We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have met the enemy and he is us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have met the enemy and he is us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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


* * *

A memory of Pope John Paul II

by Jim Forest

Adoldfo Perez Esquivel, Jim Forest and Pope John Paul II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Essence of Sin is Fear of the Other

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Face to Face on Guernsey

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

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

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

Jim Forest

The Spiritual Roots of Protest

Talk given in the Vancouver Public Library 7 February 2004

by Jim Forest

In the history of protest, one of the oldest examples we know of occurred in Constantinople in the year 842 when, opposing the iconoclast Emperor Leo V, a thousand monks took part in an icon-bearing procession in the capital city. They were exhibiting in public images of Christ and the saints which, had they obeyed the emperor, should have long before been destroyed. Their act of civil disobedience risked severe punishment. Iconographers had been tortured, mutilated and sent into exile. The death of the emperor later that year was widely seen as heaven’s judgment of the emperor. In 843 his widow Theodora convened a Church Council which reaffirmed the place of the icon in Christian life. In The Orthodox Church, the first Sunday of Great Lent was set aside henceforth to celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy.

In more recent times, there is the story of Rosa Parks. She has become an kind of icon of the civil rights movement. Her name is up there with that of Martin Luther King, but, had it not been for her, perhaps his name would be unknown. She was active in a local black church in Montgomery, Alabama, and also had been the local secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In 1955, Rosa Parks was working as a seamstress in a Montgomery department store. On December 1st, at the end of her work day and after doing her shopping, she boarded a public bus, on which she reused to give up her seat for a white passenger. “I was too tired,” she later explained. She was arrested and spent some hours in jail before being bailed out. Even in jail segregation was rigidly enforced. She wasn’t allowed a glass of water because it came from a fountain reserved for white people.

Her small action inspired 40 pastors of the local black churches to meet that same night and found a group they christened the Montgomery Improvement Association. It’s initial project would be, they decided, a black boycott of the city’s segregated buses. They elected the city’s youngest pastor, Martin Luther King, the man with the least to lose should their efforts fail. But they succeeded, turning the United States in a new direction in the process. In 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court, decided that racial segregation in public transportation violated the Constitution and overturned her conviction. It was a major blow to the legal foundations of segregation. Yet the birth of the Civil Rights Movement came not from a Supreme court ruling but from the actions of ordinary people in a small southern city, largely black Christians who had walked many thousands of miles rather than board a bus, all the whole endured taunts, threats, abuse, and violence. Many had been jailed, and the home of the King family had been bombed.

I think of another person whose quiet protests had huge social impact.

In the same period when the buses of Montgomery were being boycotted, there was an annual civil defense test in New York City. This was a mass dress rehearsal for nuclear war. Everyone in the city was involved. School children had to take shelter under their desks. Traffic on Manhattan’s streets stopped as drivers and pedestrians sought refuge in subway stations. For a few minutes, Manhattan looked like a ghost town. Behind it was the idea that, if Americans only took shelter, the country could fight and survive a nuclear war.

Dorothy Day, the foundress of the Catholic Worker movement, refused to take shelter. Instead she sat on a bench with a handful of friends on a park bench in front of City Hall. She was arrested and served a sentence in the Women’s House of Detention. The next year she was again sitting on the park bench, not only with those who had been with her last time but a few more people, and again went to prison. This went on for five or six years — one of New York City’s ritual events, but by 1961, it had grown to a protest involving thousands of people. There were no more dress rehearsals for nuclear war. This was partly thanks to the best known participant in the refusal to play this homicidal game, Dorothy Day, whose main work in life was being part of a Christian community of hospitality and whose main action each day was going to Mass.

I mention these three stories because in each case they have to do with people for whom the Gospel was life’s main book. Here were gathered stories of how God took flesh and lived among us, showing us with each and every action he performed, each story he told, how a human being might life. He killed no one, blessed no one to kill anyone, took part in no wars, called no one to hate anyone, and healed many, some of diseases of the body, some of diseases of the mind and soul, some of both. In a country enduring military occupation, he showed a way of love and forgiveness that brings us closer to God and closer to each other.

Within all these actions of protest and so many more one could mention, there was the deeply-rooted spiritual life of the persons involved. They protested without weapons and without hatred. They gave us an example of nonviolent resistance to evil which seeks not the death or humiliation of the opponent but his or her conversion, and with it, the chance to make headway in our own conversion.

how do we practice peace in day-to-day life? What sort of spiritual life in involved? Here are seven aspects that seem to me are essential.

  1. love of enemies and prayer for them
  2. doing good to enemies
  3. turning the other cheek
  4. offering forgiveness
  5. breaking down the dividing wall of enmity
  6. offering nonviolent resistance to evil
  7. recognizing Jesus in others

Let’s look briefly at each of these steps.

Love of enemies and prayer for them

In a letter to Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton wrote: “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business. What we are asked to do is to love and this love will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy, if anything can.”

He is referring to Christ’s new commandment: that we love each other as he has loved us. But here we have a damaged word. Love has been turned into something sentimental, a nice feeling toward a person who we especially enjoy seeing and being with. But the biblical meaning of the word is quite different. Christ calls on his followers to love their enemies. This is at first glance one of his strangest, least possible demands. But if you understand love not as a euphoric feeling as but as doing what you can to protect the life and seek the salvation of a person or group whom we fear and hate, that’s very different.

Love is impossible without prayer. Christ tells us, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even tax collectors do the same?” (Matthew 5:44-46) Love of enemies begins with prayer. That’s the first and most important step. It is the radical act of connecting yourself invisibly to the person for whom you pray, whether it be the Ossama ben Ladin, George W. Bush, your ex-wife, the boss who fired you or the drunken driver who killed your child. Once you are praying for another person, you find it more and more difficult to seek his harm or destruction. Your prayer is for their well-being, for the healing of soul and body, for his conversion and your own.

Again to quote from a letter of Merton’s 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.”

[ Letter to Dorothy Day, December 20, 1961; HGL, 140-43.]

Doing good to enemies

Jesus calls us not only to prayer but to action: “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you.” (Luke 6:28) Prayer is not an alternative to action. In fact prayer empowers us to take personal responsibility for what we wish others would do, or God would grant in some miraculous way without our having to lift a finger.

Jesus’ teaching about a compassionate response to enemies was not new doctrine. We find in the Mosaic Law:

“If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under a burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it.” (Exodus 23:4-5)

Under the Mosaic Law, Jews are forbidden to destroy the fruit trees of enemies or to poison their wells. The Book of Proverbs calls for positive acts of caring for the well-being of adversaries: “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread.” (25:21) This was taken up by St. Paul:

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; never be conceited. Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by doing so you will reap burning coals upon his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom. 12:20-21)

Paul is simply amplifying the teaching of Jesus. He does so without encouraging unrealistic expectations that peace can be obtained simply by one’s own peaceable behavior. The suffering that Jews and Christians had experienced despite exemplary behavior was clear evidence that there was sometimes no defense at all against the evil done by others. Paul must have often recalled the stoning of the deacon Stephen, whose death he had witnessed and which occurred with his consent. Paul may even have been among those actually throwing the stones. (Acts 7:58-60)

Paul calls on Christians to live peaceably with others no matter how unpeaceful those others may be, and in no case to seek revenge. If vengeance is required, he says, that’s God’s business. But for followers of Jesus, far from striking back at those who strike us, we are to do what is “noble in the sight of all,” responding with care to the needs of our enemies. In doing so, he says, we place “burning coals” around the enemy’s head. This is like the “burning coal” with which God purified the mouth of the prophet Isaiah so that he could preach God’s thoughts rather than his own. Good deeds done to enemies may similarly purify their thoughts and lead them in an entirely different direction.

