Thomas Merton's Advice for Peacemakers

Lecture given at the conference of the International Conference of Thomas Merton Society at Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tennessee, on Friday, June 8, 2007

by Jim Forest

Given that we are in the midst of war, it seems appropriate to reflect on Thomas Merton’s life and thought in regard to war and peacemaking. And there is also the fact they we meet in Memphis, the city in which Martin Luther King was struck down. Dr. King was America’s greatest exponent of nonviolent methods of seeking social justice and also a brave opponent of war — a man Merton greatly admired and looked forward to meeting.

It’s not surprising that war was a major topic for Merton. He was born in France on the last day of January, 1915, not even half a year after the start of World War I. In its battlefields, soldiers were dying by the tens of thousands. Among the lesser consequences of that war was its impact on the Merton family. It tore their hopes and plans to shreds. Though a New Zealander by nationality, Owen Merton would have been subject to French military conscription. Owen’s objections to war were of no consequence to the French authorities. No exceptions were made for foreigners or conscientious objectors. In the summer of 1916, Owen, Ruth and their infant son, Tom, left France for US, living not far from Ruth’s parents on Long Island. It must have been a hard adjustment for Owen. The vast majority of Americans had a severe case of war fever. Men like Owen who opposed the war were generally regarded as traitors and cowards, but at least non-citizens like Owen were not being forced into the military.

War involves death on a factory scale — the mass production of corpses. Ordinarily death is a remote concept for children, but that was not the case for Tom Merton. While he would have known little about the Great War in Europe, when he was six death became something all too real when his mother died of cancer. Death meant a gaping absence, a collapse of the most basic structures of life. Death meant abandonment.

In 1930, just nine years after Ruth’s death, Merton’s father would also be on his death bed. He died of a brain tumor the following January, just two weeks before his son Tom’s fifteenth birthday.

In those years Merton was living in a Britain deeply maimed by war. Men of a certain age were in short supply. Every day he saw the physical and mental damage done by war.

In the fall of 1930, Merton began for the first time to think about alternatives to war. He became one of the admirers of Gandhi and his nonviolent campaign against British imperial rule in India. Rarely one to be part of any majority, Tom took Gandhi’s side in a formal debate at Oakham, his school, arguing that India had every right to demand Britain’s withdrawal. Merton’s side in the debate was easily defeated — the motion was carried by the pro-Empire side, 38 to 6. Until the end of his life, Merton was to remain not only a supporter but an advocate of Gandhi’s form of struggle, what Gandhi called satyagraha: the power that comes from embracing truth; the power the comes from seeking the conversion of opponents rather than their annihilation.

Among the formative events that both added another layer of meaning to the word “death” and also brought him close to the annihilating potential of toxic ideologies occurred in the spring of 1932. Now sixteen and still a student at Oakham, Merton went for a holiday walk along the Rhine River in Germany. It was an excursion that happened to coincide with Hitler’s rise to power. Along the way he witnessed villagers hurling bricks and fighting with pitchforks as political passions spilled over. Then one morning, while walking down a quiet country road lined with apple orchards, he was nearly run down by a car full of young Nazis waving their fists. Tom dived into a ditch in the nick of time, the car’s occupants showering him with Hitler leaflets as they passed.

In fact he was slightly injured. Pain in one toe cut the Rhine walk short. By the time he was back at his school in Oakham, the soreness had gotten worse. Then came a toothache. The school dentist extracted a tooth, which turned out to be the cork capping an infection that had spread throughout Tom’s body. By now the aching toe proved to be gangrenous. For weeks Tom was in a sanatorium, in the early days barely conscious and close to death. He later recalls how, at that time of deep estrangement from Christian faith, death seemed quite a suitable revenge on life. In fact Merton recovered, but his sense of the ultimate meaninglessness of life remained unchanged. Still, he had painfully acquired an entirely unromanticized sense of what the Nazis were like at a time when Hitler and his followers enjoyed a good deal of sympathy, even admiration, in both Britain and America.

First at Clare College in Cambridge and then at Columbia University in New York, like any student of his day Merton was in a maelstrom of radical political movements — Communism, Socialism, Anarchism, Nazism, Fascism, etc. For a time, Merton was among those who thought Communism was the path to a better future. The Soviet Union was widely regarded as a place where an oppressive old regime had been swept aside and a new order set up in which everyone had a fair share and a job: no Great Depression, no evictions, no homeless people sleeping under bridges, no one without education and health care. But, at least for Merton, perhaps the most attractive feature of Communism was that it absolved individuals of personal responsibility for sins they had committed. As he put it in The Seven Storey Mountain, “It was not so much I myself that was to blame for unhappiness, but the society in which I lived…. I was the product of my times, my society and my class … spawned by the selfishness and irresponsibility of the materialistic century in which I lived.” Merton went so far as to sign up as a Communist, but attending a single meeting of his cell group proved to be more than enough for him.

For Merton, a not unimportant part of his argument with Communism was that it was only sporadically anti-war. The Communist Party was anti-war in 1935, the brief period when Merton had been seriously attracted. The Party went pro-war during the Spanish Civil War in 1936, resumed an anti-war stance when Stalin signed the non-aggression pact with Hitler, then did another about-face when Hitler’s armies attacked the Soviet Union. Merton, whose one radical action during his year at Cambridge had been to sign a pacifist pledge, was looking not only for something with steadier principles, but especially moral consistency about bloodshed. Merton came to realize that the Communist Party would “do whatever seems profitable to itself at the moment,” which was, he reflected in The Seven Storey Mountain, “the rule of all modern political parties.”

In 1938, with his baptism at Corpus Christi Church in Manhattan, Merton crossed the most important border of his adult life. For the rest of his life, every question was to be viewed in the light of Christ.

The following year, World War II began in Europe. Though it would be another two years before the United States became part of it, German bombs were falling in Britain, which only recently had been home to Merton. What was remote to most Americans was familiar ground to Merton. The question of how to respond if and when the US joined the war was the subject of many long-running conversations Merton had with such friends as Bob Lax and Ed Rice.

For Merton, a baptized and deeply convinced Catholic, it was a question that had to be regarded not in terms of political or ideological theory, but rather in terms of Christian discipleship. This led he him to formulate a response — conscientious objection — that, for an American Roman Catholic at that time, was along lines that were, to say the least, unusual. Here is how he put it in The Seven Storey Mountain:

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

Keep in mind that the patriotism of American Catholics was still held suspect by the Protestant majority. Catholics bent over backwards to make clear their gratitude to have found a home in America. One would find the slogan, “Pro Deo et Patria,” over the door of many a Catholic church and school in America. Catholics were outshining their neighbors in doing whatever was required to be seen as “good Americans.” Merton, a convert with Anglo-Saxon family roots, had never had to face the prejudices so many of his fellow Catholics knew all too well. He didn’t think in terms of social acclimation, but rather tried to make choices that resembled those he believed Christ would make. Christ was not a Zealot. Christ joined no armies. Christ killed no one. Christ never blessed any of his followers to kill. Christ was merciful to all who sought his mercy. Christ accepted execution without resistance. In rising from the tomb, he buried death. Should it be the work of Christ’s disciples to resurrect the grave? Merton said no.

If Merton’s convictions regarding war were unusual, so were the basic vocational issues he was wrestling with. He had tried to join the Franciscans, whose founder had written a rule banning weapons and forbidding all bloodshed. When the Franciscans turned him away due to his checkered past, his next vocational attraction was to be part of a community of hospitality. People like Catherine de Hueck Doherty and Dorothy Day inspired him. While teaching at St. Bonaventure’s, he regularly traveled back to Manhattan to work as a volunteer at Friendship House in Harlem. It was in this period that he went on retreat at the Trappist monastery in Kentucky and found himself powerfully drawn to monastic life. He found it extremely difficultly to choose between Friendship House and the Abbey of Gethsemani — between a life shaped by the works of mercy and a life centered in prayer.

At last comes that other great defining choice in his life: to be a monk. Perhaps the war was a factor. His draft status had just been changed — he was no longer classified as physically unfit. His arrival at the monastery occurred just two days after the US declared war on Japan and a day before and the declaration of war with Germany. But as a monk he was exempted from military service.

One would have thought that, once within a monastic enclosure, Merton might have lost interest in the issue of war. Not so. Once Merton began writing for publication, war was among his topics, and what he had to say in that regard was not at all what Catholics were used to hearing. There were the many paragraphs in his autobiography about his own response to World War II and what had led him to be a conscientious objector, and then, a year later, in 1948, there was a chapter in Seeds of Contemplation with the remarkable title, “The Root of War is Fear.”

This was one of the few essays Merton was to write twice. In 1961, the text was greatly expanded for inclusion in New Seeds of Contemplation. In fact it was in connection with this revised text that my own correspondence with Merton began.

I was a young volunteer at the Catholic Worker community in Manhattan who had just a few months before been discharged from the Navy as a conscientious objector. Merton had sent his new version of “The Root of War is Fear” to Dorothy Day for possible use in The Catholic Worker. It was his first submission to a paper well known for its passionate opposition to war. Dorothy had passed along both Merton’s letter and the manuscript to me, asking that I prepare the his essay for publication.

When Merton wrote The Seven Storey Mountain, he framed his views on war in very personal terms. In “The Root of War is Fear” he expressed a view of what he thought ought to be normative for Catholics in general, if they were to be more than compliant citizens whose faith had to be adjusted to governmental demand and nationalistic ideologies.

In an addendum to the essay especially added to The Catholic Worker version, he argued that the current war crisis was not God’s doing but was entirely of our own making. Though there were no compelling reasons for war, the world was plunging headlong into destruction, even “doing so with the purpose of avoiding war.” This was, he said, “true war-madness,” which Merton saw “an illness of the mind and spirit that is spreading with a furious and subtle contagion all over the world,” with no country so afflicted with it as America. “On all sides we have people building bomb shelters where, in case of nuclear war, they will simply bake slowly instead of burning quickly or being blown out of existence in a flash. And they are prepared to sit in these shelters with machine guns with which to prevent their neighbor from entering.” All the while, “we claim to be fighting for religious truth, freedom and other spiritual values. Truly we have entered the ‘post-Christian era’ with a vengeance….”

He then asked what is the place of the Christian in all this? “Is he simply to fold his hands and resign himself for the worst, accepting it as the inescapable will of God and preparing himself to enter heaven with a sigh of relief? …. Or, worse still, should he take a hard-headed and ‘practical’ attitude about it and join in the madness of the war makers?”

The last option was, Merton said, “the most diabolical of illusions, the great and not even subtle temptation of a Christianity that has grown rich and comfortable, and is satisfied with its riches.”

Then he asks what are we to do? His answer to the question follows:

The duty of the Christian in this crisis is to strive with all his power and intelligence … to do the one task which God has imposed upon us in the world today. That task is to work for the total abolition of war.” Unless war is abolished, he continued, “the world will remain constantly in a state of madness and desperation,” always on the verge of catastrophe.” Unless we set ourselves to this task, “we tend by our very passivity and fatalism to cooperate with the destructive forces that are leading inexorably to war. It is a problem of terrifying complexity and magnitude, for which the Church itself is not fully able to see clear and decisive solutions. Yet she must lead the way on the road to the nonviolent settlement of difficulties and toward the gradual abolition of war as the way of settling international or civil disputes. Christians must become active in every possible way, mobilizing all their resources for the fight against war.

The first task is simply to study and discuss the issues involved. “Peace is to be preached,” Merton wrote, “nonviolence is to be explained as a practical method, and not left to be mocked as an outlet for crackpots who want to make a show of themselves. Prayer and sacrifice must be used as the most effective spiritual weapons in the war against war, and like all weapons, they must be used with deliberate aim: not just with a vague aspiration for peace and security, but against violence and war. This implies that we are also willing to sacrifice and restrain our own instinct for violence and aggressiveness in our relations with other people. We may never succeed in this campaign but whether we succeed or not, the duty is evident.”

Especially in the expanded version of his essay as published in The Catholic Worker, Merton has crossed a border, no longer simply confessing in public his personal sense of being called to renounce violence but to appeal to others to play a collective role in opposing any reliance on or use of weapons of mass destruction. More than that, he called on his readers to take nonviolent methods seriously as a practical and effective way of battling evil without imitating the methods of evil — not to fight fire with fire, but to fight fire with water.

