The Wormwood File: E-Mail from Hell.

Other pages relating to St. Maria Skobtsova texts and photos.

text as updated July 8, 2004

Marguerite Hendrickson Forest: ‘Nothing can stop that lady!’

born in Jersey City, NJ on May 26, 1912; died in Tinton Falls, NJ on December 8, 2001

By Jim Forest

Marguerite Hendrickson Forest in 1996

It was only well into adulthood that it began to dawn on me how life-shaping an influence my mother had had on me and how lucky I was to be her son. She was my primary mentor.

One of her first lessons, though it only struck me as important later in life, was that you do your children a huge favor by never speaking ill of an ex-spouse. For Mother that had to be a major achievement. When I was four, Dad had left Mother to marry someone else. From conversations with her later in life I learned that it took years for her to work through the grief she was left with when her marriage collapsed. There must have been anger too, but I never saw it. Somehow she communicated to my brother and me respect for Dad. She felt it was essential for us to feel proud of him. “Someday your father might be President of the United States,” she said when it was still possible for her to imagine America shifting toward a socialist economic model.

I was a “red diaper baby” — both my parents were members of the Communist Party during my childhood though mother resigned somewhere in my teens. What exactly a Communist was I couldn’t have explained to anyone, except that it meant occasionally walking with my mother for an hour or two on Saturday afternoons as she went door-to-door trying, with no success that I can recall, to enlist subscribers to The Daily Worker, a paper published by the Communist Party from its headquarters in New York. My brother Richard and I were also sometimes brought along to the monthly meetings of her Communist cell group, made up of six or seven local people. Their living-room discussions, to my young ears, sounded very dull indeed. “Revolution” was a word I heard only in school, and there it was highly approved of: the American Revolution of 1776.

That mother would turn out to be a radical was certainly not what her parents had imagined or intended. My mother’s maiden name was Hendrickson, daughter of Charles Hendrickson, a lawyer of Dutch descent whose father had been a Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. Our first ancestor in the New World, I learned from my mother, was Utrecht-born Hendrick Hendrickson who earlier, according to family legend, had been navigator of De Halve Maen — The Half Moon — on Henry Hudson’s first New World voyage in 1609. De Halve Maen was a Dutch ship with a Dutch crew; the only non-Dutch person on board was Hudson, an Englishman who had been hired by the Dutch East India Company due to his confidence that he could find a “northwest passage” that would greatly shorten the route to Asia. Instead he sailed up the river that was later named after him.

The Castello map of Nieuw Amsterdam — today’s New York — provides a bird’s eye view of the settlement and on which the ownership of houses is indicated. A house belonging to Hendrick Hendrickson is shown on the southeast corner of Breedstraat, now Broadway, and Waalstraat, today’s Wall Street. Waalsraat was a lane just inside the wall that served as the town’s northern defense. The place the house stood is now the location of a bank and a subway station entrance. Who lived in that long-gone house? What did he do? Was it the same Hendrick Hendrickson who had been Hudson’s navigator? Or a son? These are unanswered questions.The only physical fragment of our Dutch roots that had come down to us was battered, centuries-old Dutch wooden shoe painted dark red. It served as a silent reminder of where some of our ancestors had gone from. Even so it wasn’t easy to interest Mother in family history or get her to talk about it. I had to pry it out of her.

Once when Nancy and I were visiting I suggested we go out to see the Hendrickson House, a 18th-century farmhouse in nearby Holmdel that had belonged to some of our ancestors, now a museum in the care of the Monmouth County Historical Society. The building and its furnishings opened a window on the life of a Dutch-American rural family just before the American Revolution. Initially Mother hadn’t the slightest interest in such an outing. “Who would want to see anything like that,” she asked. “How about a walk in downtown Red Bank?” At last she surrendered and we drove out to the Hendrickson House. Once there, Mother was as happy as a kid at the circus.

Mom’s father, Charles Hendrickson, was a Princeton graduate who had become a successful lawyer with offices in Jersey City. In a time of widespread anti-Semitism, he took pride that his clients included Jews. If someone told an anti-Semitic joke is his presence, Mother told us, her father would respond by announcing that he was “a direct descendent of Solomon, king of the Jews.” Both grandfather and great-grandfather had been devout Methodists, a church that had been strong in its opposition to slavery and, in the early decades of the twentieth century, was strongly identified with the prohibition movement. No beer, wine or whiskey was to be found in the Hendrickson house.

Grandfather had done well in his law practice, even during the Great Depression. My mother had grown up in a home in which there was a nanny, a cook and a maid. The maid had been Libby, a wiry woman black as coal. Not just old but ancient when I knew her, she had been born in Tennessee in slavery days. Libby had come north from Memphis with my grandmother, Janet Collier Estes, when she married my grandfather. The two had met while she was attending a “finishing school” in Manhattan and my grandfather was at Princeton.

Long retired, Libby lived with younger members of her family not far from our house where in warm weather she spent much of the day in a rocking chair on the porch. One of her descendants was my first girlfriend. Libby had nothing but good things to say about my grandparents, both dead by the time of mother’s return to Red Bank. “Your grandmother was a real Christian lady,” Libby told me. “She never looked down on anybody — and neither did your grandfather. How I wish you might have known them.” Libby took pride in my mother’s achievements. “Your mother shows what a woman can be,” she said. Libby and my mother adored each other.

Mother as a child with her dog Nipper

Even before entering high school, Mother aimed not for marriage but for higher education and a career, far from a common choice for women in those days. More than once she told my brother and me that the news of her acceptance by Smith College in Massachusetts had been front-page news in The Red Bank Register. Searching the web, I recently found the front page; it was dated September 18, 1929. Four years later Mother graduated summa cum laude, another news item in the local paper. She later got a Master’s Degree in Social Work from Columbia University in New York, but it was her undergraduate years at Smith that pleased and shaped her most. In one of my favorite photos of her, taken when she was in her eighties, she is proudly wearing a Smith College T-shirt.

It was at Smith that Mother took a leftward turn, as did so many privileged people in the Depression years. Soon after graduation, she signed up as a Communist and remained in the Communist Party for more than two decades.

Communism is dense with ideology, yet I never experienced Mother as an ideology-centered person. I can’t recall her ever trying to convince my brother or me of any Marxist dogma. For her, Communism boiled down to doing whatever she could to protect people from being treated like rubbish. She had meekly accepted the doctrine of atheism simply because it was part of the marxist package. Marx’s doctrine was based on materialism — the view that nothing exists that isn’t tangible; hence the rejection of belief in an unprovable God or life after death. Yet in my experience neither of my parents were at war with God or Christianity.

Probably because she had grown up in a home without economic worries, Mother’s adaptation to ascetic Communist ideals wasn’t a hundred percent successful. While we lived in a small house of only three rooms plus kitchen and bathroom in an underclass neighborhood and had no car, not every economic choice suggested voluntary poverty. Although Mother spent money very carefully most of the time, it wasn’t because there was no money to spend. In fact, in addition to having a good job as a psychiatric social worker, mother had inherited an investment portfolio from her parents. Along with The Daily Worker, dividend checks and stock reports came steadily into the mailbox on our porch. Checking the financial pages of The Herald Tribune, mother kept an eye on the value of shares in AT&T, Bell Telephone and Standard Oil. One of her bywords, inherited from her father, was “never touch the principal, spend only the interest,” not a Marxist maxim. Thanks to the inheritance, our house had been purchased for cash — not a penny was owed the bank nor did Mother ever buy anything on credit. She was dead set against debt.

But occasionally Mother spent money as if she were a Rockefeller. Christmas presents for my brother Dick and me were often bought at the famous toy emporium F.A.O. Schwartz on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, which we visited annually around Thanksgiving. Our clothing was purchased at the better stores in Red Bank, with tailored jackets and trousers. On visits to New York, we might eat a very economical lunch at Horn and Hardart’s, where food was dispensed from coin-operated slots, then dine at an up-market restaurant if we stayed in the city for supper. One Thanksgiving, to give Dick and me a better and warmer view of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Mother reserved an upstairs window table at Schrafft’s, putting the huge balloons at eye level. Going to Broadway shows or seeing a new film in one of New York’s truly elegant cinemas, like Rockefeller Center, was not a rare event. When mother spent money in a surprising way, she did it with enthusiasm, often saying, “What is money to a Forest?” (Following her divorce, she had retained her married name.)

Throughout her life she was devoted to her neighbors and would do anything for them, but talking with behind-the-counter staff in stores one would often be reminded that she had grown up in a well-to-do family and expected Service with a capital “S”. When she had a complaint, it was delivered with hurricane force. I didn’t envy the powerless sales people who were her usual target on those occasions.

On the occasions when she saw movies in Red Bank, she brought Dick and me with her. At times we were the only children in the audience, as was the case with “The Moon is Blue,” a controversial comedy about two playboys, each attempting to coax a young woman into bed, but finding in their target an anthracite determination to remain a virgin until her wedding night. It was 1953 — I was not yet twelve. Though the story left virtue triumphant, the film industry’s Breen Office, responsible for policing the Motion Picture Production Code, judged the script as having “an unacceptably light attitude towards seduction, illicit sex, chastity, and virginity.” Bucking the censors, director Otto Preminger refused to trim or pasteurize the film. It was banned in three states but that only enlarged audiences in the other forty-five. At the time I was unaware of the controversy, though I knew there were no matinee showings and that I was the only kid in my class who had seen it. What I remember best about the film is not its story but mother’s laughter. Afterward I asked her what the word “virgin” meant. “A woman who is determined to sleep alone,” she said, then adding a joke. “Do you remember those huge stone lions that guard the main entrance to the New York City Public Library?” “Sure,” I responded. We had walked by them many times on day trips to the city. “Those lions,” she said, “roar whenever a virgin passes by.”

Mother’s laughter, at its most extreme, seemed to me life-threatening and, when in public, embarrassing, as happened when we went to see Jacques Tati’s “Mister Hulot’s Holiday,” a French comedy. Mother must have read about it in The New York Herald Tribune, a newspaper she liked not only for the quality of its news reporting but for its film, TV and book reviews and for being “less pompous than The New York Times.” Jacques Tati’s character of Mr. Hulot is a long-legged, gallic-nosed man whose pipe is an extension of his jaw, who tips his hat as often as he puffs his pipe, a man more amiable than the friendliest dog but as awkward as a duck on dry land. In the tradition of Chaplin and Keaton, “Mister Hulot’s Holiday” bordered on being a silent movie, one sight gag after another, mainly about the hard work of people attempting to relate to each other — the labor-intensive rituals of courtesy. My attention was torn between Jacques Tati on the screen and mother’s almost continuous laughter.

The laughter was needed. Outside the theater, the Cold War and the McCarthy Era meant that people like my parents were living in very unfunny times. Dad was one of a number of leading Communists who were arrested in September 1952. We had gotten the news the same day Dad was handcuffed from my Uncle Charles, Mother’s only brother, a man whose job was with the federal government. He parked his black Buick in front of our house, knocked on the front door as if with a hammer, refused to come in when Mother opened the door, instead waving a page-one headline in her face: TEN TOP REDS ARRESTED IN ST. LOUIS. The principal “Red” was my father. My uncle shouted out his rage at the scandal of his being linked to such people even though my parents were divorced, then stormed off the porch and drove away. I don’t recall Mother having managed to say a single word. I watched the scene from an adjacent window. I never saw my Uncle Charles again.

That evening Mother explained to my brother and me that Dad was in jail, charged with “conspiring to advocate the overthrow of the United States Government by force and violence.” “But you have to look at those words very carefully,” Mother said, as if Dick and I were in law school. She then pointed out that Dad was not in charged with any violent act or even with advocating violence but “conspiring to advocate,” which meant talking with other people about advocating violence sometime in the future. “But it isn’t true,” Mother added. “Your father hates violence and doesn’t own a gun — he hates guns.” At least I understood the last sentence. (After half-a-year in prison, Dad was freed on bail. Several years later, when the case was pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, the Justice Department dropped all charges.)

