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.

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Jim Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands
e-mail: [email protected]
Jim & Nancy Forest web site: http://www.jimandnancyforest.com
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text as of June 23, 2004; corrected 2 February 2016
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Reflections on Saint Mary, Theotokos

iconographer: Leonid Ouspensky

Lecture given at meeting of the Fellowship of Saints Alban & Sergius, Oxford, England on May 30, 2002.

by Jim Forest

Neither my wife nor I grew up in homes where Mary was revered. My parents were trying hard to be atheists. While not quite succeeding, I don’t recall any reference to Mary. In Nancy’s case, in a strongly Calvinist family, to have a devotion to Mary was, by definition, something Roman Catholic and therefore unthinkable. “One thing that was made very clear to us,” Nancy recalls, “is that whatever Protestants were, we were not Catholics.”

Early in our marriage, Nancy asked if I could “explain” Mary to her. I burst out laughing. How could anyone possibly explain Mary? But I assured her that her question was a prayer and that Mary herself would answer it, which indeed she has done time and again. It wasn’t many years after asking her question that she began to keep a small icon of Mary, “The Mother of God of the Holy Sign,” on her night table.

The chasms left by the Reformation still run between and even through many of us in the west. Ask a person what he thinks of Mary and you quickly learn a great deal about him. But in those countries traditionally Orthodox or Catholic, even if there have been interruptions of religious life or periods of severe repression, one sees that Mary has never been abandoned.

To give one striking example, in 1979 a group of intellectual women in what was then still the Soviet Union started a women’s movement and with it a samizdat journal, Women and Russia. One of the founders was Tatiana Goricheva, a doctoral student of philosophy at the University of Leningrad, who as an adult had found her way to Orthodox belief and been baptized. In fact a similar conversion had happened to all the women in group. Together they created a forum in which women could discuss their lives and problems. Some did this in a dispassionate voice — theoretical, abstract, “objective,” but others, Goricheva recalls, were “howling, weeping, sighing and lamenting” about their torments.

Russian women certainly had much to howl about: the daily battle to live in a society which in so many ways made life nightmarish: a culture of slogans, fear, censorship, repression, chronic alcoholism, ugly apartments in grim high-rise buildings, abortion as the primary method of birth control, etc., etc.

Goricheva wrote how Russian women at that time suffered “twice if not three times as much as men. They work like men, since families cannot get by on one wage. They are plagued by their homes, which in the Soviet Union have nothing attractive about them. One need only add to this … standing in line everywhere, increasing hunger — and the picture of the involuntary martyr will emerge: the picture of the simple Russian woman.” [Tatiana Goricheva, Talking About God is Dangerous; Crossroad, NY, 1987; pp 86 ff]

At this time there were of course women’s groups in every western country publishing journals in which women not only howled and protested but created new rules of discourse complete with a new vocabulary.

What made the women’s group in Russia remarkably different from the countless feminist groups in the west is suggested by the Russian movement’s name: Maria. It was the world’s only feminist group named in honor of the mother of Jesus, and this in a society deeply hostile toward faith and religious terminology.

“We saw,” Goricheva explained, “that social changes would not liberate either men or women unless they were connected with the main thing, with the spiritual revolution which was taking place in every soul and throughout society. We said that women could only be free in the Church.” [Ibid, p 87]

For about a year, the group was tolerated by the KGB. The state security mechanisms hesitated, Goricheva speculates, because of the inevitable protest both from governments and from feminists in the west if Russia’s tiny women’s movement was suppressed and its leaders sent to prison.

But in the summer of 1980, with the Olympic games about to be held in Moscow, the government decided to silence dissident voices in Moscow and Leningrad. The several women leading Maria were given the option of going to prison or being sent into exile in the west. The women, with the blessing of their spiritual fathers, choose exile. On the 20th of July, they were put on an airplane and flown to Vienna.

Among those greeting the Russian women on their arrival were western feminists who were trying to make sense of Russian women who were more interested in the Jesus Prayer than in jobs and money. What kind of feminists were they if they were not at odds with patriarchal religion? They asked such questions as, “Why don’t you want to become priests?” And, “How can you see Mary as a model for women if the example she gives is that of a woman kneeling before a man?”

Nor could they understand or appreciate the answers given by the Russian women: that Russian women have no interest in presiding at the altar, that equality does not mean sameness, that in the Church heaven rubs against the earth for anyone who receives the Eucharist; that this is so is no less true for lay people than for clergy and no less for women than for men; that the servant is more important than the tsar; the cross higher than the throne; the holy fool wiser than the expert.

For her part, Tatiana Goricheva in exile was startled to find that it was not only atheists in the west who had little understanding of Mary or could imagine her as a model, but that even among many Christians, Mary was an embarrassment if not an irritation. She was astonished to find that there was so little awareness of the truth that what is not built within the soul will never take root socially. What we ponder in our hearts is both who we are and what we become. This is one of Mary’s greatest lessons.

Perhaps this small movement of Orthodox women in Russia during the Brezhnev era can help us see Mary more clearly, and at the same time see ourselves in a less distorted mirror.

Let us consider Mary.

It is sometimes objected that Mary is only a small presence in the New Testament, a minor figure hardly worthy mentioning. It’s true that the texts about her, if gathered together, only fill a few pages. But then you must bear in mind that the New Testament is itself a small book, with the Gospels themselves only a hundred pages or so.

Yet it is striking that Mary figures in each of the four Gospels and that we know more about her from the Gospel authors than we know about any of the Apostles, even Peter.

We meet her first at the Annunciation when this young unmarried Jewish maiden of Nazareth is addressed by the Archangel Gabriel, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you,” or, as another translation puts it, “Hail, highly favored one.” In her, we learn immediately, God’s grace and favor are overflowing.

One of the striking aspects in the Gospel account of the Annunciation is the stress on Mary’s freedom. She wasn’t forced to become Christ’s mother. When the Archangel Gabriel appeared to her and told her what God desired, her response was, “Be it done to me according to your word.” No “yes” that was ever spoken has had so much significance. In Mary’s assent, the Word, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, becomes flesh and forever dwells among us — the defining event in human history. Mary is the person through whom God’s plan for the salvation of the world is set in motion. Among the many liturgical metaphors concerning her, one describes her as a ladder connecting heaven and earth.

Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, in a sermon given in 1874, says of the Feast of Annunciation:

“In the days of the creation of the world, when God was uttering his living and mighty ‘Let there be,’ the word of the Creator brought creatures into the world. But on that day, unprecedented in the history of the world, when Mary uttered her brief and obedient, ‘So be it,’ I hardly dare say what happened then — the word of the creature brought the Creator into the world.” [Cited in The Meaning of Icons, p 172.]

There are nine months in which the Word-made-flesh is in the world but hidden in his mother’s body. This secret presence is the subject of the one of the most beloved icons, “The Mother of God of the Holy Sign,” the title of which refers to the prophecy of Isaiah: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign: behold, a virgin shall conceive in the womb and shall bring forth a son, who shall be called Emmanuel.” (Is 7:14) Very early examples can be found on the walls of the catacombs of Rome. Mary is shown in the classical posture of prayer, standing with upraised hands, facing the person praying before the icon; at the same time we can imagine her facing the Archangel Gabriel.

In later iconography, the divine child within her — Christ Emmanuel, “God With Us” — is made visible, vested in golden robes and looking outward while his right hand offers a blessing.

Icons are deeply silent, but none is more charged with silence than this one, a generative silence, a silence vibrantly alive with God’s presence. The monk Thomas Merton was moved to observe:

“And far beneath the movement of this silent cataclysm Mary slept in the infinite tranquility of God, and God was a child curled up who slept in her and her veins were flooded with His wisdom which is night, which is starlight, which is silence. And her whole being was embraced in Him whom she embraced and they became tremendous silence.” [Thomas Merton, The Ascent to Truth (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1951), p 317.]

The image reminds us of the words of St. Paul, “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” [Galatians 2:20] While Mary is uniquely the Savior’s mother, it is as his faithful disciple that she serves as the primary model of a Christ-centered life. Like Mary, we uncover the secret of who we are in discovering Christ at the center of our lives.

In a society in which abortion has been widely accepted, each icon that reveals Christ within his mother and all Annunciation icons acquire a prophetic significance. The unborn Christ was incarnate and physically present in the world from the moment of his miraculous conception. No wonder one of the earliest prohibitions made by the Church was directed at abortion. Such icons invite us to attain a deeper reverence for life.

During her time of pregnancy, Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, long thought barren, but, as Luke relates, a miracle has occurred in her life also. She is now awaiting the birth of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ. At the first moment of their encounter, Elizabeth exclaims, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

Mary’s response to her cousin is one of our principle hymns:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity for ever.

Mary’s hymn reveals her as a daughter of Israel, a true descendant of Abraham, who has a clear understanding of what God is accomplishing. Through her son, the merciful God will disperse the proud, put down the powerful, raise up the lowly and feed the hungry.

The months pass and Mary goes to Bethlehem with her somewhat bewildered husband Joseph, who has married the pregnant Mary despite misgivings, doing so only after accepting angelic advice received in a dream. Here, in the town most closely associated with David, Christ is born in a cave normally used as a place of shelter for animals.

Think of the Nativity icon. It is nothing like a Christmas card. There is no charming Bethlehem bathed in the light of the nativity star but only a rugged mountain side with a few plants: a hard, unwelcoming world in which survival is a real battle, the world since our expulsion from Paradise. Here we meet Christ in a dark, rocky cave, though what happened in the cave is placed by the iconographer before the cave’s entrance. The rigorous black of the cave represents all human disbelief, all fear, all hopelessness. In the midst of a starless night in the cave of our despair, Christ, “the Sun of Truth,” enters history having been clothed in flesh in Mary’s body. “The light shines in the darkness,” dispersing the darkness of the shadow of death over humankind.

As Eve is the “mother of all who live” [ Gen. 3:20], so the Mother of God is recognized as the mother of the new humanity restored and transformed through the incarnation of the Son. Resting on a red mattress — the color of life, the color of blood — Mary is the supreme thanksgiving to God, humanity’s finest offering to their Creator.

“By this offering in the person of the Mother of God,” the iconographer Leonid Ouspensky has written, “fallen mankind gives assent to its salvation through the incarnation of God.” [Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1994), p. 159.]

Yet we notice in the icon that hers is not a joyful face. She is living with the mystery of a child with no human father and also the mystery of his future: a ruler, yes, but it is clear from the circumstances of his birth that his way of ruling is in absolute contrast to the way kings rule. The ruler of all rules in meekness from a manger in a cave. His death on the cross is implied in his birth. The cave and the swaddling clothes point ahead to his burial in linen wrappings.

Angels are an essential part of the icon, bringing good news to the shepherds while praising and glorifying God.

Also we often find the wise men making their way toward the stable with gifts, a star revealing the path. A ray extends downward from a sphere at the center of the upper edge of the icon, an indication of the heavenly world penetrating the ordinary.

Below the Virgin, midwives, having assisted Mary, wash the child, a detail based on apocryphal texts concerning Joseph’s arrangements for the birth. They also are a reminder of the midwives who saved the life of the newborn Moses, who under the law of Pharaoh should have been murdered at birth.

We find Joseph crouching in the a corner of the icon, most often to the left. In the guise of an old and bent shepherd, Satan is tempting him. This links with liturgical texts which speak of Joseph’s troubled and doubtful state of mind. He cannot quite believe what he has experienced. Joseph has witnessed that birth, has had his dreams, has heard angelic voices, has been reassured that the child born of Mary is none other than the Awaited One, the Anointed, God’s Son. Still belief comes hard. He cannot comprehend this event which transcends the expected order of the world. “In the person of Joseph,” Ouspensky comments, “the icon discloses not only his personal drama, but the drama of all mankind — the difficulty of accepting that which is ‘beyond words or reason’ — the incarnation of God.” [Ouspensky and Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, p. 160.] But our eyes travel back to the Virgin, turned towards Joseph, a symbol of compassion for those beset by doubts and the temptations of disbelief.

Far from being a necessary but, in the final analysis, an incidental figure, Mary is placed at the center of the icon. To better understand the theological geography of the icon, consider this text which the Orthodox Church sings on the Feast of the Nativity:

“What shall we offer you, O Christ, who for our sake has appeared on earth as man? Every creature made by you offers you thanks. The angels offer you a hymn; the heavens a star; the Magi, gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; the earth, its cave; the wilderness, the manger; and we offer you a virgin mother.” [The Festal Menaion, translated from the Greek by Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware (London: Faber & Faber, 1969), p 252.]

Mary is the gift of the human race to its creator. Without this gift, there is no incarnation. Through Mary we have Christ. Her flesh becomes his flesh.

We would treasure the name of Mary if only for her role in giving birth to the Savior, for nourishing and raising him, but what is most important finally is that she is the first and best disciple of Christ.

She is not only present at his first public miracle, but has a role in bringing that miracle about. It was at her appeal that Christ changed water into wine at the marriage feast at Cana. We also come to understand that what she said to the servants of the feast — “Do whatever he tells you” [John 2:5] — are her urgent words to anyone who wishes to follow her son.

This point is made even more powerfully in a story Luke tells of an unnamed person who says to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that you sucked!” While surely what the man said is true, so far as it goes, what is most important about Mary was not been mentioned. Jesus replies, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” What Mary has done, in bearing and rearing her son, is the result of hearing and keeping the word of God. Indeed he who speaks is that Word. And her steadfast obedience continues day after day ceaselessly. This is why she is most blessed. From an early time Christians referred to her as the Mother of the Church, finding in her a person who in every way provides a perfect model of discipleship. Mary is the first and greatest of saints: a person for whom nothing takes priority over living out God’s will.

Mary was at the foot of the cross when her son was crucified. While dying, Christ called on the Apostle John to take care of her as if John were Mary’s son and Mary was John’s mother.

Again we find her in the icon of Christ’s Ascension. Here Mary stands in the center of the community of believers, the Church.

“The Church never separates Mother and Son, she who was incarnated by him who was incarnate” writes Fr. Sergius Bulgakov. “In adoring the humanity of Christ, we venerate his mother, from whom he received that humanity and who, in her person, represents the whole of humanity.” [Sergius Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1988), pp 116-117.]

From at least the Fourth Century, in the period when the Church was combating heresies that denied that Christ was both true God and true man, Mary came to be known as Theotokos: God bearer, or Mother of God.

One of the earliest non-biblical texts about Mary, written about 90 AD, is found in the Letters of St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch: “And the virginity of Mary was hidden from the rulers of this world, as were her giving birth and likewise the death of the Lord — three secrets to be cried out aloud which were accompanied by the silence of God.” Elsewhere he writes of the Lord being born “out of Mary and out of God.” [Paula Bowes, “Mary and the Early Church Fathers,” special issue of Epiphany on Mary the Theotokos (San Francisco: Epiphany Press); Summer 1984, p 46.]

Late in the second century we find St. Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyon, describing Mary as the new Eve: “Just as Eve, wife of Adam, yet still a virgin … became by her disobedience the cause of death for herself and the whole human race, so Mary, too, espoused yet a virgin, became by her obedience the cause of salvation for herself and the whole human race … And so it was that the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by Mary’s obedience.”

For the fourth century poet and hymn writer, St. Ephraim the Syrian, Mary is “your mother, your sister, your spouse, your handmaiden.”

While there are icons of Mary by herself, far more frequently she is shown with Christ, especially Christ as a child.

In some icons, he is still within her body. In others his face is pressed against his mother’s, an action of tender love and a reminder that his body was knit from her flesh. In certain icons she serves as the throne from which Christ reigns.

Though there are countless variations in icons of the Theotokos, in the vast majority we see her gesturing toward her son. This is the action that sums up her entire life to the present day.

We must recall that the Church’s attention to Mary was an integral part of its defense of the Incarnation. For the Gnostics, who sought redemption from the flesh, the flesh of Christ was a problem, for flesh in their view was synonymous with corruption and evil. For them Christ was not born of Mary but descended into Jesus, the son of Mary, at his baptism. Mary, therefore, was of no importance. (Docetism, the most extreme form of the Gnostic heresy, denied that Christ had a truly human body at all; he simply appeared to have flesh.)

