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

Fr Alexis and Tatiana Voogd

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

[starting the tape recorder]

This looks serious! But will my English make sense?

I admire your gift for languages.

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

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

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

Have you brothers or sisters?

A sister, Helena, two years older than me.

A very Orthodox name!

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

Can you say something about your family?

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

Were they people with a religious faith?

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

Did you ever talk to your parents about religion?

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

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

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

How old were you then?

Nine or ten.

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

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

Did you feel lonely as a boy?

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

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

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

But it was all something that you experienced alone.

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

What later raised your interest in the Slavic countries?

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

How did you experience the invasion?

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

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

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

Were you happier as an Indian than a school boy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What kind of dream was that?

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

Did you learn Swedish?

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

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

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

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

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

Why did you do that?

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

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

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

Was he Orthodox?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And into this crisis appeared the figure of Metropolitan Anthony…

How did that happen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did the founding of the Amsterdam parish come about?

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

Is that when you took the name Alexis?

No, earlier, at baptism.

Which Alexis?

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

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

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

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

Somewhere along the way you had also become a father…

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

When was the parish of Saint Nicholas founded?

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

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

Was it a Serbian parish?

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

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

How did the independent Russian parish come into being?

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

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

What had led to your ordination as priest?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

The Original Oneness of Adam & Eve

by Jim Forest

Eve's creation from Adam's sideWhile browsing in our parish bookshop not long ago, I happened to notice in the postcard rack a reproduction of an image of Eve being lifted by Christ out of Adam’s body — a colorful miniature that comes from a 13th century illuminated manuscript. Adam sleeps peacefully while Eve is wide awake. The right arm of Jesus suggests his power to create and also seems to offer a sign of blessing, while his left arm grasps Eve’s wrists in a gesture that reminds me of a midwife pulling a child from the womb. Jesus contemplates both Eve and Adam with an expression of wordless love.

This special moment, recounted in the Book of Genesis, was a much loved subject of Byzantine and medieval art. In churches, it is usually part of a cycle of wall images (fresco or mosaic) that begin with the creation of the cosmos and end with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. In each creation scene, Christ is the key figure. Though not yet incarnate, we see him as the man he was to become through the body of Mary. The Church Fathers saw the Second Person of the Holy Trinity as the one especially involved the work of bringing matter into existence and shaping it into the vast array of life forms, with Adam and then Eve at the pinnacle of created beings.

While I found this illumination an especially fine version, just about any of the images that have to do with Adam and Eve fascinate me. Among the Primary Stories of the human race, there are few more primary than those revealing what our ancestors imagined the first human beings to be like. Remarkably, those whose memory shaped the Bible, saw Eve’s creation as coming later than Adam’s. Her being called into being is the final great event in the creation narrative.

Such a story has almost nothing to do with what we think of these days as history. In fact we know very little about the first human beings. Much that we think we know is speculative. But the Adam and Eve story is profound. It stresses an original oneness in Adam and Eve, the two of them mysteriously sharing one body until Eve is drawn out of Adam.

According to Genesis, before the Fall Adam and Eve lived in a borderless paradise. They were not in competition with each other.

Was Eve made from one of Adam’s ribs? So the most familiar English translation of Genesis has it, but biblical translators point out that the Hebrew word in question, tsela, also means “side.” Thus we may understand that Eve was one side of Adam. What is clear in either reading is that, before Eve emerged, she was an integral part of Adam. Adam carried Eve like a secret. Thus Adam’s maleness is coincident with his separation from Eve and the revelation of her femaleness. She is his other half, as he was her other half. Only in their complementarity, their actual oneness, are they whole. Both equally bear the image of God, and both equally bear the calling to acquire the divine likeness. As St. Gregory of Nyssa writes: “One who is made in the image of God has the task of becoming what he is.” [“On the Creation of Man,” section16; an extended extract of the text is included in Genesis 1-11, p. 35, edited by Andrew Louth, in the series Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture.]

At the same time there is the elusive but compelling memory that has long haunted the human mind of a primordial Eden — a paradise in which there was no conflict, no murder, no war. After Eve’s creation, man and woman live together in an unwalled oneness, a relationship with no trace of enmity. (The first murder, Abel slain by Cain, occurs only after Adam and Eve have been expelled from Eden.)

But then comes the Fall. Eve is successfully tempted by a satanic serpent, Adam is tempted by Eve, and both eat the fruit of the forbidden tree. Suddenly they discover themselves not only naked but in a world in which walls are erupting all around them. In place of unity comes blame — Adam blaming Eve, Eve blaming the serpent, and neither repenting, neither appealing for God’s mercy and forgiveness. Ancient iconographic images of Adam and Eve often show them on either side of the forbidden tree, a wall-like barrier isolating them from each other. The unity they originally had is not altogether lost — it remains at the roots of human identity — but no longer is the practice of oneness effortless. Men and women will in the future commit countless sins against each other. Men will even justify their domination of women as part of the punishment for Eve’s — not Adam’s — sin in Paradise.

Most of us live a long way from Eden. Our world is one in which “the war of the sexes” is the oldest war of all. The ongoing combat between men and women was touched on by a recent New Yorker cartoon. We see a newly married couple standing side by side next to a huge wedding cake. Each is holding a plate with a piece of the cake, while the bride says to the groom, “Your piece is bigger.” One wonders if this marriage will last through its first anniversary. Husband and wife are focused not on each other but on invisible scales: who is getting the better deal? One can imagine that the two cake-eaters have signed a carefully written a prenuptial contract that will make their divorce slightly less complex.

Even so, it remains a great honor to be among the descendants of the first man and the first woman. An ancient Jewish commentary reveals this by posing a question: Why was there only one Adam and only one Eve? The answer the rabbis gave is so that no human being could regard himself or herself as being of higher descent than anyone else.

The basic fact about all human beings is that we all belong to exactly the same family tree. More than that, we all bear equally the image of God and all bear the same calling to acquire the divine likeness.

The human race has been far from paradise throughout known history. Who can guess in round numbers how many have been murdered down through the centuries? Most of the killing has been done by the sons of Adam, but often enough on behalf of Eve, if not with her fervent encouragement. These days, sadly, the daughters of Eve are increasingly found among the male warriors on the world’s battlefields.

For Nancy and me lately, this ancient image of Adam and Eve has acquired another level of meaning. On the last day of October, one of Nancy’s kidneys was removed from her body and soon after surgically implanted in mine. After five years of kidney illness and 21 months of dialysis, I now have a healthy kidney, my wife’s gift.

And what a gift it is. Renal failure had come on so gradually that I was barely aware of how sick I was, even on the eve of the transplant. I knew in theory that each year on dialysis meant a life likely to be shortened by three years (which even so beats the rapid death that is caused by kidney illness without dialysis).

Now that the transplant has happened, I suddenly realize just how much impact the illness had on me. I feel a little like Rip van Winkle waking up from a multi-year nap. Even in these first few weeks, while still recovering from surgery, I find I tire much less easily than was the case a month earlier. I was often sleeping eight-and-a-half or nine hours a night, and even then prying myself out of bed with a mental crowbar. Now seven-and-a-half hours is more than enough. The creatinine level in my blood, a key marker of renal failure, has fallen from 900, just before the transplant, to 120 or so. There are other markers. Food tastes are more vivid. The world seems brighter, colors more intense. I find myself looking at familiar things with a sense of surprise. A friend told me how her brother, after receiving a donated kidney, felt like he was seeing the sky for the first time in ages. That’s a nice way of putting it.

All this is a gift from my wife, from out of her own side.

Nancy and I have put this image of the oneness of Adam and Eve among the icons before which we pray morning and evening. It serves as a visual reminder of what God intends for man and woman: a mysterious oneness in which neither dominates the other but rather both collaborate in a partnership. Neither supplants the other and neither is complete without the other. This is the daily two-way traffic between the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve, a life of self-giving love.

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The Adam and Eve image is posted on our Flickr site in this folder:

Also see our on-line journal about the transplant, A Tale of two Kidneys.

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third revision; text as of January 15, 2007
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Impressions of a Four-Day Conversation on Peace in Volos, Greece

by Jim Forest

May 17-20, 2007, fifty Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican and Protestant Christians from Europe and the United States met in Volos, Greece, for a discussion of “Forgiveness, Peace and Reconciliation.” Our host was Metropolitan Ignatios, the local Orthodox bishop. The conference was organized by the Volos Academy for Theological Studies in collaboration with the Boston Theological Institute and the World Council of Churches. The event was a contribution of the Church of Greece to the World Council of Churches’s Decade to Overcome Violence program, whose particular focus this year is on Europe.

In their presentations, the speakers looked at various aspects of the conference theme. A panel of speakers from Cyprus, Serbia, Russia and the Middle East discussed Orthodoxy in situations of conflict. Members of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, the St. Egidio Community in Rome and the Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Ireland participated in a concluding round table on “Christian Churches Contributing to a Culture of Peace”.

Each participant in the conference will have his or her highlights to report. My account reveals what especially caught my attention but also reveals blind spots, both because I missed two sessions of the conference and also because I had difficulty at times following some of the lectures in simultaneous translation.

It seemed to me that the most important and difficult issue addressed at the conference was the relationship of church and state, a matter of passionate debate in Greece as it is in many other countries. At one end of the spectrum was the experience some of the conference participants had in attending the Orthodox Liturgy Sunday morning at the Church of St. Nicholas in Volos. It happened to be a service that ended with a commemoration of the mass killing of many thousands of the Greeks of the Pontos region by Turks during and after World War I. At a certain moment in the service uniformed representatives of the main branches of the Greek military came to the front of the church. One had the impression that the border between church and state is so thin as to be hardly visible.

There were many voices raised at the conference challenging so uncritical a relationship between government and church. One of the interventions we heard came from Metropolitan Neofytos of Morfou, Cyprus, an island that has been divided between Greeks and Turks for more than three decades. He spoke of the need for self-criticism within the Church as a way of initiating “a process of healing.” This is a question of discovering the truth, however painful, “because only the truth is liberating.” He described the negative impact of national ideas being transferred from Greece to Cyprus in the sixties. “Belonging to the Greek nation was regarded as equal to or even above being Orthodox. The Church was seen as acting for the splendor of the nation. Faith was regarded not as the path to Christ the Savior but the realization of national ideals. Basic Christian teaching was marginalized. I don’t mean to suggest that the Church should be indifferent to national issues. It has a part to play. We are taught to give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. But in Cyprus we lost the golden balance point. We came to see ourselves primarily as a political organism, with our politicians turning to the Church with the expectation of hearing the correct political words and phrases. There was an absence of forgiveness, an erosion of confession. We made the grave mistake of not praying for the enemy. Indeed there are Orthodox Christians who are scandalized even to be asked to forgive. We lost our way. Christian identity should never to used to divide.”

Pantelis Kalaitzidis, director of Volos Academy for Theological Studies, argued that wars, even when occurring in the name of religion, “are nothing but a result of the exaltation of collective egoisms. They only witness to the absence of real repentance, the denial of the Cross. Behind any conflict, we can easily discern an idolization of religion, tribe and nation, an odd paganism of earth, soil, homeland or of the ‘God-bearing’ people, of a claim of exclusivity, which is a real temptation.”

Dr. Vletsis Athanasios, professor at Munich University, spoke of the problem “of unrepented sins committed collectively by Orthodox people, or even the failure to identify sins we have committed.” What is needed, he said, is the “illumination of memory.” Without a “purification of memory,” he said, “we are doomed to persist in committing past sins.”

In a lecture on the Orthodox view of human rights, Fr. Emmanuel Clapsis, of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Boston, pointed out that “Orthodox Christianity does not have a complete system of understanding the human person. The human being is an inexhaustible mystery. At the core of that mystery is the fact that each person is made in the image of God.” He spoke of the “apophatic dimension of Orthodox anthropology, with its total repudiation of all ideologies.”

“It is wrong,” he said, “to assume that the ethos of Orthodoxy does not permit the development of human rights sensitivities and advocacy. Quite the contrary, the Orthodox view of human dignity supports the idea of human rights. The possibility for a greater sensitivity and advocacy of human rights issues by the Orthodox churches is highly probable since under the pressure of historic challenges people often find new meaning in traditional ideas…. Recently important contributions have been published defending the notion of human rights and attempting to embed them within an Orthodox understanding of being human as communion in the context of the Trinitarian faith.”

Dr. Athanasios Papathanasiou, editor of the quarterly journal “Synaxis,” spoke about war in the Orthodox tradition. “It is interesting to see how the tension between the historic necessity and the gospel criteria is depicted in the canons of the Orthodox Church,” he said. “I believe that the Church does not represent a compact body with a common view and unanimity throughout history. It is always formed by several trends, with various sensibilities and priorities; trends which are often in agreement, divergence or even in conflict.” Thus one finds, even among the Church Fathers, a range of views about war.

Dr. Geiko Muller Fahrenholz, a German theologian who is organizing a concluding conference for the WCC’s Decade to Overcome Violence, stressed the part played by humiliation in conflict and the importance of expanding forgiveness of sin to include the healing of humiliations. This requires an awareness of how one’s sin not only alienates the sinner from God but has profound social consequences. Sinful actions often “ignite the desire for retaliation, with humiliation taking on a life of its own.” Acts of revenge, unfortunately, have no liberating power but simply prolong the cycle of death and counter-death “until there is no one left except old women dressed in black.” Reconciliation, however, “is a process of liberation both for sinners and those sinned against…. Everyday life is only bearable to the extent we have learned to forgive.”

Canon Paul Oestreicher, Anglican priest and the former director of the Centre for International Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral in England, made an impassioned appeal for Christians in today’s world to give a witness against bloodshed similar to that of Christians in the early centuries. “Abandoning the example and teaching of Jesus as irrelevant to political life, the great majority of Christians have engaged in war even to the point of treating it as holy and as God’s will, usually on both sides. We have put nation and often our religion above humanity. The Western churches have, since Augustine, paid lip service to peace as an ideal, while engaging in wars deemed to be just, all part of a necessarily fallen world. The medieval doctrine of the just war in theory rules out most actual wars. In practice almost every war has — perhaps with exceptions like Iraq now — been held to be just. Even in the most questionable wars, military chaplains in uniform are an undisputed presence and aid to military morale. Even Hitler’s aggressive war had the explicit support of nearly all German church leaders, Protestant and Catholic, including those who had the courage to oppose Nazi ideology. There were only individual objectors. The churches gave them no support.”

Dr. Rodney Petersen, director of the Boston Theological Institute, concentrated on “the seriousness with which religion must be considered in the quest for human security.” Religion, he said, “is a multivalent force. It can be a force for good, a force for chaos and conflict, or both simultaneously. Religion has been mobilized to sanction violence, drawn on to resolve conflicts, and invoked to provide humanitarian and development aid. In all of these capacities, religious leaders, organizations, institutions and communities are especially important in shaping the direction of conflict prevention or reconstruction efforts in fragile states. “

Dr. Petros Vassiliadis, professor at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, agreed that the religious factors have been a driving force in nearly every war. “All the shortcomings of Christianity,” he said, “are rooted in bad Christology. I have problems whenever we absolutize our own mission.”

Fr. Zivko Panev, professor at the St. Serge Institute in Paris, discussed the influence of the state on church life in Serbia following the restoration of the Serbian patriarchate, with the consequence that “national identity merged with church identify.” In fact, many Serbs who would identify themselves as Orthodox don’t believe what the Church teaches. Some are even convinced atheists. The problem in Serbia is made more complex because of an “idealization of religion that followed the collapse of communist ideology, with the Church perceived as being the principal guardian of national identity.”

