Mother Maria Skobtsova: Saint of the Open Door

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

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

Mother Maria Skobtsova: Saint of the Open Door

by Jim Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St Maria Skobtsova of Paris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was certain that there was no other path to heaven than participating in God’s mercy. “The way to God lies through love of people. At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked, Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked. About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person the Savior says ‘I’: ‘I was hungry and thirsty, I was sick and in prison.’ To think that he puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need. . . . I always knew it, but now it has somehow penetrated to my sinews. It fills me with awe.”

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

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

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

Fr Dimitri Klepinin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Klepinin: Do you know this Jew?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another prisoner, Rosane Lascroux, recalled:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

text as updated July 8, 2004

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

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

By Jim Forest

Marguerite Hendrickson Forest in 1996

The older I get, the more aware I am that my mother was my primary mentor.

One of her lessons was that you do your children a huge favor by never speaking ill of an ex-spouse. For mother that had to be a major achievement. From conversations with her later in life I learned that it took years for her to work through the grief that followed the collapse of her marriage. There must have been anger too, but I never saw it. Somehow she communicated to my brother and me respect for dad. Perhaps due to lessons learned as a social worker, she felt it was essential for us to feel proud of him. “Your father might some day be president of the United States,” she said when it was still possible for her to be imagine America shifting toward a Marxist economic model. She worked out occasional visits from him that occurred once or twice yearly. By the time of the first visit, Dad was living in St. Louis, half-a-continent away. His visits seemed like major holidays to me.

Despite being a “red-diaper baby,” during my childhood I couldn’t have explained to anyone what a Communist was, except that it meant occasionally walking with my mother for an hour or two on Saturday afternoons as she went door-to-door trying, with no success that I recall, to enlist subscribers to The Daily Worker, the paper published by the Communist Party from its headquarters near Union Square in New York. For lack of a baby-sitter, my brother and I were also sometimes brought along to the monthly meetings of her Communist “cell” group, made up of six or seven local people. Their discussions, to my young ears, sounded very dull indeed. These gathering occurred in very ordinary living rooms. Looking back, my informed guess is that at least one of the participants in these meetings was on the FBI payroll.

That mother would turn out to be a radical was certainly not what her parents had intended or imagined. Her father, Charles Hendrickson, was a Princeton graduate who had become a successful lawyer with offices in Jersey City. His father’s father, another Princeton alumnus, had been a judge on the New Jersey Supreme Court. For at least several generations the Hendricksons had been devout Methodists, a church that had been strong in its opposition to slavery in the nineteenth century and, in the twentieth century, was strongly identified with the prohibition movement. (Their avoidance of alcohol rubbed off on Mother. I have the impression of the same bottle of wine being in our pantry throughout my childhood, its contents going down inch-by-inch as I grew up inch-by-inch.)

Mother had grown up in a home in which there was a maid, a cook and, during her early childhood, a nanny. The maid was Libby, a wiry woman nearly black as coal. Not just old but ancient when I knew her, she had been born in Tennessee in slavery days. Libby had come north from Memphis with my grandmother, Janet Collier Estes, when she married my grandfather. By the time I knew her, she was long retired. She lived with younger members of her family not far from our house where, in warm weather, she spent much of the day in a rocking chair on the porch. She and my mother adored each other. Libby also had nothing but good things to say about my grandparents, both dead by the time of mother’s return to Red Bank. “Your grandmother was a real Christian lady,” Libby told me. “She never looked down on anyone — and neither did your grandfather. How I wish you might have known them.” Libby took pride in my mother’s achievements. “Your mother shows what a woman can be,” she said.

Mother as a child with her dog Nipper

Mother loved school. In her teens she aimed not for marriage but for higher education and a career, far from a common choice for women in those days. More than once she proudly told my brother and me that the news of her acceptance by Smith College in Massachusetts had been front-page news in The Red Bank Register. (Searching the web, I recently found the front page she had described; it was dated 18 September 1929.) Mother graduated “summa cum laude” in the class of 1933 and later got a Master’s Degree in Social Work from Columbia University in New York, but it was her undergraduate years at Smith that pleased her most. In one of my favorite photos of her, taken when she was in her eighties, she is proudly wearing a Smith College tee-shirt.

It was at Smith that Mother took a leftward turn, as did so many people, not all of them working class, during the Depression years. Soon after graduation, she signed up as a Communist and remained in the Communist Party for more than two decades.

