Remembering Merton

Via links on Beth Cioffoletti’s Merton blo (, I stumbled upon this transcript of a conversation that occurred at a meeting of the British/Irish Merton Society in 1993. You may enjoy it. I had no idea what we had said had been recorded, still less converted to text.


23 June 2008

* * *

Remembering Merton:
A round table discussion between a few of Merton’s friends – Tommie O’Callaghan, Donald Allchin, Jim Forest and John Wu, Jr.

chaired by David Scott.

David Scott: The title of this conference is Your Heart is My Hermitage. We didn’t pick it particularly because it has a particular resonance. But we chose a wide title. I think it does give us some sense certainly of the solitude of Merton and also the passion and the friendship involved in his life. We are beginning our conference by asking the four people sitting beside me who knew and met Thomas Merton, to talk about their memories of him. As the years go by, this gets less and less possible so we are very honoured and delighted to welcome John Wu, who is standing in for Ron Seitz but is certainly a member of the panel in his own right, Donald Allchin, Tommie O’Callaghan and Jim Forest. I’ll introduce them briefly each as they come to speak. We’ve asked Donald to start. He’s the President of our Society and it’s very good to have him, because he really got us going two years ago. Had it not been for him, I don’t think we would have galvanised ourselves into action. Donald visited Merton in the 1960’s and brought back to England a great enthusiasm for Merton, and I think, for Merton, encouraged him to look again at his Anglican roots, amongst many other things. So, Donald, if you’d like to begin …

Donald Allchin: This is a wonderful occasion and it is wonderful that so many people here have come and especially I want to second what David has said – we are so grateful to so many of our American friends and people who are very much at the heart of the International Thomas Merton Society for coming to be with us. It’s a most wonderful starter – it’s a kind of booster rocket – for this, our first gathering here. In the current Merton Seasonal, which is the periodical produced by Bob Daggy in the Merton Archive in Louisville, there’s a reference to two categories of people: people who really knew Merton well, and people who claim to have known Merton. Well, I suppose I come into the second category. I always feel so on such an occasion. I have once or twice spoken before with Tommie. And with someone like Tommie who knew Merton intimately over the years, then I feel I am rather one of those people who claim to have known Merton.

It is true that I went three times to visit the monastery in the 1960’s. Each time I had three or four days there and each time I did have opportunities – wonderful opportunities – for long conversations with Thomas Merton. I think that was partly because Englishmen are pretty rare in Kentucky and Anglicans even rarer.

I’ll tell you a little incident from my first visit which will show you how correct I was in those days. I was evidently wearing a cassock, a kind of typical Anglican wrapover cassock, and after I had been there for a day or two, one or two American people in the guest house said, “Are you a Redemptorist lay brother? We’ve been trying to make out what that cassock is.” And I said, ” No, I am an Anglican.” ” Oh, and what kind of an order is that ?”, they said.

I confess that in the sixties, in Merton’s lifetime, when I was in America, I never told people that I had met him and talked to him because I think most people would simply not have believed me. And those who did believe me would have been so jealous that I would not have been able to bear it. All one knew about Thomas Merton, apart from the fact that everybody read his books, was that you couldn’t get at him. So in that sense it was an enormous sense of privilege which I had in making those visits.

On my first visit, I was introduced by a professor from the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, a very fine New Testament scholar who had been working for a year in Oxford. Now in the 1990’s, to be introduced to a Cistercian monastery by a Southern Baptist professor is perhaps not so strange. In the 1960’s, it was really almost unbelievable. I stayed for some days with Dr Dale Moody, the man who introduced me to Merton. I stayed with him for my first ever visit to the United States and I started my first visit to the United States in Kentucky and it was a wonderful thing to have done. I didn’t know what a good thing it was to have done until much later in a way when I looked back on it.

The first Sunday I was there, Dale Moody said “You had better go to your own church” so I went to St Mark’s Episcopal Church, a little church under the wing of a huge Baptist cathedral, which was how the Episcopal church is in Kentucky, a little tiny minority group with all these Baptist cathedrals dominating the landscape. The rector of the church said “We’ve got a visitor from England, the Reverend Mr Allchin from Oxford, England”, making it quite clear that I wasn’t from Oxford, Mississippi, ” And he’s staying up there in the Baptist seminary,” and there was a kind of gasp from the congregation. And as they came out, they shook my hand and said “Don’t let them convert you up there, will you ?” I said to Dale Moody, “You didn’t tell them that I was going on to stay with the Trappists at Gethsemani,” “They wouldn’t have believed me,” he said.

Anyhow, I was introduced to Tom Merton by a Southern Baptist. And when Dale Moody had left and I was left there sitting talking to Merton for the first time and feeling a bit shy – here I was talking to this man who was an internationally known writer and one or two of whose writings had influenced me very deeply, Tom said, “What have you been doing for the last few days that you’ve been staying in Kentucky ?” And I said “Dale has been taking me around and showing me some of the places and I’ve really been learning a little bit about the history of Kentucky and a lot about the Kentucky Revival in 1804 and 1805. ” . And then I said, “We went to Shakertown, to the Shaker village at Pleasant Ville. I must say I found it quite overwhelming. The buildings – there was something so beautiful about them. Do you know about the Shakers ?”

I shall never forget. He got up. He went over to his filing cabinet. He pulled out a drawer. He pulled out a file and there was a whole file of photographs of Shaker architecture and Shaker furniture – which in those days was not very well known. There were one or two books published in the States and available on it but not very well known. But Merton was right into it. He said, “I want to write a book about them.” Well, he never did but he did write one or two very interesting essays about the Shakers and he made use of the Shaker materials to illustrate the logos doctrine of St Maximus the Confessor in an absolutely brilliant way in his lectures on aesthetical and mystical theology which haven’t ever been published. One of the most beautiful passages in that document is the way in which he uses … he says, “If you want to have the logos of a bed or the logos of a chair, look at a Shaker bed, look at a Shaker chair, you can see what the innermost meaning is …”

So we started off on Shakers and that got us going. And from that time we never stopped. Now one of the difficult things which I found, I think it must have been after the ’67 visit, I thought to myself – I must make some notes of what we talked about – and I just found I couldn’t. I actually wrote him a little note to say that I found I couldn’t. I suppose it was because our conversation ranged so widely and so rapidly. We talked about so many different things. I was in some sense able to bring news and sometimes books or letters from people who Merton knew in England. I was able to bring him some kind of personal contact with the Russian Orthodox circles in Paris, especially the circle round Vladimir Lossky. He’d read Lossky’s book and been greatly influenced by it. We talked about those things. We talked about some of the poets in Britain. He greatly loved Edwin Muir. I think probably I introduced him to R.S.Thomas and he became very interested in R.S.Thomas’ work. And then, I don’t think it was my doing, but he discovered David Jones and that was a real discovery. We talked about … there were so many things we talked about. It was very difficult to make a kind of catalogue of them. There was a kind of quicksilver quality about the conversation.

The only time that I ever went up to the hermitage was in 1963. In 1967 and 1968, when he was living at the hermitage, he didn’t take me up. He came down and we had all our meetings in the guest house except in 1968, when we actually went out from the monastery, the only time that we did that. I think it was in 1967 that while we were talking, a message suddenly came through, “Father Abbot says would you talk to the Community before Compline.” I was a bit overawed by the thought of doing so, especially as I had hardly any time to prepare what I was going to say and Tom said “You must say yes.” So I did. And then I said, “What am I going to say to them ?” “Well,” he said, “tell them that you think the monastic life is important.” “Well,” I said, “they know that better than I do because they’re living it.” “Yes.” he said, “But they need to hear it from somebody outside.” So that’s what I did talk about as far as I can remember. I remember the Abbot, Dom James Fox, leaning over to me after the talk and saying, “We are going to have a little service now. It’s called Compline. Ever heard of that ?”

The third visit was in April 1968 and on this occasion I went with a friend, a student at the theological seminary in New York, where I was teaching at that time. We drove out and on this occasion Merton said, “Well, let’s go out for the day,” a thing he’d never done before and we went precisely to Pleasant Ville to the Shaker village and from there we went to Lexington and there was a rather memorable incident in the restaurant where we were having lunch. I was very correctly dressed with a clerical collar and a black [suit], always very correct in those days. And of course that didn’t particularly stand out in the restaurant. What stood out in the restaurant was my voice, which is quite normal here but isn’t quite normal in a restaurant in Lexington. A very smartly dressed lady came up and said, ” Oh Father, you must be from England.” And I said, “Yes, I’m from Oxford.” “Oh, from Oxford. Have you met our bishop ?” Well I’d been specially warned by friends not to meet the episcopal bishop if I could help it, so I hadn’t. So I said, “Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance.” Well, she talked to me for a bit and then she turned to this curious farmer who was sitting next to me and said, “And do you come from England, too ?” and Merton said, “No, I come from Nelson County, lady.” And she wondered what the strange old redneck was doing talking to this rather elegant young man from Oxford.

On the way back we stopped in a roadside café and had a cup of coffee. We looked at the television news which was telling us that Martin Luther King was in Memphis and that there was a sense that everything wasn’t going right. It was a very dangerous situation. And then the next item, which Merton records in his diary, was an item saying that Christiaan Barnard, the South African surgeon, had just done the first successful heart transplant operation ever. And evidently the news item said that this was a white man with a black man’s heart. The interviewer had asked him, “Doesn’t that feel very odd?” or something. Merton was amused and appalled by this particular element of the thing and was rather surprised that neither I nor Jerry had apparently noticed it. I had not noticed it for the simple reason that, by one of these extraordinary coincidences, I was expecting all the time to see my sister appear on the screen because she was head of the radiology department in that hospital, Groote Schuur, in Cape Town, where Christiaan Barnard was a surgeon and where the operation had taken place. She’d told me the last time that I’d met her what a difficult man he was. Anyhow, we drove on and it was as we drove on that over the car radio we heard the news that Martin Luther King had been shot. And Merton at once said, “We must go in to Bardstown. We must go and call at Colonel Hawks’ Diner.”

So we went to this small restaurant, a very nice little restaurant, which was kept by an African-American, Colonel Hawks, who was himself a Catholic and a great friend of the monastery and someone who Merton knew. And Merton knew that as a black man he would be devastated and also very anxious about his two children who were away at college … the whole situation was at that moment in a sense very fragile. And so we went and spent the evening there. It was a very memorable occasion in many ways, particularly because it was the first time that I had really met a black American in any depth. Colonel Hawks kept coming back to us – he was busy organising his restaurant and seeing that his guests were being served – but he kept coming back to us and talking and talking and talking. So that was the third time and, of course, the next time I got a telegram at Pusey House in Oxford in December with this extraordinary thing that Merton had died. But I must say, my quite immediate reaction was, in a very mild and distant way, I suppose, what was evidently the immediate reaction of Jean Leclercq. People were really worried, when Jean Leclercq came back that afternoon, how he would respond to the news because, perhaps, he was the person there [in Bangkok] who knew Merton best. And, as you know, Jean Leclercq simply said, ” Quelle joie !” ” What joy !”

I’ve gone on far too long. I’m sorry.

David Scott: Thank you, Donald, very much indeed for that. We’ll have an opportunity later on to come back with some questions but can I now ask Jim Forest to speak. Just one or two sentences for those of you who don’t know anything about Jim. It’s unlikely, I think. Jim still maintains his work for the peace movement in the Orthodox Church and I’m sure that must have been sparked off by his meetings with Thomas Merton and the whole background of the Catholic Workers Movement.

Jim, it’s lovely to have you here again and would you like now to speak for ten minutes or so on your memories of Thomas Merton.

Jim Forest: I’ve been trying hard for some time to think what to say about Thomas Merton because I’ve said much too much about him and written too much about him and I don’t like hearing myself say the same things over and over again. So I’m not going to tell the story about Merton laughing because of the smell of unwashed feet, for example. I’d rather talk about some of his qualities, as they impressed me. And perhaps attached to those qualities, appropriate stories . . . if I can think of appropriate stories. The qualities I can vouch for, but whether I can think of the stories that bear witness to them or not remains to be seen, because this is an absolutely extemporaneous and unpremeditated talk and it will, I hope, be not longer than ten minutes.

I think that one of the most impressive things to me about Merton was how uncontentious he was. I have been involved in something called the Peace Movement, which is not an aptly named movement. Those of you who have read Bleak House will remember Mrs Jellyby and she is more typical of the kind of person that we often have in our “peace movements.” I have sometimes thought that the way the peace movement has protected the world from World War III is by taking the most dangerous people into the peace movement where they are safely away from weapons and where they can do the least possible harm.

Merton was one of the least contentious persons that I have ever met in my life. The story I will tell is one that I learnt first from Merton. It is simply a story he liked to tell. It is one of the Desert Father stories and it is included in the Wisdom of the Desert, of two fathers who had been living together for twenty years or more, One of the fathers said to the other, “You know, we’ve never had an argument. It’s not too late. Let us see what it is like because men in the world are always arguing.” And so they discussed this and the other one said, “I have no idea how to do it.” The first one said, “It’s very simple. All we need is a brick. I’ll put the brick between us and I will say it’s mine and you will say it’s yours and then we will have an argument.” So the other one reluctantly agreed – agreeable person that he was, he agreed to argue. The first father came with a brick and put it in the middle and said, “This is my brick.” The other one did his very best and said “This is my brick,” – very meekly. The first shouted, “No, it is my brick !” And the other one said, “Well, in that case . . . it’s your brick. ”

I think this is rather the way Merton was. He was the last person in the world to invite somebody outside the bar for a fist-fight. He was not somebody who wanted to shed blood over a disagreement. Within the tradition of Christianity, you can think of him as being in the tradition of Erasmus. The things that we can’t sort out in this life, we will sort out in the next life. Let’s be patient. We don’t have to solve all of our problems here and now. There are various ways of understanding certain aspects of the tradition but what is very clear is we have to love each other. We hear this all the time. But what was very impressive about Merton to me was that this was actually the way he was. I would connect this to a tradition which I didn’t know at the time but which has become very dear to me in the Orthodox Church. If any of you are familiar with the ritual life of Orthodoxy you will know that from time to time, the deacon, or if there is no deacon, the priest, will come out from the Sanctuary and offer incense to all the icons and then, once he’s done that, will do the very same thing to all the people in the church, the reason being that each of us is an icon. We are all made, actually painted by God, written by God. We are icons from the hands of God. This fabulous significance of each person – we don’t very often meet people who communicate so comfortably and so deeply and richly the sense of the significance of the other. I’m very happy to tell you this is something which was normal, absolutely normal, with Merton.

The story that we’ve just heard from Donald about being in the restaurant. It wasn’t as if he was in some kind of terribly self-effacing mood, but just to say, “I come from Nelson County” was enough. And this gift that he had which some people say he developed from the time he lived in England – this somewhat self-effacing quality – he certainly never insisted to anybody that he was particularly important because that would stand in the way of the intimacy of the relationship, whichever kind of relationship it happened to be.

One of the funniest experiences I had at the monastery in some way touches upon this quality. The abbot found me a bit alarming. I had come hitchhiking down from the Catholic Worker in New York City and we didn’t very often see the barber – in fact I don’t know if I ever went to the barber once at the Catholic Worker. I haven’t the faintest idea how my hair got kept in order. It was certainly a sort of intimation of what was to happen with the Beatles some years later. But the abbot had apparently never had a guest whose hair was in such need of immediate attention and the word came down. Merton said to me at some point, “You know, the abbot is a little distressed about your hair. He wonders if you would be willing to have a haircut, otherwise he has to ask you to leave.” “Oh”, I said, “it’s no problem. This is not a relic or anything. I’m perfectly willing to have my hair cut.” So all the novices in this room where the novices changed into their work-clothes gathered round me while the shears were applied to my hair. The monk who was doing this asked, “How much do you want off ?” I looked around at all the monks. They had practically nothing, just a little stubble. I said, “That looks fine.” So I went from one extreme to the other while the monks stood there, just laughing and laughing. The abbot was, I think, a bit shocked at the extreme that I’d gone to. But still there was something about being with Merton that made one feel literally quite detached from just about everything. This was another quality. I would call it the quality of fearlessness. That I think is one of the most important attributes of Merton: that he communicated to so many people what it is like to live a fearless life.

If you read, as I am at the moment, the first of these volumes of his journals that are being published, you might keep it in the back of your mind while you are reading it, how open he is, how unprotective he is about himself, his future, and so on. There is some place where he just says that you have to abandon yourself completely, to love God and love your neighbour. This sense of abandonment. Not to be worried about the future and what will happen. Will you have the house? Will you have this and will you have that? Will people care about you? Will you be important? Etc. etc.

Although he didn’t speak about it very often and perhaps never spoke about it so transparently as in these early journals, this theme that we see picked up very early in the journals is of simply abandoning yourself so that you can live very freely in the Resurrection because there is nothing actually to worry about. There’s nothing we can do to prevent our death. There’s absolutely nothing we can do to prevent a good deal of suffering in our own lives. It’s all going to happen. And so you just say well that’s going to happen. The form it will take remains to be seen. The only thing that actually matters is just simply living in obedience, living in attentiveness to this wonderful creation that’s been given to us and which will carry us along in whatever way is necessary. This sense of the providence of God.

Whenever you meet somebody like that, it’s a life-changing experience. As much as people talk about it, when you encounter the reality of somebody who lives with that kind of absolute confidence in the providence of God, you are never the same again. It’s very freeing.

The last thing I want to point out is a very significant gift that Merton gave me around 1963. In terms of cash value it was worth practically nothing. It was a photograph of an icon. And that gift has continued little by little to reverberate in my life ever since, although I must say it took some years before I paid any attention to it. But I would say the last quality that strikes me, that has to do with this icon, is the sense that Merton had of the unity of the church.

Now we can all see how deeply divided the church is, how mercilessly divided it has been by events in history. It’s quite amazing when you encounter somebody who was so deeply nurtured by what is at the root of Christianity, the traditions of spiritual life of which the icon is one example. It’s a very important one for him. That love of the stories of the early church, the spiritual practices of the early church, his readiness to receive from any part of the church, from Orthodox, from Baptist, from Episcopalians, Anglicans and so forth and so forth, and then we go outside Christianity to all the different traditions of spiritual life that he found so amazing, so interesting, so helpful, so important, this deep underlying sense of the connectedness, the oneness that stands beneath divisions. And it was never a denial of division but that the way to deal with this division was to go more deeply. That some events of a healing nature occur because we go more deeply. And it’s not to heal the divisions that we go there but simply because we are in a process of coming closer to God.

I’m trying to think of moments with Merton where one could see something of this. It may not seem immediately relevant but I recall sitting on the porch of his hermitage with a Polish visitor to the monastery who had come with me from the Catholic Worker – he had arrived a few days later – an artist who had had some difficulty in his relationship with the Catholic church and was asking Merton to explain the Mass. And I have never heard anybody explain the Mass the way Merton did that day. He explained it as a dance, which I would only understand much later in my life really. It would just continue to sit in the back of my mind some place. Because I frankly didn’t see the dance element very often in the Masses that I was attending, and less and less, one might say, as the years passed. But none the less gradually it became clear to me that it should be and sometimes is a dance. And how remarkable it was that he could see that and that it would occur to him at that moment to explain worship in terms of that graceful movement, the ancient ritual motions that we engage in if we are lucky.

It’s a very original way, it may seem, of explaining liturgical life but actually it’s simply a return. Merton who was seen by so many as a radical turns out to be one of the great conservatives of the twentieth century, bringing back to us so many forgotten bits and pieces of the church that we simply forgot were there, just crumpled up in some sack in the attic somewhere, thrown into a sea-chest, that he would lovingly recover and present to us as news, which it was.

David Scott: Thank you very much indeed. John, John Wu from Taiwan. Rather cold yesterday and he came without a coat, but warming up. There are two things about John. The first is that he spent his honeymoon at Gethsemani – and that must be a rare occurence. The second was that it was through his father’s connection with Thomas Merton in that wonderful work, the poems and writings of Chuang Tzu, that the relationship began. Obviously [to John Wu] in a way you bring your father with you, don’t you, when you talk. So it’s very good to have you, not only for stepping in at the last moment but also for yourself. Over to you, John, for ten minutes of your memories …

John Wu: As David has said, I met Merton because of my father. That’s true. In the sixties I wasn’t particularly interested in Merton’s spiritual writings. I was more or less involved in some social protests – first in civil rights and then in the anti-war movement. The first writings that I read were of course the Seven Storey Mountain, but that was quickly forgotten. Later I began to read some of the writings on his social involvement, especially the writings in the Catholic Worker, which still costs one cent. I am sure if you have read the wonderful letters from Merton to Jim Forest you will understand very, very well … it’s almost like a capsule of the history of the peace movement in the sixties. Wonderful letters. But when I say wonderful letters, I don’t mean that they were untroubled letters. They pointed out some of the really interesting and painful conflicts that people who were involved in the peace movement felt. And Merton felt it. Merton had this great compassion to understand what individuals in the peace movement were feeling.

But let me just talk a little about our trip to Gethsemani. Again I was really not very much prepared to meet Merton. I had started writing to him, really very silly puerile letters which I have read again … and they are, they are very painful to read. They are collected at Bellarmine and I suggest you never look up those letters! But he wrote very beautiful letters to me and always very, very encouraging. I myself was going through problems especially academic problems and other problems. He gave good advice to me often. He had started writing to my father in the early sixties, I think it was March of 1961. The correspondence consisted of over eighty letters between them and they were very beautiful letters, very spiritual. Merton was really interesting when he was writing to Jim Forest, of course. You could see all the topical things and so on but to my father he wasn’t. He knew that my father wasn’t really so much involved in such things. He wrote on a plane. He seemed to write to each person on the plane that the person could be receptive. And this is, I think extremely important. Even when you read, and someone mentioned this at the last conference, reading some letters to teenagers in California, Merton was a teenager, he became a teenager when he was writing those letters. It’s a kind of compassion I think and now that I’m in my fifties I try to do that too. When I write to teenagers, I try to be a teenager too. Not in a condescending way. Really in a joyous way too, reliving those years. When I write to my children I try to do that too.

I think that as the years go by, my wife and I … she was a bride at that time, we just saw him for a couple of days. We saw him one afternoon from noon until the next day. Merton took us to some place in the forest and we camped overnight. I don’t remember him setting up the camp for us so we were really on our own. We also spent some time in the hermitage which was a wonderful experience. And the hermitage really was a mess at that time. This was in June of ’68 and by that time he was reading just about everything and people were simply sending him things. He had so many friends, publishing friends especially. But not only publishing friends. Just friends from everywhere. And they sent him many, many things and I remember seeing some books . . . I had just finished college at the time so I had read some of the books that he was reading too, which indicates something about him. He was really up to date on everything. He was reading people that I was interested in. For example, Herbert Marcuse. He was interested in Hannah Arendt. I remember I was reading her monumental work on totalitarianism. He was really very deeply interested and of course he wrote about that too.

He wrote about things at the time which many people would be shocked to find out that he’d been writing about. Marcuse was very interesting. I was reading Marcuse and I wasn’t particularly struck by his political thinking. He was a Neo-Marxist and a kind of a darling of the students in the mid-sixties. I was very happy when I took up One Dimensional Man and I was leafing through it and then Merton said, “Oh, you’re interested in Marcuse.” And I said, ” Well, yes. I’m very interested in him.” And he said, “Isn’t he wonderful when he writes about language ?” You wouldn’t really expect that because Marcuse was really, as I said, a Neo-Marxist. What would a Neo-Marxist be writing about language for ? And I said, “Yes!” Because that’s exactly what struck me when I was in college, reading the book. Marcuse did a wonderful critique on language, you see, trying to save language as a poet would try to save language. This is the thing that struck me. I was happy for that. You know when you are in college you don’t really have much self-confidence in things until perhaps an older person or someone whom you really respect, tells you that these things are important. That’s not the only book. There were other things too that we seem to have shared. What has been important for me through the years, in reading Thomas Merton, is really each time that I read, even the journals, the journal Jim mentioned, Run to The Mountain, what struck me in reading through that particular journal was really the ideas at such an early age … he was 24, 25, 26, … the themes that he wrote about as a young man, simply stuck with him and in time they simply flowered. He had great insight even as a young man.

At lunchtime I was speaking to Erlinda Paguio, who will be giving a paper tomorrow in our session. I was talking to her about what Merton had said to me about China. And he simply said it in passing. He said to me – this is back in 1968 – , “Well, every Chinese has been affected by the Revolution.” That’s a simple enough statement and at the time I didn’t really think anything of it. I was living the good life in America. In that sense I was affected too and I didn’t think about it. I didn’t think about how affected I really was until I visited Beijing about a month and a half ago. And those words, Merton’s words, came back to haunt me when I was in Beijing and thinking about the history of the revolution. What struck me was that, as I was talking to the people in Beijing – I had a very interesting time there, I was talking with taxi-drivers and workers and so on -, what struck me was that I began to feel a certain deep empathy with the Chinese there, on the mainland, that probably would not have been possible if I had not gone to Beijing. And Merton’s words came in to my mind at that time. I said, “Yes, indeed, I have been affected by the Revolution and I will continue to be affected by the Revolution, the more I become involved with the Chinese”. And also I think, for the first time in Beijing, (although I am ethnically Chinese, I was raised in America), I really felt that I was Chinese for good or for worse. I was Chinese and that in some way I was more deeply involved in what has happened to the Chinese than I thought before. And that was kind of interesting.

There are many, many things that I would like to say but I think that I have said enough. Thank you.

David Scott: We’re doing very well on time so there will be opportunities to come back to our speakers with any questions you might have a bit later on. Our final speaker in this panel of friends of Merton is Tommie O’Callaghan. One of the great joys of this conference is meeting the people whose names one has known as names but not as people. And so it’s super to see you, Tommie, because there really is a Tommie O’Callaghan for us English people. You’re not just a photograph in a book or someone who had picnics with Thomas Merton. Alas, I suppose the great thing that one knows about you from the books are those amazing picnics and here is a little plug for a very, very rare edition of Thomas Merton.

This is the official Thomas Merton Cookbook. There are three editions. One is Esther de Waal’s, one is mine and one is Jim Forest’s. It’s a work in progress so if you know anything about Merton’s food just let me know and we’ll add a few pages on.

Jim Forest: We’ll have to make one for Tommie …

David Scott: We will. Because, Tommie, you’re in it under the heading “How to Make a Picnic”, if I can find it here – I’m sure you all know it:-

“Recipe for a Good Picnic: Call Tommie O’Callaghan in Louisville and take it from there. Special dietary requirements are crackers without milk, like saltines – and you must tell me more about them – chicken is no problem. Letters passim and for a full list of picnic contents, see The Hermitage Years, page 109, that’s the English version.”

Tommie, I’m sure there’s so much more than that. And particularly there’s his contact with your family and the way family life comes across in the memories, in the books. And that for us has been very important – to think that a family is something that mattered to Merton as much as everything else. So over to you now for your memories. It’s lovely to have you …

Tommie O’Callaghan: Thank you. Well, it’s lovely to be here. I think that one of the most interesting parts of this whole business of knowing Merton has been the travels to the different meetings, and meeting so many wonderful people who are so absolutely fascinated and interested in the whole Tom Merton – not as “saint”, not as a relic man, nor as a guru, but as a real person … and he certainly was. And he was in our life.

I first met Merton in the early fifties through some friends who had a cousin out at Gethsemani and it was a fleeting “Hullo and how are you ?” I had gone to school in Bardstown, to a boarding school, had finished in ’49, the year after Seven Storey Mountain came out. Our senior trip incorporated a trip to Gethsemani and at that time I thought ” Oh, gee, that holy monk is out there in those fields somewhere.” And that was that.

After college I left and went to Manhattanville Sacred Heart in New York where I met Dan Walshe who was my philosophy professor. Of course I immediately told him that I was from Kentucky and he said he knew it well. We kept in touch over the years. Dan became ill in the late fifties and came to Louisville to recover, teach at the monastery at the request of Dom Fox and teach at Bellarmine College. Dan was a very holy man. He was not a religious and he spent weekends in our home because he was not one that wanted to stay at the monastery seven days a week. And Dan was very generous with his friends’ time, believe me I know, and he told me one time that Tom wanted me to do something, wanted me to take some letters over to Bellarmine. And this started a communication between Merton and me and my family that continued until the time of Tom’s death.

How Dan brought Tom into my life, into our life, I’m not quite sure. But he arrived there to the tune of a telephone call in the morning saying “I’m at the doctor’s, will you pick me up ? I need to go here. I need to go there.” And I became a sort of a chauffeur. But I also had six children at the time so I was skilled in this sort of work. And we enjoyed Merton. I liked him. He was very easy to be with. He was not at all pompous. He was not any great writer. He was just a good friend and a very easy, fun person to have around. As time went on, we became closer in that my children loved picnics, he loved children and he would call and say ” Do you want to bring everybody out for a picnic this Friday or Saturday or Sunday or whatever . . .” And we got into the habit of going to the monastery for picnics. We did a lot of June picnics at the monastery because we have a daughter whose birthday is in May and Colleen always wanted to have her birthday party out at the monastery so June became the better date rather than May to go out there. So at least every June we were there for a picnic. And there were many others. Listening to me, you’d think that he was never within the hermitage, that he was never really under the rule of silence. So understand when I say these things, that he was. But he occasionally took breaks and the breaks happened often to be with the O’Callaghan family and he thoroughly enjoyed the children but I don’t think he wanted to keep them there.

