Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen: Western Explorers of the Christian East

mosaic at church of Sts Cosmas & Damian in Rome

by Jim Forest

At different periods of my life, Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen were spiritual parents to me. Both were excellent confessors and counselors. Both made it possible for me to share parts of myself that were painful, awkward and embarrassing. Each helped me survive hard times and survive close encounters with despair. So I say at the beginning that whatever light I can shine on them is not the result simply of studying their writing, identifying major themes, trying to see where their thoughts converge or diverge, or analyzing them as if I were studying them through a telescope. They were both people who played — indeed still play — a significant role in my life.

For all their differences, they had a great deal in common. Both were Europeans who made their home in North America. Both lived a life that centered in the Eucharist. Both were Catholic priests. Both were deeply responsive to the suffering of others. Both were involved in opposition to war, racism and social injustice, for which they were sometimes regarded as liberals or even radicals, yet both took a dim view of popular political ideologies, for which they were sometimes regarded as conservatives. Liberal? Conservative? Neither label fits.

Both were restless, searching men.

Thomas Merton entered the limelight after the publication of his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. In it he recounts one of the hardest decisions he faced as a young man — whether to become a monk or to be a full-time member of a community of hospitality, Friendship House, in Harlem. He had been volunteering at Friendship House while teaching at St. Bonaventure’s University. Even after deciding on the monastic path, a part of Merton continued to feel a powerful connection with those who cenetered themselves in the works of mercy, especially the Catholic Worker movement that Dorothy Day had founded.

Once grafted into monastic life at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, he seemed to say there was no better place on earth to be than his contemlative outpost in rural Kentucky. But in fact it wasn’t easy for him to maintain stability. Some of Merton’s letters in later years almost catch fire with complaints about the shortcoming of life in his chosen monastery. On several occasions Merton sought permission to leave Gethsemani with the idea of sharing in the life of a poorer, smaller, more primitive monastery either in Latin America or some other part of the world. Yet one of the remarkable achievements of his life was how steadfast he was in his monastic; he remained a monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani from 1941 until his death his in 1968. Still there was a basic restlessness. It is somehow appropriate that he should die while on pilgrimage on the other side of the planet while attending a monastic conference in Thailand after weeks of travel in India and Sri Lanka.

Henri had no monastic vows to limit his travels nor was his bishop in Utrecht inclined to rein him in. His restlessness brought him from Holland to America. He taught at Notre Dame, then Yale, then Harvard, but could not bring himself to stay at any of these distinguished institutions. Searching for community, he was for an extended period a temporary brother at a Trappist monastery, but found monastic life, though it helped clear his mind and re-center him, wasn’t what he was searching for. He had a sabbatical in Latin America and for a time thought he was perhaps called to remain there, but then decided this also wasn’t his calling. He finally found a home for himself not in academia or monastic life but with the L’Arche community in Canada — not among the best and the brightest but the mentally disadvantaged plus their downwardly-mobile assistants. But even there he was often on the move.

Like Merton, Henri died while traveling — two heart attacks in his homeland, Holland, while en route to Russia where he intended to make a film about Rembrandt’s painting of the Return of the Prodigal Son.

There are still other Merton-Nouwen similarities:

Both Merton and Nouwen produced a flood of books, many of which refuse to go out-of-print. Few writers on religious life have been so widely read or so often translated into other languages as these two. Thanks to their writings, both still have a huge influence on the lives of many people decades after their deaths. Both had a remarkable gift for communicating to others the fact that to follow Christ is a journey of endless pilgrimage.

Both of them died relatively young. Merton age 53, Henri at 64.

Another commonality: They had a shared appreciation of the Orthodox Church and deep distress regarding the Great Schism. Both felt that the healing of East-West divisions within Christianity could be assisted by a process of East-West integration in one’s spiritual life. As Merton put this in one of his journal-based books, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:

If I can unite in myself the thought and devotion of Eastern and Western Christen-dom, the Greek and the Latin Fathers, the Russian and the Spanish mystics, I can prepare in myself the reunion of divided Chris¬tians. 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 furth¬er conflict. We must contain all the divided worlds in ourselves and transcend them in Christ.

Both of them had a perceptive appreciation of icons as focal points of prayer and contemplation and as non-verbal theological declarations. It’s this commonality I’d like to focus on today. Merton and Nouwen have played a major role in this quiet movement of rediscovering icons and their role both in private and communal prayer. It is partly thanks to the two of them that, in recent years, one often finds icons — an art form chiefly associated with Orthodox Christianity — in Catholic and even Protestant churches as well as in retreat centers, monasteries, homes and offices.

Before going further, let me explain how these two gifted men enter my life.

My contact with Merton started in the summer of 1961 not long after I had been granted an early discharge from the U.S. Navy as a conscientious objector and had joined the Catholic Worker community in New York City, a house of hospitality mainly for homeless street people. At the time I had the idea that the Catholic Worker would be a way station en route to the monastery, a vocational aspiration that had been in part nurtured by reading Merton’s autobiography.

I was astonished to discover that Dorothy Day, leader of the Catholic Worker, was one of Merton’s correspondents. Aware I was a Merton reader, she shared with me his letters to her. It was Dorothy who urged me, indeed instructed me, to write to Merton. To my surprise, he responded. The first letter led to many more. From 1961 until his death in 1968 I wrote to Merton often, and he to me, perhaps on average a letter per month in both directions. In The Hidden Ground of Love, an anthology of Merton letters, his letters to me take up sixty pages. There were not only letters from him, but cards and copies of manuscripts. There were also occasional packages — I recall a box of monastery-made cheese with a gift card signed “Uncle Louie and the boys.” (In monastic life, Merton was Father Louis.) I also had two visits with Merton at the monastery, one early in 1962, another late in 1964.

It was Merton who introduced me to icons. In the summer or fall of 1962 a postcard came, the image side of which I look back on as quite significant but at the time I regarded in vaguely negative terms: a photo 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 somehow even flatter than the postcard that bore the image. Compared to the masterpieces of the Renaissance, this sort of painting seemed to me, at best, something left over from the kindergarten of art history. Years later, when I had reason to make a complete set of photocopies of all Merton’s notes and letters to me, I didn’t bother to photocopy the image side of this or any of the other icon postcards he had sent me. I assumed that Merton had no more taste for this kind of primitive Christian art than I did. I imagined some donor had given the monastery a box of icon postcards which Merton was using in the spirit of voluntary poverty.

It was only years after his death, in writing a biography of Merton, Living With Wisdom, that it finally dawned on me how crucial a role icons had played in Merton’s life and conversion and realized that no one could have been happier in sending an icon photo to friends than Merton.

In fact I should have been aware of this side of Merton even before I knew him personally. It’s something he writes about in The Seven Storey Mountain, when he describes one of the catastrophes of his unsettled childhood, his father’s death when Tom was a student at Oakham, a residential high school in rural England. Owen Merton, on the edge of significant recogniton as an artist, was suffering from a brain tumor that produced a large lump on his head that made him unable to speak. Tom, fifteen years old, would occasionally go down to London and sit in anguished silence next to his father’s bed in Middlesex Hospital. Gazing into his father’s eyes, he must have thought with bitterness of his mother’s death from cancer ten years earlier.

Merton could see no meaning in what was happening to his father, whose misshapen head seemed to him like “a raw wound for which there was no adequate relief.” Now on the verge of becoming an orphan, he responded with anger to the religious platitudes he heard from the chaplain of his public school, Oakham. Clearly there was no “loving God.” Clearly life had no meaning. His patents’ 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’ fate was to avoid as much pain as possible and take what pleasure you could out of life. At chapel services at his school, Merton would no longer join in reciting the Creed. “I believe in nothing” was his anti-creed at this point in his life.

Yet Owen Merton had another view of his own suffering which he managed to communicate to his son through drawings, the only “last word” he could manage in his silenced condition. Shortly before Owen’s death, Tom came to see his father in his hospital room and, to his bewilderment, found the bed littered with drawings of “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 then regarded Byzantine art, he confessed in an unpublished autobiographical novel, The Labyrinth, as “clumsy and ugly and brutally stupid.”

Owen Merton died early in January 1931, days before Tom’s sixteenth birthday. Two years passed. In 1933, having finished his studies at Oakham and with more than half a year to fill before entering Clare College in Cambridge in September, Merton set off for an extended European holiday, a one man Grand Tour with an extended visit to Italy the main event. He hiked along the Mediterranean coast of France, then took the train into Italy: first Genoa, then Florence, finally Rome.

Once in Rome, a Baedeker guidebook in hand, he spent days following the main tourist track, 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. 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 with a cast of thousands.

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 some of Rome’s most ancient churches — Cosmas and Damian, San Clemente, Santa Sabina, Santa Maria Maggiore, the Lateran, Santa Costanza, Santa Maria in Trastevere, San Prassede and others. These moved him in an unexpected and extraordinary way. On the walls of many of these churches he was meeting his father’s deathbed drawings.

These were all churches of sober architecture whose main decorations were mosaic icons, images of profound 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 fifth 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 judgment with a fiery glow in the clouds beneath his feet against a vivid blue background. This was not at all the gravity-free, effete Jesus that he had so often encountered in art of the baroque period down to the Pre-Raphaelites.

“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 to experience who Christ is. In this crucial section of his autobiography, the crescendo come 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 admit. But 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.

The intensity of the experiences reflected in this powerful litany may be due in part to the fact that Merton was alone in Rome. There is something about solitary, unmediated, face-to-face contact that can increase one’s vulnerability to a work of art. There is no schedule to keep, no guide or professor to explain, no bus to board in fifteen minutes, no idle chatter with people more interested in menus than mosaics.

Eager to decipher the iconographic images that so arrested his eyes, Merton put aside the D.H. Lawrence novels that had weighed down his rucksack and bought a Bible. “I read more and more of the Gospels,” he 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 to 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 and, even worse, embarrassing. Finally one morning he climbed to the top of the Aventine Hill on the east side of the Tiber, crowned by the fifth century church of Santa Sabina, one of the oldest and least spoiled churches in Rome. Once inside, he found he could no longer play the guidebook-studying tourist. “Although the church was almost empty,” he later wrote, “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, recited the Our Father over and over again.

At age eighteen, Merton had undergone, without realizing exactly what it was, a mystical experience: that is 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 phony, not because of some theory but because of an experience of Christ that, in his case, had been 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 was to prove a disastrous time in his life, the “nadir of winter darkness,” as he put it in Seven Storey Mountain. He did more drinking than studying and seems to have fathered an illegitimate child. His guardian in London wanted no further responsibility for Owen Merton’s wayward son and sent him packing to his grandparents in America.

Four years after arriving in New York, while a student at Columbia, Merton was received into the Catholic Church. Three years later, in December 1941, he arrived at the Trappist monastic community of the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Yet his encounter with icons was far from finished.

Of the many books Merton wrote during his years at the Abbey of Gethsemani, it is striking to discover that only one of them got as far as being set in type and yet wasn’t published. The title was Art and Worship. It was to have gone to press in 1959. The galleys sheets survive at the Thomas Merton Center in Louisville. Unfortunately his publisher had second thoughts about the project, fearing the book would damage Merton’s reputation.

What Merton had hoped to do with his small book was to sensitize his readers to an appreciation of iconography, a tradition which in the West, at least, had been abandoned since the Renaissance and was all but forgotten. “It is the task of the iconographer,” he declared in Art and Worship, “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 worshipping as ‘fellow citizens of the angels and saints, built upon the chief cornerstone with Christ’.”

An art expert who had read galleys of the book convinced the publisher that such an opinion was disconcertingly dated. The iconoclastic Sixties were about to unfold, but even in the Fifties nothing could have been more out-of-fashion than icons.

Merton reluctantly gave up on the book, yet he was never weaned of his love of this art form. Occasionally he returned to the topic of icons in letters. Only months before his death, he was in correspondence about icons with a Quaker friend, June Yungblut, in Atlanta. He confessed to her that books which presented Jesus as simply one of history’s prophetic figures left him cold. He was, he wrote to 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 was puzzled. In a letter sent to her 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.

We come upon a final clue to the place icons had in his 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. Among the items was “1 Small Icon on Wood of Virgin and Child.”

Now what about the place of icons in the life of Henri Nouwen?

First, an icon-related aside: A few days after his death, I learned from his brother Laurens that, while on his final trip, Henri had been reading page proofs of a book of mine, Praying With Icons. A friend teased me that my writing had done Henri in, but then kidly reassured me that it was Henri’s ultra-vulnerable heart that was to blame. “If anyone had a heart that wasn’t made of stainless steel,” she said, “it was Henri Nouwen.”

Henri managed not only to write but to publish a book on icons that Merton would have loved: Behold the Beauty of the Lord. This thin volume remains among the best introductions to icons — very accessible, not at all technical, with a directness and sobriety that one can only describe as icon-like. With his usual immediacy, Henri explains how one icon and then several others gained a place in his life. He shares with his readers what he had so far learned from long periods of living with four of them: St. Andrei Rublev’s “Holy Trinity” icon, an icon of Mary holding the Christ child in her arms, an icon of the face of Christ (also by Rublev), and finally an icon of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles at Pentecost.

Of course Henri had seen icons in art history books, museums, churches and monasteries many times, but it wasn’t until his first visit to the L’Arche community in Trosly, France, in 1983 that he began to see icons with wide-open eyes. Barbara Swanekamp, assistant to L’Arche founder Jean Vanier, had put a reproduction of Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity on the table of the room where Henri would be staying. “After gazing for many weeks at the icon,” Henri noted in Behold the Beauty of the Lord, “I felt a deep urge to write down what I had gradually learned to see.”

Those of you who knew Henri or are familiar with him through his books know that he was profoundly sensitive to the visual arts. It was a family trait. In the introduction to his book on icons, he remembers a Chagall painting his parents had purchased in Paris early in their marriage when Chagall was little known — a watercolor of a vase filled with flowers placed on a sunlit window ledge, a simple yet radiant work that made one aware of God’s silent energy. I recall seeing it when Henri brought me with him to stay overnight at his father’s house. There were many other beautiful works of art in the house — the house was a small museum of fine art — but the Chagall watercolor stood out from the rest and still remains a fresh memory. “The flowers of Chagall,” Henri writes, “come to mind as I wondered why those four icons have become so important to me.”

The connection doesn’t surprise me. Chagall was deeply influenced by iconography. In some of his paintings the link is explicit, but it is always there in more subtle ways. Chagall was never a slave to the rules of perspective or to the physics of gravity in his work. People and animals fly. Fiddlers play on rooftops. Husbands and wives embrace while floating in the kitchen. There is no vanishing point. Like an iconographer, Chagall made his canvases windows opening onto the invisible world and the life of the soul. It may be that the Chagall painting Henri grew up with helped awaken in him a capacity to appreciate icons and understand their special language.

I remember Henri coming to visit us in Holland following his stay at Trosly, a year or two before publication of Behold the Beauty of the Lord. He was very excited about the gift he had brought with him, a reproduction of the Holy Trinity icon he had purchased that morning at a shop in Paris. Though he had not yet seen the actual icon — it is in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow — yet he was confidant that the print came as close to the real thing as print technology would allow.

Though I had seen icons from time to time, no icons or icon prints were hanging in our house. Until that day I had taken only a meager interest in them. I hadn’t yet written Living With Wisdom, still less Praying With Icons. Merton’s enthusiasm for icons was still a mystery to me. It wasn’t until Henri’s visit that finally I began to see them with a similar excitement.

I vividly recall sitting at Henri’s side as he explored, with childlike enthusiasm, every detail of the Holy Trinity icon. It was, he explained, inspired by Abraham and Sara’s hospitality to the mysterious guests they received under the oak of Mamre, a story told in Genesis. Throughout the Genesis account, the three angelic guests act in perfect unity and speak with one voice. They are both guests, plural, and also guest, singular; they are both one and three. It’s the first biblical hint of the Holy Trinity. Henri remarked on the utterly submissive, sister-like faces of the three angelic figures, each inclined toward the other in a silent dialogue of self-giving love. He commented on their profound stillness, yet their warmth and vitality. Then we looked at the colors Andrei Rublev had chosen, though I later discovered that even the best reproduction can only hint at what Rublev had actually achieved, as I was to see for myself not long afterward when I first visited the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. The colors are thinly layered — their transparency cannot be reproduced in photography. Henri traced the circle of perfect unity that subtly, invisibly contains the three angels. Then he traced a cross within the circle and then the trinitarian triangle it also contained. All this quiet geometry reveals key elements of the icon’s theology, yet none of it is heavy-handed. Then there is the table around which the three figures are placed — the eucharistic altar with golden chalice. Above the three figures are three objects: a house with an open door, a tree, and a mountain. The open-doored building on the upper left is both the Church and a house of hospitality. For Henri the Holy Trinity icon was an icon of “the house of love” — the Church as God intends it to be, the doors of which are never close and which need no locks. The tree in the center is the Tree of Life and also the Life-giving Cross. The mountain is the both Mount Sinai and the Mount of the Beatitudes.

Henri also spoke about the history of the icon, how Rublev had painted it as the principal icon for the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity at a monstery north of Moscow where the body of one of Russia’s most beloved saints, St. Sergius of Radonezh, had been placed. St. Sergius was a monk, woodworker and toymaker who lived in the 14th Century. He left no writings. The only words that come down to us from St. Sergius are these: “The contemplation of the Holy Trinity destroys all enmity.” Through this icon, placed in a iconostasis adjacent to the resting place of St. Sergius, Rublev sought to provide the opportunity for the contemplation of the Holy Trinity.

It may have been from Henri that I first heard the comment of one of the martyrs of the Soviet era, the physicist, mathematician, theologian and priest, Pavel Florensky, who wrote: “Because of the absolute beauty of Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon, we know that God exists.” Henri understood this way of thinking — beauty bears witness to the existence of God. Again and again he found works of art that were windows to heaven. One thinks of the place in Henri’s life of Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son and many paintings by Van Gogh.