Communism is dense with ideology, yet I never experienced mother as an ideology-centered person. I can’t recall her ever trying to convince my brother or me of any Marxist dogma. For her, Communism boiled down to doing whatever she could to protect people from being treated like rubbish. She accepted the doctrine of atheism simply because it was part of the radical package. Marxist doctrine was based on materialism — the view that nothing exists that isn’t tangible; hence the rejection of belief in an intangible God or the possibility of a life after death. But in my experience neither she nor my father were at war with God. Mother was a Methodist atheist — and Dad, I discovered as I got to know him, was a Catholic atheist. I think in both cases, but certainly in mother’s, the adjective was more important than the noun.

As a child I once asked Mother, “Is there a God?” She paused and then replied, “I don’t think so.” What struck me more than her words was the sadness in her voice. I cannot think of another occasion in childhood when the emotional climate of an answer impressed me so deeply. “The only thing wrong with Communism was that there was no religion in it,” my mother explained to me many years after she had given up membership in the Communist Party. “‘From each according to his ability,’ as Saint Paul said, ‘to each according to his needs.’ That’s also the Communist ideal — only we’re not ready for that yet. But I’ve never changed my mind that we should aspire to this.”

Still more revealing of her not-completely-lost religious faith was her taking Dick and me to the Methodist Church in Red Bank from time to time and never missing Christmas and Easter services. Once there, she was not a passive participant. She sang the hymns with feeling and knew most of them by heart.

It happened that the Methodist minister, Roger Squire, and his wife were people with a social conscience. In 1952, two Japanese women, survivors of the atom bomb that had been dropped on Nagasaki seven years earlier, arrived in Red Bank as their house guests. A national peace group had arranged with plastic surgeons to treat some of the people who had been disfigured by the blasts. Thanks to our occasional attendance at church services, I saw those two very poised women sitting side-by-side in a pew near the front of the church, their faces hidden behind silk veils. I couldn’t stop staring.

Roger Squire sometimes dropped by at our house, always a delightful event for my brother and me as he had a talent for connecting with kids. Only as an adult did it cross my mind how remarkable it was, given the Cold War, that he would from time to time make a pastoral call on a Communist and her two sons.

It wasn’t only the Methodist church that I visited. Mother never objected to my going to other churches in the area when friends invited me, but I found sermon-centered Protestant services too classroom-like and wasn’t inspired to return. However, again at a school friend’s invitation, early in 1952 I started going to the Episcopal Church in Shrewsbury on a regular basis. Its Eucharist-centered worship connected with me with magnetic force. Here the altar rather than the pulpit was the center point. The church was not a classroom in disguise. The big event was actual worship rather than sermons and Bible study. At my own request, I was baptized there on July 27. Mother enjoyed the day of my baptism as much as I did. (Eight years later, in 1960, Mother found her own way back to the religious faith she had abandoned while in college. Reader that she was, it’s not surprising that the door opener for her was a book — Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. I had loaned her my copy in response to her bewildered question about what had led me to become a Catholic. Somehow Merton’s account of his own religious pilgrimage was able to help free her from the idea that Christianity was based on wishful thinking and attractive myths. From that point on, mother was in the Methodist church every Sunday and was often engaged in adult study groups on weekday evenings.)

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

Sometimes Mother spent money so cautiously that one would have thought we were in danger of the poor house. At other times spent money as if we were Rockefellers. Christmas presents for Dick and me, though few, were often bought at F.A.O. Schwartz on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, which we visited annually around Thanksgiving. Our clothing was purchased at the better stores in Red Bank, with jackets and trousers tailored before delivery. On visits to New York, we might eat a very economical lunch at Horn and Hardart’s, where food was dispensed from coin-operated slots, then dine at an up-market restaurant if we stayed in the city for supper. One Thanksgiving, to give Dick and me a better and warmer view of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Mother reserved a window table at Schrafft’s, putting the huge balloons being tower down Sixth Avenue at eye level. Going to Broadway shows or seeing a new film in one of New York’s truly elegant cinemas happened several times a year. When mother spent money in a incautious way, she did it with enthusiasm, often saying, “What is money to a Forest?”

On occasions when she went to the movies in Red Bank, she brought Dick and me with her rather than arrange a baby sitter. At times we were the only children in the audience, as was the case with “The Moon is Blue,” a controversial comedy about two playboys, each attempting to coax a young woman into bed, but both unable to overcome their target’s anthracite determination to remain a virgin until her wedding night. It was 1953 — I was not yet twelve. Though the story left virtue triumphant, the film industry’s censor, the Breen Office, judged the script as having “an unacceptably light attitude towards seduction, illicit sex, chastity, and virginity.” Director Otto Preminger went ahead with the film anyway. It was banned in three states, I learned only recently, but that only enlarged audiences wherever it was shown. At the time I was unaware of the controversy, though I knew there were no matinee showings and that I was the only kid in my class who had seen it. What I remember best about the film is not its story but mother’s laughter. Afterward I asked her what the word “virgin” meant. “A woman who always sleeps alone,” she said, then adding a joke. “Do you remember those huge stone lions that guard the main entrance to the New York City Public Library?” “Sure,” I responded. We had walked by them many times on day trips to the city. “Those lions,” she said while trying not to laugh, “roar whenever a virgin walks by.”