We were friends through the era that he was getting the hermitage, not getting the hermitage, going around and around with Dom James, cussing Dom James up one side and loving him down the other. And I must explain this. Dom James was his excuse. If he wanted to do something, he probably did it. But if someone wrote and said would you come and do this, he could always say no, you know my abbot will not let me travel. So Dom James was the father figure for Merton and we all have used parental figures in our lives as excuses. And that’s exactly how I feel their relationship was. They were very close. They certainly had their disagreements. But, you know, he was Dom James’ confessor. I mean that is the closeness that was there. And I know in one of the letters that Berrigan wrote him after Dom James had left office and Father Flavian had come in, Dan Berrigan, who was teaching at Le Moyne in Syracuse at the time, wrote and said that now that you have a new abbot who is more lenient you can come to Le Moyne and teach a class. And Tom had to face the fact and write to say that, “Thank you, but really I can’t leave. I didn’t join the monastery to leave”. And he did. He had used Dom James as the excuse. You know how you used to complain about your parents, letting you do this and not letting you do that. That is the relationship Merton had with Dom James. I think Dom James was perfect for Merton. I’m not trying to eradicate another thought that you might have but I just feel like I always have to say that.

Father John Loftus who was Dean of Bellarmine College in the early sixties was very instrumental in starting up the Bellarmine Merton Centre. Dom James and Father John Loftus were close friends but Father John Loftus and Thomas Merton were very, very close. Dan Walsh continued to be a part of this. Dan was still teaching at the monastery. He was teaching at Bellarmine and he was also teaching with the Passionists. So Dan continued to live in Louisville until his death. His death was after Tom’s. I met Jim Forest in ’69 just after Tom had died and I was very curious about this job of mine as a trustee. I knew that there were going to be a lot of “do’s” and “don’ts” on this trustee business and many things could not be printed, published or what have you without the trustees’ permission, which I didn’t begin to understand. But I was out at the monastery at a trustee meeting – James Laughlin, Naomi Burton and myself – and “his honour” was there. He said something about he was going to do this and he was going to do that and I said ” Well, you know you have to get permission from the Trustees.” And Jim said, “Well, I’ve never got permission for anything in my life and I’m certainly not going to start now with Merton stuff.” And I thought, “Oh, boy, here we go !” I knew what I was in for.

When Tom asked me to be a trustee it was certainly not because of my literary knowledge or abilities, but he needed someone from Kentucky who was going to be able to be involved with both the monastery and Bellarmine College and who was a native or a person living in that area. When he asked me if I would do this, James Laughlin of New Directions would be one, Naomi Burton Stone would be the second – both of course very much involved in the publishing, editing and literary business – and I would be the third one. And I said yes I would do it. I would not promise that I was going to read all those things that he wrote. I would keep a shrine in the living room with two candles and a picture and teach all the children to genuflect. And was there anything else I was supposed to do ? He said no; that was fine, that was fine. We had a good relationship. I never expected to have to go to work as a trustee so quickly.

We kept all of the letters, all of the files, at our home for about two years after Tom’s death. Brother Pat sent them in with me. At that time I did count … there were 1820 files of correspondence. They’ve gone up now because Bob [Daggy] has gotten more in. But that was how many files we had of letters to or from Merton. Frank and I think he must have worked all day and night on his readings, his letters and the writings. He was absolutely a phenomenal man. A delightful person, would love being here with us, probably is, and I thank you all very much …

David Scott: Thank you, Tommie, very much indeed. I expect that’s whetted our appetites to ask any questions and add any comment. I think now’s the time to break it open.

Jim Forest: Could I just tell one story about Dom James? I want just to add to what Tommie said about Dom James because you might be left with a wrong impression from my story about my haircut, to think that I was annoyed with the abbot. I wasn’t. I found it all part of the adventure of being there. It was just something that happened as part of the special weather. It didn’t bother me at all. But after I had the haircut, I received an invitation from Dom James to come and to visit with him. Merton told me how to find the abbot’s office. I was a little alarmed – I was always a little nervous about people in authority, but of course I went. I cannot remember any more what we talked about but I remember a pile of Wall Street Journals on his desk which wasn’t a publication I read regularly. I think he was a graduate of the Harvard Business School and I think he’d succeeded in making the abbey solvent which was a rather significant achievement. I don’t know very much about those things and I don’t remember any more of what we talked about. But the one thing I remembered vividly, it was quite a wonderful experience to be with him. The strong fatherly quality that he had as abbot, which is all that the word means, was very apparent. And at the end of our time together, he asked if I would like a blessing. Of course I said, “Yes. ” I knelt down on the floor in front of him and he put his hands on my head. And I have never had anybody leave their fingerprints in my brain ! It was really something ! This was not an inconsiderable experience. It shows you how strong the bone is around the brain. It was a very powerful blessing and it continues to reverberate inside of my little head.

David Scott: Good. Are there any questions which anyone would like to ask and I’m sure the panel will be very pleased to try and answer them.

Question: Could I ask if the new journals that are being published, are they quite new or are they putting together old journals, some of which have already been published ?

Tommie O’Callaghan: Merton never wrote anything just once. Remember that. Like many authors. But he kept an absolute daily diary and actually what you are seeing in the journals are his daily diaries. Run to the Mountain, which was the first one was edited by Brother Pat[rick Hart]. Now I do know that there are some parts of that which were found later … found, in fact, within the last six months, up at St Bonaventure’s and I think the paperback edition is going to have to try to have those in there. I just heard about it the other day, that there were, not many, but several pages that were found later. He wrote many pamphlets and books from journal notes so, yes, you are going to see, by reading the journals all the way through, you are going to see duplications, if you’re a big Merton reader, of some other things.

Jim Forest: But there’s a lot that I’ve never seen before. Lots.

John Wu: I think your question is whether the journals are a rehashing. They are not. At least not Run to the Mountain.

Tommie O’Callaghan: You know, Merton was not as allergic to things as he said he was. He would tell me never to bring cheese and you know you were talking about those soda crackers. I took Brie. I took anything. And he ate it. He was not nearly as allergic a person as he would have liked to have been … maybe a little bit of a hypochondriac.

John Wu: He was not allergic to beer at all.

Tommie O’Callaghan: Nor rum.

John Wu: Nor, I think, vodka. I remember there was a Brother Maurice who used to take water down to Merton, he bought in a bottle of vodka or gin when we were at the hermitage. I was shocked. I thought that monks were not supposed to drink at all. It was your fault, Tommie. You never told us that he was doing all these things and we had this terrible image of him as a …

Tommie O’Callaghan: You know, Donald, when you say that he didn’t want anybody to know who he was – the man from Nelson County story – I had an occasion. I had taken my sister . . . I was very careful about going out and taking people to meet Merton or even discuss him. I felt that our friendship was not something built on his literary works, it was simply a friendship and that was that. But my sister was in town and he had said bring her out to the hermitage and I did. When we got there he said, “Listen. There’s this jazz band playing down on Washington Street and I’d like to go”. And I said “Tonight ?” And he said “Yes.” Well, my husband, Frank, who seems to disappear out of the country when anything big is going on, was in South America, I guess, so Megan and I drove Tom in (I had seven children at that point) and I fed them dinner. Tom helped Kathy with her homework and I gathered some mutual friends, Ron and Sally Seitz, Pat and Ben Cunnington, Megan, myself, my brother and his wife, and we all went down to Washington Street to this jazz band.

There was a bass fiddler there who Tom just thought was great and he insisted we bring him over and buy him drinks, and guess who’s buying the drinks? And Tom is just taken with this guy who’s from Boston and he’s saying to him, “I’m a monk.” “I’m a Trappist monk.” and [the bass player] he’s saying, “Well, I’m a brother too.” And Tom said ” I live out at the monastery.” and he said, “Oh, we have a church up in Boston”. And it goes on like, “Can you top this ?” and so Tom says, “I am a priest,” and this guy says, “Brother, I’m a preacher.” They’re hitting it right off and the man is, in the black vernacular, a great jazz musician, just great. And then Tom says, “I’m Thomas Merton.” And this guy says, “Well, I’m Joe Jones !” And I mean Tom could get absolutely nowhere and I loved it, I just loved it. I called my brother to take him back that night because I really did have to get home to the seven children and get them up for school the next day. As I’m getting ready to leave, Tom stops me and says “Wait a minute. Waitress, give her the bill !”

Question: You’ve spoken of a man of enormous freedom of spirit. But the other side of that was that he had an extraordinarily disciplined personal spirituality. I wonder from your personal knowledge of him whether any of you can say a bit more about that. The way you saw that very different and secret kind of side to his life, his personal discipline and spirituality.

Jim Forest: I remember one of the conversations I had the first time I was at the monastery was with a priest who was the guest master, Father Francis. And Father Francis asked me, “How does Father Louis write all those books ?” Of course I hadn’t the faintest idea. What was interesting to me was that he didn’t know. He was a member of the community and he could see that Merton was living a fairly normal monastic life, that he was celebrating mass every day, that he was participating in the offices that were being sung by the choir monks, that he was somebody living a normal monastic life from the point of view of a brother monk. And if you read the essays in the book, Thomas Merton, Monk, for example, you see one monk after another recalling what it was like to live in community with Merton. And you can understand that they were all probably quite bewildered in much the way that Father Francis was by his ability to write many books in a relatively short period of time.

I saw him writing once, and this may seem irrelevant to your question, but I hope it will prove relevant. I had brought down a letter from somebody at the Catholic Worker who was rather critical of the monastic vocation and was challenging Merton to come to live at the Catholic Worker Community in New York. I was reluctantly delivering this letter because I had said I would do so. I didn’t agree with its point of view at all. And Merton said “The abbot probably won’t agree to me receiving or answering this letter, so I’ll write the answer now and you can take it back with you.” I regret to this day that I didn’t keep a copy of it but I am very happy that I saw him write the letter, because I have never in my life — and I am a writer, I’m a journalist, I’ve worked with writing people on close terms for most of my adult life — I’ve never seen anybody write with the speed of Merton. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that it was as if the paper caught fire passing through the big mechanical typewriter that was sitting on the desk in the room adjacent to the room where he gave his lectures to the novices. It just flew through the typewriter being covered at high speed with letters from the alphabet as it passed and sort of dented the ceiling. An unbelievably quick mind and the ability to organise his thoughts and to express them verbally at a speed which I have never seen anybody come close to. This meant that in periods when most of us are getting around to the salutation, he has finished the letter.

When you talk about these 1820 files of correspondence and so forth, you can only appreciate his ability to carry on these kind of relationships with people — and this is only the letters, this isn’t the books, and a lot of Merton stuff you’d be surprised to know is unpublished, not just the tapes but a good deal of written material is unpublished — the output was just phenomenal — I think actually that it was impossible, had it not been for the monastic life, the disciplined life he was leading. The productivity that he was capable of probably would not have been achieved if he had gone on to simply live as a layperson. We joke about Thomas Merton’s bottles of this, that and the other thing, champagne, gin and vodka, many bottles of beer and so on. I personally think he would have become an alcoholic and would have died at an early age if he hadn’t become a monk. He needed to be in a situation where there were people who could help him to channel his many good qualities and protect him from his self-destructiveness. He needed to be in a situation where there was a very high degree of discipline, spiritual discipline and a structured life. He needed that as a matter of life and death. And as a result of it, his ability to realise his gifts was saved and purified. And the bits of time that he had available per day to use for his work, his correspondence and his writing of various essays and books came in the spaces that were created by this discipline. This is a short answer because one could also talk about what you learn from him as a spiritual father and what he encourages you to do and so forth and so forth, which reflects his values…

Donald Allchin: I just want to say that from the little I’ve seen and also from simply working a little bit in the archives with some of the unpublished material at Bellarmine, I just back up 100% what Jim has said. He was a man of extraordinary inner discipline and he must have been a man of extraordinary intellectual discipline. In those last seven or eight years, he had so many different ideas that, as I have said, it was a kind of non-disintegrating explosion which was going on, so many ideas at work, writing to so many people and in every case he is actually being the person he is writing to. So he has a fantastic capacity which of course other great writers have too, to be many people at once, and yet at the same time at the middle of it there is an extraordinary principle of unity and integration. And the spiritual discipline I think was very hidden which is I think the sign of just how true it was because I think that it is one of the signs of real spiritual discipline that it should be hidden. I remember, because it was in a way so not typical, the first time I was there, and we went up to the hermitage, this was before he was living in the hermitage, there must have been a fridge, because we had iced water, he made the sign of the cross over the water. I don’t ever remember him doing that on another occasion but just for a moment you saw this deeply traditional monastic person, before we drank. And that’s all part of what Tommie was talking about. That’s the person. And what you were saying, Jim, that’s absolutely true as well. That was the wholeness of the man.

John Wu: And getting to the point of things. Understanding what was authentic and what was not. Separating the kernel from the shell. I think that’s very, very important. Certainly in his writings, you can turn to any page in his writings and point your finger to it and it’s relevant somehow. It’s not a waste of words at all. And I think that’s great discipline, great training and it starts early.

Question: This is a follow up on this. Were there particular exercises, for example, that he used either in the early days of his monasticism in the forties or after he established the hermitage to retire from the community, fasts – Lenten fasts or fasts at other times of the year – when it’s known that he subjected himself to particular austerities.

Donald Allchin: I would have guessed he was very simple in following the rule. When he went to Gethsemani, the Trappist rule was very austere physically. I was enormously struck the first time I was there in August 1963 by the fact that in those days there was absolutely no air-conditioning in the church. The church was extremely hot and the monks were still wearing very heavy habits. That changed. On that outward austerity of the life, Merton said to me, ” I think that one of the tragedies of our life twenty or thirty years ago, ” and he was speaking in the mid-sixties, ” We were living a very genuine monastic life and many people came who had a real call to the monastic life but they didn’t have a call for living in the 13th Century !” Which was his way of saying there was a proper kind of adaptation. He wasn’t sure whether they were doing it very well but there was an adaptation which they needed to make.

The most revealing letters on the subject of his personal life of prayer in the Hermitage are the letters to Abdul Aziz, the Pakistani Moslem writer who in a very Pakistani/Indian way kept asking him , “I want to know exactly what you do, I want to know exactly what you do.” And Merton didn’t want to tell him but he went on asking, so eventually he does tell him. It’s very simple. Just a basic kind of …

Jim Forest: Let me add a little bit to that. One of the problems with the letters to Abdul Aziz is that it is a perfect example of this gift Merton had of writing to people from almost within their own skin. Here he is writing to somebody who is in a tradition which radically rejects the Trinity, the Holy Trinity, which for Merton is absolutely at the centre of spiritual life. And it’s a remarkable letter in terms of trying to explain the Holy Trinity to a Moslem and at the same time to reveal …. he has to do that because he’s been asked to explain his spiritual life and to do so without reference to the Trinity is inconceivable. It would be so profoundly deceitful as to be a lie. So you see in the context of that letter what he is doing.

But it’s not all there and one of the irritating things, I think, for many people is that in this flood of books that Merton produced, the most intimate aspects of his spiritual life are more or less hidden. You have to read between the lines. And you have to know something about the rhythm of monastic life, the discipline of monastic life, the fundamental features of monastic spirituality and take that for granted. Because for all of the writing that he did, he is not revealing all this – what he takes for granted. To that you would probably find it interesting to add his discovery in the late fifties, by the time that he and the O’Callaghans were starting to have their picnics, he became very interested in the Hesychasts. I think Donald was one of the people who at a certain point became involved in that area of exploration in his life.

Now who are the Hesychasts? This is a spiritual tradition, basically, of Mount Athos, the Holy Mountain, the monastic tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy. It comes from a Greek word having to do with silence, inner stillness, and it’s associated with the Jesus Prayer. One of the things which I wish I had time to do would be to explore very carefully with a fine toothcomb Merton’s lectures, his letters, a lot of the unpublished material which was written strictly for monastic use. It wasn’t even written in a finished prose form. A lot of it was more in the form of notes, outlines and scattered reflections. I would love to see what is there on the Jesus Prayer because I know that in the last ten or twelve years of Merton’s life, the Jesus Prayer which is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” became a very important part of his spiritual practice. There’s not time here to talk about it but it’s good to be aware of it.

Donald Allchin: I’d just like to add one thing to that. In the Archive at Bellarmine there is a copy of the book which I am sure many people here know called The Art of Prayer, which is a prayer anthology from the Russian monastery of Valamo in Finland which was edited by Bishop Kallistos, Timothy Ware, and I think published about 1966 or 1967. In other words it is a book which Merton received about a year or two before his death. It’s quite clear from looking at the way the book is and the way the underlinings are, that he was not using it as a study book, he was using it as a prayer book, as a meditation book. It is very striking, it is the passages from Simeon the New Theologian, it is the passages about the use of the Jesus Prayer which are underlined and emphasised. There are lots about how extremely important in the last years of his life, that Eastern tradition of the Jesus Prayer was.

David Scott: We’ve probably got time for one more area of thought and questioning. If there is anyone … Tommie would like to say something, anyway.

Tommie O’Callaghan: You might be interested. We have started in Louisville a Thomas Merton Centre Foundation. It’s lay people and monks. It’s in coordination with the monastery and Bellarmine College and the idea is to support Bob Daggy’s Merton Centre. This spring, Fernando Beltrán gave a lecture and Margy Betz was there too with scholars that came in for a scholastic retreat, which was not open to the public. In planning our program for next year, I asked Father Timothy if he would consider a round table of those monks who knew Merton. Now we’re going away from what we’ve tried to do, the intellectual or the literary Merton. We are going to have a round table, such as this, of people like Dom Flavian, Father Timothy, John Eudes [Bamberger], the monks that were there with Merton either in his novitiate, who worked with him or were taught by him. This has never been done and I was amazed that Father Timothy said he would do it. But I explained to him that we weren’t trying to bring Merton down as a relic again, but there were people who were really interested in what he was like in that monastery – what was it like living with him ? Was he a pain or you know ? So we are going to have that, sometime in September in 1997 in Louisville, and I invite any and all of you that are free to keep in touch and we’ll let you know when. But I’m excited about the prospect of that.

David Scott: Thank you. I’m very grateful for the four participants here to have set us off with their memories. Time past and time future are both contained in time present. I guess we need the past and we’ve got the present and I hope that in the course of the next couple of days that we shall take those memories and use them for some ideas and thoughts for our own development, for our thoughts about the world in which we live so that Merton can help us reach out . . . and I’m sure you’d like to thank with me the four who’ve been with us just now to do that . . .

* * *

“Dona Nobis Pacem” – Grant Us Peace

a talk by Jim Forest to be given on 24 May 2008 in Schoorl to the Iona Group, Netherlands

We use the word “peace” a great deal. Often the context is war. We live in Europe, a region that has endured more wars than anyone can count. Few Europeans have romantic ideas about war. Many of us have been part of endeavors initiated by various peace groups to either prevent war or hasten its end. Wars cause suffering, death and destruction on a huge scale. What kind of people would we be if we made no effort to encourage nonviolent ways of dealing with conflict between nations?

But peace work is not only about war and relations between nations. Peace is a way of life — not that we are always the peaceful people we wish to be, but that we choose peace as a basic direction in which we are attempting to move.

Peacemaking is in fact something quite ordinary. It has to do with daily life. Most of us are doing peace work without even thinking of it as peace work. In the context of daily life, the word “peace” sounds too grand, too ambitious.

But all of us are making frequent efforts to help peace happen — in our families, in our work places, in our neighborhoods, in the wider world. Anything we do that draws us closer to each other, that inspires forgiveness, or that brings about real dialogue is work for peace.

Peace is something we do all the time. A neighbor is sick and we shop for her. A tourist is trying to find his way and we stop and help. There is some trash on the street and we pick it up and put it in a garbage container. We turn off lights not being used and use less water rather than more and try not to waste anything. All these little things, hardly worth mentioning. But anything we do that brings us a little closer to each other is peace work — work that contributes, even if in very tiny ways, to the healing of the world.

Peace work is healing work. In fact, this is one way of defining peace. Peace work is what we do to repair damaged relationships — healing between ourselves and God, healing between one person and another, healing between divided communities and nations. Those who work for peace are in fact working for healing.

No doubt some of you are involved in work that has a healing dimension — health care, care of the aged, care of people with special needs, or helping people struggling with stress or depression.

Peacemaking is an ordinary part of family life — the daily struggle to bring husband and wife, parents and children, a little closer together, efforts to heal irritations and resentments. Domestic peacemaking is often very hard work and sometimes quite discouraging!

Perhaps it helps to recall that the peaceful results we seek are not entirely in our hands. The phrase “dona nobis pacem” — grant us peace — suggests that in fact we ourselves cannot make peace. It is something not made but given. The words “dona nobis pacem” are a short, urgent prayer.

This simple prayer serves to remind us that peacemaking requires a spiritual life, a life rooted in God’s Spirit. A spiritual life means to be living in the Spirit — God’s Holy Spirit.

It’s striking that people widely recognized as great peacemakers are almost always people with very deep religious roots — such people as Martin Luther King and Gandhi. The wisdom and inspiration they needed to give shape to their lives and work had much to do not only with ideas and theories, but, more importantly, with a profound faith that God, the giver of peace, is constantly ready to help us, yet will force nothing upon us. What God gives to us requires our cooperation and assent. We have to say and live our own “Yes” to God.

Somehow all of us here today find ourselves connected to Iona, an island in the Inner Hebrides that’s so small one can walk around its edge, even the hard parts, in a single day. A map has to have a great deal of detail for Iona even to be seen on it. Yet beginning in the sixth century, tiny Iona became of place of great importance in the history of Europe. A large part of the christianization of Europe was the achievement of the monks of Iona and their many daughter communities.

For centuries Iona was one of most important centers of evangelization and peacemaking. These two threads were, for them, one single cord.

St Columba and the twelve monks who traveled from Ireland in the year 563 made Iona their adopted home and then the base from which they reached out to others, traveling greater and greater distances as the years and then the generations passed. The Celtic monks traveled throughout the British Isles, to Scandinavia, to Holland, to Germany and France, to Italy, to eastern Europe and even to Russia. I happened to be the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Novgorod, a church a thousand years old, when archaeologists found an ancient Celtic standing cross under the floor of the church. It was through courage and holiness of those Celtic monks that countless people — many of them warriors and pirates who killed for treasure and adventure — decided to become Christians

Many stories about how the roles they played in preventing wars or ending them have come down to us. What they did is summed up in the legend of St Columba’s encounter with a great sea monster.

With several other monks, Columba was sailing in one of those lightweight little coracles used by the Celts when a dragon-like creature raised its head out of the sea, blocking their way. Columba’s response was to face to creature and make the sign of the cross. The sea dragon then peacefully submerged itself and the monks sailed on. Here is the way Adomnan describes it in his biography of Colima.

“[Columba] raised his holy hand, while all the rest, brethren as well as strangers, were stupefied with terror, and, invoking the name of God, formed the saving sign of the cross in the air, and commanded the ferocious monster, saying, ‘Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man; go back with all speed.’ Then at the voice of the saint, the monster was terrified, and fled more quickly than if it had been pulled back with ropes, though it had just got so near to [their brother monk] Lugne, as he swam, that there was not more than the length of a spear-staff between the man and the beast. Then the brethren seeing that the monster had gone back, and that their comrade Lugne returned to them in the boat safe and sound, were struck with admiration, and gave glory to God in the blessed man. And even the barbarous heathens, who were present, were forced by the greatness of this miracle, which they had seen, to magnify the God of the Christians.”

Of course it’s possible there actually was such an encounter — in Scotland, people are still on the lookout for the Loch Ness Monster, affectionately known as Nessie. Perhaps Nessie is down in the depths somewhere, occasionally raising her shy head above water but, thanks to her meeting with St Columba, no longer terrifying anyone.

But what is more likely is that the real “monster” Columba and his monks faced time and again was, on the one hand, their own fear, and on the other hand, the many actual dangers they had to face in meeting people who might kill them. The pacifying of the sea monster sums up in a simple, vivid image the pacifying both of ourselves and our potential adversaries. It also reminds us that our goal isn’t conquest or victory — the dragon isn’t killed or harmed — but conversion, the conversion of the adversary, the conversion of ourselves.

What the monks of Iona and their monastiuc descendents achieved would have been impossible without their faith. It was not the mild faith that we are used to in modern times, in which Jesus is seen as a rabbi who survived death only in the sense that his teachings lived on, but a faith centered in Christ’s actual resurrection, and the astonishing courage the fact of the resurrection gave them.

Courage was necessary, for they were very often risking their lives in standing either before or between adversaries. What they achieved was always linked to their resourceful efforts to spread the Gospel message, a message of God’s love and Christ’s peace, in a world whose cultures glorified war and those who fought in wars.

A question for us is what can we learn from St Columba and all those monks whose extraordinary efforts, near and far, made Iona — that remote pinprick on the map — into the greatest center of pilgrimage in the north of Europe? So many pilgrims came to Iona that it didn’t take long for it to become known as “the Jerusalem of the North.”

One of the realities that we see in Columba and those who lived a similar life is their great love not only for friends and fellow Christians, but even for their enemies. I don’t mean love in the emotional sense, but in its biblical sense. Love is not an emotional condition but how we actually relate to others. It is not a matter of feelings but of doing. Love is what we do to help others live. It is what we do to benefit their souls and bodies.

This is what so many of the stories of Columba and his monks is all about. To be a missionary, Columba understood, was to be someone communicating to others the astonishing fact that God is love, and that those who live in love live in God. To allow God’s love to pass through one’s life is to be in heaven, not in the future but here and now. Those who participate in God’s love are living in what Jesus calls the kingdom of God.

To be a missionary in this sense is more than bringing non-believing people to baptism and setting up a local church. It means being concerned about how those whom we meet are living and what problems they face. No one is just body and no one is just soul. We are all body and soul, and the one cannot be separated from the other. This is why you find Christ so concerned about hunger and illness. You cannot love anyone and not care about his or her well-being, both spiritual and physical. If such actions have the support of our feelings, fine. But what finally matters is what we do, not how sentimental we are.

“The word ‘love’ has been only a form of mouthwash for many Christians,” said George MacLeod, the man who inspired the rebuilding of Iona. “We need to learn to put it into practice.”

Or as Dostoevsky put it in The Brothers Karamazov: “Love in practice is often a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”

One of the most revealing of the stories that come down to us about Columba’s life concerns a sword. It was the custom of people who visited him not only to seek a blessing for themselves, but also for some item of personal property. One day, absent-mindedly, Columba blessed a sword that was put before him, only to realize immediately afterward that this was something that might well be used in battle. Swords, after all, are not for healing. Columba was horrified to realize he had accidentally blessed a deadly weapon. He thought for a moment and then gave the sword a second, more careful blessing, praying that the blade would remain sharp only so long as it was used for cutting bread and cheese, but would acquire a dull edge if ever used to harm any living thing.

This is a very different sort of story than the one about the sea dragon. I have no doubt it’s as true as a weather report. In Columba’s world people had swords and they used them not to decorate the house or for cutting meat in the kitchen but to kill men in battle.

I would love to know more of the story of that particular sword. Did the owners safeguard its use and retain both the sword’s special blessing and its everlasting sharp edge? Or was it stained with blood and its edge made dull? Let’s hope that it remains sharp and unstained by war to the present day.

It is helpful to recall that Columba’s coming to Iona in the first place was an act of penance for having been involved in war. As a penitent monk, he was determined to do all that he could to discourage bloodshed and in its place encourage all who came to him to devote themselves to living a peaceful life, a life of healing, a life that gives witness to Christ’s resurrection.

Columba of Iona and the monks who came after him didn’t succeed in all their goals. While they helped bring about the conversion of Europe, despite their saintly efforts they did not cure all their converts of enmity and war or create a Christianity with deep enough roots to retain unity even among Christians. But we are in their debt for all that they achieved and are free, if we choose, to carry on their work according to our possibilities.

Surely they knew and used the prayer, “Dona nobis pacem.” Let us use it often and from the heart, finding in it an invitation to participate more and more deeply in Christ’s peace so that we too can face dragons and use ours swords only for slicing bread and cheese.

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Jim & Nancy Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands

Forest-Flier web site:
Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site:

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Nancy and I have been keeping a journal that follows our recent kidney transplant. A blog has
been set up for this purpose — A Tale of Two Kidneys. See:
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Personal reflections regarding Dorothy Day

This is the text of the talk I gave on May 1, 2008, at the European Catholic Worker gathering in Dülmen, Germany.Frits ter Kuile, of the Amsterdam Catholic Worker house, asked if I would say something about my memories of Dorothy Day and also what I consider “the special charism of the Catholic Worker movement … its special gift to the world, its place in the Mystical Body.” He also wondered if I could identify any “constant undertones in the movement” or if I observe any “new tones or changes in the melody.” He also asked me, as someone who has been close to the Catholic Worker movement for nearly half-a-century, if I had noticed any shortcomings those who identify with the Catholic Worker might struggle with…

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Some personal reflections regarding Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement

by Jim Forest

A key element of the Catholic Worker movement’s charism has been a quality that Dorothy Day possessed in abundance — a gift to see not only what is wrong in the world, but to see beauty and to discern signs of hope. Dorothy loved a sentence from St. Augustine in which he said, “All beauty is a revelation of God.” She put it in another way to her atheist husband, Foster Batterham, “How can there be no God when there are all these beautiful things?” Read just about anything she wrote and you will see what I’m talking about. She was profoundly attentive to beauty and managed to find it in places where it was often overlooked — in nature, in a piece of bread, in the smell of garlic drifting out a tenement window, in flowers blooming in a slum neighborhood, in the battered faces of people who had been thrown away by society. Dorothy saw news of the resurrection in grass battling upward toward the sky between blocks of concrete. Dorothy often used the phrase “the duty of hope.” If we were to understand that theologically, it would mean always seeing everything in the light of the resurrection. To be conscious of beauty, even damaged beauty, is a hope-giving experience.