In that period we became aware that two F.B.I. agents had been assigned to interview not only Mother’s employers and co-workers but our neighbors. One weekday, with Mother not yet returned from work, the blue-suited agents knocked on our front door and, displaying their badges, walked in. They then proceeded to fingerprint my brother and me. “Say hello to your mother,” one of them said before leaving. They both laughed.
One of the nightmare experiences of my childhood was the electrocution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the couple accused of helping the Soviet Union obtain U.S. atomic secrets. Mother was convinced that the Rosenbergs were scapegoats whose real crime was being Communists — I doubt it ever crossed Mother’s mind that either of them might in fact be guilty. Their conviction, she felt, was meant to further marginalize American Communists, along with anyone even slightly to the left. The letters the Rosenbergs sent to their two sons from prison were published from time to time in the Communist tabloid, The Daily Worker, and some of these Mother read to my brother and me. How we wept that morning in June 1953 as she read aloud newspaper accounts of their last minutes of life.

It’s a safe guess that we were the only people in the neighborhood receiving The Daily Worker. A thin newspaper, it came rolled up in a plain wrapper without a return address. But as the chilly winds of the McCarthy period began to howl, 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 trash like other newspapers but was saved until autumn, then burned with the fall leaves.

In the early fifties the F.B.I. was systematically informing employers if someone on their payroll was a Communist or “a Communist sympathizer.” The result in most cases was that the employee was fired. Thousands lost not only their jobs but, unable to meet mortgage payments, their homes as well. I know Mother worried about what would happen if she, a single parent with two children, were suddenly unemployed. It was the reason that she never late for work, never took a sick day off, and never did anything that might give her employer, the State of New Jersey, an excuse for dismissing her. I doubt that the State of New Jersey ever got more from an employee than they got from her.

“Why don’t we have a car — everybody else has a car,” I asked Mother when I was old enough to be puzzled that we depended so much on getting around by foot and bus or in Aunt Douglas’s car. “I don’t want us getting used to having something.” she explained, “that we couldn’t afford to keep if I lost my job.”

I’m not sure when Mother resigned from the Communist Party and we stopped getting The Daily Worker — her resignation wasn’t something she told us about at the time. At the latest it would have been in 1956. I recall how shocked and disgusted she was by the Soviet Union’s brutal suppression of the uprising in Hungary, an intervention slavishly supported by the Communist Party in the U.S. But it may be that her resignation occurred earlier.

Even though an ex-Communist, Mother’s radical social values were unaltered. She never tamed of her leftist sympathies. “‘From each according to his ability,’ as she told me, quoting Saint Paul, ‘to each according to his needs.’ Only we’re not ready for that yet. But I’ve never changed my mind that we should aspire to this.”

She battled local politicians for many years over a wide range of issues — racial integration of the local all-white volunteer fire department, roads, water mains, zoning issues, transportation for the old and handicapped, food banks, housing for the poor, etc., with many a walk in the neighborhood collecting signatures for petitions.

Christianity became central to Mother during her last four decades. A key event in her return the Methodist Church had been reading, at my suggestion, Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. When I told Merton about this, he laughed: “Your mother is my book’s first convert to Protestantism!” No doubt other books plus an inclination that had roots in her childhood were equally important factors. She had been an occasional, back-door Methodist even while a Communist, but, from about 1961 onward, Mother never missed a service unless she was ill. She also took an active part in all sorts of adult activities, becoming one of the church’s most engaged members. The church and its community were her bedrock.

When she was in her mid-seventies I took her out to lunch at a particularly nice restaurant — One Potato, Two Potatoes — in Nyack, New York, the town where I was working at the time as editor of a pacifist magazine. A few nights before Nancy and I had seen the film “Reds,” a vivid and remarkably accurate portrait of American radicals and writers in the early years of the Twentieth Century. I was trying to remember the lyrics of the socialist anthem, “The Internationale,” which she had often sung when Dick and I were children and which had been sung in Russian in the movie. I asked, “Do you remember the words?” Though the restaurant was crowded, and in any event wasn’t a place where anyone but my mother would burst into song, without hesitation she sang “The Internationale” straight through: “Arise ye prisoners of starvation, arise ye wretched of the earth, for justice thunders condemnation, a better world’s in birth…” At the end — tears glistening on her cheeks and me still scribbling away on a napkin — she said, “With a hymn like that, how could you not be a Communist?” A hymn? For Mother it was. Others called it an anthem.

Mother was an avid reader from childhood till well into her eighties. After retiring from social work at age 65, for years she subscribed to a large type edition of The New York Times. There was also a steady flow of books, on record and tape, coming into the house from a state library for the blind in Trenton. She also enjoyed movies. Once a week, even when she could hardly see anything on the theater screen, she went to see a movie, most often with my aunt. The last film I took her to was “Chicken Run,” a story about chickens escaping from a factory farm. She loved it — it was, she said afterward, “a parable about revolution.”

After retirement Mother become a student at nearby Brookdale (now Monmouth) College and took classes there on wide-ranging subjects for about twenty years, until she was too weak to continue. Conversations with her during those two decades would inevitably turn to what she was studying at the time and what books she was reading, which might be history, sociology, anthropology, theology or law. Even when she lost all but her peripheral vision and had become legally blind, she was undeterred, reading with the help of a scanning device that hugely magnified letters on a TV screen. A word of more than four of five letters would often overflow the screen area, but mother doggedly read on, letter by letter, syllable by syllable, word by word, line by line. For nearly ten years she used this machine in the college library for hours at a time, often five days per week. The librarian showed us a book in which users signed up for using the device. With only a few exceptions, age after page was packed exclusively with the signature “Marguerite H. Forest.” Finally the college, when upgrading library equipment, gave her the older machine to have at home. For a decade afterward it was lodged on the dining room table.

In the summer of 1997, doing a few errands, I stopped at a free food kitchen called The Lunch Break in the middle of the black neighborhood on the west side of Red Bank to drop off a box of light bulbs that Mother had found in the cellar. One woman at the Lunch Break asked me, “Is Marguerite still going door to door?” This was a reference to my mother’s frequent efforts to gather signatures for petitions. I assured her that she was still going strong. The volunteer laughed — “You sure got yourself some mother. Nothing can stop that lady!”

During that visit I was struck by Mother’s “one day at a time” way of life. She had never been nostalgic. She had little interest in either past or future — but a tremendous engagement with the present. Her opinions hadn’t mellowed or faded. Over lunch she expressed her pleasure about a letter-to-the editor my aunt had sent to a local paper, a protest against capital punishment. Aunt’s point is that we should leave the taking of life to God.
The next summer I found her in surprisingly good shape and spirits. She couldn’t get around quickly but you would hardly notice that the world she saw was increasingly impressionistic. Her hearing was good. She was very alert, though when tired she couldn’t quite remember if I was Jim or my oldest son, Ben. She was slower in doing things and used her four-footed cane inside the house. I found her dismayed that her text-magnifying device was broken — I discovered it had become unplugged. The book she was reading at the time was about life in Israel-Palestine at the time of Christ.

In old age, the ideals of her youth and young-adulthood sprang back to life with renewed vigor. Despite being an ex-Communist, once again she often spoke of Communism in glowing terms. When I told her the ideals were fine but that in practice every country that had tried Communism quickly ended up being a hellish place to live, she was resistant to hearing it, though when I described visiting a forest near Minsk where, in the Stalin years, truckloads of people were shot and killed each and every day, year after year, their bodies filling many pits, she was horrified. But the next day what I had told her about Lenin and Stalin’s atrocities was forgotten.

In her last years, after decades riveted to the present tense, she began talking about her early memories. One summer day, while having a cup of coffee and a slice of cheesecake at a sidewalk table at a coffee shop in Red Bank, she recalled how when she was very small her mother had taken her for a walk on Broad Street, the very street where we were that day. Walks with her mother had been rare — normally she went out with Hanna Fuelling, her nanny. Mother enjoyed the walk until they went past a bakery without stopping. Instantly she started howling “finger!” Back at home Hanna explained what “finger” meant — Hanna always stopped at the bakery to get her infant charge a pastry called a “lady finger.” Mother also recalled, on another walk with her mother at about the same age, dashing under a horse to cross Broad Street. “My Mother was alarmed!”

After coffee I drove her across the river to Middletown, going east along the road closest to the Navesink River past huge houses belonging to the ultra-rich, then crossing the river to get to Rumson, another bastion of wealth, and finally back to Red Bank. Mother loved the ride. Far from lamenting her crippled vision, there were many exclamations about what a splendid fall it was, the trees exploding with such wonderful colors.

During her last few years one could see that Mother was much less able to get around, much quicker to tire. The television was on most of the time — she mainly watched programs on Discovery Channel. Her world had shrunk to about the size of the house. In October 2001, when I mentioned the events of September 11, she knew what I was talking about and was distressed, but recent news wasn’t in her thoughts except during those moments when they are mentioned. She was amazed to be told how many great-grandchildren she had. “Goodness! Imagine that!”

Because Nancy and I live in Holland, visits were infrequent, but in the last months of her life, we would call her at least once a week. These were brief conversations in which Mother would invariably express the hope that we would visit soon. She would say over and over again, “I love you.”

Aunt Douglas had died that August, age 94. Though face-to-face visits had become infrequent because of the distance between their two homes, they would be in touch with each other by phone several times a day. Her sister’s death this was a signal that it was time to die.

Death came the night of December 8, 2001. Earlier in the evening Mother repeatedly asked Norma Whisky, the live-in Jamaican woman who was caring for her, to leave the front door unlocked “because my sister is coming to get me.” My son Ben, who lived nearby, was with her when Mother exhaled her last breath.

I once told Mother that her granddaughter Anne took great pride in having “so adventurous a grandmother.” She responded, “Yes, I am adventurous.” It struck me that even then, when she could hardly cross the kitchen without becoming exhausted, she put it in the present tense.

Her voice lingers. I doubt I have lived through a week of my life since childhood without recalling some word or proverb of Mother’s. She had an extensive collection of stock phrases that she used in various contexts. One of them was, “Time, time, said old King Tut, is somethin’ I ain’t got nothin’ else but.” This meant there was no need to hurry. She often said, “Everyone his own taste said the old lady as she kissed the cow.” This meant there was room for disagreement. Another oft-repeated saying was, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” In theory, at least, she was in favor of reigning in criticism. She would sometimes say, especially to me, “If your head wasn’t attached to your body, you would lose it.” Similarly, “You don’t have the sense to come in out of the rain.” If someone had not dressed appropriately: “He was sent for but couldn’t come.” That too would often be me. Another favorite was “In for a penny, in for a pound.” Truly, Mother never did anything by halves. She was fond of a four-line poem by Edna St. Vincent Millet and recited it frequently: “I burn my candle at both ends, / it shall not last the night, / but ah my friends / and oh my foes, / it makes a lovely light.” Anything that offended her eyes was a “hideosity.” Its antonym was “adorabilty,” as would be the case with any of the stray cats she adopted and adored.

* * *

Memories of Marguerite

by Nancy Forest

People are always asking me if I miss America, and I usually say no. But if there’s one thing I do miss, and indeed regret about living in Europe, it’s not having lived closer to Marguerite and having gotten to know her better. She was a model for me of a strong woman — strong but not rigid or brittle, no-nonsense but kind, serious and principled but with a fabulous sense of humor. She was one of the most amazing women I’ve ever met.

The first time I met her was around 1977. Jim had just moved to Holland and was on one of his trips back to the States, and he came over to visit us (my former husband and myself) and our daughter Caitlan, Jim’s god-daughter. He brought Marguerite with him. I was living in a very humble apartment in Nyack at the time, and they came for dinner. Marguerite was bursting with enthusiasm about our “wonderful” apartment and the “beautiful” dinner plates, which, as I recall, were a sort of drab green. So my first impression was a woman of non-stop enthusiasm.

When Jim and I decided to get married he came to the States again, in 1981, for Christmas. This time I went down to Red Bank for the first time, and really met Marguerite in her home and as my future mother-in-law. I brought a freshly-baked pecan pie along as a house gift, which made a big impression. A few days later, she and Aunt Douglas came up to Nyack for dinner with me and Jim. I was living in a much nicer apartment at the time. While Jim stepped outside for a few minutes to park their car, she and Aunt Douglas had me alone for the first time. Aunt Douglas took me by the hand and said, very clearly, “Listen, dear, you do whatever you think is right for you!” They didn’t want me rushing into anything.