Dr. Kostas Zorbas, theologian and sociologist as well as director of the Observatory of Social Issues of the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece, spoke of various problems in European Union, especially concerning the security in Europe. These include the policies of the European Union regarding Kosovo, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. He noted that European Institutions have started to engage in regular dialogue between Christian churches and other religions.“Today in Europe we have to address new forms of insecurity,” he said, “including problems of immigration, terrorism, environmental pollution, refugees, etc. Churches should not rely on military intervention. Military intervention only worsens and complicates problems. We want our believing citizens to have confidence in Europe by seeing the values they all hold dear, values based on human dignity, reflected in Europe’s policies.”

Dr. Alexei Bodrov, director of St. Andrew’s Biblical Theological Institute in Moscow, spoke of various problems in Russia. These include the “traditional lack of tolerance — in principle we have tolerance, in practice we do not. There is still widespread anti-Semitism. Even the concept of human rights is regarded as highly suspect, having a much lower priority than state or national interest. There is in Russia today a highly politicized Orthodoxy that has little in common with Christian Orthodoxy. One notes the many ties between church and the military, church and police, church and other state bodies. This is partly due to Orthodoxy being made to take the place of Marxist ideology following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet though a high percentage of Russians identify themselves as Orthodox, in fact less than four percent occasionally take part in church services. There is widespread ignorance concerning religious questions.”

Rania Flavie Touma of the Youth Department of the Middle East Council of Churches, a Syrian Orthodox Christian, said that in her homeland, Syria, peace is simply “a longing to lead a stable life without the fear of being kicked out or killed. Peace is hard to imagine in our circumstances. Our whole area is burning. For Christians, our vocation in such a context is to be the changer we want to see in others. We need to be a Church that reveals the kingdom of God and is not merely a church of national identity.”

Dr. Joan Patricia Back from Centro “Uno” for the Unity of Christians, the ecumenical secretariat of the Focolare Movement in Rome, spoke of the spirituality of reconciliation as experienced in this movement, which now exists in 182 countries and involves Christians of many churches. She stressed that one of the central elements of this spirituality is kenosis in order to bring about reconciliation and unity. It implies a self-emptying love as shown by Jesus on the cross. It is a path which entails embracing “nothingness.” She said, “This ‘nothingness’ is not something negative or passive, but rather something positive and very active.” Living as Jesus Forsaken, that is living the “nothingness of ourselves to live Him” in order to be able to love according to his measure. It is an active ‘nothingness’ because it means making ourselves ready to receive the other, ready ‘to make ourselves one’ in order to build a costructive dialogue with the other.”

Fr. Vassilios Thermos, an Orthodox priest and child psychiatrist living in Athens, said “there is no greater sin than war with its violence, hatred, cruelty, murder and fanaticism. Any kind of violence and hostility is an assault on the Holy Spirit. Who are the peacemakers that Christ calls on his followers to become? They are the ones that help us to overcome hatred. Each peacemaker is a carrier of the Holy Trinity. He is a child of God because he imitates God. After all, you cannot convey to others what you don’t have.”

Dr. Aruna Gnanadason, a staff member of the World Council of Churches and member of the Church of South India, stressed the problem of domestic violence, the principle targets of which are women and children. “Women have borne pain and hurt for centuries, silently many times,” she said, “standing on the threshold of a violent death in the hands of the men they live with because they have been taught that this is how they live their faith. Many women experience marginalization and even exclusion rather than acknowledge even for themselves that something is gravely wrong and they need not accept such abuse. This acceptance of violence is imposed on women by the strict mores and values of our societies – it is certainly not a biblical notion…. The churches need to become a ‘sanctuary of courage’ … a safe space where violated women know they will be nurtured and surrounded by care. The churches can become that space where women who experience violence can find safety, to recount for themselves their experiences so that true healing and reconciliation will take place.”

Dr. Claudia Jahnel, lecturer in religious and mission studies and intercultural theology at the Friedrich-Alexander University in Erlangen, Germany, spoke about the problem of “otherness.” “The assessment of ‘the other’ and the process of judging other cultural symbols bear signs of the age-old Eurocentric relationship with ‘the other’,” she said. “What is happening here is the prolonging of the historic monologue of the West on ‘the other’, the follow-up of the continuous subsummation of ‘the other’ … an act of epistemic violence. While, in former centuries, ‘the other’ – other cultures, religions, societies – have been ‘discovered’ by European explorers and only from then on seemed to be ‘born’ – as childlike, immature, and primitive societies – today, again, there is a tendency to conceive of ‘the other’ from a European-Western and so-called ‘enlightened’ point of view which perceives the West as the developed and active pole: the West integrates and harmonizes the differences, brings peace and justice to other parts of the world, minimizes conflicts and proclaims the ideal of civilization.”

In a session on the healing of memory, Dr. Geraldine Smyth, a Dominican nun who is senior lecturer at the Irish School of Ecumenics in Dublin, focused on the role of memory in the process of peacemaking. “Someone once said that civilization began with cemeteries,” she said. “Honoring the memory of the dead betokens civility, humaneness, spirituality…. In Northern Ireland, where a divided people is emerging from prolonged violence, the besetting temptation is to remember not wisely but too well the ‘chosen traumas’ and ‘chosen glories’ of their own community, culture or church. Here the prospect of making peace with the past is difficult and painful. For when society begins to think of how to memorialize grievous loss, often a pain too deep for tears is stirred up, and perhaps even a preternatural anger not easily biddable to the conscious mind. Many who have longed to forget, remain haunted by overpowering images of terror and an upsurge of grief or desire for revenge. Survivors of war or violent abuse, may, in the process of therapy, discover that their bodies hold memories even after conscious memories have faded. The art of remembering well means including the operations of mind and will, but also requires us to admit of a shifting, subjective emotional field. In these circumstances, such axioms whether to ‘forgive and forget’, or ‘remember and forgive’, may belittle people’s sense of abandonment and betrayal. This is not simply a matter of making a moral choice. It is no easy matter to reconnect memory with life rather than death, or to be ready to ‘re-member’ and include both the victims and perpetrators of grievous hurt into a restored life in community. Forgiveness is above all a sharing in the divine life and a gift of grace.”

Also addressing the issue of memory, the Rev. Meletis Meletiadis, an Evangelical pastor whose parish is in Volos, spoke of his experience of rejection while growing up in Greece, being labeled a heretic and shunned by classmates whose hostility was encouraged by teachers and school administrators. Such traumas “left deep wounds.” Later, while studying theology in the United States, he met Orthodox Christians who were not filled with contempt for non-Orthodox, and this was a life-changing event for him. “I realized for the first time that while Orthodox Christians have often built an impenetrable wall of self-justification around themselves, I was doing the very same thing in my own way…. For many years we not only hurt one another, but we hurt our Christian witness.”

The final session of the conference was on how various Christian churches focus on the creation of a culture of peace.

David Porter, a Protestant on the staff of the Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Ireland, described the initiative he and others took beginning twenty years ago in launching a biblical challenge to a nationalistic Protestant theology. It was an initiative that has born much fruit, contributing to the recent breakthrough.

Dr. Claudio Betti, Roman Catholic and a member of the St. Egidio Community in Rome, spoke of the Christian vocation of overcoming a culture of fear and violence. “I think that the role of the churches today confronting violence and striving to work for a culture of peace is that of starting once again from our faith. It is not courage that enables us to overcome the culture of fear, the feeling of powerlessness. It is faith that carries us beyond the narrow boundaries of prohibition, fear and intimidation. I think that our churches will be able to affirm a culture of peace if they are able to renew their faith by returning with humility and love to the Word of God, to prayer and to the liturgy. This is always the starting point.”

Jim Forest, secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, spoke about the importance of the Church recovering the memory of its own resistance to violence in the early centuries of Christianity. “We Orthodox certainly have remembered how the early Church celebrated the liturgy. To the astonishment of other Christians, we are happy to stand in the church for very extended periods. But sadly we have forgotten a great deal of the social teaching and practice of the early Church and have become deaf to much that the saints … had to say.”

He concluded with a quotation from St. John Chrysostom: “We are commanded to have only one enemy, the devil. With him never be reconciled! But with a brother, never be at enmity in your heart.”

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Photos taken in Volos:

Test of Jim Forest’s lecture:

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Jim Forest
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Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site: www.incommunion.org

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War and Peace in the Orthodox Tradition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elsewhere he wrote,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And again from St John Chrysostom:

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

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a report of the conference:

photos taken while in Volos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/sets/72157600245657184/

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Jim Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands

[email protected]
Jim & Nancy site: www.jimandnancyforest.com
In Communion site: www.incommunion.org
photos: www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/collections/
Forest-Flier Editorial Services: www.forestflier.com

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Learning to be Peacemakers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Years later, in the period when he was one of the main advisors to the Catholic Peace Fellowship , Merton wrote: “The Christian does not need to fight and indeed it is better that he should not fight, for insofar as he imitates his Lord and Master, he proclaims that the Messianic Kingdom has come and bears witness to the presence of the Kyrios Pantocrator [the Lord of Creation] in mystery, even in the midst of the conflicts and turmoil of the world.” [Seeds of Destruction, p 129]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Persons are not known by intellect alone, not by principles alone, but only by love. It is when we love the other, the enemy, that we obtain from God the key to an understanding of who he is, and who we are. It is only this realization that can open to us the real nature of our duty, and of right action. To shut out the person and to refuse to consider him as a person, as another self, we resort to the ‘impersonal law’ and to abstract ‘nature.’ That is to say we block off the reality of the other, we cut the intercommunication of our nature and his nature, and we consider only our own nature with its rights, its claims, it demands. And we justify the evil we do to our brother because he is no longer a brother, he is merely an adversary, an accused. To restore communication, to see our oneness of nature with him, and to respect his personal rights and his integrity, his worthiness of love, we have to see ourselves as similarly accused along with him … and needing, with him, the ineffable gift of grace and mercy to be saved. Then, instead of pushing him down, trying to climb out by using his head as a stepping-stone for ourselves, we help ourselves to rise by helping him to rise. For when we extend our hand to the enemy who is sinking in the abyss, God reaches out to both of us, for it is He first of all who extends our hand to the enemy. It is He who ‘saves himself’ in the enemy, who makes use of us to recover the lost groat which is His image in our enemy.”[Letter to Dorothy Day, December 20, 1961; H.L., 140-43.]

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

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

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

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

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

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Text as of March 17, 2007
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Jim and Nancy Forest
Kanisstraat 5 / 1811 GJ Alkmaar / The Netherlands
phone number: 072-515-4180 (outside Holland: 00-31-72-515-4180)
Jim’s e-mail: [email protected]
Jim and Nancy Forest web site: www.jimandnancyforest.com
Forest-Flier Editorial Services: www.forestflier.com
Photo web site: www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/collections/
Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site: www.incommunion.org
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Review of Merton & Friends

Review for The Catholic Worker

Merton & Friends:
A Joint Biography of Thomas Merton, Robert Lax, and Edward Rice

by James Harford
Continuum, 333 pp, 2006, hardcover, $36

review by Jim Forest

“Tell me what company you keep, and I’ll tell you what you are.” So said Cervantes.

Among Thomas Merton’s closest friends were Bob Lax and Ed Rice. James Harford’s engaging remembrance of this triangle of friends brings to light how much influence they had on each other and how so many others were affected by their friendship.

Merton, Lax and Rice had met each other in 1936 at Columbia University in New York. All three were on the staff of the Jester, an irreverent magazine that had much in common with The New Yorker (on whose staff Lax would later work as poetry editor).

In their Jester days, Rice was the only one of the three who was a Catholic, though Merton was in the thick of a religious quest that culminated in his baptism at nearby Corpus Christi parish in November 1938, with Ed Rice as his god-father and Lax — a Jew — present as a witness. Three years later Merton began monastic life at the Trappist abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky, yet his relationship with both Rice and Lax was to continue both through occasional visits and frequent correspondence.

The most obvious witness to the ties that bound them, and what their shared interests generated, was Jubilee magazine, a monthly journal edited by Ed Rice with collaboration from both Lax and Merton plus a small, committed staff of talented, underpaid colleagues. The first issue appeared in 1953. Jubilee was unparalleled among religious magazines. Unfortunately Jubilee finally drowned in red ink about 1967. Sadly no publication has yet emerged to take its place. If I ever unearth a chest of gold coins buried in our backyard, I’d love to start it up again.

There wasn’t a single issue of Jubilee that failed to be arresting — there were always impressive photo features plus some of the most striking typography of the time. The content was wide ranging — vivid glimpses of church life, portraits of houses of hospitality, profiles and interviews with remarkable people, and well-illustrated articles on liturgy, art and architecture. I doubt anyone involved with the Catholic Worker in those days let an issue of Jubilee go unread. It was a constant voice of encouragement to anyone who was drawn to Christianity’s deeper waters.

I rejoiced several years ago, when visiting St. Bonaventure’s University in Olean, NY, to discover a complete set of back issues of Jubilee in a library room devoted to Merton and Lax. What I had forgotten in the decades since the last Jubilee was mailed out was the consistent interest the magazine took in the Orthodox Church. In the hundred or so issues I looked through, there wasn’t a single issue that didn’t have something in it about eastern Christianity. It might be a photo portrait of life in St. Catherine’s monastery on the Sinai, a collection of stories from the Desert Fathers, or something as small as an ad promoting the sale, by Jubilee, of icon reproductions or recordings of Byzantine or Russian chant.

The exploration of the hundred issues of Jubilee I looked through produced a question I could not answer at the time: What inspired Jubilee’s passionate engagement in what must have seemed to many readers in those days an esoteric form of Christianity? I was aware it had been a special interest of Merton’s. Was Jubilee helping fuel Merton’s interest in the Orthodox Church? Or was it mirroring his interest?

I remember how deeply moved Merton was by a set of photos of life in an Orthodox monastery that appeared in one issue of Jubilee, as I happened to be with him when he was looking through it. One of the photos showed a heavily-bearded Athonite monk who looked older than Abraham. He was standing behind a long battered table in the refectory, while in the background, as I recall, was a huge fresco of the Last Judgement. The monk’s head was bowed slightly. His eyes seemed to contain the cosmos. There was a remarkable vulnerability in his face. “Look at him,” Merton said. “This guy has been kissed by God!”

From Harford’s book, at last I know the answer to my question. It was not just an interest of Merton’s that Jubilee was taking up, but a topic of long-running importance to all three of them. It seems that Rice was first in line. Rice wrote in his journal in 1949, “Ever since I first discovered the Byzantine rite, my head has been filled with the memory of the music and the churches and the people. I want to tell everyone about them, bring everyone to the services… But no one seems to care.”

In fact there were those who did care, among them Lax, who by then had become a Catholic, but with an eastward turn. In time Lax was to make his home in the world of Byzantine Christianity, living a solitary contemplative life in Greece, finally settling on the island of Patmos, location of one of the great Orthodox monasteries.

Merton was another. Doubtless he would have gladly gone with Rice to services at the churches he was attending, but by 1949 he was in his eighth year at the monastery.