For Orthodox Christianity, salvation is of the flesh, not from it, and icons serve both as an affirmation of the Incarnation and of the significance of matter itself. “The title [of Mary as] Theotokos [God-bearer or Mother of God],” wrote St. John of Damascus, “contains the whole mystery of the Incarnation.”

* * *

Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers

Lecture given at the International Thomas Merton Society conference in Memphis, Tennessee, on June 8, 2007

by Jim Forest

Given that we are in the midst of war, it seems appropriate to reflect on Thomas Merton’s life and thought in regard to war and peacemaking. And there is also the fact they we meet in Memphis, the city in which Martin Luther King was struck down. Dr. King was America’s greatest exponent of nonviolent methods of seeking social justice and also a brave opponent of war — a man Merton greatly admired and looked forward to meeting.

It’s not surprising that war was a major topic for Merton. He was born in France on the last day of January, 1915, not even half a year after the start of World War I. In its battlefields, soldiers were dying by the tens of thousands. Among the lesser consequences of that war was its impact on the Merton family. It tore their hopes and plans to shreds. Though a New Zealander by nationality, Owen Merton would have been subject to French military conscription. Owen’s objections to war were of no consequence to the French authorities. No exceptions were made for foreigners or conscientious objectors. In the summer of 1916, Owen, Ruth and their infant son, Tom, left France for US, living not far from Ruth’s parents on Long Island. It must have been a hard adjustment for Owen. The vast majority of Americans had a severe case of war fever. Men like Owen who opposed the war were generally regarded as traitors and cowards, but at least non-citizens like Owen were not being forced into the military.

War involves death on a factory scale — the mass production of corpses. Ordinarily death is a remote concept for children, but that was not the case for Tom Merton. While he would have known little about the Great War in Europe, when he was six death became something all too real when his mother died of cancer. Death meant a gaping absence, a collapse of the most basic structures of life. Death meant abandonment.

In 1930, just nine years after Ruth’s death, Merton’s father would also be on his death bed. He died of a brain tumor the following January, just two weeks before his son Tom’s fifteenth birthday.

In those years Merton was living in a Britain deeply maimed by war. Men of a certain age were in short supply. Every day he saw the physical and mental damage done by war.

In the fall of 1930, Merton began for the first time to think about alternatives to war. He became one of the admirers of Gandhi and his nonviolent campaign against British imperial rule in India. Rarely one to be part of any majority, Tom took Gandhi’s side in a formal debate at Oakham, his school, arguing that India had every right to demand Britain’s withdrawal. Merton’s side in the debate was easily defeated — the motion was carried by the pro-Empire side, 38 to 6. Until the end of his life, Merton was to remain not only a supporter but an advocate of Gandhi’s form of struggle, what Gandhi called satyagraha: the power that comes from embracing truth; the power the comes from seeking the conversion of opponents rather than their annihilation.

Among the formative events that both added another layer of meaning to the word “death” and also brought him close to the annihilating potential of toxic ideologies occurred in the spring of 1932. Now sixteen and still a student at Oakham, Merton went for a holiday walk along the Rhine River in Germany. It was an excursion that happened to coincide with Hitler’s rise to power. Along the way he witnessed villagers hurling bricks and fighting with pitchforks as political passions spilled over. Then one morning, while walking down a quiet country road lined with apple orchards, he was nearly run down by a car full of young Nazis waving their fists. Tom dived into a ditch in the nick of time, the car’s occupants showering him with Hitler leaflets as they passed.

In fact he was slightly injured. Pain in one toe cut the Rhine walk short. By the time he was back at his school in Oakham, the soreness had gotten worse. Then came a toothache. The school dentist extracted a tooth, which turned out to be the cork capping an infection that had spread throughout Tom’s body. By now the aching toe proved to be gangrenous. For weeks Tom was in a sanatorium, in the early days barely conscious and close to death. He later recalls how, at that time of deep estrangement from Christian faith, death seemed quite a suitable revenge on life. In fact Merton recovered, but his sense of the ultimate meaninglessness of life remained unchanged. Still, he had painfully acquired an entirely unromanticized sense of what the Nazis were like at a time when Hitler and his followers enjoyed a good deal of sympathy, even admiration, in both Britain and America.

First at Clare College in Cambridge and then at Columbia University in New York, like any student of his day Merton was in a maelstrom of radical political movements — Communism, Socialism, Anarchism, Nazism, Fascism, etc. For a time, Merton was among those who thought Communism was the path to a better future. The Soviet Union was widely regarded as a place where an oppressive old regime had been swept aside and a new order set up in which everyone had a fair share and a job: no Great Depression, no evictions, no homeless people sleeping under bridges, no one without education and health care. But, at least for Merton, perhaps the most attractive feature of Communism was that it absolved individuals of personal responsibility for sins they had committed. As he put it in The Seven Storey Mountain, “It was not so much I myself that was to blame for unhappiness, but the society in which I lived…. I was the product of my times, my society and my class … spawned by the selfishness and irresponsibility of the materialistic century in which I lived.” Merton went so far as to sign up as a Communist, but attending a single meeting of his cell group proved to be more than enough for him.

For Merton, a not unimportant part of his argument with Communism was that it was only sporadically anti-war. The Communist Party was anti-war in 1935, the brief period when Merton had been seriously attracted. The Party went pro-war during the Spanish Civil War in 1936, resumed an anti-war stance when Stalin signed the non-aggression pact with Hitler, then did another about-face when Hitler’s armies attacked the Soviet Union. Merton, whose one radical action during his year at Cambridge had been to sign a pacifist pledge, was not only looking for something with steadier principles, but especially for moral consistency about bloodshed. Merton came to realize that the Communist Party would “do whatever seems profitable to itself at the moment,” which was, he reflected in The Seven Storey Mountain, “the rule of all modern political parties.”

In 1938, with his baptism at Corpus Christi Church in Manhattan, Merton crossed the most important border of his adult life. For the rest of his life, every question was to be viewed in the light of Christ.

The following year, World War II began in Europe. Though it would be another two years before the United States became part of it, German bombs were falling in Britain, which only recently had been home to Merton. What was remote to most Americans was familiar ground to Merton. The question of how to respond if and when the US joined the war was the subject of many long-running conversations Merton had with such friends as Bob Lax and Ed Rice.

For Merton, a baptized and deeply convinced Catholic, it was a question that had to be regarded not in terms of political or ideological theory, but rather in terms of Christian discipleship. This led he him to formulate a response — conscientious objection — that, for an American Roman Catholic at that time, was along lines that were, to say the least, unusual. Here is how he put it in The Seven Storey Mountain:

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

Keep in mind that the patriotism of American Catholics was still held suspect by the Protestant majority. Catholics bent over backwards to make clear their gratitude to have found a home in America. One would find the slogan, “Pro Deo et Patria,” over the door of many a Catholic church and school in America. Catholics were outshining their neighbors in doing whatever was required to be seen as “good Americans.” Merton, a convert with Anglo-Saxon family roots, had never had to face the prejudices so many of his fellow Catholics knew all too well. He didn’t think in terms of social acclimation, but rather tried to make choices that resembled those he believed Christ would make. Christ was not a Zealot. Christ joined no armies. Christ killed no one. Christ never blessed any of his followers to kill. Christ was merciful to all who sought his mercy. Christ accepted execution without resistance. In rising from the tomb, he buried death. Should it be the work of Christ’s disciples to resurrect the grave? Merton said no.

If Merton’s convictions regarding war were unusual, so were the basic vocational issues he was wrestling with. He had tried to join the Franciscans, whose founder had written a rule banning weapons and forbidding all bloodshed. When the Franciscans turned him away due to his checkered past, his next vocational attraction was to be part of a community of hospitality. People like Catherine de Hueck Doherty and Dorothy Day inspired him. While teaching at St. Bonaventure’s, he regularly traveled back to Manhattan to work as a volunteer at Friendship House in Harlem. It was in this period that he went on retreat at the Trappist monastery in Kentucky and found himself powerfully drawn to monastic life. He found it extremely difficultly to choose between Friendship House and the Abbey of Gethsemani — between a life shaped by the works of mercy and a life centered in prayer.

At last comes that other great defining choice in his life: to be a monk. Perhaps the war was a factor. His draft status had just been changed — he was no longer classified as physically unfit. His arrival at the monastery occurred just two days after the US declared war on Japan and a day before and the declaration of war with Germany. But as a monk he was exempted from military service.

One would have thought that, once within a monastic enclosure, Merton might have lost interest in the issue of war. Not so. Once Merton began writing for publication, war was among his topics, and what he had to say in that regard was not at all what Catholics were used to hearing. There were the many paragraphs in his autobiography about his own response to World War II and what had led him to be a conscientious objector, and then, a year later, in 1948, there was a chapter in Seeds of Contemplation with the remarkable title, “The Root of War is Fear.”

This was one of the few essays Merton was to write twice. In 1961, the text was greatly expanded for inclusion in New Seeds of Contemplation. In fact it was in connection with this revised text that my own correspondence with Merton began.

I was a young volunteer at the Catholic Worker community in Manhattan who had just a few months before been discharged from the Navy as a conscientious objector. Merton had sent his new version of “The Root of War is Fear” to Dorothy Day for possible use in The Catholic Worker. It was his first submission to a paper well known for its passionate opposition to war. Dorothy had passed along both Merton’s letter and the manuscript to me, asking that I prepare the his essay for publication.

When Merton wrote The Seven Storey Mountain, he framed his views on war in very personal terms. In “The Root of War is Fear” he expressed a view of what he thought ought to be normative for Catholics in general, if they were to be more than compliant citizens whose faith had to be adjusted to governmental demand and nationalistic ideologies.

In an addendum to the essay especially added to The Catholic Worker version, he argued that the current war crisis was not God’s doing but was entirely of our own making. Though there were no compelling reasons for war, the world was plunging headlong into destruction, even “doing so with the purpose of avoiding war.” This was, he said, “true war-madness,” which Merton saw “an illness of the mind and spirit that is spreading with a furious and subtle contagion all over the world,” with no country so afflicted with it as America. “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.” All the while, “we claim to be fighting for religious truth, freedom and other spiritual values. Truly we have entered the ‘post-Christian era’ with a vengeance….”

He then asked 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? …. Or, worse still, should he take a hard-headed and ‘practical’ attitude about it and join in the madness of the war makers?”

The last option was, Merton said, “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.”

Then he asks what are we to do? His answer to the question follows: “The duty of the Christian in this crisis is to strive with all his power and intelligence … 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.” Unless war is abolished, he continued, “the world will remain constantly in a state of madness and desperation,” always on the verge of catastrophe.” Unless we set ourselves to this task, “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.”

The first task is simply to study and discuss the issues involved. “Peace is to be preached,” Merton wrote, “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.”

Especially in the expanded version of his essay as published in The Catholic Worker, Merton crossed a border, no longer simply confessing in public his personal sense of being called to renounce violence but to appeal to others to play a collective role in opposing any reliance on or use of weapons of mass destruction. More than that, he called on his readers to take nonviolent methods seriously as a practical and effective way of battling evil without imitating the methods of evil — not to fight fire with fire, but to fight fire with water.

That same summer Merton wrote to Dorothy Day:

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.

Indeed there were those, in and out of his order, who were not at all happy to see Merton focusing on the highly controversial issue of war.

Just a few months later, still in 1961, Merton wrote me that the censorship he was encountering was “completely and deliberately obstructive, not aimed at combing out errors at all, but purely and simply at preventing the publication of material that ‘doesn’t look good.’ And this means anything that ruffles in any way the censors’ tastes or susceptibilities.”

Early in 1962, an editorial in The Washington Catholic Standard accused Merton of disregarding “authoritative Catholic utterances and [making] unwarranted charges about the intention of our government towards disarmament.”

Looking for a way to share his thinking about the religious dimension of social and political problems without having to pass through the labyrinths of censorship, Merton produced Cold War Letters, a mimeographed collection of his recent correspondence, a work which only a few months ago was at last published in book form. In 1962, it was Merton’s first experience of being read Russian-style in samizdat. Note, by the way, that Merton had a significant degree of support in doing this from his abbot. The self-publishing Merton did during the last seven years of his life was all done with his abbot’s backing and with a great deal of practical assistance from the monastery.

The early months of 1962 involved a great effort on Merton’s part to write a book on the issues of war and peace that he hoped would be regarded as moderate enough to pass inspection by the order’s censors. He christened the book Peace in the Post-Christian Era. The manuscript had just been completed when Merton received a letter from his order’s Abbot General, Dom Gabriel Sortais, ordering Merton to abandon all writing projects having to do with war.

“Now here is the axe,” he wrote me April 29, 1962. “For a long time I have been anticipating trouble with the higher superiors and now I have it. The orders are, no more writing about peace…. In substance I am being silenced on the subject of war and peace.”

The decision, Merton said, reflected

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

Beneath the surface of the disagreement between Merton and the Abbot General was a different conception of the identity and mission of the Church. In his letter, Merton stated,

The vitality of the Church depends precisely on spiritual renewal, uninterrupted, continuous, and deep. Obviously this renewal is to be expressed in the historical context, and will call for a real spiritual understanding of historical crises, an evaluation of them in terms of their inner significance and in terms of man’s growth and the advancement of truth in man’s world: in other words, the establishment of the ‘kingdom of God.’ The monk is the one supposedly attuned to the inner spiritual dimension of things. If he hears nothing, and says nothing, then the renewal as a whole will be in danger and may be completely sterilized.

Those silencing him, he went on, regarded the monk as someone appointed not to see or hear anything new but

to support the already existing viewpoints … defined for him by somebody else. Instead of being in the advance guard, he is in the rear with the baggage, confirming all that has been done by the officials…. He has no other function, then, except perhaps to pray for what he is told to pray for: namely the purposes and the objectives of an ecclesiastical bureaucracy…. He must in no event and under no circumstances assume a role that implies any form of spontaneity and originality. He must be an eye that sees nothing except what is carefully selected for him to see. An ear that hears nothing except what it is advantageous for the managers for him to hear. We know what Christ said about such ears and eyes.

What strikes me as the most revealing part of this lengthy letter is what Merton has to say about obedience. Merton asked if he shouldn’t “just blast the whole thing wide open, or walk out, or tell them to jump in the lake?”

After all, many would say that he would be entirely justified in disobeying manifestly unjust orders. But Merton was convinced that a great many people would only find scandal in an act of disobedience and that public denunciation of the abuse of authority, far from being seen as a witness for peace and for the truth of the Church, would be seen by his fellow monks and many others as an excuse for dismissing a minority viewpoint. For those outside the Catholic Church, it would be regarded as fresh proof that the Church had no love for private conscience. Whose mind would be changed?

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

Behind the silencing, Merton wrote a few weeks later, was the charge that he had been writing for “a communist-controlled publication,” as The Catholic Worker was said to be by some of its opponents.

He wrote me soon afterward that he wasn’t altogether pleased with Peace in the Post-Christian Era anyway. It had been written with a constant eye to what might be allowed through official channels. “What a mess one gets into,” he said in a letter that July, “trying to write a book that will get through the censors, and at the same time say something. I was bending in all directions to qualify every statement and balance everything off, so I stayed right in the middle and perfectly objective … [at the same time trying] to speak the truth as my conscience wanted it to be said.”

In fact, it was and remains a good book. It was at long last published two years ago, 42 years after it had been written, yet still a remarkably timely book.

While having to rely on the mimeograph machine and publication in tiny journals that his abbot regarded as too small for censorship to be required, occasionally the unfiltered Merton addressed wider audiences by writing for publication under pseudonyms. Under quite thin cover, one piece in The Catholic Worker was signed Benedict Monk. And to those acquainted with Merton’s delight in clownish names, who but Merton would sign himself Marco J. Frisbee?

Apart from prayer, for several years the only door that remained wide open for Merton was that of correspondence. Through correspondence, Merton was able to act as a pastor to peacemakers — a spiritual father, as such people are called in the Orthodox Church. Certainly he was to me.