That same summer Merton wrote to Dorothy Day:

I don’t feel that I can in conscience, at a time like this, go on writing just about things like meditation, though that has its point. I cannot just bury my head in a lot of rather tiny and secondary monastic studies either. I think I have to face the big issues, the life-and-death issues: and this is what everyone is afraid of.

Indeed there were those, in and out of his order, who were not at all happy to see Merton focusing on the highly controversial issue of war.

Just a few months later, still in 1961, Merton wrote me that the censorship he was encountering was “completely and deliberately obstructive, not aimed at combing out errors at all, but purely and simply at preventing the publication of material that ‘doesn’t look good.’ And this means anything that ruffles in any way the censors’ tastes or susceptibilities.”

Early in 1962, an editorial in The Washington Catholic Standard accused Merton of disregarding “authoritative Catholic utterances and [making] unwarranted charges about the intention of our government towards disarmament.”

Looking for a way to share his thinking about the religious dimension of social and political problems without having to pass through the labyrinths of censorship, Merton produced Cold War Letters, a mimeographed collection of his recent correspondence, a work which only a few months ago was at last published in book form. In 1962, it was Merton’s first experience of being read Russian-style in samizdat. Note, by the way, that Merton had a significant degree of support in doing this from his abbot. The self-publishing Merton did during the last seven years of his life was all done with his abbot’s backing and with a great deal of practical assistance from the monastery.

The early months of 1962 involved a great effort on Merton’s part to write a book on the issues of war and peace that he hoped would be regarded as moderate enough to pass inspection by the order’s censors. He christened the book Peace in the Post-Christian Era. The manuscript had just been completed when Merton received a letter from his order’s Abbot General, Dom Gabriel Sortais, ordering Merton to abandon all writing projects having to do with war.

“Now here is the axe,” he wrote me April 29, 1962. “For a long time I have been anticipating trouble with the higher superiors and now I have it. The orders are, no more writing about peace…. In substance I am being silenced on the subject of war and peace.”

The decision, Merton said, reflected

an astounding incomprehension of the seriousness of the present crisis in its religious aspect. lt 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.

Beneath the surface of the disagreement between Merton and the Abbot General was a different conception of the identity and mission of the Church. In his letter, Merton stated,

The vitality of the Church depends precisely on spiritual renewal, uninterrupted, continuous, and deep. Obviously this renewal is to be expressed in the historical context, and will call for a real spiritual understanding of historical crises, an evaluation of them in terms of their inner significance and in terms of man’s growth and the advancement of truth in man’s world: in other words, the establishment of the ‘kingdom of God.’ The monk is the one supposedly attuned to the inner spiritual dimension of things. If he hears nothing, and says nothing, then the renewal as a whole will be in danger and may be completely sterilized.

Those silencing him, he went on, regarded the monk as someone appointed not to see or hear anything new but

to support the already existing viewpoints … defined for him by somebody else. Instead of being in the advance guard, he is in the rear with the baggage, confirming all that has been done by the officials…. He has no other function, then, except perhaps to pray for what he is told to pray for: namely the purposes and the objectives of an ecclesiastical bureaucracy…. He must in no event and under no circumstances assume a role that implies any form of spontaneity and originality. He must be an eye that sees nothing except what is carefully selected for him to see. An ear that hears nothing except what it is advantageous for the managers for him to hear. We know what Christ said about such ears and eyes.

What strikes me as the most revealing part of this lengthy letter is what Merton has to say about obedience. Merton asked if he shouldn’t “just blast the whole thing wide open, or walk out, or tell them to jump in the lake?”

After all, many would say that he would be entirely justified in disobeying manifestly unjust orders. But Merton was convinced that a great many people would only find scandal in an act of disobedience and that public denunciation of the abuse of authority, far from being seen as a witness for peace and for the truth of the Church, would be seen by his fellow monks and many others as an excuse for dismissing a minority viewpoint. For those outside the Catholic Church, it would be regarded as fresh proof that the Church had no love for private conscience. Whose mind would be changed?

“In my own 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. It would reassure them in every possible way that they are incontrovertibly right and make it even more impossible for them ever to see any kind of new light on the subject. And in any case I am not merely looking for opportunities to blast off. I can get along without it.”

Behind the silencing, Merton wrote a few weeks later, was the charge that he had been writing for “a communist-controlled publication,” as The Catholic Worker was said to be by some of its opponents.

He wrote me soon afterward that he wasn’t altogether pleased with Peace in the Post-Christian Era anyway. It had been written with a constant eye to what might be allowed through official channels. “What a mess one gets into,” he said in a letter that July, “trying to write a book that will get through the censors, and at the same time say something. I was bending in all directions to qualify every statement and balance everything off, so I stayed right in the middle and perfectly objective … [at the same time trying] to speak the truth as my conscience wanted it to be said.”

In fact, it was and remains a good book. It was at long last published two years ago, 42 years after it had been written, yet still a remarkably timely book.

While having to rely on the mimeograph machine and publication in tiny journals that his abbot regarded as too small for censorship to be required, occasionally the unfiltered Merton addressed wider audiences by writing for publication under pseudonyms. Under quite thin cover, one piece in The Catholic Worker was signed Benedict Monk. And to those acquainted with Merton’s delight in clownish names, who but Merton would sign himself Marco J. Frisbee?

Apart from prayer, for several years the only door that remained wide open for Merton was that of correspondence. Through correspondence, Merton was able to act as a pastor to peacemakers — a spiritual father, as such people are called in the Orthodox Church. Certainly he was to me.

When I reread those letters, one of the things I find most striking is how free they are of jargon. Merton was not an ideological person. He hated slogans whether religious or political. Neither was he self-righteous. While he believed following Christ ideally involved for us, as it did for the first Christians, a renunciation of all killing, he didn’t deny the possibility that just wars might have occurred in earlier times … wars of communal self-defense in which the technology of warfare didn’t inevitably cause numerous noncombatant casualties. He was also willing to speculate that such wars might occur in the modern context in the case of oppressed people fighting for liberation.

But, as he wrote Dorothy Day in 1962, the issue of the just war “is pure theory…. In practice all the wars that are [happening] … are shot through and through with evil, falsity, injustice, and sin so much so that one can only with difficulty extricate the truths that may be found here and there in the ’causes’ for which the fighting is going on.”

Neither did Merton insist that a Christian was, simply because of his baptism, obliged to be a conscientious objector, even though this had been his personal position before beginning monastic life. Yet the highest form of Christian discipleship, he was convinced, involved the renunciation of violence. As he wrote in Seeds of Violence,

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

What Merton found valuable in the just-war tradition was its insistence that evil must be actively opposed, and it was this that drew him to Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, and various groups involved in active nonviolent struggle for social justice, most notably the Catholic Worker and the Catholic Peace Fellowship.

Despite his isolation from events and his physical distance from centers of protest activity, he had a vivid memory of equivalent activities from his student days at Columbia University in New York City. “I have the feeling of being a survivor of the shipwrecked thirties,” he wrote me early in 1963, “one of the few that has kept my original face before this present world was born.”

What was often missing in the protest movements of the thirties, he realized, and remained rare in similar movements of the sixties, was compassion. Those involved in protests tend to become enraged with those they see as being responsible for injustice and violence and even toward those who uphold the status quo, while at the same time viewing themselves as models of what others should be. But without compassion, Merton pointed out, the protester tends to become more and more centered in anger, becomes a whirlpool of self-righteousness, and even becomes an obstacle to changing the attitudes of others rather than someone who helps open the door to conversion.

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

Most people, Merton pointed out, are irritated or frightened by agitation even when it protests something — militarism, nuclear weapons, social injustice– which objectively endangers them. “[People] do not feel at all threatened by the bomb … but they feel terribly threatened by some … student carrying a placard.”

Without love, especially love of opponents and enemies, Merton insisted that neither profound personal nor social transformation can occur. As he wrote to Dorothy Day:

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

When compassion and love are absent, Merton insisted, actions that are superficially nonviolent tend to mask deep hostility, contempt and the desire to defeat and humiliate an opponent. As he wrote in one of his most profound and insightful letters:

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

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

Merton noticed that peace groups tend to identify too much with particular political parties. Ideally its actions should communicate liberating possibilities to others, left, right and center, no matter how locked in they were to violent structures. He wrote me late in 1962:

It seems to me that the basic problem is not political, it is apolitical and human. One of the most important things to is to keep cutting deliberately through political lines and barriers and emphasizing the fact that these are largely fabrications and that there is another dimension, a genuine reality, totally opposed to the fictions of politics: the human dimension which politics pretends to arrogate entirely [to itself]…. This is the necessary first step along the long way … of purifying, humanizing and somehow illuminating politics.

At the heart of Merton’s writings on peacemaking was his emphasis on the spiritual life that must sustain peace service, without which we are easy prey to the ideologies of the day. As he wrote:

We have to pray for a total and profound change in the mentality of the whole world. What we have known in the past as Christian penance is not a deep enough concept if it does not comprehend the special problems and dangers of the present age. Hair shirts will not do the trick, though there is no harm in mortifying the flesh. But vastly more important is the complete change of heart and the totally new outlook on the world of man…. The great problem is this inner change…. [Any peace action has] to be regarded … as an application of spiritual force and not the use of merely political pressure. We all have the great duty to realize the deep need for purity of soul, that is to say the deep need to possess in us the Holy Spirit, to be possessed by Him. This takes precedence over everything else.

Merton was convinced that engagement was made stronger by detachment. Not to be confused with disinterest in achieving results, detachment meant knowing that no good action is wasted even if the immediate consequences are altogether different from what one hoped to achieve. In his longest letter on this theme, he advised me:

Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing … an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end … it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything….

It is so easy to get engrossed with ideas and slogans and myths that in the end one is left holding the bag, empty, with no trace of meaning left in it. And then the temptation is to yell louder than ever in order to make the meaning be there again by magic…. As for the big results, they are not in your hands or mine, but they can suddenly happen, and we can share in them: but there is no point in building our lives on this personal satisfaction, which may be denied us and which after all is not that important…. The great thing, after all, is to live, not to pour out your life in the service of a myth: and we turn the best things into myths. If you can get free from the domination of causes and just serve Christ’s truth, you will be able to do more and will be less crushed by the inevitable disappointments…. The real hope … is not in something we think we can do, but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see. If we can do His will, we will be helping in this process. But we will not necessarily know all about it beforehand.

Today we have some idea of how much impact Merton’s writings had not only in the lives of many individuals but in shaping the official teaching of the Catholic Church. Merton’s influence can be seen in Pope John’s encyclical, Pacem in Terris. It is again evident in the final document issued by the Second Vatican Council, Guadium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. But at the time Merton’s role in shaping such documents was unknown.

Merton himself didn’t live to see the results of his efforts for peace. The war in Vietnam was raging when he flew to Asia in September, 1968. His death was now only weeks away. Surely he would have considered the return of his body to the monastery exactly right in all its details. He crossed the Pacific in an Air Force cargo plane as part of a shipment of the dead — all but him American soldiers who had died in Vietnam. Merton’s was the only body without a dog tag, and the only one without a war injury. Yet he was wounded. There was a long, raw third-degree burn about a hand’s width wide that ran along the right side of Merton’s body almost to the groin, where an electric fan had fallen across his body.

There was, as we only realized at the end of his life, a prophecy hidden in the final sentences of The Seven Storey Mountain:

I will give you not what you desire. I will lead you into solitude. I will lead you by the way that you cannot possibly understand… Everything that touches you shall burn you …. that you may become the brother of God and learn to know the Christ of the burnt men.

* * *
Jim & Nancy Forest
Kanisstraat 5 / 1811 GJ Alkmaar / The Netherlands
Jim’s e-mail: [email protected]
Nancy’s e-mail: [email protected]
Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site: http://www.incommunion.org
Jim & Nancy Forest web site: http://incommunion.org/forest-flier/
photo web site: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/sets/
* * *

Living With Wisdom: A Biography of Thomas Merton (revised edition)

The Cistercian monk Thomas Merton remains a source of spiritual inspiration and a guide for many people. Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.
— Pope Francis
speaking before both Houses of Congress in Washington, DC
(Pope Francis has read the Italian translation of Living With Wisdom)

A book written with love by one who understands Merton and followed in his steps. The best introduction I can think of to Merton, his life, and work.

— Bob Lax (poet and close friend of Merton’s)

A superb introduction to the life of one of the most extraordinary monks of our time.

— Brother Patrick Hart, Merton’s former secretary

This is the best short introduction to Thomas Merton ever written. Superlative!

