Remaining Christian in a Time of Conflict

St Catherine's Monastery on the Sinai. The white mineret of the mosque is next to the monastery bell tower.

(lecture given by Jim Forest 11 October 2010 at St Elizabeth Orthodox Christian Church in Murfreesboro, Tennessee and 16 October 2010 at St Athanasius Orthodox Church in Nicholasville, Kentucky)

The title of this talk could also be “Remaining Christian After 9-11.” Nine eleven — the only historical event I can think of that we refer to by numbers. Has there been an event since Pearl Harbor that has stalked Americans so powerfully? We are haunted by image after image, like icons from hell: the hijacked planes crashing into the two towers, the orange plumes of fire, small grey dots that we realize are men and women leaping to their deaths to escape an inferno behind them, the sudden collapse of first one tower and then the other, the stunned, bloodied survivors emerging from the clouds of ash, the “have you seen so-and-so” notices tacked to walls and fences in the surrounding area… So many such images are burned into our collective memory. Ground Zero has become a place of pilgrimage, as has the quiet field where Flight 93 crashed in Stonycreek Township, Pennsylvania.

When Americans think of the word “enemies” these days, the people responsible for the attacks of nine-eleven and many other acts of terrorism are at the top of the list. However much or little we know about them as individuals, however much or little we know about their religion and its many divisions and sects, we know that the people involved in these attacks were Muslims who believed what they were doing, even killing fellow Muslims, was blessed by Allah.

America’s response as a nation has been two immensely destructive and costly wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many Americans have died in combat while far more bear wounds — some physical, many in mind and soul — that they will contend with for the rest of their lives. Meanwhile we as a people are unrepentant that the war in Iraq was fought against a regime that had no connection with Al Quaida, had nothing to do with nine-eleven, and possessed no weapons of mass destruction. Nor do we seem very bothered about many noncombatant casualties our weapons have produced in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and in Pakistan as well, where our pilotless drone aircraft fire missiles that often kill the innocent — “collateral damage,” as it’s called. The mantra is, “Sad, but these things happen. We try to keep them at a minimum.”

During much of the same period there has been a major economic crisis in which the US has been hard hit. Nearly ten percent of the work force is unemployed. One in seven Americans is now living below the poverty line. Millions of people are out of work. Many thousands have lost their homes. There are tent cities all over the country. The poorer still sleep under bridges or wherever they can find some small degree of protection from the elements. The fortunate ones, the people who still have homes and jobs, feel little security. A lot of people go to sleep worrying.

A recession bordering on depression plus a war with an enemy who could be anywhere — it’s no wonder that we’re very much on edge. It’s a perfect moment for hotheads to gain an audience. Turn on the radio or TV, do a little browsing, and there the rabble-rousers are, some of them Christians, announcing their views with many exclamation marks and very few question marks. And many people are listening and nodding their heads.

Between the ranters and the grim realities of war plus economic bad news, it’s not surprising that we are suffering a pandemic of fear and anger. It’s at flood level, possibly worse now than it was nine years ago. Back in 2001, many people, including President Bush, went out of their way to make clear that Muslims weren’t the enemy, only fanatics who using their religion as an excuse to commit murder. No one was talking in those days about banning Muslim cultural centers or mosques. But in recent months such things have become burning issues. It’s no longer just the Islamic zealots who are the problem. For many people it’s now Islam itself. For them, every Muslim is under suspicion. You even hear people say Islam is not a religion, it’s an ideology. Some say the Koran has a lot in common with Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf. While relatively few people want to get rid of freedom of religion as a civil right, there are many people who make it clear that it’s not a right they want practiced locally. There are devout Christians who now object to identifying Muslims as descendants of Abraham and “people of the Book,” that is a monotheistic people who have in common with Jews and Christians worship of one God, for in failing to recognize Jesus, it’s argued, Muslims fail to recognize or worship the true God. These days one finds Christians who have decided Islam is the Antichrist. The pope, who used to be cast for that role by generations of anti-Catholics, has now been demoted to a slightly less satanic part because we can only have one Antichrist at a time. Because it’s nothing less than the Antichrist we’re dealing with, you can find Christians who say this gives us time out on that problematic command of Jesus that Christians must love our enemies.

In fact many Christians would rather their pastor ignored certain parts of the the New Testament. Probably you have heard of Tony Campolo, a popular Baptist minister. I recently came upon this comment from him: “I find it strange,” he said, “that the last place I can really quote Jesus these days is in American churches. They don’t want to hear ‘overcome evil with good.’ They don’t want to hear ‘those who live by the sword die by the sword.’ They don’t want to hear ‘if your enemy hurts you, do good, feed, clothe, minister to him.’ They don’t want to hear ‘blessed are the merciful.’ They don’t want to hear ‘love your enemies’.”

We need to ask ourselves: Are the more challenging teachings of Jesus only for times when they are easy to practice? Does scripture change according the political season or the nation in which we happen to live? Can we call ourselves Christians while only following those teachings of Jesus that aren’t so difficult and won’t get us into hot water? I doubt any of us would want to be Christian only by label. Label isn’t substance. I think back to when I was a kid going to high school in Hollywood and worked one summer on the Warner Brothers movie ranch with it’s big Western town set — a complete town in which each building was all front and no back — great for gunfights but nowhere to live. Do we want our Christianity to be like that?

My assertion is that Christ’s teachings in their totality are for anyone trying to be a Christian. With that in mind, I’d like to spend a little time attempting to reflect on love of enemies in our post-nine-eleven world and the harm it does to us — and to others — when we decide, in times of conflict and war, that love of enemies is not an essential part of being a Christian. This means we need to take a close look at this particular part of the Gospel, trying to see what it actually means — and also consider at some of the obstacles that stand in our way in living it out.

In the Sermon in the Mount, there is a passage in which Christ speaks about our relationship with enemies:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

My guess is that passages like this led Mark Twain to comment, “It’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that bother me. It’s the parts I do understand.”

Let’s wait a moment before considering what Jesus meant by love and instead start with the word “enemy.” In commanding his followers to love our enemies, what is meant by enemy?

The Gospel text was originally written in Greek. The Greek word that we translate as “enemy” is echthros. It simply means someone we hate. The hatred may be justified — someone who is attacking us — or it may be based on our own misperceptions or fears. One way or the other, an enemy is anyone we feel threatened by. It might be your mother-in-law or it might be Osama ben Laden.

If you look at its root meaning, the English word “enemy” takes in even more people than the Greek. Enemy comes from the Latin word inamicus. Amicus means friend — stick in at the front it and you get inamicus: non-friend. It’s very digital — the world is divided into friends and enemies. An enemy is anyone we would exclude from the category of friend. That’s a lot of people.

Notice that, in his instruction to love enemies, Christ added, “and pray for then.” One good way of knowing who your enemies are is by listing all the people, or groups of people, you don’t pray for and in fact would rather not pray for or refuse to pray for — people who, in your heart of hearts, you think of mainly with anger.

The next question is even more important, perhaps the most primary of all of life’s questions: What does Jesus mean by love? It’s definitely not the love we hear about in songs. The love Christ is speaking about has nothing to do with a Romeo-and-Juliet state of passionate mutual attraction. Love, understood from a biblical point of view, is not sentimental affection. It has nothing to do with Valentine’s Day. It has very little to do with feelings and a great deal to do with what we do. It’s how we care for each other.

We see what Christ means by love in such gestures as healing the wounded ear of one of the men who was arresting him at the Garden of Gethsemani. It is also an act of love to admonish Peter, his good friend and brave disciple, with the words, “put away your sword for he who lives by the sword perishes by the sword.” A loving act for an enemy, healing a wound, and a loving word for a well-meaning but misguided friend.

We learn about love in many of the parables. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, it is not his co-religionists who come to the aid of a man robbed, beaten and left to die on the side of the road, but a passing Samaritan, someone whom Jews at the time would regard with contempt. Were any of us to retell the story using contemporary categories, it would become the Parable of the Good Muslim, and we would be telling it, in part, to challenge the forces of hatred and enmity in our own world. The point would be, as it was when Jesus first told the story, that a neighbor is not identified by his degree of us-ness but by his compassion, his active love. A neighbor is a person who, putting aside his plans for the day, acts mercifully to another and does so without regard for any external factor or social or religious dividing line.

Love is caring for the needs of another person even though you wish you didn’t have to and even though you have no reason to think he would do the same for you. If a mother fails to feed a child because she is too tired or irritated but then says “I love that child,” who would believe her? Love is first of all how we care for each other, not how we feel about them at the time. Feelings are secondary. This is something Saint Paul stresses by saying, “If your enemy hungers, feed him.” Your enemy’s need is your opportunity to let him know that you want enmity to end.

Love is communicated by compassionate, merciful actions. We saw a powerful example of this a few years ago when the Greeks responded with breathtaking generosity to urgent needs in Turkey, the historic enemy of Greece, after an especially devastating earthquake. When Greece was struck by a major earthquake a year or two later, the Turks were inspired to reach out in a similar way. In the process, Greek-Turkish enmity, though certainly not ended, was significantly reduced.

We see an example of this kind of reaching out to an adversary at Saint Catherine’s Monastery, located in the Sinai Desert, an area under Muslim domination since the year 639, only a few years after the death of Muhammad. Saint Catherine’s is one of the oldest monasteries in the world, a place of uninterrupted prayer and worship since its founding in about 550 in a region already long populated by many Christian ascetics. If you look attentively at photos of the monastery, within the wall, adjacent to the monastery church, you will notice a bright, white tower. This is the minaret of the only mosque within a monastic enclosure. The Fatimid Mosque, which I’m told is still used by the monks’ Bedouin neighbors, was originally a hospice for pilgrims, but in the year 1106, more than nine hundred years ago, it was converted to its present use. It must be one of the oldest mosques in the world. No doubt the monk’s hospitality to Muslims helps explain how the monastery survived all these centuries in what became Muslim territory and also how it became the safe harbor for a number of the oldest icons and biblical manuscripts to survive from Christianity’s first millennium. The irony is, it was thanks to being in the Muslim world that the icons survived. In the Byzantine world in the iconoclastic periods, countless ions were destroyed at the emperor’s command. The monastery, with its many generations of monks, offers a continuing witness to a genuinely Christian response to conflict in a non-fear-driven manner. By their act of hospitality, the monks give us a lesson in how Christians can make enemies, or potential enemies, into friends. It’s something like the miracle at Cana at which Jesus converted water into wine.

Let me give one other example of how the walls of enmity can be pierced in unexpected ways. A few years ago my wife and I decided to celebrate Pascha in Istanbul, still the home of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople. On Friday of Bright Week, the first Friday after Easter, we took a ferry to one of the nearby islands, Buyukada, where we walked to St. George’s Monastery on the south end of the island. It wasn’t clear from the map, but this involved a long uphill climb along a cobblestone path. We were surprised by how much company we had along the way — not crowds, but we were far from alone. We were puzzled — Orthodox Christians are a rarity in modern Turkey. All along the path there were pieces of fabric and napkins tied to the branches and lots of colorful string and thread running branch to branch. We were reminded of the prayer flags in Tibet. The higher we got, the more beautiful the view. Finally we reached the top only to discover the monastery was not currently occupied and its church was locked. But the biggest surprise was that the monastery was still very much a place of prayer, not inside but outside. Candles were burning on every available ledge. Women, men and children stood around the church, often with their hands extended and palms up. It took a few minutes before it dawned on us that we were probably the only Christians present. Everyone else was Muslim. This is one of the many places in the Middle East where Muslims pilgrims worship at Christian shrines. Beyond the church, families, having completed their prayers, were picnicking. We learned that day that we had more in common with Muslims than we dared to imagine. Their prayer inspired our prayer, their devotion our devotion.

But generally speaking we mainly hear unsettling news about Muslims and they about us. “If it bleeds, it leads” was one of the first proverbs I learned as a young journalist. If you are looking for good news, skip page one. We hear about people driven to homicidal rage or despair or both who, in the name of Allah, blow themselves up while killing others, abuse of women in Muslim countries, people being stoned to death after being condemned under Sharia law, etc. In the Muslim world there is a similar concentration of news that fuels hostility — American bombs that have fallen on innocent people, people held indefinitely without charges or trial on suspicion of being terrorists, reports of torture, attacks on Muslims, the burning of Muslim schools, plans to burn Korans, etc. On both sides, events that justify enmity are well publicized. It isn’t that the reports are untrue, only that so much is left out.

What can we as Christians, as followers of Christ, do to overcome enmity?

In the passage I read from the Sermon on the Mount, Christ says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” For anyone who wishes to love his enemies, our first duty is to pray for them. Without that beginning point, it’s very difficult to go further. But if I had a dollar for every Christian who doesn’t pray for his enemies, my guess is I would be on the cover of Fortune magazine and have Bill Gates as my next-door neighbor.

Whenever you pray for someone, it creates a thread of connection. There may already be a strong connection anyway, as when you pray for a friend or family member, but when you pray for someone you fear or hate, then that thread is the only connection. Such a prayer creates connection where none existed. What do we ask of God? It’s enough to pray for the health, healing, well-being and salvation of an enemy. As for details, God doesn’t need our advice. But only we, through prayer, can connect ourselves to people who we regard as enemies. One can pray for specific people, like Osama ben Laden, or one can pray for large groups of people whose individual names we do not know. Keep a prayer list and use it daily. You will discover that once you begin praying for people you wish didn’t exist, you begin to think about them differently.

With the foundation of prayer, one can go further: learn more about Islam (which is as complex a phenomenon as Christianity), meet and talk with Muslims, even take part in events, nationally and internationally, that in various ways seek nonviolent solutions.

What are the obstacles to love of enemies? We could make a long list. I’d like to talk briefly about only three: fear, stories that undermine the Gospel, and peer group pressure.

First, let’s think about fear.

“The essence of sin is the fear of the Other, which is part of the rejection of God,” wrote Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon. “Once the affirmation of the ‘self’ is realized through the rejection and not the acceptance of the Other — this is what Adam in his freedom chose to do — it is only natural and inevitable for the other to become an enemy and a threat. Reconciliation with God is a necessary precondition for reconciliation with any ‘other’.”

Who is “the Other”? Zizioulas capitalizes the word “Other” to stress its importance. The “Other,” in most cases, is someone outside my tribe, my ethnic, religious or national group. We tend to take a fair amount of care about intentional killing within the tribe — due process of law, etcetera — but not very much when killing outside the tribe. We carefully count Americans killed in war and try not to count others killed by us, though they may be far more numerous. As a Christian, I may in theory believe that each human being — each “Other” — is a bearer of the image of God, but in practice? The truth is it rarely crosses my mind that people outside my tribe are bearers of God’s image. In fact I have a really hard time discerning that image within the tribe, indeed even within my own family.

What Metropolitan Zizioulas is saying is that, in rejecting the “Other,” I am not just rejecting a particular person or group of people but rejecting that person’s Divine parent. This is the essence of sin, the dividing of the human race into the “us” and the “non-us.” Those who are “not-us” can be dehumanized and become targets of war without our even regarding it as a sin. Reconciliation, Zizioulas says, begins with God, but there can be no reconciliation with God if we refuse to seek reconciliation with “the Other.”

Not only war and social injustice but any failure in moral life, private or collective, often has its deepest roots in fear. Fear drives so many of our choices. In his essay “The Root of War is Fear,” the monk Thomas Merton noted that it is not so much the fear people have of each other “as the fear they have of everything. It is not merely that they do not trust one another; they do not even trust themselves…. Only love — which means humility — can exorcize the fear that is at the root of war.” This was an essay which I mailed to my father. Soon after he responded with appreciation but said he could not agree. “I greatly respect Thomas Merton, but I have to disagree with his view that the root of war is fear,” he said. “In my opinion, the root of war is bad economics.” Years passed without either of us mentioning Merton’s essay. I only discovered he had continued thinking about it when, a decade later, I received a letter in which he told me, “I still think about what Thomas Merton said and want you to know that I have come to realize that the root of bad economics is fear.”

Christ tramples down death by death. Similarly the cure of fear is fear — not fear of others but fear of God. I don’t mean to suggest the two fears are the same. Fear of God is not similar to the terror someone might feel if he had to stand before Hitler or Stalin’s desk. Fear of God is something vastly different — a condition of absolute awe, astonishment and adoration which must overwhelm any person aware he stands in God’s presence. “Fear of God” is an empowering fear. It gives the strength to swim against the tides of hatred, enmity, propaganda, and socially-organized murder in which we are made complicit even if others do the actual killing.

The fear of a tyrant cannot open the gateway of love — only the fear of God does this. To love another — that is to be willing to lay down one’s life for another — is never one’s own achievement but only God’s gift, specifically a gift of the Holy Spirit who purifies the heart. Even love of one’s wife or husband, one’s children or parents, is God’s gift. It is impossible to love without God’s grace, yet only that love is perfect which sees and responds to God’s image in those whom we have no familial or social obligation to love. “The soul that has not known the Holy Spirit,” taught Saint Silouan of the Holy Mountain, “does not understand how one can love one’s enemies, and does not accept it.” As a young man, this Russian monk once nearly killed a neighbor. Later in life, having become a monk, he insists, “He who does not love his enemies does not have God’s grace.”

Another obstacle to the love of enemies is the influence in our lives of stories that undermine the Gospel:

We are very influenced by films. Cinema a powerful medium. Our primary text is what I call the “The Gospel According to John Wayne.” It’s a Gospel that preaches salvation by firepower. The basic idea in many movies is that certain people have not just taken an evil turn in life but are evil down to the marrow of their bones, evil in their DNA. The only solution is to kill them.

When I say “The Gospel According to John Wayne,” I am not talking about the actual John Wayne, only the role he played in so many movies. The classic Western is a tale about how good men with guns save the community from evil men with guns by killing them. The classic scene is the gunfight on Main Street in a newly-settled town in the wild west, though the same story can be played out in the ancient world, any modern city, or on a planet light years away that exists only in the film maker’s imagination. The Gospel According to John Wayne isn’t an ignoble story. There is true courage in it – the readiness of the hero to lay down his life to protect his community. Thus to a certain extent it’s a Christian story – a modern retelling of the legend of Saint George and the dragon, except that in the Christian legend of George, the saint only wounds the dragon. Afterward it’s cared for by the very people who formerly had sacrificed their children to it. The George legend is about risking one’s life to bring about conversion, of self, of others, of enemies. It’s exactly what Christians did in bringing about conversion in the Roman world.