When I reread those letters, one of the things I find most striking is how free they are of jargon. Merton was not an ideological person. He hated slogans whether religious or political. Neither was he self-righteous. While he believed following Christ ideally involved for us, as it did for the first Christians, a renunciation of all killing, he didn’t deny the possibility that just wars might have occurred in earlier times … wars of communal self-defense in which the technology of warfare didn’t inevitably cause numerous noncombatant casualties. He was also willing to speculate that such wars might occur in the modern context in the case of oppressed people fighting for liberation.

But, as he wrote Dorothy Day in 1962, the issue of the just war “is pure theory…. In practice all the wars that are [happening] … are shot through and through with evil, falsity, injustice, and sin so much so that one can only with difficulty extricate the truths that may be found here and there in the ’causes’ for which the fighting is going on.”

Neither did Merton insist that a Christian was, simply because of his baptism, obliged to be a conscientious objector, even though this had been his personal position before beginning monastic life. Yet the highest form of Christian discipleship, he was convinced, involved the renunciation of violence. As he wrote in Seeds of Violence,

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

What Merton found valuable in the just-war tradition was its insistence that evil must be actively opposed, and it was this that drew him to Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, and various groups involved in active nonviolent struggle for social justice, most notably the Catholic Worker and the Catholic Peace Fellowship.

Despite his isolation from events and his physical distance from centers of protest activity, he had a vivid memory of equivalent activities from his student days at Columbia University in New York City. “I have the feeling of being a survivor of the shipwrecked thirties,” he wrote me early in 1963, “one of the few that has kept my original face before this present world was born.”

What was often missing in the protest movements of the thirties, he realized, and remained rare in similar movements of the sixties, was compassion. Those involved in protests tend to become enraged with those they see as being responsible for injustice and violence and even toward those who uphold the status quo, while at the same time viewing themselves as models of what others should be. But without compassion, Merton pointed out, the protester tends to become more and more centered in anger, becomes a whirlpool of self-righteousness, and even becomes an obstacle to changing the attitudes of others rather than someone who helps open the door to conversion.

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

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

Without love, especially love of opponents and enemies, Merton insisted that neither profound personal nor social transformation can occur. As he wrote to Dorothy Day:

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

When compassion and love are absent, Merton insisted, actions that are superficially nonviolent tend to mask deep hostility, contempt and the desire to defeat and humiliate an opponent. As he wrote in one of his most profound and insightful letters:

One of the problematic questions about nonviolence is the inevitable involvement of hidden aggressions and provocations. I think this is especially true when there are … elements that are not spiritually developed. It is an enormously subtle question, but we have to consider the fact that, in its provocative aspect, nonviolence may tend to harden opposition and confirm people in their righteous blindness. It may even in some cases separate men out and drive them in the other direction, away from us and away from peace. This of course may be (as it was with the prophets) part of God’s plan. A clear separation of antagonists…. [But we must] always direct our action toward opening people’s eyes to the truth, and if they are blinded, we must try to be sure we did nothing specifically to blind them.

Yet there is that danger: the danger one observes subtly in tight groups like families and monastic communities, where the martyr for the right sometimes thrives on making his persecutors terribly and visibly wrong. He can drive them in desperation to be wrong, to seek refuge in the wrong, to seek refuge in violence…. In our acceptance of vulnerability … we play [on the guilt of the opponent]. There is no finer torment. This is one of the enormous problems of our time … all this guilt and nothing to do about it except finally to explode and blow it all out in hatreds — race hatreds, political hatreds, war hatreds. We, the righteous, are dangerous people in such a situation…. We have got to be aware of the awful sharpness of truth when it is used as a weapon, and since it can be the deadliest weapon, we must take care that we don’t kill more than falsehood with it. In fact, we must be careful how we “use” truth, for we are ideally the instruments of truth and not the other way around.

Merton noticed that peace groups tend to identify too much with particular political parties. Ideally its actions should communicate liberating possibilities to others, left, right and center, no matter how locked in they were to violent structures. He wrote me late in 1962:

It seems to me that the basic problem is not political, it is apolitical and human. One of the most important things to is to keep cutting deliberately through political lines and barriers and emphasizing the fact that these are largely fabrications and that there is another dimension, a genuine reality, totally opposed to the fictions of politics: the human dimension which politics pretends to arrogate entirely [to itself]…. This is the necessary first step along the long way … of purifying, humanizing and somehow illuminating politics.

At the heart of Merton’s writings on peacemaking was his emphasis on the spiritual life that must sustain peace service, without which we are easy prey to the ideologies of the day. As he wrote:

We have to pray for a total and profound change in the mentality of the whole world. What we have known in the past as Christian penance is not a deep enough concept if it does not comprehend the special problems and dangers of the present age. Hair shirts will not do the trick, though there is no harm in mortifying the flesh. But vastly more important is the complete change of heart and the totally new outlook on the world of man…. The great problem is this inner change…. [Any peace action has] to be regarded … as an application of spiritual force and not the use of merely political pressure. We all have the great duty to realize the deep need for purity of soul, that is to say the deep need to possess in us the Holy Spirit, to be possessed by Him. This takes precedence over everything else.

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

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

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

Today we have some idea of how much impact Merton’s writings had not only in the lives of many individuals but in shaping the official teaching of the Catholic Church. Merton’s influence can be seen in Pope John’s encyclical, Pacem in Terris. It is again evident in the final document issued by the Second Vatican Council, Guadium et Spes: the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. But at the time, Merton’s role in such documents was unknown.

Merton himself didn’t live to see the results of his efforts for peace. The war in Vietnam was raging when he flew to Asia in September, 1968. His death was now only weeks away. Surely he would have considered the return of his body to the monastery exactly right in all its details. He crossed the Pacific in an Air Force cargo plane as part of a shipment of the dead — all but him American soldiers who had died in Vietnam. Merton’s was the only body without a dog tag, and the only one without a war injury. Yet he was wounded. There was a long, raw third-degree burn about a hand’s width wide that ran along the right side of Merton’s body almost to the groin, where an electric fan had fallen across his body.

There was, as we only realized at the end of his life, a prophecy hidden in the final sentences of The Seven Storey Mountain.”

I will give you not what you desire. I will lead you into solitude. I will lead you by the way that you cannot possibly understand… Everything that touches you shall burn you …. that you may become the brother of God and learn to know the Christ of the burnt men.

[end]

Looking back on the Milwaukee 14

The Milwaukee Fourteen burning draft records 24 September 1968. (from left to right: reporter from Milwaukee Journal whose name I forget, Jerry Gardner, Bob Graf, Jim Forest, Fr. Larry Rosebaugh, Brother Basil O’Leary, Rev. John Higgenbotham, Donald Cotton, Fr. James Harney, Fr. Alfred Janicke, Fred Ogile, Michael Cullen, Fr. Tony Mullaney, Fr. Robert Cunnane and Doug Marvy)

I recently received a set of questions from Dyllan Taxman, an 8th grade student in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. For a history research project, Dyllan decided to look into an act of civil disobedience that I took part in back in the summer of 1968 — September 24 — when the Vietnam War was raging. A group of fourteen people broke into nine draft boards that had offices side by side in a Milwaukee office building, put the main files into burlap bags, then burned the papers with homemade napalm in a small park in front of the office building while reading aloud from the Gospel. We awaited arrest, were jailed for a month, freed on bail, then tried the following year, after which we went to prison for more than a year (for most of us it was 13 months).

Jim

* * *

>> What made you do this?

I had been in the military myself so didn’t have to worry about the draft, but as a draft counselor (a big part of my work with the Catholic Peace Fellowship) I was painfully aware of how thousands of young people were being forced to do military service in an unjust war about which they knew little or nothing, or even opposed. Anyone who knew the conditions for a just war could see this war did not qualify.

It seemed to me that people committed to the Gospel ought to offer some sort of witness against the war and conscription (really, a kind of slavery). I had been impressed by a similar but smaller action in Catonsville, Maryland, in which the priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan — both good friends — had played a major role. It seemed to offer a model.

>> How did all 14 of you meet?

Bonds of friendship. Many of us knew Michael Cullen, a founder of the Casa Maria Catholic Worker house of hospitality in Milwaukee. As I recall, the idea began to take shape when Dan Berrigan and I were staying with Mike and Nettie at Casa Maria while in Milwaukee to speak at a national conference of Franciscan teaching nuns.

>> Who would you say was the leader of the group?

There was no leader. It was very much a group effort. I was a kind of press secretary (my background is mainly in journalism) and did the first draft for the group’s statement, but that too was something we all had a hand in.

>> Were you scared?

You bet! I recall my knees shaking as Jim Harney and I walked together to the building where the draft boards had their offices.

>> Did you tell your family about this before-hand? If so, did they approve? If not, were they shocked to find out? (did they agree with it or not)

A few people in the family knew. The ones I talked with approved.

>> How long did you plan this out? Was it spontaneous or carefully planned?

There was very careful planning — several weeks of preparation.

>> What do you think is the effect, now 38 years later, of the act that you, and the rest of the 14 did that day?

I was amazed at the impact — more than I would have expected: a two-page photo in Life magazine of the action, front page coverage in newspapers across the country, reports on TV news programs nationwide, national press attention while the trial was going on, respected poets coming to Milwaukee to do public readings in our support, lectures given by various scholars, supportive mail from all sorts of people (one of the astronauts on the first moon trip sent me as photo he had taken of the earth from space). One of the “epistles” in Leonard Bernstein’s “The Mass” was a letter about visiting me in prison.

Now, 38 years later, of course it’s just one item on a long list of protest actions that occurred during the Vietnam War. What surprises me is that it hasn’t been altogether forgotten. I recently received a newly made Milwaukee 14 poster!

>> Do you think that your actions that day had an affect on the draft?

Sure. For starters it closed down conscription for a time in a major US city. In Milwaukee for several months the only people who were sent to the war were volunteers. Judging from the mail we received, I think we helped more draft-eligible people decide that they would not take part in the war. More people became conscientious objectors. The fact that about half our groups were Catholic priests (and one a Christian Brother teaching economics at Note Dame) meant that our action had particular impact on the Catholic Church. It probably was a factor in the opposition to the war that was increasingly voiced by the Catholic hierarchy.

>> Do you approve with more recent protest such as protesting the soldiers in Iraq?

I’m not quite sure what the question is here. Do you mean protesting the war in Iraq? If so, I wish there were a great deal more protest. I am puzzled that the protest that have been going on hasn’t involved far more people. I see most of the soldiers in Iraq, even though volunteers for military service, as victims of the war who were driven to volunteer because of poverty and joblessness. Many of them, even if they come home alive and without physical injuries, will spend the rest of their lives battling with deep psychological scars and a haunted conscience.

>> Do you think that your motives for this protest are/were completely understood by the public or do you think that your actions were in some way misunderstood?

There were a great many who understood. It was, after all, a very simple deed. The religious basis was clearly expressed. A major goal was to encourage more draft resistance and indeed there was more. But of course there were many people who were astonished or even scandalized to see Catholic priests and committed lay people putting their freedom on the line by such an act of civil disobedience, and couldn’t understand.

I think for most if not all of us, the trial was at least as important as the action. We hoped to make the trial not so much a trial of fourteen people accused of burning papers but hoped to put an immoral and illegal war on trial. And that’s pretty much what happened. (If you have time to go the Library Archive at Marquette, my friend Phil Runkel can show you what they have re the Milwaukee 14. Probably they have a copy of the essay Francine du Plessix Gray wrote about the trial for the New York Review of Books. (Later it was included in a book called “Trials of the Resistance” — see: http://www.jimandnancyforest.com/2006/11/18/m14trial/.)

>> Do you still keep in touch with other members of the original 14?

Yes. I’m most often in touch with Bob Graf, who still lives in Milwaukee. I hope you have occasion to meet him. Thanks to Bob and Pat Graf, we had a Milwaukee 14 get-together in Milwaukee a few years ago.

>> Did you feel that during your stay in prison that you were a political prisoner?

I didn’t think much about myself in terms of such a label, but certainly we were seen as such by other prisoners, the guards, wardens, etc.

>> Did any of you end up going to Vietnam?

One of my regrets is that, for all the traveling I’ve done, I’ve never been to Vietnam. I lived in France for a time with a Vietnamese community and so am used to Vietnamese culture, food, music, etc., but I wish I might have visited Vietnam.

>> Would you do the same actions today if the same situation presented itself?

My present health being as it is — because of kidney illness I have to be at the local hospital three times a week for dialysis (an artificial kidney used to filter my blood) — major acts of civil disobedience would be quite problematic. [Postscript: In October 2007 a kidney donated by my wife was successfully transplanted.]

Also I think property destruction is not the ideal model of nonviolent protest — it’s on the borderline. I am still troubled by the cleaning woman we had to restrain when we entered the draft boards. What if we had caused her to have a heart attack? There is also the problem of secrecy. To plan actions of this type requires secrecy — and that in turn inspires distrust and suspicion. Also some of the actions that followed made me question what we had done. We stood around and took full public responsibility for what we did, welcoming the trial. Later in the draft board actions tended to become “hit and run” — actions often done anonymously. These had their value but in my view lacked the impact of actions in which those responsible said, “I did it, I’m glad, and here’s why.”

>> In the Constitution it states that when a government fails to protect your natural rights (one of which being life) you have the duty to overthrow it and form a new one. Then again, John Locke, one of the major influences on the framers of the constitution stated that you have to follow the laws and rules of the government in exchange for the protection of these rights (this is called the Social Contract). That situation seems to create a paradox in the situation you were in. What is your opinion on that?

My main text is the Gospel. The example of the saints is also important. I saw what we were attempting as being similar to what Jesus did in driving the money changers out of the temple. No one was injured or killed, but he made a protest which is recalled in each of the four Gospels. In the process he signed his own death sentence. His action surely had a great deal to do with the decision made by the religious leaders of the time that Jesus would be better dead.

>> Regarding Civil Disobedience, when do you think it is appropriate to break the law? And who should decide that? Also, when (if ever) is it considered all right to infringe on other peoples rights?

I’m not an anarchist. Laws may not be perfect but most of them exist to help us live together peacefully. Most of them are like barriers along the edge of a dangerous road with that help keep us from driving into a ravine. But when a law is socially destructive, then we are obliged, as St. Peter said, “to obey God rather than man.”

>> What do you think the impact of this act was on your life specifically?

Every choice you make has consequences in your life and the lives of the people around you. Even little choices matter. If you’re in a bad mood, it will effect each and every person in your family. If you do something helpful — even a small thing like volunteering to wash dishes — that has a positive effect on the people you live with.

Being in prison was, for me, not without blessings. It gave me time to do some extremely valuable reading. Finally I read books like “The Brothers Karamazov”, which Dorothy Day had so often urged me to read. I became a more prayer-centered person. I spent time every day reading the Gospel and thinking about it. I got to know my fellow prisoners and their stories — amazing lives. Some of them were not guilty of the crimes for which they had been convicted — others were certainly guilty — but from each of them there was something to learn.

a drawing of me in prison made for his Sunday School class by my son Ben (age six at the time)
a drawing of me in prison made for his Sunday School class by my son Ben (age six at the time)

The very worst thing about prison was not seeing my son Ben for more than a year. When I think back on that, this still causes me great anguish. But I think too of soldiers who went to Vietnam and never saw their wives or children again, or came home with terrible injuries. My losses, and my son Ben’s, are hardly worth mentioning compared to that.

Thanks, Dyllan, for your probing questions.

PS There’s an autobiographical essay, “Getting from There to Here,” at this web address:

http://www.jimandnancyforest.com/2010/02/07/getting-from-there-to-here/

February 2, 2006

note: In the photo, I’m the guy wearing a tie standing near the left end. At the far left is a Milwaukee journalist taking notes.