Later that spring, all the Forests came up to Nyack to have what I guess was an official welcome for me. They took me out to lunch at a very nice restaurant in town. Marguerite and Aunt were both there, and Dick came, too. Dick was wonderful. A real brother-in-law. I remember feeling so warmly welcomed. I felt like part of the family.

I moved to Holland in 1982. When Jim and I were preparing to get married we had trouble with the Dutch authorities because they wouldn’t accept my New Jersey birth certificate, which contains very little information. So finally Marguerite went to Trenton herself and dug up a special birth certificate that even my parents had never seen — something the New Jersey Health Department keeps in its secret files — with every scrap of information about my birth. The Dutch authorities were pleased, and Jim and I were able to get married.

In 1987 I was able to return to the States for a two-week trip. I spent one week at a conference in North Carolina and then flew up to New Jersey to spend several days with both Marguerite and Aunt Douglas. It was then that I really got to know them both better. I’m so glad I was able at least to spend those few days with her then. Aunt was still driving, and she took us to Brookdale so that Marguerite could give me a full tour of “her” campus. We spent a wonderful day in Princeton, too. But what I remember most was the incident with the keys. Marguerite had recently returned from a trip to Atlantic City with some local people, and she had lost her duplicate house keys on the way. So Aunt Douglas drove us into Red Bank to the locksmith for new duplicates to be made. Aunt Douglas parked the car and started reading the newspaper she had brought with her, which I thought was odd. But she didn’t get out of the car. I went into the locksmith’s with Marguerite. The unfortunate young man behind the counter asked if he could help her. She pulled out her main set of keys — a huge bunch on a ring — and explained that she needed duplicates, but she needed two duplicates for some, and which one was the key to the garage door? And when the young man said he didn’t know, she seemed surprised and a bit annoyed. This went on and on, with the young man trying to maintain his composure. Finally I went out to the car, where Aunt Douglas was still reading the paper. She looked up at me and smiled. She knew exactly what was going on in the locksmith’s shop.

Jim and I visited together in 1994 and were able to go to church with Marguerite, where we discovered that the Methodist minister and his wife were graduates of my alma mater. That was a nice connection. During that trip Jim expressed interest in visiting the Hendrickson House, the 17th-century country house located near Red Bank that had belonged to Marguerite’s Hendrickson ancestors and had become a museum of the Monmouth County Historical Society. Jim wanted to see it again himself and to show it to me and Anne. At first Marguerite was completely disinterested. Who would want to see anything like that? She seemed so un-nostalgic on the one hand, yet she liked to walk through Red Bank and talk about what it used to be like, and where they used to live, and tell stories about her parents. Anyway, we did end up going to Hendrickson House, which Marguerite ended up enjoying immensely.

On that particular trip she had just been to the movies to see “Forrest Gump”, a film she loved so much that she wanted us all to see it. So she took us all to the movies. Anne had never been to an American movie theater (complete with the smell of buttered popcorn, which Dutch theaters didn’t have at the time). She sat there and laughed all the way through.

I remember the joy she took in her pets. She called her cats “adorabilities”. She had great respect for people who were enthusiastic, strong, decent and hard-working. She had nothing but disdain for people who felt sorry for themselves and didn’t seem to be able to get a grip on life. I have the sense, from having met her and from things I’ve heard from Jim, that despite the difficulties she had had to deal with — physical disability (very limited use of her right hand since birth), having been ditched by her husband and having to raise her sons alone, blindness in later life — she was filled with appreciation for the good things around her. The love she lavished on her sons and her grandson Ben came back to her in spades. She was an amazing balance of generosity and tough expectations. For a strict non-romantic, she had more love than anyone I know. It was a grace and privilege and blessing to have known her, and to be her daughter-in-law.

* * *

In her own words…

In the summer of 1996, when Anne and I were in America for Ben and Amy’s wedding, I was able to get Mother to talk about her life. These are my notes. She started by recalling how animals had been in her life from early childhood:

We had ducks, of course! And chickens — two kinds. When it was very cold out we had the baby chicks in the house. We always had a dog. I can remember Nipper from my earliest childhood. When I went to college I was given $25 to buy things. What I did was to buy a collie puppy, Flipper the First. There’s his picture on the wall. Flip!

We had a cow, Bessie — we kept it in grandma’s side yard on 103 East Front Street. I remember for a time sharing my room with our maid — Hannah Jackson — and even sharing the same bed. On Front Street we shared the house with my grandmother, then later had our own house on Wallace Street.

We had a canary — of course! Dickie was his name, naturally. After Dickie we had another canary that escaped from the house. I was hysterical. Mother wasn’t. Then we got a phone call from grandmother — he had flown down the street to her house and flew right in the dining room window. And there he stayed until we came to get him.

We had cats, though they came a little bit later. Douglas was afraid of cats when we got the first one. You can see she got over it!

We had pigeons. Dad used to take them to shows — and he took the chickens to chicken shows. Dad was called “Chicken Charlie” by his friends. Naturally we wouldn’t eat our own chickens — only Dad would eat them. Finally Dad and Uncle George stopped duck hunting because we wouldn’t eat them.

We had a hobby horse by the fireplace. Big! To me at least. It had stirrups and everything.

At Aunt Uytendale’s marriage, I was a reluctant flower girl, not at first but at the actual event. We wore fancy dresses — I think they came from Paris. Not that this meant much to me at the time! Cousin Catherine Nesbitt from Memphis was the maid of honor. She finally succeeded in leading me down toward the altar by having a donut on her finger which I followed. I was probably five.

Mother came from Memphis. Her father had a wholesale grocery business, not the most respectable business, but he was prosperous at the time. Later he went broke. Mother was named Janet Douglas Estes. The Douglas was for the Douglas clan in Scotland. Estes is an Italian name. Probably there was some French ancestor too, which is why I was named Marguerite.

Bobbin came with Mother from Memphis and was with us until she died. She was an Afro-American. She died of gall stones. Mother had the funeral right in our home. In those days that wasn’t what happened with servants, having the funeral in the home of a white family. The Afro-American residents of Red Bank must have been astonished. They all came to our house to view the body. Our white neighbors must have been even more astonished. But they would never have disapproved of anything Dad did. She was buried in the little church that is now the Russian Orthodox Church. In those days it was the church Count Basie went to.

Mother was different. Though she came from the south, she wasn’t at all a racist. Her brother, my Uncle Collier, would walk out of the opera if he were sharing a box with an Afro-American. She was the oldest in her family and I suppose she had her own relationship with the Afro-Americans who raised her. She was different! She was the unusual member of her family. Her youngest brother, my Uncle Newton, once slapped a member of the Supreme Court when he gave a lecture in Salt Lake City. This had to do with the Supreme Court not ending segregation. Uncle Newton had run in Memphis for the Board of Education but lost and later moved out to Utah because he knew the Mormon religion was racist.

At Mother’s finishing school they spoke French every day except Sunday. It was Ely Court. Then it was in New York — now it’s in Connecticut. The only French she remembered when I was little meant, “I love you, I adore you, what more can you desire?” At the time the school was considered “the fastest school in the east.” Fast meant going out on a date without a chaperon, which I doubt ever happened at Ely Court. The school was directed by Mrs. Parsons. She loved Mother and Dad — they had been married out of her school. She sometimes came to visit us. When she was old enough, Douglas went to the same school. By that time there were children of movie actors from Hollywood boarding there. When she graduated we were all pleased that she got a special award but finally we noticed that everyone got a prize!

Dad had a wonderful garden. There was also a grape arbor — I used to give the grape skins to the chickens, who just loved them. Naturally we had eggs, Mother sold some of them and gave the money to Dad. She was very proud of that money.

Dad’s father — also Charles Elvin Hendrickson — was one of the founders of Island Heights. It was all Methodist in those days with a Camp Meeting place in the middle.

My grandfather looked like a movie version of a judge — handsome, with a beard. He was Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. He was buried in his judicial robes. Aunt Uytendale lifted me up so I could see him in his coffin. And I remember.

Dad loved to go to funerals. He was always the happiest man at the funeral.

When he went to Aunt Uytendale’s funeral, they had a closed coffin. Dad insisted they take the lid off. And they did.

Dad’s first clients were Jewish. They were our friends. They gave us our silverware. Dad once stopped Uncle George from telling an anti-Semitic joke by saying, “I don’t want to hear it. I am a direct descendent of Solomon, King of the Jews.” Uncle George hated that kind of teasing.

Grandmother’s name was Sarah. She married when she was about sixteen. She probably came from the same town — a town with a biblical name in South Jersey. I can’t remember the name. Ask Douglas. Then they moved to Mount Holly and later to Red Bank.

My brother was Charles Elvin Hendrickson the Third — you can see he was supposed to be an exact copy of his father. Dad was wonderful with Douglas and me, but not with our brother Elvin. He wouldn’t get Elvin an electric train and that was when Elvin started to hate him. Dad wanted Elvin to be just like him. Elvin flunked out of Brown because he played football — he never got a law degree. Every man in the family had been a lawyer for generations. Finally he graduated from the University of Alabama.

Mother went to a finishing school in New York City and she shared a room with Aunt Uytendale. So Dad met Mother through his sister.

Mother went to the movies almost every afternoon, or at least whenever there was a new movie. When you have a cook, you can do that. We all loved Mary Pickford. Movies in those days were as pure as could be. It was the Strand, on the corner of Broad and Linden Place. Larry somebody was the organist. He committed suicide after they stopped having live music. He was a handsome man. I guess he just loved playing for the movies.

We never bought new clothes at Easter time. Mother said only people who don’t have proper attire the rest of the year needed to buy a new dress for Easter. I was very disappointed.

I remember the first time mother took me to Childs Bakery on the west side of Broad Street. She had no idea that I was always given a lady’s finger when Hannah [Jackson] took me there. Of course she didn’t buy one. I had very few words. We left Childs with me crying, “Finger, finger, finger.” I cried all the way home. Mother was humiliated. Hannah succeeded Bobbin after Bobbin died. Hannah was white, Bobbin was black.

There was the day I decided to run away and announced this to the whole family. They were teasing me for some reason or another. I was told that I could go whenever ready. I sat in the porch for a long time. Dad brought me a little suitcase, but by then I decided not to run away after all. I’m not sure how old I was, I was still wearing rompers.

There was the time that I was put in the corner for pulling another girl’s hair and of course that was the day Mother came to visit the school. She was humiliated! Her daughter in the corner.

Then there was the time, the only time, I cheated. I put the word list on the seat and just copied the words. Miss Bailey, who was a horror, exposed me to the whole class. Mother came to school to talk to Miss Bailey. “We will not discuss the past. We will discuss the future,” she said.

In those days people came to the house, like the dress maker, Mrs. Stout. She would do any repairs or adjustments to our clothes — lowering hems, that sort of thing. She came regularly from her house in Little Silver.

Libby came every Monday and Tuesday to do the laundry. She had been born before the end of the Civil War. I loved Libby. She was one of the early baby sitters for you and Dick.

But Libby didn’t do Dad’s shirts. There was a Chinese laundry that did those stiff collars.

Our only prejudice was against Catholics. I was really scared whenever I walked by the Catholic church, St. James. I think I was afraid of being kidnapped into the church. We had a Catholic nurse named Margaret Dugan. Dad liked her, Mother didn’t. Mother thought Margaret had taken Elvin to be baptized at the Catholic Church. There was a difference of opinion between Mother and Father when children should be baptized. Mother had grown up in the Presbyterian Church. So we were baptized in the Methodist Church when we were four or five — I was very embarrassed. I remember that.

[In response to a question about relatives:]

There was Uncle George who put off marriage for a long time though he had a series of girl friends. Of course.

Then there was Uncle Jim who went into a mental hospital. When his mind was going he started sending strange postcards — pictures of the rear end of a horse — to local people — usually prominent people. They didn’t care for these. When he began to turn violent, they put him in Trenton State Hospital. The shock of landing in a hospital cured him, though “he never fulfilled the promise of his youth.” He used to say the Jews own New York, the Irish run New York, and the Christians live in New York. He stayed in bed for years.

All three brothers were lawyers. And we had one aunt — Aunt Uytendale. It must have been a Dutch name. Isn’t that a beautiful name? She was beautiful and had a magnificent, operatic voice. She married someone she met at Princeton but who drank up all the money. She finally divorced him. He also had a beautiful voice. His name was Bill Baird — not the puppeteer. He drank like a fish. His family built train engines. He had a brother named Charles. Both left college to join the army during World War I and both survived.

