Reflections on Saint Mary, Theotokos

iconographer: Leonid Ouspensky

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

by Jim Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us consider Mary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Orthodox Christians and Conscientious Objection

by Jim Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christ’s example

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Approach of the Early Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saints who were conscientious objectors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Age of Constantine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Just War Doctrine

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soldier saints

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

National identity versus religious identity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Kill or Not to Kill?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeking assistance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

Text as revised September 12, 2008

We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have met the enemy and he is us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have met the enemy and he is us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

The Essence of Sin is Fear of the Other

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

The Spiritual Roots of Protest

Talk given in the Vancouver Public Library 7 February 2004

by Jim Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s look briefly at each of these steps.

Love of enemies and prayer for them

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

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

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

Again to quote from a letter of Merton’s to Dorothy Day:

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

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

Doing good to enemies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turning the other cheek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forgiveness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking down the dividing wall of enmity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love as resistance to both evil and violence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A life of recognizing Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We will never see the results in our time, even if we manage to get through the next five years without being incinerated. Really, we have to pray for a total and profound change in the mentality of the whole world. What we have known in the past as Christian penance is not a deep enough concept if it does not comprehend the special problems and dangers of the present age. Hairshirts will not do the trick, though there is no harm in mortifying the flesh. But vastly more important is the complete change of heart and the totally new outlook on the world of man…

“The whole problem is this inner change… [the need for] an application of spiritual force and not the use of merely political pressure. We all have the great duty to realize the deep need to possess in us the Holy Spirit, to be possessed by Him. This has to take precedence over everything else. If He lives and works in us, then our activity will be true and our witness will generate love of truth, even though we may be persecuted and beaten down in apparent incomprehension.”

Servant of God Dorothy Day: Saint and Troublemaker

[This lecture was presented 8 June 2013 at the Portsmouth Institute, held at Portsmouth Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Rhode Island. Photos taken at the monastery are included in this set: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/sets/72157634051717182/. This is an revised version of a lecture first written for a conference held on Marquette University in 1997 that marked the 100th anniversary of Dorothy Day’s birth.]

by Jim Forest

Let me begin by mentioning that Dorothy Day had a special link with the place of our meeting, having been a Benedictine oblate of this monastery. The connection was made thanks to her friend and fellow oblate Ade Bethune, the Catholic Worker’s principle artist for decades. It was Ade who designed the widely-recognized symbol of the Catholic Worker movement — Christ embracing two workers — and did countless illustrations for the paper, many of them during the years she was teaching art here at the priory school. I understand Ade is buried in the monastic cemetery and hope to visit her grave later today.

Can you think of a word that describes a person who devoted much of her life to being with people many of us cross the street to avoid? Who for half a century did her best to make sure they didn’t go hungry or freeze on winter nights? Who went to Mass every day until her legs couldn’t take her that far, at which point communion was brought to her? Who prayed every day for friend and enemy alike and whose prayers, some are convinced, had miraculous results? Who went to confession every week? Who was devoted to the rosary? Who lived in community with the down-and-out for nearly half-a-century? Whose main goal in life was to follow Christ and to see him in the people around her?

A saint.

Can you think of a word that describes a person who refused to pay taxes, didn’t salute the flag, never voted, went to prison time and again for protests against war and social injustice? Who spoke in a plain and often rude way about our “way of life”? Who complained that the Church wasn’t paying enough attention to its own teaching and on occasion compared some of its pastors to blowfish and sharks?

A troublemaker.

And there you have Dorothy Day in two words: saint and troublemaker.

Mostly saints lived in the distant past, that is before we were born, and have been presented to us with all blemishes removed. We are not surprised to learn that Saint Wonderbread of the North Pole, daughter of pious parents, had her first vision when she was four, joined the Order of the Holy Pallbearers at the age of 11, founded 47 convents, received the stigmata when she was 55, and that when she died 20 years later, not only was her cell filled with divine light but the nuns attending her clearly heard the angelic choir.

That’s hagiography. It presents Saint Wonderbread as only one percent less perfect than the Virgin Mary. But what about the actual Saint Wonderbread? What the hagiographer failed to mention is that she ran away from home, had a voice that could split rocks and a temper that could melt them back together again, experienced more dark nights of the soul than celestial visions, was accused of heresy by her bishop, narrowly escaped being burned at the stake, and, though she lived long enough to be vindicated, felt like a failure on her deathbed. But all these wrinkles were ironed out after she died. Who needs facts that might dull or dent her halo?

If Dorothy Day is ever canonized, the record of who she was, what she was like and what she did is too complete and accessible for her to be hidden in wedding-cake icing. She will be the patron saint not only of homeless people and those who try to assist them but also of people who lose their temper.

She may have been a saint, but Dorothy Day was not without rough edges.

To someone who told her she was too hot-headed, she replied, “I hold more temper in one minute than you will hold in your entire life.” To a college student who asked a sarcastic question about her recipe for soup, she responded, “You cut the vegetables until your fingers bleed.” To a journalist who told her it was the first time he had interviewed a saint, she replied, “Don’t call me a saint — I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”

On the other hand, as she said time and again, “We are all called to be saints.” She didn’t believe saints had different DNA than anyone else. Sanctity is merely loving God and your neighbor. It’s not that hard. Sanctity is something ordinary. The scandal is not being a saint.

I was nineteen years old the first time I met Dorothy. She was ancient, that is to say 62 years old — nine years younger than I am today. This means that for more than half-a-century she has been encouraging and scolding me on a daily basis. The mere fact of her having died in 1980 doesn’t seem to get in the way.

I met her at the Catholic Worker Farm on Staten Island in the days when the island still had rural areas and its only link to the rest of New York City was by ferryboat. I found her sitting with several other people at the battered table where the community had its meals. Before her was a pot of tea, a few cups, none of them matching, and a pile of letters that I had been charged to deliver from St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality in Manhattan. The Catholic Worker received a good deal of mail every day, much of it for Dorothy — and every now and then a letter for Doris Day. She often read the letters aloud, telling a story or two about the people who had written them. This was the Dorothy Day University in full swing, though I didn’t realize it at the time. She wrote countless letters and notes in response every year, but some letters she gave to others in the community to answer either because a personal reply wasn’t needed or because she wanted to connect the correspondent with someone else on staff. A good part of Dorothy’s life was spent reading and writing letters — even her monthly column, “On Pilgrimage,” was usually nothing more than a long letter. If ever she is canonized, she will be among the patron saints of letter-writers.

People sometimes think of her as the personification of the simple life, but in reality her days tended to be busy, complicated and stressful. Often she was away traveling — visiting her daughter and grandchildren, visiting other Catholic Worker communities, speaking at colleges, seminaries, local parishes, getting around by bus or a donated car on its last spark plugs.

Before an audience, she had a direct, unpremeditated, story-centered way of speaking — no notes, no rhetorical polish, a manner that communicated a certain shyness but at the same time wisdom, conviction, directness, modesty, faith and courage. She was never the kind of speaker who makes those she is addressing feel stupid or without possibilities.

Her basic message was stunningly simple: we are called by God to love one another as He loves us. Love one another. No exceptions.

One of the ways we love one another is by practicing hospitality. For Dorothy a house without what she called a “Christ room” was incomplete, as was a parish without what night be called a “Christ house.” For Dorothy, hospitality is simply practicing God’s hospitality to us with those around us. Christ is in the stranger, in the person who has nowhere to go and no one to welcome him. “Those who cannot see the face of Christ in the poor are atheists indeed,” she often said. Her words were similar to those of St. John Chrysostom, one of the great voices of Christianity in the fourth century: “If you fail to recognize Christ in the beggar outside the church, you will not find him in the chalice.”

Judging by the synoptic Gospels, the Last Judgment was not a topic Christ often addressed during the several years of public ministry that led up to his execution. The one place in the New Testament where we hear him speaking in detail about who is saved and who isn’t occurs in the 25th chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel: “Welcome into the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of all ages, because I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was naked and you clothed me, I was homeless and you took me in, I was sick and you cared for me, I was in prison and you came to be with me. I tell you solemnly that what you did to the least person you did to me … and what you failed to do for the least person, you failed to do for me.”

It’s an astonishing text. It turns out that we are not saved because we excelled at theology or were amazingly clever or received great honors or wrote books about sanctity or never got in trouble or never made mistakes. We are saved because we attempted to be channels of God’s love and mercy. Period.

It is a life inspired by the Gospel and sustained by the sacraments, the church calendar with it parade of saints, the rhythm of feasts and fasts.

The corporal works of mercy — each of them an aspect of hospitality — were at the center of Dorothy’s life and the basis of the Catholic Worker movement. In addition there was also the day-after-day practice of what the Catholic Church calls the spiritual works of mercy: admonishing the sinner, instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, comforting the sorrowful, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving all injuries, praying for the living and the dead.

Dorothy helped us understand that a life of hospitality has many levels: there is hunger not only for food but also for faith, not only for a place at the table but also for a real welcome, not only for assistance but also for listening, not only words said as if recited from a script but kind words. There is not only hospitality of the door but also hospitality of the face and heart. Hospitality of the heart transforms the way we see people and how we respond to them. Their needs become important to us.

A new words about Dorothy’s remarkable life:

From birth onward, nearly all of Dorothy’s adult life was spent in or near New York City. In 1916, when she was eighteen, she was hired as a journalist by The Call, a radical New York daily newspaper. Next she was on the staff of a radical monthly journal, The Masses, until it was closed by the federal government for its opposition to World War I. During the war, she trained as a nurse at a Brooklyn hospital and worked twelve-hour shifts during the great influenza epidemic.

Dorothy was close to many artists and writers, including Eugene O’Neill. She used to hang out at a Greenwich Village saloon locally known as the Hell Hole. It was an adventurous time in her life but without much of an anchor. She had a lover who wanted neither marriage nor children. In a desperate effort to preserve their ill-fated relationship, she had an abortion. Her lover abandoned her anyway. Dark times! Dorothy tried to commit suicide but a neighbor smelled the gas and saved her life.