— James Martin, SJ
associate editor of America magazine, author of My Life With the Saints

If you have to read one book about Thomas Merton, this is the one to read. It is concise, insightful, complete.

— Paul Wilkes, director, writer, co-producer of the PBS documentary, “Merton”

Living With Wisdom is the most complete, balanced, readable, wide-ranging and up-to-date biography of Thomas Merton.

— Gerald Twomey
editor of Thomas Merton: Prophet in the Belly of a Paradox

Numerous readers discovered Merton through his hefty autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. Forest is one of them. In Living With Wisdom, Forest introduces the many facets of the 20th-century Trappist monk whose life included not only the physical work, worship, and contemplation of a monastic community, but prolific writing as well (a partial list of Merton’s works is two pages long). Forest lucidly chronicles Merton’s life, illuminating it with the events that shaped it and the insights that emanated from it. Although his esteem for Merton and his contributions to the peace movement are apparent, he treats Merton’s weaknesses frankly. As a result of Forest’s clarity and conciseness, his work is an excellent choice for general religion collections.

— Library Journal

The most accessible yet discerning account of Merton’s life and work

Ordinarily a revised edition of a book that is fairly well known hardly merits yet another review. However that is not the case with this expanded, updated and beautifully designed (by Roberta Savage) biography of Thomas Merton, by Jim Forest. The first version was in 1979, then a further, larger one in 1991, and now this latest edition timed for the 40th anniversary of Merton’s death, commemorated on December 10, 2008.

The revised edition is to the best of my knowledge, the largest and the richest collection of photos of Thomas Merton published in one volume. It accompanies one of the most accessible yet discerning accounts of his life and work, crafted by Jim Forest. There are other photo collections, such as the out-of-print Hidden Wholeness, and of course, the most comprehensive biographical effort is Michael Mott’s The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton. Yet Living with Wisdom possesses an intimacy and vision unmatched in other publications.

Jim Forest knew Thomas Merton — a number of the photos, particularly in Merton’s hermitage — were taken by Jim. And Jim is a most skillful biographer, as this and other of his efforts attest.

In fact, when you leaf through it, you immediately realize that many elements combine to produce a singular volume. The sheer number of photos, many previously unpublished, document the entire sweep of Merton’s fascinating life. Finally it is good to see the faces of Amiya Chakravarty, D.T. Suzuki and Merton’s old guru the monk Bramachari, also Jacques Maritain, Dom Jean Leclerq, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, among others whom Merton treasured.

Not only in the photos but also in Forest’s introduction there is a rare encounter with the energy, the hilarity, the restlessness of the person that Merton was. Forest’s first sight was of a monk rolling on the floor, convulsed in laughter! Likewise, I treasure Merton’s comments about his great love for beer, that he drinks as much as he can get his hands on — an admission that for me, balances everything else he says about reading the psalms, the liturgical services, his hermitage quiet as ideal for prayer and the spiritual life in general.

Somehow the photos are a visual counterpart to these accounts of Merton’s humanity. Whether smiling or concentrated on a text, this is the face of someone I wanted to know, immensely interesting, as the Dalai Lama said, “deep.” One photo is incorrectly captioned, the one on p. 218. It shows not the Trappistine nuns at Redwoods, California but the Precious Blood sisters in Eagle River, Alaska, to whom Merton gave a retreat on his way to the Far East.

The photos alone would make for a splendid book, but the core of the volume is, as indicated, Forest’s lively biographical portrait, generously interlaced with quotations from Merton’s writings. Though included in other publications, the self-assessment of his own authorship by Merton in 1967 is revealing and there is a photo of the graph he constructed himself adds greatly to the narrative.

In his new afterword, Jim Forest notes the now notorious decision by then Bishop Donald Wuerl to omit Merton’s profile in an American Catholic Catechism because, among other reasons, “the generation we are speaking to had no idea who he [Merton] was,” and because the “details of his searching at the end of his life” were uncertain. The facts, as Forest reminds us, make these charges ridiculous and embarrassing.

Most of Merton’s books remain in print over a half century after their original publications. The number of new books about him or new editions of his books and correspondence increases every year. Amply documented accounts of his commitment to monastic life and priesthood in the Catholic Church are available and have been now for years — not to mention the testimony of fellow monks such as Frs. John Eudes Bamberger, Matthew Kelty and Brother Patrick Hart, to mention only a few.

I began reading Thomas Merton when I was 13. I am now 60. To describe his shaping of my life is beyond the limits of this review, but I want to affirm his importance to me as a teacher, a critic, a prophet, and above all a man of prayer, as Evagrius Ponticus says, a “true theologian.”

To say that I grew up with Merton’s writing, pursued a vocation to religious life, later to marriage, academic work and the priesthood is to simply acknowledge the ways in which his life and work shaped my own. And in saying this, I am giving voice to the experience of thousands, in many different churches and religious traditions or outside these.

The title of this book comes from Merton himself, who in Dancing in the Waters of Life, wrote: “What more do I see than this silence, this simplicity, this ‘living together with wisdom.’ “ Readers of Merton may immediately connect the mysterious feminine figure “Proverb, ” a young woman who appeared in his dreams.

He later connected her with Sophia, the Wisdom of God, with the Mother of God, with Christ the Wisdom of God, and with every creature who is a child of God. Someone to whom I gave an anthology of Merton’s writings as a gift admitted that reading him now, many years after first doing so, she discovered that he had grown up, deepened—or perhaps she had.

For those who know Merton, for those yet to make his acquaintance, Jim Forest’s book will I think, offer the same realization. Something, it seems to me, Fr. Louis would smile at and approve.

— Michael Plekon, Cistercian Studies Quarterly

* * *

The book’s web page on Amazon.com click this link: http://www.amazon.com/Living-Wisdom-Life-Thomas-Merton/dp/1570757542/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1232202147&sr=1-1″>

Getting from there to here

by Jim Forest

Jim in Alkmaar

My parents were people radically out of step with the America of the cold-war fifties. In those days they both belonged to the Communist Party. I was a “red-diaper baby.” Yet religious inspiration played a major part in the lives of my parents as long as I can remember.

An orphan raised by a Catholic farming family in western Massachusetts, my father became active in the local Catholic parish, serving as an altar boy. Inspired by a saintly pastor, he was preparing to become a priest. But the old priest was sent to another parish and his successor was a rigid man who ordered my father to resign from the local Protestant-sponsored Boy Scout troop. His strict eyes picking out my father at Mass on Sunday, he preached against Catholic contact with those who were not in communion with Rome. My father walked out on Mass that day and never returned. Yet I gradually became aware that underneath the bitterness he had acquired toward Catholicism was grief at having lost contact with a Church which, in many ways, had shaped his conscience. Far from objecting to my own religious awakenings, he cheered me along.

My mother had been raised in a devout Methodist household but was also disengaged from religion. When I was eight, I recall asking her if there was a God and was impressed by the remarkable sadness in her voice when she said there wasn’t. Some years later she told me she had lost her faith while a student at Smith College when a professor she admired told her that religions were only myths but were nonetheless fascinating to study. Again, as she related the story, I was struck by the sadness in her voice. Why such sadness?

I wonder if my parents’ love of wild life and wilderness areas had to do with a sense of God’s nearness in places of natural beauty? For their honeymoon, they had walked a long stretch of the Appalachian Trail. Our scrap books were full of photos Dad had taken of national parks, camps sites, and forest animals. Mother used to say that Dad was a wonderful hunter, except the only thing he could aim at an animal was a camera. The idea of owning a gun was anathema to both of them.

They had a similar reverence for human beings, especially those in need or in trouble. In this regard they were more attentive to the Gospel than many who are regularly in church. Christ taught that what you do for the least person you do for him even though you may not realize it or believe in him. In this regard, my parents were high on the list of those doing what God wants us to do even if their concern for the poor had led them away from churches and into the political left. A great deal of their time went into helping people.

While I often felt embarrassed coming from a family so different from others in the neighborhood, my spiritual life was influenced by my parents’ social conscience far more than I realized at the time. They helped make me aware that I was accountable not only for myself, my family, and friends, but for the down-and-out, the persecuted, and the unwelcome.

My parents were divorced when I was five. Afterward my mother, younger brother and I moved from Colorado to New Jersey. Our new home was in the area in which my mother had grown up, though not the same neighborhood as her wealthy parents (both were dead by the time of her return).

Mother’s identification with people on the other side of the tracks had brought us to live on the other side of the tracks, in a small house in a mainly black neighborhood where indoor plumbing was still unusual and many local roads still unpaved. One neighbor, Libby, old as the hills and black as coal, had been born in slavery days. Earlier in her life she had worked in my grandparents’ house.

Among my childhood memories is going door-to-door with my mother when she was attempting to sell subscriptions to the Communist paper, The Daily Worker. I don’t recall her having any success. This experience left me with an abiding sympathy for all doorbell ringers.

We received The Daily Worker ourselves. It came in a plain wrapper without a return address. Occasionally Mother read aloud articles that a child might find interesting. But as the cold winds of the “McCarthy period” began to blow, the time came when, far from attempting to sell subscriptions, the fact that we were on its mailing list began to worry Mother. It was no longer thrown away with the garbage like other newspapers but was saved in drawers until autumn, then burned bit by bit with the fall leaves.

One of the nightmare experiences of my childhood was the trial and electrocution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the couple accused of helping the Soviet Union obtain US atomic secrets. My parents were convinced that the Rosenbergs were scapegoats whose real crimes were being Jews and Communists. Their conviction, Mother felt, was meant to further marginalize American Communists, along with other groups critical of US structures, for the government wasn’t only after “reds” but “pinkos.” The letters the Rosenbergs sent to their children from prison were published in The Daily Worker and these Mother read to my brother and me. How we wept the morning after their death as she read the press accounts of their last minutes of life.

Music was part of our upbringing. Mother hadn’t much of a voice, but from time to time sang with great feeling such songs as “This Land is Your Land,” “Joe Hill” and “The Internationale” with its line, “Arise ye prisoners of starvation, arise ye wretched of the earth, for justice thunders condemnation, a better’s world’s in birth.” On our small wind-up 78 rpm record player, we played records of Paul Robeson, the Weavers, Burl Ives (who was a bit to the left in those days), and, of course, Pete Seeger. From these recordings I also learned many spirituals. The music of the black church was the one acceptable source of religion in the American left. I sometimes heard spirituals when I walked slowly past a nearby black church.

Despite my mother’s alienation from religion, she missed the Methodist Church in which she had been raised. During the weeks surrounding Easter and Christmas, her religious homesickness got the best of her and so we attended services, sitting up in the church balcony. One year she sent my brother and me to the church’s summer school. While this was a help for her as a working mother (she was a psychiatric social worker at a mental hospital), I have no doubt she hoped my brother and I would soak up the kind of information about the deeper meaning of life that she had received as a child.

The minister of the church, Roger Squire, was an exceptional man whose qualities included a gift for noticing people in balconies and connecting with children. His occasional visits to our house were delightful events. Only as an adult did it cross my mind how remarkable it was that he would make it a point to come into our neighborhood to knock on the kitchen door of a home that contained not church-goers but a Communist.

One of the incidents that marked me as a child was the hospitality of the Squire family to two young women from Hiroshima and Nagasaki who had survived the nuclear bombing but were badly scarred. American religious peace groups had brought them and others to the United States for plastic surgery and found them temporary homes in and near New York City not an easy undertaking for the hosts in the fifties when the word “peace” was almost a synonym for “Communism” and when many people had no desire to think about, not to say see with their own eyes, what American nuclear bombs had done to actual people. In fact, I could only guess at the results myself, as the two women were draped with veils of silk. I had an idea of faces partly melted. Through the Squires’ guests, I learned about the human cost of war and the effects of nuclear weapons, and through the Squire family I had a sturdy idea of what it meant to conform one’s life to the Gospel rather than to politics and the opinions of neighbors.

Yet the Methodist Church as such didn’t excite me. While I prized Rev. Squire and enjoyed the jokes he sprinkled in sermons to underline his points, long-time sitting was hard work for a child. I felt no urge to be baptized. Neither was I won over by the nearby Dutch Reformed Church which for some forgotten reason I attended for a few weeks or months and which I remember best for its unsuccessful attempt to get me to memorize the Ten Commandments.