[I asked whether her father took part in the First World War:]

Dad managed not to go into the army. He said, “If you have guns, you’ll use them.” He got an exemption. Mother was shocked. She thought Dad wasn’t patriotic. She believed all the stories about the Germans cutting off the hands of Belgian children. Dad didn’t believe it for a minute. He said wars were fought for economic reasons. Douglas wanted to be a nurse and Dad was very kind to her about that hope. He said, “Don’t worry — the war may last long enough to be one.” But it didn’t.

Douglas and I used to smoke in the bungalow in Island Heights — we regarded ourselves as very up-to-date. Dad was usually down at what he called “the shack” — a little house by the boatyard. He knew we were smoking and we knew we weren’t supposed to. He would always knock on the door and wait long enough for us to rush to the bathroom and flush the cigarettes down the toilet. Of course he could smell the smoke but he never said a word. He would just tell us what we were supposed to do and never say another word.

Mother said something else I don’t think I’ve told you — “Love spells sacrifice.”

And Dad put a cheap sign on my desk — just a piece of wood — that had just one word on it: “Perseverance.” He never explained it. He just put it there. And it had its effect.

I didn’t do well in grammar school. Mother and Dad never said a word about study and home work. But in high school I discovered it was nice to gets A’s and then I began to study.

It got in the paper [The Red Bank Register] when I passed the college board examination and was accepted by Smith. It had never before happened to anyone graduating from Red Bank High School. It was front-page news.

We had a Progressive Club at Smith — and we were allowed to stay up till 10 p.m. when we attended its meetings. Mike Gold spoke more than once. All the big names of the time came up. First I joined the Socialists and then decided they didn’t mean business like the Communists.

I took a course in religion. The professor said you lower your head to get in a religious mood. After that I didn’t lower my head in church. But I got a lower grade because I told my professor that her course wasn’t helpful to me. Dick [her second son] told me I was a fool to tell her so, that of course she would give me a lower grade, but I never thought of a teacher being dishonorable.

I didn’t go to one of the graduation events because I went on a picket line at a factory in North Hampton.

When I first met your father, he was in the army, “burrowing from within.” I wrote a letter to the Communist Party after graduating from college, apologizing for not coming from the working class and asking to be a member. They wrote to your father at Fort Monmouth — his work was in the Signal Corps I think — and he came to our house in Red Bank, knocked on the door and asked to meet me.

Our first apartment in New York City was on 14th Street on the top floor. Next door was the first gay person I had ever encountered. He was always going after your father. We had one room — it cost $14 a month. When it was very hot we slept on the roof. Across the street was a Chinese restaurant where we often ate. Your father was working full-time for the Communist Party — I’m not sure that he got any money for it. Probably not. Then I got a job in the City Welfare Department — I got it through someone in the Communist Party working in the department. The woman was very relieved when she found out that I had actually graduated from Smith and was certified in social work. I was paid $29.50 a week. As a result we were able to move to an apartment near Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village — I think it was on Thompson Street and cost $30 a month. It had a fireplace — very luxurious.

I had no understanding of money. I asked your father if we could live on $29.50 a week and he said, “Of course.” He was shocked at how little understanding I had of money! What is money to a Forest?

We went to a lot of meetings, and to plays and movies.

When we were in New York, I did a degree in social work at Columbia, which was just like a trade school — you learn something so you could make a living. Later on I went to the University of Denver, another trade school, but I liked it. By then my political ideas were all formed.

Working for the Department of Welfare in New York City, I always did what I thought was right. In those days you either worked for the Welfare Department or you were on welfare.

Later we moved to Salt Lake City because your father was assigned as Communist Party organizer for the State of Utah. I loved Utah. I had good friends.

When we moved back to New Jersey, I bought this house because I wanted you and Dick to grow up in a [mainly Afro-American] neighborhood that would be like the world would be when you grew up. I wanted a good cross section of the population. So I moved into this section of the town.

I remember being asked to sign a petition for a local fire house and recall hearing soon afterward that there were to be no Afro-American members of the fire department. I demanded that the mayor take my name off the petition and he wouldn’t do it. The explanation for it being all white was that the fire department “sometimes had dances.”

I recall dancing with a black man before I was married — he was a wonderful dancer.

The only thing wrong with Communism was that there was no religion in it. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Only we’re not ready for that yet. But I’ve never changed my mind that we should aspire to this.

One of my heroes was Paul Robeson. I respect and honor him. He went to Russia and loved it because it was the first time he had been treated as an equal.

Sometime in the mid-fifties I stopped getting The Daily Worker — it was too dangerous. I had to think of my responsibilities as a mother. You were still children. When the FBI came to interview me — they were two Catholic boys — I played the part of the loving mother to the hilt. Which was easy because I was.

From each according to his ability, to each according to his need — that’s the Communist ideal, which they got from Saint Paul. The reason it didn’t work was because of human beings not being decent, but I think Communism was less indecent than what we have. I despise capitalism. [This was said while she patting Tony, an immense gray striped cat. “Come, darling! Tony doesn’t despise capitalism.”]

If we become Nazi [in the United States], I’m coming over to Holland. I’m not going to become a hero. I will use my age as an excuse.

* * *

In her late years, after retirement, she was woken up one night by a burglar standing over her bed. Far from being terrified, she asked him what she could do for him. She put on her bathrobe and took him into the kitchen and sat down and talked with this troubled young man. No harm was done. She was a devout Methodist and also a psychiatric social worker who had worked for many years at a state mental hospital in New Jersey, so both her faith and her long experience working with disturbed (and disturbing) people came to her assistance — plus her fearless character.

James Frederick Forest: Leaving Things Better than He Found Them

born in Boston, Massachusetts on August 8, 1910; died in Santa Rosa, California May 7, 1990

at the circus in Alkmaar, spring 1985: left to right, Wendy, Lucy, Tom, Dad and Daniel

“Always leave things better than you found them.” — advice Dad frequently gave his children

My father never discovered what his family name would have been had his parents been married. The name he was known by as an adult, James Frederick Forest, was two-thirds made up years after birth. Only James was there from the start.

He was born on August 8, 1910, in Boston, Massachusetts. His mother was an auburn-haired, brown-eyed, impoverished Irish immigrant who, as best Dad could discover, had worked as a seamstress, maid and artist’s model. It was only as an adult that he learned her name was Rose Murray and realized Murray had once been his own last name. The source of that desperately sought information was Catherine Smith, a social worker who had been a vital source of encouragement and practical support during his childhood. She also told him that there was some evidence that his father was a Jewish wool merchant, name unknown, who had immigrated to the United States from Russia. If as much as that was known of him, how odd that he was nameless. Perhaps Smith knew but for some reason thought it best not to reveal that particular detail.

When Dad spoke of his mother, there was grief in voice. He had no memory of living with her. “Sometime in my first few years she arranged for me to stay with a family — a good family, very kind — who were living on he upper floor up in a Boston tenement.”

“Why didn’t you live with her?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

What was unsaid, as I wouldn’t have understood what it meant, was that perhaps her poverty had driven her to become a prostitute.

“But I saw her often and felt her sadness that we were living apart.”

Dad’s stay in the tenement ended abruptly when the building caught fire. “I was lifted by a fireman through a window on the top floor and carried down a long ladder to safety. I remember the fireman holding me over his shoulder. There was fire and smoke and it was nighttime. I was terrified.” Afterward his mother arranged for him to board with another family.

Dad’s last memory of his mother was her taking him to an amusement park near Boston. “I sensed she was saying goodbye. I was four. I never saw her again.” Later in life he succeeded in finding her death certificate. Rose Murray died by drowning. Suicide? It’s not certain but Dad thought so.

Following her death in 1915, Dad became a ward of the state of Massachusetts. It was at this point in his life that he was given Frederick as a last name. “Perhaps that week they were giving out last names that started with an F. I was a state kid with a state name.”

“As soon as I became a state kid, I was put in the care of a man and woman, an older couple, who made their living providing care for orphans, up to six at a time. Supposedly they were seeing after our basic needs but in fact they spent as little as possible on our needs and kept as much as possible for themselves. The two of them could have stepped out of the pages of Oliver Twist. The soup we were give was hardly more than water — soup flavored by the shadow of pigeons. The six of us had one room to sleep in, two to a mattress, and a single swing to share in the tiny back yard.”

Luckily his social worker, Catherine Smith, came to visit, saw how undernourished he was, and for a brief period took him into her own home while she made arrangements for him to be placed with an honest, attentive family. In 1916 she put him into foster care with the Drown family in East Pepperell, Massachusetts, a town 45 miles northwest of Boston near the New Hampshire border.

“The head of the family,” Dad recalled, “was Fred Allen Drown, a Yankee with deep roots in New England born in Vermont in 1868. He worked at a local paper mill. His wife was Margaret Loretta Drown, an Irish immigrant with a strong Irish accent who also spoke Gaelic. The Gaelic songs I know were learned from her. The family received three dollars a week for each state ward they took in; the state also paid for our clothing and medical expenses.”

“My foster parents were shocked by my malnourished condition when I arrived. ‘Look at him, just skin and bones!’ I wasn’t their only state kid. There were other foster children in the household for shorter or longer stays, but I was the only state kid who remained with the Drown household throughout my childhood. I gradually became part of the family, at least up to a point. I never felt loved but I did feel valued.”

One of his first memories after coming to live with the Drown family was walking into the small barn on their property and discovering the cover of a popular weekly magazine — possibly Collier’s — tacked up on the wall. “Here was a painting of a beautiful woman on the cover. I had not a moment’s doubt it was my mother. I was overwhelmed with joy. I think the painting gave me the idea that perhaps she was still alive. I ran into house and told my foster parents, but Mr. Drown was far from pleased. The cover was immediately taken off the wall and I never saw it again.”

For years fear was a constant in Dad’s life. “I was terrified of being sent to an orphanage, which my foster parents reminded me could easily happen and which sounded like being sent to prison. My solution from early on was to become the ‘can-do kid,’ always looking for ways to be helpful, assisting with every aspect of household work as well as with the garden. The older I got, the more I took on. We had a cow and a horse and I took care of them as well. With my two paper routes and the chores I did for neighbors, mowing lawns in summer and shoveling snow in winter, I was able to contribute to family finances. When I got to high school, I also made a little money working as assistant janitor.”

In 1925, after nine years with the Drown family, Dad — now fifteen — was legally adopted, a goal he had long sought. In fact he had worked so hard to make himself adoptable that, once the goal was achieved, he never felt sure whether the Drowns loved him as a son or as a hard worker who did more than his share, bringing in more income than the state was paying them for his care so long as he was legally an orphan.

Living in a largely Catholic neighborhood, the Catholic Church became important his life. He was active in the local parish, serving as an altar boy. Mass was important to him as were the Gospel stories and parables. Inspired by an admirable pastor, in his early teens Dad decided that, once he had finished high school, he would go to seminary and become a priest.

The Boy Scouts were an equally serious interest. He had started hanging around with the local troop when he was ten and officially joined the day he turned twelve. He loved camping and accumulated numerous merit badges, eventually becoming an Eagle Scout. His only oddity as a Boy Scout was that he never owned or desired a Boy Scout uniform, only borrowing one occasionally when it was essential, as when he was appointed to recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address at the town’s annual Memorial Day celebration.

It was his link to the Scouts that triggered his break with the Catholic Church. The parish priest Dad had so greatly admired was reassigned; his successor was a recently-ordained man with rigid views on many topics. In those days of religious cold war, the new priest had an ice-hard objection to Catholics being involved in anything remotely Protestant; the local Boy Scout troop, as it was Protestant-sponsored, was declared off limits. An announcement was made at Mass one Sunday. Dad, then age fifteen, walked out of the church and never attended another Mass until half-a-century later. “It was a bitter moment in my life, changing my thoughts about the future and my ideas about religion,” he told me. “If churches could be so narrow, if Christians could be so set against each other, I didn’t want to be part of it.”