The teaching to doing good to enemies is viewed as particularly idealistic and profoundly unrealistic. In fact, it is a teaching full of common sense. Unless we want to pave the way to a tragic future, we must search for opportunities through which we can demonstrate to an opponent our longing for an entirely different kind of relationship. An adversary’s moment of need or crisis can provide that opening.

This is what the Samaritan was doing to the Jew he found dying on the side of the road in Jesus’ parable of the compassionate enemy. (Luke 20:30-37) In offering help to an enemy in his distress, he immediately altered or even destroyed the wounded Jew’s stereotype of Samaritans, the enemy image he held. That man would never again think of Samaritans without gratitude.

The very last thing our enemies imagine is that we could wish them well or do them well.

Often gesture must follow gesture. It is the second mile Jesus asked us to walk. The most insignificant gesture sometimes proves to be the most transforming.

Turning the other cheek

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “If someone strikes you on the cheek, offer him the other also.” (Mt.5:39; Luke 6:29)

How different this is from the advice provided in the average film or novel! There the constant message is: If you are hit, hit back. Let your blow be harder than the one you received. In fact, as we see in the US war on Iraq, you needn’t be hit at all in order to strike others. Provocation, irritation, or the expectation of attack is warrant enough.

While I was a student at the U.S. Navy Weather School in 1959, I recall a fellow sailor who borrowed a dollar from me and then never got around to giving it back. He had the job of distributing the mail every day, a job with an ounce of power among lonely people starved for letters from home. Wearing the role as if it were a crown, he was not above delaying delivery of a letter addressed to anyone who annoyed him. Little by little we all came to regard him with loathing.

One morning I demanded the return of my dollar. He looked at me with contempt, reached into his pocket, took out a dollar bill, held it in front of my face and dropped the money on the floor.

Leaving the money where it was, I grabbed him under the arms, lifted him off the floor and threw him against the wall. It still amazes me to remember how light he felt, how easily I made his body fly across the room. He came back with his fists flying. Far from being alarmed, I rejoiced in the combat, hammered away, hardly aware of the crowd that gathered around us. The fight might well have gone on until I had done some real harm to him had not the bell summoned us to inspection. As we stood at attention outside the barracks, I remember taking great pride in his bloodied lip and bruised face. Fortunately, when the inspecting officer asked him what had happened to his face, he told the military prescribed lie — he had tripped on the stairs.

This battle earned me a good deal of admiration at the time. I was immensely pleased with myself. The fight remains a bright memory, though I was astonished (and perhaps also alarmed) to discover what strength and deadly will I possessed when my anger was sufficiently aroused. Probably that fight had something to do with the particular attention I later gave, when my conversion to Christianity began, to what the New Testament has to say about hatred and violence, for by then I knew this wasn’t something directed at other people.

“Turning the other cheek” is often seen as an especially suspect Christian doctrine. Some see it as promoting an ethic of self-abasement that borders on masochism. Others would say it is Jesus at his most unrealistic: “Human beings just aren’t made that way.” For a great many people the problem can be put even more simply: “Turning the other cheek isn’t manly. Only cowards turn the other cheek.”

But what cowards actually do is run and hide. Standing in front of a violent man, refusing to get out of his way, takes enormous courage. It is manly and often proves to be the more sensible response. It’s also a way of giving witness to confidence in the reality and power of the resurrection.

“We will match your capacity to inflict suffering,” as Dr. King explained again and again, “with our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. We will not hate you, but we cannot in good conscience obey your unjust laws… And in winning our freedom, we will win you in the process.”


One of the saints of the early church, the Desert Father Abba Moses, had a witty way of living of the gospel. He was once asked to take part in a meeting of the monastic brotherhood which was preparing to condemn a certain lax brother. The old man arrived at the meeting carrying a basket from which sand was pouring out through many openings. “Why are you doing that?” he was asked. “You ask me to judge a brother while my own sins spill out behind me like the sand from this basket.” The embarrassed community was moved to forgive their brother.

Forgiveness is at the heart of faithful living. Nothing is more fundamental to Jesus’ teaching than his call to forgiveness: giving up debts, letting go of grievances, pardoning those who have harmed us. Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, we are telling God that we ask to be forgiven only insofar as we ourselves have extended forgiveness to others: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Mt.6:12; Luke 11:2-4)

A few verses later in Matthew, Jesus’ teaching on this point continues: “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own?” (Mt.7:1-3)

On another occasion, Peter asks Jesus how often he must extend forgiveness. “As many as seven times?” Jesus responds, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” (Mt.18:21-22) This is a way of saying forgiveness has no limit.

Who doesn’t know how much easier it is to ask God to forgive us than to extend forgiveness to others? For we are wounded and the wounds often last a lifetime; they even spill across generations. As children, as parents, as husbands or wives, as families, as workers, as jobless people, as church members, as members of certain classes or races, as voters, as citizens of particular states, we have been violated, made a target, lied to, used, abandoned. Sins, often quite serious sins, have been committed against us. We may feel damaged, scarred for life, stunted. Others we love may even have died of evil done to them.

But we are not only victims. In various ways we are linked to injuries others have suffered and are suffering. If I allow myself to see how far the ripples extend from my small life, I will discover that not only in my own home but on the far side of the planet there are people whose sorrows in life are partly due to me. Through what I have done or failed to do, through what my community has done or failed to do, there are others whose lives are more wretched than they might have been. There are those dying while we feast.

All the while we renew our collective preparations for a festival of death such as the world has never before witnessed: a war fought with weapons of mass destruction which we want others to do without but insist of having for ourselves. The argument is put forward that such war-preparations and our development of weapons of mass annihilation will actually prevent the dreaded event. But in fact we are like children playing with matches in a sand-box filled with black powder.

We are moved to condemn the evils we see in others and to excuse the evils we practice ourselves. We fail to realize that those who threaten us feel threatened by us, and often have good reasons for their fears. The problem is not simply a personal issue, for the greatest sins of enmity are committed en masse, with very few people feeling any personal responsibility for the destruction they share in doing or preparing. The words of Holocaust administrator Adolph Eichmann, “I was only following orders,” are among humanity’s most frequently repeated justifications for murder, heard as often from those who profess religious convictions as from those who deny them.

Breaking down the dividing wall of enmity

In Christ enmity is destroyed, Saint Paul wrote to the church in Ephesia: “For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of enmity…that he might create in himself one new person in place of two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bring enmity to an end.” (Eph. 2:14-16)

Walls would have been on Paul’s mind at the time; in the same letter he mentions that he is “a prisoner for the Lord.” His words of guidance were sent from prison.