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

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

That evening, after getting her own newspaper, mother explained to my bother and me that dad was in jail, charged with “conspiring to advocate the overthrow of the United States Government by force and violence.” It sounded awful but she pointed out that he was not charged with any act of violence or even charged with advocating violence but with “conspiring to advocate,” and that even that prefatory word wasn’t true. “Your father hates violence and doesn’t own a gun — he hates guns.” I understood the last sentence but still had no idea at all what “conspiring to advocate” meant. (After five months in prison, Dad was freed on bail. It had not been easy raising the required $40,000, a fortune at the time, an amount that would normally have been required of a murderer. Several years later, when the case was pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, the Justice Department dropped all charges.)

I’m not sure when Mother resigned from the Communist Party — it wasn’t something she talked about at the time. At the latest it would have been in 1956. I recall how shocked and disgusted she was by the Soviet Union’s suppression of the uprising in Hungary, an intervention slavishly supported by the Communist Party in the U.S. But it may be that her resignation occurred earlier. In the early fifties the FBI was systematically informing employers if someone on their payroll was a Communist or even was regarded as “a Communist sympathizer.” The result in most cases was that the employee was fired. Thousands lost not only their jobs but, unable to meet mortgage payments, their homes as well. I know Mother worried about what would happen if she, a single parent with two children, were suddenly unemployed. It was the reason that she never took a sick day off or did anything that might give her employer, the State of New Jersey, an excuse for dismissing her.

“But why do we have no car?” I asked her when I was old enough to be puzzled that we depended so much on getting around by foot and bus. “Everyone else has a car,” I pointed out. She explained, “I don’t want us getting used to having something we couldn’t afford to keep if I was fired.”

In that period we became aware that two FBI agents had been assigned to interview not only mother’s employer and co-workers but all our immediate neighbors. One weekday afternoon, while mother was still work, the agents knocked on our front door and, displaying their badges, walked in. They then proceeded to fingerprint my brother and me. “Tell your mother we dropped by,” one of them said before leaving.

One of the nightmare experiences of my childhood was the trial and electrocution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the couple accused of helping the Soviet Union obtain U.S. atomic secrets. Mother was convinced that the Rosenbergs were scapegoats whose real crime was being Communists — I doubt it ever crossed Mother’s mind that either of them might in fact be guilty. Their conviction, she felt, was meant to further marginalize American Communists, along with anyone even slightly to the left. The letters the Rosenbergs sent to their two sons from prison were published from time to time in The Daily Worker and these Mother shared with my brother and me. How we wept that morning in June 1953 as she read aloud the newspaper accounts of their last minutes of life.

Mother’s social values never changed. Though no longer a member of Communist Party, she battled local politicians for many years over all sorts of issues — roads, water mains, zoning issues, transportation for the old and handicapped, food banks, housing for the poor, racial integration of the local all-white volunteer fire department, etc., with many a walk in the neighborhood collecting signatures for petitions.

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

Perhaps because of her work with the mentally ill, she was remarkable calm in situations in which many others would be overwhelmed with fear. One night mother, then about seventy, was awoken by a young man standing over her bed with a flashlight in his hand. She asked him what she could do for him, put on her bathrobe, took him to the kitchen where she sat down and talked with him, then said good night. Afterward she was more attentive about locking the doors at bedtime.

It wasn’t easy to interest mother in family history. Once when Nancy and I were visiting I suggested the three of us go out to see the Hendrickson House, an eighteenth-century farmhouse in nearby Holmdel that had belonged to some of our Dutch-rooted ancestors and in my lifetime had become a museum in the care of the Monmouth County Historical Society. Mother hadn’t the slightest interest in such an outing — “Who would want to see anything like that? How about a walk through downtown Red Bank?” At last she surrendered and we drove out to the Hendrickson House. Once there, Mother was as happy as a kid at the circus.

She was an avid reader from childhood till well into her eighties. After retiring from social work at age 65, she become a student at nearby Brookdale (now Monmouth) College and took classes there on wide-ranging subjects for about twenty years, until she was too weak to continue. Conversations with her during those two decades would inevitably turn to what she was studying at the time and what book she was reading, which might be history, theology or law. Even when she lost all but her peripheral vision and had become legally blind, she was undeterred, reading with the help of a scanning device that hugely magnified letters on a TV screen. A word of more than four of five letters would often overflow the screen area, but mother doggedly read on, letter by letter, syllable by syllable, word by word, sentence by sentence. For nearly ten years she used this machine in the college library for hours at a time, often five days per week. Finally the college, when upgrading library equipment, gave her the older machine to have at home where it afterward resided on the dining room table.

