The Way of the Pilgrim

[a talk given at the Center for Spiritual Development in Orange, California, on 18 October 2008; parts of the text are adapted from “The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life”]

by Jim Forest

Walker Percy, in his novel, The Moviegoer, made the comment, “The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life…. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”

There is a great deal of information in those few words about being a pilgrim. Not to be on a search is not to be a pilgrim. What keeps us from living a life of pilgrimage is the problem of “everydayness” — the sense of being trapped on a mobius strip of days that seem as interchangeable as fast-food restaurants.

To be a pilgrim is who we become when we step off the mobius strip. Most of us are pilgrims at least some of the time. Thomas Merton noted about his trip to Cuba in 1940, the year before he became a monk, that he had been ninety percent tourist, ten percent pilgrim. I can identify with those numbers.

Occasionally we step off — or are pulled off — the conveyor belt of everydayness into a pilgrim state of mind. At least for a short time, we actually see what’s around us with an almost mystical intensity, or become hyper-aware of some small detail of the world that we had previously glanced at a thousand times without really seeing it, and we find ourselves amazed, as if we had been struck by lightning.

We all have these moments, and when we have them we suddenly realize they happen too rarely and wish they were not so few and far between. All too soon, we find ourselves back on the conveyor belt of everydayness — a depressing state to be in, one that can bring on despair.

To be a pilgrim, to be someone who is trying as much as possible to be onto something, is not just a good idea but is even a matter of life and death. Not to be onto something, not to be a pilgrim, means to be more than half in the tomb. It’s a problem Jesus spoke of — eyes that don’t see, ears that don’t hear.

Anyone can be a pilgrim. It’s a potentiality that goes back as far as Adam and Eve. Being a pilgrim requires no particular religious identity — it’s absolutely ecumenical. Christianity is not the only religion with a pilgrimage tradition. Thanks mainly to St. Paul, there is a Christian theology of pilgrimage.

Paul put it this way in his letters to the Hebrews:

[Our spiritual ancestors, beginning with Abraham and Sarah] all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city. (Hebrews 11:13-16)

St. Paul was definitely onto something. Following his encounter with Christ while on the road to Damascus, everydayness does not seem to have been a problem for Paul.

Even if we live the most stationary of lives, we can desire and actively seek what Paul calls “a better country.” This is what it means to be “in the world but not of it.” We are definitely here, living every minute of our life in this world, doing our best to make it better, but all the while attempting to make choices that are shaped not by nationalism or ideology, but by the reality of the kingdom of God, of which occasionally we get glimpses as we go about our daily lives.

These glimpses can come at the most unlikely moments. For example, consider a very important moment on the life of Thomas Merton. It happened suddenly and at a prosaic location, not at the monastery with all its reminders of the kingdom of God, but while he was on an errand that brought him to Louisville where he found himself standing at a busy intersection waiting for the light to change.

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream….

This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud…. It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake….

There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun…. There are no strangers! … If only we could see each other [as we really are] all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…. I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other….

At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.

I have no program for this seeing. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.” [Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p. 141-142]

You don’t have to be a contemplative monk who has spent years in a monastery for something like this to happen to you. My guess is that such events are common and that each of us can look back at moments in our lives when suddenly the lights snapped on and we found ourselves in an intensely wide awake, astonished condition, a million light years from everydayness. In these moments, we are a hundred percent pilgrim.

When we hear the word pilgrimage, perhaps we think of Chaucer’s story-telling pilgrims making their unhurried way on horseback from London to Canterbury, or perhaps we think of all those people down through the centuries who have made their way, usually on foot, to places like Jerusalem and Santiago de Compostela.

One of the advantages of that kind of step-by-step pilgrimage from here to a far-off place is that whoever sets off on such a journey quite literally become a stranger to those he meets along the way. Every day the pilgrim is seeing and hearing things he has never seen or heard before. This makes it more likely for the pilgrim to be in a high state of alertness. Freed from many ordinary chores and having access to many hours of quiet time while walking, meditation and contemplation come easier. Traveling an unfamiliar route is a way of living in a state of surprise and openness.

The harder challenge for anyone attempting to be a pilgrim while going nowhere special — on your way to work or to the supermarket, or stuck in traffic, or standing at a street corner waiting for the light to change — is to see and hear all that is familiar with a similar alertness.

One of the most important pilgrimage routes has nothing to with travel to distant places, but simply with seeing faces more attentively.

My wife and I know a nun who lives in Chicago, Sister Mary Evelyn Jegen. As she never got a driver’s license, she travels on public buses back and forth from her convent to the university where she teaches. City buses have become for her both a means of pilgrimage and a school of prayer. At the heart of her spiritual practice is the awareness that each person, without exception, is a bearer of the image of God and that this image is most visible in faces.

Her approach is discrete. She respects the privacy of the people she travels with. Being careful not to make anyone uncomfortable by staring, she briefly glances at a face, holding the image while trying to be sensitive to whatever that face reveals — happiness, boredom, anxiety, fear, anger, love, irritation, impatience, confusion, depression, despair — all the while praying for that person. She often uses a simple variation of the Jesus Prayer. Instead of the usual form of the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner, “she says, ”“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy [on him, on her, on the woman in the blue blouse, on the man who is so upset, etc].”

“It’s amazing how much faces on buses reveal,” she says.

She calls her way of looking at others “benevolent glancing,” a phrase she first encountered in a press account of Pope John Paul’s meeting with the Buddhist Patriarch in Thailand. The first part of their encounter, it was reported, was an extended period of silence during which the two men “exchanged benevolent glances.”

One of the most challenging of pilgrimage routes is right in your own house — the pilgrimage to the front door.

I became aware of this one morning when Nancy and I were having breakfast. She asked, “What’s the most important thing in the house?” I mentioned several of our hand-painted icons, certain treasured books, and works of art that hang on our walls. “That’s not it,” Nancy said. “The most important thing is the front door. The front door is the place where whoever knocks is made welcome or kept distant. The front door is directly connected to the Last Judgment.”

There is no pilgrim who wouldn’t agree. Just as important as setting out on a journey is finding open doors and welcoming faces along the way. For the traditional hotel-avoiding pilgrim following the route to Santiago de Compostela, without its many hospices along the way, few would be able walk those paths, least of all those with little money. Hundreds of volunteers staff the hospices, providing meals, bandaging blisters, giving advice, telling stories and listening to them.

Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, founders of the Catholic Worker movement, urged every Christian family to have a Christ Room — a place in the home for at least one guest. As they pointed out again and again, Christ is hidden in the stranger — don’t turn Christ away from your home. The Greeks have a word for the spiritual force behind such hospitality: xenophilia, literally love of the outsider, the foreigner, the stranger, the pilgrim.

The pilgrimage to the front door can be hard or easy. We’ve had countless guests in our home over the years. The vast majority have been people we were happy to welcome and sorry to see leave, but not all.

We’re now engaged in a different sort of hospitality, taking care of an elderly person. This can be at the tougher end of the spectrum. For the past 18 months, since the death of my brother-in-law, our principal guest has been Nancy’s mother, age 91.

Hard or easy, hospitality is at the center of life. Each of us depends on the care of others, especially care that is given freely — care that expresses love. Where would I be in life had it not been for the hospitality and loving care of others: parents, teachers, friends, co-workers, nuns, clergy, doctors and nurses, and also strangers?

In some countries, hospitality is a deeply embedded tradition. In a memoir of her pilgrimage from atheism to baptism, Tatiana Goricheva, a philosophy student who was then doing graduate studies in Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was called in the Soviet era, relates a story of going on pilgrimage to the village of Pechory to visit one of the very few living monasteries that still survived in the Soviet Union. “Where will I stay?” she asked friends. “There are no hotels.” “All you need to do is knock on any door and say, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’.” To Tatiana’s amazement, it worked. The response of the person answering the first door she knocked on was, “Amen!” She immediately became a most welcome guest. It was a significant moment on her journey to Christian belief.

As a model of hospitality, I think of a nun who gave me a ride from Louisville to Lexington when I was in Kentucky to give a few lectures and whose attitude about being on the road was certainly that of a person on pilgrimage. I no longer remember her name, but I will never forget the spirit of welcome that she radiated or her old, battered car. It would have been worth little at a used-car lot, but in her care it had become a house of hospitality on wheels.

As we drove along the highway, the glove compartment door in front of me kept popping open. I closed it repeatedly, each time noticing a pile of maps inside and also a book. At last the text on the spine of the book caught my eye: “Guests.” I pulled it out, discovering page after page of signatures, most of them giving the impression that the person signing was barely literate. Some were in shaky block letters.

“What is this?” I asked.

“Oh that’s my guest book.”

“But why keep it in the car?”

“Well, of course, I always pick up hitchhikers, so I need a guest book.”

I was astonished. Though I had been a hitchhiker myself back in my late teens and early twenties, I knew picking up hitchhikers was not without risks, all the more so for women.

“But isn’t that dangerous?” I asked.

“Well, I’ve had many guests sitting where you are now, most of them men, and I never felt I was in danger.”

She went on to explain that when she pulled over to offer a ride, she immediately introduced herself by name, and then asked, “And what’s your name?”

The exchange of names, she explained, was a crucial first step in hospitality and one likely to make for safety. “Once two people entrust their names to each other,” she explained, “there is a personal relationship.”

Her next step was to ask the guest to put his name in writing: “I would be grateful if you would sign my guest book.”

She didn’t have to explain to me that few of the people she had given rides to had ever been regarded as anyone’s guests, and fewer still had ever been invited to sign anyone’s guest book.

“I’ve met many fine people,” she told me, “people who have been a blessing to me. I never had any troubles, though you could see that most of them had lived a hard life.”

She had come to no harm, and there was also the factor of her nun’s habit, but it need hardly be said that pilgrimage as way a life involves risks. Countless pilgrims who went for long journeys to holy places died along the way, some from illness, some from violence, some from the rigors of old age.

There is, of course, the pilgrimage of dying.

If you ever have walked any of the great pilgrimage routes, perhaps you became aware that they are very long, very thin cemeteries. Over the centuries, hundreds of thousands of people have died along these paths. In earlier times when people set off on pilgrimage, the farewells didn’t hide the possibility that the pilgrim would not live to return.

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

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

Sometimes we don’t journey to death — death journeys to us.

In my own family, my stepmother Carla made what I would call a daily pilgrimage to a center in San Francisco that was set up to help people struggling with alcoholism and other addictions. Caring and patient person that Carla was, she was just the right person for the work she was doing. Waiting for a bus to return home after work late one afternoon in 1968, someone with a gun in a passing car took aim at her and she died as a consequence. It’s a sort of crime Americans have become all too familiar with. Who shot her? Why did he do so? I have no idea. But I think of it as a pilgrim’s death. She was a pilgrim whose life centered on the works of mercy. She chose to work in a neighborhood that had more than its share of violence. She wouldn’t have given up what she was doing in order to live in greater safety.

None of us know when or where or how we are going to die, but what a sad life one would live if our choices were governed by an effort to be as safe as possible. What Walker Percy called “the search” would be out of the question. Instead we would be suffering chronic everydayness.

Being safe is impossible anyway. Assuming we find ways to avoid all the people we think might pose a danger, and assuming we manage to avoid wars, riots, fires, auto accidents, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornados, explosions, etc., we have a pretty good chance of eventually being seriously ill and at some point terminally ill.

One of the main pilgrimage routes in my life these past five years has been the pilgrimage of illness.

Back in 2003 routine blood tests that had been arranged by our family doctor revealed that my kidneys were failing. Following further tests at the local hospital, an internist, Dr. Bax, told me that I might have six months or so before needing to begin dialysis. “We will be seeing a great deal of each other,” he told me, “for the foreseeable future.”

Dialysis was a word that I knew nothing about. I quickly learned that it was an alternate method of filtering the blood when kidney function has either dropped below a minimal level or the kidneys have altogether stopped working. Without such an alternate method of getting rid of the wastes that ordinarily are filtered out by the kidneys, kidney failure is a death sentence. In every cemetery there are the tombstones of those who died because their kidneys gave out. Even since the development of dialysis in the latter half of the twentieth century, many such deaths still occur.

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

Ironically, while feeling sorry for myself, I was at work writing a book on pilgrimage — The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life. How funny! I had been writing about pilgrimage without being aware that the situation I so desperately wanted to avoid and whose demands on me I so deeply resented and resisted could do more for me than walking in prayer to Jerusalem.

Sickness is time-consuming; it stops you in your tracks. It’s an opportunity to learn a great deal and to do a lot of growing.

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

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

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

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

Among kidney patients, I’m one of the extremely lucky ones. After two years of dialysis, last October one of my wife’s kidneys made the journey from her body to mine where it has been living happily ever since. I no longer have be at the hospital every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for three-hour sessions of dialysis. I’ll be a hospital patient for life, but my sickness currently involves a lot less of my time. I can do things I couldn’t do not so long ago. I can travel without having to work out medical care along the way. I have more energy. I don’t have to sleep so long at night. I don’t need a daily nap. I can be more productive as a writer. I can do lots of walking and biking. All this is a kind of miracle. I feel a bit like Lazarus pulled out of his tomb. Of course Lazarus will in time get sick and die once again, but he has had a preview of life after death and, as a consequence, has a different take on the gift of life.

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps I’ve said enough. If we are tired of being in a state of everydayness, if we are drawn to the search, clearly we are on pilgrimage.

* * *
text as of October 19, 2008
* * *

The Way of the Holy Fools

St Basil the Blessed, Holy Fool of Moscow

[a talk given at the Center for Spiritual Development in Orange, California, 18 October 2008]

by Jim Forest

In the Beatitudes, Jesus blessed the pure of heart, but — let’s be frank — this is now out of date. But what can one expect of so old a book? Jesus didn’t even use e-mail. What Jesus should have said is, “Blessed are the clever of mind. Blessed are the smart.” This would suit us much better. The heart has gone down in the world while the brain has ascended.

The result of this shift is that few taunts are sharper than those which call into question someone’s intelligence and still more his sanity: “He’s crazy. He’s a fool. He’s an idiot. He’s out of touch. He’s missing a few nuts and bolts. He isn’t playing with a full deck. There are some bulbs missing in the marquee. There are bats in his belfry.”

Yet there are saints whose acts of witness to the Gospel fly in the face of what most of us regard as sanity. The Russian Church has a special word for such saints, yurodivi, meaning holy fools or, as it’s sometimes put, Fools for Christ’s sake. These are wild souls whose odd behavior many people would regard as madness.

In Leo Tolstoy’s memoir of his childhood, he fondly recalls Grisha, a holy fool who sometimes wandered about his parent’s estate and even came into the mansion itself without knocking on the door. “He gave little icons to those he took a fancy to,” Tolstoy remembered.

Among the local gentry, some regarded Grisha as a pure soul whose presence was a blessing. Others, including Tolstoy’s father, dismissed Grisha as a lazy peasant. “I will only say one thing,” Tolstoy’s mother said at table one night, opposing her husband’s view that Grisha should be put in prison. “It is hard to believe that a man, though he is sixty, goes barefoot summer and winter and always under his clothes wears chains weighing seventy pounds, and who has more than once declined a comfortable life …. It is hard to believe that such a man does all this merely because he is lazy.”

We meet two other holy fools in Dostoevsky’s novel, Crime and Punishment.

First there is Lizaveta, one of the women murdered by Raskolnikov. Lizaveta is a simple-minded young woman who has an absolutely pure soul. She regards no one with enmity and is loved by many.

What a contrast she is to Raskolnikov, who kills Lizaveta simply because she has the misfortune to witness his murder of a money-lender. Raskolnikov is a bitter young scholar who has lost his Christian faith. The name Dostoevsky assigned to his anti-hero is based on the Russian verb meaning “to cut off” or “slice,” as in cutting a slice from a loaf of bread. Raskolnikov’s name suggests that he is a person cut off from the whole, a man who has broken communion with others. He has convinced himself that certain people — the clever, the brilliant, the born leaders — are not subject to the same pedestrian moral code imposed on ordinary people. For such people, for someone like himself, good can be achieved through evil means.

Dostoevsky’s other holy fool is Sonya, ultimately Raskolnikov’s rescuer, who has been pressed into prostitution for the sake of her impoverished family. Sonya is the novel’s heroine.

“Were you friends with Lizaveta?” Raskolnikov asks Sonya. “Yes,” she responds. “She and I used to read and talk. She will see God.”

Dostoevsky comments: “How strange these bookish words sounded to [Raskolnikov]; and here was another new thing: [Sonya’s] mysterious get-togethers with Lizaveta — two holy fools.”

“One might well become a holy fool oneself here,” exclaims Raskolnikov. “It’s catching!” [The translation is from Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation.]

Grisha, Lizaveta and Sonya represent the rank-and-file of Russia’s yurodivi. Few such men and women are canonized, just as few of the saints we happen to meet in life are canonized, but nonetheless they inspire and even give new direction to many of those around them. In their unconventional ways of life, they are surprising reminders of God’s presence.

While there is great variety among them, holy fools in every case are ascetic Christians living well outside the borders of ordinary social behavior, including conventional religious behavior. They are people who in many countries would be locked away in asylums or simply ignored until the elements silenced them, after which they would be thrown into unmarked graves.

While this type of saint is chiefly associated with Eastern Christianity, the Western Church also has an impressive supply of holy fools, even if it rarely applies to them a label suggesting foolishness.

St Francis of Assisi
St. Francis of Assisi is chief among the holy fools of the west. Think of him stripping off his clothes and standing naked before the bishop in Assisi’s main square, or preaching to birds, or taming a wolf, or during the Crusades walking unarmed across the Egyptian desert into the Sultan’s camp where he had every reason to expect his own death. What at first may seem like charming scenes, when placed on the rough surface of actual life, become mad moments indeed.

The most famous of Russia’s holy fools was a Muscovite, St. Basil the Blessed, after whom the colorful cathedral on Red Square takes its name. In an ancient icon housed in that church, Basil is shown clothed only in a lengthy beard. In the background is the Kremlin’s Savior Tower. Basil’s hands are raised in prayer toward a small image of Jesus revealed in an opening in the sky. Basil the holy fool has a meek quality but also a single-minded, intelligent face.

It is hard to find the actual man beneath the thicket of tales and legends that grew up around his memory, but according to tradition Basil was clairvoyant from an early age. Thus, while a cobbler’s apprentice, he both laughed and wept when a certain merchant ordered a pair of boots, for Basil saw that the man would be wearing a coffin before his new boots were ready. We can imagine that the merchant was not amused at the boy’s behavior. Soon after — perhaps having been fired by the cobbler — Basil became a vagrant. Dressing as if for the Garden of Eden, Basil’s survival of many bitter Russian winters must be reckoned among the miracles associated with his life.

A man either naked, or nearly naked, wandering the streets — it isn’t surprising that he became famous in the capital city. Especially for the wealthy, Basil was not a comfort either to eye or ear. In the eyes of some, he was a trouble-maker. There are tales of him destroying the merchandise of dishonest tradesmen at the street market that used to fill Red Square. At times he hurled stones at the houses of the wealthy — yet, as if reverencing icons, he sometimes kissed the stones on the outside of houses in which evil had been committed, as if to say that no matter what happens within these walls, there is still hope of repentance and conversion.

Basil, a contemporary of Tsar Ivan the Terrible, was one of the few who dared warn the tsar that his violent deeds were dooming him to hell. According to one story, in the midst of Lent, when Russians keep a rigorous vegetarian fast, Basil presented the tsar with a slab of raw beef, telling him that there was no reason in his case not to eat meat. “Why abstain from meat,” asked Basil, “when you murder men?”

Ivan, whose irritated glance was a death sentence to others, is said to have lived in dread of Basil. He would allow no harm to be done to him and occasionally even sent gifts to the naked prophet of the streets, but Basil kept none of these for himself. Most that he received he gave to beggars, though in one surprising instance a gift of gold from the tsar was passed on to a merchant, a man others imagined was well off, but whom Basil knew had been ruined and was actually starving while maintaining a facade of wealth. Once Basil poured vodka on the street, another royal gift. He wanted, he said, to put out the fires of sin.

Basil was so revered by Muscovites that, when he died, his thin body was buried, not in a pauper’s grave on the city’s edge, but next to the newly erected Cathedral of the Protection of the Mother of God. From that time people began calling the church St. Basil’s, for to go there meant one would pause to pray at Basil’s grave. Not many years passed before Basil was formally canonized by the Russian Church. A chapel built over his grave became an integral part of the great building, adding one more onion dome to the eight already there.

Another Fool for Christ was the heir to Ivan the Terrible’s imperial throne, Tsar Theodore. Regarded by Western diplomats of the time as a weakling and idiot, Theodore was adored by the Russian people. Brought up in an environment of brutality, reviled by his father, regarded with scorn by courtiers, he became a man of simplicity, prayer, and quiet devotion to his wife. Much of his time was spent in church. It is said that throughout his fourteen years as tsar he never lost his playfulness or love of beauty. He sometimes woke the people of Moscow in the hours before dawn by sounding the great bells of the Kremlin, a summons to prayer. “He was small of stature,” according to a contemporary account, “and bore the marks of fasting. He was humble, given to the things of the soul, constant in prayer, liberal in alms. He did not care for the things of this world, only for the salvation of the soul.”

“This simpleton robed in gorgeous vestments,” Nicholas Zernov observed in The Russians and their Church, “was determined that bloodshed, cruelty and oppression must be stopped, and it was stopped as long as he occupied the throne of his ancestors.”

St Xenia of Petersburg, Holy Fool for Christ

In the summer of 1988, I was present at a Council of the Church in Russia for the canonization at the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra north of Moscow of someone very like Basil and Theodore: Xenia of St. Petersburg.


Early in her long life Xenia had been married to an army colonel who drank himself to death and who may have been an abusive, violent husband. Soon after his funeral, she began giving away the family fortune to the poor, a simple act of obedience to Christ’s teaching: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you have and give it to the poor … and come, follow me.” In order to prevent Xenia from impoverishing herself, relatives sought to have her declared insane. However the doctor who examined her concluded Xenia was the sanest person he had ever met.

Having given away her wealth, for some years Xenia disappeared, becoming one of Russia’s many pilgrims walking from shrine to shrine while reciting the Jesus Prayer. Somewhere along the way during those hidden years, she became a Fool for Christ. When Xenia finally returned to St. Petersburg, she was wearing the threadbare remnants of her late husband’s military uniform — often shown in icons of her — and would answer only to his name, not her own. One can only guess her motives. In taking upon herself his name and clothing, she may have been attempting to do penance for his sins. Her home became the Smolensk Cemetery on the city’s edge where she slept rough year-round and where finally she was buried.

Xenia became known for her clairvoyant gift of telling people what to expect and what they should do. She might say to a certain person she singled out, “Go home and make blini [Russian pancakes].” As blini are served after funerals, the person she addressed would understand that a member of the family would soon die.

She never begged. Money was given to her but she kept only an occasional kopek for herself; everything else was passed on to others.

When she died, age seventy-one, at the end of the 18th century, her grave became a place of pilgrimage and remained so even through the Soviet period, though for several decades the political authorities closed the chapel over her grave site. The official canonization of this Fool for Christ and the re-opening of the chapel were vivid gestures in the Gorbachev years that the war against religion was truly over in Russia.