The problem with the modern “The Gospel According to John Wayne” is that it hides from us the fact that there is no such thing as a completely evil person – also no such thing as a completely good person. As Solzhenitsyn, survivor of Stalin’s prison camps, wrote in The Gulag Archipelago:

“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of hearts, there remains … an un-uprooted small corner of evil.” (vol. 2, “The Ascent.”)

Solzhenitsyn reminds us that we don’t need to go far to meet a murderer. We only need to look in the mirror. I don’t mean that each of us has literally taken someone’s life, but at the very least we have had occasion to fantasize about killing another person or being glad someone else did the actual killing. Certainly that’s true of me. Most of us have experienced times of rage when murderous thoughts flooded our minds, or times of depression when self-murder — suicide — was a real temptation.

The missing element in our culture’s dominant story is the mystery that dominates the Bible right from the Book of Genesis: We are made in the image and likeness of God. The human “we” is all of us without exception, from Saint Francis of Assisi to Osama bin Laden, from Jack the Ripper to Mother Theresa. Even Stalin, even Hitler. The traditional Christian teaching is that the image of God exists in each person as something indestructible, still there no matter how well hidden, but that, by our fear-driven choices, the likeness can only be recovered through ascetic effort and God’s grace. “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image,” notes the writer Anne Lamott, “when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

Last but not least, there is the immense power of peer group pressure.

I first became consciously aware of the peer group pressure when I was in my early twenties and belonged to a community whose main work was to provide food and other forms of assistance to people living on the streets in a derelict section of lower Manhattan. The community was also concerned with civil rights, preparations for war and various other social issues. Part of the weekly rhythm of our life was for a few of us to go uptown once a week to the headquarters of the Civil Defense Agency on Lexington Avenue. Here we stood on the four corners of the nearest intersection handing out copies of a leaflet. I can’t recall the leaflet’s text in detail, but no doubt it pointed out that going into cellars and fallout shelters, or hiding under desks, would not save you in the event of nuclear war. Even should you exit your shelter alive, the world you would be returning to would not be friendly to the human presence. Probably we argued that our best protection was in dialogue with adversaries rather than in preparations for nuclear war.

Did many people accept the leaflet? No. It was something of a miracle to find any takers. The big discovery I made in my attempts to pass it out was that, given the fact that the red traffic light system created waves of people instead of a steady flow, should I succeed in getting the leaflet into the hands of the first person in a group coming my way, my chance of getting others who were part of that wave to take it were hugely improved. Though few of the people following the leader knew each other — all they had in common was the fact that they were pedestrians going from one place to another in mid-town Manhattan and had been gathered into groups by the streetlight system — they tended to imitate the response of the person up front. I actually prayed for the person in front — invariably a man in a hurry, often with irritation on his face — to notice my friendly face and take my very important leaflet.

It was a useful lesson for any would-be peacemaker. All of us are constantly taking cues from one another. Not many people are inclined to solitary gestures. Like many varieties of fish, we prefer to swim in schools. The result is that we are easily influenced by the society in which we happen to live, not only by nationalism, in the sense of unswerving devotion to nation, but also by the ideologies the nation promotes at a given time. Had I been a German in the Hitler years, I would have been under immense social pressure to greet my neighbor with a raised right hand and the words, “Heil Hitler!” Had I been a Russian in the Lenin and Stalin years, I might have succumbed to atheist propaganda and been someone destroying icons rather than kissing them. Had I been a white South African in the apartheid years, going along with apartheid would have been much easier than opposing it. Had I been born in a slave-owning society and been among those benefiting from such cheap labor, the arguments (some of them biblical) in favor of slavery might have been convincing.

Peacemaking, then, involves becoming more aware of the myriad ways manipulation occurs, how powerfully it effects each of us, and finding ways to help ourselves and others not be so easily manipulated. It requires conscious awareness of the fears that I struggle with and seeking God’s help in overcoming them. It means living as attentively as I can with the Gospel, letting its stories rather than Hollywood movies shape my responses to God and the people around me.

The mirror over the sink can help us. I recall a small piece of paper taped next to the mirror in a friend’s bathroom. On it were written just three short lines of text: “I am no big deal. I am no big deal. I am no big deal.” The priest who heard his confessions, my friend explained when I asked him about it, had suggested he recite these words every day. We can do something similar. Look at your face in the mirror and remember that “I too am an enemy” — an enemy of certain others, and also an enemy of myself. Keep in mind the final sentence in the Prayer of Saint Ephraim the Syrian: “O Lord and King, grant for me to see my own faults and not to judge my brother.”

I think too of these words from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, who headed the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain for many years. “To be a Christian,” he said, “is to attempt to live a Christ-centered life. We should try to live in such a way that if the Gospels were lost, they could be re-written by looking at us.”

The very best thing we can do for ourselves, our families, our neighbors, our nation, our world, is to follow Christ wholeheartedly. One crucial aspect of that discipleship is love of enemies. It isn’t an option. It is at the heart of the Christian calling.

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Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day: a Special Friendship

Merton statue at Bellarmine University

(lecture by Jim Forest given at Bellarmine University in Louisville on 13 October 2010)

The recent donation to the Thomas Merton Center here at Bellarmine University of the papers of Joe Zarrella, a longtime collaborator of Dorothy Day, has provided us with an occasion to reflect on the special friendship that enriched the lives of two remarkable people: Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day.

Because we are at Bellarmine, surely everyone present recognizes the name of Thomas Merton even if you are a little in the dark about exactly who he was or why there is a statue of him here on campus. Also here at Bellarmine is the Thomas Merton Center, in which all sorts of Merton-related items are located: the many books he wrote plus all the books that have been written about him, file-cabinets full of letters he wrote and received, handwritten manuscripts and working notebooks, photographs he took with borrowed cameras that reveal his contemplative way of looking at things, a personal gift that was sent to him by Pope John XXIII, examples of Merton’s art work, paintings of him, and a substantial part of Merton’s library.

There is also the special recognition of Merton in the heart of Louisville. Thousands of people each day cross Thomas Merton Square. Some of them pause to read the historical marker installed there in 1998 by the Commonwealth of Kentucky. This may be the only memorial plaque anywhere in the world placed at a busy urban intersection to mark the location of a mystical experience.

What initially put Merton on the world map was the publication in 1948 of his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. It was an account of growing up on both sides of the Atlantic, what drew him to become a Catholic as a young adult, and finally what led him, in 1941, to become a Trappist monk at a monastery in rural Kentucky, Our Lady of Gethsemani. He was only 33 years old when the book appeared. To his publisher’s amazement, it became an instant best-seller. For many people, it was truly a life-changing book. The Merton Center has lost count of how many copies of the book have been printed in English and other languages in the past 62 years, but we’re talking about millions.

What might not be so immediately obvious is that, despite Merton’s renown and his many best-selling books, he was — and remains — a controversial figure. Though he was a member of a monastic order well known for silence and for its distance from worldly affairs, Merton was outspoken about racism, war and other hot topics that many regard as very worldly affairs. Merton disagreed. He was a critic of a Christianity in which religious identity is submerged in national identity and life is divided between religious and ordinary existence.

Merton got into hot water for his writings on war and peace as well his participation in both inter-Christian and inter-religious dialogue. In the sixties, there was a Berlin Wall running between Catholics and Protestants. To the alarm of a good many people on both sides of the divide, Merton climbed over that palisade. Even worse, he regarded conversation with people of other religious traditions — Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam — as a useful and necessary, not to say Christian, activity. Some people were scandalized — some still are — that a Trappist monk would engage in dialog with the Dalai Lama. The idea got around that, if only Merton had lived a slightly longer life, he would have waved goodbye to the Catholic Church and become a Buddhist. There is even an icon-like painting of Merton in which he is shown sitting Buddha-like on a meditation cushion. In fact Merton’s religious practice centered on Liturgy, the eucharist, the rosary, the Jesus Prayer, and daily offices of monastic prayer.

Dorothy Day portrait (by Geoffrey Gneuhs)

Now on to Dorothy Day. Who is Dorothy Day? I have heard people ask if she was the sister of the movie star, Doris Day. Dorothy Day sometimes got letters addressed to Doris Day. In fact there is a small patch of Hollywood in Dorothy’s life story. In 1929, just before the Great Depression started, she worked as a writer at a Hollywood film studio, but she had no screen credits. What made Dorothy Day famous was her effort to weave together radical convictions about the social order with the Christian faith after becoming a Catholic when she was thirty years old. Less than six years after that event, in 1933, she founded and began editing The Catholic Worker. From that eight-page journal, the Catholic Worker movement quickly emerged, a movement known for its many houses of hospitality for people who are generally unappreciated and unwelcome. If books by Merton sold millions of copies, Catholic Worker communities have served millions of meals. But the Catholic Worker is also well known for its acts of protest against war and social injustice. Many people associated with the Catholic Worker have served periods in jail for acts of civil disobedience or for refusing to take part in war. Dorothy herself was jailed at least eight times. The first time was for taking part in a Suffragist demonstration in front of the White House in 1917 when she had just turned twenty. Her last arrest and confinement was with striking farm workers in California in 1973 when she was seventy-five. If Thomas Merton was at times controversial, Dorothy Day was controversial pretty much full-time.

If you think of saints as, generally speaking, law-abiding folk, it may strike you as remarkable that the Catholic Church is currently considering a proposal from the Archdiocese of New York that Dorothy Day be officially recognized as a saint. More than ten years have passed since the late Cardinal John O’Connor launched the process. It has now reached the point of Dorothy being given the title “Servant of God Dorothy Day” by the Vatican. After that comes “Blessed Dorothy” and finally “Saint Dorothy.” It would not astonish me if there are people here today who will one day be present for her canonization.

I first met Dorothy in December 1960. I was in the U.S. Navy at the time, stationed in Washington, D.C. 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. Arriving in Manhattan for that first visit, I made my way to Saint Joseph’s House, the Catholic Workers’s house of hospitality on the Lower East Side. It’s now an area that has become fashionable, repackaged as the East Village. In those days it was the Bowery, an area for the desperately poor — people so down-and-out that some of them were sleeping, even in winter, on the sidewalks or in tenement hallways.

A few days into that first encounter with the Catholic Worker, I visited the community’s rural outpost on Staten Island, the Peter Maurin Farm. Crossing the New York Harbor by ferry, I made my way to an old farmhouse on a rural road 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. 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. I was amazed. Having read The Seven Storey Mountain, I knew Trappist monks wrote very few letters and that generally these were limited to family members. But here was Merton writing not only to a non-relative but to someone who was as much in the world as he was out of it.

On reflection, I should have been less surprised. I had read both their autobiographies and they revealed a great deal of common ground. Both had lived fairly bohemian lives before becoming Catholics. Like Dorothy, Merton had wrestled with the issue of war, deciding that, if Christ had given an example of a nonviolent life, he would attempt to do the same. Both had thought long and hard about the sin of racism. Both were writers. Both were unburdened by any attraction to economic achievement. Merton, like any monk, had taken a vow of poverty — there were things he had use of but nothing he actually owned — while Dorothy was committed to what she called “voluntary poverty.” Though in different circumstances, they both lived very disciplined religious lives — Merton’s day beginning with Mass before dawn and ending not long after sunset with Compline, Dorothy’s including daily Mass, daily rosary, daily periods of prayer and intercession and weekly confession. Both had a marked interest in “eastern” — or Orthodox — Christianity. Both had a degree of pastoral care for others. Both were black sheep. Though their vocations were different, it wasn’t only Merton who was a contemplative.

Theirs was a friendship of letters. In their exchanges the topics included peacemaking, observations about social change, problems in the Catholic Church, obedience and disobedience, the Cold War, community life, marriage, their hopes and frustrations, their current reading, the meaning of love, and a wide range of issues for which advice was sought.

The date their correspondence got underway isn’t certain. The oldest surviving letter in their exchange, the 4th of June, 1959, is a reply to a letter from Merton. In it she apologizes for not having answered more quickly and also recalls with gratitude the copies of The Seven Storey Mountain Merton had sent to her way back in 1948. She went on to ask Merton’s prayers for a member of the Catholic Worker staff, Charles Butterworth, who was about to be sentenced for harboring a military deserter at the Catholic Worker and then, by warning him that FBI agents had arrived with an arrest warrant, playing a part in the young man’s escape. “We have done this before,” Dorothy explained, “giving [deserters] the time to make up their own minds; one returned to the army and the other took his sentence.” She mentioned to Merton another member of staff, Bob Steed, formerly a novice at Gethsemani, whom she worried might be arrested for having torn up his draft registration card. In her letter Dorothy didn’t say a word of explanation or justification for such actions — miles off the beaten track for American Catholics. Clearly, in Merton’s case, she felt this wasn’t needed.

In the same letter Dorothy thanked Merton for gifts he had sent to the Catholic Worker. I wasn’t there when that particular box arrived from Gethsemani, but two years later, when I became part of the Catholic Worker staff after being discharged from the military as a conscientious objector, such boxes were not rare. The contents varied — sometimes cast-off clothing monks had worn before taking vows, often his most recent book, and also monk-made cheese and even a fruitcake flavored with Kentucky bourbon. (For many years the monks have helped support themselves by making and selling very tempting food products. Merton didn’t quite approve of the business aspect of Trappist life, but he had no qualms about giving the results away.) I recall the gift card inside one such box was signed, in Merton’s easily recognizable handwriting, “from Uncle Louie and the Boys.” “Uncle Louie” was Merton — the name “Louis” was given him when he became a Trappist monk. Dorothy always addressed him in her letters to him as “Father Louis.” The “boys” would have been his novices — Merton was Master of Novices at the time. It’s remarkable that, in his overfull life, he occasionally found the time and motivation to fill a box to be sent off to the Catholic Worker. This says as much about his bond with Dorothy as any of his letters. He felt a deep sense of connection with what the Catholic Worker was doing — its hospitality work, its newspaper, its protest activities. His gifts communicated to all of us working at the Catholic Worker a deep sense of his of solidarity.

This sense of connection with houses of hospitality went back Merton’s days volunteering at Friendship House in Harlem, a house of hospitality whose existence was in large measure inspired by the Catholic Worker. It had been founded by a close friend of Dorothy’s, Catherine de Hueck Doherty, or the Baroness, as she was often called due to her family’s aristocratic Russian roots. In reading The Seven Storey Mountain, one sees the important role the Baroness had played in Merton’s life. “She had a strong voice, strong convictions, and strong things to say,” Merton wrote, “and she said them in the simplest, most unvarnished, bluntest possible kind of talk, and with such uncompromising directness that it stunned.” One could say the same about Dorothy Day. Few choices Merton ever made were so difficult as deciding between a Catholic Worker-like vocation at Friendship House and becoming a monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani. “The way [the Baroness] said some things,” Merton wrote in his journal in August 1941, “left you ready to do some kind of action … renounce the world, live in total poverty, but also doing very definite things: ministering to the poor in a certain definite way.”

In a letter to Dorothy sent two decades later, Merton remarked that the reason he went to Friendship House rather than the Catholic Worker in lower Manhattan was because, “I was at Columbia, F[riendship] H[ouse] was just down the hill and so on. [The] C[atholic] W[orker] stands for so much that has always been meaningful to me: I associate it with similar trends of thought, like that of the English Dominicans and Eric Gill, who also were very important to me. And [Jacques] Maritain…. [The] Catholic Worker is part of my life, Dorothy. I am sure the world is full of people who would say the same…. If there were no Catholic Worker and such forms of witness, I would never have joined the Catholic Church.” [TM to DD, December 29, 1965, italics added]

In the first surviving letter from Merton to Dorothy, dated July 9, 1959, he starts out by letting her know that another gift box is on its way — some sweet-smelling toothpaste. He then goes on to tell her that he is “deeply touched” by her witness for peace, which had several times resulted in her arrest and imprisonment. He continues: “You are right going along the lines of satyagraha [Gandhi’s term for nonviolent action]. I see no other way, though of course the angles of the problem are not all clear. I am certainly with you in taking some kind of stand and acting accordingly. Nowadays it is no longer a question of who is right but who is at least not criminal, if any of us can say that anymore.”

In the same letter Merton confided to Dorothy his attraction to a vocation of greater solitude and deeper poverty, though he realizes that “the hopes of gaining such permission, humanly speaking, are very low.” Deep questions about where, as a monk, he ought to be was not a topic that Merton touched on with many of his correspondents. It’s clear that he saw in Dorothy someone capable of helping him discern God’s will.

There is not time in a single lecture to look letter by letter at the complex exchange between them between 1956 and 1968, but I would like to read some extracts and briefly comment on several of the major themes.

One of these themes was perseverance. “My constant prayer,” Dorothy confided to Merton just before Christmas in 1959, “is for final perseverance — to go on as I am trusting always the Lord Himself will take me by the hair of the head like [the prophet] Habakkuk and set me where he wants me.”

Anyone who has ever been part of any intentional community will recall how stressful it can be even when there are no dark clouds, but when it is a community that opens its doors day and night to people in urgent need, people who would not often be on anyone’s guest list, and when it is a community with very strong-willed, sometimes ideologically-driven volunteers, it can at times be like life in a hurricane. In one letter to Merton, Dorothy speaks in detail about the bitterness animating some of the criticisms directed at her by co-workers. She senses the motivation of some of those who come to help at the Catholic Worker is less love than a “spirit of rebellion.” [DD to TM, October 10, 1960] Many who knew her and were aware of the emotional and physical strains of Catholic Worker life — long-time co-workers such as Joe Zarrella — were astonished that Dorothy persevered from the founding of the Catholic Worker in 1933 until her death in 1980 — forty-seven years as part of a community of hospitality.

In his response, Merton noted that his awareness that “more and more one sees that [perseverance] is the great thing,” but he also points out that perseverance is much more than “hanging on to some course which we have set our minds to, and refusing to let go.” It can sometimes mean “not hanging on but letting go. That of course is terrible. But as you say so rightly, it is a question of [God] hanging on to us, by the hair of the head, that is from on top and beyond, where we cannot see or reach.”

This was a matter of acute importance to Merton personally, a monk with itchy feet who repeatedly was attracted to greener monastic pastures. Dorothy was all for Merton staying put. In a later letter, Dorothy remarks, “I have a few friends who are always worrying about your leaving the monastery but from the letters of yours that I read I am sure you will hold fast. I myself pray for final perseverance most fervently having seen one holy old priest suddenly elope with a parishioner. I feel that anything can happen to anybody at any time.” [DD to TM, March 17, 1963]

Both Merton and Dorothy remain remarkable models, not just for persevering — barnacles can do that — but for continually putting down deeper roots while rediscovering a sense of its being God’s will not to uproot themselves.