By the time of her conversion to Catholic Christianity, in 1927 when she was 30, she had experienced and survived a great deal. By then, thanks to money from the sale of film rights for a novel she had written, she bought a beach house on Staten Island, a small dwelling heated by a cast iron stove in which she burned driftwood. It was in that small house that, with her lover Forster Batterham, she once again conceived a child. This time she was determined not to cut short her pregnancy, which she saw as nothing less than a first-class miracle as she thought she had been made sterile by her abortion. As her belly swelled, she was filled with longing that she and her child would cross the border into the Catholic Church. As a young mother-to-be walking on the beach or going to the post office, rosary in hand she prayed her way through her out-of-wedlock pregnancy, prayed her way through the Baltimore Catechism, prayed her way through the collapse of her relationship with her unborn child’s father, prayed her way to her daughter Tamar’s birth and baptism, and then to her own baptism, prayed her way through the incomprehension of her atheist friends who regarded all religion as snake oil, prayed her way through a good deal of loneliness.

If baptism was the first turning point, the second came six years later — a desperate appeal to God she made in the crypt of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. In her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, she wrote: “There I offered up a special prayer, a prayer which came with tears and anguish, that some way would open up for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers, for the poor.”

Occasionally prayers are answered quickly. The very next day Dorothy met Peter Maurin, an immigrant from France who was something of a modern-day St. Francis. It was Peter’s proposal that Dorothy found and edit a newspaper to make better known papal teaching on the social order and encourage its readers to build, “a new society within the old, a society in which it would be easier for people to be good.” Dorothy took to the idea like a duck to water. The first issue of The Catholic Worker was distributed five months later, the first of May 1933, and that December, the first house of hospitality — in fact initially an apartment of hospitality — was started. By December the paper’s print run, which had been 2,500 for the May issue, reached 100,000. Houses of hospitality were soon being founded in other cities.

In 1961, when I arrived, St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality was on Chrystie Street — a decrepit three-storey building a block from the Bowery, in those days one of the city’s grimmest areas, now the much yuppified East Village. As there wasn’t enough room inside, the down-and-out were often lined up at the door waiting their turn either for a place at one of the three bench-like tables or access to the clothing rooms on the next floor.

In the period I was there, Dorothy’s office at the Catholic Worker, just inside the front door, was hardly big enough for her desk. I served as managing editor of the paper for a short time, and it was in that office that she and I would sometimes discuss — occasionally argue — about what should be in the next issue. It wasn’t the easiest place for conversation. The ground floor was where food was prepared and meals served. From morning till night, it tended to be noisy. Sitting at her desk one afternoon, talking about the next issue, we could hardly hear each other. On one occasion, Dorothy got up, opened her office door and yelled “Holy silence!” For a minute or two, it was almost quiet.

On the second floor, site of the two clothing rooms, one for men, one for women, there was an area used for daily prayer — lauds, vespers, compline — as well as recitation of the rosary every afternoon. None of this was obligatory, but part of the community was always present, the community being a mixture of “staff” (as those of us who came as volunteers were called) and “family” (people who had once come in for clothing or a bowl of soup and gradually become part of the household).

It wasn’t a comfortable life. At the time I joined, Dorothy had a sixth-floor, $25-a-month, cold-water flat in a tenement on Spring Street — two small rooms, a bathtub next to the kitchen sink. There was a toilet in the hallway the size of a broom closet. This may sound uninviting, but Dorothy regarded the neighborhood as luxury enough. With an Italian bakery across the street, the smell of bread in the oven was often in the air, and there was always the intoxicating perfume of Italian cooking. The San Genaro Festival was celebrated annually just around the corner — for a week, our part of Manhattan became a neighborhood in Naples.

When climbing those five flights of stairs finally became too much for Dorothy’s aging knees, we moved her to a similar apartment on Ridge Street that was only one flight up. It was also $25 a month, but in a seedier neighborhood. The place was in appalling condition. Two of us went down to clean and paint the two rooms, dragging box after box of old linoleum and other debris down to the street, including what seemed to us a hideous painting of the Holy Family — Mary, Joseph and Jesus rendered in a few bright colors against a battleship grey background on a piece of plywood. We shook our heads before depositing it with the trash along the curb. Not long after Dorothy arrived carrying this primitive icon. “Look what I found! The Holy Family! It’s a providential sign, a blessing.” She put it on the mantle of the apartment’s bricked-up fireplace. It’s an example of Dorothy’s talent for finding beauty where others, in this case Jim Forest who has since written a book on praying with icons, saw only rubbish.

If Dorothy was one of the freest, least fear-driven persons I’ve ever known, she was also one of the most disciplined. This was most notable in her religious life. Whether traveling or at home, it was a rare day when Dorothy didn’t go to Mass, while on Saturday evenings she went to confession. Sacramental life was the bedrock of her existence. She never obliged anyone to follow her example, but God knows she gave an example. When I think of her, the first image that comes to mind is Dorothy on her knees praying before the Blessed Sacrament either in the chapel at the farm or in one of several urban parish churches near the Catholic Worker. One day, looking into the Bible and Missal she had left behind when she was summoned for an emergency phone call, I found long lists of people, living and dead, whom she prayed for daily. She had a special list of people who had committed suicide.

Occasionally she spoke about the importance of prayer: “We feed the hungry, yes,” she once explained. “We try to shelter the homeless and give them clothes, but there is strong faith at work. We pray. If an outsider who comes to visit us doesn’t pay attention to our praying and what that means, then he’ll miss the whole point.”

She was attentive to fast days and fast seasons. It was in that connection she told me a story about prayer. For many years, she said, she had been a heavy smoker. Her day began with lighting up a cigarette. Her big 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 community was praying with fervor that she would resume smoking. One year, as Lent approached, the priest who ordinarily heard her confessions told her not to give up cigarettes as usual but instead to pray daily, “Dear God, help me stop smoking.” 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, and realized she didn’t want it — and never smoked another. Moral? God answers prayers but one often has to be persistent.

People sometimes tell me how lucky I am to have once been part of the community led by Dorothy Day. They seem to imagine a group of more or less saintly people having a wonderful time doing good works. In reality Catholic Worker community life in Manhattan in the early sixties had much in common with purgatory. The “staff” was made up of people with very different backgrounds, interests, temperaments and convictions, some quite pious, some on the borderline between Catholic and ex-Catholic. We ranged from the gregarious to the permanently furious. Agreement among us was as rare as visits by the President of the United States.

The most bitter dispute I experienced had to do with how best to use the small amounts of eggs, butter and other rarities that were sometimes donated to us. Should we use them for “the line” (people we often didn’t know by name who lined up for meals) or the “family” (people who might once have been on the line but gradually became part of the household). It had been the custom to save the treats for the family. Though we worked side by side, saw each other daily, and prayed together, staff tension had become too acute for staff meetings. Dorothy or office manager Charlie Butterworth handed out the jobs, and once you had a job, it was yours until you stopped doing it. The final authority was Dorothy Day, not a responsibility she wanted or enjoyed, but no one else could make a final decision that would be respected by the entire staff. (Tom, Cornell has remarked that Dorothy Day was well-suited to be an anarchist so long as she was the chief anarch.)

In this case, when Dorothy returned from a cross-country speaking trip, she told the two people running the kitchen that the butter and eggs should once again go to the family, which led to their resigning from kitchen work and soon after leaving the community trailing black smoke, convinced that the actual Dorothy Day wasn’t living up to the writings of Dorothy Day.

One of the miracles of Dorothy’s life is that she remained part of what was often a conflict-torn community for nearly half a century. Still more remarkable, she remained a person of hope and gratitude to the end. She often spoke of “the duty of hope.”

Even though the Archdiocese of New York launched a process in Rome for the formal recognition of Dorothy as a saint, and Rome has since given her the title Servant of God Dorothy Day, Dorothy was and remains a controversial lady. There was hardly anything she did which didn’t attract criticism and the criticism still lingers. There us something about her to both challenge and irritate anyone who considers her life, witness and writings. Even hospitality scandalizes some people. We were blamed for making people worse, not better, because we were doing nothing to “reform them.” A social worker asked Dorothy one day how long the down-and-out were permitted to stay. “We let them stay forever,” Dorothy answered rather testily. “They live with us, they die with us, and we give them a Christian burial. We pray for them after they are dead. Once they are taken in, they become members of the family. Or rather they always were members of the family. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Dorothy, who never seemed to be overly anxious about how little money there was in the community bank account, frequently set an example of passing on what was given as quickly as possible. In a memorable instance, a well-dressed woman visiting the Worker house one day gave Dorothy a diamond ring. Dorothy thanked the visitor, slipped the ring in her pocket, and later in the day gave it to an unpleasant old woman, a bitter complainer second to none who was known in the community as “the weasel.” We paid her rent each month. One of the staff suggested to Dorothy that the ring might better have been sold at the Diamond Exchange on West 47th Street and the money used for paying Catherine’s rent. Dorothy replied that the woman had her dignity and could do as she liked with the ring. She could sell and buy whatever she wanted or take a trip to the Bahamas — or she could enjoy having a diamond ring on her hand just like the woman who had given it to the Worker. “Do you suppose,” Dorothy asked, “that God created diamonds only for the rich?”

What got Dorothy in the most hot water was her social criticism. She pointed out that nationalism was a more powerful force in most people’s lives than the Gospel. While she hated every kind tyranny and never ceased to be thankful for America having taken in so many people fleeing poverty, repression and conscription, she was fierce in her criticism of capitalism and consumerism. She said America had a tendency to treat people like Kleenex — use them, then throw them away.

She had no kind words for war or anything having to do with it — for Dorothy war was simply murder wrapped in flags. She reminded us that the total number of people killed by Jesus and the apostles is zero. Dorothy was convinced Jesus had disarmed all his followers when he said to Peter, “Put away your sword, for whoever lives by the sword will perish by the sword.” A way of life based on hospitality and love, including love of enemies, left no room for killing. You couldn’t practice the works of mercy and healing with one hand and the works of violence and destruction with the other, giving drink to the thirst on Monday and on Tuesday bombing the water works. One must battle evil, as so many saints’ lives demonstrate, only by nonviolent means. Even the best of wars is a disaster.