With his ideas about his future up in the air, he focused on the here-and-now, drawing strength and inspiration from friendships. “My friends were of varied types. My closest friend, who built one of the first crystal radios in town, came from a wealthy family. His father, Jay Walter, was a correspondent for The London Times.” Another friend was a black foster child living in town. “We were both ‘state kids’ and felt a bond.” There were other friends from “Polack Hill,” as the Polish neighborhood was known, and still others who were “Canucks,” people who had come across the border from Canada. “Thanks to my paper routes, I got to know a Jewish family. I also had a job working with a plumber for whom I used to pick up books at the library — he was the town ‘reprobate,’ a man drawn to the bottle but a great reader and very outward looking.”

Dad was paying close attention to the world beyond East Pepperell. “I did a lot of reading, including books on utopian societies that, for a time in the nineteenth century, had flourished in America, and also about the recent revolution in Russia. I knew about various social protests going on and had read about the Communist Party in the newspapers. I was aware of the controversy that was raging over the convictions for robbery and murder of Sacco and Vanzetti, Italian anarchists who were executed despite many appeals and much doubt about their guilt.”

High school was a great adventure for him. “I was a champion debater and also played a good game of chess, my mentor in that regard being the high school janitor. I was active in the high school band, playing the French horn and the tuba. Theater was a major passion — for several years I must have been in every play in town. I was also an avid member of the local 4H Club — my garden won a first prize which brought me to a college campus for three days.” His high school principal saw Dad as a promising student. “He encouraged me to think about getting out of the town and made me think beyond the options of ‘monkhood’ and factory work.”

Though he graduated second in his senior class at high school, Dad wasn’t able to enter college after his graduation. While his principal had succeeded in getting him a full-tuition scholarship to Harvard, no grant for living expenses was provided. This placed Harvard out of reach. Instead, in the Fall of 1928, he began a course at the Bartlett School of Tree Surgery. As an apprentice tree surgeon, his school arranged for him to be part of a team working on Long Island. The assignment brought him to the Phipps estate in Westbury, one of the most palatial properties on Long Island’s “gold coast,” then known as “the richest square mile in he world.”

“Never in my life had I seen such wealth,” Dad told me. “A mansion with cooks, maids, butlers, gardeners, mechanics and chauffeurs! But I also learned about the advantages of not chasing money. One of my fellow tree surgeons introduced me to Thoreau and Emerson.”

While on Long Island, living in a rented-room in Westbury, Dad devoted some of his spare time to being Assistant Scoutmaster of the local Boy Scout troop.

In the late summer of 1929 Dad moved to New York City to pick up credits at Columbia University with the intention of entering the New York Forestry School. In the meantime he supported himself as an usher and bouncer at a movie house in the Bronx. “I remember chasing a big guy out of the theater — lucky for me he didn’t decide to turn around and fight!”

His plans to study at Columbia evaporated with the Wall Street Crash that had begun on “Black Thursday,” October 24, 1929. The following day, Black Friday, he went down to Wall Street to witness what was happening and was only a block away when one of the men who had seen his fortune go up in smoke jumped to his death from a window ledge.

With the Depression now underway and his foster father not well, he returned to the Drown home in Pepperell where he got a job as foreman of the shipping crew at a paper mill, working the night shift: thirteen hours a night, six days a week. After three months hard labor and the loss of twenty-five pounds, he quit in order to set up his own tree surgery business. “In February 1930, I had some business cards printed. I got jobs working around Pepperell during the winter and in other seasons for the State of Rhode Island. It was while in Rhode Island, through my girl friend’s family, that I became acquainted with the terrible conditions of factory workers. With income from tree surgery, I was one of the lucky ones. I even enjoyed what I was doing.”

In the fall of 1931 he joined some friends, one of whom had a car, in driving to Maine to pick potatoes in the Aroostock Valley. “I stayed with the family I was working for, an old pioneer family that had actually cleared the land, and during this time saw the extent of bank control. The family was mortgaged to the hilt and hardly better off than the men picking potatoes. There were thousands of acres of potatoes lying unharvested in the ground because the farmers couldn’t afford to dig them out — the buyers weren’t buying — despite the fact that there were many thousands of hungry people in the country at that moment.”

Heading back to New York City, Dad decided it was time to make contact with “the revolutionary movement.” The U.S. was, he felt, approaching a time of dramatic change. “Revolution was in the air,” he recalled. “In Maine not only workers but farmers spoke openly of the need for systemic change.”

“Once in Manhattan, I slept in 35-cents-a-night flop-houses on the Bowery and ate at Bowery restaurants that served soup at five cents a bowl which I paid for with income from short-term odd jobs. Then in late November I saw a poster in Battery Park advertising a talk by a woman, Nina Davis, who had just returned from a trip to the Soviet Union. I attended, was impressed by what she had to say, and afterward talked with her about joining the Communist Party. She signed me up at her office the following morning and gave me several dollars so I could buy a few basic Communist books at the shop downstairs. I sure needed those books! At the time I knew almost nothing about Marxism but I was convinced that the solution to America’s economic and social problems — the way to a more equitable society — was socialism, with the people owning the means of production. I saw in the Communist Party people taking up the challenge of Depression and fighting for the immediate improvement of the needs of the people.”

In those days one got a “Party name” when joining the Communist Party. Dad chose “Forest” as a new last name, soon dropping Drown altogether. “I no longer felt a connection with the Drown family and hadn’t yet discovered my mother’s name,” he explained. “I was also aware that in earlier times names were based on what you did. I was a tree surgeon and always felt at home in the forest. It seemed the perfect name for me.”

Bright, highly motivated and with a gift for public speaking, his talents were noticed. He quickly got involved with a Party-supported Unemployed Council based at a center on the Lower East Side. His sleeping place was a couch in a vacant office. Then, when the couch was no longer available, his night-time shelter was the back of a derelict truck. Hard up for nickels, he ate his meals at soup kitchens. Even with the occasional banana or apple as a supplement, it was a far from adequate diet. Speaking at a rally on Union Square one day, he passed out from hunger, after which distressed friends took him to a nearby Russian restaurant for what might have been the best meal in his life so far.

In the spring of 1932, age 21, Dad was asked to join the leading body of the City Unemployed Council and also was appointed editor of the Council publication, The Hunger Fighter. “I was well suited for the job,” he told me. “God knows I had plenty of experience being hungry!”

One of his responsibilities was to help organize a demonstration at City Hall. Thousands turned out for what they hoped would be a peaceful event. Instead there was a police attack complete with a horse charge. One of the horse’s hooves landed on one of Dad’s feet. “I limped for months afterward but counted myself lucky that no permanent damage was done. I had narrowly escaped a blow with a police baton that was the size of a baseball bat. It would have crushed my skull.”

For all his fast-developing political passions and his rapid rise as a Communist, the idea of travel still haunted him. Later that year, after being offered a place in a military band that was going overseas, Dad joined the Army. “I was still dreaming about seeing the world, but once I had signed up it turned out that there were no vacancies in the band. Instead — thanks to a merit badge in telegraphy I had gotten as a Boy Scout — I spent two years in the Army Signal Corps, stationed at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, not far from Red Bank. So much for travel to faraway places!”

Had he been stationed anywhere else, this text and its author would not be.

“Your mother had just graduated from Smith,” Dad told me. “One of the first things she did once she returned to her parents’ home in Red Bank was send a letter to the Communist Party headquarters in New York asking to become a member. As the Party knew I was based nearby, I got a letter asking me to meet this Marguerite Hendrickson and see if she was suited to Party membership. Not only did I find her well suited but I fell in love with her.”

Despite the reservations of Mother’s parents — Dad was not the son-in-law they envisioned — the two were married in November 1934, shortly before Dad’s discharge from the Army. “Our honeymoon was a lengthy hike along the Appalachian Trail.” (For the rest of his life, Dad’s holidays were almost always spent camping in wilderness areas and national parks. Getting quite close to animals in the wild, he acquired a reputation for being, as he was pleased to say, “a dead shot — but only with a camera.”)

Out Dad was out of the army and married, my parents settled in Manhattan, first in a closet-like four-by-eight-foot room on West 14th Street, then a roomier apartment on Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village. Dad was now working full-time for “the Party,” which meant long hours and very little money. Mother, the real bread winner, first got a job with Macy’s bookshop, then was hired by the city as a social worker based in Harlem. She loved the job. In the process, she helped organize a local branch of the Municipal Employees Union.

In 1937, after several months training at the National Party School, Dad was appointed state organizer of Utah, based in Salt Lake City. The work included operation of the Jefferson Book Shop. As his Party salary was not enough to live on, he continued as a self-employed tree surgeon while Mother found work as a social worker.

It is while they were living in Utah that I enter the story: a small item with a long name: James Hendrickson Forest, born the 2nd of November 1941.

The following month, just after the US entered into the Second World War, Dad attended the Communist Party’s National Convention in New York. The following August he was assigned as the Party’s Mid-West Educational Director, based in Chicago. In 1943 the three of us moved to Denver, where Dad was now District Secretary for the Party’s Western Region. It was in Denver, on January 24, 1943, my brother, Richard Douglas Forest, was born.

In the summer of 1944 Dad was assigned to Party work in St. Louis, Missouri. By then he was in the early months of a new marriage, having been (as he told me years later) “swept off his feet” by Dorothy Baskin, a co-worker in Denver. Dorothy gave birth to his third child, Rosanne, on November 30, 1944.

Drafted in January 1944, he was initially stationed in Texas, then sent to Hawaii where he was a radio operator for the 238th Military Police Company. He remained in service until demobilization in December 1945, after which he returned to Party work, first as Educational Director in Los Angeles. Objecting to the lack of collective leadership in the local Party organization, he resigned his educational responsibility in April, 1948.

Re-assigned to St. Louis, he was elected Chairman of the Missouri Communist Party. Local Party work at that time was concentrated on a campaign to end the war in Korea and on various projects to promote racial justice. Party members in St. Louis were opposing police brutality, much of which had a racial dimension, and campaigning for the integration of public swimming pools.

With the Cold War and McCarthy Era moving into high gear, Dad was one of five Missouri Communists (another was his wife, Dorothy) arrested in September 1952 under the Smith Act, charged with conspiring to advocate the overthrow of the US government by force and violence. (Note that they were not charged with any actual acts of violence or even with advocating the use of violence but with “conspiring to advocate.”) Initially the court set $40,000 bail for him, a huge sum at the time and the highest figure for the group. He was in the city jail from the end of September 1952 until early February 1953. He insisted on being the last to be bailed out.

The trial in Federal District Court, St. Louis, began in January 1954. Dad made the unusual decision of acting as his own lawyer. In his opening statement he told the jurors that he wanted to speak for himself in court so that he could personally explain what he believed and what the Communist Party stood for. Describing his youth, he said, “The ideals of the American Revolution were my ideals and still are and will remain so — the ideals of fighting for freedom, fighting for the liberation of a people from oppression, of having the courage to stand up for one’s ideas, the ideas of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence with their forthright words about how a person should believe and act toward his fellow man.” The immediate concern of the Party, he said, was to work to end racism, to hasten the end the war in Korea, to improve the condition of workers, and to prevent the emergence of an American form of fascism. The Communist Party in the U.S., he insisted, was opposed to violence as a method of achieving change in America. “In our country, as I and my co-defendants see it, [socialism] should be achieved by peaceful transition and we will continue to strive to bring that about…”

On June 4, 1954, the “St. Louis Five” were convicted. Dorothy got a three-year sentence, shorter because of her maternal responsibilities; Dad and the others were sentenced to five years.

“I’m happy to have been placed in this rather peculiar circumstance of history,” he told the court before sentencing. “Though a relatively inconsequential person, I was able to stand up for what I believe. Maybe some other people will get the idea of standing up for what they believe.” Again he insisted that neither he nor any of his co-defendants sought the violent overthrow of the government. He pointed out that the Communist Party Constitution, which had been read into the court record, expressly opposed the use of violence to achieve political aims.

The judge ordered defendants, then out on bail, be sent back to prison while their conviction was appealed. Dad remained there from June to mid-August, a long, hot summer, until once again freed on bail. He again insisted on being the last one out. (In April 1958, the Yates Smith Act case was reversed by the Federal Court of Appeals. In October 1958 the U.S. Department of Justice, anticipating defeat at the Supreme Court, abandoned the prosecution of all such cases, moving to dismiss more than a hundred similar convictions, including that of my father.)