Henri linked his response to icons with the question: “What do we really choose to see?” In Behold the Beauty of the Lord, Henri stresses that it is a matter of enormous importance what we look it and how we look at it. He writes:

It makes a great difference whether we see a flower or a snake, a gentle smile or menacing teeth, a dancing couple or a hostile crowd. We do have a choice. Just as we are responsible for what we eat, so we are responsible for what we see. It is easy to become a victim of the vast array of visual stimuli surrounding us. The “powers and principalities” control many of our daily images. Posters, billboards, television, videos, movies and store windows continuously assault our eyes and inscribe their images upon our memories. We do not have to be passive victims of a world that wants to entertain and distract us. We can make decisions and choices. A spiritual life in the midst of our energy-draining society requires us to take conscious steps to safeguard that inner space where we can keep our eyes fixed on the beauty of the Lord.

Henri proposed a theology of seeing, or gazing, the verb he preferred. To really see something beautiful, such as a well-painted icon, so that its beauty becomes a sacramental reality, one has to do much more than glance.

For both Merton and Nouwen, the icon is the primary visual art of the Church. Nor could they see icons as meaningful apart from the Church. The icon becomes a rootless plant when it becomes simply a “work of art,” a “collector’s item,” an aesthetic object. For both Merton and Nouwen, icons were intimately connected with eucharistic life and daily prayer. They saw icons as aids to prayer.

In both their lives there was a realization that the icon, far from being merely an artistic image that directs our attention away from the world we live in with all its agonies, is a school of seeing. It is meant to help reshape the way we see and relate to other people. The icon — the Greek word for image — is a reminder that each person, no matter how damaged in his or her life, is a bearer of God’s image and, like those whom we regard as saints, has the potential to reclaim the lost likeness.

It is one thing to believe intellectually that each person is made in the image of God, no less than Adam and Eve, and yet another to actively seek that image and to relate to the other in ways that bear witness to that awareness. It’s the most basic and challenging task that’s given to us. Each of us is an icon — each of us bears the image, the icon, of God, even if we hide it well. Nothing is more basic than the connection between spiritual life and our response to our neighbor, even when that neighbor is an enemy. If the burning of icons and the vandalizing of mosaics distresses us, how much more should be horror-struck at the destruction of human beings, icons bearers made by God?

Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton: two contemplative men with a great deal in common. Both were explorers of eastern Christianity. Both were drawn to icons both on wood and in flesh. Both never ceased trying to open their eyes a little bit wider. May they encourage us to do the same.

* * *
text as of 20 September 2017
* * *

Remembering Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day's last arrest (photo by Bob Fitch)

(This is similar to the afterword I wrote for my biography of Dorothy Day, All is Grace, published by Orbis Books.)


by Jim Forest

I first met Dorothy Day a few days before Christmas in 1960 while on leave from the U.S. Navy. After reading copies of The Catholic Worker that I had found in my parish library, and then reading Dorothy’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness, I decided to visit the community she had founded. I was based not so far away, in Washington, DC.

Arriving in Manhattan for that first visit, I made my way to Saint Joseph’s House — then in a loft on Spring Street, on the north edge of Little Italy in the Lower East Side of New York City. Discovering that it was moving day, I joined in helping carry boxes from an upstairs loft to a three-storey brick building at 175 Chrystie Street, a few blocks to the east. Jack Baker, one of the other people assisting with the move that day, invited me to stay in his apartment in the same neighborhood.

A few days later I visited the community’s rural outpost on Staten Island, the Peter Maurin Farm. Crossing Upper New York Harbor by ferry, I made my way to an old farmhouse on a rural road just north of Pleasant Plains near the island’s southern tip. In its large, faded dining room, I found half-a-dozen people, Dorothy among them, gathered around a pot of tea at one end of the dining room table.

At the time, Dorothy was only sixty-three, though to my young eyes she seemed old enough to have known Abraham and Sarah. But what a handsome woman! Her face was long, with high, prominent cheekbones underlining large, quick eyes, deep blue and almond shaped, that could be teasing one moment, laughing the next, then turn grave an instant later. Her gray hair, parted in the middle, was braided and circled the back of her head like a garland of silver flowers. She had a fresh, scrubbed look with no trace of cosmetics. The woolen suit she wore was plain but well-tailored and good quality. (I only recently learned from her goddaughter, Johannah Hughes Turner, that her suit was probably a gift from her sister, Della Spier. “Dorothy was tall and hard to fit,” Johannah told me. “Rarely did she find anything in the Catholic Worker clothing room that she could use. Della enjoyed dressing Dorothy and could afford to provide her with solid, classic suits and dresses.”)

I gave Dorothy a bag of letters addressed to her that had been received in Manhattan. Within minutes, she was reading the letters aloud to all of us.

The only letter I still recall from that day’s reading was one from Thomas Merton, the famous monk whose autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, had held many people in its grip, including me. In 1941, Merton had withdrawn from “the world” to a Trappist monastery in Kentucky with a slam of the door that eventually was heard around the world. I had assumed that he wrote to no one outside his family. Yet here he was in correspondence with someone who was not only in the thick of the world, but one of its more engaged and controversial figures.

In his letter, Merton told Dorothy that he was deeply touched by her witness for peace, which in recent years had five times resulted in her arrest and imprisonment for refusing to take shelter during civil defense drills. “You are right going along the lines of satyagraha [Gandhi’s term for nonviolent action]. I see no other way…. Nowadays it is no longer a question of who is right but who is at least not criminal…. It has never been more true than now that the world is lost in its own falsity and cannot see true values…. God bless you.” This was one of Merton’s first letters to Dorothy. Ten months later, he published an essay in The Catholic Worker — “The Root of War is Fear” — and immediately got into trouble with his religious superiors and others both inside and outside the monastery.

Merton was one of countless people drawn to Dorothy and influenced by her. She had a great gift for making those who met her, even if only through letters or her published writings, look at themselves in a new light, questioning previously held ideas, allegiances and choices.

I was another of those whose life took an unexpected turn thanks to Dorothy Day. Five months after that first encounter, I was granted an early discharge from the Navy on grounds of conscientious objection. At Dorothy’s invitation, I became part of the staff at Saint Joseph’s House in New York.

One of my predecessors was Jack English, who had joined the New York Catholic Worker in its early years and remained close to Dorothy into her old age. Recalling his first impressions of Dorothy in a taped interview with Deane Mowrer in 1970, he said he was still impressed with Dorothy’s ability to engage with so many individuals. “She occasionally talks in terms of the abstract, but she never talks or operates except person to person.” Jack had learned from her that “each human being is unique, totally unique, and that each time I meet and have a real encounter with another human being, I am changed somehow, whether for good or bad.”

The qualities that so impressed Jack were just as striking to me: her ability to focus on the person she was talking to, not to see just a young face but your face, not discerning just a vague, general promise, but your particular gifts. Through Dorothy, you glimpsed exciting possibilities in yourself that you hadn’t seen before.

When I joined the Catholic Worker, there was just one house in Manhattan, Saint Joseph’s. It was so cramped a building that only one person actually lived there as nighttime care-taker. The rest of us, Dorothy as well, lived in $25-a-month cold-water flats located nearby that were usually occupied by two people. By chance, Dorothy’s room (shared at the time with a woman we knew as Saint Louis Marie) was next to the one I shared with Stuart Sandberg, a recent graduate of Cornell University who, later in life, was ordained a priest. We were on the sixth floor of a Spring Street tenement. There were four small apartments per floor, each with a bathtub next to the sink. The one toilet on each floor was in a closet-sized space in the hallway.

As I had discovered that first day at the farm on Staten Island, Dorothy was a tireless story-teller, often using incoming letters as a starting point. I recall her reading a letter aloud one day from the Gauchat family, founders of a Catholic Worker community in Ohio. Dorothy told us how the Gauchats had taken in a six-month-old child who was expected to die at any time. The child, they were told, was deaf and blind, with a fluid-filled lump on his head larger than a baseball. “Bill Gauchat made the sign of the cross over that child’s face,” Dorothy said, “and he saw those dull eyes follow the motion of his hand. The child could see! Within a year David — that was his name — was well enough to be taken home by his real parents. His life was saved by the love in the Gauchat home.”

A letter from a Catholic Worker community that was trying to help a prostitute get free of her pimp reminded Dorothy of a prostitute named Mary Ann with whom she had been in jail in Chicago in the early 1920s. At the time, Dorothy had been living a bohemian life with no plans of ever becoming Catholic or joining any church. She hadn’t intended to be arrested and was terrified of the guards. “You must hold your head high,” Mary Ann advised her, “and give them no clue that you’re afraid of them or ready to beg for anything, any favors whatsoever. But you must see them for what they are — never forget that they’re in jail, too.”

Hearing stories like these, we were learning something about life that you don’t get in newspapers, classrooms or even in many churches. At the core of each story there were always just a few people, perhaps just one, for whom following Christ was the most important thing in the world.

Stories gave Dorothy occasion to draw on her massive supply of sayings. How many times have I heard her repeat Saint Catherine of Siena’s remark, “All the way to heaven is heaven, because Jesus said, ‘I am the way.’” There was a passage from George Bernanos’s novel, Diary of a Country Priest, that she often used: “Hell is not to love anymore.” Just as often, she made use of a saying from Saint John of the Cross, “Love is the measure by which we will be judged.” Another favorite was a sentence from Dostoevsky: “The world will be saved by beauty.” There was also Saint Augustine’s declaration: “All beauty is a revelation of God.”

Beauty! Dorothy had an astonishing gift for finding beauty in places where it was often overlooked — in determined flowers blooming in a slum neighborhood, in grass battling upward toward the sky between blocks of concrete, in the smell of an herb growing in a pot on a tenement window ledge, in the battered faces of people who survived on the economic fringes of society.

Music was important in Dorothy’s life, especially opera. One had to have a very good reason for knocking on her door on a Saturday afternoon when she was absorbed in the weekly radio broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera, though she was willing to have company to listen with her so long as no attempt was made at conversation. (Dorothy said once to Willa Bickham, a member of the community at the time, “If I am reincarnated, I hope I come back an opera singer. Then I’ll bring joy to everyone instead of always having to tell what’s wrong with the world.”)

More than anything else, Dorothy was a writer. There was always a notebook in her bag. She seemed endlessly to be taking notes and writing. Note-taking and journal-keeping were as much a part of Dorothy as breathing. Time and again every day she made note of something that had been said or jotted down a passage from the book she was then reading. During the weekly Friday night meetings at the Catholic Worker, Dorothy’s note-taking was usually nonstop. When she traveled, she kept track of everyone she met and what had been said. Her notes in turn became raw material for her monthly column, “On Pilgrimage.” (Dorothy’s more substantial work, the several books she wrote, were mainly written at the several Staten Island beach cottages she had lived in over the years, places of retreat and solitude.)

Dorothy was an avid reader. She had loved books since childhood. She once told me that “the hardest part of living in community is the loss of so many books.” In a 1952 diary entry, she reports with distress how she found her copy of the writings of Saint John of the Cross under an apple tree, soaked by rain. Her engagement in the world seemed only to fuel the reading side of her life — or was it that her reading fueled her engagement? She read certain Russian classics over and over again. She returned again and again to the novels of Charles Dickens. More than once she told young people like me that we could only understand the Catholic Worker by reading Dostoevsky.

Certain books had a huge impact on her life. One can wonder whether Dostoevsky shouldn’t be regarded as a co-founder of the Catholic Worker, so much did his books help shape Dorothy’s understanding of Christianity. In The Brothers Karamazov, the elderly monk, Father Zosima, made an exceptionally deep impression on her, especially his words, “Love in action is often a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams,” a passage Dorothy recited so often that she made it her own.

I have never known anyone more disciplined in her spiritual life than Dorothy — daily Mass, devotion to the rosary, frequent confession, times of private prayer and intercession each day. How often I have seen her on her knees at one of the nearby parish churches or at the chapel at the Catholic Worker farm. (The Archdiocese of New York permitted a chapel on the farm and reservation of the Blessed Sacrament within it.) While praying, I noticed she often referred to pieces of paper. One afternoon, Dorothy having been summoned from the farm chapel for an urgent phone call, I looked in the prayer book she had left on the bench and discovered page after page of names, all written in her careful italic script, of people, living and dead, for whom she was praying.

It seemed to me Dorothy prayed as if lives depended on it, and no doubt some did. The physician Robert Coles of the Harvard Medical School credited Dorothy’s prayers with the miraculous cure of his wife. She had been dying of cancer but — to the astonishment of her physicians — recovered.

Dorothy had a special list with the names of people who had committed suicide. I once asked Dorothy, “But isn’t it too late?” “With God there is no time,” she responded. She went on to say how a lot can happen in a person’s thoughts between initiating an action that will result in death and death itself — that even the tiny fraction of a second that passes between pulling a trigger and the bullet striking the brain might, in the infinity of time that exists deep within us, be time enough for regretting what it was now too late to stop, and to cry out for God’s mercy.

I recall a story Dorothy once told me about persistence in prayer. For many years, she said, she had been a heavy smoker. Her day began with lighting up. Her big sacrifice every Lent was giving up smoking, but having to get by without a cigarette made her increasingly irritable as the days passed, until the rest of the Catholic Worker household was praying she would light up a cigarette. One year, as Lent approached, the priest who heard her confessions at the time urged her not to give up cigarettes that year but instead to pray daily, “Dear God, help me stop smoking.” She used that prayer for several years, she told me, without it having any impact on her addiction. Then one morning she woke up, reached for a cigarette, and realized she didn’t want it. She never smoked another.

Without prayer and the sacraments, Dorothy felt, the Catholic Worker would be blown away like dust in the wind. “We feed the hungry, yes,” she told Bob Coles. “We try to shelter the homeless and give them clothes, but there is strong faith at work; we pray. If an outsider who comes to visit us doesn’t pay attention to our praying and what that means, then he’ll miss the whole point.”

Dorothy went to Mass every day until her body wasn’t up to it and, even then, received daily communion, carefully preparing before and giving plenty of time afterward for thanksgiving. She loved the rosary and prayed it often. “If we love enough,” she once noted, “we are importunate: we repeat our love as we repeat Hail Marys on the rosary.”

She could be as fierce and determined as one of those resolute Russian women who repaired Moscow streets and kept going to church even in the years of Stalin. Her direct, at times electrifying way of getting to the heart of things was much in evidence one night when she was speaking to a Catholic student group at New York University in a packed and smoky room in a building near Washington Square Park. It was in the fall of 1961 — the Cold War was at its most frozen. The explosion of nuclear weapons in the Nevada desert had become too ordinary an event to qualify as front-page news. A much repeated slogan of the time was, “Better dead than Red.” Clearly some of those present considered Dorothy a Red, meaning a faithful servant of the Kremlin with its blood-red flag. One student demanded to know what Dorothy would do if the Russians invaded the United States. Would she not admit, in this extreme, at least, that killing was justified, even a sacred duty? “We are taught by Our Lord to love our enemies,” Dorothy responded without batting an eye. “I hope I could open my heart to them with love, the same as anyone else. We are all children of the same Father.” There was a brief but profound stillness in the room before Dorothy went on to speak about nonviolent resistance and efforts to convert opponents rather than kill them. Which of his enemies had Christ slain?

Dorothy had an intense devotion to the saints — Christ’s mother Mary, first of all, but then to so many others. One of the least likely was Joan of Arc, famous for her military exploits (though, except in statues, she never wielded a sword) and finally for being burned at the stake for refusing to deny her visions. I once noticed a small statue of Joan, clad in armor, on the table next to Dorothy’s bed. Responding to my surprise at her devotion to a military saint, Dorothy explained, “Joan of Arc is a saint of fidelity to conscience.” This was, she said, her second such statue of Joan. The first had been stolen years earlier, but recently Bishop John Wright of Pittsburgh had given her another.

Joseph, the foster father of Jesus and patron saint of all working people, was among the most important for Dorothy. The Catholic Worker house of hospitality I had become part of was dedicated to Saint Joseph. We had a finely carved wooden statue of him that the artist had donated. Under it, during periods when the community’s financial well was dry or nearly so, Dorothy would place all the bills awaiting payment. “Keeping us going is your responsibility,” she would remind Saint Joseph.

Dorothy had much in common with another of her favorite saints, Teresa of Avila. Both Dorothy and Teresa had animated the foundation of many communities, and both were tireless travelers. Both were reformers who went through periods of being regarded with suspicion by the hierarchy. Both were outspoken and fearless.

Another saint that greatly inspired Dorothy was Therese of Lisieux, a contemplative Carmelite nun of the nineteenth century who, after her death, came to be known as “the Little Flower.” She lived an obscure life, never traveling and never founding anything, and had died only two months before Dorothy’s birth. So significant was she to Dorothy that the only completed biography Dorothy ever wrote was about Therese and her “little way.” What most impressed Dorothy was Therese’s certainty that nothing, even the most hidden action, is ever wasted. As she put in her “On Pilgrimage” column for the December 1965 issue of The Catholic Worker: “Paper work, cleaning the house, dealing with the innumerable visitors who come all through the day, answering the phone, keeping patience and acting intelligently, which is to find some meaning in all that happens — these things, too, are the works of peace, and often seem like a very little way.”

I don’t know when or how often Dorothy made her famous remark, “Don’t call me a saint — I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” Very likely it was only once, but since her death even the briefest article about her is almost certain to include it. It is the quotation from Dorothy Day. But what was the context? Dorothy found great inspiration in the lives of those people — saints — who had been placed on the calendar of the Church, and she had done what saints do: attempt to follow Christ. At the same time she didn’t want the word “saint” to be used in order to place people who attempted to live according to the Gospel in a special category of irrelevancy.