In one letter Merton reflects on the levels of poverty that he sees the Catholic Worker responding to. “O Dorothy,” he writes, “I think of you, and the beat people, the ones with nothing, and the poor in virtue, the very poor, the ones no one can respect. I am not worthy to say I love all of you. Intercede for me, a stuffed shirt in a place of stuffed shirts…” [TM to DD, February 4, 1960] Merton goes further with this topic in his next letter to Dorothy. “I was in Louisville at the Little Sisters of the Poor yesterday, and realized that it is in these beautiful, beat, wrecked, almost helpless old people that Christ lives and works most. And in the hurt people who are bitter and say they have lost their faith. We (society at large) have lost our sense of values and our vision. We despise everything that Christ loves, everything marked by His compassion. We love fatness health bursting smiles the radiance of satisfied bodies all properly fed and rested and sated and washed and perfumed and sexually relieved. Everything else is a scandal and a horror to us.” [TM to DD, August 17, 1960]

I can easily imagine Merton in the act of writing letters like this, some of them with an “on the road” abandon. At Merton’s invitation, I made my first visit to the abbey early in 1962, hitchhiking from the Catholic Worker in Manhattan to Gethsemani. Sitting one day in the small office Merton had next to the classroom where he gave lectures to the novices, I watched while he banged out a response to a letter I had brought him from a friend at the Catholic Worker. I have rarely if ever seen paper fly through a typewriter at such speed. When you read Merton’s letters, you have to keep in mind that he was used to making the best use possible of relatively small islands in time. If you wanted deep silence at Gethsemani, a place to avoid was the area of the monastery where Merton might be working on that large gray office typewriter that is now on display at the Merton Center.

In the Merton-Day correspondence, a theme that was occasionally mentioned, more in passing than at length, was their mutual debt to Russian literature and Orthodox Christianity. They shared their high regard for Boris Pasternak and Dostoevsky, with Dorothy mentioning that the novels of Dostoevsky are “spiritual reading for me.” [DD to TM, June 4, 1960] Merton responded by mentioning that Staretz Zosima, a saintly figure in The Brothers Karamazov, “always makes me weep.” [TM to DD, August 17, 1960] So significant was Dostoevsky’s influence on Dorothy’s basic vision of Christianity that I sometimes wonder whether Dostoevsky ought not to be listed among the co-founders of the Catholic Worker.

The fact that they both were writers may have been what drew Merton to confess to Dorothy his skepticism about the value of his own writing. “There has been some good and much bad.” He fears that his books too easily “become part of a general system of delusion,” a system that ultimately feels it is practically a religious duty to have and, if necessary, to use nuclear weapons. In the sentences that follow, Merton says that he finds himself “more and more drifting toward the derided and probably quite absurdist and defeatist position of a sort of Christian anarchist. This of course would be foolish, if I followed it to the end… But perhaps the most foolish would be to renounce all consideration of any alternative to the status quo, the giant machine.” [TM to DD, July 23, 1961]

This letter is, so far as I am aware, one of only two places in his vast body of writings in which Merton refers to anarchism. With Dorothy, it was a connecting word — for her, it meant someone like herself whose obedience was not to rulers, states, or any secular system, but to Christ. The other place is in an essay on the Desert Fathers, the fourth-century ascetics who created the monastic vocation, living in places that people generally avoided. Here Merton sees the Desert Fathers as being “in a certain sense ‘anarchists’ … They were men who did not believe in letting themselves be passively guided and ruled by a decadent state, and who believed that there was a way of getting along without slavish dependence on accepted, conventional values.” [introduction to The Wisdom of the Desert]

If Merton sometimes expressed to Dorothy his frustrations about his writing, wondering what good his words did, Dorothy was a source of deep gratitude for all that he published or privately circulated. In one letter she mentioned the spontaneous comment of a struggling young woman staying at the Catholic Worker who had borrowed The Thomas Merton Reader, a paperback anthology that Dorothy kept on her desk, and said in Dorothy’s hearing, “Thank God for Thomas Merton.” In a 1965 letter Dorothy said much the same: “You will never know the people you have reached, the good you have done. You certainly have used the graces and the talents God has given you.” [DD to TM, June 24, 1965]

They weren’t always in agreement. In one letter Dorothy takes note of how often Merton uses the word “beat” in his letters. For him it was a very positive word, suggesting his sense of connection with “the beat generation,” as it was called — people who had moved toward the edge of society, felt alienated from the mainstream, people who didn’t want to have “careers.” They were, Merton said, people “challenging the culture of death.” Probably he was aware that Allen Ginsberg, leading bard of the beats, had read some of his poetry at the Catholic Worker. In the sixties, Merton had some correspondence with the beat novelist, Jack Kerouac. Kerouac had coined the phrase “beat generation.” Catholic that he was, for Kerouac the word “beat” was probably clipped out of the word “beatific,” as in “beatific vision,” a very Catholic phrase.

But for Dorothy “beat” was not a connecting word. She felt Merton was seeing the beats through too rosy a lens. In one letter she described how unbeat several long-term members of the Catholic Worker staff were. There had only been a few people Dorothy regarded as beat-types at the Catholic Worker, she continued, and her blood pressure shot up when she thought of them. She described them as “a fly-by-night crew who despised and ignored the poor around us and scandalized them by their dress and morals. I am afraid I am uncharitable about the intellectual who shoulders his way in to eat before the men on the line who have done the hard work of the world, and who moves in on the few men in one of the apartments and tries to edge them out with their beer parties and women. They can sleep on park benches as far as I am concerned. Unfortunately we are left with the women who are pregnant for whom I beg your prayers. … As far as I am concerned, I must look on these things as a woman, and therefore much concerned with the flesh and with what goes to sustain it. Sin is sin [but] the sentimental make a mystique of it…” For all their common ground even with Merton, Dorothy could be testy. [DD to TM, June 4, 1962]

The danger of nuclear war, and the vast destruction of cities and life, was a major concern for Merton as it was for Dorothy. Much of his writing on war and peace was published in The Catholic Worker, starting in October 1961 with his essay, “The Root of War is Fear,” an expanded version of a chapter for New Seeds of Contemplation. This was not a case of worrying where no worrying was needed. A third world war fought with nuclear weapons seemed not just a possibility but, for a great many well-informed people, a probability. Open-air nuclear tests by the United States and the Soviet Union were frequent. Planning for nuclear war was built into military practice. In 1961, while I was working with a Navy unit at the U.S. Weather Bureau just outside Washington, one of our regular exercises was to plot fallout patterns over a three-day period if a nuclear explosion were to occur over the nation’s capital that day. For Merton is was clear that Catholics would be no more hesitant that other Americans to play their part in initiating a nuclear war with the Soviet Union and regard themselves as doing God’s work. It was a grim topic — Christians crediting God with willing a storm of killing that would make every other war in history look like a water-pistol fight. There is a letter in which Dorothy consoles Merton with the reminder that Dame Julian of Norwich, a medieval mystic whom they both revered, had written that “the worst has already happened and been repaired. Nothing worse can ever befall us.” [DD to TM, August 15, 1961]

Not all Trappists were pleased with Merton writing on such topics and doing so in the pages of The Catholic Worker. Everything Merton wrote had to pass his order’s censors, some of whom thought the war issue was inappropriate. There is a document in the archive of the Merton Center that may give you a sense of those times. Here we have an unnamed American Trappist monk writing to the order’s Abbot General in Rome, Dom Gabriel Sortais, warning him of the scandal being caused by Merton’s anti-war writings. Let me read a few extracts:

“There is one further matter, Reverend Father, which I hesitate to speak of but which I feel I should. We have, in the United States, a weekly paper [in fact monthly] called ‘The Catholic Worker.’ This is a very radical paper, which some Americans believe is a tool of the Communists. Fr. Louis (under the name Thomas Merton) has been writing for it frequently…. The name ‘Thomas Merton’ is almost synonymous in America with ‘Trappist.’ Thus quite a number of people believe that he is expressing the Trappist outlook…”

Later in the letter, the writer reports that a military intelligence officer had visited his monastery and had spoken with him “concerning Father Louis.” He concludes his letter by acknowledging that many have benefitted from Merton’s “spiritual works,” but “it is difficult to understand how he can express himself so strongly on questions as to whether the United States should test nuclear weapons and also the wisdom of building fallout shelters. It is hard to see how — as an enclosed religious — he has access to enough facts to pass a prudent judgement on such matters.” It is unlikely that this was the only such letter sent to the Abbot General.

During my first visit with Merton early in 1962, I recall a bizarre incident that occurred when Merton and I were walking down a corridor that connected the guest house kitchen to the basement of the main monastery building. Standing next to a garbage container was an older monk, Father Raymond Flanagan, who was not so much reading as glaring at the latest issue of The Catholic Worker, which included an article of Merton on the urgency of taking steps to prevent nuclear war. Father Raymond looked up, saw us coming his way, balled the paper up in his fist, hurled it into the garbage container, turned his back and strode away without a word, leaving a trail of smoke. Merton’s response was laughter. He told me that Father Raymond had never had a high opinion of his writings and often denounced him at the community’s chapter meetings. “In the early days Father Raymond said I was too detached from the world,” Merton said, “and now he thinks I’m not detached enough.” The tension between Merton and Father Raymond never abated. In March 1968, just ten months before Merton’s death, Merton recorded in his journal a furious verbal assault by Father Raymond, who was enraged with Merton’s opposition to the war in Vietnam. [The Other Side of the Mountain, entry of March 7, 1968, p 62]

Dorothy was one of the people to whom Merton could complain about the increasing problems he was having with censorship. The issue wasn’t that he was being charged with writing anything at odds with Catholic doctrine, but the feeling, in Merton’s words, that “a Trappist should not know about these things, or should not write about them.” He found the situation exhausting and demoralizing. “Obedience,” he wrote Dorothy, “is a most essential thing in any Christian and above all in a monk, but I sometimes wonder if, being in a situation where obedience would completely silence a person on some important moral issue … a crucial issue like nuclear war … if it were not God’s will … to change my situation.”

In the spring of 1962, Merton received an order from Dom Gabriel Sortais not to publish any more writings on war and peace. As a consequence, a book Merton has just finished writing, Peace in the Post-Christian Era, was published only a few years ago, more than four decades after it was written. Merton found the gagging order not only outrageous but at odds with the prophetic mission of the monastic vocation.

If you ever want to read a letter hot enough to roast a turkey, I recommend one he sent me at the end of April in 1962. Here’s a very brief extract: “[The Abbot General’s decision] reflects an astounding incomprehension of the seriousness of the present crisis in its religious aspect. It reflects an insensitivity to Christian and Ecclesiastical values, and to the real sense of the monastic vocation. The reason given is that this is not the right kind of work for a monk and that it ‘falsifies the monastic message.’ Imagine that: the thought that a monk might be deeply enough concerned with the issue of nuclear war to voice a protest against the arms race, is supposed to bring the monastic life into disrepute. Man, I would think that it might just possibly salvage a last shred of repute for an institution that many consider to be dead on its feet… That is really the most absurd aspect of the whole situation, that these people insist on digging their own grave and erecting over it the most monumental kind of tombstone.” [TM to Jim Forest, April 29, 1962]

Yet Merton obeyed. Explaining his decision to do so in the same letter, he stresses that “blowing off steam” is not what’s important. The real question is what response was most likely to bring about a change of heart among those — monks and others — who were threatened by Merton’s thoughts regarding war. “Disobedience or a public denunciation,” he said, would be seen by his fellow monks “as an excuse for dismissing a minority viewpoint and be regarded by those outside [the church] as fresh proof that the church had no love for private conscience.” Very soberly, he asked the crucial question: “Whose mind would be changed?” In his particular case, Merton concluded, public protest and disobedience “would backfire and be fruitless. It would be taken as a witness against the peace movement and would confirm these people in all the depth of their prejudices and their self complacency.”

Yet in fact Merton wasn’t quite silenced. He continued to write for The Catholic Worker but under such pseudonyms as Benedict Monk. His remained a member of the advisory board of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, often giving its staff extremely helpful guidance. His abbot, Dom James Fox, decided that what the Abbot General had banned was publication of mass market editions of Merton’s peace writings. With his abbot’s collaboration, Merton was able to bring out several mimeographed editions of Peace in the Post-Christian Era and another called Cold War Letters and many shorter papers. Via Dorothy Day, the staff of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, plus a number of other friends, these were widely distributed, including to various people in the White House as well as to bishops and theologians taking part in the Second Vatican Council. Ironically, in the end Merton’s peace writings were given a much more attentive reading by many more people than would have been the case with a commercial edition. It has often been observed that nothing makes a reader so interested in a book as its being banned.

Being a lay-edited and lay-published journal, Dorothy didn’t have to work within the censorship labyrinth that Merton did, but her views about obedience were the same as Merton’s. Again and again, in similar circumstances, Dorothy quoted from the Gospel: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” [John 12:24]

Not all enemies are across national borders. Sometimes your enemies are people who, in principle, are your friends and neighbors, even your brothers and sisters in religious life. Christ taught his followers to love their enemies and in his own life demonstrated such love. Christians in the early Church gave a similar witness, even at the cost of their lives. But in Christianity today, too often what is most striking is zealous hatred of enemies, in fact not only enemies but anyone who is seen as too different or too inconvenient. For Dorothy and Merton, the refusal to hate anyone was basic Christianity. It’s not surprising to find one of Merton’s finest meditations on enmity in one of his longer letters to Dorothy. Listen to this:

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

Here one sees in high relief what was at the root of Christian life for both Dorothy and Merton and shaped their friendship. We know each other only by love. What is most unique about Christianity is its special emphasis on the vocation to love — a love whose only real test is the love of opponents and even the love of enemies. This is not sentimental love, and certainly not romantic love, but love in the sense of recognizing our family ties with each and every human being and doing whatever is in our power to protect each life, hoping that in the process both we and those whom we regard as enemies may experience a change of heart. No one has ever been threatened or bludgeoned or terrified or bribed into conversion. Such a deep change of heart is something only love can obtain. Without love, we are inhabitants of hell long before we die. With love, we already have a foretaste of heaven. One of Dorothy’s most often-repeated quotations summarizes this basic truth. It is a sentence that comes from one of her favorite saints, Catherine of Siena. “All the way to heaven is heaven,” she said, “because Jesus said, ‘I am the way.’”

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Jim Forest is the author of All is Grace: a Biography of Dorothy Day ( http://www.jimandnancyforest.com/2006/03/24/all-is-grace/ ) and Living With Wisdom: A Biography of Thomas Merton ( http://www.jimandnancyforest.com/2006/03/07/living-with-wisdom/ ).

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Coming to Visit?

Kanisstraat — our house is the third on the right

Coming from the airport? Alkmaar is about a 50-minute train trip from Amsterdam-Schiphol Airport. The train station is an integral part of the airport. Stop at the train ticket counter and buy a one-way ticket to Alkmaar. The price is about 10 euros per ticket. (While waiting for your baggage, use the bank office in the baggage hall to buy euros. It’s open day and night.)

Trains leave for Amsterdam roughly every 20 minutes starting at about 5 AM, less often in the small hours of the night.

If you happen to catch a train that stops at Amsterdam-Sloterdijk, a station on the west edge of Amsterdam, change there, go to platform 4 on the lower level of the station, and catch the train to Alkmaar. (For some trains, Alkmaar is the final destination, but most trains go further north, terminating in Den Helder.)

If your train doesn’t stop at Amsterdam-Sloterdijk, then change at Amsterdam Central Station. Trains for Alkmaar normally leave four times per hour from Amsterdam Central Station, usually from platform 7A/8a. If you catch an Intercity train, it’s a 35-minute ride from Central Station; a Sprinter train makes more stops and takes ten minutes longer. (The station before Alkmaar in Heiloo. If you miss Alkmaar, the next station is  Alkmaar Noord; in that case you’ll need to double back one stop on the next south-bound train.)

Most Dutch people speak English. If you get confused, ask for help from anyone at hand. Many people will also be willing to let you make a quick call on their mobile phone.

Once in Alkmaar: As you leave the station, cross the street and walk to the right along Stationsweg. In two minutes you’ll be at a light on a T intersection. Go to the left along Scharlo. Straight ahead you’ll get a glimpse of the Grote Kerk (the Great Church; in pre-Reformation times Alkmaar’s cathedral). Walk on 200 meters or so to the bridge, the Bergerbrug. This will take you over the Singel, the canal that surrounds the old town. Once across, walk onto the first street to your right, Geest (the Dutch word for ghost or spirit). Kanisstraat is the first street to the right — a short no-traffic lane with the Geest at one end and a park at the other. We live in house number 5.

If we know what train you’re on and when it’s due in Alkmaar, one of us will try to meet you and walk you home.

Taxi is also an option:  There’s a taxi stand in back of the train station. The price of the ride to our address will be roughly 10 euros.

Map of Alkmaar: the station is point A, our house is point B


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Jim & Nancy Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands

tel: (31)(72) 515-4180; within Holland: (072) 515-4180
mobile: 06 – 510-11-250
Jim’s e-mail: [email protected]
Nancy’s e-mail: [email protected]
web page: http://www.jimandnancyforest.com

page updated 2 December 2017

Practical questions…

How much does it cost?

I try to clear $1200 a day ($2500 for weekends) plus travel costs. Some hosts can manage more; sometimes I agree on less. While my default setting is yes, keep in mind the biblical injunction: “The laborer is worthy of his hire.” Also bear in mind that it isn’t just the time I’m speaking. A great many hours of preparation go into these trips. (Travel costs are shared out between hosts.)

Books

At least a few weeks beforehand, place an order with Orbis so that copies of my recent books can be on hand: The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life, The Ladder of the Beatitudes, Praying With Icons, Living With Wisdom, and Love is the Measure. Orbis will send them at a bookseller discount with the right to return unsold books. To place an order, call the marketing department at Orbis: (914) 941-7636, ext. 2575. (For details about ordering my book on the resurrection of the Church in Albania, see the corresponding article.)

Promotional resources

If you need a speaker photo and/or a biography, two are available on this web site: “Jim Forest: an alphabet of his own design” — a short biography, and “Getting From There to Here” — a longer biography of Jim Forest.

What sort of accommodation is required?

I try to avoid hotels and, even more, motels, preferring to stay in a host family’s guest room.

Special dietary needs?

Apart from being on a low salt diet, I am not a fussy eater.

Other needs?

It is helpful to have some quiet times for prayer, reading and correspondence between speaking events. If an art museum is not too distant, and there is time to visit it, I always welcome such opportunities.