* * *

Milwaukee 14-related link:

A one minute film of the burning of draft records in Milwaukee:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VSVW9KJi7JY

A piece about a whole earth photo that reached me in prison shortly after the first moon landing:

http://jimandnancyforest.com/2014/03/whole-earth/

A long essay on the trial of the Milwaukee 14:
http://www.jimandnancyforest.com/2006/11/18/m14trial/

The Milwaukee 14 Today page on Bob Graf’s web site:

http://www.nonviolentworm.org/Milwaukee14Today/HomePage

* * *
posted February 2006; updated 19 December 2016
* * *

Two Weeks in Scotland: 3-17 September 2005

Edinburgh isn’t far from Amsterdam — a 75-minute flight — but it’s a very different world: a more northern light, not at all the flatland that is Holland, and where a form of English is spoken that takes some getting used to.

Via the web we had booked ourselves into a bed-and-breakfast southwest of the city center. As it happened, the house was on a canal that led nearly to the heart of Edinburgh, a refreshing half-hour walk that seemed to place us in the rural countryside rather that the middle of a city. So pleasant was the route that, more often than not, we walked back and forth rather than take the bus. (Walking back at night, I felt obliged to warn Nancy about the dreaded Edinburgh Ripper, who often frequents the canal, and takes special pleasure in carving up naive tourists who dare to walk this path in the dark. In reality the greatest danger we encountered were ducks and swans.)

The guest house, the proprietor told us, wasn’t far from the home of J.K. Rowling, but we saw no sign of her, nor did we meet Harry Potter. Our host complained of the wall Rowling had put up to safeguard her privacy.

Having read in guide books about Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, with the castle at one end and Holyrood Palace at the other, we started off by exploring this most ancient of the city’s streets, but were at first put off by the density of tourists and tourist shops. We had hoped to find an Edinburgh that was less like the center of Amsterdam, which also can barely hold all its visitors. In fact the crowds were mainly concentrated at the castle end of the Royal Mile, and neither they nor the shops that target them were unpleasant.

Need exercise? Edinburgh is hillier than either Rome or San Francisco. Exploring the city day by day, we gradually rehabilitated many long neglected muscles.

The city has beautiful parks, most of all a long green strip running through the heart of the city, below the castle. The day we arrived it has a site of preparation for a concert and fireworks display scheduled for the following evening, the final event in the annual Edinburgh Festival, but we were so walked out the following night that we missed the fireworks.

We were also among the small percentage of visitors who failed to visit the castle, striking though it is perched on it high rocky base overlooking the city, possibly the most impressive castle in Britain. If we had stayed longer perhaps we would have gotten around to it, but we focused more on walks and museum visits.

In the latter category, there was an outstanding Gauguin exhibition at the Royal Scottish Academy. We were at the RSA and the adjacent Royal Gallery much of two days. There was also a major exhibition of the work of one of my favorite photographers, Henri Cartier-Bresson, at the Dean Gallery. The other museum where we spent many hours was the Museum of Scotland. It collection begins with the geology of Scotland and reaches into modern times. (See the Edinburgh photos)

Sunday morning we walked to the Liturgy at Orthodox Church of St. Andrew on Meadow Lane. The priest is Fr John Maitland Moir, now well into his 80s yet still in good health. We had last seen him during a brief visit to Edinburgh about 15 years ago. It was a striking to see how much the parish has grown — now there are many young families.

We enjoyed various pubs and pub meals though the place we returned to most often for supper was an Italian restaurant, Zizzi’s, on at the east end of the canal we so often walked. Inspiring cooking.
After five days in Edinburgh, we were off by train to Oban, a port town on the west coast of Scotland, a point of departure for ferries serving the Hebridean islands. (The Oban photos are included in the set of Iona pictures.)

The two days at Oban were the most restful part of our holiday. We had nothing to do, no museums to visit, no meetings, no appointments. It was cool enough to inspire Nancy to get a wool sweater and me to buy a fall jacket. Our one major exercise, beyond walking the harbor, was to climb the steep hill above the Oban Brewery to reach the “Tower,” the town’s one folly, a coliseum-like stone building that had been built a century ago by a local man who wanted to create employment.

We happened to meet my god-son Silouan in a local cafe and saw a good deal of him. He too was on his way to Mull to take part in the retreat/pilgrimage organized by Friends of Orthodoxy of Iona.

One of the highlights of Oban was the Catholic cathedral of St. Columba, a large, simple stone building which seemed to be open day and night. It is one of those churches that fills the visitor with a longing to pray. It was a blessing to be there.

Our good luck with the weather held up while in Oban. The first night there were treated to a sunset worthy of Tahiti — see the Oban photos — and, though less dramatic, we had another light show the second night.

On Saturday the 10th, along with others bound for the Iona pilgrimage, we took the ferry to Mull, then an hour-long bus ride across the island, east to west, to the village of Fionnphort, which put us on the wharf in sight of the island of Iona. Our retreat was to be centered in the Fionnphort village hall while the participants were lodged either in dormitories of the village hall or at guest houses in the neighborhood.

Once on Mull, the traveler crosses an visible border, entering a world so thinly populated and of such minor commercial interest that there is no McDonalds, no Burger King, no Pizza Hut, not even a Starbucks. The only chain, such as it is, is Spar: the vest-pocket grocery store in each town or village. But more impressive than the exodus from interchangeable fast- food outlets is the massive quiet, the Eden-like air, and — at night — skies much darker and immense than seen in most of Europe in the past hundred years.

The retreat/pilgrimage started Saturday and finished the following Friday evening.

There were a few lectures, but not so many that one felt over-loaded with talk.

Bruce Clark, chairman of Friends of Orthodox on Iona these past five years, spoke about the ways monasteries (understood as fortresses of spiritual life) have often hung on despite the most difficult political environments. St. Catherine’s on the Sinai has co-existed with the Muslim world since the time of Muhammed! One was reminded that monks are often as gentle as doves but wise as serpents, with their communities often managing to survive the rise and fall of kingdoms and empires.

Michail Neamatu, a young Romanian theologian, spoke insightfully about the Holy Cross, as did Bishop Kallistos two days later. As we celebrated the feast of the Holy Cross on Wednesday, the lectures and the Liturgy were in perfect alignment. (There were two Eucharistic liturgies during our days together, both held next to the abbey at St. Oran’s Chapel on Iona, the oldest building in that region of Scotland.)
Dr. David Winfield presented slides of the fresco restoration work he had led at the church of the Holy Wisdom in northeastern Turkey, now a museum church as the Greek population was forced to flee many years ago.

I gave a talk on “the essence of sin is fear of the Other.”

Apart from talks and liturgies and a delightful party the last night, our time together was a mixture of walks, boat rides and quiet time that could be used as we pleased.

Parts of three days were spent on Iona, the small island that St. Columba landed on after sailing from Ireland in 563. Not many missionary efforts have had so profound an effect on world history. The community was eventually destroyed by Viking raids, with many martyrdoms, but lasted four hundred years before retreating back to Ireland in the tenth century. (One of the surviving monuments of the community’s early years is the Book of Kells, now in the Trinity University Library in Dublin.)

Iona is often described as “a thin place” and truly it is that. I can hardly imagine someone visiting the island without thoughts of God. It’s not simply the rare beauty of Iona. In fact it’s an almost treeless island, quite austere, with a permanent population of about eighty people. No doubt it’s partly the abbey church, originally the main church of a Benedictine community founded early in the 13th century, along with a nearby nunnery. In the 17th century, however, the abbey properties in Britain were confiscated and the communities disbursed, after which the church buildings on Iona gradually fell into ruin. The abbey church was reroofed and partially restored more than a century ago. Then in 1938 George Macleod, a Glasgow pastor of the Church of Scotland, had the idea of rebuilding the abbey as a joint work for unemployed stone masons and seminarians — a means not only to restore ancient buildings but to repair the breach between the Church and the working class. Now the church, its cloister and the adjacent buildings look much as they did eight hundred years ago.

One of the special aspects of Iona is that it’s one of the oldest places on earth, much of it being composed of Lewisian Gneiss, extremely hard rock formed not quite three billion years ago. Lewisian Gneiss contains no fossils — there was as yet no biological life on earth. Iona belongs to the first day of creation.

Iona is also well known for its pale green marble. Few visitors leave with island without at least one green pebble. Several beaches are carpeted with smooth stones of various sizes, among which one occasional finds a “greenie.” (See the Iona photos.)

Not far from Iona is the still smaller island of Staffa, the end point of “the Giant’s Causeway,” an avenue of volcanic basalt columns that begins on the north coast of Ireland. Most of the highway is under the waves, but when it rears up at Staffa it’s an astonishing sight. We went there by boat on a day when the sea was calm enough to land, then followed a pathway that brought us into Fingal’s Cave, a cathedral-like opening amid the upright pillars of basalt, then later climbed up to the grassy fields above.

Nancy and I were not among those on the pilgrimage who managed to get to Inch Kenneth, a tiny island that in ancient times had been St. Kenneth’s home. Celtic monastic fragments still exist in the island. The day the sailboat was to take us there, as it had taken other pilgrims two days before, the weather was such that we went south instead of north, sailing round the southwest corner of Mull, close to many seals, at last coming to a remote beach. Along the way we passed by Erraid Island, the place where David Balfour landed after shipwreck in Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, “Kidnapped.” The one beach on Erraid is now named in honor of Balfour.

On this particular day Nancy and I took separate trips. I joined the group on the sailboat and Nancy went with four other pilgrims by car to Castle Duart on the other side of Mull, a fully restored twelfth-century castle owned by the McClean clan, filled with artefacts, reconstructed dungeons, kitchens and ballrooms, clothing and weapons, and lots of McClean family photos. The family still live there.

To see southwestern Mull from the sea, at close range, is to be confronted with one of the great deserts of the northern world, a dramatic, barren landscape not unlike the landscape often seen in icons. This was the desert of the Celtic monks, still a dangerous place to be even in the 21st century. Many have drowned in these waters, while those who worked the land had a day-by-day struggle to survive. Now the local population is mainly sheep.

Pilgrimage, Bishop Kallistos pointed out at the beginning of the retreat, is the Moses-like discovery that one stands on holy ground and that creation itself is a burning bush. He had encouraged us to try to spend time alone on Iona, to give ourselves time to simply be pilgrims on the island, and to pray. Most of the pilgrims we spoke with took his advice. The pilgrimage was not so tightly organized that there was no time for such solitary wandering.

— Jim Forest
22 September 2005

See more Edinburgh photos and Oban, Mull, Iona and Staffa photos.

Orthodox Christians and Conscientious Objection

by Jim Forest

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God. — Matthew 5:9

Like fish, we human beings tend to move in schools. When the drums of war are beating and the latest slogan of mass destruction is announced (“for God and country,” “the war to end all wars,” “the war to make the world safe for democracy,” “the war to defeat the axis of evil,” “the war against terrorism”), few and far between are those who, having been summoned, refuse to take up weapons.

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

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

And yet there are those who say no — sometimes only a few, sometimes many. It depends on the war and also how tolerant or intolerant the government is regarding conscientious objectors. Not many men refused to serve in the armies of the Third Reich — the almost certain penalty was execution. A rare kind of courage — or faithfulness — was required. In the United States, which provided the option either of unarmed service in the military or alternative civilian employment that would be of benefit to the community, tens of thousands of Americans were recognized as conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War. (However many were not recognized because they only objected to the Vietnam War rather than all wars; as a consequence, many of them were sent to prison while others migrated to Canada or other countries.)

While many conscientious objectors are opposed to war and killing in general, no matter what a particular war’s justifications may be, many other are opposed just to the war currently going on. There are also those who might in theory have fought in purely defensive wars in the past in which the violence was more limited, but who find that the methods and weapons of modern war of their nature result in the death or maiming of far more innocent people than combatants and for this reason to refuse to take part in war.

Christ’s example

The majority of conscientious objectors are Christians. While some of them approach war via conditions laid out in what is usually called the “just war” doctrine, one of whose requirements is that for a war to be regarded as just it must safeguard the lives of noncombatants, the factor of greatest importance is the teaching and example of Jesus Christ as revealed in the Gospels.

Consider the question of war in terms of the example and teaching of Christ during the years between his baptism by John and his execution on the Cross. In which wars did Christ take part? Not one, nor did he say a single word of encouragement to those involved in the war of liberation against the Roman occupiers being fought in that period by those who were called Zealots. Did he kill anyone? Not one person. Indeed he managed to save the life of a woman who had been condemned to death. Did he harm anyone? Not a soul. Which of his followers did he commission to shed anyone’s blood? Not one follower.

Was Jesus a man without anger? Clearly not. In one of the few stories included in all four Gospels, we see him using a whip of chords to chase the money changers from the Temple while overturning their tables. It was a show of rage but not a threat to anyone’s life or health, unless we notice that by such a provocative action he endangered his own life.

He said that no greater love has anyone than to lay down his life for his brother. The church calendar is mainly a long list of martyrs who did exactly that. How ironic these words of Jesus are so often a text at the funerals of soldiers. Christ’s words of praise for those who lay down their lives for a brother is not a blessing to kill other brothers.

The only one of his disciples to shed blood, a brave action performed in Christ’s defense by Peter, was immediately admonished by Jesus, “Put away your sword, for whoever lives by the sword will perish by the sword.”

His last miracle before his crucifixion was to heal the wound of the man whom Peter had injured. This compassionate gesture provides a powerful example of what Jesus meant in commanding love of enemies to all those attempting to his follow him.

This raises the question: If one wishes to follow Christ, would that not include trying to be Christ-like in our response to war?

Surely the answer must be yes. Why call ourselves Christians unless we are trying to live in a more Christ-like way? In the words of the late Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, “We should try to live in such a way that if the Gospels were lost, they could be re-written by looking at us.”

What any attentive reader of the New Testament finds instead is that peacemaking is an essential dimension of any Christian vocation. It isn’t something optional. Christ stresses the significance of peacemaking by including it in the Beatitudes, a compact summary of the Gospels. The same is true of the Liturgy, in which peace is a condition of worship, as we are reminded every week by the first petition in the Liturgy is, “In peace let us pray to the Lord.” We are carefully warned against receiving the Body of Christ while being in a state of enmity.

The Approach of the Early Church

It is helpful to learn all we can about the early Church, in which Christ’s disarming words to Peter — “put away your sword” — were understood as being addressed to all Christians.

In the Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus, one of the first bishops of Rome, written in the second century, the renunciation of killing men, women and children is a precondition of baptism:

“A soldier under authority shall not kill a man. If he is ordered to, he shall not carry out the order, nor shall he take the oath. If he is unwilling, let him be rejected. He who has the power of the sword or is a magistrate of a city who wears the purple, let him cease or be rejected. Catechumens or believers, who want to become soldiers, should be rejected, because they have despised God.” (Canon XVI: On professions)

In a criticism of Christians written by the pagan scholar Celsus in 173 AD, Christians were sharply condemned for what today would be called conscientious objection to participation in war. “If all men were to do as you,” wrote Celsus, “there would be nothing to prevent the Emperor from being left in utter solitude, and with the desertion of his forces, the Empire would fall into the hands of the most lawless barbarians.”

Defending the Christian community, the theologian Origen replied: “Christians have been taught not to defend themselves against their enemies; and because they have kept the laws that command gentleness and love of man, they have received from God that which they would not have achieved if they were permitted to make war, though they might have been quite able to do so.” (Contra Celsum 3,8)

The Christian refusal of military service, Origen argued, does not indicate indifference to social responsibility, but rather response at the spiritual and transcendent level: “The more devout the individual, the more effective he is in helping the Emperor, more so than the soldiers who go into the lines and kill all the enemy troops they can … The greatest warfare, in other words, is not with human enemies but with those spiritual forces which make men into enemies.”

In the same period St. Justin, the Great Martyr, wrote similarly: “We who were filled with war and mutual slaughter and every wickedness have each of us in all the world changed our weapons of war … swords into plows and spears into pruning hooks.” (Trypho 110)

Elsewhere St. Justin wrote, “We who formerly murdered one another now not only do not make war upon our enemies but, that we may not lie or deceive our judges, we gladly die confessing Christ.” (I Apol. 39)

“The Church,” said Clement of Alexandria, is “an army which sheds no blood.” (Protrepticus 11, 116) “In peace, not in war, we are trained.” (Paedogogus 1,12) “If you enroll as one of God’s people, heaven is your country and God your lawgiver. And what are His laws? You shall not kill, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. To him that strikes you on the one cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Protrepticus 10)

Saints who were conscientious objectors

In narratives of saints of the early Church that come down to us, some concern those who refused military service or, while in the army, refused to take part in war.