No stranger to prison, she was first locked up as a young woman protesting with suffragettes in front of the White House in 1917, when she was nineteen, and was last jailed in 1975 for picketing with striking farm workers at the edge of a grape field in California. She took pride in the young people of the Catholic Worker who went to prison rather than be drafted — “Being in prison is a good way to visit the prisoner,” she pointed out. But she also welcomed back others who had left Catholic Worker communities to fight in the Second World War. They might disagree about the best way to fight Nazism, but the door was wide open for those who wished to return.

Dorothy was sometimes criticized for being too conservative a Catholic. How could she be so radical about social matters and so conservative about her Church? While she occasionally deplored statements or actions by members of the hierarchy and once picketed the New York chancery office in support of a strike by Catholic grave diggers, she was by no means an opponent of the bishops or someone campaigning for dogmatic changes in the Church. What was needed, she said, wasn’t new doctrine but our living the existing doctrine. True, some pastors seemed barely Christian, but one had to aim for their conversion, an event that would not be hastened by berating them but rather by helping them see what their vocation requires. The way to do that was to set an example.

“I didn’t become a Catholic in order to purify the church,” Dorothy once said to Robert Coles. “I knew someone, years ago, who kept telling me that if [the Catholic Workers] could purify the church, then she would convert. 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, they are no better than lots of their worst critics, and maybe some of us Catholics are worse than our worst critics.”

Pleased as she was when the Liturgy was translated into English, she didn’t take kindly to smudging the border between the sacred and mundane. When a priest close to the community used a coffee cup for a chalice at a Mass celebrated in the soup kitchen on First Street, she afterward took the cup, kissed it, and buried it in the back yard. It was no longer suited for coffee — it had held the Blood of Christ. I learned more about the Eucharist that day than I had from any book or sermon. It was a learning experience for the priest as well — thereafter he used a chalice.

Dorothy’s sensitivity for the sacred helps explain her love, rare at the time, of the Orthodox Church, famous — or infamous — for its reluctance to modernize, rationalize, speed up or streamline its liturgical life. (A joke: How many Orthodox Christians does it take to change a light-bulb? Answer: none. “Change!? What is this ‘change’? And, by the way, what is a light bulb?”) Dorothy longed for the reunion of the Church. She occasionally took me to the meetings of a small group in New York City, the Third Hour it was called, that brought together Catholic and Orthodox Christians, as well as at least one Anglican, the poet W.H. Auden. It was Dorothy who brought me to visit the Russian Orthodox cathedral up on East 97th Street where she introduced me to the Russian priest serving there, Father Matvei Stadniuk, who was later appointed dean of the Epiphany Cathedral in Moscow and secretary to the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1988, it was Father Matvei who launched the first project of Christian volunteer hospital service in what was still Soviet Russia, and it was he, not I, who recalled our first meeting 26 years earlier, but only when I had given him a copy of my biography of Dorothy. “Dorothy Day? Did you know her?” And then he looked more closely at my face and said, “I knew you when you a young man, when Dorothy brought you to our church.”

I’m not sure what had given Dorothy such a warmth for Orthodox Christianity, but one of the factors was certainly her love of the books of Dostoevsky, most of all his novel, The Brothers Karamazov. Perhaps the most important chapter for Dorothy concerned a conversation between a wealthy woman and an elderly monk, Father Zosima. The woman asks him how she can be certain that God exists. Fr. Zosima tells her that no explanation or argument can achieve this, only the practice of “active love.” There is no other way, he assures her, to know the reality of God. The woman confesses that sometimes she dreams about a life of loving service to others — she thinks perhaps she will become a nun, live in holy poverty and serve the poor in the humblest way. It seems to her such a wonderful thought that it makes tears comes to her eyes. But then it crosses her mind how ungrateful some of the people she is serving will be. Some will complain that the soup she is serving isn’t thick enough, the bread isn’t fresh enough, the bed is too hard, the covers too thin. She doubts she could bear such ingratitude — and so her dreams about serving others vanish, and once again she finds herself wondering if there really is a God. To this Fr. Zosima responds with the words Dorothy often repeated: “Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” So important was that sentence to Dorothy that I think of Dostoevsky as being among the co-founders of the Catholic Worker.

Another writer important to her was Georges Bernanos. Dorothy often repeated a sentence from his novel, Diary of a Country Priest: “Hell is not to love anymore.”

From time to time she quoted St. Catherine of Siena, a woman who had much in common with Dorothy: “All the way to heaven is heaven because He said, ‘I am the Way’.”

Perhaps Dorothy Day’s main achievement is that she taught us the “Little Way” of love. It was chiefly through the writings of St. Therese of Lisieux that Dorothy had been drawn to the “Little Way.” No term, in her mind, better described the ideal Christian way of doing things. As she once put it, “Paper work, cleaning the house, dealing with the innumerable visitors who come all through the day, answering the phone, keeping patience and acting intelligently, which is to find some meaning in all that happens — these things, too, are the works of peace, and often seem like a very little way.”

“It is the living from day to day,” Dorothy remarked, “taking no thought for the morrow, seeing Christ in all who come to us, and trying literally to follow the Gospel that resulted in this work.”

I’m sometimes asked, “Dorothy Day gives a fine example for people who don’t have a family to take care of and mortgages to pay, but what about the rest of us?”

The rest of us includes my wife and me. We have six children and, at latest count, eight grandchildren. We have too much and give too little. But, in my own life, every time I have thought about the challenges of life in the bright light of the Gospel rather than in the gray light of money or the dim light of politics, Dorothy’s example has had its influence. Every time I try to overcome meanness or selfishness rising up in me, it’s partly thanks to the example of Dorothy Day. Every time I defeat the impulse to buy something I can get along without, Dorothy Day’s example of voluntary poverty has had renewed impact. Every time I give away something I can get along without — every time I manage to see Christ’s presence in the face of a stranger — there again I owe a debt to Dorothy Day. Every time I take part in efforts to prevent wars or end them, or join in campaigns to make the world a less cruel place, in part I am in debt to Dorothy. What I know of Christ, the Church, sacramental life, the Bible, and truth-telling, I know in large measure thanks to her, while whatever I have done that was cowardly, opportunistic or spiteful is despite her. She has even shaped my reading life — one could do worse than to get to know the authors whose books helped shape and sustain Dorothy’s faith and vocation.

It isn’t that Dorothy is the point of reference. Christ is. But I can’t think of anyone I’ve known whose Christ-centered life has done so much to help make me a more Christ-centered person.

She died 33 years ago but it seems more and more people are aware of her. This past Ash Wednesday, preaching in St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Benedict described Dorothy Day as “a model of conversion.” At a meeting I had with Cardinal Dolan a few days ago, he spoke of her as “a saint for our times.”

Writing in The Catholic Worker some years ago, one of her grandchildren, Kate Hennessy, talked of the impact on her own life of her remarkable grandmother: “To have known Dorothy means spending the rest of your life wondering what hit you. On the one hand, she has given so many of us a home, physically and spiritually; on the other, she has shaken our very foundations.”

I am one of the many whose foundations were shaken. I too am still wondering what hit me.

* * *

Photo courtesy of the Dorothy Day/Catholic Worker Archive at Marquette University.

Excellent web link: http://www.catholicworker.org/dorothyday — a treasure chest of Dorothy’s writings.

War and Peace: an Orthodox Christian view

lecture for the annual meeting of the Fellowship of Saint Andrew, given by Jim Forest at the Cathedral in Dunblane, Scotland, March 11, 2000

Christ healing the blind man (engraving by Eric Gill)
Christ healing the blind man (engraving by Eric Gill)

Several years ago I was among the speakers at a conference on war and peace in Europe, an event sponsored by Syndesmos, the Orthodox youth movement, in cooperation with the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. We met in the newly opened diocesan conference center in Chania, Crete. Our host was the local bishop, Metropolitan Irinaios of Kydonia and Apokoronas.

Those of you who know Crete are aware how bitterly Cretans recall the humiliations and sufferings of their ancestors during the period of Turkish rule and how proud they are of their forebears’ success at finally expelling the invader, but I confess that until my visit this aspect of European history was simply a distant fact, not something haunting my thoughts. After all, though transplanted in Europe 23 years ago, I come from a country which has only invaded other countries, never itself been invaded since Europeans took control centuries ago. Unless we were sent away to battlefields in Europe or Asia, war was an abstract topic, something we learned about from films, books and news reports. One could climb without bruises to the high moral plain of pacifism, or, for that matter, think of war in idyllic terms without ever having to experience its hellish reality.

For the people of Crete, though untroubled by war since May 1945, the ground is still damp with blood. There are many painful memories of the German occupation during World War II, yet it is their long struggle with the Turks that seems to press hardest in their memories. Everyone remembers the costly struggle to drive the Turks back to Turkey which began in the 17th century and ended in 1898. The island’s motto is “Freedom or death.” Events of the 18th and 19th centuries are described with such immediacy that I had the impression I was listening to witnesses.

The battle for freedom is preserved in patriotic folk songs which Cretans still sing. Metropolitan Irinaios would sometimes translate the words for me as these ballads were being sung. In one of them, Cretan freedom fighters announce joyfully that they are setting off “to make women into widows and children into orphans.” The words of this rousing anthem were sung with enthusiasm by members of a local Orthodox parish — good Christian people who had no plans to take up arms, glared at no one, and certainly didn’t intend to startle or scandalize their guests.

I had been asked to give the conference’s opening lecture, the theme of which was Orthodox teaching about war. I pointed out that the Orthodox Church has never embraced the just war doctrine, that the Church regards war as inevitably sinful in nature, that priests are forbidden by canon law to kill or cause the death of others, and that under all circumstances and at all times we are commanded by Christ to love our enemies. There was nothing remarkable in what I said, certainly no novel doctrines, yet the lecture stirred up a controversy not only in the hall in which I was speaking but into the city itself, as the translator’s words were being broadcast live over the diocesan radio station, Martyria. Before I had finished, one person following the conference by radio arrived to take passionate issue with me. (I am happy to say we eventually parted on good terms.)