Jim Forest: an alphabet of his own design

Jim Forest

Jim Forest’s activity as a writer began in New Jersey at age five, in 1946, when he produced a handwritten family newspaper using an alphabet of his own design. It was an excellent publication whose only shortcoming was that only he could read it.

A few years after achieving literacy, he was often found hanging around the office of the town’s weekly newspaper, watching linotypers set type from molten zinc, a form of typesetting now associated with the Age of Gutenberg. Before long he was hawking The Red Bank Register on Broad Street, delivering newspapers door to door, and starting his own mimeographed publication, now using an alphabet accessible to others.

His engagement in Christianity began about the same time that he was selling newspapers. At age ten he was baptized in an Episcopal parish in Shrewsbury, New Jersey, though it wasn’t until he was in the U.S. Navy that he began to see his vocation in religious terms.

In 1960, while working at the U.S. Weather Service headquarters near Washington as part of a Navy meteorological unit, he joined the Catholic Church.

In 1961, after obtaining an early discharge from the Navy on grounds of conscientious objection, he joined the Catholic Worker community, led by Dorothy Day, in New York City; during that period he became managing editor of The Catholic Worker.

Later he was a reporter a New York City daily newspaper, The Staten Island Advance, and worked for Religious News Service, a press bureau.

Jim is the author of many books, including:

The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers,

Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment,

Living With Wisdom: a biography of Thomas Merton, 

All Is Grace: a biography of Dorothy Day,

At Play in the Lions’ Den: a biography and memoir of Daniel Berrigan,

The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life,

Praying with Icons,

The Ladder of the Beatitudes,

The Wormwood File: E-Mail from Hell, and

Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness.

Earlier books include Religion in the New Russia and Pilgrim to the Russian Church.

Jim has written several children’s books, most recently Saint Nicholas and the Nine Golden Coins, Saint George and the Dragon and Silent as a Stone: Mother Maria of Paris and the Trash Can Rescue (a story set in Nazi-occupied France).

With Fr Hildo Bos, he co-edited For the Peace from Above: an Orthodox Resource Book on War, Peace and Nationalism. With Tom Cornell and Robert Ellsberg, he co-edited A Penny a Copy: Readings from The Catholic Worker.

Translations of his books have been published in Greek, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Swedish, Danish, Polish, Korean, Japanese, and Romanian.

Another dimension of Jim’s life has been peace work.

In 1965, he founded the Catholic Peace Fellowship, a group whose work in making known the option of conscientious objection was a factor in the remarkable fact that no religious community produced so many conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War as the Catholic Church.

In connection with work on two books about Russian religious life, in the 1980s Jim traveled widely throughout the former Soviet Union and was a witness to the final days of the USSR. His experiences in Russia were a factor in his becoming, in 1988, an Orthodox Christian. He is an ordained Reader and belongs to St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam.

In the late sixties, Jim was responsible for Vietnam program activities of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. One aspect of his work was to travel with and assist Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and poet.

In 1969-70, Jim was imprisoned for thirteen months as a consequence of his involvement in the “Milwaukee Fourteen,” a group of Catholic priests and lay people who burned draft records.

After leaving prison, he was a member of the Emmaus Community in East Harlem, New York.

In 1973, he was appointed editor of Fellowship, the magazine of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

In 1977, he moved to Holland to head the staff of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation. He was IFOR’s General Secretary for twelve years.

Jim is international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and, for 21 years, edited its quarterly journal, In Communion. He is now Associate Editor. The journal is archived at http://incommunion.org .

An influential factor in Jim’s life was his friendship with Thomas Merton, who dedicated Faith and Violence to Jim. Merton’s letters to Jim have been published in The Hidden Ground of Love. Many are inlcuded, with commentary, in The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers.

Jim has led retreats in the USA and England and has lectured at hundreds of parishes, theological schools, colleges and universities.

In 1989, he received the Peacemaker Award from Notre Dame University’s Institute for International Peace Studies. In 2007, he was the recipient of the St. Marcellus Award presented annually by the Catholic Peace Fellowship. In 2011, at the University of Wroclaw in Poland, he was presented with the Prince Constantine Ostrogsky Award for “promotion of peace and justice and efforts to safeguard life and creation through life-protecting methods.” In 2014 he was honored with the Esse Non Videri (“to be and not to seem”) Award by St. Joseph’s College on Long Island, NY. In 2015 he was given the Peace and Justice Award of the Thomas Merton Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 2017 he received the “Louie” award from the International Thomas Merton Society.

An auto-didact, Jim dropped out of high school when he was seventeen. The only formal education he has had since then were meteorology studies while in the Navy (in 1959 he graduated first in his class from the Navy Weather School) and occasional classes (English literature and art history) at two colleges in New York City, Hunter and the New School for Social Research.

An occasional teacher, in the early seventies, Jim taught at New York Theological Seminary and the College of New Rochelle. In 1985, during a sabbatical, he taught at the Ecumenical Institute, Tantur, near Jerusalem, and in 1999 was part of the summer faculty of the Department of Religion at the University of Dayton.

After several years of being treated for kidney illness, in October 2007 Jim received a transplanted kidney donated by his wife, Nancy.

He is the father of six children and grandfather of ten.

Since 1977 his home has been in Alkmaar, Holland, a city northwest of Amsterdam.

Want to know more?

Here’s an autobiographical essay, “Getting From There to Here.”

page updated in November 2017

 

 

Speaking topics of Jim Forest

These paragraphs are suggestive. Feel free to propose alternative titles or to suggest other themes. There are different ways of presenting each theme or to connect one with another, depending on the needs and experience of the audience and the time available — an hour, an evening, a day-long seminar, or a weekend retreat.

Loving Our Enemies

Jesus insisted on the love of enemies and provided a life-giving witness to what it meant. How do we practice aspect of Jesus’ teaching? Who is my enemy? Whose enemy am I? What does it mean to love, in the sense the word is used in the New Testament? What does it mean to forgive? Can one forgive those who have committed grave crimes and show no sign of repentance? Jim Forest relies on stories that bring principles to life. When there is time for extended group discussion, participants have time to share personal stories about forgiveness and overcoming enmity.

Dorothy Day: A Saint for Our Time?

Dorothy Day was a person of contradictions: activist and contemplative, political radical and a theological conservative. Intending to found a newspaper, The Catholic Worker, she ended up founding a movement. The most important monuments to her are the many houses of hospitality that stretch from Los Angeles to Amsterdam, places of welcome for many who have been treated as throwaways, but also centers of work for a nonviolent, sharing society. Dorothy Day continues to open doors for many, in terms of spiritual life, community building, the healing of division, service of the poor, and the renewal of churches. Many regard her as one of the saints of our time; her official canonization process is now underway. Jim Forest worked closely with Dorothy Day during the last 20 years of her life. Soon after her death in 1980, he wrote a biography of her, Love is the Measure. Drawing on her diaries and letters, this has now been greatly expanded and given a new title, All is Grace. It was published by Orbis Books in April 2011.

Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton: A Special Friendship

Their autobiographies reveal that Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton had a great deal in common. Both had lived bohemian lives before becoming Catholics. Like Dorothy, Merton had wrestled with the issue of war, deciding that, if Christ had given an example of a nonviolent life, he would attempt to do the same. Both had thought long and hard about the sin of racism. Both were writers. Both were unburdened by any attraction to economic achievement. Merton, like any monk, had taken a vow of poverty — there were things he had use of but nothing he actually owned — while Dorothy was committed to what she called “voluntary poverty.” Though in different circumstances, they both lived very disciplined religious lives — Merton’s day beginning with Mass before dawn and ending not long after sunset with Compline, Dorothy’s including daily Mass, daily rosary, daily periods of prayer and intercession and weekly confession. Both had a marked interest in “eastern” — or Orthodox — Christianity. Both had a degree of pastoral care for others. Both were black sheep. It wasn’t only Merton who was a contemplative. Jim Forest had the good fortune to work closely with both of them.

The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life

In an age of tourism, the great challenge is to see ourselves at a deeper level: the dimension of pilgrimage. Being a pilgrim might involve a journey to distant places associated with God-revealing events at the end of a well-trodden pilgrim path, but it has still more to do with simply living day by day in a God-attentive way. How do we come see one’s life as an opportunity for pilgrimage, whether in places as familiar as your kitchen or walking to Santiago de Compostela? Drawing on the wisdom of the saints and his own wide-ranging travels, Jim Forest talks about both “thin places” and “dark places” that have helped make him a pilgrim, including Jerusalem, Iona, the secret annex of Anne Frank, the experience of illness, the practice of hospitality — occasions of being surprised by grace.

The Pilgrimage of Illness

Any trip has the potential of becoming a pilgrimage, whether to Jerusalem or to your kitchen sink. In my own case in recent years, one of the most ordinary pilgrimages has been going to the hospital.

A routine blood test had indicated my kidneys were failing. In January 2005, dialysis became essential — three, three-hour sessions a week. This kept me alive for two years. Then in the fall of 2007, thanks to a kidney donation made by my wife, I had a kidney transplant. The operation was successful, but follow-up hospital visits remain a standard part of my life.

I’ve learned that far worse things can happen than being chronically ill. Unlike people burdened with the illusions that come with good health, the sick are well aware that they are unable to survive on their own. We’re intensely conscious of our dependence on the care of others. It’s hard to be seriously ill and not be poor in spirit, the first of Christ’s Beatitudes. Because of that, the sick are by definition on the ladder of the Beatitudes. Each of us may still have quite some climbing still to do, but, thanks to illness, at least we’ve made a start.

In a culture which prizes individuality and independence, most of us are reluctant to realize how much we depend on others, though in reality there has never been a day of our lives when this wasn’t the case. We started that dependence the instant we were conceived and it continues without interruption until we take our last breath. We depended on others for love, for encouragement, for inspiration. We depended on others for food. We depended on others for the words and gestures that make communication possible. We depended on others for all the skills we slowly acquired while growing up. We depended on others for wisdom. And yet for much of our lives we managed to nourish the illusion that we were independent and had the right to pat ourselves on the back for whatever good things came our way. The phrase “thank you,” however often it was said out of social necessity, didn’t necessarily reflect a deeply felt attitude. Being sick changes that. The words “thank you” begin to rise from the depths of the heart. In the community of the sick, there aren’t many people unaware how much they depend on the care of others, even if they don’t know most of these others by name.

The Ladder of the Beatitudes

If we recognize the last two verses of the Beatitudes as one, we find there are eight Beatitudes, each of them an aspect of being in communion with God, and each of which we are need to think about again and again as we make progress in our lifelong conversion to Christ. They are like rungs on a ladder — each leads to the next and is placed in a particular order. To reach the second step, we need to make the first step. The idea isn’t that I’ll be a peacemaker while somebody else specializes in poverty of spirit or being pure of heart. The presentation of the Beatitudes links text with stories.

Praying with Icons

An icon may seem to the casual viewer as little more than a primitive painting done by anonymous artisans unaware of techniques that can make a flat surface seem three-dimensional. In fact the icon is intentionally two-dimensional, avoiding the rules of perspective in order to reveal through line, color and symbol what is invisible to a camera. While having an illustrative and also theological function, the icon creates a motionless and silent space in which it is easier to pray. For icons to fulfill their function, we have to learn the art of seeing them and understanding the tradition they come from. This talk is an introduction to a tradition of prayer that has deepened the spiritual lives of millions of people. (Slides available.)

Prayer for Busy People

A vital spiritual life involves a deep sense of the sacred, a readiness to forgive, social responsibility, a way of life centered in love, and a daily rhythm of prayer. While the spiritual life has never been easy, living in a society moving at high speed has made it more difficult to find time for prayer and contemplation. It also involves learning to pray. We will be discussing the foundations and traditions of prayer, looking at our daily life to see where unrecognized opportunities for prayer may exist, discussing the Jesus Prayer and use of the prayer rope or rosary, and the creation of a special place for prayer in daily life.

In Peace Let Us Pray to the Lord

The seventh beatitude is “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Peace is a primary theme of Christian life. It is also central in the Liturgy. In the Orthodox tradition, after the priest announces that “Blessed is the kingdom of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” the very next words are, “In peace let us pray to the Lord.” Peace is the precondition of worship. At the end of the Liturgy, the priest tells us “to depart in peace.” We are to take Christ’s peace into the world, to be ourselves a sign of Christ’s peace among those who, in many cases, hardly know who Christ is. We learn from the Liturgy as from the Gospel that peace is not a principle but it is Christ himself: Christ who heals, Christ who forgives, Christ who reaches out to the very people, if we follow the advice of the world, we should avoid, condemn and hate. But how do we live that peace? What does it mean to practice the beatitude of peacemaking?

Confession: the rediscovery of a lost sacrament

The tradition of confession, once ordinary practice among Christians, fell on hard times in recent centuries but is today making a comeback. While most easily found in the Orthodox Church, Christians in other churches are gradually rediscovering a lost sacrament. Perhaps for the next generation, sacramental confession will not be so rare an event as it is today in the life of an ordinary Christian. But for confession to make sense we need to have a better idea of what the much-avoided word “sin” actually means, and to understand that — while God knows all about our sins long before we confess them — the act of a witnessed confession helps strengthen us in the hidden warfare that goes on in each person’s life.

The purpose of this talk (or, on occasion, series of talks) is to help revive confession where it has been abandoned or neglected, to help those present prepare a better confession, and to help those who hear confessions to better serve as Christ’s witness, taking care not to impede the sacrament’s healing strength. Depending on time available, we can consider what sin really means, preparation for confession, what confession involves, the history of the sacrament, confession’s social context, the role of the priest, the question of finding a good confessor, and what can actually happen in confession.

Cleanse Us from All Impurity

The title comes from a prayer widely used by Orthodox Christians and is linked with the beatitude, “Blessed are the pure in heart.” To be cleansed from all impurity is to be given a pure heart. In our brain-centered society, we ought to be scandalized that Christ didn’t say, “Blessed are the pure in mind,” or better yet, “Blessed are the brilliant in mind.” We are, after all, a people who tend to regard not the heart but the brain as the core of self. It’s high praise to be described as bright. No one aspires to be labeled “slow” or “dense.” But what is a pure heart? A heart free of possessiveness, a heart capable of mourning, a heart which thirsts for what is right, a merciful heart, a loving heart, a heart not ruled by passions, an undivided heart, a heart aware of the image of God in others, a heart aware of God’s presence in creation. “A person is truly pure of heart when he considers all human beings as good and no created thing appears impure or defiled to him,” wrote Saint Isaac of Syria….

Treasures of Eastern Christianity

Eastern and western Christianity, though having much in common, in some important respects developed on quite different lines. Easter is to the Orthodox Church what Christmas is in most western churches, a difference which highlights more subtle contrasts. The word “orthodoxy” itself means “right praise,” not “rigid thinking,” the sense the word often has in general western usage. The Orthodox Church in countless ways seeks to strengthen the connection between spiritual and physical activity. It is also the Church that has changed least over the centuries — proof to some that it is a museum Church, confirmation to others that the traditions and resources of Orthodoxy (the Jesus Prayer, prayer with icons, days and seasons of fasting, the “icon” of the church year, etc.) are deep and rich enough not to be swept away by short-lived fads and ideologies. What can we in the west learn from Orthodoxy to deepen our own spiritual lives?

Everyday Mysticism

The French poet Leon Bloy wrote: “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” Many people think of mystical experiences — meaning vivid encounters with God — as being granted to the occasional saint who has fasted half way to heaven. Yet there is not a single person whom God doesn’t know intimately and love, nor anyone who hasn’t experienced in some way God’s presence. The only problem is that often we don’t recognize the deeper meaning and significance of those moments — moments in which God gives us a glimpse of our true selves and at the same time places us, even if only for a flash, in a state of communion with all of creation, visible and invisible. Thomas Merton occasionally referred to such moments as “kisses from God.” Ideally, if there is enough time, those present take some time alone to identify an experience of joy in their lives, to try to see God’s presence in that event, and write about it — then come back to share with each other.

Holy Fools

Few taunts are sharper than those that call into question someone’s sanity or intelligence. Yet in the calendars of the Church both east and west, there are saints whose way of life flies in the face of what most of us regard as sanity. The Orthodox Church refers to them as holy fools, or fools for Christ’s sake. These are people in whom Christ wears the disguise of madness. They are people who in most parts of the developed world would be locked away in asylums or ignored until the elements silenced them. While never harming anyone, holy fools raise their voices against those who lie and cheat and do violence to others, but at the same time they are always ready to embrace these same greedy and ruthless people. They take everyone seriously. For them no one is unimportant. Their dramatic gestures always have to do with revealing the person of Christ and his mercy. Forest describes several holy fools — St. Francis of Assisi, St. Basil of Moscow, St. Xenia of St. Petersburg — and explores the meaning of holy fools for those of us trying hard not to be called foolish or crazy.

Thomas Merton: Living with Wisdom

Few people have touched so many lives as the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. The Seven Storey Mountain, his autobiography, is one of the great conversion stories. He died in 1968, yet his books remain in print in many languages while new books about Merton appear each year. In the last decade of his life, Merton became deeply engaged in efforts to end racism and find nonviolent alternatives to war. Through correspondence and visits, he was in touch with many artists and poets, two popes, Christians of other churches, and prominent figures in other religions, including Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama. During the last seven years of his life, Jim and Merton often corresponded and Jim was twice Merton’s guest at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. One of Merton’s books, Faith and Violence, was dedicated to Jim. Jim is the author of a biography of Merton, Living With Wisdom, published by Orbis Books. Various stresses are possible in the talk depending on the background and special interests of the audience: an overview of his life, the evolution of his understanding of Christianity, his engagement with eastern religions, his involvement in the peace movement, and methods he recommended for prayer and meditation.

Thomas Merton and the 21st Century

Not many monks become famous — it’s the opposite of what a monk is looking for. Thomas Merton was an exception. When his autobiography was published soon after World War II, to everyone’s surprise it not only sold well but became a major best-seller. It’s one of those rare books that has never gone out of print. Though Merton died in 1968, age 54, his books are still widely read. What makes him someone who was important not just in the 20th century, but in the 21st? Forest will be looking at Merton’s insights on such issues as technology, consumerism, inter-faith tensions (especially with Islam), the role of compassion and mercy in human affairs, the necessity of interiority in a culture of “weapons of mass distraction,” and the “God question” in a time of renewed promotion of atheism. One of Merton’s books, “Faith and Violence,” was dedicated to Jim. Jim is the author of a biography of Merton, “Living With Wisdom,” published by Orbis Books.