Dorothy believed we are all called to sanctity. In 1967, when Tom Cornell and I were editing the first edition of A Penny a Copy, an anthology of Catholic Worker writings, we read through thirty-four years of back issues. The front page that most impressed me had a banner headline — the kind of ultra-bold, all-caps headline that in a conventional newspaper would be used for the assassination of a president or the outbreak of war — that declared “WE ARE ALL CALLED TO BE SAINTS.” The headline sums up what Dorothy regarded as absolutely basic. Why else would anyone attending the liturgy receive communion? Why receive Christ unless you hope to become more Christ-like? Why call yourself a Christian if you have no interest in trying to live the Gospel? If someday Dorothy is added to the Church calendar, one benefit is that we will have a saint whose sins and shortcomings will be impossible to airbrush out. She will be a saint who really bears witness to the possibility of flawed people, with pasts that embarrass them, never giving up in their efforts to rise from their falls and stumble along in the general direction of the kingdom of God.

Dorothy’s embarrassment and sometimes annoyance in the face of admiration was only in part due to modesty. Rather she felt that many people would view her more critically if they knew her better — knew her faults, and knew more about her past. She felt she had helped create an idealized image of herself by leaving out of her autobiographical writings certain events preceding her entrance into the Catholic Church that she found particularly shameful, and also saying little about the faults she struggled with every day of her life.

Only years later did I come to realize that nothing in her past distressed Dorothy more than the decision to abort her first child, an event that took place in her early twenties, years before her conversion. I recall how distressed she was when I asked her if I might borrow her first book, The Eleventh Virgin. Somehow I had become aware that, as a young woman, she had written a novel with that title. She didn’t have a copy, she told me, regretted that it had ever been published, appealed to me not to mention it again, and asked me not to look for it. It wasn’t until late in her life that a friend who dealt in rare books presented me with a copy. Only when I read it did I understand why Dorothy had responded to my question with such anguish. The end point of this autobiographical novel was an abortion, carried out in the desperate hope that the man she was in love with at the time, her unborn child’s unwilling father, would not leave her. He left her even so.

In a letter to a young woman written in February 1973, Dorothy refers to her abortion as well as to two suicide attempts she made as a young adult: “Twice I tried to take my own life, and the dear Lord pulled me through that darkness — I was rescued from that darkness. My sickness was physical too, since I had had an abortion with bad after-effects, and in a way my sickness of mind was a penance I had to endure.” A few sentences later, Dorothy added, “I love you, because you remind me of my own youth, and of my one child and my grandchildren. I will keep on praying for your healing, writing your name down in my little book of prayers which I have by my bedside.” (This is one of many letters by Dorothy included in All the Way to Heaven, edited by Robert Ellsberg.)

Dorothy once told Robert Coles about the effort she had made earlier in her life to find and destroy every copy of The Eleventh Virgin. Finally she brought her book-burning effort to the attention of the priest who was then hearing her confessions. He laughed. “My, my,” he said. “I thought he was going to tell me to stop being so silly and mixed up in my priorities,” Dorothy told Coles. “I will remember to my last day here on God’s earth what the priest said: ‘You can’t have much faith in God if you’re taking the life He has given you and using it that way.’ I didn’t say a word in reply. The priest added, ‘God is the one who forgives us, if we ask Him; but it sounds like you don’t even want forgiveness — just to get rid of the books.’”

Normally Dorothy she went to confession every Saturday, not simply because it was, at that time, common Catholic practice, but because she always found that by the end of the week she had a lot to confess. A journal entry Dorothy made in 1951 makes a typical summary note: “This afternoon [I had] glimpses of my own ugliness, vanity, pride, cruelty, contempt of others, levity, jeering, carping. Too sensitive to criticism…” Weeks later she added other sins: “flippancy, criticalness, [a] gibing attitude, lack of respect and love for others.” The following year she wrote: “I fail people daily, God help me, when they come to me for aid and sympathy. There are too many of them, whichever way I turn … I deny them the Christ in me when I do not show them tenderness, love. God forgive me.”

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

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

No one knew her shortcomings better than Dorothy herself, as has become clearer than ever following the recent publication of her diaries, The Duty of Delight. She was painfully aware that there were some who came to live in community with her who looked back on the experience with more pain than joy, nor could she blame them. She also felt that, due to the demands of leading the Catholic Worker movement, she had at times failed at being the ever-attentive, patient mother to her daughter Tamar that she so wanted to be. (On the other hand, given the circumstances and the fact that she was a single parent, it’s remarkable how good a mother Dorothy was, and later how devoted a grandmother. In 1964, she spent four months taking care of her grandchildren in Vermont while Tamar took a course in practical nursing.)

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

Confronted by a camera, Dorothy rarely smiled. If you study photos of her, you might form the idea that she had a dour personality. It’s easy to see that she was at times a person of the utmost seriousness, but it’s harder to imagine her warmth. In ordinary life, much of her time was spent sitting at a table, sipping tea or coffee, in comfortable conversation with whoever happened to join her — friend or stranger, sane or insane, young or old — often just listening, saying very little.

When Dorothy was present, she was completely present, but often she wasn’t there at all. She was away visiting other Catholic Worker houses, speaking at churches and colleges, writing at her beach cottage on Staten Island, visiting Tamar and her many grandchildren, or enjoying the relative peace and quiet that reigned at Peter Maurin Farm. In the New York house, her periods away left a hole that no one else could fill. Each member of staff had somehow acquired particular responsibilities: having charge of the kitchen, taking care of the address list, writing thank you notes, handling the household money, managing the paper — though, even in absentia, Dorothy was definitely the paper’s editor and publisher. But no one was in a position to make a significant decision in her absence that everyone else would accept. In the New York house, in our somewhat splintered state, Dorothy alone could lay down the law.

I look back on being part of the Catholic Worker in New York City in those days as a major blessing, but it was not an easy blessing. In the early sixties, the New York house probably was one of the least happy communities in the Catholic Worker movement. In fact we were hardly a community at all. We had no community meetings and not all of us got along with each other. There was no formation program for the integration of new volunteers and few conditions of engagement. Nor was there any pay – though whoever handled community money could dispense small amounts as needed. It was exhilarating and exhausting, inspiring and discouraging.

I recall a decision made by our two-person kitchen crew that the occasional pound of butter or box of eggs contributed to the house would go to those on “the line” rather than to “the family.” This was a change in custom, they recognized, but was, in their view, in line with the Gospel verse, “The last shall be first.”

“The line” referred to those people who turned up for meals but whose names were unknown to most of us. “The family” was the much smaller group of people who had become regulars, were known by name, were living at the Catholic Worker and, in many cases, had chores to do within the household. “The family” ate after “the line.” Traditionally anything special that turned up in small quantities was saved for them. As a result of this change in policy, members of the family, who had seen many volunteers come and go, were outraged, and the staff itself — six or eight people at the time — divided. Conflicting quotations from Dorothy’s writings began to appear on the community bulletin board, each faction hurling verbal fragments of Dorothy at the other. On the one hand there might be a quotation from Dorothy declaring that we must be ready to roll up in old newspapers, giving our beds to those who needed them — and, on the other hand, a text in which Dorothy humbly reflected that voluntary poverty sometimes meant accepting one’s limitations.

Dorothy was soon back again. Without bothering to sort out the paradoxes posed by the quotations from her writings, she said — with the finality of a monastery’s abbess — that the butter and eggs were to go, as before, to the family. In the end, two people resigned, disappointed that Dorothy had failed to live up to some of her own quotations.

Such events, while petty and even comical when viewed from the outside, were grueling from the inside. There were many staff blow-ups during the forty-seven years that lay between the founding of the Catholic Worker and Dorothy’s death in 1980, not to mention divisive controversies within the Catholic Worker movement as a whole, such as the debate about pacifism during World War II. It is an endless cause of wonder to me that, despite all these trials, she nonetheless retained her capacity for faith, hope and love down to the last day of her life. She occasionally spoke of “the duty of hope.”

Perhaps her survival was not only thanks to remaining resolutely hopeful, but also to her taking time away, whether in the solitude of her Staten Island beach cottage or in Vermont visiting Tamar and her grandchildren.

It was in the aftermath of “the great butter crisis,” late in 1961, that Dorothy appointed me as managing editor of the paper. She had to find someone — one of the two who had just left was my predecessor. Having just turned twenty, I was the youngest person ever to have held that post. Eventually, I too became a casualty of the early-sixties stress within the New York Catholic Worker community. When I was poised to get arrested for participating in an act of civil disobedience protesting U.S. resumption of nuclear weapons tests, Dorothy insisted that I instead go south to Tennessee and write about a civil rights project she admired. I said that, having been one of the organizers of the protest, I couldn’t back out. I would have to go to Tennessee afterward. It wasn’t a good moment to work out a compromise with Dorothy — earlier that same day she had been infuriated by the irresponsible actions of several other staff members. She gave me an ultimatum: “Either go to Tennessee or you are no longer part of this community.” At the time, I felt I had no option but to do what I had helped plan and had promised to take part in. From Dorothy’s point of view on that short-tempered day, I was simply being self-willed.

Only later in life, having gone through the white water of parenthood and having worked with many young volunteers in other contexts, did I realize that, had I gone back to Chrystie Street once I completed my month in jail, no one would have been happier to see me than Dorothy. But I was too young to realize the about-face adults can make after a good night’s sleep. Moving timidly, it took me the better part of a year to renew my relationship with Dorothy.

Dorothy often described the Catholic Worker as a school. Certainly it was for me. One of the things I learned was that the poverty-stricken, the addicted and the insane — the people for whom our house of hospitality existed — were often easier to live with, and more patient and compassionate, than young volunteers who knew more about ideology than love. Yet for all our shortcomings and conflicts, we volunteers managed to get a great deal done: food begged or purchased, meals cooked and served, clothing received and given away, dishes washed, floors scrubbed, sheets laundered, the paper mailed out, those with medical needs assisted, hospital patients visited, and thank-you notes sent out to each and every donor, no matter how small the gift — all that and much more.

Not the smallest problem in the house was the noise. I recall one day trying to carry on a conversation with Dorothy about an article we were thinking about using in the next issue of the paper. We were at her desk in a tiny office next to the front door of the house on Chrystie Street, adjacent to the area in which meals were served, easily the noisiest part of the house. We could hardly hear each other. In the middle of a sentence, Dorothy got out of her chair, opened the door, and yelled, “Holy silence!” Silence briefly reigned at Saint Joseph’s House such as a Trappist monk might admire.

One of Dorothy’s striking qualities was her respect for Christians of other churches, especially those in the Orthodox Church. What was at the root of her affinity to Orthodoxy, I don’t know. Perhaps it had to do with her Russian friendships and the special role Dostoevsky had played in the formation of her faith and vocation. The first time I visited an Orthodox church, it was with Dorothy, and the first time I attended the magnificent Orthodox Liturgy, it was with her as well. In the early sixties, she was a friend of a priest serving at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral on East 97th Street in Manhattan, Father Matthew Stadniuk from Moscow. (In 1988, having returned to Moscow some years before, he was the first priest in Russia who got his parishioners into publically-visible voluntary service at a local hospital, thanks to the new climate of religious tolerance inaugurated by Gorbachev. For the first time since Lenin, religious believers were no longer excluded from openly performing the works of mercy.)

Dorothy’s longing for the repair of the centuries-old schism dividing Eastern and Western Christianity drew her into the Third Hour group, founded by her Russian friend, Helene Iswolsky. This may have been the only association in America at the time in which people of various churches came together who had in common a deep respect, even love, for the Orthodox Church. I remember sitting next to Dorothy at a Third Hour meeting at an apartment in mid-town Manhattan, trying to make sense of the Russian words and phrases she and others used so comfortably. Among those present were the poet W.H. Auden, the Orthodox theologian, Alexander Schmemann, and Alexander Kerensky, who nearly half a century earlier had been prime minister of Russia in the brief period between the last tsar’s abdication and the Bolshevik Revolution.

Dorothy’s own commitment to the Catholic Church was never at issue — she wasn’t window-shopping for another, “better” Church. In fact it disturbed many people, including many in the Catholic Worker movement, that Dorothy was so conservative a Catholic — so wholehearted in her acceptance of Catholic teaching and structure. She was critical not of what the Church taught, but rather of its failures in living out its own teaching. “I didn’t become a Catholic in order to purify the Church,” Dorothy once explained to Robert Coles. “I knew someone, years ago, who kept telling me that if we [Catholic Workers] could purify the Church, then she would convert. I thought she was teasing me when she first said that, but after a while I realized she meant what she was saying. Finally, I told her I wasn’t trying to reform the Church or take sides on all the issues the Church was involved in; I was trying to be a loyal servant of the Church Jesus had founded. She thought I was being facetious. She reminded me that I had been critical of capitalism and America, so why not Catholicism and Rome? … My answer was that I had no reason to criticize Catholicism as a religion or Rome as the place where the Vatican is located…. As for Catholics all over the world, including members of the Church, they are no better than lots of their worst critics, and maybe some of us Catholics are worse than our worst critics.”

Though there are millions of Catholics who seem to be more nationalist than Christian in their core identity, Dorothy found Catholicism the Christian body least contaminated by nationalism. Even the most nation-centered, flag-waving Catholic was at least vaguely aware of being part of a Church that was confined by no national or linguistic borders. Still more significant to Dorothy, it was a church crowded with the poor. Most important of all, it was a dispenser of sacraments without which life, for her, was barren. Part of the value of the Church for Dorothy was that it brought people together across many lines of division — political, ideological, economic, geographic, even the borders drawn by time. She agreed with G.K. Chesterton’s remark that “tradition was democracy extended through time” — a democracy in which not only the living had a vote, but the dead as well.

Dorothy often stressed obedience (the root meaning of which is “listening”), insisting that if she were ordered by her bishop to stop publishing The Catholic Worker, she would do so, though not without trying first to change the bishop’s mind. “Would that mean,” I asked her one day, “if Cardinal Spellman says we have to give up our stand on war, we give it up?” “Not at all,” she said. “But then we might only use quotations from the Bible, the sayings of the saints, extracts from papal encyclicals, just nothing of our own.” But she said that if there was no alternative but to stop publishing the paper, she would do so, hoping others might carry on in some way. Then she quoted the Gospel: “Unless the seed fall into the ground and die, it cannot bring forth new life.”

Dorothy’s devotion to the Church was rock solid but not without a critical edge. Borrowing from Romano Guardini, she sometimes spoke of the Church as being “the cross on which Christ was crucified.” Though the metaphor sounds poetic, it was no compliment. Similarly Dorothy occasionally remarked that the net Peter had lowered into the human sea, once Jesus made him a fisher of men, “caught many a blowfish and quite a few sharks.” There were priests and bishops who reminded her “more of Cain than of Abel.”

Dorothy had very little sense of owning anything — she regarded what she possessed as being “on loan.” What she had was often given away. A friend complained that none of the sweaters she had specially knit as gifts remained with Dorothy for long — sooner or later, usually sooner, each was given away. The same happened with many books. As far as I could see, Dorothy never indulged herself, though she often accused herself of being self-indulgent, as she did one afternoon when we had gone for a walk in the neighborhood. I don’t recall any goal, only that it was a warm day. Passing a small kosher restaurant at a corner somewhere along Ridge Street, Dorothy suggested we stop for a glass of cold beet borscht with a spoonful of sour cream. Once it had been served, Dorothy was slightly scandalized at herself – “Borscht with sour cream! What luxury! This isn’t voluntary poverty.” But then she laughed. The voluptuous treat was only ten cents a glass.

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

In the early days of the Catholic Worker, those who came to the door were often the unemployed rather than the unemployable. Dorothy’s attitude toward hospitality, much admired during the Depression, often came under criticism in later years on when those being helped struck many observers as considerably less worthy. We were no longer helping the “deserving poor,” we were told, but no-account drunkards, addicts, loafers and thieves. Why did we have no employment or rehabilitation programs? Didn’t we realize that the clothes the Worker gave away were often sold or bartered for drink or drugs? Dorothy responded by pointing out that those who ask such questions also use their money and possessions as they please, and often no more wisely than the down-and-out.

Another often repeated objection was, “Didn’t Jesus himself say that the poor would be with us always? Why make such a fuss about them?” “Yes,” Dorothy replied again and again, “but we are not content that there should be so many of them. The class structure is our making and by our consent, not God’s, and we must do what we can to change it. We are urging revolutionary change.”

There was a social worker who asked Dorothy how long “clients” of the Catholic Worker were permitted to stay. “We let them stay forever,” Dorothy answered testily. “They live with us, they die with us, and we give them a Christian burial. We pray for them after they are dead. Once they are taken in, they become members of the family. Or rather they always were members of the family. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ.”

While Dorothy was an enthusiastic and unapologetic borrower of other people’s ideas, her way of seeing was very much her own. I think, for example, of what happened one day when my room-mate, Stuart Sandberg, and I were clearing out rubbish from a small apartment one flight up in a cold-water tenement on Ridge Street. Dorothy was having increasing trouble managing the five flights to the apartment on Spring Street. These two rooms could be reached without such a climb, but first many layers of linoleum and wallpaper had to be removed and white paint applied to the walls.

Stuart and I dragged box after box of debris down to the street, including a hideous — so it seemed to us — painting of the Holy Family. Mary, Joseph and Jesus had been painted in a few bright colors against a battleship gray background on a piece of plywood. We shook our heads, deposited it in the trash along the curb, and went back to continue cleaning. Not long afterward Dorothy arrived carrying the rejected painting. “Look what I found! The Holy Family! It’s a providential sign, a blessing.” She put it on the mantle of the apartment’s extinct fireplace. I looked at it again and this time saw it was a work of love and faith, however crudely rendered. If it was no masterpiece of iconography, it had its own unlettered beauty, but I wouldn’t have thought so if Dorothy hadn’t seen it first.

Dorothy is no longer with us. We can’t sit down and have a cup of coffee with her anymore, or send her a letter and await her response. But she remains a vital presence. Many regard her as a saint, and not as a way of keeping her at a safe distance or because of ignorance regarding the darker moments in her life. If by the word “saint” we mean a person who helps us see, by both precept and example, what it means to follow Christ, surely Dorothy is such a person.