The next big event in my religious development was thanks to a school friend inviting me to his church in Shrewsbury. It was among the oldest buildings in our region, its white clapboard scarred with musket balls fired in the Revolutionary war. The blood of dying soldiers had stained the church’s pews and floor, and though the stains could no longer be seen, it stirred me to think about what had happened there.

What engaged me still more was the form of worship, which was altar rather than pulpit centered. It was an Episcopal parish in which sacraments and ritual activity were the main events. (Being a parent has helped me realize that ritual is something that children naturally like; for all the experiments we make as children, we are born conservatives who want our parents to operate in predictable, patterned, reliable ways. We want meals to be on the table at a certain time and in a specific way, and in general like to know what to expect. We want the ordinary events of life to have what I think of now as liturgical shape.)

The parish was “high church” — vestments, acolytes, candles, processions, incense, liturgical seasons with their special colors, fast times, plain chant, communion every Sunday. I got a taste of a more ancient form of Christianity than I had found among Methodists. I loved it and for the first time in my life wanted not just to watch but to be part of it. It was in this church that, age nine or ten, I was baptized. I became an acolyte (thus getting to wear a bright red robe with crisp white surplice) and learned to assist the pastor, Father Lavant, at the altar. I learned much of the Book of Common Prayer by heart and rang a bell when the bread and wine were being consecrated. In Sunday school after the service I learned something of the history of Christianity, its sources and traditions, with much attention to Greek words. I remember Father Lavant writing Eucharist on the blackboard, explaining it meant thanksgiving, and that it was made up of smaller Greek words that meant “well” and “grace.” The Eucharist was a well of grace. He was the sort of man who put the ancient world in reaching distance.

But the friendship which had brought me to the church in the first place disintegrated sometime that year. I no longer felt welcome in my friend’s car, and felt awkward about coming to their church under my own steam though it would have been possible to get there by bike.

Perhaps the reason the car-door no longer opened to me was my friend’s parents became aware of our family’s political color. Given the times, it would have been hard not to know.

I had little grasp of the intense political pressures Americans were under, though I saw the same anti-communist films and television programs other kids saw and was painfully aware that my parents were “the enemy” — the people who were trying to subvert America — though I couldn’t see a trace of this happening among the real live Communists I happened to know.

It was about that time that the FBI began to openly exhibit its interest in us, interviewing many of the neighbors. One day, while Mother was out, two FBI agents came into our house and finger-printed my brother and me. Such were the times.

My father’s arrest in 1952 in St. Louis, where he was then living, was page-one news across America. Dad faced the usual charge against Communists: “conspiracy to advocate the overthrow of the United States government by force and violence.” I doubt many read this hair-raising assembly of phrases closely enough to notice that in fact the accused were not being charged with any violent or revolutionary actions or even with advocating such activities, but with being part of a conspiracy to advocate them.

The afternoon of Dad’s arrest, my Uncle Charles drove up to our house, came to the door, and yelled at my mother while waving a newspaper that had the banner headline: Ten Top Reds Arrested in Missouri. He stormed off the porch, got back into his car, a black Buick, and drove away. I never saw him again. Until then he had been a frequent visitor though I was aware Mother took pains to avoid political topics when we were with him.

Dad was to spend half a year in prison before being bailed out. Several years passed before the charges against him were finally dropped.

While it was never nearly as bad for dissenters in the US as it was in the USSR — no gulag, no summary executions, no Stalin — nonetheless I have come to feel a sense of connection with the children of religious believers in Communist countries; they too know what it is like to have their parents vilified by the mass media and imprisoned by the government.

Though it was bad enough that Dad was in prison, I was still more aware of the pressures my mother was facing. The FBI had talked with her employers. Many Communists were losing or had lost their jobs; she took it for granted it would happen to her as well. This expectation was a factor in her not buying a car until well after my brother and I were full-grown, even though we lived pretty far off the beaten track. She took the bus to work and back again, or found colleagues who could give her a lift. When I pleaded with her to get a car, she explained we shouldn’t develop needs that she might not be able afford in the future.

Her only hope of keeping her job was to give her employers no hook on which to justify dismissal. Night after night for years she worked at her desk writing case histories of patients with whom she was involved. No matter how sick she might be, she never missed a day of work, never arrived late, never left early. I doubt that the State of New Jersey ever got more from an employee than they got from her. And it worked. She wasn’t fired.

My religious interest went into recess. Within a year or two I was trying to make up my mind whether I was an atheist or an agnostic. I decided on the latter, because I couldn’t dismiss the sense I often had of God being real. Like my parents, I loved nature, and nature is full of news about God. Wherever I looked, whether at ants with a magnifying glass or at the moon with a telescope, everything in the natural order was awe-inspiring, and awe is a religious state of mind. Creation made it impossible to dismiss God. But it was a rather impersonal God — God as prime move rather than God among us.

It wasn’t until 1959, when I was turning 18, that I began to think deeply about religion and what God might mean in my life.

At the turning point in his life, St. Paul was struck blind on the road to Damascus. The equivalent moment in my own life is linked to a more prosaic setting: Saturday night at the movies. Just out of Navy boot camp, I was studying meteorology at the Navy Weather School at Lakehurst, New Jersey. The film at the base theater happened to be The Nun’s Story, based on the autobiography of a young Belgian who entered a convent and later worked at a missionary hospital in the African Congo. In the end, the nun (played by Audrey Hepburn) became an ex-nun. Conscience was at the heart of the story: conscience leading a young woman into the convent and eventually leading her elsewhere, but never away from her faith. I later discovered the film was much criticized in the Catholic press for its portrayal both of loneliness and of the abuse of authority in religious community.

If it had been Hollywood’s usual religious movie of The Bells of St. Mary’s variety, it would have had no impact on my life. But this was a true story, well-acted and honestly told, and without a happy ending, though in the woman’s apparent failure as a nun one found both integrity and faith. Against the rough surface of the story, I had a compelling glimpse of the Catholic Church with its rich and complex structures of worship and community.

After the film I went for a walk, heading away from the buildings and sidewalks. It was aware, clear August evening. Gazing at the stars, I felt an uncomplicated and overwhelming happiness such as I had never known. This seemed to rise up through the grass and to shower down on me in the starlight. I felt I was floating on God’s love like a leaf on water. I was deeply aware that everything that is or was or ever will be is joined together in God. For the first time in my life, the blackness beyond the stars wasn’t terrifying.

I didn’t think much about the film itself that night, except for a few words of Jesus that had been read to the novices during their first period of formation and which seemed to recite themselves within me as I walked: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you have, and give it to the poor, and you will have great treasure in heaven, and come, follow me.”

I went to sleep that night eager to go to Mass. I knew I wanted to be a Christian and was strongly drawn to the Catholicism.

The next morning I went to a nearby Catholic church but found the Mass disappointing. I feel like an anthropologist observing a strange tribal rite. I had only a vague idea what was happening. There seemed little connection between the priest and the congregation. Most of the worship was in mumbled, hurried, automatic Latin, except for the sermon, which probably I would have preferred had it been in Latin. People in the pews seemed either bored or were concentrating on their rosaries. At least they knew when to sit, stand, and kneel. I struggled awkwardly to keep up with them. At the end of Mass, there was no exchange of greetings or further contact between people who had been praying together. Catholic worship seemed to have all the intimacy of supermarket shopping.

Still resolved to become a Christian, I started looking for a church where there was engagement and beauty and at least something of what I had hoped to find in Catholicism. The Anglo-Catholic segment of the Episcopal Church, which I had begun to know as a child, seemed the obvious choice, and it happened that another sailor at the Weather School had been part of a high church parish. He shared his Book of Common Prayer with me and in the weeks that followed we occasionally read its services of morning and evening prayer together.

After graduating, I spent a two-week Christmas leave in an Episcopal monastery on the Hudson River not far from West Point, a joyous experience in which I thought I had found everything I was hoping for in the Catholic Church: liturgy, the sacraments, and a religious community that combined prayer, study and service. Stationed with a Navy unit at the Weather Bureau in Washington, DC, I joined a local Episcopal parish, St. Paul’s, which the monks had told me about.

Those months were full of grace. So why am I not writing an essay on “Why I am an Episcopalian”? One piece of the answer is that I had never quite let go of the Catholic Church. I could never walk past a Catholic church without stopping in to pray. A hallmark of the Catholic Church was that the Blessed Sacrament was reserved on or near the altar awaiting anyone who came in. Its presence meant this wasn’t just a room that came to life from time to time but a place where many of the curtains that usually hide God were lifted, even if you were the only person present. The doors of Catholic churches always seemed open.

Another factor were books that found their way into my hands Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, and The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement.

There were negative elements as well. One of these was an experience at the Episcopal monastery I occasionally visited. On the last day of an Easter stay one of the monks asked to see me. Once in the visiting room, he pulled me into a closet and embraced me. I struggled free and left the monastery in great confusion. Back in Washington, I wrote to the prior of the community, telling him what had happened. His reply wasn’t helpful. He might have pointed out that monks, like everyone else, suffer loneliness and have sexual longings of one sort or another and sometimes don’t manage it very well. Rather he said that homosexuality was often an indication of a monastic vocation. As my own sexual orientation was of the more common variety, I wondered if the prior meant I wasn’t the right sort of person to be visiting. After his letter, I had no desire to return. The experience underscored my growing doubts about remaining in the Episcopal Church.

Yet I still had reservations about becoming Catholic and so began to explore the varieties of Christianity in Washington, visiting every sort of church, black and white, high and low. Among them was a Greek Orthodox cathedral, but it seemed a cool, unwelcoming place; I sensed one had to be Greek to be a part of it. I returned several times to the black church on the campus of Howard University, a friendly place with wonderful singing, but felt that, as a white person, I would always be an outsider. If I could have changed skin color by wishing, I would have turned black in the Howard chapel.

As the weeks went by I came to realize that the Catholic churches I so often stopped in to pray were places in which I felt an at-homeness I hadn’t found anywhere else. On November 26,1960, after several months of instruction, I was received into the Catholic Church.

What had most attracted me to Catholicism was the Liturgy. Though in some parishes it was a dry, mechanical affair, there were other parishes where the care taken in every aspect of worship was profound. While for some people, worship in an ancient language is a barrier, in my own case I came to love the Latin. I was happy to be participating in a language of worship that was being used simultaneously in every part of the world and which also was a bridge of connection with past generations. I learned many Latin prayers by heart, especially anything that could be sung, and still sing Latin prayers and hymns. “To sing is to pray twice,” one of the Church Fathers says. How true!

In the early stages of liturgical change following the Second Vatican Council, I felt a complex mixture of expectation and anxiety. Despite my private love of Latin, I could hardly disagree with the many arguments put forward for scrapping it. I didn’t want to hang onto what apparently got in the way for others.

The Englishing of the Liturgy was not carried out by poets. We ended up with the English language in its flattest state. We lost not only Latin but Gregorian chant, a great pity. Most of the music that took its place was pedestrian at every level, fit for shopping malls and Disneyland. The sand blasting had also removed incense. The body language of prayer was in retreat. The holy water fonts were dry. Many bridges linking body and soul were abandoned.

Yet, again like most Catholics, I uttered few words of complaint. I knew that change is not a comfortable experience. And I thought of myself as a modern person; I was embarrassed by my difficulties adjusting to change. Also I had no sense of connection with those who were protesting the changes. These tended to be the rigid Catholics of the sort who were more papal than the Pope. (I had never been attracted to that icy wing of Catholicism that argued one must be a Catholic, and a most obedient Catholic, in order to be saved.)

If one has experienced only the modern “fast-food” liturgy of the Catholic Church, perhaps the typical modern Mass isn’t so disappointing. But for me there was a deep sense of loss. For many years I often left Mass feeling depressed.

All this said, there was a positive side to Catholicism that in many ways compensated for what was missing in the Liturgy. For all its problems, which no church is without, the Catholic Church has the strength of being a world community in which many members see themselves as being on the same footing as fellow Catholics on the other side of the globe; in contrast many Orthodox Christians see their church, even Christ, primarily in national terms. The Catholic Church also possesses a strong sense of co-responsibility for the social order, and a relatively high degree of independence from all political and economic structures.

This aspect of the Catholic Church finds many expressions. I joined one of them, the Catholic Worker movement, after receiving a conscientious objector discharge in 1960.

