(This is the text of the now out-of-print children’s book published in England by Hunt & Thorpe and, in translation, in several European counties. As yet there has been no US edition — the American religious publishers I submitted it to judged it too secular while secular publishers found it too religious. The illustrations are by Len Munnik. A nearly complete set of his drawings for the book is here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/sets/72157642153355175/)
by Jim Forest
People tell me how lucky I am to be a whale — biggest creature on earth, go where I like, no need of money, built in shower, my picture in National Geographic magazine.
It’s true, up to a point. Being a whale has its bright side. I wouldn’t trade places with man or elephant, not for all the shrimp in the Pacific. On the other flipper, being a whale has its dark side.
Consider water. Believe me, water isn’t what it used to be. You only have to read about it. I have to swim in it. Whatever people don’t want they drop in the ocean.
On top of that a whale has to eat more than you can imagine. It goes with being immense. We haven’t much choice about what goes in when we open our mouths and the quality has been going down. We get a lot of plastic these days.
Then there are whale hunters with their harpoons. It’s a lucky whale who lives long enough to become a grandparent. I’ve been one of the few to reach a ripe old age.
Keep in mind that you’re listening to the oldest living whale, a rider of the currents for three thousand years. A true ancient. Big as I am, there is hardly space in me for all my stories. I could tell you tales from now till the olives are ripe on the north pole.
My strangest story concerns a man named Jonah. Probably you’ve heard about Jonah. He has his own book in the Bible. He became quite famous, not that he would approve of that. He was shy when I swallowed him and even shyer when I unswallowed him.
A cranky fellow, Jonah was, all elbows and whiskers and words with needles in them, the most uncomfortable item that ever took up residence in me.
I’ll never forget the day I became his hiding place. There was the sort of storm that happens once every hundred years and in the middle of it a sailing ship with a band of frantic men on board — a sight to make a whale weep.
The sailors were more desperate than the wind, praying to this god and that, promising to do all sorts of things if only they lived to tell about it, and, just in case their gods weren’t interested, throwing the cargo overboard to lighten up the ship.
Then they dragged poor Jonah up from the hold. He had been hiding out down below. “Call upon your God,” the captain said to Jonah. “Maybe your God will listen.”
“I’m not on speaking terms with God,” Jonah told him.
“But aren’t you a Jew?” he asked, “and don’t Jews pray?”
“Yes, I’m a Jew. I worship the one God who made the oceans and the dry land. But God and I are having an argument. I decided the only solution was to move. I hoped God wouldn’t pay attention to me in Tarshish but it’s clear I’m not allowed to go that way.”
Jonah insisted that the storm was all his fault and said the only way to save the ship was to throw him into the waves.
“Throw yourself in,” the sailors told him. “Impossible,” he said. “Suicide is a sin.”
The sailors were decent men. They didn’t want to do it at first. But the storm got worse and finally they gave in. The sailors never saw me. What they noticed was that no sooner had they given Jonah the heave-ho than there was a patch of blue in the sky and the winds were dying down. This impressed them no end. Several of them took to Jonah’s God from that day on.
I swallowed Jonah on the spur of the moment. Not to eat him! Whales have no taste for people. No, it was a just a friendly gesture. My mother always said, “Do the right thing.” She once saved a whaler, though some of the family criticized her for it. “If your enemy is drowning, rescue him,” she said. Very devout, my mother was. A bit of it must have rubbed off on me.
Jonah was no trouble the first day. He slept like a log, and felt like one.
When he woke up the next day, this same Jonah who wouldn’t pray on the ship hardly stopped praying. He knew all the psalms by heart.
When he wasn’t praying, he was griping about the inside of whales — too smelly, too cramped, too dark and no bedding.
I asked what the trouble was. It turned out that God was urging him to be a prophet.
“Get up,” God had said to him, “go to Nineveh and speak out against that city’s wicked ways.”
“Why didn’t you say yes?” I asked. “Interesting work and travel to a famous city besides.”
“I have no taste for the job,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, the people of Nineveh can drop dead. Haven’t you heard about them? I told God to burn their city down. Divine wrath — that’s what they need.”
It wasn’t only Nineveh Jonah complained about but his donkey, his rabbi, his neighbors, even God.
“Some God,” he said. “I’m supposed to tell people that their city will be destroyed. What if they repent? Sure as the sun rises in the east, God will forgive them.”
By the third day, Jonah began to look at things from a different angle. It wasn’t that he had changed his mind about Nineveh but he wanted some fresh air. “You win, God,” he said, “I’ll go. It can’t be any worse in Nineveh than it is here.”
Hours later I heaved him out onto a beach. Not a word of thanks did I get for delivering him safe and sound to dry land. All he said was, “See you around.” then off he walked, ignoring the seaweed still clinging to him. He looked like a walking aquarium. Jonah was never one to look in the mirror.
Years later, thanks to a man on a raft from Nineveh, I heard what happened.
“Once inside the city gates that Jonah fellow started giving speeches listing our faults and promising that the city would be turned to charcoal. Perhaps his fishy smell made us pay attention. Also he was the only thing in the market square that was free. Whatever the reason, we listened. A man like that, you had to listen! And what if he was right?
“Finally we repented — fasting, wearing sack cloth, rubbing ourselves with ashes, from the king right down to the street sweepers like me.”
In the end it was as Jonah predicted. God spared the city.
“It was a great disappointment to Jonah,” the man from Nineveh told me. “He never liked our city and wouldn’t even sleep within the walls at night. As soon as it was obvious we had been forgiven and we people started eating and wearing our usual clothes, Jonah began the long walk back to his home in Galilee. I last saw him as he walked out the city gate, complaining still and shaking his fist in the air.”
I doubt Jonah ever liked the merciful side of God. The amazing thing was that God liked Jonah anyway and found something useful for him to do despite his grumpiness. There’s no accounting for God when it comes to that sort of thing. Whales are easier to love.
Young whales sometimes ask me, “Would you do it again?” “I would if I had to,” I tell them, “but let’s hope I’ll be spared. Prophets are hard to swallow.”
Among the cautionary characters the reader encounters in Charles Dickens’s novel of the 1850s, Bleak House, is Mrs. Jellyby, who resolutely devotes every waking hour to the “Borrioboola-Gha venture.” The reader never discovers the details of the endeavor except that it involves the settlement of impoverished Britons among African natives with the goal of supporting themselves through coffee growing. Mrs. Jellyby is convinced that no other undertaking in life is so worthwhile, or would solve so many problems at a stroke. Dickens’ interest is not in the project, however, but rather in Mrs. Jellyby, who is so wedded to her work that she has no time for her several children, with the exception of Caddy, a daughter she has conscripted as her secretary. Ink-spattered Caddy puts in nearly as many hours as her mother in the daily task of answering letters and sending out literature about Borrioboola-Gha.
Far from enjoying the work, Caddy has come to hate the words “Borrioboola-Gha” or even “Africa” or any word that has the remotest suggestion of noble causes. For Caddy, causes simply mean the ruin of family life. Mrs. Jellyby has no time for domestic life. Her husband eventually becomes suicidal and, though surviving despair, is last seen in the book with his head resting despondently against a wall. (In the book’s postscript, we discover that the Borrioboola-Gha project failed after the local king sold the project’s volunteers into slavery in order to buy rum; but Mrs. Jellyby quickly found another cause to occupy her time, “a mission with more correspondence than the old one,” thus providing a happy ending for a permanent campaigner.)
While few in the peace movement so radically neglect those in their care, unfortunately I cannot think of Mrs. Jellyby merely as a comic caricature. When my wife and I talked about her, we could think of several people, of both sexes, resembling her in many details: people with a certain legitimate concern but engaging themselves so fully that their fixation has wrecked havoc in the lives of those around them, and probably done a great deal to drive many people they intended to influence in the opposite direction.
While in theory dedicated to compassion, in reality the Mrs. Jellybys seem to be driven by anger with those around them, whom they can punish with a clear conscience by taking up a virtuous cause.
I recall one activist who wasn’t able to attend his daughter’s marriage because of a demonstration that day. Another man, more gandhian than Gandhi, springs to mind who, left in charge of the office of the Committee for Nonviolent Action while the rest of the staff was away being arrested and jailed, nearly starved the office cat to death because his conscience opposed the domestication of animals. Whatever food the cat found during those austere weeks, it was not from his ideology-guided hand.
It is a dilemma that the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, discussed in the 1960s in one of his letters to peace activists:
“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….[T]here is…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…” (The Hidden Ground of Love: The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Experience and Social Concerns, Farrar Straus & Giroux, New York; pp 262-4)
Because of my own life experience, I tend to think especially of the peace movement, but it hardly matters what movement it is that one belongs to: left or right, red or green, nationalist or trans-nationalist, large or small. It could be pacifism, feminism, marxism, anarchism, vegetarianism, human rights, animal rights, some political party, or one’s religion. In any case, ideology, not compassion, tends to become the driving force. Compassion, however much the word may be used, rarely thrives within the climate of movements and causes, except a very narrow compassion focused like a spotlight on a victim group whose needs legitimate the cause.
Perhaps one of the main functions of ideology is to confine the area of compassion, so that, for example, one feels compassion for the baby seal being slaughtered for its fur but not for the man whose family may presently depend upon the fur trade; or feels compassion for one group of war casualties but not another.
Cause-directed ideology also serves the function of keeping its users in a constant state of guilt and anger: guilt because one can never become the person the cause requires and expects of its adherents; and anger because there are never enough people ready to join the group (not enough even in those case where there are thousands or millions of adherents). And there are always those, even vast numbers, who either stand in opposition or don’t seem to care.
I suspect Saint John of the Cross would easily recognize Mrs. Jellyby and identify her Spanish counterparts. The 16th century Spanish Church was not short on ideology or in people whose ecclesiastical purposefulness was matched by harshness to those around them. It was a climate in which the Inquisition met a profound need: ideology must find and punish those who oppose or fail to measure up to ideology’s demands. (Punishment of ideological offenders today must be done mainly with words rather than torture and bonfires, though the fires built of words can blaze very hot.)
It is interesting to consider that Saint John of the Cross’s opposition to religious ideology and its structures, which made him a prisoner for a time, was not protest in a form which we would quickly recognize as such. Rather it took the form of building up communities of mystical life in which, in community with the poor, the members disowned many familiar comforts, including shoes, thereby getting their name, “the Discalced (or shoeless) Carmelites.”
Saint John of the Cross encouraged everyone to live a mystical life. Perhaps in those days this seemed nearly as outrageous as it does in our own world. The word “mystical” sounds so remote and other-worldly, suggesting to many a sort of person so lost in a spiritual world that he is indifferent to the needs and problems of his neighbors. (One finds that sort of figure in the cast of Bleak House as well: there is the Rev. Mr. Chadband, whose pastoral devotion makes it easier for him to notice a potential donor than a person in rags.)
To get rid of misleading stereotypes about mysticism, one must ask what is mystical life? It is first-hand experience of God. It is the difference between the menu and the meal. “Taste and see how good the Lord is,” we are told by the psalmist, not “read about God and his goodness.” It is one of the primary eucharistic invitations. We are not summoned to an intellectual excursion but to an actual experience, as real and indescribable as tasting an orange. Not even Shakespeare can give us in words the taste of an orange. Not even Saint John the Evangelist can put God into words. Each of us must either taste for ourselves or settle for religious press clippings.
Saint John of the Cross insists that there is nothing remarkable about moving from second-hand to first-hand experience, from becoming informed about God to being a religious participant in God. Neither could there be any event more transforming in our lives nor of greater consequence to those around us, for we would see ourselves and others with new eyes and live without the fears that so often limit or paralyze our responses or make them self-serving. Saint John’s poems, and his essays about these poems, are entirely on this subject.
Nor does he suggest that one must be clever to be a mystic. God is not reserved for the smart people — rather the smart people are the one’s most likely to get in their own way, to wall themselves in with words, footnotes, causes and ideology.
Ideology has the advantage of being controllable and small. We can more-or-less comprehend it and to some small extent define its shape, although in the end it defines our shape. God is not comprehensible and definable. God is, compared to what we think of as “well-lit,” an infinite darkness, a light that seems like night. Thus Saint John’s “dark night of the soul.” Saint John is a spiritual journalist reporting on how it is one must pass through blindness (the cross) in order to see (and thus rise from death). It is a terrifying passage, but finally one gets to see, not simply to hear about seeing.
Mysticism is something the vast majority of social movements avoid. If the word mysticism is said at all, it is with derision, as if to say: the true social activist has no time to be a mystic, for mysticism cannot possibly have anything to do with untying the knots in our disordered world. There is too much to be done, too many urgent needs to be met, to permit indulgence in long liturgies, religious rites, penitential activities, examinations of conscience, periods of silence and withdrawal, etc. If religion is tolerated at all, it must be kept in a well-governed corner under the strict regulation of ideology and peer-group control.
This kind of movement climate, of course, remains spiritually very shallow and inevitably results in many cases of “burn out” — psychological and physical exhaustion that makes it impossible for the activist to continue. At least a long pause is required.
How different our work for social healing would be if it were nourished by a deep spiritual life! As Saint John of the Cross wrote:
“Let those that are great activists and think to circle the world with words and outward works note that they would bring far more profit to the Church and be far more pleasing to God if they spent even half [the time given to action] in being present with God in prayer…. Most certainly they would accomplish more with one piece of work than they now do with a thousand and do so with far less labor. For through prayer they would merit the result, and themselves be made spiritually strong. Without prayer, they would do much hammering but achieve little, even nothing at all or even cause harm.” (Spiritual Canticle, xxix, 3)
Perhaps we are at a moment in history, with many ideologies in a state of collapse, when we can imagine that mysticism would lay a foundation for social action that would not only produce useful results, rather than results quite opposite what is intended, but also refresh us day-by-day as we seek to build up a nonviolent social order?
Saint John of the Cross said: “Love is the measure by which we shall be judged.” It is a quotation I first heard from Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, a woman devoted to both Saint Teresa and Saint John. Dorothy spent much of her time each day in prayer and yet is rightly remembered as one of the great social activists in American history.
Again and again, John of the Cross reminds us that God is love. We move toward God through no other path than love itself. It is not a love expressed in words or slogans or theories or ideologies but actual love, love experienced in God, love that lets us know others not through our ideas and fears but through God’s love for them so that we see them not only as enemies but as estranged (even if deranged or pathological) relatives.
How are we to make our way out of the various ideological corners in which we find ourselves? In my own life, nothing has been more helpful than the rediscovery of the richness of liturgical life, an unexpected gift that I have received by getting to know the Orthodox Church, renowned for its long liturgies and its tradition of standing rather than sitting in church. But many of us face the problem of finding ourselves in parishes in which the Liturgy often resembles a television program made to fit into an hour’s space. Ordinary parish worship at times seem more an obstacle to mystical life than an opening. In such cases we must imagine what can be rather than what is, in the meantime do what we can with resources at hand, in the parish, at nearby monasteries, and, most of all, at home.
A great part of the process of healing the world is healing the church, which means in part to recover traditions of spiritual life that have been greatly damaged over the centuries, in part by Christianity’s east-west divorce. Saint John of the Cross can be a companion in the process of repairing the division within our own spiritual life and of encouraging us as we seek to experience the God who makes all things new.
Reading Christian history, it is hard to imagine that Jesus called on his followers to love their enemies:
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and to him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your coat as well. Give to everyone who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods, do not ask them again. As you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.” (Luke 6:27-31; also note Matthew 5:43-46)
Even for those familiar with these words, the question arises: Did Jesus mean it?
This teaching must have astonished those who first heard him say it. Some must have muttered, “A Jew, love a Roman? You must be joking!” A few in the crowd would have considered him traitorous, for enmity is the shadow side of nationalism. Small wonder that Jesus was killed. Speaking against enmity is to make enemies on the spot.
What is an enemy?
My son Daniel once offered a crisp definition when he said a friend of his, momentarily in disgrace, should “go away and drop dead.” An enemy is anyone I feel threatened by and seek to defend myself against. What for them would be bad news, for me would be good news.
There are domestic enemies and foreign ones. Often one’s chief enemy is near-by: a family member, a co-worker, a neighbor, a co-religionist. Christians used to be at their most ruthless with other Christians. In-house enemies can be the most threatening. Crimes of violence mainly occur within the family or among friends. Domestic enemies may be people whom I regard only in categories: gays, punks, pro-abortionists, people in expensive cars, people in particular religious or racial groups, people in an opposing political party, a political leader whose policies I despise.
Internationally, an enemy is a mass of people I am taught to fear and, in case of war, may be ordered to fight. Such enmity can be quite impersonal. The enemy isn’t an individual but a system, a party, an entire people.
What does love mean?