“The dividing wall of enmity” stood massively between Jews and Romans. But one day an officer of the Roman army turned to Jesus for help:

“The centurion had a slave who was dear to him, who was sick and at the point of death. When he heard of Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his slave. And when they came to Jesus, they besought him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he built us our synagogue.’ And Jesus went with them. When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof… But say the word and let my servant be healed’… When Jesus heard this he marveled at him… And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave well.” (Luke 7:1-10)

It must have been hard for the more zealot-minded disciples to see Jesus responding positively to the appeal of a Roman soldier, and galling to hear him commenting afterward, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”

In recording this story, both Luke and Matthew comment that Jesus “marveled.” Jesus marveled at the faith of the centurion, who believed Jesus didn’t have to be physically present to heal. He must have been equally astonished that a soldier in a pagan army would approach a Jew with respect, and with a request rather than a command. The centurion in fact points out that he is used to governing others: “I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes.” He had the legal right to give orders; this applied even to people not in the army. A Roman soldier could demand that anyone he met on the road carry his gear for up to one Roman mile. Jesus was referring to this Roman law when he said that the faithful should then volunteer to go a second mile freely. (Mt. 5:41) One Roman soldier was to conscript Simon of Cyrene to carry the cross when Jesus no longer had the strength to do so.

Jesus had a third reason to marvel; the centurion was seeking nothing for himself or a family member but trying to save the life of his slave. Probably the slave was Jewish. We are told that the centurion was a man who respected the Jews. Assuming that Jesus would not believe this, he had enlisted Jewish elders to tell Jesus that this Roman soldier loved the Jewish nation and had even contributed the money to build a synagogue.

It is an amazing story: Roman and Jew reaching out to each other, and armed man toward an unarmed man. They are brought together by a dying slave. In their encounter, the dividing wall of enmity collapses.

We live in a world of walls. Competition, contempt, repression, racism, nationalism, violence and domination: all these are seen as normal and sane. Enmity is ordinary. Self and self-interest form the centering point in many lives. Love and the refusal to center one’s life in enmity are dismissed as naive, idealistic, even unpatriotic, especially if one reaches out constructively to hated minorities or national enemies.

Many wars are in the progress at the moment, with many thousands of Americans involved in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The cost in money, homes destroyed, damaged sanity, in lives and injuries is phenomenal. There are also less tangible costs, spiritually, psychologically, for we have become a people who make war and preparations for war a major part of our lives. We hear of many people who expect to die in a violent death and who live in a constant state of “low grade” depression. Despair is widespread. Various stress-relieving pills, which already sold well before September 11, are selling better than ever in today’s world.

There are even Christians who see war — even nuclear war– as God’s will, the fulfillment of prophecies, the means whereby God exercises judgement and cuts the thread of history. It’s not hard to find those who preach nuclear holocaust with enthusiasm and look forward to the ungodly being consumed while the elect are lifted rapturously into heaven. Their theology could be summed up: “And God so loved the world that he sent World War III.”

One of the insights Thomas Merton came to in his last years was the realization that reconciliation is not simply a formal coming together of people who have been divided. It is prefigured in our spiritual lives. He wrote in his journal:

“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.”

[The Hidden Ground of Love: Letters of Thomas Merton, edited by William Shannon; Farrar Straus Giroux, New York; p 272]

To “contain the divided worlds in ourselves” means that, no matter what objections we have to the Soviet political system, we have to learn to value the people whom at present we are fully prepared to kill.

To overcome the propaganda of enmity, we need to discover what Merton called “the human dimension”:

“The basic problem is not political, it is human. One of the most important things to do is to keep cutting deliberately through political lines and barriers and emphasizing that these are largely fabrications and that there is a genuine reality, totally opposed to the fictions of politics: the human dimension which politics pretends to arrogate entirely to themselves.”

I recall a small incident of breaking through the dividing wall of enmity that I witnessed in a Moscow church at a time when a nuclear exchange between the Soviet Union and the United States seemed likely.

I was in Moscow with a few friends from the West to take part in a small theological conference hosted by the Russian Orthodox Church. It was Sunday morning. We were in the Epiphany cathedral, one of th the few churches still open in Moscow. Believers were packed together like match sticks. There were no chairs or pews — Russians pray standing up, with just enough room for the half bows that the Russian liturgy requires.

Margareta, a Protestant friend from Sweden who had never before made the sign of the cross, found the older Russian woman at her side assisting her into doing so. Shed simply took Margareta’s hand, as of this visiting Swede were her grandchild, and showed her how to draw the holy and life-giving Cross on her body. For Margareta, it was a small resurrection. Afterward she needed no assistance is this simply gesture that unites body and soul.

Love as resistance to both evil and violence

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil.” (Mt. 5:38-39)

When Peter used violence to defend Jesus, he was instantly admonished, “Put away your sword, for whoever lives by the sword will perish by the sword.” (Mt 26:52)

Jesus’ last healing miracle before the resurrection was done to an enemy, the victim of Peter’s sword, a slave of the high priest who was among those who came to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemani. Jesus admonished his disciples, “No more of this!” Then he touched the wounded man’s ear and healed him.

For several hundred years following the resurrection, the followers of Jesus were renowned for their refusal to perform military service. But since Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313, when church and state were first linked, Christians have been as likely as any other people to take up the sword.

The refusal to take up arms against enemies has always been remarkable, even scandalous, from the point of view of those in government as well as many others who see no practical alternative to armed defense. Conscientious objection has cost not only many years of imprisonment and suffering. Many have given their lives rather than perform military service, among them people recognized as saints in the early church. The issue is still a matter of passionate debate even among Christians.

Thomas Merton was among those who helped renew the witness of Christian conscientious objection. Before becoming a monk, he had himself decided he would not take part in killing others. He got into a good deal of hot water during the Vietnam War for his close association with Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement and for what he managed to say about war and peace in books published in the last years of his life. In Seeds of Destruction, for example, there is this passage:

“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 [Greek: the Lord of Creation] in mystery, even in the midst of the conflicts and turmoil of the world.”

The refusal to kill others can be a powerful witness. In the Orthodox Church, preserving canons of the early Church, it is required of priests and iconographers that they not have killed anyone even by accident. Yet conscientious objection is only the negative aspect of a positive commitment to care for the lives of others. Christian life is far more than the avoidance of evil. In the parable of the tidy but empty house, Jesus says:

“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he passes through waterless places seeking rest, but he finds none. Then he says, “I will return to the house from which I came.” And when he comes, he finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then he goes and brings with him seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first.” (Mt.12:43-45)

A startling parable. The meaning is that one can drive an evil spirit from one’s life but, if nothing new and positive fills the space, a vacuum is created which not only draws back the exiled evil spirit but seven others even worse than the first. A vacuum cannot be filled with a vacuum; evil cannot be overcome with evil.

Responding to evil with its own weapons, though it can seem such an obvious good, results in a life that is centered on evil. Very often people who live in fear of armed men become armed men. They take up the same weapons and even adopt characteristics and hated practices of the adversary. When the Nazi forces bombed cities, there was immense revulsion in Britain and the United States, but in the end the greatest acts of city destruction were done by Britain and the United States.

But what is one to do? Christians cannot be passive about those events and structures which cause suffering and death.

For centuries men and women have been searching for effective ways of both protecting life and combating evil. It is only in the past hundred years, because of movements associated with such people as Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day, that nonviolent struggle has become a recognized alternative to passivity, on the one hand, and violence on the other.

A life of recognizing Jesus

St. John of the Cross said, “Love is the measure by which we shall be judged.” This summarizes much of the gospel, and has to do with God’s final weighing of our lives:

“When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those on his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you…?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food…’ Then they will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry … and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.'” (Mt. 25:31-46)

In practically any ancient church in Europe, one finds at least one visual representation of the Last Judgement, the blessed processing off complacently to the left, the damned — rather pathetic figures — being shoveled by grotesque devils into the fiery jaws of a dragon.