Thomas Merton: Bridge to the Christian East

For all that has been written about him, it is remarkable how little attention is paid to Merton’s debt to Orthodoxy. From the icons his dying father was drawing when Merton was a teenager to the hand-painted icon Merton had with him at the end of his own life, Merton was profoundly influenced by Eastern Christianity. At the heart of his spiritual life was the Jesus Prayer and the “apophatic” tradition associated with Mount Athos. He became a bridge linking east and west, living reunion in the depths of his spiritual life. What drew him to “the Christ of the icons” in contrast to “the historical Jesus” sought in much of the western Church? What did he learn from eastern Orthodoxy? What doors can his discoveries open for us?

Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers

The key events of Merton’s life were marked by war: He was born in France during the First World War, was nearly killed by young Nazis in Germany in the early 1930s, entered the monastic life just a few weeks after Pearl Harbor, and died in Asia while the Vietnam war was raging. While critical of “all movements and causes,” through frequent letters to peace activists, Jim Forest among them, he played a crucial pastoral role in the peace movement during the Vietnam war. He considered Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, “more my brother than many who are nearer to me in race and nationality.” For his outspoken opposition to war and the arms rare, he was silenced for a time by his superiors but finally was vindicated.

See also “Practical questions…”

Contact Jim Forest at [email protected] if you want to set a date or need more information.

page updated November 2010

Draft of a talk to be given 7 and 15 March 2009 at conferences in Vancouver and Victoria of the Thomas Merton Society of Canada:

Thomas Merton: Peacemaker in a Divided Christendom

by Jim Forest

One of the important contributions Merton made in his lifetime was taking an active role in dialogue with non-Catholic Christians, both Protestant and Orthodox. In our own day this kind of dialogue has become so uncontroversial as hardly to be worth mentioning. It is startling to recall how much mistrust and misunderstanding, even enmity, stood in the way of dialogue just fifty years ago, especially between Protestants and Catholics. Dialogue with Orthodox Christians was less a problem if only because so many people in the West, both Protestant and Catholic, had only the blurriest awareness that the Orthodox Church existed and what it was all about. For them, the Orthodox Church — Eastern Christianity — was truly Terra Incognita.

America’s culture was largely shaped by Protestantism. When immigrants from traditionally Catholic countries began to arrive in great numbers, they found the welcome mat was not out. Even in the mid-20th century, a great many Protestants still tended to regard the Catholic Church, if not necessarily as the Whore of Babylon led by the Anti-Christ, at least as a form of Christianity that in fact wasn’t really Christian. The Catholic Church was a Church of practicing idolaters who sold entrance passes to heaven to whomever could purchase an indulgence. In 1960, when I was in the US Navy and stationed in Washington, DC, I recall being told in all seriousness by the Episcopal family with whom I was then living that there were tunnels connecting Catholic rectories and convents and that the aborted bodies of priest-fathered infants could be found in buried in many a convent basement. That same year, with John Kennedy running for the presidency, Episcopal Bishop James Pike published his views on why a Roman Catholic had no place in the White House. Many who voted against Kennedy were voting to protect the nation from papal influence. The propaganda of the Reformation still flourished. The word “papist” was never a compliment. I once asked my Protestant-raised wife, “What did Protestantism mean to you when you were growing?” “It meant,” she said, “that we were not Catholics.”

Catholics, of course, had their own deeply felt anti-Protestant bias, partly rooted in bitterness at the anti-Catholic prejudice that was so openly expressed by Protestants. Step inside any Catholic Church in the Fifties and one found a rack in the entrance hall full of booklets on various topics, from basic elements of Catholic religious practice to what Catholics ought never to do. At least one booklet would explain why the sin-avoiding Catholic should never attend services in a Protestant church, even if the occasion was the marriage or funeral of a dear friend.

Things began to change rapidly on both sides of the Protestant-Catholic border following John XXIII’s election as pope in 1958. John was a different sort of pontiff, exuding warmth, affection and respect for others no matter what their religious identity might be. He saw ecumenical dialogue as a significant contribution to a more peaceful world. One of his actions was the establishment in the Vatican of a Secretariat for Christian Unity. When the Second Vatican Council began its work in Rome in 1962, one of its many astonishing aspects was the presence of Protestant and Orthodox observers.

The new climate was felt at Thomas Merton’s monastery in Kentucky well before the Council began. In 1960, via Cardinal Domenico Tardini, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Pope John XXIII had send word to the abbey of support for the “special retreats with Protestants which Father Louis [Thomas Merton’s monastic name] was organizing at Our Lady of Gethsemani.” Pope John’s approval was amplified by a special gift for Merton: a richly embroidered priestly stole that had he himself had worn.

Would that I might have been the proverbial fly on the wall at those early Protestant-Catholic encounters at the Trappist monastery in Kentucky. These would have been exciting conversations! Merton was the sort of person able to create a space in which formality would not get the upper hand. Many ideas the abbey’s guests might have brought with them about the Catholic Church must have been dropped into the wastebasket within the first half hour.

This would have been due in part to Merton’s candor and good humor and the fact that he was not a PR man. He would not have wall-papered over the Catholic Church’s past sins or all that still remained in need of reform. Neither was he out to prove that Protestants were wrong and Catholics were right. He was at least as much a listener as a speaker and had developed a great gift for seeing what was of value in the tradition of the other and for finding common ground. He was, of course, well aware of doctrinal differences and was not dismissive of their significance. Was the bread and wine used for communion nothing more than bread and wine, or was Christ mysteriously present in these elements? Was the interpretation of biblical texts a work of the Church as a whole or something anyone could do? Was the Bible a work of the Church or the Church a work of the Bible? Had Protestantism, in its reaction to corruption in the Catholic Church, overreacted, and as a consequence thrown the baby out with the bath water?

These and many other questions were not unimportant, but without mutual affection and respect, without mutual sympathy, what headway could be made in resolving them? For such a dialogue, no one could have been a better delegate of the monks at Gethsemani and the Church they belonged to than Thomas Merton.

Not many years earlier Merton’s participation in such exchanges would have been hard to imagine. A significant conversion had occurred within him. No one who has read his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, written in his early thirties and published in 1948, would think of calling it an ecumenical book. It is a great book, one of the most engaging autobiographies ever written, but a book with significant weaknesses. On the plus side, it’s a hymn of grateful praise to the Catholic Church, which Merton rejoiced in finding as someone in danger of drowning at sea would rejoice to find a raft. It’s a book that can be compared to a love letter in which the object of one’s love is the most attractive, the most pleasing, the most virtuous person — not like all those others! The occasional digs at Protestantism, though accurately reflecting Merton’s own experiences, later came to embarrass him and occasionally made him deny, as he no doubt did with some of the abbey’s Protestant guests, that he even knew the author of The Seven Storey Mountain.

The original use of what eventually became Merton’s hermitage was to be a place for dialogue, especially for conversations with Protestants. There had already been a few such encounters at the monastery, but the abbot, Dom James Fox, and Merton could both see the benefits of a special building, however modest, to house such encounters, and there was the added benefit, as obvious to Dom James as it was to Merton, that the building might in time become the hermitage Merton had long been seeking, and in the meantime a place where it would be possible for Merton to write and even stay overnight on occasion. Sometimes called the Mount Olivet Retreat House, sometimes the Mount Olivet Hermitage, plans were made to erect a square cinder-block building with a broad porch tended to be. It simple structure, lacking both electricity and plumbing, was built in 1960 an stood about a mile from the main abbey buildings.

I look forward to doing more research on Merton’s dialogues with Protestants. No doubt it still goes on at the Abbey of Gethsemani, at least in the form of hospitality to Protestant visitors. After all, it is no longer only Catholics who go to monasteries for retreats. Times have changed. The Berlin Wall that once isolated Catholics and Protestants from each other is largely in a state of ruin.

Now let me shift gears and consider Merton’s contribution to ending the Great Schism of 1054. This is something that concerns us all, whatever church we belong to or even if we currently feel no connection with any church. The break in communion between Greek- and Latin-speaking Christians that occurred nearly a thousand years ago had devastating consequences that are still with us. While it was not the first rupture within Christianity, it was by far the most significant and the most enduring. It was the beginning of a millennium-long period of Christian abandonment of Jesus’ prayer that “they may all be one, Father, even as you and I are one.” How many of us take much interest in that prayer or feel challenged by it? Do we not tend to be deeply attached to our differences and more than willing to see them continue? On the occasions when we speak of unity, in fact don’t we tend to mean vague, ghost-like alliances?

Meanwhile Christian divisions continue to multiply. How many churches are there in this Year of Our Lord 2009? No one knows. The number enlarges day by day.

Among those who cared, and cared passionately, about Jesus’ prayer for unity was Thomas Merton.

The seed was planted early, when he was eighteen years old and made a journey to Rome. It wasn’t very long after his father’s death and Merton was still deeply in the shadow of that sad event, which had pulverized what little religious belief he had absorbed in his youth. His initial response to the Eternal City wasn’t enthusiastic. He found much of Rome’s monumentality boring if not irritating. The Rome of the Caesars, he decided, “must have been one of the most revolting and ugly and depressing cities the world has ever seen.” Nor was he impressed with the ecclesiastical monuments of the Renaissance and Counter-Reformation that he had visited as a dutiful tourist reading his Baedeker guidebook.

But after about a week his visit took a turn. He began to visit Rome’s most ancient churches. One of the first he found was the Church of Saints Cosmas and Damian, named after physician brothers who had refused to take any reward for their healing services and eventually died as martyrs. The sixth century Byzantine mosaic over the altar stopped Merton in his tracks. It’s the one mosaic in Rome he pauses to describe in The Seven Storey Mountain — “Christ coming in judgement against a dark blue sky with a suggestion of fire in the clouds beneath his feet.” Peter and Paul stand to the right and left of Christ, the two martyred brothers at their sides.

The impact of the mosaic on Merton was immense. “What a thing it was,” he wrote, “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 it had to say. And it was without pretentiousness, without fakery, and had nothing theatrical about it. Its solemnity was made all the more astounding by its simplicity — and by the obscurity of the places where it lay hid, 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.”

Merton kept searching and found himself fascinated by the many similar Byzantine mosaics that had survived in other churches. “I began to haunt the churches where they were to be found,” he writes. “and all the other churches that were more or less of the same period. … Without knowing anything about it, I became a pilgrim.”

For anyone with a similar capacity to respond to such iconography, Rome is a pilgrim’s paradise. From the catacombs to all the churches that survive from Christianity’s first millennium, no city has a more complete record of the art that was once an aspect of Christian unity.

If Merton’s reason for seeking out such churches was at first perceived by him as more aesthetic than religious, still the religious aspect could not be ignored. The images that so arrested Merton were windows through which he experienced Christ’s gaze. One of its consequences was that Merton, for the first time in his life, bought a Bible. The next giant step was entering one of Rome oldest churches, Santa Sabina, and getting down on his knees to pray.

In the midst of the description of his search for the iconographic art to be found in Rome’s oldest churches comes one of the most electrifying passages in The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton’s attempt to describe first awareness of Christ as the person who would give his life its meaning and center:

And now for the first time in my life I began to find out something of who this Person was that men call Christ. It was obscure, but it was a true knowledge of Him, in some sense truer than I knew 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 God and 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 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 Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome and all the Fathers — and the Desert Fathers. It is Christ God, Christ King.

Again and again in his later life, Merton sought to express what it was about icons that continued to touch him so profoundly. In 1958, he wrote a small book, Art and Worship, intended to help the reader better understand and appreciate this earlier form of Christian art, often regarded dismissively as naive and primitive. As far as I know, Art and Worship is the only book Merton prepared for publication wrote that has yet to be published.

One of the rare items in my Merton library is a set of the page proofs of that book — the project had gotten that far into production before the publisher, Farrar Straus, had second thoughts about issuing it and pulled the plug. The page proofs include the imprimatur of the archbishop of Louisville. Apparently the publisher’s worry was that such a backward-looking book would damage Merton’s reputation.

In the last section of Art and Worship, Merton makes the comment that, while the Renaissance “was an age of great art,” with a flowering of talent, “Christian art tended to a great extent to lose the highly sacred character it had possessed in earlier centuries.” He goes on to note that, while the more ancient tradition of sacred art did not equal the work of the Renaissance in representing the human form, the work of Renaissance artists failed to equal Byzantine iconography in conveying the sacred. The earlier masters, he said, were better able “to convey something of the sacred awe and reverence, the sense of holiness and of worship, which fill the soul of the believer in the presence of God or … the angels and the saints.”

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

Merton was never weaned from his love of this art form. Occasionally he returned to the topic of icons in letters. Only months before his death, he corresponded about icons with a Quaker friend, June Yungblut, in Atlanta. He confessed to her that books such as her husband was then writing, which presented Jesus as one of history’s many prophetic figures, left him cold. He was, he told her, “hung up in a very traditional Christology.” He had no interest, he wrote, in a Christ who was merely a great teacher who possessed “a little flash of the light.” His Christ, he declared, was “the Christ of the Byzantine icons.”

I don’t have a copy of June ‘s reply, but I can guess, based on Merton’s response to it, that she was put off by the phrase “the Christ of the Byzantine icons.” In our culture, the word “Byzantine” is rarely if ever used in a complimentary sense. Doesn’t “Byzantine” signify the worst both in Christianity and culture? And as for icons, weren’t they of about as much artistic significance as pictures on cereal boxes?

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

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

Even among Orthodox writers, one rarely finds a more insightful yet so succinct a presentation of the theology of icons.

What Merton had learned about icons was enriched by the gift from his Greek friend, Marco Pallis, of a hand-painted icon made by a monk on Mount Athos. It had arrived in the late summer of 1965, just as Merton was beginning his hard apprenticeship as a hermit living. Pallis’ gift was one of the most commonly painted of all icons, an image of the Mother of God and the Christ Child. For Merton this gift was a kiss from God. He wrote to Pallis in response:

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

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

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

Now one might ask what Merton’s appreciation of icons and Byzantine Christian art has to do with Christian unity? The answer is that, for many people, unity may more easily begin with the eyes and heart than with the mind. As we see in Merton’s case, the later development of his Christian life and his understanding of authentic Christianity began, not by academic research or attending lectures or hearing sermons, but with a wordless experience of Christ that was mediated by icons.

One things leads to another. In time Merton’s love of icons helped open the way for his growing interest in the Church that produced such compelling Christian imagery. I sometimes wonder if we ever would have heard of Merton had it not been for the that stay in Rome when he was eighteen and the mosaics he sought out? Would he have become a Christian, Catholic or otherwise? Would he have become a monk who wrote books?

It seems not unlikely that the earlier shaping of his faith by iconography was a factor in his later attraction to the writings of the great theologians of the Church’s first millennium, the Church Fathers, which in turn eventually opened the way for his close reading of a number of twentieth century Orthodox theologians, such writers as Paul Evdokimov, Olivier Clément, Alexander Schmemann and Vladimir Lossky. While in the hermitage’s small chapel there were eventually seven icons that had made their way to Merton, in his hermitage library, there were such titles as Early Fathers from the Philokalia, Writings from the Philokalia on the Prayer of the Heart, Treasury of Russian Spirituality, and Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers. In the last book there is a slip of paper on which Merton had copies the Jesus Prayer in Slavonic along with a phonetic interlinear transliteration.

The Philokalia, which I would guess not many people in this room have read or even heard of, was important to Merton. It is a substantial anthology of Orthodox writings that mainly has to do with the Jesus Prayer, or the Prayer of the Heart. In fact, on the back of the icons he had with him on his final journey, Merton had written in Greek a short passage he had discovered in the Philokalia:

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

Merton’s attentive reading from Orthodox sources went on for years. In one of the books published late in his life, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, there is an important passage on this theme that was based on a journal entry Merton had made on April 28, 1957, not long before he began writing Art and Worship. Here it is that passage in its finished form:

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

Merton’s search for unity, his attempt to live within himself the unity he sought for the Church as a whole, should be regarded, not as something controversial, but as a normal Christian discipline. Christianity’s east-west division is a thousand-year-old scandal. It a living refutation of the words St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians. We who wish to follow Christ, he said, are called “to maintain unity of spirit in the bond of peace.” (Eph 4:3)

Merton spent the last decade of his life seeking to maintain unity of spirit in the bond of peace — and seeking it not simply within himself, but also as a shared unity of spirit in pilgrimage with others.

Merton rejoiced in reading the sayings and stories of Desert Fathers, the monks of the early Church who were pioneers of the monastic life. For Merton these original monks living in the wastelands of Egypt and Palestine were not only a personal inspiration, as well as a challenge to modern monasticism, but a challenge to all followers of Christ. One of the stories he translated and included in The Wisdom of the Desert gives witness to how difficult it ought to be for the followers of Christ to contend with each other:

There were two old men who dwelt together for many years and who never quarreled. Then one said to the other: “Let us pick a quarrel with each other like other men do. “I do not know how quarrels arise,” answered his companion. So the other said to him: “Look, I will put a brick down here between us and I will say “This is mine.” Then you can say “No it is not, it is mine.” Then we will be able to have a quarrel.” So they placed the brick between them and the first one said: “This is mine.” His companion answered him: “This is not so, for it is mine.” To this, the first one said: “If it is so and the brick is yours, then take it and go your way.” And so they were not able to have a quarrel.

Merton’s search for the recovery of the undivided Church was not to an escape from tradition but to a means to purify traditions which have over time been distorted or calcified or become meaningless. As Merton put it in a text entitled “Monastic Spirituality and the Early Fathers, from the Apostolic Fathers to Evagrius Ponticus”:

If for some reason it were necessary for you to drink a pint of water taken out of the Mississippi River and you could choose where it was to be drawn out of the river — would you take a pint from the source of the river in Minnesota or from the estuary in New Orleans? The example is perhaps not perfect. Christian tradition and spirituality does not [necessarily] become polluted with development. That is not the idea at all. Nevertheless, tradition and spirituality are all the more pure and genuine in proportion as they are in contact with the original source and retain the same content. [Thomas Merton: Cassian and the Fathers: Introduction to the Monastic Tradition, Cistercian Publications, 2005, p 5]

Certainly the Christians of the early centuries, standing as they did the Minnesota rather than New Orleans end of the river, provide an example of the basic of Christian life for us — a simpler, poorer, less institutional Christian witness. Their example of hospitality, voluntary poverty, repentance and forgiveness is relevant to each of us, whatever our vocation and no matter how far from the desert we live, even if we live in New Orleans — or Vancouver.