The absolute heart of the movement that Dorothy founded is an endeavor to give witness to the Gospel message, with a particular emphasis on the works of mercy, and to make better known basic Christian social teachings. In the first issue of the paper, Dorothy put it in these words: “The Catholic Worker … is printed to call [its readers’] attention to the fact that the Catholic Church has a social program — to let them know that there are men of God who are working not only for their spiritual but for their material welfare.”

From the very beginning, there was a stress on hospitality. It wasn’t long after the first issue of The Catholic Worker was published that the first Catholic Worker house of hospitality was opened, and they quickly multiplied in other cities. In every case, such houses were a practical response to local urgent needs. The stress was always on a non-bureaucratic, non-institutional hospitality. Dorothy saw houses of hospitality as being less than ideal but necessary because so few people were willing to welcome those in need into their own homes. Ideally, both she and Peter Maurin said repeatedly, every Christian home would have its “Christ Room,” a room to welcome someone in need.

Unlike many purely charitable endeavors to help the down-and-out, the Catholic Worker is also well known for acts of social protest. This aspect also dates back to the movement’s early days. Over the years protests have been linked to such issues as the abuse of working people, efforts to prevent workers from organizing unions, homelessness, racism, anti-Semitism, conscription and war. The protest aspect of the Catholic Worker is an outgrowth of commitment to the works of mercy. For example, if we are called by Christ to offer a welcome to the homeless, by implication that means taking appropriate action to try to prevent people from being made homeless, either by poverty or war.

The Catholic Worker movement is moored in the Gospel, the Patristic and Conciliar tradition, the writings of the Church Fathers (as the major theologians of the first millennium are known), the witness of the saints, the Church’s liturgical life, and the fundamental teachings of the Catholic Church.

To the extent these basic elements are missing in a particular community, what Dorothy meant by the Catholic Worker movement is incomplete, damaged or exists in name only. Tom Cornell, a longtime managing editor of The Catholic Worker and one of the people who worked closely with Dorothy during the last twenty years of her life, told me recently that there are Catholic Worker houses today where Dorothy, if she were to speak her mind, wouldn’t feel welcome. This is not because she had any objection to non-Catholics or estranged Catholics, or even altogether non-religious people, being part of Catholic Worker communities. In the case of the New York house, there has been, for example, at least one Lutheran placed by Dorothy on the masthead of The Catholic Worker as an associate editor. But she expected all who came to help in the work to respect the Catholic tradition even if it was not their own.

Each community that identifies itself as being part of the Catholic Worker movement needs from time to time to ask itself: Are we in fact Catholic? Or have we embraced some form of post-Catholic or ex-Catholic thinking and thus owe it to ourselves and others to make this clear in whatever labels we use in describing our activities and beliefs? Perhaps in reality there are not quite so many Catholic Worker houses of hospitality as currently identify themselves as such. How many are actually Catholic in a sense Dorothy would understand, or indeed any ordinary person, I have no idea. Many, no doubt, but not all.

I am speaking to myself as much as to anyone else. In my own case, in fact I am no longer able to apply to myself the word “Catholic” — that is Catholic with a capital “C,” meaning someone in communion with the bishop of Rome. Twenty years ago, my wife and I were received into the Orthodox Church. We belong to a Russian Orthodox parish in Amsterdam. I am catholic, but only in the lower-case “c” sense of the word, that is part of the universal — but sadly divided — church. Nonetheless, I still feel a deep bond with the Catholic Worker movement and, for that matter, with the Catholic Church. I sometimes say I am in the Orthodox wing of the Catholic Worker movement.

As of today, it’s seventy-five years since the first issue of The Catholic Worker was handed out — the first of May, 1933, on Union Square in Manhattan. My father, a Communist who had earlier in his life had aspired to be a Catholic priest, was there on Union Square that day and was one of those who was handed free of charge a copy of this oddly named penny newspaper. It amazed him to meet Catholics with a radical social conscience!

Seventy-five years of the Catholic Worker — that’s a long time for something so haphazard and so minimally structured. During more than a third of these many years, it has happened without Dorothy’s physical presence. She died in 1980.

People used to wonder: Could the Catholic Worker survive without her? Many assumed the answer was no.

The day of Dorothy’s funeral, a journalist asked the question of Peggy Scherer, a member of the New York Catholic Worker community and at that time managing editor of the paper. Peggy responded, “We have lost Dorothy, but we still have the Gospel.”

“We still have the Gospel.” These are words Dorothy would have strongly agreed with. The Catholic Worker movement has never been about Dorothy Day — it is about following Christ. But one could learn a great deal about following Christ by knowing Dorothy Day.

I first met Dorothy in 1960 when, having found a stack of back issues of The Catholic Worker in a parish library in Washington, DC, I began coming to Manhattan to help out when I had free weekends. At the time I was in the military, working with a Navy unit at the US Weather Bureau headquarters just outside Washington, DC. In the spring of 1961, I left the Navy, having obtained a special discharge as a conscientious objector. At Dorothy’s invitation, I became part of the full-time Catholic Worker community.

I was a little intimidated by her at first. She was then not quite as old as I am now but seemed to me at the time older than Abraham and Sarah.

I had read enough by and about her to know that she was the founder of the Catholic Worker movement — the person who started the newspaper and decided what went in it, the person whose cramped apartment became the first Catholic Worker house of hospitality, the person who after all these years still led the Catholic Worker movement. What I only learned gradually was how modest she was, even shy. She never said anything about being founder. In fact she did her best to play down her role. Because of who she was and what she did, she was often in the spotlight, but she never sought it. She would have much preferred that Peter Maurin, whose ideas had helped her discovery her vocation, be regarded as the founder.

Public attention was something Dorothy had to endure but in which she took no delight. Any form of adulation distressed her. She felt that, if those who thought of her as a living saint knew her better, they wouldn’t be so quick to see a halo over her head. Though at the time it wasn’t clear to me what had been left out of her autobiography, I became aware she felt she had misled people by excluding aspects of her past about which she felt deep shame. The most painful event, I eventually learned, was the abortion of her first child when she was in her early twenties.

I recall how upset she was when I asked her if I might read her first book, The Eleventh Virgin. Somehow I had become aware that, before her conversion, she had written such a book. She didn’t have a copy, she told me, regretted that it had ever been written, appealed to me not to mention it again, and asked me not to look for a copy. It wasn’t until years later that a friend who dealt in rare books and was aware of my Catholic Worker background presented me with a copy of The Eleventh Virgin. Only when I read it could I at last understand why Dorothy had responded with such distress when I asked about the book. The end point of this highly autobiographical novel is her abortion, carried out in the desperate hope that the man she was in love with at the time, her unborn child’s unwilling father, would not leave her. He left her even so.

Yet the book she so hated nonetheless played a positive role in her life. “God writes straight with crooked lines,” as the Portuguese put it. When the book’s film rights were sold, Dorothy used some of the income to buy a beach cottage on Staten Island. While living there, part of time with Foster Batterham, she not only became pregnant a second time but this time gave birth. This truly seemed a miracle to her — she thought her abortion had made her sterile. It was the miracle of Tamar’s life that brought Dorothy into the Catholic Church. If you want to make a list of co-founders of the Catholic Worker movement, not only should it include Peter Maurin but also Tamar. While a great many things and people helped prepare Dorothy to launch the Catholic Worker, from her growing up in a family of journalists to the profound debt she owed to Dostoevsky’s novels, had Tamar not been born, I doubt we would ever have heard of Dorothy Day nor would the Catholic Worker movement exist.

It wasn’t only the knowledge that she had been responsible for the death of her first child, but so many other things that made her feel that the Dorothy Day so many people admired wasn’t the Dorothy Day she saw when she examined her conscience, which she did regularly and unflinchingly. She went to confession each week not simply because it was, at that time, a widespread Catholic practice, but because she always found that by the end of the week she had a lot to confess.

Confession was at the core of Dorothy’s life. On the first page of her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, she writes about the hard work it is going to confession, “hard when you have sins to confess, hard when you haven’t … you wrack your brain for even the beginnings of sins against charity, chastity, sins of distraction, sloth or gluttony. You do not want to make too much of your constant imperfections and venial sins, but you want to drag them out to the light of day as the first step in getting rid of them.” Note that sins against charity are at the top of her list.

Confession was, for Dorothy, a means of overcoming the sense that one was fighting a losing battle. She once gave her co-worker Joe Zarrella a holy card on the back of which she had written: “We should not be discouraged at our own lapses … but continue. If we are discouraged, it shows vanity and pride. Trusting too much to ourselves. It takes a lifetime of endurance of patience, of learning through mistakes. We all are on the way.” Rosalie Riegle tells me that Joe carried the card in his wallet until his death two years ago.

No one knew her shortcomings better than Dorothy herself, as becomes clearer than ever in the publication this week of her journals. She was, she knew, often impatient, sometimes manipulative, could be judgmental, and at times (if sufficiently provoked) could lose her temper. Dorothy was painfully aware that there were those who came to live in community with her who looked back on the experience with more regret than gratitude, nor could she blame them. She also felt that, due to the demands of leading the Catholic Worker movement, she had at times failed at being the mother she so wanted to be. On the other hand, given the circumstances, it’s remarkable how good a mother Dorothy was, and later a devoted grandmother. In 1964 she took off four months to take care of her grandchildren in Vermont while Tamar was taking a course in practical nursing. This is the sort of thing one rarely hears about when people ask what sort of mother Dorothy was.

One of Dorothy’s gifts was that she was never reluctant to apologize when she felt she had been either wrong or too harsh. She could do so with a passion and without reservation. I am among those who received letters from Dorothy in which she begged forgiveness for something she had said or written or done which, on reflection, she deeply regretted. The last such letter I had from her along these lines was spattered with tears that had made the ink run. It had been written, she said, on her knees.

I doubt there has ever been an article written about Dorothy since she died that didn’t include what has become her best known quotation: “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”

There is a real bite in those few words. Mainly the text draws our attention to the problem that canonization has often functioned as a way of distancing ourselves from those who follow Christ too wholeheartedly. We feel less threatened if we can see such people as a race apart with hardly any connection to ordinary human beings. We like to think that saints are possessors of a rare sort of DNA that the rest of us, rank-and-file human beings that we are, didn’t happen to receive.

But, if you focus just on the first five words, “don’t call me a saint,” bear in mind that Dorothy had intensely felt private reasons for regarding herself as totally unworthy of having an exalted place in the memory of the Church.

Even so, she strongly believed sanctity is what each of us is called to. In 1968, when Tom Cornell and I were editing the first edition of A Penny a Copy, an anthology of Catholic Worker writings, we read through 35 years of back issues, roughly 400 in all. The front page that most impressed me had a banner headline — the kind of ultra-bold, all-caps headline that in a conventional newspaper would be used only for the assassination of a president or the outbreak of war — that declared “WE ARE ALL CALLED TO BE SAINTS.”

The headline sums up something Dorothy regarded as absolutely basic. Why else would anyone receive communion? Why receive Christ unless you hope to become more Christ-like? Why call yourself a Christian if you have no interest in trying to live the Gospel?

Yet Dorothy also knew that the word “saint” is a damaged word. Many saints had been stripped of a large part of their humanity by well-meaning hagiographers who were more creative writers than historians. They felt it was their religious duty to fictionalize the lives of their subjects, adding edifying tales while removing any mention of sins the saint had to repent of or temperamental characteristics he or she had to fight against day by day. For the most pious of motives, saints have been made into a remote race of people who are far less subject to temptations than Jesus was, people able to perform miracles that make the miracles in the Gospels look like minor achievements. The saint is often thought of as someone who never knew a moment of doubt and never committed a sin from infancy to the grave.

If some day Dorothy is added to the church’s calendar, one benefit is that we will have a saint whose sins and shortcomings will be hard to airbrush out. She will be a saint who really bears witness to the possibility of flawed people with pasts that embarrass them nonetheless never giving up in their efforts to stumble along in the general direction of the kingdom of God.

When I became part of the New York Catholic Worker community, there was only one house in Manhattan, St. Joseph’s, a not at all spacious three-storey building located at175 Chrystie Street. Only one person actually lived there, a guy named Keith — a recluse who had a room in the back of the third floor — whom we rarely saw and then only briefly. The rest of us, Dorothy as well, lived in small $25 a month cold-water flats located in the neighborhood. By chance, Dorothy’s room was next to mine. We were on the sixth floor of in a run-down tenement on Spring Street. Each floor had four apartments, the occupants of which shared a toilet located in the hallway.

I doubt anyone at St. Joseph’s House in those days thought of Dorothy as a saint, though no doubt most of the staff greatly admired her. There were some in the community, myself among them, whose lives had taken a different direction partly thanks to her writings and the influence of the Catholic Worker newspaper, but she was much too real and unpredictable to think of as anything but the formidable woman she was.

I said “community,” but it would not be accurate to portray the Catholic Worker community in New York as very communal. In fact at that time we were a deeply divided group. We had no community meetings. When a decision had to be made, it was made either by the particular person or persons responsible for a certain chore, or by Charles Butterworth, who in those days could sign checks, or, if necessary, by Dorothy herself.

Part of the problem was that Dorothy wasn’t around all the time — far from it. While we saw a good deal of her, Dorothy’s presence in Manhattan was more the exception than the rule. She spent a great deal of time on Staten Island. Sometimes it was at her beach cottage — the place where she did most of her writing — and sometimes it was at the Catholic Worker farm several miles further south, in those days as rural a place as still existed in New York City. She also traveled a great deal, visiting other Catholic Worker communities that lay scattered between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. And there were her many trips to Vermont, some of them prolonged, to be with Tamar and her nine grandchildren. I doubt anything mattered more to Dorothy than being a help to Tamar and a presence in the lives of her grandchildren.

In Dorothy’s absence, there was really no one in the community who came close to filling her shoes.

Perhaps it is partly because Dorothy was so often away that there was so much stress in the staff. The main thing that held us together was the work we were doing. Each of us volunteers had our chores — to beg or buy food, to cook meals and serve them, to wash dishes, to clean, to sort and distribute clothing, to help in one way or another those who were either part of what we called “the family” — referring to the people who had arrived years before for a bowl of soup and never left — or those who came in for meals but whom we hardly knew or people in the neighborhood whose particular needs somehow had become evident to us. There was also the work of helping in various ways to get the paper out, which in those days was published eleven times a year. It had to be edited, printed and mailed to about 80,000 addresses.

But our interests, our motivations, our temperaments, our cultural inclinations, our theologies or ideologies, our attitudes toward Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular, pulled us in different directions. Not everyone liked everyone. It really astonished me how much tension, at times hostility, there was in the community.

One of the ways the community expressed its disputes was by posting paragraphs from Dorothy’s Catholic Worker columns on the community bulletin board. I wish I had made notes at that time of specific passages that were used — it would be interesting to look at them again. One that stands out in memory was a clipping from an “On Pilgrimage” column in which Dorothy urged her readers to be ready to roll up in newspapers and sleep on the floor in order that a homeless person would have a bed to sleep in. A day or two later someone else posted a rejoinder, another extract from a different “On Pilgrimage” column, this time one in which Dorothy talked about how essential it is that we accept our human limitations and not stretch ourselves to the breaking point.

The contrasting quotations from Dorothy Day were many. A lot of tacks were needed. She wrote a great deal and on many topics. Her views weren’t always consistent. Her month-to-month comments often had to do with thoughts that crossed her mind while visiting one of the many Catholic Worker communities. If you searched her columns long enough, chances are you could find Dorothy saying something that suited your side of whatever argument was going on at the time at the New York house. It was a battle in which quotations from Dorothy Day were hurled back and forth like stones from a slingshot.

Soon enough the actual Dorothy Day would reappear and attempt to sort out areas of contention — such issues as how to use the occasional donation of eggs or butter. Do such treats go to the last person in line or first? The regulars? Or the staff? You would be amazed at the theological and ideological aspects of the question.

When I look back on how heated such disputes were, I’m impressed with Dorothy’s common sense, kindness and patience in trying to get us back in gear with one another.

Most of the time, she had a remarkable gift for appreciating the people, mainly young and contentious, who came to help out and only occasionally lost her temper. Eventually two members of the staff in that period left, trailing smoke, because they found the actual Dorothy Day wasn’t quite the Dorothy Day that they wanted her to be. A few others were expelled because, as Dorothy saw it, they were simply using the Catholic Worker selfishly, for their own counter-cultural ends, and putting the Catholic Worker at risk in doing so.

The early sixties was one of the notably stressful times in the history of the Catholic Worker movement, at least in the case of the New York house. How Dorothy survived such stormy periods I cannot tell you. I didn’t. Though I remained close to Dorothy for the rest of her life and still regard her as one of my non-genetic parents, finally I was too worn out by all the tension to continue. When I was poised to get arrested for participating in an act of civil disobedience protesting nuclear weapon tests, Dorothy insisted that instead I go south to Tennessee and write about a project she admired. I said that, having been one of the organizers of the protest in Manhattan, I couldn’t back out and could only go to Tennessee afterward. Dorothy — who that day had good reason to be in a truly volcanic state — said, “Either go to Tennessee or you are no longer part of this community.” Had it not been such a stressful day, I later realized, she would have been much more open to discussion. But at the time, I felt I had no option but to leave.

Only as I got older, having gone through the teen-age years of my own children, did I realize that had I gone back to Chrystie Street once I got out of jail — I spent about a month locked up on Hart’s Island — no one would have been happier to see me than Dorothy. But I was too young to realize the about-faces Dorothy could make after a good night’s sleep or a Saturday night confession. It took me perhaps a year to renew my relationship with Dorothy.

Dorothy died nearly thirty years ago, but I notice the battle fought with contrasting Dorothy Day quotations is still far from over, only now it involves not just one Catholic Worker house but many of them. Inevitably, each of us finds ourselves attached to certain aspects of Dorothy Day and, just as inevitably, there is the temptation to fit all of her into those characteristics of Dorothy that we personally find most compelling.

Are you drawn to Dorothy’s piety? Do you wish more people in the Catholic Worker were better Catholics? Or that they were at least in some state of approximate harmony with the Catholic Church and its teachings? There are lots of quotations from Dorothy Day you can hang on the wall that will meet your need. Not only did she attend Mass every day, but she found time each day for intercessory prayer, which she preferred to do on her knees in a church or chapel before the Blessed Sacrament. She kept long lists of people, living and dead, for whom she prayed daily. If you asked her to pray for you, or for anyone, she did so. She was as devout a Catholic as I have ever known, and one of most appreciative about being part of the Catholic Church. Yet she also appreciated non-Catholic Christians, not to mention non-Christians. She had an especially deep respect for the Orthodox Church. Committed Catholic that she was, Dorothy would be dismayed, saddened and even angered at some of the writings found in publications issuing from various Catholic Worker communities, but she wasn’t inclined to self-righteousness and, however heatedly she might express herself at times, would seek dialogue. In such moments, she might well use a quotation from Pope John XXIII that was dear to her: “Let dialogue begin by seeking concordances, not differences.” Unless a person was in some sort of leadership role in which he or she was seen as representing the Catholic Worker or some other Catholic movement, I don’t recall her ever criticizing anyone for failures in their religious life. She prayed the rosary every day, but she didn’t insist that others do the same.

If Dorothy pressed no one to follow the example she gave, nonetheless she encouraged volunteers to move toward the deeper waters of religious faith. In my own case, this was made especially clear in the ways she expressed to me her extraordinary respect for the Orthodox Church. She once brought me with her to a meeting of a small discussion group called the Third Hour to which she belonged. It had been started by her friend Helene Iswolsky, daughter of the last ambassador of czarist Russia to France. The group brought together both Catholic and Orthodox Christians plus at least one Anglican, the poet W.H. Auden, to talk about the many threads of connection linking eastern and western Christianity. She took me with her one day to an eastern-rite Slavonic liturgy and sometime later to the Russian Orthodox cathedral in upper Manhattan, where I met a priest whom I came to know better in Moscow many years later. It impressed me that when Dorothy spoke of things Russian, she would invariably use the phrase, “holy mother Russia” — the Russia of churches, chant, long liturgies, holy fools, great saints and gifted writers. Dorothy was always recommending books that had been important in her life, but the writer she was most intent I should discover was Dostoevsky. She described his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, as “a fifth gospel.” It was a great joy to Dorothy when, late in her life, she managed to go on pilgrimage to Russia and pray at the grave of Dostoevsky, who might be considered yet another co-founder of the Catholic Worker, so great was the impact of his writing on Dorothy in the years leading up to her conversion.

Are you alienated from the Catholic Church or from Christianity in general? You will certainly find passages in Dorothy’s writings that you can identify with, as when she speaks of some of the bishops and priests that were caught in Peter’s net as resembling sharks and blowfish. She did not refrain from expressing, in word and print, her many bitter disappointments in some of the declarations and actions of popes, bishops, priests and other fellow Catholics, not to mention Christians in other churches. She often repeated a quotation about the Church being “the Cross on which Christ was crucified.” It scandalized her that so many Christians, including a great many pastors, had made themselves so comfortably at home in a world of violence and injustice, a world of so many abandoned, broken people. Among photos of Dorothy, you will find one of her picketing with the grave diggers of the Archdiocese of New York when they went out on strike.

Only don’t forget her devotion to the Church and the intense sacramental life she lived, her theological orthodoxy, and her mainly successful efforts to build positive relations with Cardinal Spellman and many other politically conservative bishops. In the brief period when I was the paper’s managing editor, Dorothy once reminded me, “Just keep in mind that we don’t save the Church — the Church saves us.” Like Peter Maurin, her main idea about reforming the Church was simply to set an example.

She said much the same to Robert Coles, as he records in a book based on their conversations: “I didn’t become a Catholic in order to purify the church,” Dorothy told him. “I knew someone, years ago, who kept telling me that if [the Catholic Workers] could purify the church, then she would convert [to Catholicism]. I thought she was teasing me when she first said that, but after a while I realized she meant what she was saying. Finally, I told her I wasn’t trying to reform the church or take sides on all the issues the church was involved in; I was trying to be a loyal servant of the church Jesus had founded. She thought I was being facetious. She reminded me that I had been critical of capitalism and America, so why not Catholicism and Rome? … My answer was that I had no reason to criticize Catholicism as a religion or Rome as the place where the Vatican is located …. As for Catholics all over the world, including members of the church hierarchy, they are no better than lots of their worst critics, and maybe some of us Catholics are worse than our worst critics.”

Do you like thinking of yourself as an anarchist? There is a lot in Dorothy to cheer you along as she consistently called herself an anarchist. The word had Greek roots, she explained to me one day. An anarchist was a person without a king. She told me that having Jesus Christ as one’s king was enough of a challenge, and that his kingdom was not of this world. She was not very interested in politics. I don’t recall her ever expressing strong views either on would-be presidents or presidents-in-office — John Kennedy at the time. Trying to better understand what Dorothy meant by anarchism, I got a subscription to a British journal called “Anarchy.” When I showed an issue to Dorothy, she warned me that reading such publications was a waste of time because most people who called themselves anarchists were atheists and also tended to be people who preferred publishing manifestoes and arguing with each other to helping people in need. The only anarchist writings she urged me to read were several books by a nineteenth century Russian prince and scientist, Peter Kropotkin, a remarkable man who had been outraged by the Darwinian theory of survival of the fittest (an idea Ebenezer-Scrooge-type capitalists found hugely attractive). Kropotkin posed against the pseudo-scientific enshrinement of competition his own insights and observations about cooperation and mutual aid, arguing persuasively that human beings do best when they help each other, not when they treat each other as commodities or ladders.

Are you especially drawn to the Dorothy Day who committed acts of civil disobedience and went to prison time and again? Many are. It’s easy to find good quotations from Dorothy on this topic. She wrote a great deal about her acts of civil disobedience and what she learned and whom she met during times when she was locked up. But for those — I was one of them — whom she felt were inclined to put too much time into social protest activities, she struggled to convince us that, important as protest can be, the main thing about Christianity, and an essential dimension of sacramental life, is the daily practice of the works of mercy. The main thing is hospitality. Even protest actions should have a dimension of hospitality. They should be rooted in hospitality toward one’s opponents rather than the contempt for them. Protest is scarred when it is fueled by contempt or enmity. Dorothy expressed her own dissent with some of the forms of protest that emerged in the late sixties. She opposed acts of property destruction. She wrote of her disagreements in The Catholic Worker, yet characteristically did so without denouncing anyone whose actions seemed to her to fall short of what she regarded as “real nonviolence,” by which she meant actions whose driving force was the hope of opening the door of conversion both to oneself and to one’s opponent. Her disagreements with the Berrigans, myself and others, however, did not damage her friendship with any of us. She wrote to us regularly when we were in prison, no doubt prayed for us daily, and welcomed us back when we were free again.

To bring this to an end: Dorothy Day doesn’t fit into any collection of quotations by Dorothy Day. The actual Dorothy Day was far too complex to fit into anyone’s portrait of her. No matter who you are, probably you will find something in her that you can identify with, and — given time — perhaps discover other aspects of her that will help you become a more complete human being — more welcoming, more patient, more forgiving, more Christ-like. And she will do this despite all the personal faults she struggled with every day of her life. In fact her faults may even serve as a bridge. If Dorothy Day can do what she did, perhaps I can as well.

Let me end with a quotation that connects with what I said at the start. Brian Terrell, at the time a member of the Catholic Worker community in Manhattan, recalls a journalist asking Dorothy if she thought the Catholic Worker movement would survive her. “Why shouldn’t it?” Dorothy responded. “It has already survived more than forty years of me!”

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Jim Forest is the author of Love is the Measure, a biography of Dorothy Day published by Orbis Books.
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Jim Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands

e-mail: [email protected]
Forest-Flier web site:
Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site:

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A Round-About Journey to the Orthodox Church: an interview with Fr Alexis Voogd

Fr Alexis and Tatiana Voogd

Interview made by Jim Forest at the Voogd apartment in Amsterdam on the fifth of April, 1990.

[starting the tape recorder]

This looks serious! But will my English make sense?

I admire your gift for languages.

Oh, Jim! There are blank spots in my English and they are getting more and more.

Can you tell us something about where and when you were born?

I was born on the 3rd of April 1927 in a house in newly-built part of The Hague, behind the dunes west of Scheveningen. The North Sea was nearby. With the windows open and the wind from the west, you could hear the unbroken roar of the beakers and, in fog, the melancholy sound of the foghorn. The first years of my life were closely bound up with the elements: the sea, gales, the smell of the sea and — not to forget — the little fishing port of Scheveningen, much less mechanized in those days. There were many things for a growing boy to be happy about in that little world behind the dunes — an endless source of discoveries!

Have you brothers or sisters?

A sister, Helena, two years older than me.

A very Orthodox name!

Yes. I can’t say that about mine — Alewijn — a name of Celtic origin.

Can you say something about your family?

My father and mother had very different backgrounds. My grandfather on my father’s side came from the shipping world. My father was a naval officer with years of service behind him in the Dutch East Indies — Indonesia as it is now. He had already retired when I was born. On my mother’s side, my grandfather was a university lecturer in Spanish — he compiled the first Spanish-Dutch dictionary. Before that he was for years a civil servant in the East Indies.

Were they people with a religious faith?

Neither were positively religious. Neither had been baptized. Nor were my grandparents connected with any church. Among my father’s books were a few about religion. I remember one title: “The Fool Says…”. It was about the Christian faith.

Did you ever talk to your parents about religion?

I can’t say that my parents had a harmonious marriage. Perhaps that’s a rather strange reply to your question. What I mean is that, where there is tension, it can be difficult to have intimate talks about, for example, religious belief. But I say this without any bitterness. My parents certainly did their best to give us a settled home life. There were a lot of creative activities going on in our home. My mother was a talented pianist and among her friends there were many professional musicians with whom she often played. There was much music in our house. It left a strong impression on us. My memories are tied up with music. In the evening we would ask her to play our favorite pieces. I was very fond of Grieg. Probably I felt in him a strong bond with nature.

When I look back on those years, I see myself always roaming around somewhere, in the dunes or by the sea. Here I had my first “religious” feelings, the feeling of the mystery behind things, as I see it now. Nature had a very strong influence on me. I often got up very early — very, very early! My parents were amazed and wondered: “Where on earth is the boy going at such an hour? The day hasn’t even begun and he’s already gone!”