Why does the Church occasionally canonize people whose lives are not only completely at odds with civil society but who often barely fit ecclesiastical society either?

The answer must be that holy fools dramatize something about God that most Christians find embarrassing but which we vaguely recognize is crucial information.

Perhaps there is a sense in which each and every saint, even those who were scholars and whom we might regard as paragons of sanity, would be regarded as foolish, if not insane, by many in the modern world because of their devotion to a way of life that is completely senseless if viewed apart from the Gospel. Most saints embrace poverty. None are careerists. Every saint is troubling. Every saint reveals some of our fears and makes us question our fear-driven choices.

It is the special vocation of holy fools to live out, in a rough, literal, breath-taking way, the “hard sayings” of Jesus. Like the Son of Man, they often have no place to lay their heads, and, again like him, they live with empty pockets (thus Jesus, in responding to a question about paying taxes, had no coin of his own with which to display Caesar’s image; he had to borrow a coin from the man asking the question).

While never harming anyone, many holy fools raise their voices against those who lie and cheat and do violence to others, but at the same time they are always ready to embrace these same greedy and ruthless people. They take everyone seriously. In their eyes, absolutely no one is unimportant. In fact, the only thing always important for them, apart from God, are the people around them, whoever they are, no matter how limited or damaged they may be. Their dramatic gestures, however shocking, always have to do with revealing the person of Christ and his mercy.

For most people, clothing serves as a message of how high they have risen and how secure — or insecure — they are. holy fools wear the wrong clothes, or rags, or perhaps nothing at all. This is a witness that they have nothing to lose. There is nothing to cling to and nothing for anyone to steal. The Fool for Christ, says Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, “has no possessions, no family, no position, and so can speak with a prophetic boldness. He cannot be exploited, for he has no ambition; and he fears God alone.”

The rag-dressed (or sometimes undressed) holy fool resembles Issa, the wandering Japanese poet who lived 200 years ago. Issa enjoyed possessing only what could not be taken away. In one tiny poem. He declares:

The thief left it behind
The moon in the window.

You can strip a house bare, right down to the wallpaper, even burn it to the ground, but the cosmos remains.

Inevitably, the voluntary destitution and absolute vulnerability of the holy fool challenges us with our locks and keys and schemes to outwit destitution, suffering and death.

While some holy fools may be people of lesser intelligence, this is the exception rather than the rule. Some were regarded as quite brilliant in their earlier life, but were led to wear the disguise of foolishness as a way of overcoming pride and a need for recognition of intellectual gifts or spiritual attainments.

A noted scholar of Russian spirituality, George Fedotov, pointed out that for all who seek mystical heights by following the traditional path of rigorous self-denial, there is always the problem of vainglory, “a great danger for monastic asceticism.” For such people a feigned madness, provoking from many others contempt or vilification, saves them from something worse: being honored.

One thinks of Dorothy Day’s famous comment: “Don’t call me a saint — I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” Nothing made her more uncomfortable than recognition.

Clearly, holy fools challenge an understanding of Christianity, more typical in Western than Eastern Christianity, that gives the intellectually gifted people a head start not only in economic efforts but spiritual life. But the Gospel and sacramental life aren’t just for smart people. At the Last Judgment we will not be asked how clever we were, or how highly regarded and successful, but how merciful. Our academic ability won’t save us.

It is revealing to note that, in Western Christianity, the idea gradually took hold that participation in eucharistic life presupposed having reached “the age of reason” and the communicant had the ability to understand and explain his or her faith. I would guess this practice goes back at least to the Reformation. Thus in the West children below “the age of reason” — seven or eight years old — have long been barred from receiving communion. It is quite the opposite in the Orthodox Church, where, following baptism, the younger the child, the closer he or she is to the front of the communion line. (From an Orthodox Christian point of view, it is far from certain that anyone, even the most brilliant, ever reaches the age when the primary mysteries of existence can be understood or explained. In the Orthodox Church, the sacraments are referred to as the Mysteries.)

In their outlandish behavior, holy fools pose a question each of us needs to consider: Are we keeping heaven at a distance by clinging to the good regard of others and what those around us regard as “sanity”?

What is generally regarded as sanity may have little or nothing to do with holiness. The psychiatrists who examined Adolph Eichmann, the chief administrator of Hitler’s extermination camps, was found to be “perfectly sane.” This led Thomas Merton to write an essay in which he made this comment:

The sanity of Eichmann is disturbing. We equate sanity with a sense of justice, with humaneness, with prudence, with the capacity to love and understand other people. We rely on the sane people of the world to preserve it from barbarism, madness, destruction. And now it begins to dawn on us that it is precisely the sane ones who are the most dangerous. It is the sane ones, the well-adapted ones, who can without qualms and without nausea aim the missiles and press the buttons that will initiate the great festival of destruction that they, the sane ones, have prepared…. No one suspects the sane, and the sane ones will have perfectly good reasons, logical, well-adjusted reasons, for firing the shot. They will be obeying sane orders that have come sanely down the chain of command.” [Raids on the Unspeakable (New York: New Directions, 1966), pp 45-53.]

Surely the same psychiatrists who interviewed Eichmann would have found St. Basil the Blessed, St. Xenia of Petersburg and St. Francis all insane. And what would they conclude about that most revered of all mad men, Jesus of Nazareth, who foolishly went to Jerusalem well aware that, as surely as apples fall to the ground, he would be led to the cross and die one of Rome’s most painful and humiliating deaths?

The holy fools shout out with their mad words and deeds that to seek God is not necessarily the same thing as to seek sanity.

We need to think more critically about sanity, a word most of us cling to with a steel grip. I am not recommending any of us should embrace madness, but I do ask the question whether fear of being regarded by others as less than sensible confines me in a cage of “responsible” behavior that limits my freedom and cripples my ability to love?

Henry David Thoreau was by no means the most conventional man of his time. There must have been those who questioned his sanity. He lost a teaching job because of his refusal to whip disobedient children. One of his gestures, an act of protest against the Mexican-American War, was to spend a night in jail for refusing to pay a tax. For two years he lived alone in a tiny cabin next to Walden Pond. How astonished Thoreau would be to discover that his face eventually landed on a U.S. postage stamp! He lamented on his death bed, “What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?”

Thoreau would have felt a bond with holy fools, those men and women who remind us of a deeper sanity that is sometimes hidden beneath apparent lunacy: the treasure of a God-centered life.

Holy fools like St. Basil, St. Xenia and St. Francis are God-obsessed people who throw into the bonfire anything that gets in the way or leads them down blind alleys.

But where does their path actually lead them? It is easier to say where they are not headed and what they are not taking with them than to describe where they are going. One can use a phrase like “the kingdom of God.” but this reveals no more about what it is to live in the Holy Spirit than a dictionary entry on oranges reveals about the taste of an orange.

Still there is the question: Were at least some of the holy fools, after all, not crazy? The answer must be maybe so. While the Fools for Christ who have been canonized are regarded by the Church as having worn madness as a mask, in fact no one knows how much a mask it really was, only that Christ shone brightly through their lives.

For most Russian people, as the scholar Fedotov pointed out, “the difficulty [confronting many others] does not exist. Sincere [lunacy] or feigned, a madman with religious charisma … is always a saint, perhaps the most beloved saint in Russia.”

As Paul wrote to the newly-founded church in Corinth: “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound those who are mighty.” (1 Cor 1:27)

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This text is an expanded version of a chapter in Jim Forest’s book, Praying with Icons (Orbis).

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Jim Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands
e-mail: jhforest /at/
Jim & Nancy Forest web site:
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A Pilgrimage in Peacemaking

[draft of a lecture to be given in California in October 2008]

by Jim Forest

Having given too many sermon-like talks on peace and peacemaking, let me try something a little different. I’d like to share some stories about war and peace rooted in my particular life — my own pilgrimage of peacemaking. My purpose is not to put myself in the spotlight but to try to avoid drifting off into clouds of abstraction.

My first recollection of thinking about peace was noticing, when I was ten or eleven years old, about 1951 or ?52, the cancellation mark on one of the rare envelopes addressed to me personally. I think it contained a birthday card. Part of the cancellation mark was a three-word message: “Pray for Peace.” Roughly 57 years later, I’m trying to reconstruct why that invitation to pray for peace so arrested my attention that I still see that envelope in my hands.

No doubt one factor was my mother, a social worker employed at a nearby mental hospital. She followed the news closely and talked about it, on the assumption that kids should be aware of what’s going on in the world. As a result I was aware that something called the Cold War was going on and knew that the Cold War might very well become a hot war. Mother worried about World War III.

But even if my mother had been less informed and not so communicative, there was the fact of all the nuclear weapon tests going on in Nevada. These provided one of the great live television spectacles of the early fifties, reality TV with a vengeance. I was among the millions watching an almost featureless desert — colorless as there was no color television — and then the sudden explosion, the expanding ball of white light, then the cloud bubbling upward, rising high into the sky until the upper tier spread out in a mushroom-like shape.

One test included placing an ordinary house within a few miles of ground zero. We in the TV audience got to watch its instant demolition, wood going suddenly black and erupting with smoke before the hurricane-like blast swept it away. Yet it wasn’t intended as a doomsday program — rather a sort of “best bomb” exhibit to make Americans feel as proud of our weapons technology as of our Fords and Chevrolets.

In at least one test, Operation Bravo, hundreds if not thousands of soldiers were within miles of the explosion, an exercise to prepare the Army for battle conditions in the nuclear era. Many of those soldiers later died of cancer.

After the tests, there were interviews with generals and politicians pleased everything had gone so well. There was also the happy news that bigger and better bombs were in the works.

The Amazing Atom Bomb Show. In those days, no one seemed to be worrying about the radioactive atomic dust that was being carried wherever the winds took it, which, as any meteorologist will tell you, was more or less everywhere. Nor did anyone in those days speak of “downwind victims,” that is all the people and animals who really got fried. It’s disturbing to look at a US map that highlights where thyroid cancer was most prevalent in the fifties and sixties. Hardest-hit were Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa — the downwind states.

Yet, as the fifties began, the tests were an occasion of national pride. The big message was that the US was on top, the richest, freest, most powerful country in the world. I wasn’t immune from national pride. Though my parents were people on the left who viewed nuclear weapons with alarm, I was eager to connect with the mass culture around me rather than with my parent’s minority opinions. No doubt I was reading the times in a child’s totally non-ideological, practical way and saw how the political winds were blowing. When Eisenhower ran for president in 1952, I proudly wore an “I Like Ike” button and, once he was in the White House, sent him a snapshot of me holding a paint-by-numbers Eisenhower portrait that I had made. I was thrilled to get a thank-you letter back — the envelope once again bore the “Pray for Peace” cancellation mark — signed by Ike himself on White House stationery.

“Pray for Peace.” At that age I wasn’t praying for anything except the occasional odd prayer that went something like, “God, if you exist, could you please make yourself a little more obvious?” This may have had to do the fact that both my parents, scandalized with how house-broken and flag-adjusted Christianity had become, regarded themselves as atheists. It wasn’t a view that appealed to me, yet I couldn’t entirely shrug it off.

In 1955, when I was thirteen, Mother took my brother and me to see a major photo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was called “The Family of Man.” It was an amazing array of images. Each photo seemed a revelation of the human mystery — children, the aged, dark skinned and light, naked and clothed, joyful, in grief, praying, playing, dancing, standing still, on battlefields, in city parks, alone, in crowds, dancing, making music, making love, just out the womb, just breathing their last, in classrooms, in cemeteries. Seeing these photos was my first experience of being astonished at being a member of the human race. How pleased I was that mother gave me a book with all the exhibition’s photos. It was my first Bible. There are few books I’ve ever looked at so closely and returned to again and again. A few years ago, my original copy falling to pieces, I was relieved to find a fresh copy in a California book shop.

I could speak at length about many photos included in that exhibition, but one that burned itself into my memory was a child’s face — a boy about three years old. The caption only indicated the place it was taken and the photographer’s name: “Nagasaki, Japan. Yosuke Yamahata.”

It’s an icon-like picture, absolutely still. The boy gazes full-face toward the viewer. He stands erect. No one is holding him. What is it about his stillness? About his emotionless eyes? Only the fact that the photo was taken in Nagasaki and the child’s face has many small scratches and thin lines of dried blood gives away the event outside the image. It’s the face of a child who has survived a nuclear explosion. It is the face of a child who has witnessed a rehearsal for the end of the world. It is a photo of unspeakable desolation mirrored in a child’s eyes.

About the time I saw that photo, the pastor of the Methodist Church and his wife in the town where I lived — Red Bank, New Jersey — took in as long-term guests two young women who were survivors of the nuclear bomb dropped on Nagasaki. American peace groups had brought them and others like them to the United States for plastic surgery and found them temporary homes in and near New York City. It wasn’t an easy kind of hospitality in the fifties, when the word “peace” was regarded by many as a synonym for “Communism” and when most people had no desire to think about, not to say see with their own eyes, what American nuclear bombs had done to actual people. In fact, I could only guess at the results myself, as each of the women wore a broad-brimmed hat from which was draped a veil of silk. They could see out but we couldn’t see in.

My mother, who wasn’t a full-time atheist, sometimes took us to services at the Methodist Church. We never missed Easter and Christmas. As a result I saw these two very poised, meek women sitting side-by-side in a pew near the front of the church, their faces hidden behind their silk veils. I couldn’t stop staring. They were a bridge into a nightmarish event on the other side of the world that happened when I was four. Along with the Nagasaki photo I had seen in New York, these two women helped me understand the human cost of war, the effect of nuclear weapons, and the fact that the victims of war are mainly the innocent. The designers of empire, the engineers of war and its generals usually have the privilege of dying of old-age. Some, like Napoleon, are buried in tombs that are architectural celebrations of national honor.

I began to understand that to pray for peace is to pray that such events will not happen again. But is prayer really prayer if it isn’t connected to how we live and the choices we make? Perhaps by then I was old enough to be aware that, while many people said “amen” to prayers for peace, actually to work for peace was extremely controversial. Just to open one’s door to two bomb-damaged women, as the Squire family had done, was a brave action at the time.

That wasn’t all I gained from the witness of the Squire family. Thanks to them, I began to understand that following Christ was not, as it had seemed to me in the past, for the faint-hearted. While in many cases the church in one’s neighborhood might be an association of people dedicated to respectability, there were Christians who actually did adventurous things, actions that revealed the Gospel, a major theme of which is hospitality: “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was naked and you clothed me, I was a stranger and you took me in…”

While I wasn’t drawn to Methodism as such — interest in sermons has never been my strong point — what I saw in that particular Methodist church was certainly a factor in my taking Christianity more seriously. This was true for my mother as well. Not many years later — just after reading Thomas Merton’s autobiography, as it happened — she was fully cured of her atheism and returned to the Methodist Church, becoming one of its pillars in Red Bank. For the rest of her life, she missed services only when she was sick.

Given such events in my childhood, it’s not surprising that concerns about war and peace played a major part in my thoughts as I was growing up.

When I was fourteen, I took part in the regional Science Fair, but what I brought to the exhibition had less to do with science than anxiety. Using plywood, cardboard, plaster, raw bleached cotton and ink spray, I built a foot-high model of a nuclear explosion about 30 seconds after detonation — a fiery mushroom cloud rising vertically from a plywood base on which, using a thin later of plaster, I had painted the destruction at ground level. Attached to all this was a carefully-lettered text explaining what I had learned about how nuclear weapons were made (very little) and what they did (about which I was better informed). My exhibit failed to win a prize, but it was a worthwhile experience building the model and writing the text. The finished work attracted a gratifying amount of attention when it was shown.

Two years passed. I was now living in southern California with my father, step-mother and half-sister and was a student at Hollywood High School.

A good part of my reading in my mid-teens was science fiction. Many books in that genre had to do with what the world might be like for the survivors of nuclear war. It was in some respects grim reading, but such apocalyptic books were thought-provoking. The authors took seriously where the human race was headed. It was a kind of prophetic literature whose authors were trying to bring us to our senses.

Meanwhile I had joined Hollywood High School’s debating society and as a consequence was required to deliver a lecture. The idea of standing up in front of other students plus several teachers to make a speech was daunting.

I ended up writing a lecture with the title, “A Generation in the Shadow,” the shadow being the darkness under a mushroom cloud in which kids my age were standing. I wish I still had the text — it would be interesting to read it again. It might be better than the talk I’m giving today. I’m guessing the main theme was the problem of living in a world in which it wasn’t at all obvious that any of us would die of old age. It seemed unlikely that anyone in my generation would live to be 30.

Such an expectation has consequences. Who wants to paint a house that will be burned down tomorrow? But perhaps by then I had already heard those helpful words of Martin Luther’s: “Even if I knew the world was going to end tomorrow, I would go out an plant apple trees today.” This was a sentence that would have been a good ending, and indeed would have reflected my view that today is the only day available to us and offers the only opportunity we have to shape what happens next.

In 1957, the Beat Generation was suddenly in the press — a generation that had abandoned the social conveyor belt. I found the Beats fascinating. I managed to buy a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl, at that time banned in California, from a newsstand in west Hollywood that did a brisk business in under-the-counter items. Poetry was not its usual trade, but Howl was at the time a hot item. There’s nothing like a book being banned to perk up reader interest! If certainly perked up mine.

In a world daily preparing the means and strategies of destroying itself, Ginsberg was a writer whose howl I could identify with. In fact, as my wife pointed out to me recently while reading Howl, one line was almost prophetic in my case. It’s about a guy “who coughed on the sixth floor of Harlem crowned with flame under the tubercular sky surrounded by orange crates of theology.” While I have yet to be crowned with flame, I was part of a house of hospitality in Harlem, have done my share of coughing, and have had many orange crates of theology.

I look back on that part of my life and am a bit astonished how well I did living under the nuclear shadow, given my sense that World War III was practically inevitable and that few would survive. Russia and the US were frequently testing nuclear weapons and France and Britain had also joined “the nuclear club.”

This was part of the background for my making some unusual choices.

During the Christmas holiday in 1958, soon after my 17th birthday, I dropped out of high school.

Five months later, the spring of 1959, still trying to find out what came next and influenced by posters that read “Join the Navy and See the World,” I joined the Navy. It was not exactly a Beat choice, but the idea of going to sea made me think of books like Moby Dick. After basic training, I was sent to the Navy Weather School for training as a meteorologist. From there, having graduated first in my class, I was sent not to sea, as I had hoped, but to Washington, D.C., where I became part of a small Navy unit at the headquarters of the U.S. Weather Bureau.

Even in the weaponless Weather Bureau, it was not all isobars. World War III proved not to be so far away. In our Navy unit, one of our daily exercises was to plot the fallout pattern at 12-hour intervals for the coming three days should a 20-megaton nuclear weapon explode at noon today over the center of Washington.

But something else was now going on in my life. It had started while I was studying meteorology. It would require a separate talk for me to explain how it came about, so let me instead cut to the headline. I became a Christian. While it was not easy discovering where exactly I fit on the Christian map, a year later, in November 1960, I was received into the Catholic Church.

Being a Christian put everything I had been thinking about in a new light. The subject was no longer only war. It was also peace. Fear, though not banished, was no longer at the center of my life.

One of the big events in 1960 was the finding Dorothy Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness, for sale in a rack of paperback books at my parish church, St. Thomas Apostle. I read it in a day or two.

During time off from work at the Weather Bureau, for several months I spent many hours helping out at a home for children whose parents, for one reason or another, were not able to take care of them. Among my tasks was taking the Catholic kids to Mass on Sunday. The nearest parish was Blessed Sacrament. One of its attractions was the fact that it had, on the ground floor of a house next door, a substantial library. And what library it was! I used it intensively.

Among its many treasures was a stack of back issues of the paper Dorothy Day edited, The Catholic Worker, an eight-page tabloid. I didn’t bother taking one or two at a time — a took the whole pile back to my Navy base on the Potomac and read each issue cover to cover.

Reading the paper made me want to visit the New York Catholic Worker. On my next free weekend, instead of helping out at the home for children, I hitchhiked to Manhattan, sleeping at night on the floor of one of the Catholic Worker apartments while helping out during the day with the soup kitchen. Other visits followed.

Being at the house on Chrystie Street, the Catholic Worker’s New York base in the early sixties, was roughly equivalent to riding the rails as a Jack-London-ish tramp in Depression days. Here was a collection of wild souls, a far from homogeneous bunch, who managed to feed and clothe — and in some cases house — a good many street people who had few allies. The community of volunteers itself lived a kind of anarchic monastic life, sustained up by the Liturgy, daily prayer, the rosary, and a shared intellectual life. It was an extraordinary place to be.

All the while I was reading the Gospel as if it were a long letter written to me personally, plus quite a few books from the Blessed Sacrament parish library. In the background of my reading was the pressing question, “What should I do with the rest of my life?”

At the very beginning of my conversion, the Gospel sentence that had astonished me most and continued to haunt me was, “If you would be perfect, go sell what you have and give it to the poor and come follow me.” I wasn’t quite sure what this might mean in my own life, but it didn’t strike me as an invitation to a military career and the things that the armed forces exist to do. If you were following Jesus, even if you were deaf to what he had to say about love of enemies, wouldn’t the fact that he had killed no one and had nothing to do with war suggest that his followers should kill no one and have nothing to do with war?

The Gospel text that Dorothy Day referred to again and again had to do with the works of mercy and ended with the sentence, “What you did the least person you did to me.” What one would not want to do to Jesus, and therefore not to the least person, was let allow him to starve to death, die of thirst, live in rags, freeze on the streets, be sick and uncared for, or be in prison without visitors.

This took me to another level of understanding peacemaking. Peacemaking was anything you do to protect human life, no matter how young or old, no matter how sane or insane, no matter how attractive or ugly, no matter how clean or unclean.

Within half a year of reading Dorothy Day’s autobiography, and after getting into a good deal of trouble for taking part in a vigil protesting the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, the Navy granted me an early discharge as a conscientious objector. I immediately became part of the Catholic Worker community in Manhattan.

Becoming part of the Catholic Worker gradually changed my understanding of peacemaking, in large measure thanks to Dorothy Day and the example she gave.

There was first of all her amazingly disciplined spiritual life — daily Mass, frequent use of the rosary, pausing to pray monastic offices during the day, weekly confession.

I was also struck by Dorothy’s wide-ranging interests, not least opera, which she listened to on the radio on Sundays whenever possible — definitely not a good time to knock on her door.

She also had a gift for giving significant responsibilities to quite young people such as myself. Not only did Dorothy eventually appoint me as managing editor of The Catholic Worker, but she also involved me in some of her own activities.

One day she took me with her when she was visiting a priest from Moscow who was serving at the Russian Orthodox cathedral in uptown Manhattan. Along the same lines, on at least one occasion she brought me to an eastern-rite Slavonic liturgy in a small, candle-heated chapel not far from the Catholic Worker. One evening she brought me with her to a meeting of a small group she belonged to called the Third Hour, a discussion group that brought together Catholic and Orthodox Christians plus one Anglican, the poet W.H. Auden.

Such activities not only made me aware that Christianity is divided along east-west lines but also widened my understanding of peacemaking. Some of the roots of war are religious. The Great Schism not only split the Church but multiplied the flash points for war. Thus one important area of peace work is to do all one can to end the Schism, now nearly a thousand years old.