Founded by Dorothy Day in 1933, the Catholic Worker is well known for its “houses of hospitality” — places of welcome in run-down urban areas where those in need can receive food, clothing, and shelter. It is a movement not unlike the early Franciscans, attempting to live out the Gospels in a simple, literal way. Jesus said to be poor; those involved in the Catholic Worker struggle to have as little as possible. Jesus said to do good to and pray for those who curse you, to love your enemies, to put away the sword; and Catholic Workers try to do this as well, refusing to take part in war or violence. The Catholic Worker view of the world is no less critical than that of the Prophets and the Gospel. There was a remarkable interest in the writings of the Church Fathers. One often found quotations from St. John Chrysostom, St. Gregory Nazianzen, Saint Basil and other voices of the early Church in movement’s widely read publication, The Catholic Worker.

I found in Dorothy Day a deep appreciation of its richness and way of worship of the Eastern Church. She also had a special love for Russian literature, most of all the work of Dostoevsky. At times she recited passages from The Brothers Karamazov that had shaped her understanding of Christianity; mainly these had to do with the saintly staretz Father Zosima (a figure modeled in part on Father Amvrosi who was canonized by the Russian Church in 1988) and his teaching on active love. Dorothy inspired me to read Dostoevsky. It was Dorothy who first took me into a Russian Orthodox Church, a cathedral in upper Manhattan where I met a priest who, many years later, I was to meet again in Moscow, Father Matvay Stadniuk. (In 1988 he launched the first public project of voluntary service by Church members since Soviet power had launched its war on religion.) At a Liturgy she took me to I first learned to sing the Old Slavonic words, “Gospodi pomiloi “Lord have mercy, the main prayer of Orthodoxy.

One evening Dorothy brought me to a Manhattan apartment for meeting of the Third Hour, a Christian ecumenical group founded by a Russian émigré, Helene Iswolsky. The conversation was in part about the Russian word for spirituality, dukhovnost. The Russian understanding of spiritual life, it was explained, not only suggests a private relationship between the praying person and God but has profound social content: moral capacity, social responsibility, courage, wisdom, mercy, a readiness to forgive, a way of life centered in love. Much of the discussion flew over my head. At times I was more attentive to the remarkable face of the poet W.H. Auden, a member of the Third Hour group. I recall talk about iurodivi, the “holy fools” who revealed Christ in ways that would be regarded as insanity in the west, and stralniki, those who wandered Russia in continuous pilgrimage, begging for bread and reciting with every breath and step the silent prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

One of the people Dorothy was in touch with was the famous Trappist monk and author, Thomas Merton, whose autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, had been a factor in my becoming a Catholic. Through Dorothy I came to be one of his correspondents and later his guest at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Besides many letters, Merton used to send me photographs of Russian and Greek icons. Icons had played an important part in his conversion to Christianity and, as I was to discover in writing a book about him, in his continuing spiritual life.

Thanks to Merton and Dorothy Day, I was more aware than many western Christians of the eastern Church, but Orthodoxy seemed to me more an ethnic club than a place for an American with a family tree whose roots stretched from Ireland to the Urals, more a living museum than a living Church. My eyes were slow in opening to icons. While the music in Russian churches was amazingly beautiful, Orthodox services seemed too long and the ritual too ornate. I was in a typical American hurry about most things, even worship, and had the usual American aversion to trimmings. Orthodoxy seemed excessive.

As much of my life has been spent editing peace movement publications, one might imagine such work would have opened many east-west doors for me. Ironically, however, through most of the Cold War the peace movement in the United States was notable for its avoidance of contact with the Soviet Union. Perhaps because we were so routinely accused of being “tools of the Kremlin,” peace activists tended to steer clear of the USSR and rarely knew more about it than anyone else. Even to visit the Soviet Union was to be convicted of everything the Reader’s Digest had ever said about KGB direction of peace groups in the west.

In the spring of 1982, after five years heading the staff of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation in Holland, I was on a speaking trip that took me to twenty American cities. At the time the Nuclear Freeze movement was gathering strength. It advocated a bilateral end to nuclear testing, freezing the manufacture of nuclear weapons, and halting development of new weapons systems. Millions of people, both Democrat and Republican, supported the Freeze. Yet I came back to Holland convinced that its prospects for success were slight.

The Freeze, like many peace campaigns during the Cold War, was built mainly on fear of nuclear weapons. Practically nothing was being done to respond to relationship issues or fear of the Soviet Union. All that was needed was one nasty incident to burst the balloon, and that came when a Soviet pilot shot down a South Korean 747 passenger plane flying across Soviet air space. The image of the west facing a barbaric and ruthless enemy was instantly revived. The Freeze movement crashed with the 747 jet.

The trip brought home to me that both in the peace movement and in the military, we in the west knew more about weapons than the people at whom the weapons were aimed. I began to look for an opportunity to visit the Soviet Union.

At the time it wasn’t easy to find an opening. The Soviet Union was at war in Afghanistan, an event sharply condemned by the organization I was working for. A seminar we had arranged in Moscow was abruptly canceled on the Soviet side. An editor of Izvestia whom I met in Amsterdam candidly explained that Kremlin was guarding itself from western pacifists unveiling protest signs in Red Square.

In October 1983, a few representatives of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation met several leaders of the Christian Peace Conference for a dialogue on the subject of “Violence, Nonviolence and Liberation.” We met in Moscow in an old wooden building used at that time by the External Church Affairs Department of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The meeting would have been useful no matter where it had happened. But for me it had an unexpected spiritual significance because it was in Russia. I experienced a particular sense of connection with the Russian Orthodox believers and longed to have the chance for more prolonged contact.

A year later I was in Moscow once again, this time for an exchange (sadly not real dialogue) with hardline Communists in the Soviet Peace Committee. For me the primary significance of the trip was the contact with Orthodox believers.

The high point was the Liturgy at the Epiphany Cathedral. This isn’t one of the city’s oldest or most beautiful churches, though it has an outstanding choir. The icons, coming from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were a far cry from Rublev and Theofan the Greek. And yet being in that throng of devout worshipers was a more illuminating experience than I have had in far more beautiful churches. The place became beautiful for me simply because it was such a grace to be there.

The church was crowded as a church in the west would be only on a major feast day. As is usual in the Russian Orthodox Church, there were no pews. There were a few benches and chairs along the walls for those who needed them, but I found it freeing to be on my feet. Though at times it was uncomfortable to be standing up for so long, being upright made me more attentive. It was like a move from the bleachers to the field. (I’d like one day to learn how chairs and benches made their way into churches. Is it connected with the Reformation’s re-centering of services around the sermon? Perhaps it happened when people got bored.)

I was fascinated by the linking of spiritual and physical activity. Making the sign of the cross and half bows were ordinary elements of prayer. Orthodox believers seemed to cross themselves and bow almost continually. As I watched the rippling of bowing heads in the tightly packed congregation, I was reminded of the patterns the wind makes blowing across afield of wheat.

All the while two choirs, in balconies on either side of the huge cupola, were singing. For the Creed and Our Father, the congregation joined with the choirs, singing with great force.

At first I stood like a statue, though wanting to do what those around me were doing. It seemed so appropriate for an incarnational religion to link body and soul through these simple gestures. It must have taken me most of an hour before I began to pray in the Russian style.

The sense of people being deeply at prayer was as tangible as Russian black bread. I felt that if the walls and pillars of the church were taken away, the roof would rest securely on the prayers of the congregation below. I have very rarely experienced this kind of intense spiritual presence. In its intensity, though there are many superficial differences, I can only compare it to the black church in America.

The experience led me to write Pilgrim to the Russian Church, a book which required a number of Russian trips; on one of these I was joined by my wife, Nancy.

In the course of my travels I came to love the slow, unhurried tradition of prayer in Orthodoxy, deeply appreciating its absent-mindedness about the clock. The Liturgy rarely started on time, never ended on time, and lasted two or three hours, still longer on great feasts. I discovered that Orthodox believers are willing to give to worship the kind of time and devotion that Italians give to their evening meals.

I became increasingly aware of how deep and mindful is Orthodox preparation for communion, with stress on forgiveness of others as a precondition for reception of the sacrament.

I enjoyed watching confession in Orthodox churches. The penitent and priest weren’t tucked away in closets but stood in front on the iconostasis, faces nearly touching. There is a tenderness about it that never ceases to amaze me. (While I still don’t find confession easy, I don’t envy those forms of Christianity that do without it.)

I quickly came to appreciate Orthodoxy for taking literally Jesus’ teaching, “Let the children come to me and hinder them not.” In our Catholic parish in Holland, our daughter Anne had gone from confusion and hurt to pain and anger after many attempts to receive communion with Nancy and me. She hadn’t reached “the age of reason” and therefore couldn’t receive the instruction considered a prerequisite to sacramental life. But a child in an Orthodox parish is at the front of the line to receive communion.

I came to esteem the married clergy of Orthodoxy. While there are many Orthodox monks and nuns and celibacy is an honored state, I found that marriage is more valued in Orthodoxy than Catholicism. Sexual discipline is taken no less seriously, yet one isn’t left feeling that the main sins are sexual.

I came to cherish the relative darkness usual in Orthodox churches, where the main light source is candles. Candle light creates a climate of intimacy. Icons are intended for candlelight.

Praying with icons was an aspect of Orthodox spirituality that opened its doors to us even though we weren’t yet Orthodox. During a three-month sabbatical in 1985 when we were living near Jerusalem, we bought a small Russian Vladimirskaya icon of Mary and Jesus and began praying before it. The icon itself proved to be a school of prayer. We learned much about prayer by simply standing in front of our icon.

All the while Nancy and I were continuing our frustrating search for a Catholic parish that we could be fully a part of in our Dutch town.

On the one hand there were parishes that seemed linked to the larger Church only by frayed threads; parishes were abandoning rituals, traditions and lines of connection which seemed to us worth preserving, and going their own way. There were other parishes that, in ritual life, were clearly part of a larger church but where there was no sense of welcome or warmth.

Finally Nancy and I became part of a parish where, by joining the choir, we felt more a part of a church community. But we were far and away the youngest members of the choir and still felt apart. None of our children were willing to come.

How we envied Russian Orthodox believers! Oddly enough it didn’t occur to me that there might be a similar quality of worship in Orthodox churches in the west. I thought that Orthodoxy was like certain wines that must be sipped at the vineyard. I also had the idea that Russian parishes in the west must be filled with bitter refugees preoccupied with hating Communists.

Then in January 1988, at the invitation of Father Alexis Voogd, pastor of the St. Nicholas of Myra Church in Amsterdam, Nancy and I took part in a special ecumenical service to mark the beginning of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Millennium celebration: a thousand years since the baptism of the citizens of Kiev. Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox, we were packed into the tiny church for a service that was a hodge-podge of speeches by clergy from various local churches interspersed with beautiful Russian hymns sung by the parish choir.

If it was just that ecumenical service, perhaps we might not have returned. But at the reception in the parish hall that followed, we were startled to experience a kind of interaction that I had rarely found in any church in any country, not to say in prudent, restrained, understated Holland.

Walking to the train station afterward, we decided to come back and see what the Liturgy was like. The following Sunday we discovered it was every bit as profound as it was in Russia. And that was that. We managed only once or twice to return to Mass in our former Catholic parish. Before a month had passed we realized that a prayer we had been living with along time had been answered: we had found a church we wholeheartedly could belong to and couldn’t bear not going to even if it meant getting out of bed early and traveling by train and tram to Amsterdam every week.

On Palm Sunday 1988, I was received into the Orthodox Church; Nancy made the same step on Pentecost.

In many ways it wasn’t such a big step from where we had been. Orthodoxy and Catholicism have so much in common: sacraments, apostolic succession, the calendar of feasts and fasts, devotion to the Mother of God, and much more. Yet in Orthodoxy we found an even deeper sense of connection with the early Church and a far more vital form of liturgical life. Much that has been neglected in Catholicism and abandoned in Protestant churches, especially confession and fasting, remain central in Orthodox life. We quickly found what positive, life-renewing gifts they were, and saw that they were faring better in a climate that was less legalistic but more demanding.