I think of those blessed moments when the sun rises, the glow over everything, as if the world were being created anew, and I’m sitting on top of a tree, being gently rocked by the wind. I sit and sit, just looking, breathing and listening. Since then I have read about people who, in moments of intense concentration, experience the unity of all things. The unity of everything! In a flash the experience of the words, “And God saw that it was good.”

How old were you then?

Nine or ten.

These copses at the edge of the dunes — amazing what a child can make of them in his imagination! For me they were vast woods with pleasant and unpleasant places, trees with friendly and unfriendly faces. At that age I started reading about the North American Indians, the “Redskins.” Fascinating! I read everything I could find about their way of life and their beliefs. Through this reading I had the experience of how it’s possible to be completely carried away, to become one with, to identity with, persons and events. As far as the “Redskins” were concerned, this meant that I could so identify with their situation that sometimes, after an argument with other boys, I could hardly stop myself from threatening them with spear and arrow. Yes, really! Imagine it!

For a longtime I felt a sort of hate for those who destroyed the Indians.

Did you feel lonely as a boy?

I couldn’t share those nature-centered feelings with friends.

Now I realize that all these feelings had to do with my religious development. In those years I was inclined to have the same gods as the Indians had. I even prayed to those gods.

You asked about the feeling of loneliness. I think that this ability to identify — to be one with — makes it possible not to feel lonely. I had such a strong feeling of being part of everything, birds, the wind, leaves. All this filled me.

But it was all something that you experienced alone.

Yes, certainly. But I also had lots of friends in the neighborhood.

What later raised your interest in the Slavic countries?

I am sure that had to do with the war. In May 1940 our country was occupied by the Germans. I was 13. I had just finished primary school.

How did you experience the invasion?

In a childish way. It was something unusual, in a certain sense even fascinating. I longed for extreme situations, and here I had an extreme situation!

In terms of study, had you already decided what subject to concentrate on?

Not yet. I must say that school was a painful experience for me.

Were you happier as an Indian than a school boy?

Yes, most certainly. Especially in the last year of primary school and the first year of secondary. At the Lyceum I had no real friendships with other children. In general they were further on than I was. I hadn’t yet got “out of the woods.” Sitting at a school desk was torment. I promised myself that later I would never idealize my school years. Above all I had difficulty with the sciences. I found mathematics very difficult. My father secretly hoped that I would follow in his footsteps and become a naval officer, but for that I needed to do well in mathematics.

Was it difficult for him to accept that you were not going in the direction he wanted?

He didn’t complain and wasn’t angry. He was somewhat stoical in accepting disappointments. No, he never let me be aware of it. Nevertheless he did his best to give me some understanding of mathematics.

Meanwhile time was passing. The occupation meant that life became more and more difficult. Then in 1943 my father fell ill with cancer. At that a Jewish man was hidden in our house. One day the Germans discovered this. Someone had betrayed us. My sister and I came home from school to find the doors and windows wide open with mother gone, the Jew gone, and the house in chaos. After six weeks my mother was released from prison, and that only because of my father’s death — he died in March — and because there was no one else to look after my sister and me. Otherwise we would have been sent to Ravensbrück, a women’s concentration in Germany. But our Jewish guest was less fortunate. He never returned from Auschwitz. This event signaled a definite break between “before”and “after.”

Soon after followed the period when we had to make trips to find food. The summer of that year was the first that I spent in the countryside. It was somewhere in the Betuwe, the area between the two great rivers, the Rhine and the Waal. I watched farmers — how they worked their land. In those days they were still working with horses, loading their hay into splendidly-made carts, digging the ground, standing bent over for hours as they cut the corn, and milking their cows by hand. It was an overwhelming experience. That was life! From that time, every holiday I went to the country and worked on a farm. It didn’t take me long to make my decision. I wanted to go to an agricultural college so that I could become a farmer.

My mother was soon resigned to the decision. My father could no longer oppose it, but he would not have been happy about it.

The trouble was that, as a boy from the town, I couldn’t be accepted just like that into the agricultural college. First I had to work for a year on a farm. In October 1943 I managed to find a place on a farm in the northeast of our country. For the first time I had the feeling of being “abroad” — far from home, in a foreign land, among foreign people who spoke an almost incomprehensible dialect. At first I did all the dirty work, as would any apprentice, but quite soon I learned to milk cows and look after horses. Then came the day when I was allowed for the first time to take the cart to the field alone with “my own team of horses.” How proud I was!

If you include the years at the agricultural college, this part of my life lasted until 1951. After that I went to do something I had dreamed of in the dark time of the war.

What kind of dream was that?

I had a friend with whom I often spoke of what we were going to do after the war. One of our favorite past-times was looking at maps and imagining journeys to all sorts of countries. The strongest dream of was to go to Scandinavia. After I had finished college, this dream was fulfilled. I worked for a year as a lumberjack in the Swedish forest.

Did you learn Swedish?

Yes, I managed that fairly quickly. Swedish is in the same group of languages as Dutch.

Did you already have an interest in Russian at that time?

Actually that began during the war. In 1944, the year before the Liberation, I was taken away by the Germans and forced to work in the neighborhood of Assen, in the province of Drente. We had to dig trenches and build bunkers. Not far from the place where we worked was a camp of Russian prisoners of war who were being used as slave laborers. Every morning as we went to our place of work, we met them on the way to their work. They were going in the opposite direction under guard of German soldiers. They looked dreadful — dirty, emaciated, clothed in rags. But they sang! This made a deep impression on me.

I remember one of their songs. It was a song about a Cossack who, far from home, thinks about his country. These impressions meant a great deal to me. Something was born in me. Also the fact that Russia was our ally in the war against Germany played a role in this.

Another factor in my interest was Dostoevsky. In Sweden I read his short stories — not yet his novels — in Swedish. On the radio I found a station that often broadcast Russian music. A new world opened up for me — my interest in Russian language and the people. Back in Holland I began learning Russian on my own.

Why did you do that?

At first it was just a question of feeling. The Russians attracted me as a people. Also their literature and music. Russian became a passion for me. All my free time was given over to it. I was working then at the Agricultural Research Institute at Wageningen. The burning question was: Was I to stay there or start studying Russian? Finally I chose Russian.

That took me to the University of Amsterdam in the autumn of 1952. I had an appointment with Professor Becker, a Russian, the founder of the Department of Slavic Studies in the Philological Faculty. I had written him a letter from Wageningen telling him what had led to this decision. He asked me why wanted to do this study. It was hard to give him a clear and rational answer. And still I cannot do so. There are motives that are so deep-seated that it is difficult to say why you do something, but you have to do it! I felt that I had to study Russian. Intuitively I felt that this language could bring me to a deeper understanding of the meaning of life. I had the impression that Russians had a strong grasp of its essence — sometimes given positive expression, sometimes negative.

Professor Becker took me in. He was a teacher of the old school, very strict. You had to prepare carefully for his lectures. You had to be on time. But he gave himself fully to his students, lending them books from his own library. At that time it was often impossible to get the books you needed from the university library.

Was he Orthodox?

He wasn’t a believer. He was a real humanist. He respected anyone who has a genuine religious belief.

Was your interest in the Russian language connected with other aspects of Russian culture?

My interest in the language meant in the first place a feeling for the Russian people, for the country of Russia. I couldn’t at that time separate the Russians from their political system. Obviously it was necessary to make this distinction but I couldn’t — how it had all started, how it had developed, Stalin and so forth. I must admit that at first I thought that in Russia a new world, a new society was being built up and that they had solved the problem of capitalism.

Then in 1958 I went with Tatiana to Russia and came into real contact with actual life and the system there.

Did you think of yourself as a Marxist in those years?

No, not at all! But I wanted to know about everything out of a sort of curiosity: how was it possible for such a system to become established in Russia and how could part of the intelligentsia have accepted such an ideology?

Had you then thought at all about the Russian Orthodox Church, or was that still distant?

Actually I must turn back in time because I missed a most important moment. My coming to Amsterdam, to the university, meant that I met Tatiana. She came to the Netherlands from Odessa in 1944, had then studied and was appointed to a post in the university as assistant to Professor Becker. When I appeared there, she was already giving lectures. At that time there were only a few students studying Russian. Professor Becker was struck by my burning interest in Russian and spoke to his students about it. They decided to invite me to join the Slavic debating society. Tatiana was given the job of asking me. She found me and introduced herself. In this way we met each other in December 1952. The following June we married.

In order to become a member of the society, I had to give a talk. I decided to speak about a book I had read shortly before, Walter Schubart’s European Man of the Future. It was a book that was fairly popular in the years after the war.

In those years I did little else but study, continually study. I had started my studies fairly late ands felt that I had to make up for much lost time. I was very hungry for knowledge — about the Russian language and history and culture.

I worked for two years cataloging books in the Russian section of the library of the Institute of Social History. In this way many books about Russia passed through my hands. They were good years. I learned a great deal.

Getting to know Tatiana meant that I was also introduced to the Orthodox Church. She was a practicing Orthodox. She took me to an Orthodox church here in Amsterdam, a parish of the Russian Church in Exile, which still exists. There were services once a month and choir practice every week. It was a surprise for me to discover that the services were conducted in Old Church Slavonic. Church Slavonic was an important part of Slavic studies at the university. Although I was not a believer I was allowed to sing in the choir. I had a good voice and could read music, though it was an unusual experience to sing in a language that I thought to be dead. I liked singing and was fond of the music even though having no idea what it really meant. My involvement in the service was restricted to the choir. It was impossible then for me to go deeper into the meaning of the Liturgy, to its essence.

Besides I was still in a state of admiration for life in Russia, not criticizing the system. I was, as it were, pulled in opposite directions. Morever I couldn’t close my eyes to the negative role the Church had played in the social history of Russia. The problem continued to bother me.

The attitude of the Church in Exile was a typical example of reactionary response to social problems, an attitude which, it seemed to me, was an important cause of the Russian revolution.

Only much later I came to understand that this “revolution” almost destroyed the Church, doing everything it could to annihilate it. But then it wasn’t important for me to understand why there was so strong a bond between Church and State and why the Church reacted so strongly against socialism and socialism against the Church.

In this frame of mind we went to Russia in 1958. For me it was the first time while Tatiana was returning after a thirteen-year absence. It was difficult to get a visa. It was the Khrushchev period. Stalin had been dead five years. While he was still alive Tatiana would never have dared to enter the Russian Embassy — she would have been counted among the traitors, those who weren’t willing to return to the fatherland. But in 1958 Khrushchev’s campaign against the Church hadn’t yet begun.

To go to Russia was a wish I had fostered for a long time — to be there, to see the people, to hear the language. I came to Russia not as a tourist through the official Soviet travel agency “Intourist” but as Tatiana’s husband. That was an impressive difference!

I found myself in an old-fashioned Russian family where I was welcomed unreservedly. All of them were believers and closely connected to the Church. To my brother-in-law, Nikolai Poltorazki, husband of Tatiana’s sister, I am deeply grateful. He had a profound knowledge of Russian religious philosophy — Berdyaev, Bulgakov, S. Frank, Florensky. Some of them he had known personally. His fervent interpretation of their writings has been of great importance to me on the way to the faith.

When I got back to Holland, I began in earnest to study Berdyaev. As I look back on that period now, I realize how much Berdyaev has meant for me, what a role he played in my life in those years. He inspired me, gave me a vision. As a young man Berdyaev, though not a Marxist, was not that distant from Marxists. I felt myself involved with the problems he was trying to solve — the truth of Russian Orthodoxy but also the untruth of Orthodoxy linked to the state — an unholy alliance. Berdyaev spoke about general social problems, about Eros, about the place of art in society. His style of searching appealed to me: “follow the way back.” He was a Russian who had thought deeply about the source of Russian culture, and this finally brought him to Orthodoxy. Gradually he came to a new understanding of Orthodoxy, an Orthodoxy freed from ties with the state and from the reactionary attitudes to progress.

This thinking was very enriching for me, though not that all aspects of his teaching are authentically Orthodox.

I have spoken already about my near-mystic experiences as a child. It was intuition without a clear idea about God. But after the trip to Russia, after the discovery of Berdyaev, I became convinced that I had to come to terms with the fundamental questions of life. I had a feeling of now or never! I realized that if I didn’t come to an understanding now, I should never do so. I would continue to read interesting books, piles of them, without making any real progress in my spiritual life.

There followed a time of intense search that brought me to a crisis.

In 1962 and ’63 a new system of language learning was introduced at the University of Amsterdam — the language laboratory. This meant a great deal of extra work designing and writing a new Russian course. The professor of Slavic languages, Carl Ebeling was — indeed still is — a brilliant man of tremendous energy. He was very enthusiastic about these innovations. He was also very patient about my way of teaching. I found it hard to concentrate only on language, because it was difficult for me at that time to separate out language from the spiritual problems in which I was immersed. Luckily Ebeling understood all this.

We worked together literally day and night on the new course, but this turned out to be more than I could stand. It led me unavoidably and suddenly to the point of a complete breakdown.

And into this crisis appeared the figure of Metropolitan Anthony…

How did that happen?

At the beginning of the ’60s, while in Moscow, Tatiana met the great Russian pianist, Maria Yudina. Yudina was a deeply religious woman, a convinced Orthodox Christian. She heard from Tatiana about the desperate situation I was in and said, “Why doesn’t he go to Metropolitan Anthony?” Tatiana asked, “Who is that?” Yudina’s answer was, “What! You live in the West and you don’t know who Metropolitan Anthony is? He has just been visiting Moscow and has helped many people with their problems! He is an exceptional preacher and moreover a physician. Let Alexei Jacovletisch go to him!”

Tatiana wrote a letter to him and shortly after I received an invitation to visit him in London.

My situation was this. I had read a great deal about the faith. Much had become clear to me. Intellectually I was convinced of the truth of the faith. But how to go further? It is amazing how you can be intellectually convinced of the truth of the Christian faith and yet not be in a state to embrace it, not able to give this rational conviction a place in your heart and soul. You can, for instance, be a great specialist in church music, but still that doesn’t make you a Christian.

I spent a few days in London with Metropolitan Anthony and told him my story. He listened very carefully, understood my problem and gave me a simple piece of advice. He asked if I knew the Gospel? Had I read it thoroughly and systematically? I said, “No.” He urged me to do this and gave me advice as to how to do this. It forced me to interiorize the Gospel, to find myself in the Gospel. It is the principle of identification. This had happened to me once before in my life, when I was a boy and read about Indians! Now I had to identify with all the people I met in the New Testament. It took me a year to go through the Gospel, word by word, story by story.

After this first visit Metropolitan Anthony sent me to Father Barnabas, a monk who had a small hermitage in Hastings, not far from London. This was my first experience of a monastery. There I met a young monk, Brother Vincent, a man with whom I could talk fully and at length. Father Barnabas had no objection to this, but now and then did want reassurance that we were talking about spiritual matters.

When I returned to Amsterdam I was already over the worst of my crisis, but I can’t say it was the end of my troubles. I was still dependant on tranquilizers. Metropolitan Anthony had warned me not to stop taking these drugs abruptly. He compared them to a stick that helps you walk — “Eventually you will be strong enough to walk without a stick.”

I did not follow his advice. While in Odessa a month later, I decided to stop taking the pills and threw them away. Thus put me into a wretched state. Suddenly I had to manage without medicine. Traveling alone, the journey I had to make back Holland via Romania, Austria and Germany was a nightmare. But then I spent ten days I spent in the countryside, immersed in the Gospel and in prayer, and this brought me back to health.

Can you tell me more about the way of reading the Gospel that Metropolitan Anthony recommended?

He gave me a booklet made by members of a Christian student organization in Petrograd on the twenties. This little book, written in Russian, I later translated into Dutch. The principle was — to transfer yourself into the given situation of the Gospel. When Christ heals a blind man, you are that blind man. When a man is robbed and beaten and left at the side of the road, you are that man. And you are also those who pass by without helping…

How long was it between your first meeting with Metropolitan Anthony and your entry into the Orthodox Church?

I was baptized in 1967 on the 22nd of July — Metropolitan Anthony’s name day. We were in Italy and heard about a French monastery in Provence given to the Orthodox Church and that Metropolitan Anthony would be there in July. Tatiana had not yet met him. So we traveled from Italy to see him in France. I still had doubts about being baptized. Was I actually ready for it? But Vladika Anthony said, “Here am I, here are you, here is Tanya, here’s the Gospel, there’s the river. Why shouldn’t we baptize you now?” And he baptized me in the river under the walls of the monastery.

How did the founding of the Amsterdam parish come about?

After my baptism we went more and more to the parish in The Hague. There was much to do there. For example there was hardly a choir. That had to be established. Father Benjamin gave me every opportunity to enlarge it and soon a reasonable choir was formed. I had to learn the services and arrange for the choir to practice during the week. That required yet another weekly journey to The Hague. To be able to prepare everything properly I used to stay over Saturday night. In the spring of 1973 I was ordained deacon and Anton du Pau — now Father Anton — was ordained reader.

Is that when you took the name Alexis?

No, earlier, at baptism.

Which Alexis?

Alexis, Man of God, a saint of the undivided early Church. He was born in Rome. The life of the Holy Alexis was very popular in the Middle Ages, also in the western Church. But now he is almost entirely forgotten in the West, along with Saint Mary of Egypt, though her name is connected with the tiny Synodal church in Amsterdam.

You sang in the Synodal church, but when you became Orthodox you changed to the Moscow Patriarchate. What was behind this change?

When we were in Russia and told the family that we sang in the choir of an Orthodox parish in Amsterdam, they asked at once, “In what church?” Tatiana answered, “In the Russian Orthodox Church.” “Yes, but which church? From which jurisdiction?” We had no idea what that meant. We knew nothing about all the divisions and jurisdictions in the Orthodox Church. That meant that we and our family in Russia were in different jurisdictions and were joined through the sacraments. So on our return to the Netherlands, we went to the parish in The Hague, St. Mary Magdalene, which is part of the Moscow Patriarchate. We wanted to belong to the Mother Church and not to a church that had broken away from it. That was our decision.

Of course by now I understood the reasons why the Synodal Church existed and why it regarded the Moscow Patriarchate with so much enmity. But I wanted to belong to the Mother Church, the suffering Church in Russia. There were people in the Synodal parish who maintained that we had been “brain-washed” in Russia and that for these reasons had gone to the Patriarchal parish in The Hague. Nonetheless, I have much to thank that little parish for!

Somewhere along the way you had also become a father…

Yes, that happened in Moscow at the end of our first trip in 1958 when Tatiana and I were taking part in the International Congress of Slavists. We had prepared everything for the birth of our child in Amsterdam. But Aliona decided to be born in Moscow where she was baptized shortly after.

When was the parish of Saint Nicholas founded?

In 1973 a small group had formed, five or six people — myself, Tatiana, our daughter Aliona and Stefan Royé, who was then not Orthodox but interested. There was also Anton du Pau, who had recently become Orthodox. We talked together about how good it would be to have an Orthodox parish in Amsterdam.

Through God’s providence we got to know a priest of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Father Janko Stanic, who had been given by his bishop the task of setting up a Serbian parish in Amsterdam. Thanks to the help of Pastor Boiten and influential friends from the Roman Catholic Church we obtained the use of a space in an annex of the big Saint Nicholas Church opposite Central Station. Father Janko was financially supported by the Diaconal Council of the Dutch Reformed Church. Father Anton had his own income, as did I from the university. Father Anton painted icons, was a good organizer and could turn his hand to everything. In a few months, a nice little parish was created! At the end of 1973 we started our choir practices. In 1974 on the 4th of May the first Vigil service was celebrated by Metropolitan Anthony. On the 5th — the Dutch Liberation Day as it happens — Metropolitan Anthony and Bishop Laventrie consecrated our church and celebrated the Divine Liturgy.

Was it a Serbian parish?

No, both Serbian and Russian. Originally we hoped to found a pan-Orthodox parish for Serbians, Romanians, Russians and Greeks, but it wasn’t possible. So a parish was formed under the joint direction of the Moscow and Serbian Patriarchates. Father Janko served with us twice a month. The other Sundays he was with Serbs in other parts of the country.

The problem for us in Amsterdam was that the Russian part of the parish had no priest. We solved this by inviting priests from other parishes for those Sundays when Father Janko was absent — — for example, Father Adrian from the monastery in The Hague or Father Stefan Bakker from Amersfoort or Father Jozef Lamien from Brussels. Once Father Vladimir, the former priest at the Russian parish in The Hague, came to celebrate. When no priest was available, I served as deacon at Vespers on Saturday and again at Matins on Sunday. In that way the continuity of the services was ensured. Unfortunately I could never serve as deacon at the Liturgy — I had to lead the choir.

How did the independent Russian parish come into being?

At the end of 1978, following a series of events. With a group of parishioners we went to London where I was ordained priest and Father Anton deacon by Metropolitan Anthony. My first Liturgy was in London the next day — the 19th of December, the Feast of Saint Nicholas.

It was a severe winter. In the Saint Nicholas Church in Amsterdam where we had our chapel the water pipes had burst. The chapel and the steps leading to it were all under water and then frozen. We couldn’t use it. We celebrated the Christmas Vigil on the 6th of January in the main part of the church and then the next day had the Nativity Liturgy in Pastor Boiten’s tiny Saint Joris Chapel at Ouderzijds 100.

What had led to your ordination as priest?

The Russian part of the parish had by then grown considerably. Though often on Sundays we had no priest, my serving as a deacon on Saturdays and Sundays was good experience.

Despite being without a priest, we were coming together, and that had a positive influence, spiritually speaking, on the formation of a parish. We worked also on the translation of liturgical texts into Dutch, since during the first five years of our existence the services were all in Old Church Slavonic.

I often return to the same point — the Russians have retained their rich traditions in a distinctive manner. They have the most complete services, rich services with a clear rhythm and incomparably beautiful vocal music. All this we must wanted to bring as much as possible it into the Dutch services. It’s not a question of imitation. Imitation in the spiritual life is not what we need — rather inspiration: illumination through the Spirit. I haven’t found better forms than the Russian ones. And I believe that, to a certain degree, we have managed to carry over the spirit of the Russian services into the Dutch ones.

Was it difficult to be both a university lecturer and priest at the same time?

Yes, that was difficult. But gradually I realized that my place was in the Church. I found it more and more difficult to be in academic circles. It is strange to have two identities. When we started the parish, I had already worked in the field of Slavic studies for thirteen years. I had studied and lived with academics — students and professors — for years, but in doing so I had missed a whole important aspect of life. Yet I know I owe an infinite debt of gratitude to many people with whom I came into contact via the university. It is a gift of fortune, the many years with them.

But — there’s always a “but” — it was all on the level of reason. Perhaps that’s why it was so difficult for me to make the jump from the theoretical to the living faith, the faith of heart and soul. Knowledge in itself is not enough to make a real believer — just as knowing what sickness you have doesn’t mean that you are cured of it.

When you spent that year reading the Gospel, was there a certain moment, a certain text, that gave you a feeling of a door opening?

I understand your question and it would have been natural for there to have been such a moment, but I cannot say there was. So many parts of the Gospel were a revelation to me. Yet I will cite one text: “My teaching is not Mine, but His who sent Me. If any man’s will is to do His will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking by My own authority.”

Metropolitan Anthony had taught me a most important principle: “Be attentive, be watchful. Every time you are touched by certain words you read, you must know that God has touched you, even if such a touch is not always pleasant.”

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War and Peace in the Orthodox Tradition

Paper presented by Jim Forest at the Volos Academy for Theological Studies in Volos, Greece, at a conference (May 17-20, 2007) on “Forgiveness, Peace and Reconciliation.” The event was co-sponsored by the Boston Theological Institute and the World Council of Churches.

As we consider the Christian vocation of peacemaking, the healing and restoration of memory has been a recurring theme in our discussion. We have forgotten so much. including key elements of the teaching that was normative in the early Church.

The issue of war and peace has troubled and even divided followers of Christ for the greater part of Christian history. In any war we are likely to find (1) a small but dedicated group of Christians refusing to take up arms because of their objections to bloodshed in all circumstances, their specific objections to a particular war, or their canonical obligations as clergy or monks; and (2) a great majority of Christians taking part in every aspect of military life without voicing any objection.

This is an entirely ecumenical phenomenon. It is as likely to be true among Orthodox Christians as Christians belonging to other churches, though the percentage of conscientious objectors is greater in churches in North America and western Europe than in most other parts of the world — regions where conscientious objection has come to be recognized as a legal option. Yet even in those countries, conscientious objection is often limited to those who oppose all war rather than those who, their consciences shaped by the criteria of the Just War Doctrine, object to a specific war because of its failure to meet one or more of the classical conditions of that doctrine.

The fact that relatively small numbers of Christians are conscientious objectors might indicate that such a position is at odds with authentic Christianity. Surely the majority is to be regarded as the more representative? On the other hand, it may be observed that many Christians in our world are far more influenced by their national rather than by their religious identity. Many obey orders to participate in war because no one, including pastors and bishops, has suggested grounds exist for Christians to behave otherwise.

However, if we consider the witness of Christianity in the early centuries, those whom we now call conscientious objectors may be seen as more representative of the teaching of the early Church.

Let us begin with the Gospel itself. In Christ’s Gospel, one of the most surprising elements is his emphasis on love — and love not only of neighbors but of enemies. Nor are his words simply abstract recommendations. The Gospels bear witness to the consistent example he gives. His merciful actions are provided not only to his fellow Jews, but to those whom Jews regarded as their enemies. We note his readiness to heal the servant of a Roman centurion, an officer of an unwelcome and oppressive army of occupation. We see his many acts of forgiveness — no one who seeks his forgiveness fails to receive it. We see him saving the life of a woman condemned to death. We note his final miracle before his execution was to heal the wound of one of those Peter had injured in his attempt to defend his master; at the same time he hear Jesus reprimanding Peter for his violent attack on the man: “He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.” At no point in his arrest or the suffering that followed do we see Jesus offering any form of resistance. Indeed we find no instance in the Gospel of Jesus killing anyone or authorizing his followers to commit an act of homicide. Describing the Last Judgment, he says, “What you have done to the least person, you have done to me.”

Searching the calendar of saints, among the martyrs of the first centuries we find Christian soldiers who were executed for refusing to take part in battle, or even to take the military oath.

For example, there is Maximilian of Numidia, a 21-year-old North African, who was being drafted into military service, but refused to take the oath. Tried in the year 295, he declared to Dion, the proconsul who tried him, “I cannot fight for this world…. I tell you, I am a Christian.” The proconsul pointed out that there were Christians serving in the Roman army. Maximilian replied, “That is their business. I also am a Christian, and I cannot serve.” For his refusal, Maximilian was beheaded. He was immediately regarded by the Church as a martyr and saint. The trial transcript is preserved in the Martyrology.

There is also the case of a recently-baptized centurion, St Marcellus. In the year 298, Marcellus’ unit in northern Africa was celebrating the emperor’s birthday with a party. To the astonishment of his fellows, Marcellus rose before the banqueters and denounced such parties as heathen. Then, casting off his military insignia, he cried out, “I serve Jesus Christ the eternal King. I will no longer serve your emperors and I scorn to worship your gods of wood and stone, which are deaf and dumb idols.” Marcellus was at once arrested for breach of discipline. At his trial, the record of which has been preserved by the Church, Marcellus readily admitted what he had said and done. It was not, one notices, a question of his being required to worship pagan gods, a defining matter for many martyrs. Marcellus’s motive for objection was, he declared, that “it is not right for a Christian man, who serves the Lord Christ, to serve in the armies of the world.” Because of his stand, he was beheaded. It is recorded that he died in great peace of mind, asking God to bless the judge who had condemned him.

Not all who took such stands paid for it with their lives. One of the great missionary saints of the early Church, Martin of Tours. Martin is most often represented in religious art at the moment when he, wearing military attire and seated upon his horse, divides his officer’s cloak, sharing half of it with it a freezing beggar whom he afterward recognizes as Christ.

Martin was born about the year 336 in Sabaria, Asia Minor. He was a member of the elite imperial guard serving the emperor. While an officer, he became a catechumen.

St Martin’s crisis in military service occurred due to a barbarian invasion of Gaul, or France as we know it today. Called to appear before Julian Caesar to receive a war-bounty, he declined to accept it, saying to Caesar: “Up to now I have served you as a soldier. Now permit me serve Christ. Give the bounty to these others. They are going to fight, but I am a soldier of Christ and it is not lawful for me to fight.” Not surprisingly, the emperor accused Martin of cowardice. Martin replied that, in the name of Christ, he was prepared to face the enemy on the following day, alone and unarmed. He was thrown into prison. As it happened, there was a swift end to the hostilities in Gaul. The emperor, who may have regarded the enemy’s withdrawal as a divine act, chose not to punish Martin but instead ordered his discharge. Remaining in Gaul, Martin was welcomed by the bishop at Poitiers, St Hilary, who not long after ordained Martin a deacon and later a priest. Martin became an effective opponent of the Arain heresy and served the Church as a bishop, bringing many to baptism.

The witness of such saints is not at odds with the catechetical teaching of the Church at that time.

For example, the Apostolic Canons of St Hippolytus (170-236 AD), Bishop of Rome, state that renunciation of killing is a precondition of baptism. Here are several of the relevant canons:

Concerning the magistrate and the soldier: they are not to kill anyone, even if they receive the order…. Whoever has authority and does not do the righteousness of the Gospel is to be excluded and is not to pray with the bishop.