Love has acquired some meanings that would amaze the Jews Jesus was speaking to. In current usage it has mainly to do with good luck in romance and sex, a definition that makes the commandment to love one’s enemies incomprehensible.
In the Bible, love has to do with action and responsibility; the stress is not on how one feels. To love is to do what you can to provide for the wellbeing of another whether or not the person is likeable. What Jesus does is love. In explaining his Father’s love, he talks about what God gives.
An act of love may be animated by a sense of delight in someone else–wonderful when it happens–or it may be done despite anger, depression, exhaustion or aversion, done simply as a prayer to God and a response to God, who links us all, in whom we are brothers and sisters, “who makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.”
Often the teaching of Jesus is written off because it was addressed, it is said, to people in a gentler, more pastoral world than ours.
But the country in which Jesus was born wasn’t the idyllic place Christmas cards make of it. It was a country enduring military occupation in which a dissident was likely to be executed. A Jew dying on the cross was no rare sight. In Jesus’ original audience, enemies were numerous, vicious and nearby.
There were the Romans to hate, with their armies and idols. There were tax collectors who gouged all they could, for their own pay was a percentage of the take. There were enemies within: Jews imitating the Romans and Greeks, dressing–and undressing–as they did, while scrambling up the ladder. Even among those religious Jews trying to remain faithful to tradition, there was argument about what was essential and what wasn’t, and there was sharp political division about how to relate to the Romans. The Zealots saw no solution but armed struggle. Others, like the Essenes, chose withdrawal.
Not only Jews but Romans were listening when Jesus spoke, some out of curiosity, others because listening was their job. From the Roman point of view, the indigestible Jews, though momentarily subdued, remained enemies. The Romans viewed this one-godded, statue-smashing people as well deserving any lashes they received.
Those drawn to Jesus were mainly “marginal” people. He loved sinners, the gospel says plainly. He loved them not just for who they might become but who they were already. Still there were others who came to him whose brokenness was less visible: scholars, soldiers, ordinary working people, respected and secure people, people with something to lose. They were drawn by his readiness to forgive, his ability to heal, his common-sense, his utter truthfulness, his quiet courage. They were drawn by his love, a love which included even them.
There were those drawn by his grief. When he performed miracles, it wasn’t with a magician’s detachment but with a profound sense of connection. The gospel notes two times when Jesus wept in public: before the tomb of his dead friend Lazarus, and again as he approached Jerusalem en route to the cross.
His capacity for grief was matched by his courage. Jesus was no coward. He kept no “prudent silence.” He didn’t hesitate to say and do things which made him a target. Perhaps the event that assured his crucifixion was what he did to the money-changers. He made a whip of chords (which sting but cause no injury) and set the bankers running, scattering their precious money. In so doing, he made clear that love of enemies doesn’t mean submitting to them. In fact we are obliged to do good to them–very possibly a good they don’t want.
Is it possible to love an enemy? I know the answer is yes because I have experienced it in my own life and I have seen it happening in every country my work brings me to. Yet I know it isn’t easy. By oneself, the love of enemies is probably impossible. Just as problems in a marriage often benefit from the help of skilled marriage counsellor, discovering the human being within the enemy involves being part of a community working on it together.
But help from others isn’t enough. I need to ask God to help me see my enemy with God’s own care and hope.
While the love of an enemy involves a range of actions that may include active resistance, it always begins and ends with prayer. Jesus told us to pray for our enemies.
I think about Staretz Simeon Silouan, an uneducated Russian peasant, a powerful man with a volcanic temper. One day he was playing a concertina at a village festival when two brothers began to tease him. The older brother tried to snatch the concertina and a fight broke out. “At first I thought of giving in,” Silouan later admitted, “but then I was ashamed at how the girls would laugh at me, so I gave him a great hard blow in the chest. His body shot away and he fell backwards with a heavy thud in the middle of the road. Froth and blood trickled from his mouth. All the onlookers were horrified. So was I. `I’ve killed him,’ I thought, and stood rooted to the spot. For a long time the cobbler lay where he was. It was over half an hour before he could rise to his feet. With difficulty they got him home, where he was bad for a couple of months, but he didn’t die.”
Silouan felt ever after that there was only an accidental difference between himself and a murderer. As time passed, he found himself increasingly drawn toward prayer and penance. Finally joining a monastery on Mount Athos, he thought and prayed deeply about violence and its causes. A profound sense of human inter-connectedness was one of God’s gifts to him. He realized that, “through Christ’s love, everyone is made an inseparable part of our own, eternal existence…for the Son of Man has taken within himself all mankind.”
Without prayer for enemies, he realized, we are powerless to love them. In fact the only love we can offer is God’s own love. Prayer can give us access to God’s love for those we would otherwise regard with hostility.
One of the people of prayer who inspires me is another Russian, an old woman I know only through the autobiography of her grandson, Maxim Gorky. In Russian churches, I have often been surrounded by crowds of women cut from the same loaf. As a child, Gorky watched his grandmother praying aloud before her candle-lit icon.
“She always prayed for a long time after a day of quarrels and aggravation [for she was married to a violent, quarrelsome husband]. She told God about everything that had happened in the house, down to the last detail. Massive, like a mountain, she would kneel down and start off very quickly and in an unintelligible whisper and then deepened her voice to a loud grumble. `As you know too well, God, everyone wants the best of things. Mikhail, the elder, should really stay in the town, and he wouldn’t like it if he had to go across the river, where everything’s new and hasn’t been tried out yet. I’ve no idea what will happen. Father has more love for Yakov. Do you think it’s a good thing to love one child more than the other? He’s an obstinate old man. Please, God, make him see reason!’ As she looked at the dim icon with her large, shining eyes, she instructed God, ‘Let him have a dream which will make him understand how to give himself to both his sons!'”
She went on and on, reflecting before God, with God, about each person in the house, than the neighbors. She would at times cross herself, bow down to the floor and even, in moments of anguish, bang her head against the floorboards. At times there were extended silences. Her grandson thought she had fallen asleep. Then she recovered her voice and continued the dialogue.
I hope to live long enough to learn to pray like that, to be that free of embarrassment about being a praying person. But I have already lived long enough to know that to pray whole-heartedly is the most vital force in life.
In praying for enemies, I find it helpful to spend time quietly visualizing the face of a person I dislike, reciting the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Such prayer becomes a mirror. I see myself as I am seen. I realize I not only have enemies. I am an enemy. I find myself praying not only for the conversion of my adversary but for my own conversion.
That’s asking a lot. As Gandhi said, “I have only three enemies. The one most easily influenced for the better is the British nation. My second enemy, the Indian people, is more difficult. But my hardest opponent is a man named Gandhi. With him I seem to have very little influence.”
This text is based on material in Jim Forest’s book, Making Friends of Enemies, published by Crossroad/Continuum.
Iona: If you have a good map of Scotland you will find it among the Inner Hebrides off the southwest tip of Mull, a comma of land separated by a strait the width of an exclamation point.
If you enjoy discovering the mysteries old tales held in the silence of stone, then you may already know of Iona because, tiny though it is, its bulk is formed of some of the oldest exposed rock on earth. The imposing volcanic heights of Mull belong to a land just barely out of diapers: a mere 70 million years old. Iona is 35 times older: just under three billion years, give or take the tick of a grandfather clock.
If you like wandering in the mysteries and tales of history, then Iona may already have a niche in your memory as one of the principal centers of Celtic Christianity.
Or if you take a special joy in the work of artists in earlier times, then you will almost certainly know Iona as the likely birthplace of the greatest masterpiece of Celtic art, the illuminated Gospel text known as the Book of Kells.
Visitors are still drawn to this remote outpost on the western edge of the Scottish highlands; but perhaps the most important reason they come is not academic, geologic, or aesthetic, but religious. Iona has again become a center of deep and contagious Christian faith. This faith brought to birth the Iona Community, which has actively opposed racism, injustice, and war. Iona’s seeming distance from places of tangible crisis exists only on maps.
None of the island’s buildings, least of all those of the old abbey which serves as the Iona Community’s spiritual home, appear at first glance to have heard that there has been a 20th century at large in the world. The weathered wooden buildings of the small village gathered near the pier look as timeless as seagulls. At a monkish distance to the north, amid wide fields grazed by the island’s sheep, the monastery looks as it must have looked when the Benedictines finished the premises early in the 13th century: The plain square tower of St. Mary’s Cathedral and the austere rectangular masses of the adjoining buildings are all of enduring gray stone with deep-cut windows under steep slated roofs.
So solid does the monastery appear that it is hard to picture the ruined state it was in four centuries after the Scottish Parliament outlawed the monastic life in 1561. Had that Act of Suppression come two years later, it would have been a full thousand years since the first monks landed on Iona and began spreading the Christian faith in Scotland and beyonf.
It was in May, 563, that Columba and twelve fellow monks arrived from the north of Ireland. Columba was to Christianity in Scotland what Patrick had been two generations earlier to the Irish. Both were men of absolute faith in the power of Gad and of the revelation of God in Christ. Each taught, healed, did wonders, and spread his faith among primitive, battling peoples.
Out of such leadership a special kind of religious way, appropriate to the region, took root — Celtic Christianity. Missionaries went out from Iona to share the faith, to found schools and communities, and to win in the process such a reputation for holiness that, even in the sixth century, pilgrims came to the island base from as far away as Rome.
Columba’s monastic rule, eventually used by many similar communities, required that the monks own nothing but bare necessities, live in a place with but one door, center conversation on God and God’s Testament, refuse idle words and the spreading of rumor and evil reports, and submit to every rule that governs devotion. They were to prepare always for death and suffering, offer forgiveness from the heart to everyone, pray constantly for anyone who has been a trouble, put almsgiving before all other duties, not eat unless hungry or sleep unless tired, pray until tears came and labor to the point of tears as well, or if tears “are not free, until thy perspiration come often.”
It was in 1935, during the Great Depression, that latter-day Columba, George MacLeod, a minister of the Church of Scotland working in Glasgow, began to lay the foundation of what became the Iona Community. Glasgow is Scotland’s main industrial city and one of the world’s ugliest urban mazes. Its famous shipyards on the Clyde were largely shut in those years, and life was grueling for the poor and unemployed.
George MacLeod, turning 40, had a parish in Govan, one of the hardest hit districts in Glasgow. While many clergy began enjoying a degree of public respect at that age, MacLeod was moving in the opposite direction. How could he look at what thousands of families were suffering, how could he encourage them in hope and faith, without being furious with a social order that could cause such waste of life and ability? At the same time, how could the church dare read the Bible aloud without speaking out against the injustice so many were suffering?
The untroubled conscience of the church troubled him as much as the poverty and unemployment. It became clear to him that it was time for a new Christian reformation and that such a reformation must include a commitment to building a new, more just social order. “No one,” he said, “can suspend his Christianity in the evil hour, and then use it again when the sun shines.”
Like Gandhi, MacLeod was far less interested in protest — “mere protest,” he would say — than in a constructive program. A nearby ruined mill inspired an idea. Could not unemployed people bring their skills together, rebuild it, and make it useful again? The idea could hardly have been simpler: Let the jobless employ themselves, and let their ministers join in the labor and earn some callouses. It worked beautifully in practice as well as theory. The mill was rebuilt and became a community center.
The experience enlarged MacLeod’s vision. The Iona ruins of the first home of Christianity in Scotland were not far away. Could these not be rebuilt? And in the process, the conscience of the church, a still worse ruin, be rebuilt as well?
In 563 AD Columba arrived on Iona with his 12; in 1938 MacLeod arrived with another band of twelve, half craftsmen without jobs, half students for the ministry. They built a wooden shed to live in by the fallen monastery and began the work of rebuilding.
MacLeod recounts that the group needed money with which to get its project started: “I wrote the richest man I knew. He replied that I should go see a psychiatrist at once. Then I asked — me a pacifist, mind you — Sir James Lithgos, a builder of warships at his Govan shipyard. He was interested, but asked if I would give up my pacifism if he gave me the 5,000 pounds. I said, ‘Not on your life.’ ‘Then,’ he said, ‘I will give you your 5,000 pounds.’ ”
Materials were hard to obtain: “The war was on and the government commandeered all timber. But a ship coming from Canada struck a storm and jettisoned its cargo of lumber in the North Bea. The timber floated 80 miles, finally landed on Mull, opposite Iona — and all the right length! It roofs the Iona library today.”
As the group worked, they began to reinvent a contemporary monastic life, a mixture of prayer, hard labor, and study. Not everyone in the vicinity took kindly to the project. There was a kind of Berlin Wall between Protestant and Catholic, and the rebuilding of an old Catholic abbey by Protestants struck other Protestants as a sign of creeping papism. The long shed in which the community was housed was known locally for years as “the Rome Express.”
The work began each summer and carried through to the fall. Youth camps were started. An Iona house was founded in Glasgow to serve as a center for response to Glasgow’s problems of housing and unemployment and to bring people together for meetings as well as meals and celebrations.
It was clear from the start that the work should lead to community. The joining of work and prayer during the summer months on Iona was again and again a turning point in life for those who came. A commitment to a new church and to social justice took shape with the buildings’ restoration.
Those who had been brought together began to think in terms of a lifelong covenant. Although the idea made anti-Catholics nervous — it was one thing to rebuild a monastery, another to rebuild the way of life it had housed — gradually a rule of life for the Iona Community took form.
The rule was simple, adapted for a kind of community that would be even more widely scattered across the world than the Iona missionaries of a thousand years before. The obligations were in four areas.
* Common life: Members would begin with several months of experience at the abbey and seek to return for at least a week together each year.
* Common discipline: Members would read the Bible and pray for at least a half hour each day at set times each morning and evening. A discipline in the use of time for the rest of the day was also required, though the form of it was left for the individual or family to work out.
A discipline in the use of money was required. MacLeod had hoped all members of the community, wherever they lived, would be provided with their keep plus 60 pounds a year for pocket money, putting whatever else they earned in the care of the community. But as the community involved a growing number of families and widely different understandings of personal and family needs, the original idea was abandoned. In its place a plan has developed through which members are committed to give away at least 10 per cent of their income. That part which comes to the Iona Community is used for Third World development, peace work, and other community concerns. It is, as one community member puts it, a “very untidy discipline,” but with the vital purpose of challenging the members to live more simply and to give the needs of others an ever greater priority.
“The word ‘love’ has been only a form of mouthwash for many Christians,” says MacLeod. “We need to learn to put it into practice. This includes what we do with our money.”
* Participation in meetings: There are frequent regional meetings wherever there are a few members in reach of each other, in addition to annual meetings at Iona itself. The meetings provide, among other things, a context for working out the times of crisis within the Iona Community. One of these crises arose over an aspect of George MacLeod’s original vision: He had intended the community to be entirely of men, as it had been in Columba’s day. The community became convinced that its membership should include women, and when that view prevailed, the Iona Community was fundamentally altered.
* Commitment to peace: MacLeod brought to Iona his pacifism, a rare conviction to find in Scotland even today, but far rarer 40 years ago. It was his hope that those who became members of the Iona Community would come to share his refusal of violence and help the church find its way back to its pre-Constantine pacifism.
As World War II was breaking at the time the community was founded, the issue became more than academic debate. Some in the community became conscientious objectors, others fought in the war. But the community held together, and the discussion continued when the war ended, finally leading to a community commitment to peace which drew members to work for reconciliation between races and nations, to support the United Nations, to work to close the gap between the rich and the poor, and to promote international contact across lines of conflict.
* Healing: Although healing isn’t part of the rule, it is a major part of the community’s life. There is a healing service in the abbey church one evening each week. Often visitors, who are troubled by what seems at first glance to be so odd an event, sit and watch as others go forward, gathering near the altar of green-veined Iona marble while the warden of the community and all present join in the laying on of hands for those who seek the healing prayers of the others.
Healing is only another word for peacemaking, and one that is less abstract. Healing is restoring the harmony in things, whether in one’s body or in a family, a community, a nation, or the world.
Decades have past since the first group arrived at Iona and camped out in the abbey’s ruins. The community’s members are on every continent, and a few live year-round at the abbey. There are several hundred associate members as well — those who cannot stay long periods at the abbey or take part in regular meetings but who have committed themselves to the other aspects of the community’s rule.
Increasingly Iona has taken on an ecumenical character. What began entirely within the Church of Scotland now includes those of other Christian traditions, both Protestant and Catholic.
Thousands each year visit the abbey. A great many stay for a week or more, taking part in the various conferences and work weeks held between March and October. Dozens come as volunteers for a month or a summer or longer.
The youth camp has continued to flourish on the hillside above a coffee and cake shop which Iona has established. One group in the camp last summer was the first youth club in Glasgow to have both Protestant and Catholic together. It is this kind of reconciliation which, however slowly, has begun to happen in Scotland because of Iona.