Dorothy helped bring about a conversion of heart that greatly influenced many people in the Church, especially in America, but has reached far beyond it. It is not a reformation of theological doctrine, but one rooted in the sacredness of life. Dorothy has helped us better understand one of the primary biblical truths: that each person, no matter how damaged or battered by the events and circumstances of life, is a bearer of the image of God and deserves to be recognized and treated as such. She has reminded us of the real presence of Christ in the least person. “Those who fail to see Christ in the poor,” Dorothy said, “are atheists indeed.” Thanks to her, many have come to realize that the opposite of the works of mercy are the works of war. Dorothy gave an astonishing example of hospitality and mercy as a way of life. “We are here to celebrate Him,” she said time and again, “through the works of mercy.”

In my own life, every time I think about the challenges of life in the bright light of the Gospel rather than in the gray light of money or the dim light of politics, her example has had its influence. Every time I try to overcome meanness or selfishness rising up in myself, it is partly thanks to the example of Dorothy Day. Every time I defeat the impulse to buy something I can get along without, Dorothy Day’s example of voluntary poverty has had renewed impact. Every time I give away something I can get along without — every time I manage to see Christ’s presence in the face of a stranger — there again I owe a debt to Dorothy Day. Every time I take part in efforts to prevent wars or end them, or join in campaigns to make the world a less cruel place, in part I am in debt to Dorothy. What I know of Christ, the Church, sacramental life, the Bible, and truth-telling, I know in large measure thanks to her, while whatever I have done that was cowardly, opportunistic or cruel, is despite her. She has even shaped my reading life — one could do worse than to get to know the authors whose books helped shape and sustain Dorothy’s faith and vocation. It isn’t that Dorothy is the point of reference. Christ is. But I can’t think of anyone I’ve known whose Christ-centered life has done so much to help make me a more Christ-centered person.

In 1997, seventeen years after Dorothy’s death, one of her grandchildren, Kate Hennessy, wrote in The Catholic Worker: “To have known Dorothy means spending the rest of your life wondering what hit you. On the one hand, she has given so many of us a home, physically and spiritually; on the other, she has shaken our very foundations.”

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

* * *
Jim Forest / Alkmaar / text as of August 2010
* * *

Dorothy Day at draft card burning Union Square NYC 6 Nov 1965 (photo by Jim Forest)

Servant of God Dorothy Day: Saint and Troublemaker

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

by Jim Forest

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

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

A saint.

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

A troublemaker.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A new words about Dorothy’s remarkable life:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was attentive to fast days and fast seasons. It was in that connection she told me a story about prayer. For many years, she said, she had been a heavy smoker. Her day began with lighting up a cigarette. Her big sacrifice every Lent was giving up smoking, but having to get by without a cigarette made her increasingly irritable as the days passed, until the rest of the community was praying with fervor that she would resume smoking. One year, as Lent approached, the priest who ordinarily heard her confessions told her not to give up cigarettes as usual but instead to pray daily, “Dear God, help me stop smoking.” She used that prayer for several years without it having any impact on her addiction. Then one morning she woke up, reached for a cigarette, and realized she didn’t want it — and never smoked another. Moral? God answers prayers but one often has to be persistent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Excellent web link: — a treasure chest of Dorothy’s writings.

A Harsh and Dreadful Love: Dorothy Day's Witness to the Gospel

by Jim Forest

Early in The Brothers Karamazov, a wealthy woman asks Staretz Zosima how she can really know that God exists. The Staretz tells her that no explanation or argument can achieve this, only the practice of “active love.” He assures her that really there is no other way to know God in reality rather than God as an idea. The woman confesses that sometimes she dreams about a life of loving service to others — she thinks perhaps she will become a Sister of Mercy, live in holy poverty and serve the poor in the humblest way. It seems to her such a wonderful thought. It makes tears comes to her eyes. But then it crosses her mind how ungrateful some of the people she is serving are likely to be. They will probably complain that the soup she is serving isn’t hot enough or that the bread isn’t fresh enough or the bed is too hard and the covers too thin. She confesses to Staretz Zosima that she couldn’t bear such ingratitude — and so her dreams about serving others vanish, and once again she finds herself wondering if there really is a God. To this the Staretz responds with the words, “Love in practice is a hard and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”

I mention this story to you because I doubt any figure in literature had more importance to Dorothy Day than Father Zosima. How often I heard her repeat the words, “Love in practice is a hard and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” It was partly through Dostoevsky that she formed her understanding of Christianity, seeing it not simply as an institutional structure but as a way of life in which nothing was more important than seeing Christ in others.

I have no doubt she was a saint, that is someone who in a remarkable way shows us what it means to follow Christ. Thanks to the Claretian order, an effort is under way to promote her canonization, and this has the active support of the Cardinal O’Conner, head of the diocese in which she lived all her adult life. I think of her as a modern sister of St. Francis of Assisi.

The link with St. Francis is close. They have in common an attraction to the poor which led them to live among them and to practice what Dorothy called “voluntary poverty.” Like Francis, she formed a commitment to live out the most radical teachings of Jesus, including the renunciation of violence. Like Francis, she started a movement that could involve anyone, not only the unmarried. The Catholic Worker movement she began in 1933 has led to the foundation of houses of hospitality in many parts of the United States. The newspaper she edited until her death in 1980, The Catholic Worker, had and still has 100,000 subscribers.

Some biographical details: She was born in Brooklyn, New York, on November 8, 1897. Her father was a journalist and it was the profession nearly all of his children followed. She was eight years old when her family moved into a six-room tenement flat over a tavern on 37th Street on the South Side. It was a big step down for the Day family. They had been practically wiped out by the San Francisco earthquake. The family had lost their house and John Day was without a job. The curtains Dorothy’s mother Grace made from remnants were hung from fishing rods. Fruit crates served as book cases. Nail kegs became kitchen stools. Dorothy was so ashamed of her home that, returning from school, she would enter the door of a better, more impressive building so that her classmates wouldn’t know the kind of circumstances she was living in. Her mother suffered blinding headaches and went through several miscarriages. Dorothy’s understanding of the shame people feel when they aren’t making it surely dates from this time.

It was in this period of her life that Dorothy began to find in the Catholic Church, an institution despised by her father, something inspiring. Dorothy would often recall later in life the impact of discovering a friend’s mother, a woman named Mrs. Barrett, praying on her knees at the side of her bed. Without dismay or embarrassment, she looked up at Dorothy, told her where to find her daughter, and returned to her prayer. “I felt a burst of love toward Mrs. Barrett that I have never forgotten, a feeling of gratitude and happiness that warmed my heart,” Dorothy wrote in her autobiography, The Long Loneliness.

When John Day finally got the job of sports editor of a Chicago daily paper, the Day family moved into a large and comfortable house on Webster Avenue on the North Side. Dorothy need no longer be embarrassed by her domestic circumstances.

The great events in Dorothy’s life at the Webster Avenue house often had to do with books. Though her father was a man with many prejudices, he was a reader and book lover, and this rubbed off on his eldest daughter. In the library of the house, Dorothy first read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and Charles Dickens’ Bleak House and Little Dorritt, and many other books that stirred her awareness of injustice in the world and also offered images of sanctity, books she would read again and again for the rest of her life. Books remained Dorothy’s cherished companions throughout her life. She appreciated Erasmus’s confessional boast: “When I have money I buy books, and if anything is left over I buy food and clothes.”

The book that had the most impact on her in her mid-teens was Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Unlike books about social injustice by Dickens and Hugo, here was a story set in the present, and not in Europe but Chicago, in the area of the city’s stockyards and slaughter houses. Sinclair’s hero was a Lithuanian immigrant, the only member of his family not utterly destroyed by squalor and injustice. He finally commits himself to struggle for a just social order by joining the Socialist Party. Sinclair’s vivid description of filth and violence in the meat industry so shocked its readers that the book is given credit for Congressional passage of tough meat inspection laws, although what Sinclair had hoped for was to stimulate more profound social change. “I aimed at the public’s heart,” he said, “and by accident hit it in the stomach.”

But he did reach Dorothy Day’s heart. She had responsibility for much of the care of the newest addition to the family, her baby bother John Day, and stirred by Sinclair’s novel, began to push his baby carriage further and further southwest, not far from the parts of the city she had once been so glad to leave behind. “I walked for miles, exploring interminable grey streets, fascinating in their dreary sameness, past tavern after tavern, where I envisioned such scenes as the Polish wedding party in Sinclair’s story.”

As would be typical of Dorothy for the rest of her life, she found a kind of beauty in the midst of urban desolation. “There were tiny gardens and vegetable patches in the yards. Often there were rows of corn, stunted but still recognizable, a few tomato plants, and always the vegetables bordered by flowers.” Drab streets were transformed by pungent odors: geranium and tomato plants, garlic, olive oil, roasting coffee, bread and rolls in bakery ovens. “Here,” she said, “was enough beauty to satisfy me.”

Only 15 years old, she looked at the world with wide open eyes and a vulnerable heart many of us might envy. Pondering the lives of the people living in these hard-pressed neighborhoods, yet rich in so many ways, she had a vivid sense of who she would become. “From that time on my life was to be linked to theirs, their interests would be mine: I had received a call, a vocation, a direction in life.”

An exceptionally bright student, at age sixteen she won a full scholarship to the University of Illinois. She was delighted no longer to be living with her parents, but the academic world held her attention only briefly. Long before she might have received a degree, she abandoned her studies and moved to New York City where, at age of 18, she became a reporter for New York’s socialist daily newspaper, The Call. At the time she was probably the youngest working journalist on a New York paper, and also one of the very few woman journalists writing about something other than social news or cake recipes.

A year later, she joined the editorial staff of Masses, a radical publication silenced by the US government following America’s entry into World War I, for the publication was outspoken in its opposition to the war and encouraged men to refuse to fight in it. Just after her 19th birthday, Dorothy was jailed with other feminists who had gone to the White House to protest the exclusion of women from political affairs.

The horror of war challenged her to do something more concrete about suffering than simply to protest or write articles. Dorothy became a nurse in a Brooklyn hospital, but a love affair with a fellow journalist she met at that time led her back to Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan. The affair ended with an abortion. This was the catastrophe of her life, an event still causing her grief in her old age. Just after the war, she was briefly married to a New York literary figure and went with him to Europe, where she wrote her first book, an autobiographical novel, “The Eleventh Virgin,” that centered on the love affair that had led to her pregnancy and the abortion with which it ended.

Back in the US, Dorothy joined the staff of The Liberator, a Communist magazine in Chicago though Dorothy, always impatient with ideology, never joined the Communist Party or any other political association. In fact she never cast a vote in any election nor encouraged anyone also to do so as she was convinced that the only “vote” of significance was how she you lived her life day by day. Also she simply couldn’t imagine voting for someone whose views and priorities were so at variance with her own.

In 1922, she was arrested and jailed again, this time in one of the government’s “anti-red” raids. She went back to reporting work, first for a Chicago newspaper, then one in New Orleans. In 1925 — her novel published and film rights for the book sold to Hollywood — she returned to New York, where she met a British botanist and intellectual disciple of Kropotkin and fell deeply in love with him. The pregnancy that resulted from this relationship was the turning point in her life.

That she should be carrying a child again seemed to her not only remarkable but nothing less than a miracle. The abortion five years earlier left her feeling guilty. She also sensed that her body had been damaged and that she had been made sterile. She believed that she could never conceive again. Whether it was a miracle or not, I don’t know, but certainly it filled her with an overwhelming sense of God’s mercy that was to remain with her for the rest of her life.

She found that whenever she went walking, she was praying, and the prayers were entirely of joy and gratitude. As the months passed, she decided she wanted her child baptized in the Roman Catholic Church; and then she realized she wanted to become a Catholic herself. To the man she lived with, however, as to many radicals, the Catholic Church was one of the world’s more oppressive structures, complicit in almost every evil for many centuries. Dorothy saw it in quite a different way: for her it was the church of the poor, a church with ancient roots reaching back to the beginning of Christianity, a church free of the constraints of national borders. Arguments flared, doors slammed. Their relationship disintegrated.

Dorothy’s daughter, Tamar, was baptized in July, 1927, and Dorothy — now a single parent — was herself baptized in late December. Then began Dorothy’s six-year search for a vocation that could bridge her radical political convictions with her new-found religious commitment.

In May 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, Dorothy founded The Catholic Worker, initially intended only as a small monthly publication. This step had been proposed to her by a remarkable French immigrant, Peter Maurin, who looked like a bum and actually lived like a bum, but a brilliant and saintly man. The paper sold, and still sells, for a penny a copy — the smallest coin, what a kopek used to be in Russia, and perhaps what a ruble is today. Though there was much in it to interest intellectuals, the paper was aimed at ordinary people, many of them out of work in that period. Dorothy’s first editorial said The Catholic Worker would show its readers that the Catholic Church is concerned not only with spiritual welfare but material welfare. The paper caught on. Within a few months there were thousands of readers.

What had been launched only as a newspaper quickly became a movement. First in New York, then in other cities, Catholic Worker houses of hospitality were formed. They were both places of welcome for homeless people (the houses are in the down-out-and areas like New York City’s Bowery) and centers for dialogue about community, the Gospel and the Church, but also for what her collaborator Peter Maurin called a “green revolution” — efforts to inspire social change through entirely peaceful means.

While there were many people in the Catholic Church who supported the initiatives she was taking, not only lay people but priests and bishops, you can image that others found her some kind of strange Protestant or perhaps a Communist pretending to be a Christian.

Dorothy’s methods were also dismissed as “impractical” because of her non-institutional approach of hospitality for people who were living ragged lives on the street. A social worker visiting the Catholic Worker house in New York asked Dorothy how long her guests were “allowed” to stay. Dorothy answered, “We let them stay forever. They live with us, they die with us, and we give them a Christian burial. We pray for them after they are dead. Once they are taken in, they become members of the family. Or rather they always were members of the family. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Perhaps all would have gone quite well between the Dorothy and the Roman Catholic hierarchy in America had it not been for the stand she took in failing to support Franco’s side in the Spanish Civil War. Practically all Dorothy’s friend, being people on the left, whole-heartedly supported the Republican side, but Dorothy couldn’t support a force that was murdering priests and nuns and destroying churches. Similarly she could not in any way support the fascism that Franco represented, no matter how many bishops regarded him as their hero and protector. In fact there was a still deeper problem for Dorothy, for she could not imagine Christ blessing anyone to kill. She wrote essays about Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior, who has chosen to live in a society suffering military occupation by the Romans but had sent none of his disciples to join the Zealots, the national group undertaking violent resistance. He had responded mercifully to people on every side, even the Roman centurion who sought his help. She recalled the witness of Christians in the first three centuries, when it was regarded as far better to lay down one’s own life than to shed anyone’s blood.

There had been no overtly pacifist movement in the Catholic Church for centuries, until the Catholic Worker. Perhaps more than any Catholic since St. Francis, Dorothy Day began a process within her church that put Jesus, rather than the theologians of the just war, at the center of the church’s social teaching.

Dorothy was often imprisoned as a result of her activity in peace, civil rights, and labor demonstrations. Usually this happened in the fifties, when year after year she sat on a park bench in front of New York’s City Hall while air-raid sirens were howling and everyone was required by law to take shelter in what was nothing other than a mass dress rehearsal for nuclear war. But she was occasionally arrested for other reasons, for example with farm workers in California when they were founding a labor movement. One of my favorite photos of her, taken in 1973, shows her holding the dress she wore the last time she was a prisoner. All the women jailed with her signed their names on the rough prison garment, making it a treasure to her.

At the center of Dorothy’s faith was her certainty that we are saved not because we are clever or are often found in religious buildings (though mind you daily Mass was part of the structure of her life) but because of our loving response to “the least.” The Catholic Worker way of life is to practice daily “the works of mercy” that Jesus speaks of in the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, taking in the homeless, caring for the sick, and being with prisoners. This same teaching led Dorothy to oppose all those systems that cause suffering. “We see that the works of mercy oppose the works of war,” she said. Often she quoted St. John of the Cross: “Love is the measure by which we shall be judged.”

Dorothy died November 29, 1980. It was a widely marked event in America, not only noticed by Christians of every variety but by many people in other religious traditions, or outside every religion. By then many regarded her as one of Christianity’s great reformers and a modern saint, though Dorothy herself had sometimes said, “Don’t call me a saint–I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”

After the funeral, an editor of The Catholic Worker was asked whether the movement would be able to continue without its founder. “We have lost Dorothy,” Peggy Scherer said, “but we still have the gospel.”

The most extraordinary monuments to Dorothy Day are the many houses of hospitality that stretch from Oakland to Amsterdam, places of welcome that not only offer a caring response to the homeless and runaways but centers of work for a nonviolent society. We can say there is still a greater monument, though much less tangible, and that is a renewed understanding of Christianity. She was like a restorer of icons who, after removing layer upon layer of paint left by various generations, comes to the deepest level and finds an image painted by the hand of the Apostle Luke.

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

What can we learn from Dorothy Day?

First, we see in her that the heart of life is prayer.

I have never known anyone, not even in monasteries, who was more a praying person than Dorothy Day. When I think of her, I think of her first of all on her knees praying before the Blessed Sacrament. I think of those long lists of names she kept of people, living and dead, to pray for. I think of her at Mass, I think of her praying the rosary, I think of her going off for confession each Saturday evening.

“We feed the hungry, yes,” she said. “We try to shelter the homeless and give them clothes, but there is strong faith at work; we pray. If an outsider who comes to visit us doesn’t pay attention to our prayings and what that means, then he’ll miss the whole point.”

If you find the life of Dorothy Day inspiring, if you want to understand what gave her direction and courage and strength to persevere, her deep attentiveness to others, consider her spiritual and sacramental life.

Second, she reminds us that social justice is not just a project for the government or do-good agencies or radical movements designing a new social order in which all the world’s problems will be solved. It’s for you and me, here and now, right where we’re standing. Jesus did not say “Blessed are you who give contributions to charity” or “Blessed are you who are planning a just society.” He said, “Welcome into the Kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world, for I was hungry and you fed me . . .”