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

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

In brief, the Church was willing to baptize soldiers so long as they promised not to engage in war or acts of deadly violence. This was a difficult but not impossible condition, as in many situations of service the soldier was fulfilling either a noncombatant role or the role of what today would be regarded as a policeman.

In a criticism of Christians written in the first half of the third century by the pagan scholar Celsus, Christians were sharply condemned for their attitude toward military service: “If all men were to do as you,” wrote Celsus, “there would be nothing to prevent the Emperor from being left in utter solitude, and with the desertion of his forces, the Empire would fall into the hands of the most lawless barbarians.”

Defending contemporary Christian practice, a theologian of the Church in Alexandria, Origen, replied to Celsus:

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

The Christian refusal of military service, Origen argued, did not indicate indifference to social responsibility, but rather the higher duty to engage in effective spiritual combat with the forces of evil. He wrote:

The more devout the individual, the more effective he is in helping the Emperor, more so than the soldiers who go into the lines and kill all the enemy troops they can … The greatest warfare, in other words, is not with human enemies but with those spiritual forces which make men into enemies.

In the same period St. Justin Martyr expressed himself in similar terms:

We who were filled with war and mutual slaughter and every wickedness have each of us in all the world changed our weapons of war … swords into plows and spears into pruning hooks.” (Trypho 110)

Elsewhere he wrote,

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

Around the year 177, St. Athenagoras of Athens also stressed nonresistance to evil:

For we have been taught not to strike back at someone who beats us nor to go to court with those who rob and plunder us. Not only that: we have even been taught to turn our head and offer the other side when men ill use us and strike us on the jaw and to give also our cloak should they snatch our tunic. [A Plea for Christians]

Another of the Christian voices coming down to us from the early generations of believers is that of Clement of Alexandria. At the end of the second or early in the third century, Clement described the Church as “an army which sheds no blood.” (Protrepticus 11, 116) “If you enroll as one of God’s people, heaven is your country and God your lawgiver. And what are His laws? You shall not kill, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. To him that strikes you on the one cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Prot. 10) “In peace, not in war, we are trained,” he declared in another essay. (Paedogogus 1,12)

In the New Testament and early Christian texts, we find numerous references to military service as a metaphor for Christians life, followers of Jesus often describing themselves as “soldiers of Christ,” but nowhere in the writings preserved to us from the early Church do we find any blessing of war or endorsement of military service. The closest we can come to that is the advice of St. John the Baptist that soldiers “should be content with their pay and be satisfied with their wages.” (Luke 3:14) To be content with their wages meant not to resort to pillage or taking spoils. It should be noted that soldiers were not free to resign from the army on any grounds except age or physical incapacity. Soldiering was regarded as a lifetime vocation; many were born into it. From the point of view of any government in the ancient world, the idea of conscientious objection was unthinkable. Those who failed to follow orders were subject to harsh penalties, including torture and execution.

Even in Constantine’s time, one sees within the Church a profoundly critical attitude regarding military service. At the First Ecumenical Council, held at Nicea near Constantinople in the year 325, with the emperor attending, one of the canons issued by the bishops declared:

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

As you know, in the post-Constantinian world, attitudes regarding Christian engagement in war gradually began to shift. No longer regarded by the state as an enemy, the Church came to be seen — and to see itself — as a partner. The Church having become an object of imperial favor, the changes in attitude that followed must have been distressing to those who remained committed to earlier models of behavior. As St. Jerome observed in this period, “When the Church came to the princes of the world, she grew in power and wealth but diminished in virtue.”

Late in the fourth and early fifth centuries, the foundations were laid of what eventually became known as “the Just War Doctrine.” This provided a justification for Christian participation in defensive wars under specific conditions. Even then St. Ambrose (d. 397) and St. Augustine (d. 430) were firm in maintaining the traditional view that the Christian is barred from self defense, but argued that acting in military defense of one’s community, when it was under attack, was a different matter. Yet both insisted that under all circumstances the command to love one’s enemies remained in force.

The Just War Doctrine had it roots in the classical world. Over the centuries, the doctrine was developed until it reached its classic form in the Middle Ages. Under its terms, a war could be considered just, and Christians may participate, if, without exception, it meets certain criteria: the war must be declared by the legitimate authority. It must be fought for a just cause and with a just intention, not simply to satisfy national pride or to further economic or territorial gain. Just means must be employed, respecting the right to life of the innocent and noncombatants. The war must have a reasonable chance of success. There must be a reasonable expectation that the good results of the war will outweigh the evil caused by it. War must be the last resort. The burden of guilt must be clearly on one side.

The Just War Doctrine is chiefly associated with Western Christianity. In his essay “No Just War in the Fathers,” Fr. Stanley Harakas, for many years Professor of Orthodox Theology at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Massachusetts, described his search through patristic sources and Byzantine military manuals searching for texts concerning war. He reported:

I found an amazing consistency in the almost totally negative moral assessment of war coupled with an admission that war may be necessary under certain circumstances to protect the innocent and to limit even greater evils. In this framework, war may be an unavoidable alternative, but it nevertheless remains an evil. Virtually absent in the tradition is any mention of a ‘just’ war, much less a ‘good’ war. The tradition also precludes the possibility of a crusade. For the Eastern Orthodox tradition … war can be seen only as a ‘necessary evil,’ with all the difficulty and imprecision such a designation carries. [“No Just War in the Fathers,” full text on the web site of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship; search “Harakas.”]

Fr. Harakas discovered what he referred to as the “stratification of pacifism” in the Church: The discipline of not killing others under any circumstances that had applied in earlier times to all baptized Christians in the early Church came to be required only of those serving at the altar and iconographers.

To this day, Church canons bar those who serve in the sanctuary from having killed anyone for any reason, including accidental homicide. Some priests and deacons practice the asceticism of not driving precisely because of the danger of their accidentally killing someone. (On the other hand, there are bishops who, in acts of pastoral ekonomia, permit clergy to continue their eucharistic service despite their having been responsible for another person’s death.)

Contrasted with the early Church, how different attitudes are today! What has been notable about local Orthodox Churches for centuries has been the meager attention given to the teaching and practice of the early Church in regard to war and the readiness of pastors and bishops, especially since the nineteenth century, to uncritically embrace nationalism and tolerate wars or even bless them.

One also notes a certain emphasis being given to “soldier saints,” displaying icons which visually make clear they were in the military, yet ignoring the details of their lives. The uninstructed viewer is left to assume the armored saint whose image he is gazing at was a person who had no moral problem about warfare. Thus every Orthodox Christian will be familiar with St George, but few know that there is no record of his having taken part in any battles. He was tortured and martyred for publically professing his Christian faith during a period of persecution. The “dragon” we see in icons was in fact Caesar.

In Russia St Alexander Nevsky, who did indeed take part in battle, is more celebrated for his success in war than for the life of repentance he later embraced in becoming a monk. Early icons showed St Alexander clad in monastic robes; but from the time of Czar Peter the Great, he was instead dressed as a soldier.

In Greece one easily finds a saint-like devotion to priests and others who actively took part in driving out the Turks out of Greece. In a church publication, I once saw an icon in which the Greek flag had been inserted.

In defense of our absent-minded Church and its preoccupation with national identity, one must recall that the great drama of Orthodox life in the lands in which it is most deeply rooted has been survival in profoundly hostile circumstances. In country after country, until quite recently Orthodox Christians lived under the unfriendly rule of non-Christians. In that context, the Church became the main guardian of national identity.

For many generations, the Orthodox Church was a church of immense suffering. Without doubt there were more Christian martyrs in the twentieth century than in all other centuries combined. It is not surprising that Orthodox Christians longed for better days and came to regard with admiration and gratitude those who took up deadly weapons to speed the day of liberation.

What is even more remarkable, however, is the fact that in Russia, following seven decades of Soviet rule which had cost the lives of millions of believers, violence was not used to end atheist rule, and no wave of retribution was directed at those who caused so many to suffer.

To sum up: We Orthodox certainly have remembered how the early Church celebrated the liturgy. To the astonishment of other Christians, we are happy to stand in the church for very extended periods. But sadly we have forgotten a great deal of the social teaching and practice of the early Church and have become deaf to much that the saints, including the best known editor of the eucharistic Liturgy, St John Chrysostom, had to say. I conclude with these brief extracts from the teaching of that very saint:

It is certainly a finer and more wonderful thing to change the mind of enemies to another way of thinking than to kill them…. The mystery [of the Eucharist] requires that we should be innocent not only of violence but of all enmity, however slight, for it is the mystery of peace.

And again from St John Chrysostom:

We are commanded to have only one enemy, the devil. With him never be reconciled! But with a brother, never be at enmity in your heart.

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a report of the conference:

photos taken while in Volos:

* * *

Jim Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands

[email protected]
Jim & Nancy site:
In Communion site:
Forest-Flier Editorial Services:

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An interview: Remembering Dorothy Day (part 2)

(continuing from part one:

Ro: Now, do you know Russian?

Jim: No, not at all. Just the most basic words and phrases.

Ro: How can you talk…

Jim: I’ve been very lucky. I’ve always had at least one good translator working with me, somebody who was both excellent and interesting. If it’s somebody who is on the same beam, then you can really do something.

You know, earlier this evening, we were talking about this novel, Time and Again, by Jack Finney, an American wrier. I recently read it and enjoyed it quite a bit. I thought it was a special book. One of the things that I found most interesting about it was that, having managed to get back into the 1880’s from the 1970’s, the hero becomes immediately aware there is something different about people. And it’s not just because of clothes or other superficial differences. But there is something attitudinal. Something in their eyes. Something in their manner which is different. He’s able to go back and forth from the 1970’s and 1880’s so he goes back a second time. And he is now looking more attentively, contrasting these familiar faces of the 1970’s with these newly discovered faces of the 1880’s. I don’t even want to try and paraphrase what he says, but it boils down to the idea that there’s a sense of purpose in their lives. And that’s missing in our culture. We have drifted into… we can’t even imagine what it would be like to have a sense of purpose. Our purpose… of course, we have minor purposes, but they are so minor and they are so transitory and so rootless. Those people …and a lot of their purposes were ridiculous. But there was a sense of um… deep roots and also of something bursting out of the ground from those roots. And I think… I have a feeling that that’s not nearly as common now as it was. And that one of the main purposes people like… well, people in any kind of communicating vocation, whether it be a priest or writer or homemaker or whatever, um… teacher, is to give people the courage. Because it’s there. I mean it’s not as if we have to invent anything. There is nothing we have to invent. Nothing. But to just give people that courage to not be embarrassed about this purpose being in their lives. To let it work. Not to sit on it, and not to try to destroy it.

Ro: So apply that to your writing the book, the journey you are on.

Jim: Well, of course, this book was a chance to… I mean writing the book on Dorothy Day, I was able to try to open some doors. I’m not interested in biography as an end in itself. I was interested in Dorothy’s life for the same reason Dorothy was interested in living her life. You know. And I wanted to do the book in a way that would make Dorothy accessible and make her values burning questions without pointing a finger at the reader. Just to try to create a space in which the reader could say, “Oh yes! Oh yes! That’s not just for her. That has something for me, too.”

To write a book about the Russian Orthodox Church is to be dealing also with a very interesting subject and writing a kind of biography based on people that you meet and experiences that you have.

Ro: What did the process do to you?

Jim: You know, it gave me permission to open up more spaces inside of myself that I had been embarrassed about. You know, some people talk about our coming out of the closet as gay people, but I think most of us are far more embarrassed to come out of the closet as spiritual people. As praying people. As believing people. To let that happen in our lives is far more embarrassing than anything else we can think of. It’s so out of tune with the segment of society we happen to be in … That’s what I mean when I say to experience the Catholic Worker as a commitment.

An analogy: We would go up once a week to the Civil Defense Headquarters on Lexington Avenue and hand out leaflets criticizing civil defense. This was one of the little hobbies of the Catholic Worker community for awhile. And as you know, it had quite some significance finally. We were totally unaware that it might ever have any significance at all. To us it just seemed like something that was… you know, it was like going to Mass on Sunday for a lot of Catholics. We just did it.

Ro: Now they go up to the Riverside Defense Research Center.

Jim: Yes. You do this. It’s just part of the life you lead. And that’s great. Just to have certain things you do, no matter how unpromising they may seem.

Ro: So that’s how a lot of people think of the liturgy.

Jim: Right. It’s a completely ridiculous activity. From the point of view of a lot of people, you couldn’t do anything that’s more useless than that. It’s the ultimate absurd activity.

Well, we would go up and hand out these leaflets and because we were on, let’s say, Lexington Avenue, people would come in waves because of the light system. So you wouldn’t get a constant flow of people or people that were more or less even. Anybody who hands out leaflets under those circumstances quickly notices after a while that what that particular wave now coming your way is going to do will depend almost always on what the first person in that group does. Now these are a bunch of strangers. They have absolutely no connection with each other. They are simply walking down the street, grouped together by the traffic lights. But their response will depend on whoever happens to be near the front. The response of the man in front — it’s almost always a man — becomes the response of those who happen to be following him.

Ever since that leafleting experience, I’ve been very attentive to seeing how people behave in group situations. It’s something basic in us. We are basically social beings, and there are lots of proofs of it. Some of the proofs are delightful, and some are humiliating. But we are very much connected to each other. We really are. Our behavior is connected. And what we do, even spontaneously and with complete strangers, has to do with this truth about ourselves.

To make the analogy to the spiritual life… Here we are living in a time where in front of every bunch of people we have leaders who are not getting down on their knees, in any sense of the word. To be a believing person is to be exceptional in our world.

I remember being distressed by a phrase Merton used as the title of a book of his that was never published, Peace in the Post-Christian Era. In fact it was a very realistic title. And it’s an important thing to realize. We live in a post-Christian world. That’s where we live. We might as well own up to that reality and that Christian activity and Christian belief are not normal. It’s not even normal among Christians, not to say among everybody else. And we are, in many ways, constantly trying to conform ourselves to the people at the front of the crowd — at least so that our religious activities aren’t too ridiculous and too embarrassing and too isolating.

I think the amazing thing about somebody like Dorothy Day is that she simply wasn’t impressed by that at all. She worked through that and found the place where she would be free to be a believer. And when you are with one of those people, then, you know, it kind of hits you pretty hard. You know the story about the criminal who escaped from some prison in Tennessee, and happened to make his way to this home of this elderly couple. He had a gun, and he was coming into the house and threatening this elderly couple. And the old woman, a woman in her seventies, said, “Now you put that gun right down. Take off those socks.” His feet were soaked. “And sit down, and we will have some breakfast.”

When I heard it, I thought right away, “This is a Dorothy Day type.” Dorothy would do that. And it wouldn’t be any kind of play acting. She would be free to do that. She wouldn’t be so busy being afraid that she wouldn’t be unable to receive somebody or concern herself with their hunger or their wet socks. Then , to continue the story, as breakfast is put on the table, the lady says, “Let us pray. Do you want to lead the prayer?” she says to this guy.

“I don’t know what to say, ma’am.”

“Oh,” she said, “Just say, Jesus wept.”

Afterward a reporter asked her, “Why did you say that?”

“Well,” she said, “It was a short prayer.”

You have to start somewhere.

Ro: Well, if we’re not a spiritual people and we’re lemmings, that seems to call for a leader. Dorothy was such a leader for you, and Thomas Merton, too. Do you see a leader now that could possibly make these connections? That could get the…

Jim: In a way I guess they are non-leaders or anti-leaders. They are important figures in a way partly because they don’t try to take over the direction of anybody’s life.

Now right now, because of my interest in the Russian Orthodox people and the church and it’s tradition, I’m very interested in their tradition of staretz or startsi. Staretz literally means “elder.” But it has a very special use. It mean essentially somebody who is able to give spiritual direction. Almost always, it’s some elderly man or woman. One of them was a woman who lived in Leningrad in the twenties or thirties and probably will be canonized this summer at the Church Council at Holy Trinity Monastery. The Russian Orthodox Church has it’s first council in many years this summer at the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, north of Moscow.

Father Zosima in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov is modeled on a particular monk, Fr. Amvrosy, who lived in the 19th century at the Optima Pustin Monastery. We see him as a staretz. They are people who are able to give you permission to do something. To make you feel you have that capacity to do something, whatever it is. And who also are able to make you see your purpose, maybe, or to cut some knots that are holding you back. There may be something, which they can see very quickly, which you would never see or perhaps would take many years to discover.

Ro: Well, now spiritual direction used to be just sort of an “in thing.” If you were going to be advancing in your spiritual life in the fifties, that’s what you did.

Jim: Right. And it was still around when I came to the Catholic Worker.

Ro: Do you know many people that are in spiritual direction now?

Jim: Very few. I had the experience of going with Henri Nouwen one time to a little village in the southeastern part of the Netherlands. An old priest lives there who did the translation into Dutch of John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila. Henry is a great admirer of this priest. He went to him for confession. When he got back, he said, “I’m the first man who has been to him in seven years for confession.” You know, that’s where we are. It’s like you have these people who are living oases. And…and nobody’s using them. That’s sad. That’s the problem.

Ro: But you don’t see this happening in the Russian Orthodox…

Jim: No. I was staggered last week when a priest I know, Father Georgi, told me that far from being rare, these startsi are still around.

Ro: And people take advantage of them and go to them?

Jim: Yes! Oh heavens, yes.

Ro: And aren’t afraid?

Jim: Not at all. He said you can go into many parishes and ask who is the staretz and you will be told. Some are famous, and people will travel long distances to see them. I’m not saying that they are all famous. But then, who cares?

The great saints in the Russian Orthodox Church are usually local saints. I mean the saints that you will hear about, that are most interesting in a particular household.

Ro: That certainly used to be true in continental Europe.

Jim: The local feast would be very important. Well, I guess one of the things that I see happening in the spiritual life of the world is that from Vatican II we are going, as Catholics, into a new and much more profound ecumenism than we ever imagined. And it’s going to mean the discovery of Orthodoxy. We have, for a thousand years, forgotten we have brothers and sisters who are Christians in the Orthodox church. They have been taking care of something for us that we desperately need. And we have the privilege to live at that time where we can discover and bring something of it into us. It’s not a question of abandoning, but the question of rejoining something that has been a broken connection.

Ro: Rediscovering maybe?

Jim: There’s a story told about one of the senior dons a college at Oxford or Cambridge deciding that they would have to replace the oak beams in the dining hall. It’s this ancient magnificent hall with these big oak beams that go up far into the sky above their heads… gorgeous things. But they are five hundred years old, and will not last much longer. They discover, after doing some research, that the college owns a forest where there are ancient oak trees. It’s hard to find oak trees that would be tall enough to cut the beams needed. They send somebody up to talk to the warden of the forest. And he said, “Well, yes. We have been wondering. My father and my father’s father always were expecting somebody to come to ask. Because for five hundred years we’ve been taking care of certain oak trees precisely for this purpose. They’re here. And they’re ready.”

I think the Orthodox church is a bit like that. It’s been taking care of certain oak trees for two thousand years.

Ro: And yet, to throw the cold light of church history on it, obviously, the parting of the ways was very political. They didn’t just say, “Well, we’ll take care of everything for you until you decide to get back together.

Jim: Oh, no, no. But I think one just has to see something of God’s providence at work. And of course one of the great ironies of the whole thing is that the largest the Orthodox churches in the world, is the Russian Orthodox Church — which we in the West hardly know exists, and don’t even want to know exists, because it complicates our view of the Soviet Union. It gets in the way of the enmity that we are involved with — perceiving these people as fellow Christians.

Ro: The words my Dad always used were “Godless Russians.”

Jim: Right.

Ro: Well, can you relate what you’re doing in this journey with the Russian Orthodox Church and show what this means?

Jim: I think… the funny thing is that we’ve spoken for years about a peace movement but it… in many ways it wasn’t a peace movement…

To quite some extent we’re complacent. We’re not dealing very effectively with the forces in our society which push us to go forth. We don’t know what those forces are. We haven’t been contemplative enough to discover them. We know that something is rotten. We know that. We know that what our governments are doing is absolutely wretched. That’s clear enough to see. We know that selfishness is the driving force in our society. We know that we don’t want to have the live our lives that way. We’ve got plenty of things to complain about. And we’re absolutely right.

Ro: But you’re not seeing capitalism per se as the evoker?

Jim: Well, it’s certainly one of the most magnificent structures of selfishness that’s ever been created. The Pope has just published what sounds, from all reports, like a very good encyclical in which it’s hard to tell which he criticizes more, capitalism or communism. We each have systems which have for various reasons, and each of them with some good consequences, done awful things to people.

I think the communist system is by definition more idealistic, but idealism by itself can be just as dangerous as any nuclear weapon. God knows many people have died of the results of idealistic movements … more people have died in concentration camps and labor camps in the Soviet Union than ever died in a nuclear explosion. But at least communism has attempted to wrestle with selfishness. It regards selfishness as a moral problem. I think the tragedy about capitalism is it doesn’t. It considers selfishness a virtue. Capitalism becomes a glorification of one of the cardinal sins.

This is one of the reasons so many people are dying in the streets in America today. Think of all those nameless people who have been lining up at the Catholic Worker houses for decades. It gets worse and worse, and we don’t want to see it. We haven’t seen it. We still are struggling not to see it.

Ro: But now… I don’t know anything about Holland as far as their social system. I know Germany has a system that people say is taking care of a lot of the immediate social problems. In other words, they don’t have the tremendous number of destitute people that we do. They don’t have these great gaps we see in America in society.

Jim: The problems are getting worse, not better at the moment. This is true even of Holland, which has been one of the most socially responsible societies in Europe. But the pressures… I mean we’re experiencing the same cultural and psychological things. And we’ve got a lot of greedy people here, too. There are people who would much rather spend it on themselves than anybody else in the world.

Ro: Okay, so you’re saying that to be a real peace movement, instead of a complaint movement, we’ve got to do something to get rid of the selfishness?

Jim: That’s part of it. And the Catholic Worker, of course, is continuously interested because that’s very much the driving force, the center. That’s one of the main questions the Catholic Worker insists that we ask, that we have the duty to ask. But another part of the Catholic Worker movement… what gives you… I mean it’s not a job to be selfish or unselfish. It comes out of a healthy spiritual life. You just discover there are other things that are far more interesting than that. It’s not some awful burden that we are shouldering like a courageous Marine who is marching into the gun fire.

Ro: Well, almost everybody that I talk to says, you know, the reason that they are living the life is because it’s fun. Because it’s wonderful. It’s not boring. But then they don’t stay. They end up getting their VCR’s and cassette recorders… what do you call those things?

Jim: Well, you said at the beginning that Michael Harrington told you, “I’m still part of the Catholic Worker movement.”

Ro: He said, “I’ve always been a Catholic Worker, but in my own way.”

Jim: And I really think that Dorothy never was trying to mass produce a certain kind of Christian, or to give the correct list of possessions to people. “This you can have and this you shouldn’t have.” Rather, she was asking you to keep living with certain questions.

Dorothy felt that she personally had much too much. I can remember going out to a Jewish dairy restaurant with Dorothy for lunch one day and her lamenting how selfish she was, how she felt that she had much too much. And what were we doing? We were sitting there having a ten cent glass of Borscht with a little spoonful of sour cream, at the counter of a little delicatessen. But for her at that moment, thinking of people who had nothing, she felt as if she were dining at the Russian Tea Room. What was the difference? And she’s right. There is no difference. If you have that possibility to have this or that.

Ro: Well, but to be the gadfly, I think… probably the reason that Father Hugo was silenced was his tendency to scrupulosity.

Jim: Yes, there was a Jansenistic aspect to Hugo. I’m no theologian, and don’t want to pass judgement on him. I never knew him. I’ve only read him. But I think there was a tendency to idealize a certain kind of radical detachment from the material world.

Ro: If something is good, you have to give it up.

Jim: Yes.

Ro: See, you never really saw… I don’t see that in the writings of Dorothy Day. But you’re saying…

Jim: I think we don’t like to live with tensions. We want to have either the Dorothy Day that rolls up in the newspapers or Dorothy Day says it’s okay not to roll up in the newspapers. But we don’t want the Dorothy Day that has both of these messages because, rationally speaking, they cannot be simultaneously combined. In the actual experience of living, though, they have to be combined.

Ro: Well, obviously then, it forces you to make every decision.

Jim: Yes.

Ro: I used to say that mature Christianity meant being comfortable in the grey. But then I decided grey sounded pretty bad. Sounds boring and I don’t mean that. But you have to live in the tensions. It’s not grey there. It’s just flickering black and white.

Jim: None of us — certainly I would a fine example of this — are converted enough. And there’s a lot of things that I’m able to do or have done or own or plan to own that I probably shouldn’t. What would be worse would be for me to be comfortable about that.

Ro: In other words… as long as someone or you, yourself, can prick you…

Jim: Over the years I have spent a great deal of money on books. And I felt very bad about that.

I’ve often thought about the desert father who sold his one book, a Bible, because he read in it that you should sell everything and give it to the poor. I thought that was incredible. At the time a Bible was extremely valuable — a completely handwritten book. It’s a stunning story. I have felt haunted by it because I had more than the Bible. I have hundreds and hundreds of books. Though I had very little money, I spent most of it on books. I still spend a fair amount on books. But in the last two or three years I’ve spent a lot of money on music. We sold our car and got central heating. That’s fine. Everybody accepts that. We got a drying machine. It was a border line case for the Dutch. Everybody in Holland probably should have a clothes dryer, though, because of the weather. We got a transcribing machine and a tape recorder. And we have a compact disc player. That was an alarming acquisition for everybody that I know.

Ro: But that’s other people thinking of it…

Jim: But other people are also me. You know I’m watching myself and saying, “Oh my God ! I’m jumping into consumer addiction with a passion.”

Ro: The thing that I’m treasuring now is the computer, because it’s helping me as a writer. If you take this whole giving-up-your-Bible track like that monk, then I should give up that. I shouldn’t particularly give up the pair of shoes I just bought, because that’s really not what I love. I love the computer and the books.

Jim: Well, anyway, I think that all those kinds of things have a tendency to go in totally the wrong direction. Because it gets into a kind of shopping list approach to salvation.

As if Jesus on the last day is going to say, “All those who didn’t have this, you know, raise your hand. All those who didn’t have this, raise your hand. All those who didn’t have this, raise your hand. All those who didn’t have this…” after a while he’s going to find some people who didn’t have all the things that he has mentioned, and they are going to go to heaven. But that’s not the Bible. It’s not Christianity. That kind of thinking has nothing to do with Jesus. Thank God, it has nothing to do with our spiritual life. It does have to do with reducing the Gospel to a kind of fascistic system of domination where we are going to dominate ourselves, if nobody else, with a whole bunch of rules which have absolutely nothing to do with loving anybody. Nothing to do with caring.

I think, again, that’s one of the messages of the Catholic Worker. It never preached a Book of Rules version of the Gospel. It was, however, a bit vulnerable to scrupulosity because of it terrific passion for the poor. Inevitably we would attract people, and sometimes be very inspired by them, who made material dispossession their Gospel. But it’s not the Gospel. And in fact, I think one of the marvelous things about Orthodoxy and one of the reasons that Western church needs this encounter with Orthodoxy is because the connection between the spiritual and the material is so solid. So much more solid than it is in our Church, whether it be the Catholic Church or any of the other churches that have grown out of the Catholic Church. All of the Protestant churches have grown out of the Catholic Church.

Over and over again, we’ve had heresies of this kind — in fact, into modern times. It’s one of the things we’ve never sorted out. We’re still trying to figure this thing out. And I think, of course, the Orthodox are, too. But they have much less trouble with the connection between the spiritual and the material than we do.

Ro: Of course Merton figured the whole thing out by going east… even farther east than Orthodoxy. Now has that ever…

Jim: Well, that was a big thing for me, too. Buddhism. Getting to know Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk. I was very close to him.

Ro: Talk about that part. You traveled with him. This was through Thomas Merton.

Jim: Actually it was through the Fellowship of Reconciliation that Nhat Hanh came to know Merton. Both Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh were members of the FOR. And the FOR managed to introduce them to each other, and it became a very significant meeting for them, for both of them.

I traveled a great deal with Thich Nhat Hanh. He had much in common with Dorothy and Merton.

It’s an awful tyranny when other people decide who you will be. I remember Nhat Hanh giving me a question at some point, a sort of Zen question which says, “Jim Forest is a little bit like Dorothy Day. Jim Forest is a little bit like Thomas Merton. Jim Forest is not Dorothy Day. Jim Forest is not Thomas Merton.” And there were a couple of other people listed. “Jim Forest is not one of those people. Who is Jim Forest?”

It was a very important question to ask me because up to that point a lot of my life had to do with trying to adapt myself to be something like a combination of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh and Daniel Berrigan and several other people I admired. I came to realize that sanctity is not being somebody else. You have to pass through a lot of other people to find yourself, maybe. That’s one way of putting it. But in the end, you have to break away.