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

I have often thought since then how that late-night exchange in Crete revealed the usual contours of Christian discussion about war: we feel the need to justify wars fought by ourselves or our forebears and often turn to the calendar of saints — or people we think of as saints — rather than the Gospel to do so.

Let us consider the saints. To a certain extent, we can find whatever we like among those included in the Church’s calendar. Their company ranges from kings and emperors to desert hermits and holy fools, from those who wore armor to those who wore nothing. Some were soldiers, others had given up their lives by refusing to be soldiers. Still others were already soldiers when they were baptized and became martyrs because of disobedience. Still others, like Martin of Tours and Alexander Nevsky, had been able to leave their military attire behind and devote the remainder of the lives to the Church. Yet for all their astonishing variety, each saint gives us an example of heroic discipleship, of death to self and the readiness to lay down their lives for others. If you study the acts of canonization, you discover that no one has ever been canonized for his success in killing or for his exploits in war. They are placed on the calendar because, despite all their imperfections, Christ shines through them.

And yet saints have at times been made into the heavenly patrons of war and defenders of those under arms, the best known being the Great Martyr George, who so far as we know never killed anyone and in fact didn’t even kill the dragon he battled with. It is impossible to imagine an Orthodox church without the icon in which we see a beardless young man on a white horse in combat with a dragon.

It is very nearly seventeen hundred years since George’s martyrdom, time enough for all sorts of stories and traditions to have attached themselves to his name. According to a medieval legend that became well-known throughout Europe, a dragon lived in a lake in the province of Lybia, a region of Cappadocia in Asia Minor, who “envenomed all the country” and was worshiped by the terrified local people, who fed him first their sheep and later their children to assuage his appetite and subdue his rage. Finally it was the turn of the king’s daughter Elizabeth to be sacrificed. She was going toward the lake to meet her doom when providentially the young knight Saint George appeared on horseback. He prayed to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then wounded the dragon with his lance, afterward leading the vanquished creature into the city. According to the Legenda Aurea written by Blessed James de Voragine, the wounded creature followed Elizabeth “as if it had been a meek beast.” Afterward George called on the local people to be baptized. The king offered George great treasures but he asked that these be distributed to the poor.

Such wonderful tales came centuries after George had died a martyr’s death. The actual George never saw a dragon. Living in the time of the persecutions of Diocletian and Maximian, when many Christians were being arrested and taken away to torturers and executioners, this young man, possibly a newly baptized soldier, had the courage to walk into a public square and shout, “All the gentile gods are devils. My God made the heavens and is the true God.” For this he was arrested and, like so many other Christians in that period, put to death after suffering from red-hot irons. His witness is said to have led to the conversion of many and given courage to others who were already baptized.

The familiar icon of Saint George slaying the dragon, while not based on an actual event, reveals through symbols the most essential elements of a true story. The icon also offers symbolic metaphors for our own struggle. The dragon represents the power of evil and the rule of fear in our lives. The white horse Saint George rides is the courage God gives us when we overcome our fear and refuse submission to evil. The pencil-thin lance the saint holds is not a weapon of war but the holy and life-giving Cross: the power of self-giving love. Notice that the cross-topped lance it is not tightly grasped but rests lightly in George’s hand — it is the power of God, not the power of man, that overcomes evil. George’s face shows not a trace of anger, hatred or anxiety. In the upper corner of the icon the hand of the Savior is extended from heaven in a sign of blessing.

The dragon myth offers yet another level of meaning. In the legend, the people came to worship the dragon, feeding him first their livestock, then their children. Is there not a familiar human tendency to worship power — to seek survival by submitting to those powers which destroy property and, through war, eat our children? Yet the myth is given a profoundly Christian treatment. Its theme is conversion, not retribution. The Christ-like Saint George battles and defeats the dragon but doesn’t take its life. The princess — an image of Christ’s mother — leads the pacified dragon into the town. The people will afterward have the opportunity to take care of the dragon just as the wolf tamed by Saint Francis afterward became the guest of his former enemies, the inhabitants of Gubbio.

We may think stories of saints like George and Francis make wonderful bedtime stories but have little bearing on real life, “real life” meaning the world we live in — the world of wars and “ethnic cleansing” — the world that again and again gives birth to such human dragons as Hitler and Stalin plus all the murderers and maniacs close at hand who speak our own language and roam the domestic headlines — armed people who go into schools and shopping center and start shooting — such a person as Thomas Hamilton, who shot dead 16 children and one teacher here in Dunblane four years ago.

The basic message we run into all the time, not only in the objections of others but in our own thoughts, is that the Gospel, sadly, doesn’t help us very much in our relations with the world we live in. The dragons are too real — in fact far more terrifying than the reptile in the icon. In any event we are not Saint George and have no fearless white horse.

Yet we are called not to be well-adjusted, respected, dragon-fearing citizens but God-fearing saints, and must work out as best we can, with the help of the Holy Spirit, what this means in our own lives, times and circumstances.

It is worth paying attention to the heroic example others are giving in our times, for example the monks of Decani Monastery in Kosovo who, while civil war was being fought around them, set about rescuing neighbors who might otherwise have been murdered.

Just a year ago in the area of Decani monastery, local ethnic Albanians fled their homes and hid in the woods. “The Serbs were setting all the houses and our apartment building on fire,” aid Imer Lokaj, a school principal. “They wanted to burn us alive.” Father Sava and another monk came down from the monastery in a van, searching for those who were hiding. “Come with us,” they said. “We will keep you safe.” Vanload after vanload of local Albanians were brought to safety within the monastery walls. “Without them,” said the 58-year-old Albanian painter and art teacher Nimon Lokaj, “my whole family would be dead.”

As you may have heard, this community of monks, like Kosovo’s Bishop Artremije, has been outspoken in its criticism of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and for years has sought a solution for Kosovo which would allow for every ethnic community to live in security and peace side by side.

As you can imagine, hatred still simmers in Decani, yet Nimon Lokaj’s 24-year-old son, Artan, said he will always be grateful to the monks of Decani even though they are Serbs.

“Our mission is fighting against evil,” explained Decani’s abbot, Theodosie. “Now I think we will have more of a job to do.”

The abbot’s comment is central to our understanding of peacemaking. It is not enough that we try to live peaceful lives. We are called on to combat evil. As one of the rector of our parish in Amsterdam, Fr. Sergei Ovsiannikov, has said, “It may be that a Christian should not be a soldier but it is essential that he be a warrior.”

For Christians, our combat is first of all spiritual combat. We are obliged by Christ not only to love our enemies but to pray for them. Without prayer, without God’s help, love of enemies is not possible.

Our great hope in this spiritual combat must be for the conversion rather than destruction of our adversary. This is certainly not a utopian fantasy. It was this great struggle without weapons in the early Church which brought about so profound a change of heart within both people of the Roman empire and barbarian tribes outside the empire’s borders as far away as Ireland.

The same commandment that calls on us to pray for enemies instructs us to do them good. A significant example of this was recently given by Greeks in their compassionate response to the devastating earthquakes that occurred in Turkey last year. Far from rejoicing in the suffering of their historic enemy, Greeks quickly raised great sums of money to help earthquake victims. Turks responded in kind when an earthquake caused destruction in Athens. The result is that for the first time in many years relations between Greece and Turkey have taken a turn for the better. In January Patriarch Bartholomeos said, while visiting Thessaloniki, that he believed “Turkey will now have a rapid course toward integration with the European Union.” Days later the Greek Foreign minister visited Ankara, the first such visit in 38 years. “There are very difficult problems that have not been solved,” said his Turkish counterpart, “but looking back six months ago, if we had said we could have achieved what we have achieved today, no one would have believed us.” In a situation so often tending toward war, one can begin to hope that peaceful relations may occur.

What impedes us as peacemakers?

First there is the failure of our imaginations. Though we have changed, thanks to the help of others and God’s grace, too often we cannot imagine others changing. We are convinced they are always going to have all the faults we currently perceive in them. We see all efforts to change them, even prayers on their behalf, as a waste of time. While it’s true that leopards don’t change their spots, thank God people do.

Then there is the factor of fear. “The root of war is fear,” wrote the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. My Marxist father disagreed, arguing that the root of war is bad economics, but years later told me that he come to realize that the root of bad economics is fear. The opposite of love is not hatred but fear. So many decisions in our lives are the consequence of fear — the vocation one is drawn to rejected out of fear, trips not taken because of fear, words left unsaid because of fear, gestures of love not offered because of fear, the faces of strangers hiding rather than revealing the image of God because of our fear. If you are wondering what to confess the next time you go to confession, you might think about the role of fear in your life, not fear of God but fear of others. “The essence of sin,” observes Metropolitan John Zizioulas,”is the fear of the Other, which is part of the rejection of God.”

Not only do we need to be aware of the way fear tends to impede God’s love in our lives, but how much our actions and even thoughts are unconsciously shaped by social forces which may be demonic rather than divine in character. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, we abhor being cut off from those around us. It isn’t because of an innate attraction to evil that so many Germans and Austrians once cooperated in Hitler’s wars and assisted in the Holocaust, nor because white South Africans are worse than us that so many of them embraced apartheid. Through slogans, propaganda, fear, the manipulation of pride and prejudice, the idea of national or racial superiority, the individual can find himself drawn into social movements that acquire a tidal force so overwhelming that finally hardly anyone dares utter a word of dissent. I mention this not simply as an interesting observation but because we too are carried along by various currents of ideology, class, career, peer group pressure, propaganda, national identity, etcetera, and often hardly realize how cramped our spiritual life becomes in the squeeze of all these other items.