At the heart of what Dorothy did were the works of mercy. For her these weren’t simply obligations which the Lord imposed on his followers. As she said on one occasion to Bob Coles, “We are here to celebrate Him through these works of mercy.”

Third: The most important thing we can is to try to find the face of Christ in others, and not only those we find it easy to be with but those who make us nervous, frighten us, alarm us, or even terrify us. “Those who cannot see the face of Christ in the poor,” she used to say, “are atheists indeed.”

Dorothy was an orthodox Catholic. This means she believed that Christ has left himself with us both in the Eucharist and in those in need. “What you did to the least person, you did to me.”

Her searching of faces for Christ’s presence for Christ extended to those who were, at least in a functional sense, her enemies, but also, she always tried to remember, victims of the very structures they were in charge of. She sometimes recalled the advice she had been given by a fellow prisoner named Mary Ann, a prostitute, when Dorothy was in jail in Chicago in the early ‘twenties: “You must hold up your head high, and give them no clue that you’re afraid of them or ready to beg them for anything, any favors whatsoever. But you must see them for what they are — never forget that they’re in jail too.”

Fourth: We can learn from her that beauty is not just for the affluent.

Tom Cornell tells the story of a donor coming into the Catholic Worker and giving Dorothy a diamond ring. Dorothy thanked her for it and put it in her pocket. Later a rather demented lady came in, one of the more irritating regulars at the CW house. Dorothy took the diamond ring out of her pocket and gave it to the woman. Someone on the staff said to Dorothy, “Wouldn’t it have been better if we took the ring to the diamond exchange, sold it, and paid that woman’s rent for a year?”. Dorothy replied that the woman had her dignity and could do what she liked with the ring. She could sell it for rent money or take a trip to the Bahamas. Or she could enjoy wearing a diamond ring on her hand like the woman who gave it away. “Do you suppose,” Dorothy asked, “that God created diamonds only for the rich?”

Fifth, Dorothy teaches us that meekness does not mean being weak-kneed. There is a place for outrage as well as a place for very plain speech in religious life. She once said to a person who was counseling her to speak in a more polite, temperate way, “I hold more temper in one minute than you will hold in your entire life.” Or again her lightning-like comment, “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy rotten system.”

Sixth: We see in Dorothy the value of the Little Way. The phrase was one Dorothy borrowed from St. Therese of Liseux, the Little Flower. Change starts not in the future but in the present, not in Washington DC or Wall Street but where I stand. Change begins in the ordinary actions of life, how I live minute to minute, what I do with my life, what I notice, what I respond to, the care and attention with which I listen, the way in which I respond. It happens when we practice hospitality of the face.

As she once put it, “Paper work, cleaning the house, dealing with the innumerable visitors who come all through the day, answering the phone, keeping patience and acting intelligently, which is to find some meaning in all that happens — these things, too, are the works of peace, and often seem like a very little way.”

What she tried to practice was “Christ’s technique,” as she put it, which was not to seek out meetings with emperors and important officials but “obscure people, a few fisherman and farm people, a few ailing and hard-pressed men and women.”

Seventh: Dorothy provides an example of love the Church. It is, of course, easy to see the faults of the Church — I mean not the Mystical Body of Christ but the social institution. Dorothy used to say that the net Peter lowered when Christ made him a fisher of men caught “quite a few blowfish and not a few sharks.” She said many times that “the Church is the Cross on which Christ is crucified.” She said that when she saw the Church taking the side of the rich and powerful, forgetting the weak, or saw bishops living in luxury while the poor are thrown the crumbs of “charity,” she knew that Christ was being insulted and once again being sent to his death. “The Church doesn’t only belong to the officials and bureaucrats,” she said. “It belongs to all people, and especially its most humble men and women and children.”

Instead of focusing on the human failings so obvious in every church. Dorothy concentrated on what the church sets it sights on. We’re not here to pass judgement on our fellow believers, whatever their rank or role in the church, but to live the Gospel as wholeheartedly as we can and make the best use we can of the sacraments and every other resource the church offers to us.

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

I learned from Dorothy that the Church is more than this or that institutional structure but really is the Mystical Body of Christ and as such links together all those who struggle to follow Christ no matter what the shortcomings of the particular church they belong. She herself longed for the unity of the divided Church. She occasionally took me to the small meetings of a group in New York City, The Third Hour it was called, that brought together Catholic and Orthodox Christians, as well as at least one Anglican, the poet W.H. Auden. The first time I met an Orthodox priest and took part in the Orthodox Liturgy, it was thanks to Dorothy Day. I doubt Dorothy intended that I should become an Orthodox Christian, but that slow pilgrimage in my life had its beginning at the Catholic Worker.

Last but not least: I learned from Dorothy day that I am here to follow Christ. Not the Pope. Not the Ecumenical Patriarch. Not the President of the United States. Not even Dorothy Day or any other saint.

Christ has told us plainly about the Last Judgment and it has nothing to do with belonging to the right church or being theologically correct. All the church can do is try to get us on the right track and keep us there. But we will be judged not on membership cards but according to our readiness to let the mercy of God pass through us to others. “Love is the measure,” Dorothy said again and again, quoting Saint John of the Cross.

Hers was a day-to-day way of the cross, and just as truly the way of the open door. “It is the living from day to day,” she said, “taking no thought for the morrow, seeing Christ in all who come to us, and trying literally to follow the Gospel that resulted in this work.”

Joseph Brodsky: a Poetry of Nerve

Commonweal / 22 May 1992

Joseph Brodsky

by Jim Forest

Joseph Brodsky was introduced to an audience at the John Adams Institute in Amsterdam December 15 not as a poet but as the poet. “In him,” said his friend and translator Kees Verheul, “we are faced with the poet, or rather the carrier of the poet.” Listening impassively to the introduction, Brodsky fiddled with an unlighted filter cigarette, occasionally placing it in his lips, until after about ten minutes, ending a drawn out silent drama that upstaged his introducer, Brodsky finally lit it, inhaling deeply, then blowing out the smoke in a long thin stream. His toying with the cigarette resembled an erotic play.

His first task was the unveiling of a bronze bust of himself, the work of the sculptor Sylvia Willink. “The only respect in which this head differs from the one I carry on my shoulders,” Brodsky commented after admiring the Caesar-like image, “is that it can’t speak — and it can’t kiss.”

Brodsky’s English is fast, fluent, almost reckless, a special variety that has the smell of a Jewish bakery in Manhattan’s lower east side. He may have been born and raised in Leningrad/St. Petersburg but his voice is at home in the New World.

He started off reading with “A Song,” a poem with the refrain, “I wish you were here, dear,” which concludes, “What’s the point of forgetting / if it’s followed by dying?” (It was, he confessed, a pastiche of Auden’s “Twelve Songs.”) Then came “Epitaph to a Centaur” with the line “…his animal part turned out to be less durable than his humanity.” Then “The Butterflies” about a life one-day long, a space in time just right for the blaze of a poem.

Especially when reading in his native language, Brodsky recites like a deacon singing the Gospel in a Russian church, a kind of liturgical chant, the recitation of each line governed by strict rules of rhythm with definite places for rising and falling stresses, that are impartial to the content of the words. This way of reading creates a cathedral space around him and us and a sense of no longer being in ordinary time or space. He reminds me of watching Vladimir Horowitz performing in a concert hall in Moscow, playing with total detachment as if, far from playing, he was listening, and perhaps not even listening to this particular piano. His fingers moved, but hardly more than if he were absent- mindedly drumming a table top in a café while waiting for someone who was late. Similarly Brodsky’s face, even while he chants the poetry with such concentrated purpose, such spiritual discipline, seems a face in the audience rather than belonging to the poet. His eyes wander toward the large windows and the view they offer of the sky and street and other buildings, like a child in school waiting for recess.

In the pause I asked him to sign my copy of his book of essays, Less Than One. He looked with surprise at my pen, a black and green Pelikan I bought in Assisi in 1986 to mark the passage from organizational employment to the more adventurous life of freelance writing. He pulled from his shirt pocket an identical Pelikan and said, “I have two of them.” We agreed that there is something sacred about a good pen. I told him about how his way of reading reminded me of the chanting of the Gospel or the way a cantor sings the prayers in the synagogue. “Of course they are deeply related,” he said.

I made a similar comment in the public discussion that followed. The deacon, the cantor and the poet are all practicing the “melic art,” Brodsky responded, pausing like a good teacher to spell “melic”. [OED: “Melic: Of poetry; Intended to be sung; applied spec. to the strophic species of Greek lyric verse. Hence applied to poets who compose such verse.”] “It is quite deliberate. Meters are meters. There is music in poetry. I try to bring out the euphonic aspect of the poem. My manner of delivery goes back to the training I received in my Russian high school. A good teacher requires a lot of memorization of poetry and requires you to deliver. Your recitation makes it clear to the teacher what you have understood.”

The poet in the west in this century, Brodsky continued, has the problem “of almost always being on the defensive, aware of the sardonic listener who will smirk at the poet’s raptures.” Thus he tends to read diffidently, taking some distance from his poem. And this is a great pity because in fact “poetry is an act of mental aggression upon the audience. The self-effacing poet should perhaps take the next logical step and shut up altogether.”

A question was asked about nihilism. Brodsky replied that according to Aristotle there are four different temperaments and each has to do with the location of bile in the body. “I have no philosophy, only temperament.” (Later he quoted a Japanese poet: “I’ve got no principles, no convictions — just nerve.”) His own temperament leads him to shrug off the problem of death, as if to say, “You know you are going to lose. So what?” Someone with another temperament may be quite irritated and preoccupied with the problem and even develop a philosophy of nihilism. But for himself, he went on, “nothingness is a lousy subject. How can one make a philosophy out of it?”

“In Russian we have the word nichtoe — nothing. It’s an interesting word with too many consonants. It doesn’t give you a sense of limit. It suggests a journey.” (Later, commenting on the euphony that exists in every language, he noted that “Russian words are two, three syllables, minimum. To utter a Russian word is an acoustic event.”)

He noted that experience of extraordinary events does not necessarily produce a poem. “Extremes of experience have a tendency to bring out banal expressions. You can survive Hiroshima or 25 years in a concentration camp and not write a single line, or experience a one-night stand and write an immortal lyric.”

“Art,” he said, “is older than any form of social organization. It started, shall we say, a long time ago.”

The question was asked whether poetry could have anything to do with politics. Brodsky said no, the reason being that the task of the poet is to avoid cliches, to create precedents, to make something new. “The artist is trying not to repeat his predecessors, to say the least.” Thus it is sometimes said of a poet that he is ahead of his time. This is an incorrect perception, he explained. “A poet is never ahead or behind his time, just operating on his own frequency.”

He also said he hears people complain, “I don’t care for modern poetry.” He said the reason for this is that poetry builds on itself, it has a kind of development through time. You could understand modern poetry if you began with the poetry you do understand and work from there. Reading modern poetry “is like boarding a runaway train. You may decide you don’t like the train. Its route, well, it’s not yours, that’s all.”

Someone commented on how striking the contrast was between the original poems that Brodsky had recited, and the reading by the translator of the same poems in Dutch. Brodsky said this was due not so much to differences in the verbal content of the poem in its two forms but “how you read” and that this is greatly shaped by one’s national background. “Russian stresses the music. Otherwise you are just counting syllables.”

He was unhappy about the “big infusion of English words” into modern Russian. But language has its own life, refusing to behave according to the tastes of a balding poet, even when he has the Nobel Prize. “Language is a generational thing. You have very intimate pet words that have to do with your generation and place. It was different in my generation to be in St. Petersburg than to be in Moscow. In St. Petersburg we said ch-toe while in Moscow it was stow.”

Wasn’t it hard for the writer to have to live in exile, he was asked, and isn’t it a pity so many writers are exiles? Brodsky found it not so remarkable. “You have guest workers and boat people, not only exiled writers. This takes the orchid out of the writer’s lapel. To live elsewhere is a norm in the twentieth century. There’s nothing very significant about it. It’s just more palatable when it’s a writer than with those possessing other skills.” There was something to be said for the writer packing his bags. “The further away from his homeland the writer is, the better for literature.” One’s address isn’t so important.

“A poet,” he concluded, “is like a bird. He chirps no matter what twig he lands on — and mistakes the rustle of leaves for applause.”

* * *

A Dialogue on Reconciliation in Belgrade

by Jim Forest

The high point of a meeting of church leaders gathered in Belgrade in for several days in February 1996 was a confessional statement by Father Mato Zovki, a priest now living in Croatia but soon to return to Sarajevo, where he is Vicar General of the diocese. He was taking issue with his friend and fellow Roman Catholic, the Archbishop of Belgrade, Franc Perko, who earlier in the day had attributed the crimes committed in the wars in former Yugoslavia to atheists. Pulling a blue rosary from his pocket, Father Zovki said that he had met Catholics who boasted of murdering Muslims and destroying Muslim towns while wearing rosaries around their necks. “Whatever we say about them, they regarded themselves as devout Catholics, not atheists. We Catholics cannot say we had nothing to do with the terrible things they did.” He didn’t “find enough courage” in religious leaders to be “prophetic in confronting their failures.”

All three religious communities in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia have members who committed appalling war crimes in the past five years and who regard themselves not only as defenders of their nation but of their faith. No doubt they have met nationalist pastors who blessed their war-time activities. But few religious leaders have yet been willing to acknowledge that their own religious community did too little, was too cautious, or may have helped stir nationalist passions that resulted in crimes against neighbors.

The meeting in Belgrade, called “An Ecumenical Dialogue on Reconciliation,” may prove to be a significant step within the Christian community to help heal the wounds created by war in the Balkans. The event was sponsored by the Theological Faculty of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Geneva-based Conference of European Churches. Sixty church delegates took part, half of them from Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Slovenia, the other half from the rest of Europe and North America.

The meeting was opened by Patriarch Pavle, 81 years old, head of the Serbian Orthodox Church since 1991, a modest monk well known for his readiness to meet with anyone who seeks him out and for his preference for travel by tram and bus. In his brief address, he called for the reconstruction of destroyed homes, churches and mosques and prayed for hatred to be extinguished by “truthful forgiveness.” He stressed our duty as co-workers of God not to abide by narrow political or factional criteria but to see that the Church in any nation must raise that nation to the stature of the people of God. “If [the Church] deviates from that direction … it ceases to be that which it should be: the Church of the Living God.” Referring to the debate within European churches about whether or not the churches former Yugoslavia acted as they should have during the war, he concluded that any church in the Christian family must be “judged by men of goodwill, and ultimately and unmistakably by God.”

For many people simply being present for such a dialogue was hard work. Father Vladimir Vukasinovi, assistant professor of liturgics at the Theological Faculty in Belgrade, told me he had been too upset to say a single word during the first workshop he took part in. He could only think about his grandparents, all four of whom were murdered during the Second World War. “The Muslims killed my mother’s parents. The Croats killed my father’s parents. They have tried to kill us Serbs three times in this century and many times before that. And they will keep trying. It is dreaming to think in another way.” Yet I could see him struggling hard to do so.

The next day Father Vladimir was taking an active part in group dialogue, objecting to the idea that when large numbers of people are involved in a communal act like war, no one bears individual responsibility for his participation. “There is no such thing as collective sin, only personal sins. Even when groups commit sin, still each person involved is committing a personal sin. In war the first sin is to kill another, the second sin to refuse to be a free person. Similarly we never relate simply to a group, only to concrete persons. There is no everyone, only persons with names, only Peter and Paul. The first step in reconciliation is to make contact with an actual person.”

“Reconciliation is possible,” he said, “but it cannot come from a thousand hours of political debate. It cannot come from the Tito way, imposed from above. It can only come from repentance.”

One of the observers at the conference was Dragan Dragojlovi, Minister of Religions in the Serbian government and a poet by avocation — and apparently an Orthodox Christian, as he crossed himself in the Orthodox manner when entering the chapel of the Theological Faculty. He saw the wars in former Yugoslavia as more religious in character than religious leaders want to admit, “not that many combatants are devout believers but they make little if any distinction between national and religious identity nor do their religious communities encourage them to make any such distinction.”

“So is our war a religious war?” asked Father Anastasije Raketa, a young Orthodox priest from a destroyed village in Bosnia. “Yes — and no. Religion is not itself the origin of the war but the instrument of war. The key to the solution is in collective responsibility not only of the nations that fought each other but of the world community.” He recalled growing up in Bosnia with not only Orthodox but Croat and Muslim friends. “But suddenly winds blew from the north, south, east and west, and everything was destroyed, and not only neighbor killing neighbor. I knew personally Serbs who were killed by American bombs — one small house suddenly gone with all the people who had lived in it? Could they be guilty of anything? So we must think of collective responsibility and collective repentance. We have to find our own guilt and not simply accuse other people. As long as we search for the guilty, there will be no peace and there will be no reconciliation.”

Prof. Dimitar Kirov of the Theological Faculty in Belgrade said that the recent history of Yugoslavia had much to do with the war, including the suppression of all religious education. “The system imposed was not atheist so much as anti-theist. But a vacuum cannot exist in the life of real persons. If you are nothing, then you see your neighbor as a nothing.”

For Father Vladimir, recent events had little to do with the Tito era. “This war is the continuation of World War II. It isn’t helpful to blame the Communists, except to note that Tito would not allow any process of actual reconciliation.”

Mother Maria Rule, an Orthodox nun from England who lived for eleven years in Serbia, pointed out that it us not only the effects of the last two wars we have to think about in understanding Serbians. “Here I learned a different way of consciousness,” she said. “They have never gone more than fifty to seventy years without an oppressor. This is the primary experience.” The result is a Serbian tendency “to put people first in frames. First so-and-so is a Muslim, only afterward is he a man with a big heart. First a label, then a person.”