It was in his exploration of the living traditions of the Eastern Church, which to this day is notably less structured and more decentralized, that Merton came upon the Jesus Prayer and began to practice it himself. Would that he had written more about this aspect of his own spiritual practice, but there are things even Merton didn’t put on paper. However one gets a glimpse of his own use of the Jesus Prayer in a 1959 letter to a correspondent in England, John Harris:

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

It is not that Merton is lacked appreciation for aids to prayer and contemplation that have been so much a part of Catholic Christianity. In the same letter to John Harris, he goes on to recommend the rosary and other forms of devotion to the Mother of God:

I like the rosary, too. Because, though I am not very articulate about her, I am pretty much wound up in Our Lady, and have some Russian ideas about her too: that she is the most perfect expression of the mystery of the Wisdom of God … [and] in some way … is the Wisdom of God. (See the eighth chapter of Proverbs, for instance, the part about ‘playing before [the Creator] at all times, playing in the world.’) I find a lot of this “Sophianism” in Pasternak … (The Hidden Ground of Love, p 392)

Clearly neither Merton nor any of us lives in the undivided Church, certainly not in any visible sense. The shores between East and West in Christianity still remain fair apart and in some ways the distances widen, though recent popes have done much good work in building bridges, and there have been bridge-builders on the Eastern side as well, including the current Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew.

Nonetheless Merton helps us see that each of us can participate mystically in a spiritual life that brings us closer to the undivided Church. After all, the Christ’s Body is one Body. We can help to heal the divisions in the Church by holding together in our own life those things which are best and by letting the saints of the early Church become our mentors, as they were Merton’s. And perhaps icons can be a help to us, as they were to Merton. Though it happened slowly, Merton played a role in opening my eyes to icons. I find them a great help to prayer and a deeper faith.

Merton shows us that this journey toward the recovery of Christian unity is not easy, yet we also see that the efforts of even one monk, done with persistence, have made a difference. Perhaps we might try to follow his example.

* * *
text as of 25 February 2009
* * *

Draft of a talk to be given 7 and 15 March 2009 at conferences in Vancouver and Victoria of the Thomas Merton Society of Canada:

Thomas Merton: Peacemaker in a Divided Christendom

by Jim Forest

One of the important contributions Merton made in his lifetime was taking an active role in dialogue with non-Catholic Christians, both Protestant and Orthodox. In our own day this kind of dialogue has become so uncontroversial as hardly to be worth mentioning. It is startling to recall how much mistrust and misunderstanding, even enmity, stood in the way of dialogue just fifty years ago, especially between Protestants and Catholics. Dialogue with Orthodox Christians was less a problem if only because so many people in the West, both Protestant and Catholic, had only the blurriest awareness that the Orthodox Church existed and what it was all about. For them, the Orthodox Church — Eastern Christianity — was truly Terra Incognita.

America’s culture was largely shaped by Protestantism. When immigrants from traditionally Catholic countries began to arrive in great numbers, they found the welcome mat was not out. Even in the mid-20th century, a great many Protestants still tended to regard the Catholic Church, if not necessarily as the Whore of Babylon led by the Anti-Christ, at least as a form of Christianity that in fact wasn’t really Christian. The Catholic Church was a Church of practicing idolaters who sold entrance passes to heaven to whomever could purchase an indulgence. In 1960, when I was in the US Navy and stationed in Washington, DC, I recall being told in all seriousness by the Episcopal family with whom I was then living that there were tunnels connecting Catholic rectories and convents and that the aborted bodies of priest-fathered infants could be found in buried in many a convent basement. That same year, with John Kennedy running for the presidency, Episcopal Bishop James Pike published his views on why a Roman Catholic had no place in the White House. Many who voted against Kennedy were voting to protect the nation from papal influence. The propaganda of the Reformation still flourished. The word “papist” was never a compliment. I once asked my Protestant-raised wife, “What did Protestantism mean to you when you were growing?” “It meant,” she said, “that we were not Catholics.”

Catholics, of course, had their own deeply felt anti-Protestant bias, partly rooted in bitterness at the anti-Catholic prejudice that was so openly expressed by Protestants. Step inside any Catholic Church in the Fifties and one found a rack in the entrance hall full of booklets on various topics, from basic elements of Catholic religious practice to what Catholics ought never to do. At least one booklet would explain why the sin-avoiding Catholic should never attend services in a Protestant church, even if the occasion was the marriage or funeral of a dear friend.

Things began to change rapidly on both sides of the Protestant-Catholic border following John XXIII’s election as pope in 1958. John was a different sort of pontiff, exuding warmth, affection and respect for others no matter what their religious identity might be. He saw ecumenical dialogue as a significant contribution to a more peaceful world. One of his actions was the establishment in the Vatican of a Secretariat for Christian Unity. When the Second Vatican Council began its work in Rome in 1962, one of its many astonishing aspects was the presence of Protestant and Orthodox observers.

The new climate was felt at Thomas Merton’s monastery in Kentucky well before the Council began. In 1960, via Cardinal Domenico Tardini, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Pope John XXIII had send word to the abbey of support for the “special retreats with Protestants which Father Louis [Thomas Merton’s monastic name] was organizing at Our Lady of Gethsemani.” Pope John’s approval was amplified by a special gift for Merton: a richly embroidered priestly stole that had he himself had worn.

Would that I might have been the proverbial fly on the wall at those early Protestant-Catholic encounters at the Trappist monastery in Kentucky. These would have been exciting conversations! Merton was the sort of person able to create a space in which formality would not get the upper hand. Many ideas the abbey’s guests might have brought with them about the Catholic Church must have been dropped into the wastebasket within the first half hour.

This would have been due in part to Merton’s candor and good humor and the fact that he was not a PR man. He would not have wall-papered over the Catholic Church’s past sins or all that still remained in need of reform. Neither was he out to prove that Protestants were wrong and Catholics were right. He was at least as much a listener as a speaker and had developed a great gift for seeing what was of value in the tradition of the other and for finding common ground. He was, of course, well aware of doctrinal differences and was not dismissive of their significance. Was the bread and wine used for communion nothing more than bread and wine, or was Christ mysteriously present in these elements? Was the interpretation of biblical texts a work of the Church as a whole or something anyone could do? Was the Bible a work of the Church or the Church a work of the Bible? Had Protestantism, in its reaction to corruption in the Catholic Church, overreacted, and as a consequence thrown the baby out with the bath water?

These and many other questions were not unimportant, but without mutual affection and respect, without mutual sympathy, what headway could be made in resolving them? For such a dialogue, no one could have been a better delegate of the monks at Gethsemani and the Church they belonged to than Thomas Merton.

Not many years earlier Merton’s participation in such exchanges would have been hard to imagine. A significant conversion had occurred within him. No one who has read his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, written in his early thirties and published in 1948, would think of calling it an ecumenical book. It is a great book, one of the most engaging autobiographies ever written, but a book with significant weaknesses. On the plus side, it’s a hymn of grateful praise to the Catholic Church, which Merton rejoiced in finding as someone in danger of drowning at sea would rejoice to find a raft. It’s a book that can be compared to a love letter in which the object of one’s love is the most attractive, the most pleasing, the most virtuous person — not like all those others! The occasional digs at Protestantism, though accurately reflecting Merton’s own experiences, later came to embarrass him and occasionally made him deny, as he no doubt did with some of the abbey’s Protestant guests, that he even knew the author of The Seven Storey Mountain.

The original use of what eventually became Merton’s hermitage was to be a place for dialogue, especially for conversations with Protestants. There had already been a few such encounters at the monastery, but the abbot, Dom James Fox, and Merton could both see the benefits of a special building, however modest, to house such encounters, and there was the added benefit, as obvious to Dom James as it was to Merton, that the building might in time become the hermitage Merton had long been seeking, and in the meantime a place where it would be possible for Merton to write and even stay overnight on occasion. Sometimes called the Mount Olivet Retreat House, sometimes the Mount Olivet Hermitage, plans were made to erect a square cinder-block building with a broad porch tended to be. It simple structure, lacking both electricity and plumbing, was built in 1960 an stood about a mile from the main abbey buildings.

I look forward to doing more research on Merton’s dialogues with Protestants. No doubt it still goes on at the Abbey of Gethsemani, at least in the form of hospitality to Protestant visitors. After all, it is no longer only Catholics who go to monasteries for retreats. Times have changed. The Berlin Wall that once isolated Catholics and Protestants from each other is largely in a state of ruin.

Now let me shift gears and consider Merton’s contribution to ending the Great Schism of 1054. This is something that concerns us all, whatever church we belong to or even if we currently feel no connection with any church. The break in communion between Greek- and Latin-speaking Christians that occurred nearly a thousand years ago had devastating consequences that are still with us. While it was not the first rupture within Christianity, it was by far the most significant and the most enduring. It was the beginning of a millennium-long period of Christian abandonment of Jesus’ prayer that “they may all be one, Father, even as you and I are one.” How many of us take much interest in that prayer or feel challenged by it? Do we not tend to be deeply attached to our differences and more than willing to see them continue? On the occasions when we speak of unity, in fact don’t we tend to mean vague, ghost-like alliances?

Meanwhile Christian divisions continue to multiply. How many churches are there in this Year of Our Lord 2009? No one knows. The number enlarges day by day.

Among those who cared, and cared passionately, about Jesus’ prayer for unity was Thomas Merton.

The seed was planted early, when he was eighteen years old and made a journey to Rome. It wasn’t very long after his father’s death and Merton was still deeply in the shadow of that sad event, which had pulverized what little religious belief he had absorbed in his youth. His initial response to the Eternal City wasn’t enthusiastic. He found much of Rome’s monumentality boring if not irritating. The Rome of the Caesars, he decided, “must have been one of the most revolting and ugly and depressing cities the world has ever seen.” Nor was he impressed with the ecclesiastical monuments of the Renaissance and Counter-Reformation that he had visited as a dutiful tourist reading his Baedeker guidebook.

But after about a week his visit took a turn. He began to visit Rome’s most ancient churches. One of the first he found was the Church of Saints Cosmas and Damian, named after physician brothers who had refused to take any reward for their healing services and eventually died as martyrs. The sixth century Byzantine mosaic over the altar stopped Merton in his tracks. It’s the one mosaic in Rome he pauses to describe in The Seven Storey Mountain — “Christ coming in judgement against a dark blue sky with a suggestion of fire in the clouds beneath his feet.” Peter and Paul stand to the right and left of Christ, the two martyred brothers at their sides.

The impact of the mosaic on Merton was immense. “What a thing it was,” he wrote, “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 it had to say. And it was without pretentiousness, without fakery, and had nothing theatrical about it. Its solemnity was made all the more astounding by its simplicity — and by the obscurity of the places where it lay hid, 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.”

Merton kept searching and found himself fascinated by the many similar Byzantine mosaics that had survived in other churches. “I began to haunt the churches where they were to be found,” he writes. “and all the other churches that were more or less of the same period. … Without knowing anything about it, I became a pilgrim.”

For anyone with a similar capacity to respond to such iconography, Rome is a pilgrim’s paradise. From the catacombs to all the churches that survive from Christianity’s first millennium, no city has a more complete record of the art that was once an aspect of Christian unity.

If Merton’s reason for seeking out such churches was at first perceived by him as more aesthetic than religious, still the religious aspect could not be ignored. The images that so arrested Merton were windows through which he experienced Christ’s gaze. One of its consequences was that Merton, for the first time in his life, bought a Bible. The next giant step was entering one of Rome oldest churches, Santa Sabina, and getting down on his knees to pray.

In the midst of the description of his search for the iconographic art to be found in Rome’s oldest churches comes one of the most electrifying passages in The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton’s attempt to describe first awareness of Christ as the person who would give his life its meaning and center:

And now for the first time in my life I began to find out something of who this Person was that men call Christ. It was obscure, but it was a true knowledge of Him, in some sense truer than I knew 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 God and 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 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 Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome and all the Fathers — and the Desert Fathers. It is Christ God, Christ King.

Again and again in his later life, Merton sought to express what it was about icons that continued to touch him so profoundly. In 1958, he wrote a small book, Art and Worship, intended to help the reader better understand and appreciate this earlier form of Christian art, often regarded dismissively as naive and primitive. As far as I know, Art and Worship is the only book Merton prepared for publication wrote that has yet to be published.

One of the rare items in my Merton library is a set of the page proofs of that book — the project had gotten that far into production before the publisher, Farrar Straus, had second thoughts about issuing it and pulled the plug. The page proofs include the imprimatur of the archbishop of Louisville. Apparently the publisher’s worry was that such a backward-looking book would damage Merton’s reputation.

In the last section of Art and Worship, Merton makes the comment that, while the Renaissance “was an age of great art,” with a flowering of talent, “Christian art tended to a great extent to lose the highly sacred character it had possessed in earlier centuries.” He goes on to note that, while the more ancient tradition of sacred art did not equal the work of the Renaissance in representing the human form, the work of Renaissance artists failed to equal Byzantine iconography in conveying the sacred. The earlier masters, he said, were better able “to convey something of the sacred awe and reverence, the sense of holiness and of worship, which fill the soul of the believer in the presence of God or … the angels and the saints.”

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

Merton was never weaned from his love of this art form. Occasionally he returned to the topic of icons in letters. Only months before his death, he corresponded about icons with a Quaker friend, June Yungblut, in Atlanta. He confessed to her that books such as her husband was then writing, which presented Jesus as one of history’s many prophetic figures, left him cold. He was, he told her, “hung up in a very traditional Christology.” He had no interest, he wrote, in a Christ who was merely a great teacher who possessed “a little flash of the light.” His Christ, he declared, was “the Christ of the Byzantine icons.”

I don’t have a copy of June ‘s reply, but I can guess, based on Merton’s response to it, that she was put off by the phrase “the Christ of the Byzantine icons.” In our culture, the word “Byzantine” is rarely if ever used in a complimentary sense. Doesn’t “Byzantine” signify the worst both in Christianity and culture? And as for icons, weren’t they of about as much artistic significance as pictures on cereal boxes?

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

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

Even among Orthodox writers, one rarely finds a more insightful yet so succinct a presentation of the theology of icons.

What Merton had learned about icons was enriched by the gift from his Greek friend, Marco Pallis, of a hand-painted icon made by a monk on Mount Athos. It had arrived in the late summer of 1965, just as Merton was beginning his hard apprenticeship as a hermit living. Pallis’ gift was one of the most commonly painted of all icons, an image of the Mother of God and the Christ Child. For Merton this gift was a kiss from God. He wrote to Pallis in response:

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

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

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

Now one might ask what Merton’s appreciation of icons and Byzantine Christian art has to do with Christian unity? The answer is that, for many people, unity may more easily begin with the eyes and heart than with the mind. As we see in Merton’s case, the later development of his Christian life and his understanding of authentic Christianity began, not by academic research or attending lectures or hearing sermons, but with a wordless experience of Christ that was mediated by icons.

One things leads to another. In time Merton’s love of icons helped open the way for his growing interest in the Church that produced such compelling Christian imagery. I sometimes wonder if we ever would have heard of Merton had it not been for the that stay in Rome when he was eighteen and the mosaics he sought out? Would he have become a Christian, Catholic or otherwise? Would he have become a monk who wrote books?

It seems not unlikely that the earlier shaping of his faith by iconography was a factor in his later attraction to the writings of the great theologians of the Church’s first millennium, the Church Fathers, which in turn eventually opened the way for his close reading of a number of twentieth century Orthodox theologians, such writers as Paul Evdokimov, Olivier Clément, Alexander Schmemann and Vladimir Lossky. While in the hermitage’s small chapel there were eventually seven icons that had made their way to Merton, in his hermitage library, there were such titles as Early Fathers from the Philokalia, Writings from the Philokalia on the Prayer of the Heart, Treasury of Russian Spirituality, and Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers. In the last book there is a slip of paper on which Merton had copies the Jesus Prayer in Slavonic along with a phonetic interlinear transliteration.

The Philokalia, which I would guess not many people in this room have read or even heard of, was important to Merton. It is a substantial anthology of Orthodox writings that mainly has to do with the Jesus Prayer, or the Prayer of the Heart. In fact, on the back of the icons he had with him on his final journey, Merton had written in Greek a short passage he had discovered in the Philokalia:

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

Merton’s attentive reading from Orthodox sources went on for years. In one of the books published late in his life, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, there is an important passage on this theme that was based on a journal entry Merton had made on April 28, 1957, not long before he began writing Art and Worship. Here it is that passage in its finished form:

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

Merton’s search for unity, his attempt to live within himself the unity he sought for the Church as a whole, should be regarded, not as something controversial, but as a normal Christian discipline. Christianity’s east-west division is a thousand-year-old scandal. It a living refutation of the words St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians. We who wish to follow Christ, he said, are called “to maintain unity of spirit in the bond of peace.” (Eph 4:3)

Merton spent the last decade of his life seeking to maintain unity of spirit in the bond of peace — and seeking it not simply within himself, but also as a shared unity of spirit in pilgrimage with others.

Merton rejoiced in reading the sayings and stories of Desert Fathers, the monks of the early Church who were pioneers of the monastic life. For Merton these original monks living in the wastelands of Egypt and Palestine were not only a personal inspiration, as well as a challenge to modern monasticism, but a challenge to all followers of Christ. One of the stories he translated and included in The Wisdom of the Desert gives witness to how difficult it ought to be for the followers of Christ to contend with each other:

There were two old men who dwelt together for many years and who never quarreled. Then one said to the other: “Let us pick a quarrel with each other like other men do. “I do not know how quarrels arise,” answered his companion. So the other said to him: “Look, I will put a brick down here between us and I will say “This is mine.” Then you can say “No it is not, it is mine.” Then we will be able to have a quarrel.” So they placed the brick between them and the first one said: “This is mine.” His companion answered him: “This is not so, for it is mine.” To this, the first one said: “If it is so and the brick is yours, then take it and go your way.” And so they were not able to have a quarrel.

Merton’s search for the recovery of the undivided Church was not to an escape from tradition but to a means to purify traditions which have over time been distorted or calcified or become meaningless. As Merton put it in a text entitled “Monastic Spirituality and the Early Fathers, from the Apostolic Fathers to Evagrius Ponticus”:

If for some reason it were necessary for you to drink a pint of water taken out of the Mississippi River and you could choose where it was to be drawn out of the river — would you take a pint from the source of the river in Minnesota or from the estuary in New Orleans? The example is perhaps not perfect. Christian tradition and spirituality does not [necessarily] become polluted with development. That is not the idea at all. Nevertheless, tradition and spirituality are all the more pure and genuine in proportion as they are in contact with the original source and retain the same content. [Thomas Merton: Cassian and the Fathers: Introduction to the Monastic Tradition, Cistercian Publications, 2005, p 5]

Certainly the Christians of the early centuries, standing as they did the Minnesota rather than New Orleans end of the river, provide an example of the basic of Christian life for us — a simpler, poorer, less institutional Christian witness. Their example of hospitality, voluntary poverty, repentance and forgiveness is relevant to each of us, whatever our vocation and no matter how far from the desert we live, even if we live in New Orleans — or Vancouver.