One of the saying in Buddhism that Thich Nhat Hanh emphasized was, “If you meet the Buddha, kill him” — because for you to become a Buddha, you have to kill the Buddha. I’m not going to go into a big explanation of it. It’s just… I understand now. I’ve had to, at one point or another, break with Dorothy Day, break with Dan Berrigan, break with Thomas Merton. In order to come back to me. But no longer with my tongue hanging out looking up at them, but just as people God has given me and us. Not to dominate my life but to grace it. And not to judge me but to encourage me. You know, there is an element of judgement in that encouragement, but it is first of all encouragement.

I’m not going to be saved by that. And I cannot be who God wants me to be until I can come to that. (Long pause)

Certainly Dorothy never wanted to be anybody’s cult figure. You know that. I think she nonetheless has to… just as she accepted the community of the saints, so do I. I think she has to be in that, too.

Ro: Okay, we were talking about that earlier. The icon of Dorothy. The Claretian movement.

Jim: As she said, “Don’t make a saint out of me. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”

Ro: How do you feel about this whole sainthood thing?

Jim: Well, first of all I think that Dorothy felt that she was a fraud, that people admired her and saw her as a saint because she had hidden from them the truth about herself.

Ro: Okay, is that part of why you wrote the book?

Jim: No, not really. I mean, I think you can’t write a biography of somebody without writing about things that were extremely important to their life. Dorothy felt very ashamed that she had not been able in The Long Loneliness to reveal certain important moments in her life… just as Merton didn’t write about the child he fathered at Cambridge in The Seven Story Mountain. Both of them had hidden very important facts, probably both for the same reasons — out of shame, but also partly because it was clear at the time that, had they written about those things, those aspects of their past would have dominated the perceptions of others in such a way that people would have just said, “Look, this is Dorothy Day who had an abortion” — not Dorothy Day, who is involved with houses of hospitality. Whatever the reasons were, she certainly felt ashamed and guilty about that.

Perhaps she felt that she was hardly different than Madison Avenue. She had created an image of herself which was misleading. Very few people knew about her abortion. If they did know, perhaps they wouldn’t be so quick to throw a halo on her.

And also it is a way of dismissing living people to call them saints — because then I don’t have to be like them. You can go to the zoo and admire the giraffes, and you don’t have to become a giraffe.

Ro: But yet it would seem to me if we’re all to be about being saints, it’s helpful to know that Dorothy did not spring fully good into being in 1933.

Jim: Right. I don’t think the biographies of people who…

Ro: Augustine’s Confessions. That’s the best one.

Jim: So far as one can tell, Augustine doesn’t hide anything. I think it’s very helpful information to know that. It’s a pity, though, that he was so upset about his past that his sexual theology was a bit obscure.

Ro: So was Dorothy’s.

Jim: Hers was very much the same. She was very much an Augustinian in that way. I guess because both of them had gone through such a cesspool that they just…

Ro: Well, if you want to get philosophical, that’s probably why the Western world has so much trouble with materialism or with the mix of the material and spiritual.

Jim: Right. Yes, yes, yes. I think that’s right. But somehow the Eastern Orthodox tradition, which grew out of some of the same issues, didn’t quite buy that whole thing. Maybe it’s the celibate priesthood that was the problem. That in the West the holiness and celibacy have gotten mixed up in our idea of faithfulness.

Ro: Well, all the women will tell you that.

Jim: I’ve played pope so many times in my life that I hope that I can never do that again. I don’t really know what is behind our problems. I have some guesses, and I just don’t know if they are true or not. But I very much admire the married priesthood in the Orthodox church. And, as Nancy was saying recently, it’s one thing to hear the spiritual life being talked about by a married priest and another thing to hear it being talked about by somebody who is not. It’s so different from your own experience that you just don’t know. I mean, you just don’t know how many bridges there are between you and this guy. But if somebody is married and starts talking to you about fasting or talks to you about anything, somehow you know that that’s a question in his life, too. He has a wife, and he has kids. He’s dealing with the same stuff that I am. So that’s different.

I hope and pray for that the Catholic Church to recover the married priesthood. This is one of the treasures of the Orthodox Church that we desperately need. And it has a lot to do with spirituality, too.

Ro: A lot of it makes sense. You know, as a woman that really makes sense. I think that’s may be the root. But I interrupted you with that flash on Augustine. We were talking about Dorothy’s biography. Why do you think you wrote the book about her? I think you’ve explained why you wrote the book… the process of writing the book about the Russian Orthodox Church. Why did you write the book about Dorothy?

Jim: I’m reading, at the moment, a book on iconography — Doors of Perception, I think it’s called.

Ro: Doors of Perception by Huxley?

Jim: This is not Huxley’s book. It’s the same title, but it’s an entirely different book. It has nothing to do with drugs. Oh, Huxley’s book is quite an interesting one as a matter of fact. The author is John Bagley. He quotes one of the letters of St. Paul where he talks about us more and more becoming… if we live in the presence of the image of Christ and we become like that image. As we live in that presence, the image converts us.

Ro: Which is the idea behind icons…

Jim: To write a book is a kind of iconography. And the only question is, you know, to do that or not. I think Dorothy is a saint. I wouldn’t be interested in writing about her otherwise. But it’s precisely because she makes sanctity accessible to people, to me, that I wanted to contribute to changing our idea of what we understand by the word “saint.” So that we aren’t thinking about a saint as some kind of giraffe — a perfectly admirable creature but nothing that’s part of our future.

If Dorothy can be a saint, probably anybody can be a saint. You know? She wasn’t copying anybody. She just, little by little, became free to be Dorothy Day. And she did that out of a lot of wreckage. She never felt good about herself, in some ways, but she did it. And anybody who’s been part of the Catholic Worker movement and thinks of sticking with it for quite some time knows what an accomplishment that is. It’s very hard to last for more than a week in many houses. Certainly hard to last more than a year. Dorothy was in a privileged position, some would say, in that she could travel about, and she had a lot of recognition and so on and so forth. But in other ways she was in a worse position than anybody else.

Ro: Yes, because she was…

Jim: All the expectations! And she had to deal with all this chaos and hatred and dissent and so forth.

Ro: And she had to feel responsible for it, in some ways, that I don’t think other… Well, let me qualify that. I see some of the heads of houses… Jeff Dietrich, in particular, has this… this sense of responsibility. And it’s got to be hard because they do feel responsible for souls, kind of.

Jim: It’s a huge spiritual responsibility. Nancy and I saw this very often in the priests that we met last summer when we traveled together in the Soviet Union. We had never seen priests like that before. It gave Nancy a whole different idea of the word “patriarch.” Previously it had always been an extremely negative word.

Ro: Well, it’s bandied around a bit these days.

Jim: But people who are able to give leadership spiritually, and to encourage people in the spiritual life, as Dorothy did, carry an enormous responsibility. They are founts of encouragement. But really, sometimes they’re not at all impressive. Sometimes the very opposite. Sometimes there’s nothing less impressive in the whole world than this kind of patriarch or matriarch. Of course there are matriarchs, too.

Ro: There are?

Jim: Like Dorothy. Dorothy was something like the powerful abbesses of medieval times.

Nancy: There are the Matuskas.

Jim: Yes, the Matuskas. The wife of priest is a very important person in the Russian Orthodox Church. Priest and priest’s wife — it’s a dual vocation.

Ro: To get back to the book on Dorothy for one last thing. There are people that say that to use a novel, even if it’s very thinly disguised autobiography, isn’t exactly…

Jim: The best historical method? No, I wouldn’t claim that it’s a work of scholarship. I hope it’s a true book. I think it’s a true book. And everybody that has known Dorothy well, and has commented on the book in manuscript or since it’s published, has made me believe that it is actually the best introduction to her life. I say that with complete modesty because so many people were involved in the writing of the book.

Ro: Well, I use it as that because it’s accessible. I mean it’s an accessible book. Whereas most… for the Coles book, for instance, you have to know Dorothy… you have to have read everything else before you can understand him.

Jim: People who knew Dorothy much more intimately than I did have said that, really, it’s right. These things happened to her, and the balance is rightly struck. I’m amazed at that because it was written all here at this table where we’re sitting, here in Holland across the ocean.

Ro: But it isn’t terribly balanced. It’s definitely oriented towards peace. Not towards… if oh, Ed Marciniak or some of those Chicago folks or some of the people who worked so much in labor, (would have written it.) I mean, you hardly mention labor until you get up to Caesar Chavez. You have to admit your perspective.

Jim: True. I suppose…

Ro: Which happens to be mine, too, because that’s how I came to become interested in the Catholic Worker. And you did too, really. When you think of it.

Jim: The thing about any biography (and I feel it’s especially true of my attempts at biography) is… um… it’s a forest compared to the life. No matter what. I’ve just read two excellent biographies of Peter the Great (who is not one of my very favorite historical people but a fascinating character.) But you have to realize how much the biographers figure in their books. And that’s certainly true of my attempt…

Ro: I think that’s what makes a good biography. The dynamic between author and subject.

Jim: I don’t know if it does or not, but it’s certainly a true… and to the extent that the writer tries to hide that. I suppose it’s a deceptive sort of thing. I didn’t try to hide it. I simply didn’t talk about it.

Ro: I don’t think you hid it. I think you did it very well with the afterward. I just think that anyone who tries to say that a biography doesn’t have the writer in it is crazy. Just like this book is going to have a lot of me in it. Even though I’ll cut out most of my words, it’s still me.

Jim: I don’t know how much of the labor thing I should have gotten into the book, actually. One of the principals for me was that the book should be short. And that means that an enormous amount of editing is… it’s a bit like the film on Gandhi. Even if it’s a three-hour film, it’s three hours about a life that was about eighty years long. What are you going to put in those three hours that will reveal that life?

Ro: Well, aren’t you also thinking of who’s going to read book?

Jim: I’m thinking very much of students I have known.

Ro: And they think of the labor movement a whole lot differently than someone who is sixty-five years old.

Jim: Well, I grew out of the labor movement. My father was an organizer. A communist party organizer.

Ro: But that really (wasn’t brought out in the book.)

Jim: When I came to the Catholic Worker, it wasn’t much of a stress, that would have to be said. Dorothy was never talking about it.

Ro: When Ed Marciniak came to the Catholic Worker, it was the scene. In the thirties, it was the scene.

Jim: That’s true. They had the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists.

Ro: If they would write it, they would concentrate on that and not on…

Jim: And Michael Harrington and that sort of thing.

Ro: Ed Marciniak thinks the whole peace thing… he kept calling it a cult. He doesn’t see it the way we see it.

Jim: I know he doesn’t see it. And there were a whole bunch of people who broke off from the movement over that issue, but I think it was central to Dorothy Day’s thinking from the very beginning. Even in the first six months, you see it emerging as one of the principal themes in the paper.

Dorothy took a huge beating over the Spanish Civil War. If I remember what Dorothy said correctly (I’ve never had the chance to do the research on this), the Catholic Worker was expelled from the Catholic Press Association for its failure to support Franco. In fact the paper supported neither side. And Dorothy never would rejoin, according… if I remember correctly what she said. I think I one time proposed it to her and she said no. She hadn’t forgiven them. She was very… that had hurt. She had gone through a lot over that. And I’m sure that there were many people in the Catholic Worker movement who didn’t agree.

And this was before Marciniak was thinking about joining the Catholic Worker. It was the Second World War which become the big issue in Chicago. They had people like… I’m trying to think of his name. He who was a bomber during the Second World War. He later became a Trappist priest. Jack English. And the Chicago folks. They were closer to mainstream Catholic Church thinking about this than Dorothy was by ten thousand miles. Pacifism was nothing new for her. They had just never taken her views on this too seriously. And precisely because she was a matriarch, she wasn’t ashamed to be out of step with practically everybody in the Catholic Worker movement. And to fight like a mother for her kids. She did the right thing. I think everybody knows that. But it was a very peculiar idea at the time.

Again, I would just say sanctity makes it possible to be free. And that she was free to do anything, and she never felt that she was out of step with the tradition by doing it. She knew that she was out of step with most people. But she felt they were out of step with the authentic tradition. Whether they were bishops or whether they were running a Catholic Worker community.

Ro: Do you think that the Roman Catholic Church in America will ever become a peace church?

Jim: I don’t know. I just don’t know what’s going to happen in the Church, how it’s going to develop. It’s obviously going through a big change. The peace pastoral of the American Catholic Bishops is far from the perfect document, but it’s a wonderful letter. It’s a treasure of the church. There are inconsistencies in it, but it’s still a wonderful thing. I think what’s most remarkable about it is what it has to say about Jesus and the New Testament and the whole biblical tradition. This is a recovery of something that was lost and footnoted to death in the Catholic Church. And I think the Catholic Worker’s contribution to that was essential, really. I don’t think it would have happened if it hadn’t been for the Catholic Worker. And it wasn’t just an American phenomena.

Dorothy’s impact and the Catholic Worker’s impact on the church internationally has been quite significant. I think that’s growing, actually. It’s quite a remarkable thing when you think about it. That Dorothy was invited to receive communion from the Pope when she was in Rome for that big conference. I don’t think people realize how unusual it is for something like that to happen to anybody. And that she and an astronaut should be the two Americans chosen. Also that Cardinal Cooke should be asked by the Pope to bring Dorothy a birthday message when she was very ill. The Cardinal doesn’t usually deliver birthday messages from the Pope to anybody.

She touched the Church. They felt her presence. She mattered in her lifetime to people who didn’t even think they agreed with her. That they could not resist that sense of the presence of God in her life.

I can remember opening an envelope from Cardinal MacIntrye in Los Angeles with a check and a note to Dorothy: “This is to thicken the soup.” Well, we didn’t have a “thicken the soup” fund at the Catholic Worker. It was just one bank account. Everything went into it and everything we did came out of it. And he knew that. Dorothy never made any pretense to the contrary. It was all one thing. If you sent fifty dollars to the Catholic Worker, it got used. Period. The Cardinal sent the money anyway.

I remember people would be very critical of Cardinal Spellman, and I was not least among them. And Dorothy could on occasion be critical of Cardinal Spellman. But if you were critical about Cardinal Spellman, she would always speak up for him. And it wouldn’t be in generalities. She would talk about something he had done. I think it was Dorothy who told me that Spellman had priests who didn’t like to receive night calls to go down to the Bowery to administer the last rites. Spellman told the person answering the phone, “If any of those calls come through, give them to me personally”. And she knew things like that about people, and she would tell them to show their good side.

I think one of the unusual things about Dorothy was quite different than most of us. If we decided we didn’t like somebody, we’d make it a kind of hobby to collect reasons not to like that person. We could develop quite a number of reasons to justify our irritation. Dorothy had a lot of reasons to dislike Cardinal Spellman, but it was more her hobby to find out things to admire about him. That’s very unusual. And I think it’s important. Somehow it should open some doors for all of us.

Ro: Ummm hmmm… Now if the canonization, the whole process–devil’s advocate and all of that stuff. If it actually gets going, how do you think that’s going to affect the Catholic Worker movement?

Jim: Well, it seems that all the religious orders have survived the canonization of their founders. Maybe the Catholic Worker can, too. The Catholic Worker is better defended against the problems of institutionalization than most movements.

It’s important for the Catholic Worker not to treat Dorothy as private property. And that this is basically an issue here. She belongs to the human race. She is a member of the community of believers. If the community of believers has the right from time to time to recognize some people as particular models of society, then they have the right to consider her. It’s not for us to say yes or no. I think we only have to be truthful about who she was and not attached to the consequences of it, really. Not try to be the policeman of this process one way or the other. I just don’t think that is the way Dorothy would want us to do. I personally think that she should be, and probably will be, canonized.


An interview: Remembering Dorothy Day (part 1)

an interview with Jim Forest by Rosalie Riegle recorded February 22, 1988 in Alkmaar while she was preparing Voices from The Catholic Worker (Temple University Press, 1993). Reigle is also the author of Dorothy Day: Portraits by Those Who Knew Her (Orbis, 2003)

Jim: So what should we talk about?

Ro: Well, one of the things we were talking about earlier was Dorothy’s attraction to the Orthodox Church. It seems you’ve been coming to it for a long time now, so maybe you can talk a little bit about your own attraction, too.

Jim: We’ve been in the Orthodox church in Amsterdam the last three Sunday’s in a row, which is remarkable. This particular Sunday was especially extraordinary. And every time I go, I think that I probably would not have ever found my way into this church, or even wanted to find my way into it, had it not been for Dorothy. And then I try to remember concretely what she did that ignited that interest.

I know that the first time I went to an Orthodox liturgy was with Dorothy. And I’m trying to remember where. It seems to me there were a couple of places. One was a tiny little chapel like the one we go to in Amsterdam, which actually is part of a Catholic parish and is rented out for Orthodox service. Now probably we went to a Melchite rite or some brand of Orthodoxy in communion with Rome, but it might not have been. I think once Dorothy and I went to the Russian Orthodox Church up on 94th Street. The whole thing was so out of this world. You know, I might as well have been on a rocket ship to Jupiter or something. I had never seen anything like it.

And I have the feeling that it was more than once. Yes, it must have been more than once, because I can remember…little by little, I’ve come to realize that some of the Gospodi pomiloi, for example, has been in my head and lying dormant for years and years.

Ro: What does that mean

Jim: i>Gospodi pomiloi? It means “Lord have mercy” in Church Slavonic. It is the principal prayer of Orthodox spirituality. It’s sung countless times in every Orthodox liturgy.

Ro: Always in groups of three like our Kyrie Eleison?

Jim: No. It can be. There is the prayer or litany of peace where it could just be sung once. But then it’s almost continuous, you know. The priest or the deacon will sing a line, and then we will sing “Gospodi pomiloi” and while we’re still singing the “Lord,” the other part of the prayer continues. So it’s almost like a rosary. You know, an antiphonal thing–they are singing many parts so you have this kind of curtain of “Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.” And it’s impossible not to join and sing it. It just draws you in like a current of water. It just… you can’t stay on the shore of it.

Nancy: It’s a beautiful harmony, too.

Jim: There’s wonderful harmony. You can really get into the harmony.

Ro: So you first became interested in Orthodoxy, probably through Dorothy, but then did it lay dormant?

Jim: Yes. But back then, my interest in Orthodoxy didn’t go any place because it had no place to go. And also, because I was like most men who are bright, fast, and ambitious, I wasn’t interested in those things. I was interested, within the part of the world where I happened to be, in doing the things that were bright, fast, and ambitious. To rise to the top of whatever ladders happened to be close by. And that is not exactly the same thing as a spiritual life. (laughter.) The spiritual life was kind of a side line. How you decorate the ladder, you know.

Ro: So this interest is maybe a sign of your maturity?

Jim: I don’t know. I have no idea. It’s God putting up with me. I do know that Dorothy is one of those people who have seen things in me which I never have saw in myself and still find it hard to imagine. But there were people like Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton who showed an interest in me and encouraged me and who, in a way, made me open myself up, sometimes long after they had died, to things which they had done and said… mostly said. Things that were just there.

And that gives me great hope for my children, for example, who show not the slightest interest in church except for the one who is too young to know that she shouldn’t be interested. That maybe someday the things which to them now are such an embarrassment and so ridiculous will have some meaning…

Ro: Well, you remember what the Jesuits always said.

Jim: What did they say?

Ro: Give me a child till he’s ten.

Jim: (laughter) Give me a child till he’s ten! Right. Well I keep thinking,… you know, I was thinking this during the holy liturgy on Sunday. I don’t need to worry about the kids because if I… I couldn’t possibly have imagined, when I was eight or ten or twelve or fourteen years old, where I would be as an adult. None of it. And there was nothing my parents could have done to do move me in this direction.

So you don’t have to try too hard, really. You don’t have to be embarrassed that your kids aren’t in church with you. You just do what you can and live the best way you can. It’s impossible to drag them to church anymore. We don’t live in a culture that supports that. It’s not normal. So you just have to live with that and hope that someday the values that are most important to you will suddenly open themselves for them.

Ro: Leave it to God.

Jim: Why should God be less generous to them?

That’s exactly what God did for me, so why shouldn’t I think that will happen for them?

But to get back to that time with Dorothy. We had Third Hour meetings, too. Oh, it was nice going with Dorothy. I don’t know if the group is still existing or not. But it… I think it may be. It certainly was around for a good long time. One of the first ecumenical groups. One of the very rare instances of a real ecumenism involving Catholics. And something that reached a deep level. I didn’t know how much it was unique at the time.

Ro: Why did they call it “Third Hour?”

Jim: It was on the third hour that the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles. So this would be the hour of the Spirit’s descent to bring the community of belief into being.

Ro: How often did you meet?

Jim: Well, I only took part in it once or twice or three times at the very most. And it seems to me it was always at Ann Marie’s apartment — an apartment on the East 70s. But I could be wrong about that. And that was probably where I first met Helene Iswolsky, or at least that’s the first time that she really registered in my radar. And I only wish that I paid lots more attention to her than I did, but I simply wasn’t able to. I wish I could have been one of her students — learned Russian from her and been in her classroom at Fordham. But at least I’m benefitting from her now.

I can remember Helene Iswolsky sitting there, looking very fierce. And I can remember W.H. Audin also there, looking like a basset hound. Also Alexander Schmemann and Alexander Kerensky. I don’t remember who else. Not many people. And I felt like… I felt awkward being there. Because I couldn’t possibly say anything or even think anything interesting in their company. It was so amazing.

I’ve often thought that everything that happens is kind of joke, that you get to be born in the first place– you of all people. Well, to be just a little kid sitting in on a meeting where they are talking about the broken churches and the tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church or icons or whatever they were talking about.

They might have been talking about things that today I could listen to with comprehension and even rapture. At the time, I was simply taking in faces. I can remember the faces but I haven’t a clue what they were talking about. Maybe if I really searched my brain, I would remember something. But that was enough, actually. That was enough, just to take in the faces. I think that was probably quite a lot. Just a few faces.

Ro: And such faces.

Jim: Oh God, yes! Isn’t it amazing what faces they are? Really. Helene not least of all. Later on I got… I never got to know W.H. Auden, but I used to live very near St. Mark’s in the Bowery, the Anglican church in lower Manhattan, and he lived across the street. And I would occasionally, quite often as a matter of fact, go to Mass at St. Mark’s in the Bowery. And he often turned up there in his bedroom slippers. With pajamas under his grey coat. Coming across the street for morning prayer.

Ro: Why did it take you so long to pursue this interest in the Russian church?

Jim: There is a lot of factors that go into this. One of them is the Catholic Worker. Dorothy–the books that she got me to read, going to the Orthodox liturgy with her. I think more important, though, is my missing very much in contemporary Catholicism a sense of…. (long pause)

Ro: That holy space.

Jim: That holy space. I’m not sure just how to describe it. I mean I was initially very put off by the fact that, in many parishes in the Russian Orthodox Church, it’s an unusual event to receive Holy Communion. I thought, ” Gee whiz! Here we’re way ahead of the Russian Orthodox Church. I mean, this is at least one place where they have a lot to learn from our Church.” Well, I do think it’s too infrequent in the Russian Orthodox Church. On the other hand, the reason that it is so infrequent is because there is this sense of…incredible holiness. You prepare for several days…

Ro: But isn’t that Jansenism?

Jim: No. I don’t think so. I mean I can’t say for sure, but not my experience of it. Because people do receive communion. But they want to really… first of all, they don’t feel cut off. I don’t think people feel like the islands and peninsulas that we feel like in the Catholic Church. I know when I’m in a Russian Orthodox Church and people receive communion, I feel much more involved in that person’s reception of communion than I do in a Catholic Church. I can’t explain that, but I sense that we are all taking, receiving communion through this person.

This is true in the Catholic Church, of course, true any place people receive communion. But there isn’t that intensity. There’s a kind of routine-ness about it. You kind of feel you have to receive communion. It’s not a question of receiving communion. You’re just part of… You just get on a conveyor belt.

Ro: Now, it wasn’t that way when you first came into the church?

Jim: No, no. Heaven’s no. And I think this is a pity. I mean I hope that we will somehow be able to… we’ve gone from one extreme to the other.

In the name of liturgical reform, I think we’ve routinized the reception of communion. And that’s proved not to be absolutely terrific. I can just speak for myself, not for anybody else. This is not some big program for the world that I’m on. I think… (pause) well, let’s back up a little bit. When I was window shopping churches, en route into the Catholic Church, the one church besides the Anglican that really excited me was the Black church. Now in the end, it just didn’t open its door for me.

Ro: Do you mean Black evangelical…

Jim: Well I loved, and I’ve always loved, going into the Black church. And I grew up in a Black community. Black churches in the neighborhood. I loved the tradition of the Black church. I loved its music. I like Black people and Black culture. But it is a Black church, and it is very hard for a White person to find a place in it. I’ve known White people who have tried to be Black, and it always seemed to me a kind of face paint to me. I couldn’t do that.

Ro: But you don’t feel that way in going to this Eastern Orthodox community?

Jim: Well, here in Amsterdam, there are mostly all Dutch people. And some of the them are Americans who have lived in Russia, for example. They come from all over the world. It’s funny how people find their way. I mean Nancy and I are active in the local Catholic Church. We sing in the choir, and on the Sundays when our choir doesn’t sing, we go to the Russian Orthodox Church. So we sort of have these two traditions that… we haven’t chosen either one of them.

Ro: Okay, so you don’t feel like you’re a spectator. If I went to a Russian Orthodox Church (We only have Greek Orthodox at home)… I’d definitely feel I’m at a show.

Jim: Right. For you… And certainly that’s how I felt when I started going to Russian Orthodox Church. It was as solid as stone to feel that. It was just as real as stone. And I was fascinated. And because I’m a writer, and like all writers I simply write as a way of exploring something, a way of living out my curiosity, I cooked up the absolutely crazy idea of writing a book on the Russian Orthodox Church. I say crazy because I don’t speak Russian. Didn’t plan to learn it, haven’t learned it. Have no background in the subject. I’m not an expert on anything. I submitted a proposal to the Russian Orthodox Church which eventually they approved [in 1985, once Gorbachev headed the country].

It’s a very complicated story. Every now and then I learn more about how it happened. I learned one more bit of it last week. But it so happens that they did approve it. Part of it was because of my biography of Dorothy Day. Somebody had read my biography of Dorothy Day, and it was a factor in his recommending that this application be approved.

Ro: So she’s still sort of helping you out?

Jim: She’s still somehow in there. Yes. It’s funny.

Ro: Particularly in this function, or connection.

Jim: That’s interesting. Because they recognize her, of course. They also like Mark Twain very much. He’s one of the most popular writers in the Soviet Union. They love her because she has some of the same gutsiness. Also, because she’s a spiritually centered person. I just learned a new Russian word last week, dukhovnost, the Russian word for spirituality. But in Russia you’ll hear it from secular people as well as from religious people. You can turn on Radio Moscow and listen to their English service. Within a few days, you’ll hear somebody use this word in English. They will be talking about the spiritual life or spiritual emptiness in our society or there will be some other connection. You’re surprised at these Marxists talking about spirituality? Well, all Russians talk about spirituality. Whether they’re Marxists or Russian Orthodox or Baptists or Jews or whatever. For them it doesn’t have this “me and God significance” that it tends to have in our cultural background. You talk about spirituality, you talk about praying — the you-God relationship. It has that, but it also has a lot of other things. It has to do with how you relate not only to God but to people. One way it was described to me by a young Russian Orthodox priest who was staying with us last week is that it’s putting love in what you do.

What you do is something we’ve left out of spirituality. Our spirituality doesn’t have anything to do with what you do. Dorothy said it does, though. You see, Dorothy had dukhovnost. This integration… I mean your spiritual life should be a point of integration. Not separateness but integration.

Ro: But when people see people on their knees, they see it as separate.

Jim: Who’s the “they” and who’s on their knees?

Ro: The people that for instance… we were talking earlier about the Catholic Workers that don’t have much liturgy in their houses. That are mostly action. They see it as separate.

Jim: Oh, yes. I think they’re in the culture of separateness. Right. And some people are very suspicious of even talking about prayer and stuff like that. Right. And the reason is… I mean I can understand it. I say “rightly so” because they have seen people who have this kind of insulated prayer life. It doesn’t connect. But I think in the Catholic Worker, we can say we haven’t as many excuses for this kind of silly idea as most people have because we have plenty of people in our movement, or connected to it, who are integrated people.

Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton were two examples of this. There are many others, people who did what they did, and connected in the way they did, precisely because they had a real sense of God’s presence in the world. A sense of astonishment and continuing wonder and delight. And also awe. And sometimes terror. That it’s something that doesn’t fit into any shoe box.

Ro: I sort of interrupted your flow on this. You went to this church in Russia, and then you decided to write the book. How did writing the book change you or deepen you?

Jim: Well, it goes on. You know, it’s a continuing process and God only knows where it’s going to take us. I have no idea. I know how full of gratitude I am for this opportunity to be in so many churches in many parts of Russia, praying with so many people, and to meet them in their homes and at other places that we’ve gone together. How alive they are.

Ro: Would you say liturgy has always been important to you because you’re a convert.

Jim: Oh heavens, yes. But I don’t think you have to be a convert to love the liturgy. One of the great tragedies of modern Catholicism is the extent to which the liturgical sensibility has been lost. I hope it will be recovered. It certainly wasn’t lost in Dorothy. But I think the liturgy in the West is being destroyed by secularism.