Among topics that emerged repeatedly in both group and private conversation is the harm caused when evils committed in the past are not admitted or are minimized, when there is no sign of repentance or effort made to seek forgiveness. No one knows exactly how many Serbs were killed by Croats during the last world war, when Croatia became an independent fascist state obsessed with racial purity. The usual estimate of people murdered by the Croatian Ustache is 600,000, chiefly Serbs but also Jews, gypsies and others who regarded either as racially inferior or as political criminals. Regarding the Serbs, the slogan of Croatia’s head of state, Ante Paveli, was “one third killed, one third converted [to Catholicism], one third expelled.” For Serbs the name of the largest Croatian concentration camp, Jasenovac, is as infamous as Auschwitz is to the Jews — the difference being that not only Jews but everyone knows about Auschwitz while only Serbians know about Jasenovac.

In the half century since the war ended, both the German government and the churches of Germany have in numerous ways acknowledged the crimes committed in the Hitler years, many times asked forgiveness, and sought to compensate survivors. But the Croatian Catholic Church has remained silent, neither acknowledging the genocide that happened (in which Catholic clergy often played an active part) nor seeking forgiveness. When Croatia again became an independent state, it chose as its symbol a red and white chessboard design almost identical to the one used during the time of fascism. Still more ominous, its head of state, Franjo Tudjman, is the author of a book in which he sought to minimize the number of Serbs killed (he estimates 60,000 victims). It was the kind of “study” that neo-nazis publish about the Holocaust. Now Croatia plans a memorial at Jasenovac not to the people murdered at the camp but to Croatian soldiers who died in the war. “In this way they want to hide the crimes,” said a Serbian layman at the conference. “But there is not one Serbian family that does not have people who died at Jasenovac or similar places in those years and every day we remember what happened to them. To Americans such events may seem in the distant past, but to us they are very fresh and painful. Even today if the Catholic bishops of Croatia were to admit what happened and express their sorrow, it would do much to change the way we relate to each other. What we feel instead is that we are still regarded as an inferior people whose disappearance would be no loss to the human race, people whom it is not a sin to kill.”

What we heard much less about were the war crimes Serbians have committed against Croats and Muslims in the past five years and the fact that it is not only the only the Croatian Catholic Church which is infected by nationalism, but also the Serbian Orthodox Church. “Our problem,” said one Orthodox priest, “is that many of us, when we make the sign of the cross, might as well be saying, ‘In the name of the Father, the Son, and Saint Sava.’ This is what can easily happen whenever a church becomes the sole guardian of national identity. We are experts on the sins committed against our nation and try to forget the sins our people have committed against others.”

“I am thinking about what churches, not just individuals, can contribute to reconciliation,” said Heinz Rüegger, Secretary of the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches. “As long as there is nobody who takes responsibility, we cannot solve it. Consider Germany and World War II and those people who, after the war, were able to take responsibility upon themselves even though they were not immediately responsible for the crimes that were committed. The impact of their action was immense.”

Bishop Ignjatije, a young member of the Serbian hierarchy and a professor at the Theological Faculty, pointed out that the church had no “authoritative influence” in shaping national policies. Still, he didn’t regard the church as blameless. “We [in the church] did not manage to differentiate a common stand for the church. The tendency was to escape into an abstract space that really did not mean too much. Reality was different. People wanted something concrete from the church. We were asked to take a principled stand and give a principled viewpoint. Such a thing may be possible in the west but it is very difficult in our situation.”

He felt that in both the east and the west there is a wrong perception about the kingdom of God, on the one side too caught up in history, on the other too detached. The western side tries to create of its own efforts the kingdom of God. The Orthodox side has the tendency to passively await the gift of the kingdom of God, identifying eschatology with history. A synthesis is needed. “The truth lies in communal life,” he said. “Communion with the other person has primary value.”– on the one hand those who want to follow the historical process and those who await the coming kingdom of God.

Because of the Orthodox tendency to be passive in its response to history, “we [Serbian Orthodox] may have seemed biased in the eyes of the west, at least we always made a clear distinction between what we in the church were doing and what the [political] authorities were doing.” He added, “I can’t understand how it is not understood in the civilized world that there is not only one guilty party in a conflict.” Nonetheless he regretted that the church had made “some compromises which did not help either the church nor the people. Some of us have the idea that we don’t need anyone around us, that all around us are our enemies. Our children are taught in school that the other person is the enemy.”

Jean Fischer, General Secretary of the Conference of European Churches, expressed the worry that, unless religious leaders take a lead in expressing repentance for specific crimes committed on their own side, the cycle of violence and counter-violence will simply go on and the Dayton agreements will become one more item of failure in the history books. He recalled that the French did not make fine distinctions about Germans after the war. “The French considered all Germans — all — as Nazis. It has taken fifty years to get over this. We should do what we can to prevent this happening to other peoples so that they are not regarded as collectively guilty.” He went on to speak of the collective guilt of many countries for the war in the Balkans. “It wasn’t just the peoples within the borders. Where did the weapons come? In which factories were the landmines made?”

He noted that most people are conditioned not by rational thinking but can be influenced by significant symbolic gestures. He asked, “How can an entire people be brought out of a state of general antagonism of one people for another? What gestures can religious leaders offer that can help ordinary people see beyond antagonism?”

Fischer suggested one area of possible ecumenical work to overcome division would be a joint effort to help find the 8,000 people who are listed as disappeared — many will probably be found in mass graves — and to provide a religious burial according to the traditions of the victim’s family. Many families simply don’t know what happened to particular persons and still nurse the hope that a missing person may be found alive.

Bishop Henrik Svenungsson of the Church of Sweden noted that many local pastors look back to times when Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims lived together peaceably and still long for such times to return. “We are not at the zero point. Also we must not think the process of reconciliation isn’t already underway. Many people are doing work to heal social wounds. One thing the churches can do is to offer strong support to those already doing reconciliation work at the local level.”

The problem of the mass media was a recurrent topic. There was a consensus that the world press has normally presented a one-sided, dangerously out-of-balance picture of events in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina so that the western world is presented with the impression that overwhelming guilt for the war and its crimes belong to the Serbs, with the Croatians a distant second and the government of Bosnian-Herzegovina nothing more than a victim. Bogdan Lubardi, assistant professor of philosophy at the Theological Faculty, spoke of the “virtual reality” the mass media has created that takes the place of reality. “What can we do about media domination? It is spiritual deceit on a global scale.”

The reality of the war was brought on vividly by a visit during the conference to a local hospital where many people seriously wounded in the war (some as combatants, others simply bystanders who stepped on a landmine) are being fitted with artificial limbs and learning to use them. It was in some ways an inspiring visit — one could see the progress patients were making in dealing with a personal catastrophe. But the hospital is understaffed, under-equipped and has no program for follow-up work once patients leave. All the patients are missing at least part of one limb, many are far more severely handicapped. The emotional and spiritual struggle is just as hard as the physical. Attempted suicides are not unusual. In most cases the former soldiers have not only have lost part of their bodies but their wives or girl friends. Often close relatives and friends have been killed. Many have lost their homes. Now they enter into an economy in which even the able-bodied have a difficult time surviving. Jelena, a young nurse several of us talked with, said she often falls asleep crying.

Dr. John Taylor, staff member of the Conference of European Churches and the main organizer of the Ecumenical Dialogue, was confident that, despite painful moments and the disagreements that were expressed, the dialogue had been constructive. “Reconciliation is a process, not something you can make. It is something that can only be done step by step.”

If the conference had a single theological stress, it was on the Holy Trinity and the love that binds the three Divine Persons into perfect oneness — a model of diversity in unity with profound implications in social life. We were reminded of the teaching of St. Sergius of Radonezh, “Contemplation of the Holy Trinity destroys all enmity.”

Actions for Reconciliation

This is an extract from a text approved unanimously by the Ecumenical Dialogue for Reconciliation at its final plenary meeting in Belgrade on February 22:

Christian faith gives energy and vision to Christians to work with their neighbors of other faiths or world-views, to heal the divisions and hatreds which have been forged from the past. In the countries of the former Yugoslavia in the last five years alone, millions have been driven from their homes, hundreds of thousands have been killed, and thousands have disappeared and may be found dead, unburied or in collective graves. Without repentance and compassionate action in response to these tragedies, reconciliation is an empty word.

Participants committed themselves and called on their churches, international organizations and neighbors to undertake and support reconciling actions, which include:

– Restoring homes to the displaced, ideally in their original regions, and providing pastoral care;

– Searching for the missing, ensuring a decent burial for the dead, and caring for the bereaved;

– Helping rebuild the economy with special attention to restoring self confidence and providing job opportunities for women and those disabled by war;

– Reaching out to youth deprived and traumatized by war;

– Repairing or rebuilding destroyed places of worship whether of one’s own community or of one’s neighbor;

– Promoting multicultural education (including religious curricula), interreligious dialogue and common prayerful witness for peace;

– Encouraging religious media not to contribute but to counteract the one-sided misrepresentation of complex situations which is so characteristic of much mass media coverage of Balkan events and which propagates fear and hatred;

– Offering the services of international or local religious leaders to help monitor elections;

– Continuing ecumenical and interreligious dialogues, in particular including the rich contribution that women make to reconciliation;

– Contributing experiences and visions of reconciliation in the countries of the former Yugoslavia to the Second European Ecumenical Assembly at Graz in 1997 on the theme of “Reconciliation: Gift of God and Source of New Life”

Although the vast majority of people long for peace, specific steps to achieve reconciliation can be difficult and controversial. Some of the most courageous and effective actions that Christians and their neighbors undertake begin at the local level, but these can be a powerful challenge to national and international leaders. Christian clergy and laity can be among those who help lead the way to reestablishing community. They can set an example through public confession of past failures and public criticisms of specific violations of human rights. Churches can play a vital role in the creation of democratic social structures, being vigilant in defense of social justice, and ready to challenge political and military leaders when necessary.

Serbian Diary: March 1994

by Jim Forest

“And then came the dark times, when the clever shut up, fools were talkative, and the scum got rich.”—Ivo Andric (1892-1975), Serbian recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature for 1961; from Signs Along the Road

Wednesday, March 9, 1994, Belgrade

Because of sanctions there are no flights to Belgrade. Jim Douglass and I flew to Budapest, then took a minibus to Belgrade. Having with us two large cartons of medication for children contributed by Franciscan sisters in Rome, we waited on the Hungarian side of the border with anxiety. Under the sanctions, medicines are permitted into Serbia only by special permit obtainable through a complex UN bureaucratic process that takes months. After waiting an hour, there was spot checking of baggage in the van but luckily our two boxes were buried under suitcases and weren’t opened.

Several hours later we arrived at the flat of Women in Black in the center of Belgrade not far from a big outdoor market. The actual address is not publicized because of death threats the women have received. Their postal address is at the Center for Antiwar Action elsewhere in the city.

There must have been 15 or 20 women crowded into these two rooms plus a small kitchen. The place was bursting at the seams, everyone talking at once, the phone ringing constantly, and coffee being served. Among the many posters on the walls were photos of the vigil against the war that Women in Black have every Wednesday afternoon in the center of Belgrade. After years of being saturated with news about murderous Serbs, it’s refreshing to be talking with Serbs who kill no one, oppose all violence, and help the victims of war. Sadly such people are rarely noticed by the world press.

By midnight everyone was gone and we had the flat, suddenly intensely silent, to ourselves. For beds, we used two mattresses that serve as a couch during the day.

Thursday, March 10

Pavle on the bus
Pavle on the bus

We met with Patriarch Pavle, head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, for more than an hour this morning, as gentle a man as I’ve ever met. He is short, with attentive eyes and a white beard, and utterly modest in his manner. He is the only leader of any church I have heard of who normally travels by public bus and tram.

The main subject of the discussion was our hope that he and Pope John Paul, along with Moslem and Jewish leaders, would together go to Sarajevo in a joint witness of peace, repentance and forgiveness.

Patriarch Pavle began his response by recalling his ten years as a student in Sarajevo. “As a school boy my friends included Croatians and Moslems. I still have their photographs. When I think of Sarajevo and the suffering there, I think of my friends.” When Jim showed the Sarajevo banner with its western and eastern crosses, Moslem crescent and Star of David that he has been using on St. Peter’s Square whenever Pope John Paul appears, Patriarch Pavle immediately stood up and started to pray for all the religious communities of Sarajevo: Moslem, Jew, Catholic and Orthodox.

“Concerning me as a person, I am ready to meet Pope John Paul, here or in Sarajevo or anywhere,” said Patriarch Pavle. “I am really ready to meet with anybody for the sake of peace, even if we could only get one centimeter closer to peace. But I don’t represent only myself and my own opinions. I represent the whole Serbian Orthodox Church. According to the order of the our Church, the Patriarch is only the President of the Assembly of Bishops and of the Holy Synod. I have to think of the totality of the Church. The Patriarch cannot make such a decision by himself but rather with the Assembly. This has to do with the way conciliarity [sabornost in Serbo-Croatian, sobornost in Old Slavonic] is practiced in our Orthodox Church. Also I have to underline the fact that this would be the first meeting of the Serbian Patriarch with the Pope in history. Concerning this matter, our sister Orthodox Churches also have to be consulted as the Serbian Church is only a part of worldwide Orthodoxy.”

His view of the war is that not only Serbians but everyone shares in the blame, the governments of former Yugoslavia plus the rest of Europe and the United States. “Everyone is guilty.”

Speaking about war crimes, he said: “There are criminals on every side. God alone knows who has the greatest blame or who has committed the most sins.” As for the Church, “it must condemn all atrocities that are committed, no matter what the faith or origin of the person committing them may be. No sin committed by one person justifies a sin committed by another. We will all face the Last Judgment together where each of us must answer for his sins. No one can justify his sins by saying someone else is guilty of a crime.”

He recalled a letter he had received from a Moslem who quoted a passage from the Holy Koran: “Whoever kills another innocent person has killed the entire human race.” “This must also be the attitude of Orthodox believers,” the Patriarch commented.

Clearly the main obstacle to his taking part in an interfaith act of witness with the Pope is the poor state of relations between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. While the Patriarch has had meetings with Cardinal Franjo Kuharic, president of the Croatian Bishops’ Conference, the Pope is seen by the Serbian population as taking a partisan role in the war. (The non-Orthodox reader needs to be aware of the resentment toward the Catholic Church that still smolders within the Orthodox world. From the Crusader sacking of Constantinople to the missionary efforts the Catholic Church is currently making in Russia, Catholicism is seen as constantly using every method at its disposal to suppress the Orthodox Church.)

Even so the Patriarch reminded us that from the early days of Christianity the Bishop of Rome was regarded as first among equals among all bishops and that, despite the 1000-year of division between the Orthodox and Catholic Church, “he is still respected as such by our Church.”

A two-day meeting of the Holy Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church will be getting underway later today, we were told. The interfaith pilgrimage to Sarajevo is on the agenda, but an action of this significance will have to be decided by the Assembly of bishops, a group of about 30 that will meet in mid-May.

The fact that the Patriarch personally is prepared to meet the Pope, to go to Sarajevo, and that he was so welcoming to us, as was everyone we met and talked to at the Patriarchate, suggests that there may be a positive response even though it will take time. If it does happen, Patriarch Pavle’s involvement will not only be a personal gesture but an action of the Serbian Church done with the blessing of other Orthodox Churches.

After the meeting, Jim and I went across the street to pray in the cathedral, Saborna Tserkva, a church in good repair on the outside but desolated within, the walls of the church black as chimney smoke, the icons almost ruined, and decaying scaffolding in the cupola. One sees in the condition of the cathedral what the political events of this century have done to the Serbian Orthodox Church. It bears witness to what Serbian friends had told me in Holland, that Tito’s anti-religious policies had been less bloody but more effective than those used against religious believers in Russia.

Friday, March 11

While Belgrade literally means White City, this is definitely not the case. There is no city greyer than Belgrade. Maybe it’s cigarette smoke that has made the city the color of ashes. Those who don’t smoke are few and far between; it seems Serbs are born smoking. Except on a few streets every building seems to have an eroded facade. There aren’t many cars on the streets because of the shortage of fuel and its high cost — a small gain for the lungs of city dwellers. Buses are as packed as a Russian church for the Easter vigil.

Stores are well stocked but very little is being sold because people have nearly empty pockets and the prices are as high as anywhere in western Europe. One person’s monthly salary might be 40 New Dinars. I spent 8.44 New Dinars for three ordinary items at a nearby grocery store. It was 2.88 ND just for a jar of pickled red peppers. It isn’t uncommon to see a store in which there is no one inside but the person waiting by the cash register. There were six McDonalds in the city; only two remain open. Not enough people with money for hamburgers… Again, like the situation with cars, one might mark this up as a plus, but I doubt there are many people in the city would agree.

We had a long visit this afternoon with Father Andreas, secretary to Bishop Irinej, a young monk whose passionate love of Orthodox spirituality is very evident. At one point in our meeting he sang prayers in English to several saints.

We asked him in what ways the Church responds to conscientious objectors. Father Andreas said that while there are many avoiding military service, few seek recognition as conscientious objectors while those who go into the army are so caught up in the fever of war they don’t think about the issue. He added that soldiers in the Yugoslav army are not sent to Bosnia or Croatia and so the issue of soldiers in the Yugoslav army taking part in the war doesn’t exist at present. The combatants are mainly people from Bosnia-Herzegovina. Any non-Bosnian Serbs fighting in Bosnia, he said, go with paramilitary groups that cross the border illegally.

It remains hard to know to what extent and in what ways the Miloševic-led government helps Serbian forces in Bosnia and Croatia. Jasmina Arsova, a university student active in Women in Black who is our main helper and translator, has told me about a soldier from the Yugoslav army she has been visiting in the hospital who was forcibly sent to Bosnia for four months. However it’s possible, as claimed by Miloševic, that this form of intervention is no longer government policy.

Jasmina pointed out a helicopter flying overhead that at least once a day delivers badly wounded soldiers from the war in Bosnia to one of the city hospitals, but this sort of involvement in the war is regarded as humanitarian aid.