Iona has its offshoots, including Kirkridge, in Bangor, Pennsylvania. Its founder, John Oliver Nelson, once spent a summer laying slate tiles on the roof of the Iona abbey refectory. “This place was the start of my life,” he says of Iona. “This is home.”
It is home for many. Still, Iona Community remains small, as big in the eye of the world as is the island itself on a world map. Small as a mustard seed, you might say. Small but potent and marvelous.
St. Columba must be glad with the sight of it, but little surprised. He had a gift for seeing the future and knew one day there would be nothing left of his foundation, but he saw beyond that time to its restoration. Poet as well as prophet, he left his prophecy as poem:
Iona of my heart. Iona of my love, Instead of monk’s voices, Shall be lowing of cattle, But ere the world comes to an end Iona shall be as it was.
Rosemary Lynch, a Franciscan nun beloved by many, died the January 9, 2011 at a hospice in Las Vegas, Nevada, four days after having being hit by a car that was backing out of a driveway. She was 93.
After retiring from work at the Franciscan headquarters in Rome, Rosemary accepted an assignment in Las Vegas working with refugees and the poor. Once there, she quickly became deeply engaged in organizing resistance to nuclear weapons and war, as a result of which she became a co-founder of Nevada Desert Experience. Over the years, she was often arrested at the Nevada nuclear test site for participation in nonviolent acts of civil disobedience.
I came to know her in 1985 when we co-taught a course at the Ecumenical Institute at Tantur, on the road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
by Jim Forest
When I think of people I have known who have shown extraordinary love and courage as well as a deep commitment to conversion, one of the people who springs to mind is Sister Rosemary Lynch, a Franciscan sister since she was seventeen. Until her death in January 2011, age 93, she and a fellow Franciscan, Sister Klaryta Antoszewska, lived in Las Vegas. Their Las Vegas wasn’t the familiar gambler’s mecca of bright lights and roulette wheels but a neighborhood without street lights where people live who clean hotel rooms, work in laundries, clear tables and wash dishes.
Those who met Rosemary were invariably impressed with her radiant smile and the interest she took in others, no matter how minor their position in life. She tended to call people “Honey.” Though preoccupied with some of the most troubling problems in the world, I have rarely met anyone over the age of ten who was so free of anxiety, a trait she credits to her parents. She recalls that, as a child, she misunderstood the words of a certain hymn. “The hymn started off, ‘O Lord, I am not worthy,’ but for years I thought the words were, ‘O Lord, I am not worried!’ And actually, in our home, that was our attitude toward the Lord and toward life. We weren’t worried — not about the Lord or anything else.”
Saint Francis inspired her from an early age. “He was almost a member of my family. In our home we had an understanding of that marvelous universality, that cosmic love, that integrity of creation that are at the heart of Saint Francis. While we didn’t fully understand how radical Francis was and what a reformation he started, in our home Francis hadn’t landed in the bird bath.”
In 1985, when Rosemary and I were teaching a course entitled “Making Peace, Serving Peace” at the Ecumenical Institute near Jerusalem, I asked her if seventeen hadn’t been too young an age to commit herself to a religious community.
“Not at all,” she assured me. “In those days we started just about everything younger. We took responsibility in our teens. It’s a pity that nowadays we seem to be developing a culture of permanent immaturity, permanent dependency. You find university students who haven’t the remotest idea what they want to do with their life. But when I was young, people had a goal that they were going toward. And this is what you still find among the refugee children.”
Rosemary said the most important educational experience in her life began in 1960 when she was elected to serve at her congregation’s headquarters in Rome, her home for sixteen years. “That’s where I lived, but actually I was traveling a lot, months at a time. I would be visiting the different places where our sisters were working — Europe, North America, Mexico, Africa, and Southeast Asia. I began to look at the world with different eyes. One of the life-changing events was my first encounter with starvation. I happened to be in Tanzania during a drought. For the first time I was surrounded by starving children. It was a conversion experience — the realization that things were terribly out of place in the world. For months afterward I could hardly enter a store in the consumer society of Rome and see all those nonessentials and all the people buying them. I wanted to scream out loud, ‘Doesn’t anyone know that I saw a child die of hunger — and you are buying false eyelashes!'”
Rosemary and Klaryta’s worked in Las Vegas centers on refugees, immigrant families, prisoners, and peace.
“We try to do these things on two levels, to combine immediate, necessary work in the community and work to change structures that cause suffering. Working with refugees, we have tried to change the notion of the State Welfare Board, which was denying refugees financial help. Visiting prisoners, we have worked for a pre-trial release program. Working for peace, we not only try to get rid of nuclear weapons but also to help victims of Nevada’s many nuclear tests. We don’t want just to apply band-aids, but neither do we want to lose contact with people by becoming too abstract.”
In the years when nuclear weapons were still being tested in mine shafts beneath the desert, Rosemary spent hundreds of hours standing in prayer on a highway adjacent to the nuclear test site and many more hours meeting with test-site employees. She helped initiate Desert Witness, which each Lent brought thousands of people to fast and pray at the nuclear test site until the explosions finally stopped. Time and again she crossed the property line and was arrested.
Despite her many arrests, Sister Rosemary won the respect of people who were among the most law-abiding citizens. In 1985 the governor of Nevada and the mayor of Las Vegas honored her with an officially proclaimed Rosemary Lynch Day. (However, not all the responses to Rosemary’s efforts were so appreciative. In February 1988, following another arrest at the nuclear test site, she lost her job with a social service agency. “I have observed that the more deeply a person enters into this endeavor of peace-serving,” she wrote the agency’s director, “the more the cost of discipleship goes up. For me to abandon my hours of prayer and fasting in the desert would be a betrayal of my own conscience.”)
Rosemary sees her peace activities as a continuation of the renewal of Christianity associated with Saint Francis. “Not only were the brothers and sisters forbidden to have weapons or to use them for any reason,” she often explained, “but so were the lay people who followed the rule he wrote for those living a family life.”
In 1989 she and several co-workers decided to focus more intensively on nonviolence as a means of personal and social transformation, founding a group that took its name from a phrase often used by Saint Francis: Pace e Bene (peace and goodness). “Even if nuclear weapons were abolished,” Rosemary pointed out, “unless we defuse the bombs in our own hearts, the human family is quite capable of finding other even worse means of destroying life.”
The refugees Klaryta and Rosemary received in the days when the United States was geared for war with the Soviet Union was a young Russian couple and their son. They had been given permission to leave because they had Jewish family backgrounds, though they were not active in synagogue or church.
“The man was a sculptor and graphics artist,” Rosemary recalled, “the woman a restorer of icons and an illustrator of children’s books — skills not in demand in Las Vegas! In the man’s case it seemed Sister Klaryta was lucky — she found him a job in a graphics studio, but all we could get for the woman was a job as a ‘bus person,’ clearing tables in a casino restaurant. It was a humiliating job for a sensitive woman and skilled artist. She accepted it, but it was very hard.
“We had found them a small apartment, but they often knocked on our door. We would make a pot of good strong tea and talk for hours. For both husband and wife it soon became obvious that they couldn’t continue with their jobs. It turned out that this ‘art studio’ wanted the husband to make posters for pornographic movies. But for him art is a sacred thing. This violated the nature of his being. We told him he had to stop.
“In his wife’s case, the crisis was caused by a state law requiring that bread left on the table must be thrown out, even if no one has touched it. She came home one night completely broken, in tears, saying, ‘They make me throw away the body of Christ!’
“That night I finally understood something basic in Slavic culture. They understand that all bread is holy, all bread is linked to the body of Jesus, not only bread consecrated on the altar. I’m sure our ancestors knew this too, but in the degenerate society that we now have, we no longer see this. We can easily throw bread into the garbage. But our friend could no longer violate her heart and her spirit by throwing away bread. So we told her, ‘You have to stop immediately.’ And she did. Finally Klaryta arranged for the family to go to New York, where there is a large Russian community and a much better chance to work as artists and icon restorers. It has never been very happy for them, but at least it’s better than it was.”
Rosemary regarded her activities not as making peace but as being in “the service of peace.” As she said, “None of us can make peace. Peace is God’s gift. But we can serve God’s peace.”
Nuclear weapons and warfare were not at all in her thoughts when she moved to Las Vegas. “But in Nevada, where so many nuclear weapons have exploded, you can’t not think about what a nuclear war would mean. Thank God so far there has been no World War III, but we have many victims of the preparations for World War III. They are all around us. Some are the people working at the testing site, where the cancer rate is much higher than the national average. Many employees have been radiated in nuclear accidents. In addition there are all those soldiers who were close to ground zero when there were above-ground tests. Many have died already, and many have had defective children — the greatest sorrow. There are also the ‘down-wind victims’ who were in the path of fallout clouds.”
Rosemary’s primary focus was always on people, not weapons. “Of course we hope our efforts make it more likely that the day will come when there will be no more testing and no nuclear weapons, but what we are doing has another, deeper meaning — the recognition that we too, not only those making and testing weapons, are in need of conversion. Our motto has always been, ‘Convert!’ What we are doing concerns conversion. We need to convert our own hearts. As long as the bombs are exploding in our hearts, we have little hope of even understanding what is going on in the world around us. We hope not only for our own conversion but for a conversion that will lead our whole society in a new direction. The desert is a place linked to conversion. The desert has always been the classical place of spiritual solitude. The prophets of old searched for the voice of God in the desert. This is true for us too. So we go out to the desert to fast and pray. In the winter it is often windy and frigid, but in the warmer seasons it comes to life. You should see the desert at Easter time!”
Rosemary developed a profound sympathy for those who work at the test site, many of whom she came to know personally. “They are hostages of the bomb, just as we are,” she commented. “Many friendships have taken root, especially with guards and police. Many people working at the site wave to us. I remember one worker who brought us a box of fresh donuts. He said, ‘I may be on the other side, but I have to admire your perseverance.’ Sometimes I am asked to help with very complex personal and family problems. There are people involved with nuclear weapons who have called me late at night with some personal crisis they needed to discuss. I have had sheriffs and military officers cry on my shoulder.”
“Isn’t there the danger of abusing people’s vulnerability in such situations?” I asked.
“I never say to them, ‘You should quit.’ I don’t have the right,” she responded. “This is something you have to come to on your own. With the economic situation in the country so bad, many are glad to have a job, no matter what it is. Even so, some have left the test site, even at the cost of a lot of personal and family sacrifice.”
When I asked how she justified breaking the law, she replied: “The real evil is perfecting methods of killing people and destroying God’s creation. Breaking a trespass law — crossing a white line in a road miles from the test site — respects the essence of civil law and is obedience to the higher law. Sometimes the law needs help. Of course, you have to have a certain amount of openness and patience with people who don’t see this and you must be willing to go to jail, which gives you a chance to ‘visit the prisoner,’ as Christ told us to do. But civil disobedience isn’t for everyone. It is a call, a vocation. I would never say to anyone, ‘You should do this.’ But I ask others to respect the force of conscience that compels us who commit civil disobedience.
“We always practice openness with the police and everyone concerned about what we are doing. One consequence of this is that the police have always been gentle and courteous with us. They have even had a sense of the joy of the occasion. They try not to hurt us when they put on the handcuffs. They assist us getting into the police buses. It’s remarkable.”
Rosemary always urged those who commit acts of disobedience to respect those who may feel threatened or be inconvenienced by such actions and to carefully avoid sarcasm, abrasive words, or rude gestures. “It is our policy never to have the kind of blockade where people go limp and thereby compel the police to have to carry us away. We don’t want to call forth hostility in other people. Sometimes people kneel down in the roads to pray. Sometimes we hold up the cross. But when they ask us to stand up, we do so.”
I asked Rosemary what she had learned from her years of talking to people whose life’s work is linked to weapons. She responded:
“The main thing is not to fear approaching anyone. We need to learn to approach those whom we or others regard as our enemies, whether people in another country or the White House or people anywhere in positions of political or religious leadership — people who have authority and power which could be used for the welfare of the human family. We need to think about the manner in which we approach them. If we can possibly imbibe a little of the spirit of Saint Francis, it will help. He always approached his opponents — even a wolf — in humility but also perfectly confident that he should go. He had a very great simplicity, something that we tend to lack today. We are far too complicated. We need to approach those we are trained to hate or resent or fear, and to do it on a very human level, in a loving way, seeing them, as Francis saw the sultan, as a brother given to him by God. If we can do that, what can we not accomplish?”
* * *
Rosemary Lynch and the Wolf of Gubbio
One of St. Francis’s efforts as a peacemaker concerns Gubbio, a town north of Assisi. The people of Gubbio were troubled by a huge wolf that attacked not only animals but people, so that the men had to arm themselves before going outside the town walls. They felt as if Gubbio were under siege.
Francis decided to help, though the local people, fearing for his life, tried to dissuade him. What chance could an unarmed man have against a wild animal with no conscience? But according to the Fioretti, the principal collection of stories of the saint’s life, Francis placed his hope in the Lord Jesus Christ, master of all creatures. Protected neither by shield or helmet, only arming himself with the sign of the Cross, he bravely set out of the town with his companion, putting his faith in the Lord who makes those who believe in him walk without injury on an asp . . . and trample not merely on a wolf but even a lion and a dragon.
Some local peasants followed the two brothers, keeping a safe distance. Finally the wolf saw Francis and came running, as if to attack him. The story continues:
“The saint made the sign of the Cross, and the power of God . . . stopped the wolf, making it slow town and close its cruel mouth. Then Francis called to it, ‘Brother Wolf, in the name of Jesus Christ, I order you not to hurt me or anyone.’
The wolf then came close to Francis, lowered its head and then lay down at his feet as though it had become a lamb. Francis then censured the wolf for its former cruelties, especially for killing human beings made in the image of God, thus making a whole town into its deadly enemy.
“But, Brother Wolf, I want to make peace between you and them, so that they will not be harmed by you any more, and after they have forgiven you your past crimes, neither men nor dogs will pursue you anymore.”
The wolf responded with gestures of submission “showing that it willingly accepted what the saint had said and would observe it.”
Francis promised the wolf that the people of Gubbio would henceforth “give you food every day as long as you shall live, so that you will never again suffer hunger.” In return, the wolf had to give up attacking both animal and man. “And as Saint Francis held out his hand to receive the pledge, the wolf also raised its front paw and meekly and gently put it in Saint Francis’s hand as a sign that it had given its pledge.”
Francis led the wolf back into Gubbio, where the people of the town met them in the market square. Here Francis preached a sermon in which he said calamities were permitted by God because of our sins and that the fires of hell are far worse than the jaws of a wolf, which can only kill the body. He called on the people to do penance in order to be “free from the wolf in this world and from the devouring fire of hell in the next world.” He assured them that the wolf standing at his side would now live in peace with them, but that they were obliged to feed him every day. He pledged himself as “bondsman for Brother Wolf.”
After living peacefully within the walls of Gubbio for two years, “the wolf grew old and died, and the people were sorry, because whenever it went through the town, its peaceful kindness and patience reminded them of the virtues and holiness of Saint Francis.”
Is it possible that the story is true? Or is the wolf a storyteller’s metaphor for violent men? While the story works on both levels, there is reason to believe there was indeed a wolf of Gubbio. A Franciscan friend, Sister Rosemary Lynch, tells me that during restoration work the bones of a wolf were found buried within the church in Gubbio.
[extract fromThe Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Lifeby Jim Forest]
an interview with a member of the Dutch Resistance of World War II
by Jim Forest
Hebe Kohlbrugge was one of the few Dutch people who had a clear idea of the nature of Nazism before the invasion of Holland in 1940. Working in Germany at the time of Hitler’s rise to power, she was arrested for her opposition to Nazism, imprisoned, and eventually deported to her native country, the Netherlands. There, following the Occupation, she became one of the organizers of the resistance, especially to Nazi anti-Jewish policies. Caught in 1944, she was sent first to a Dutch prison camp and later to Ravensbrück, Germany. There she developed friendships with Eastern European prisoners which, in the post-war years, drew her to work with human rights activists in the Warsaw Pact countries. She also plunged into material and spiritual aid for Germany on behalf of the Netherlands Reformed Church. Later, on the staff of the Department for Interchurch Aid with her work expanded to many other countries, including Vietnam, she was one of the first church leaders to offer support to the social service programs of Vietnam’s Unified Buddhist Church.
For her work on behalf of victims of war and racism, Hebe Kohlbrugge has received various awards. There is, however, no evidence of the awards in her home or on her person. She draws attention to them only when to do so might further her efforts for those persons in trouble today. Once, during the Vietnam War, while trying to arrange a meeting between a Vietnamese Buddhist representative and a Minister of the Dutch Cabinet, an assistant assured her the Minister was too busy. Hebe put on the desk the Bronze Lion Award she had received from the Dutch government for courage and gallantry in the resistance. The meeting with the Minister followed immediately.