While locked up, Dad wrote letters to his children. I’ve lost those he sent to Dick and me, but here is an extract from one he sent to Rosanne in September 1954: “You see, a body can be put in jail but a mind can’t. It can travel anywhere and with its imagination see anything…. The secret is not to let our minds be imprisoned, even though sometimes we are not strong enough to keep our bodies out of jail. That’s what is happening to so many people today. They are letting their minds be jailed while their bodies are free. Don’t you ever be afraid to think, or to fight, for what you think is right, dear Rosanne.”

After his release, Dad moved to Los Angeles and began to work in the building trades, while working part-time as the Educational Director for the Communist Party in Southern California. This mainly involved teachings the basics of Marxism at evening classes.

The marriage with Dorothy ended in 1960 after Dorothy fell in love with Hugh De Lacy. Dad went through a period of severe depression. In 1963, Dad moved to San Francisco where he supported himself through independent building and repair work. In 1964 he married Carla Altman. Tragically, three years later, on her way home from work, she was shot and killed by two young thieves.

On February 9, 1969, Dad married Lucy Cushing Brooks, a longtime friend. It was a marriage that proved happy and enduring. Despite the demands of full-time work, he was active in the San Francisco Communist Party and was intensely involved in the local peace movement and its many activities opposing the war in Vietnam. In 1968, he became Educational Director for the Communist Party in Northern California.

In 1969, Dad was appointed a Secretary of the World Peace Council, a pro-Moscow group based in Helsinki, Finland. During his five years with the WPC, he traveled (often with Lucy) in the Soviet Union, Vietnam, Egypt and other countries. World Peace Council activities in that period focused mainly on the Vietnam War and setting up East-West conferences. While in North Vietnam, Prime Minister Pham Van Dong’s first question to Dad was a request for information about me, as I was at the time serving a two-year sentence for being one of the Milwaukee Fourteen, a group that burned draft records in Milwaukee in 1968 as a protest against the Vietnam War. He also met with Salvador Allende in Chile, who talked with Dad about the military coup he anticipated would bring about the downfall of Chile’s democratic government, and result in his own murder — events which soon followed.

Returning to San Francisco in 1974, Dad’s life seems to have gradually taken distance from the Communist Party; in any event he had no organizing roles in it. Low- and middle-income housing became his major concern. For the next five years Dad was manager of Saint Francis Square, a housing project with 298 units, a project funded by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association. Saint Francis Square was a highly successful cooperative as well as a model for building integrated neighborhoods.

In 1977 he and Lucy moved to Santa Rosa where they were among the founders of a low and middle-income housing cooperative, the Santa Rosa Creek Commons. After its opening in 1982, the cooperative was singled for several honors, including the Certificate of National Merit from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Commons was Dad’s home for the rest of his life, and remains Lucy’s home to this day.

While joking that he “believed, at most, in one God,” in 1980, he ad Lucy joined the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Sonoma County in Santa Rosa, where he also became a member of the choir. He was active in the Santa Rosa Seniors Center and often played in productions of its theatrical group, the Footlighters. In “My Fair Lady” he had the role of Henry Higgins. He also was active with the Santa Rosa Players, appearing in “Our Town” and “The Mikado.” He was part of a singing group called The Mellowairs.

Dad became a member of the Advisory Council of Area Agency on Housing in Sonoma County and active with the Burbank Housing Development Corporation. On October 31, 1989, the Board of Supervisors of Sonoma County, California, presented him with a resolution commending him for ten years of “exemplary service” with the Burbank Housing Development Corporation, a program for low- and middle-income housing. The citation noted his involvement in nearly every aspect of the Burbank Corporation’s work, as a member of the Administration Committee, Education and Training Committee, Project Committee and Community Relations and Media Committee.

In 1987 Rosanne taped an interview with him in which he discussed, among other things, the effects of aging.

“While I notice less adequacy, less energy and less intellectual responsiveness,” he told her, “and slower learning, socially I don’t see much difference. I have a quieter social life and I am more limited in what I can do and where I can go.”

She asked what he thought about his eventual death. “I don’t think about it with worry or concern. I accept it as part of life. It happens. I hope greatly for no period of Alzheimer’s or other major incapacity. I definitely don’t want to be a burden to anyone because of an incapable body.”

Rosanne asked how he evaluated his life. “I had some successes in trying to do something about what I think is wrong. I wish that I had been better in the work. I regret that I didn’t manage to find more time for relaxation — dancing, music, hiking and camping. I regret the tumultuousness of the transition between my first two marriages. On the positive side, I have been most satisfied by participation in efforts to change attitudes on social problems and helping develop better understanding.”

It is an evaluation those who have had the privilege of knowing him are bound to consider amazingly, but also characteristically, modest. He was one of those people who impressed and influenced not only his friends but his opponents.

In his later years, beyond the circle of close friends, Dad rarely confided his many years of activity in the Communist Party. “What I did for housing would have been impossible if I had been labeled in that way,” he explained to me. “The stigma of the word ‘Communist’ still remains, even in these days of Gorbachev! Of course it isn’t easy to explain it. The sad thing is that most people know much more about the wrongs committed by Communists — and they were numerous! — and not very much about our good qualities, but these are numerous too. For me the Party was the best ball game in town.” It struck me that the last sentence was put in the past tense.

It had always been hard for Dad to see the crimes that had been committed by Lenin, Stalin and countless other Communists in positions of power. I had first encountered that side of Dad while I was in high school and living with him, Rosanne and Dorothy in Hollywood. He was distressed to see me reading Boris Pasternak’s novel, Doctor Zhivago. “Have you read it, Dad?” I asked. “No, but I have read about it. It misrepresents Soviet history.” I suggested he borrow my copy, but for Dad to read it would have violated “party discipline.” It was, for any obedient Communist, a banned book.

“There are things your father just doesn’t see,” as Lucy once put it to me in a conversation in which Dad had just denied there was anti-Semitism in Russia. Taking off the rose-colored glasses through which he had viewed the Soviet Union was for him a long and painful struggle that was still uncompleted at the end of his life.

He took life as it came. When he discovered he had cancer, he said to Lucy, “This should be an interesting journey.”

Lucy had called at the end of April 1990, urging me to come without delay. I stayed in Santa Rosa for a week.

Even in those final days his sense of humor was still often in evidence, and his Boston accent still strong. He slid over most r’s, so that important became impawtent, partisan became pahtisen, part became paht, father became fawthe, car became kah. There was also the faint shadow of a second-generation Irish accent.

Until stopped in his tracks by illness, Dad had been a builder, a fixer, an inventor and improviser who couldn’t get through a single day, as long as he had the strength to lift a hammer or turn a screwdriver, without improving or repairing something. “I was always fascinated,” he said when he was hardly able to raise his head, “with how things worked and how to fix them when they didn’t work.”

At his initiative, Dad and I talked several times about heaven. I told him that God does not erase what he has made, least of all those who have loved creation and cared for it day by day. He reached out with his right hand, gripped my hand with intensity, and said a heartfelt yes, with tears in his eyes. I said that he would at last see his dear mother, who died when he was a child. “I will be so astonished,” he said. These are things we never talked of earlier in life, though I had several times told him that he was a love-centered rather than ideologically-driven person, which he always appreciated hearing.

When I arrived at his bedside Dad had immediately noticed the cross that I was wearing — silver, very solid, done in a Romanesque style. I explained it was the work of a Serbian artist who lives in Holland and had been given to me when I was received into the Russian Orthodox Church. He was curious about the Slavonic words on the back. They meant, I explained, “Save and protect.” The next morning, Dad asked if he could borrow it. I told him I would give it to him as a gift. “No, just to borrow,” he responded. “I won’t need it very long.” Lucy was out of the room at that moment — he asked me not to tell her he was dying. (Of course she knew.) We talked about what the cross meant: the link between his suffering and the suffering of Christ, and the connection of the cross with the resurrection. From that moment on, the crucifix was next to him, hanging from the railing at the side of his bed as his skin was too sensitive to wear it. He sometimes told visitors it was from me, other times said it had been given him by a priest. Lucy told me the crucifix was in his hands when he died. It was mid-morning May 7, 1990. Lucy and several close friends were with him. He would have been 80 on August 8.

While with him that last week, I wrote a biographical text about him, voicing it in the third person. When it was nearly complete, I read it aloud to him. He was alert all the time, the longest stretch of being fully awake during the week that I was there. He was deeply moved by it, tears running down his face. Time and again he said, “Did I really do that?” “Yes, you did.” “Well, that wasn’t so bad,” he replied each time.

At times he didn’t know where he was, though generally he knew everyone came to visit. Each day I was impressed how caring he was about the people who came to see him — friends, the home hospice nurse who came daily, an ambulance driver. No matter how much pain he was struggling with, he wanted to know how each person was, how their children were doing and about past adventures in their lives.

There are those on both the Left and Right who are better at ideas about improving society than enjoying people. While Dad had many ideas about how to improve the world, how to make it better than it is, most of all he enjoyed people. Ideology didn’t come first. His amazing decency and kindness had its deep roots in empathy and love.

One of my most treasured memories of Dad goes back to when I was thirteen. My mother had arranged for me to spend part of my summer vacation with him. After traveling on my own by train from New York to St. Louis, where Dad was then living, we drove together to Los Angeles. Along the way, the first day, we stopped at a roadside restaurant in the Ozarks and walked up to the front door. I don’t know if I would have noticed the small sign attached to the door if Dad hadn’t pointed it out. It said, “Colored people served in back.” Dad asked, “Do you think we ought to go in?” I was hungry and the food inside smelled inviting. On the other hand, it was clear to me that I didn’t want to eat in a place that only welcomed white people. I said, “No.” “Neither do I,” he said. So we got back in the car and drove on. My perception of the world and myself was never quite the same after that. Dad hadn’t told me what to do or given me a lecture about racism, but had allowed me to share in a decision and, in doing so, made me more aware of what was around me and what doors to go through — and which ones to leave unopened — from now on

* * *

text as revised and expanded 18 June 2014

note: I am profoundly grateful to Ed Kehoe for use of the taped interviews he did with my father in the 1980s.

* * *

The Pilgrimage of illness

by Jim Forest

One of my favorite writers is Flannery O’Connor, who died young, age 39, after years of being hard hit by lupus, the same disease that took her father’s life. Her short stories and novels never fail to surprise. Her letters are also gems — some of them hilarious, some profound, some both. Eight years before she died, she commented in a letter to a friend, “I have never been anywhere but sick. In a sense sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it’s always a place where there’s no company, where nobody can follow. Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who don’t have it miss one of God’s mercies.”

All of us have been sick at one time or another, in many cases very sick. Many of us live with a chronic illness. None of us is unaware that we’re on our way to the graveyard and have some suffering, possibly a lot of suffering, to do along the way.

There are various ways of looking at this.

One is to say, “It’s a really bad deal — I’m only putting up with it because I have to.” And it’s true. It is a bad deal. And we put up with it because, not being suicide-minded, what else can we do?

But there is another way of regarding illness, and that is to notice the fact that our maladies are, as Flannery put it, “more instructive than a long trip to Europe.” Or, as she said to a friend in another letter, “Some kind of loss is usually necessary to turn the mind toward faith. If you’re satisfied with what you’ve got, you’re hardly going to look for anything better.”

Bitterness comes easy. It may be our default setting. Lot’s wife, we’re told, turned into a pillar of salt. I don’t take that literally — I think it means that, looking back on the destruction of her home, she became a permanently bitter person. Many people have become pillars of salt.

But we don’t have to turn to salt. Life, including grave illness, can be a pilgrimage: a journey in sacred time to a sacred place.

Pissed off — or on pilgrimage. You decide.

It’s something like the difference between being interrupted or surprised.

“Interruption” is a word with a sour sound. No one longs for interruptions. You were engaged in doing something — talking with a friend, reading a book, running an errand, quietly thinking, getting a job done, perhaps even praying — but were interrupted. Probably you experienced a hot flash of annoyance as a consequence.

“Surprise,” on the other hand, is a word full of promise. “What a surprise,” we say when something unanticipated but welcome occurs: someone you’re glad to see shows up unexpectedly, a nicely wrapped package awaits you when you had no idea it was your anniversary, an item of unforeseen good news comes your way.