Until even big type was too small, for years she subscribed to a large type edition of The New York Times, though still lamenting the demise of The Herald Tribune. There was also a steady flow of books on record and tape coming into the house from a state library for the blind in Trenton. At least once a week, even when she could hardly see anything on the screen, she went to see a movie with my aunt. (The last film I took her to see was “Chicken Run,” a story about chickens escaping from a factory farm. She loved it — it was, she said, “a parable about revolution.”)

Though she had purchased a car in her later life, finally giving it up only when her eyes made driving dangerous, in many ways her life style was little different in her old age then it had been when Dick and I were kids. She followed local, national and world news closely. She never became an avid consumer — I don’t think she ever had a credit card. The place the Communist Party had once had in her life was filled by the Methodist Church.

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

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

During that visit I was struck by Mother’s “one day at a time” way of life. She had never been nostalgic. She had little interest in either past or future but a tremendous engagement with the present. Her opinions hadn’t mellowed or her values faded. Over lunch she expressed her pleasure about a letter-to-the editor my aunt had sent to a local paper — a protest against capital punishment. Aunt’s main point was that we should leave the taking of life to God.

The next summer I found mother still in surprisingly good shape and spirits. She couldn’t get around quickly but you would hardly notice that she was almost totally blind. Her hearing was good. She was very alert, though when tired she couldn’t quite remember if I was Jim or my oldest son, Ben. She was slower in doing things and used her four-footed cane inside the house. I found her dismayed that the text-magnifying device the college had given her was broken — I discovered it had become unplugged. The book she was reading on screen at the time was about life in Israel/Palestine at the time of Christ.

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

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

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

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

Aunt Douglas had died that August, age 94. Face-to-face visits between them had become infrequent because of the distance separating their two homes, but they had kept in touch with each other by phone several times a day. Though she had been battling a failing body for years, her sister’s death this was a signal that it was time to let go of life.

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

I doubt I have lived through a week of my life since childhood without recalling some word or proverb of mother’s. She had an extensive collection of stock phrases that she used in various contexts.

One of them was, “Time, time, said old King Tut, is somethin’ I ain’t not nothin’ else but.” This meant we need not hurry. She often said, “Everyone his own taste said the old lady as she kissed the cow.” This meant there was room for disagreement. Another oft-repeated saying was, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.” In theory, at least, she was in favor of reigning in criticism. She would sometimes say, especially to me, “If your head wasn’t attached to your body, you would lose it.” Similarly, “You don’t have the sense to come in out of the rain.” If someone had not dressed appropriately: “He was sent for but couldn’t come.” That too would often be me. Another favorite was “In for a penny, in for a pound.” Truly, Mother never did anything by halves. Anything that offended her eyes was a “hideosity.” Its antonym was “adorability,” as would be the case with any of the stray cats she adopted. She was fond of a four-line poem by Edna St. Vincent Millet and recited it frequently: “I burn my candle at both ends, / it shall not last the night, / but ah my friends / and oh my foes, / it makes a lovely light.”

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

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

* * *

Memories of Marguerite

by Nancy Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

In her own words…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[In response to a question about relatives:]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

James Frederick Forest: Leaving Things Better than He Found Them

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

text as revised and expanded 18 June 2014

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

* * *

The Pilgrimage of illness

by Jim Forest

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

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

There are various ways of looking at this.

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

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

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

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

Pissed off — or on pilgrimage. You decide.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being sick is a lot harder than washing dishes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks to dialysis, my kidney illness wasn’t the death sentence it would have been not so many years ago, but I was seriously ill and could anticipate nothing in the future but steady physical decline until the day came when I might get to the point, like many other kidney patients, of saying: “Enough. No more dialysis. Let nature take her course.” (I recall how started I was when I read that the writer James Mitchner reached a point with his kidney illness of deciding enough was enough. He stopped dialysis and his life ended a week later.)

Yet looking at what was happening through the lens of pilgrimage, I came to understand that worse things could have come my way than having to spend so much of my life in a hospital: a place where nearly everyone is either sick, caring for the sick, or visiting the sick. In brief: holy ground.

God bless everyone with good health, who see doctors rarely and have no prescription medication in their home. Would that I were one of them! But good health is a condition that can give rise to its own illusions. So much is taken for granted. Having been deprived of good health, the sick are well aware that they are unable to survive on their own.

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the end of a session of dialysis, I would sometimes say to the nurses who helped me that day, “Thanks for saving my life.” They often look surprised to hear such a declaration. Generally people are too polite to express appreciation so plainly, though anyone with a chronic illness knows he or she is living on borrowed time.