One of the most detailed concerns a young Christian named Maximilian, tried for refusing military service March 12, 295, at Mauritania in Northern Africa. On trial for his life, Maximilian told the proconsul Dion, “I cannot serve because I am a Christian…. I cannot commit a sin. I am a Christian.” “Serve, or you will die,” said the proconsul Dion. “I shall not serve,” responded Maximilian. “You may cut off my head, I will not serve this world, but only my God.” “You must serve,” said Dion, “otherwise you will die miserably.” “I shall not perish,” said Maximilian. “My name is already before the Lord. I may not serve.” Dion said, “Have regard for your youth and serve. This is what a young man should do.” “My service is for my Lord,” Maximilian replied. “I cannot serve the world. I have already told you: I am a Christian.” Proconsul Dion then pointed out, “In the sacred bodyguard of our Lords [the emperors] Diocletian and Maximian, Constantinus and Maximus, there are soldiers who are Christians, and they serve.” Maxmilian replied, “They know what is best for them. But I am a Christian and I cannot do wrong.”

It is a long transcript. Let me cut it short, only adding that the effort of the proconsul to convince Maximilian to become a soldier failed. That day Maximilian was executed with a sword. His last recorded words were, “Thank God.”

There is also the story of one of the great missionary saints of the fourth century, Martin of Tours, born only 21 years after the execution of St. Maximilian.

Martin (named after Mars, the god of war) was the son of a tribune in the Imperial Horse Guard. When only ten, in the year 316, Martin was drawn to Christ thanks to a providential encounter. Despite parental opposition, he became a catechumen. Christianity was at this time no longer illegal, but was far from being the dominant religion. Five years later, Martin – still a catechumen — was obliged, as the son of a veteran officer, to join the Horse Guard himself.

It was while he was stationed is Amiens, France, that the event occurred in his life for which he is especially remembered. Passing on horseback through one of the city gates of Amiens, he noticed a freezing beggar. Martin’s heart went out to the man. Ignoring the ridicule of those witnessing the scene, he responded by cutting his officer’s cape in two, giving half to the man who was nearly naked. It is a scene represented in countless carvings, paintings and stained glass windows, especially in churches and monasteries bearing Martin’s name. That same night, Martin had a vision in which he saw Christ wearing the cape he had given the beggar. (No doubt as a catechumen he knew the Gospel words, “I was naked and you clothed me.”) Martin’s baptism followed soon afterward.

Even in modern Europe — including Holland, where I live, a country where the Reformation succeeded in getting rid of almost all saint-connected celebrations — St. Martin is remembered every year on the eve of his feast day, November 11. The tradition is for lantern-carrying children go door-to-door singing mischievous St. Martin songs in the hope that they too will be objects of a compassionate response — the gift of some candy from all who open their doors.

Another story of St. Martin is told less often, perhaps because it is more challenging.

At about the age of twenty, on the eve of a battle with the Gauls at Worms, his company was called to appear before the emperor to receive a war-bounty on the eve of battle. Refusing to accept such a reward, Martin explained: “Up to now I have served you as a soldier. Now let me serve Christ. Give the bounty to these others — they are going to fight, but I am a soldier of Christ and it is not lawful for me to fight.”

The emperor accused him of cowardice, to which Martin replied that, in the name of Christ, he was prepared to face the enemy on the following day, alone and unarmed. His superiors planned to take him up on the offer, but before they could, the invaders sued for peace, the battle never occurred, and Martin was discharged from military service. Perhaps they sensed God’s hand in such an unexpected peace.

After his discharge, Martin became a monk under the guidance of St. Hilary in Poitiers. Later in life, the much-respected monk was chosen as bishop by the clergy and people of Tours. Regarding himself as unworthy, Martin tried hard to avoid the episcopal office. He went into hiding, but the noisy geese with which he took shelter gave him away. (Poor geese! In Austria, Germany and France, many of goose are roasted on St. Martin’s feast day.)

Martin lived a long life, dying at the age of 81 in 397. He was the first confessor who had not died the death of a martyr to be venerated in the West.

The Age of Constantine

The fourth century, of course, was also the century of St. Constantine, the first Roman emperor to favor Christianity rather than regard it as a threat to the social order. During the Church’s first three centuries, Christians had repeatedly been the object of state repression. Many had been martyred — burned, beheaded, crucified, eaten by wild animals, tortured to death. Imperial persecution finally ended in the year 313 when Constantine issued the Edict of Milan. Though Constantine himself was baptized only on his deathbed and was a member of the Church only the final hours of his life, he nonetheless acted as a protector of the Church and was a person whose life, at its best moments, was clearly influenced to the Gospel. Yet not all his legacy, so far as the Church is concerned, was positive. As St. Jerome observed, “When the Church came to the princes of the world, she grew in power and wealth but diminished in virtue.”

Constantine died in the year 337. Less than half a century later, Christianity had become not just a legal religion but the official religion of the Empire. Far from being persecuted, the Christians were favored by the state. For those who sought advancement, it was all but essential to be a Christian. No longer was the Church only concerned with a kingdom not of this world. Rather it was seen as the ruler’s partner in maintaining the kingdoms of this world.

While Christian attitudes toward war very gradually began to take a new direction following Constantine, remarkably the Church still maintained a profoundly critical attitude regarding military service and participation in war.

The First Ecumenical Council was held at Nicea near Constantinople in the year 325 in the presence of Constantine. One of the canons issued by the bishops declared:

“As many as were called by grace, and displayed the first zeal, having cast aside their military belts, but afterwards returned, like dogs, to their own vomit, so that some have regained their military stations; let these, after they have passed the space of three years as hearers, be for ten years prostrators. [Hearers and prostrators are categories of penitents who can be present, like catechumens, for the Liturgy of the Word, but are barred from the Eucharistic Liturgy.] But in all these cases it is necessary to examine well into their purpose and what their repentance appears to be like. For as many as give evidence of their conversions by deeds, and not pretense, with fear, and tears, and perseverance, and good works, when they have fulfilled their appointed time as hearers, may properly communicate in prayers; and after that the bishop may determine yet more favorably concerning them. But those who take the matter with indifference, and who think the form of not entering the Church is sufficient for their conversion, must fulfil the whole time.” (Canon XII)

In the Canons of Hippolytus, written not later than 340 AD, fifteen years later, one finds a section that expands on canons from previous centuries:

“Concerning the Magistrate and the Soldier: they are not to kill anyone, even if they receive the order: they are not to wear wreaths. Whoever has authority and does not do the righteousness of the gospel is to be excluded and is not to pray with the bishop.

“Whoever has received the authority to kill, or else a soldier, they are not to kill in any case, even if they receive the order to kill. They are not to pronounce a bad word. Those who have received an honor are not to wear wreaths on their heads. Whoever is raised to the authority of prefect or to the magistracy and does not put on the righteousness of the Gospel is to be excluded from the flock and the bishop is not to pray with him.

“A Christian is not to become a soldier. A Christian must not become a soldier, unless he is compelled by a chief bearing the sword. He is not to burden himself with the sin of blood. But if he has shed blood, he is not to partake of the mysteries, unless he is purified by a punishment, tears, and wailing. He is not to come forward deceitfully but in the fear of God.” (Canons XIII-XIV)

St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote late in the fourth century:

“Scripture not only prohibits inflicting the slightest wound, but moreover all foul talk and slander (Col. 3:8; Eph. 4:31) and similar things that proceed from the incensive power of the soul; yet only against the crime of murder our fathers have imposed canonical sanctions. With regard to this crime a distinction is made between involuntary homicide and premeditated murder. As voluntary, murder is considered, first of all, when someone dares to commit this act in a premeditated manner. Secondly those are considered as voluntary murderers who during a fight, while exchanging blows, strike in some dangerous place. For once overcome by wrath and giving way to the movements of anger, during their passion they will not accept anything into their minds that may prevent evil. Therefore a killing that results from a fight is attributed to the effect of compulsion, and not considered an accident. Involuntary homicide can be recognized by the feature that someone, aiming to achieve something else, by accident inflicts such great evil. For those who wish to heal the crime of premeditated murder by repentance, a triple lapse of time is required. Three nine-year periods of penitence are imposed, with nine years in each degree of penitence…

“Involuntary homicide is considered worthy of indulgence, although not praiseworthy. I say this in order to make clear that someone who has defiled himself with murder — be it involuntarily — is considered impure through his impure deeds and the canon considers such a person unworthy of the grace of priesthood. (Canon V, The Canonical Epistle of St. Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa, to St. Letoius, Bishop of Melitene)

While details of penitential practices varied from region to region, in the sixth century, in the canons written by St. Gregory the Great, bishop of Rome at a time when the Roman Empire in the west was crumbling, the act of killing still required a long break in Eucharistic life. That break was longest for anyone guilty of murder. As St. Gregory wrote: “He that willfully commits murder, and afterwards repents, shall for twenty years remain without communicating of the Holy Sacrament. Four years he must mourn without the door of the oratory, and beg of the communicants that go in, that prayer be offered for him; then for five years he shall be admitted among the hearers, for seven years among the prostrators; for four years he shall be a co-stander with the communicants, but shall not partake of the oblation; when these years are completed, he shall partake of the Holy Sacrament.”

Penance for involuntary murder was less severe — eleven years of exclusion from communion. But killing in war also involved the least extended penance: “Our fathers did not regard killing in war as murder; yet I think it advisable for such as have been guilty of it to forbear communion three year.” (Canons XI, XIII and LVI)

Christians had once been notable — for some notorious — for their abstention from war and their condemnation of gladiatorial combat and all blood sports. By the fifth century they were found in the military in every rank.

The Just War Doctrine

It was late in the fourth century that the primitive theological foundations were laid by St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo in North Africa, for Christian participation in war. While he maintained the traditional view that the individual Christian is barred from using deadly violence in self-defense, he proposed that defending one’s community was a different matter. However Augustine insisted that under all circumstances Christ’s command that his followers must love their enemies remained in force. (Does love of enemies actually occur in battlefield conditions? Few war veterans would answer in the positive.)

Beginning in the medieval period, a more developed doctrine emerged that sought to define what the conditions were for a just war. Theologians especially associated with the development of just war theory include St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Robert Bellarmine. Under the terms of this teaching, a war could be considered just, and thus Christians laymen could participate in it, if it met certain conditions: War must be declared by the legitimate authority of the state. It must be fought for a just cause and with a just intention, not simply to satisfy national pride or to further economic or territorial gain. The methods and weapons used must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The lives the innocent and noncombatants must be respected. The war must have a reasonable chance of success so that the good results of the war will outweigh the evil caused by it. War must be the last resort. Finally, the burden of guilt must be clearly on one side.

In any western theological text book providing any treatment of war, the reader will find a section on the just war doctrine, though it never became a dogma.

While they have many things in common, one of the differences between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches West is that the just war doctrine was never embraced by the Orthodox Church, despite the fact the Orthodox Christians have been as likely to take part in wars as their western counterparts.

The Orthodox Church never saw war as something which could, even in the case of warding off invaders, be regarded as just or good. Even in situations where there seemed no viable alternative to war, war was regarded as an evil, albeit a lesser evil, but still evil, as inevitably war involves killing and the commission of other grave sins. For this reason clergy were and still are forbidden by Church canons to be combatants in war. Even to kill another person in self-defense or by accident precludes a person from serving at the altar. Thus there are Orthodox priests who do not drive a car because of the danger of inadvertently causing someone’s death.

Fr. Stanley Harakas, long-time professor of Orthodox Theology at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Massachusetts, in writing about his search through patristic sources and Byzantine military manuals for texts concerning war, notes: “I found an amazing consistency in the almost totally negative moral assessment of war coupled with an admission that war may be necessary under certain circumstances to protect the innocent and to limit even greater evils. In this framework, war may be an unavoidable alternative, but it nevertheless remains an evil. Virtually absent in the tradition is any mention of a ‘just’ war, much less a ‘good’ war. The tradition also precludes the possibility of a crusade. For the Eastern Orthodox tradition … war can be seen only as a ‘necessary evil,’ with all the difficulty and imprecision such a designation carries.” Fr. Harakas discovered what he referred to as “the stratification of pacifism” in the Church. The discipline of not killing others under any circumstances, applied to all baptized Christians in the early Church, in time came to be required only of those serving at the altar and iconographers. [“No Just War in the Fathers,” Harakas, posted on the Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site.]

Soldier saints

One might ask: If war is seen in the Orthodox Church as an innately sinful endeavor, then how come there are soldier saints on the Church calendar?

In the early Church converts were found in every profession, including soldiers in the military. One of these was the Great Martyr George, the best known of all “soldier saints.”

In icons we are used to seeing St. George battling a dragon, but that image arose centuries after his death. In icons of the first millennium, George stands erect, usually dressed as a soldier, face to face with whoever is praying before the icon.

The actual George never saw a dragon. He died a martyr’s death not unlike that suffered by thousands of other Christians of his generation. The “dragon” George fought against was his own fear as he confronted the demands of his rulers to renounce his Christian faith. George, a young army officer, lived in the time of the persecutions of Diocletian and Maximian (303 to 311), when many Christians were being arrested and taken away to torturers and executioners. George had the courage to walk into a public square and shout, “All the heathen gods are devils. My God made the heavens and is the true God.” For this he was arrested, tortured and put to death. His witness is said to have led to the conversion of many and to have given renewed courage to others who were already baptized.

His legendary battle with a dragon emerged centuries later: According to the story, a dragon lived in a lake in the region of Cappadocia in Asia Minor and was worshiped by the terrified local people, who fed him their children to subdue the dragon’s rage. When it was the turn of Elizabeth, the king’s daughter, to be sacrificed and she was going toward the lake to meet her doom, St. George appeared riding a white horse. He prayed to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then transfixed the dragon with his lance, and afterward led the vanquished creature into the city. The wounded monster followed Elizabeth, says the Legenda Aurea of Blessed James de Voragine, “as if it had been a meek beast.” Afterward George called on the local people to be baptized.

The icon of St. George in combat with the dragon is a simple but powerful image of the struggle against evil and fear, represented by the dragon. The white horse St. George rides is a graceful creature as light as air and as fearless as his rider. The thin cross-topped lance the saint holds is not tightly grasped but rests lightly in his hand — meaning that it is the power of God, not the power of man that overcomes evil. George’s face shows not a trace of anger, hatred or anxiety. Often, in the upper left hand corner of the icon, the hand of the Savior is extended from heaven in a sign of blessing.

While there is no record of St. George having taken part in war, one finds in the church calendar saints whose life story includes combat on the battlefield.

One of the best known of these in the Russian Orthodox Church is St. Alexander Nevsky, a prince of Novgorod. In his early life he led successful military campaigns against the Swedish army and later against the Teutonic Knights; Russians still commemorate his victory against the Teutonic Knights on the ice of the Lake Chud in 1242. In 1938, Alexander Nevsky was portrayed by the Russian film maker, Sergei Eisenstein, as an invincible warrior, an image that met Stalin’s needs at the time and is still dominant in our own day. However, when we study Russian history, we meet not only a warrior but the person Alexander Nevsky later became.

Exchanging his armor for the robe of a diplomat, Prince Alexander succeeded in normalizing relations with Khan Batu, saving Russia from a war it could not win and winning concessions protecting Church life. Finally he retired from both military and diplomatic roles to put on monastic robes and lead a penitential life. After he died, the people of Russia remembered him as the prince-warrior who became a peacemaker and in the end embraced the ascetic life of a monk. It was as a monk that he was shown in early icons. It was only centuries later, at the time of Czar Peter the Great, that icons of the prince-turned-monk were revised so that he was shown dressed as a warrior rather than a monk. “In this way,” noted the Russian biblical scholar, Fr. Georgi Chistyakov, “a monastic saint was made into a Russian version of Mars, the god of war, whose worship is connected with the cult of arms. The modification of the icon was pure paganism, Orthodox only in its form, a slander against the saint himself.”