And then there is the problem of nationalism. Nation is an ancient word but nationalism is a modern term. Thank God, at least in Britain, nationalism is something one can occasionally laugh at. “The English, the English, the English are best, so up with the English and down with the rest,” Flanders and Swann used to sing. This is nearly every nation’s song, except of course the principal noun has to be changed to match the particular border. Americans are second to none in this regard. It astonishes and distresses most Americans I talk to in my travels if they discover that Nancy and I are now Dutch citizens. It is as if one has a national identify only by virtue of possessing a passport to prove it. Not that there is anything wrong with having a national identity. What a sad thing it would be not to have one. But national identity is not nationalism. On the one hand, for Americans like me, there is the annual feast of stuffed turkey with cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving, on the other — malignant — hand, there is believing I belong to a new chosen people, a super people, for whom ordinary morals don’t apply. We Americans bask in our power and wealth, regarding ourselves as the greatest of democracies, the society most dedicated to the defense of human rights, the society which provides a model for others to emulate and imitate — God protect them if they decline. It is not that we are a people without redeeming qualities, but our collective vanity is massive.

Not that one need be American to experience the problem. Some of you will recall that war fever that swept through Britain at the time of the Falklands War. People who one day couldn’t have located the Falkland Islands on the world map had you paid them five pounds were ready and eager a day or two later to go to war on their behalf. O what a lovely war! My Argentine friend, Nobel Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel, was barred from entering Britain in that period. It was counted an act of journalistic courage for The Times to publish an article by Adolfo while the war was being fought.

We have seen lately the appalling price paid for the collision of nationalisms in Kosovo. NATO intervened, siding with the Kosovo Albanian side. As a result Serbia was massively bombed, the Danube is still blocked by fallen bridges, the economy of the entire region is in ruins, and now Kosovo is under occupation. Ethnic cleansing continues, with NATO forces seemingly powerless to protect the Serb minority, which probably is regarded as deserving whatever violence comes its way. It is a situation in which on is hard pressed to find heroes, though one is pleased to say that the Serbian Orthodox Church has been remarkable in the depth and breadth of its response, condemning extremists on both sides, again and again raising its voice in opposition both to the policies of the Serbian government and also NATO’s actions, and assisting the war’s victims no matter what their ethnic or religious identity might be.

In Russia, by contrast, the Russian Orthodox Church repeatedly expressed its enthusiastic support for the war in Chechnya, saying not a word of protest against the destruction of Grozny or any other population center. One can assume there have been Russian conscientious objectors to the war, but one cannot presently imagine the Church offering them any support or encouragement. One understands that Russia has been fighting forces in Chechnya that seem to have no moral scruple, but neither has the Russian side been notable for its respect for the lives of those caught in the middle. One senses within the Russian Church a habit of uncritical support for the government no matter what. Not since the Bolshevik revolution and the civil war that followed has the Church raised its voice against whatever the government was doing.

But the purpose of this talk is not to criticize the failures of the leaders of national churches — bishops often make an easy target — but to focus on what we can do ourselves as persons trying to live the Beatitudes, including the Beatitude of peacemaking. How dare we to expect more of our bishops than we do of ourselves? Our main problem is what to do with the face in the mirror. How can I respond to conflict — within my family, within my parish, within my diocese, between the various jurisdictions and Churches, between segments of society, between nations? How can I live the peace of Christ?

It is not learned in a classroom or from a book or from a guru. We have the Liturgy to both teach and nourish us in this undertaking.

In the Liturgy we have no sooner heard the priest announce “Blessed is the kingdom of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” then find ourselves confronted with the first petition, “In peace let us pray to the Lord.” Peace is a precondition of worship — peace with God, peace with each other. How can we love God if we despise his image in others? We go on to ask “for the peace from above, and the salvation of our souls. . . . For the peace of the whole world, for the welfare of the holy churches of God, and for the union of all. . . . For seasonable weather, for abundance of the fruits of the earth, and for peaceful times. . . . For our deliverance from all affliction, wrath, danger and necessity,” finally asking God to “help us, save us, and have mercy on us, and keep us . . . by your grace.” Later, as the eucharistic liturgy begins, we attempt “to lay aside all worldly cares” — all hostile feelings toward any other person, all division, all fear and personal anxiety in order to approach God in a state of profound peace.

Repeatedly during the service the priest offers a blessing of peace to all who are present, and they immediately return the blessing of peace to him. The Gospel reading is introduced with the words, “Peace be unto all.” Then in the Litany of Supplication we appeal to God “that the whole day may be perfect, holy, peaceful and sinless.” We ask for “an angel of peace, a faithful guide, a guardian of our souls and bodies.” We call on God for “all things that are good and profitable for our souls, and for peace in the world.” We ask God’s blessing “that we may complete the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance.” Later we are summoned to “stand upright and stand in fear . . . that we may offer the Holy Oblation in peace.” Finally, at the end of the Liturgy, we are sent away in peace. Having been privileged to take part in the Eucharist, we are returned to the world as ambassadors of Christ’s peace among those who, in many cases, hardly know who Christ is.

The Liturgy is our school, our hospital, our place of healing, where peace — the Person of Christ — reenters our lives. Afterwards we bear Christ into the world through deeds of peace which reveal his presence.

Prayer for busy people

notes for opening talk by Jim Forest at a retreat at La Casa de Maria, Santa Barbara, CA; Nov 8-10, 1996

We all regard ourselves as busy people or we wouldn’t be taking part in a weekend retreat on prayer for busy people. I have been wondering, though, in what way, if any, would the actual content of the weekend be different if had been called Prayer for People with Lots Free Time on Their Hands. Or Prayer for Lazy People. Of course some of you — maybe most of you — wouldn’t be here. You would be too busy.

But prayer is prayer whether you have a simple or complicated life.

We cannot say prayer would be easy if we were not busy people. A life that isn’t busy probably means we’re in ill health, unemployed or retired. But for most people here and now, life is heavily loaded. Most of us probably feel like the pair of jeans in the Levis symbol being pulled by horses in opposite directions, only we are being pulled in more than two directions. We have perhaps half a dozen horses testing our rivets: work, family, friends, religious life, recreation, health … plus perhaps one or to addictions or semi-addictions, passions we can either just barely control, or can’t control.

Probably we sometimes feel a little guilty about being so busy. But even more often we feel guilty that, busy though we are, we aren’t doing more.

The truth is: busy-ness by itself is not a bad thing. We shouldn’t aspire to anything less than life full to the brim. we are meant, as human beings, to live an engaged and responsible life, a life in which we have keep making choices that stretch us intellectually and spiritually.

On the other hand, the word “busy” can suggest another definition. It can mean being frantic — too many things happening, no sense of control, no sense of life having a center or of the pieces fitting together and reinforcing each other.

Probably for many of us life is more than busy. A lot of people feel harried, exhausted, frightened, powerless, with little or no sense of meaning.

Probably this is something that rings a few bells for us. But we are, after all, people of our time and place. We live in an age that in many ways is hard on the spiritual life — or just plain hard on life.

Let’s think about what we are up against.

There is the problem of living in the “information age.” No previous generation had to absorb so much information that had to do with events that were beyond the range of sight and sound or had such access to information resources. First newspapers, then radios, then television, now the Internet and the World Wide Web. The positive aspect of these tools is that we’re more aware of inter-connection and inter-dependence; we are better able to respond to needs and build relationships. Within hours we know about important events happening in any part of the world — a scientific discovery, a hurricane or earthquake, a war, an act of heroism. The negative aspect is that we become simply information junkies. We know far more than our grandparents but understand less than they did and live less responsible lives.

You probably saw the film “Amadeus” and so recall the scene where the Emperor told Mozart there were “to many notes” in his opera, “The Marriage of Figaro.” “The human ear can only absorb so many notes.” In fact there seems no limit to the number of notes we can absorb but there is a limit to have much information we can usefully absorb and respond to. I can easily get into a numbing state of information exhaustion.

Another factor that seems more modern than ancient is the pace of life. Things change and change at unprecedented speed. Technology changes. Family patterns change (to the point that there is hardly any family life).

If we were looking for a symbol for our era perhaps the clock would be a good choice. There aren’t many of us not wearing a watch. If we start counting the time-keeping devices in the average home, it will at least equal the number of icons you might find in the home of a pious Orthodox family of the old school.

At it’s best, the clock is simply a benign and essential tool of social coordination. At its worst, it is a tool of social disconnection. How many things of real importance do we fail to do because we haven’t got time?

I often think about an experience I had during the late sixties when I was accompanying Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who was giving lectures in the United States. We were at the University of Michigan, waiting for the elevator doors to open. I noticed my brown-robed companion was looking at the electric clock above the elevator doors. Then he said, “You know, Jim, a few hundred years ago it would not have been a clock, it would have been a crucifix.”

He was right. The clock is a religious object in our world, one so powerful that it can depose another.

I also recall a story related in his journal by Daniel Wheeler, a Quaker engineer who had come from Britain to Russia at the time of Tsar Alexander I to take charge of draining swampland near St. Petersburg. A group of peasants was sent to his house with an urgent message, knocked on the door, got no response, and went inside to look for the engineer. First things first, however. Once inside, one’s first duty as an Orthodox Christian is to find the icon corner and say a few prayers, but this proved difficult. Nothing looked like an icon. The peasants knew things were different in other countries. What would a British icon look like? What impressed them most was the mantelpiece clock. They decided this was a British icon and so crossed themselves, bowed before the clock, and recited their prayers.

In a way the peasants were right. They had identified a machine which has immense power in the lives of “advanced” people.

I think too of an experiment in the sixties at a theological school in America. A number of students were asked to prepare sermons on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. These weren’t to be publicly delivered but recorded on tape for grading by a professor of homiletics. It seemed an ordinary assignment, but those responsible for the project were interested in more than what the aspiring pastors would say about the parable. Without their knowledge, the students had been divided into three groups. Some were to be called on a certain morning and told that they could come to the taping room any time in the day; others were to be told that they had to be there within the next few hours; and the rest were to be told that they had to come without delay.

The testers had arranged that, as each student arrived at the building where the sermons were being recorded, they would find someone lying on the ground by a bench near the entrance, seemingly unconscious and in need.