Dorothy loved books. One of the hardest things about living in community, she once told me, was that so many of her books disappeared. But her most valued books, even if no longer in her small library, never disappeared from her memory. She could recite long patches of Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov. It was a book that Dorothy regarded as a kind of fifth Gospel. She very much wanted me to read it but it was only during a year in prison that I at last read it from start to finish for the first time.

Beauty was a important word for Dorothy. In the days when she was becoming Catholic while living with her common-law husband Foster Battersham, a passionate atheist, she would say to him, “How can there be no God when there is all this beauty?” I don’t think anyone could be close to Dorothy for any length of time without becoming better equipped to see beauty even in unbeautiful places. Once beauty is recognized, it becomes a sacred duty to protect it — one of the most important motives of peacemaking.

Dorothy shared her friends. One of the other extraordinary things Dorothy did was to involve me in her friendship with Thomas Merton, with whom she corresponded. One day in the late summer of 1961, she gave me a manuscript he had sent to her for possible publication in The Catholic Worker and asked me to get it ready for publication. It must have had something to do with her awareness that I liked Merton’s books. Thus I became involved in publishing Merton’s first Catholic Worker essay and also, again thanks to Dorothy’s suggestion, in writing to him. It was the beginning of a correspondence that lasted until Merton’s death seven years later. How many editors would turn over to a very junior assistant a manuscript from one of the most renowned writers of the time? Just one, in my experience.

Merton’s essay had the title “The Root of War is Fear.” It was an expanded version of a chapter for a book he was then working on, New Seeds of Contemplation. What he had to say in those six or eight pages had great impact on my understanding of peacemaking. From then on I became increasingly aware of the many ways we are shaped, or rather deformed, by fear. I became more conscious of how so many of our choices, even the work we choose to do and how we live, are driven by fear. War itself is driven by fear.

I sent Merton’s essay to my father, who earlier in his life had been Catholic and had even considered becoming a priest. He was genuinely appreciative, amazed that a Catholic of Merton’s stature was writing for The Catholic Worker and was tackling the hot issue of preventing war. Nonetheless he had to disagree with Merton’s main thesis. “The root of war,” Dad wrote me, “is bad economics.” Much to my surprise, several years later I had a letter from my father in which he said he was still thinking about Merton’s essay and wanted me to know he had concluded “that the root of bad economics is fear.”

Part of the weekly rhythm of life at the New York Catholic Worker when I was there was going uptown once a week to the headquarters of the Civil Defense Agency on Madison Avenue. Here we stood on the four corners of the nearest intersection handing out copies of a leaflet. I can’t recall the leaflet’s text in detail, but no doubt it pointed out that going into cellars and fallout shelters, or hiding under desks, would not save you in the event of nuclear war. Even should you exit your shelter alive, the world we would be returning to would not be hospitable to the human presence. Probably it also argued that our best protection was in dialogue with adversaries rather than in preparations for a nuclear holocaust.

It was something of a miracle to find any takers for the sheet. The big discovery I made in my attempts to pass it out was that, given the fact that the red light system created waves of people instead of a steady flow, should I succeed in getting the leaflet into the hands of the first person in a group coming my way, my chance of getting others who were following to take it were hugely improved. Though few if any people following the leader knew each other — all they had in common was the fact that they were pedestrians going from one place to another in Manhattan — they tended to imitate the response of the person up front. I actually prayed for the person in front — invariably a man in a hurry — to notice my friendly face and take my very important leaflet.

It was a useful lesson for any would-be peacemaker. All of us are constantly taking cues from one another. Not many people are inclined to solitary gestures. Like many varieties of fish, we prefer to swim in schools. The result is that we are easily influenced by the society in which we happen to 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 I been a German in the Hitler years, I would have been under immense social pressure to greet my neighbor with a raised right hand and the words, “Heil Hitler!” Had I been a Russian in the Lenin and Stalin years, I might have succumbed to atheist propaganda and been someone destroying icons rather than kissing them. Had I been a white South African in the apartheid years, going along with apartheid would have been much easier than opposing it. Had I 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.

Peacemaking, then, involves becoming more aware of the myriad ways manipulation occurs and finding ways to help ourselves and others not be so easily manipulated.

Having said so much about the first twenty years of my life, and wanting to have time for dialogue before we go our various ways, let me summarize what has happened to me in the years since being part of the New York Catholic Worker, then focus on one item that seems to me to have been especially significant. This requires skipping over my activities during the Vietnam War, several stays in prison for acts of civil disobedience, and much else that I wish we had time for.

My work after leaving the Catholic Worker has been a mixture of journalism, writing books and essays, occasional teaching at colleges and seminaries, and being on the staff of several peace organizations — the Catholic Peace Fellowship, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, and, most recently, after joining the Orthodox Church in 1988, the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.

My final story has to do with what was perhaps the most important aspect of my work with the International Fellowship of Reconciliation.

It was work with the IFOR that brought me from the US to Holland in 1977, and, life being full of unplanned events, it’s Holland that has been my home ever since. For twelve years, from 1977 until 1988, I was General Secretary of IFOR.

In 1982, I was back in the US for a speaking trip. One of the stops was in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, an area of the US where there were — perhaps still are — many underground silos housing nuclear-armed missiles kept in constant readiness for launching. Also nearby was the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command, whose nuclear-armed B52s were in the air 24 hours a day.

On the stage with me in Sioux Falls was an interesting array of speakers, including a retired Marine Corps general and a rancher whose vast property was adjacent to the main runway of the Strategic Air Command. The well-attended event we were part of had been organized by the Nuclear Freeze movement. For the speakers present, our common cause was advocacy of freezing the development, manufacture and testing of nuclear weapons — an idea that came to win immense popular support that cut across political and ideological lines. For a time it was a proposal that seemed to have a real chance of becoming an area of agreement for the US and the USSR. But the following year, 1983, when Soviet jet fighters shot down a 747 passenger plane that had strayed over the Kamchatka Peninsula, not only did that airplane go down but the idea of a nuclear freeze with it. The temperature of the Cold War plunged.

One of my subsequent stops on that same 1982 trip was in Massachusetts where I had a lecture to give at the Harvard Divinity School. I was staying with my friend Robert Ellsberg, now editor-in-chief of Orbis Books, but at that time studying at Harvard. One evening Robert invited me out for a film. The one we happened to choose was “Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears,” winner of the Academy Award for best foreign film. It’s a story set in the Brezhnev years that follows the friendship of three quite different women who originally meet by chance, having been assigned to the same room in a Moscow residence for women. It’s a great film — see it if ever you have the chance. My wife and I have it on DVD and still watch it from time to time.

What was so important to me at the time about this non-political film was the window it opened on ordinary Russian life. Walking out of the theater with Robert, I realized I had spent a large part of my life trying to prevent war between the US and the Soviet Union but had never been to Russia. The awful truth was that I knew more about American weapons than about the people at whom they were aimed — and that the same was true of everyone I knew who was involved in peace work. It was a shocking realization.

I wondered how we could regard what we were doing as peace work if it mainly had to do with informing people what nuclear war would do to the planet we live on? If Merton’s insight about fear being the root of war was true, would it not be better if we who sought peace in the world focused on building bridges rather than trying to prevent war by selling a nightmare? After all, the weapons and missiles we knew so much about were symptoms of fear.

That night at the movies in Cambridge was a major turning point for me. The following years of my life mainly had to do with trying to open east-west doors, doors that had long been locked on both sides. On the Russian side, there was a lot of worry about letting in people whom they knew opposed Russia’s war in Afghanistan, then in the middle of its decade-long run, and who were critical of the Soviet political system. No doubt they worried that we would demonstrate on Red Square.

It took more than a year of hard work to arrange a small conference (the theme was liberation theology) organized by the International Fellowship of Reconciliation and hosted by the Russian Orthodox Church. It was probably the first such event in Russia since the Bolshevik overthrow of the Russian government in 1917– an event that was religious rather than political in content, and whose agenda came from the west. All things considered, it was quite an achievement.

But its greatest value was not the conference itself but opening a door that afterward opened much more easily. Our initiative helped make east-west work a priority for others, and not only peace groups. Many organizations, academic bodies and businesses began to develop their own contacts and arrange their own events and programs in Soviet Russia. What happened in the decade that followed helped create a climate for greatly improved relations between the US and Russia, which in turn led to still more face-to-face contact. Thousands of people from the US and its western allies began to visit Russia for business, cultural and purely touristic reasons, and more and more Russians came to the west. Eventually there were inter-governmental breakthroughs that resulted in treaties that significantly reduced the number of nuclear weapons and missiles.

In 1988, while at work on a book about dramatic changes in Russian religious life in the Gorbachev period, I visited the city of Ulan Ude in the far east of Russia. I stayed in a guest house in the city center which at the time was the residence of an American couple and their children. The guest house, they told me, had been built in the thirties in the off chance that Stalin might come to visit Ulan Ude. Were that dreaded event to happen, this would have been his little palace for a few days. But Stalin never came.

The couple were both members of the staff of the US embassy in Moscow. They had been sent to this remote part of the country for an extended period in order to witness firsthand the destruction of Russian missiles and nuclear weapons under the terms of the US-Soviet treaty.

I thought back to my childhood — the blasts in Nevada I had witnessed on live television, the model of a nuclear explosion I had built, the high school lecture I had given about a generation living in the nuclear shadow, the years of my life I had spent doing all I could to prevent nuclear war, various programs I had been part of introduce Americans and Russians to each other, and here were two Americans whose job it was, on behalf of the US administration, to watch Soviet missiles and nuclear weapons being scrapped, while their Russian counterparts were in US on a parallel mission.

I had no illusions that the danger of nuclear war was over — many hundreds of nuclear bombs and an array of weapons of mass destruction remain intact in both countries, not to mention in all those countries which followed the US-Soviet example in developing their own nuclear weapons.

Yet it was something of a miracle to see that, partly thanks to the peace work of many people who had no governmental role, such a major breakthrough had occurred, and therefore could occur again.

One way of describing what happened in the eighties and nineties is to note that a lot of people learned to love their enemies — love in the biblical sense of caring about them and regarding their lives as worth preserving. Remarkably, the friendships that were formed were a factor in bring about a world that was, for a time, much safer than the world I grew up in.

Love of enemies is supposed to be one of the Christ’s all but impossible teachings, but it turns out to be quite possible. But before love of enemies can occur, it’s necessary to meet that enemy. It’s not only a work to be carried out by diplomats but by ordinary people.

Right now we’re back in a more familiar situation, lost in a labyrinth of enmity just about as bad as we faced during the Cold War, and now it involves not only the Russians, once again, but all the countries who are part of what the current administration has labeled “the empire of evil.”

Time’s up. The monologue is over. Time for conversation…

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text as of September 23, 2008
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Franz Jägerstätter: a solitary witness

[This is the introduction to Franz Jägerstätter: Letters and Reflections from Prison, edited by Erna Putz and published by Orbis Books.]

By Jim Forest

Human beings have at least one trait in common with fish: we 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 on terror”), 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 wishing 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 being urged “to do our part” even by our bishops, pastors and theologians.

Franz Jägerstätter was one of the least likely persons to question the justifications for war being announced daily by those in charge or to say to no to the demands of his government. What did he know? And, for that matter, who would care about his perceptions? He was only a farmer. He had never been to a university or theological school. His formal education had occurred entirely in a one-room schoolhouse. Though active in his parish, which he served as sexton, he was not a person whose name would ring a bell for his bishop. No priest or bishop or theologian, no matter how critical of Nazi doctrine, was announcing it was a sin to obey the commands of the Hitler regime when it came to war. So far as he knew none of his fellow Catholics in Austria, even those who openly disagreed with Nazi ideology, had failed to report for military duty when the notice came.

How could so unimportant a person dare to have such important convictions? How could a humble Catholic farmer imagine he had a clearer conscience than those who led the Church in his homeland? And, in any event, didn’t his responsibility to his wife and children have priority over his views about war and government?

Indeed Franz Jägerstätter did his best, insofar as his conscience allowed, to survive the war and the Hitler years. Submitting to military training, he was in uniform for nearly a year but never took part in the actual war. For an extended period, he was allowed to return to his farm and family, but when summoned to active service, he saw no option but to refuse further compliance. He was immediately arrested and imprisoned. After just over five months in prison, on the 9th of August 1943, he was taken to a place of execution near Berlin and was beheaded by guillotine.

Franz Jägerstätter was just one more on the long list of the dead. There were so many others who perished in those years that one more fatality was not worth noticing. There were no press reports, no interviews with his grieving wife. But a significant entry was made in the register of his parish in the village of St. Radegund: “Franz Jägerstätter died on 9 August 1943 in Brandenburg [an der Havel, a town near Berlin] the death of a martyr.”

Years after the war was over, the name “Franz Jägerstätter” gradually came to light almost by chance. Gordon Zahn, an American sociologist, had written a book, German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars. In the course of his research, he had found a reference to an Austrian peasant who had paid with his life for refusing any part in Hitler’s wars. With the one book finished, he started researching what became In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jägerstätter.

Zahn’s book generated a great deal of discussion, especially in the Catholic Church. How was it possible that “a man of no importance” could have possessed a moral clarity absent from those who were supposed to provide spiritual leadership to Austrian and German Catholics? Had any bishop expressed the view that Hitler’s wars were unjust? Answer: not one.

At the Second Vatican Council, Archbishop Thomas Roberts, a Jesuit who had formerly been archbishop of Bombay, recounted Jägerstätter’s life, pointing out that the heroic stand taken by this remarkable Austrian could not be credited to pastoral guidance from those leading the Church in Austria or Germany or from the text of any existing Catholic catechism. In fact rulers could count on their Catholic subjects to obey them no less unquestioningly than they obeyed their Church.

Should not the Church, asked Archbishop Roberts, speak more clearly about the responsibility for its members to say no when they were required by their rulers to commit sins or be part of a system based on lies and injustice? Should the Church not make clear that conscientious objectors to war have the support and admiration of their Church for bearing witness to the Gospel? Should the Church not rejoice that Franz Jägerstätter had given such a witness against an unjust war — a witness Roberts compared to that of another beheaded hero of the Church, St. Thomas More? Should not the Church express itself in such a way that it would be more likely that Catholics in the future would be better equipped by their Church to take a similar stand, even if, like Jägerstätter, it cost them their lives? Was not a martyr’s death far preferable to complicity in evil?

Archbishop Roberts’ intervention was not without effect. While it was simply a bishop’s reflection on the life of an as-yet uncanonized saint and the implications of that saint’s witness, it turned out to be a factor in the direction taken by the bishops in the final document issued by the Second Vatican Council, known as Gaudium et Spes (its first three Latin words) or the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, as it was called in its more lengthy English title.

The Council declared, “Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and humanity, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.” The Council also condemned other crimes against life: abortion, euthanasia, slavery and torture among them.

Emphasizing the role of conscience, the Council called on states to make legal provision for those “who, for reasons of conscience, refuse to bear arms, provided that they agree to serve the human community in some other way.” Those who renounce violence altogether, seeking a more just and compassionate society by nonviolent means, were honored: “We cannot fail to praise those who renounce the use of violence in vindication of their rights and who resort to methods of defense which are otherwise available to weaker parties too, provided this can be done without injury to the rights and duties of others or to the community itself.” Those who, in the name of obedience, obey commands which condemn the innocent and defenseless were described as “criminal,” while those who disobey such corrupt commands merit “supreme commendation.”

It was a text that would have made Franz Jägerstätter rejoice. So too all the other Christian martyrs down through the centuries who have obeyed God rather than man.

For nearly every bishop who came to Rome to attend the Council, the name of Franz Jägerstätter was unknown before Archbishop Roberts made his intervention. Today there are few if any bishops in the Catholic Church who are unaware of Jägerstätter’s name and story. On the 26th of October 2007, Franz Jägerstätter was officially beatified. His wife and descendants were among those taking part in the event. Franz Jägerstätter is now known throughout his Church as Blessed Franz. Perhaps before too many years it will be Saint Franz.

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Though Franz Jägerstätter’s life has come to be a matter of significance in the history of the 20th century, and his beatification a vivid indication that the Catholic hierarchy today is taking to heart what the bishops who took part in the Second Vatican Council had to say about war, peace and individual conscience, few people on the calendar of saints had a more unpromising beginning in life.

Franz Jägerstätter was born in on May 20, 1907 in the Austrian village of St. Radegund. His mother was an unmarried farm servant, Rosalia Huber. His father, Franz Bachmeier, was the unmarried son of a farmer from Tarsdorf in the Austrian province of Salzburg; he died in the First World War. After Franz’s birth, Rosalia’s mother, Elisabeth Huber, shoemaker’s widow, took charge of Franz’s care.

It was not uncommon for those with little money or property to conceive children outside marriage, but marriage often followed. It wasn’t so in this case, perhaps due to parental objections regarding one or the other potential partner. When Rosalia Huber at last married years later it was in 1917, a decade after Franz’s birth, and not to Franz’s father but to Heinrich Jägerstätter. He was a man of property — the owner of the Leherbauernhof farm in St. Radegund. In addition to marrying Rosalia, Heinrich Jägerstätter adopted her son, thus giving him the family name we know him by. They were to have no children of their own.

Franz’s formal education was slight and brief. From 1913 to 1921, he attended the one-room school in St. Radegund where a single teacher taught seven grades. At a given time, there were about 50 to 60 children in all. But one sees from his writing that he was a quick learner with a well-organized and independent mind.

Franz’s birthplace was as inauspicious as his education. The village of St. Radegund, on the River Salzach, is on the northwestern edge of Austria. The village, with a population of about five hundred, appears only on the most detailed maps of Austria. Mozart’s Salzburg is to the south, Linz to the east, Vienna much further east. The closest major German city is Munich. Hitler’s birthplace, the Austrian town of Braunau, isn’t far from St. Radegund. St. Radegund’s major claim to fame for many years was the four-hour Passion Plays it organized from time to time, the last one occurring in 1933. Like nearly everyone in the community, Franz had a part to play — he was one of the Roman soldiers involved in the crucifixion of Christ.

Franz grew up mainly among farmers. The Jägerstätter farm was one among many in the area. It was a region in which Catholicism was deeply embedded. The idea of not being Catholic was, for nearly everyone Franz knew, as unthinkable as moving to another planet, though he did have a cousin who became a Jehovah’s Witness.

One reads in the accounts of saints’ lives how amazingly pious some of them were from the cradle to the grave. The stories local people tell of Franz as a young man go in the opposite direction. In his teens he wasn’t hesitant to get involved in fist fights. He enjoyed all the pastimes that his friends enjoyed. Along with all his neighbors, he went to church when everyone else did, but no one would have remarked on his being a saint in the making.

In 1930, age 23, Franz worked for a time in the Austrian mining town of Eisenerz. This was his first encounter with a secularized factory culture. Here he met people who didn’t bother with church or have any good words to say about Christianity. Under their influence, in that period Franz slept in on Sunday mornings, skipping Mass.

Returning to St. Radegund, Franz surprised his family and neighbors by arriving on a motorcycle he had purchased with money he earned in the city. No one else in the area had a motorcycle.

Far more important, though the most attentive neighbor would have realized it in the early stages, was the fact that after his return to St. Radegund Franz’s religious life not only revived but gradually came into sharper focus. Unfortunately, letters that might give a clue about this period of his life either do not survive or were never written. It may be that Franz’s brief encounter with a more secular culture in his time away ultimately have the effect of bringing him closer to a faith he had previously taken for granted.

Not that anyone would have regarded Franz as notably pious or altogether converted from his former rowdy ways. In August 1933, a local farm maidservant, Theresia Auer, gave birth to a daughter, Hildegard. Franz was the child’s father. The fact that there had been no marriage before the birth, or would be afterward, was attributed locally to the determined opposition of Franz’s mother, who seemed to doubt that Franz was in fact Hildegard’s father. What is striking is that for the rest of his life, Franz not only provided material support for Hildegard, but remained very close to her, visiting her often. Just before his marriage to Franziska Schwaninger, Franz and his wife-to-be offered to adopt Hildegard, but Hildegard’s mother and grandmother (who was raising the child) declined.

According to local consensus, the most important single factor attributed to bringing about a change in Franz was his marriage to Franziska Schwaninger. Nearly everyone who lived in the area saw this as the main border-crossing event of his adult life. Franz was, neighbors said, “a different man” afterwards, a fact most of all reflected in the intensity of his religious life.

But in fact the transition was not quite as abrupt as it seemed to neighbors. Prior to marriage, Franz had thought seriously of entering a monastery. One of Franziska’s initial concerns regarding Franz, once they met, was to make sure he had a more than superficial commitment to his faith. She was relieved not only that he attended Mass regularly, but also that he was a committed and thoughtful Catholic.

Franziska Schwaninger, six years younger than Franz, had grown up on a farm in the village of Hochburg, about five miles (12 km) away from St. Radegund. She came from a deeply religious family — her father and grandmother were both members of the Marian Congregation. Her grandmother also belonged to the Third Order of St. Francis. Before Franziska’s marriage, she had considered becoming a nun.

After a short engagement, the two were married on the April 9, 1936. Franz was almost 29, Franziska 23. The honeymoon that followed startled everyone in or near St. Radegund. The couple went to none of the usual places visited by the newly married, but opted instead to go as pilgrims to Rome, at the same time ignoring deeply-embedded local tradition by declining to have a wedding feast. Married at 6 in the morning, before noon they were on their way to Rome, a city crowded with churches built over the tombs of martyrs of the early Church or the locations of their execution. To be in so many martyr-linked places of worship must have helped prepare the newly married couple for what would happen in the years to come.

The Roman pilgrimage had been Franz’s idea, but Franziska had eagerly agreed. Returning home, Franz proposed to Franziska that they go on a similar pilgrimage every ten years. It wasn’t to be.

While Franz was already a committed Catholic Christian, in the early months of their marriage it was Franziska whose spiritual life was the most developed. Franziska went to Mass on many weekdays, often received communion, and kept the Friday devotions associated with the Sacred Heart of Jesus. But Franz was quickly influenced by her example. Neighbors were surprised and in many cases critical. The general view was that it was all right for women to do these things, if they had the time, but a man must give priority to his farm and keep the Church and its services in their place. Franz, while remaining a productive and efficient farmer, increasingly put the Church first.

It was a happy marriage. Franz once told his wife, “I could never have imagined that being married could be so wonderful.” In one of his letters to Franziska during his period of army training in 1940, he mentions how “fortunate and harmonious” have been their years of marriage. “This good fortune is unforgettable, and will accompany me through time and eternity. You also know how the children bring me joy. For this reason, a feeling of good fortune often comes over me here so that tears of joy flow from my eyes when I think about our reunion.”

Years after her father’s death, the Jägerstätters’ eldest daughter, wondering aloud whether she would ever marry, recalls her mother warning her that married couples often fight. Her daughter responded, “But you and daddy didn’t fight.”

Looking back on the days when her husband was still alive, Franziska observed, “We helped one another go forward in faith.” Indeed, Franziska was not only an equal partner in their marriage, someone whose example brought Franz closer to a fearless Christian faith, but also a partner in her husband’s martyrdom, even while hoping against hope that Franz’s refusal to be a soldier would not lead to his execution.

The Jägerstätters had three children, all daughters: Rosalia (Rosi) in 1937, Maria in 1938, and Aloisia (Loisi) in 1940.