A good deal of Harford’s book is devoted to Jubilee and the prophetic role it played during its fourteen years. Among the issues it addressed, one that cost it dearly as many parishes cancelled their bulk orders, was birth control. In 1962, one of the magazine’s writers (Peter White, father of eleven) reported on a survey published in a French Catholic journal on the failure of the Second Vatican Council to address that issue: “Certain kinds of psychic imbalance, or nervous depressions, are frequently the result of pregnancies following one another too rapidly, or of continence heroically practiced…” At the time, for a Catholic publication to address the issue was to take a step onto very thin ice, yet Jubilee returned to it from time to time, never directly criticizing Church teaching, but stressing the damage caused in many marriages by those who attempted to practice what the Church was preaching.

Yet Jubilee was not a voice of opposition so much as a journal searching for what was most vital in Catholic Christianity. It was something of a month-to-month miracle that it managed to carry on as long as it did despite chronic financial difficulties, its work being done in cramped quarters in rooms it rented on Park Avenue South.

In the early sixties I would occasionally drop by at the Jubilee office, at Lax’s invitation. I was part of the New York Catholic Worker community, then on Chrystie Street. Jubilee was within walking distance. Though Lax was often traveling (among other things, from time to time he was part of a circus troupe), he had an small office to himself with a desk and two chairs. Though one of the world’s least chatty persons, Lax was always ready to talk about things he loved. Poetry was at the top of the list. One element in his work in those days was the publication of a poetry broadsheet called Pax, no two issues of which were on the same paper size or using the same format. By this time, with the help of his friend, the artist and designer Emil Antonucci, Lax’s book, Circus of the Sun, had been published and there was even an off-off-Broadway stage production of the poem in one of Manhattan’s smallest theaters. (Happily, Circus of the Sun is now back in print as part of a collection of all Lax’s circus poetry, Circus Days and Nights. This would be one of the books I would keep were my library limited to only ten volumes.)

Besides being a book about Jubilee, Harford provides biographies of all three principals.

The portrait of Merton struck me as the least complete of the three, offering a view of Merton that is most vivid in its treatment of his pre-monastic days. It’s a portrait similar to the one that emerged in Ed Rice’s book, The Man in the Sycamore Tree — “Merton the Original Beat” who somehow landed in a Catholic Trappist monastery but who, in the end, might have been as happy, if not happier, in a Buddhist monastery — not the Merton who said the Mass daily, was devoted to the rosary, and who missed the Latin liturgy even while sympathizing with its translation in modern languages. As Harford knew Merton only through his books and his friendship with Lax and Rice, it’s not surprising that the portraits of Lax and Rice are more compelling.

Rice seems in many ways a tragic figure. He had wanted to be an artist, but this was strongly opposed by his parents. He went to Columbia rather than Harvard because his parents wanted him living not too far away, the better to keep and eye on him. After Columbia, the vision that led to Jubilee gradually took root but it took years to find the backing such a venture required, and in fact Jubilee never stood on strong legs financially. When Jubilee went under in 1967, it was a bitter defeat for Rice. Afterward Rice focused his talents on photography and writing, producing a series of books, at least one of which was a best seller, a much-praised biography of Richard Francis Burton. But Rice seems rarely to have found inner peace in what he was doing. His first marriage ended in divorce, his second was cut short by the death of his wife in an auto accident. He was prone to dramatic mood swings and had long-running acrimonious disputes with various people, including his son. In my own case I recall Rice demanding that all copies of my biography of Merton (Living With Wisdom) be destroyed because the publisher, Orbis Books, had accidentally used a photo of Merton taken by Rice without giving credit. In the end Orbis made a substantial payment for the photo, then pulled it from subsequent printings. I was happy to discover, thanks to the Harford book, that though Rice had been estranged from the Catholic Church for a number of years, toward the end of his life he found his way back, drawing enormous strength from the Eucharist.

Lax emerges as the happiest of the three. His poetry bears witness to the astonishing depth of his contemplative life. He was among the world’s least ambitious people, not at all unhappy to be in the back of the line and last to be waited on. Like many hermits, he was a magnet to many people seeking advice and encouragement, which he provided with the utmost modesty. His retreat to the Greek islands during the second half of his life saved him from far more visitors than would have found their way to him had he stayed in America. A true Franciscan in terms of material needs, he managed to get by on very little money, surviving mainly on the meager income that came to him thanks to his poetry and the occasional readings he gave in the US and more affluent parts of Europe. Many editors of poetry journals had little or no interest in publishing his poetry — too few words per page was a routine complaint — but Lax seemed entirely untroubled. If you liked his poetry, fine, and if you didn’t, that was also fine. Yet he was well published, even if in small editions — in the US by Emil Antonucci’s Journeyman Press, in Europe by Pendo. He was a man at home in silence. He could spend many a quiet hour just watching the light on the water and the coming and going of fishing boats.

Harford’s book is not only about friends but is a testimony to the sacrament of friendship.

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December 29, 2006
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Jim Forest
Kanisstraat 5 / 1811 GJ Alkmaar / The Netherlands
Jim and Nancy Forest web site: www.incommunion.org/forest-flier/
Forest-Flier Editorial Services: www.incommunion.org/forest-flier/ffes/
Photo web site: www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/sets/
Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site: www.incommunion.org
* * *

Confession: A Sacrament of Healing

by Jim Forest

Confession. The word makes us nervous, touching as it does all that is hidden in ourselves: lies told, injuries caused, things stolen, friends deceived, people betrayed, promises broken, faith denied — these plus all the smaller actions that reveal the beginnings of sins.

Confession is painful, yet a Christian life without confession is impossible.

Confession is a major theme of the Gospels. Even before Christ began his public ministry, we read in Matthew’s Gospel that John required confession of those who came to him for baptism in the River Jordan for a symbolic act of washing away their sins: “And they were baptized by [John] in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” (Mt 3:6)

Then there are those remarkable words of Christ to Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Mt 16:19) The keys of binding and losing sins were given not only to a one apostle but to all Christ’s disciples, and — in a sacramental sense — to any priest who has his bishop’s blessing to hear confessions.

The Gospel author John warns us not to deceive ourselves. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins.” (1 John 1:8-9)

The sacrament of baptism, the rite of entrance into the Church, has always been linked with repentance. “Repent, and be baptized … in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins,” Saint Peter preached in Jerusalem, “and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). In the same book we read that “many of those who believed came forward confessing and divulging their deeds and practices.” (Acts 19:18)

The prodigal son: One Gospel story in which we encounter confession is the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). Here Christ describes a young man so impatient to come into his inheritance and be independent that in effect he says to his father, “As far as I’m concerned, you have already died. Give me now what would have come to me after your funeral. I want nothing more to do with you or with this house.”

With God-like generosity, the father gives what his son asks, though he knows his son well enough to realize that all that the boy receives might as well be burned in a stove. The boy takes his inheritance and leaves, at last free of parents, free of domestic morals and good behavior, free to do as he pleases.

After wasting his money, he finds himself reduced to feeding the pigs as a farm hand. People he had thought of as friends now sneer at him. He knows he has renounced the claim to be anyone’s son, yet in his desperation and misery dares hope his father might at least allow him to return home as a servant. Full of dismay for what he said to his father and what he did with his inheritance, he walks home in his rags, ready to confess his sins, to beg for work, and to ask for a corner to sleep in.

The son cannot imagine the love his father has for him or the fact that, despite all the trouble he caused, he has been desperately missed. Far from being glad to be rid of the boy, the father has gazed day after day in prayer toward the horizon in hope of his son’s return.

“But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” Had he not been watching he would not have noticed his child in the distance and realized who it was. Instead of simply standing and waiting for him to reach the door, he ran to meet him, embracing his child, pouring out words of joy and welcome rather than reproof or condemnation.

“And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ ” Here we have the son’s confession compacted into a single sentence. It is the essence of any confession: our return to our Father, who made us and constantly awaits our homecoming.

What is sin?

There have been countless essays and books in recent decades which have dealt with human failings under various labels without once using the three-letter word that has more bite than any of its synonyms: sin. Actions traditionally regarded as sinful have instead been seen as natural stages in the process of growing up, a result of bad parenting, a consequence of mental illness, an inevitable response to unjust social conditions, pathological behavior brought on by addiction, or even as “experiments in being.”

But what if I am more than a robot programmed by my past or my society or my economic status and actually can take a certain amount of credit — or blame — for my actions and inactions? Have I not done things I am deeply ashamed of, would not do again if I could go back in time, and would prefer no one to know about? What makes me so reluctant to call those actions “sins”? Is the word really out of date? Or is the problem that it has too sharp an edge?

The Hebrew verb chata’, “to sin,” like the Greek word hamartia, literally means straying off the path, getting lost, missing the mark. Sin — going off course — can be intentional or unintentional. “You shoot an arrow, but it misses the target” a rabbi friend once explained to me. “Maybe it hits someone’s backside, someone you didn’t even know was there. You didn’t mean it, but it’s a sin. Or maybe you knew he was there — he was what you were aiming at. Then it’s not a matter of poor aim but of hitting his backside intentionally. Now that’s a sin!”

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

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

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

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

So eroded is our sense of sin that even in confession it often happens that people explain what they did rather than admit they did things that urgently need God’s forgiveness. “When I recently happened to confess about fifty people in a typical Orthodox parish in Pennsylvania,” Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote, “not one admitted to having committed any sin whatsoever!”

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

For the person who has committed a serious sin, there are two vivid signs — the hope that what I did may never become known; and a gnawing sense of guilt. At least this is the case before the conscience becomes completely numb as patterns of sin become the structure of one’s life to the extent that hell, far from being a possible next-life experience, is where I find myself in this life.

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

One of the oddest things about the age we live in is that we are made to feel guilty about feeling guilty. There is a cartoon tacked up in our house in which one prisoner says to another, “Just remember — it’s okay to be guilty, but not okay to feel guilty.”

A sense of guilt — the painful awareness of having committed sins — can be life renewing. Guilt provides a foothold for contrition, which in turn can motivate confession and repentance. Without guilt, there is no remorse; without remorse there is no possibility of becoming free of habitual sins.

Yet there are forms of guilt that are dead-end streets. If I feel guilty that I have not managed to become the ideal person I occasionally want to be, or that I imagine others want me to be, then it is guilt that has no divine reference point. It is simply an irritated me contemplating an irritating me. Christianity is not centered on performance, laws, principles, or the achievement of flawless behavior, but on Christ himself and participation in God’s transforming love.

When Christ says, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48), he is speaking not about the perfection of a child who manages not to step on any of the sidewalk’s cracks, but of being whole, being in a state of communion, participating in God’s love.

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

A blessed guilt is the pain we feel when we realize we have cut ourselves off from that divine communion that radiates all creation. It is impossible to live in Godless universe, but easy to be unaware of God’s presence or even to resent it.

It’s a common delusion that one’s sins are private or affect only a few other people. To think our sins, however hidden, don’t affect others is like imagining that a stone thrown into the water won’t generate ripples. As Bishop Kallistos Ware has observed: “There are no entirely private sins. All sins are sins against my neighbor, as well as against God and against myself. Even my most secret thoughts are, in fact, making it more difficult for those around me to follow Christ.”

Far from being hidden, each sin is another crack in the world.

One of the most widely used prayers, the Jesus Prayer, is only one sentence long: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Short as it is, many people drawn to it are put off by the last two words. Those who teach the prayer are often asked, “But must I call myself a sinner?” In fact the ending isn’t essential — the only essential word is “Jesus” — but my difficulty identifying myself as a sinner reveals a lot. What makes me so reluctant to speak of myself in such plain words? Don’t I do a pretty good job of hiding rather than revealing Christ in my life? Am I not a sinner? To admit that I am provides a starting point.

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

Justification may be verbal, but mainly it takes the form of repetition: I do again and again the same thing as a way of demonstrating to myself and others that it’s not really a sin but rather something normal or human or necessary or even good. “Commit a sin twice and it will not seem a crime,” notes a Jewish proverb.

Repentance, on the other hand, is the recognition that I cannot live any more as I have been living, because in living that way I wall myself apart from others and from God. Repentance is a change in direction. Repentance is the door of communion. It is also a sine qua non of forgiveness. Absolution is impossible where there is no repentance.

As St. John Chrysostom said sixteen centuries ago in Antioch:

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

Confession a social action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are social beings. The individual as autonomous unit is a delusion. The Marlboro Man — the person without community, parents, spouse, or children — exists only on billboards. The individual is someone who has lost a sense of connection to others or attempts to exist in opposition to others — while the person exists in communion with other persons. At a conference of Orthodox Christians in France a few years ago, in a discussion of the problem of individualism, a theologian confessed, “When I am in my car, I am an individual, but when I get out, I am a person again.”

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

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

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

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

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

Confessing to anyone, even a stranger, renews rather than contracts my humanity, even if all I get in return for my confession is the well-worn remark, “Oh that’s not so bad. After all, you’re only human.” But if I can confess to anyone anywhere, why confess in church in the presence of a priest? It’s not a small question in societies in which the phrase “institutionalized religion” is so often used, the implicit message being that religious institutions necessarily undermine religious life.

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

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

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

Tools for Examining Conscience

From the first century, attending the liturgy and receiving communion on Sundays and principal feast days has been at the heart of Christian life, the event that gives life a eucharistic dimension and center point. But communion — receiving Christ into ourselves — can never be routine, never something we deserve no matter what the condition of our life may be. For example, Christ solemnly warns us against approaching the altar if we are in a state of enmity with anyone. He tells us, “Leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother…” (Mt 5:23). In one of the parables, he describes a person who is ejected from the wedding feast because he isn’t wearing a wedding garment: his tattered clothing is a metaphor for living a life which reduces conscience to rags (Mt 22:1-14).

Receiving Christ in communion during the liturgy is the keystone of living in communion — with God, with people, and with creation. Christ teaches us that love of God and love of neighbor sum up the Law. One way of describing a serious sin is to say it is any act which breaks our communion with God and with our neighbor.

It is for this reason that examination of conscience — if necessary, going to confession — is part of preparation for communion. This is an ongoing process of trying to see my life and actions with clarity and honesty — to look at myself, my choices, and my direction as known by God. The examination of conscience is an occasion not only to recall any serious sins committed since my last confession but, even the beginnings of sins.

The word conscience derives from a Greek verb meaning “to have common knowledge” or “to know with” someone, a concept that led to the idea of bearing witness concerning someone, especially yourself. Conscience is an inner faculty that guides us in making choices which align us with God’s will and which accuses us when we break communion with God and with our neighbor. Conscience is a reflection of the divine image at the core of each person. In The Sacred Gift of Life, Fr. John Breck points out that “the education of conscience is acquired in large measure through immersing ourselves in the ascetic tradition of the Church: its life of prayer, sacramental and liturgical celebration, and scripture study. The education of our conscience also depends upon our acquiring wisdom from those who are more advanced than we are in faith, love, and knowledge of God.”

Conscience is God’s whispering voice within us calling us to a way of life that reveals God’s presence and urges us to refuse actions that destroy community and communion.

Key elements in confession

Fr. Alexander Schmemann provided this summary of the three key areas of confession:

Relationship to God: Questions on faith itself, possible doubts or deviations, inattention to prayer, neglect of liturgical life, fasting, etc.

Relationship to one’s neighbor: Basic attitudes of selfishness and self-centeredness, indifference to others, lack of attention, interest, love. All acts of actual offense — envy, gossip, cruelty, etc. — must be mentioned and, if needed, their sinfulness shown to the penitent.