Like Alexander Nevsky, many saints were soldiers at some time in their lives whose acts of courage and endurance on the battlefield still excite admiration. Nonetheless, the Church has never canonized anyone for his military skills, heroism under fire, or achievements in war.

National identity versus religious identity

To consider the question of conscientious objection requires facing the ways nationalism has shaped my view of myself and may even have damaged or silenced my conscience.

It is not possible to assign a date to the emergence of nationalism as a popular ideology. Some see it as being a major factor in the European reformation movements of the 16th and 17th centuries and the schisms that followed. The French Revolution, at the end of the 18th century, is sometimes seen as a starting point. But it is only in the 19th century that nationalism emerged with vigor in many countries and former countries that had in the past been swallowed up by their neighbors, such as Wales by England or Serbia and Greece by the Ottoman Empire. Such modern nations as Italy and Germany had been a patchwork quilt of smaller political units until the late 19th century. For many, nationalism meant the recovery of linguistic and cultural life as well at least some degree of political autonomy. In a country like the United States, nationalism was a means of creating a unifying bond between people whose roots were in other countries. This is probably the reason that the United States alone has a daily ritual in its schools of pledging allegiance to the flag, a “melting pot” exercise.

Nationalism posed, and still poises, a challenge to Christians. Am I first of all a member of the nation into which I happened to be born? Or am I first of all a member of the Body of Christ into which I was baptized? If the state orders me to act in one way and the Gospel in another, which has priority? Am I even capable of recognizing that there might be a conflict between God and country?

It can be an agonizing dilemma. The state has at its disposal extremely powerful methods of winning assent. If these fail, it has the power to punish. One also risks the censure of family, friends, neighbors, co-workers and even of fellow Christians.

We are easily influenced by the society in which we live, not only by nationalism, in the sense of unswerving devotion to nation, but also by the ideologies the nation promotes at a given time. Had you been a German in the Hitler years, you would have been under immense social pressure to greet your neighbor with a raised right hand and the words, “Heil Hitler!” Had you been a Russian in the Lenin and Stalin years, you might have succumbed to atheist propaganda and been someone destroying icons rather than reverencing them. Had you been a white South African in the apartheid years, going along with apartheid would have been much easier than opposing it. Had you been born in a slave-owning society and been among those benefiting from such cheap labor, the arguments (some of them biblical) in favor of slavery might have seemed convincing.

It becomes still harder when the Church, within a nation’s borders, seems to promote nationalism or leave it unchallenged. Orthodox Christians have a tendency to be passionately nationalistic and in too many cases are not welcoming when people of another nationality enter their churches. It’s a long-running Russian Orthodox joke that one is first of all Russian and afterward Orthodox, but not necessarily Christian. Change the national label and it can easily be made into a Greek, Serbian, Romanian or Georgian joke.

There is also the word patriotism. Patriotism and Christianity have become connected words. Sometimes we even find the national flag within our church buildings. “For God and country” is a phrase so often repeated that it sounds more like one word than four. In every war we see photos of chaplains praying with soldiers out on the battlefield as well as leading services at chapels on army bases. We can assume that almost never is love of enemies a theme of sermons (not that it is often a topic of sermons anywhere).

To Kill or Not to Kill?

Finally each of us is left with questions we alone can answer.

I can recall the long hours I spent in the chapel of my Navy base in Washington, DC, reading the New Testament and praying for God’s help as I struggled with the question of whether or not I should remain in the military. My work was only distantly of any relevance to war as such — I was part of a team of Navy meteorologists working at the headquarters of the U.S. Weather Bureau. The closest our unit had come to being linked with war was to provide weather predictions that were used in timing the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.

Even so, it seemed to me the most important thing I was doing in that period of my life was volunteer work in my free time at a church-sponsored home for troubled children. The work I was doing there made me wonder if involvement in works of mercy should not be the ordinary direction in life for a Christian.

It was not so much a question of making judgments about the military. I enjoyed my work and admired many of my colleagues. It was more a question of basic direction. It was a decision being forced on me because I had gotten into trouble with in the Navy for talking part in a demonstration protesting the Bay of Pigs invasion.

I had been given some questions to answer, one of which was: “Are there any circumstances in which you would not obey a command from a senior officer?” The obvious answer for any person with a conscience, no matter what his views about war, was, “Of course there are orders I would not obey. How can anyone promise unwavering obedience without knowing what his obedience might require?” But to give such an answer meant I had no future in the Navy and might even, as had been threatened by officers of the Naval Intelligence Service, be jailed.

Part of that night’s struggle was with fear. Would my friendships be damaged? What would happen to me within the military while my request for a special discharge was pending? What would my Navy co-workers think of me? Might I become an object of derision or violence? If imprisoned, could I survive in such an environment? How would this effect my future?

Somewhere in the middle of what seemed an endless night it became obvious to me that, no matter what else happened, anything less than a truthful answer to the question before me would be not only a mistake but a sin. In the days that followed, I ended up filing for a special discharge as a conscientious objector.

I was extraordinarily fortunate. One of the senior officers in my command gave me his wholehearted support, as did several priests and various other people. I didn’t go to prison. I was given an early discharge.

That night of reading, prayer and reflection has given me a lifetime store of sympathy for anyone facing hard vocational questions, especially those where, to answer without turning a deaf ear to conscience, might involve penalties of some kind.

I have no regrets about what I did at that time and what happened as a consequence, but I also have great sympathy for those who have made very different choices. I look back with profound respect for some of the people I worked with in the years I was wearing the Navy uniform. Not often in my life have I met their equal. My colleagues included were people of conscience who were deeply serious about their Christian faith. In supporting my application for discharge, one of them sacrificed a promotion from commander to captain. On the way to his decision, at least as hard as mine, he had stayed most of a night reading a book on war and Christianity. No doubt it was a night not only of reading, but also of prayer.

Of the many questions we face, the most important, it seems to me, is how best to follow Christ in the context of the world we live in, with its temptations, its ideologies, it slogans, its idolatries, it sins, it sorrows and its wars.

Seeking assistance

Should you decide either not to refuse taking part in war as a conscientious objector or to leave the military for that reason, you are not alone.

While laws about conscientious objection vary from country to country, most countries today recognize conscientious objection as a legal right, though in some recognition is often restricted to persons who object to war in principal rather than a particular war. In the USA, for example, in past periods of conscription, conscientious objectors to a particular wars have often had to serve jail sentences for their refusal to be part of the military.

Typically, conscientious objectors are required either to perform civilian alternative service or, if he or she does not object being in uniform, assigned to noncombatant service within the military. Civilian alternative service is often performed in hospitals or other community agencies.

Non-combatant military service has most often been performed in medical units, though any assignment is possible as long as the use of weapons is not required. It should be kept in mind that non-combatant personnel share in overall military goals. According to the US Army Field Manual, “The primary duty of medical troops, as of all other troops, is to contribute their utmost to the success of the command of which they are apart.”

Many people don’t think seriously about the question of war, peace and personal responsibility until they are actually in the armed forces. For those who become conscientious objectors while in the military, in most countries there are provisions for a special discharge. Usually any chaplain can provide information about how to apply for such a discharge. Many peace organizations also provide practical assistance to conscientious objectors, both in the military and out. Various religious and secular organizations exist to help conscientious objectors. Orthodox Christians seeking assistance should contact the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.

There is no shortage of people eager to tell others what to do, be they government leaders, leaders of movements, parents or friends. But each of us stands alone with his conscience before God. Each of us must arrive at his or her own choice. Part of the decision-making process, however, ought to be consultation with people you respect and trust. While once it was difficult to find a pastor who understood or respected conscientious objectors, today it is difficult to find one who does not. The legalization of abortion in many countries has spurred the Church’s understanding of its role in the protection of life at all stages. There is today renewed interest in the witness given against bloodshed by Christians in the early Church.

With or without the support and understanding of friends and family, the questions remain intimately one’s own. What will I do? About war? For peace? With the rest of my life? How can I best follow Christ? The basic question is much larger than whether or not to be a soldier. It’s a question of basic direction. It is a question of putting everything, including citizenship and political opinions, in the context of faith.

Whatever choice we make, we must always bear in mind our responsibility to love even our enemies and to recognize Christ in the stranger. “What you have done to the least person,” Christ reminds us in the Gospel, “you have done to me.” (Matthew 25:40)

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Jim Forest is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. Once a petty officer in the U.S. Navy, he received a special discharge as a conscientious objector. An author, his books include Praying with Icons, Ladder of the Beatitudes, Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness, The Wormwood File: E-Mail from Hell, The Resurrection of the Church in Albania, Living With Wisdom: A Biography of Thomas Merton, All Is Grace: a Biography of Dorothy Day, Religion in the New Russia, and Pilgrim to the Russian Church.

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Text as revised September 12, 2008

We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us

Pogo
talk by Jim Forest for the Orthodox Peace Fellowship meeting in Canton, Ohio, June 22, 2001

In the dawn of time, back in the nineteen-fifties, my favorite comic strip concerned an assortment of animals living in Florida’s Okefenokee Swamp. The artist, a whimsical man named Walt Kelly, referred to them as “nature’s schreechers.”

There was Pogo, a level-headed, pure-hearted possum overflowing with good will. It was Pogo who gave the strip its name. It would have been a Pogo-like child who told the emperor he was wearing no clothes. The swamp’s large cast also included Albert, a raffish, cigar-smoking alligator of large appetites, a turtle named Churchy La Femme who wore of pirate hat and had an keen eye for the ladies, Beauregard, a hound dog with a Sherlock Holmes orientation, an owl name Howland who was the swamp’s leading scientist and also occasional newspaper editor, a porcupine named Porkypine who had a knack for seeing the dismal side of things and being disappointed when the worst didn’t happen, Madamzelle Hepzibah, a romantic skunk with an accent fresh from Paris who loved to be wooed but was never won, and the fox Seminole Sam, a lawyer by trade who would never walk past a penny without putting it in his pocket, perhaps emptying your pocket while he was at it.

There was also P.T. Bridgeport, a bear in striped jacket and boater hat who spoke in circus-poster lettering and in my mind sounded like W.C. Fields. He was the model showman-salesman in a nation fascinated by shows and selling.

I mustn’t leave out Wiley Cat, who at a certain point in the strip’s history began to bear an astonishing resemblance to Joseph McCarthy. Wiley Cat saw sedition if the roses had red petals or if he found a red hen in the farmyard. You had to be a brave cartoonist in those days to dare making fun of the junior Senator from Wisconsin — being laughed at was not something that warmed his cold-war heart.

Not least in the cast was Deacon Mushrat, a severe, bespeckled muskrat who more a black morning coat, had a black string tie, spoke in black Gothic script, was in permanent pulpit-mode, smiled only when receiving the collection plate, and was in favor of kindness to the needy so long as the beneficiaries were abjectly grateful and didn’t forget to say “Amen.”

It was a well-drawn, wonderfully funny strip packed with puns and poetry and, on occasion, a good-humored political bite. Few people in America took on the fifties as daringly as Walt Kelly, including our obsession with spies, traitors, and nuclear weapons. He got away with it because he pretended this was just a comic strip and that these were, after all, only talking animals in a remote swamp. But of course these verbose animals were human beings in a paper-thin disguise. They were us, we were them. Their swamp was our country.

You may wonder why Jim Forest, who is supposed to be talking about “Following Christ in a Violent World,” is instead talking about a comic strip on the 1950s? The answer is that, while I was thinking about what I might say here in Canton, I found myself haunted by a single sentence that Pogo said many a time during the years this strip was being drawn: We have met the enemy and he is us.

This is the key verse from the Gospel According to Pogo.*

We have met the enemy and he is us, as I was to learn later in life, sums up a lot of the writings of the Church Fathers, the principal theologians of Christianity’s first millennium.

If you read the Fathers, you find that one of their main subjects is spiritual warfare, a life-long inner struggle against those soul-destroying tendencies the Church Fathers called passions. It is a battle with all those temptations and attitudes that, unresisted, can carry me or any of us to hell. In a world in which bad choices and enmity not only rise up in our darker thoughts but are relentlessly promoted day in and day out via the mass media, spiritual warfare is something no Christian can get along without.

It is striking how often the Church has used military metaphors to describe ordinary Christian life. In the Book of Revelations, John the Evangelist sees a two-edged sword emerges from Christ’s mouth. Paul uses not only a sword but helmet and shield in describing basic attributes of Christian life. In doing this he is only enlarging on Christ’s own words. He said that he came “not to bring peace but a sword.”

Sadly, it’s a text that has sometimes been used to justify weapons and warfare, though such a reading goes flat when we notice that Christ had no sword, killed no one, and blessed neither armies nor wars, not even the liberation war that was gathering steam under the Zealots in those days. As St. Tikhon, Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church in the first years of Communism, said in 1919 in an effort to prevent Orthodox Christians from participating in civil war:

For the Christian, the ideal is Christ, who used no sword to defend Himself, who brought the sons of thunder to peace, having prayed for His enemies on the Cross. For the Christian, the guiding light is the command of the holy Apostle, who suffered much for his Savior and who sealed his dedication to Him by his death.

In the Gospels we meet the Christ of healing and forgiveness, the Christ who brings the dead back to life. He speaks admiringly of the faith of a Roman centurion — an officer of Rome’s army of occupation — who seeks his help. He prevents the execution of a woman who had been found guilt of adultery. His final healing miracle before his crucifixion was on behalf of one of the men who had come to arrest him, someone wounded by Peter in his effort to use a sword to defend Christ. The early Church took very much to heart what Christ said to Peter on that occasion: “Whoever lives by the sword will perish by the sword.”

Yet, reflecting on the lives of the saints and the Church’s history, we see that Christ did indeed bring a sword.

There is the sword of division that occurs whenever a follower of Christ obeys God rather than man. The Church’s many martyrs are mainly men and women who suffered for failing to be the kind of people the authorities wanted them to be.

The sword also symbolizes truth, with its razor-sharp edge. It’s interesting to reflect that Gandhi’s word for nonviolence, satyagraha, means much more than the mere avoidance of violence. Satyagraha means the power of truth. Each time we recite the prayer that begins “Oh heavenly King,” we remind ourselves that the Holy Spirit is the spirit of truth. Living in the truth, being truthful people, is a sine qua non of spiritual life, that is life in the Holy Spirit. And it is no easy undertaking. While we remain in this world, it’s an endless battle. “Tell the truth,” says my wife’s screen-saver. “Don’t be afraid.” She is a profoundly truthful person but apparently even she needs to be reminded not to let fear keep her from trying to know the truth and to tell it.

I learned partly from our daughter Anne just how powerful a symbol the sword can be. Anne was about sword-length herself at the time and night after night she was having dragon nightmares. Our response was to purchase a silver-colored plastic sword from a local toy store and give it to her, hoping it might aid her in her night-time encounters with dragons — and it did. She felt much safer and stronger when she closed her eyes at night. In the course of several years, she wore out three plastic swords before she decided she no longer need a sword in bed with her. Before that day came, I can recall her surprise when she noticed Nancy and I didn’t sleep with a sword. Once at breakfast I mentioned a dream that had disturbed my sleep the night before.”You know, daddy,” she said, “if you had sword, you wouldn’t have dreams like that.”

It is not only children who battle dragons. Dragons symbolize evil. They are an image of anything that makes us afraid. Sooner or later we meet real dragons. We even find discover some of them have dug caves in our own souls. We are obliged to fight them. This is spiritual warfare. This is what the icon of Saint George the Great Martyr is all about. It is not that George had a white horse and went around looking for dragons to test his warrior skills and rescue ladies in distress. This young soldier probably didn’t have a horse and never saw a dragon. The actual dragon he met was imperial persecution of Christians. In the era of Diocletian, he suffered torture and was executed for professing his faith. His actual weapon was not a spear but the cross.