What were the results? Among all those preaching sermons on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, barely a third took the time to stop and do anything for the person lying on the ground. Those who did stop, it was discovered, were mainly the ones who had been told they could come any time that day. They felt they had time, and that sense of having time gave them time to be merciful. They weren’t overwhelmed with deadlines and overcrowded schedules — the constant problem of many people, not least clergy and lawyers, which perhaps is why Jesus cast a priest and Levite in those unfortunate parts in his parable.

In reality everyone has time but people walking side by side on the same street can have a very different sense of time, so that one of them is so preoccupied by worry or fear or plans for the future that he hardly notices what is immediately at hand while the next person is very attentive. Each person has freedom — to pause, to listen, to pray, to change direction. Learning to pray in an unhurried way can help us become less hurried people.

Another crucial factor effecting us is fear. Fear is reinforced by the front page of every newspaper, every TV news program, by events in daily life that reach us directly, and even by most of what we call “entertainment.” A great deal of what we see and hear seems to have no other function than to push us deeper into a state of dread. Being fearful seems to be a reasonable state to be in — fear of violent crime, fear of job loss, fear of failure, fear of illness, fear for the well-being of people we love, feat of failure in our primary relationships, fear of collapse of our pollution-burdened environment, fear of war, and finally fear of death. Fear itself becomes a kind of death sentence. There were many elderly people who died in a heat wave in Chicago one summer simply because they didn’t dare leave their apartments, for fear of muggers, in order to get to the air-conditioned shelters the city had provided. They died of fear.

It is a fact that fear impedes spiritual life. I don’t mean the fear of God. Paradoxically, the fear of God puts all other fears in their place. The fear of God is nothing like all those fears which undermine our being. It means to stand in awe of the incomprehensible, the Creator of the universe with all its wonders and mysteries, God who is both more intimate than breath and as remote as the darkness beyond the furthest star. But a person overwhelmed with anxiety tends to limit prayer to complaints and appeals. Keep in mind the advice that angels give in nearly every biblical account we have about them: “Be not afraid.” A vital prayer life opens the door for God gradually to help us move fear from the center to the edge of daily life.

Still another problem confronting is embarrassment about being seen to be a religious person. Isn’t religion for stupid people? If smart people believe in God, it had better be some blind force, something as impersonal as gravity. This is the age of the Jesus Seminar — the age of people with doctorates who have buried the Bible in footnotes. The G word itself is a problem. The G word is God.

So let’s look at the G word. How are we going to talk about prayer if we don’t? To whom are we praying? And better yet with whom are we praying? We mainly find out who (rather than what) God is by praying.

Buy often times we are impeded in finding an answer because we think we already know it. We know who God is. We learned it as children . He is, for starters, all powerful. We’ve heard it thousands of time. In fact we have quite a few words about God we’ve heard a thousand times. God is love. God is just. God is truth. We also have a few images of God that are somehow very familiar. The God of the White Beard: the Lord Chief Justice God. The image of Gentle Jesus with the children; or Teaching Jesus on the hillside preaching the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus on the Cross. Jesus in the manger. The Child Jesus in the arms of his mother.

But often we know God no better than we know the Great China Wall. Or, in case you have been there, then say no better than we know the North Pole. We know it exists though we haven’t been there. We know God as a fact of reality. And so far as it goes, thank God for that. It’s a lot better than imagining there is no God.

But prayer is what we do not simply to show respect to the idea of God or to recite to God a list of God’s various qualities. It is more than anything else our effort to experience the reality of God, so that finally we come to know the truth about God that the Evangelist John insists on again and again as being most central: God is Love. God is not a concept, a principal, an organizing force — God is love. If we don’t know that yet, prayer will more and more bring us to that love. If we know it already, prayer will taker is more deeply into that love.

Prayer is the on-going discovery of God.

Through prayer the real bridges are built. The same John who says God is love says this: “Whoever says he loves God and hates his neighbor is a liar.” John is a bit rude, isn’t he. Just how loving was he to speak in that way? But real love is truthful. Love doesn’t lie. Love doesn’t mislead. Love doesn’t take us off the track. Love is not a door into the fog.

“We who says he loves God and hates his neighbor is a liar.” Plain speech. It can’t get any plainer.

It turns out the door to God is the very same as the door to my neighbor. We can’t love someone and not pray for that person. Acts of love have their roots in prayer.

Many people pray and don’t even realize they are praying and would be embarrassed to think of their caring thoughts as prayer. But they pray from the core of being. Because we are human, we are not capable of not praying, though it may be that we can be so damaged that the faculty is practically destroyed — just as an ear can be too damaged to hear. But we are born to pray. It is even more central to the design than the faculties of hearing and seeing.

Confession in the Age of Self Esteem

Talk for the Fellowship of Saint James, All Saints Orthodox Church, Chicago, 7 November 2002

by Jim Forest

Among the hottest best-sellers of the 1970s was a book that had the catchy title, I’m Okay, You’re Okay. One of its enthusiastic readers, a young priest in Boston, gave a sermon about it which was a rave review. He wished he could give everyone he knew a copy. The book’s message was simple: To love others started with loving yourself, and loving yourself meant acquiring self-esteem.

At the end of Mass, standing at the door, the priest asked one of his older parishioners how he had liked the sermon. The man wasn’t eager to criticize but responded, “I haven’t read the book. If what you say is true, it’s better than the Bible. My only problem was that I kept thinking of Christ on the Cross saying to those who were watching him die, ‘If everybody’s okay, what in blazes am I doing up here?'”

The problem is I’m not okay and the chances are neither are you.

I’m Okay, You’re Okay was one of the pioneering books in launching the self-esteem movement which has gone on to produce a Niagara Falls of books, magazine articles and television shows that remind us that, to the extent that we lack self-esteem, we are unhappy, our marriages doomed, our careers stunted, while a society whose citizens are blessed with high levels of self-esteem will be more stable, more prosperous, and less troubled with anti-social or criminal behavior. In 1986 the California State Legislature created the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility.

Unfortunately recent studies in America and other countries suggest that self-esteem isn’t delivering on its promises.

“A preoccupation with self-esteem may be inevitable in a society where self-worth is often defined by a diploma from Harvard, a size 4 dress or a mansion in Southampton,” commented New York Times journalist Erica Goode in a report published in October 2002. She noted that one of the findings of recent self-esteem studies is that criminals often have more self-esteem than people who are not a danger to their neighbors.

One of the researchers she quoted, Dr. Jennifer Crocker, a psychologist at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, argues that the frantic pursuit of self-worth as measured through external trappings exacts a high personal and social toll.

“The pursuit of self-esteem has short-term benefits but long-term costs,” says Crocker, “ultimately diverting people from fulfilling their fundamental human needs for competence, relatedness and autonomy and leading to poor self-regulation and mental and physical health.”

Crocker found that people whose sense of self-esteem is based on good looks, favorable reception of others, academic or vocational achievement, recreational performance or similar yardsticks are actually more at risk of difficulties, relationship conflicts, aggression and an increased likelihood of drug or alcohol dependence.

In a study of 642 college freshmen, Crocker found that students whose self-regard was based heavily on academic performance reported more stress and more conflicts with their teachers than did their peers. They spent more time studying than other students but did no better in their classes. Freshmen who invested heavily in appearing attractive reported more aggressiveness, anger and hostility than others, more alcohol and drug use and more symptoms of such eating disorders. They also became more depressed as the year wore on.

In contrast, it’s striking that students who judged themselves by more internal measures such as religious faith or virtue were less likely to show anger and aggression and more restrained in their use of alcohol and drugs even though some of them had to cope with greater feelings of loneliness for being outside the main currents of social life on campus.

While it should hardly come as headline news, Dr. Crocker’s studies show that an obsession with external markers of self-worth leads to self-absorption. The correction for an exclusive focus on the self, Crocker argues, cannot be found in self-esteem classes that encourage children to believe that their personal success and happiness are of paramount importance. “Not everything is about ‘me,’ ” Dr. Crocker said. “There are sometimes bigger things that we should be concerned about.”

While I hardly dare imagine that publication of such a report in The New York Times suggests the high water mark has been reached in the self-esteem movement, still it is encouraging to see this pseudo-gospel being challenged.

A different, more intimate kind of evidence that self-esteem mania is being challenged greeted me a few days ago at the Matthew 25 House in Akron, Ohio. The founder is Joe May, a member of Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in the same city and a graduate of Holy Cross Orthodox Seminary. In what was formerly a crack house, Joe and those who work with him take in homeless men. At the moment the guests include a number of refugees from Latin America and also some US-born ex-convicts. In the house library there was no sign of the I’m Okay, You’re Okay type of book, but in adjacent bathroom, next to the mirror, was a small sign that read:

I am not a big deal.
I am not a big deal.
I am not a big deal.

Over lunch I asked what was behind this surprising message. Joe explained that during confession his priest once suggested that every morning he repeat the words “I am not a big deal” three times. Just to make sure he remembered, Joe put the text in the place where he shaves each morning.

One might also say:

I am not okay.
I am not okay.
I am not okay.

Not only am I not okay but it may well be that I will never be okay this side of heaven. In fact I am, to put it bluntly, a sinner. I am not just a sinner but I dare to say I am an expert sinner. At my age, I’ve had a lot of practice.

Forty years ago, when I was a catechumen preparing to be received into the Catholic Church, I recall what a hard struggle I had in trying to understand the word “sin.” I was bewildered with the idea that, if you knew God didn’t want you to do something, you might do it anyway. How could any sane person consciously and intentionally disobey God?

A legalistic definition of sin, which was what my catechism provided, never quite cleared the air for me. It helped later on coming to know the Hebrew and Greek words — chata’ and hamartia — normally translated as “sin” simply mean staying off the path, losing your way, going off course. “You shoot an arrow, but it misses the target,” as a rabbi once explained to me. “Maybe it hits someone’s backside, someone you didn’t even know was there. You didn’t mean it, but still it’s a sin. Or maybe you knew he was there — his backside was what you were aiming at. Now that’s a sin!”