On the south porch of the Cathedral of Our Lady at Chartres, in France, one of the world’s most unhellish places, this scene is carved in stone. In medieval times, the stone was brilliantly painted. The effect must have been stunning — and perhaps alarming. In Moscow’s Kremlin, over the entrance to the Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel, summoner of the Last Judgement, there is a large icon over the entrance way portraying the same scene.

At both churches, I have heard similar answers to the question: “Why are we judged together and not one by one when we die?”

It is because each person’s life is far from finished with death. Our acts of love and failures to love continue to have consequences until the end of history. What Adam and Eve did, what Moses did, what Herod did, what Pilate did, what the Apostles did, what Caesar did, what Hitler did, what Martin Luther King did, what Dorothy Day did — all these lives, with their life-saving or murderous content, continue to have consequences every single day. This same principles applies equally to the least person. What you and I do, and what we fail to do, will matter forever.

It weighs heavily on many people that Jesus preached not only heaven but hell. There are quite a lot of references to hell in the gospels, many of them in the Sermon on the Mount. How can a loving God allow a place devoid of love?

The only response to that question which makes sense to me was a sermon I heard in an old gothic church in Prague in 1964, during an assembly of the Christian Peace Conference. The preacher was a particularly courageous man who has seen a great deal of prison from the inside. It is now too many years for me to put what he said in his words, but this is what I remember of it, or perhaps what it has become for me in the passage of nearly 25 years.

God allows us to go wherever we are going. We are not forced to love. We are not forced to recognize God’s presence. It is all an invitation. We can choose. Perhaps, in God’s mercy, we can even make the choice of heaven in hell. But very likely we will make the same kinds of choices after death that we made before death. In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis has a tour bus leaving daily from hell to heaven; it is never full and it tends to return with as many passengers as it took on the trip out of hell.

The older we are, the more we live by old choices, and defend those choices, and makes ideologies, philosophies, even theologies out of our choices. We canonize our choices by repetition.

We can say not just once but forever, as Peter once said of Jesus, “I do not know the man.” There are so many people about whom we can say, to our eternal peril, “I do not know the man,” to which we can add he is worthless, has no one to blame for his troubles but himself, that his problems aren’t our business, that he is an enemy, that he deserves to die whether of frostbite or violence matters little.

St John Chrysostom, a bishop and liturgist of the fourth century, said, “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find Him in the chalice.” If I cannot find the face of Jesus in the face of those who are my enemies, if I cannot find him in the unbeautiful, if I cannot find him in those who have the “wrong ideas,” if I cannot find him in the poor and the defeated, how will I find him in bread and wine, or in the life after death? If I do not reach out in this world to those with whom he has identified himself, why do I imagine that I will want to be with him, and them, in heaven? Why would I want to be for all eternity in the company of those whom I avoided every day of my life?

Christ’s Kingdom would be hell for those who avoided peace and devoted their lives to division.

At the heart of what Jesus says in every act and parable is this: Now, this minute, we can enter the Kingdom of God. The way into it is simply to live in awareness of God’s presence in those around us. Doing that, we learn the truth of what St. Catherine of Siena said: “All the way to heaven is heaven, because Jesus said, ‘I am the way.'”

Peacemaking is one of the eight Beatitudes that Christ announced in his summary of the Gospel, the Beatitudes. It is not an easy path. As Thomas Merton reminded me in a letter written during the Vietnam War:

“We will never see the results in our time, even if we manage to get through the next five years without being incinerated. Really, 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. Hairshirts 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 whole problem is this inner change… [the need for] an application of spiritual force and not the use of merely political pressure. We all have the great duty to realize the deep need to possess in us the Holy Spirit, to be possessed by Him. This has to take precedence over everything else. If He lives and works in us, then our activity will be true and our witness will generate love of truth, even though we may be persecuted and beaten down in apparent incomprehension.”

Orthodox Books You May Find Helpful…

The Orthodox Church, by Bishop Kallistos (but published under his lay name, Timothy Ware, as he was still a layman when he wrote the first edition in the sixties). Many regard this as the best overall introduction to Orthodoxy. Now retired, the author was a professor at Oxford. Also highly recommended is a companion book by Bishop Kallistos, The Orthodox Way, on the theological basics of Orthodoxy, with lots of outstanding quotations from ancient and modern Orthodox sources. (There is a new edition recently published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.)

The Year of Grace of the Lord by Father Lev Gillett, writing anonymously as “A Monk of the Eastern Church.” Father Lev provides meditations on the Gospel arranged to follow the calendar. At the same time it is a book on sacred time, the liturgical seasons and feasts. There are invaluable endnotes about the way the feasts developed and the Church calendar came to take its present shape.

The Roots of Christian Mysticism by Oliver Clement. For many this will be an introduction to the Church Fathers as there is hardly a page in which they are not quoted. Clement reminds his readers that Christianity was originally a mystical religion; to the extent that churches have lost their mystical center, they become bone dry and lifeless. He chides churches in the west for driving so many to seek spiritual life outside Christianity. (New City Books, 57 Twyford Ave., London W3 9PZ, England; £15)

The Living God, a two-volume Orthodox catechism originally published in France. (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press)

For the Life of the World by Alexander Schmemann, one of the great Orthodox writers of the 20th century. This is a presentation of the Orthodox understanding of sacraments and the sacramentality of all creation, a book Thomas Merton loved and often recommended it. Don’t miss the essay toward the back of the book, “Worship in a Secular Age.” (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press)

The Meaning of Icons by Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky is the best introduction to icons and their theology and is also full of good icon reproductions. The book explains in detail all the festal icons used in the course of the liturgical year as well as icons in use throughout the year. (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press)

Praying with Icons by Jim Forest. This is an introduction to icons with an emphasis on their integration into prayer life. Illustrated. (Orbis Books)

Behold the Beauty of the Lord by Henri Nouwen. Insightful meditations on four important icons. (Ave Maria Press.)

St. Gregory Palamas and Orthodox Spirituality by John Meyendorff. This is a small book, gracefully written, full of photos and icons.

There is a companion book of similar design, St. Sergius and Russian Spirituality by Pierre Kovalevsky, focusing on the development of traditions of spiritual life in the Russian Church. (both from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press)

The Invocation of the Name of Jesus and The Jesus Prayer, both by Father Lev Gillett but published anonymously as “A Monk of the Eastern Church.” The first is a booklet from the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius, in Oxford, England. The second a small book with a foreword by Bishop Kallistos, published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. (Also worth mentioning: Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger, the only novel ever written to feature the Jesus Prayer.)

The Essence of Prayer combines several smaller books by Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, head of the Russian Orthodox Church in England. Metropolitan Anthony was a medical doctor in France who was active in the Resistance during the years of German occupation. After the war he became a priest. His writings on prayer and liturgy go deep and have a sharp and brilliant edge. (Darton, Longman & Todd, London)

The Russians and Their Church by Nicolas Zernov, an introduction to the Russian Church by a great Orthodox writer. Zernov was for many years a professor at Oxford and was a founder of the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius. (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press)

The Way of the Ascetics by Tito Colliander. An introduction to Orthodox ascesis. (Mowbrays)

Bread & Water, Wine & Oil by Fr Meletios Webber. A compelling introduction to spiritual and sacramental life. (Conciliar Press)

Traveling Companions by Christopher Moorey. An excellent introduction to many of the saints commemorated in the Orthodox calendar. (Conciliar Press)

Women and Priesthood, edited by Thomas Hopko, with essays by Bishop Kallistos, Kyriaki FitzGerald, Deborah Belonick and others (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press).