Considered with an eye open to providence, many an unwelcome interruption might evolve into a heaven-sent surprise. Whether one looks at the unplanned with an open mind or with brittle resentment reveals a good deal about one’s spiritual condition at that moment. Step by step, the pilgrim is attempting to leave irritation behind and to receive interruptions with a sensitivity to God’s providence. It is a conversion of perception that resembles Christ’s first miracle, turning water into wine at the marriage feast at Cana. What was plain old water somehow is changed to wine worth writing home about. This happens.

In the Gospel Jesus asks the question, “Do figs grow from thistles?” The obvious answer is, “No, thistles grow from thistles.” However the main theme of the Gospel is exactly the opposite. It’s all about conversion. Water to wine. Interruption to surprise. Closed doors to open doors. Enmity to friendship. Vengeance to forgiveness. Violence to nonviolence. Fear to love. Disbelief to faith. A crucified body to a resurrected body.

As St. Paul put it, “They say we are dead and yet we live.”

Conversion is the real pilgrimage. Each pilgrim sets off on his journey in the hope of being a changed person by the time he gets to where he’s going — someone less quick to take offense, someone more patient, someone better able to respond to the needs of others, someone better able to see the image of God in other people, someone more capable of self-giving love, and someone more able to accept the love and care of others.

I am not only thinking of the sort of pilgrim journey that ends in a far-away holy place. Pilgrimage is not so much where you’re going as how you’re being. It doesn’t necessarily involve travel. You can be a pilgrim while standing at the kitchen sink.

I sometimes think of an evening with Vietnamese friends in a cramped apartment in the outskirts of Paris. At the heart of the community was the poet and Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh. An interesting discussion was going on the living room, but I had been given the task that evening of doing the washing up. The pots, pans and dishes seemed to reach half way to the ceiling on the counter of the sink in that closet-sized kitchen. I felt really annoyed. I was stuck with an infinity of dirty dishes while a great conversation was happening just out of earshot in the living room.

Somehow Nhat Hanh picked up on my irritation. Suddenly he was standing next to me. “Jim,” he asked, “what is the best way to wash the dishes?” I knew I was suddenly facing one of those very tricky Zen questions. I tried to think what would be a good Zen answer, but all I could come up with was, “You should wash the dishes to get them clean.” “No,” said Nhat Hanh. “You should wash the dishes to wash the dishes.” I’ve been mulling over that answer ever since — more than three decades of mulling.

But what he said next was instantly helpful: “You should wash each dish as if it were the baby Jesus.”

That sentence was a flash of lightning. I still mostly wash the dishes to get them clean, but every now and then I find I am, just for a passing moment, washing the baby Jesus. And when that happens, though I haven’t gone anywhere, it’s something like reaching the Mount of the Beatitudes after a very long walk.

Being sick is a lot harder than washing dishes.

Let me talk a little about my own pilgrimage as a sick person even though I’m not a perfect example. Each person’s encounter with illness is unique. Mine has been far from the worst. But perhaps there are some aspects of my particular pilgrimage with a chronic illness that have some meaning for others.

Back in 2003 routine blood tests that had been arranged by our family doctor suggested that my kidneys might not be working as they should. I was referred to an internist at the local hospital. Following further tests, about a week later the internist, Dr. Bax, told me that my kidneys were failing, that nothing could be done to halt their decline, and that probably within six months I would need to begin dialysis in order to stay alive. “We will be seeing a great deal of each other,” he told me, “for the foreseeable future.”

Dialysis? That was an unfamiliar word and didn’t sound inviting. Dr. Bax explained it meant using an alternate method of filtering the blood when kidney function has either dropped below a minimal level or the kidneys have altogether stopped working, an event which can happen with no advance warning. Without an alternate method of getting rid of the wastes that are filtered out by the kidneys, kidney failure is a death sentence. In every cemetery there are the tombstones of those who died because their kidneys gave out. Even since the development of dialysis in the latter half of the twentieth century, many such deaths still occur.

During subsequent visits to the hospital, I often had a glimpse into the several wards where patients were undergoing dialysis. Transparent plastic tubes filled with dark red blood ran from the bandaged arms of men and women, sitting in barbershop-like chairs, into machines that looked like props from a Star Wars set. It seemed to me a nightmare vision. Each time I saw what was going on, I hoped against hope that I would not eventually have to join them.

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

There were days when it seemed to me that prayer had failed. There was no miracle. Though my illness had progressed slowly instead of quickly, I had gotten steadily worse. But actually, as the months passed, I became increasingly aware how much I was helped by prayer, not only my own but still more by all the prayers that were coming my way from friends and even strangers. Such spiritual support, I think, was a major factor in my gradually coming to terms with my illness. I often felt like a sailing ship that was being carried forward by a steady wind of prayer.

I needed that wind of prayer. In my darker moments, and they were many, it seemed to me that I was simply a random victim of rotten luck who was now forced to take a meaningless detour.

Ironically, while feeling sorry for myself, I was hard at work writing a book on pilgrimage — The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life. Oddly enough, it didn’t occur to me at first that illness is one of the main pilgrim routes.

Sickness is time consuming and also stops you in your tracks. More than ever, my life was anchored in Alkmaar, our small city to the northwest of Amsterdam. If I was to be a pilgrim, it would mainly have to be in our patch of Holland.

Once dialysis began, with its three three-hour sessions each week, travel, though not impossible, was ruled out unless I was willing to go through the extremely complex process of arranging dialysis care wherever I was hoping to go. Book-related lecture trips with many stops, so much a part of my life in the past, were out of the question.

Like any sick person, I had to rethink how to make the best use of each day. My available time for activity outside the hospital had been cut by about fifty hours a month. Where should the adjustments be made? The decisions made involved economies in almost every area of life — less correspondence, less book work, less walking, less biking, less household work, less time with friends, less recreational time. Only family time and time spent at our parish church in Amsterdam were untrimmed.

Then there was the question of how to make the best use of all those hours each week spent at the hospital. The first solution was to spend much of the time watching films. I had been given a DVD player as a Christmas present just before dialysis began. For the first two or three months, while at the dialysis clinic, I mainly watched films, from old Charlie Chaplain movies to the Harry Potter series, from “Finding Nemo” to “Hamlet.” I would have preferred books, but they seemed ruled out because I didn’t dare move my left arm due to the two long needles inserted in it. One hand was one too few for both holding a book and turning pages. However, as the weeks passed, I found I could, with care, safely shift my left arm a little to the right and make a slight turn of the wrist, with the result that I could hold the left side of a book, using my right hand to turn pages. I felt like a prisoner who had been given permission to work in a garden outside the walls.

From then on, dialysis became a time mainly given over to reading. I can honestly speak of dialysis as having delivered one major blessing. Our library was full of books I had long wished I had time to read, plus many other books I wanted to read again. It had been a long-running if unarticulated prayer that somehow I would find the time. Now, as a dialysis patient, I had acres of time to read and could do so with no sense of neglecting anything else. Some clouds really do have a silver lining.

My reading was far-ranging, from Dostoevsky to Garrison Keillor, from art history to travel books. As I was at work on a book about pilgrimage, many of the books I read were about pilgrimage: journals kept by pilgrims, interviews with pilgrims, books on major centers of pilgrimage, books on the history and theology of pilgrimage.

Ultimately, engaging as the other books were, it was the reading on the theology of pilgrimage that proved the most helpful. It began to dawn on me that illness offers its own pilgrimage route. The more I worked on the book, the clearer it became that the most crucial element in pilgrimage is not walking or biking along traditional pilgrim routes, great blessing that such journeys can be, but is a process of becoming more aware of the presence of God no matter where you are. This could happen just as easily in the most ordinary and familiar location — home, a supermarket, a parking lot, a park — as on the way to Jerusalem or Santiago del Compostela. It could even happen in a hospital dialysis ward.

While there is a lot to be said for putting one foot in front of the other while praying your way to notably sacred places, pilgrimage is most of all an attitude toward daily life wherever daily life requires you to be. For those on a quest for the kingdom of God, neither walking shoes nor a passport is required. If you happen to be sick, the best place to meet God is here and now in that sickness.

How funny! I had been writing about pilgrimage without being aware that the situation I so desperately wanted to avoid and whose demands on me I so deeply resented and resisted could do more for me than walking in prayer to Jerusalem.

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

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

Thanks to dialysis, my kidney illness wasn’t the death sentence it would have been not so many years ago, but I was seriously ill and could anticipate nothing in the future but steady physical decline until the day came when I might get to the point, like many other kidney patients, of saying: “Enough. No more dialysis. Let nature take her course.” (I recall how started I was when I read that the writer James Mitchner reached a point with his kidney illness of deciding enough was enough. He stopped dialysis and his life ended a week later.)

Yet looking at what was happening through the lens of pilgrimage, I came to understand that worse things could have come my way than having to spend so much of my life in a hospital: a place where nearly everyone is either sick, caring for the sick, or visiting the sick. In brief: holy ground.

God bless everyone with good health, who see doctors rarely and have no prescription medication in their home. Would that I were one of them! But good health is a condition that can give rise to its own illusions. So much is taken for granted. Having been deprived of good health, the sick are well aware that they are unable to survive on their own.

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the end of a session of dialysis, I would sometimes say to the nurses who helped me that day, “Thanks for saving my life.” They often look surprised to hear such a declaration. Generally people are too polite to express appreciation so plainly, though anyone with a chronic illness knows he or she is living on borrowed time.

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

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

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

There was hardly a visit to the hospital when I wasn’t reminded the journey being made by others was often far harder than mine, and more difficult to bear — children who are gravely ill, people in great pain and distress, faces collapsing with discouragement and grief. There is nothing I can do but silently pray, but prayer too may be an achievement in the face of the overwhelming powerlessness one sometimes feels when witnessing what other people are up against. Prayer seems so meager a response — in moments of doubt, just another form of nothing. But not to pray is itself a kind of dying.

Being among the sick is being among those who include the dying. During a session of dialysis one day I happened to witness a frail man in his eighties die before my eyes. I thought he had dozed off. So did the nurses. But at the end of his session, when a nurse attempted to wake him up, it was discovered he had quietly left this world. His pilgrimage was ended.

In fact pilgrimage historically was, among other things, a dress rehearsal for dying. Countless thousands of people lie buried along the great pilgrimage routes.

In my own case, though I got a letter recently that began “Dead Jim,” I haven’t taken my last breath yet. But it will happen.

In fact, within the community of the sick, I’m one of the lucky ones. Not very long ago, I would have died of kidney illness. Today it’s treatable. It’s possible to live a long and, for many, a full life on dialysis. It is also an illness that, for many patients, can be reversed by a kidney transplant. Assuming the transplant is successful, dialysis is no longer needed.

This is what happened in my case. There’s no need to tell that story in detail, only to say that after not quite two years of dialysis, one of my wife’s kidneys made the journey from her body to mine where is has been living happily ever since. It’s now nearly a year since I made the last of those three-times weekly trips to the dialysis clinic. I still spent a lot of time at the hospital, but now it’s usually less than a day a month. I take a good many pills each day to prevent my body from rejecting the kidney Nancy gave me and also to make sure that my third kidney stays in good health. Frequent blood tests continue. Would that I had a euro, or even a dollar, for every vial of blood removed from my right arm.

I’m a hospital patient for life, and heavily medicated for the duration, but, thanks to my wife, sickness currently involves a lot less of my time. I can do things I couldn’t do not so long ago. I can travel without having to work out medical care along the route. I have more energy. I don’t have to sleep so long at night. I don’t need a daily nap. I can be more productive as a writer. I do lot of walking and biking. All this is a kind of miracle. I feel a bit like Lazarus pulled out of his tomb. Of course Lazarus will in time get sick and die once again, but he has had a preview of life after death and, as a consequence, has a different take on the gift of life.

I am one of the fortunate ones, if only temporarily. But I remain one of those people whose life and way of seeing has been reshaped by illness. What you learn as a sick person you don’t unlearn. I am better acquainted with mortality. I know the days I am now living are pure gift. I have a closer bond both with Christ’s crucifixion and his resurrection.

I owe a lot to sickness.

I remain on pilgrimage.