It was in his exploration of the living traditions of the Eastern Church, which to this day is notably less structured and more decentralized, that Merton came upon the Jesus Prayer and began to practice it himself. Would that he had written more about this aspect of his own spiritual practice, but there are things even Merton didn’t put on paper. However one gets a glimpse of his own use of the Jesus Prayer in a 1959 letter to a correspondent in England, John Harris:

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

It is not that Merton is lacked appreciation for aids to prayer and contemplation that have been so much a part of Catholic Christianity. In the same letter to John Harris, he goes on to recommend the rosary and other forms of devotion to the Mother of God:

I like the rosary, too. Because, though I am not very articulate about her, I am pretty much wound up in Our Lady, and have some Russian ideas about her too: that she is the most perfect expression of the mystery of the Wisdom of God … [and] in some way … is the Wisdom of God. (See the eighth chapter of Proverbs, for instance, the part about ‘playing before [the Creator] at all times, playing in the world.’) I find a lot of this “Sophianism” in Pasternak … (The Hidden Ground of Love, p 392)

Clearly neither Merton nor any of us lives in the undivided Church, certainly not in any visible sense. The shores between East and West in Christianity still remain fair apart and in some ways the distances widen, though recent popes have done much good work in building bridges, and there have been bridge-builders on the Eastern side as well, including the current Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew.

Nonetheless Merton helps us see that each of us can participate mystically in a spiritual life that brings us closer to the undivided Church. After all, the Christ’s Body is one Body. We can help to heal the divisions in the Church by holding together in our own life those things which are best and by letting the saints of the early Church become our mentors, as they were Merton’s. And perhaps icons can be a help to us, as they were to Merton. Though it happened slowly, Merton played a role in opening my eyes to icons. I find them a great help to prayer and a deeper faith.

Merton shows us that this journey toward the recovery of Christian unity is not easy, yet we also see that the efforts of even one monk, done with persistence, have made a difference. Perhaps we might try to follow his example.

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text as of 25 February 2009
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The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life

Lecture given by Jim Forest at Maryknoll 28 March 2007; the talk is mainly composed of passages from a forthcoming book of the same title

For a child growing up in America, the word “pilgrim” had no religious connotations. Mainly heard in the plural, “Pilgrims” referred to a community of storm-defying, black-clad English Puritans who crossed the Atlantic on the Mayflower, founding the village of Plymouth on the edge of Massachusetts Bay in December 1620. It wasn’t the destination the Pilgrims intended — their goal had been in Virginia — but rather where a furious winter storm delivered them. Pilgrims that they were, they accepted this as God’s will. The following Fall, the Pilgrims, with the local Indians who had helped them survive, organized a feast to celebrate a successful harvest. It was the origin of America’s favorite annual holiday. Thanksgiving was a feast that turned “pilgrim” into a word a child could inhale, two syllables that smelled of stuffed turkey, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, creamed onions and pumpkin pie.

It was in eighth grade that I discovered that, long before the Mayflower set sail, there was another sort of pilgrim. This news came from the World Book Encyclopedia, a handsomely-bound set of books a meter wide that some generous soul had donated to the school and which providentially had landed in my classroom. It seemed to me a gift that had fallen out of heaven. I read my way through it, beginning with the first volume on the left: Aardvark to Bermuda. In the second volume I discovered an illustration from an early copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: a medieval picture of a group of colorfully dressed men and women making their way on horseback from London to Canterbury Cathedral under a lapis lazuli sky. Inside the cathedral, the text explained, Archbishop Thomas Becket had been murdered by knights of King Henry II on December 29, 1170, the churchman’s skull split by a sword. In the same instant, Thomas Becket was made a holy martyr and blood-stained Canterbury turned into a magnet for anyone drawn to pilgrimage. It also was the beginning of an enduring delight in the writings of Chaucer, the 14th Century English poet whose unhurried pilgrims traded tales, creating a pathway of stories linking London to Canterbury.

Pilgrimage: almost the same as pilgrim, yet the added syllable created another word to ponder. It made my thoughts leap across the Atlantic to the Old World in medieval days. The idea of riding on a horse while sharing tales with fellow travelers made pilgrimage seem an appealing adventure. While I knew very little about bishops and kings and still less about King Henry’s motives in wanting an archbishop’s life cut short by the sword, it wasn’t necessary for anyone to explain to a thirteen-year-old boy why the blood-stained floor of a church might become a spot toward which people would be powerfully drawn.

My first full-scale pilgrimage book was Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain’s tale of a runaway boy and escaped slave traveling at night by raft down the Mississippi River. There were no holy martyr’s bones pulling them forward, just the river’s insistent flow, but these two travelers were on a kind of pilgrimage: a search for freedom. Floating on the nighttime currents of the Mississippi River, staring upward at diamond-bright stars, struck me as a much better way to begin a dialogue with the universe than in a classroom. Not that Mark Twain called their quest a pilgrimage. His book made no reference to Huck and Jim being on any sort of religious pursuit. Yet I sensed their journey, for all it hazards and despite the absence of shrines or relics, offered these two travelers occasional glimpses of heaven.

If I had been in school half a century earlier, John Bunyan’s book, The Pilgrim’s Progress, would surely have been assigned reading. In the English-speaking world, from the late seventeenth century until well into the twentieth, it was a book nearly as popular as the Bible. Indeed many homes had those two books and no others. But by the nineteen-fifties, I wonder if there was a single copy of Bunyan’s book in our school library? If there was, I never spotted it.

It wasn’t until I was taking a survey course in English Literature at Hunter College in Manhattan that I read John Bunyan’s book. The central figure, Christian, is an everyman character trying to find his way from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. It is no easy journey. The obstacles are many. He is directed to find the Wicket Gate, representing the entrance to the “narrow way” that Christ speaks of in the Gospel, but is led astray by Mr. Worldly Wiseman as well as Mr. Legality and his son Civility, inhabitants of the village of Morality. Yet at last Christian finds the Wicket Gate where he is granted a vision of Jesus himself.

Bunyan’s book helped me understand that the word “pilgrim” could be used in a metaphorical sense: every life without exception a non-stop pilgrimage from the womb to the grave, a successful pilgrimage if one made it to heaven, a tragic failure if one fell into hell.

I came to Hunter College as a part-time student in the fall of 1961, having a few months earlier been given an early discharge from the Navy on grounds of conscientious objection. At the time I was part of the Catholic Worker community on Chrystie Street in lower Manhattan, a place that gave yet another meaning to the word “pilgrimage.”

The founder of the community and its dominating presence was Dorothy Day. Her column in the monthly newspaper we published, The Catholic Worker, was called “On Pilgrimage.” This was an on-going diary — news of Dorothy’s travels but also accounts of visitors, books she was reading, talks she had attended, perhaps even the opera she had heard by radio the previous Sunday afternoon. Dorothy gave the word “pilgrimage” a meaning that was immediate rather than medieval. It was along John Bunyan lines: every day of one’s life and all that happened along the way, planned or unexpected, were segments of a heavenward pilgrimage so long as the guiding principle was to live the Gospel and to discover Christ in those whom one encountered. Pilgrimage for Dorothy was a way of life, a mode of listening, an attitude that motivated choices, a discipline of being.

I began to regard my own life in terms of pilgrimage.

One memorable experiment in pilgrimage was a late summer bicycle ride from lower Manhattan to St. Joseph’s Abbey, a Trappist monastery near Spencer in western Massachusetts. Traveling with less than $20 in my pocket, I slept in orchards along the way. Luckily the weather was hospitable. So were the monks. To make myself more presentable, I had first gone to a barber shop in the nearby town and gotten my first (and last) professional shave, a major but useful investment. Though I was entirely unexpected and probably the only guest in a long time to reach their monastery by bicycle, I was given use of a bed in the guest house attic, a job helping in the guest house kitchen, and was invited to attend talks being given by one of the monks to retreatants, mainly monsignors who had arrived on four wheels rather than two.

The next major pilgrimage came in the winter, this time hitch-hiking, starting from Spring Street in lower Manhattan with the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky as destination — a thousand miles of petitionary travel in weather that was not only cold but often wet and icy. I remember standing long, dark hours in sleet outside a truck stop in Pennsylvania waiting for a driver to pull over and offer a lift. Many plastic statues of Jesus and Mary sailed by in rain-spattered cars and trucks. Two and a half days later, in the late afternoon, my fellow hitch-hiker, Bob Kaye, and I stood at the monastery gate, exhausted but happy as children on Christmas morning.

This time at least I was expected. The visit had begun with an invitation from one of the monks, the writer Thomas Merton, but our date of arrival was approximate as was the length of our stay. This time I had failed to see a barber first. The abbot, Dom James, quickly passed the word via Merton that if this particular shaggy pilgrim was to stay more than one night, he must have a haircut. This occurred the next morning in a basement room where monastic haircuts were dispensed that put the recipient in a state of near baldness. Though in principal Trappist monks aim for silence and in those days did most of their communicating by sign language, the novices stood around me in a state of continuous laughter as my hair fell to the concrete floor. Merton told me I looked like a young Gandhi. All I needed was a loin cloth and walking stick.

There have been many pilgrimages since then, some on foot, some by bike, others by car and train and even airplane.

The jewel of them all was a three-month stay between Jerusalem and Bethlehem in the spring of 1985. After all, for the Christian, Jerusalem — as the city of Christ’s Resurrection — will always be the center of the world. Bethlehem, the town of his birth, is nearby, less than a day’s walk away. In the course of twenty centuries, millions of Christian have made the Holy Land their goal, with Jerusalem being the most important single place to walk and pray, and Bethlehem a close second.

That spring I was teaching at the Ecumenical Institute, a graduate school with links to Notre Dame University. As we had children to care for, one still in diapers, Nancy and I generally took turns going into Jerusalem or Bethlehem for days of pilgrimage while the other stayed at Tantur taking care of the kids.

It was in the course of one of these frequent visits to Jerusalem, while standing in line to enter the tomb where Christ’s body was laid after his crucifixion and in which he rose from the dead, that Nancy found herself standing behind a couple who weren’t quite sure where they were, while behind her was a group of Greek women in black, each of the holding as many candles as their hands could grasp. The couple in front of her were trying to decide where they were.

“Is this where he was born?” the wife asked. “No,” her husband answered, “that was yesterday — Bethlehem.” They went inside the small tomb, took photos, and left, still unclear where they had been. All the while the Greek women were quietly weeping. When it was their turn, one by one they knelt by the stone stab that for them marked the center of the cosmos, the exact spot where Christ, God incarnate, had risen from death. They lit their candles and then, leaving the tomb, blew them out. Now they had a precious gift for relatives and friends at home: candles which had been burned in the place of the Resurrection.

“Today I stood on the borderline between tourism and pilgrimage,” Nancy told me that evening.

For St. Paul, being a pilgrim was the calling of every Christian. We become strangers and pilgrims the moment we realize we are seeking the Kingdom of God. As he put it in his letter to the Hebrews:

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

It’s a question each of us might ask: What does it means to be a pilgrim? In what ways am I a pilgrim?

Clearly for St. Paul, one didn’t have to be a traveler to be a pilgrim. Pilgrimage is a way of living an ordinary Christian life, no matter where you happen to be. It’s only later on that pilgrimage began to mean traveling a great distance in order to reach one of God’s “thin places,” as the Celts called destinations where ordinary matter seems especially charged with God’s presence.

No matter how short the distances and familiar the route you travel on a given day, you can do it as a pilgrim — and no matter how long the journey or how sacred its destination, it’s possible to be nothing more than a tourist. Whether the journey is within your own back yard or takes you to the other side of the world, the potential is there for the greatest of adventures: a journey not only toward Christ but with him.

One of the primary metaphors of pilgrimage is the road to Emmaus. It’s the setting of a resurrection story told by Luke. We meet the risen Christ traveling unrecognized with two disciples as they make their way to Emmaus, a village described as being seven miles — less than a two-hour walk — from Jerusalem.

The two friends are escaping from a tragedy in Jerusalem and perhaps also running from possible personal danger. It wasn’t at all clear that Jesus’ disciples weren’t next in line for punishment. The two were not only mourners, but disillusioned mourners. Jesus had failed to meet their expectations. The person they fervently believed would become the new king of Israel, heir to David’s throne, not only isn’t ruling Israel but is in his grave. The candle of their messianic hopes has been snuffed out. His closest followers were in hiding. Their homeland was still ruled by Romans, undergirded by a second tier of well-rewarded Jewish collaborators. The kingdom of God that Jesus had said was already present now seemed infinitely distant.

Conversation would not have been easy. Deep grief is rarely a talkative condition. The words they hewed out of silence were confused, bitter, angry. Their beloved teacher was dead and buried. Everything that mattered had turned to dust. The world had no center. Life’s axis had crumbled. Death once again had proven itself life’s defining event. Existence had no meaning, no pattern. People of virtue perish while their persecutors feast. How could one speak of a merciful and all powerful God? Ruthless power, corruption, betrayal and the triumph of the grave — this was Good Friday’s bitter message.

Walking side by side, breathing dust, the two friends are joined by a stranger who appears without a word of description. He doesn’t impress the two men as being somehow familiar. They fail to notice his wounds. Without apology he joins their conversation. He wonders why they are so downcast. They are amazed at the stranger’s ignorance. One of the men, Cleopas, asks the stranger how is it possible that he doesn’t know what has happened in Jerusalem in recent days. Could anyone share in this particular Passover and be unaware of what happened to Jesus of Nazareth? Only a week ago Jesus had entered the city in triumph, joyful crowds putting palms in his path and shouting hosannas. And now the man who should have redeemed Israel had been condemned by the high priests, renounced by the very crowds that had cheered him, and sentenced to public execution under the authority of Rome’s agent, Pontius Pilate. Finally he had been ritually murdered while soldiers threw dice for his clothing. Jesus’ followers had dared to hope for a miracle even when Jesus was taken away to Golgotha — after all, he had raised Lazarus from death — but the man who had been able to bring others back to life proved powerless to save himself. Yes, the two men had heard the wild tale told earlier in the day by a few grief-stricken women — angels, an empty tomb, Jesus alive again — but truly it was an unbelievably tale.

The stranger listened patiently. At last he responded, “O foolish men, so slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Then, starting with Moses and going on to all the prophets, he explained all the scriptural texts concerning the Messiah.

By this time they had reached the outskirts of Emmaus, apparently the place where the two friends planned to end their journey or at least spend the night. The stranger appeared to be going further, but they were so taken with his authoritative explanations of the prophecies of scripture that they appealed to him to join them for a meal in the local inn. “Stay with us,” they said, “for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.”

Even when they sat down to eat, the stranger was still nameless and unrecognized, yet it was he who presided at the table, taking bread, blessing it, breaking it and giving it to them. It’s at this point in Luke’s Gospel that we get one of the most breathtaking sentences in the New Testament: “And their eyes were opened and they recognized him.”(Luke 24:31)

Perhaps they recognized him because, at last, they noticed his wounds as he blessed and broke the bread.

What happened on the road to Emmaus, and finally in Emmaus itself, was the first Christian pilgrimage. Every pilgrimage, whether to a local park or to some distant place at the end of a well-trodden pilgrim road thick with miracles, is in its roots a journey to Emmaus, and every pilgrimage is animated with a similar hope: to meet the risen Christ along the way.

As I said, you don’t have to travel far to walk the road to Emmaus. One of the shortest pilgrim routes is to your own front door.

Over breakfast one morning, Nancy asked me, “What is the most important thing in the house?” I thought first of our icons, then certain treasured books, then works of art that hang on our walls. “That’s not it,” Nancy said. “The most important thing is the front door. The front door is the place where whoever knocks is made welcome or kept distant. The front door is directly connected to the Last Judgment.”

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

But dependence on hospitality doesn’t only apply to pilgrims far from home. Each of us depends on the care of others, especially care that is given freely — care that expresses love. Where would I be in life had it not been for the care of others: parents, teachers, friends, co-workers, clergy, and strangers?

The pilgrim, in the sense of a traveler far from home, is by definition an outsider, a stranger. It is no bad thing to be an outsider. The Greek word is xenos, which is part of the Greek word for hospitality — filoxenia, literally love of the outsider.

Hospitality is not only a duty but a blessing, and a shared blessing at that. One can speak of the sacrament, or mystery (from the Greek word mysterion, the Orthodox term for a sacrament), of hospitality. For those with eyes to see, the guest is an angel in disguise, like those heaven-sent angelic guests who were welcomed by Abraham and Sarah under the oak of Mamre.

There are still societies in which one can experience filoxenia. In such cultures, there is little need for hotels.

In a memoir, Tatiana Goricheva, then a university student living in what was still called Leningrad, recalls going to the village of Pechory adjacent to one of the few monasteries still surviving in the final years of the Soviet Union. She discovered that all she needed to do to find shelter in this community without hotels was to knock on any door and say, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The response from the person answering the door was, “Amen!” She was immediately a well cared for guest. [Tatiana Goricheva, Talking About God is Dangerous (New York: Crossroad, 1987), p 70.]

Not everyone can practice the same degree of hospitality. One has to know one’s limits and to practice discernment. One’s vocation, other obligations and the condition of the family are among the factors that have to be taken into account. Hospitality cannot be forced. Yet what a gift it is has been for our children, in the years they were growing up, to share our table with so many people from so many countries, from Nobel laureates to backpacking kids, from the sensitive and helpful to the socially clueless and energy-consuming.

I recall our daughter Cait being disappointed that we were without a guest that particular evening and asking, “Isn’t there anyone we could invite?”

While the children were still living with us, when there was a guest we would place a world globe on the table so the guest could point out where he or she lived. Our kids learned geography via hospitality. Just as often we would dig up an old issue of National Geographic magazine and ask the guest to tell us about photos taken in his or her homeland.