Relationship to one’s self: Sins of the flesh with, as their counterpart, the Christian vision of purity and wholesomeness, respect for the body as an icon of Christ, etc. Abuse of one’s life and resources, absence of any real effort to deepen life; abuse of alcohol or other drugs; cheap idea of “fun,” a life centered on amusement, irresponsibility, neglect of family relations, etc.

Tools of Self-examination

In the struggle to examine conscience, we have tools that can assist us, resources that help both in the formation and the examination of conscience. Among these are the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, and various prayers, as well as lists of questions written by experienced confessors. In this small booklet, we will look at only one of these, the Beatitudes, which provided a brief summary of the Gospel. Each Beatitude reveals an aspect of being in union with God.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Poverty of spirit is my awareness that I need God’s help and mercy more than anything else. It is knowing that I cannot save myself, that neither money nor power will spare me from suffering and death, and that no matter what I achieve and acquire in this life, it will be far less than I want if I let my acquisitive capacity get the upper hand. This is the blessing of knowing that even what I have is not mine. It is living free of the domination of fear. While the exterior forms of poverty vary from person to person and even from year to year in a particular life, depending on one’s vocation and special circumstances, all who live this Beatitude are seeking with heart and soul to live God’s will rather than their own. Christ’s mother is the paradigm of poverty of spirit in her unconditional assent to the will of God: “May it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). Similarly, at the marriage feast at Cana, she says to those waiting on the tables: “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5). Whoever lives by these words is poor in spirit.

Questions to consider: We are bombarded by advertisements, constantly reminded of the possibility of having things and of indulging all sorts of curiosities and temptations. The simple goal of poverty of spirit seems more remote than the moons of Neptune. Am I regularly praying that God will give me poverty of spirit? When tempted to buy things I don’t need, do I pray for strength to resist? Do I keep the Church fasts that would help strengthen my capacity to live this Beatitude? Do I really seek to know and embrace God’s will in my life? Am I willing to be seen as odd or stupid by those whose lives are dominated by values that oppose the Beatitudes?

Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Mourning is cut from the same cloth as poverty of spirit. Without poverty of spirit, I am forever on guard to keep what I have for myself, and to keep me for myself, or for that small circle of people whom I regard as mine. A consequence of poverty of spirit is becoming vulnerable to the pain and losses of others, not only those whom I happen to know and care for, but also those who are strangers to me. “When we die,” said Saint John Climacus, the seventh-century abbot of Saint Catherine’s monastery near Mount Sinai, “we will not be criticized for having failed to work miracles. We will not be accused of having failed to be theologians or contemplatives. But we will certainly have to explain to God why we did not mourn unceasingly.”

Questions to consider: Do I weep with those who weep? Have I mourned those in my own family who have died? Do I open my thoughts and feelings to the suffering and losses of others? Do I try to make space in my mind and heart for the calamities in the lives of others who may be far away and neither speak my language nor share my faith?

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Meekness is often confused with weakness, yet a meek person is neither spineless nor cowardly. Understood biblically, meekness is making choices and exercising power with a divine rather than social reference point. Meekness is the essential quality of the human being in relationship to God. Without meekness, we cannot align ourselves with God’s will. In place of humility we prefer pride — pride in who we are, pride in doing as we please, pride in what we’ve achieved, pride in the national or ethnic group to which we happen to belong. Meekness has nothing to do with blind obedience or social conformity. Meek Christians do not allow themselves to be dragged along by the tides of political power. Such rudderless persons have cut themselves off from their own conscience, God’s voice in their hearts, and thrown away their God-given freedom. Meekness is an attribute of following Christ no matter what risks are involved.

Questions to consider: When I read the Bible or writings of the saints, do I consider the implications for my own life? When I find what I read at odds with the way I live, do I allow the text to challenge me? Do I pray for God’s guidance? Do I seek help with urgent questions in confession? Do I tend to make choices and adopt ideas that will help me fit into the group I want to be part of? Do I fear the criticism or ridicule of others for my efforts to live a Gospel-centered life? Do I listen to others? Do I tell the truth even in difficult circumstances?

Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. In his teaching about the Last Judgment, Christ speaks of hunger and thirst: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink” (Mt 25:35). To hunger and thirst for something is not a mild desire but a desperate craving. Our salvation hinges on our caring for the least person as we would for Christ himself. To hunger and thirst for righteousness means to urgently desire that which is honorable, right, and true. A righteous person is a right-living person, living a moral, blameless life, right with both God and neighbor. A righteous social order would be one in which no one is abandoned or thrown away, in which people live in peace with God, with each other, and with the world God has given us.

Questions to consider: Does it disturb me that I live in a world which in many ways is the opposite of the kingdom of heaven? When I pray “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” am I praying that my own life might better reflect God’s priorities? Who is “the least” in my day-to-day world? Do I try to see Christ’s face in him or her?

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy. One of the perils of pursuing righteousness is that one can become self-righteous. Thus, the next rung of the ladder of the Beatitudes is the commandment of mercy. This is the quality of self-giving love, of gracious deeds done for those in need. Twice in the Gospels Christ makes his own the words of the Prophet Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice (Hos 6:6; Mt 9:13, 12:7). We witness mercy in event after event in the New Testament account of Christ’s life — forgiving, healing, freeing, correcting, even repairing the wound of a man injured by Peter in his effort to protect Christ and promising paradise to the criminal being crucified next to him. Again and again Christ declares that those who seek God’s mercy must pardon others. The principle is included in the only prayer Christ taught his disciples, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” He calls on his followers to love their enemies and to pray for them. The moral of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that a neighbor is a person who comes to the aid of a stranger in need (Lk 10:29-37). While denouncing hypocrisy and warning the merciless that they are condemning themselves to hell, in no passage in the Gospel do we hear Christ advocating anyone’s death. At the Last Judgment Christ receives into the kingdom of heaven those who were merciful. He is Mercy itself.

Questions to consider: When I see a stranger in need, how do I respond? Is Christ’s mercy evident in my life? Am I willing to extend forgiveness to those who seek it? Am I generous in sharing my time and material possessions with those in need? Do I pray for my enemies? Do I try to assist them if they are in need? Have I been an enemy to anyone?

Mercy is more and more absent even in societies with Christian roots. In the United States, the death penalty has been reinstated in the majority of states and has the fervent support of many Christians. Even in the many countries that have abolished executions, the death penalty is often imposed on unborn children — abortion is hardly regarded as a moral issue. Concerning the sick, aged, and severely handicapped, “mercy” killing and “assisted suicide” are now phrases much in use. To what extent have I been influenced by slogans and ideologies that promote death as a solution and disguise killing as mercy? What am I doing to make my society more welcoming, more caring, more life-protecting?

Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God. The brain has come up in the world while the heart has been demoted. The heart used to be widely recognized as the locus of God’s activity within us, the hub of human identity and conscience, linked with our capacity to love, the core not only of physical but also of spiritual life — the ground zero of the human soul. In our brain-centered society, we ought to be surprised that Christ didn’t say, “Blessed are the brilliant in mind.” Instead, he blessed purity of heart. The Greek word for purity, katharos, means spotless, stainless; intact, unbroken, perfect; free from adulteration or anything that defiles or corrupts. What, then, is a pure heart? A heart free of possessiveness, a heart capable of mourning, a heart that thirsts for what is right, a merciful heart, a loving heart, a heart not ruled by passions, an undivided heart, a heart aware of the image of God in others, a heart drawn to beauty, a heart conscious of God’s presence in creation. A pure heart is a heart without contempt for others. “A person is truly pure of heart when he considers all human beings as good and no created thing appears impure or defiled to him,” wrote Saint Isaac of Syria.

Opposing purity of heart is lust of any kind — for wealth, for recognition, for power, for vengeance, for sexual exploits — whether indulged through action or imagination. Spiritual virtues that defend the heart are memory, awareness, watchfulness, wakefulness, attention, hope, faith, and love. A rule of prayer in daily life helps heal, guard, and unify the heart. “Always keep your mind collected in your heart,” instructed the great teacher of prayer, Saint Theofan the Recluse. The Jesus Prayer — the Prayer of the Heart — is part of a tradition of spiritual life that helps move the center of consciousness from the mind to the heart. Purification of the heart is the striving to place under the rule of the heart the mind, which represents the analytic and organizational aspect of consciousness. It is the moment-to-moment prayerful discipline of seeking to be so aware of God’s presence that no space is left in the heart for hatred, greed, lust, or vengeance. Purification of the heart is the lifelong struggle of seeking a more God-centered life, a heart illuminated with the presence of the Holy Trinity.

Questions to consider: Do I take care not to read or look at things that stir up lust? Do I avoid using words that soil my mouth? Am I attentive to beauty in people, nature, and the arts? Am I sarcastic about others? Is a rhythm of prayer part of my daily life? Do I prepare carefully for communion, never taking it for granted? Do I observe fasting days and seasons? Am I aware of and grateful for God’s gifts?

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Christ is often called the Prince of Peace. His peace is not a passive condition — he blesses the makers of peace. The peacemaker is a person who helps heal damaged relationships. Throughout the Gospel we see Christ bestowing peace. In his final discourse before his arrest, he says to the Apostles: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you….Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (Jn 14:27). After the Resurrection, he greets his followers with the words, “Peace be with you” (Lk 24:36; Jn 20:19). He instructs his followers that, on entering a house, their first action should be the blessing, “Peace be to this house” (Lk 10:5). Christ is at his most paradoxical when he says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Mt 10:34; note that a similar passage in Luke uses the word “division” rather than “sword”). Those who try to live Christ’s peace may find themselves in trouble, as all those who have died a martyr’s death bear witness. Sadly, for most of us, the peace we long for is not the kingdom of God but a slightly improved version of the world we already have. We would like to get rid of conflict without eliminating the spiritual and material factors that draw us into conflict. The peacemaker is a person aware that ends never stand apart from means: figs do not grow from thistles; neither is community brought into being by hatred and violence. A peacemaker is aware that all persons, even those who seem to be ruled by evil spirits, are made in the image of God and are capable of change and conversion.

Questions to consider: In my family, in my parish, and among my co-workers, am I guilty of sins which cause or deepen division and conflict? Do I ask forgiveness when I realize I am in the wrong? Or am I always justifying what I do, no matter what pain or harm it causes others? Do I regard it as a waste of time to communicate with opponents? Do I listen with care and respect to those who irritate me? Do I pray for the well-being and salvation of adversaries and enemies? Do I allow what others say or what the press reports to define my attitude toward those whom I have never met? Do I take positive steps to overcome division? Are there people I regard as not bearing God’s image and therefore innately evil?

Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you. The last rung is where the Beatitudes reach and pass beyond the cross. “We must carry Christ’s cross as a crown of glory,” wrote Saint John Chrysostom in the fourth century, “for it is by it that everything that is achieved among us is gained….Whenever you make the sign of the cross on your body, think of what the cross means and put aside anger and every other passion. Take courage and be free in the soul.”

In the ancient world, Christians were persecuted chiefly because they were regarded as undermining the social order even though in most respects they were models of civil obedience and good conduct. But Christians abstained from the cult of the deified emperor, would not sacrifice to gods their neighbors venerated, and were notable for their objection to war or bloodshed in any form. It is easy to imagine that a community that lived by such values, however well-behaved, would be regarded as a threat by the government. “Both the Emperor’s commands and those of others in authority must be obeyed if they are not contrary to the God of heaven,” said Saint Euphemia in the year 303 during the reign of Diocletian. “If they are, they must not only be disobeyed; they must be resisted.” Following torture, Saint Euphemia was killed by a bear — the kind of death endured by thousands of Christians well into the fourth century, though the greatest number of Christian martyrs belongs to the twentieth century. In many countries religious persecution continues.

Questions to consider: Does fear play a bigger role in my life than love? Do I hide my faith or live it in a timid, half-hearted way? When I am ordered to do something that conflicts with Christ’s teaching, whom do I obey? Am I aware of those who are suffering for righteousness’ sake in my own country and elsewhere in the world? Am I praying for them? Am I doing anything to help them?

Finding a confessor

Just as not every doctor is a good physician, not every priest is a good confessor. Sometimes it happens that a priest, however good his qualities in other respects, is a person not well suited for witnessing confessions. While abusive priests are the exception, their existence must be noted. God has given us freedom and provided each person with a conscience. It is not the role of a priest to take the place of conscience or to become anyone’s drill sergeant. A good confessor will help us become better at hearing conscience and becoming more free in an increasingly God-centered life.

Fortunately good confessors are not hard to find. Usually your confessor is the priest who is closest, sees you most often, knows you and the circumstances of your life best: a priest of your parish. Do not be put off by your awareness of what you perceive as his relative youth, his personal shortcomings, or the probability that he possesses no rare spiritual gifts. Keep in mind that each priest goes to confession himself and may have more to confess than you do. You confess not to him but to Christ in his presence. He is the witness of your confession — you do not require and will never find a sinless person to be that witness. (The Orthodox Church tries to make this clear by having the penitent face not the priest but an icon of Christ.) What he says by way of advice can be remarkably insightful or brusque or seem to you a cliché and not very relevant, yet almost always there will be something helpful if only you are willing to hear it. Sometimes there is a suggestion or insight that becomes a turning point in your life. If he imposes a penance — normally increased prayer, fasting, and acts of mercy — it should be accepted meekly, unless there is something in the penance which seems to you a violation of your conscience or of the teaching of the Church as you understand it.

Don’t imagine that a priest will respect you less for what you reveal to Christ in the priest’s presence or imagine that he is carefully remembering all your sins. “Even a recently ordained priest will quickly find that he cannot remember 99 percent of what people tell him in confession,” one priest told me. He said it is embarrassing to him that people expect him to remember what they told him in an earlier confession. “When they remind me, then sometimes I remember, but without a reminder, usually my mind is a blank. I let the words I listen to pass through me. Also, so much that I hear in one confession is similar to what I hear in other confessions — the confessions blur together. The only sins I easily remember are my own.”

One priest told me of his difficulties meeting the expectations that sometimes become evident in confession. “I am not a psychologist. I have no special gifts. I am just a fellow sinner trying to stay on the path.”

A Russian priest who is spiritual father to many people once told me about the joy he often feels hearing confessions. “It is not that I am glad anyone has sins to confess but when you come to confession it means these sins are in your past, not your future. Confession marks a turning point and I am the lucky one who gets to watch people making that turn!”

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This essay was published in booklet form by Conciliar Press. It condenses several chapters from the book Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness.

* * *
Jim Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands
e-mail: [email protected]
personal web: www.incommunion.org/forest-flier/
Forest-Flier Editorial Services: www.incommunion.org/forest-flier/ffes/
OPF web: www.incommunion.org
photos: www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/sets/
* * *

The Ultra-Resistance: on the trial of the Milwaukee 14 (part 2)

(part 1 is posted at: http://www.jimandnancyforest.com/2006/11/18/m14trial/)

The attitudes of this new vintage of raiders are more cynical than those of the witness movement’s pioneers. As the Ultra-Resistance grows younger and more secular, it expresses increasing frustrations with the narrowness of its audience. However brilliant the trials of the Catonsville Nine and the Milwaukee Twelve, they failed to produce the forum which the protesters had hoped to obtain. The trials seem like chamber music played to the intimate audience of the peace community. The acts themselves are felt to be symbolic and not political enough. There is a growing anguish among the young about the obscurity of the witness they will offer.