* * *

This is text of a talk given October 14, 2008, at the St. Agnes Spiritual Life Center, San Francisco. It’s based on two chapters in Jim’s book, The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life (Orbis): http://www.jimandnancyforest.com/2007/08/13/the-road-to-emmaus-pilgrimage-as-a-way-of-life/

For Nancy’s reflections on donation a kidney, see “Saying Yes”:
http://www.jimandnancyforest.com/2009/07/29/saying_yes/

For details about Jim’s kidney transplant, see the online journal — A Tale of Two Kidneys:
http://ataleof2kidneys.blogspot.com/.

* * *
text as of September 23, 2008
* * *

Henri Nouwen: a Western Explorer of the Christian East

Henri Nouwen

(a chapter from Remembering Henri edited by Gerry Twomey and Claude Pomerleau; published by Orbis Books in August 2006)

By Jim Forest

In a difficult period in my life, Henri Nouwen was my spiritual father. He was an excellent confessor who made it possible for me to share parts of myself that were painful, awkward or embarrassing. He helped me survive hard times and cope with bouts of despair. So I say at the beginning that whatever light I can shine on him is not the result simply of studying his writing, identifying main themes, or analyzing him as if I were studying him through a telescope. He was a person who played — in fact still plays — a role in my life.

Our lives led us both to cross an ocean, though in opposite directions. I find myself living in Henri’s homeland, the Netherlands, while North America became home to Henri. It was unplanned, perhaps one of God’s jokes, but he and I traded places.

Henri was a restless man, constantly on the move. His restlessness brought him from one continent to another. He taught at Notre Dame, then Yale, then Harvard, but could bring himself to stay at none of these distinguished institutions. Searching for community, he was a temporary brother at a Trappist monastery for several extended periods, but found monastic life didn’t suit him, though it helped clear his mind. He had a sabbatical in Latin America and thought for a time he was called to make his life there as a missionary, but then decided this also wasn’t his calling. He finally found a home for himself not in academia or monastic life but with the L’Arche community in Canada — not among the brilliant, but the physically and mentally handicapped plus their downwardly-mobile assistants. Appropriately, he died while traveling — two heart attacks in Holland — while en route to Russia where he intended to make a film about Rembrandt’s painting of “The Return of the Prodigal Son.”

He possessed a remarkable gift for communicating to others through the spoken and written word the fact that a life of faith is one of endless exploration, a pilgrimage second to none. He produced a flood of books, many of which remain in print. Few writers on religious life have been so widely read or been so often translated into other languages. Years after his death, he still has a huge influence on the lives of many people. (He died relatively young, at age 64, in 1996.)

In common with Thomas Merton, he believed that the healing of east-west divisions among Christians are assisted more by a process of east-west integration in the spiritual life than by academic theological conferences. As Merton put this is 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.

Henri returned to this passage often. Also like Merton, Henri played a major role in the quiet movement of rediscovering icons. It is this area of their search that I wish to focus on in this essay.

The main monument to his love of icons that Henri left to us was his book Behold the Beauty of the Lord. This thin volume remains among the best introductions to icons — very accessible, not at all technical, with a directness and sobriety that one can only describe as icon-like. With his usual immediacy, Henri explains how one icon and then others gained a place in his life and what he had so far learned from long periods of living with four of them: Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon; an icon of Mary holding Christ in her arms; an icon of the face of Christ (also by Rublev); and, finally an icon of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles at Pentecost.

Of course, Henri had seen icons in art history books, museums, churches and monasteries many times, but it wasn’t until his first visit to the L’Arche community in Trosly, France, in 1983 that he began to see icons with wide-open eyes. Barbara Swanekamp, assistant to L’Arche founder Jean Vanier, had put a reproduction of Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity on the table of the room where Henri would be staying. “After gazing for many weeks at the icon,” Henri noted in Behold the Beauty of the Lord, “I felt a deep urge to write down what I had gradually learned to see.”

Henri was profoundly sensitive to the visual arts. It was a family trait. In the introduction to his book on icons, he recalls a Chagall painting his parents had purchased early in their marriage when Chagall was hardly known — a watercolor of a vase filled with flowers placed on a sunlit window ledge, a simple yet radiant work that made one aware of God’s silent energy. I recall seeing it when Henri brought me to stay with him at his father’s house. There were many other beautiful works of art in the house — the house was a small museum of fine art — but the Chagall watercolor stood out from the rest and still remains a fresh memory. “The flowers of Chagall,” Henri writes in Behold the Beauty of the Lord, “come to mind as I wondered why those four icons have become so important to me.”

The connection does not surprise me. Chagall’s work was deeply influenced by iconography. In some of his paintings the link is made explicit, but it is always there in more subtle ways. Chagall’s work in was never enslaved to the rules of perspective or to the physics of gravity. People and animals fly. Fiddlers play on rooftops. Husbands and wives float in the kitchen. Like an iconographer, Chagall made his canvas a window opening on the invisible world and the life of the soul. It may be that the Chagall painting Henri grew up with helped awaken in him a capacity to appreciate icons and understand their special language.

I remember Henri coming to visit us in Holland following his stay at Trosly. He was very excited about the gift he had brought with him, a reproduction of the Holy Trinity icon he had bought that morning in a shop in Paris. Though he had not yet seen the actual icon — it was in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow — he was confidant that the print came as close to the real thing as print technology would allow.

Though I had seen icons from time to time, until that day I had taken only a meager interest in them. Merton’s enthusiasm for them had been a mystery to me. It wasn’t until Henri’s visit that finally I began to see them with a similar excitement.

I vividly recall sitting at Henri’s side as he explored, with childlike fascination, every tiny detail of the Holy Trinity icon. I think he remarked first on the utterly submissive faces of the three angelic figures, each inclined toward the other, in a silent dialogue of love. He considered their profound stillness and yet warmth and vitality. Then, we looked at the colors Andrei Rublev had chosen, though even the best reproduction can only hint at what Rublev had actually achieved, as I was to see for myself not long afterward when I first visited the Tretyakov Gallery. Henri traced the perfect circle that invisibly contained the three angels. Then he traced a cross within the circle and then the triangle it also contained. All this significant geometry reveals the icon’s theology yet none of it is heavy-handed. Then there was the table around with the three figures were placed — the Eucharistic altar with golden chalice. Above the three figures were three objects: a house with an open door, a tree, and a mountain. The doorless building is the Church. The tree is the Tree of Life and also the Life-giving Cross. The mountain is the Mount of the Beatitudes.

Henri also spoke about the history of the icon, how Rublev had painted it as the principal icon for the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity where the body of St. Sergius of Radonezh had been placed. St. Sergius, one of Russia’s most beloved saints, was a monk and woodworker who lived in the 14th Century. He left no writings. The only word that comes down to us from St. Sergius are these: “The contemplation of the Holy Trinity destroys all enmity.” Through this icon standing a few meters from the burial place of St. Sergius, Rublev sought to provide the opportunity for the contemplation of the Holy Trinity.

It may have been from Henri that I first heard the comment of one of the martyrs of the Soviet era, the physicist, mathematician, theologian and priest, Pavel Florensky, who wrote: “Because of the absolute beauty of Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon, we know that God exists.” Henri understood this way of thinking — beauty is a witness to the existence of God. Again and again, he found in works of art doors to heaven: Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son, and many of the paintings of Van Gogh.

For Henri the Holy Trinity icon was an icon of “the house of love” — the Church as God intends it to be, the doors of which are never closed and which needs no locks. Henri linked icons with the question: “What do we really choose to see?” It is a matter of enormous importance what we look at and how we look at it. “It makes a great difference,” Henri noted, “whether we see a flower or a snake, a gentle smile or menacing teeth, a dancing couple or a hostile crowd. We do have a choice. Just as we are responsible for what we eat, so we are responsible for what we see. It is easy to become a victim of the vast array of visual stimuli surrounding us. The ‘powers and principalities’ control many of our daily images. Posters, billboards, television, videos, movies and store windows continuously assault our eyes and inscribe their images upon our memories. We do not have to be passive victims of a world that wants to entertain and distract us. We can make decisions and choices. A spiritual life in the midst of our energy-draining society requires us to take conscious steps to safeguard that inner space where we can keep our eyes fixed on the beauty of the Lord.”

Henri proposed a theology of seeing, or gazing, the verb he preferred. To really see something beautiful, such as a well-painted icon, so that its beauty becomes a sacramental reality, one has to do much more than glance. For Henri, the icon is the primary visual art of the Church — if not the door of the Church, than the window. Nor could icons be divorced from the totality of the Church. The icon becomes a dead plant when it becomes simply a “work of art,” a “collector’s item,” an aesthetic object. For both Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen, icons were intimately connected with Eucharistic life and daily prayer.

Like the Bible, the icon is made by the Church and guarded by the Church. The icon is a witness to the truths the Church lives by. Each icon has dogmatic content. For example, any icon of Christ in the arms of his mother remind us that he took flesh in the flesh of her body. Christ’s bare feet seen in the Virgin of Vladimir icon are a reminder that he was fully man, walking on the same earth as we do. Though an infant, he is shown dressed as an emperor, because in reality he rules the cosmos.

While I have concentrated on icons, Henri’s debt to Eastern Orthodox Christianity goes much further. He was one of the relatively few non-Orthodox readers of the Philokalia, an anthology of writings, mainly from patristic sources, whose main topic is the “Prayer of the Heart.” He would occasionally borrow a sentence from one of the authors included in the Philokalia, St. Theophane the Recluse: “Prayer is descending with the mind into your heart, and there standing before the face of the Lord, ever present, all seeing, within you.”

Henri would expound upon this theme in writing:

The great challenge is living your wounds through instead of thinking then through. It is better to cry than to worry, better to feel your wounds deeply than to understand them, better to let them enter into your silence than talk about them. The choice you face constantly is whether you are taking your wounds to your head or to your heart. In your head you can analyze them, find their causes and consequences, and coin words to speak and write about them. But no final healing is likely to come from that source. You need to let your wounds go down to your heart. Then you can live through them and discover that they will not destroy you. Your heart is greater than your wounds. [The Inner Voice of Love, p. 91]

The Prayer of the Heart is another name for the Jesus Prayer, a short prayer which centers on the name of Jesus and which is very widely used, especially in the Orthodox Church, though gradually it is becoming well known in the West as well. In its most common form, one prays: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The connection between spiritual life and response to others was basic to Henri and the vocational choices he made. Henri was torn between competing vocational attractions — university professor, monk, missionary, or becoming part of a community of hospitality. He fully explored each of these possibilities before finally becoming a member of the L’Arche community at Daybreak near Toronto. Along the way he became a spiritual father and guide to many people.

Henri realized that the icon, far from being merely an artistic image that directs our attention away from the world we live in with all its agonies, is a school of seeing. It helps reshape the way we see and relate to other people. The icon — the Greek word for image — is a reminder that each person, no matter how damaged his life, is a bearer of God’s image and, like those whom we regard as saints, has the capacity to reclaim the lost likeness. But it is one thing to believe intellectually that, each person is made in the image of God, no less than Adam and Eve, and yet another to actively seek that image and to relate to the other in ways that bear witness to that awareness.

In Henri’s life, perhaps the most important event in the last phase of his life was his taking responsibility at Daybreak community for Adam Arnett, a young man of twenty-five who could not speak, suffered frequent epileptic seizures and was utterly dependent on help from others. Adam was a person whom many would regard as a first-class case for abortion or, having managed to be born, an excellent candidate for what is euphemistically called “mercy killing.” It was no easy thing for Henri, far from the world’s most practical or physically well coordinated person, a man who had difficulty frying an egg or operating a washing machine, to center his life on attending to Adam’s numerous practical needs. Yet Adam became both physically and spiritually a person at the center of Henri’s life, one of Henri’s most important teachers.

“His heart, so transparent, reflected for me not only his person but also the heart of the universe and, indeed, the heart of God. After my many years of studying, reflecting and teaching theology, Adam came into my life, and by his life and his heart he announced to me and summarized all I had ever learned.” [Adam, p 38]

Much of the healing that occurred in the final years of Henri’s life was Adam’s gift. Adam became in Henri’s life a living icon.

Henri Nouwen: in essence, an explorer of God’s presence in our world, a discover of icons on wood and in flesh, always trying to open his eyes just a little bit wider, always trying to become just a little less blind.

* * *
Jim Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands
e-mail: [email protected]
Jim & Nancy Forest web site: http://www.jimandnancyforest.com
* * *
text as of June 23, 2004; corrected 2 February 2016
* * *