One can see practically everything that matters in life in terms of hospitality. Marriage is a pilgrimage of hospitality: a man and a woman each making space in their life for the other. It’s an ongoing crash course in self-giving love versus selfishness. Parenthood too is a journey of hospitality. It’s hard to think of a more demanding hospitality than bearing children and then, once they are born, adjusting one’s life to these amazing, unfamiliar guests with their infinity of needs. Perhaps it’s in the crucible of family life that we gradually become more capable of welcoming strangers.

When asked about my education, occasionally I say I am a graduate of “Dorothy Day University,” then correct myself to say I am still attending classes while working on a degree in hospitality. It’s a university which many attend and from which no one ever graduates. Learning hospitality is a lifetime project, an endless pilgrimage.

Despite her death in 1980, Dorothy Day is one of the people who helps my wife ane me open the front door. It’s no wonder so many places of welcome bear her name. She has inspired many to practice hospitality, was herself among the founders of several houses of hospitality, and lived in various houses of hospitality from 1933 until she died. Now she seems to be on her way to being formally recognized as a saint. Her writings continue to influence many people.

Her basic message — borrowed from the Gospel– was stunningly simple: we are called by God to love one another as God loves us.

Again and again Dorothy repeated a simple instruction from the early Church, “Every home should have a Christ room in it, so that hospitality may be practiced.” Hospitality, she explained, is simply practicing God’s mercy 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.

Keep in mind that there is not only hospitality of the door but, even more important, hospitality of the face. Dorothy had a face of welcome.

Dorothy was one of the freest persons alive, yet also one of the most disciplined. This was most notable in her religious life. The sacraments were the bedrock of her existence. Whether traveling or home, it was a rare day when Dorothy didn’t go to Mass, while on Saturday evenings she went to confession. What could she possibly have to confess, I once asked her. “My awful temper,” she replied, “and my impatience.”

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 Catholic Worker 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 summoned for an urgent phone call, I found long lists of people, living and dead, whom she prayed for daily. There was a special list for those who had committed suicide.

Occasionally she spoke of her “prayings”: “We feed the hungry, yes,” she told her friend 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 prayings and what that means, then he’ll miss the whole point.” [Robert Coles, Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1987).]

As tends to be the case with pilgrims, she was attentive to fast days and fast seasons. It was in that connection she told me a story about prayer and fasting. For many years, she said, she had been a heavy smoker. Her day began with lighting up a cigarette. Her main 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 was praying she would light up a smoke. One year, as Lent approached, the priest who ordinarily heard her confessions 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 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 again.

One of the miracles of Dorothy’s life is that she remained part of a conflict-torn community for nearly half a century. Still more remarkable, she remained a person of hope and gratitude to the end. She occasionally spoke of “the duty of hope.” Even in her final years, when hardly able to leave her room, she never ceased being a pilgrim.

Even though many have come to regard her as a saint, Dorothy was and remains a controversial lady. There was hardly anything she did which didn’t attract criticism.

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 once asked Dorothy how long the down-and-out were permitted to stay. “We let them stay forever,” Dorothy answered brusquely. “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.”

What got her in the most hot water were her sharp social criticisms and her rejection of war. She pointed out that patriotism was a far more powerful force in the lives of most Christians than the Gospel. While she hated every form of tyranny and never ceased to be thankful for America having taken in so many people fleeing poverty and repression, she was fierce in her criticism of capitalism and consumerism. She said America had a tendency “to treat people like Kleenex — use them, and throw them away.”

Dorothy was sometimes criticized for being too orthodox in her religious convictions. How could she be so radical about social matters and so conservative in her theology? While she occasionally deplored statements or actions by members of the hierarchy, she was by no means an opponent of the bishops or someone furiously campaigning for structural 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 required. The way to do that was to set an example.

Pleased as she was when the Liturgy could be celebrated in English as well as Latin, she didn’t take kindly to smudging the border between the sacred and mundane. When a radical priest used a coffee cup for a chalice at a Mass celebrated in the Catholic Worker house on First Street in Manhattan, she afterward took the cup, kissed it, and buried it in the back yard. It was no longer suited for coffee, she said, for it had held the Blood of Christ. I learned more about the Eucharist that day than I had from any book or sermon.

I’m sometimes told, “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. I don’t have enough fingers on one hand to count our children, and I know all about paying a mortgage. But every time we open the door to guests, it’s partly thanks to Dorothy Day. Every time I think about things in the bright light of the Gospel rather than in the grey 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 try to see Christ’s presence in the face of a stranger, there again I owe a debt to Dorothy Day. No one else has made me think so much about the words we will hear at the Last Judgment: “What you did to the least person, you did to me.” 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 influenced my reading life — it was Dorothy who steered me to Dostoevsky’s novels. Indeed, it was a command.

It isn’t that Dorothy Day is the point of reference. Christ is. But I can’t think of anyone I’ve known whose Christ-centered life did so much to help make me a more Christ-centered person. No one has given me a more vivid idea of what it means to be a pilgrim.

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Jim and Nancy Forest
Kanisstraat 5 / 1811 GJ Alkmaar / The Netherlands
phone number: 072-515-4180 (outside Holland: 00-31-72-515-4180)
Mobile: 06-510-11-250 (outside Holland: 00-31-6-510-11-250)
Jim’s e-mail: [email protected]
Nancy’s e-mail: [email protected]
Jim and Nancy Forest web site: www.incommunion.org/forest-flier/
Forest-Flier Editorial Services: www.incommunion.org/forest-flier/ffes/
Photo web site: www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/sets/
Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site: www.incommunion.org
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Love Your Enemy As Yourself

[Lecture delivered at St Herman’s Orthodox Church in Edmonton, Canada, 15 October 2006]

by Jim Forest

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…
— Jesus Christ (Matthew 5:44)

Passenger planes taken by terrorists fly into the two towers of the World Trade Center; the buildings collapse and thousands are killed. Many more are wounded. Still more now suffer from having breathed in the toxic airbourne debris.

During the Second World War, entire cities — London, Manchester, Birmingham, Dresden, Hamburg, Berlin, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki — become targets of war. Everyone without exception was a target — children, the ill, grandparents, ordinary people. They died in countless thousands.

In the Soviet era, millions were taken away, some to labor camps in which it was a miracle not to die of disease, exposure, abuse, or execution. I recall visiting a place of executions in a Belorussian forest. Here, during the Stalin years, people were brought by the truck-load each day and one by one were shot in the back of the head and thrown into deep pits. When one pit was filled, another was dug. There were many pits and many similar places of execution.

We still aren’t sure how many millions were killed under the Hitler regime — Jews, gypsies, political dissidents, homosexuals, Christians who dared to resist or people simply regarded as inconvenient. As in the Soviet gulag, many died simply of the consequences of living in such condition and being worked like slaves. A vast number were simply executed. The murders were done not only in concentration camps but also in hospitals. In the latter, people regarded as genetically or mentally inferior were killed. It was regarded as “mercy killing.”

In Communist Albania it became a criminal activity to make the sign of the cross, to have an icon in one’s home or to dye an egg red at Easter. Every church, monastery and seminary without exception was closed. The smallest indication of religious belief could be severely punished. Most priests and many lay people died in concentration camps.

One could spend hour upon hour briefly describing, country by country, the many horrors of violence that human beings have suffered just in the past hundred years. I mention a few examples only to point out that, when we talk about Christ’s commandment to love one’s enemies, the beginning point is the recognition that we have enemies and that evil deeds occur every minute of the day. Often times nationalistic, racial or ideologically-driven movements develop in such a way that enormous numbers of people find themselves in grave danger.

There are people who seem to have entirely lost any sense of the sacredness of life and abuse and murder innocent people, even children — some on a large scale, others as a kind of hellish past-time. I think of my stepmother, Carla, who was shot and killed by sniper as she stepped off the bus one evening in San Francisco in 1966 after a day of service in a center for alcoholics. Such events were once rare; in more recent years they have become more common. While the rate of homicide is much lower in Canada than in the USA, probably here, too, most of us have stories to tell of awful things that happened — grave danger, abuse, or violence — to ourselves or to people we know. I am equally sure that many of us have memories of dreadful things we have done or said to others, under obedience, out of fear, or in a state of rage.

The reality of enmity is a cental theme in the Gospels. The peaceful, star-illumined Bethlehem we see in Christmas cards tells us nothing at all about the hard life the people lived there were enduring when Jesus was born. The years of Christ’s life described in the Gospels occurred in a small land under heavy, often brutal, military occupation. There was no concept of human rights. Torture and crucifixion were not rare punishments. It’s no wonder that there was a serious movement of Jewish armed resistance, the Zealots, and that conflict between Israel and Rome not many years later resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the enslavement of thousands of Jews.

So when Jesus instructed his followers, as he did in his Sermon on the Mount, to love their enemies and pray for them, it was not a teaching that would have been offered in a state of naiveté by someone living in an oasis of peace, nor was it a teaching that would have been easily embraced by the suffering people who were listening to him. It’s not a teaching anyone, even in situations of relative social tranquility, takes to easily. What most of us do when we are abused by others is look for a way to return the abuse, even doing so in double measure. Say an irritating word to me and I’ll give you irritation back, multiplied by two. Hit me and I’ll hit you twice as hard. Few Jews had a kind thought regarding the uninvited Romans. Occupation troops are resented and despised. They often become the targets of deadly violence. (We see this even in cases where an occupation is meant to be humanitarian. Though on a mission that is in principle meant to be one of peacemaking and reconstruction, many Canadian soldiers have been killed or wounded in Afghanistan.)

Jesus is never just a man of words. Can you think of anything he taught that he didn’t give witness to in the way he lived and interacted with other people? I cannot.

He urged his followers to be peacemakers. In the Beatitudes, he says they will be known as God’s own children. In his own life, again and again we see both courage and nonviolence. He repeatedly gave the witness of refusing to return evil for evil. His most violent action was to use a whip of chords to chase money-lenders from the Temple because they were profaning sacred space. Many were upset, but no one was harmed. The only life endangered by his action was his own. The total number of people killed by Jesus Christ is zero.

While many people are driven by anger and vengeance, Christ taught forgiveness and again and again gave the example of forgiving others. When asked by his disciples if they must forgive as much as seven times, Christ replied: seventy times seven. Forgiveness is one of the main themes of the Lord’s Prayer, in which we ask God to forgive us only insofar as we have forgiven others. Perhaps nothing is more impressive than seeing Christ praying for his enemies as he hung nailed to the cross: “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” Indeed, it seems that none of those involved in crucifying him had any idea what they were doing. The idea that Jesus was king of the Jews and son of God was nothing more than a joke. For some, a heretic was being punished. For others, he was a threat to the Jewish people. For the Roman soldiers, it was simply a grim duty they were under orders to perform.

Jesus also gave the witness of healing. Healing is another word for peacemaking. Peacemaking is the healing of damaged or broken relationships. On one occasion an act of healing was done in response to an appeal not from a fellow Jew but from an officer of the Roman occupation forces, the centurion who appealed to Jesus on behalf of a critically ill servant. Jesus was prepared to come to the soldier’s home, but the officer said there was no need for that; Jesus’s word was all he needed. Jesus later said that he hadn’t seen such faith in all of Israel. Can you imagine how annoyed, even scandalized, some of the witnesses to this exchange would have been? Doing a good deed for a Roman? Then speaking admiringly of a Roman’s faith?

If you take Jesus’s teaching about love of enemies out of the Gospel, you have removed the keel from the ship.

But then how do we go about loving an enemy? The answer is given to us by Christ. He doesn’t simply command us to love our enemies, but to pray for them.

Without praying for our enemies, how would it be possible to love them?

Think about these two important words, love and prayer.

The love so often spoken of by Christ is not romantic love. Love is not about how we feel regarding the other but how we respond to the other. If you say you love someone, but you let him starve to death when it is in your power to give him food, in fact you do not love him. If you say you love God, but you abandon your neighbor, you love neither God nor neighbor.

Love is not the acquisition of pleasant feelings for an enemy, the kind of feeling we have for a sweetheart, a member of your family, or a cherished friend. The love Christ speaks of has very little to do with feelings and much to do with actions. Love is to do what you can to preserve another life and to bring that person toward salvation. Christ uses a metaphor: God’s love is like the rain falling equally on both wheat and weeds; or it is like the sun shining on both the just and the unjust. This doesn’t mean God doesn’t distinguish between the just and the unjust; but so long as a person lives, the possibility of repentance and conversion lives.

Think about the word prayer. Prayer is the giant step of taking into your heart, the center of your life, your appeal to God for the well-being and healing of another person’s life. It is not a sentimental action but an act of will and an obedience to God, knowing that God seeks the well-being and salvation of each person. After all, each person, no matter how misguided, no matter how damaged, is nonetheless a bearer of the image of God. If it pains you to imagine the intentional destruction of an icon, how much more distress should we feel when a human being is harmed or killed?

I’m talking now about the Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — not the Gospel according to Hollywood. The latter provides us with a never-ending parade of stories about evil people killed by good people. The basic story tempts us to prefer heroism to sanctity, or to confuse the two. A basic element of The Gospel According to Hollywood is that the evil people are so evil that there is no real solution short of hastening their death. Confronted by such pure evil, what else can one do?

But the teaching of Christ is not to kill enemies but to overcome enmity. It’s like the transformation of water into wine that Christ performed at the wedding feast in Cana. We are commanded to convert our enmity into love, and it starts with prayer.

But to pray for an enemy is no small or easy step. The fact is that the last people in the world we want to pray for are the people we fear or hate or regard with disgust. You know you have an enemy whenever you discover a person or community of people for whom you hesitate to pray. But once you recognize enmity, take note of it. Keep a list of the people you find it hard to pray for and then pray for them anyway. Do it as a religious duty.

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

Some years ago, at a conference on the Greek island of Crete, I gave a talk in which I summarized Orthodox teaching about war. I pointed out that the Orthodox Church has never embraced the just war doctrine, a doctrine that evolved in the west. The Orthodox Church, I said, regards war as inevitably sinful in nature even in cases where no obvious alternative to war can be found. No one has ever been canonized for killing. Priests, deacons and iconographers are forbidden by canon law to kill or cause the death of others. Under all circumstances and at all times, every baptized person is commanded by Christ to love his enemies.

There was nothing remarkable in what I said, no novel doctrines, nothing borrowed from non-Orthodox sources, yet the lecture stirred up a controversy not only in the hall in which I was speaking but into the city itself as my talk and the translator’s words were being broadcast live over the diocesan radio station.

The debate continued that night when the local bishop, Metropolitan Irinaios, and I took part in a radio conversation with listeners phoning in with their comments or questions. Responding to a man who called in to denounce Turks as barbarians who only understood the language of violence, I summarized what Christ had to say on the subject of loving one’s enemies. “That’s all very well,” the caller responded, “but now let me tell you about a real saint.” He proceeded to tell me about a priest who, in the 19th century, played a valiant role in the war to drive the Turks off the island. I suggested he not dismiss the teaching of Jesus so readily and asked if he wasn’t perhaps confusing heroism and nationalism with sanctity.

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

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

A beginning point is to admit we are only partial Christians — that is to say, our conversion has begun but is far from complete. When we go to confession, many of us don’t even try confessing all of our sins because no priest in the world would have time to hear them all. We try to identify the main ones, the sins that are most urgent and problematic, and focus on them, saving other sins for a later confession. Each of us is painfully aware that we have far to go. As the cartoon character Pogo used to say, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

One of the great obstacles were up against is that it’s easier to be more nation-centered than Christ-centered. The culture we live in is a powerful influence. One is less likely to be shaped by the Gospel than by the particular economic, social, political and cultural milieu we happen to be part of.

If I am a German living in Germany in the 1930s, there is a good chance I will gravitate toward Nazism. If I am a white South African living in the era of apartheid, it’s more than likely that I will accept the justifications for racism, and the benefits that come from being part of a racist society. Our thoughts, values, choices, our “life style” — all these tend to be formed by the mass culture in which we happen to be born and reared. If we are Christians, we will try to adjust Christ and the Gospel to the national flag and the views of the people around us.

Yet we have in the Church many saints who provide us with models of what it means to follow Christ wholeheartedly — without holding anything back, without compromising with the demands of money or politics.

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

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

Mother Maria had been married and become a mother before taking the monastic path. Before that happened, her husband left her and one of her children died of illness. She embraced a celibate vocation, but her understanding of monastic life was not the traditional one of withdrawal. Her desert was the city. She was opposed to living a life that might impose “even the subtlest barrier which might separate the heart from the world and its wounds.” Like any Orthodox Christian, the Liturgy was at the heart of her life, not as an end in itself but because it gave daily life a divine imprint.

“The meaning of the Liturgy must be translated into life,” she said. “It is why Christ came into the world and why he gave us our Liturgy.”

She was determined to live a life in which the works of mercy were central. As she wrote: “At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked, Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked.”

No one has lived in a more violent time than she, a time in which there were powerful temptations to keep one’s head down and quietly survive. Yet instead she and those who worked with her give us a model of centering one’s life on those whose lives are threatened.

In Europe in those days it was especially the Jews. In our time the list of those in danger is much longer, including not only the born but the unborn as well as those who are handicapped or old. We live in what many people have come to identify as a culture of death. The only question each of us must struggle with is where to focus our life-saving activity. It is not just a question of saving lives but making clear to others, through our response to them, that they bear God’s image — thus we proclaim that there is a God, and that God is love.

We have met the enemy and he is us, as Pogo said. But the self is no small foe. In the days when India was struggling for independence, Gandhi sometimes said he had only three enemies — the British nation, his favorite enemy; the Indian people, a much more difficult adversary, and finally a man named Gandhi, the hardest enemy of all.

Each of us sees our most difficult enemy when we look into a mirror. Yet if we will only cooperate in Christ’s mercy, struggling day by day to die to self, day by day our conversion will continue, which will be good not only for ourselves but good for everyone else as well.

Let me close with these words from St. Cyprian of Carthage, Let me close with these words from St. Cyprian of Carthage, who died as a martyr in the year 258:

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

Christ called on his followers to be peacemakers, calling such people the children of God. May each of us labor to become the peacemaker Christ intends. My each of us become people who love our enemies and pray for them with fervor.

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Jim and Nancy Forest
Kanisstraat 5 / 1811 GJ Alkmaar / The Netherlands
tel: (31)(72) 515-4180
Jim’s e-mail: [email protected] (alternative address: [email protected])
Nancy’s e-mail: [email protected] (alternative address: [email protected])
Jim and Nancy Forest web site: www.incommunion.org/forest-flier/
Forest-Flier Editorial Services: www.incommunion.org/forest-flier/ffes/
Photo web site: www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/sets/
Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site: www.incommunion.org
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