As we respond to questions about our meeting with Patriarch Pavle, we are told many stories about him. It was especially striking to hear how he took part in a huge demonstration in 1991 which protested the war and the policies of the Miloševic government. He was riding the tram on his way to visit his sister, as he does every Sunday afternoon, when he saw crowds of people with their protest signs. He got off the tram and walked with them for two kilometers.

We also saw a quotation from him which I gather has been ignored in the government-controlled mass media: “We do not need a greater Serbia paved with new mass graves such as those we had in World War II.”

Saturday, March 12

As I get to know Serbs better, I can better understand that many of them see a parallel between the suffering of the Jewish people and themselves. During World War II, Serbian resistance to the Nazis and their Croatian Ustasha allies cost them approximately one million lives. Earlier in their history they lived under oppressive Turkish rule that now contributes to anti-Moslem fears that help fuel the war.

There is a joke about a Serb meeting a Moslem and immediately hitting him on the head, though the Moslem had done nothing offensive. “What did you hit me?” the Moslem asked. “I was just recalling the fallen Serbs at the Battle of Kosovo,” the Serb replied. “But that was in 1389,” said the Moslem. “Yes, but I blame it on you,” the Serb said.

The past is very present here and with Serbs at least has to be very much taken into account when one talks about the present and future. The propaganda machine that Miloševic manipulates so skillfully reinforces terrible memories which have made many Serbs feel they are a people the rest of the world wants to be rid of, or at any rate a people left alone to defend a Europe that doesn’t yet understand the threat of Islamic expansion.

We had a visit this morning with Father Radomir Rakic, an editor and translator on the staff of the Patriarchate who is also active with the Church Relief Committee. He spends much of his time doing translation work for the Patriarch, but has to do it all on a typewriter half a century old. “This is my computer,” he said, pointing to the venerable black machine by his desk. “At least it was well made. You could drop it from an airplane and still it would type. Only the letter A gives me some problems.” I told him I would try to find some people in the Serbian Orthodox Church in Holland who would give him a real computer and printer.

Thanks to Father Radomir’s help we were able to visit with Bishop Lavrentije of Šabac, a member of the Holy Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church. He responded positively to the interfaith pilgrimage to Sarajevo. He went on to say that the Serbian memory is heavily burdened with tragedies in the past that stand in the way of such gestures. “We cannot forget but we must forgive. We must think how we can live together as neighbors. We have to think what is needed for body and soul. For the body we must end the embargo. For the soul we must forgive.”

Jim Douglass’s fast began in Rome February 12, a prayer for peace in former Yugoslavia and for the interfaith pilgrimage to Sarajevo. He has been on fruit juice ever since. To connect this first part of the fast to Ramadan, he has been drinking juice only after sundown.

Because of his fast and the need to conserve energy, as he now tires easily, Jim stayed in Belgrade while I went with Jasmina Arsova to Pancevo to visit the Peace Action Group “M” (M for Mir, meaning peace). Pancevo is a 20-minute train ride northeast of Belgrade across the Danube River. It’s in Vojvodina, which under Tito was an autonomous republic with its own president, but which has now been merged with Serbia.

The actions of Peace Action Group “M” include lighting candles and displaying a banner for half an hour every Saturday night in the town square, the text of which is “For All the Victims of War.” The person chiefly responsible for this simple witness, which has been going on since the war began, is Senka Mandrino. As we were carrying the banner to the square, she told me, “I do this for my country, the old Yugoslavia, not the new one, but the Yugoslavia for everyone.”

Senka described a larger action they organized recently when there wasn’t only the one banner but another on which all the besieged and destroyed cities and towns of former Yugoslavia were listed: Sarajevo, Mostar, Vukovar and many more. Candles were lit for each place. That evening the vigilers were approached by a soldier from the Bosnian Serb army. “I worried he would shout at us ‘Traitors, why don’t you tell it to the Moslems and Croatians’ or that he would tear up our signs. Instead he hugged us and thanked us, saying, ‘Why don’t you do more like this, then this stupid war will end.’ ”

Senka has a sister in Sarajevo and her husband, Mirko, one of the leading members of the group, is a conscientious objector. “I will continue with the Saturday night vigil until the war ends,” Senka told me.

Using a local book shop as a meeting room, Mirko and Jasmina co-chaired a crowded public meeting that evening at which two journalists from the independent magazine Vreme, Dimitrije Boarov and Zoran Jelecic, were discussing the impact of the war on the economy and the current campaign to stabilize the dinar after more than a year of hyper-inflation. Inflation was 60 to 70 percent per day much of last year. As a souvenir of that period I have a 50,000,000 dinar note in my wallet which was worth about one Deutsch Mark before it became completely worthless; there was even a bill issued for 500,000,000,000 dinars — eleven zeros! Now you see them tacked to walls as grim reminders of the economic chaos of 1993. The New Dinars now in circulation seem to be stable; at present one New Dinar equals one DM.

According to the journalists from Vreme, hyper-inflation was a government-organized method of skimming off huge amounts of money, in the form of the stable Mark, for war related and other purposes, or simply to line a few pockets. The end result is that the middle class no longer exists in the new, shrunken Yugoslavia; the mass of people are either poor or desperately poor.

While most of those at the meeting were clearly educated people, at least one was a working man in ragged clothes who turned up in the hope that someone present might help him find the medication — Forma Berbiton — for his 13-year-old epileptic son. Senka Mandrino talked with him after the meeting, taking down his address and promising to try to find what he needs but warning him she had no idea if she would succeed.

Living near the Mandrino flat, Dirko Mandrino told me, is a grandmother and granddaughter who share one room without electricity or running water. The little girl needs insulin. So far the Mandrinos have been able to find it but it is a month-to-month struggle.

Sunday, March 13

After leaving the St. Sava Church today, Jasmina Arsova told me more about her visits to people in hospitals. One of those she sees every week is a young woman of Serbian nationality, a refugee from Bosnia, who was raped by some of her Moslem neighbors in her village after the war had created a climate of mutual hatred. (The word “Moslem” in former Yugoslavia has nothing to do with religious belief, only what is regarded as nationality.) “She became pregnant, came to Belgrade as a refugee, and gave birth to her child. For two months afterward everything seem fine in her life. Then she had a breakdown and became dangerous to herself and her child. SOS Telephone found a family to take care of the baby. Everyday people are coming to see the mother, but she is still not at all well.”

Today Jim fast entered its second phase: water only until April 3, Easter on the western calendar. As Ramadan is over, he allows himself to drink water at any time in the day. While definitely on the lean side, Jim is in good spirits and health but tires easily.

Monday, March 14

Trivo Indji, a sociologist we met today in the Women in Black office, shares the view that regular soldiers of the Yugoslav army are no longer being sent to Bosnia by the Miloševic government, and also no weapons. He said the only material help sent by the government as such is humanitarian aid. Bosnia has long been one of the most war-prepared areas in all of Europe. Tito saw Bosnia as the impregnable fortress of Yugoslavia and for that reason much of the arms industry was established there. Jim responded that things look very different from Sarajevo. He finds it hard to believe there could be a siege of Sarajevo were it not for Miloševi.

Trivo said one of the worrying events of late in Belgrade is publication of the notoriously anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a book Hitler used to justify sending Jews to concentration camps. He had seen a copy in a local book shop.

A high point today was meeting Father Arsenije Nikitovi, a monk with a weather-beaten but radiant face who is the Belgrade director of an Orthodox Church program — the People’s Kitchen — that distributes food to a thousand families who are otherwise in danger of starvation. His office, in a building linked to the main railway station, has been loaned to him gratis. “It isn’t hard to find families desperately in need of food,” he said. “And now we stretch what we give to 1100 families, but it is far from enough.” He hoped we might help find someone to give them a van because they have a lot of delivery problems. And they need more donations of food. At present the main donor is the Lutheran Church in Germany.

Father Arsenije was overjoyed when he heard what Jim’s wife Shelley is doing in Birmingham, Alabama, where Mary’s House provides a temporary home for homeless families. He immediately gave Jim a big hug.

We talked briefly about the war. “Who is most guilty,” he said, “I have no right to judge. Only we must do what Jesus said, to feed the hungry, to help and visit those who are sick. God will judge us for what we do and what we fail to do, and he will judge those who caused this suffering. He will judge, I cannot and don’t even want do.”

He told us something someone told him many years ago that has meant a great deal to him: “When you think there is no way out, keep looking and you will find three more possibilities.” “I have learned he was right, thank God,” Father Arsenije said. He also told us, “Whoever hits another person is not courageous, but rather the one who refuses to hit back.”

We had a long visit at the end of the day with Dragiša Krsmanovic, who has written occasional reports from Belgrade for Peace Media Service, and Milan Radovanovi, a student at the Orthodox Theological School here in Belgrade, a decrepit building across the street from the Patriarchate. A conscientious objector, Milan decided it wasn’t enough not to fight in the war. He wanted to get to know some of those people many Orthodox regard as the “enemy,” that is Catholics, and so has been a volunteer with the Catholic relief organization here, Caritas.

Tuesday, March 15

Jim and I talked with Saša Kovacevic about her life, her two years as a student in Sarajevo (leaving literally on the eve of the outbreak of war) and what brought her to Women in Black. At age 22, she is one of the group’s youngest members.

Saša told us what a relief it had been going from her home in Montenegro to the far more open atmosphere of Sarajevo where she began her university studies in journalism. “In Montenegro everything is hermetically closed, everything locked in custom. It is especially hard for women as they have an old view of women. There were times when I really thought people would beat me on the street. How different Sarajevo is! You can’t imagine how easy it was to live there. No one told me what was wrong with me. I quickly found many friends. I only hope they are all still alive. Now I am in Belgrade, still studying journalism, but I am here with only half my heart. The other part is in Sarajevo. If you are there for only two years, you feel as if you were born there because of the way they accept you.”

She discovered Women in Black through her friend and fellow student, Jasmina Arsova, and quickly became part of the group. “It was not just because of their protest against war and the work with refugees, but because I found they had a name for every opinion I had in my head about women’s rights. In Montenegro they just said I was crazy. But here I found a name for what I believed. Can you imagine that happiness? To find a name for what you had in your head a long, long time, since you were small, and you then come here and find a name for it. So I was really happy to find these women.”

She is not optimistic about the Miloševic government losing power in the near future. “He and his regime may stay in power another five or even ten years. He has succeeded in making everything — all the pressures, even the sanctions — work for him. He has managed to make himself into a hero. The opposition is weak, totally exhausted. They have no new ideas about how to put another government into power. Just imagine, a couple of years ago people were thinking normally, but now you get the impression no one remembers that time. You see what propaganda can do. People are afraid if they say anything critical, they will be accused of wanting to sell the country to its enemies. In many people you see a mentality of total paranoia — the whole world against us, enemies everywhere: Croatians, Moslems, Catholics, Jews, everyone not Serbian. For many people it was the UN sanctions that proved to them everything Miloševic was saying. They accepted the idea that the only solution is for the Serbian people to be completely united — otherwise who knows what will happen to us. So people get very irritated when you try to say that Miloševic didn’t help us but destroyed us.”

“What destroys us is hating people,” Saša added. “When you are born, no one asks you what you would like to be. So how can we hold it against another person in what family she is born?”

At mid-day we had a two-hour meeting with Rabbi Cadik Danon, Chief Rabbi of Yugoslavia. “I was Chief Rabbi of big Yugoslavia and am now Chief Rabbi of small Yugoslavia,” he said when making us welcome in his apartment across the river in New Belgrade.

Discussing the possibility of Pope John Paul coming to Belgrade, Rabbi Danon felt that there would be a welcome here only if there were preliminary actions taken by the Pope that would convince the Serbs the Pope is not their enemy. If he spoke out against the sanctions, that would immediately change public opinion in his favor. In that connection he described the appalling situation in local hospitals. “In some cases operations have to be performed without anesthesia. Whole sections of hospitals have been closed. The mortality rate goes up and up.”

He also said a visit by the Pope to the Jasenovac concentration camp would have tremendous impact on Serbs and no doubt many others. Jasenovac, east of Zagreb, was a huge concentration camp where a vast number of Serbs, Jews and gypsies were killed. How many is a point of contention but 700,000 is the figure one often hears. The camp was mainly staffed by Hungarian Nazis and Croatian Ustashi. “The way people were murdered at Jasenovac was even worse than in Polish camps,” Rabbi Danon said. Among the victims were his mother and father. In all he lost 60 members of his family. If the Pope were to go there, as he has gone to Auschwitz, it would be a very powerful symbolic action.

Rabbi Danon also mentioned, as Trivo Indjic had yesterday, the publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He had heard the book was published by the Orthodox Theological Faculty.

It was providential that in the evening while Jasmina Arsova, Jim and I were out walking on Knez Mikhajlova, the wide pedestrian shopping street in the heart of the city. There we ran into Milan Radovanovic, from the Theological Faculty, and Dragiša Krsmanovic, the two people we had been visiting with last night. I asked if they knew anything about the publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Not only did they know about it but said they would show it to me in Plato, the book shop we were standing in front of. In fact the shop had no more copies; staff had bought 30 copies a few days before but they were sold out.

It turned out the publisher — Vladimir Maksimovic, whose press is called Velvet — was in the shop at the time. He was pointed out to us browsing in a section of used English-language books. He is a man of about 30 with short black hair and a harsh face who said neither he nor his press had any connection to the Orthodox Church.

I asked him why he published a book which was well known as a forgery and which had cost so many lives. “Because it’s the truth,” he said. “It’s no forgery.” I said I would be glad to send him information on the history of the text and how it was produced by the Czarist Secret Service in the 1890s, if he would give me his address. After some hesitation he gave me his card and I gave him mine. I asked when the book had been published. Three days before, he said, in an edition of 3,000 copies. This was the fourth Serbian edition in this century, he added. The last one was published in 1941 — in other words in the time of Nazi occupation.

Afterward Milan and Dragisa took us to a nearby book shop where a copy of the book was on display in the window, a yellow book subtitled “The Jewish Conspiracy.” I took a photo.

While it was a relief to know that the book has nothing to do with the Orthodox Church, still it is alarming to think this murderous book so dear to Hitler is for sale in Serbia for the first time since the Nazi occupation.

Jasmina and I called Rabbi Danon as soon as we got back to the Women in Black office to tell him what we had learned and to give him the publisher’s name and address.

Wednesday, March 16

In a small building next to an ancient mosque in central Belgrade, we were warmly received by the Grand Mufti of Yugoslavia, Shiek Yusufspahic. He was delighted to be photographed with Jim’s Sarajevo banner, though his mind was less on Sarajevo than the needs of the Belgrade’s Moslem community. A new, larger mosque is needed but permission to build it has been refused year after year.

From the mosque we went to the offices of B92, Belgrade’s independent radio station. Discussing sanctions with Veran Matic, the stations’ editor-in-chief of, he told us “the one and only thing sanctions haven’t touched has been the flow of weapons. That sanctions have had a disastrous effect on health care and have made it extremely hard for independent structures like ours to survive.”

Standing on Republic Square in the heart of Belgrade in mid-afternoon, watching the weekly one-hour vigil of Women in Black, I was relieved that they were not the object of harassment and that many people passing by accepted their leaflet.

Sanctions again came up when we met Dubravka Velat of the Center for Antiwar Action, a large, well-equipped office coordinating many projects for the defense of human rights, help to refugees, and opposition to the war. Dubravka said sanctions have only convinced Serbs that Miloševic was right in saying the world is trying to destroy the Serb people. “Sanctions didn’t work. The international community wanted to punish the government but only punished the ordinary people and made Miloševic stronger. It isn’t so bad now as it was last year, when there was pure hysteria, but still there is a widespread feeling, people believing the whole world is against them, a new conspiracy against Serbs. On the one side you have sanctions being used as a way of trying to get people to change the government, and on the other the government using the sanctions as a way to shatter its opposition, and that is basically what has happened. If you go to the hospitals or any social institution, you will see what sanctions have done. More than 50 percent of the people are now below the poverty line. There are 600,000 refugees in the new, small Yugoslavia, and for almost all of them, their situation is desperate. Now there is a stable dinar and for the first time in two years you see the shelves in the stores aren’t bare, but only the rich can buy anything but absolute necessities. The only sanctions that should be applied are against importing weapons into any part of former Yugoslavia.”

She doesn’t accept the claims of the Miloševic government that it has nothing to do with the war is Bosnia. “It’s no longer so open as it was, but it’s common knowledge that the government is involved in the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, for example allowing men in refugee camps to be recruited into the Bosnian Serb army.”

I asked if she was worried about the Center for Antiwar Action being banned. “They regard people like us as traitors, but they don’t suppress us because we serve as a proof this is a democracy.”

I asked if sometimes fear kept her awake at night. “Only once, when my husband, a television director, broadcast a program about the Serbian Radical Party, analyzing the reasons for that party’s political success. That night I put the table and chairs against the front door.”

Thursday, March 17

At 9:30 we were at the mansion of the Italian ambassador for a meeting with Monsignor Vincenzo Paglia, Pope John Paul’s personal emissary, who was due to meet with Patriarch Pavle, Bishop Lavrentije, Bishop Irinej and Bishop Danielou at 11. Msgr. Paglia is pastor of the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome, a church Nancy, Anne and I visited in the summer. We felt especially at home there; its ancient mosaic icons make it a place where the eastern and western churches still embrace each other.

We found Msgr. Paglia had a similar understanding of the obstacles to Pope John Paul being welcomed by the Serbian Orthodox Church and a similar approach to overcoming them. He said Pope John Paul made a statement critical of the sanctions while in Denver last year but his statement was ignored by the press because President Clinton met the Pope that day and used the occasion to make a speech in favor of bombing Serb positions in Bosnia. The press managed to make it look like the Pope was Clinton’s Amen Chorus.