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

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

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

There was hardly a visit to the hospital when I wasn’t reminded the journey being made by others was often far harder than mine, and more difficult to bear — children who are gravely ill, people in great pain and distress, faces collapsing with discouragement and grief. There is nothing I can do but silently pray, but prayer too may be an achievement in the face of the overwhelming powerlessness one sometimes feels when witnessing what other people are up against. Prayer seems so meager a response — in moments of doubt, just another form of nothing. But not to pray is itself a kind of dying.

Being among the sick is being among those who include the dying. During a session of dialysis one day I happened to witness a frail man in his eighties die before my eyes. I thought he had dozed off. So did the nurses. But at the end of his session, when a nurse attempted to wake him up, it was discovered he had quietly left this world. His pilgrimage was ended.

In fact pilgrimage historically was, among other things, a dress rehearsal for dying. Countless thousands of people lie buried along the great pilgrimage routes.

In my own case, though I got a letter recently that began “Dead Jim,” I haven’t taken my last breath yet. But it will happen.

In fact, within the community of the sick, I’m one of the lucky ones. Not very long ago, I would have died of kidney illness. Today it’s treatable. It’s possible to live a long and, for many, a full life on dialysis. It is also an illness that, for many patients, can be reversed by a kidney transplant. Assuming the transplant is successful, dialysis is no longer needed.

This is what happened in my case. There’s no need to tell that story in detail, only to say that after not quite two years of dialysis, one of my wife’s kidneys made the journey from her body to mine where is has been living happily ever since. It’s now nearly a year since I made the last of those three-times weekly trips to the dialysis clinic. I still spent a lot of time at the hospital, but now it’s usually less than a day a month. I take a good many pills each day to prevent my body from rejecting the kidney Nancy gave me and also to make sure that my third kidney stays in good health. Frequent blood tests continue. Would that I had a euro, or even a dollar, for every vial of blood removed from my right arm.

I’m a hospital patient for life, and heavily medicated for the duration, but, thanks to my wife, sickness currently involves a lot less of my time. I can do things I couldn’t do not so long ago. I can travel without having to work out medical care along the route. I have more energy. I don’t have to sleep so long at night. I don’t need a daily nap. I can be more productive as a writer. I do lot of walking and biking. All this is a kind of miracle. I feel a bit like Lazarus pulled out of his tomb. Of course Lazarus will in time get sick and die once again, but he has had a preview of life after death and, as a consequence, has a different take on the gift of life.

I am one of the fortunate ones, if only temporarily. But I remain one of those people whose life and way of seeing has been reshaped by illness. What you learn as a sick person you don’t unlearn. I am better acquainted with mortality. I know the days I am now living are pure gift. I have a closer bond both with Christ’s crucifixion and his resurrection.

I owe a lot to sickness.

I remain on pilgrimage.

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This is text of a talk given October 14, 2008, at the St. Agnes Spiritual Life Center, San Francisco. It’s based on two chapters in Jim’s book, The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life (Orbis):

For Nancy’s reflections on donation a kidney, see “Saying Yes”:

For details about Jim’s kidney transplant, see the online journal — A Tale of Two Kidneys:

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text as of September 23, 2008
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Henri Nouwen: a Western Explorer of the Christian East

Henri Nouwen

(a chapter from Remembering Henri edited by Gerry Twomey and Claude Pomerleau; published by Orbis Books in August 2006)

By Jim Forest

In a difficult period in my life, Henri Nouwen was my spiritual father. He was an excellent confessor who made it possible for me to share parts of myself that were painful, awkward or embarrassing. He helped me survive hard times and cope with bouts of despair. So I say at the beginning that whatever light I can shine on him is not the result simply of studying his writing, identifying main themes, or analyzing him as if I were studying him through a telescope. He was a person who played — in fact still plays — a role in my life.

Our lives led us both to cross an ocean, though in opposite directions. I find myself living in Henri’s homeland, the Netherlands, while North America became home to Henri. It was unplanned, perhaps one of God’s jokes, but he and I traded places.

Henri was a restless man, constantly on the move. His restlessness brought him from one continent to another. He taught at Notre Dame, then Yale, then Harvard, but could bring himself to stay at none of these distinguished institutions. Searching for community, he was a temporary brother at a Trappist monastery for several extended periods, but found monastic life didn’t suit him, though it helped clear his mind. He had a sabbatical in Latin America and thought for a time he was called to make his life there as a missionary, but then decided this also wasn’t his calling. He finally found a home for himself not in academia or monastic life but with the L’Arche community in Canada — not among the brilliant, but the physically and mentally handicapped plus their downwardly-mobile assistants. Appropriately, he died while traveling — two heart attacks in Holland — while en route to Russia where he intended to make a film about Rembrandt’s painting of “The Return of the Prodigal Son.”