Theirs was not a marriage out of touch the world beyond their farm. Franz and Franziska were attentive to what was going on just across the river from St. Radegund in Germany where Hitler had been German chancellor since 1933. They were aware of Hitler’s pagan ideology, the brutality of his followers, and also knew of the intensive effort underway to build up Germany’s military. They also were aware of the anti-Nazi writings of the Bishop of Linz, Johannes Maria Gföllner, who in 1933 had stated in a pastoral letter read aloud in every parish of the Linz diocese: “Nazism is spiritually sick with materialistic racial delusions, un-Christian nationalism, a nationalistic view of religion, with what is quite simply sham Christianity.” The racial purity so dear to the Nazis was condemned by Bishop Gföllner as “a backsliding into an abhorrent heathenism… The Nazi standpoint on race is completely incompatible with Christianity and must therefore be resolutely rejected.” In 1937, four years later, he declared, “It is impossible to be both a good Catholic and a true Nazi.” (By 1941, Linz had a new bishop who was to speak much more cautiously.)

Meanwhile, Nazism’s dark shadow was spreading in Austria as well. There was more and more talk of Austria fully incorporating itself into Germany, though in St. Radegund, as in many places throughout Austria, the Nazis had little support.

One important factor in helping people keep their distance from Nazism was the widespread awareness that the Nazi movement was only a degree less hostile to Christianity than the Bolsheviks in Soviet Russia. Nazis regarded the values of the New Testament with contempt and saw those who attended church as stupid and weak. In Germany, they knew, Christians found themselves living in a steadily tightening noose of restrictions. The Nazis had made clear that one of their most urgent priorities was to separate children and young people from the Church and in its place make them into Hitler Youth members.

The Nazis didn’t hide their hostility to the teachings of Christ and the churches that spread his teaching. In the words of one prominent Nazi, Roland Freisler, State Secretary of the Reich Ministry of Justice: “Christianity and we are alike in only one respect: we lay claim to the whole individual. … ‘From which do you take your orders? From the hereafter or from Adolf Hitler? To whom do you pledge your loyalty and your faith?’”

On the 12th of March 1938, the 8th Army of the German Wehrmacht crossed the German-Austrian border. Assisted by the local Nazi movement and supported by the vast majority of the Austrian population, German troops quickly took control of Austria, then organized a national plebiscite on April 10 to confirm the union with Germany. With few daring to vote against what had already been imposed by military methods, the annexation (Anschluss) of Austria by Germany was even ratified by popular ballot. Austria, now an integral part of the Third Reich, ceased to exist as an independent state. What had been Austria was renamed Ostmark.

Well before the Anschluss, Franz had been an anti-Nazi, but the event that brought his aversion to a much deeper level was a remarkable dream he had in January 1938. Perhaps it was triggered by a newspaper article he had read a few days earlier reporting that 150,000 more young people had been accepted into the Hitler Youth movement.

In the dream he saw “a wonderful train” coming round a mountain. The gleaming engine and carriages seemed especially attractive to children, who “flowed to this train, and were not held back.” Then a voice said to him, “This train is going to hell.” He woke Franziska to tell her of his dream and continued to think about it long afterward. The train, he realized, symbolized the glittering Nazi regime with all its spectacles and its associated organizations, Hitler Youth being one of the most important and spiritually corrupting.

The dream seemed to Franz a clarifying message from heaven. The Nazi movement — with its racism, its cult of violence, its elimination of those members of society regarded as unfit, its efforts to suppress Christianity — was satanic. It was nothing less than a gateway to hell.

In St. Radegund it was widely known that Franz, ignoring the advice of his neighbors, had voted against the Anschluss, but, in reporting the results to the new regime in Vienna, Franz’s solitary vote was left unrecorded. It was seen as endangering the village to put on record that even one person had dared raise a discordant voice.

After all, as Franz was painfully aware, even Austria’s Catholic hierarchy had advocated a yes vote. Afterward Cardinal Innitzer, principal hierarch of the Catholic Church in Austria, signed a declaration endorsing the Anschluss. The words “Heil Hitler!” were above his signature. Innitzer was among the first to meet Hitler following the Führer’s triumphant entry into what was now the Ostmark region of Germany. That same year, in honor of Hitler’s birthday, he ordered that all Austrian churches fly the swastika flag, ring their bells, and pray for Hitler. Presumably the cardinal hoped such an action on his part would be repaid by the Nazi regime with a more tolerant attitude toward the Church. In fact, following the Anschluss, the situation for Austrian Catholics proved to be even worse than it was for their counterparts in Germany. Many priests were jailed or sent to concentration camps, youth education by the Church was all but eliminated, church newspapers were closed, church processions were banned, and, in many parish churches, Mass on important feast days, even Christmas, was prohibited unless the feast fell on a Sunday.

If someone greeted Franz with the Nazi salute and the words “Heil Hitler,” Franz would respond, minus the salute, with the words “Pfui Hitler.” As Franz saw it, the Anschluss was similar to what had happened in Jerusalem during Passion Week: the crowd had chosen the criminal Barabas rather than their savior, Christ.

The Anschluss was only the beginning of a rapid campaign of German territorial expansion. Following the annexation of Austria, Germany occupied the Sudetenland, a region of Czechoslovakia. In March 1939, the rest of Czechoslovakia was taken over. In September 1939, Hitler began the invasion of Poland, at which point Britain and France responded with declarations of war and World War II began. In May 1940, France and the Low Countries were invaded. In June 1941, Germany launched its war on the “eastern front” with the Soviet Union, at the same creating for itself an urgent need for a much larger army.

Having become citizens of Germany, every able Austrian was subject to conscription. Franz was called up in June 1940, taking his military vow in Braunau, Hitler’s birthplace, but a few days later was allowed to return to his farm, as farmers were needed no less than soldiers. In October he was called back for training as an army driver, but in April 1941, six months later, was again allowed to return to his farm.

While in the army, Franz made a significant commitment: he joined the Third Order of St. Francis in December 1940. He may not have known that the Order’s original rule, as written by Francis, obliged those who joined not to possess or use deadly weapons, but without doubt he knew that Francis was a man who, following his conversion, never threatened or harmed anyone.

Franz’s brief period in the army, coupled with his recognition that to assist the Nazi movement in any way was to oppose Christ and his Church, made him realize that a return to the army was not possible for him. If he were summoned again, even at the cost of his life, he would have to say no.

Returning home from the army, Franz was ready for a deeper engagement in his parish. He agreed to become sexton, a responsibility that involved keeping the church and its grounds in good repair, assisting at daily Mass, and helping arrange baptisms, weddings and funerals. His priest was surprised at how quickly Franz learned all the Latin responses.

It was not possible for Franziska to offer her wholehearted endorsement — how could she sanction a course of action that would result in the death of her beloved husband? — but she was equally determined not to seek to change Franz’s mind. She knew her husband was simply following Christ in the same way as the martyrs at whose tombs in Rome they had prayed in the days following their wedding.

Franz readily talked about his views with anyone who would listen. Most often he was told that his main responsibility was to his family and that it would be better to risk death in the army on their behalf than to take steps which would almost certainly guarantee his death. While he would certainly do what he could to preserve his life for the sake of his family, Franz noted that self-preservation did not make it permissible to go and murder other people’s families. He pointed out that to accept military service also meant leaving his family without any assurance he would return alive. If he had to risk his life, was it not better to do so for Christ rather than Hitler? As for his family, surely God would not forget them. How good a husband and father would he be if he chose social conformity over obedience to Christ’s teaching? Did not Christ say, “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me”?

Most of all Franz sought advice from the Church’s pastors. At the time Fr. Ferdinand Fürthauer was the priest in St. Radegund, filling in for Fr. Josef Karobath, who in 1940 had been jailed for delivering an anti-Nazi sermon, then banished from the district. Far from encouraging Franz, Fr. Fürthauer — a young man who felt unprepared for such a situation — wondered if refusing military service, given that execution was the almost certain penalty, was not the same as committing the mortal sin of suicide. In later years Fr. Fürthauer wrote to Franziska, “I wanted to save his life, but he did not want any pretense and rejected all falsehood. I often pray that Franz Jägerstätter may forgive me.”

Franz turned for guidance to his former pastor, Fr. Karobath. “We met in the Bavarian town of Tittmoning,” Karobath recalls. “I wanted to talk him out of it [Franz’s decision to refuse further military service], but he defeated me again and again with words from the scriptures.”

Franz even managed to meet with the Bishop of Linz, Joseph Fliesser, successor to Bishop Gföllner. A list of questions Franz had written down in preparation for the encounter has survived. Franz asked if it was not sinful to support an ideology (Nazism) whose goals included eradicating Christianity; if “the predatory raids” which Germany was making in various countries could be regarded as acts of “a righteous and holy war”; how is it possible for the Church, in burying the remains of German soldiers killed in the war, to permit its priests to describe the fallen as heroes and even saints; would it not be truer to regard as heroes those who defended their homelands rather than those who invade other countries; could the Church regard as righteous and good whatever the crowd happens to be shouting; and, finally, can one be both a soldier of Christ and a soldier of Nazism, thus both fighting for the victory of Christ and his Church while at the same time fighting for the victory of Nazism?

While Franz met with Bishop Fliesser, Franziska was in the adjacent waiting room, no doubt praying. When Franz came out of the bishop’s consulting room, Franziska recalls that he “was very sad and said to me: “They don’t dare commit themselves or it will be their turn next.” Franz had the impression that the bishop didn’t discuss his questions because it was possible that his visitor might be a Gestapo spy.

In later years, Bishop Fliesser said, “In vain, I explained to him the basic principles of morality concerning the degree of responsibility which a private person and citizen bears for the actions of those in authority, and reminded him of his far higher responsibility for those within his private circle, particularly his family.”

It was, in fact, an answer any Catholic might have heard from any bishop in any country at the time: If not a doctrine found in any catechism, it was widely believed that any sins you commit under obedience to your government are not your personal sins but are regarded by God as the sins of those who lead the state. God would judge the leader, not those who had obeyed his orders. But for Franz it seemed obvious that, if God gives each of us free will and a conscience, each of us is responsible for what we do and fail to do, all the more so if we are consciously aware we have allowed ourselves to become servants of evil masters.

Franz later made the compassionate observation that “the bishop has not experienced the grace that has been granted to me.”

In a notebook entry Franz made early in 1942, he remarks, “They [the bishops and priests] are human beings of flesh and blood as we are, and they can be weak. Perhaps they are even more tempted by the evil foe than we are. Perhaps, too, they were too little prepared to take on this struggle and decide for themselves whether to live or to die.”

Having gone through training, nearly two years went by without Franz’s receiving a summons to return to the army. Throughout that period, each time mail was delivered to the Jägerstätter farm, both husband and wife were in dread. Finally on February 23, 1943, the fateful letter arrived. “Now I’ve signed my death sentence,” Franz remarked while putting his signature on the postal receipt. He was ordered to report to a military base in Enns, near Linz, two days later.

The same day he wrote to Fr. Karobath, whom he still regarded as his pastor even though the priest had been sent to another parish, “I must tell you that soon you may be losing one of your parishioners…. Today I received my conscription orders…. As no one can give me a dispensation for the danger to the salvation of my soul which joining this movement [the Nazis] would bring, I just can’t alter my resolve, as you know…. It’s always said that one shouldn’t do what I am doing because of the risk to one’s life, but I take the view that those others who are joining in the fighting aren’t exactly out of life-threatening danger themselves. Among those fighting in Stalingrad, so I’ve heard, are also four or five people from St. Radegund …. My family won’t forsake God and the Blessed Virgin Mary…. It will be difficult for my loved ones. This parting will surely be a hard one.”

It was indeed a hard parting. At the station in Tittmoning, Franz and Franziska could not let go of each other until the train’s movement forced them to separate. The conductor was furious.

Even as he boarded the train, Franz was already two days late for his appointment at Enns. But, after all, there was no need to arrive on time — once he reached Enns, he and Franziska had every reason to think, it might be only days or weeks before his execution. His late arrival could not make the punishment any worse.

Arriving at Enns the next morning, March 1, even then Franz took his time, attending Mass in the local church before reporting to the barracks. He also took time to send a letter to Franziska. It ended, “Should it be God’s will that I do not see you again in this world, then we hope that we shall see each other soon in heaven.” So far as Franz knew, this was his last letter.

The following day, Franz having announced his refusal to serve, he was placed under arrest and transported to the military remand prison in nearby Linz. Franz’s stay in Linz lasted three months. Though many others were tried and sentenced at Linz (a Catholic priest who visited prisoners there recalled having accompanied 38 men to their execution), Franz was not one among those tried.

Among prisoners at the Linz military prison from that period who survived, there were those who vividly recalled Franz — how often they saw him praying the rosary and his readiness to share with others his meager food ration. Giving away a piece of bread on one occasion, he claimed that a cup of coffee was enough for him.

No one knew better than Franziska how carefully thought out was the position Franz was taking and what a determined man he was in matters of faith. Even so, it was impossible for her not to encourage him occasionally to search for some alternate path that might not violate his conscience but perhaps would save his life. She wrote to him while he was in Linz, “One does God’s will even when not understanding it.” Even so, she confessed that she nurtured “the small hope that you would change your decision … because you have compassion for me, and I cannot help [being] me. I shall pray to the loving Mother of God that she will bring you back to us at home if it is God’s will.”

“I want to save my life but not through lies,” wrote Franz to his wife. “In [the army base at] Enns people wanted to trap me by means of trick questions and thus to make me once again into a soldier. It was not easy to keep my conviction. It may become even more difficult. But I trust in God to let me know if it would be better for me to do something different.”

In a letter dated March 11, he told Franziska that he was willing to serve in the army medical corps “for here a person can actually do good and exercise Christian love of neighbor in concrete ways,” but apparently such a noncombatant alternative was never opened to him by those responsible for his case.

Despite the heavy workload at the farm (in Franz’s absence, for the first time Franziska had to till the fields), on the feast of Corpus Christi she sought spiritual strength by making a pilgrimage on foot to the Bavarian town of Altötting, home of the Chapel of the Miraculous Image, one of Germany’s most visited shrines since medieval times — a place long associated with miracles.

Franz’s last Easter before execution was spent in the Linz prison. He wrote that day to Franziska: “‘Christ has risen, alleluia,’ so the Church rejoices today. When we have to endure hard times, we must and can rejoice with the Church. What is more joyful than that Christ has again risen, and gone forth as the victor over death and hell. What can give us Christians more comfort than that we no longer have to fear death.”

Without warning, on May 4 Franz was taken by train to the prison at Tegel, a suburb of Berlin. It had been decided that Franz’s was “a more serious case” requiring a Reich Court Martial in the capital rather than a provincial trial. Here Franz would spend the last three months of his life in solitary confinement. (Among Franz’s fellow prisoners at Tegel was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Protestant theologian who was arrested in April 1943 after money was traced to him that had been used to help Jews escape to Switzerland. After eighteen months a prisoner, Bonhoeffer was executed in 1945.)

Franz says almost nothing in his letters about the conditions of life at Tegel, but a priest, Fr. Franz Reinisch, who had been in the same prison a year before Franz described it as “a foretaste of purgatory and hell: the thoughts and experiences: never a friendly face, never to feel any love, always only hard words – if this were to go on forever! And then the screaming of some prisoners who can’t bear the loneliness and the wrongful loss of their freedom, the constantly keeping silent, the small cell, etc. and also, in the case of certain men, the spiritual distress that weighs heavily on their hearts, the enchainment of those condemned to death.”

On July 6 a brief trial occurred. Franz was convicted of “undermining military morale” by “inciting the refusal to perform the required service in the German army.” This was a capital offense. Franz was sentenced to death. From this point on, he was kept in handcuffs. In a letter to Franziska, Franz notes that he is writing with his “hands in chains” (echoing the words of St. Paul when he was a prisoner in Rome).

On July 8, Franz wrote home, “It is a joy to be able to suffer for Jesus and our faith. We have the joyful hope that the few days in this life when we have been separated will be replaced by thousands of days in eternity, where we shall rejoice with God and our heavenly Mother in untroubled joy and good fortune. If we can only remain in the love of God when difficult tests of our faith come to us.” Perhaps to spare his family pain, or because the court sentence had not been confirmed, he said nothing in his letter about the trial that had just occurred.

In a final effort to save Franz’s life, his court-assigned lawyer, Friedrich Leo Feldmann, arranged a visit by Franziska and the priest of St. Radegund, Fr. Fürthauer, in the hope they could convince his client to change his mind. Were he to do so, Feldmann was confident the court would withdraw its sentence.

Their 20-minute meeting was Franz and Franziska’s last. It happened on July 9 in the presence of armed guards. Not to their surprise, the visitors found that Franz saw no honorable alternative but to continue with his refusal of military service. Fr. Fürthauer later recalled his attempt to persuade Franz to accept army service for his family’s sake. “He [Franz] said to me: ‘Can you promise me that if I join that movement [the Nazi regime] that I shall not fall into mortal sin?’ ‘That I cannot do’, I answered. ‘Then I won’t enlist,’ was his reply.” (In 2006, Fr. Fürthauer was asked if he would still say the same to Franz were he able to go back in time. “Today,” he responded, “I would not try to persuade him to change his resolve, but would just give him my blessing.”)

Back in St. Radegund, Franziska wrote to Fr. Karobath to report on the meeting with Franz in Berlin, commenting with bitterness, “They [the military officials] could easily have assigned him to the medical corps, but they were naturally too proud for that, for it might have looked like a compromise on their part.”

On July 14, Franz’s death sentence was confirmed by the Reich’s War Court. On August 9, Franz was taken to Brandenburg/Havel where, at about 4 PM, he was killed by guillotine.

The priest who accompanied Franz to his execution, Fr. Albert Jochmann, standing in that day for the chaplain at Brandenberg, later told a community of Austrian nuns about Franz’s final hours. In the early 1960s, one of them, Sr. Georgia, having learned that Gordon Zahn was at work on a biography of Franz Jägerstätter, wrote to Zahn to relate what the chaplain had said. Visiting Franz shortly after midnight on August 9, he noticed on a small table in Franz’s cell a document which, should Franz sign it, would allow him to leave prison and return to the army. When Fr. Jochmann pointed it out, Franz pushed it aside, saying, “I cannot and may not take an oath in favor of a government that is fighting an unjust war.”

Sr. Georgia continued: “Later he was to witness the calm and composed manner in which he [Franz Jägerstätter] walked to the scaffold.” He told the sisters, themselves Austrian, “I can only congratulate you on this countryman of yours who lived as a saint and has now died a hero. I can say with certainty that this simple man is the only saint that I have ever met in my lifetime.”

During his time in Berlin, Franz was permitted to write only one letter to Franziska each month, plus a fourth that was written on the day of his execution. The four letters bear witness to his extraordinary calm, conviction and even happiness.

Part of the happiness he experienced was thanks to the support he found in the Catholic chaplain, Fr. Heinrich Kreutzberg. It was a great consolation for Franz to hear from him that a priest, Fr. Franz Reinisch, had, just a year earlier, been in the same prison and died a similar death for similar reasons. After Franz’s death, Fr. Kreutzberg wrote a long letter to Franziska in which he noted, “I have seen no more fortunate man in prison than your husband after my few words about Franz Reinisch.”

Franz’s final letter home was written the morning of his execution. In it he appeals for the forgiveness of anyone he may have pained and hurt. He adds: “Dearest wife and mother, it was not possible for me to free both of you from the sorrows that you have suffered for me. How hard it must have been for our dear Lord that he had given his dear mother such great sorrow through his suffering and death! And she suffered everything out of love for us sinners. I thank our Savior that I could suffer for him, and may die for him. I trust in his infinite compassion. I trust that God forgives me everything, and will not abandon me in the last hour. … And now all my loved ones, be well. And do not forget me in your prayers. Keep the Commandments, and we shall see each other again soon in heaven!”

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Franz Jägerstätter was a solitary witness. He died with no expectation that his sacrifice would make any difference to anyone. He knew that, for his neighbors, the refusal of army service was incomprehensible — an act of folly, a sin against his family, his community and even his Church, which had called on no one to refuse military service. Franz knew that, beyond his family and community, his death would go entirely unnoticed and have no impact on the Nazi movement or hasten the end of the war. He would be soon forgotten. Who would remember or care about the anti-Nazi gesture of an uneducated farmer? He would be just one more filed-away name among many thousands who were tried and executed with bureaucratic indifference during in the Nazi era.

In refusing to change his no to yes, the only thing that Franz could be sure of was that to betray his conscience would put his immortal soul at risk.

If the bishops of Austria had done nothing to sanction conscientious objection, and indeed done a great deal to discourage it, one must note that Franz did not simply invent the stand he took or did he feel abandoned by the Church. He drew strength from the sacraments and from the awareness that he was walking the same path many saints, some in the recent past, had followed — men and women who had obeyed God rather than man and paid with their lives for doing so. Before his death Franz had the profound consolation of learning that a Catholic priest, Fr. Franz Reinisch, had been held in the very same prison and executed for similar reasons.

Like all the witnesses who had gone before him, Franz was equipped with an acute sensitivity to forgotten or neglected notes of the Gospel. He had read the New Testament countless times and had thought long and hard about its stories and teachings. Given the war-related questions he was facing, no doubt it had impressed him that Jesus neither killed anyone nor called upon anyone to do so.

Aware of such basic Gospel themes and responding to them with uncompromising courage and faith, Franz in turn has made it possible for others to hear them too.

In the Franz Jägerstätter narrative, there are two conversion stories.

The first was his own. Franz had been converted from being the sort of assembly-line Catholic who does what is expected of him within his native Catholic community into a rarer sort of Catholic who actually makes a conscious effort to understand the Gospel and to follow Christ wholeheartedly despite antagonistic social structures prepared to punish severely anyone who fails to stay in line.

The other conversion occurred within his Church.

Far from being lost in the past, Franz’s witness proved to be a seed cast in the wind, carried along until a time, nearly two decades later, when it would it at last take root and find fitting soil. As a consequence, Franz Jägerstätter helped the Catholic Church change direction. How providential it was that the story of Franz’s life began to circulate during the Second Vatican Council and played a part in giving shape to what the Catholic Church today teaches about war, peace, conscience and individual responsibility — guidance in stark contrast to what was taught in Franz’s day: trust your rulers and do as you’re told — it is no sin to obey.

Nor did Franz’s influence end with a reform of Church teaching about war and individual responsibility. Half a century after Franz’s death, the Church had he loved so much, but which had deeply disappointed him, beatified him. The Church had moved from interest in Franz’s challenging life to recognizing it as a model of sanctity, a life that rendered nothing less than a modern translation of the Gospel. “Franz Jägerstätter,” said Cardinal Christoph Schönborn on the day of Franz’s beatification, “is a living page of the Gospel. The Gospel is not only an authoritative report of that which was taking place at that time in Galilee and in Jerusalem. It is a living book… Franz Jägerstätter was and is for me the most concrete and illustrative commentary on the Beatitudes that I have ever heard.”

No one would have been more astonished than Franz to hear himself, or any conscientious objector, described by the Cardinal of Vienna in such terms.