The Ministry of Women in the Church by Elisabeth Behr-Sigel (Oakwood Publications).

* * *

The Tale of the Turnip

by Jim Forest

One weekend Katya went for a visit to the home of her Grandfather Lev and her Grandmother Olga. At the time, Katya’s parents were having difficulties in their marriage. They thought a quiet weekend together, just the two of them, would do them good. So off Katya went, though all was not well between her grandparents either. When they weren’t yelling, they glared at each other in furious silence.

Nor did it cheer them up having their granddaughter come to stay. One thing they agreed about was that Katya was a difficult child: she was full of questions, she hid under the table, she got underfoot, she wanted to help at things she wasn’t good at, she was noisy at play, and she made the dog bark. She forgot to close the door, when she ate she showered the floor with crumbs, she talked with her mouth full, and she made fun of adults.

Katya’s parents always argued that she was an ordinary child.

“If you like that sort,” the grandparents replied.

Katya had been there only an hour when Grandmother Olga began to think about supper. She told Grandfather Lev he had better pull up the turnip that had long been growing in the corner of the garden. “Katya has such a big appetite,” she said, shaking her head, “enough for three well-behaved children.”

So Grandfather Lev went out to the turnip.

He put his big hands on the leaves that marked the turnip’s home in the earth, and tried to pull it up. In his long life, he had pulled up enough turnips for every Russian, but no matter how hard he tried, this one wouldn’t budge.

We all know how men like to open jars and do anything that requires a little muscle, so you can imagine how hard he tried, and how reluctant he was to return to his old foe empty-handed. There was nothing to do but ask Grandmother Olga if she would help in the pulling.

“It seems this is the biggest turnip in the world,” he told her, “one that even Samson couldn’t pull up without help.”

“I’m not at all surprised,” Grandmother Olga replied, giving him a triumphant smile. “It is my experience year after year that men are all talk and boast.”

She marched out to the garden with him, sure of victory. In fact she was someone of real might, but even pulling together, their strength wasn’t enough. The stubborn turnip stayed locked in the ground.

“Surely this is the biggest and best-rooted turnip since the Volga River was first wet,” Grandmother Olga said.

Grandfather Lev nodded his head.

“We had better ask Katya for help,” he said.

He found her searching through his tool box looking for nails. She was reluctant to help, as she was busy building a secret house. Also Katya loved the word “No.” But she could also imagine the taste of the turnip, cooked and mashed and with butter on top — so she said, “Yes.”

But even the three of them were powerless against this mountainous turnip.

“Misha can help,” Katya said. She ran off without waiting for adult objections.

Misha was a dog who generally kept a safe distance from children, as they hid his bones and sometimes tried to ride him as if he were a pony. But Misha, like all dogs, was full of forgiveness and proved eager to help. The four of them pulled together.

Nevertheless, the turnip was unmoved.

So Misha the dog went for Masha the cat. Such humiliation, having to seek help from the cat he so often chased, yet Masha agreed. The warm sunlight in which she had been napping had melted her pride just enough.

Still, even with the force of five, the turnip only trembled in the ground.

So Masha, her tail high in the air, turned to the one member of the household still not in the garden, Tatiana, the mouse who lived behind the stove. Tatiana was an extraordinarily clever mouse, as the cat well knew. It was in her family — Tatiana had a grandmother who had escaped from a trap in the palace of the czar.

Of course Tatiana was nervous to be approached by Masha. This was the very cat who had eaten her husband and several of their children and she had barely survived the cat herself.

But she had eaten a large section of Lev and Olga’s Bible, including the words, “If your enemy hungers, feed him.” In a moment of grace, she agreed to help.

Tatiana approached the turnip while keeping a careful eye on Masha. Turnips have their own roots, she remembered.

She plunged into the ground as if it were hay and tunneled her way to the turnip’s base where she nipped each tiny root with her sharp teeth.

“Even a small brain knows about roots,” Tatiana said to Masha as she emerged from the ground.

Once again Grandfather Lev put his hands on the turnip, and Grandmother Olga held him, while Katya pulled on her grandmother, the dog on the girl, the cat on the dog, and the mouse on the cat. They pulled as if their lives depended on it, and at last the garden gave up its treasure.

Great was their feast that night. Without fear of the cat, even tiny Tatiana ate all she wanted, and even a little more. Masha purred at the side of Misha. Not a growl was heard and not a cross word was spoken, even afterwards when Katya broke a dish. It is even said that at bedtime that night Olga kissed Lev for the first time in twenty years.

* * *
The text is copyright by Jim Forest, the illustrations by Len Munnik. The Tale of the Turnip was published in 1988 by Marshall Pickering, Basingstoke, England.
* * *

The Whale’s Tale

(This is the text of the now out-of-print children’s book published in England by Hunt & Thorpe and, in translation, in several European counties. As yet there has been no US edition — the American religious publishers I submitted it to judged it too secular while secular publishers found it too religious. The illustrations are by Len Munnik. A nearly complete set of his drawings for the book is here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/sets/72157642153355175/)

by Jim Forest

People tell me how lucky I am to be a whale — biggest creature on earth, go where I like, no need of money, built in shower, my picture in National Geographic magazine.

It’s true, up to a point. Being a whale has its bright side. I wouldn’t trade places with man or elephant, not for all the shrimp in the Pacific. On the other flipper, being a whale has its dark side.

Consider water. Believe me, water isn’t what it used to be. You only have to read about it. I have to swim in it. Whatever people don’t want they drop in the ocean. Whale's Tale polluted Water

On top of that a whale has to eat more than you can imagine. It goes with being immense. We haven’t much choice about what goes in when we open our mouths and the quality has been going down. We get a lot of plastic these days.

Then there are whale hunters with their harpoons. It’s a lucky whale who lives long enough to become a grandparent. I’ve been one of the few to reach a ripe old age.

Keep in mind that you’re listening to the oldest living whale, a rider of the currents for three thousand years. A true ancient. Big as I am, there is hardly space in me for all my stories. I could tell you tales from now till the olives are ripe on the north pole.

My strangest story concerns a man named Jonah. Probably you’ve heard about Jonah. He has his own book in the Bible. He became quite famous, not that he would approve of that. He was shy when I swallowed him and even shyer when I unswallowed him.

A cranky fellow, Jonah was, all elbows and whiskers and words with needles in them, the most uncomfortable item that ever took up residence in me.

I’ll never forget the day I became his hiding place. There was the sort of storm that happens once every hundred years and in the middle of it a sailing ship with a band of frantic men on board — a sight to make a whale weep.

Whale's Tale stormThe sailors were more desperate than the wind, praying to this god and that, promising to do all sorts of things if only they lived to tell about it, and, just in case their gods weren’t interested, throwing the cargo overboard to lighten up the ship.

Then they dragged poor Jonah up from the hold. He had been hiding out down below. “Call upon your God,” the captain said to Jonah. “Maybe your God will listen.”

“I’m not on speaking terms with God,” Jonah told him.

“But aren’t you a Jew?” he asked, “and don’t Jews pray?”

“Yes, I’m a Jew. I worship the one God who made the oceans and the dry land. But God and I are having an argument. I decided the only solution was to move. I hoped God wouldn’t pay attention to me in Tarshish but it’s clear I’m not allowed to go that way.”

Jonah insisted that the storm was all his fault and said the only way to save the ship was to throw him into the waves.