The leaders of their movement, the older, more established and more eloquent men like the Berrigans, O’Leary, Forest, will continue to expound their mystique of protest in the religious and Left press. But the jail terms of the Chicago Fifteen, the Pasadena Three, the Silver Spring Three will have little educational impact. Who ever hears about the Boston Two, Suzi Williams and Frank Femia? They were denied bail at their first arraignment, and have already been in jail for over a year. It is with people like them in mind that the Ultra-Resistance is starting to question its basic premise of witnessing in jail. It is debating whether the “stand-around” actions for which they will surely be arrested are really preferable to the more destructive possibilities of anonymous hit-and-run sabotage. “Is it going to be a stand-around or a hit-and-run?” is the new stock question.

In July a group of five women calling themselves Women Against Daddy Warbucks carried out what seemed to be a combination of the two styles of action — a hit-and-run at the central draft board in Manhattan followed a day later by a playful stand-around in Rockefeller Center Plaza. In August the tactics became more elaborate. Draft boards were ransacked during the night, first in the Bronx (where 75,000 files were upset) and then in Queens, where a note was left saying that those responsible would soon identify themselves. A week later, on August 21st, eight protesters, two of them Jesuits, called a press conference at the Overseas Press Club and introduced themselves as the New York Eight who had made the raids to “underscore the horror of the military system that drafts Americans that kill and die.”

Members of the New York Eight also delivered manila envelopes filled with mutilated draft records to the chairmen of the boards of W. R. Grace and Company, Anaconda, I.T.T., and Standard Oil of New Jersey to “regale them with complicity,” as a friend of the group put it. The corporations sent the draft files back to federal authorities with extraordinary speed. The New York Eight stressed the fact that six of them are Irish-Americans. In fact, the Ultra-Resistance, since the Berrigans’ early work, has been predominantly Irish and had a streak of the I.R.A. in the viscerality of its emotions and its tactics. “We liken the situation in this country to that of Northern Ireland,” the New York Eight said in their press statement, “where civil rights are not respected and where violence is considered an alternative to respect for human rights.” The group had a three-hour meeting with Bernadette Devlin on the second day after her arrival in New York. So far none of the Eight has been prosecuted; whether they are or not, it seems likely that their way of doing things will recur often during the coming months.

However, many young purists still hold out for the original pristine stand-around. “There is no point to running,” John Phillips writes in his PISS newsletter. “Repression is certain; if depersonalized, repression will be general…. We are demythologizers, in running we maintain the myths…. Do your thing but run means not doing your thing, unless your thing is running….”

If, as others predict, the hard core of the Movement moves away from the moral violence of witness actions to the physical violence of sabotage, it will retard the violence of the government but it will not expose it so well. Its concern for destroying property without harming persons — so far highly solicitous — will be harder to control. It will lose its moral force and its dimension of hope. The witness movement has been in the highest tradition of civil disobedience, which is based on the hope that the system can be changed through non-violent means, and which considers jail as a necessary measure to prove a moral point.

Actions such as those of the Milwaukee Fourteen’s have been a witness to hope. The hit-and-run actions will be a witness to despair. And whatever token moves are taken by the Nixon Administration to deescalate the Vietnam fighting, the most terrible toll taken on this country by this insane war is precisely the loss of hope, the sense that not only legal means but also the process of non-violent civil disobedience have been tried and left wanting in reforming various areas of injustice.

Resisters feel that the legal system is much at fault. The courts’ predictable unwillingness to let themselves be used as forums for the airing of anti-war views, the judges’ natural reluctance to inject issues of political morality into their charges to juries, the selected conservatism of the jurying classes, have helped to inject a mood of hopelessness into the most utopian faction of the Movement. “If you decide that the only issue in this courtroom is whether we intended to take and burn draft records,” James Forest had told the jury in his closing statement, “you will make non-violence less likely and more difficult than ever.”

The Federal trial of the Milwaukee twelve which began on June 9th, three days after the State sentencing, was brief, abortive, and totally unexpected in its results. The charges were destroying government property and interfering with the working of the Selective Service System. After a tedious voirdire of two and a half days in which he cross-examined 141 prospective jurors — mostly hostile to the defendants — Federal District Judge Myron Gordon dismissed the government charges against the twelve on grounds that “prejudicial pre-trial publicity” caused by modern press media had made a fair trial impossible. The decision was said to have no precedent. Other court rulings involving news coverage of criminal cases, such as the Sam Sheppard case, had never resulted in dismissal of charges, but in reversal of conviction followed by retrial. The Federal Court’s decision — favorable though it seemed on the surface — had ominous implications for the twelve men. The government immediately filed an appeal. If the twelve are tried and convicted in a Federal Court in six or eight months, as they are apt to be, there will be virtually no chance of their Federal sentences being served concurrently with their State sentences, as has been usual in civil disobedience cases. Judge Gordon’s ruling is predicted to add six or eight months to their stay in jail.

The fate of the Milwaukee twelve seems to have become enmeshed in local Wisconsin politics. Judge Gordon, a dour Harvard Law School graduate who would have run a much tighter trial than Judge Larson, has been fighting a political vendetta with the Milwaukee press for several years. He is known to be a close friend of the city’s mayor, Henry Maier, who had been instrumental in getting him appointed to the Federal bench. When the liberal Milwaukee Journal in 1967 criticized the Mayor’s stand on civil rights as being timid, Judge Gordon backed the mayor. He accused the Journal of running a monopoly press, and was attacked in turn by the paper. By dismissing charges against the war protesters on the grounds that the local press had made a fair trial impossible, Judge Gordon may have turned conservative elements in the city against his acknowledged enemy. By such vendettas are the lengths of men’s jail terms frequently dictated.

On the afternoon after the last day of the government trial, the wives of James Forest, Doug Marvy and Robert Graf drove to Waupun State Penitentiary, an hour north of Milwaukee, to make their first visits to their husbands. “We drove through miles of Wisconsin farmland,” Linda Forest told me, “and arrived at a place which looked very much like Maria Lach, very monastic — a wall some fifteen feet high, four blocks long, broken up by wrought iron arches. When they see you coming there’s a large humming and snapping sound coming from a watch tower, which issues a loud report when the gate swings open. You walk to the guard house across a large stretch of grass — there’s a lot of grass everywhere. We were cordially received by the guards, who took us to the sergeant. Everybody was polite to us, they kept saying ‘M’am, M’am.’

“The sergeant accompanied us through what looked like a series of cloisters, one building enclosed inside the other, past the chapel enclosure, the gymnasium enclosure, past a first set of dorms, you’re always walking on very soft grass. Prisoners were hanging out of windows, some windows had boxes of geraniums on them. We made the V sign at them and they flashed it back. The sergeant ushered us into a very neat building, the architecture was very clean, very modern. The guard on duty there was a Robert Young type with a pipe in his hand, extra friendly. ‘Linda,’ he said, ‘you have two hours of visiting time a month, you can have them both at once if you want.’ Finally he ushered us into the reception room, it was like a seminary, or a university. There were lots of century plants around, smart brown curtains, Danish-type modern chairs scattered around modern coffee tables. On each coffee table there was a plastic-coated slip of paper which said the following:

We have made a conscientious effort to create as much of a living room atmosphere as possible for you and your relatives. We hope that you won’t embarrass us by extreme displays of any sort. Visitors are allowed to embrace and kiss prisoners before and after each visit.

“Jim looked very well. He looked about nineteen years old with his head clean-shaven, and without his mustache. He says the food is very good, cafeteria-style, they are forced to eat everything on their plate. For the first few days he’s not allowed any books except his Bible and his breviary. He’s been saying his breviary every hour, he’s been saying his hours. We sat and talked about our marriage and about how we would grow through this, how it might be the best thing for our marriage. When I hugged Jim he smelled so good, a smell of clean plain soap and of fresh clean linen, he smelled like a nun, or like a child when you put him to bed.”


[*] in which a Massachusetts Federal District Court held that the present Selective Service System unconstitutionally discriminates against conscientious objectors who do not adhere to an institutionalized religion.

* * *

October 9, 1969: John H.E. Fried, MORAL CHOICE

Volume 13, Number 6 / October 9, 1969



By John H.E. Fried

In response to The Ultra-Resistance (September 25, 1969)

To the Editors:

Some of my testimony at the trial of the “Milwaukee Fourteen” was garbled in the court transcript. Hence the quotation in Francine du Plessix Gray’s article [NYR, Spetember 25, p. 17] could convey the erroneous impression that the Nuremberg International Tribunal left it to the individual to obey international law, or to obey rules of his Government that violate international law. This was not my testimony.

The Tribunal’s famous “moral choice” doctrine is that an individual who was ordered to commit an international wrong will be internationally responsible for obeying the order if a “moral choice” not to obey it existed for him — that is, if by the rules of morality he had a realistic choice. The gist of my testimony was: The International Tribunal at Nuremberg, at which the United States was represented, stated that it is the moral choice of the individual that counts. Obedience to the higher, the world order, is more important. He should feel that, and always endeavor not to violate it. If such moral choice is in fact not possible for him, he will not be personally punishable for violating the international rule. But if he feels that he must make the choice even at personal risk, then he has to make the moral choice and do the things he considers morally proper. That is the great ethical and moral message of Nuremberg.

For the benefit of readers, I quote pertinent passages from the Judgment:

“…the very essence of the [Nuremberg] Charter is that individuals have international duties which transcend the national obligations of obedience imposed by the individual state. He who violates the laws of war cannot obtain immunity while acting in pursuance to the authority of the state if the state in authorizing action moves outside its competence under international law…. The true test…is not the existence of the order, but whether moral choice was in fact possible.” (Trial of the Major War Criminals…Nuremberg, 1945/6. Vol. I, pp. 223/4.)

John H. E. Fried
Professor of Political Science,
Lehman College and Graduate Faculty
City University of New York
formerly Special Legal Consultant to the US War Crimes Tribunals, Nuremberg

* * *
For Jim Forest’s reflections about the Milwaukee 14, see:
* * *

The Ultra-Resistance: on the trial of the Milwaukee 14

New York Review of Books
Volume 13, Number 5 / September 25, 1969

By Francine du Plessix Gray

On a warm spring day in 1966, a nineteen-year-old Minnesotan by the name of Barry Bondhus broke into his local draft board and dumped two large bucketfuls of human feces into a filing cabinet, mutilating several hundred I-A draft records in protest against the Vietnam war. The offender and his eleven brothers, sons of a machinist who had threatened to shoot anyone who attempted to induct his boys into the American army, had fastidiously collected their organic wastes for two weeks in preparation for the raid.

This primordial deed is known in the annals of the anti-war protest as The Big Lake One action, in honor of Barry Bondhus’s hometown, Big Lake, Minnesota. Barry Bondhus, who had calmly awaited arrest after his performance, served an eighteen-month sentence at Sandstone Federal Correctional Institution and came home in March of 1968 to run his father’s machine shop. Big Lake One was hardly mentioned in the press, but Bondhus’s was “the movement that started the Movement.”

Since Bondhus in 1966, over sixty Americans have awaited arrest after destroying government draft records with the less rustic media of blood, paint, and fire. The Big Lake One was followed by:

The Baltimore Four (600 draft records defiled with blood by Father Philip Berrigan, Reverend James Mengel, David Eberhardt, Thomas Lewis, October 1967);

The Catonsville Nine (Father Philip Berrigan strikes again in the company of his brother Father Daniel Berrigan and seven other Catholic priests and laymen, destroying 378 draft files with home-made napalm, May 1968);

The Boston Two (several hundred draft records mutilated with black paint by students Suzi Williams and Frank Femia, June 1968);

The Milwaukee Fourteen (some 10,000 draft records napalmed, September 1968);

The Pasadena Three (some 500 records burned, May 20, 1969);

The Silver Spring Three (several hundred records of a Maryland draft board mutilated with black paint and blood, May 21, 1969);

The Chicago Fifteen (some 40,000 draft records burned on May 25 of this year);

Women Against Daddy Warbucks (several thousand records mutilated in a Manhattan draft board by the first all-women band of draft board raiders, last July 2);

The New York Eight (some 75,000 records mutilated in a Bronx draft board on August 1st, and several thousand more in a Queens draft board on August 15th, by a group of four women and four men, three of them Catholic priests).

There is no name for this radical core of the peace movement. The only noun given to its forays is the word “action”; the participants are called “actors”; the only verb assigned to their gestures is “act.” “When is so and so going to act?” Men and women who believe they have exhausted every other means of protesting the Vietnam war raid a draft board, haul out records and burn them, stand around singing liberation songs while awaiting arrest. The draft board actions have elements of both terrorist strike and liturgical drama. They aim to destruct and to instruct; to impede in some small way the war machine; to communicate its evil, at a time when verbal and political methods have failed, by a morality play which will startle, embarrass the community; to shame the Movement to heightened militancy, perhaps to imitation. The word “witness” is used by members of this ultra-resistance, with its historical implications of sacrifice and penance, of moral primitivism, of romantic egoism, of psychological violence. The draft board actions in which the raiders demand arrest are called “stand around” to differentiate them from acts of “hit and run” sabotage; they are grounded in the non-violent mystique that a man’s witness in jail can move the conscience of a nation; that it can abate the violence of its rulers, and, like a monk’s years of passive prayer, aid to purify society. According to this mystique, the presence of the man awaiting arrest, sacrificing his freedom to witness to his moral indignation, is the ingredient that transforms sabotage into a religious and instructive act. As in tragedy and liturgy, sacrifice is conceived of as the most powerful means of communication.

At first this Ultra-Resistance involved men who — like Father Philip Berrigan and his brother Father Daniel Berrigan — were exempt from the draft either because of their clerical vocation or their age. Their average age was thirty-five, and their apostleship was to witness with and for the thousands of young Americans who have preferred jail to induction. These early draft board raiders were predominantly Catholic. The controversy that has rocked the American Catholic Church in the past decade has pitted a fanatically radicalized minority against a Catholic majority which still remains the most right-wing and hawkish segment of the nation. The desperately theatrical means of the Baltimore Four and the Catonsville Nine were aimed not only at the government’s war-making structure but at that most reactionary structure of all, the Catholic Church. The moral absolutism of the Catholic tradition, as the last few years have shown, can lend itself to satanizing the Vietnam war as fervently as it did Communism in the Fifties. No wonder then that many of the draft board raids, like political intrigues of Mazarin’s time, have been plotted in abbeys, monasteries, convents, the rectory next door.

Although draft-exempt men had originated this style of protest, the Ultra-Resistance is becoming more secular and youthful. The actions increasingly involve those young people who are threatened by the draft. The median age of the raiders came down from thirty-five to twenty-five in the Milwaukee action, to twenty-two in Chicago, Pasadena, and Silver Spring. The monastic stand-arounders, Barry Bondhus included, usually come from highly authoritarian and conservative backgrounds, which perhaps explains some of their differences from the permissively reared young people in the larger radical Movement.

Not the least of these differences is their disdain for amnesty, their sense that it is a positive act to go to jail. Many of them have had a more immediate exposure to the poor than the average college rebel, and feel drawn to the evangelic mystique of sharing, in jail, the powerlessness of the dispossessed. They place a greater stress on non-violence than the student movement – their symbolic destruction of property is meant, as a metaphor, to stress the sacredness of life. They incline to be apolitical — they tend to a personalistic Christian anarchism, or to Utopian socialism. And they claim to have a great distrust of rhetoric. “It’s not enough to just speak any more.” “I had to put my body on the line.” “It wasn’t just words, that’s basically it.” They reserve their rhetoric for the courtroom.