Within the cathedral there was resounding applause for Franziska Jägerstätter, who had lived to hear a solemn declaration read aloud recognizing as a model of sanctity a man who had once been dismissed as a model of insanity. Then there was the sight of so many bishops rising to their feet as a 30-foot banner with Franz’s photo was unfurled. But perhaps the high point for all present was to witness Franziska, tears streaming from her eyes, kiss a bronze urn containing some of the Franz’s ashes before presenting the reliquary to Cardinal Schönborn.

One of the persons missing in the Linz cathedral was Gordon Zahn, absent due to infirmity (Alzheimer’s disease) and close to death. It was thanks to Zahn that the name of Franz Jägerstätter had been lifted from obscurity. For someone’s life to be formally recognized as saintly by the Church, there must first be at least one person who takes special note of that life, recognizes its importance, gathers the available details, and makes it his or her business to bring that life to the attention of others. In the case of Franz Jägerstätter, Gordon Zahn was that person. Had he not written In Solitary Witness, it is far from certain that the name of Franz Jägerstätter would be remembered today.

Side by side with Gordon Zahn, we are in debt to an Austrian, Erna Putz. Building on Zahn’s research, beginning in 1979 she devoted herself to making Franz better known, obtaining important documents, writing a full-scale biography of Franz Jägerstätter, and collecting all his letters and other writings, now gathered together in the book you hold in your hands.

The impact of Franz’s life was not only on the Second Vatican Council and its final document, The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. The year In Solitary Witness was published, 1964, happened to coincide with the early stages of U.S. military involvement in the war in Vietnam. In Solitary Witness was widely read by the young men, potential or actual soldiers, who were struggling with the question of how to respond to that war. Having been a draft counselor during that period, I can recall how many of young people I talked with had read Zahn’s book and found themselves deeply challenged by Franz Jägerstätter’s life. It was one of the reasons that the Catholic Church in the United States produced so many thousands of conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War. While none of them faced the guillotine, many faced prison, exile or other hardships. How important it was for them to discover that they were not alone; that someone like Franz Jägerstätter, under far more difficult circumstances, had read the Gospel as they did and faced the consequences, despite the incomprehension of their contemporaries.

Franz Jägerstätter remains a challenge, and not only because of his costly refusal to surrender his conscience to the Nazis.

One aspect of that challenge is Franz’s deeply traditional faith, an example far from fashionable today even among Catholics. While certainly not unaware of the Church’s human shortcomings and the ways so many bishops compromise the Gospel in order to be on good terms with political leaders, Franz Jägerstätter was a grateful Catholic devoted to the Church and its sacramental and devotional life. It is no minor detail of his life that he and Franziska began their marriage by going as pilgrims to Rome, a journey which they could barely afford. No two people were so often seen at Mass in St. Radegund. Both husband and wife were devoted to the rosary; in prison Franz prayed the rosary much of the time. The Jägerstätter household kept all the Church-appointed fasts. Both Franz and Franziska made frequent use of the sacrament of confession. It was remembered in St. Radegund that Franz sometimes paused while at work in the fields in order to pray. He not only served his parish as sexton, a voluntary and time-consuming responsibility, but refused to accept any financial rewards offered to him by parishioners for his role in arranging baptisms, weddings and funerals. Both Franz and Franziska had a special devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, with its stress on Christ’s self-giving love for each person. Franz was a member of the Third Order of St. Francis.

Without doubt the hardest part of saying no to further army service was Franz’s love of his wife and their children. Franz knew his execution would make many aspects of life harder for his family, especially for Franziska, as indeed it did.

While the widows of soldiers won the widespread sympathy of Austrians, Franziska was shunned. Not only had she lost her husband, but many of her neighbors tuned their back on her. Some blamed Franz’s death on her over-zealous religious influence.

When Gordon Zahn interviewed Franziska in 1961, she described with composure her last meeting with Franz in Berlin three weeks before his execution, but she broke down in tears while describing the subsequent behavior of her neighbors. Few offered her the help she so badly needed after Franz’s death.

In the Nazi period, subsidies and privileges were distributed to compliant farmers; poor and hard-pressed though she was, none of these came to her. An application for cement was once rejected as soon as it was noticed that her family name was Jägerstätter.

Even after the war officials penalized many of those who had opposed Hitler. In the entire period of rationing, Franziska received no coupons for clothing or shoes for herself or her children. She knitted clothes from the wool of angora rabbits.

In post-war Austria, for years she was denied the pension allocated to war widows. The authorities argued that the legislation compensating victims only applied to those who had fought for a free and democratic Austria. This did not include Franz, they argued. Franziska only won her right to a pension in 1950, after enlisting the help of a lawyer, Franz’s cousin, Franz Huber.

Yet she bore her difficulties bravely and with unwavering respect for her husband’s stand.

Throughout her life, Franziska Jägerstätter has been a person who never drew attention to herself. It is only in reading the letters the couple exchanged that the outsider begins to realize how deep the bond was between them.

Franz and Franziska loved each other passionately. It was an extraordinary love, with an all-or-nothing dimension of faithfulness that had as its foundation their shared love of God. What became clear to Franz, once he married Franziska, was that he could truly be a Christian husband and father only to the extent that following Christ stood at the center of his life. What better love could a man give to his family than, by his own example, to follow Christ without fear even to the Cross?

While her neighbors may have over-estimated Franziska’s influence, she did much to encourage the faith that finally led Franz to martyrdom, though the stand he took was not something she ever advocated. “In the beginning,” she once explained, “I really begged him not to put his life at stake, but then, when everyone was quarreling with him and scolding him, I didn’t do it any more. … If I had not stood by him, he would have had no one.”

“I have lost a dear husband and a good father to my children,” Franziska wrote soon after Franz’s death, “but I can also assure you that our marriage was one of the happiest in our parish — many people envied us. But the good Lord intended otherwise, and has loosed that loving bond. I already look forward to meeting again in heaven, where no war can ever divide us again.”

After the war Franz’s ashes where brought to St. Radegund and buried beneath a crucifix by the church wall. Little by little, his grave became a place of pilgrimage.

Franziska, still a pilgrim herself, celebrated both the 50th and 60th anniversaries of her wedding by returning to Rome, the city where she and Franz spent the first days of their marriage.

Perhaps what would have astonished Franz more than anything would have been to see, among the five thousand people packed into the Linz cathedral on the day of his beatification, that not only was Franziska (then 94) present, but their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren — sixty family members in all.

* * *

Jim Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands

e-mail: jhforest @

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text as of 10 September 2008
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Remembering Merton

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


23 June 2008

* * *

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

chaired by David Scott.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve gone on far too long. I’m sorry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tommie O’Callaghan: Nor rum.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Rome of the Martyrs

Here are some reflections coming out of a two-week stay in Rome, 28 May to 11 June, 2008. The focus is on our last full day, when we visited the Basilica of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura (St Laurence Outside the Walls). A folder of photos relating to this essay are here:

The full set of photos taken during our days in Rome are posted here:

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The Rome of the Martyrs

by Jim Forest

How to compare the Rome of the Caesars with the Rome of the martyrs… I was entering a city that had been transformed by the Cross.
— Thomas Merton (The Seven Storey Mountain, p 106)

The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.
— Tertullian (155-222 AD)

“Look to your left, look to your right, and try to enjoy.” Nancy and I heard this brief instruction from a fast-moving guide leading a tour group through one of the long galleries of the Vatican Museums. If those in her charge had time to look on either side, at that moment they would have had a blurred glimpse of colorful frescoed maps of various cities and regions of Italy, including two views of the entire Italian peninsula in the days when much of Italy was under papal rule.

Church of St Laurence Outside the Walls

Two weeks in Rome gives time to move slowly. Nancy and I not only looked to our left and looked to our right but ahead and behind and up and down, more often than not doing so slowly or not moving at all.

What touched us most deeply was a consequence of visiting a number of ancient churches founded on places where martyrs of the early church were either killed or buried. Some of their names are familiar to any Christian — Paul and Peter, Stephen, Cosmas and Damien, Laurence, Agnes, Theodore, Cecilia — while others are hardly known (for example the sisters Prassede and Pudenziana). All these names and others daily took on greater significance.

The only ancient churches in Rome not named after martyrs are those dedicated to Mary. Each of the martyr-linked churches is a place for passing on memories and stories of those who lives inspired the conversions of many others, not only in ancient times but today as well. Such churches serve as points of access to what might have seemed the remote past, but then suddenly becomes part of the present day. This happened to us. We left Rome with a far more acute and intimate sense of connection not only with the martyrs of the early church who are remembered by name, but with a deepened sense of being linked to the many thousands, the names of the vast majority now forgotten, who are part of what St. Paul called “the cloud of witnesses.”

To write about all the churches we visited would require either a book-length text that might take a year to write, or something brief but no more interesting than a catalog. Instead I’ll focus on the church we visited on our last full day in Rome, the Basilica of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura (St Laurence Outside the Walls).

All over the world there are churches that bear Laurence’s name (including the medieval cathedral a hundred meters from our house in Alkmaar, Holland), but this particular church to the northeast of the center of Rome is the first and oldest.

It was about a three- or four-kilometer walk from the convent hospice on the Via Cavour where we were staying. Setting off after breakfast, we walked past the nearby Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, then down a boulevard of shops and street venders that led to a neighborhood park, then up a side street to a tunnel that allowed us to pass under the tracks that lead to Rome’s main train station, Termini, then through a gate that took us outside the Aurelian Wall, the barrier that enclosed the city’s seven hills, meant in its day to protect Rome from barbarian invaders. Finally we walked along the Via Tiburtina, one of the old roads connecting Rome with the world beyond. A few hundred years ago, we would have been passing not apartment buildings, shops, cafes and bus stops, but enjoying the open air of the Italian countryside. At last we found ourselves standing before the gates of the Campo Verano, Rome’s biggest cemetery and also the place where the basilica of San Lorenzo was built.

Not at first seeing the church, we entered the cemetery, thinking the church must be somewhere within. Instead we spent half an hour or more looking at gravestones. The ones that we were most drawn to were decorated with photos of people who had died in the nineteenth century — usually colored ovals, an elderly matriarch in one, an equally aged patriarch in the other, and carved in the stone not only particular names but again and again the word “Famiglia” — family. Old graves or new, the cemetery seemed more than anything a monument to families, though there were also numerous indications of those families being Catholic (crucifixes and images of the Madonna).

The cemetery with all its tomb stones is above what started out as an extensive ancient catacomb, far beneath our feet. It was here in the year 258 that the roasted body of Laurence was brought, carried by a procession of Christians who followed more or less the same route we had just walked. His body was placed in a narrow niche along one of the underground passageways, then walled in with mortar and an inscription made, probably on that day just his name plus the word “sanctissimi” — most holy — done quickly in red lead paint applied with a brush. Only later on was the marble sarcophagus provided that the pilgrim approaching the saint’s relics sees today.

In Laurence’s day, the bodies of most Romans would have been burned and their ashes placed in urns, but the Christians opted for burial. In Rome, partly thanks to geological factors, almost all Christian burials were in catacombs — a less costly and more democratic option, both of which greatly appealed to the Church at that time. The catacombs — narrow passageways craved out of soft tufa stone with shallow niches, six or seven stacked one above the other — could be extended horizontally, and also be extended downward, gallery beneath gallery. Many thousands were buried in a single catacomb.

By the end of the second century AD, the Church in Rome had founded burial societies in order to be sure that even the poorest baptized person would be properly buried in one of the many catacombs that existed outside the city walls. Rank was of no consequence. In the catacomb of St. Callisto, a few kilometers outside the city walls to the southeast along the Appian Way, six popes and many martyrs were entombed among thousands of ordinary people.

At last we found the basilica. It proved to be a surprisingly simple structure. Most ancient Roman churches have been modified and embellished over the centuries by popes, cardinals and wealthy benefactors: side altars added, gilded ceilings created, fashionable art substituted for older, unfashionable art. In many churches the lily had not only been gilded but re-gilded, then gilded yet again. The basic shape of the church survived, but simplicity had been replaced by complexity, austerity by lavish displays of wealth. But at the Basilica of San Lorenzo, a small miracle occurred. Both inside and out, no overlays or major renovations had been made — no decorative overlays for the facade, no elaborate, gilded ceiling, no cherubs, none of the theatrical interventions of the counter-reformation or baroque periods.

Probably all this is thanks to its providential location as a church outside the city walls in what was for most of its history a rural area. When the population of post-imperial Rome plummeted to just a few thousand people, the monastery of San Lorenzo (now a Franciscan friary) remained active but isolated. No wealthy philanthropist bothered to “improve” the church. The result is perhaps the most unspoiled ancient building in Christian Rome, though a few churches inside the walls (such as Santa Sabina, San Clemente, Ss. Cosmo e Damiano and Santa Prassede) come close.

Under a tiled roof held up by six tall pillars, the visitor steps down a meter or so below ground level into a spacious porch built in the thirteenth century. On the inner wall of the porch, access to the church is provided by smaller doors to the left and right plus a large entrance in the center that is guarded at floor level by two Romanesque stone lions, neither of whom seem on their way to baptism. One has a child in its claws, the other a lamb — graphic images of the world which condemned people like Laurence to death. One is reminded of a passage in one of the letters of Peter: “Brethren, be sober and watchful. Your adversary, the devil, like a roaring lion, goes about seeking to devour you. Resist him strong in the faith” (Not all lions are seeking someone to devour. Inside the church, close to the altar, there is another pair, but these seem to have taken the New Testament to heart. Their eyes are deeply thoughtful and, in the case of the lion on the left, meek and compassionate.)

The main event on the church porch isn’t its pair of lions but the frescoes, those concerning Stephen, the first Christian martyr, on one side, and Laurence one the other. (Stephen’s relics were brought to this church in the seventh century, at the time when Palagius II was pope.)

One can almost see the crowds of people who have gathered on this porch down through the centuries listening to those who knew the stories the frescoes illustrate. No doubt the stories were recited unhurriedly and passionately, and with great attention to every detail in each fresco. Thus actual entry into the church was proceeded by a visual and verbal immersion in the lives, deaths and burials of the two great saints. (Fifteen years ago, when our daughter Anne was ten and we were all visiting a cathedral in Palermo, she called a similar set of linked images “the first comic book.”)

Sadly, these days it must be rare for visitors to hear such recitations, but if one knows at least the bare bones of the stories, a visitor fill in many of the blanks by “reading” these panels in sequence.

The Stephen narrative is on the left side of the porch, with his stoning in Jerusalem part of the top row. Other panels portray the later bringing to Rome of the body of Stephen in order to place it side-by-side with another deacon-martyr, Laurence.

On the right hand side of the door, the subject is Laurence, a Roman who received his religious instruction in preparation for baptism from Archdeacon Sixtus, later Pope Sixtus II. When Sixtus became Bishop of Rome in 257, he ordained Laurence a deacon (from the Greek word for servant), entrusting him with administration of the material goods of the local church and, still more important, care of the poor. In a panel that shows Lawrence washing the feet of a poor man, it is striking that Laurence concentrates his attention not on the man’s feet that he is washing so gently, but on the man’s face, in whom no doubt he recognizes Christ. Other panels focus on the persecution initiated by the Emperor Valerian in 258. As a result, many Christians were put to death, while Christians belonging to the nobility or the Roman Senate were deprived of their goods and exiled. Among the first victims of this persecution was Laurence’s mentor, Pope St Sixtus II, who was beheaded on August 6.

One of the early accounts of Laurence’s life was told by St Ambrose of Milan. Laurence, he related, met Pope Sixtus on his way to his execution and asked him, “Where are you going, dear father, without your son? Where are you hurrying off to without your deacon? Before you never mounted the altar of sacrifice without your servant, and now you wish to do it without me?” Pope Sixtus responded, “After three days you will follow me”.

Following the death of Pope Sixtus II, the prefect of Rome demanded that Lawrence turn over the riches of the Church — meaning its chalices, candlesticks and anything else of monetary value. Laurence asked for three days to gather together the church’s treasure, during which time he worked swiftly to distribute as much church property to the poor as was possible in order as to prevent its being seized by the government. Then, on the third day, he presented himself to the prefect, bringing no gold or silver, but the poor, whom he assembled in ranks — the crippled, the blind, the suffering, the widows and orphans, all of whom were cared for by the Church in Rome. “These were the true treasures of the Church,” he told the prefect. “In its poor, the Church is truly rich, far richer than your emperor.”

It was this act of defiance that led directly to Laurence’s martyrdom. The prefect told the young deacon that not only would he follow the path of martyrdom as Pope Sixtus had done, but in his case, it would be “a death by inches.” Lawrence, bound to the iron grill of an outdoor stove, was roasted over a low fire. During his torture, Lawrence is said to have told his executioner, “I am already roasted on one side. If you would have me well cooked, it is time to turn me on the other side.” Laurence’s final prayer was for the conversion of Rome.

Later that day, as the porch panels relate iconographically, Laurence was buried in a section of catacomb under what later became the Basilica of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura.

Rome’s visitors and their guides daily express skepticism about the stories linked with saint’s lives and relics. Did Laurence actually ask to be turned over so that he might be better cooked? Perhaps. Perhaps not. What is obvious is that, both in the way he lived and died, Laurence gave so remarkable a witness to his faith in the risen Christ that it touched Romans in an extraordinary way, contributing to the conversion of a many people from every class. According to Church Father Prudentius, Laurence’s courage under torture had significant consequences for the population of Rome, high and low, marking a decisive moment, Prudentius states, “in the death of idolatry in Rome.”

The catacomb in which Laurence was buried immediately became a place of pilgrimage. People who had been indifferent to Christianity, or hostile to it, were among those now praying with tears at the saint’s tomb. For eighteen centuries, even during the centuries when Rome was little more than a village, the tomb of St Laurence has been a place of pilgrimage. (Remarkably, Laurence and Stephen’s relics are among the few that were never transferred inside the city walls even at times when the city was under siege.)

Having done our best to decipher the porch frescoes, we entered the church.

It’s a breathtaking view that must stop most visitors, even tour guides, in their tracks. The space is deep, quiet, austere and multi-layered, a place unlike any other we have ever seen. While we had been in many beautiful churches in Rome, none made us move so slowly and quietly as this one. The space seems just a deep breath away from heaven.

The oldest part of the basilica, the section at the far end, was built in the seventh century by Pope Palagius II. It replaces another structure built in the fourth century with the support of the first emperor to respect Christianity, Constantine the Great. Though Constantine was not himself baptized until he lay on his deathbed, after publication of the Edict of Milan in 313, he made Christianity a privileged rather than persecuted religion.

Digging into a hillside, the seventh-century church was built so that Laurence’s catacomb tomb would be immediately beneath the church’s altar, with steps leading down to the crypt beneath so that pilgrims could pray in the very place where Laurence’s body was placed on the day of his martyrdom.

Later, in the thirteenth century, another church (the one with the porch) was built adjacent to the old one. In time the two buildings were unified, creating the single large building that exists to this day (though parts of the building and its monastic cloister had to be restored due to damage caused by allied bombs in July 1943).

The building is something like a Russian matriushka toy — a doll within a doll within a doll within a doll. At the its core is the altar and the relics beneath. Standing around and over the altar is a ciborium — a stone canopy supported by columns. The most famous of Rome’s ciboriums, made by Bernini in the seventeenth century, rises monumentally over the altar in St. Peter’s Basilica. The one at San Lorenzo’s is smaller and lighter, not at all a triumphal monument but a delicate structure that serves as an airy border marking the heart of sacred space. The four columns of purple marble are said to have been part of a similar ciborium that stood over the altar of the fourth-century church Constantine had sponsored.

On three sides of the sanctuary are two deep galleries, one above the other, through which light filters from windows that are out of sight. Above the upper gallery, just beneath the low-pitched roof, is a row of arched windows containing a pattern of small circles filled with light-bearing selenite. (The same material is used in a similar way at the fourth-century Basilica of Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill.)

Crossing the border from the thirteenth-century area of the church to the part built in the seventh century, the visitor passes under an arch on the altar side of which is a mosaic spanning the width of the church. As is the case with nearly all the church mosaics of the early centuries, Christ is in the center with saints on either side. In some of these, Christ is standing, but in this instance he is seated on a blue globe that represents the whole of creation. His right hand is raised in a gesture of blessing while the left holds a thin staff which, when looked at closely, proves to be a cross. On his left and right, again following the pattern of other ancient churches in Rome, are Peter and Paul — Peter (also holding a cross) with his familiar dense, close-cropped grey hair and beard, and Paul, bearded but nearly bald, with a scroll in his left hand representing the many letters he sent to local churches. To Peter’s left is Laurence, also holding a cross, and next to him, but without a halo, Pope Pelagius, holding a model of the seventh century church. On the other side, to the right of Paul, is the proto-martyr Stephen, and then, on the far right, Hippolytus, shown holding a golden crown. While there are various saints named Hippolytus, this is probably the Roman army officer named in “The Acts of St Laurence” who had been assigned to guard Laurence while he awaited execution and who, soon afterward, was converted to Christianity and died as a martyr.

As is always the case with iconography, there is a deep quietness and stillness about the mosaic. It seems to exist in a place where all means of measuring time have vanished or have no meaning, suggesting “is-ness” rather then temporality. The background of the mosaic is gold, symbol of the eternity and the kingdom of God.

The altar end of the church is higher than the thirteenth-century nave. Steps take the visitor up into the area surrounding the altar, while a narrower set of steps lead down into the small chapel-like space beneath the altar where the relics of Stephen and Laurence are located. In earlier times, from dawn till nightfall, there must have been a continuous ribbon of pilgrims walking slowly around the wrought iron enclosure that surrounds the relics, each visitor briefly touching the sarcophagus and the red cloth that is laid across its open top, each touch a gesture of prayer. Perhaps the most common prayer made by all these pilgrims was the appeal that, when the time comes in one’s life to lay a bed of fire, to do so as Laurence did — or, when rocks fell on one like rain as they did on Stephen, to die forgiving those who threw them and to hope one’s death might help bring others to conversion. (Such things happen. The Apostle Paul, as a young man, was present at the stoning of Stephen. In the porch fresco of Stephen’s stoning, Paul is standing to the left, not hurling a stone but his right arm extended in what appears to be a gesture of approval.)

We were fortunate to be in the church at such a quiet time of day. Later on in the morning, after we had spent time in the monastery cloister adjacent to the church, we came back inside to discover a well-attended funeral in progress, probably the first of several that would occur that day, given that the church is surrounded on three sides by Rome’s largest cemetery.

Some churches help one pray while others seem to make prayer more difficult. The basilica of San Lorenzo was one of those churches in which it seemed impossible not to pray.

For us, being at the church forged a much deeper sense of connection with both Stephen and Laurence. Much the same had happened to us in the other martyr-associated churches in Rome.

Thanks to the guidebooks we had carried with us to Rome, later in the day we realized that the place of Laurence’s actual death was just around the corner from the hospice where we were staying, on the Via Panisperna. After our last supper in Rome, we decided to walk along Via Panisperna to see if one of the several churches we had passed by time and again wasn’t built where Laurence died. The answer, of course, is that there is such a church. By the time we found it, it was closed, but we stood at the locked gate, looking across a stone-paved courtyard with the church on the far side. It didn’t seem important that we were unable to go inside. It was blessing enough to be where we stood.