Jim Forest: What were you doing when the war began? What drew you ln the direction of resistance?
Hebe Kohlbrugge: I was 25. I had been working in the “Bekennende Kirche” — the anti-Nazi Confessing Church — in Germany, and I had seen what was going on. I worked there until l was imprisoned in Berlin in 1939. Thanks to the Dutch ambassador, I was released. I was ordered out of Germany “für Ewig” — for eternity — and I came home. So in 1939 when the war started, I knew what was going to happen. I didn’t have to have it explained to me who Hitler was. I had seen him, and I had made up my mind when I went to the Confessing Church.
What was it that brought you to the Confessing Church in Germany to begin with?
I had originally gone to Berlin to study. I was very interested in what was going on politically. In Berlin I happened to live in the parish of Martin Niemöller, so I saw and heard Hitler, and Niemöller as well. Arriving in Berlin as someone very interested in what was going on — not at all against Hitler, just interested — I discovered from Niemöller and from what l saw myself that Hitler was quite the wrong man. So I decided that I had to take the side of Niemöller. When I finished my course, I wrote my parents, “I want to help where help is needed.” And they wrote, “Okay.” So I went and helped until I was thrown out.
Did you have any sense at all of what was coming for the Jews?
I was in Germany on Kristallnacht in 1938… Of course, in the Confessing Church we often talked of “the great sin of anti-Semitism.” I can remember Bonhöffer coming and talking about such things as: What does it mean to help Jews? It couldn’t be spoken of so openly, but it was talked about.
One of the reasons I was put into prison in 1939 was that I had told the groups of children I worked within the church that Jews were nice people. Of course, the kids had told their parents, and some of the parents were Nazis. “How do you know?” they would ask. “Well, Hebe said . . .”
What other reasons did they give for imprisoning you?
Not saying “Heil Hitler,” but saying “Good morning!” Ringing the bells for Niemöller together with the children.
Why the bells?
When Niemöller was imprisoned, all the churches of the Confessing Church began ringing the bells at six o’clock to think of Niemöller and pray for him. It was for Niemöller at first, but later for all the others in prison. I went with all the kids to the bell tower of our church and said, “Now you ring, and now I ring, and now you ring.” I wanted them, by doing it themselves, to understand what we were doing. We wanted to remind people that it was time to pray. And the kids loved it. Kids love ringing church bells. Of course they went home and said, “We did this for Niemöller.” So, it was Niemöller, it was the Jews, and it was “Guten Tag,” instead of “Heil Hitler.”
Tell me more about the Confessing Church.
As always in church life, what a church did depended a great deal on the individual pastor, the church members, and so on. But if I were to generalize, I would say there were regular meetings — sometimes a whole Saturday or Sunday, sometimes several evenings over a few weeks. There were many gatherings, many chances for people to get to know each other and become each other’s friends. Church life was far more intensive than I had ever known it at home.
In the Confessing Church, all questions of interest were taken seriously. Things like this are normal now, but at that time it was all new. What happened with the church offerings gives one illustration of how it was. All of a sudden the state began to confiscate them. So it became a question for us: What shall we do with our offerings? I had never before thought about that! This was new. Finally it was agreed the offering should be taken and put on the altar. The SS didn’t dare take it from the altar. They were afraid. Then the next day the pastor took the offering and put it where it had to go.
But before this decision was reached, there was much discussion. One pastor came saying, “I don’t want to be a member of the Confessing Church any longer, because I don’t think it is worthwhile to fight with the state over some money.” He brought biblical texts showing money is not so important in the church. It was a big question: “Have we to fight for money in the church?” In the end we saw that we were not to fight for our own money, but that we had to fight for the money people gave us, to use it in the right way — and that the state must not be allowed to steal it. Therefore we had to hide it from the stealer.
We talked about everything concerning life, including church and politics. This was a very new thing to think about. Far more openness came. In the Confessing Church for the first time it became clear that Reformed and Lutheran had to take Holy Communion together. This was new.
All these conversations seemed to be frightfully important. And they were.
In 1939 you were sent out of Germany. What next?
First, in April, I went to Basel and studied with Karl Barth — but only one semester, because then the war came. I was home on holiday in September 1939 when the war started and then I couldn’t go back. I had to earn some money, and the Council of Churches in Amsterdam hired me as secretary. It was a half-time job for very little money, but it was enough. Eight months later, in May 1940, the German army invaded Holland
Did you anticipate the invasion?
No. No one did.
What happened then?
I talked with friends about what we could do. I couldn’t say, “We must do this.” But to very good friends, I said, “We must do something. We can’t wait. What can we do?” These friends decided to come together as a group and talk things over. That was in July 1940. Such a meeting was still possible then — very openly writing letters: “Will you come to a conference?” So we came together, a group of 35 people, and talked over what we might possibly do. Practically nothing was agreed upon immediately. But all of those who came together could be relied upon later on.
What was the first action you took part in?
In October 1940 the Germans asked all those who were in official jobs to put down if they were Jews or not. Just a question: “Are you a Jew, or not?”
In our group of 35 there had earlier been discussions of secretly publishing samizdat papers and pamphlets. Now one person from the group came to me and said, “We have talked about samizdat publishing, and now we have to do it.” I agreed. So we wrote the first pamphlet. Together with my sister — we lived together at the time — we decided 30,000 copies would be the right number. We found a little printer and in a very short time he had printed them.
What was the first pamphlet called?
“Bijna te laat” — “It’s nearly too late.” Our group of 35 was able to distribute them all over Holland.
The main statement was: You are not allowed to answer nasty questions. Remember, we lived in a time when people were polite to one another. If you asked me, “Are you a Jew?” I answered, “No, I’m not,” or “Yes, I am.” So one of the main issues was that if a non-trustworthy person asks you a question like that; you answer: “That has nothing to do with you.”
That was new. Even today some people wonder about this sentence. When I received the Münster Prize, I had in my speech the sentence: “You do not have to answer all the questions.” The speech was sent to several friends in Rumania, and five different friends in Rumania wrote that this was the most important sentence. This was new to them, still.
Isn’t this still an issue for people everywhere? To dare to be silent before certain questions, certain orders?
And to say quite clearly, “This I will not answer. This is not your business.” You not only kept your mouth shut if they asked you with whom you worked. That was clear; you could not betray people. But even a Dutchman who resisted the Nazis said to me about the pamphlet: “You can’t send this! If someone asks you a question, you have to answer. Otherwise you are wrong, because then you are nasty.” He said you must answer; I said you can’t. He said, “No, if something happens to the Jews, then we will do something.” But then it was too late. And so it happened. “Nearly too late” became too late.
What effect did the first publication have?
It’s hard to say. This was not the very first action, though it was the first large one. I know the Nazis were furious that they couldn’t find where it came from and who had run the whole thing. We had done a thing that was rather clever at that time — we took the available lists of names from all the schools, and the addresses were done in many different handwritings and on many typewriters.
Then we posted the envelopes on the same night, between six and eight, from all the various places. So they tried to find out: “Does it come from Utrecht?” “No, it comes from Groningen.” “No, it comes from Zeeland.” “Oh no, it’s coming from Alkmaar! ”
Were you personally suspected by the Nazis at first?
No, not at all.
You continued with your job at the Council of Churches?
Yes. That was lovely. I had the whole church to hide my things — the Nieuwe Kerk, the biggest church in Amsterdam. No one could find anything. There was just myself there, and the custodian — and he didn’t know what I was doing.
What did you do after the first booklet?
We continued publishing. We had a series of subjects we had decided on.
How quickly did the German removal of Jews begin?
Almost immediately. In October they asked the question, and then the arrests began. They didn’t take them all together. If they had, they would have had a big fight in Holland. They took them one by one.
How did you feel when you first heard a Jew had been taken away?
To answer that, I have to remind you that we knew nothing about Auschwitz then. What we knew was that children were being taken, women were being taken, and whole families. We were afraid for their lives. Jews were taken to Westerbork in Holland, which was not nice but it was heaven compared to the death camps. We knew transports were taken from there to Germany — we did not know where. We did not know about gas.
What did your group do at that point?
The only thing we could do — we began to hide the Jews.
It was all very easy — and very difficult! You started with your parents, and after your parents you went to uncles and nieces and friends of parents and friends of nieces — and friends and friends of friends. We didn’t make big organizations. We went from one to the other. We just followed our own track.
How did Jews find you?
It happened. Holland is a small country. It happened like it happens today. A call comes: “Can you help . . . ?” As soon as you started, the connections were made.
Have you any idea how many, ultimately, were sheltered in this way? In the thousands?
Yes. But many were found halfway down — in hiding, like Anne Frank’s family. And there were others hiding who couldn’t stand it any longer and went out into the street.
Were there times when the Nazis were close to breaking your ring?
Very often. Practically all of my friends were shot.
How many were shot?
I never counted.
Yes. Some had a trial, some were just shot.
It was just a matter of fortune that you weren’t shot?
Some groups, of course, had a spy in them, and then the whole group was taken. Our group never had a spy. Some groups had the bad luck that one was taken and tortured so badly that he gave all the names. But we decided that, if one was taken, we would all leave our addresses, immediately.
We wouldn’t come back until we had a message from the person, or we heard what had happened. This arrangement was also a help for those who were arrested. If you finally gave in, you knew no one would be in danger — they would have left.
Did the Gestapo ever come for you?
Yes. In February 1942, the Gestapo found me at my office in the Nieuwe Kerk. I had with me a package of samizdat papers. Normally I never had anything with me, but I wanted to give these papers half an hour later to a boy who was to deliver them somewhere.
I walked into my office, and there sat three gentlemen from the Gestapo. I thought of my bag, and I thought, “This is the end.” They said, “We want to look through your office!” I said, “My office is upstairs.” This wasn’t true. At the time I was working downstairs because the upstairs was so cold. “Then we’ll go upstairs,” they said. “Take everything with you. Bring your bag.” (I had tried to leave it behind.) To go upstairs we had to climb an old spiral staircase. They wanted me to go first, but I said, “No, if you are gentlemen, you go first.” And they did! They wanted to be gentlemen. So on the way upstairs, while walking as loudly as I could, I threw the package of papers downstairs — hoping it wouldn’t bump too hard. It was the only chance I had. When we got upstairs, they said, “Open your bag.” Well, I opened it — and there was nothing but a dirty handkerchief!
Then they looked through my “office” — and there was nothing there, of course. When we came back downstairs, I dreaded that the package would still be where it fell, but the wife of the custodian had been so kind as to remove it. So the Gestapo found nothing at the church. But they insisted on going to the room where I lived. I said, “I must first call my boss, because he is due any moment and I can’t just go away like this.” They agreed, but of course they listened. I called my boss and said, “I am here with the German police. They want to go with me to my house, so I’m sorry, if you come I will not be in.” “Okay,” he said, and he immediately rang the house where I was staying to warn them I was coming with the police, and they were able to take certain things out of the house.
I was staying with a pastor and his wife. They had no children, and they were willing to take in young people who didn’t earn much money. Another girl and myself were staying there. I knew the other girl did nothing illegal — so I took the Gestapo into her room and said, “This is my room! ”
They searched her room up and down. The only thing they found was a picture of the Queen [who was with the government-in-exile in London]. They were furious, but that was not a thing for which they could take me to prison. They searched for three hours and finally left. The girl was furious with me! Ridiculous girl . . . She was angry because they made such a mess.
Then I knew it was dangerous for me and that it was now better for me to hide. I went to another address.
And there were no more encounters with the Gestapo?
After I had left, I remembered that I had left something at the house which I needed very badly. So I thought, “Well, it’s Friday evening — I will go and get it.” I went to the house, got to my former room, and at that moment the Gestapo arrived at the house and rang. I thought, “There they are! “You just feel it, you know?
I went out of the room up to the attic. It was the only thing I could do. I heard the very nice pastor’s wife say, “Yes, she must be in the house, because her bicycle is here.” She had the idea, like most people at that time, that no matter what, you had to be honest. They went up to my room. It was clean and in order. Then they began a search. For five hours they searched that house, and they didn’t find me. They were terrible hours. But I was lucky, I had found a small cupboard — just a crawl space under the eaves. I got in and put something in front of me and laid there and didn’t move. They went over the whole attic, but they did not open the door. I think they didn’t realize a door was there. It was all in the same color, and by the time they got to the attic they were tired.
By this time it was clear that they wanted to arrest you?
Yes, absolutely. As it was, they took the pastor’s wife. Three hours later I came out of the attic — after eight hours. I couldn’t stay there any longer. By then the pastor was frantic. “My wife! My wife! You have to go and turn yourself in.” But I said, “No. Nothing will happen to her, but for me there is great danger.” He was furious! She was released the next morning, as I expected.
For another day I had to stay there in the attic. There was at all times a Gestapo man posted in front of the house — we saw him walking up and down. Finally on Saturday evening at 5 o’clock, they had free time, and they left. So I was able to go. It was very dangerous, of course, and very frightening, but I went. From that time on, I lived underground.
What was your work then?
The same. Finding homes for Jews, helping with ration cards, helping with other things. First it was the Jews, then there were students, then laborers who didn’t want to go to forced labor in Germany, and then other underground people. We also went on with the samizdat papers, which came out regularly every four to six weeks.
What was in them?
News. Warnings. Information. Articles explaining in a popular way why we were fighting against Nazism. Then in July 1942, someone had to go to Switzerland, so I went.
How did you do that?
Walking, mostly — Holland to Belgium, then the train into northern France, and then walking into Switzerland.
What was the purpose of that trip?
To get information to London — to the Dutch Queen and the government in exile.
At that time they had several radio stations, like “Voice of Holland,” broadcasting to us. And sometimes they were sending absurd information. It was vital that the government should have clearer reports about what was happening, so they wouldn’t risk people’s lives. We also wanted to give them information about where troops were and what they were doing, and to remind them of the dangers.
What kind of dangers?
Well, you can drown a country like Holland if you blow up the electrical generators — because these run the pumps, and most of the country is below sea level. The Germans placed dynamite near all the power stations. We were always fighting this. We would steal the dynamite. We expected that all Holland would be drowned.
interviewer’s note: In 1944 Hebe Kohlbrugge was finally arrested, though she managed to give a false name and to convince her captors she was a German citizen. After a period in a Dutch prison camp, she was transferred to Ravensbrück, 80 kilometers north of Berlin — the concentration camp known as “the women’s hell.”
At least 50,000 persons died here, and many others were sent on to death camps. I once talked with a girl in Ravensbrück, and she was very down, and I said to her, “Keep your head up!” And she said, “You can. You know why you’re here. I’m here only because of my nose.” I think that’s very important. We knew why we were there; we had been fighting. This poor girl hadn’t. She was there only, as she said, because of her nose.
When were you at Ravensbrück?
From September 4, 1944, until February 1945.
What did you do there?
I worked in the hospital, as I had in the Dutch prison camp. I had to look after the babies. Their mothers were mainly from Poland. The Germans had taken whole villages, and some of the women, of course, were pregnant. Every day, one or two babies were born. I never had more than 35, so you can count how many died. Most were born beautifully. The births were like anywhere — the mothers rejoicing about their nice new babies, so beautiful. But the mothers did not have enough food. They couldn’t nurse. After three days the babies would begin to shrink. They died, generally very quietly. It was hard, especially for those mothers who had lost their husbands. The baby was all they had left.
But the ones who had perhaps the worst situation at Ravensbrück were the gypsies. They were even more crowded than the rest of us, more pressed together. The Nazis had decided that these people, like the Jews, should be wiped out. The mothers would be told that if they allowed their daughters to be sterilized, the daughters could be let free. The mothers would say, “Okay. Then my little girl gets out.” Then there were these girls — eight, nine, ten, twelve years old — who were sterilized with electric shock. It was too terrible for words. Their screams were unbearable. It was the most awful thing I experienced at Ravensbrück. It was torture of children.
But I don’t think one should stay too long with these old memories. Torturing is still going on. All the countries are doing it. In 1980 we can’t talk too much about the torturing by the Nazis. We cannot say they were the most evil. Black is black.
What was important in helping you survive the experience?
There were various things. One was that I wanted to overcome. I wanted to survive, not only because I was afraid of dying, but because I didn’t want to give the Germans the chance to rejoice! Secondly, I had come through the experiences of prison, of not giving names, of pretending to be a German, of being one of the many in the camps, and I had the feeling, “I have come through so far — I will come through to the end.” I didn’t want to die as Christina Dormann [her false name] — I wanted to go home as Hebe Kohlbrugge.