Msgr. Paglia thinks there are practical difficulties about the Pope going to Jasenovac concentration camp, one being that it is close to the front lines. It is hard enough, he said, for the Pope to get to the three cities he hopes to visit: Sarajevo, Zagreb and Belgrade. But he thought other symbolic gestures by the Pope were possible, for example upon arriving in Belgrade going as a pilgrim directly to the Church of St. Sava, founder of the Serbian Church and recognized by the Orthodox Church as Equal to the Apostles, and praying there for repentance and forgiveness. I assume this event would happen in the ancient Church of St. Sava next to which a huge new church in the style of Hagia Sofia has been under construction since 1986. The Pope could make at this time a gift for the new church.

Both before coming and also while here in Belgrade the Pope could speak out against the suffering being caused by the sanctions. He told us the Pope is acutely aware of the grim situation in the hospitals, the malnutrition touching those in the lower strata of society, and has been speaking to various ambassadors and guests about it. It was the first topic he raised during a recent meeting in Rome with Theovald Stoltenberg, co-chairman of the Geneva Conference responsible for the UN presence in former Yugoslavia.

Visiting Father Andreas at the Patriarchate later in the day, we found Bishop Danielou, a member of the Holy Synod, and met with him in a quiet corner of another office. We gather from his report that what Msgr. Paglia had said to us in the morning was repeated in his meeting with Patriarch Pavle, with stress on Pope John Paul’s dismay with sanctions. In contrast, Bishop Danielou compared a recent statement by WCC General Secretary, Konrad Raiser, in which he said that the World Council of Churches still supports sanctions against Serbia, with Pontius Pilate washing his hands to clear himself of responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus. (On several occasions bishops and clergy in Belgrade expressed bewilderment and shock about Raiser’s statement.)

We visited the small church of St. Sava, next to the vast new church now under construction, where we prayed that the Pope and Patriarch will embrace each other and pray side by side for peace, repentance and reconciliation.

In the late afternoon we met for nearly an hour with Mons. Salvatore Pennacchio, the Apostolic Vice Nuncio (the nuncio is in Rome). It turned out that Jim and he have a mutual friend in Father Tom Michel, SJ, who heads the Office of Islam of the Pontifical Commission for Interreligious Dialogue at the Vatican; Father Michel is one of the signers of the call for the Interreligious Fast and Pilgrimage to Sarajevo.

Coming and going from that meeting, we rode in buses in which I felt like a sardine in an unopened tin. To my amazement Jasmina told me that buses are relatively spacious compared to the situation two or three months ago. “Now you can breathe,” she said.

Returning to the flat of Women in Black, I talked with Jadranka Milicevic, much involved in refugee work, and Jasmina Mustovi, the group’s press officer.

“I got involved in Women in Black,” Jasmina said, “because it gave me a way to take a stand against violence. Earlier I was a volunteer with SOS Telephone which was helping women and children in danger from violent men. But then some of us wanted to do something to protest against war, and that’s how Women in Black began. Our first vigil was on October 9, 1991. We were following the example of Women in Black in Jerusalem where Jewish and Palestinian women protest together every week against the occupation. Since then we continue with the vigil but we have also started other projects — work with refugees, publications work and so forth.”

Like so many people in former Yugoslavia, Jasmina cannot claim a single nationality. Her father is Moslem and her mother from a mixed marriage. “I never had the idea that there was any group I should hate.”

Jadranka arrived in Belgrade from Sarajevo in May, 1992. At first she lived in a camp and now lives in her cousin’s house.

“As soon as I heard about Women in Black I wanted to be part of it. In the beginning I was also active in SOS Telephone but now the work of Women in Black takes all my time. I wanted to be part of a group that could take a stand against the war and also protest the arrest of dissidents.”

Jadranka has never been arrested herself but several times has been ordered by the police to appear for questioning. “They wanted to know how we get the money for our work, how we function, how we get the medicines we bring to refugee camps. They asked why I, as a refugee, am taking part in such a group. They wanted information about my relatives in Sarajevo.”

Jadranka said that many groups in other countries which are trying to help refugees have lost confidence in big official structures like the Yugoslav Red Cross, because aid intended for refugees is sometimes delivered to non-refugees in place of a salary. “It means part of refugee aid is used not for refugees but to buy social peace. So foreign groups sometimes are looking for independent groups they can trust will really give the aid to refugees.”

“The refugees are mainly women and children,” said Jadranka. “Our work with them is not just to give medicines but to help them feel their own worth. So we have a project to make things which we sell for them, especially knitting and embroidery. Now we are also thinking about what we can do with women whose skills are mainly verbal and intellectual. So we started the ‘I Remember’ program which asks them to write stories about what was important in their lives before the war: love, family, home, work. We are making what they write into booklets, postcards and posters. It is good work we are doing, only not enough. We are active in four refugee camps, but there are 235 camps.”

The response of the state-controlled media to Women in Black has been uniformly hostile. “We are described as atheists, marginal people, traitors, even as people who are not ‘racially clean’ because ‘true Serbian woman would never act like that.’ The ‘true’ Serbian woman gives birth to warriors, she doesn’t protest against war.”

I asked about the impact of sanctions. “Right now Yugoslavia isn’t even the third world,” said Jasmina. “We are actually being used for experiments — to see how long one diabetic can survive without insulin, or to study the spread of typhus and tuberculosis under these circumstances. They’re spreading fast. We have less and less basic medical equipment that can be used. Machines in hospitals and clinics break down and replacement parts cannot be obtained because of the sanctions, or even if they can be obtained no one can afford to buy them.”

Meanwhile the armies on every side seem to have no end of money. “You know one bullet costs one mark,” Jasmina said. “If they shoot one bullet in one second, you can imagine how many marks are spent just for those bullets in four years? I don’t want to calculate it. And I’m not even talking about grenades and bombs and all the other military equipment.”

She said people are becoming numb to violence. “It’s no longer shocking when you hear on the radio that people were killed in the war yesterday. It’s awful. We hear the news. It’s no longer people’s names, just numbers. In the beginning there were names. Now there are only numbers. People are just numbers. We hear that in Sarajevo 60 people were killed and 200 injured. Just numbers. I keep thinking, maybe tomorrow I will be one of those numbers.”

Despite his fast, Jim is his usual self, his sense of humor thriving and persistent as ever. The water he drinks is either boiled before use or is bottled mineral water.

Friday, March 18

Jim and Jasmina took the train to Voljevo this morning, a three-hour train ride to the southeast. The train station was filled with brass bands seeing off hundreds of 18- and 19-year-old conscripts heading for training camps. In Voljevo they visited the wife and son of a friend Jim has in Sarajevo, a deserter from the Bosnian army who lives in hiding. The wife and son escaped two years ago. A moving and painful day, Jim says.

I went with Jadranka, Rada and Violeta to a refugee camp northwest of the city, Kovilovo, where about 135 people from Bosnia are living. With running water and showers, a dispensary and a large garden, it is regarded as one of the best camps and as such has been displayed to visiting UN officials.

While there we visited with a middle-aged woman named Sena Markovi, a former teacher. She is one of 12 people sharing a room filled with narrow beds. The most grueling aspect of life in a refugee camp must be the complete lack of privacy.

As part of its “I Remember” project, Women in Black has just published a small multi-lingual booklet with a short essay be Sena. Here it the text:


The 3rd of April, 1992. Friday. My first class: a test in V13. The little pupils are half-blue and half-asleep but serious. The auxiliary verb to be: I am, I shall be, it was… Their cheeks are flushed with — strain. In the second row near the window the twins: Ivana and Bozo, Samir and Sanela. The sisters are trying to help their brothers who are a little less good than they. I pretend not to see…I never had a brother. Because of the war — fifty years ago.

“The children are to go home” — a colleague announces hurriedly, unbelievably serious. Oh, yes. That morning, at the crack of day, a grenade had exploded near my bed — or so it seemed to me. The first grenade on the Kupres Plateau…

April 3rd, 1992… Our colleague D has been taken away! It is true that I cursed both Croatia and Serbia — and God! It’s not true that two snipers were found in my house. What would I do with them? I taught your parents…

Never again will I go into the classroom. After the last class I don’t have anything more to say.

Do you remember the time when we read touching texts? We were so quiet. If we could read them to the end…

You used to say: “Teacher, crying is not shameful!”

Had my words not become speechless, I wish we had only one more class: we would scream, scream so much that the whole world would hear us. We would scream to heaven, to God, my children!

Your teacher, Sena

Sena showed me a drawing she had made of her house and garden, the house burning and the flowers broken. Apparently the charge that snipers had been hiding in her house was the pretext for burning her home. She said, “I don’t know why they wanted to destroy the garden as well. All those beautiful flowers!” Another drawing showed several houses burning on the hillside.

Rada told me that for a long time after becoming a refugee, Sena was truly speechless, living in silent, deep depression. Now she has become a vital person again, a human fireplace warming her crowded room at the refugee camp. She hugged us all, made us coffee, and was full of joy to see the first copy of her booklet. Later we had lunch in the austere cafeteria: a plate of beans, a little sauerkraut and two slices of bread.

Rada (who comes form Mostar, the town once famous for its ancient bridge and now famous for the bridge’s destruction) had a letter today from someone very close to her. Inside was a pressed rose and a four-page letter. The letter contained news that someone close to her had been killed in the war. Jadranka and Violeta were crying after Rada read the letter aloud.

Rada always wears a necklace that has a copper image of the Mostar bridge as it was before its destruction.

In the late afternoon, back in Belgrade, I went to one of the university buildings in central Belgrade to meet with Sonja Prodanovic, Zdenka Milivojevic and Marina Blagojevic. Sonja is a well-known architect and also active in Women in Black. Marina and Zdenka are professors of sociology. They want to start a center that at the present they call the Museum of Antiwar Resistance. Their symbol is the Mostar Bridge.

What they have in mind isn’t a museum in the usual sense, more a place, as Marina said, “which in a variety of ways would treat what is usually called history — that is mainly the history of wars — as the history of failures, but failures which can help us learn how to live together without more such failure.”

“People here have become more and more compartmentalized, every little group in its own small box,” Marina said. “We need to develop projects that draw people together and that generate energy — for example concerts and exhibitions.”

“We want to make the other side of history visible,” Sonja explained. “What is not generally known in the world, and even to most of the public in ex-Yugoslavia, is how many people opposed the war and how many people did what they could to help others during the war.

“Official pro-war ideologies in ex-Yugoslavia have relied on the negative picture of the ‘other’ created in mass media, with each nation pictured as a victim of another nation. Peaceful history was reinterpreted as a history of hidden hatred. But in reality many people continued to live together and to help each other, even during the war. Many of us have survived owing to help and solidarity from other people. Many of us still believe that peace is still possible. We believe that human solidarity is stronger than hatred.

“Although we have been constantly exposed to stories of violence and destruction, we still tell each other ‘little’ stories about good will, help and sacrifice. In this way we know there is another side of a history. It is exactly in the time of war that peace initiatives should be supported. It is exactly now that we must start remembering and preserving that other side of our history.”

“Just as war was created by an interpretation of history as a history of wars and hatred,” said Marina, “peace can be created and nourished by the interpretation of history as a history of living together. Even in the Balkans, people were living together longer in peace than fighting wars.”

Their vision, I realized, has much in common with the work of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, which is not just a place to remember Anne Frank and her family or what the Nazis did in the areas they ruled, but a place that tries to equip visitors to respond to Nazi-like movements of the present time: to save the Anne Franks alive today. I proposed they contact the Anne Frank staff and see if they could be invited to come to Amsterdam. I also suggested they try to make arrangements to bring the Anne Frank travelling exhibition to Belgrade.

Saturday, March 19

Again and again people I talked with in Belgrade insisted that Jim and I had to visit at least one monastery. Bojan Aleksov, a draft refuser and member of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship who is one of the several men working with Women in Black, told me it was a sin to come to Serbia and not to experience one of its centers of spiritual life.

With all our meetings in Belgrade, such a trip seemed impossible. Then Bishop Irinej of Novi Sad — sometimes described as the Foreign Minister of the Serbian Orthodox Church, the “right hand of Patriarch Pavle” — invited us to come with Father Andreas to the Kovilj Monastery and meet with him there after Vespers.

At the Kovilj Monastery, which lies in southern Vojvodina, we found a finely-made stone church in the Byzantine style. The fifteen monks living here, most of them adult converts to Orthodoxy, are a young community. In the last part of the Tito era, only two elderly monks lived here. For years the monks’ cells were used by Serbian artists, and still there is a close link between the monastery and both intellectuals and artists.

Bells summoned us, along with about a dozen other guests, to join the monks for Vespers in a small dimly lit chapel. Through several small windows there was a view of an orchard.

Bishop Irinej, spiritual father of Kovilj, was present for Vespers. At the end of the service he spoke in his surprisingly quiet voice about the deeper meaning of the Great Fast that had begun that week. “It is the season to clean our hearts.”

With the abbot, Father Porfirijie, and several other monks, Jim and I talked for more than an hour with Bishop Irinej, meeting in an upstairs room. He is a young bishop, thin, with a long dark beard, wearing thick glasses, speaking in a quiet, reflective voice. There is about him a profound gravity and a sense of grief.

Like Patriarch Pavle, he stressed that the Church must practice conciliarity — sabornost — in its actions, not unilateral gestures. If the Patriarch meets the Pope, it must be an action of the whole Church. “We Bishops must listen to each other, listen to our people, and listen to the other Orthodox Churches.” He spoke of encounters involving the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church in Croatia as well as his own recent meeting with Pope John Paul in Rome. Regarding the latter, which happened “despite protests from our own people,” he wasn’t convinced Pope John Paul yet understands the principle of conciliarity that stands at the center of Orthodoxy.

He felt a large share of the blame for the tragedy of former Yugoslavia belongs to the mass media. “Our situation is so complex that even we cannot understand it, so we know how difficult it is for any reporter. But I have come to the conclusion that there are no morals at all in the profession of journalism. In their oversimplifying of what has happened here, the world is given the image of Serbs as a demonic people. And what this does to the Serbian people is convince them that outside political powers want to destroy them. It is a common feeling. We see ourselves being made to fill a role formerly played by Soviet Russia. My personal opinion is that the West has behaved like an elephant, and the result has been a much longer and much more cruel war. Neither do I think the Vatican, which so quickly took the western, German position, can be proud of its role so far. I am aware that the Pope himself doesn’t call for the bombing of the Serbs, yet he doesn’t object to those who make it seem this is his position. In Belgrade, people were preparing to be bombed and thinking that the Pope was one of those who wanted that to happen.”

Returning to criticism of the media, he noted that the activities of the Serbian Orthodox Church in opposition to war and to help the war’s victims are almost entirely unreported. “People in other countries are given the idea that the Church is actually in support of the war, even fomenting it. Whatever we do to save the lives of others, not only Serbs but Moslems and Catholics, is ignored. The western press says not one word about any good deed. And this of course makes it easy to justify and maintain the sanctions.”

“Sanctions kill people just as effectively as weapons of war,” he said. “Please understand, people are suffering, children are dying, unborn children are punished in their mothers’ wombs because they cannot get the medication needed. Truly Christ is suffering. It is a kind of brutality such as was practiced by the Gestapo of Hitler. Hitler had the idea of collective guilt which he assigned to the Jews. Now it is the Serbs who are guilty as a people and must be punished. Our nation has been made into a ghetto. In principle the sanctions are not supposed to be a barrier to medicines but in reality they are. We have seen shipments of medicines wait on the border for months before being permitted into our country, and by that time many of them were too old to be used. Though we know the Pope has made some statements critical of sanctions, somehow they are never reported and so his opposition to them remains unknown to the public and perhaps even to political leaders.”

Bishop Irinej noted there were indications that the Vatican is changing direction and may become outspoken on the issues of sanctions. Days before the Serbian Orthodox Church had received a large gift of medical aid from the Catholic relief agency, Caritas, and there were meetings underway with Msgr. Paglia, a personal emissary of Pope John Paul. “What we wait for now is a clear public statement from the Pope so that our people and the world will know he opposes what sanctions are doing to us. We need prophetic steps from him.”

He spoke about the political double standard. “We know the Croatian army is fighting in Bosnia, but Croatia is not under sanctions. Not that we want such a thing to happen! Only we want a single standard of morality, not one for Serbs and another for everyone else.”

He said America’s “new world order” was another kind of prison. “In the Soviet prison you got to sleep on the ground. In the American prison you get a bed and a TV. But it is still prison.”

I asked what signs of hope he saw. “There is no hope in politicians. They say one thing today, and tomorrow the opposite. If there is an act of terrorism, they immediately blame it on the Serbs and then, if later they find they were mistaken, they lose not a minute of sleep. Except for Christian acts of witness, I don’t see any other light. There is a planetary illness. The only cure is spiritual. It needs prayer and fasting to make a decisive step toward repentance.”

The symbolic and prayerful action of Patriarch Pavle and Pope John Paul being together in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Zagreb is clearly something that Bishop Irinej recognizes as potentially contributing to a cure to the planetary illness which Sarajevo has come to symbolize. If only Pope John Paul can work in the coming weeks and months to help remove the obstacles and misunderstandings that impede Catholic-Orthodox relations…

Toward the end of our conversation monks sang for us in Serbo-Croatian, Greek and English. Then outside the monastery we looked up at a sky whose stars, even to my book-worn eyes, seemed to be no further away than the roof of the church.

Sunday, March 20, Novi Sad

The city cathedral is in the Catholic architectural tradition and the iconography inside also shows the unfortunate influence of the baroque period and the era when Novi Sad was under Austrian rule, but the Liturgy itself, a three-hour celebration, was intensely Orthodox. The church gradually filled until there were hundreds of standing people filling the building, men and women, old and young. It was impressive to see nearly everyone receive communion. Afterward we had lunch with Bishop Irinej — for Jim consisting of one glass of mineral water — and then hurried to the train station with Father Andreas, catching the 2 o’clock train to Budapest with one minute to spare.

* * *

War and Peace: an Orthodox Christian view

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What impedes us as peacemakers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prayer for busy people

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s think about what we are up against.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prayer is the on-going discovery of God.

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

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

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

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

Confession in the Age of Self Esteem

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

by Jim Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One might also say:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again he contemplates his neighborhood:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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