The Jewish approach to sin tends to be concrete. The author of the Book of Proverbs lists seven things which God hates:

A proud look, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that plots wicked deeds, feet that run swiftly to evil, a false witness that declares lies, and he that sows discord among the brethren. (6:17-19)

As in so many other lists of sins, pride — that is to say, self-esteem — is given first place. “Pride goes before destruction, and a disdainful spirit before a fall” is another insight in the Book of Proverbs (16:18). In the Garden of Eden, Satan seeks to animate pride in his dialogue with Eve. Eat the forbidden fruit, he tells her, and “you will be like a god.”

Pride is regarding oneself as god-like. In one of the stories preserved from early desert monasticism, a younger brother asks an elder, “What shall I do? I am tortured by pride.” The elder responds, “You are right to be proud. Was it not you who made heaven and earth?” With those few words, the brother was cured of pride.

The craving to be ahead of others, to be more valued than others, to be more highly rewarded than others, to be able to keep others in a state of fear, the inability to admit mistakes or apologize — these are among the symptoms of pride. Pride opens the way for countless other sins: deceit, lies, theft, violence, and all those other actions that destroy community with God and with those around us.

“We’re capable of doing some rotten things,” the Minnesota storyteller Garrison Keillor remarks, “and not all of these things are the result of poor communication. Some are the result of rottenness. People do bad, horrible things. They lie and they cheat and they corrupt the government. They poison the world around us. And when they’re caught they don’t feel remorse — they just go into treatment. They had a nutritional problem or something. They explain what they did — they don’t feel bad about it. There’s no guilt. There’s just psychology.”

So eroded is our sense of sin that even in confession it often happens that people explain what they did rather than admit they did things that urgently need God’s forgiveness. “When I recently happened to confess about fifty people in a typical Orthodox parish in Pennsylvania,” the Orthodox theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote, “not one admitted to having committed any sin whatsoever!” [Fr. Alexander Schmemann, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, vol. 5, no. 3 (Fall 1961): 38-44; also posted on the web — www.schmemann.org/byhim/reflectionsonconfession.html. ]

Confession is not a rite of self-esteem but is rather the recognition that there is rubbish in my life — things done and undone — that damage my connection with God and with those whom God has given me to live among, people I know and people I don’t know, people I love and people I fear. Confession is facing up to all in my life that I find it painful to know about myself and struggle to keep hidden or camouflaged from those whom I want to love or respect me. It is a gradual return to wholeness, a return to communion, not because I have been made admirable by the church’s sacraments but at least am pointed in the right direction and am trying not to delude myself about how excellent I am when left to my own devices.

For the person who has committed a serious sin, there are two vivid signs — the hope that what he did may never become known; and a gnawing sense of guilt. At least this is the case before the conscience becomes completely numb as patterns of sin become the structure of one’s life to the extent that hell, far from being a possible next-life experience, is where I find myself in this life. (Rod Steiger in the film The Pawnbroker, in a desperate action to break free of numbness, slammed a nail-like spindle through his hand so he could finally feel something, even if it meant agonizing pain — a small crucifixion.)

It is a striking fact about our basic human architecture that we want certain actions to remain secret, not because of modesty but because there is an unarguable sense of having violated a law more basic than that in any law book — the “law written on our hearts” that St. Paul refers to in his Letter to the Romans. [2:15] It isn’t simply that we fear punishment. It is that we don’t want to be thought of by others as a person who commits such deeds. One of the main obstacles to going to confession is dismay that someone else will know what I want no one to know.

Sin is linked with guilt, which is one of the themes of Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins. The central figure of the novel is Dr. Thomas More, a descendent of St. Thomas More, though the latest More is hanging on to his faith by a frayed thread. The latest More doesn’t seem to be in danger of becoming a martyr for the faith. Dr. More is both a physician and a patient at a Louisiana mental hospital. From time to time he meets with his colleague Max, a secular psychologist eager to cure More of guilt.

Max tells More, “We found out what the hangup was and we are getting ready to condition you out of it.”
“What hangup?”
“Your guilt feelings.”
“I never did see that.”
Max explains that More’s guilt feelings have to do with adulterous sex.
“Are you speaking of my fornication with Lola…?” asks More.
“Fornication,” repeats Max. “You see?”
“See what?”
“That you are saying that lovemaking is not a natural activity, like eating and drinking.”
“No, I didn’t say it wasn’t natural.”
“But sinful and guilt-laden.”
“Not guilt-laden.”
“Then sinful?”
“Only between persons not married to each other.”
“I am trying to see it as you see it.”
“I know you are.”
“If it is sinful, why are you doing it?”
“It is a great pleasure.”
“I understand. Then, since it is ‘sinful,’ guilt feelings follow even though it is a pleasure.”
“No, they don’t follow.”
“Then what worries you, if you don’t feel guilty?”
“That’s what worries me: not feeling guilty.”
“Why does that worry you?”
“Because if I felt guilty, I could get rid of it.”
“How?”
“By the sacrament of penance.”
“I’m trying to see it as you see it.”
“I know you are.”
[For the full text, see pages 110-20 of the Farrar Straus & Giroux edition of Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins published in 1971.]

Percy’s novel reminds us that one of the oddest things about the age we live in is that we are made to feel guilty about feeling guilty. Dr. Thomas More is fighting against that. He may not yet experience guilt for his sins, but at least he knows that a sure symptom of moral death is not to feel guilty.

Dr. Thomas More — a modern man who can’t quite buy the ideology that there are no sins and there is nothing to feel guilty about — is battling to recover a sense of guilt, which in turn will provide the essential foothold for contrition, which in turn can motivate confession and repentance. Without guilt, there is no remorse; without remorse there is no possibility of becoming free of habitual sins.

Yet there are forms of guilt that are dead-end streets. If I feel guilty that I have not managed to become the ideal person I occasionally want to be, or that I imagine others want me to be, then it is guilt that has no divine reference point. It is simply me contemplating me with the eye of an irritated theater critic. Christianity is not centered on performance, laws, principles, or the achievement of flawless behavior, but on Christ himself and participation in God’s transforming love. When Christ says, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48), he is speaking not about the perfection of a student always obtaining the highest test scores or a child who manages not to step on any of the sidewalk’s cracks, but of being whole, being in a state of communion, participating in God’s love.

This is a condition of being that is suggested wordlessly by St. Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity: those three angelic figures silently inclined toward each other around a chalice on a small altar. They symbolize the Holy Trinity: the communion that exists within God, not a closed communion restricted to them selves alone but an open communion of love in which we are not only invited but intended to participate.

A blessed guilt is the pain we feel when we realize we have cut ourselves off from that divine communion that radiates all creation.

The figure of Dr. Thomas More in Walker Percy’s novel at least doesn’t suffer from the common delusion that one’s sins are private or affect only a few other people. To think our sins, however hidden, don’t affect others is like imagining that a stone thrown into the water, so long as it’s small enough, won’t generate ripples.

This is a topic Garrison Keillor addressed in one of his Lake Wobegon stories.

A friend — Keillor calls him Jim Nordberg — writes a letter in which he recounts how close he came to committing adultery. Nordberg describes himself waiting in front of his home for a colleague he works with to pick him up, a woman who seems to find him much more interesting and handsome than his wife does. They plan to drive to a professional conference in Chicago, though the conference isn’t really what attracts Nordberg to this event. He knows what lies he has told others to disguise what he is doing. Yet his conscience hasn’t stopped troubling him.

Sitting under a spruce tree, gazing up and down the street at all his neighbors’ houses, he is suddenly struck by how much the quality of life in each house depends on the integrity of life next door, even if everyone takes everyone else for granted. “This street has been good for my flesh and blood,” he says to himself. He is honest enough to realize that what he is doing could bring about the collapse of his marriage and wonders if in five or ten years his new partner might not tire of him and find someone else to take his place. It occurs to him that adultery is not much different from horse trading.

Again he contemplates his neighborhood:

As I sat on the lawn looking down the street, I saw that we all depend on each other. I saw that although I thought my sins could be secret, that they are no more secret than an earthquake. All these houses and all these families — my infidelity would somehow shake them. It will pollute the drinking water. It will make noxious gases come out of the ventilators in the elementary school. When we scream in senseless anger, blocks away a little girl we do not know spills a bowl of gravy all over a white table cloth. If I go to Chicago with this woman who is not my wife, somehow the school patrol will forget to guard the intersection and someone’s child will be injured. A sixth grade teacher will think, “What the hell,” and eliminate South America from geography. Our minister will decide, “What the hell — I’m not going to give that sermon on the poor.” Somehow my adultery will cause the man in the grocery store to say, “To hell with the Health Department. This sausage was good yesterday — it certainly can’t be any worse today.”

[Garrison Keillor, News from Lake Wobegon, “Letter from Jim,” on the first of four compact discs, a Prairie Home Companion recording, 1983, PHC 15377.]

By the end of the letter it’s clear that Nordberg decided not to go to that conference in Chicago after all — a decision that was a moment of grace not only for him, his wife, and his children, but for many others who would have been injured by his adultery.

“We depend on each other,” Keillor says again, “more than we can ever know.”

Far from being hidden, each sin is another crack in the world. As Bishop Kallistos Ware observed:

There are no entirely private sins. All sins are sins against my neighbor, as well as against God and against myself. Even my most secret thoughts are, in fact, making it more difficult for those around me to follow Christ.

[Bishop Kallistos Ware, in a talk “Approaching Christ the Physician: The True Meaning of Confession and Anointing” at an Orthodox Peace Fellowship retreat in Vézelay, France, in April 1999.]

One of the most widely used prayers, the Jesus Prayer, is only one sentence long:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, be merciful to me, a sinner!

Short as it is, many people drawn to it are put off by the last two words. Those who teach the prayer are often asked, “But must I call myself a sinner?” In fact that ending isn’t essential, but our difficulty using it reveals a lot. What makes me so reluctant to speak of myself in such plain words? Don’t I do a pretty good job of hiding rather than revealing Christ in my life? Am I not a sinner? To admit that I am provides a starting point.