I was very busy with the mothers and babies, and trying to do something for them. I first heard from the Polish mothers about life in Poland in the war. I hadn’t known Poland had been so much worse than Holland. Much worse. So I started to realize that my experiences were not so important — in fact they were unimportant in light of what these Polish girls had to tell me. We had been busy only with ourselves; now we started to get busy with more important things.
Working for the babies, I really had to work from roll call in the morning until midnight. I hardly had any sleep. So I really hadn’t much time to think of what would keep me alive. I hadn’t even much time for religious life or praying. Probably not enough. I knew that I was a Christian, I knew that as a Christian I fought against the lie of Nazism, I knew that I tried to help these mothers, and I did what I could.
How do the sorts of experiences you had affect your religious faith?
There is a book which has recently been published here, How Can I Believe After Auschwitz? I think the question is ridiculous. Evil didn’t begin or end with the Nazis. There is all we know about Vietnam, Afghanistan, the Gulag Archipelago, Cambodia, Argentina, Chile, many countries in Africa . . . And there are events like these all through human history. How can we just talk about believing after Auschwitz? If we read the Revelation of St. John, we are told that history will go this way. And it does go this way. So if I believe, I believe. If I don’t, I don’t. We push away our present difficulties by thinking only of 1944-45.
What about the guards — people who kill and torture? Does this require a certain kind of person, or can it be anyone?
I remember at Ravensbrück one day there came new guards — ten or twenty. They were girls sent from a factory that had been closed. They came and were told what they had to do. And they said, “We don’t want to do that.” All of them. Then they were told, “Either you are a guard, or you are a prisoner.” Now what shall the normal factory girl do? Can you expect her to choose to be a prisoner? So she becomes a guard. And then what happens? She tries not to be too nasty. But they tell her she must be more nasty. “If you are not, we will send you to be a guard some place even worse.” So she starts shouting. But it wasn’t true for everyone. Not everyone became cruel. We knew some who would never tell what they had seen. But many just went along step by step. A few were real sadists, and they tried to push the rest.
What happened when you were released?
I went home — which took me a good week — and I had to go to bed immediately, because I had very bad tuberculosis. I had known in Ravensbrück that I had it; in fact I had already been sick in bed in the camp. It was not allowed to release sick people, but the doctor did. He liked me — I don’t know why. At home they looked after me and I had a good doctor. The war ended in May.
In the years since then, you have spent a great deal of time working for refugees and for people in trouble because of war. Was it inevitable that you should go on to do these kinds of things?
Immediately after I came back from Switzerland where I had been recuperating for two years, the churches of Holland asked me to take up contact with Germany. The churches were very much aware of the hatred Holland had for Germany, and aware that for the churches the hatred couldn’t go on. They wanted someone to build bridges, and they asked me. I did this work from 1948 to 1957.
How did you get involved in work in Eastern Europe?
I had so many friends, especially in Czechoslovakia and Poland. Most of the Polish friends I never found again after the war, but the Czech friends I did find. I was very interested in life in their countries, very interested in what Communism did when it was in the chair. They had convinced me everything would be fine in Czechoslovakia, so I wasn’t against it. I wanted to see what it would be like. Then I found out that it was not what they had promised it would be. Most of my friends were in charge of very important jobs in Czechoslovakia, and then they all went with Dubcek, and they were thrown out — out of their jobs, out of the party, and all of that. I have no personal contact anymore, because I am not allowed to go in.
What are appropriate ways for people in the West to gain an understanding of what is happening in Eastern Europe and do something to help?
People must read one or two books about the problems of Eastern Europe. Otherwise we are just like the Germans who said after the war, “We didn’t know it, and we didn’t want it.” I think of the book To Build a Castle: My Life as a Dissenter by [Vladimir] Bukovsky. He gives a clear account of how he came to be one of the dissidents, what happened to him, how he lived through prison. It’s not difficult to read, and there’s lots of humor in it, so you needn’t be afraid of reading it.
People are obliged to read books like that. You can’t live in one world and not know anything about it. You can’t know everything about everywhere, but people should have at least some basic information about what it’s like. What does it mean if you have lived through the lie of Nazism — which is not to compare that with Communism, for they are quite different — and if you know Communism, the “real existing socialism” as it is now, is also a lie and is forcing people into a lie? If you once have fought against a lie, for the truth, it is impossible to come home and say, “Now I will sit in my chair and not fight anymore.”
I am struck by the lack of bitterness in the way you speak about things which could, for other people perhaps, be rather embittering.
It is much easier for those who have been in it to be without rancor and bitterness than for those who have stood aside. Those who didn’t do anything — mainly out of fear — still have hatred, because they feel in some way that they themselves have not done the right thing. They hate those who hindered them from being as they know they ought to have been.
And of course if you have lost a husband or someone dear to you, it is different. You can’t make an absolute line. I had no husband, no children. My sisters did not die. My father and mother did not die. They all survived. My father was once driven around for half an hour with a pistol in his back, but at the last moment they did not shoot him. If he had been shot, I don’t know what I would feel now, what I would say.
We can only account for what has happened to us. Nothing very bad happened to me. I was not once beaten in prison, because they believed I was German. I went through no torment at all — except in the concentration camp, like everybody. I must state that very clearly, because otherwise I would give an impression that is not true.
In the thick birch woods south of Novosibirsk, Siberia’s largest city, is Akademgorodok — literally, Academic Town. Founded in the fifties by Soviet Academy of Science as a major research center, it accommodates the Institutes of Nuclear Physics, Biology, Economics, Pure and Applied Mathematics, and Organic Chemistry, and numerous similar establishments. The campus of the science-oriented University of Novosibirsk is located here. John Le Carré’s novel, The Russia House, fearures a free-thinking, vodka-soaked nuclear physicist from this scientific enclave.
It was taken for granted by the founders that Akademgorodok would be forever free of the “superstitions of religion.” In the past two years, however, religious life has sprung into the open, including a vital Orthodox Christian parish formed in Akademgorodok by scientists and babushkas together.
In 1991, when I was taking a Russian course at the university, I took part in the first Liturgy. It was Troitsa (Holy Trinity) Sunday, a day in June. Lacking a church building, the parish, plus various curious on-lookers, met for an outdoor service on the edge of the woods. We stood — part of the time kneeled — for several hours despite increasingly heavy rain. By the end of the Liturgy everyone was soaked to the bones, collective baptism by total immersion.
No one has played a larger part in bringing the church into being than Natasha Gorelova, a mathematician and geologist. The greatest treasure of my month in Akademgorodok was getting to know her.
She was born in a Siberian mining town. Though baptized as an infant, she never entered a church again during her childhood. As a student at the State University in Moscow, she was awarded the Lenin Prize. In 1971 she was sent to Akademgorodok where she did post-graduate work in cybernetics at the Computer Center. Still at the Computer Center, her present work concerns applied mathematics. She is the mother of three. Her son, 19, is a university student. She has two daughters, ages 13 and 10.
I asked her what was behind her conversion.
“It is typical for my generation. I always knew that God exists. I don’t remember any night going to sleep without praying, even as a Young Pioneer in summer camp. I remember if I didn’t pray before going to sleep, I would wake up in the night with a kind of shock, realizing that I had left this world without praying, though I didn’t use the word praying until I was an adult. I came to God without difficulty, but there is a distinction between coming to God and coming to Christ.
“When I was 25, I understood that I couldn’t survive anymore the way I was. Perhaps it was because of being born in Russia and the fate of this country — realizing the suffering of this country, the killing and murder, the terrible things that happened. I realized I couldn’t go on living in the same way. I felt depressed and thought about suicide. It wasn’t that I had bad luck. I was fortunate. I had a good husband, good friends, good children, interesting work. I had successfully defended my thesis.
“I was reading a lot of existentialist writers then and some eastern philosophy. These writers were explaining the world as best they good and perhaps even their explanations were quite correct, but they didn’t show the way out, only
another impasse. By my education I was a mathematician both professionally and in my thoughts. Reading all these things I was always aware of errors in logic. For example I came upon the statement that you cannot interrupt suffering by suicide because you will only be reincarnated in another life even worse than the present life. But I thought if I don’t remember any previous life, then I won’t remember this life in another life. In effect this “reincarnated self” will be someone else suffering, not me. So why bother about it?
“Then, while working on my doctoral degree, I happened to read about Christ in a book about cybernetics. The author, explaining positive and negative feedback, used a saying of Christ, `If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn the other cheek to him as well.’ He said the statement is quite sound and can be explained mathematically. If someone strikes you and you hit back, the consequence is that you only increase the amount of evil. If you want to reduce the amount of evil, you decrease it by refusing to repeat evil actions.
“I decided to test it. In Russia that’s easy to do! You know our buses and how crowded they are. So when someone shoved me or put his foot on mine, I didn’t say something offensive, only, `Please, why don’t you move to this side?’ or `Please sit here’ — speaking without sarcasm, in a kind voice. I saw how the tension in the bus immediately went down. I understood from my experiments that you can reduce the stress in a line or a crowd by refusing to respond to aggression with more aggression but instead with kindness. That was my first step to Christ. I began to think of the Gospel as a very wise book. The Resurrection of Christ, however, was something that I couldn’t understand.
“At this point, I accepted the formula: If the truth is not Christ, then I don’t need any other truth. Then I was thinking about what Christ said, `Knock and the door will be opened, ask and it shall be given.’ I decided to knock on the door until it opened. But I still didn’t know any believers. I had only books. My friends couldn’t understand why I was so preoccupied with these religious questions. They assumed it was a phase that I would eventually get through.”
In searching for a place within Christianity, it wasn’t clear what Church to join. Her first Bible she a gift from Baptists, her reading about liturgy and sacraments drew her intellectually to Orthodoxy. However becoming Orthodox seemed out of the question.
“I couldn’t imagine that I would find myself among babushkas with their covered heads, so old. Then while in Moscow, I went into an Orthodox church. Once inside, I was amazed at the care for me offered by the babushkas, the old women I had looked down upon.
“It was they who opened the way for me. The first time I was blessed to receive communion, they were waiting for me to approach the chalice. When I didn’t, some of the old women took me by their hands and brought me to the priest and so I received the holy gifts. Afterward they were all around me, kissing me, kissing my dress, crying. I had never before experienced so deeply my unity with the people around me and my love for them. It was in this way that I found out what the eucharist is, what communion is. From that moment on, I have loved babushkas! And from that moment I was a believer.”
Her conversion has touched many lives. She counts more than forty god-children, among them archaeologists, biologists, mathematicians. She takes pride that baptism wasn’t just a pious
gesture in their lives but that all are attentive church-goers.
I asked how the local Orthodox community came together.
“It began with some young people. Some were students, some had recently graduated. Somehow they knew about me and asked me whether I would join them and to help them organize a community. I was surprised. I asked them, `Why is it that I don’t see you in church?’ If some old women asked me to join their community, of course I would join. But I said I didn’t want to join a community just for the sake of going to meetings. It was a kind of wide ecumenical group, a religious discussion group. Some thought of themselves as Catholic. Some were curious about religion but more in non-Christian religions — the Hare Krishna prayer and Hinduism. But most were drawn to Orthodoxy. Those who weren’t finally left the group. When it was Orthodox, Father Boris from Novosibirsk became their chaplain. They had the community officially registered with the Council for Religious Affairs.”
I wondered what she thought of ecumenism.
“I am not against it. But for me, I feel like someone in a forest fire, running for my life to escape from the fire. I don’t stop and look at all the trees and bushes and fallen logs. I just run. I am running for my salvation. If you have the truth already, you go forward within that truth. I don’t think I have to change the world. All I am trying to do is to change myself. I am trying to do it even though I don’t seem to make much progress. As Saint Seraphim said, `Pray to the Holy Spirit and forgive everyone and you will be saved.’
“This way of thinking was different from the point of view some of the young people had in the community in the beginning. Some had the point of view that first you have to change the world and the church hierarchy, then you can change yourself. For me that was only politics. I didn’t want to come back to the things that I had left behind years before.”
I asked her how public worship started.
“In January 1990 we celebrated Theophany, the first time we were allowed to have a public service. It wasn’t a Liturgy but the solemn blessing of water. We built a little shelter and set it up behind the House of Scientists in the center of town. It was a cold day, more than 30 degrees below. Many came to receive blessed water. Father Boris’ hands were nearly frozen. By the time we finished, the water had ice in it. Ever since then, we have celebrated most of the important events on the church calendar. We put notices up on the doors on shops and publish announcements in the newspaper, `The Orthodox Christian Community of Akademgorodok named after All the Holy Saints of Russia invites you to such-and-such event.’ ”
I asked how local atheists respond to this outbreak of religion in Akademgorodok.
“Some stick with the old slogans, but you see in general quite a change in attitude. In May 1990, the Town Council voted 63 to 1 in favor of our request to build a church, though where it would be was a harder question to resolve.”
I asked her if she was troubled that the Orthodox bishops had often failed to stand up to the government during periods of persecution.
“I never expected anything good from the human part of the Church. I was sure that anything existing officially in this country couldn’t be good. In such a situation, from the human point of view, the Church couldn’t be good. So I had no expectations. But after becoming Orthodox I kept meeting good people. I never permit myself to judge those people in the Church whom I don’t like. Maybe their cross is even heavier than mine. Maybe their destiny is even more difficult, more complicated.”
I wondered if there were a link between the local church and Pamyat or other anti-semitic groups, for I have often encountered anti-Semites in the Christian community in the USSR.
“None. In fact many members of the church come from Jewish families and are targets of anti-Semites. Pamyat is like a lynch mob. One member of our group helped organize a meeting of Memorial, the organization to honor victims of Stalin. The meeting was in the theater of the House of Scientists. Almost a thousand came. But the meeting was disrupted by Pamyat. Their slogan was, `There was no Stalinism, only Judeo-Fascism.’ The Pamyat people came up onto the stage and stood behind the speakers like partisans of the Soviet type. A veteran of some of the prison camps tried to speak but they wouldn’t let him. Some spat on the man. Many in Pamyat are active in anti-drinking campaigns. Because of this you sometimes hear, `Better sclerosis of the liver than such a memory.’ ” [Pamyat means memory]
Our talk ended with Natasha serving a meal.
“It isn’t very good,” she said apologetically. “I can cook or speak but not both at the same time. I consider myself a bad housewife. The story about Mary and Martha is one of my great consolations.”
Unfortunately I haven’t yet been to the newly built church in Akademgorodok but a few days ago received a letter about it from Sophie Koulomzin, whose autobiography, Many Worlds (Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press), I have been reading lately. Sophie was born in Russia in 1904, but has been living in the west since the Bolsheviks took power 1917. After a lifetime of teaching, writing and translating, she was able to visit Russia this year in order to take part in a conference on spirituality held in Akademgorodok.
“As you can see from the enclosed photos,” she wrote me, “the church is really lovely and quite special — not a restoration of an old one but something new in a town where there never was a church before. It stands in the woods and is built from logs cut right on the spot. Inside and all around there is the intense smell of fresh wood. It is not quite finished. The icons are not hand-painted but printed in paper and mounted on boards — good reproductions of ancient icons, not horrible 19th century religious art. Services are well attended, a mixture of babushkas plus many students and faculty from the various institutes. Every Saturday about 50 people are baptized, adults and children. Every Thursday there is a preparatory talk for those getting read for baptism. The priest, Father Boris Pivovarov, is assisted in his teaching work by several woman, one of whom is Natasha Gorelova.”
The name of Thomas Merton means many things to many people: convert, monk, poet, photographer, participant in inter-religious dialogue, pacifist, defender of human rights, social critic, a person who was a thorn in the side not only of secular but religious establishments. Most of all we know him as a prolific writer. Few writers have touched so many lives. Were we to gather together all those who regard his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, as a life-changing book, a sports stadium would not hold them all. Though he died in 1968, his books remain in print in many languages while new books by and about Merton appear each year. There are Thomas Merton societies in several countries.
Yet we have this warning from him: “He who follows words is destroyed.” Thomas Merton approvingly quoted this Chinese proverb to the novices in his care at his monastery in Kentucky, the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani. “He who gets involved in statements will be completely lost,” he explained.
Merton’s name is linked with what is sometimes called “the contemplative life,” a condition of existence which sounds most attractive. Which of us wouldn’t prefer the occasional exodus, if not the permanent move, to a world free of rush hours, bus fumes and ulcer-creating employment? But as Merton pointed out in an essay on monastic spirituality, “The word ‘contemplation’ does not occur in the Gospel.” In the same essay Merton goes on to remark:
The idea of abstracting oneself from all things, purifying one’s mind of all images, and ascending by self-denial to an ecstatic intellectual contact with God the Supreme Truth ending up by being “alone with the alone” all this is characteristic of the neo-platonic approach. It has been taken over by a whole tradition of Christian writers and has been Christianized. But still we must remember in dealing with such writers that we are handling a characteristically Greek type of thought and must take care not to lose sight of Christ Himself and His teachings in order to follow a more or less pagan line of thought from which Christ is all but excluded.