However the medieval legend of Saint George reveals the truth in its own metaphorical way and is a profoundly Christian story. An important detail of the legend is that George doesn’t kill the dragon; he only wounds and subdues it. Princess Elizabeth puts the dragon on a leash made from her belt and leads it back to the town. Responding to this miracle of courage, the people of the town are converted and prepare for baptism. The dragon to whom they once sacrificed their children in the end becomes their pet.

Another detail worth pondering is that the unbaptized people of Elizabeth’s town have long had their own solution to living with the dragon: they sacrificed some of their children to it. Human sacrifice to appease dangerous gods was a common practice in the pre-Christian world, and remains a central element in the pseudo- religion of nationalism: the offering of our children to the god of war.

We don’t have to look far to find a dragon. Most of the spiritual warfare we carry on in our lives is in response not to a terrifying creature in the distance but to a familiar adversary we meet in the mirror. The struggle against those soul-destroying tendencies the Church Fathers called passions is a struggle with myself.

We have met the enemy and he is us.

St. Paul tells us that we struggle “not with flesh and blood but with principalities and powers.” (Eph 6:12) This is crucial to any understanding of Christian peacemaking.

I say “Christian peacemaking” and just simply “peacemaking” because our center point is not an ideology or philosophy or political movement of peace. It is Christ himself. It is not simply that Christ is peaceful but rather that he is peace. For us peacemaking is not a secular word. It is participation in who Christ is: the Logos, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, our maker and redeemer, who not only came to live us with us as a man among men, but gives us an example of what is to be fully human, to become people in whom the image of God is not only present, if largely hidden, but has become visible; a people in whom God’s likeness has been restored.

Battling the principalities and powers rather than flesh and blood is the essence of Christian peacemaking and why in the Beatitudes Christ calls peacemakers children of God.

A large part of our struggle with principalities and powers is recognizing that these powers rejoice in God’s sons and daughters being in enmity with each other. This means we have to struggle to overcome whatever makes us into enemies with our fellow human beings. This means trying to identify aspects of the process of enmity — to see the ways in which enmity plants itself in me and the way enmity can become the organizing principal both of one’s own life and of whole societies.

I mentioned the Gospel According to Pogo. We can also speak of the Gospel According to John Wayne — or any other movie star who plays similar roles. This is our main story. It’s a movie we have made thousands of times and continue making. It can be adapted to any background — not only the 19th century western frontier, but 20th century urban strongholds of the Mafia or an intergalactic backdrop a la Star Wars. These are always stories of how decent, brave men find no honorable recourse but to take up a gun and kill those who are evil and indecent. The latter are always people who rejoice in their malevolence. There is no image of God in them. Repentance and conversion are out of the question. The community can only protect itself from the dangers such men pose by killing them. This is our culture’s main story, and a powerful myth it is.

The Christian conviction is that no human being comes from bad seed — no one is genetically programmed to evil. Neither is any of us lacking a capacity for evil. As Solzhenitsyn 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.

[Gulag Archipelago, vol. 2, “The Ascent”]

The person who commits evil deeds has lost his way but, if we wish to see him with Christ’s eyes, we will see him as being in the grip of invisible powers which are making use of his life. The man himself is not our enemy, only the demons who have gained a foothold in his life. Our hope is that the person threatening our lives today may in the future be someone we need no longer fear, and that we might either help in his salvation or at least not impede it. But if we see only an enemy in him, someone to hate, we are already in hell, we are in the kingdom of hatred.

“The Church never has any enemies,” Archbishop Anastasios told me when I was in Albania in March. “We may be regarded as enemies but we have no enemies.” These words come from the leader of a Church which suffered one of the harshest persecutions in the history of Christianity. This is no vague, distant memory. Many of the persecutors are still alive. Many of them still hate every manifestation of religion, especially Christianity.

As was the case with the early Church, the Church in Albania refuses to have enemies. It is not fighting a “holy war” against them, not even thinking a holy war against them, but rather has a paschal confidence that anyone, no matter how much an enemy he has been or seems to be, can in the blink of an eye become a fellow disciple of Jesus Christ or in some other way devoted to God and no longer anyone’s enemy. The key word is conversion.

In the early Church the primary model of transformation is Paul. He was among the most passionate enemies of Christianity at first, a man who approved of Christ’s crucifixion and consented to the execution by stoning of the Church’s first deacon, Stephen. Yet Christ makes of him not only a disciple but an Apostle as well as one of the authors of the New Testament. We find other models in the repentant thief crucified with Jesus, in St. Mary Magdalene, in St. Moses the Black, in St. Mary of Egypt and in so many others.

Peacemaking begins with the eyes, with the way we see others. A nun friend of mine often uses the phrase “hospitality of the face.” Our face should be a place in which others experience a real welcome.

Peacemaking is also a life of prayer for the other, not only those whom we love but also those we fear, those who threaten us. Christ’s commandment is, “Love your enemies, pray for them.” Take this out of the Gospel and you have removed the keel from the ship. How can we love an enemy whom we do not pray for? It is impossible.

If we want to overcome enmity, it starts with prayer. This is not a small or easy step. The fact is that the last person in the world we really want to pray for is the person we fear or despise. The first glimpse we have of the enemy within ourselves is our reluctance to pray for those whom we fear or hate. We need to keep a list of our enemies and make prayer for them part of our daily life.

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

Keep in mind that love is not simply a sentimental condition — happy, joyful feelings for certain beloved persons. Love is how we respond to the other. It is doing what we can safeguard his life and to pray for his salvation. If you say you love someone but you let him starve to death, there is no love. If you say you love God but you abandon your neighbor, there is no love for God.

Yet how hard it is to overcome the temptation not to seek God’s image in other people. On the contrary, how easy it is not to see that image or even to imagine its exists. Truly we have met the enemy and he is us.

Some years ago, at a Syndesmos conference on the Greek island of Crete, I gave a talk in which I summarized Orthodox teaching about war. I pointed out that the Orthodox Church has never embraced the just war doctrine, that the Church regards war as inevitably sinful in nature even in cases where no obvious alternative to war can be found, that no one has ever been canonized for killing, that priests are forbidden by canon law to kill or cause the death of others, and that under all circumstances and at all times every baptized person is commanded by Christ to love our enemies. There was nothing remarkable in what I said, no novel doctrines, nothing borrowed from non-Orthodox sources, yet the lecture stirred up a controversy not only in the hall in which I was speaking but into the city itself, as the translator’s words were being broadcast live over the diocesan radio station.

The debate continued that night when the local bishop, Metropolitan Irinaios, and I took part in a radio conversation with listeners. Responding to a man who called in to denounce Turks as barbarians who only understood violence, I summarized what Christ had to say on the subject of loving one’s enemies and pointed out that Christ lived, died and rose from the dead in a country suffering occupation, yet he neither blessed nor took part in the Zealot’s armed struggle against the occupiers. “That’s all very well,” the caller responded, “but now let me tell you about a real saint.” He preceded to tell me about a priest who, in the 19th century, played a valiant role in the war to drive the Turks off the island.

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

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

Most of us will readily admit we are only partial Christians — that is to say, our conversion is far from complete. When we go to confession, we don’t even try confessing all of our sins because no priest in the world would have time to hear them all. We try to think what the main ones are and focus on them, or perhaps deal with them thematically. We’re painfully aware that we have far to go.

We have met the enemy and he is us.

One of the great obstacles is that we tend to be more nation- than Christ-centered people. We are formed less by the Gospel than by a particular economic, social, political and cultural milieu. Our thoughts, values, choices, “life style” — all these tend to be formed by the mass culture in which we are born and raised. In America Christians easily find themselves following a Christ who has been Americanized: a Christ who smiles like a presidential candidate, a Christ of success rather than the cross, a Christ who blesses manifest destiny, a Christ untroubled by our wars, or by the Cuban or Iraqi children made dead by economic sanctions, or all the children killed before birth through abortion, or the many ways we push our neighbors toward tragic choices by our failures to help or to develop structures of mutual support.

Yet we have in the Church so many saints who provide us with models of what it means to follow Christ wholeheartedly, without holding anything back.

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

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

Mother Maria had been married and become a mother before taking the monastic path. Before that happened her husband left her and one of her children had died. She embraced a celibate vocation, but her understanding of monastic life was not the traditional one of withdrawal. She was opposed to living a life that might impose “even the subtlest barrier which might separate the heart from the world and its wounds.” Like any Orthodox Christian, the Liturgy was at the core of her life, but it was seen giving daily life a divine imprint. “The meaning of the Liturgy must be translated into life,” she said. “It is why Christ came into the world and why he gave us our Liturgy.” She was determined to live a life in which the works of mercy were central. As she wrote: “At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked, Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked.”

No one has lived in a more violent time than she, a time in which there were more temptations to keep one’s head down and quietly survive. Yet instead she and those who worked with her give us a model of centering one’s life on those whose lives are threatened. Then it was especially the Jews. In our time the list of those in danger is much longer, including not only the born but the unborn as well as those who are handicapped or old. We live in what many people have come to identify as a culture of death. The only question each of us must struggle with is where to focus our life-saving activity. It is not just a question of saving lives but making clear to others, through our response to them, that they bear God’s image — thus that there is a God, and that God is love.

We have met the enemy and he is us — no small foe. Yet if we will only cooperate in Christ’s mercy, struggling day by day to die to self, day by day our conversion will continue.

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

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

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* In an interview with actress and author Emma Thompson published by The New York Times 22 September 2012, she is asked: “If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?” Her response: “The president — any president — could usefully acquaint him/herself with Walt Kelly’s cartoon strip of Pogo Possum living in the swamps of Georgia. Very perspicacious about politics.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/23/books/review/emma-thompson-by-the-book.html?nl=books&emc=edit_bk_20120921

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A memory of Pope John Paul II

by Jim Forest

Adoldfo Perez Esquivel, Jim Forest and Pope John Paul II

In April 1977, in my first year year as General Secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, we received an urgent phone call from Buenos Aires with the news that Adolfo Perez Esquivel, leader of Argentina’s human right movement Servicio Paz y Justicia, had been kidnapped by the secret police. In that period, when Argentina was being ruled by a military dictatorship, this meant that within a matter of a few days Adolfo was likely to be dead. Those who “disappeared” were rarely seen again.

We responded by calling one of the recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize, Mairead Corrigan in Belfast. We knew she had met Adolfo and greatly respected the movement he led in Latin America. Our proposal was that she immediately nominate Adolfo for the Nobel Peace Prize, a right given to each Nobel recipient. We knew that Adolfo was unlikely to be regarded as a serious candidate for such an honor (at that time the award had been going to people like Henry Kissinger), but our hope was that the nomination would make the Argentinean generals more cautious about Adolfo’s life.

Within an hour Mairead had sent a letter to the Nobel Committee in Oslo proposing Adolfo’s name. The next day both his disappearance and the Nobel nomination were in the world press. Our staff gathered together and sent to the Nobel Committee all that we had on file that might support Adolfo’s nomination though it was, in our minds, entirely a pro forma action.

Our action was successful — Adolfo was not murdered. Though repeatedly tortured, fourteen weeks later he was released — was one of the fortunate few “desaparecidos” to return alive from Argentina’s secret prisons.

Following his release, we thought no more about his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. Adolfo had survived and had resumed his work — this is all we had hoped for. We had our prize. But then in the late summer the phone rang — a call from Oslo with the news, shortly to be made public, that the committee had decided that Adolfo should be given the prize. I was so unprepared for such a decision that I thought at first the call might be a hoax.

On the 10th of December I was with Adolfo and his family for the award ceremony in Oslo. We had been put up in what must have been the city’s most elegant hotel. On the morning of the presentation, we were driven by limousine the few blocks to the aula. It might have taken us longer to arrange ourselves in the car than it would have taken us to walk the short distance to the hall where the award was to be given.

Weeks before the trip to Oslo, Adolfo had phoned from Buenos Aires to ask me to arrange a meeting with Pope John Paul in the days following the Nobel ceremony. I called the Papal Nuncio in The Hague and explained to him Adolfo’s hope that there might be such a meeting. He assured me there would be no problem. I warned him that the Argentinean hierarchy, so compromised in its association with the military junta, was likely to do all in its power to block such a meeting, but the nuncio was optimistic. “The Holy Father decides on such matters himself,” he said. He was confident of a positive response. A few days later the Nuncio called with the news that we could meet Pope John Paul for a private audience in the papal throne room on such and such a date — as I recall, it was the 13th of December, but it’s now too long ago for me to be sure.

Before the private audience there was the pope’s weekly public audience in the Aula Paolo VI, a large hall close to St. Peter’s Basilica. We were given places in the press gallery, which meant having an opportunity to see the remarkable way the pope, as he walked down the center of the aula, repeatedly stopped and listened to people desperately eager to say something to him or receive a blessing. It must have taken half an hour for him to make his way to the front of the hall. As a journalist, I had often watched famous and powerful people encountering crowds, but had never before seen anyone respond with such patient care, indeed with such love, to person after person. It was astonishing. Pope John Paul’s impressed me as a man of inexhaustible energy. It was easy to imagine that he had been a mountain climber earlier in his life.

Finally the pope reached his throne in the front of the hall. Behind it was a large modern sculpture representing Christ’s resurrection. Once the pope was seated, the master of ceremonies announced various pilgrim groups who were present in the hall. Then the pope gave a lecture on marriage, part of a series on this topic. Later these were gathered together and published as a book.

After the audience there were meetings with individual pilgrim groups, beginning with a crowd of people who had physical handicaps. Pope John Paul spent a little time with each person.

These encounters were still going on when the Vatican staff person responsible for us escorted us to the papal throne room located elsewhere in the building. Here we waited for perhaps half an hour. To Adolfo’s dismay, Adolfo’s wife went and sat briefly on the papal throne at the far end of the room. “I am the first woman pope,” she announced, laughing. I have a feeling Pope John Paul would have laughed with her had he found her at this moment.

When the pope at last entered the room he seemed not at all tired from his speech and many meetings. We immediately got down to business. For Adolfo this was not simply an opportunity to meet the pope and receive a blessing. He had a definite agenda.

Adolfo not only wanted to thank John Paul for his efforts to prevent a war between Argentina and Chile, an event that was far from unlikely at the time, but to present to the pope a letter many young Argentineans and Chileans had signed thanking him for his personal efforts to prevent such a war and promising him that, in the event his efforts failed, they would refuse to fight in that war. John Paul looked carefully at the letter and the many pages of signatures, and — speaking in Spanish — expressed his gratitude for the courage of those who had signed it.

Next Adolfo gave the pope a large album of photos, with explanatory text, of people who had been kidnapped in Argentina and never seen alive again — the “desaparecidos.” Not simply accepting this as something he might look at later, the pope looked through the album page by page. Meanwhile the conversation with Adolfo continued in Spanish. Adolfo told the pope about his own experience being kidnapped and tortured not many month before and expressed his sadness that the Argentinean hierarchy had been silent about the crimes committed by the junta.

A third item on the agenda concerned the Church in El Salvador. Earlier in the year Archbishop Oscar Romero had been shot through the heart while celebrating Mass. Adolfo urged the pope to appoint the acting archbishop, Arturo Rivera Damas, to become Romero’s successor, putting forward reasons for such an appointment. This was a controversial proposal. There were many in El Salvador’s power structure who wanted a bishop who would bless their activities, not condemn them. The pope listened carefully and promised that what Adolfo asked for would be done. (In fact Rivera Damas remained Apostolic Administrator until February 1983.)

The pope had gifts for us — we each received a silver rosary. We had a gift for him as well, a copy of my biography of Thomas Merton, which had recently been published. Merton’s writings had been an important influence in Adolfo’s life. It seemed to Adolfo this would be the perfect gift for us to leave with Pope John Paul. This was the one moment in the audience when I had a brief exchange with the pope. Adolfo had introduced me as the book’s author. Pope John Paul, switching from Spanish to English, asked me if I had known Merton. Yes, I responded. He had been my spiritual father during the last seven years of his life. John Paul said he too was a great admirer of Merton’s writings. A close friend of his, he said, was the publisher of his own writings in Poland and also the publisher of Polish translations of many of Merton’s books. He had read them all, he said, and still had them in his library. He looked through the book, pausing over various photos.