He possessed a remarkable gift for communicating to others through the spoken and written word the fact that a life of faith is one of endless exploration, a pilgrimage second to none. He produced a flood of books, many of which remain in print. Few writers on religious life have been so widely read or been so often translated into other languages. Years after his death, he still has a huge influence on the lives of many people. (He died relatively young, at age 64, in 1996.)

In common with Thomas Merton, he believed that the healing of east-west divisions among Christians are assisted more by a process of east-west integration in the spiritual life than by academic theological conferences. As Merton put this is Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:

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

Henri returned to this passage often. Also like Merton, Henri played a major role in the quiet movement of rediscovering icons. It is this area of their search that I wish to focus on in this essay.

The main monument to his love of icons that Henri left to us was his book Behold the Beauty of the Lord. This thin volume remains among the best introductions to icons — very accessible, not at all technical, with a directness and sobriety that one can only describe as icon-like. With his usual immediacy, Henri explains how one icon and then others gained a place in his life and what he had so far learned from long periods of living with four of them: Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon; an icon of Mary holding Christ in her arms; an icon of the face of Christ (also by Rublev); and, finally an icon of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles at Pentecost.

Of course, Henri had seen icons in art history books, museums, churches and monasteries many times, but it wasn’t until his first visit to the L’Arche community in Trosly, France, in 1983 that he began to see icons with wide-open eyes. Barbara Swanekamp, assistant to L’Arche founder Jean Vanier, had put a reproduction of Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity on the table of the room where Henri would be staying. “After gazing for many weeks at the icon,” Henri noted in Behold the Beauty of the Lord, “I felt a deep urge to write down what I had gradually learned to see.”

Henri was profoundly sensitive to the visual arts. It was a family trait. In the introduction to his book on icons, he recalls a Chagall painting his parents had purchased early in their marriage when Chagall was hardly known — a watercolor of a vase filled with flowers placed on a sunlit window ledge, a simple yet radiant work that made one aware of God’s silent energy. I recall seeing it when Henri brought me to stay with him at his father’s house. There were many other beautiful works of art in the house — the house was a small museum of fine art — but the Chagall watercolor stood out from the rest and still remains a fresh memory. “The flowers of Chagall,” Henri writes in Behold the Beauty of the Lord, “come to mind as I wondered why those four icons have become so important to me.”

The connection does not surprise me. Chagall’s work was deeply influenced by iconography. In some of his paintings the link is made explicit, but it is always there in more subtle ways. Chagall’s work in was never enslaved to the rules of perspective or to the physics of gravity. People and animals fly. Fiddlers play on rooftops. Husbands and wives float in the kitchen. Like an iconographer, Chagall made his canvas a window opening on the invisible world and the life of the soul. It may be that the Chagall painting Henri grew up with helped awaken in him a capacity to appreciate icons and understand their special language.

I remember Henri coming to visit us in Holland following his stay at Trosly. He was very excited about the gift he had brought with him, a reproduction of the Holy Trinity icon he had bought that morning in a shop in Paris. Though he had not yet seen the actual icon — it was in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow — he was confidant that the print came as close to the real thing as print technology would allow.

Though I had seen icons from time to time, until that day I had taken only a meager interest in them. Merton’s enthusiasm for them had been a mystery to me. It wasn’t until Henri’s visit that finally I began to see them with a similar excitement.

I vividly recall sitting at Henri’s side as he explored, with childlike fascination, every tiny detail of the Holy Trinity icon. I think he remarked first on the utterly submissive faces of the three angelic figures, each inclined toward the other, in a silent dialogue of love. He considered their profound stillness and yet warmth and vitality. Then, we looked at the colors Andrei Rublev had chosen, though even the best reproduction can only hint at what Rublev had actually achieved, as I was to see for myself not long afterward when I first visited the Tretyakov Gallery. Henri traced the perfect circle that invisibly contained the three angels. Then he traced a cross within the circle and then the triangle it also contained. All this significant geometry reveals the icon’s theology yet none of it is heavy-handed. Then there was the table around with the three figures were placed — the Eucharistic altar with golden chalice. Above the three figures were three objects: a house with an open door, a tree, and a mountain. The doorless building is the Church. The tree is the Tree of Life and also the Life-giving Cross. The mountain is the Mount of the Beatitudes.

Henri also spoke about the history of the icon, how Rublev had painted it as the principal icon for the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity where the body of St. Sergius of Radonezh had been placed. St. Sergius, one of Russia’s most beloved saints, was a monk and woodworker who lived in the 14th Century. He left no writings. The only word that comes down to us from St. Sergius are these: “The contemplation of the Holy Trinity destroys all enmity.” Through this icon standing a few meters from the burial place of St. Sergius, Rublev sought to provide the opportunity for the contemplation of the Holy Trinity.