Merton, the writer, was painfully aware of the limitations of words just as Merton the contemplative gradually came to see the danger that those pursuing contemplative life might lose contact with the actual Christ who, far from residing on Cloud Nine only to be glimpsed with a mystical telescope, participates moment by moment in our world of grime, sweat, fear and suffering.
It may be helpful for us to become more aware that the spiritual life of this noted writer was not very verbal even though he followed the traditional regimen of reciting the psalms and other prayers in the course of each day.
One aspect of his inner life had to do with icons, those sacred images produced by an ancient tradition of Christian art that many would be inclined to dismiss as primitive.
Merton’s interest in icons had a strange beginning. It was at his father’s death bed.
In 1931, Merton’s artist father Owen was suffering from a brain tumor that made him unable to speak. And yet he did manage “a last word.” Merton — age 16 at the time — came to see his father in his London hospital room and, to his amazement, found the bed littered with drawings of “little, irate Byzantine-looking saints with beards and great halos.” The younger Merton had no eye for icons at the time. He then regarded Byzantine art, he confessed in an unpublished autobiographical novel, The Labyrinth, as “clumsy and ugly and brutally stupid.”
With his father’s death, Thomas Merton had become an orphan. His mother, Ruth, had died of cancer when he was six.
It was on his 18th birthday, January 31, 1933, two years after his father’s death, having finished his studies at Oakham School and having most of a year off before entering Clare College in Cambridge in September, that Merton set off for an extended European holiday — a one man Grand Tour — with a visit to Italy the main event. He hiked along the Mediterranean coast of France, then took the train from Saint Tropez into Italy: first Genoa, then Florence, finally Rome.
Once in Rome, for days he followed the main tourist track, Baedeker guidebook in hand, but the star attractions, even St. Peter’s Basilica, left him either yawning or irritated. The architecture, statuary and painting of the Empire, the Renaissance and the Counter-Reformation struck him as vapid and melodramatic. “It was so evident, merely from the masses of stone and brick that still represented the palaces and temples and baths, that imperial Rome must have been one of the most revolting and ugly and depressing cities the world has ever seen,” Merton wrote in The Seven Storey Mountain. It was the Rome of Cecil B. DeMille’s film epics of the 1950s.
Perhaps we would never have heard of Thomas Merton had it not been for what happened when he found his way to the city’s most ancient churches: San Clemente, Santa Sabina, Santa Maria Maggiore, Saints Cosmas and Damian, the Lateran, Santa Costanza, Santa Maria in Trastevere, the Basilica of San Prassede. These moved him in an unexpected and extraordinary way. These were all churches of sober design whose main decoration were mosaic icons, images of simplicity and quiet intensity that have little in common with the more theatrical art that was eventually to take over in Rome. Many of the icons in Santa Maria Maggiore date from the fourth century.
“I was fascinated by these Byzantine mosaics,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I began to haunt the churches where they were to be found.”
Through these icons, he began to understand, and in a remarkable way, who Christ is: “For the first time in my whole life I began to find out something of whom this Person was that men call Christ. … It is the Christ of the Apocalypse, the Christ of the Martyrs, the Christ of the Fathers. It is the Christ of Saint John, and of Saint Paul, and of St. Augustine and St. Jerome and all the Fathers — and of the Desert Fathers. It is Christ God, Christ King.”
The intensity of the experiences that are reflected in this powerful litany may be due in part to the fact that Merton was alone in Rome. There is something about unmediated face-to-face contact that magnifies encounter. There is no schedule to keep, no one to explain and play sheep dog.
Eager to understand the iconographic images that so arrested his eyes, Merton put aside the D.H. Lawrence books that had weighted down his rucksack and bought a Bible. “I read more and more of the Gospels, and my love for the old churches and their mosaics grew from day today.”
The attraction of icons wasn’t simply due to Merton’s newly-gained appreciation of the aesthetics of iconography but a profound sense of peace he experienced within the walls of churches graced with such imagery. He had, he said, “a deep and strong conviction that I belonged there.”
Merton desperately wanted to pray, to light a candle, to kneel down, to pray with his body as well as his mind, but found the prospect of publicly kneeling in a church alarming.
Then one night, in his pensione room on the Piazza Barberini, he had an intense experience of his father’s invisible presence at his side, “as real and startling as if he had touched my arm or spoken to me.” The experience was over in a flash, “but in that flash, instantly, I was overwhelmed with a sudden and profound insight into the misery and corruption of my own soul. . . . And now, I think for the first time in my whole life, I really began to pray . . . praying out of the very roots of my life and of my being, and praying to the God I had never known.”
The next morning Merton climbed the Aventine Hill, crowned by the fifth century church of Santa Sabina. Once inside, he found he could no long play the guidebook-studying tourist.”Although the church was almost empty, I walked across the stone floor mortally afraid that a poor devout old Italian woman was following me with suspicious eyes.” He knelt down at the altar rail and, with tears, again and again recited the Our Father.
Leaving the church, Merton felt a depth of joy he hadn’t known in years if ever before. He was no longer “a heretic tourist,” he commented in The Labyrinth. He put it more positively in The Seven Storey Mountain: “Without knowing anything about it, I became a pilgrim.”
At age 18, Merton had undergone, without realizing exactly what it was, a mystical experience: he was stricken with a sense of Christ’s reality and living presence. From that moment he had something against which to measure everything, whether himself or religious art or the Church in history. He knew what was phoney, not because of some theory but because of an experience of Christ mediated through sacred imagery.
The pilgrimage that followed, of course, was nothing like an arrow’s direct flight. The coming winter at Clare College was to prove a disastrous time in his life, the “nadir of winter darkness,” leaving wounds from which I doubt he ever fully healed. It was so disastrous that his well-to-do guardian in London wanted no further responsibility for Owen Merton’s wayward son and sent him packing to his grandparents in America.
Four years after arriving in New York, Merton was received into the Catholic Church. In another three years later, head freshly shaven, he was a new member of the Trappist monastic community of the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky.
We can see that icons had their part to play in bringing Merton to religious belief. That’s clear to any attentive reader of The Seven Storey Mountain. But religious art in general, and icons especially, continued to figure in his religious development.
It is striking to discover that only one book of Merton’s was actually in the production stage and yet wasn’t published: Art and Worship. It was to have gone to press in 1959. The galleys sheets survive at the Thomas Merton Center in Louisville. Also on file there is the correspondence about the project. It makes for entertaining reading to see various friends struggling to bring Merton up-to-date on religious art. An expert, the art historian Eloise Spaeth, was enlisted as a kind of professor-by-post to ferry Merton’s tastes into the modern world. In the end she could see no way to rescue either Merton or his book. She was appalled with Merton’s “‘sacred artist’ who keeps creeping out with his frightful icons.”
Merton’s aesthetic heresy was his view that Christian religious art had been more dead than alive for centuries. What he had hoped to do with his small book was to sensitize some of his readers to an understanding of religious art that, in the west at least, had been abandoned in the Renaissance and afterward simply forgotten. It was, in brief, a work in praise of icons and their recovery.
“It is the task of the iconographer,” he wrote, “to open our eyes to the actual presence of the Kingdom in the world, and to remind us that though we see nothing of its splendid liturgy, we are if we believe in Christ the Redeemer, in fact living and worshipping as ‘fellow citizens of the angels and saints, built upon the chief cornerstone with Christ.'”
At the time there were few indeed who were eager to read such observations. I can recall my own indifference to the icon cards — photos of 15th and 16th century Russian icons — he sent me in the sixties. I assumed some donor had dumped these pious cards on the monastery and Merton was making use of them as note paper.
In Art and Worship, Merton sought to explain what he regarded as the seven qualities of sacred art:
It is hieratic. That is it is concerned solely with the sacred, seeking to convey the awesomeness of the invisible and divine reality and to lead the beholder to awareness of the divine presence.
It is traditional. Far from being merely conventional, tradition constantly renews the everlasting newness of revelation. The icon is not the personal meditation of an individual artist but the fruit of many generations of belief uniting us to the witnesses of the resurrection. The icon is as much an instrument of the transmission of Christian tradition as the written or spoken word. Such art has much in common with bread-baking. No loaf of bread is signed and none is the work of a single generation.
It is living. It communicates a life of prayer, a life rooted in worship.
It is sincere, simple, direct, unaffected, unmanipulative, and unpretentious.
It is reverent, not seeking to draw attention to itself or sell anything. It guards against a too easy or too human familiarity with the divine. For example, a Savior icon is not a painting merely of “our dear friend Jesus” but at once portrays both his divinity as well as his manhood, his absolute demands on us as well as his infinite mercy.
It is spiritual. The icon is not an art object and has nothing to do with the commercial world, but exists only as an evangelical expression and an aid to worship. “The Spirit of God speaks to the faithful in between the lines of divine revelation, telling us things that are not evident to the inspection of scholarship or reason,” Merton comments. “So too the Spirit of God speaks behind the lines and colors of a sacred painting, telling the worshipper things the art critic cannot see.”
It is pure. It is not the work of a person who seeks to draw attention to himself. The iconographer, having been blessed by the church to carry on this form of silent evangelical activity, willingly and with gratitude works under the guidance of tradition.
I would add to Merton’s list three other qualities of sacred art:
It is silent. Over the past 800 years, most Western religious art has been increasingly full of action, often like a movie poster. In the icon there is a conscious avoidance of movement or theatrical gesture. It is rendered in the simplest manner. The stillness and silence of the icon, in the home setting no less than the church, creates an area of silence. The deep silence characteristic of a good icon is nothing less than the silence of Christ. St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch in the second century, made the observation: “He who possesses in truth the word of Jesus can hear even its silence.”
The icon is a revelation of theosis and transfiguration. We were made in the image and likeness of God but the image has been damaged and the likeness lost. The icon shows the recovery of wholeness. Over centuries of development, iconographers gradually developed away of communicating physical reality illuminated by Christ. The icon suggests the transfiguration that occurs to whomever has acquired the Holy Spirit. The icon is thus a witness to theosis, meaning deification. It is an ancient Christian teaching that “God became man so that man could become God.” Not that we become our own Creator but that we actually participate in God’s life.
It bears witness to the incarnation. The iconoclastic heresy of the 7th and 8th centuries, which resulted in the destruction of countless icons and persecution of those making or using them, was rooted in the idea that the humanity of Christ had been absorbed into his divinity; therefore to draw an image of Christ, representing as it did aspects of his physical appearance, stressed his humanity while obscuring his divinity.
The great theologian affirming the place of icons in Christian life was St. John of Damascus, writing from Mar Saba Monastery in the desert southeast of Jerusalem. In his essay On the Divine Images, he argues:
“If we made an image of the invisible God, we would certainly be in error … but we do not do anything of the kind; we do not err, in fact, if we make the image of God incarnate who appeared on earth in the flesh, who in his ineffable goodness, lived with men and assumed the nature, the volume, the form, and the color of the flesh…. Since the invisible One became visible by taking on flesh, you can fashion the image of him who you saw. Since He who has neither body nor form nor quantity nor quality, who goes beyond all grandeur by the excellence of his nature, He, being of divine nature, took on the condition of a slave and reduced himself to quantity and quality by clothing himself in human features. Therefore, paint on wood and present for contemplation Him who desired to become visible.”
From time to time Merton returned to the subject of sacred art in his letters. In the last year of his life, for example, there are two letters of importance to us that were addressed to a Quaker correspondent, June Yungblut. She had sent him the manuscript of a book by her husband on great prophets of history in which one chapter was devoted to Jesus of Nazareth. June hoped Merton might read and comment on the Jesus chapter.
Merton replied with the confession that he was still “hung up in a very traditional Christology.” He wasn’t drawn, he went on, to a Christ who was merely an historical figure possessing “a little flash of the light” but to “the Christ of the Byzantine icons.”
In her response June Yungblut expressed dismay with the phrase, “the Christ of the Byzantine icons.” Didn’t Merton feel a shiver to use the word Byzantine? Didn’t “Byzantine” signify the very worst in both Christianity and culture? And weren’t icons of about as much artistic significance as pictures on cereal boxes?
In March 1968 Merton replied explained what he meant in linking himself with the “Christ of the Byzantine icons.” The whole tradition of iconography, he said,
represents a traditional experience formulated in a theology of light, the icon being a kind of sacramental medium for the illumination and awareness of the glory of Christ within us. . . . What one ‘sees’ in prayer before an icon is not an external representation of a historical person, but an interior presence in light, which is the glory of the transfigured Christ, the experience of which is transmitted in faith from generation to generation by those who have ‘seen,’ from the Apostles on down. . . . So when I say that my Christ is the Christ of the icons, I mean that he is reached not through any scientific study but through direct faith and the mediation of the liturgy, art, worship, prayer, theology of light, etc., that is all bound up with the Russian and Greek tradition.
It is with such words as these, still bearing the stamp of his experience of many years before in Rome, that we can better understand the significance for Merton of the hand-written icon, originally from Mount Athos, that he was given in 1965, the year he was beginning his hard apprenticeship as a hermit living in a small cinderblock house in the woods near the monastery.
The icon of the Mother of God and the Christ Child — the unexpected gift of his Greek friend, Marco Pallis, a scholar of Tibetan Buddhism — was for Merton like a kiss from God. He wrote Pallis in response:
“How shall I begin? I have never received such a precious and magnificent gift from anyone in my life. I have no words to express how deeply moved I was to come face to face with this sacred and beautiful presence granted to me. . . . At first I could hardly believe it. . . . It is a perfect act of timeless worship. I never tire of gazing at it. There is a spiritual presence and reality about it, a true spiritual ‘Thaboric’ light, which seems unaccountably to proceed from the Heart of the Virgin and Child as if they had One heart, and which goes out to the whole universe. It is unutterably splendid. And silent. It imposes a silence on the whole hermitage . . . [This] icon of the Holy Mother came as a messenger at a precise moment when a message was needed, and her presence before me has been an incalculable aid in resolving a difficult problem.”
One final document draws attention to the place the silent icon had in the life of this tireless writer. It is a list of the few personal possessions that Merton had brought with him on his trip to Asia, the journey that led to sudden death by electrocution at a conference near Bangkok. These same small items accompanied his body when it was flown back to his monastery in America in December 1968:
1 Timex Watch
1 Pair Dark Glasses in Tortoise Frames
1 Cistercian Leather Bound Breviary
1 Small Icon on Wood of Virgin and Child
From his father’s deathbed in London to the most ancient churches of Rome to his hermitage in Kentucky to his dying day in Thailand, icons figured in Merton’s life, not merely as art objects but as witnesses to the Incarnation and aids in the mystical life.
One of the most haunting phrases in Thomas Merton’s writing is a passage in The Sign of Jonas in which he speaks of God as “mercy within mercy within mercy.” It suggests that God is like a Russian matryoshka doll: open one and there is the surprise of another nested within. In life too the shell of the word “God” keeps breaking open only to reveal our unbroken, merciful maker still there: always present, always elusive.
It’s not only God who is elusive. From infancy onward, each of us is vast, mysterious, unmapped continent. Thomas Merton, for example. His books fill several library shelves, including not only what he personally prepared for publication but five volumes of letters plus a seven-volume set of his unexpurgated journals. And now there is The Intimate Merton, a selection of journal highlights. In the history of Christianity there is no monk about whom we know so much, yet Merton is still evading us like a matryoshka doll containing an infinity of selves.
It’s more than half a century since, with the publication of The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton first found himself in the limelight. It was the autobiography of a young man born in France as the First World War was breaking out, who lost his parents at an early age, who was raised with the most modern ideas current in Europe between the wars, a lonely young man constantly testing life’s borders, crossing the ocean to the New World when his London guardian gave up on him. Finally he found his way to the Catholic Church and then to a Trappist monastery — a religious community which was, when he joined it, a twentieth century outpost of medieval culture in which silence-guarding monks communicated with each other chiefly by sign language and slept in dormitories on straw-filled mattresses, going to bed at sunset and starting their day with Latin chant at the dark hour of 2 A.M.
The Seven Storey Mountain was the runaway bestseller publishers dream of but rarely experience. The first printing was a modest 7,500 copies, but a second printing of 20,000 was needed prior to the official publication day in September 1948. The next month, orders for 5,900 more copies were received; in November, 13,000; in December, 31,000. On one record-breaking day, 10,000 copies were ordered. In May 1949 Merton’s editor, Robert Giroux, hand-delivered copy number 100,000, specially bound in leather, as a gift for the author. The book has sold millions of copies, been translated into many languages, and never gone out of print.