At this point a bishop who had been standing behind the pope throughout the audience reminded him that our audience had taken considerably longer than had been scheduled. The pope apologized, gave us a final blessing, and left for his next appointment.

There is one other detail on the story worth including here — a lesson in how even the pope’s example sometimes had little influence on his own curia.

In the weeks before the trip to Rome I had tried but failed to arrange a meeting with the cardinal who headed the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace. The morning following our papal audience, Adolfo decided we should go, even without an appointment, and seek a meeting on the spot. After all, the picture of our meeting with Pope John Paul was on the front page of Rome’s newspapers. If Pope John Paul would meet us, surely a cardinal would.

We had a good friend on the cardinal’s staff. Once we arrived at the palace where the Commission was located, we asked the receptionist to contact our friend. A few minutes later he appeared, obviously in panic. “Please leave immediately,” he begged. “The cardinal refuses to see you and does not want you in the building. If you don’t leave, I will be fired and never have a job again in the Vatican civil service.” He said he would meet us in fifteen minutes at a certain nearby cafe. Meeting again at the café, he explained that the Argentinean hierarchy had more influence in his department than the pope.

That was disappointing — and a lesson in curial realities. But what overshadows all other memories of our days in Rome was the meeting with Pope John Paul, who turned out to be a very attentive listener and not simply a famous man appearing for a photo opportunity.

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Jim Forest
Kanisstraat 5 / 1811 GJ Alkmaar / The Netherlands
e-mail: [email protected]
Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site: http://www.incommunion.org
Jim & Nancy Forest web site: http://www.jimandnancyforest.com
photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/collections/
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The Essence of Sin is Fear of the Other

lecture given by Jim Forest at Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester, England, on February 10, 2005

Thinking about the theme of this lecture — the essence of sin is fear of the other — a particular story came to mind, one I’ve often thought about for almost twenty years. It involves the sort of dangerous encounter that none of us would wish for: the invasion of one’s home by a killer armed with a deadly weapon. This is a true account of what occurred in one household two decades ago, in February 1984.

At the center of the story is Mrs. Louise Degrafinried, 73 years old at the time, and her husband, Nathan. They lived near Mason, Tennessee, a rural community northeast of Memphis. Both were members of the Mount Sinai Primitive Baptist Church.

The other key participant is Riley Arzeneaux, a former Marine sergeant who was serving a 25-year prison term for murder. He had escaped from Pillow State Prison several days before along with four other inmates. Once on the run, Riley had gone his own way. Somehow he had obtained a gun. The police were in active pursuit both in cars and helicopters — a massive manhunt. Riley had been sleeping rough. It was winter. There was ice on his boots. He was freezing and hungry.

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

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

Riley put the weapon on the couch. He said, “Lady, I’m hungry. I haven’t eaten in three days.”

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

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

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

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

All the while the police have been searching for the Riley and the other four convicts. Louise had been on the phone when Riley arrived — as a result of the abrupt ending of the call, her friend had alerted the police. Now they could hear the approaching sirens of police cars. “They gonna kill me when they get here,” Riley said.

Louise told Riley to stay where he was while she went out to talk to the police.

Several police cars had surrounded the house. Guns ready, policemen had taken shelter behind their cars in expectation that Riley might open fire on them. Instead they were face to face with an old black women, Louise Degrafinried.

Standing on her porch, she spoke to the police exactly as she had spoken to Riley. “Y’all put those guns away. I don’t allow no violence here.”

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

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

Another of the five, Ronald Lewis Freeman, was killed in a shot-out with police the following month.

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

Thanks to the Degrafinrieds, Riley’s life was not cut short, though twenty more years were added to his prison sentence. Louise initiated correspondence with Riley. She asked for his photo and put it in her family album. Throughout his remaining years in prison — he was freed in 1995 — Louise kept in touch with Riley and he with her. Louise actively worked for Riley release.

“He usually called on her birthday and around Christmas time,” Louise’s daughter, Ida Marshall, related to a journalist after her mother’s death in 1998. It was Ida Marshall who wrote Riley with the news of Louise’s death.

Louise had enormous impact on Riley’s life. “After looking back over all my life in solitary, I realized I’d been throwing my life away,” he said in a 1991 interview.

Riley recalls praying with Louise Degrafinried when she came to visit him in prison. “She started off her prayer,” he recalled, “by saying ‘God, this is your child. You know me, and I know you.'” “That’s the kind of relationship I want to have with God,” Riley said.

In 1988, Riley became a Christian. “I realized,” he explained, “that meeting the Degrafinrieds and other things that happened in my life just couldn’t be coincidences. After all that, I realized someone was looking over me.”

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

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

Riley Arzeneaux now lives in Nashville where he works as a foreman at Crown Tent & Awning Company. He and his wife have a son.

I cannot say this is the end of the story. As you can see the consequences of that extraordinary encounter in Mason back in 1984 are still with us.

There is a lot of implicit theology in what happened that day. A large part of the Gospel is woven into this story.

One of the most striking elements in the story is hospitality. Far from begging for their lives, the Degrafinrieds focused their attention on receiving Riley into their home. They put clean, dry socks on his feet. They put out their best napkins. They cooked for him and ate with him. They held nothing back. He was addressed in caring, disarming terms — Louise prefaces much that she says with the words, “young man.” They prayed with their guest and invited him to pray. When Riley couldn’t think of a prayer, Louise proposed a Gospel verse that connected Riley directly to Christ’s sorrow: “Jesus wept.” Indeed Jesus weeps for Riley and all those like him, people who have lost their way in life and become a hazard to themselves and others. Riley was made safe in the Degrafinried home and then his hosts protected him from the police. Even when he was back in prison, the hospitality continued. Far from thanking God they have survived Riley’s visit and hoping never to see him again, the Degrafinrieds came to regard Riley as a member of the family. His relationship with Louise and Nathan has even veen taken up by their children. Riley was given a place of honor at Louise’s funeral, was called on to speak, and joined family members in carrying her body to its final resting place. Not many months ago Riley was a guest speaker at the Mason elementary school whose principal is one of the Degrafinried children. The hospitality that Riley experienced 21 years ago continues to this day.

Hospitality is an essential dimension of Christian life. We experience the hospitality of Christ in receiving communion. The church is a community of eucharistic hospitality.

Hospitality has to do with our willingness to make room in our lives not only for those who in some way are related to us — spouses, children, relatives, friends, neighbors, co-workers, employers, etc. — but for those who are strangers or even people we prefer to avoid.

Every act of welcoming engagement with others is an act of hospitality. In marriage, hospitality becomes a vocation: a man and a woman commit themselves to a lifetime of welcoming each other. Parenthood is hospitality to our own children. The circles of hospitality are small at first but gradually widen. The front door of one’s home acquires a sacramental significance: the place we welcome others.

Christ calls us toward an extremely difficult level of hospitality: the love of enemies. But to understand such love we need to reconsider the word “love.” As used in the New Testament, it has nothing to do with romantic love. The love Christ speaks of is like the sun shining on both the just and the unjust, love that does not depend of affinity or affection, love that struggles to protect the life of the other and even hopes to assist in saving the soul of the other. The “other” is the stranger, the outrider, the person who irritates us, the competitor, the enemy. “Love your enemies,” Christ commands, “and pray for them.” Enemy, if understood in the Latin sense — that is inamicus — simply means non-friend. We may be hesitant to recognize many people as our enemies, but the world provides us with an enormous number of non-friends.

Our very salvation depends upon communion — with God and with each other. It’s a theme at the core of the Gospel. Christ doesn’t often speak about the Last Judgement, but when he does, it is in terms of mercy. He says that mercy will be given to those who were merciful. The hospitality of heaven will be given to those who offered hospitality. “I tell you solemnly,” he says, “that what you did to the least person you did to me.” He gives a series of specific examples: food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, clothing for the naked, welcoming the homeless, caring for the sick, visiting those in prison. These are all very concrete actions that Christ speaks of — not very “theological,” if we think of theology as a realm of intellectual activity, of principles and insights, etc. Many Christians would prefer a Last Judgment that concentrated on their professed beliefs rather than their actions. We would rather the doors of heaven open to us because we had recited the Creed correctly and had an excellent attendance record in regard to church services.

Hospitality is at the heart of Louise and Nathan’s response to the arrival of Riley Arzeneaux at their door. Equally striking is their freedom from fear. No doubt they had heard via radio and TV that five armed men had escaped from prison and that a manhunt was underway. For several days local people had been repeatedly warned about five convicts being at large and advised to take precautions. A good many people understood that to mean that they ought to keep their weapons handy. America has a well developed gun culture. Many own guns precisely for such contingencies. But there is no trace of reliance on firepower in the Degrafinried household. As Louise says to both Riley and to the police, “I am a Christian lady. I don’t allow no violence here.”

Where does one obtain the kind of fearlessness that makes it possible to receive an escaped murder as a guest sent by God? All I can guess from the articles and interviews I have read is that the Degrafinrieds had been freed from fear by the depth of their conversion to Christ, the Christ who entered Jerusalem knowing that his crucifixion awaited him, the Christ who prayed on the cross that those who were involved in his execution could be forgiven, the Christ who rose from the dead. The resurrection of the dead refers not only to our final rising but how we are living our lives before death. The Degrafinrieds are people who had already risen from the dead when they met Riley Arzeneaux. They were people who had risen from fear of death. I don’t mean to say there was no longer any trace of fear in their lives, only that fear was clearly not the driving force.

Many who have written on the spiritual life have emphasized the necessity of overcoming fear. The monk and author Thomas Merton wrote: “One of the things we must cast out first of all is fear. Fear narrows the little entrance of our heart. It shrinks up our capacity to love. It freezes up our power to give ourselves.” [Seasons of Celebration, p 116]

Fear has its function in life. It’s something like an alarm clock. It’s a helpful means of rising from sleep on time, but not something that you want ringing 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Unfortunately for most of us the alarm clock of fear is ringing much too often. Most of us are still prisoners of fear. We make many choices, small and large, because of fear. Most of us take great care not to do things that involve grave risks, especially the risk of being in the company of potentially dangerous people. They frighten us. Fear stands in our way — fear of death, fear of the other. When things we sought to avoid happen despite our best efforts to avoid them, we tend to be paralyzed. If a young Riley Arzeneaux armed with a shotgun were suddenly to appear at our door, not many of us would find space within ourselves to worry about his freezing feet or his empty stomach. Probably we would feel like people on an airplane about to crash.

Blocked by fear, we are people who have not yet acquired the spirit of peace.

One of the especially beloved saints of the Orthodox Church is St Seraphim of Sarov. “Acquire the Spirit of Peace,” he would sometimes say, “and thousands of people around you will be saved.” Seraphim lived much of his life as a hermit in the Russian forest but had countless visitors. Hospitality was a major aspect of his life. Most of his visitors were pious people seeking advice, but not all his visitors were safe. A bear would sometimes come to visit him. Seraphim explained to a terrified nun who once happened to witness Seraphim sharing his bread with the bear that he, after all, understood fasting but the bear did not. On another occasion Seraphim was visited by several thieves who heard that was a treasure buried in his log cabin. Not finding it, they nearly beat him to death. In portraits of Seraphim in later life, you see him stooped over, his back permanently damaged, supported by a walking stick. He did nothing to defend himself from the thieves nor did he seek their punishment. He saw the robbers as “unfortunate ones,” a term Russians in former times often used in referring to people we tend to refer to in harsher, more condemnatory terms: criminals, convicts, pathological killers, etc. Seraphim’s attitude was not unlike Louise Degrafinried, who assured Riley Arzeneaux that he wasn’t by nature an evil man, only had fallen into bad company.

Shaped as we are by what I sometimes call the Gospel According to John Wayne, we tend to think of a significant part of the human race being composed of people who are genetically evil. Either the evil is somewhere in their DNA or they were so damaged early in life that they have became unchangeably dangerous and need to be either permanently isolated or simply executed. But the Christian view is that each person, as a descendent of Adam and Eve, bears the divine image and that no one, even the most demon-possessed person, is incapable of repentance and conversion.

Another saint of the Orthodox Church, St. John of Kronstadt, said: “Never confuse the person, formed in the image of God, with the evil that is in him, because evil is but a chance misfortune, illness, a devilish reverie. But the very essence of the person is the image of God, and this remains in him despite every disfigurement.”

St. John of Kronstadt was not a person who had any illusions about human beings and our capacity to commit serious sins. Kronstadt was a naval base not far from St. Petersburg, a place of much drunkenness, prostitution, and disorderly behavior. The people St. John met in daily life, and whose confessions he often witnessed, were frequently men who had committed acts of violence. He knew quite well the grave sins men commit, and also was familiar with the human talent for justifying our sins.

In the same period when St. John was serving the sailors in Kronstadt, Dostoevsky was writing novels which explored what lies behind our sins. In the novel Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky provides his readers with a richly detailed account of how a bright young man in St. Petersburg, Raskolnikov, gradually becomes a murderer: how he uses his clever mind to turn the unthinkable into the doable, how he develops an ideology that not only permits but justifies murder, how what he would once have recognized as a great sin is made into an act of heroic virtue. He comes to sees himself as having become a superman, a Napoleon-like person who has freed himself from the prison on “bourgeois morality.”

Raskolinokov’s name was carefully chosen by Dostoevsky. “Raskol” means division or schism: a radical break in wholeness, the destruction of community. The break occurs first invisibly, in his spiritual and intellectual life, only later through bloody deeds. Through murder, Raskolnikov has become a schismatic destroyer of society. He has altogether lost the awareness of the existence of God. Through an act of double homicide, he has severed his bonds with all the human beings around him.

Having committed murder, first intellectually, then in action, Raskolnikov is no longer a person, only an individual. A person is the self in a state of communion with others, a communion made possible by being in a state of communion with God. An individual is the self experienced in a state of apartheid.

Dostoevsky’s novel is not only a study of how a man becomes a murderer but also how he repents. In the latter part of Crime and Punishment, the reader witnesses a process of change in Raskolnikov that results in conversion.

We catch a glimpse of the younger Raskolnikov in Riley Arzeneaux in his first encounter with Louise and Nathan Degrafinried. He is in such a fear-driven and disconnected state that he is able to threaten the lives of two elderly strangers. Riley had lost the capacity to care, to empathize, to love.

But it’s quite different for Louise and Nathan. They are able to glimpse the image of God in Riley. They see in him an angry child who has lost his way, someone who urgently needs to be cared for. In their response to Riley Arzeneaux, they provide us with a model of loving hospitality and of a life not ruled by fear.

If the essence of sin is fear of the other, the essence of our healing is love of the other. It’s what the Gospel is all about: God’s mysterious love of us despite all the efforts we make not to be lovable, and how transforming love can be when it passes through one life to another — as happened 21 years ago in a small house in Mason, Tennessee.

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The most detailed account of the story I’ve come upon was “Bless You, Mrs. Degrafinried” by William H. Willimon, published in Christian Century, March 14, 1984. It was based on the author’s interview with Louise Degrafinried. I have found additional details in various Memphis newspaper accounts published in 1998 after the death of Louise Degrafinried as well as in a recording of a talk by Riley Arzeneaux given in 2004 at the Northwest Elementary School in Mason, Tennessee. The school’s principal is a daughter of Louise Degrafinried.

Face to Face on Guernsey

Nancy and I were on Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands not far from the French coast of Normandy, from Friday afternoon through Tuesday morning. The occasion for being there was to lead a retreat on pilgrimage, but we had two days to visit friends and explore parts of the island, eight by four miles, with its beaches, bays, cliffs and forests.

One of the highlights was seeing a Celtic burial chamber, Le Déhus Dolmen, more than 4000 years old, and finding carved into its ceiling an astonishing icon-like face.

The chamber is about ten meters deep and not quite two meters high at maximum, walled by large standing stones, with another standing stone in the center of the main chamber, and huge stones forming a roof. Over the stone roof is a grassed-over earthen mound.

Jim Forest