It may have been from Henri that I first heard the comment of one of the martyrs of the Soviet era, the physicist, mathematician, theologian and priest, Pavel Florensky, who wrote: “Because of the absolute beauty of Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon, we know that God exists.” Henri understood this way of thinking — beauty is a witness to the existence of God. Again and again, he found in works of art doors to heaven: Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son, and many of the paintings of Van Gogh.

For Henri the Holy Trinity icon was an icon of “the house of love” — the Church as God intends it to be, the doors of which are never closed and which needs no locks. Henri linked icons with the question: “What do we really choose to see?” It is a matter of enormous importance what we look at and how we look at it. “It makes a great difference,” Henri noted, “whether we see a flower or a snake, a gentle smile or menacing teeth, a dancing couple or a hostile crowd. We do have a choice. Just as we are responsible for what we eat, so we are responsible for what we see. It is easy to become a victim of the vast array of visual stimuli surrounding us. The ‘powers and principalities’ control many of our daily images. Posters, billboards, television, videos, movies and store windows continuously assault our eyes and inscribe their images upon our memories. We do not have to be passive victims of a world that wants to entertain and distract us. We can make decisions and choices. A spiritual life in the midst of our energy-draining society requires us to take conscious steps to safeguard that inner space where we can keep our eyes fixed on the beauty of the Lord.”

Henri proposed a theology of seeing, or gazing, the verb he preferred. To really see something beautiful, such as a well-painted icon, so that its beauty becomes a sacramental reality, one has to do much more than glance. For Henri, the icon is the primary visual art of the Church — if not the door of the Church, than the window. Nor could icons be divorced from the totality of the Church. The icon becomes a dead plant when it becomes simply a “work of art,” a “collector’s item,” an aesthetic object. For both Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen, icons were intimately connected with Eucharistic life and daily prayer.

Like the Bible, the icon is made by the Church and guarded by the Church. The icon is a witness to the truths the Church lives by. Each icon has dogmatic content. For example, any icon of Christ in the arms of his mother remind us that he took flesh in the flesh of her body. Christ’s bare feet seen in the Virgin of Vladimir icon are a reminder that he was fully man, walking on the same earth as we do. Though an infant, he is shown dressed as an emperor, because in reality he rules the cosmos.

While I have concentrated on icons, Henri’s debt to Eastern Orthodox Christianity goes much further. He was one of the relatively few non-Orthodox readers of the Philokalia, an anthology of writings, mainly from patristic sources, whose main topic is the “Prayer of the Heart.” He would occasionally borrow a sentence from one of the authors included in the Philokalia, St. Theophane the Recluse: “Prayer is descending with the mind into your heart, and there standing before the face of the Lord, ever present, all seeing, within you.”

Henri would expound upon this theme in writing:

The great challenge is living your wounds through instead of thinking then through. It is better to cry than to worry, better to feel your wounds deeply than to understand them, better to let them enter into your silence than talk about them. The choice you face constantly is whether you are taking your wounds to your head or to your heart. In your head you can analyze them, find their causes and consequences, and coin words to speak and write about them. But no final healing is likely to come from that source. You need to let your wounds go down to your heart. Then you can live through them and discover that they will not destroy you. Your heart is greater than your wounds. [The Inner Voice of Love, p. 91]

The Prayer of the Heart is another name for the Jesus Prayer, a short prayer which centers on the name of Jesus and which is very widely used, especially in the Orthodox Church, though gradually it is becoming well known in the West as well. In its most common form, one prays: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The connection between spiritual life and response to others was basic to Henri and the vocational choices he made. Henri was torn between competing vocational attractions — university professor, monk, missionary, or becoming part of a community of hospitality. He fully explored each of these possibilities before finally becoming a member of the L’Arche community at Daybreak near Toronto. Along the way he became a spiritual father and guide to many people.

Henri realized that the icon, far from being merely an artistic image that directs our attention away from the world we live in with all its agonies, is a school of seeing. It helps reshape the way we see and relate to other people. The icon — the Greek word for image — is a reminder that each person, no matter how damaged his life, is a bearer of God’s image and, like those whom we regard as saints, has the capacity to reclaim the lost likeness. But it is one thing to believe intellectually that, each person is made in the image of God, no less than Adam and Eve, and yet another to actively seek that image and to relate to the other in ways that bear witness to that awareness.