There are only two possible responses to sin: to justify it, or to repent. Between these two there is no middle ground.

Justification may be verbal, but mainly it takes the form of repetition: I do again and again the same thing as a way of demonstrating to myself and others that it’s not really a sin but rather something normal or human or necessary or even good. “After the first blush of sin comes indifference,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. [“On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.”] There is an even sharper Jewish proverb: “Commit a sin twice and it will not seem a crime.”

Repentance, on the other hand, is the recognition that I cannot live any more as I have been living, because in living that way I wall myself apart from others and from God. Repentance is a change in direction. Repentance is the door of communion. It is also a sine qua non of forgiveness. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann points out, “There can be no absolution where there is no repentance.” Repentance, on the other hand, is the gateway to heaven. As St. John Chrysostom said sixteen centuries ago in Antioch:

Repentance opens the heavens, takes us to Paradise, overcomes the devil. Have you sinned? Do not despair! If you sin every day, then offer repentance every day! When there are rotten parts in old houses, we replace the parts with new ones, and we do not stop caring for the houses. In the same way, you should reason for yourself: if today you have defiled yourself with sin, immediately clean yourself with repentance.

It is impossible to imagine a vital marriage or deep friendship without confession and forgiveness. If you have done something that damages a deep, loving relationship, confession is essential to its restoration. For the sake of that bond, you confess what you’ve done, you apologize, and you promise not to do it again.

In the context of religious life, confession is what we do to safeguard and renew our relationship with God whenever it is damaged. Confession restores our communion with God.

The purpose of confession is not to have one’s sins dismissed as non-sins but to be forgiven and restored to communion. As the Evangelist John wrote: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn 1:9). The apostle James wrote in a similar vein: “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (Jas 5:16).

Confession is more than disclosure of sin. It also involves praise of God and profession of faith. Without the second and third elements, the first is pointless. To the extent we deny God, we reduce ourselves to accidental beings on a temporary planet in a random universe expanding into nowhere. To the extent we have a sense of the existence of God, we discover creation confessing God’s being and see all beauty as a confession of God. We discover that faith is not so much something we have as something we experience — and we confess that experience much as glass confesses light. The Church calls certain saints “confessors” because they confessed their faith in periods of persecution even though they did not suffer martyrdom as a result. In dark, fear-ridden times, the faith shone through martyrs and confessors, giving courage to others.

In his autobiography, Confessions, Saint Augustine drew on all three senses of the word. He confessed certain sins, chiefly those that revealed the process that had brought him to baptism and made him a disciple of Christ and member of the Church. He confessed his faith. His book as a whole is a work of praise, a confession of God’s love.

But it is the word’s first meaning — confession of sins — that is usually the most difficult. It is never easy admitting to doing something you regret and are ashamed of, an act you attempted to keep secret or denied doing or tried to blame on someone else, perhaps arguing — to yourself as much as to others — that it wasn’t actually a sin at all, or wasn’t nearly as bad as some people might claim. In the hard labor of growing up, one of the most agonizing tasks is becoming capable of saying, “I’m sorry.”

Yet we are designed for confession. Secrets in general are hard to keep, but unconfessed sins not only never go away but have a way of becoming heavier as time passes — the greater the sin, the heavier the burden. Confession is the only solution.

To understand confession in its sacramental sense, one first has to grapple with a few basic questions: Why is the Church involved in forgiving sins? Is priest-witnessed confession really needed? Why confess at all to any human being? In fact, why bother confessing to God even without a human witness? If God is really all-knowing, then he knows everything about me already. My sins are known before it even crosses my mind to confess them. Why bother telling God what God already knows?

Yes, truly God knows. My confession can never be as complete or revealing as God’s knowledge of me and all that needs repairing in my life.

A related question we need to consider has to do with our basic design as social beings. Why am I so willing to connect with others in every other area of life, yet not in this? Why is it that I look so hard for excuses, even for theological rationales, not to confess? Why do I try so hard to explain away my sins until I’ve decided either they’re not so bad or might even be seen as acts of virtue? Why is it that I find it so easy to commit sins yet am so reluctant, in the presence of another, to admit to having done so?

We are social beings. The individual as autonomous unit is a delusion. The Marlboro Man — the person without community, parents, spouse, or children — exists only on billboards. The individual is someone who has lost a sense of connection to others or attempts to exist in opposition to others — while the person exists in communion with other persons. At a conference of Orthodox Christians in France not long ago, in a discussion of the problem of individualism, a theologian confessed, “When I am in my car, I am an individual, but when I get out, I am a person again.”

We are social beings. The language we speak connects us to those around us. The food I eat was grown by others. The skills passed on to me have slowly been developed in the course of hundreds of generations. The air I breathe and the water I drink is not for my exclusive use but has been in many bodies before mine. The place I live, the tools I use, and the paper I write on were made by many hands. I am not my own doctor or dentist or banker. To the extent I disconnect myself from others, I am in danger. Alone I die, and soon. To be in communion with others is life.

Because we are social beings, confession in church does not take the place of confession to those we have sinned against. An essential element of confession is doing all I can to set right what I did wrong. If I stole something, it must be returned or paid for. If I lied to anyone, I must tell that person the truth. If I was angry without good reason, I must apologize. I must seek forgiveness not only from God but from those whom I have wronged or harmed.

We are also verbal beings. Words provide not only a way of communicating with others but even with ourselves. The fact that confession is witnessed forces me to put into words all those ways, minor and major, in which I live as if there were no God and no commandment to love. A thought that is concealed has great power over us.

Confessing sins, or even temptations, makes us better able to resist. The underlying principle is described in one of the collections of sayings of the Desert Fathers, the Gerontikon:

If impure thoughts trouble you, do not hide them, but tell them at once to your spiritual father and condemn them. The more a person conceals his thoughts, the more they multiply and gain strength. But an evil thought, when revealed, is immediately destroyed. If you hide things, they have great power over you, but if you could only speak of them before God, in the presence of another, then they will often wither away, and lose their power.

Confessing to anyone, even a stranger in an airport, renews rather than contracts my humanity, even if all I get in return for my confession is the well-worn remark, “Oh that’s not so bad. After all, you’re only human” — something like the New Yorker cartoon in which a psychologist reassures a Mafia contract killer stretched out on the couch, “Just because you do bad things doesn’t mean you’re bad.”

But if I can confess to anyone anywhere, why confess in church in the presence of a priest? It’s not a small question in societies in which the phrase “institutionalized religion” is so often used, the implicit message being that religious institutions necessarily impede or undermine religious life. Yet it’s not a term we seem inclined to adapt to other contexts. Few people would prefer we got rid of institutionalized health care or envision a world without institutionalized transportation. Whatever we do that involves more than a few people requires structures.

Confession is a Christian ritual with a communal character. Confession in the church differs from confession in your living room in the same way that getting married in church differs from simply living together. The communal aspect of the event tends to safeguard it, solidify it, and call everyone to account — those doing the ritual, and those witnessing it.

In the social structure of the Church, a huge network of local communities is held together in unity, each community helping the others and all sharing a common task while each provides a specific place to recognize and bless the main events in life from birth to burial. Confession is an essential part of that continuum. My confession is an act of reconnection with God and with all the people and creatures who depend on me and have been harmed by my failings and from whom I have distanced myself through acts of non-communion. The community is represented by the person hearing my confession, an ordained priest delegated to serve as Christ’s witness, who provides guidance and wisdom that helps each penitent overcome attitudes and habits that take us off course, who declares forgiveness and restores us to communion. In this way our repentance is brought into the community that has been damaged by our sins — a private event in a public context.

“It’s a fact,” writes Orthodox theologian Fr. Thomas Hopko, rector of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, “that we cannot see the true ugliness and hideousness of our sins until we see them in the mind and heart of the other to whom we have confessed.”

Though we often dread it, confession itself is something beautiful.

I think of Zacharia, a large, round-faced Ethiopian woman of a grandmotherly age with a faded cross tattooed on her forehead, who is often the first person in line for confession in our parish in Amsterdam. The priest receives her, as he does all penitents, by reciting words that remind her that he is only a witness to the confession about to be made and that it is Christ the physician, invisibly present, who heals and forgives. Zacharia speaks little Dutch, still less English, and not a word of Russian, Greek, or German — thus no language that any of our priests understands. It doesn’t matter. She stands before the icon of Christ, her upraised hands rising and falling rhythmically, relating in her incomprehensible mother tongue whatever is burdening her. As the priest grasps not a word of what she is saying, he does nothing more than quietly recite the Jesus Prayer until Zacharia is finished. Then she kneels down while he places the lower part of his priestly stole over her head and recites the words of absolution: “May our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, by the grace and compassion of his love for man, pardon all your faults, child Zacharia, and I, the unworthy priest __________, by his authority given me, pardon and absolve you of all your sins: in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

With these last words, he traces the sign of the cross on the head of this African woman who misses the liturgy only if ill. Then Zacharia rises, turns to face him, and receives a final blessing before the next person comes forward and the confessions continue.

Parents often bring infants and children with them when they confess. This is their gradually unfolding introduction to the sacrament. On a recent Sunday in our parish I noticed Fr. Sergei Ovsiannikov, rector of our parish, hearing a young mother’s confession while holding her baby in his arms.

I recall of an over-crowded church, St. Cosmas and Damien, in Moscow on a Sunday morning. Three priests are hearing confessions. There is a long line for each of them. The priest I happen to be standing nearest was Fr. Georgi Chistiakov, an ascetic man who looks something like a Russian Icabod Crane, only Fr. Georgi’s face seems mainly full of a joy. Penitents, aware of how many people are awaiting their turn, tend to be brief. In some cases they simply hand Fr. Georgi a piece of paper on which they have written what they have to confers. In these cases he reads the paper, tears the paper in half, and gives the fragments back to the person, as if to say, “Your sins are now in the rubbish bin.”