Nancy and I visited with Archbishop Kyrill, a young bishop in the Russian Orthodox Church. He was the head of the Orthodox seminary in Leningrad and now heads the diocese in Smolensk, a very ancient Russian city. It’s been many times threatened by war because it’s right on the route to Moscow for invaders coming from the west. You can’t attack Russia and head toward Moscow without passing through Smolensk on the way.

Anyway, he was saying to us, “Don’t be so sure that the things that you find marvelous about the Russian Orthodox Church are always going to be here to admire, because soon enough we’re going to face the same problems that you’ve been facing in the past. If things continue the way they are, we’ll probably have a secular society. We don’t have one yet, but we will. That seems to be the direction that society is going.”

And whether Orthodoxy can survive secularism as easily as it survived Peter the Great, Kathryn the II, Stalin and Lenin and everybody else… you know, repression is a hell of a lot easier to survive than co-option. Secularism and the consumer society is basically a process of co-option. More than anything else, secularism is destroying the liturgically experienced religious life for the people in the West. Whether it’s the United States or Holland or Sweden. Whatever country we want to talk about.

Ro: There’s no longer a sense of difference, of mystery.

Jim: The loss of that. Yes. I don’t always agree with Cardinal Ratzinger, but he often talks about the pity that we have lost the sense of mystery. And people make fun of that, but I think he’s right. I’m sure the sense of awe in the presence of creation is the basis of the spiritual life. And the liturgical life that minimizes or tries to sweep out the sense of mystery, the sense of the miraculous, the timeless, is heading really rapidly down a dead-end street. Going out of business. Clearance sale.

Ro: But yet so many people in the States who speak of the Latin Mass with a fondness, also speak fondly of counter-reformation theology and way of looking at the world. Particularly speak fondly at that way of looking at the non-Catholic world. And would just as soon leave men in black to do everything instead of having lay people do it. How do you reconcile that?

Jim: I’m not sure where I come down. Erasmus was one of the progenitors of the Reformation, but refused to join it because he could not bear the lack of civility in the people who he sympathized with intellectually.

Ro: That’s such a snobbish…

Jim: It may sound snobbish, but I have a great deal of sympathy for it because for him the basic thing, the Christian commandment, was to love. And everything else had to be centered in that. Because otherwise there’s no center at all. Just ideas and egos. People on buses marked “career” of one sort or another. He felt if you couldn’t love each other on the way to heaven, there was hardly any point of reforming the Church.

And to call it a reformation when so much is bitterness and viciousness … I don’t know how anyone can regard that as Christianity. When we look in the letters columns of various Catholic publications we get in the mail … well, I have learned to avoid read the letter columns. It’s just too upsetting. They are so vicious. It’s not a question of whether you agree or disagree, it’s just the meanness that’s so incredible. There is nothing much you can get out of it. I get to the point of sympathizing with Thoreau, which is a hard thing for a journalist. He said, “If you’ve read one newspaper, you’ve read them all.”

Ro: Do you think perhaps that some of the divisiveness we see in the religious press isn’t, unconsciously at least, brought on by the same thing that animates a lot of journalism. You know, “good news is no news?” In other words, if you’re going to have an interesting letters column, you’re going to emphasize division. In other words, it might not be as bad as you’re seeing.

Jim: Maybe it’s not. I don’t know. I don’t have to edit the letters column for any of these papers, so I don’t know. And maybe it’s a problem of editing more than a problem of the actual contents.

Ro: But, on the other hands, the words we see in the Letters columns are there.

Jim: Right. The words are there and I find it very sad. And I think the Catholic Worker was particularly important in this respect because Dorothy’s theory and practice of journalism was quite different. After all, the movement grew out of a journalist’s head and out of her idea of how the paper should be edited. I suppose that had a lot to do with what she thought the movement should be. Even before the movement got it’s identity fairly well defined, even in the very early issues, you see that Dorothy’s slant is essentially a very positive one. She’s not trying to depress people into revolution. She’s trying to inspire people to revolution, and it’s a quite different method. She never ever used the columns of the paper to attack people, as far as I can remember. If she did, it was so unusual that it’s completely slipped my memory. And I have read practically every issue of the newspaper.

Ro: Particularly when you were doing the anthology [A Penny a Copy: Collected Essays from The Catholic Worker].

Jim: Right. Doing the collection with Tom Cornell, we read everything. And I read it pretty faithfully ever since.

Ro: You spoke of it in the past tense.

Jim: Well, for me, it’s across the ocean. And I’ve been here eleven years, and so I’m hoping that we’ll see something like it happening here. I don’t think of it in the past tense. But it is… it’s news from a distant planet. That’s why I ask you how it’s going in this house or that house. It’s been a long time, you know. I don’t get very many people here that can answer those questions.

Probably one of the good things about the Catholic Worker press is that it doesn’t try to answer those questions in the pages of the newspaper, normally. I mean that’s not what they try to… they’re not writing a self-portrait of the community. It’s not a confession of community life. That was never Dorothy’s idea. I think that’s very disturbing to some people in the Catholic Worker movement. They would like it to be. And maybe some of the Catholic Worker publications are a bit more that way than others, but most of them aren’t. It’s not the way, usually, for the Catholic Worker press, whether it comes from Los Angeles or New York or in between.

When I was editing the paper, I found that very annoying, in a way. I felt we were perhaps giving people too idealistic a view of the community. But I think Dorothy had seen so much of the other. She came from a family of journalists, grew up with this other idea of journalism and had been involved in other newspapers like The Socialist Call.

Probably the Socialist newspapers were much closer to the Catholic Worker than the mass media, but still they tended to print horror stories. You know, like Dorothy’s stories for The Call about living on two dollars a week. It was a different theory of radical journalism — a revolution inspired by fear and anger rather than a revolution through love.

Ro: Yet there are people that are saying now that the Catholic Worker is losing the stamp that Dorothy gave it, because she always did try to apply religious principles to what was happening in the world. Specifically. And the Catholic Worker is, to a large extent, ignoring both abortion and homosexuality. And those are the two issues, I think, that are causing the animosity…

Jim: I have wished that the various Catholic Worker journals were more outspoken in its opposition to abortion. I have missed that. I suppose the reason is that there is division within the communities, and so they decide that the solution is not to speak about it. It astonishes me that there is deep division over that issue, given the deep affirmation of life the Catholic Worker has.

But I’m too far away. You know, again I don’t know what I would do if I was in anybody’s shoes at one of the houses now. Or if I was managing editor of the Catholic Worker in New York. God knows what I would do! It must be hell, really. It was very, very difficult when I was there. It must be more difficult now.

Ro: Well, you weren’t exactly there in a non-dissenting period.

Jim: Oh, no! No, no, no, no. It was very, very difficult then.

Ro: But it always seemed to me that theologically the peace movement made sense, that no one at the CW disagreed much about that.

Jim: The differences we had then were not largely theological. They were different ideas of how to live out the values of the Catholic Worker. And different ideas of what those values were. And all of them seemed to be based on things that Dorothy had said at one time or another. Different groups or factions would take to this or that aspect of Dorothy. It was a bit funny, really.

Ro: Tell the story about the butter business.

Jim: Oh, yes — the great butter crisis. Dorothy, of course, was a great traveler, and was often away, or she’d be writing and be more or less hiding out on Staten Island. I’m not sure if it was because she just couldn’t bear to come into the New York House, or whether she had other things to do. It’s hard to know. A little of both, I imagine. But certainly she had a lot of other things to do besides babysit us in Manhattan.

And while she was away, all kinds of things could happen. And then she’d come back, and sort it out, probably just barely surviving these crises, and then go off for another trip, or go on retreat or something. So while she was away Stuart Sandberg and Diana Gannon, who were then in charge of the kitchen, decided that the butter should be given “to the line,” as it was referred to in the Catholic Worker community — to the anonymous people, largely, who came in just to eat and didn’t have a regular place in the community.

Sometimes eggs or butter that were given to us, or other nice things, but not enough for everybody. And the practice had been that they would go to “the family, ” which was the people who actually were part of the Catholic Worker community. I’d guess you would call most of them permanent guests. They had actually been there much longer than any of the so-called volunteers, longer than anyone else except Dorothy and one or two people like Stanley, who survived year after year.

So you had these new, very idealistic kids deciding what’s going to happen with little edible treasures that come into the community. And it was, of course, outrageous to the people in the family that they were suddenly not going to be receiving these eggs or this butter or whatever.

I steered clear of these factions. I simply didn’t know what to make of them. I didn’t know who was right. The whole thing was just awful. I tried to get along with everybody as best I could. This was before editing the paper, when I was just working there. I remember different people put quotations on the bulletin board from Dorothy Day to support their position. Which I realized at the time was really quite a joke.

One of them had Dorothy saying that we should roll up in newspapers on the floor in order to make room for people. Well, nobody rolled up in any newspapers to make room. It was a very unusual thing for somebody to even give up their bed, for Lord’s sake. And somebody else had another quotation from Dorothy about how we have to accept our limitations — that not everybody can do everything.

Now these were the polarities which Dorothy herself lived within. But you couldn’t live on just one or the other of these extremes, you had to live within that tension.

So she came back and made, of course, the decision that it was right to continue as things were — that the regular household members, the family, would get the butter and eggs. This infuriated Diana and Stuart. It would be interesting to interesting to interview them and see how they now look back on those events that at the time drove them out of the community. Diana is the daughter of a newspaper magnate and Stuart is a priest at Manhattanville College. He’s a chaplain there.

Ro: Now there was also — I don’t know who coined the word — the Big Stomp. That was slightly more serious, wasn’t it?

Jim: Actually that sounds to me like an Ed Sanders phrase. He was a graduate student at Columbia who was sometimes hanging around the Catholic Worker and was the foundering editor of the magazine that he claimed had been mimeographed at the Catholic Worker… one or two issues: “Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts.” The publication of the first issue was the occasion of the great stomp. I mean it was the real occasion. But there were a variety of things… Well, it was using the Catholic Worker in a kind of counter-cultural platform … they were people amused by the idea of a Catholic mimeograph machine being used to publish this outrageous journal. Well, today it wouldn’t be considered at all outrageous, but at the time it was pretty scandalous.

I was down at the Abbey of Gethsemani, staying with Thomas Merton. I called up the Catholic Worker. Dorothy picked up the telephone, which didn’t often happen. And she was angry. You could hear that she was mad! She said, “Did you have anything to do with this?”

I didn’t laugh.

“With what?”

“This, this, this, thing!”

Ro: Did she just walk in and find it there?

Jim: I don’t know. When she told me… it wasn’t easy for her to say the name of the publication, but she did. Then I could recall hearing people like Ed Sanders and Nelson Barr and Bob Kaye and Jean Morton and others talking about this. It was a kind of running gag, you know. Something people laughed about. How they were going to start this magazine. I never took it seriously. I never actually believed them. It was so outrageous. Just a joke. A high school joke.

But sometimes high school students actually do some of the things they joke about. And they did this. And now a copy of this magazine, I’m told, sells for a quite a bit of money if you can get a copy of it. Libraries interested in the sixties have bought it. If I had kept a copy, I could sell it for maybe five hundred or a thousand dollars. I would have enough money to visit America. (Laughs)

Ro: Well, tell me, in retrospect, when you think back to these days of the sixties — your coming out, your growing-up years. Why were people doing things… I mean how do you analyze that kind of thing?

Jim: Well, at the time, we were seeing the sixties happening right up front. People who were important figures in the sixties had some little connection with the Catholic Worker. Alan Ginsberg was reading poetry at the Catholic Worker the first night I came to visit. He read “Kaddish” there. It may have been his first public reading of the poem. And Ed Sanders was a very important figure of that period with his musical group, the Fugs. He liked doing things that were outrageous, just loved his work and was always looking for a chance to use in it in one way or another.

I think Dorothy felt furious because, in her view, they were using the poor. They were risking what the Catholic Worker was doing. They were compromising her tolerance and her hospitality of them.

But, you know, I’m not sure that magazine was even printed at the Catholic Worker. We didn’t have very much equipment. Our one mimeograph machine was a dreadful machine, but they claimed it was printed at the Catholic Worker. More likely it was printed on the War Resistors League mimeograph machine. Whenever I had to mimeograph anything, I went down there to do it. They had a much better machine. So I suspect that it was just part of the bluff of the magazine to say that it was printed at the Catholic Worker. But, if a copy had reached him, the Cardinal wouldn’t have been interested in hearing arguments about whose mimeograph machine it was.

We didn’t know. I don’t think any of us knew how nip and tuck it had been sometimes with the Chancery, and how hard it had been for Dorothy to keep the paper going as a up-front Catholic publication called The Catholic Worker. Not The Christian Worker or Jesus Says or anything but The Catholic Worker. On the one hand, she had to find ways to convince the Catholic Church that this was a sincere, deeply-rooted, obedient phenomena out of the sense of obedience, that it came out of discipleship and was an authentic phenomena that had a genuine place in the Catholic Church. Very difficult.

And on the other hand, she didn’t want to bother the volunteers with a lot of this struggle that she had. Volunteers who would come and go. It was largely carried on her shoulders. Perhaps with a few friends who we who were working there didn’t even know that much about. Her sister or people that she would spend time with and no doubt tell the awful stories of what she was having to go through.

Ro: With these kids, basically.

Jim: She was very good with the young people. She didn’t want to blow her stack at us too much. She tried to work in a very gentle story-telling, invitational way with us, by and large. But in this matter, I think she felt used. And I think she was used, actually. It was terrible, actually. What was going on. There was a kind of decadent quality about it, really. But it was what was going on in New York at the time. It was the sub-culture that was in New York at the time. And at the Catholic Worker, the door didn’t close very rapidly. Because the Catholic Worker doesn’t generally throw people out, people could find a nitch there that they wouldn’t find any place else.

Ro: When did you come to Holland? Right after you got out of jail?

Jim: No, I came here after several years of editing Fellowship magazine. And before that I was working at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine where we had a Thomas Merton Center. And before that I was with the Emmaus Community in East Harlem, which was sort of Catholic Worker offshoot. And I worked with Commonweal magazine right after I got out of jail. From 1970 to 1977, I was in or near New York City.

Ro: What made you decide to come to Holland?

Jim: I’d always wanted to live in Europe. Always — I mean for many years it had been an appealing idea. I had been over here a couple of times, well, maybe half a dozen times. In ‘64 I had an invitation to work for a peace publication in England, and I turned it down very reluctantly because I felt that the war in Viet Nam required that I stay in America.

That was long before I went to prison for the Milwaukee episode.

I’m just trying to think if the Catholic Worker had anything to do with getting interested in Europe. I knew there was a Pax movement in Europe, and I was very interested in that. I liked the Pax publication that came to the Catholic Worker from England. I think that was beautifully done and very interesting. And I liked English Catholicism a lot–Chesterton, and Ronald Knox, and Gill. It seemed to me that very inspiring things had happened in the English Catholic Church, and I wanted to know more about that.

There were also… we had links with France at the Catholic Worker. Things that had been going on in France had mattered to the Catholic Worker. Jacques Maritain had visited us and I didn’t know anything about Jacques Maritain. I really don’t, even to this day, know very much about Jacques Maritain. But I thought it was… somehow the Catholicism of the Catholic Church was made more real for me by the Catholic Worker.

Ro: But you didn’t move to Europe with any sort of… because of dissatisfaction…

Jim: I came to work for the organization that I’m working for now, the International Fellowship of Reconciliation. They needed a new General Secretary. At the time it was called Coordinator. The organization was in big trouble, and I felt I might be able to help. And I was very excited about the chance to live in Europe.

I was also very concerned about how parochial the American peace movement was. Or how parochial Americans are, including people in the peace movement. How parochial people are even the Catholic Church. I mean even when you are thinking of the world, it’s always in terms of America. It’s always as victim of America, or unbenefited yet by America, or something about America. You know, America isn’t like Steinberg’s map of the world where New York City fills up 97 percent of the known world.

By working in Europe in the peace movement, and also as a journalist and writer, I could do a lot with the things that interested me. I could do it better from here. And I think that’s true, actually. I find it easier to write here than I do in the United States because it’s much less distracting environment. I can spend at least one hundred evenings a year on the writing I’m doing. I could never do that in New York City or any place that I can think of in the United States, unless maybe if I went way out to the remote countryside. And God knows how I would make a living out there!

But the demands on you, the things that are happening, the things that your friends are doing, the invitations. I don’t have that much will power. I’d get swept away by all kinds of things. And two-thirds of those evenings that I’m able to use for reading and writing here would not be available for that use.

Ro: So it wasn’t dissatisfaction with the politics as…

Jim: No. As a matter of fact I’d be happy to live there again. I wouldn’t have any problems about going back to America. There are a lot of things I’d miss. It would be like moving back to the wild West compared to Holland, but that’s not why I’m here. I came here for something, not to get away from something. Now I’m here because the kids… I mean it’s home for the kids.

Ro: Well, this is now your home.

Jim: It’s not my home, even now, but it’s my kid’s home. And I’m very reluctant about being elsewhere … especially because the three children from my previous marriage would still be here. I don’t want them to grow up without me being close by. Also I need them.

Ro: It’s really nice that you can be together.

Jim: That’s very important to me. I grew up without my father being close by. I wouldn’t want that to happen to my kids. So if I can manage to stay here, I’ll do it. And it turns out to be very nice arrangement. It’s a kind of, not exactly a contemplative life, but a more contemplative life, in this little house in this little town, than we could lead in America.

Ro: Just having a street the size of Kanisstraat. It makes a whole difference in the way you think of life. It’s not having a car.

Jim: This house stands on the ground that a monastery stood on. And I think there is something of a monastic quality here. Something. Some sacred space. You can create sacred space, but you can also build on sacred space. And that makes it a little bit easier to create it.

Ro: Tell me how you met Thomas Merton.

Jim: It was like so many of these things, through Dorothy. Dorothy was corresponding with Merton. I think he started the correspondence. They were writing letters fairly frequently. Every couple of months there might be a letter from Merton. Dorothy gave me something of his to edit, an essay called “The Root of War is Fear.” It still amazes me to think of her handing a text by Thomas Merton’s to a nineteen or twenty year old boy. Not that there was much I had to do — stick in subheads and decide whether a few paragraphs that he had written as an addendum should be at the beginning or the end of the article. I think we might have even changed the headline, a thing which editors often do — to prove that they are editors, they’ll change the title on an article.

Somehow I wrote to him. Probably Dorothy suggested I do so. Whether it was over that article or something else that came up at that time. The letters are still around. We could look them up and see. But the correspondence, at the beginning, had to do with Dorothy. It had to do with the Catholic Worker. And I think that his interest in me had a lot to do with his identifying with a young person going to the Catholic Worker. Identifying with an eager convert making those choices. A lot of Merton’s spirituality had to do with wanting to do things which he couldn’t do. And so he identified with people who were doing those things. He felt the deep connection with some of these people.

What I didn’t realize until recently was that one of the largest blocks of letter Merton wrote were those he sent to me. I had no idea. How would I know? I was quite flabbergasted when I discovered fifty pages of letters written to me in the book that Bill Shannon edited [The Hidden Ground of Love]. And it’s not all the letters, just the ones Shannon found interesting, and only one’s written by Merton, not mine to him, thank God.

Ro: How did that feel to…

Jim: I remember feeling at the time that, uh… as if I had given a piece of the true Cross or something.

We were laughing over lunch in our office today about how many pieces of the true Cross there are… there must be enough to build a major city with. But then I was thinking that this joke is, in fact, kind of cynical and off the mark because if you actually got all the pieces of the true Cross together, there probably wouldn’t be enough to make a table. Because there was such a sense of the sacred and such a sense of the history of the Cross in earlier times that it wasn’t that easy, really. There was a sense of responsibility. Today, we have a caricature of this process. Dorothy wouldn’t have laughed at a joke about the true Cross….

Ro: Of course cradle Catholics don’t think there’s anything wrong with laughing about it.

Jim: Oh no. You can laugh about it. But what I was thinking as I went away from the table where I had been chuckling over this thing and into the darkroom…. Actually you’re probably wrong. I mean the joke was funny. The reality of it is that the joke is more revealing of our idea of the past than of the past itself. We know far less about the past than we imagine. And we don’t know…

It’s only through the Orthodox church that I’ve begun to have some idea of what it is to have the sense of the holy. We are so removed from that. We are so amused. We are so cynical that we just can’t imagine what it would be like if a piece of the true Cross came into our hands. It would hardly mean anything more to us than a piece of the true toothpick. It just wouldn’t astound us. We wouldn’t get down on our knees.

Ro: Now are you seeing this as a result of just secularism in general or of the Vatican Council?

Jim: I think it’s secularism. Vatican II was a wonderful event. The Holy Spirit was very busy there. I’m not grinding my teeth over any of these things. I think Vatican II is one of the places where it happened — the desperate struggle with secularism.

I don’t know… I just don’t know what’s going to happen. Happy endings don’t always happen. Visit Russia. Visit cities like Smolensk where only one or two buildings survived the Second World War. An entire city and fewer people than buildings survived. We think about happy endings, but most people don’t have happy endings. Visit the favelas in Brazil. People that have been swept out of their homes to their deaths on the hillsides. No happy ending. And I don’t know that there is going to be a happy ending for the West. We are always building our houses on the muddy hillsides.

Dorothy, I think, had a very acute sense of that. When I think of Dorothy, I think of her first and foremost as a woman at prayer. That’s always my first image of her, even while she was alive, and certainly since she died.

I can picture Dorothy in the chapel at the Catholic Worker farm, first on Staten Island and later up at Tivoli. I would sometimes come in there, and there she would be. If she was at the farm, there was a fairly good chance you’d find her in the chapel. Either there or at the table drinking tea. If she was at the table, she’d be sitting with one or two or three or four people talking. And if she was in the chapel, she would of course be by herself. Even if there were other people, unless it was Mass, she would be by herself. You would find her on her knees praying. Those old knees and those thick, dark stockings and those bulky shoes. She would be there for a long time. And I’m sure it wasn’t that comfortable for her to be on her knees at that age.

I can remember — nosy, snooping around, person that I was and still am I suppose — going up to look into her missile or Bible or whatever she had left on the pew. And looking through and seeing all these lists of people that she was praying about. In that unmistakable handwriting.

Dorothy was a praying person. It was very much that liturgical and sacramental center of the church which so thrilled her. She never lost that. And it was heartbreaking for her, later in her life, to see that there was very little of that left in the Catholic Worker movement, or a lot of the people coming to the Catholic Worker movement couldn’t… wouldn’t open those doors for anything. They were there for… oh, God knows! Who knows what their motives were? But they thought a lot of things that were very precious to her were ridiculous.

Ro: I’m thinking that it was generational in a way, and that maybe it’s wearing itself out. I mean that the sense of the sacred, or at least the sense of some sort of liturgical prayer life, is returning.

Jim: Oh that’s good. I’m so happy to hear that.

Ro: You know in some houses… we can talk about that later.

Jim: I’d love to hear about that. My fingers are not very near the pulse of that…

Ro: I’m hearing more people talk about it. It used to be like it was just not cool.

Jim: Right. (Laughter)

Ro: It just wasn’t what you did…

Jim: Oh, I was right there. I mean…

Ro: How many draft cards did you burn?

Jim: Well, I don’t know. Files, not cards, by the way. We took out sacks and sacks of them from this Milwaukee office building, and then we burned them.

Ro: No, not draft files. I mean your own cards.

Jim: I don’t know if I ever burned my own draft card. I don’t remember. I probably… yes, I did. Yes, there was a press conference, and I burned it, and it was in the newspapers. I should remember that! It didn’t seem to me very significant at the time, and it doesn’t seem very significant to me now.

Ro: Who was the one that kept… was it Tom (Cornell) who kept asking you for other cards…

Jim: Yes, Tom Cornell would burn his, you know, routinely. It was only on one occasion that it mattered to the government, and then he went to prison for that. Most of the time, they just scoffed at it. But there was some member of Congress who was up in arms about it at one point, so he was able to make it into a national issue. And so naturally, we enthusiastically rose to the bait because we were made for each other, that Congressman and ourselves. (Loud laughter) He opened the door and we flew through.

Ro: What I’m thinking about is that maybe… there were lots of rituals during the sixties that were not liturgical. That maybe (things like burning draft cards) took the place of liturgy for the young people who couldn’t pray publicly. I don’t know.

Jim: Well, I don’t have a very romantic idea of most of the things we did. Maybe later in my life I’ll have a more positive attitude toward it. I now think there was very little positive in it. It was the action of people who were in a state of fierce alienation, and there was a kind of embolism. We weren’t interested in breaking windows or writing our names on the walls. That was not nearly interesting or important enough. We were furious at America. Rightly so. And that fury was at the center of much that we did. And if we could do something that was outrageous, great.

But I think Dorothy’s approach was always centered more constructively. When that’s gone, the Catholic Worker movement is dead. Dorothy and the Catholic Worker movement centered its radicalism in care for people. And it has constantly made everything accountable to that experience — to what is happening to people. All people. The Catholic Worker has probably been saved by that centering. And all of us who are part of the Catholic Worker, in a way, probably were saved by that.

Ro: Well, she had trouble, I think, with the Milwaukee Fourteen and…

Jim: She did. Oh yes!

Ro: But she still cared for you.

Jim: She never said, “To hell with you!” Her first thoughts were sometimes quite different from her second thoughts. Regarding draft-record burning, her first thoughts were very positive, quite uncritical. I wish she had the second thoughts much sooner than she did, because I wouldn’t have joined the Milwaukee Fourteen — it would have been the Milwaukee Thirteen.

Her first thoughts about the Catonsville Nine were very approving. She expressed then in a talk at the National Liturgical Conference in Washington in the summer or fall of 1968. I was in the audience, so I was there to hear it, and her opinion meant a great deal to me. I was connected with the people who were doing this, and I was one of the people more or less responsible for the Defense Committee of the Catonsville Nine. So I was approving of it, but it had never occurred to me to go and do anything like that. I mean these were my friends, and they were going to go to jail. We needed to do something to support them and make what they had done significant, or to make it more significant.

I was quite astounded the first time the damage occurred at the idea that there should be another similar action. I was flabbergasted. Jim Douglas and I were together at some rectory in the Bronx, visiting Dan Berrigan, and Dan expressed his keen disappointment that nothing else had happened. My jaw just about fell down twenty thousand leagues under the sea.

Ro: You thought it was to be a one time thing.

Jim: I didn’t see this as some kind of new ceremony. And I still don’t see it that way… I’m not happy with it as a ceremony. I’m a critic of the Plowshares stuff. Ro:

Ro: But yet you went to the meeting in the barn.

Jim: That’s right. I went to that. Yes. I was, of course, passionate to do something about the war in Viet Nam and not just to be encouraging people to be draft resistors or conscientious objectors. What was going on in Viet Nam was very real to me because I had a very dear friend who was a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. We had traveled a lot together. So I was very open to this. But another big factor was Dorothy’s early enthusiasm. Then when she turned around and had a second thoughts, I was quite let down. But by that time I was in jail.

It has taken me quite a long time to agree with her. Her criticism was well founded and quite right. I think what we did was good — I’m not sorry I did it. But I wouldn’t build any shrines over it. It was a cry of the heart at the time. It disturbs me, though, to see it become a kind of institution.

Merton had the same feelings, a similar criticism. At the time, I was annoyed by both of them. Partly because I had my own thing to defend. You know, once you’ve done something like that, you put a lot on the line. You tend to become very annoyed with people who don’t agree, especially if you admire them.

Ro: Well, of course, now it’s sort of the pinnacle. Getting your stripes.

Jim: Right. Well that reveals precisely why I think it’s such a… (long pause)

Ro: Another thing I should have brought… I only picked up one of them because I didn’t have very much money and they were asking… but there’s a whole pamphlet now that summarizes the Plowshares actions.

Jim: I have one or two. I don’t know if I have that one. But I have…

Ro: You probably have the one Ann Montgomery edited. This is just a new little pamphlet.

Jim: No, I haven’t gotten anything new.

Ro: Anyway, but it just summarizes all of them and lists how some people…

Jim: Did this and did that. Kind of pedigrees.

Ro: Paul Kabot was in four of them. So talk a bit about why you find this…

Jim: Because I don’t think it touches the problem. One of the things that Merton said that impressed me very much, and that I have never stopped thinking about, is that the root of war is fear. That was in the first article by him published in the Catholic Worker. The thing I mentioned having to edit. I therefore had to read it. One of the nice things about being an editor is you actually read what the newspaper publishes. Maybe you’re the only who does. So I read it then, and I’ve read it since. If that is true, that the root of war is far, then peace work has to have something to do with helping people overcome that fear. If you manage actually to reinforce the fears, no matter under what banner you’re doing it, you’re contributing to the problem of war. And I think very often peace movement activities, not always and maybe not even only a small part of the time, but a significant number of peace movement activities, probably do more harm than good.

Ro: Who are they inspiring fear in? The people who are making the war decisions?

Jim: I think people who see the society collapsing, who see the structures of life collapsing around them… they’re living in a fear. They see everything coming apart at the seams. And then along come religious people, not smashing windows but attacking what they see as basic structures of society. That’s scary. One of the things that’s very often missing in a peace movement is a compassion for, a sense of sympathy for, those people who are frightened by Communism, frightened by change, frightened by AIDS, frightened by divorce rates, frightened by the possibility that their kids are gonna’ end up gay or whatever, you know, all the ten thousand things that they’re worried about… that they will be robbed, mugged, killed, raped, um… et cetera.