It seemed a providential ending to a pilgrimage that made us far more aware of the truth, as Tertullian put it, that “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

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For those inclined to do more reading, here are a few titles:

Ancient Churches of Rome: From the Fourth to the Seventh Century
by Hugo Bradenburg
Brepols Publishers, Turnhout, Belgium, 2004

This is an expensive but extraordinary (and magnificently illustrated) book that would be essential for anyone with a special interest in Rome’s oldest churches.

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The Geometry of Love: Space, Time, Mystery and Meaning in an Ordinary Church
by Margaret Visser
North Point Press, 2000

This is about the church of Saint Agnes Outside the Walls in Rome. We learned about this book from Patricia Burton, who writes: “Visser explores the meaning and symbolism of quite ordinary things, and presents it in an informative, un-stuffy way, thereby often awakening us to how much we take for granted or simply don’t see. In this case she walks through an ‘ordinary church’ and gives its meaning at each step.” Use the “look inside” features on the book’s Amazon page to read the book’s very engaging opening pages:

But you may well prefer to buy a used copy via Abebooks — $5 instead of $50.

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The Christian Catacombs of Rome: History, Decoration, Inscriptions
by Vincenzo Fiocchi Nicolai, Fabrizio Bisconti and Danilo Mazzoleni
Schnell & Steiner, Regensburg, Germany, second edition 2002

Probably this is the best study now available of the catacombs of Rome. It includes a great many well reproduced color photos plus many maps and drawings. The authors are members of the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archeology.

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The Companion Guide to Rome
by Georgina Masson and John Fort
Companion Guides; Revised edition, 2007

Perhaps the best single guidebook to Rome. While not the book to choose for visual content, the text (more than 700 pages) is outstanding. Well worth taking to Rome despite its weight.

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Eyewitness Travel: Rome
published by Dorling Kinderly

This is an excellent, sturdily-made 450-page guide to Rome updated annually. It offers lots of photos, cross-sections and maps, short but useful entries on nearly all the places a visitor might wish to see plus details about how to get there and opening times, plus practical information about how to get around by bus, tram and metro, how to avoid being pickpocketed (but also what to do if it happens), how to find medical help if needed, etc., etc.

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The Wikipedia entry about the church is here:

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text written in June 2008, revised 16 January 2009

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“Dona Nobis Pacem” – Grant Us Peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jim & Nancy Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands

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

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

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

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Some personal reflections regarding Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement

by Jim Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Schuldbelijdenis: Een Sacrement, Dat Heelt

This is a Dutch translation of a booklet I wrote several years ago for Conciliar Press.

Door: Jim Forest

Vertaald door Enja. M.J.S. Katsoulis-Jansen

Een jonge monnik zei tegen de grote Abba Sisoes: “ Vader wat moet ik doen? Ik ben gevallen.” De oudere zei: “ Sta op!” “Ik ben opgestaan, en toen ben in weer gevallen”, zei de jonge monnik. De oudere antwoordde “ Sta weer op!” Toen vroeg de jonge monnik: “ Voor hoelang moet ik opstaan als ik gevallen ben?” “ Tot je dood aantoe!” antwoorde Abba Sisoes. (Gezegden van de Woestijnvaders)

“Toen ik naar mijn eerste biecht ging,” vertelde een vriend tegen me, “ kwamen de tranen in plaats van de zonden, die ik van plan was op te biechten. De priester zei, dat het niet nodig was om alles uit te spinnen en dat het alleen maar ijdelheid is om te denken, dat onze eigen zonden erger zijn, dan die van de anderen. Iets wat trouwens een opluchting voor me was, omdat het me niet mogelijk was om alle zonden van mijn dertigjarige leven te herinneren. Het deed me denken aan de manier waarop de vader zijn verloren zoon ontving – hij liet zijn zoon niet eens zijn nauwkeurig voorbereide speech uitspreken. Het is werkelijk verwonderlijk.”

Een andere vriend vertelde me, dat hij zo zenuwachtig was over alles wat hij te belijden had, dat hij besloot om het op te schrijven. “ Dus maakte ik een lijst van mijn zonden en nam die mee. De priester zag het papier in mijn hand, nam het me af, keek het in, verscheurde het en gaf het aan me terug. Toen zei hij:”Kniel neer.” En hij vergaf me. Dat was mijn schuldbelijdenis, mijn biecht, hoewel ik geen enkel woord gezegd had! Maar ik voelde toch, dat mijn zonden verscheurd waren en ik vrij van ze was.”

Alleen al het woord “biecht” maakt ons zenuwachtig, omdat het alles wat diep in onszelf is, onthult. Hebben we vrienden bedrogen, mensen verraden, verbroken beloften, geloof verloochend – dit en nog veel meer kleinere daden, die het begin van zonden zijn.

Biecht is pijnlijk, toch is een Christelijk leven zonder schuldbelijdenis, zonder biecht, onmogelijk

Biechten is een belangrijk punt in het Evangelie. Zelfs vóór Christus Zijn werk hier op aarde begon, lezen we in het Evangelie van Matthéüs, dat Johannes de Doper, van degenen, die naar de rivier de Jordaan kwamen om gedoopt te worden voor een symbolisch afwassen van hun zonden, verlangde eerst hun zonden te belijden. ” En ze werden gedoopt, nadat ze hun zonden beleden hadden.” (Matt. 3:6.)

Dan zijn er ook de verbazingwekkende woorden van Christus tegen Petrus:” Ik zal u de sleutels geven van het Koninkrijk der Hemelen, en wat gij op aarde binden zult, zal gebonden zijn in de hemelen, en wat gij op aarde ontbinden zult, zal ontbonden zijn in de hemelen.” (Matth. 16:19).

De sleutels, die binden en ontbinden kunnen, werden niet aan een apostel gegeven, maar aan alle discipelen van Christus, en – op een sacrementele manier – aan alle priesters, die de zegen van de bisschop hebben om de biecht af te nemen.

De Evangelieschrijver Johannes waarschuuwt ons ervoor om onszelf geen rad voor de ogen te draaien: “ Indien wij zeggen, dat wij geen zonden hebben, misleiden wij onszelf en de waarheid is in ons niet. Indien wij onze zonden belijden, Hij is getrouw en rechtvaardig, om ons de zonden te vergeven en ons te reinigen van alle ongerechtigheid.” ( 1 Joh.1:8 en 9).

Het sacrement van de Doop, de intreding in de Kerk, is altijd verbonden geweest met berouw.

” Bekeert u en een ieder van u late zich dopen op de naam van Christus, tot vergeving van uw zonden en gij zult de gave des Heiligen Geestes ontvangen ” ( Hand. 2:38). In hetzelfde boek lezen we in Hand. 19:18 : “ en velen van hen die gelovig geworden waren, kwamen hun schuld belijden en uitspreken wat zij bedreven hadden.”


Een geschiedenis uit het Evangelie waarin we schuldbelijdenis tegenkomen, is de gelijkenis van de verloren zoon. (Lucas 15 :11-32). Hier beschrijft Christus een jongeman, die zo ongeduldig is om aan zijn erfenis te komen en onafhankelijk te zijn, dat hij in feite tegen zijn vader zegt: “Voor mij ben je eigenlijk al dood. Geef me nu maar wat ik na je begrafenis zou krijgen. Ik wil niets meer met jou en met dit huis te maken hebben.”

Met een vrijgevigheid als van God, geeft de vader alles wat zijn zoon vraagt, hoewel hij zijn zoon goed genoeg kent om te weten dat alles wat de jongen krijgt netzogoed in de kachel verbrand kan worden. De jongen neemt zijn erfenis en verlaat het huis, eindelijk vrij van zijn ouders, vrij van moraal en goed gedrag, vrij om te doen en te laten wat hij wil.

Nadat hij zijn geld verspild heeft, vindt hij zich terug, vernederd tot boerenknecht, die de varkens moet voederen. Mensen, van wie hij altijd gedacht had, dat het zijn vrienden waren, bespotten hem. Hij weet dat hij het recht om iemands zoon te zijn verspeeld heeft, toch durft hij in zijn wanhoop te hopen, dat zijn vader hem tenminste zal toestaan als een knecht terug te keren. Vol van afkeer van wat hij tegen zijn vader gezegd heeft en van wat hij met zijn erfenis gedaan heeft, gaat hij op weg naar huis in zijn vodden, klaar om zijn zonden te biechten en om werk te smeken en een hoekje om te slapen. De zoon kan zich niet voorstellen hoe lief zijn vader hem heeft of dat ondanks de moeilijkheden, die hij gemaakt had, hij toch vreselijk gemist werd.

De vader was helemaal niet blij dat hij van de jongen af was. Dag na dag stond hij biddend op de uitkijk, in de hoop op de terugkomst van zijn zoon.

“ En toen hij nog veraf was, zag zijn vader hem en werd met ontferming bewogen. En hij liep hem tegemoet, viel hem om de hals en kuste hem.”( v.20). Als hij niet op de uitkijk had gestaan, zou hij zijn kind in de verte niet ontdekt hebben en begrepen wie het was, die daar aankwam. In plaats van rustig te staan wachten had, tot zijn zoon de deur bereikt had, rende hij hem tegemoet, omhelsde hem en stortte een vloed van blijde en verwelkomende woorden uit, geen verwijten en bestraffingen.

“ En de zoon zeide tot hem: Vader ik heb gezondigd tegen de hemel en voor u, ik ben niet meer waard om uw zoon te zijn,” (v.20). Hier is de schuldbelijdenis van de zoon uitgedrukt in een enkele zin. Het is de zuivere inhoud van iedere schuldbelijdenis: de terugkeer naar onze Vader, die ons gemaakt heeft en voortdurend op onze thuiskomst wacht.


Er bestaan ontelbare artikelen en boeken die gaan over menselijke mislukkingen onder verschillende benamingen, zonder dar er ook maar één keer het woord zonde genoemd wordt. Handelingen, die traditioneel als zondig beschouwd werden, worden tegenwoordig gezien als natuurlijke perioden, die bij het opgroeiingsproces horen; een resultaat van slechte opvoeding, de gevolgen van een mentale ziekte, een onontkoombare reactie op sociale voorwaarden of ziekelijk gedrag, veroorzaakt door de een of andere verslaving.

Maar wat is er aan de hand als ik meer zou zijn dan een robot, die geprogrammeerd is door mijn verleden of mijn omgeving of door mijn financieële toestand, stel je voor dat ik een bepaalde verantwoording – of schuld –zou hebben voor mijn doen en laten? Heb ik geen dingen gedaan waarvoor ik me diep schaam, die ik nooit meer zou doen als ik terug kon gaan in de tijd en waarvan ik zou wensen, dat niemand er ooit achter zou komen? Wat maakt me zo afkerig om deze daden “zonden“ te noemen? Is dat woord werkelijk verouderd? Of is het een probleem dat het te direct en te snijdend is?

Het hebreeuwse werkwoord chata, “zondigen”, net als het griekse woord amartia, betekent gewoon: van de weg af raken, verdwalen, het doel missen. Zonde – uit de koers raken – kan opzettelijk zijn of onopzettelijk.

De schrijver van het bijbelboek Spreuken noemt zeven dingen, die God haat: Een trotse blik/ Een liegende tong/ Handen, die onschuldig bloed vergieten/ Een hart, dat gemene plannen smeedt / Voeten, die vlug naar de slechtheid rennen / Een valse getuige, die liegt / Iemand, die onenigheid tussen broeders zaait. (Spr. 6:17-19).

Trots staat op de eerste plaats. “Hovaardij (trots) gaat vooraf aan het verderf, en hoogmoed komt voor den val.”(Spr.16:19). In de hof van Eden probeert satan trots op te wekken in zijn gesprek met Eva. Eet van de verboden vrucht en “ gij zult als God zijn “ (Gen.3:5).

Het verlangen om anderen vooruit te zijn, meer gewaardeerd te worden dan anderen, hoger beloond te worden dan anderen, in staat te zijn anderen voor je te laten sidderen, de onbekwaamheid om je fouten toe te geven of om excuus te vragen – dit zijn de symptomen van trots. Hoogmoed maakt de weg vrij voor ontelbaar meer zonden, bedrog, leugens, dieverij, geweld, en al die andere daden, die de gemeenschap met God en degenen om ons heen verbreken.

Toch verbrengen we een groot deel van ons leven ermee om onszelf ervan te overtuigen, dat het toch niet zo erg was wat we gedaan hebben en dat het zelfs als goed beschouwd kan worden, gezien de omstandigheden. Zelfs tijdens de biecht leggen veel mensen uit wat ze gedaan hebben, inplaats van gewoon toe te geven, dat ze dingen gedaan hebben, die vragen om vergeving. “ Toen ik pas geleden ongeveer vijftig mensen de biecht afnam in een normale Orthodoxe gemeete in Pennsylvania, “ schreef vader Alexander Schmemann, “ was er niet één bij, die toegaf, dat hij ook maar één zonde bedreven had!”

“ We zijn in staat om heel wat gemene dingen in ons leven te doen,” merkt de verhalenschrijver Garrison Keillor uit Minnesota op, “ niet al deze dingen zijn het gevolg van slechte communicatie. Sommige zijn het gevolg van slechtheid. Mensen doen slechte, vreselijke dingen. Ze liegen en bedriegen en beduvelen de regering. Zij vergiftigen de wereld om ons heen. En als ze gepakt worden tonen ze geen enkele spijt – zij gaan in therapie. Zij hadden een voedingsprobleem of zoiets. Zij leggen uit wat ze gedaan hebben – en zij voelen zich er helemaal niet slecht bij. Hen treft geen schuld. Het is psychologisch.”

Voor de mens, die een erge zonde heeft begaan, bestaan er twee vitale tekens – de hoop, dat niemand erachter komt, en een knagend gevoel van schuld. Dit is tenminste het geval voordat het geweten volledig ongevoelig wordt – dat gebeurt als het patroon van de zonde zodanig een levensaard wordt, dat de hel, in plaats van een mogelijke hiernamaalservaring, de plaats is, waarin men zich in dit leven bevindt.

Het is een frappant feit in de menselijke opbouw, dat we willen, dat sommige daden geheim blijven, niet wegens bescheidenheid, maar wegens een onbetwist gevoel een wet, te hebben overtreden, die grondzettelijker is dan welke wet in een wetboek ook – de wet, “die in ons hart gegrift staat.”, waar Paulus op wijst in Rom.2:15. Het is niet alleen maar, omdat we bang zijn voor straf. Het komt, omdat we niet door anderen als een mens, die zulke dingen doet, willen worden gezien. Eén van de belangrijkste obstakels om te biechten is de ontzetting dat iemand te weten zal komen, wat eigenlijk niemand weten moest.

Eén van de eigenaardigste dingen van de tijd waarin wij leven is, dat we een schuldgevoel aangepraat krijgen over het zich schuldig voelen. In ons huis hangt een striptekening waarop de ene gevangene tegen de andere zegt: “ Onthoud nou goed – het is in orde om schuldig te zijn, maar het is verkeerd om je schuldig te voelen.”

Een schuldgevoel – de pijnlijke gewaarwording van een zonde begaan te hebben – kan levensvernieuwend werken. Schuld geeft reden voor berouw, wat op zijn beurt kan leiden tot schuldbelijdenis en bekering. Zonder schuld bestaat er geen zelfverwijt en zonder zelfverwijt bestaat er geen mogelijkheid tot bevrijding van zonde.

Toch bestaan er vormen van schuld, die doodlopende wegen zijn. Als ik me schuldig voel, dat ik het niet voor elkaar gekregen heb om de ideale persoon te worden, die ik af en toe wil zijn, of waarvan ik denk, dat anderen willen dat ik ben, is dat schuld zonder goddelijk aanknopingspunt. Dat is gewoon een geirriteerd ik, denkend over een geirriteerd ik. Chistendom draait niet om een voorstelling, om wetten, om principes of het bereiken van onberispelijk gedrag, maar om Christus Zelf en om deelneming aan Gods herscheppende liefde.

Als Christus zegt: “ Gij dan zult volmaakt zijn, gelijk uw hemelse Vader volmaakt is.” (Matth.5:48), spreekt Hij niet over het behalen van een volmaakte uitkomst bij een test, maar over het volledig worden, een staat van gemeenschap (communicatie) met God, van een volledig meedelen in Gods liefde.

Deze toestand van wordt aangegeven op de ikoon van de Heilige Drieëenheid van de H.Andrej Rublev : deze drie op engelen gelijkende figuren, die rustig bijelkaar zitten rond een avondmaalsbeker op een klein altaar. Zij symboliseren de Heilige Drieëenheid: de gemeenschap, die bestaat binnen God – geen gesloten gemeenschap, die alleen tot henzelf beperkt is, maar een open gemeenschap van liefde, waarin we niet alleen maar uitgenodigd worden, maar verwacht worden om eraan deel te nemen.

We voelen een gezegende schuld als we ons realiseren, dat we onszelf afgesneden hebben van deze goddelijke gemeenschap, die de gehele schepping omstraalt. Het is onmogelijk om in een heelal zonder God te leven, maar het is gemakkelijk om Gods aanwezigheid niet te beseffen of er zelfs kwaad over te zijn.

Het is een algemene misleidende mening, dat iemands zonde privé zijn of slechts maar op een paar mensen betrekking hebben. Te denken, dat onze zonden, hoe verborgen ook, geen uitwerking op anderen hebben, is hetzelfde als denken, dat een in het water geworpen steen geen ribbels veroorzaakt. Zoals Bisschop Kallistos Ware opmerkt: “ Er bestaan geen volkomen privé zonden. Alle zonden worden zowel tegen mijn naaste begaan, als tegen God en mijzelf. Zelfs mijn meest geheime gedachten maken het in feite moeilijker voor degenen om mij heen om Christus te volgen.”

In plaats van verborgen te zijn, is iedere zonde een nieuwe barst in de wereld.

Eén van de meest gebruikte Orthodoxe gebeden is het Jezusgebed, slechts één zin: “ Here Jezus Christus, Zoon van God, ontferm U over mij een zondaar!” Hoe kort het ook is, worden er toch veel mensen, die zich ertoe aangetrokken voelen, afgeschrikt door de laatste twee woorden. Aan degenen, die het gebed onderwijzen, wordt vaak gevraagd:” Maar moet ik mijzelf een zondaar noemen?” In feite is het einde va dit gebed helemaal niet belangrijk – het enige onontbeerlijke woord is “Jezus” – maar mijn moeilijkheid met het identificeren van mijzelf als zondaar onthult veel. Wat houdt me tegen om over mijzelf in zulke simpele woorden te spreken? Breng ik het er niet goed af om de aanwezigheid van Christus in mijn leven te verbergen in plaats van te tonen? Ben ik geen zondaar? Om dit toe te geven is een startpunt.

Op de zonde zijn twee antwoorden mogelijk: rechtvaardigen of berouw tonen. Er bestaat geen middenweg.

Rechtvaardigen kan met de mond zijn, maar daadwerkelijk neemt het de vorm van herhaling aan: ik doe hetzelfde steeds weer om aan mijzelf en aan anderen te laten zien, dat het toch eigenlijk geen zonde is, maar iets normaals of menselijks of nodig of zelfs goed. “ Bega twee keer een zonde en het lijkt geen misdaad meer,” zegt een Joods spreekwoord.

Aan de andere kant is berouw de erkenning, dat ik niet zo kan leven als ik gedaan heb, omdat ik op die manier een muur bouw tussen mijzelf en God en de anderen. Berouw is verandering van koers. Berouw is de deur naar de gemeenschap. Het is ook een voorwaarde tot vergeving. Vergeving is onmogelijk waar geen berouw is.

De H. Johannes Chrysostomos zei zestien eeuwen geleden in Antiochië:

Berouw opent de hemelen, brengt ons in het Paradijs, overwint de duivel. Heb je gezondigd? Wanhoop niet! Als je elke dag zondigt, heb elke dag berouw! Als er kapotte gedeeltes zijn in oude huizen, vervangen we ze met nieuwe en we houden niet op met de zorg voor de huizen. Op dezelfde manier moet je over jezelf denken: Als je vandaag je leven bezoedeld hebt met zonden, reinig je dan onmiddelllijk door berouw.


Het is onmogelijk om zich een gezond huwelijk of een sterke vriendschap voor te stellen zonder schuldbelijdenis en vergeving. Als we iets gedaan hebben, dat een relatie schade toebrengt, is schuldbelijden wezenlijk voor het herstel. Ter wille van die band, belijden we wat we gedaan hebben, we verontschuldigen ons, we beloven om het niet meer te doen; en dan doen we alles wat in onze macht is om onze belofte te houden.

In het verband van het godsdienstig leven, is de schuldbelijdenis, de biecht, een voorzorg en een vernieuwing van onze relatie met God, wanneer die schade heeft opgelopen. Biechten herstelt onze gemeenschap met God en met elkaar.

Het is nooit gemakkelijk om iets waar we spijt van hebben en waar we ons over schamen toe te geven. Ook niet om iets, wat we geprobeerd hebben geheim te houden of we ontkennen gedaan te hebben of een ander de schuld van geven, en misschien beredeneren – netzo goed tegen onszelf als tegen anderen – dat het eigenlijk geen zonde was, tenminste niet zo erg als sommige mensen zeggen. In de moeilijke arbeid van het opgroeien, is een van de pijnlijkste taken te leren om te zeggen: “ Het spijt me!”

Toch zijn we ontworpen voor de biecht. Geheimen zijn moeilijk te bewaren, maar onbeleden zonden gaan niet alleen nooit meer weg, maar hebben de gewoonte om zwaarder en hardnekkiger te worden met de tijd – hoe groter de zonde, hoe zwaarder de last. Schuldbelijdenis is de enige oplossing.

Om de biecht in sacrementele zin te begrijpen, moet men eerst met een paar grondzettelijke vragen klaarkomen: Waarom is de Kerk betrokken bij de vergeving van zonden? Is de biecht in aanwezigheid van een priester werkelijk nodig? Waarom eigenlijk in de aanwezigheid van een menselijke getuige? Als God werkelijk alwetend is, dan weet Hij toch alles al over mij. Mijn zonden zijn al bekend, voordat het in me opkomt om ze gaan biechten. Waarom zou ik me uitsloven om God te vertellen wat Hij toch al weet?

Jazeker, God weet het. Mijn biecht kan nooit zo volledig of onthullend zijn als Gods kennis over mij of alles wat in mijn leven gerepareerd moet worden.

Een vraag, die betrekking heeft op het feit, dat we ontworpen zijn als sociale wezens, moet in overweging genomen worden. Waarom wil ik zo graag verbonden zijn met anderen in alle aspecten van het leven, maar niet in dit aspect? Waarom zoek ik zo ijverig naar excuses, zelf met theologische beredeneringen, om mijn schuld niet te belijden? Waarom probeer ik zo ernstig mijn zonden weg te redeneren, totdat ik besloten heb, dat ze niet zo erg waren of dat ze zelfs als goede daden beschouwd kunnen worden? Waarom vind ik het zo gemakkelijk om zonde te doen, maar ben ik zo terughoudend om in het bijzijn van iemand anders toe te geven, dat ik ze gedaan heb?