Postscript

The religious movement in my life, which from the beginning was influenced by my parents, also influenced them. While neither followed me into Catholicism or Orthodoxy, in the early sixties my mother returned to the Methodist Church, which remained at the core of her life until her death in December 2001. She had resigned from the Communist Party at the time the Soviets put down the Hungarian uprising. Despite her age and failing eyesight, until her infirmities mainly confined her to her home, she continued in in her struggle for the poor, much to the consternation of local politicians and bureaucrats. As for my father, it was only after his death that it became evident he had sometime earlier quietly resigned from what he always called “the Party”; what made this obvious was the participation of only a few Communists in his otherwise well-attended memorial service. Late in his life he became a Unitarian, explaining to anyone who was surprised that at this religious turning that Unitarians believing, at most, in one God. In the last two decades of his life he had been very active in developing low-income and inter-racial housing projects in California. A cooperative he helped found in Santa Rosa was singled out for several honors, including the Certificate of National Merit from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Always deeply supportive of my religious commitment, I recall with particular happiness hearing him reading aloud at bedtime to my step-mother, Lucy, from my book, Pilgrim to the Russian Church. On his death bed in the spring of 1990, he borrowed the crucifix I normally wear around my neck. It was in his hands a week later when he died.

Jim Forest is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and editor of its quarterly journal, In Communion. His most recent books are The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life, Silent as a Stone (a children’s book about a community of rescuers in German-occupied Paris), The Wormwood File, Praying With Icons, The Ladder of the Beatitudes and Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness. Earlier books include Religion in the New Russia, Pilgrim to the Russian Church, Love is the Measure: a biography of Dorothy Day, and Living with Wisdom: a Life of Thomas Merton. He has lived in the Netherlands since 1977 and is a member of the St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam. The essay is reprinted from Toward the Authentic Church, edited by Thomas Doulis (Minneapolis: Light & Life Books, 1996). Photo taken in Oxford, May 2001, by Nancy Forest.

A Round-about Way of Becoming Orthodox

an interview with Fr. Alexis Voogd

by Jim Forest

Fr. Alexis Voogd, with his wife Tatiana and several others, founded St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam in 1974. This interview with him was taped in the Voogd apartment in Amsterdam on April 5, 1990. At the time Fr. Alexis he was also a lecturer at the Slavic Institute at the University of Amsterdam. (Fr Alexis fell asleep in the Lord in December 2002.)

[starting the tape recorder]

This looks serious! But will my English make sense?

I admire your gift for languages.

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

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

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

Have you brothers or sisters?

A sister, Helena, two years older than me.

A very Orthodox name!

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

Can you say something about your family?

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

Were they people with a religious faith?

Not positively religious. Neither had been baptized. Nor were my grandparents connected with any church. Among my father’s books were a few about religion. I remember one title: “The Fool Says…”. It was about the Christian faith.

Did you ever talk to your parents about religion?

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

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

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

How old were you then?

Nine or ten.

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

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

Did you feel lonely as a boy?

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

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

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

But it was all something that you experienced alone.

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

What later raised your interest in the Slavic countries?

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

How did you experience the invasion?

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

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

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

Were you happier as an Indian than a school boy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What kind of dream was that?

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

Did you learn Swedish?

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

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

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

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

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

Why did you do that?

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

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

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

Was he Orthodox?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And into this crisis appeared the figure of Metropolitan Anthony…

How did that happen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did the founding of the Amsterdam parish come about?

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

Is that when you took the name Alexis?

No, earlier, at baptism.

Which Alexis?

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

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

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

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

Somewhere along the way you had also become a father…

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

When was the parish of Saint Nicholas founded?

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

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

Was it a Serbian parish?

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

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

How did the independent Russian parish come into being?

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

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

What had led to your ordination as priest?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This version of the interview benefits from the translation into Dutch made by Father Alexis in 1998 in which many additions and clarifications were incorporated. The translation of these changes back into English was done by Father Alexis’ sister, Helena, and her husband, Father Patrick Radley. Photos by Jim Forest. You may want to visit the web site of St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam: www.orthodox.nl.

Meeting Thomas Merton

lecture given by Jim Forest at the meeting of the Thomas Merton Society of Great Britain and Ireland at St Lawrence Church in Winchester, England, 29 November 2003

One of the odd things about Thomas Merton is that one occasionally runs into people who relate stories of meeting him at times and places far from where Merton actually was. The story tellers I’ve run into take offense if one tries to convince them that the encounters they remember could not possibly have occurred. Their memories are more real to them than anything that happened in the past hour. They ran into him serving soup at a Catholic Worker house in St. Paul, Minnesota. They discovered him in the main reading room of the New York City Public Library. They happened to meet him at the National Gallery in London. He had just gotten out of prison for anti-war activities. He was married and had children. He was unmarried but living with a model. He had become a Buddhist monk. He was a Hindu ascetic. He was a Sufi. He was on his way to Nepal to disappear among the mountain hermits.

The oddest memories are those placed after his death. It turns out he didn’t die at the Red Cross Conference Center near Bangkok on the 10th of December in 1968 but slipped away and has been living incognito ever since, through the mirage of death at last escaping the imprisoning grip of his abbot, the Vatican, Catholicism and even Christianity.

I rarely raise objections when I hear such tales. My supposition is that what seems to be a memory is in fact a combination of intimate wish and vivid dream, but so ultra-real that it has proved more enduring than many waking experiences.

All these stories remind me of how deeply Thomas Merton has entered the lives of many of his readers and what a key figure he remains. He has become part of our dream population.

His influence has been wide spread. In my travels I can’t recall visiting a country in which I didn’t encounter people with a passionate interest in Merton. Even in Soviet Russia, when the iron curtain seemed indestructible and where imported western books were extraordinarily hard to come by, I occasionally met people who had obtained and treasured volumes by Thomas Merton.

We are part of that crowd of beneficiaries. Though few of us met him face-to-face and perhaps none of us possesses any dreams-turned-memories about him, Merton has nonetheless touched our lives to such an extent that he has managed to bring us together here in Winchester to mark the tenth anniversary of the founding of the Thomas Merton Society of Great Britain and Ireland .

It is very nearly 35 years since he died, only 53 years old. And here we are, wondering about his place in a new century. Will there be a similar meeting ten years from now? Or is Thomas Merton becoming dated?

These are not questions that I can answer with confidence. It’s a mystery why certain lives touch us so powerfully, to the extent memorial societies like ours spring up. But there is never a guarantee that the next generation will be similarly interested.

Each of us has a memory of Merton’s entrance into our lives. Usually it has to do with coming upon one of his books. It is the same for me.

I recall being an eighteen-year-old boy waiting for a bus in Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Terminal. It was 1959 and I was on leave from my Navy job at the U.S. Weather Bureau. Christmas was a few days away. I was en route to a monastery for a week-long stay. Until that moment, the closest I had come to monastic life was seeing a film called “The Nun’s Story” starring Audrey Hepburn. With a little time on my hands, I was browsing a carousel full of paperback books that was off to one side of the waiting room’s newsstand and came upon a book with the odd title, “The Seven Storey Mountain” by someone named Thomas Merton. The author’s name meant nothing to me. It was, the jacket announced, “the autobiography of a young man who led a full and worldly life and then, at the age of 26, entered a Trappist monastery.” There was a quotation from Evelyn Waugh, who said this book “may well prove to be of permanent interest in the history of religious experience.” Another writer compared it to Augustine’s “Confessions.”

It proved to be a can’t-put-it-down read for me. In the bus going up the Hudson Valley, I can recall occasionally looking up from the text to gaze out the window at the heavy snow that was falling that night. Merton’s story has ever since been linked in my mind with the silent ballet of snow flakes swirling under street lights.

In 1948, the year “The Seven Storey Mountain” was published, Merton was only 33. His book had been in the shops eleven years when, in its umpteenth printing, it reached my hands.

Had I known it, the book’s author was now quite a different person than the Merton I envisioned on my first reading of his autobiography. The Thomas Merton I imagined had found his true home on the 10th of December 1941, the day he came to stay at the Abbey of Gethsemani, and was as firmly and peacefully rooted there as an oak tree in a national park. He was that blessed man who finds not only faith but the place to live that faith, and though accidentally made famous by a book, was living happily in medieval obscurity in rural Kentucky.

I would later discover that the actual Thomas Merton, far from being happily rooted, was in fact eager to transplant himself. It wasn’t something he mentioned in “The Seven Storey Mountain,” but he had found sleeping in a crowded Trappist dormitory hard going and often found his monastery factory-like. He had dreams of becoming a hermit, but there was no tradition of solitary life in his order.

As it happens, 1959 was the year he made a major effort to get permission to move. His idea was to become a hermit associated with a more privative monastery somewhere in Latin America, with Mexico the leading contender. On the 17th of December 1959, just a few days before I began reading “The Seven Storey Mountain,” he had been on his knees before the Blessed Sacrament opening a letter from Rome that told him, though his request was viewed with sympathy, permission could not be given for him to leave the Abbey of Gethsemani. “They were very sorry,” he noted in his journal later that day. “They wanted the right words to pour balm in certain wounds. But my departure would certainly upset too many people in the Order as well as outside it. They agreed with my superiors that I did not have an ermitical vocation. Therefore what they asked of me was to stay in the monastery where God had put me, and I would find interior solitude.” [The Intimate Merton, p 146] Two cardinals had signed the letter.

And yet the Merton I imagined was not altogether different than the actual Merton. He read the letter with detachment, without anger, resentment or the temptation to disobey. In his journal he commented: “The letter was too obvious. It could only be accepted. My first reaction was one of relief that at last the problem had been settled.” He found himself surprised that he wasn’t at all upset and felt no disappointment but rather “only joy and emptiness and liberty.” He saw the letter as bearing news of God’s will, which more than anything else was what he was desperate to know. “I accept it fully,” he wrote. “So then what? Nothing. Trees, hills, rain. Prayer much lighter, much freer, more unconcerned. A mountain lifted off my shoulders — a Mexican mountain I myself had chosen.”

Yet even that day he had in mind the importance of replying to the letter, if only to explain what he understood the hermit’s vocation to be and what drew him in that direction. If he was not to be allowed to become a hermit at another monastery, then perhaps the day might come when there would be a place for hermits within the Trappist context.

It was thanks to Dorothy Day, leader of the Catholic Worker movement, that I came in closer contact with Merton. I first met Dorothy a few days before Christmas in 1960, just a year after reading “The Seven Storey Mountain.” Once again I was on leave from my Navy job in Washington, D.C. My first few days were spent at Saint Joseph’s House in Manhattan, but one day I went to the Catholic Worker’s rural outpost on the southern tip of Staten Island, the Peter Maurin Farm. In the large, faded dining room of an old farmhouse, I found half a dozen people gathered around a pot of tea and a pile of mail at one end of a large table. Dorothy Day was reading letters aloud.

The only letter I still recall from that day’s reading was one from Thomas Merton. It amazed me that they were in correspondence. The Merton I had met in the pages of The Seven Storey Mountain had withdrawn from “the world” with a slam of the door that was heard around the world, while Dorothy Day was as much in the world as the mayor of New York. Also I recalled Merton’s description of the strict limits Trappists placed on correspondence. I had assumed he wrote to no one outside his family. Yet here he was exchanging letters with one of America’s more controversial figures.

Merton told Dorothy that he was deeply touched by her witness for peace, which had several times resulted in arrest and imprisonment. “You are right going along the lines of satyagraha [Gandhi’s term for nonviolent action; literally the power of truth]. I see no other way…. Nowadays it is no longer a question of who is right but who is at least not criminal …. It has never been more true than now that the world is lost in its own falsity and cannot see true values.”

In this letter, and many similar “Cold War letters,” Merton would write during the last decade of his life, one met a Merton who at first seemed quite different from than the Merton of “The Seven Storey Mountain,” yet in fact the reader looking for a more socially engaged, war-resisting Merton will find much evidence of him in the autobiography.

It was in “The Seven Storey Mountain,” after all, that he explained why he had decided not to fight in World War II, though he was prepared for noncombatant service as an Army medic. In a passage which must have startled many readers of the autobiography, appearing as it did just after the war, he explained: “[God] was not asking me to judge all the nations of the world, or to elucidate all the moral and political motives behind their actions. He was not demanding that I pass some critical decision defining the innocence and guilt of all those concerned in the war. He was asking me to make a choice that amounted to an act of love for His truth, His goodness, His charity, His Gospel. . . . He was asking me to do, to the best of my knowledge, what I thought Christ would do. . . . After all, Christ did say, ‘Whatsoever you have done to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’.” [SSM, 311-12]

In the same book, Merton had recorded the experience of being a volunteer at a house of hospitality on 135th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem in the months that proceeded his choosing the monastic life. He described Harlem as a “divine indictment against New York City and the people who live downtown and make their money downtown. … Here in this huge, dark, steaming slum, hundreds of thousands of Negroes are herded together like cattle, most of them with little to eat and nothing to do. All the senses and imagination and sensibilities and emotions and sorrows and desires and hopes and ideas of a race with vivid feelings and deep emotional reactions are forced in upon themselves, bound inward by an iron ring of frustration: the prejudice that hems them in with its four insurmountable walls. In this huge cauldron inestimable natural gifts, wisdom, love, music, science, poetry, are stamped down and left to boil . . . and thousands upon thousands of souls are destroyed.” [SSM, 345] It’s an easy leap from these sentences to his essays about racism written in sixties.