There is another important difference between the guerillas of the campuses and these jail-bound witnesses: however radical they are, the draft board raiders are distrustful of imported jargon. Their ideological heroes are apt to be Thoreau and A.J. Muste rather than Mao or Che; they want to do something “typically American”; and although they rebel as fiercely as the rest of the Movement against the familiar demons of capitalism, racism, colonialism, and militarism, they have chosen, up to now, to channel their protest against that uniquely American form of oppression, the Selective Service System.

The witness movement has thus created a curious form of non-violent guerilla activity. For beyond their symbolic, theatrical aspects the draft board raids do produce some tangible results. The files take some months to recompose, the boards remain closed for a few weeks or months, inductions temporarily cease. The protesters feel that they have liberated an area for a short while, that their acts will incite others to further and larger acts of liberation. The testimony of Robert Graf, a member of the Milwaukee Fourteen, at his trial last May describes the spiritual machismo of the witness actions:

I’m inside the draft board, and I’m taking files which I believe to be those of my brothers and neighbors… The only sensation I can remember that day was that of my arm being extremely tired as I was trying to do as much as possible to get as many people freed as I could. And in this act of liberation my arm was just getting tired, and I guess it’s like the stories you hear when someone is drowning and someone runs out to save him, his arm, his body, his whole body gets tired in the act of saving the drowning person. That’s how I felt, my arm, my body was at full extent of physical exertion in order to get those records out. I really felt within myself I was forming a small and simple but free act of liberation that day, something very immediate, taking pieces of paper that would free a great majority of my neighbors and brothers, people I love. So I took a bag or two, dragged them down the stairs and across the street into the center of the green, and I stood and waited for arrest, I stood in with my brothers quite joyfully, sang and listened to the Gospel, joining with my brothers in singing and rejoicing.

Another purpose of the draft board raids is to turn American courtrooms into political forums on the illegality and the immorality of the Vietnam war. The Baltimore Four and the Catonsville Nine, who fulfilled that goal with some success, have been tried, found guilty, and are free pending appeal. The Milwaukee Fourteen, which comprised twelve Catholics, five of them priests, was the most recent community of witness to come to trial, and it brought an important innovation to the Peace Movement. Twelve of the accused, a few days before they came to court, grandly dismissed a prestigious team of civil liberties lawyers headed by William Kunstler, and claimed their constitutional rights to defend themselves.

The Milwaukee Twelve’s decision in favor of lay advocacy was an intended blow at the State of Wisconsin, which had planned the trial in such a way as to prevent political issues from being raised in court. Wisconsin had been “out to get them,” as the protesters put it, ever since the day of the action, when a judge by the name of Christ Seraphim had arraigned them on State charges of burglary, arson, and theft and put the preposterous bail of $400,000 on their heads. The State of Wisconsin had been scheduled, from the start, to try them in May, a month before the Federal trial. The Fourteen had tried hard to get a Federal trial first, arguing through their lawyers that Federal charges took precedence in what was a clearly political act. For the consequences of a first trial by the State in such a civil disobedience case are grave. State judges are notoriously deaf to broad constitutional arguments. Conditions in State prisons are tougher than in Federal penitentiaries. There is less possibility of appeal in the State legal system. Most important, the State charges of arson, burglary, and theft obscured the Federal charges of interfering with the Selective Service System, and therefore the educational purpose of the witnesses was lost.

In fact, both of the Milwaukee District Attorneys assigned to the case recommended that the State trial be put aside in favor of the Federal trial, and Judge Charles Larson, on the morning of May 5th agreed to postpone his State trial until June 23rd, well past the Federal date. But three hours later, reportedly under the influence of “a political pressure very high up,” he broke his word and set the trial back to May 12th, a week away. During that morning, some of the defendants who had already flown home had to be paged at airports, and were recalled to Milwaukee the same day to prepare for the trial. Enraged by these machinations, twelve of the defendants proceeded to prepare their own defense. This was a new tactic and one that probably will be repeated in other movement cases coming to trial this year.

It is certainly the first time in legal history that gum-chewing seminarians cross-examined each other while walking barefoot to the water fountain. There was a bizarre contrast between the genteel provincial decorum of the Milwaukee County District Court and the aggressive, impertinent informality of these self-styled lawyers and of their frazzled supporters. One of the two district attorneys who carried on the prosecution was black, the other white and Jewish. They were both twenty-nine years old, both dressed with Edwards and Hanley nattiness, both noted doves who had supported Eugene McCarthy’s Wisconsin campaign. “The immorality of this war bothers me more than its unconstitutionality,” Deputy District Attorney Allen Samson would say during a court recess. “We have to accept the Viet Cong as a fact of life. We’re using Vietnam the way Russia used Hungary and Czechoslovakia. If I were boss I’d have our boys home by tomorrow noon. I’m more violently anti-war than any one in the courtroom, but I don’t burn draft records, it’s bad for the Peace Movement.”

“I’m as violently anti-war as anyone in the courtroom,” his assistant, Harold Jackson Jr., would say. He is from East Harlem and had gone through Groton and Colgate on scholarships. “Our draft laws are obscene. The Wyzanski decision[*] was great. It shows what one judge can do. But these draft-file burners are the worst thing that could happen to us liberals. They’ve polarized the community so I thought I would have to resign.” The two D.A.’s, looking lonely and uncomfortable at the prosecution bench, would glance apologetically, frequently, nervously at the Fourteen’s supporters behind them.

Confronting the shiny hardware of the Court, jamming its seats to capacity, sat the spectators from the Movement, whose rage at the system was intensified by the facts that D.A. Jackson was black, that D.A. Samson was a heavy contributor to Resist, that his radical kid brother was a prominent peace organizer at the University of Wisconsin, that they should not have taken the case. The priests, students, and defendants’ relatives were decorated as thickly as Bolivian generals with Resistance buttons.

There were several Movement celebrities: Tom Cornell, a prominent Catholic pacifist who had recently served a jail term for a protest career illuminated by the burning of nine consecutive draft cards; George McVey, the Movement dentist from Rochester who, out of devotion to his former Holy Cross classmate Philip Berrigan, drills resisters’ teeth at no charge late into the night; Father Bernard Meyer of the D.C. Nine, a group comprising four other priests and two nuns which had ransacked the offices of the Dow Chemical Company the preceding March in what was called “the first witness attack upon the military-industrial complex.” (“It’s very easy for us priests to go to jail after all those years of seminary,” observed Father Meyer, who faces a maximum sentence of thirty-five years, “three square meals and no women anyway.”) In the front row of the courtroom, chewing on raw carrots, pawing at each other like puppies in a litter, lounged a large contingent of pink-cheeked teenagers from a Summerhill-type school in Canada. Their year’s study consisted of a course in “Crime and Punishment,” and they had been taken to the Milwaukee trial as their school outing of the year.

The defendants sat at a long book-laden table at the left of the courtroom well, reading from law volumes, taking notes, raising their hands to address the Court, looking like a graduate seminar at a respectable university. The Milwaukee twelve were a mixed bag. Their ages ranged from twenty-two to forty-seven, they were dressed in a startling variety of attires — blue jeans, business suits, clerical blacks — and their only common denominator was their idealism and their rather formidable scholarship. A local sheriff had described them, with civic boastfulness, as “the classiest bunch of defendants ever.” One felt at times that Milwaukee was proud of them, as of its beer.

At the right of the table, by the prosecutor’s bench, sat the eldest and most scholarly of this brain trust, Christian Brother Basil O’Leary, head of the Economics department at St. Mary’s College in Minnesota, B.A. in economics from Loyola, M.A. in economics from the University of Chicago, PhD. in economics from Notre Dame. Brother O’Leary, forty-seven years old, a wry and spectacled scholastic in an impeccable pin-striped suit, was a contributor to Commonweal and an associate editor of Contin””””””uum, in which he had recently published an article entitled “The Role of Moral Theology in the Universe of the Person.” Referring to the events of September 24th, 1968, as “a symbolic, somewhat bizarre conduct to awaken my fellow citizens,” Brother O’Leary was to testify that he had gone into the Milwaukee action because, after due reflection, he had found no reason not to do so.

Others sitting around the defendants’ table:

Fred Ojile, 25, B.A. in philosophy from Catholic University, one year at the University of Michigan Law School, was a wiry youngster whose sunken cheeks, abundant hair, and stalking stride gave him a startling resemblance to Nureyev.

Doug Marvy, 28, the only Jewish member of the group, a graduate student in mathematics at Yale and at the University of Minnesota, was the author of several teachers’ manuals for grade school mathematics classes.

Robert Graf, 26, six years a Jesuit seminarian, B.A. in philosophy from St. Louis University, was completing his Master’s in sociology at Marquette.

Daniel Cotton, 25, also a former seminarian, had earned his B.A. in psychology at St. Louis University, where he had been a co-chairman of SDS, after two years of field work in Appalachia with the Glenmary Missionaries.

Father Alfred Janicke, 34, an enormously popular parish priest from St. Paul, Minnesota, had represented his archdiocese in the Minneapolis Urban Coalition.

Father James Harney, 28, who kept saying to the Court, “Don’t cut us up, Judge,” was an angular and inflammable Boston Irish curate.

Reverend Jon Higgenbotham of the Church of Scientology, 28, obese and bearded, the only defendant whose appearance bordered on the hippie style, had participated in the raid with particular elation, loudly singing “Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead” as he danced around the burning draft files.

Father Robert Cunnane, 35, a powerfully built, jovial Boston Irish priest with the remains of a brogue, had been provoked into joining the Milwaukee Fourteen by his rage at the six-year sentence imposed upon Philip Berrigan for the Baltimore Four action. (“I said to myself, wow, this country is really bad when a priest pours some blood on draft files and gets six years in prison, these courts are digging their own graves.”)

Father Lawrence Rosenbaugh, 34, a gentle, round-faced priest who had worked as a longshoreman on the Milwaukee docks, belonged to the Order of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a society which bans Commonweal, America, and Worship from its seminarians’ bookshelves as being subversive. Rosenbaugh, who joined the action “because Christianity wasn’t moving like a Movement should,” said he looked forward to prison life as being “just like seminary, with more time and freedom to read.”

Father Anthony Mullaney, 40, a tall, very handsome Benedictine monk with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, a former teacher at Boston University, had been radicalized by two recent years of social work in the Roxbury section of Boston. He used formidably scholastic language. “Picketing and burning draft files are not discrete variables, they are a continuum of action.”

James Forest, 28, whose bushy mustache and steel-rimmed glasses gave him the air of a Victorian intellectual, was a prominent Catholic pacifist to whom Thomas Merton had dedicated his last book. Son of a Communist Party organizer, a convert to Catholicism, Forest had almost become a Benedictine monk, and had been founder and co-chairman, along with Philip Berrigan, of the Catholic Peace Fellowship.

Four of the twelve — Graf, Marvy, Forest, Ojile — were married. The wives sat calmly through the trial, admiring their husbands’ competence at the bar. “Jim has six ways of making any one point and he always chooses the best way,” Linda Forest would say.

Two members of the original fourteen had decided to retain counsel: Jerry Gardner, 26, a graduate student of mathematics at Marquette University; and Michael Cullen, 27, an Irish immigrant who had left a lucrative job selling insurance for Omaha Mutual to start a Catholic Worker house of hospitality in Milwaukee, and had become a hero of the city’s peace movement after a much-publicized ten-day protest fast in the Milwaukee cathedral.

The defendants, on good days, referred to their judge as “grandpa,” a kinder name than the Movement has given to any other man on the bench. A benign, gauche man in his sixties, he was officially called “Ozaukee County Judge Charles Larson.” His manner evoked some folksy early morning TV show like Captain Kangaroo, on which a fumbling jurist presides over a court of rebellious puppets. He was tall, mournful-faced, heavy-lidded, thin-lipped, cauliflower-eared, and his favorite word was “inflammatory.” He was the Wisconsin Commander of the American Legion, and, at the time of being offered his first judgeship twelve years ago, had “reluctantly and with a heavy heart” stopped his campaign for the Legion’s National Commandership to step up to the bench. Former prosecutor at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, father of Vietnam veterans, chairman of the Wisconsin Chapter of Crusade for Freedom, little acquainted with the history of the Vietnam war, Judge Larson was also a devout Roman Catholic.

The presence at the defendants’ table of five priests, to all appearances the safest kind — regular guys, jovial, ball-playing, Bingo-organizing Irish curates — must have added much to the grief and confusion of his small blue eyes. One could not help pitying this pious provincial for whom priests were replete with an authority and sacredness undistinguishable from that of policemen and National Guardsmen, and whose allegiances to God-and-country were suddenly sundered by having to judge the saviors of his soul. For Judge Larson was a loyal, soft-hearted, sentimental man, an ardent amateur poet who was fond of quoting couplets he had written in honor of girls’ weddings: “She is blessed with qualities rare,/ Statuesque, impeccably attired/ Always knowing when to wear/ That which makes her most admired.”

“These defendants are very intelligent, honest men,” Judge Larson said one morning in his chambers, “but look, this morning at five a.m. I was reading Newsweek, and it said in Newsweek that Ho-Chi-Minh…what’s his post up there in North Vietnam?” “President of the Republic,” someone suggested. “Thank you,” he continued, “it says in Newsweek that their President Ho-Chi-Minh has executed fifty thousand people and jailed another one hundred thousand for not agreeing with his way of doing things, and if we pull out of there it will be wholesale slaughter. Why don’t we hear a bit about that too in the courtroom?”

Yet he looked more grieved than annoyed, and one felt that he was not so much a war-lover as a man who devoutly followed any dictate of his state or church. “Wyzanski, Wyzanski,” he muttered distantly when he was asked what he thought of the recent Massachusetts decision. “Never heard of the man. Never heard of the ruling. Don’t see how any part of the Selective Service laws could be found unconstitutional.” And upon that he had walked into the courtroom to preside over the trial of twelve men who were pleading that they were innocent in committing burglary, arson, and theft upon property which they “reasonably believed to be illegal and unconstitutional”; that they had committed these acts “with the intent of saving lives,” at the biddance of “a moral law higher than that of any nation”; and that they had been bound to act by their religious consciences, which they defined as “the contact point between an individual and God.”

Early in the trial the defendants moved that the charges of arson and theft against them must be dropped, arguing that 1) market value, not replacement value as the State defined it, determined the value of stolen property and that 2) the State had failed to prove that the market value of the draft records was beyond one hundred dollars, the sum which distinguishes felony from misdemeanor. The prosecution’s witness against this argument was Major Lane, a crew-cut, perspiring Army officer who serves as Administrative Officer of the State Selective Service System in Madison. He testified that it had cost him seventeen dollars a day to stay in Milwaukee during the time he was busy reconstructing the burnt draft files, thus hiking the State’s replacement cost to several hundred dollars.

Father Mullaney: Seventeen dollars a day for room and board for Mr. Lane, that’s kind of staggering to my imagination. I don’t know why that should be against us. That it takes seventeen dollars a day.

James Forest: I am flabbergasted by the price that he spent for room and board. I want to know if this was the cheapest he could find.

Doug Marvy: We are all living now, and have been for quite some time, on one, two, three dollars a day.

The Court: Yes. Well, if you register in any of these Wisconsin hotels, the Schroeder Hotel or the Pfister, or Holiday Inn…seventeen dollars a day is not an exorbitant figure, to meet those costs.