“Throw yourself in,” the sailors told him. “Impossible,” he said. “Suicide is a sin.”

Whale's Tale Jonah overboard

The sailors were decent men. They didn’t want to do it at first. But the storm got worse and finally they gave in. The sailors never saw me. What they noticed was that no sooner had they given Jonah the heave-ho than there was a patch of blue in the sky and the winds were dying down. This impressed them no end. Several of them took to Jonah’s God from that day on.

I swallowed Jonah on the spur of the moment. Not to eat him! Whales have no taste for people. No, it was a just a friendly gesture. My mother always said, “Do the right thing.” She once saved a whaler, though some of the family criticized her for it. “If your enemy is drowning, rescue him,” she said. Very devout, my mother was. A bit of it must have rubbed off on me.

Jonah was no trouble the first day. He slept like a log, and felt like one.

When he woke up the next day, this same Jonah who wouldn’t pray on the ship hardly stopped praying. He knew all the psalms by heart.

Whale's Tale Jonah in the whaleWhen he wasn’t praying, he was griping about the inside of whales — too smelly, too cramped, too dark and no bedding.

I asked what the trouble was. It turned out that God was urging him to be a prophet.

“Get up,” God had said to him, “go to Nineveh and speak out against that city’s wicked ways.”

“Why didn’t you say yes?” I asked. “Interesting work and travel to a famous city besides.”

“I have no taste for the job,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, the people of Nineveh can drop dead. Haven’t you heard about them? I told God to burn their city down. Divine wrath — that’s what they need.”

It wasn’t only Nineveh Jonah complained about but his donkey, his rabbi, his neighbors, even God.

“Some God,” he said. “I’m supposed to tell people that their city will be destroyed. What if they repent? Sure as the sun rises in the east, God will forgive them.”

By the third day, Jonah began to look at things from a different angle. It wasn’t that he had changed his mind about Nineveh but he wanted some fresh air. “You win, God,” he said, “I’ll go. It can’t be any worse in Nineveh than it is here.”

Whale's Tale Jonah expelledHours later I heaved him out onto a beach. Not a word of thanks did I get for delivering him safe and sound to dry land. All he said was, “See you around.” then off he walked, ignoring the seaweed still clinging to him. He looked like a walking aquarium. Jonah was never one to look in the mirror.

Years later, thanks to a man on a raft from Nineveh, I heard what happened.

“Once inside the city gates that Jonah fellow started giving speeches listing our faults and promising that the city would be turned to charcoal. Perhaps his fishy smell made us pay attention. Also he was the only thing in the market square that was free. Whatever the reason, we listened. A man like that, you had to listen! And what if he was right?

“Finally we repented — fasting, wearing sack cloth, rubbing ourselves with ashes, from the king right down to the street sweepers like me.”

In the end it was as Jonah predicted. God spared the city.

“It was a great disappointment to Jonah,” the man from Nineveh told me. “He never liked our city and wouldn’t even sleep within the walls at night. As soon as it was obvious we had been forgiven and we people started eating and wearing our usual clothes, Jonah began the long walk back to his home in Galilee. I last saw him as he walked out the city gate, complaining still and shaking his fist in the air.”

I doubt Jonah ever liked the merciful side of God. The amazing thing was that God liked Jonah anyway and found something useful for him to do despite his grumpiness. There’s no accounting for God when it comes to that sort of thing. Whales are easier to love.

Young whales sometimes ask me, “Would you do it again?” “I would if I had to,” I tell them, “but let’s hope I’ll be spared. Prophets are hard to swallow.”

Mrs. Jellyby, Saint John of the Cross and the Domination of Causes

Mrs Jellyby and family

by Jim Forest

Among the cautionary characters the reader encounters in Charles Dickens’s novel of the 1850s, Bleak House, is Mrs. Jellyby, who resolutely devotes every waking hour to the “Borrioboola-Gha venture.” The reader never discovers the details of the endeavor except that it involves the settlement of impoverished Britons among African natives with the goal of supporting themselves through coffee growing. Mrs. Jellyby is convinced that no other undertaking in life is so worthwhile, or would solve so many problems at a stroke. Dickens’ interest is not in the project, however, but rather in Mrs. Jellyby, who is so wedded to her work that she has no time for her several children, with the exception of Caddy, a daughter she has conscripted as her secretary. Ink-spattered Caddy puts in nearly as many hours as her mother in the daily task of answering letters and sending out literature about Borrioboola-Gha.

Far from enjoying the work, Caddy has come to hate the words “Borrioboola-Gha” or even “Africa” or any word that has the remotest suggestion of noble causes. For Caddy, causes simply mean the ruin of family life. Mrs. Jellyby has no time for domestic life. Her husband eventually becomes suicidal and, though surviving despair, is last seen in the book with his head resting despondently against a wall. (In the book’s postscript, we discover that the Borrioboola-Gha project failed after the local king sold the project’s volunteers into slavery in order to buy rum; but Mrs. Jellyby quickly found another cause to occupy her time, “a mission with more correspondence than the old one,” thus providing a happy ending for a permanent campaigner.)

While few in the peace movement so radically neglect those in their care, unfortunately I cannot think of Mrs. Jellyby merely as a comic caricature. When my wife and I talked about her, we could think of several people, of both sexes, resembling her in many details: people with a certain legitimate concern but engaging themselves so fully that their fixation has wrecked havoc in the lives of those around them, and probably done a great deal to drive many people they intended to influence in the opposite direction.

While in theory dedicated to compassion, in reality the Mrs. Jellybys seem to be driven by anger with those around them, whom they can punish with a clear conscience by taking up a virtuous cause.

I recall one activist who wasn’t able to attend his daughter’s marriage because of a demonstration that day. Another man, more gandhian than Gandhi, springs to mind who, left in charge of the office of the Committee for Nonviolent Action while the rest of the staff was away being arrested and jailed, nearly starved the office cat to death because his conscience opposed the domestication of animals. Whatever food the cat found during those austere weeks, it was not from his ideology-guided hand.

It is a dilemma that the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, discussed in the 1960s in one of his letters to peace activists:

“One of the problematic questions about nonviolence is the inevitable involvement of hidden aggressions and provocations. I think this is especially true when there are…elements that are not spiritually developed….[T]here is…the danger one observes subtly in tight groups like families and monastic communities, where the martyr for the right sometimes thrives on making his persecutors terribly and visibly wrong. He can drive them in desperation to be wrong, to seek refuge in the wrong, to seek refuge in violence….In our acceptance of vulnerability, we play [on the guilt of the opponent]. There is no finer torment. This is one of the enormous problems of our time…all this guilt and nothing to do about it except finally to explode and blow it all out in hatreds, race hatreds, political hatreds, war hatreds. We, the righteous, are dangerous people in such a situation….We have got to be aware of the awful sharpness of truth when it is used as a weapon, and since it can be the deadliest weapon, we must take care that we don’t kill more than falsehood with it…” (The Hidden Ground of Love: The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Experience and Social Concerns, Farrar Straus & Giroux, New York; pp 262-4)

Because of my own life experience, I tend to think especially of the peace movement, but it hardly matters what movement it is that one belongs to: left or right, red or green, nationalist or trans-nationalist, large or small. It could be pacifism, feminism, marxism, anarchism, vegetarianism, human rights, animal rights, some political party, or one’s religion. In any case, ideology, not compassion, tends to become the driving force. Compassion, however much the word may be used, rarely thrives within the climate of movements and causes, except a very narrow compassion focused like a spotlight on a victim group whose needs legitimate the cause.