In Henri’s life, perhaps the most important event in the last phase of his life was his taking responsibility at Daybreak community for Adam Arnett, a young man of twenty-five who could not speak, suffered frequent epileptic seizures and was utterly dependent on help from others. Adam was a person whom many would regard as a first-class case for abortion or, having managed to be born, an excellent candidate for what is euphemistically called “mercy killing.” It was no easy thing for Henri, far from the world’s most practical or physically well coordinated person, a man who had difficulty frying an egg or operating a washing machine, to center his life on attending to Adam’s numerous practical needs. Yet Adam became both physically and spiritually a person at the center of Henri’s life, one of Henri’s most important teachers.

“His heart, so transparent, reflected for me not only his person but also the heart of the universe and, indeed, the heart of God. After my many years of studying, reflecting and teaching theology, Adam came into my life, and by his life and his heart he announced to me and summarized all I had ever learned.” [Adam, p 38]

Much of the healing that occurred in the final years of Henri’s life was Adam’s gift. Adam became in Henri’s life a living icon.

Henri Nouwen: in essence, an explorer of God’s presence in our world, a discover of icons on wood and in flesh, always trying to open his eyes just a little bit wider, always trying to become just a little less blind.

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

iconographer: Leonid Ouspensky

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

by Jim Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us consider Mary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers

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

by Jim Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In an addendum to the essay especially added to The Catholic Worker version, he argued that the current war crisis was not God’s doing but was entirely of our own making. Though there were no compelling reasons for war, the world was plunging headlong into destruction, even “doing so with the purpose of avoiding war.” This was, he said, “true war-madness,” which Merton saw “an illness of the mind and spirit that is spreading with a furious and subtle contagion all over the world,” with no country so afflicted with it as America. “On all sides we have people building bomb shelters where, in case of nuclear war, they will simply bake slowly instead of burning quickly or being blown out of existence in a flash. And they are prepared to sit in these shelters with machine guns with which to prevent their neighbor from entering.” All the while, “we claim to be fighting for religious truth, freedom and other spiritual values. Truly we have entered the ‘post-Christian era’ with a vengeance….”

He then asked what is the place of the Christian in all this? “Is he simply to fold his hands and resign himself for the worst, accepting it as the inescapable will of God and preparing himself to enter heaven with a sigh of relief? …. Or, worse still, should he take a hard-headed and ‘practical’ attitude about it and join in the madness of the war makers?”

The last option was, Merton said, “the most diabolical of illusions, the great and not even subtle temptation of a Christianity that has grown rich and comfortable, and is satisfied with its riches.”

Then he asks what are we to do? His answer to the question follows: “The duty of the Christian in this crisis is to strive with all his power and intelligence … to do the one task which God has imposed upon us in the world today. That task is to work for the total abolition of war.” Unless war is abolished, he continued, “the world will remain constantly in a state of madness and desperation,” always on the verge of catastrophe.” Unless we set ourselves to this task, “we tend by our very passivity and fatalism to cooperate with the destructive forces that are leading inexorably to war. It is a problem of terrifying complexity and magnitude, for which the Church itself is not fully able to see clear and decisive solutions. Yet she must lead the way on the road to the nonviolent settlement of difficulties and toward the gradual abolition of war as the way of settling international or civil disputes. Christians must become active in every possible way, mobilizing all their resources for the fight against war.”

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

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

That same summer Merton wrote to Dorothy Day:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The decision, Merton said, reflected

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is so easy to get engrossed with ideas and slogans and myths that in the end one is left holding the bag, empty, with no trace of meaning left in it. And then the temptation is to yell louder than ever in order to make the meaning be there again by magic…. As for the big results, they are not in your hands or mine, but they can suddenly happen, and we can share in them: but there is no point in building our lives on this personal satisfaction, which may be denied us and which after all is not that important…. The great thing, after all, is to live, not to pour out your life in the service of a myth: and we turn the best things into myths. If you can get free from the domination of causes and just serve Christ’s truth, you will be able to do more and will be less crushed by the inevitable disappointments…. The real hope … is not in something we think we can do, but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see. If we can do His will, we will be helping in this process. But we will not necessarily know all about it beforehand.

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

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

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

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


Looking back on the Milwaukee 14

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

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


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>> What made you do this?

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

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

>> How did all 14 of you meet?

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

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

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

>> Were you scared?

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

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

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

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

There was very careful planning — several weeks of preparation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks, Dyllan, for your probing questions.

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

February 2, 2006

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

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Milwaukee 14-related link:

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

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

A long essay on the trial of the Milwaukee 14:

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

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posted February 2006; updated 19 December 2016
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Two Weeks in Scotland: 3-17 September 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Jim Forest
22 September 2005

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

Orthodox Christians and Conscientious Objection

by Jim Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christ’s example

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Approach of the Early Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saints who were conscientious objectors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Age of Constantine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Just War Doctrine

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soldier saints

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

National identity versus religious identity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Kill or Not to Kill?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeking assistance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Text as revised September 12, 2008