Robert Graf: I can’t afford that.

The Court: Son, I’m merely answering an inquiry…concerning the cost which they thought was exorbitant.

Fred Ojile: The reason for the surprise is that most of us live very well on twenty or thirty dollars a month, and that we see money as very much the root of the evil in society….

The Court: All right, fellows, all right.

A few minutes later the defendants tried to confront the Major with the morality of their action, which triggered the Court’s futile, hourly ruling that no discussion of the Vietnam war should be allowed in the courtroom.

Robert Graf: Just a very simple question. Would you consider the value of property to be more important than the value of human life?

Mr. Samson: If it please the Court, I object to the question on the grounds that it is not material and it’s not relevant and it’s inflammatory.

The Court: And it is, inflammatory.

Mr. Samson: No question about it being inflammatory.

Robert Graf: I’m inflamed about the deaths.

The Court: I just advise you, you must not ask a question that is intended to inflame the jury on an issue that is entirely apart from the subject matter the witness is testifying to.

Robert Graf: I think that’s a point of view. To me the lives of my brothers in Vietnam is not apart from the Selective Service System.

The Court: None of us like to see this happen. It is most sad and unfortunate … but this is not the issue before the Court.

Robert Graf: It’s my issue, and that’s why I’m here in Court. Those lives are my issue.

The Court: You tell that to the jury, Mr. Graf, at the time you wish to argue.

And the judge, mild in manner but predictable in his ruling, denied the defense’s motion for dismissal, ruling that the State had established a prima facie case against the defendants and that they were guilty of destroying property whose replacement value was over $100. The prosecution rested its case with a flourish of evidence — screwdrivers, policemen, cleaning women, photographers, charred draft records, gasoline cans. It was an academic display, since the defendants in this unorthodox case had readily admitted to having committed the material acts of which they were accused and were asking for acquittal on moral and political grounds.

As the defendants’ testimonies began to unfold on the sixth day of the trial, it became clear that the defense’s first tactic was to invoke the so-called “defensive privilege” — statute 939.48 in the Wisconsin legal code — which states that actions ordinarily punishable under the criminal code may be considered privileged, i.e., non-criminal, if the action is taken with the “reasonable belief” that it may prevent bodily harm to another party. Claiming “privileged” action, the defendants argued that the events of September 24th were “efforts to forestall injury to third persons, third persons being drafted into a war of doubtful legality.”

They also pleaded that they had tried every legal recourse they could to stop the war, and that their act of civil disobedience “had the purpose not of disobeying the law, but of demonstrating its unconstitutional character.” Crucial in the defense’s argument, because it involved the admissibility of evidence, was its contention that in order to prove “reasonable belief” the defendants were entitled to offer as exhibits scholarly opinions contained in books, documents, and legal journals testifying to the illegality of the Vietnam war, and to the Christian teaching that the individual must follow his own conscience when his government’s conduct is of doubtful legality.

The offered exhibits — some three dozen in number and all rejected by the Court — ranged from the Congressional Record’s list of the war dead and Pope John’s encyclical “Pacem in Terris,” to Gordon Zahn’s book on the Catholic Church in Hitler’s Germany and the New Testament. Judge Larson overruled the prosecution, which had agreed to admit the New Testament as an exhibit, on the grounds that “to admit [the New Testament] into evidence may create substantial danger of undue prejudice or of misleading the jury.”

“That’s beautiful,” Fred Ojile had yelled out.

Judge Larson also objected to the defendants’ plea of “privileged action.” “Anybody who’s about to cross the street here, Juneau Avenue,” he said, “runs a chance of being run over…shall we stop them crossing the street for that reason?” He preferred not to distinguish between acts against persons and acts against property. “Mr. Forest,” he asked, “was John Wilkes Booth justified when, believing he was acting for the welfare of the Confederacy, he shot and killed Abraham Lincoln?” Forest, a disciple of Eric Gill and of Prince Kropotkin, was a brilliant high school drop-out who had had a multifold career as free-lance writer, editor of the Catholic Worker, draft counselor, college lecturer and artist. He showed talent and evident relish in his new career as a self-styled lawyer.

I would simply point out that, one: the only charges against us are property damage, damage to property, not to persons, and that, in fact, we were trying to prevent people from getting killed. So, the direction is opposite. I’m not saying that the jury should find us innocent. I’m simply hoping that the Court will allow us to try to demonstrate the reasonableness of our belief and to decide for themselves whether, in fact, it was reasonable. The jury must determine whether the threat was apparent…whether we could reasonably believe as we do. Therefore, all the evidence relevant to establishing either one of these points we believe must be admitted into evidence, so that the jury can decide these points…. The Court, in Weston Versus State 28 Wisconsin 2nd, 136 of 1964, agrees with this analysis. The Court here allowed evidence to be introduced under 939.8, self-defense, and then, gave an instruction to the jury explaining that theory….

It was an admirable argument. But after four hours the prosecution objected that the defense still had failed to prove that Selective Service offices constituted an “imminent” threat to anyone’s life. Judge Larson upheld the objection, cleared his throat ominously, and ruled that section 939.48 of the Wisconsin penal code regarding privilege was “not applicable in this case.”

“Jesus Christ,” Reverend Higgen-botham blurted out.

Larson looked sadly at the defendant and said: “Well now, Reverend Higgenbotham, was that proper?” The judge let the impertinence pass without a threat of contempt, and he continued to do so until the end of the trial:

The Court: I shall not permit any testimony about the fairness of the draft or the fact that it discriminates against some, and as far as the Vietnam war is moral or anything else, it is not relevant here.

Fred Ojile: Oh for God’s sake, don’t give me that. What do you think we’re playing, tiddlywinks?

The Court: Who do you think you are talking to?

The Milwaukee defendants, earlier, had grandly subpoenaed General Hershey and the auxiliary bishop of St. Paul, Minnesota as defense witnesses. Declaring indigency (Reverend Higgenbotham testified that his sole worldly possession was an automobile with a market value of fifty-five dollars on which he still had two hundred dollars to pay), the twelve had asked that Milwaukee County pay for the witnesses’ transportation costs. This request went unfulfilled, and the accused used their defense funds to fly three expert witnesses from the East Coast to testify on the “reasonableness” of their views on the war and on civil disobedience. The three — Howard Zinn, John Fried, and Marvin Gettleman — seemed to make Judge Larson highly uncomfortable. Howard Zinn’s hour and a half on the witness stand was Grand Guignol. The prosecution objected at every few words that the defendants’ cross-examination was immaterial or that Dr. Zinn’s opinions were irrelevant; the judge sustained the objections, pounding the gavel like a Guignol policeman batting down the hobo when he tries to rise. Nevertheless the courtroom audience burst into frenzied applause at Zinn’s truncated testimony.

Howard Zinn: The tradition of civil disobedience goes as far back as Thomas Jefferson and it comes right up to today…people distinguished in the field of law and philosophy recognize that there’s a vast difference between a person who commits an ordinary crime and a person who commits an act which technically is a crime, but which in essence is a social act designed to make a statement….

[Wild clapping from the audience, a few shouts.]

Court: I must stop you. There was an objection to that…did someone cry out back there?

Father Mullaney: The whole American people are crying out, Your Honor.

A little later:

Doug Marvy: Do you as a historian see any connection between the Declaration of Independence and the act which has brought us twelve defendants here today?

Zinn: Yes, I….

Mr. Samson: I object to that…Mr. Marvy knows that these questions are immaterial, and that he is just asking them to inflame the jury.

Court: Objection sustained.

Marvy: I find that kind of a disgusting comment that [the prosecution] is able to read my mind. I’m not asking these questions because I think they’re immaterial…they are the most material things I can think of. Burglary, arson and theft are immaterial. The Court has ruled that screwdrivers are relevant and dead bodies aren’t. What the hell!

Doug Marvy’s voice was loud and threatening, but the Court preferred to threaten Zinn, rather than Marvy. (“I’m going to have you arrested and have you put in the place where persons are placed for contempt of court.”) Zinn was dismissed from the stand and took the next plane back to New York. “This is like being stoned to death with marshmallows,” cracked Father Cunnane, who spent idle moments in court reading “The Gospel According to Peanuts.” “It’s very soft, and it takes very long.”

The second star witness, John Fried, an imposing, silver-haired Vienneseborn scholar, had been chief consultant to the American judges at the Nuremberg trials, United Nations Adviser on International Law to the government of Nepal, and adviser on international law at the Pentagon. The defendants stated that they had called Fried to testify on “a hierarchy of law in the international world order.” The prosecution and the Court objected that testimony drawn from such documents as the UN Charter and the Nuremberg Principles concerning the United States’ violation of international law would be irrelevant to charges of burglary, arson, and theft. Fred Ojile replied that the defense’s purposes in calling expert witnesses was to show it had “reasonable belief” in the war’s illegality.

“That has been said over and over again, Mr. Ojile,” Judge Larson said in a tired voice.

“Well it will continue to be said until it’s understood by the Court,” Ojile answered grandly, stalking, panther-like and barefoot, from the defendants’ table to the water fountain. “I consider my state of mind, at the time of the action, very much related to Nuremberg principles, and I would like the witness to have the opportunity to explain that, and it’s not being allowed. At this rate, you know, it’s a travesty of justice.”

“That’s your opinion,” said Judge Larson.

“I rule that that’s so,” Fred Ojile answered loftily.

For once the defendants’ gambit worked. Whatever the reason — their unpredictable and agile tactics of self-defense, perhaps some growing anguish that seemed to gnaw at the prosecutors and a certain grandeur or glamor that the witness injected into this provincial courtroom — Fried’s testimony plunged more deeply into a discussion of the morality of the war than any yet tolerated at a resistance trial.

Fried: I say with a very, very grave heart and after very, very careful study that the U.S. military intervention in Vietnam does violate essential and basic provisions of the United Nations character, and this is not an isolated opinion of myself.

Brother O’Leary: What recourse does a citizen have…when his country pursues war in violation of international treaties which the citizen holds have been violated?

(“No objection,” said District Attorney Harold Jackson; “if he can answer that, God bless him.”)

Fried: The International Tribunal at Nuremberg, at which the United States was represented, stated that it is the moral choice of the individual if he feels that for him obedience to the higher order — to the world order — is more important,…then he has to take the moral choice and do the things which he considers morally proper. That is the great ethical and moral method of Nuremberg.

Brother O’Leary: One who breaks a law in the State of Wisconsin might well be called an arsonist or just a common criminal. One who conspires with his government to commit a crime in violation of the United Nations, I suppose, would be called a war criminal. In the perspective on international law, which would be the worse kind of criminal?

Fried: United Nations Charter does not give the rules for conduct during war time. There are other treaties, like the Hague Treaties of 1907 long preceding the Charters of the Geneva Conventions of 1929 and 1949. In the hierarchy of law, international world order as stipulated in treaties…is the highest. If, then, a dichotomy develops between international law and domestic law, the dilemma for the government and for the individual is great …”

Brother O’Leary: No more questions.

The defendants and the spectators were still. James Forest, whose conversion to Catholicism had been aided by seeing a shaft of sunlight filtering into the east window of a church at evening, looked as if he were repeating that experience. Fried’s testimony on the illegality of the war was something quite new in the brief history of war protesters’ trials, much stronger, for example, than any allowed in the Spock-Coffin trial. For a moment the courtroom had become the forum which the communities of witness desired it to be! And the incompetence of the courts to deal with any mature form of political conscience had been briefly exposed.

This delicate legal surgery had been performed by Brother Basil O’Leary, the most traditional of the defendants, a conservative economist, a strong believer in market economy. There was an amiable pedantry about this wry, slight, elegant man who wrote on natural law for arcane theological journals. Earlier the prosecution had asked, “Did you just say to yourself, ‘Okay, Basil, you can go in there today?’ “ “Well Basil doesn’t operate that way,” Brother O’Leary had answered. “Basil operates more in a reflective way in which he likes to know all the relevant factors to a situation. Basil weighs all the consequences of an act and then decides.”

By the end of John Fried’s unprecedented testimony, at mid-trial, both the Court and the State were visibly troubled by the unorthodox course of the twelve’s self-defense. The major advantages of lay advocacy for the accused in a Resistance case, and its drawbacks for the prosecution, can be summarized as follows:

1) Latitude of testimony: Self-defense exempts the accused from the traditional rules of evidence, procedure, and decorum which are enforced upon professionals. To moralize on Vietnam and expose political issues as impetuously as the Milwaukee twelve did, a professional lawyer would risk not only contempt of court, but disbarment.

2) Harass the D.A.’s: Defense counsels provide an emotional buffer zone between the accused and the system. An increasing number of State and Federal jurists are turning against the war. The absence of counsel confronts them directly with their own political allegiances and can lead to greater leniency.

3) Length of testimony: Each defendant has the right to confront the jury’s emotions with an opening and a closing statement — twenty-four in all in the Milwaukee trial — instead of the two statements allowed to a lawyer. The implications of lay advocacy for mass arrests are startling. If fifty or one hundred people arrested together for civil disobedience decided to defend themselves, a court would have the choice between trying each of them separately, or opening itself to the marathon of one or two hundred opening and closing statements.

4) The D.A.’s are made to look like villains: Self-styled lawyers like the Milwaukee twelve, with more ignorance than malice, will pursue lines of argument which have previously been ruled out by the Court. When the D.A. shuts off testimony, it looks like a blatant abuse of power.

“I’m constantly having to argue admissibility of evidence in front of the jury,” District Attorney Allen Samson complained at the twelve’s trial, “which makes me look as if I’m holding back all kinds of information which the jury is entitled to hear…. Back at the Safety Building where I have my office I’m called a radical and a commie. Here in the courtroom the kids call me a Nazi liberal, a capitalist pig, the way my kid brother does. I’m caught in the worst kind of liberal bag, being fired at from both sides.”

The arguments over admissibility of evidence also bothered Judge Larson the most. Because of the Milwaukee Twelve’s ignorance about how much the jury is allowed to hear, the jurors had been ordered in and out of court throughout the trial. They were a dour, impassive, perplexed bunch — eight men, four women, one of them black, eight of them Catholics. Only one detail in their composition, the fashionably long sideburns of a computer analyst, had given the defense any hope for a hung jury, and their colorlessness made one wonder why the defense objected so frantically to their recurring absences. The dispute over the jury’s absence came to a head the day after Fried’s testimony, when Marvin Gettleman, an expert on the history of the Vietnam war, was called by Doug Marvy to the witness stand. Upon Marvy’s first question to Gettleman — whether, on the basis of his expert knowledge, he was aware of the United States ever being attacked by North Vietnam — Judge Larson again dismissed the jury and asked Marvy what he intended to prove through this witness.

Marvy: I have no reason whatsoever to speak outside the presence of the jury on any matter whatsoever…. I am not interested in speaking to the Court.

The Court: It makes it difficult to proceed.

Marvy: Yes, it does, you make it difficult to proceed.

The Court: I’m merely following the procedure…I am employed in this and other courts in Wisconsin….

Marvy: I’ll speak when the jury is in the room.

The judge’s amazing patience was eroding. He struck at the defendants’ pride in their capacities as self-styled barristers. “Let the record show,” he said plaintively, “that while these defendants are in court without counsel, time and time again they have cited law which is very pertinent and relevant, law which requires a learned legal mind to ferret out…the Court therefore wants the record to show that although it does not appear so in the courtroom, that they are receiving legal assistance and considerable….” The defendants did not let him finish.