Perhaps one of the main functions of ideology is to confine the area of compassion, so that, for example, one feels compassion for the baby seal being slaughtered for its fur but not for the man whose family may presently depend upon the fur trade; or feels compassion for one group of war casualties but not another.

Cause-directed ideology also serves the function of keeping its users in a constant state of guilt and anger: guilt because one can never become the person the cause requires and expects of its adherents; and anger because there are never enough people ready to join the group (not enough even in those case where there are thousands or millions of adherents). And there are always those, even vast numbers, who either stand in opposition or don’t seem to care.

I suspect Saint John of the Cross would easily recognize Mrs. Jellyby and identify her Spanish counterparts. The 16th century Spanish Church was not short on ideology or in people whose ecclesiastical purposefulness was matched by harshness to those around them. It was a climate in which the Inquisition met a profound need: ideology must find and punish those who oppose or fail to measure up to ideology’s demands. (Punishment of ideological offenders today must be done mainly with words rather than torture and bonfires, though the fires built of words can blaze very hot.)

It is interesting to consider that Saint John of the Cross’s opposition to religious ideology and its structures, which made him a prisoner for a time, was not protest in a form which we would quickly recognize as such. Rather it took the form of building up communities of mystical life in which, in community with the poor, the members disowned many familiar comforts, including shoes, thereby getting their name, “the Discalced (or shoeless) Carmelites.”

Saint John of the Cross encouraged everyone to live a mystical life. Perhaps in those days this seemed nearly as outrageous as it does in our own world. The word “mystical” sounds so remote and other-worldly, suggesting to many a sort of person so lost in a spiritual world that he is indifferent to the needs and problems of his neighbors. (One finds that sort of figure in the cast of Bleak House as well: there is the Rev. Mr. Chadband, whose pastoral devotion makes it easier for him to notice a potential donor than a person in rags.)

To get rid of misleading stereotypes about mysticism, one must ask what is mystical life? It is first-hand experience of God. It is the difference between the menu and the meal. “Taste and see how good the Lord is,” we are told by the psalmist, not “read about God and his goodness.” It is one of the primary eucharistic invitations. We are not summoned to an intellectual excursion but to an actual experience, as real and indescribable as tasting an orange. Not even Shakespeare can give us in words the taste of an orange. Not even Saint John the Evangelist can put God into words. Each of us must either taste for ourselves or settle for religious press clippings.

Saint John of the Cross insists that there is nothing remarkable about moving from second-hand to first-hand experience, from becoming informed about God to being a religious participant in God. Neither could there be any event more transforming in our lives nor of greater consequence to those around us, for we would see ourselves and others with new eyes and live without the fears that so often limit or paralyze our responses or make them self-serving. Saint John’s poems, and his essays about these poems, are entirely on this subject.

Nor does he suggest that one must be clever to be a mystic. God is not reserved for the smart people — rather the smart people are the one’s most likely to get in their own way, to wall themselves in with words, footnotes, causes and ideology.

Ideology has the advantage of being controllable and small. We can more-or-less comprehend it and to some small extent define its shape, although in the end it defines our shape. God is not comprehensible and definable. God is, compared to what we think of as “well-lit,” an infinite darkness, a light that seems like night. Thus Saint John’s “dark night of the soul.” Saint John is a spiritual journalist reporting on how it is one must pass through blindness (the cross) in order to see (and thus rise from death). It is a terrifying passage, but finally one gets to see, not simply to hear about seeing.

Mysticism is something the vast majority of social movements avoid. If the word mysticism is said at all, it is with derision, as if to say: the true social activist has no time to be a mystic, for mysticism cannot possibly have anything to do with untying the knots in our disordered world. There is too much to be done, too many urgent needs to be met, to permit indulgence in long liturgies, religious rites, penitential activities, examinations of conscience, periods of silence and withdrawal, etc. If religion is tolerated at all, it must be kept in a well-governed corner under the strict regulation of ideology and peer-group control.

This kind of movement climate, of course, remains spiritually very shallow and inevitably results in many cases of “burn out” — psychological and physical exhaustion that makes it impossible for the activist to continue. At least a long pause is required.

How different our work for social healing would be if it were nourished by a deep spiritual life! As Saint John of the Cross wrote:

“Let those that are great activists and think to circle the world with words and outward works note that they would bring far more profit to the Church and be far more pleasing to God if they spent even half [the time given to action] in being present with God in prayer…. Most certainly they would accomplish more with one piece of work than they now do with a thousand and do so with far less labor. For through prayer they would merit the result, and themselves be made spiritually strong. Without prayer, they would do much hammering but achieve little, even nothing at all or even cause harm.” (Spiritual Canticle, xxix, 3)

Perhaps we are at a moment in history, with many ideologies in a state of collapse, when we can imagine that mysticism would lay a foundation for social action that would not only produce useful results, rather than results quite opposite what is intended, but also refresh us day-by-day as we seek to build up a nonviolent social order?

Saint John of the Cross said: “Love is the measure by which we shall be judged.” It is a quotation I first heard from Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, a woman devoted to both Saint Teresa and Saint John. Dorothy spent much of her time each day in prayer and yet is rightly remembered as one of the great social activists in American history.

Again and again, John of the Cross reminds us that God is love. We move toward God through no other path than love itself. It is not a love expressed in words or slogans or theories or ideologies but actual love, love experienced in God, love that lets us know others not through our ideas and fears but through God’s love for them so that we see them not only as enemies but as estranged (even if deranged or pathological) relatives.

How are we to make our way out of the various ideological corners in which we find ourselves? In my own life, nothing has been more helpful than the rediscovery of the richness of liturgical life, an unexpected gift that I have received by getting to know the Orthodox Church, renowned for its long liturgies and its tradition of standing rather than sitting in church. But many of us face the problem of finding ourselves in parishes in which the Liturgy often resembles a television program made to fit into an hour’s space. Ordinary parish worship at times seem more an obstacle to mystical life than an opening. In such cases we must imagine what can be rather than what is, in the meantime do what we can with resources at hand, in the parish, at nearby monasteries, and, most of all, at home.

A great part of the process of healing the world is healing the church, which means in part to recover traditions of spiritual life that have been greatly damaged over the centuries, in part by Christianity’s east-west divorce. Saint John of the Cross can be a companion in the process of repairing the division within our own spiritual life and of encouraging us as we seek to experience the God who makes all things new.

* * *

Did Jesus Really Mean It When He Said, "Love Your Enemies"?

by Jim Forest

Reading Christian history, it is hard to imagine that Jesus called on his followers to love their enemies:

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and to him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your coat as well. Give to everyone who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods, do not ask them again. As you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.” (Luke 6:27-31; also note Matthew 5:43-46)

Even for those familiar with these words, the question arises: Did Jesus mean it?

This teaching must have astonished those who first heard him say it. Some must have muttered, “A Jew, love a Roman? You must be joking!” A few in the crowd would have considered him traitorous, for enmity is the shadow side of nationalism. Small wonder that Jesus was killed. Speaking against enmity is to make enemies on the spot.

What is an enemy?

My son Daniel once offered a crisp definition when he said a friend of his, momentarily in disgrace, should “go away and drop dead.” An enemy is anyone I feel threatened by and seek to defend myself against. What for them would be bad news, for me would be good news.