Anguish and rage warm many pages in “The Seven Storey Mountain.” The distress with structures of violence and social cruelty that is a major theme of his later writings is evident in the younger Merton as well. If there is a difference in later life, it is simply that the older Merton no longer regarded monastic life as a short cut to heaven. Rather he saw it as a place to which some are called, but in no way a “higher” vocation than any other state in life to which God calls His children. The question is thus not to seek a “best” vocation but rather to seek God’s will in the particular context of one’s own temperament and circumstances. The challenge God gives each of us is to become a saint.

After receiving my discharge from the Navy in the early summer of 1961, I joined the Catholic Worker community in New York City. I thought it might be a stopping point on the way to a monastery.

Dorothy knew of my interest in Merton’s book and the attraction I felt for monastic life. She shared Merton’s letters with me. Then one day she gave me a letter of his to answer. He had sent her a poem about Auschwitz and the Holocaust that he had written during the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, “Chant to Be Used Around a Site for Furnaces.” In his letter to Dorothy, Merton described it as a “gruesome” work. I wrote to tell Merton of our appreciation of the poem and our plans to publish it. It would serve, I commented, as The Catholic Worker’s response to the Eichmann trial.

Not many days later I had a response from Merton in which he noted that we live in a time of war and the need “to shut up and be humble and stay put and trust in God and hope for a peace that we can use for the good of our souls.” A letter to me from Thomas Merton! I could not have felt more elated had I received the map revealing the location of pirate gold.

Though I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, that single sentence revealed a great deal about the long-term struggles in which Merton was engaged. I thought what he said was aimed at me (how apt the advice was!), but, as was so often the case in his letters, he was addressing himself as well. He had enormous difficulty shutting up, feared he was lacking in humility, and often resisted staying put.

Though by now I had read several of his books, my own idea of Merton was still two-dimensional. I could not imagine he had problems being humble and staying put.

In December 1961, Merton suggested that perhaps I would like to come to the monastery for a visit. There was never any question in my mind about accepting though there was an issue of The Catholic Worker to get ready for publication and a night class in English Literature to finish at Hunter College. I was able to leave for Kentucky early in February 1962.

I had no money for such a journey — at the Catholic Worker one received room and board plus small change for minor expenses, subway rides and the like. I never dared ask even for a penny, preferring to sell The Catholic Worker on street corners in Greenwich Village, keeping a small portion of the proceeds for my incidental expenses and giving the rest to the community. A companion on the Catholic Worker staff, Bob Kaye, joined me. With our nearly empty wallets, we had no alternative but to travel by thumb. Before sunrise one damp winter morning we loaded up on Italian bread still warm from the oven of the Spring Street bakery and set off. I can still recall standing in nighttime sleet at the side of a highway somewhere in Pennsylvania watching cars and trucks rush past, many of them with colorful plastic statues of an open-armed Jesus on the dashboard. The image of Christ’s hospitality seemed to have little influence on the drivers. It took us two exhausting days to travel the thousand miles to the Abbey of Gethsemani.

But at last we reached the monastery. After the Guest Master showed us our rooms, my first stop was the monastery church. There was a balcony in the church that was connected to the guest house. Surviving such a trip, a prayer of thanksgiving came easily, but my prayer was cut short by the sound of distant laughter so intense and pervasive that I couldn’t resist looking for its source. I hadn’t expected laughter at a penitential Trappist monastery.

The origin, I discovered, was Bob Kaye’s room. As I opened the door the laughter was still going on, a kind of gale of joy. The major source was the red-faced man lying on the floor, wearing black and white robes and a broad leather belt, his knees in the air, hands clutching his belly. Though the monk was more well-fed than the fast-chastened Trappist monk I had imagined, I realized instantly that the man on the floor laughing with such abandon was Thomas Merton. His face reminded me of David Duncan’s photos of Pablo Picasso, not so much in details but a similar mobility of expression. And the inspiration for the laughter? It proved to be the heady smell of feet kept in shoes all the way from the Lower East Side to Gethsemani — the perfume of the Catholic Worker.

After that week-long stay at Gethsemani, The Seven Storey Mountain became a new and different book. No wonder the films of Charlie Chaplin were twice mentioned in “The Seven Storey Mountain”! Not only did I become aware that Merton was someone capable of hurricanes of laughter, but I learned that he was far from the only monk who knew how to laugh, though few of them exhibited the trait quite so readily as Merton.

The abbot, Dom James, though a hospitable man, was not initially quite so positive about a visitation of young Catholic Workers. In those days most American men had frequent haircuts, but haircuts seemed to Bob and me a massive waste of money. The next day Merton apologetically explained that our shaggy hair did not please the abbot. If we were to stay on at the abbey, Dom James insisted we have our hair trimmed. Merton hoped we wouldn’t object. A little while later I was sitting in a chair in the basement room where the novices changed into their work clothes; the room also served as a kind of barber shop. While the novices stood in a circle laughing, my hair fell to the concrete floor. Going from one extreme to the other, I was suddenly as bald as Yul Brinner.

After the haircut Merton took me to the abbot’s office. I can no longer recall what we talked about — it may well have been about Dorothy Day and community life at the Catholic Worker — but I will never forget the solemn blessing Dom James gave me at the end of our conversation. I knelt on the floor near his desk while he gripped my skull with intensity while praying over me. He had a steel grip. There was no doubt in my mind I had been seriously blessed. I have ever since had a warm spot in my heart for Dom James, a man who has occasionally been maligned by Merton biographers.

I recall another monk at the monastery who had much less sympathy for me and still less, it seemed, for Thomas Merton — or Father Louis, as Merton was known within the community. This was the abbey’s other noted author, Father Raymond, whose books were well known to Catholics at the time though they had never reached the broad audience Merton’s books had. Merton and I were walking down a basement corridor that linked the guest house kitchen to the basement of the main monastery building. There was a point in the corridor where it made a leftward turn and standing there, next to a large garbage container, was an older monk who was not so much reading as glaring at the latest Catholic Worker, which he held open at arm’s length as if the paper had an unpleasant smell. There was an article of Merton’s in it, one of his essays about 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 into the garbage container, and strode away without a word leaving a trail of smoke.

Once again, Merton’s response was laughter. Then he explained that Father Raymond had never had a high opinion of Merton’s 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, and now he thinks I’m not detached enough.” Merton laughed once again.

During that visit I had my first glimpse of Merton’s openness to non-Catholics and, more striking, non-Christians. It happened the first evening I was there. There was a hurried knock on the door of my room in the guest house. Merton was standing there, but in a rush as he was late for Vespers. He wanted me to have the pile of papers in his hands, a collection of Jewish Hasidic stories that a rabbi had left with him a few days before. “Read these — these are great!” And off he hurried to Vespers without further explanation, leaving me with a collection of amazing tales of mystical rabbis in Poland generations before the Holocaust.

I recall another evening a day or two later when Merton was not in a hurry. He was in good time for Vespers and already had on the white woolen choir robe the monks wore during winter months while in church. It was an impressive garment, all the more so at close range. I reached out to feel it thickness and density. In a flash Merton slid out of it and placed it over my head. I was astonished at how heavy it was! Once again, Merton laughed. The robe met a practical need, he explained. It was hardly warmer in the church than it was outside. If you wore only the black and white garments that were standard attire, you would freeze to death.

The guest master, a monk named Father Francis, knew I was at the monastery at Merton’s invitation and thought I might be able to answer a question which puzzled him and no doubt many of the monks: “How did Father Louis write all those books?” I had no idea, no more than he. But I got a glimpse of an answer before my stay was over. A friend at the Catholic Worker had sent a letter to Merton in my care. He urged Merton to leave the monastery and do something “more relevant,” such as join a Catholic Worker community. (Over the years Merton received quite a few letters telling him that he was in the wrong place.) What is memorable to me about this particular letter was the experience of watching Merton write. He had a small office just outside the classroom where he taught the novices. On his desk was a large grey typewriter. He inserted a piece of monastery stationery and wrote a reply at what seemed to me the speed of light. I had never seen anyone write so quickly. You will sometimes see a skilled stenographer type at such speed when copying a text, but even in a city news room one doesn’t often see actual writing at a similar pace. I only wish I had made a copy of his response. I recall that he readily admitted that there was much to reform in monasteries and that monastic life was not a vocation to which God often called His children, yet he gave an explanation of why he thought the monastic life was nonetheless an authentic Christian vocation and how crucial it was for him to remain faithful to what God had called him to. It was a very solid, carefully reasoned letter filling one side of a sheet of paper and was written in just a few minutes.

When I first met Merton, more than two years had passed since the Vatican’s denial of his request to move to another monastery where he might live in greater solitude. In March 1960, nearly a year before my visit, Merton had been given his own small cell in the monastery and soon after plans were made for the construction of a small cinder block building — in principle a conference center where Merton could meet with non-Catholic visitors, but Merton called it his hermitage — on the edge of the woods about a mile north of the monastery. Merton had lit the first fire in the fireplace several months before, on December 2nd. There was a small bedroom behind the main room. Merton occasionally had permission to stay overnight, but it would not be until the summer of 1965 that it became his full-time home. At that point he became the first Trappist hermit/

By the time I came to visit, it already had a lived-in look. It was winter so there was no sitting on the porch. We were inside, regularly adding wood to the blaze in the fireplace. I recall a Japanese calendar on the wall with a Zen brush drawing for every month of the year, also one of his friend Ad Reinhart’s black-on-black paintings. Of course there was a bookcase and, next to it, a long table that served as a desk placed on the inside of the hermitage’s one large window. There was a view of fields and hills. A large timber cross had been built on the lawn. On the table was a sleek Swiss-made Hermes typewriter. Off to one side of the hermitage was an outhouse which Merton shared with a black snake, a harmless but impressive creature.

What Merton took the most pleasure in when he showed me the hermitage was a sheet of parchment-like paper tacked to the inside of the closet door in his bedroom — a colorful baroque document such as one finds in shops near the Vatican: a portrait of the pope at the top in an oval with a Latin text below and many decorative swirls. In this case it was made out to “the Hermit Thomas Merton” and was signed by Paul VI.

The week ended abruptly. A telegram for me came from New York with the news that President Kennedy had announced the resumption of atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, thus another escalation of the Cold War and yet another indication that nuclear war might occur in the coming years. Anticipating such a decision, I was part of a group of New Yorkers who had planned to take part in an act of civil disobedience, a sit-in at the entrance to the Manhattan office of the Atomic Energy Commission, the federal agency responsible for making and testing nuclear weapons. The abbey provided money for our return to New York by bus rather than thumb. Not many days later, now with a slight stubble of hair, I was in a New York City jail known locally as “The Tombs.”

Merton had a part even in that event. I recall a letter from him, sent care of the Catholic Worker, being hand delivered to me during the hour or two that we sat on the pavement awaiting arrest. (My monastic haircut made me interesting enough to be featured on the front page of one New York’s daily newspapers the following morning.)

I was to meet with Merton face to face only one more time. The next occasion was a small retreat at the monastery on the spiritual roots of protest in November 1964. Would that we had time to talk about that as well! But from the summer of 1961 until his death in 1968, we carried on a busy correspondence. (Most of his side of it is published in “The Hidden Ground of Love.”) On average there was a letter or note from him nearly every month. There were also many envelopes containing copies of essays he had written and sometimes larger works, such as the manuscript of a book never published, “Peace in the Post-Christian Era,” and his “Cold War Letters,” an ever-growing collection of letters on topics of the day.