We zijn sociale wezens. Het individu als een autonome eenheid is een waanvoorstelling. De Marlboro Man – de persoon zonder gemeenschap, ouders, echtgenoot of kinderen – bestaat alleen maar op reclameborden. Het individu is iemand, die het gevoel van gemeenschap met anderen kwijt is of probeert in verzet tegen de anderen te leven – terwijl de persoon bestaat in gemeenschap met andere personen. Op een conferentie van Orthodoxe Christenen in Frankrijk een paar jaar geleden, gaf een theoloog toe in een gesprek over het probleem van individualisme: “ Als ik in mijn auto zit, ben in een individu, maar als ik eruit kom ben ik weer een persoon.”

Wij zijn sociale wezens. De taal, die we spreken, bindt ons aan degenen om ons heen. Het voedsel, dat ik eet, is geteeld door anderen. De bekwaamheden die mij geleerd zijn, werden door de eeuwen en honderden generaties ontwikkeld. De lucht, die ik inadem, het water, dat ik drink, zijn niet uitsluitend voor mijn gebruik, maar is in veel lichamen geweest voor mij. De plaats waar ik woon, de gereedschappen, die ik gebruik, het papier, waarop ik schrijf werden door veel handen gemaakt. Ik ben geen dokter of bankier of tandarts alleen. Als ik mijzelf ontkoppel van de anderen, ben ik in gevaar. Alleen zal ik sterven, en ook nog snel. Met anderen in gemeenschap zijn, is leven.

Omdat we sociale wezens zijn, neemt de biecht in de Kerk niet de plaats in van de biecht tegenover degenen tegen wie ik gezondigd heb. Een wezenlijk element van de biecht is alles te doen waarmee ik goed kan maken wat ik verkeerd heb gedaan. Als ik iets gestolen heb, moet ik het teruggeven of betalen. Als ik gelogen heb, moet ik die persoon de waarherid gaan vertellen. Als ik kwaad was zonder een goede reden, moet ik mijn verontschuldiging aanbieden. Ik moet vergeving vragen, niet alleen aan God, maar ook aan degenen, die ik benadeeld heb of kwaad gedaan.

Wij zijn ook sprekende wezens. Woorden zijn een manier van gemeenschap hebben, niet alleen met anderen, maar ook met onszelf. Het feit, dat de biecht onder getuige gebeurt dwingt ons ertoe om onder woorden te brengen, groot of klein, meer of minder, hoe ik leef alsof God niet bestaat en er geen gebod voor liefde is. Een verborgen gedachte heeft grote macht over ons.

Zonden belijden, of zelfs maar verleiding tot zondigen, helpt ons beter om tegenstand te bieden. Het principe, dat erachter zit wordt beschreven in een van de verzamelingen van de gezegden van de Woestijnvaders:

Als gij geplaagd wordt door onreine gedachten, verberg ze niet, maar vertel ze meteen en aan uw geestelijke vader en keur ze af. Hoe meer een mens zijn gedachten verbergt, hoe meer ze zich vermenigvuldigen en aan sterkte winnen. Maar een slechte gedachte, die onthuld wordt, wordt onmiddellijk vernietigd. Als gij dingen verbergt, krijgen ze grote macht over u, maar als u er alleen maar over kan praten voor God, in tegenwoordigheid van iemand anders, dan verschrompelen vaak en verliezen hun macht.

Schuldbelijden aan iemand, zelfs een onbekende, werkt meer vernieuwend, dan dat het aan mijn menselijkheid afdoet, zelfs als alles wat ik terugkrijg voor mijn verontschuldiging de volgende opmerking is: “ O, het is niet zo erg, uiteindelijk ben je ook maar een mens.” Maar als ik mijn schuld kan toegeven tegen iedereen en overal, waarom kan ik dat dan niet in de Kerk in aanwezigheid van een priester? Het is geen gemakkelijke vraag in kringen waar de uitdrukking “ godsdienst als instelling “ vaak gebruikt wordt met de verkapte boodschap, dat godsdienst het geestelijke leven noodzakelijk ondermijnt.

De biecht is een Christelijk ritueel met een gemeenschaps karakter. Biecht in de Kerk verschilt van het toegeven van je schuld in je huiskamer, op dezelfde manier waarop het trouwen in de Kerk verschilt van zomaar samen wonen. Het gemeenschappelijke aspect van de gebeurtenis heeft de neiging om die veilig te stellen, om die duurzamer te maken en iedereen verantwoordelijk te stellen is, zowel degenen, die de ceremonie uitvoeren, als de getuigen.

In de sociale structuur van de Kerk, wordt een groot netwerk van plaatselijke gemeenten bijelkaar gehouden in eenheid. Iedere gemeente helpt de andere en ze nemen allemaal deel aan een algemene taak. En iedere gemeente heeft en speciale plaats, m.a.w. een kerkgebouw, waar de belangrijke gebeurtenissen in een mensenleven gezegend worden van de wieg tot het graf, van de doop tot de begrafenis. De biecht is een wezenlijk deel van deze opeenvolging. Mijn schuldbelijdenis is een daad van weer verbonden worden met God en met de mensen en schepselen, die zich op mij verlaten en door mijn tekortkomingen zijn gekwetst en van wie ik mij verwijderd heb door daden tegen de gemeeschap. De gemeenschap wordt gerepresenteerd door de persoon, die mijn biecht aanhoort, een gewijde priester, aangesteld om te dienen als getuige van Christus, die voor leiding en kennis zorgt, zodat die ieder die berouw heeft, geholpen wordt om over het gedrag en de gewoonten, die hem doen ontsporen, heen te komen. Hij stelt vergeving vast en brengt ons terug in de gemeenschap. Op deze manier wordt ons berouw in de gemeente gebracht, die door onze zonde benadeeld was – een privé gebeurtenis in een openbaar verband.

“Het is een feit,” schrijft vader Thomas Hopko, rector van het St. Vladimir Seminarium, “ dat we de werkelijke lelijkheid en gemeenheid van onze zonden niet kunnen zien, totdat we ze gezien hebben in geest en het hart van degene, aan wie we schuld moesten belijden.”


Naar de Liturgie gaan en aan het Avondmaal ( Communie, Gemeenschap) op zondag en grote feestdagen is altijd het hart van het Christelijke leven geweest, de gebeurtenis, die het leven een dankzeggende dimensie en middelpunt geeft. Maar Communie – Christus in onszelf ontvangen – kan nooit een routine worden, nooit iets dat we verdienen, wat ook de gesteldheid van ons leven is. Bijvoorbeeld, Christus waarschuwt ons tegen het naderen van het altaar als we vijandschap voelen tegen iemand. Hij zegt ons : “ Laat uw gave daar voor het altaar en ga eerst hen, verzoen u met uw broeder, en kom en offer daarna uw gave.” ( Matth.5:24). In een van de gelijkenissen, beschrijft Hij een persoon, die van het bruiloftsfeest weggejaagd werd omdat hij geen bruiloftskleren droeg. Voddige kleren zijn figuurlijk voor een leven leiden, dat het geweten tot vod terugbrengt. ( Matth. 22: 1-14).

Christus te ontvangen in de Communie tijdens de Liturgie, is de sleutel tot het leven in Gemeenschap – God, met de mensen en met met de schepping. Christus leert ons, dat God liefhebben en uw naaste liefhebben de som van de Wet is. Een manier om een erge zonde te beschrijven, is te zeggen, dat het een daad is, die onze band met God en met onze naaste verbreekt.

Daarom is het onderzoek van het geweten – als het nodig is, biechten – een deel van de voorbereiding op de Communie (Avondmaal). Dit is een voortdurend proces van proberen mijn leven en handelen duidelijk en eerlijk te bezien – mijzelf, mijn keuzes en welke richting ik inlsa bekijken, zoals God die kent. Het onderzoek van het geweten is de gelegenheid om mij aan mijn erge zonden te herinneren, die ik gedaan heb sinds mijn biecht, maar zelfs het begin van een zonde.

Het woord geweten is afgeleid van een grieks werkwoord, dat ”algemene kennis hebben” betekent of “ kennen met iemand “, een begrip, dat geleid heeft tot “getuige zijn van iemand”, in het bijzonder van onszelf. Geweten is een innerlijke mogelijkheid, die ons leidt in het maken van keuzes, die met Gods wil overeenstemmen, en dat ons beschuldigt als we de gemeenschap met God en onze buurman verstoren. Geweten is een weerspiegeling van de goddelijke beeltenis in het diepste van iedere persoon. In De Geheiligde Gift van het Leven , wijst vader John Beck erop, dat “ de onderwijzing van het geweten voor een groot gedeelte tot stand komt door onszelf te verdiepen in het ascetische leven van de Kerk: het is het leven van gebed, sacrementele en liturgische diensten, en bijbelstudie. De onderwijzing van ons geweten hangt ook af van het verkrijgen van kennis van degenen, die verder zijn dan wij in geloof, liefde en kennis van God.

Geweten is de fluisterende stem van God binnenin ons, die ons roept tot een manier van leven, die Gods tegenwoordigheid onthult, en ons aanspoort om te weigeren handelingen te doen, die gemeente en gemeenschap vernietigen.


Vader Alexander Schmemann, biedt ons deze samenvatting van de drie sleutelgedeelten van de schuldbelijdenis aan:

Relatie tot God
: Vragen over het geloof zelf, mogelijke twijfel of dwalingen, onoplettendheid bij het gebed, verwaarlozing van het liturgische leven, vasten, enz.

Relatie tot onze naaste : fundamenteel egoistisch en egocentrisch gedrag, onverschilligheid tegenover anderen, gebrek aan oplettendheid, belangstelling, liefde. Alle handelingen van feitelijk aanstoot geven – jaloersheid, roddel, wreedheid, enz. – moeten genoemd worden en als het nodig is moet hun zondigheid getoond worden aan de schuldbelijder.

Relatie tot zichzelf : Vleselijke zonden gezien de Christelijke visie op zuiverheid en gezondheid, respect voor het lichaam als een beeldtenis van Christus, enz. Misbruik van het leven en levensbenodigdheden; afwezigheid van elke echte poging om het leven te verdiepen; alcoholmisbruik of andere drugs; goedkope ideeën over “ leuk”, een leven gericht op amusement, onverantwoordelijkheid, verwaarlozing van familie relaties, enz.


In de strijd om het geweten te onderzoeken, hebben we hulpmiddelen, die ons kunnen bijstaan, bronnen, die zowel kunnen helpen bij de vorming als bij het onderzoek van ons geweten. Daaronder zijn de Tien Geboden, de Zaligsprekingen en verschillende gebeden, zowel als lijsten van vragen, geschreven door ervaren biechtvaders. In dit kleine boekje zullen we alleen kijken naar de Zaligsprekingen, die eigenlijk een kortbegrip van het Evangelie zijn. Iedere Zaligspreking onthult een aspect van de verbintenis met God.

Zalig zijn de armen van geest, want hunner is het Koninkrijk der hemelen.

Armoede betekent hier ervan bewust zijn, dat ik Gods hulp en genade meer nodig heb dan wat dan ook. Het is weten dat ik mijzelf niet kan redden, noch geld of macht mij lijden en dood kan besparen. En dat, wat ik ook in dit leven zal bereiken, het veel minder zal zijn dan ik wil, als ik mijn hebberige hoedanigheid de overhand laat krijgen. Het is de zegen te weten dat, wat ik heb, niet van mij is. Het is een leven zonder overheersing van de angst. Terwijl de uiterlijke vormen van armoede verschillen van persoon tot persoon en zelfs van jaar tot jaar in een zeker leven, afhangend van ieders roeping en speciale omstandigheden, zoekt iedereen die, deze zaligspreking naleeft, met hart en ziel Gods wil te doen en niet zijn eigen wil. Gods moeder is het grote voorbeeld van armoe van geest met haar onvoorwaardelijke overgave aan de wil van God: “ Zie de dienstmaagd des Heren, mij geschiede naar uw woord.” (Luc. 1:38). Netzo als bij de bruiloft te Kana, dan zegt ze tegen de dienaren, die aan tafel bedienen : “ Wat Hij u ook zegt, doe dat.” (Joh.2:5). Wie deze woorden naleeft, is arm van geest.

Vragen om over na te denken: We worden gebombardeerd door reclames, die ons voortdurend herinneren aan de mogelijkheid om dingen te bezitten of om toe te geven aan allerlei bijzonderheden en verleidingen. Het simpele doel van armoe van geest lijkt verder weg, dan de maan. Bid ik wel regelmatig of God mij armoede van geest wil schenken? Als ik ertoe verleid wordt om dingen te kopen, die ik niet nodig heb, bid ik dan om sterkte om het niet te doen? Houd ik mij aan de vasten, die de Kerk voorschrijft om mij te helpen deze zaligspreking na te leven? Streef ik er werkelijk naar om Gods wil te kennen en aan te nemen in mijn leven? Ben ik bereid om als vreemd en dom beschouwd te worden door degenen, wiens leven overheerst wordt door het tegenovergestelde van deze zaligspreking?

Zalig die treuren, want zij zullen vertroost worden.

Treuren is van het zelfde laken een pak met armoe van geest. Zonder armoe van geest, ben ik er altijd op uit om hetgeen ik heb voor mijzelf te houden, of op mijzelf te blijven, of voor die kleine kring van mensen, die ik als”eigen” beschouw. Een gevolg van armoede van geest is gevoelig worden voor pijn en verlies van anderen, niet alleen, degenen, die ik ken, maar ook van diegenen, die vreemden voor mij zijn. “ Als we sterven,” zegt Johannes van de Ladder, die in de 7e eeuw abt van het Katerinaklooster op de Sinaï was, “ zullen we niet veroordeeld worden omdat we geen wonderen hebben gedaan. We zullen niet beschuldigd worden omdat we geen theologen of denkers waren. Maar we zullen wel degelijk aan God moeten uitleggen waarom we niet voortdurend getreurd hebben.”

Vragen om te overdenken: Huil ik met degenen, die huilen? Heb ik gerouwd om mijn familieleden, die gestorven zijn? Laat ik mijn gedachten en gevoelens gaan over het lijden en verlies van anderen? Probeer ik ruimte te maken in mijn geest en hart voor de rampen in het leven van anderen, die ver weg zijn en niet eens mijn taal spreken of mijn geloof delen?

Zalig zijn de zachtmoedigen, want zij zullen de aarde beerven.

Zachtmoedigheid wordt vaak gezien als zwakheid, toch is een zachtmoedig mens geen lafaard noch zonder ruggegraat. In de Bijbel wordt bedoeld met zachtmoedigheid, het maken van keuzes en het uitoefenen van macht vanuit een godvrezend standpunt, in plaats van een maatschappelijk standpunt. Zachtmoedigheid is de wezenlijke kwalitiet van de mens, die een relatie met God heeft. Zonder zachtmoedigheid, kunnen we ons niet overgeven aan Gods wil. In plaats van nederigheid, geven we de voorkeur aan trots – trots op wie we zijn, trots omdat we doen wat we willen, trots op wat we bereikt hebben, trots op onze nationale of ethnische groep waartoe we behoren. Zachtmoedigheid heeft niets te maken met blinde gehoorzaamheid of sociale onderwerping. Zachtmoedige Christenen laten zich niet meeslepen op het getij van politieke machten. Dergelijke roerloze mensen hebben hun eigen geweten toegesnoerd, Gods stem uit hun hart gebannen en hun door God gegeven vrijheid weggegooid. Zachtmoedigheid is een kenmerk van het volgen van Christus, wat er ook voor risico aan verbonden is.

Vragen hierover: Als ik de Bijbel lees of de geschriften van de heiligen, denk ik dan aan de invloed van die woorden op mijn leven? Als de inhoud niet overeenkomt met de manier waarop ik leef, laat ik me dan uitdagen door die tekst? Bid ik tot God om leiding? Zoek ik voor antwoord op moeilijke vragen om hulp bij de biecht? Heb ik de neiging om keuzes te maken en ideeën aan te nemen, die me zullen helpen om in de groep te passen waarbij ik wil horen? Ben ik bang voor kritiek of om uitgelachen te worden om mijn pogingen om een leven te leiden, dat het Evangelie tot middelpunt heeft? Luister ik naar anderen? Zeg ik altijd de waarheid, zelfs in zeer moeilijke omstandigheiden?

Zalig die hongeren en dorsten naar de gerechtigheid, want zij zullen verzadigd worden.

In zijn onderwijzing over Het Laatste Oordeel, spreekt Christus over honger en dorst: “ Ik heb honger geleden en gij hebt Mij te eten gegeven, Ik heb dorst geleden en gij hebt Mij te drinken gegeven.” (Matth.25:35). Onze verlossing rust op onze zorg voor de minste persoon zoals we zouden doen als hij Christus zelf was. Om te hongeren en te dorsten voor iets is geen zwak gevoel, maar een wanhopig verlangen. Om naar gerechtigheid te hongeren en te dorsten betekent een dringend verlangen naar wat eervol is, naar juistheid en waarheid. Een rechtvaardig persoon is een mens die juist leeft, een zedelijk, onberispelijk leven, op goede voet met God en zijn naaste. Een rechtvaardige sociale orde zou er een zijn waarin niemand verlaten wordt of weggeworpen, waarin mensen in vrede met God leven en met elkaar en met de wereld, die God ons gegeven heeft.

Vragen om in overweging te nemen: Stoort het me om in een wereld te leven, die het tegenovergestelde is van het Koninkrijk der Hemelen? Als ik bid, “ Uw Koninkrijk kome, Uw wil geschiede zowel in de hemel als op aarde,” bid ik dan of mijn eigen leven beter Gods voorkeuren laat zien? Wie is de “minste” in mijn dagelijkse wereld? Probeer ik het beeld van Christus te zien in hem of haar”

Zalig de barmhartigen, want hun zal barmhartigheid geschieden.

Eén van de strikken van het najagen van de gerechtigheid is, dat men zelfvoldaan kan worden. Daarom is de volgende sport op de ladder van de zaligsprelingen het gebod tot barmhartigheid. Het is de bekwaamheid tot zelfopofferende liefde, van edele daden voor de behoeftigen. Christus maakt twee keer in het Evangelie de woorden van de profeet Hosea de Zijne: “ Want in liefde heb ik behagen en niet in slachtoffer.”(Hos.6:6, Matth. 9:13, 12:7). We zijn in ontelbare gebeurtenissen getuige van barmhatigheid in de beschrijving van Christus’ leven in het Nieuwe Testament – vergeving, genezing, bevrijding, verbetering, zelfs de reparatie van een de wond van een man, die gewond werd door Petrus in een poging om Christus te beschermen, en de belofte van het Paradijs aan de man , die naast Hem gekruisigd werd.

Steeds weer stelt Christus vast, dat zij, die Gods vergeving willen, anderen moeten vergeven. Dit principe is ook ingesloten in het enige gebed, dat Christus aan Zijn discipelen heeft geleerd: “ En vergeef ons onze schulden, gelijk wij ook onze schuldenaren vergeven.” (Matth.6:12). Hij roept Zijn volgelingen op hun vijanden te vergeven en voor hen te bidden. De moraal van de gelijkenis van de barmhartige Samaritaan is dat de naaste iemand is, die een vreemdeling in nood helpt (Luc.10: 29-37). Terwijl hij huichelarij openlijk veroordeelt en de genadelozen waarschuuwt, dat zij zich zelf veroordelen, horen we Christus nergens in het Evangelie voor iemands dood pleiten. Bij het Laatste Oordeel ontvangt Christus degenen, die genadig geweest zijn in het Koninkrijk der Hemelen. Hij is de Genade zelf.

Vragen, die gesteld kunnen worden: Wat is mijn reactie als ik een vreemdeling in nood zie? Is de genade van Christus te zien in mijn leven? Wil ik degenen, die mij daarom vragen vergeving schenken? Ben ik gul met mijn tijd en mijn aardse bezit ten opzichte van hulpbehoevenden? Bid ik voor mijn vijanden? Probeer ik ze te helpen als ze in nood zijn? Ben ik een vijand van iemand geweest?

Genade ontbreekt hoe langer hoe meer, zelfs in kringen met Christelijke wortels. In de V.S., is de doodstraf weer ingesteld in de meeste staten en wordt door vele Christenen vurig aangehangen. Zelfs in de vele landen, die terechtstellingen hebben afgeschaft, wordt de doodstraf vaak opgelegd aan ongeboren kinderen – abortus wordt nauwelijks beschouwd als een morele beslissing. Wat betreft de zieken, bejaarden en zwaar gehandicapten zijn “euthanasie” en “ hulp bij zelfdoding” veel gehoorde uitdrukkingen. In hoeverre ben ik beïnvloed door slogans en ideologieën, die dood tot een oplossing bevorderen en verkapte moord tot genade? Wat doe ik ervoor om de maatschappij meer verwelkomend te maken, zorgzamer en meer beschermend tegenover het leven?

Zalig de reinen van hart, want zij zullen God zien.

Het verstand wordt voorop gesteld in de wereld en het hart wordt ondergewaardeerd. Het hart werd altijd gezien als de plaats van Gods handelen in ons, het onderkomen van de menselijke identiteit en geweten, verbonden met onze bekwaamheid om lief te hebben, de kern van ons fysieke en geestelijke leven – de bodem van de menselijke ziel. In onze maatschappij waar het verstand in het middelpunt staat, verwonderen we ons erover, dat Christus niet gezegd heeft: “Zalig zijn de briljanten van geest.” Hij zegende juist de reinen van hart.

Het griekse woord voor rein is katharos en betekent vlekkeloos, smetteloos; intact, ongebroken, volmaakt; vrij van valsheid, bedrog of bevuiling. Wat is dan toch een rein hart? Het is een hart zonder bezitterigheid, een hart, dat in staat is tot rouw, een hart dat dorst naar het rechte, een hart vol genade, een liefdevol hart, een hart, dat niet beheerst wordt door hartstochten, een onverdeeld hart, een hart, dat Gods beeld in anderen herkent, een hart, dat zich tot schoonheid aangetrokken voelt, een hart bewust van Gods aanwezigheid in de schepping. Een rein hart is zonder minachting voor anderen. “ Een mens is werkelijk rein van hart als hij alle menselijke wezens als goed beschouwt en geen enkel geschapen ding onrein of vuil is in zijn ogen,” schrijft de H. Isaac de Syrieër.

Tegenstander van reinheid van hart is iedere soort begeerte – naar rijkdom, erkennig, macht, wraak, sexuele uitspattingen – of er nu daadwerkelijk aan toegegeven wordt of in de verbeelding. Geestelijke deugden, die het reine hart verdedigen zijn, herinnering, bewustzijn, waakzaamheid, oplettendheid, hoop, geloof en liefde. Een regelmaat van gebed in het dagelijkse leven helpt om te genezen, te bewaken en het hart heel te maken. “ Houdt uw verstand altijd in uw hart,” onderwees de grote leraar van gebed de H. Theophanos de Heremiet. Het Jezusgebed – het gebed van het hart – is een deel van de overlevering van het geestelijke leven, dat helpt om het centrum van het bewustzijn van het verstand naar het hart te verplaatsen. De reiniging van het hart is het streven om het verstand onder de heerschappij van het hart te stellen, hetwelk de analytische en organiserende kant van het bewustzijn vertegenwoordigt. Het is de macht van een voortdurend krachtig bidden, een zoeken naar het zich volkomen bewust zijn van Gods aanwezigheid, zodat er geen ruimte in het hart over is voor haat, hebberigheid, begeerte of wraak. De reiniging van het hart is een levenslange strijd om meer en meer een leven te verkrijgen, dat God als middelpunt heeft, een hart verlicht door de aaanwezigheid van de Heilige Drieëenheid

Vragen om te overdenken: Zorg ik ervoor om geen dingen te lezen of te bekijken, die begeerte kunnen opwekken? Vermijd ik woorden te gebruiken, die mijn mond bevuilen? Let ik op schoonheid in mensen, de natuur en de kunst? Ben ik hatelijk over anderen? Is er een gebedsritme in mijn dagelijkse leven? Bereid ik me zorgvuldig voor op het Avondmaal (Communie), terwijl ik het nooit als vanzelfsprekend beschouw? Houd ik me aan de vastendagen en perioden? Ben ik me bewust en dankbaar voor Gods gaven?