“You’re despicable!” Reverend Higgenbotham shouted.

“I did that research,” Ojile yelled, waving his arms like a windmill. “I had a year of law school, and I did every bit of research.”

“Let him lie,” Robert Graf said jadedly.

The defendants then went into a deafmute pantomime, refusing to speak in the absence of the jury. Some sitting, others standing, pencils poised in midair, books in hand, they stayed utterly motionless like statues. “Father Alfred Lawrence Janicke, will you state what you intend to prove through the testimony of this witness?” No response. “Do you refuse to answer, Father?” No response. “Let the record show,” the judge droned, “that Father is looking straight at the judge of this Court, that he is within easy hearing distance, and has refused to answer both questions….

It was the tensest day of the trial. The storm reached its peak after Father Rosenbaugh elaborated on how the Vietnam war was crippling the nation’s war on poverty. The Court interrupted the testimony as irrelevant. Samson, in an increasingly frequent moment of leniency, asked the Court to take notice of that testimony, even though it was immaterial, because “everyone knows that the war is taking money away from urban planning.” Judge Larson replied that the Court should shut off such testimony because it “would be giving dignity to their position, which I don’t think should be done.”

“How can you be a judge in this courtroom and say a thing like that?” James Forest cried, and walked threateningly toward the well of the courtroom.

“The Court had best explain what it means is that it does not want to give dignity to an irrelevant defense.”

“I don’t think you should explain,” Doug Marvy said, “I think you should resign.”

Gettleman was dismissed. He had traveled from New York to Milwaukee without being allowed to answer a question. The defendants henceforward had to rely on their extraordinary moral passion.

Robert Graf: I entered that building with much of the same intention with which I’d entered the Society of Jesus, in order to be of service in some way to other men….

Father Mullaney: There were three states of mind in particular which I think were important on September 24th. The first of these is a really felt need to be responsible. And there are three things I think that define a monk that are connected to responsibility:

The first of these is being a Benedictine with 1400 years of tradition, the motto of the order having always been peace. The second is that the vows of the monk can be summed up as a single vow to set up the conditions whereby man can be fully human….

The third characteristic of the monastic life that has defined it down through the ages is that the monk is supposed to be a sign of hope, he is supposed to be a sign that history can be moved in the direction laid down in the Gospels, and therefore a sign that we are responsible for history and the direction that history takes.

The Mullaney testimony went on some three hours and was composed in strict Thomist style, I-a, I-b, I-c. It was delivered in a luminous, booming voice into a suddenly still courtroom.

The second frame of mind that was very important that day was the anger that stems from a correct assessment of a present moment in history. My anger comes out of two places, one is the college scene, and the second is the urban scene. My anger on September 24th was very definitely based on first-hand evidence that I had that the draft was doing violence to the consciences of youg men, that it was doing real psychological damage to young men.

The second place that was very important in my life, in terms of my intent on September 24th, was the fact that two years ago I was granted a leave from St. Anselm’s Abbey to go to the city, an act, which, historically, is very common within the history of monasticism in time of social crisis. And I went to that section of Boston that is known as Roxbury, that section of the city where poverty is perhaps at its worst. At the abbey, with my books, I could and did build up an elaborate system of defenses that kept me from responding to the enormous injustices of our society. In Roxbury, your defenses are shattered the day you arrive….

The Court conducted a half-hour dispute about the “irrelevance” of poverty in Roxbury, Massachusetts. The clinical psychologist picked up at point three.

The third state of mind that I think was very important in my own case was what can only be described as fear…of a very deep and very pervasive polarization that is going on in the United States; by polarization I mean that we are a nation that’s very, very seriously divided…black-white, rich-poor, young-old, a pervasive and very, very deep polarization.

Now there are four reasons which give rise to this particular fear that grew out of polarization: Number one, the ineffectiveness of speech in American life. Secondly, the growing gap between the powerful and the powerless. Also, the growing priority of things over people. And finally, the distorted priorities — the Vietnam war versus the City…

And so, on September 24th, I participated in the burning of draft records as my attempt to say something about the polarization, which, if it is not checked, is going to lead to great disaster in this nation. I participated in what I considered a very beautiful liturgy, and this is the work of the monk….

The tall, grave priest continued, I-a-1, I-a-2….

Now through my participation, I intended the following:

Firstly, I intended to show in a society where speech is in such danger of being stifled, that man as public speaker is still alive.

Secondly, I intended to show in a society where the inadequacies of legal channels for redressing injustices is apparent, that civil disobedience is part of due process in that society, I acted to affirm that law in a free society compels obedience only when it furthers the justice that enables men to lead a more fully human life.

Third, I intended to show in a society whose structures are becoming so rigid, whose leaders are so intransigent, that social crises are not being confronted in a way proportionate to their magnitude, that organized controlled non-violent civil disobedience is still capable of effecting change in policy.

Fourthly, in a society where so many leaders act as though law and order are independent of justice, I acted to affirm my respect for law.

Fifthly, I intended to show, in a society where participation in critical decisions which affect one’s life and death are becoming less and less, that there must be an increase in one’s power to make what ought to be become a reality.

Sixthly, I intended to affirm that I was equally concerned as those who are in prison today, for reasons of conscience….

“Father,” Judge Larson interrupted very gently. Mullaney was the defendant whose grave and impeccable manner had most endeared him to the Court and the prosecution. “Father, are you still giving reasons why you participated on the 24th of September?”

Indeed Father Mullaney had a seventh reason to add to his Summa. It was a 1500-word press release which the Milwaukee Fourteen had handed to reporters at the time of their action. Notwithstanding some objections from the Court that Father was giving “an oration on social matters” he was allowed to read through this entire document.

“That’s the end of my statement,” Father Mullaney said modestly after three hours on the stand.

“Tony, Reverend Doctor,” Fred Ojile began his cross-examination, “when does the question of who determines destruction of property become pertinent in the decision-making process?”

“The decision to destroy property has to be confronted whenever the person has reasonably concluded that there is no longer any relationship between that property and the enhancement of those values to which he is committed, through his membership in various comunities such as the American community, the Family of Nations, and so forth. In other words, when property no longer enhances the dignity of the person. Property is an instrument, it does not have substantial value, it has instrumental value.”

(A definition of property straight out of St. Thomas Aquinas.)

At the beginning of the trial, Harold Jackson, Jr., the assistant District Attorney, had described his emotions toward the defendants as “one of intense anger and hatred, because I’m Catholic and violently against the war, and black, and their actions seem to polarize all the sentiments against us liberals.” But the defendants’ testimonies, however often he interrupted them, seemed to affect him even more deeply than they seemed to affect Samson. “I’m more torn by this case than at the beginning,” he admitted at mid-trial; “I see nothing but honesty and intelligence here, depth of perception and integrity, an atmosphere that I can only describe as very loving.”

Later, toward the end of the trial, after Mullaney had been speaking with particular moral passion, Jackson obviously upset, asked that the jury be dismissed from the room.

“The state is very much opposed to the position it finds itself in,” he said, “because both counsels for the State do not think that the war in Vietnam is irrelevant in and of itself. We find it to be irrelevant in terms of the act for which we are prosecuting. And we request that this Court instruct the jury as to the legal reasons why certain evidence is not admissible. We request that it not be done in terms of the customary lawyer’s nomenclature…it is impossible for the State represented by human beings to sit here any longer having it said that they believe in and of themselves that poverty and the war are irrelevant.”

His voice broke. “I just can’t take it,” he said.

But the defendants were merciless. “He’s put out,” Doug Marvy said, “and I think that’s just plain tough. We tried to put into evidence a list of war deaths, and the reason that this list is here is because of individuals who follow rules at the expense of individuals’ lives, and I think it’s tough if it’s really hard on him. He says he doesn’t know what to do, and I see four doors in this room and that’s a perfectly reasonable choice for him. He can quit any time.”

Two weeks later, after the State trial was over, Harold Jackson left his district attorney’s job to work exclusively with black civil rights cases. “Negroes in this country are being sent to jail like Jews to Auschwitz,” he said in his office on his last day there. “There’s not enough legal talent around to help them….

“That trial tore me up,” he said. “I’m still not sure what they accomplished politically. But whatever religion is, they’re where it’s at…. I suppose the essence of religiousness is to break rules at the proper time…. What the hell do you expect when a great priest like Mullaney leaves the monastery after nineteen years and sees what life is like in Roxbury, Massachusetts?”

On May 26th, the eleventh and last day of the trial, Judge Larson charged the jury, using almost the same words with which the judge of a Federal Court in Baltimore, seven months previously, had charged the jurors of the Catonsville Nine. “The law does not recognize political, religious or moral convictions, or some higher law, as justification for the commission of a crime, no matter how good the motive may be…people who believe that the Vietnam war is illegal or unconstitutional or morally wrong have the right to protest in various ways….”

The defendants went out for beer. There was a glimmer of hope for a hung jury in the sideburned computer analyst, and in two women jurors who had wept during Forest’s and Mullaney’s closing statements. But the twelve were soon recalled. The jury had deliberated for only seventy minutes before returning its verdict, charge by charge, defendant by defendant, thirty-six times in a row, as guilty of arson, burglary, and theft.

There was a half-minute of stunned silence in the courtroom. Judge Larson began to sum up the jury’s findings. Then, as if ignited by a slow fuse, pandemonium erupted in the courtroom. It was set off by a young spectator in the back row who yelled out, “If they are guilty I am too, from this day forward I am a draft resister!”

“We thank you, men and women of the jury,” shouted Sister Joanna Malone of the D.C. Nine raiders, a nun who specialized in liturgical dancing, “for finding Jesus Christ guilty again!”

The nun’s voice set off a burst of rhythmical applause by the two hundred people wedged into the courtroom, a chorus of sobbing and weeping, a melee of clenched fists and V signs. Dozens of spectators rose, linked arms throughout the courtroom, and swayed, singing “We Shall Overcome.” The jurors tried to pick their way out of the courtroom through the milling, swaying throng. “Clear the Court, I’ve got to have more sheriffs,” Judge Larson shouted, helplessly standing behind the bench. Eight frantic bailiffs started to drag limp spectators out of the courtroom. “Good God,” the judge cried again, “I’ve got to have more policemen!” As the courtroom began to clear, Judge Larson feebly attempted to restore decorum by repeating the jury’s findings. As he called out their names, the defendants refused to rise, and instead shouted a last protest to the Court. “I pity the nation that fears its young!” Father Mullaney blasted out.

Judge Larson proceeded to cite Fred Ojile, Doug Marvy, and Reverend Higgenbotham for contempt of court during the proceedings of the trial, the latter for having “uttered the name of the Son of God.” “You’ve lost your authority, Judge,” Father Harney snapped as the judge sentenced the three to ten extra days in jail for contempt, whereupon Judge Larson announced the same fines for Harney’s contempt. “Thanks a lot,” Harney said, “and good luck to you, too.”

In the hall outside the courtroom one hundred persons still milled about. Three young men burned their draft cards, and the supporters of the Milwaukee twelve made the sign of the cross on their foreheads with the remaining ashes. The trial ended, as it had proceded, in a bizarre mixture of burlesque and religious fervor.

The Milwaukee twelve were free on bail until June 6th, when they returned to Judge Larson’s court for sentencing. Judge Larson gave the men two years — a benign sentence compared to the six years given Philip Berrigan the previous spring, the three years given to most members of the Catonsville Nine, the four and five years still being given to men refusing induction. As the Judge began to sentence Father Mullaney, he choked on that good Irish name and fumbled among his black robes for a handkerchief. He wept for a few seconds, and then in a timorous voice resumed sentencing the monk, who stood before him triumphantly, dressed in clerical black, his arms folded as if he were the executioner.

This first attempt at legal self-defense raised the political issues as no previous resistance trial had done. It had tortured the consciences of a few in power. The defendants had been let off lightly. The twelve could be paroled, after all, in a mere fourteen months. Movement lawyers began to write manuals for lay advocacy.

During the second week of the Milwaukee twelve’s trial, three more acts of destruction and instruction took place. On May 20th, in Los Angeles, three young men removed and burned several hundred I-A draft files from a downtown induction center. They were all residents of Peace House in Pasadena, a community of draft resisters that had taken sanctuary at a local Quaker meeting house. The Quakers were definitely getting into the act. One of them, Walter Skinner, a former secretary of the American Friends Service Committee, participated in the raid a few days before he was scheduled to be sentenced for refusing induction. “We destroy draft records,” so read the statement of the “Pasadena Three,” as the group called itself, “because we wish to make a statement clear and precise, to the best of our abilities, that we shall continue to carry on non-violent resistance to this government… We urge others to responsible action.”

At seven the following morning, three young men, Michael Bransome, eighteen, Leslie Bayless, twenty-two, and his seventeen-year-old brother John Bayless, entered the Selective Service Office at Silver Spring, Maryland, and mutilated part of its records with a mixed medium of black paint and blood. “We accuse you, the American government,” the Silver Spring Three’s statement read, “of mass murder in Vietnam, of economic oppression in underdeveloped nations as well as in our own cities, of the creation of a life-style based on the priority of property over lives….” Leslie Bayless, like his Pasadena colleague, was about to be sentenced to five years in prison for refusing induction. The Bayless boys’ father, a Pentagon official, was unavailable for comment.

Five days later, at five a.m. on May 25th, thirteen men and two women entered a draft board in Chicago’s South Side, grabbed an estimated forty thousand draft records out of the filing cabinets, and celebrated Pentecost by burning them in a nearby alley. The group included two priests — a Carmelite monk and a curate from Father Groppi’s Milwaukee parish; a staff member of the American Friends Service Committee’s Chicago office; a twenty-three-year-old girl truckdriver; and two men, Charles Muse and John Phillips, who are the seasonal heroes of the Ultra Resistance for their sheer persistence in choosing to live in jail.

Twenty-year-old Charles Muse left Allenwood prison last December and had been discharged from parole supervision only eighteen hours before he took part in the Chicago Fifteen’s draft board raid in May. “I feel guilty about having it so good,” he told a friend a few days before the action. “It’s not really so different out here from in there.” As for twenty-two-year-old John Phillips, he had refused to leave jail when his term was up. He had been rolled out of Allenwood in a wheelchair, and had gone home to Boston to found an organization named the Prisoners’ Information and Support Service, called PISS for short. Its mottos are “Void where Prohibited,” and “Words are Shit.” In John Phillips’s style, the draft board witnesses have recaptured some of the scatological splendor of their origins.

The insouciance of Phillips and Muse are, at the moment, characteristic of the communities of witness. The Chicago Fifteen’s loot — 40,000 draft files — was the biggest to date. Yet the group had had only two briefing sessions before their foray. “We brought them out in pillow cases, in potato sacks,” Margaret Katroscik of the Fifteen describes it, “in shopping bags, in duffle bags, oh, it was gorgeous.”

Another member of the Fifteen, Charles Fullencampf of Milwaukee, who had been reclassified six times in six months by his draft board, says that the process of going through C.O. applications was much more painful than his decision to join in the Chicago action. “We had drunk and celebrated the night before most joyfully,” he reports. “We all slept in a pad a few floors below the draft board. Everyone was so relaxed, I got up to go to the john a few hours before the action was scheduled to go and I heard most of the guys snoring, fast asleep.”

text continues:
part 2 is posted at:

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Thomas Merton: A Western Pilgrim to the Christian East

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

by Jim Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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