Ro: And you’re saying that an act of non-violent civil disobedience makes those people even more afraid.

Jim: It can. I think if there is a sympathy for people who are afraid and that you can work on that, you can do some very good things with an act of property destruction. I don’t think it’s inevitable that property destruction is bad. But when you decorate it with all kinds of slogans like “this is an act of disarmament,” I think that’s just hype, moved right out of Madison Avenue into the peace movement. For me, disarmament is when a person who has a weapon puts it away, gets rid of it, melts it down, not me taking your gun away.

If I steal your gun from you, that’s not an act of disarmament ’cause you want every bit as much to have that weapon in the future as you have it in the past. Maybe more. Maybe you get two to replaced the one that was taken.

It’s a question of how do we change? How do we become a converted people?

Ro: Okay, to get back to this fear thing. Maybe the act of the civil disobedience is, to the people doing it…. it’s a way to get rid of their fear. To mitigate their own fear. I mean, I guess I’m speaking pretty personally here. I went to the Pentagon alone, and I felt really vulnerable.

Jim: It’s a scary place.

Ro: Mrs. Middle Class. I had never even been there. God is it scary! It’s awful! But I mean part of the reason I did it… this may sound a little trite… but, for me it was meeting the beast. After I did that, I wasn’t as afraid anymore ’cause I knew I could do this alone.

Jim: Right. I think that’s a very significant thing to do.

Ro: I guess I’m thinking… I’m not sure… I talked to Jerry Ebner for hours and he never… he didn’t sound like this. But maybe the people that beat on the silos are doing it so they won’t be as afraid anymore. Like me.

Jim: Maybe. I don’t know. I really don’t. I don’t want this to come across like some kind of a big attack on the people that do these things, because many of them are my friends and I admire them greatly. And I know that they are spiritually very deep in it. They are wonderful people. Dorothy felt that way about us. She didn’t agree with what we had done, but she treasured us and supported us, wrote about us, published our things in the newspaper. (Pause) But she also made it clear that this was not her idea of the best way to bring about the change that we wanted. And I think she had something there.

It was about seven years ago when I realized that the peace movement in the United States and the rest of the West was going to get nowhere unless it started thinking about the Soviet Union. That, in fact, we were thinking about weapons all the time.

That’s another criticism of the Plowshares. It’s weapon centered. It’s not relationship centered. The problem is not the weapons. The weapons are a problem, but the real problem is the relationship. And that meant that we had to be much less ignorant about the people these weapons were aimed at. We knew practically nothing about them. We knew much more about the names of missiles and the names of airplanes and numbers of megatons and all these kinds of technical military vocabulary. We were very pleased with ourselves. We could argue with anybody in the Pentagon. We learned all about the arms race — in their terms. We knew their language. But we knew just about as much as anybody in the Pentagon, maybe less, but certainly not more, about the Russians.

So in my work, of course, I had the opportunity to try to go to the Soviet Union. And eventually the opportunity came for a little conference arranged jointly by the International Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Christian Peace Conference and hosted by the Russian Orthodox Church. It happened to be in Moscow. We were guests of the Russian Orthodox Church and were meeting in the office of one of the bishops. We were invited to go to a liturgy on one Sunday and did. And I had not since I was in the Black church experienced that kind of intensity in a worshiping community.

I had never imagined anything like that. That it would be possible for that many people, least of all in the Soviet Union, but any place in the world…forget about Moscow, forget about Soviet Union, forget about all that. I was amazed, absolutely amazed. The fact that it existed anywhere. Praying people are … you can feel them, feel their spiritual energy. You can go into a hall, and if there is somebody in there who is really a praying person, you know it. It’s a kind of smell. And when you are surrounded by thousands of them at one time, it is an experience.

Ro: What about prison? Dorothy wrote about this a lot. And I have a friend, Ardeth, who spends a lot of time in jail. To her, the jail is personally good because you’re one with the people who are really messed over in the system. And it’s a retreat. Karl Meyer used to say that he liked to go to jail to get away from the hospitality house.

Jim: There is something to be said for that. I certainly appreciated the year I spent in jail. Being part of a Catholic Worker community was good preparation for going to jail. Most people don’t have any preparation at all, don’t want to be there. But in the Catholic Worker movement, you have a lot of preparation. (Laughter) And there lots of things you can do with the time. And if you are of a mind to do so, it can be a very… I don’t want to romanticize it. It’s very difficult and lonely, but it can also be extremely significant and positive. I would say that the year I spent in jail was one of the best years of my life.

Ro: You had access to the books you wanted?

Jim: I was very lucky because we were in the Wisconsin Prison system. We went to state prison rather than federal prison because we were being brave, you know — heroic. And we had heard that state prisons were worse than the federal prisons. Usually that’s so. But it wasn’t true in the Wisconsin system. So by accident we managed to get our cake and eat it, too. The state prison system in Wisconsin has a library, a real library. Not just some old Zane Grey novels. It’s part of the university library system. So we could read our heads off if we wanted to. And I did. I read all the books Dorothy said I should read. (Laughter)

Ro: You wouldn’t have been able to do that if you had been running the (soup) line.

Jim: No. I wouldn’t… I don’t know if I ever would have read Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and Gorky and the others that have been so influential in my life if it hadn’t been for being in prison for a year, in a prison where I had the possibility to read those books. In some prisons, you might not have that chance. In many. But on the other hand, if I had come into prison from some other corner of the peace movement, I wouldn’t have even thought about reading those books. So that… a lot of the things that have happened in my life since then, would have to do with what Dorothy said I should read and then being in prison and being able to do it.

One of the main bridges for me in traveling in the Soviet Union has been Dostoevsky. Once you start talking about Dostoevsky, conversation takes wing. The formalities are over. You’re really talking about something important to just about everybody. Dostoevsky is a living presence in the life of anybody in Russia. Dostoevsky lives in their hearts as he did in Dorothy’s.

Dorothy is something of a Russian, in that sense. For her, books matter. Your life is not disconnected from your books. The reason books and authors have had lots of trouble in Russia is because, for as long as anybody can remember, books mattered to people in a very intimate, very deep way. I mean people will argue at length about different conversations in Dostoevsky or Tolstoy. They know them all. They have mattered to them in the way that Dostoevsky’s Karamazov mattered to Dorothy.

Ro: And they matter to you?

Jim: Maybe not as much as to Dorothy. I mean I don’t know. They sneak up on you.

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to continue, go to part 2:

* * *

Learning to be Peacemakers

lecture given by Jim Forest at the Catholic Peace Fellowship conference in South Bend, Indiana, on 24 March 2007

Every Christian is called to be a peacemaker. In the Beatitudes, Christ’s own brief summary of the Gospel message, he identifies peacemakers as children of God. But in fact, even after years of effort, not many of us are very good at being peacemakers. What we are good at is creating division, irritating our neighbors, ignoring and avoiding a great many people, thinking all too often how much better the world would be if only this person or that would disappear. We tend to love ideology — or theology — more than we love our enemies. We find a great many things to argue about among ourselves.

Yet, despite our many failures at being peacemakers, we keep trying and sometimes we even achieve something. Occasionally figs grow from thistles. Occasionally water turns to wine.

What I would like to talk about is some aspects of what I have learned about peacemaking over the years, and — as this is a Catholic Peace Fellowship gathering — I’ll try to connect it to the early history of the Catholic Peace Fellowship.

Perhaps the first lesson is that even very small endeavors can have significant results. When we started the Catholic Peace Fellowship back in 1964, we had only the faintest idea that it might make a positive difference in the world or in the Church.

The creation of the Catholic Peace Fellowship was originally an idea that came to us from John Heidbrink, a Protestant minister on the staff members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. John was deeply impressed by Pope John XXIII and also an attentive reader of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. When John wrote to me suggesting starting the CPF, it was toward the end of 1961, only about half a year after I had left the Navy as a conscientious objector. Since my discharge, I had been a member of the Catholic Worker staff in Manhattan. I shared John’s letter with Dorothy. She was skeptical — “Those Protestants just want to use you,” she told me. But when we actually started the CPF in the Fall of 1964, she immediately joined it and became at the same time a member of CPF’s advisory board.

In fact the Catholic Peace Fellowship was nothing more than a twig on the Catholic Worker tree. Tom Cornell and I had both been part of the Catholic Worker community in New York. Everything worthwhile we have done with our lives ever since is in large measure the result of having been close to Dorothy Day. Had there been no Catholic Worker movement, there would have been no Catholic Peace Fellowship.

In starting the CPF, Tom and I, and those who were cheering us along, wanted to concentrate on one aspect of the Catholic Worker message: its insistence that people called to do the works of mercy were not called to commit acts of war. You should not feed the hungry with one hand and destroy their crops with the other. You should not clothe the naked with one hand and drop bombs on them with the other. Conscientious objection was something incidental — you couldn’t be a guardian of life and have your finger on the trigger at the same time. Since its early years, the Catholic Worker had supported conscientious objectors, even calling for the formation of “a mighty league of conscientious objectors.”

In 1964 the Vietnam War was heating up. That August US troop levels were raised to 21,000 — not even half the number of US soldiers who were to die in Vietnam before the war ended eleven years later. In 1964 no one had any idea how huge a war America was wading into, how life-consuming it would be, and how much havoc it would cause. I was a journalist at the time, working for a daily newspaper on Staten Island. One of my earliest CPF undertakings was, in my spare time, to write a short history of the war in Vietnam. I recall being surprised, as I combed the public library for information, how little there was about Vietnam.

By the start of 1965, thanks to several donors, there was enough financial support for the Catholic Peace Fellowship for me to quit my newspaper job and to work full-time for CPF. We rented an unused room from the War Resisters League down on Beekman Street, just a block from City Hall in lower Manhattan. Tom Cornell soon joined the work, giving up a teaching job to do so. Financially, we were both walking on thin ice on a salary of $65 a week.

We published a newsletter and launched occasional projects, but it soon emerged that our main work was draft counseling. It was not unusual to have fifty people a week in need of help and advice. Some of it was done by letter, some by phone, and some face-to-face.

Part of this influx of young people seeking counsel was the consequence of our having published a small booklet, “Catholics and Conscientious Objection.” We had worked hard on the text. Various scholars and writers — one of them was Thomas Merton — read the draft text and helped make it better. Finally we submitted it to the Archdiocese of New York, applying for an imprimatur — an official declaration that the text contained no theological errors. To our astonishment, the imprimatur was given. We would not have been more pleased to have received the Nobel Prize for Peace. This imprimatur made it a good deal easier for the booklet to be accepted for use in churches and parish school. By the war’s end in 1975, CPF had printed more than 200,000 copies of the booklet. Undoubtedly it was a factor in the many thousands of Catholic conscientious objectors who refused to take part in the Vietnam War.

Peter Maurin said, “If you want to talk to the man in the street, you have to be on the street.” It’s useful to publish, even essential, but words on paper aren’t enough. Tom and I did a great deal of public speaking all over the country — at churches and schools, at seminaries and universities. Events were organized by the local CPF groups that had sprung up. Doors seemed to fly open, though sometimes it was the back door. I recall being invited to meet with a group of students at the seminary of the Archdiocese of New York, but it was definitely an unpublicized, off-the-record nighttime conversation by invitation only. The seminary rector would not have been pleased.

As was clear that night at the seminary, the word “peace” is often a problematic word, a word that alarms many people. Certainly the New Testament meaning of peace was far from obvious to a great many people, including lots of Christians. Part of our work was to try and restore the word, it having been so damaged by political abuse.

In contemporary usage, the word “peace” has been used by war-applauding politicians of every party and in many countries. The result is that, for many Americans, “peace” is synonymous with “Pax Americana” — a world conformed to the will of those who shape the policies of the USA.

Half a century ago, when I was growing up in New Jersey, I recall a slogan that was then being used to cancel postage stamps: “Pray for peace.” Every envelope that came into our house bore these three-words. Meanwhile, while every citizen was being urged to pray for peace, the government was exploding nuclear weapons in the Nevada desert and the South Pacific and fighting a war in Korea. In the same period, the US Strategic Air Command, the section of the Air Force responsible for fighting nuclear war, adopted the slogan: “Peace is our profession.” I wouldn’t be surprised if they use it still.

Not long ago, when there were still two Superpowers, the Soviet Union had its own similar ideas about peace. If you had a dollar for every Soviet poster and banner that had the word “peace” on it — “Mir” in Russian — you would be nearly as rich as Bill Gates. For the leaders of the Kremlin, peace meant a world whose political and economic structures were in harmony with the USSR.

For both Superpowers, weapons of mass destruction (not only nuclear but chemical and biological) were an essential element in their strategies for peace. Peace was thus a consequence of the readiness to commit mass murder.

In nearly every context of common use, the word “peace” has to do not with what is but what could be. Peace is seen as a future consequence of right choices made in the present.

What about “peace” in the New Testament? Here it’s a word used well over a hundred times. Remove the verses in which it occurs and you no longer have the good news of the Gospel. For example consider these familiar words from Christ: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14:27) Or this: “I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

The remarkable thing about peace, as Christ uses the word, is that it’s a condition that exists in the present tense, not something to hope for in the future once we have improved society. But from the point of view of the peaceless world in which we actually find ourselves, is such a thing possible? Does it make sense? How can one speak of being at peace when there is no peace? As the poet Bertold Brecht wrote, “A smooth brow betokens a hard heart …. He who laughs has not yet heard the terrible tidings.” In brief, a socially responsible person has no right to be at peace. How dare Christ give anyone peace in a world of daily crucifixions? What he should have done was to bless the troubled of heart.

From time to time peacemakers have to open the dictionary and do a little verbal archeology. The earliest New Testament texts are in Greek and here the word normally translated as “peace” is eirene. The noun has its root in the verb eiro: to join, to connect, to unify. It’s a verb that suggests being in communion. If you consult a biblical dictionary, eirene is defined as a state of national tranquillity, a time of exemption from the rage and havoc of war; peace, harmony and concord between individuals; a condition of security, safety, prosperity, felicity. Getting to deeper waters, it’s not something we achieve but something that is given — it is that peace which only can be given by the Messiah. Eirene sums up what it means to be in the kingdom of God and thus a person no longer paralyzed by fear of death, or, to put it positively, someone in a Paschal condition — a person who is risen from the dead.

Another word to consider is “blessed.” Christ says, “Blessed are peacemakers.” But what does “blessed” mean? The Greek word for blessed is makarios. Dig into the roots of makarios and you discover it means sharing the condition of gods, whose main attribute is immortality. We might say “Risen from the dead” in place of “blessed.” Risen from the dead are the poor in spirit. Risen from the dead are those who mourn. Risen from the dead are the meek. Risen from the dead are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Risen from the dead are the merciful. Risen from the dead are the pure in heart. Risen from the dead are those who make peace. Risen from the dead are they who accept persecution for Christ’s sake. All the Beatitudes — a ladder of divine ascent — have to do with how we enter the kingdom of God. It’s a project that has nothing to do with future expectations or the result of social restructuring, but simply how we are living day-to-day, here and now, in this damaged world. If we don’t know Christ’s peace today, neither will we know it tomorrow.

There is a much loved Russian saint, Seraphim of Sarov, who taught this simple maxim: “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and thousands around you will be saved.” When others encounter Christ’s peace in those who follow Christ, they can see the possibility of not living a death-driven, fear-centered existence. This is why saints are so important, saints being those people in whom we see the Beatitudes being lived. You meet a holy person and your life changes.

Consider the incredible influence one modern saint, the servant of God Dorothy Day, has had on so many people, and still has many years after her death. She has given us a vivid idea of what it means to follow Christ, an impression of what it’s like living in the kingdom of heaven, living in Christ’s peace, even though we find ourselves in a world of bloodshed, of injuries and death, a world of cruelties and tragedies.

To be missionaries of Christ’s peace was what we had in mind in starting the Catholic Peace Fellowship back in 1964. It was not an ideological or political enterprise. Journalists later came to speak of something called “the Catholic left,” but in fact we had nothing to do with the left. We knew considerably more about Saint Benedict and Saint Francis of Assisi than about Marx and Lenin. Our inspiration came from the Gospels, the sacraments, the liturgical life, the witness of the saints, and the teaching of the Church.

While many people helped us, our two principal mentors were Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. Dorothy was close at hand. We talked with her often and were part of the Catholic Worker’s extended community. In Merton’s case, though there were a few visits at the monastery, the contact was mainly by letter. These letters remain timely. I urge you to read them. You will find them in a book called The Hidden Ground of Love. Much that the Catholic Peace Fellowship did in those years was in large measure thanks to Merton’s guidance.

As they had so much influence on what we did, perhaps it’s helpful to consider what Merton and Dorothy had in common.

I would put at the top of the list their great gift for hospitality — their ability to make people feel welcome.

In Dorothy’s case, the greatest monument to her life are all the houses of hospitality that exist thanks to her. We even have one in Amsterdam, not far from where I live.

As a Trappist monk, Merton was part of an ancient tradition formed by the Holy Rule of St. Benedict, one of whose precepts that “each guest shall be received as Christ.” Not only was Merton part of a community of hospitality, but he managed personally to reach out, through letters and visits, to all sorts of people who in those days would not have expected a friendly dialogue with a Catholic monk.

For both Dorothy and Merton, to imitate Christ meant to welcome the other. The other is the neighbor, whether familiar or unfamiliar — including the stranger, the outsider, the afflicted, the alien, the misfit, the bum, the enemy. Hospitality was a refusal to treat anyone, even your enemy, as an enemy.

As Merton wrote in an early draft of The Seven Storey Mountain: “The ascent of the soul to personal mystical union with God is made to depend, in our life, upon our ability to love one another.” [The Thomas Merton Reader, p 146]

There is something else they had in common. Both Dorothy and Merton were people of prayer. For Merton, as for any Trappist monk, prayer was life’s main event. It was to lead a life of prayer that Merton went to the monastery.

While Dorothy was no monk, I have never known anyone with a more rigorous prayer life or a greater commitment to attending Mass than Dorothy Day. When I think of her, my primary image is on a woman on her knees at prayer — at one of the several churches near the Catholic Worker or at the chapel we had at the Catholic Worker farm. (We had permission from the archdiocese to reserve the sacrament.)

Prayer undergirds hospitality. Prayer is a pathway to meeting others no less than meeting God. For both Dorothy and Merton, it’s impressive to see their capacity to enter into dialogue with others, not only Catholics but other Christians, and not only Christians but people of other religious traditions, and not only religious people but people estranged from belief.

Anyone who was close to Dorothy and Merton learned by their example how important it is to live a deeply rooted, disciplined spiritual life. Prayer and sacramental life are not items to be worked into our agenda if we happen to have a little spare time. They are absolutely basic. Without them all sorts of worthwhile things we might wish to do are likely to go off the track, or to become extensions of our own greedy egos rather than acts of love and prayer.

Both of them made good use of confession. I think of Dorothy heading off every Saturday night to go to confession. I once asked her what she had to confess. “My bad temper, my impatience,” she said. On another occasion she told me confession gave her an opportunity to nip sins while they were in the bud.

I recall a story Dorothy told me about advice she received in confession one year before I had known her. For many years, she said, she had been a heavy smoker. Her day began with lighting up a cigarette. Her hardest voluntary sacrifice every Lent was giving up smoking, but having to get by without a cigarette made her increasingly irritable as the days passed, until the rest of the Catholic Worker community was pleading with her to light up a smoke. Stubborn lady that she was, Dorothy didn’t give in but it was a grueling act of abstinence and hardly less grueling on everyone close to her. With another Lent approaching, Dorothy was resolved to once again fast from smoking and told her confessor of her intention. He responded by urging her not to give up cigarettes that year — it was too hard on her co-workers — but instead to pray daily, “Dear God, help me stop smoking.” Dorothy told me she used that prayer for several years without it having any impact on her addiction. Then one morning she woke up, reached for a cigarette, realized she didn’t want it — and never smoked another.

Both Merton and Dorothy were ascetics. Trappists did not own anything, period. Catholic Workers didn’t own very much. Dorothy called this voluntary poverty. They set an example of not seeking happiness in possessions.

Just as challenging to me as Dorothy’s personal ascetic discipline was her attitude toward the Church. She was often criticized for being so disobedient in the political world and yet so obedient as a Catholic. It isn’t that she wasn’t aware that the Church is always urgently in need of reform — she was quite able of comparing certain priests and bishops to blowfish and sharks and on one occasion went so far as to join in picketing the New York Chancery Office in support of a strike by grave diggers. But her basic attitude toward the Church was one of obedience and gratitude. This wasn’t simply a tactic she embraced in order not to be so quickly dismissed by the hierarchy. As she once said to me: “We don’t save the Church — the Church saves us.” There were some minor church teachings that she more or less ignored — she once chastised me for putting something in the paper about a plenary indulgence that had been authorized by Pope John XXIII — but I don’t recall her ever rejecting anything that was in any Catholic catechism, including plenary indulgences. She saw herself not as a prophet whom God had commissioned to chastise the Church, but simply as a woman struggling to live the teachings that Jesus announced to his followers and grateful to be a member of the Catholic Church which, for all its human failings, preserved the Gospel message and welcomed her to sacramental life.

Another point Merton and Dorothy had in common was a commitment to nonviolence. Not once in her 47 years as editor of The Catholic Worker did she publish any words of approbation regarding violence but rather continually reaffirmed her commitment to imitate Christ, who neither killed anyone one nor blessed any killings.

Merton had made his views known early on, in his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, in explaining his reasons for being a conscientious objector:

“[God] was not asking me to judge all the nations of the world, or to elucidate all the moral and political motives behind their actions. He was not demanding that I pass some critical decision defining the innocence and guilt of all those concerned in the war. He was asking me to make a choice that amounted to an act of love for His truth, His goodness, His charity, His Gospel…. He was asking me to do, to the best of my knowledge, what I thought Christ would do…. After all, Christ did say, ‘Whatsoever you have done to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’.” [ SSM, pp 311-2]

Years later, in the period when he was one of the main advisors to the Catholic Peace Fellowship , Merton wrote: “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 [the Lord of Creation] in mystery, even in the midst of the conflicts and turmoil of the world.” [Seeds of Destruction, p 129]

Merton may have been, in the Latin sense of the word, a pacifist — a peacemaker — but he was certainly not in favor of passivity. What Merton found most valuable in the just-war tradition was its insistence that evil must be actively opposed. It was this that drew him to Gandhi, Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King.

One of the most significant publications that the Catholic Peace Fellowship produced in its early years was an essay by Merton, “Blessed are the Meek.” Merton’s topic was the Christian roots of nonviolence. It was especially written for CPF. Perhaps it’s time for CPF to reissue the booklet — and also make it available on its web site.

Another area of agreement for Dorothy and Merton was their non-confrontational approach to reform and renewal in the Church.

There is no time here to go into detail, but both of them, along with the Catholic Peace Fellowship, were deeply involved in the Second Vatican Council. Especially the content of Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, the Council’s final document, owes a great deal to Merton and Dorothy and even to the Catholic Peace Fellowship.

Another lesson in peacemaking we drew from both Dorothy and Merton is that, difficult though it may be at times, we shouldn’t be embarrassed to speak openly about God. God is a three-letter word that many people go to great lengths to avoid. Merton and Dorothy took pains not to secularize their vocabulary. It was Dorothy who said, “If I have achieved anything in my life it was because I was not afraid to talk about God.” Merton wrote in The Sign of Jonas, “The important thing is not to live for contemplation but to live for God.” Or as he put it in a letter to me at a time when I was struggling with discouragement: “All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love.”

Let me conclude by focusing on another lesson in peacemaking that was central to the example of both Dorothy and Merton: their amazing compassion toward people with whom they were at odds, and their readiness to meet and talk with opponents.

In Dorothy’s case, I recall how surprised I was to hear her speak in positive terms about bishops, such as our own Cardinal Spellman, who were regarded with outspoken contempt by most liberal Catholics. She was very resistant to the kinds of enmities that easily take root in people at odds with the world they live in. While Dorothy could sometimes be quite abrupt and on occasion lose her temper, in fact patience and kindness were her default settings, and they extended to cardinals and politicians.

Compassion was certainly a major theme in Merton’s letters to would-be peacemakers. Again and again he urged us to have more sympathy for the people who felt threatened by protest. He tried to convince us that self-righteousness will benefit neither ourselves nor anyone else. But without compassion, Merton pointed out, the protester tends to become more and more centered in anger and — far from assisting others on the path to conversion — easily becomes an obstacle to changing the attitudes of others. As he put it in one letter to me:

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

Yet, as Merton pointed out, most people are irritated or frightened by agitation even when it protests something ? militarism, nuclear weapons, social injustice ? which objectively endangers them and those they love. As he put it in another letter, “[People] do not feel at all threatened by the bomb . . . but they feel terribly threatened by some . . . student carrying a placard.”

Without love, especially love of opponents and enemies, he insisted that neither profound personal nor social transformation can occur. The paramount importance of love was a point he dwelled on in a letter to Dorothy Day, no doubt aware she would read it to all of us on the Catholic Worker staff:

“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 another 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; H.L., 140-43.]

Merton noticed that when compassion and love are absent, actions that are superficially nonviolent in fact mask deep hostility, contempt and the desire to defeat and humiliate an opponent. As he put it to me in a very insightful letter:

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

“Yet there is that danger: the danger one observes subtly in tight groups like families and monastic communities, where the martyr for the right sometimes thrives on making his persecutors terribly and visibly wrong. He can drive them in desperation to be wrong, to seek refuge in the wrong, to seek refuge in violence…. In our acceptance of vulnerability … we play [on the guilt of the opponent]. There is no finer torment. This is one of the enormous problems of our time … all this guilt and nothing to do about it except finally to explode and blow it all out in hatreds — race hatreds, political hatreds, war hatreds. We, the righteous, are dangerous people in such a situation…. We have got to be aware of the awful sharpness of truth when it is used as a weapon, and since it can be the deadliest weapon, we must take care that we don’t kill more than falsehood with it. In fact, we must be careful how we ‘use’ truth, for we are ideally the instruments of truth and not the other way around.” [Letter to Jim Forest, February 6, 1962; HGL, pp 263-4.]

Both Dorothy and Merton were firm believers in patient efforts simply to communicate to others what the Gospel is all about, what the Church teaches, and the value of paying attention to saints who in various ways set a timely example. This is not so much carrying out what are sometimes called “prophetic actions” as engaging in ordinary acts of communication. While being patient and even supportive of me and others who engaged in such dramatic acts of civil disobedience as breaking into draft offices and burning draft files, neither Dorothy nor Merton recommended such tactics as a method of protest.

Forgive me for speaking at such length! Though it’s nearly twenty years since I was received into the Orthodox Church and have been deeply engaged in the Orthodox Peace Fellowship ever since, I still feel a deep bond with the Catholic Church. I thank God daily for all that I have received from the Catholic Church and for having been close to such God-revealing people as Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. I still feel part of the Catholic Peace Fellowship.

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Text as of March 17, 2007
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Jim and Nancy Forest
Kanisstraat 5 / 1811 GJ Alkmaar / The Netherlands
phone number: 072-515-4180 (outside Holland: 00-31-72-515-4180)
Jim’s e-mail: [email protected]
Jim and Nancy Forest web site:
Forest-Flier Editorial Services:
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Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site:
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Thomas Merton: A Western Pilgrim to the Christian East

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

by Jim Forest

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

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

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

If for some reason it were necessary for you to drink a pint of water taken out of the Mississippi River and you could choose where it was to be drawn out of the river — would you take a pint from the source of the river in Minnesota or from the estuary in New Orleans? The example is perhaps not perfect. Christian tradition and spirituality does not become polluted with development. That is not the idea at all. Nevertheless, tradition and spirituality are all the more pure and genuine in proportion as they are in contact with the original source and retain the same content.

Along similar lines, there is this passage in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We come upon a final clue to the place icons had in Merton’s inner life when we consider the short list of personal effects that were returned with his body when it was flown back to the monastery from Thailand in December 1968:

1 Timex Watch
1 Pair Dark Glasses in Tortoise Frames
1 Cistercian Leather Bound Breviary
1 Rosary
1 Small Icon on Wood of Virgin and Child

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I heartily recommend as a form of prayer, the Russian and Greek business where you get off somewhere quiet … breathe quietly and rhythmically with the diaphragm, holding your breath for a bit each time and letting it out easily: and while holding it, saying “in your heart” (aware of the place of your heart, as if the words were spoken in the very center of your being with all the sincerity you can muster): “Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me a sinner.” Just keep saying this for a while, of course with faith, and the awareness of the indwelling, etc. It is a simple form of prayer, and fundamental, and the breathing part makes it easier to keep your mind on what you are doing. That’s about as far as I go with methods. After that, pray as the Spirit moves you, but of course I would say follow the Mass in a missal unless there is a good reason for doing something else, like floating suspended ten feet above the congregation.

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

If we wish to please the true God and to be friends with the most blessed of friendships, let us present our spirit naked to God. Let us not draw into it anything of this present world — no art, no thought, no reasoning, no self-justification — even though we should possess all the wisdom of this world.

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

* * *

Thomas Merton: 'The Root of War is Fear'

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

by Jim Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End of letter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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