Other books followed, one or two a year, among them: Seeds of Contemplation, The Sign of Jonas, No Man is an Island, The Silent Life, Disputed Questions, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Raids on the Unspeakable and many more — meditations, poetry, essays, literary criticism, translations, books based on extracts from his journals. The fact that Merton died in 1968, age 54, while attending a monastic conference in Thailand, has not interrupted the flow of books. Merton has been prolific even in death. (There is still at least one book yet to be published, Art and the Sacred.)
I’m one of those who knew him, a relationship mainly of correspondence begun at the encouragement of Dorothy Day. I was 20 years old at the time, a new member of the Catholic Worker staff in New York City. Merton was 46. For seven years, until his death, we exchanged many letters. During two visits to the monastery, we met repeatedly. His care, advice and prayers helped keep me from getting altogether lost in the celebrated, notorious, disorienting, bewildering Sixties.
During that first visit early in 1962, when I admired the white woolen choir robe Merton was wearing for winter use in the church, he immediately took it off so I could try it on. Its weight and solidity astonished me. Now I reflect on the intimacy in the gesture, like a father who lets his son turn the car’s ignition key even through his legs are not yet long enough to reach the gas pedal. I felt very much his care and protection.
His letters were often deeply personal, at times full of anguish. Some had a confessional quality, as did many of mine. Thus it’s possible to say that, despite the difference in age, I knew him well, though in another sense I began to know him only after his death. I recall what a surprise it was, several years after the last letter arrived, re-reading them all in sequence. It seemed I was reading them for the first time. They still surprise me whenever I go back to them. The same thing has happened with his books: as I get older, they seem to open their covers more widely. The first time I read The Seven Storey Mountain, I overlooked his sense of humor. The second time I noticed how funny he was, but was put off by the Catholics-Are-Best pages and by his occasional outbursts of preaching. Three or four readings later, I finally came to see the book as mainly belonging to the category of love letters.
Now his journals, kept under lock and key for 25 years after his death, are available to anyone who cares to read them. These, in combination with the letters, give both friend and stranger the opportunity to meet a very private Merton. On many pages it’s a Merton who previously was known only to fellow monks who heard his confessions.
Many of the confessional pages have to do with being a writer. Merton the Writer was often struggling with his archenemy, the Merton whom God had called to solitude and silence. No one is more struck or deeply troubled by the irony of a supposedly silent Trappist monk being a loud voice in the world than Merton himself, yet even this battle is recorded with words written on paper. It was an argument which went on year after year. He found himself writing his life rather than living it. In October, 1961, when an editor arrived at the monastery to work with him on The Thomas Merton Reader, Merton noted that such an anthology made it clear that he is “a writer who has arrived” but wonders what that actually means. “Arrived where? Void. Has there ever been anything else in my life but the construction of this immense illusion?” In another entry, he accused himself of being nothing more than a “publicist of emptiness.” No one was better than Merton himself in justifying his vocation to write, yet at the same time no one was more suspicious of his own defenses. He suffered from wanting to be noticed and to matter in the world, to aspire through the printed word to be a someone rather than a nobody. At other times he realized that writing was the door God had given him to a deeper spiritual and even mystical life. Of the various paradoxes in his life, none caused him more affliction than the tension between word and silence. He kept writing — and kept vowing to write less, so that he might finally disappear into silence.
There were also his grave doubts about remaining at Gethsemani, to which he committed himself by the traditional Benedictine vow of stability when he took his final vows in 1947. At the age of 26, during his first visit to Gethsemani, the abbey had seemed to him to be the secret place whose Christ-centered purity held the country together and even “kept the universe from cracking in pieces and falling apart … the only real city in America … the axle around which the whole country blindly turns.” He had found himself in the court of the Queen of Heaven and wanted nothing so much as to live there for the rest of his life. But by the time he was a fully professed monk, he was often more aware of the community’s faults than its virtues, filling many journal pages with complaints about Trappist shortcomings and other pages with his ideas about better places to pursue the contemplative life. There were bitter moments when he felt “like a duck in a chicken coop.” His longings to leap over the wall are not news to anyone who knows Merton’s biography, but the journals bring home how often and desperately Merton’s eyes rested on what he imagined to be finer, greener pastures: monasteries he regarded as simpler, poorer, smaller, more hidden, more silent, less busy. At the same time the journals underline the astonishing fact that, for all his temptations to leave, he remained a monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani until his dying day — the 27th anniversary of his arrival at Gethsemani, as it happened.
Merton also records his failures as a monk. To those acquainted with his life, the most well known was his poignant, short-lived affair with a nurse he met while a patient in a Louisville hospital. It is hard to imagine a personal record of anyone’s experience of love being more complete than Merton’s journal in the spring of 1966 — one moment savoring a visit with his beloved at a café in Louisville, the next lashing himself for the deceit and the breaking of vows such meetings required. But many other defects are recorded in his journals, the most compelling of which is his failure to love others in his community.
The journals give us many examples of Merton’s tendency first to embrace, then take distance. For example at the end of March, 1968, we find him beside himself with enthusiasm for one of the most controversial comedians of the Sixties. Merton writes that the previous evening he had been reading The Essential Lenny Bruce and that it “almost blew” his mind. “Completely gone in laughter, the kind that doubles you up and almost makes you roll on the floor. Surely that is some indication of the healthiness, the sanity of this satire which so many people regard as ‘obscene’.” Merton comments that Bruce is actually “one of the few who are really clean.” Eighteen days later, his zeal has taken a nosedive. “Last evening I finished Lenny Bruce. Sometimes he is really inspired — sometimes just dull. And though he is in some sense a kind of ‘martyr’ for honesty, yet I think his gospel of excess was delusive and self-destroying.” It’s a typical pattern — an initial burst of wild, unchecked enthusiasm followed by a sharply critical assessment often followed by a sober recognition of the pluses and minuses of the particular author or movement or whatever had caught his eye.
In the journals we often meet the first state of passages and essays we know through other books, shined up and expanded but sometimes lacking griddle-hot freshness. There is, for example, his “Fourth and Walnut Epiphany” when, waiting for the light to change at a busy intersection, he was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization “that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs … even though we were total strangers.” In the form published in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Merton felt that he had awaked from a dream of separateness, “of spurious self-isolation in a … world of renunciation and supposed holiness.” He found that “the whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream” and noted that his “sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud.” For a moment he had been able to see the image of God in unknown people. “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun …” He had discovered that “the gate of heaven is everywhere.”
It’s a fine passage revealing a great compassion opening within him. Now, thanks to the publication of the journals, we have access to his first attempt to put in writing what had happened to him on March 18, 1958, and find in it a remarkable paragraph which didn’t make its way into Conjectures. Here he writes about the women who were among the strangers at Fourth and Walnut:
“I am keenly conscious, not of their beauty (I hardly think I saw anyone really beautiful by special standards), but of their humanity, their womanness. But what incomprehensible beauty is there, what secret beauty that would perhaps be inaccessible to me if I were not dedicated to a different way of life. It is as though by chastity I had come to be unafraid of what is most pure in all the women of the world and to taste and sense the secret beauty in their girls’ hearts as they walked in the sunlight — each one secret and good and lovely in the sight of God … as good as and even more beautiful than life itself. For the womanness that is in each of them is at once original and inexhaustibly fruitful, bringing the image of God into the world. In this each one of them is Wisdom and Sophia and Our Lady…”
It’s also at the end of the Fifties that Merton begins to take note of his dream life. It’s here that we find Sophia — Wisdom — as an occasional nighttime guest whose visits illumine his waking hours. Merton, like a number of Russian theologians of the last century whose work attracted him, is held captive by those passages in the Book of Proverbs concerning Wisdom — Wisdom “playing in the world before the face of the Creator.” Like much in Merton’s later spiritual development, streams flowing through the Orthodox Church had touched him. It was in Constantinople that the principal church was dedicated to Holy Wisdom: Hagia Sophia. At a time when few Catholics were interested in Eastern Christianity, the journals make clear how often Merton was dropping a pail into the Orthodox well through such writers as Paul Evdokimov, Olivier Clément and Sergei Bulgakov and how they in turn were helping bring Sophia to life in his dreams.
There is also the day-by-day record of his study of Zen and other schools of Buddhism, of the mystic movements in Islam, the writing of the Chinese sage Chuang Tzu, and on and on. In these activities, Merton seems at times like a cat exploring every corner and crawlspace of a great mansion with many wings — even though his explorations had to be carried on mainly through reading and correspondence rather than direct experience of other religious traditions. He never participated in the Liturgy in an Orthodox Church, and only at the end of his life did he briefly experience the culture and practice of Buddhism as it is lived rather than written about.
For all his absorption in non-Christian religious traditions, the journals give witness to the Christ-centered life Merton lived down to very end, saying Mass daily in Asia just as he had in Kentucky, praying the rosary, traveling with his Trappist breviary, keeping the monastic offices and at night setting a small Greek icon of the Mother of God with Christ in her arms next to his bed.
It is in his journals more than any other book that his own hidden religious life is made visible, with the Liturgy at its center — something so basic, so ordinary, so daily that while it is often mentioned, it’s mainly in passing. Notably, the final paragraph in his journals, written in Bangkok on the 8th of December, is this:
“Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. In a little while I leave the hotel. I’m going to say Mass at St. Louis Church [St. Louis was his patron saint], have lunch at the Apostolic Delegation, and then to go on to the Red Cross place [for the monastic conference] this afternoon.”
We have that one final matter-of-fact reference to the Liturgy, an event as ordinary for him as breathing. Two days later the monks who had come to hear him speak were singing the prayers for the dead over his stilled body. Thomas Merton had finally entered the great silence.
At the end of 1965, Merton noted in his journal, “I live a flawed and inconsequential life, believing in God’s love.” It is finally a sense of God’s love and mercy which pervades the journals and marks the life of this remarkable if elusive monk whose writings have touched so many lives.
* * *
This essay was written for the April 2000 issue of U.S. Catholic and may not be reprinted without the permission both of the author and Claretian Publications in Chicago. The photo of Thomas Merton by John Howard Griffin.
Merton’s friend, Bob Lax, says Jim Forest’s biography of Thomas Merton, Living With Wisdom, is the book about Merton he gives to his nephews and nieces. Jim’s most recent books are The Ladder of the Beatitudes and Praying with Icons. He is now working on a book about confession.
[lecture given at Boston College 13 November 1995]
by Jim Forest
“I believe in one God.” These few words overturn an ancient perception in which each fragment of existence — stars, ocean, winds, trees, animals, grasses, this or that region, this or that people — was at odds with everything else, and each attached to autonomous, competing deities. To speak not of gods plural but of God singular is to realize the connection that exists beneath all the chasms of apparent separation. The discovers of the oneness of God, the Jews, brought an idea into human history that remains as challenging today as ever it was: we are one people belonging to one God and in that oneness are sewn together: living, dead and yet to be born.
An overwhelming fascination with the underlying oneness of God and the implications of that oneness in both the spiritual life and the social order is at the core of Thomas Merton’s journey.
In the life of Thomas Merton, the words “I believe in one God” are connected to a mystical experience that happened to him in the year just prior to his becoming a monk. In was the spring of 1940. A rather innocent America was inching its reluctant way into World War II. Merton, 25-years-old, a graduate student at Columbia University, had gone to Cuba during the Easter recess, pilgrimage and vacation intertwined.
The event happened among crowds of school children at Mass in the Church of Saint Francis in Havana. Having only moments before been full of irritation with the intrusive noises of urban life outside the church, not least the repeated cry “quatro mil quatro ciento quatro” by a vendor selling lucky numbers, Merton suddenly had an overwhelming experience of the divine presence:
The bell rang again, three times. Before any head was raised the clear cry of the brother in the brown robe cut through the silence with the words “Yo creo…” [“I believe”] which immediately all the children took up after him with such loud and strong and clear voices, and such unanimity and such meaning and such fervor that something went off inside me like a thunderclap and without seeing anything or apprehending anything extraordinary through any of my senses (my eyes were open on only precisely what was there, the church), I knew with the most absolute and unquestionable certainty that before me, between me and the altar, somewhere in the center the church, up in the air (or any other place because in no place), but directly before my eyes, or directly present to some apprehension or other of mine which was above that of the senses, was at the same time God in all His essence, all His power, all His glory, and God in Himself and God surrounded by the radiant faces of the uncountable thousands upon thousands of saints contemplating His glory and praising His Holy Name. And so the unshakable certainty, the clear and immediate knowledge that Heaven was right in front of me, struck me like a thunderbolt and went through me like a flash of lightning and seemed to lift me clean up off the earth.
To say that this was the experience of some kind of certainty is to place it as it were in the order of knowledge, but it was not just the apprehension of a reality, of a truth, but at the same time and equally a strong movement of delight, great delight, like a great shout of joy, and in other words it was as much an experience of loving as of knowing something, and its love and knowledge were completely inseparable. All this was caused directly by the great mercy and kindness of God when I heard the voices of the children cry out “I believe” in front of the altar…. It was not due to anything I had done for my own part, or due to any particular virtue in me at all but only to the kindness of God manifesting itself in the faith of all those children. Besides, it was in no way an extraordinary kind of experience, but only one that had greater intensity than I had experienced before. The certitude of faith was the same kind of certitude that millions of Catholics and Jews and Hindus and everybody that believes in God must have felt much more surely and more often than I, and the feeling of joy was the same kind of gladness that everybody who has ever loved anybody or anything has felt; there is nothing esoteric about such things, and they happen to everybody, absolutely everybody, to some degree or other. These movements of God’s grace are peculiar to nobody, but they stir in everybody, for it is by them that God calls people to Him[self], and He calls everybody…. [T]hey are common to every creature that ever was born with a soul. But we tend to destroy these effects, and bury them under our own sins and selfishness and pride and lust so that we feel them less and less.
In The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton again sought once again to describe what he had experienced in Havana:
It was a light that was so bright that it had no relation to any visible light and so profound and so intimate that it seemed like a neutralization of every lesser experience. And yet the thing that struck me most of all was that this light was in a certain sense “ordinary” — it was a light (and this most of all was what took my breath away) that was offered to all, to everybody, and there was nothing fancy or strange about it…. It disarmed all images, all metaphors … it ignored all sense experience in order to strike directly at the heart of truth … it … belonged to the order of knowledge, yes, but more still to the order of love.
Surely this was, for Merton, what later in life he sometimes referred to as a “kiss from God.”
If the event was consoling, the times were not. While Merton was listening to the Creed being sung in Havana, France, where he was born at the beginning of World War I, was already occupied by Germany, while England, where he went to high school and began his higher education, was under German bombardment. Places in London that had once been Merton’s haunts — record shops, cinemas, cafes, the homes of friends — had been demolished by bombs. Former classmates from Clare College were at war, no doubt some of them dead. In his diaries and autobiographical writings, we notice how much time and thought Merton was giving to the widening war in Europe. As was often the case in his life, his personal response was unusual. He registered with Selective Service as a conscientious objector, though prepared for noncombatant service as a medic. In such a role, he wrote in his journal, “I would not have to kill men made in the image and likeness of God” but could obey the divine law of “serving the wounded and saving lives.” Even if it turned out that he would only dig latrines, he considered this “a far greater honor to God than killing men.”
Writing his autobiography fifteen years later, he expanded on his decision in a text which startled many readers, appearing as it did in the early days of the Cold War:
[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.”
December 10, 1941, a year-and-a-half after his sojourn in Havana, only two days after US entry into World War II, we find Merton, nearly 27 years old, not waiting his turn at the local recruiting office but entirely by himself, ringing the gatehouse bell at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in the farmland of Kentucky.
His first 27 of life years were bracketed by two world wars: mega-death, death on the scale of plague. But he also knew of death at closer quarters. His mother died of cancer when he was six, his father when he was sixteen. While Merton’s father was lying on a London hospital bed in an dreadful silence imposed by a brain tumor, we find the son in tight-lipped silence as the Creed was being recited in the school chapel. “I believe in nothing” was his bitter view at age fifteen.
Then there was Merton’s own close brush with death in 1932, soon after Owen Merton’s burial. Merton, age seventeen, had gone hiking in Germany along the Rhine River and been run off the road by a car full of young Nazis waving their fists and throwing Hitler leaflets. What seemed at first a minor injury proved nearly fatal — a gangrenous toe and blood poisoning. Thus Merton came to know the main facts about people and movements that regarded murder as socially cleansing — or simply a form of entertainment.
Merton’s sense of evil in the world was not limited to evil beyond the walls of his life but informed by a sense of his own capacity to harm others. He had come to America following a disastrous year at Cambridge where his major achievement was to father an illegitimate child. It was a hellish interval in Merton’s life, “an incoherent riot of undirected passion,” said Merton; a time of “beer, bewilderment and sorrow,” says his compassionate friend, Bob Lax.