There are domestic enemies and foreign ones. Often one’s chief enemy is near-by: a family member, a co-worker, a neighbor, a co-religionist. Christians used to be at their most ruthless with other Christians. In-house enemies can be the most threatening. Crimes of violence mainly occur within the family or among friends. Domestic enemies may be people whom I regard only in categories: gays, punks, pro-abortionists, people in expensive cars, people in particular religious or racial groups, people in an opposing political party, a political leader whose policies I despise.

Internationally, an enemy is a mass of people I am taught to fear and, in case of war, may be ordered to fight. Such enmity can be quite impersonal. The enemy isn’t an individual but a system, a party, an entire people.

What does love mean?

Love has acquired some meanings that would amaze the Jews Jesus was speaking to. In current usage it has mainly to do with good luck in romance and sex, a definition that makes the commandment to love one’s enemies incomprehensible.

In the Bible, love has to do with action and responsibility; the stress is not on how one feels. To love is to do what you can to provide for the wellbeing of another whether or not the person is likeable. What Jesus does is love. In explaining his Father’s love, he talks about what God gives.

An act of love may be animated by a sense of delight in someone else–wonderful when it happens–or it may be done despite anger, depression, exhaustion or aversion, done simply as a prayer to God and a response to God, who links us all, in whom we are brothers and sisters, “who makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.”

Often the teaching of Jesus is written off because it was addressed, it is said, to people in a gentler, more pastoral world than ours.

But the country in which Jesus was born wasn’t the idyllic place Christmas cards make of it. It was a country enduring military occupation in which a dissident was likely to be executed. A Jew dying on the cross was no rare sight. In Jesus’ original audience, enemies were numerous, vicious and nearby.

There were the Romans to hate, with their armies and idols. There were tax collectors who gouged all they could, for their own pay was a percentage of the take. There were enemies within: Jews imitating the Romans and Greeks, dressing–and undressing–as they did, while scrambling up the ladder. Even among those religious Jews trying to remain faithful to tradition, there was argument about what was essential and what wasn’t, and there was sharp political division about how to relate to the Romans. The Zealots saw no solution but armed struggle. Others, like the Essenes, chose withdrawal.

Not only Jews but Romans were listening when Jesus spoke, some out of curiosity, others because listening was their job. From the Roman point of view, the indigestible Jews, though momentarily subdued, remained enemies. The Romans viewed this one-godded, statue-smashing people as well deserving any lashes they received.

Those drawn to Jesus were mainly “marginal” people. He loved sinners, the gospel says plainly. He loved them not just for who they might become but who they were already. Still there were others who came to him whose brokenness was less visible: scholars, soldiers, ordinary working people, respected and secure people, people with something to lose. They were drawn by his readiness to forgive, his ability to heal, his common-sense, his utter truthfulness, his quiet courage. They were drawn by his love, a love which included even them.

There were those drawn by his grief. When he performed miracles, it wasn’t with a magician’s detachment but with a profound sense of connection. The gospel notes two times when Jesus wept in public: before the tomb of his dead friend Lazarus, and again as he approached Jerusalem en route to the cross.

His capacity for grief was matched by his courage. Jesus was no coward. He kept no “prudent silence.” He didn’t hesitate to say and do things which made him a target. Perhaps the event that assured his crucifixion was what he did to the money-changers. He made a whip of chords (which sting but cause no injury) and set the bankers running, scattering their precious money. In so doing, he made clear that love of enemies doesn’t mean submitting to them. In fact we are obliged to do good to them–very possibly a good they don’t want.

Is it possible to love an enemy? I know the answer is yes because I have experienced it in my own life and I have seen it happening in every country my work brings me to. Yet I know it isn’t easy. By oneself, the love of enemies is probably impossible. Just as problems in a marriage often benefit from the help of skilled marriage counsellor, discovering the human being within the enemy involves being part of a community working on it together.

But help from others isn’t enough. I need to ask God to help me see my enemy with God’s own care and hope.

While the love of an enemy involves a range of actions that may include active resistance, it always begins and ends with prayer. Jesus told us to pray for our enemies.

I think about Staretz Simeon Silouan, an uneducated Russian peasant, a powerful man with a volcanic temper. One day he was playing a concertina at a village festival when two brothers began to tease him. The older brother tried to snatch the concertina and a fight broke out. “At first I thought of giving in,” Silouan later admitted, “but then I was ashamed at how the girls would laugh at me, so I gave him a great hard blow in the chest. His body shot away and he fell backwards with a heavy thud in the middle of the road. Froth and blood trickled from his mouth. All the onlookers were horrified. So was I. `I’ve killed him,’ I thought, and stood rooted to the spot. For a long time the cobbler lay where he was. It was over half an hour before he could rise to his feet. With difficulty they got him home, where he was bad for a couple of months, but he didn’t die.”

Silouan felt ever after that there was only an accidental difference between himself and a murderer. As time passed, he found himself increasingly drawn toward prayer and penance. Finally joining a monastery on Mount Athos, he thought and prayed deeply about violence and its causes. A profound sense of human inter-connectedness was one of God’s gifts to him. He realized that, “through Christ’s love, everyone is made an inseparable part of our own, eternal existence…for the Son of Man has taken within himself all mankind.”

Without prayer for enemies, he realized, we are powerless to love them. In fact the only love we can offer is God’s own love. Prayer can give us access to God’s love for those we would otherwise regard with hostility.

One of the people of prayer who inspires me is another Russian, an old woman I know only through the autobiography of her grandson, Maxim Gorky. In Russian churches, I have often been surrounded by crowds of women cut from the same loaf. As a child, Gorky watched his grandmother praying aloud before her candle-lit icon.

“She always prayed for a long time after a day of quarrels and aggravation [for she was married to a violent, quarrelsome husband]. She told God about everything that had happened in the house, down to the last detail. Massive, like a mountain, she would kneel down and start off very quickly and in an unintelligible whisper and then deepened her voice to a loud grumble. `As you know too well, God, everyone wants the best of things. Mikhail, the elder, should really stay in the town, and he wouldn’t like it if he had to go across the river, where everything’s new and hasn’t been tried out yet. I’ve no idea what will happen. Father has more love for Yakov. Do you think it’s a good thing to love one child more than the other? He’s an obstinate old man. Please, God, make him see reason!’ As she looked at the dim icon with her large, shining eyes, she instructed God, ‘Let him have a dream which will make him understand how to give himself to both his sons!'”

She went on and on, reflecting before God, with God, about each person in the house, than the neighbors. She would at times cross herself, bow down to the floor and even, in moments of anguish, bang her head against the floorboards. At times there were extended silences. Her grandson thought she had fallen asleep. Then she recovered her voice and continued the dialogue.

I hope to live long enough to learn to pray like that, to be that free of embarrassment about being a praying person. But I have already lived long enough to know that to pray whole-heartedly is the most vital force in life.

In praying for enemies, I find it helpful to spend time quietly visualizing the face of a person I dislike, reciting the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Such prayer becomes a mirror. I see myself as I am seen. I realize I not only have enemies. I am an enemy. I find myself praying not only for the conversion of my adversary but for my own conversion.

That’s asking a lot. As Gandhi said, “I have only three enemies. The one most easily influenced for the better is the British nation. My second enemy, the Indian people, is more difficult. But my hardest opponent is a man named Gandhi. With him I seem to have very little influence.”

This text is based on material in Jim Forest’s book, Making Friends of Enemies, published by Crossroad/Continuum.