Zalig de vredestichters, want zij zullen kinderen Gods genoemd worden.

Christus wordt vaak de Vredevorst genoemd. Zijn vrede is geen passive situatie – Hij zegent hen, die vrede stichten. Een vredestichter is iemand, die helpt om verstoorde relaties weer in orde te maken. Door het hele Evangelie zien we Christus vrede stichten. In Zijn laatste toespraak voor Zijn arrestatie zegt Hij tegen Zijn apostelen: “ Vrede laat Ik u, Mijn vrede geef Ik u…uw hart worde niet ontroerd of versaagd” ( Joh.14:27). Na Zijn opstanding begroet Hij zijn volgelingen met de woorden “ Vrede zij met u.” (Joh.20:19). Hij leert Zijn volgelingen bij het binnengaan van een huis als eerste handeling de zegen uit te spreken: “ Vrede zij dezen huize.” (Luc.10:5).

Christus is zegt het meest tegensprekende als Hij zegt: “Meent niet, dat Ik gekomen ben om vrede te brengen op aarde. Ik ben niet gekomen om vrede te brengen, maar het zwaard” (Matth.10:34; n.b.dat in dezelfde passage in Luc.12:51, het woord “verdeeldheid” gebruikt wordt in plaats van “zwaard”). Degenen, die proberen Christus’ vrede na te leven, kunnen zich in gevaar begeven, zoals we zien bij de dood van de martelaren. Jammergenoeg is voor de meesten van ons de vrede waarnaar we verlangen niet het Koninkrijk der Hemelen, maar een lichtelijk verbeterde uitgave van wereld die we al hebben. We zouden uit het conflict willen komen zonder de geestelijke en materieële factoren, die ons er in de eerste plaats ingetrokken hebben, uit te roeien. De vredestichter is iemand, die zich er van bewust is, dat het doel nooit gescheiden kan zijn van het middel: vijgen groeien niet aan distels; noch onstaat er een gemeente door haat en geweld. Een vredestichter is er van bewust, dat alle mensen, zelfs degenen, die door een boze geest geleid schijnen te worden, gemaakt zijn naar het beeld en de gelijkenis van God en in staat zijn om te veranderen.

Vragen hierover: Ben ik schuldig aan zonden, die verdeelheid en conflict kunnen verdiepen in mijn familie, mijn parochie en onder mijn medewerkers? Vraag ik om vergeving als ik me realiseer, dat ik verkeerd zit? Of ben ik altijd aan het goedpraten wat ik doe, ondanks het verdriet en de pijn, dat ik er bij anderen mee veroorzaak? Beschouw ik het als tijdverspilling om met mijn tegenstanders te communiseren? Luister ik oplettend en respectvol naar hen, die mij irriteren? Bid ik voor het welzijn en verlossing van tegenstanders en vijanden? Laat ik de mening van anderen of wat de pers zegt mijn gedrag tegen hen, die ik nog nooit gezien heb bepalen? Onderneem ik positieve stappen om verdeeldheid op te lossen? Bestaan er mensen, die ik niet beschouw als Gods evenbeeld en vindt ik dat ze en aangeboren slechtheid bezitten?

Zalig de vervolgden om der gerechtigheid wil, want hunner is het Konikrijk der hemelen.

Zalig zijt gij, wanneer men u smaadt en vervolgt en liegende allerlei kwaad van u spre ekt om Mijnentwil. Verblijdt u en verheugt u, want u loon is groot in de hemelen; want alzo hebben zij de profeten voor u vervolgd.

De laatste sport van de ladder van de Zaligsprekingen bereiken het Kruis en gaan zelfs verder dan dat. “ We moeten het Kruis van Christus dragen als een gloriekroon,” schreef de H. Johannes Chrysostomos in de vierde eeuw, “ Want door het Kruis is alles, wat we hebben verworven, verkregen….. Wanneer gij het teken van het Kruis op uw lichaam maakt, denk er dan aan wat het Kruis betekent en zet uw woede opzij en iedere andere hartstocht. Wees moedig en vrij in uw ziel.”

In de oude wereld werden de Christenen voornamelijk vervolgd, omdat men dacht, dat ze de sociale orde verstoorden, ook al waren ze in de meeste opzichten voorbeelden van gehoorzaamheid en goed gedrag. Maar de Christenen hielden zich ver van de cultus rond de vergoddelijkte keizer, ze wilden niet offeren aan de goden, die hun buren aanbaden, en ze waren bekend om hun afkeer van het vergieten van bloed in elke vorm. Het is gemakkelijk te begrijpen dat een gemeenschap, die naar die standaard leefde, hoe goed men zich ook gedroeg, beschouwd werd als een dreiging voor de regering. “ Zowel de bevelen van de keizer als anderen aan de macht moeten gehoorzaamd worden zolang ze niet het tegendeel zijn van de geboden van de God van de Hemel,” zei de H. Euphemia in het jaar 303, tijdens de regering van Diocletianus. “ Als ze dat zijn, dan moeten ze niet alleen niet gehoorzaamd worden; we moeten ze weerstaan.” Nadat ze gemarteld was, werd ze gedood door een beer – een dergelijke dood hadden duizenden martelaren tot ver in de vierde eeuw, hoewel het grootste aantal Christelijke martelaren tot de twintigste eeuw behoort. In veel landen bestaat nog godsdienst vervolging.

Vragen om te overwegen: Speelt angst een grotere rol in mijn leven, dan liefde? Verberg ik mijn geloof of leef ik het op een timide manier na, niet helemaal van harte? Als mij bevolen wordt iets te doen wat tegen Christus leer ingaat, aan wie ben ik dan gehoorzaam? Ben ik me bewust van degenen, die lijden vanwege de gerechtigheid, zowel in mijn eigen land als in andere landen? Bid ik wel voor hen? Doe ik iets om hen te helpen?


Netzo als niet elke dokter een goede geneesheer is, is niet iedere priester een goede biechtvader. Soms gebeurt het dat een priester, hoe goed hij ook in andere dingen is, niet geschikt is voor het aanhoren van schuldbelijdenis. Hoewel priesters, die schelden een grote uitzondering zijn, moet er toch rekening mee gehouden worden, dat ze kunnen bestaan. God heeft ons vrijheid van keuze gegeven en ieder mens van een geweten voorzien. Het is niet de rol van een priester de plaats van het geweten in te nemen of om iemands drilmeester te zijn. En goede biechtvader zal ons helpen om beter naar de stem van ons geweten te kunnen luisteren en vrijer te worden in een leven dat hoelanger hoemeer God als middelpunt heeft.

Gelukkig zijn goede biechtvaders gemakkelijk te vinden. In het alsgemeen is het de priester, die het dichtst bij is, die men vaak ziet en de omstandigheden van uw leven kent: dat is de priester van de parochie. Laat u niet tegenhouden door zijn jonge leeftijd, zijn persoonlijke tekortkomingen of misschien zijn gebrek aan geestelijke gaven. U moet bedenken, dat iedere priester zelf ook gaat biechten en misschien meer te belijden heeft dan u. U belijdt uw schuld niet aan hem, maar aan Christus in zijn aanwezigheid. Hij is de getuige van uw biecht. Men zal nooit een persoon zonder zonden vinden om die getuige te zijn. ( De Orthodoxen maken dat duidelijk door de schuldbelijder naar de ikoon van Christus te laten kijken, in plaats van naar de priester.)

Wat uw biechtvader zegt op het gebied van raad kan vol van inzicht zijn, of hard, of het zal zich als een cliché aanhoren en niet erg betrokken, maar er zal toch altijd iets zijn, dat helpt als u het maar wil horen. Soms is er een voorstel of een inzicht, dat een keerpunt in het leven kan worden. Als hij een straf oplegt – gewoonlijk vermeerderd gebed, vasten en daden van genade – zou dat deemoedig aangenomen moeten worden, behalve als er iets is, dat het geweten of de leer van de Kerk geweld aandoet in uw mening.

Denk niet, dat een priester minder respect voor u zal hebben door wat u onhult in zijn aanwezigheid of dat hij zich al uw zonden herinnert.” Zelfs een pas gewijde priester zal snel ontdekken, dat hij zich 99 procent van wat mensen biechten, niet herinnert” vertelde een priester mij eens. Hij zei, dat hij het hinderlijk vindt, dat mensen van hem verwachten nog te weten wat ze hem in een vorige biecht gezegd hebben. “ Als ze me het vertellen, herinner ik het me soms, maar zonder dat, is mijn geest gewoonlijk blank. Ik laat de woorden, waarnaar ik luister door mij heengaan. Ook is het zo, dat wat ik hoor in de ene biecht veel lijkt op wat ik hoor in de andere – alle biechten vermengen zich. De enige zonden, die ik me goed herinner, zijn mijn eigen zonden.”

Een ander priester vertelde me over zijn moeilijkheden om te voldoen aan de verwachtingen , die soms blijken tijdens de biecht. “ Ik ben geen psycholoog. Ik heb geen speciale gaven. Ik ben alleen maar een medezondaar, die probeert om op het rechte pad te blijven.”

Een russische priester, die de geestelijke vader van vele mensen is, vertelde me over de blijdschap, die hij vaak voelt als hij een schuldbelijdenis hoort. “ Het is niet, dat ik blij ben, omdat iemand zonden heeft, die beleden moeten worden, maar als je komt biechten betekent het dat de zonden van het verleden zijn en niet van de toekomst. Schuldbelijdenis maakt een keerpunt, en ik ben de gelukkige, die de mensen deze omkeer ziet maken!”

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Remembering Metropolitan Anthony Bloom

anthony of sourozh(published in “In Communion” issue 31, Fall 2003)

By Jim Forest

“We should try to live in such a way that if the Gospels were lost, they could be re-written by looking at us.” — Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

One of the significant events in the Orthodox Church this year was the death from cancer on August 4th of a remarkable, indeed saintly, bishop: Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh. He was 89. For many years he headed the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate in Great Britain.

Though he was not a member of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship’s advisory board, Metropolitan Anthony’s letters and conversations with those responsible for OPF played an important role in the path the Fellowship has followed. He passionately believed that peacemaking required active, warrior-like combat with evil. He had a strong aversion to the word “pacifist,” not only because it sounded with “passive-ist” but because of unpleasant encounters with self-righteous people quick to denounce those who failed to share their ideology. He preferred the phase “a man — or woman — of peace” which meant, he explained, a person “ready to work for the reconciliation of those who have grown apart or turned away from one another in enmity.” He was unhesitating in declaring that hatred is incompatible with Christianity, but saw the use of violence against Nazism in the Second World War as a lesser evil.

He sometimes told the story of an encounter he had during a retreat for university students. “After my first address one of them asked me for permission to leave it because I was not a pacifist.” “Are you one?” Metropolitan Anthony replied. “Yes.” “What would you do,” he asked, “if you came into this room and found a man about to rape your girl friend?” “I would try to get him to desist from his intention!” the man replied. “And if he proceeded, before your own eyes, to rape her?” “I would pray to God to prevent it.” “And if God did not intervene, and the man raped your girl friend and walked out contentedly, what would you do?” “I would ask God who has brought light out of darkness to bring good out of evil.” Metropolitan Anthony responded: “If I was your girl friend I would look for another boy friend.”

Yet, while hating passivity in the face of evil, his own commitment to reconciliation had deep roots in his life. During the years the German army occupied France when he was a physician active in the Maquis, a section of the French resistance, he had occasion to use his medical skills to save the life of a German soldier. Condemned for this act of Christian mercy by colleagues in the resistance, it was an action which almost cost him his own life. He was nearly executed. It was in that crucible of expected death that he decided, should he survive the war, that he would become a monk.

On another occasion, the roles were reversed: it was a German who saved his life. He had been arrested by the occupation forces. During a long interrogation, he was asked what he thought of National Socialism. “I assumed that I was going to be carted off to a camp anyway,” he recalled, “so I decided to tell the truth. I told them that I hated their system, and it would soon be overthrown by their enemies.” After a long pause his interrogator replied: “Quickly, out through that door. It isn’t guarded.” Thus he escaped.

He faced life-threatening situations many times. When the war ended, he found himself among Charles de Gaulle’s bodyguards during de Gaulle’s triumphal entry into Paris. He remembered taking cover from snipers while the General ignored the bullets.

Metropolitan Anthony stood ramrod straight. To the end of his life one could easily imagine him as an military officer if only he changed from his monastic robes into an army uniform. No one could have imagined, when he was a youth, that monastic vows, ordination as a priest and consecration as a bishop lay ahead or that he might become one of the great Christian missionaries of his era.

He was born Andrei Borisovich Bloom on the 19th of June 1914 in Switzerland, where his father was serving as a member of the Russian Imperial Diplomatic Corps. His mother was the sister of the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin. Molotov, Stalin’s comrade, was also a relative. Shortly before the First World War, the family returned to Russia, but soon left again for a diplomatic assignment in Persia. His vivid memories of Persian shepherds, “minute against the hostile backcloth of the vast Persian plain” while protecting their flocks, made him a convincing preacher on the parable of the Good Shepherd.

After the Russian Revolution, the family set out through Kurdistan and Iraq. When they sailed for Britain in a leaking ship, he hoped to be shipwrecked — he was reading Robinson Crusoe at the time. Instead, he was put ashore at Gibraltar where the family’s luggage was mislaid. Some fourteen years later it was returned with a bill for ?1.

In 1923, the family at last settled in Paris, adopted home to thousands of impoverished Russian refugees. Here his father became a laborer while his son went to a rough school. Andrei evinced an early suspicion of Roman Catholicism, which prompted him to turn down a place at an excellent school when the priest in charge hinted that he ought to convert.

After reading classics, he went on to study physics, chemistry and biology at the Sorbonne School of Science. In 1939 he was qualified as a physician.

Like so many of his contemporaries, he grew up with no belief in God and at times voiced fierce hostility to the Church. But when he was eleven, he was sent to a boys’ summer camp where he met a young priest. Impressed by the man’s unconditional love, he reckoned this as his first deep spiritual experience, though at the time it did nothing to shake his atheist convictions.

His opinions were undermined, however, a few years later by an experience of perfect happiness. This came to him when, after years of hardship and struggle, his family was settled under one roof for the first time since the Revolution. But it was aimless happiness, and he found it unbearable. He found himself driven to search for a meaning to life and decided that if his search indicated there was no meaning, he would commit suicide.

After several barren months, he reluctantly agreed to participate in a meeting of a Russian youth organization at which a priest had been invited to speak. He intended to pay no attention, but instead found himself listening with furious indignation to the priest’s vision of Christ and Christianity.

Returning home in a rage, he borrowed a Bible in order to check what the speaker had said. Unwilling to waste too much time on such an exercise, he decided to read the shortest Gospel, St. Mark’s. Here is his account of what happened:

While I was reading the beginning of St. Mark’s Gospel, before I reached the third chapter, I suddenly became aware that on the other side of my desk there was a presence. And the certainty was so strong that it was Christ standing there that it has never left me. This was the real turning-point. Because Christ was alive and I had been in his presence I could say with certainty that what the Gospel said about the crucifixion of the prophet of Galilee was true, and the centurion was right when he said, “Truly he is the Son of God.” It was in the light of the resurrection that I could read with certainty the story of the Gospel, knowing that everything was true in it because the impossible event of the resurrection was to me more certain than any other event of history. History I had to believe, the resurrection I knew for a fact. I did not discover, as you see, the Gospel beginning with its first message of the annunciation, and it did not unfold for me as a story which one can believe or disbelieve. It began as an event that left all problems of disbelief behind because it was a direct and personal experience.

During the Second World War, Metropolitan Anthony worked for much of the time as a surgeon in the French Army, but also, during the middle of the war, was a volunteer with the French resistance. In 1943, he was secretly tonsured as a monk, receiving the name Anthony. Since it was impractical for him to enter a monastery, the monk who was his spiritual father told to spend eight hours a day in prayer while continuing his medical work. When he asked about obedience, he was told to obey his mother. He continued to live a hidden monastic life after the war, when he became a general practitioner.

In 1948, when he was ordained priest, revealing then that he had been a monk for the previous five years. The following year he was invited to become Orthodox chaplain to the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius in England. The Fellowship had been founded in 1928 by a group of Russian Orthodox and Anglican Christians to enable them to meet each other and to work together for Christian unity. It was at St. Basil’s House in London, the Fellowship’s home in those years, that he began to meet Christians in Britain and to exert a growing influence in ever-widening circles. Shortly afterwards Father Vladimir Theokritoff, the priest of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchal Parish in London died suddenly. Father Anthony was the obvious choice to succeed him.

In 1953 he was appointed hegoumen, in 1956 archimandrite, then in 1962 archbishop of the newly created Diocese of Sourozh, encompassing Britain and Ireland. (The name Sourozh comes from the ancient name of a city in the Crimea.) In 1963 he was named acting Exarch of the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia in Western Europe. By the time of his death, the Sourozh diocese had grown to twenty parishes.

Services in the London parish, which ultimately moved to the church which became All Saints Cathedral at Ennismore Gardens, not only met the spiritual needs of Russians living in or near London but attracted many people eager to experience Orthodox worship or seeking guidance in their own search for God. Many people who had no Russians in their family tree became Orthodox Christians thanks to his sermons, broadcasts and writings.

During the long years of Soviet rule, Metropolitan Anthony played an important part in keeping the faith alive in Russia through countless BBC World Service broadcasts. Perhaps still more important were the annual BBC broadcasts of the All-Night Paschal Vigil service at the London Cathedral. As Matins began, Metropolitan Anthony would emerge from behind the iconostasis to encourage the congregation, as they stood waiting in the dark, to speak up with their responses as this would be the only Paschal service that many in the Soviet Union would hear.

Beginning in the sixties, he was able to make occasional visits to Soviet Russia, where he not only preached in churches but spoke informally to hundreds of people who gathered in private apartments to meet him and engage in dialogue. Books based on his sermons were circulated in samizdat among Russian intellectuals until they could be openly published in the 1990s.

During the past decade, his declining health ruled out trips to Russia but he corresponded with many church members, stated his opinion on controversial issues of church life in letters to the Patriarch and the Councils of Bishops, and continued to preach his message of Christian love and freedom — not always welcome in the post-Communist Russian Church — through books and tapes.

One of the stories he sometimes told late in his life was about a letter he received from a monk in Russia who wrote there were “three great heretics” living in the west whose books were being read in Russia — Alexander Schmemann, John Meyendorff and Anthony Bloom. The letter writer asked the assistance of Metropolitan Anthony in finding out more about “this Anthony Bloom.”

For years Metropolitan Anthony was a familiar voice on British radio. The BBC had grave doubts when it was first proposed that he do English-language broadcasts. It was feared that the combination of his Russian-French accent and his refusal to use a script would lead to problems. But his transparent spiritual qualities and ability to speak fluently for a set number of minutes made him an instant success. At the height of his fame, Gerald Priestland, the renowned BBC religious correspondent, called him “the single most powerful Christian voice in the land.”

One of his most memorable broadcasts was a discussion with the atheist Marghanita Laski in which he said that her use of the word “belief” was misleading. “It gives an impression of something optional, which is within our power to choose or not … I know that God exists, and I’m puzzled to know how you can manage not to know.” (The transcript of their exchange is included in The Essence of Prayer.)

Outspoken on many issues, at times his plain speech landed him in hot water with the Moscow Patriarchate. In 1974 he was deprived of the position of Exarch for having written to The Times, in his name and that of the clergy and believers of the Sourozh Diocese, disowning criticism of Alexander Solzhenitsyn made by a senior hierarch in Moscow. Nevertheless, he remained head of his diocese. No attempt was made to prevent him continuing his visits to Russia.

His several books were widely read. Living Prayer, a best seller, has been translated into ten languages. It was later reprinted as a section of The Essence of Prayer.

In great demand as a speaker, Metropolitan Anthony spent much of his time preaching in non-Orthodox churches, leading retreats, giving talks and hearing confessions. He regularly spoke in hospitals, particularly about death, drawing on his experience as a cancer specialist. He received honorary doctorates from Cambridge and from the Moscow Theological Academy.

After the liberation of the Church in Russia, some priests and bishops proposed nominating him when elections for patriarch were held in 1990. But Metropolitan Anthony declined, citing his age. “If this had only happened ten years earlier, I might have agreed,” a relative quoted him as saying.

Earlier this year, Patriarch Alexy II, in an open letter, appointed Metropolitan Anthony to be in charge of a new Metropolia which, it was hoped, would embrace all Orthodox Christians of Russian tradition in Western Europe, and might eventually become the foundation for a Local Orthodox Church.

Citing age and poor health, Metropolitan Anthony had several times offered his resignation as head of the Sourozh Diocese but each time it was declined by the Moscow Patriarchate. Only five days before his death did the Holy Synod finally relieve him of his official duties, handing over to Bishop Basil (Osborne) of Sergievo the direction of the diocese.

Few bishops were more accessible to their flock, but this sometimes had comical results. When one parishioner rang to say that “Peter” had died and asked for prayers, Metropolitan Anthony immediately complied, then asked when the funeral would be. “Oh, there won’t be one,” he was told. “We flushed Peter down the loo.” Peter turned out to be a parakeet.

He was attentive to the person to whom he was listening, no matter who it was, to an astonishing degree. “In my life no one else had ever looked at me with such absolute attention,” people would often comment.

He loved going to children’s camps, allowing himself to be drilled and taking part in playlets, usually as a surgeon, dressed always in his monastic garb. “I always wear black when I operate,” he would say with a chuckle.

He would sometimes remark that he was quite prepared to be told he was a crackpot, but added, “Even if I am a crackpot, I’m a lot steadier and more normal than some people you might call normal. I’ve been a doctor and a priest without showing much sign of mental derangement.”

His faded and frayed black robe seemed nearly as old and worn as he was. Once, while visiting Russia, he was lectured by another monk who had no idea that this was the famous Metropolitan Anthony and was angry to see him awaiting their special guest from London in such tattered clothing. Metropolitan Anthony accepted the criticism meekly.

“He always seemed to me an actual witness of Christ’s resurrection,” said a regular participant in the annual Sourozh diocesan conference in Oxford, “not someone who believed it because he heard a report from a trustworthy source or read about it in a book, but someone who had seen the risen Christ with his own eyes. In meeting Metropolitan Anthony, I can understand why in the Church certain saints are given the title ‘Equal of the Apostles’.”

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This text is drawn from various articles and obituaries published since the death of Metropolitan Anthony. Many of his sermons are posted on the web site of the Sourozh Diocese:

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