It was out of the wreckage of his year at Clare College that Merton struggled to make a fresh start as a student at Columbia in New York City. Here, partly thanks to the influence of remarkable teachers and an attraction to books on medieval Europe, he had found his way to Christian faith and into the Catholic Church. It was the major turning point in his life, but one which only made more dramatic the fundamental question of what to do with the rest of his life. The trip to Cuba, a country in which religious life and Catholicism were taken for granted, was a part of his search for a glimpse of his vocation.
The mystery of death, the problem of war, the experience of making destructive choices, his encounter with structures of institutionalized evil — all these were to become major themes in Merton’s work, but always with a sensibility informed by the oneness of God.
“I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ.” Mystical experiences are powerful realizations of the presence of God and probably happen in most people’s lives, though we may not recognize them for what they are, or explain them away because they don’t fit, or relegate them to a sea chest in the attic of memory. At times the word mysticism impedes our understanding of mystical life — it has become a kind of perfumed cloud bank within which edges are blurred and everything melts together, a word disconnected from the incarnational. Merton was never one to smudge the edges of reality. His mystical experiences gave existence a razor sharpness.
We know of a several mystical experiences in Merton’s life because it was his writer’s nature to record them. The first he records happened in February 1933 when, having finished high school early, he set off for an extended holiday in Italy.
What his brush with death the year before hadn’t done, Rome did. It was not the usual sights that moved him, neither the “vapid, boring, semi-pornographic statuary of the Empire” nor the ecclesiastical monuments of the Renaissance and Counter-Reformation that he had first sought out as a dutiful tourist. Rather, it was the city’s most ancient churches.
“I was fascinated by these Byzantine mosaics. I began to haunt the churches where they were to be found, and … all the other churches [among them Saints Cosmas and Damian, Santa Maria Maggiore, Santa Sabina, the Lateran, and Santa Costanza] that were more or less of the same period…. Without knowing anything about it, I became a pilgrim.”
The principal icons were windows through which he felt Christ’s gaze. “For the first time in my whole life I began to find out something of who this Person was that men call Christ…. It is the Christ of the Apocalypse, the Christ of the Martyrs, the Christ of the Fathers. It is the Christ of St. John, and of St. Paul…. It is Christ God, Christ King.”
Eager to understand iconography, he bought an English translation of the New Testament. Perhaps he recalled his father’s efforts to interest him in the Bible when he was ten. “I read more and more of the Gospels, and my love for the old churches and their mosaics grew from day to day.” Their attraction wasn’t simply his appreciation of the aesthetics of iconography but a profound sense of peace he experienced within such walls. He had a “deep and strong conviction that I belonged there.”
Alone one night in his pensione room on the corner of Via Sistina and Via Tritone, trying to record in his journal his thoughts about Byzantine icons, he sensed his father’s presence, “as real and startling as if he had touched my arm or spoken to me.” The experience was over in a flash, “but in that flash, instantly, I was overwhelmed with a sudden and profound insight into the misery and corruption of my own soul…. And now, I think for the first time in my whole life, I really began to pray … praying out of the very roots of my life and my being, and praying to the God I had never known.”
The next day, still overwhelmed by contrition, he visited the Church of Santa Sabina. Once inside, he knew that he had to pray there. It was impossible to play the guidebook-studying tourist any longer. Yet public prayer was intensely embarrassing. All he could manage that first day was to cross himself with blessed water as he entered and to recite with tears the Our Father over and over again as he knelt down at the altar rail. “That day in Santa Sabina, although the church was almost empty, I walked across the stone floor mortally afraid that a poor devout old Italian woman was following me with suspicious eyes.” For all his fears, he walked out feeling reborn. His final week in Rome was a time of joy such as he hadn’t known in years.
Icons continued to play a significant role in Merton’s life. In letters written in 1967 and 1968, he said that he wasn’t drawn to a Christ who was merely a historical figure possessing “a little flash of the light” but to “the Christ of the Byzantine icons” who “represents a traditional experience formulated in a theology of light, the icon being a kind of sacramental medium for the illumination and awareness of the glory of Christ within…. What one ‘sees’ in prayer before an icon is not an external representation of a historical person, but an interior presence in light, which is the glory of the transfigured Christ, the experience of which is transmitted in faith from generation to generation by those who have ‘seen,’ from the Apostles on down…. So when I say that my Christ is the Christ of the icons, I mean that he is reached not through any scientific study but through direct faith and the mediation of the liturgy, art, worship, prayer, theology of light, etc., that is all bound up with the Russian and Greek tradition.” One of the few personal objects Merton carried with him on his pilgrimage to Asia, where he died in 1968, was a small icon of Mary and Christ.
From Italy Merton went on to the United States for a family visit. He brought his Bible along, but the embarrassment he had felt in trying to pray that first day in Santa Sabina still haunted him. He read the Bible surreptitiously, afraid someone would make fun of him. Nonetheless he began to window-shop for a church. Despite the at-homeness he had felt in Roman churches, a long-standing aversion to Catholicism remained. He tried the Zion Episcopal Church to which his grandparents belonged and where his father had once been organist, but the service only irritated him. He next went to a Quaker Meeting in Flushing. His mother had been a Quaker and had meditated there. He enjoyed the silence while it lasted but was annoyed by what one member had to say about the virtues of the Swiss but even if it been George Fox risen from the dead and preaching with earthquake force it’s unlikely Merton would have found his spiritual home in among Quakers. What had thrilled him in those iconed churches in Rome wasn’t here. He didn’t return.
It took another five years before Merton had overcome the primary barriers to conversion. It was in November 1938 that he was received into the Church. But his expereince in Rome in 1933 would for the rest of his life keep him from shrinking Christ down to just one more of the long-dead luminaries of antiquity. He had experienced the Christ of the Byzantine icons: the Risen Christ, the Christ who has the power to raise to heal the blind and bring the dead back to live, the Christ who will come again in glory, the Christ of the Last Judgment.
“I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” At the heart of Merton’s vocation was what might be called his search for “the undivided Church.” This is something more than the Church before division a thousand years ago or the Church brought back into union at a future time, but the Church as it always exists in communion beneath its divisions, the Church that is one, holy, catholic and apostolic despite countless broken relationships among the followers of Jesus. To the extent we live in Christ, to the same extent we are drawn into a deeper communion.
His search was less hampered than would be the case for many others. One of the unusual factors in his life was that he grew up without a strong sense of nationally-defined identity. Growing up on both sides of the Atlantic, he had an experience of the world and its cultural variety that was rare among Americans, an experience not only of what divides people but what connects them. He had lived in France, England and America, and there was also an extended period of his childhood spent in the Caribbean. Not only did he live in these places but there is a sense in which he also escaped from each of them. By the time he made America his home, he was a British subject, but it was only long after becoming a monk that he applied for US citizenship, a happy event in his life when it happened, but he was never one drawn to the pseudo-religion of nationalism. He had experienced the revival of nationalism under the Nazis in Germany and encountered the “my country right of wrong” way of thinking in both Britain and America.
He was far more interested in a religious than a national community and this was no doubt a factor in his attraction to Catholicism: truly a world church. Within it he found his monastery home — a community, as it turned out, with French roots in which his facility with the French language was at times a helpful resource, especially when the Abbot General, a Frenchmen, came to visit.
One finds in Merton an ever-deepening longing for a unity that exists not only beneath geographical borders but beneath the borders drawn by details of personal identity, borders of belief, even the borders left by events in the past: truly a longing to be catholic — lower case c — in the deepest sense of the word.
But it was only 17-years into his monastic life that Merton was able to overcome a sense of radical separation from those who didn’t share his religious faith or have an affinity for the monastic life. In this regard, we note another mystical experience in his life, in March, 1958, when he was on an editorial errand in Louisville, the city nearest the monastery:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream…. This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud…. It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake…. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun…. There are no strangers!…. If only we could see each other [as we really are] all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…. I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other…. the gate of heaven is every-where.
Seen in the context of sacramental life, Merton’s experience was eucharistic. To receive communion is to be in communion, and while we use the phrase “in communion” to refer to people able to receive the Eucharist, its significance is wider. Eucharistic life leads us gradually to discover how unalterably we are wedding to each other. While not many of us are graced with the experience of actually seeing that we are each of us made in the image of God (it is hard to see when most of is have so disfigured the likeness), still each of us has had at least occasional moments of awareness through which we know the truth of John Donne’s phrase, “no man is an island.” We discover, or re-discover, that we are part of a social organism in which God has identified Himself and in which God is present.
As he stood at that busy urban intersection, Merton was given an experience of communion with those around him which had the brilliance of lightning. “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun,” he remarks. No, there isn’t. But his contribution to us is that he tried to do so, not only sharing that days’s gift from God but a day-by-day record of spiritual experience.
It was after this event, Msgr. William Shannon, the editor of several collections of Merton’s letters notes, that Merton’s correspondence takes off.
One of those he started writing to was Dorothy Day, founder the Catholic Worker movement, someone as much identified with the world as he was associated with leaving the world. It became clear to Merton, though it was no surprise to Dorothy Day, that the monastic life on the edges of society and the life of hospitality in the midst of urban life were deeply connected. For the rest of his life Merton was linked with the Catholic Worker movement and other several groups and communities seeking to care for abandoned members of society and to oppose economic and military structures that can throw people away without batting an eye.
In a talk he gave in Calcutta a few weeks before he died, Merton said, “The deepest level of communication is … communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear brothers [and sisters], we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. What we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.”
One groundbreaking element of Merton’s life was passion for dialogue with conteplatives of other religious traditions, not so much to discuss doctrine as methods of prayer, meditation and mystical experience. His interest in the eastern religions had deep roots in his life. When he was 15, he took Gandhi’s side in student debate. Living in New York seven years later, it was a Hindu monk from India, Bramachari, who encouraged Merton to read The Imitation of Christ. While drafting his dissertation on William Blake, Merton had discovered Chuang Tzu, the Chinese storytelling sage who had lived several hundred years before Christ.
In the late fifties Merton’s thinking led him back toward Asia. In 1956 he had begun reading everything he could find by D.T. Suzuki, the Japanese Zen Buddhist scholar. Three years later Merton initiated a correspondence with Suzuki, confessing he did not pretend to understand Zen but nonetheless owed a great debt to Suzuki. “Time after time, as I read your pages, something in me says, ‘That’s it!’ Don’t ask me what. I have no desire to explain it to anybody…. So there it is, in all its beautiful purposelessness.” He took the occasion to send Suzuki a collection of sayings of the Desert Fathers, the Zen Masters of the early church.
While Suzuki never came to Gethsemani, in 1964 Dom James had allowed Merton a short trip to New York to meet Suzuki, then age 94 and deaf but still the lively, responsive man Merton had anticipated. They drank green tea and talked. The main thing for Merton was “to see and experience the fact that there really is a deep understanding between myself and this extraordinary and simple man whose books I have been reading now for about ten years with great attention.” Suzuki told Merton a story about a great master’s dream in which his mother appeared to him with two mirrors, one in each sleeve. One was black, the other contained all things; the master found “himself among them, looking out.” Being with Suzuki, Merton “felt as if I had spent a few moments with my own family.”
Suzuki’s essays had revived Merton’s interest in Chuang Tzu. In 1961 he had enlisted the help of John Wu in preparing The Way of Chuang Tzu. “I have enjoyed writing this more than any other book I can remember…. I simply like Chuang Tzu because of what he is,” Merton commented in the book’s preface.
In the midst of the Vietnam War, in 1967, he had a visit from Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Zen Master and poet. For Merton it was like meeting Chuang Tzu in the flesh. As the two monks talked, the different religious systems in which they were formed didn’t seem to matter. “Thich Nhat Hanh is my brother,” Merton said a preface for a book by Nhat Hanh. “He is more my brother than many who are nearer to me in race and nationality, because he and I see things exactly the same way.” When Merton asked Nhat Hanh what the war was doing to Vietnam, the Buddhist said simply, “Everything is destroyed.” This, Merton said to the monks of Gethsemani, was truly a monk’s answer, revealing the essence without wasting a word. Merton described the rigorous formation of Buddhist monks in Vietnam and the fact that instruction in meditation doesn’t begin early. “Before you can learn to meditate,” he said, quoting Nhat Hanh, “you have to learn how to close the door.” The monks laughed; they were used to the reverberation of slamming doors as latecomers hurried to church.
Because Merton was drawn to develop relationships with non-Christians — Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists — casual readers occasionally form the impression that Merton’s bond with Christianity was wearing thin during the latter years of his life and that he was window-shopping for something else. It is not unusual to meet people who think that, had he only lived longer, he would have become a Buddhist. But as you get to know Merton’s life and writing more intimately, you come to understand that his particular door to communion with others was Christ Himself. Apart from times of illness, he celebrated Mass nearly every day of his life from the time of his ordination in 1949 until he died in Thailand 19 years later. Even while visiting the Dalai Lama in the Himalayas, he found time to recite the usual Trappist monastic offices. One of the great joys in the last years of his life was his abbot permitting the construction of a chapel adjacent to the cider block house that became Merton’s hermitage — he was blessed to celebrate the Liturgy where he lived. If there were any items of personal property to which he had a special attachment, they were the several hand-written icons that had been given to him, one of which traveled with him on his final journey. Few people lived so Christ-centered a life. But his Christianity was spacious. The Dalai Lama has remarked, “When I think of the word Christian, immediately I think — Thomas Merton!”
For Merton, his approach to Christ was nourished by the traditions of spiritual life that are associated more with the early than the modern Church. As he wrote in an as yet unpublished essay that was circulated in mimeographed form chiefly among Trappist monks:
If for some reason it were necessary for you to drink a pint of water taken out of the Mississippi River and you could choose where it was to be drawn out of the river would you take a pint from the source of the river in Minnesota or from the estuary in New Orleans?
The example is perhaps not perfect. Christian tradition and spirituality does not become polluted with development. That is not the idea at all. Nevertheless, tradition and spirituality are all the more pure and genuine in proportion as they are in contact with the original source and retain the same content.
He was drawn to the hesychast traditions of Mount Athos, especially the practice of the Jesus Pryer, or the Prayer of the Heart: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The goal in using this prayer is that it becomes an integral part of life so that truly one prays without ceasing. To breathe finally is the same as to pray.
We find Merton not altogether pleased with what happened to the Liturgy in the Catholic Church after the First Vatican Council. There are barbed comments in his writing about the decline of music and the loss of Latin — what one might call the Macdonald-ified Mass; fast-food worship. But at least of the Abbey of Gethsemani, prayer was not all a hurried event. But singing such hymns as “A Mighty Fortress is our God” had no attraction to Merton.
The liturgical changes associated with Vatican II resulted from decisions made at the Council’s first session. It was the latter work of the Council that Merton most identified with, especially the document that was approved at the Council’s last session, Guadium et Spes — the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. We see him taking an active role, insofar as correspondence allowed, in shaping this remarkable text which contains the one and only condemnation to emerge from the Council: “Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and humanity, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.” Emphasizing the role of conscience, the bishops called on states to make legal provision for those “who, for reasons of conscience, refuse to bear arms, provided that they agree to serve the human community in some other way.” Those who renounce violence altogether, seeking a more just and compassionate society by non-violent means, were honored: “We cannot fail to praise those who renounce the use of violence in vindication of their rights and who resort to methods of defense which are otherwise available to weaker parties too, provided this can be done without injury to the rights and duties of others or to the community itself.” Those who, in the name of obedience, obey commands which condemn the innocent and defenseless were described as “criminal,” while those who disobey such corrupt commands merit “supreme commendation.”
The final results followed closely what Merton had urged in an “open letter to the American hierarchy” published shortly before the last session of the Council.
Given Merton’s life and temperament, it is hardly surprising that the issues of war and peace mattered so much to him, that his vision was so unclouded by nationalism, and that these topics could not be separated from his understanding of what it meant to be a follower of Christ seeking the deepest levels of contemplative life.
Perhaps there is a certain providence not only in his dying where and when he did: one border removed from the war in Vietnam, and the 27th anniversary of his arrival of the Abbey of Gethsemani in 1941 in the days following US entry into World War II. There is also the significane of the way his body was brought back home — one more body in a US Air Force plane bringing back the dead from the war in Vietnam.
Let us thank God what Thomas Merton achieved in 54 years living among us: a Christian monk who responded with such joy to God’s presence in others and who could not be silent when his brothers and sisters were being made to suffer. He gave a witness to Christ, who killed no one and blessed no one to kill; who only healed. He brought many to faith and still more to a deeper faith. He helped to overcome divsion among Christians and left bridges which have helped bring Christians and non-Christians into dialogue at the level of spiritual experience. At the heart of his life we find a witness to God’s oneness, in which we find oneness. Not least, he gave a witness to catholic and apostolic life.