I didn’t know the phrase in those days, but, looking back, I realize he became for me what in the Orthodox Church we call a “spiritual father” — someone to whom you open your soul and who in turn can help you stay on the path of the Gospel and help you find your way back to that path when you stray, as I certainly did time and again. If I had understood spiritual fatherhood better, perhaps I would have made better use of his readiness to help me see the way forward and would have made fewer false steps, but even so it was a extraordinarily fruitful relationship. I was one of Merton’s adopted children. (In actual fact, as I would later realize, I was about the right age to be one of his children. I was born in November 1941, just five weeks before he left his teaching post at St. Bonaventure’s to make his way to the monastery. Merton was then 26.)

In this attempt to recall Merton, let me share with you not only a few memories of being with him but also extracts from a few letters.

While the subjects he wrote about touched on numerous topics, many contained advice about peacemaking. It is a timely theme for us as well, faced as we are by several wars and a sense of grave danger not unlike what we were facing in the sixties.

Peacemaking was a subject about which Merton knew a great deal, not only because he had been drawn to various protest movements in his pre-monastic life but because to live in any monastic community necessarily involves an on-going conversion in the context of disagreement and even conflict. Especially someone with the responsibility of guiding novices is often face-to-face with various battles. One is obliged to try and overcome differences which, left unresolved, can easily reach the boiling point. The guest may imagine that the monastery he is visiting is a haven of profound peace, but his hosts have no illusions that they are yet living in the kingdom of God. The borders of Hell are often right under one’s feet. His experience of conflict in monastic life made Merton deeply sensitive to problems people in various movements for peace and respect for human life were facing.

One of Merton’s main themes was the absolute necessity of compassion toward opponents as well as toward those who found protesters more distressing than a profoundly destructive but familiar status quo. In one letter he wrote:

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

Compassion is a quality often missing in those who see themselves as reformers. We easily become contemptuous of our opponents and even of those who have no opinion. We demand agreement. We judge others. We easily accumulate enemies.

Most people, Merton pointed out, are irritated or frightened by agitation even when it protests something — militarism, nuclear weapons, social injustice — which objectively endangers the lives and the lives of the people dearest to them. As he noted in another letter, “[People] do not feel at all threatened by the bomb … but they feel terribly threatened by some … student carrying a placard…”

Without love, especially love of opponents and enemies, he insisted that neither profound personal nor social transformation can occur. Love is not merely an appreciative response to people we happen to find attractive and threatening. As he wrote Dorothy Day:

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

To bear in mind that each person is a bearer of God’s image, no matter how hidden it may be, is the beginning of peacemaking.

In another letter, Merton goes on to point out that where compassion and love are absent, actions that may be superficially nonviolent can in reality simply mask deep hostility, contempt and the desire to defeat and humiliate an opponent. As he reminded me in one of his most insightful letters:

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

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

Certainly the peace movements of the sixties were very often channels of tremendous hostility, self-righteousness and contempt for others.

Merton also saw that the peace movement often tended to identify too much with particular political groups and leftist ideologies. Ideally it should stand outside all ideologies and political faction. Its actions should communicate life-giving possibilities to others no matter how locked in they were to violent structures. As he put it to me in one letter:

“It seems to me that the basic problem is not political, it is apolitical and human. One of the most important things to do is to keep cutting deliberately through political lines and barriers and emphasizing the fact that these are largely fabrications and that there is another dimension, a genuine reality, totally opposed to the fictions of politics: the human dimension which politics pretends to arrogate entirely [to itself]…. This is the necessary first step along the long way … of purifying, humanizing and somehow illuminating politics…”

Peacemaking, he said repeatedly, is hardly possible without a well-formed spiritual life, with the usual elements of prayer and fasting, quiet reflection, and sacramental life. Prayer was at very top of the list. How can one love a person one will not pray for? Or, without prayer, find the strength to overcome despair? As he wrote in one letter to me:

“[W]e have to pray for a total and profound change in the mentality of the whole world. What we have known in the past as Christian penance is not a deep enough concept if it does not comprehend the special problems and dangers of the present age. Hair shirts will not do the trick, though there is no harm in mortifying the flesh. But vastly more important is the complete change of heart and the totally new outlook on the world of man…. The great problem is this inner change…. [Any peace action has] to be regarded … as an application of spiritual force and not the use of merely political pressure. We all have the great duty to realize the deep need for purity of soul, that is the deep need to possess in us the Holy Spirit, to be possessed by Him. This takes precedence over everything else.”

Let me read just one more letter. Here he turns to another central theme, the necessity of not being overly attached to achieving specific goals. He was convinced that engagement was made stronger by detachment. Not to be confused with disinterest in achieving results, detachment meant knowing that no good action is wasted even if the immediate consequences are altogether different than what one hoped to achieve. This was written in 1966, during a period when it seemed to me all our activities aimed at restraining or ending the war in Vietnam were totally useless:

“Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.

“You are fed up with words, and I don’t blame you. I am nauseated by them sometimes. I am also, to tell the truth, nauseated by ideals and with causes. This sounds like heresy, but I think you will understand what I mean. It is so easy to get engrossed with ideas and slogans and myths that in the end one is left holding the bag, empty, with no trace of meaning left in it. And then the temptation is to yell louder than ever in order to make the meaning be there again by magic. Going through this kind of reaction helps you to guard against this. Your system is complaining of too much verbalizing, and it is right.

“The big results are not in your hands or mine, but they suddenly happen, and we can share in them; but there is no point in building our lives on this personal satisfaction, which may be denied us and which after all is not that important.

“The next step in the process is for you to see that your own thinking about what you are doing is crucially important. You are probably striving to build yourself an identity in your work, out of your work and your witness. You are using it, so to speak, to protect yourself against nothingness, annihilation. That is not the right use of your work. All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love. Think of this more, and gradually you will be free from the need to prove yourself, and you can be more open to the power that will work through you without your knowing it.

“The great thing after all is to live, not to pour out your life in the service of a myth: and we turn the best things into myths. If you can get free from the domination of causes and just serve Christ’s truth, you will be able to do more and will be less crushed by the inevitable disappointments. Because I see nothing whatever in sight but much disappointment, frustration and confusion … .

“The real hope, then, is not in something we think we can do but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see. If we can do His will, we will be helping in this process. But we will not necessarily know all about it beforehand.”

It is on the note of radical detachment that I want at last to address the question that is supposed to be theme of this lecture: Does Thomas Merton have something to offer people like ourselves and our children living in a new century? I realize I am preaching to the choir in saying the answer is “yes,” but let me do so anyway.

What keeps Merton so fresh all these years after his death? Why is he still such a helpful presence in so many lives?

In Thomas Merton we meet a man who spent the greater part of his life trying with all his being to find the truth and to live a truthful life. Though he chose a celibate vocation in an enclosed monastic environment, he nonetheless, mainly thanks to his several abbots, had a voice which reached far beyond the abbey’s borders. With tremendous candor, he exposed through his writings his own on-going struggles and the fact that he was like the rest of us, often wracked with uncertainties, and was no stranger to the temptations each of us faces. At a time when their was little inter-religious contact, he challenged his readers to find God not only within their particular community but across national as well as cultural and religious borders. He did this while giving an example of how one could at the same time remain deeply rooted in Christian belief and faith. He was a man of dialogue, as we see in the hundreds of letters he wrote to an astonishing variety of people in all parts of the world, including Soviet Russia. We also see in him one of the healers of Christian divisions. He did this not by renouncing anything a Catholic Christian would normally believe, but by allowing himself to become aware of anything of value in other parts of the Christian community, whether something as big and deeply rooted as the Orthodox Church or as small as the Shaker movement whose craftsmen made chairs fit for angels to sit on.

We see in him a pilgrim. As pilgrims tend to do, he crossed many borders, but the greater part of that journey was lived in a small corner of Kentucky. During his 26 years as a monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani, he rarely traveled further than Louisville. For all his temptations to move elsewhere, he remained a member of his particular monastic community until his dying day. He is a model of uncomfortable stability. His pilgrimage was one that didn’t require hiking boots.

Merton gives us a model of someone with an unshakable love not only of Christ but of Christ’s mother and grandmother. Whenever he had a building in need of a dedication such as his hermitage or other shelters of solitude, it was either to Mary or Anne. In the communion of saints, they were his permanent patrons. Everything he did or represents is rooted, in part, in his devotion to them.

Sometimes I am asked: Is Thomas Merton a saint? I know him too well to say a glib “yes,” but also too well to say “no.” Certainly he was not a perfect person. But the same is true of other saints. In Merton’s case we know his imperfections because he made a point of writing them down for us to read. Yet I think, in God’s mercy, the answer is yes. Few people have done so much to help so many find their way toward Christ and a deeper faith. Few people have drawn so many toward the mercy of God.

Many Offering Death

by Jim Forest

“She is unmarried and pregnant, appears to be in her mid-teens, and is nearly penniless. Religiously obsessed, she suffers acute delusions. She asserts she is still a virgin, claims to have seen an angel, and says her pregnancy was caused by God. Given her age and psychological condition, an abortion is clearly indicated, yet her religious scruples deter her from accepting one. Further counseling is urgently required.”

But there were no social workers at the time and abortion was as unthinkable as putting poison in the village well. Mary’s child was born. Twenty centuries later even those far from religious belief celebrate his birthday.

In terms of material wealth, Mary lived in a much poorer world than we do, but morally our culture is far more poverty stricken than Galilee in the era of Roman occupation. So impoverished is our world that killing the unborn has become routine. Many people devoted to peace, social justice, human rights, care of the environment, the protection of endangered creatures and the development of a nonviolent way of life turn out to be supporters of abortion, some with painful reluctance, others with a sense of mission.

What is it that explains such a state of mind?

At least in part, it is simply that we are people of our time and place and are carried along far more than we like to admit by the powerful forces of peer-group pressure. In the sixties and seventies, the legalization of abortion was intensively and effectively promoted both as a way to promote women’s rights and safeguard the planet from over-population. Abortion was even seen as a merciful alternative to being born into the modern world. In regions of endemic poverty, would it not be kinder to kill the very youngest before they claim a place at the world’s overcrowded table? To spare children in regions of conflict from becoming casualties of war? To free those with mental or physical handicaps from whatever pain they might endure in later life? A pro-abortion consensus was formed in which liberals and idealists played leading roles. Old laws were dropped, new laws written. Abortion became legal and common.

At least among Christians, one might have expected universal rejection of abortion except in cases where the mother’s life was threatened. For nineteen centuries Christians had regarded abortion as simply another category of murder. More positively, as keepers of the feasts of the Annunciation and Christmas, celebrating unborn life was built into the church calendar. Christians have always been aware that salvation begins not with Christ’s healing miracles or on the cross or in the empty tomb but in Mary’s womb.

In the icon of the Holy Sign, Mary is shown with upraised hands in the classical posture of prayer, while within her, contained in a circle, the unborn Christ is revealed as Christ Immanuel, “God With Us,” vested in golden robes and looking outward while his right hand offers a blessing. The icon reminds us that Christ, although his presence was unknown to anyone but his mother, was one of us, and blessing us, from the moment of his conception.

Saint Luke’s account of Jesus’ conception is followed by still another story of the significance of life in the womb: Mary’s visit with her cousin Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist. Unborn John leapt for joy within his mother, while Elizabeth exclaimed, “Why should I be honored with a visit from the mother of my Lord?” And pregnant Mary responded, “Yes, from this day all generations will call me blessed, for the Almighty has done great things for me. Holy is his name.”

It is a mark of how shopworn Christianity is in our time that one can easily find Christians who favor abortion. I recall a Protestant theologian who defended abortion as “an act of dominion.”

Whether religious or non-religious, supporters of abortion offer moral defenses for their position, but this is hardly surprising. When was there a social sin that wasn’t defended either as positively good or a necessary evil?

In justifications of abortion, it is revealing how carefully certain words are avoided. Thus it is not a “he” or “she” who is the object of abortion, but “it.” And “it” is not an unborn child, but an embryo, a fetus, a product of conception, a clump of cells, a bit of tissue. Anything but an unborn child. And what we do to that latinized matter is not to kill it. The verb “to kill”is too morally-charged. The “it” isn’t killed, it’s aborted. But what we are talking about is the intentional killing of innocent life. (And yet the moment a child is wanted, even if it is so small that it will be weeks before a stethoscope can detect a heartbeat, all distancing, dehumanizing words are abandoned. Then the growing child in the womb is wreathed with every word of welcome, wonder and awe.)

But how effectively abortion is promoted for those in a state of panic rather than gratitude. When I was in England to promote a newly published book, I was startled by how many advertisements for abortions there were in the London Underground. One poster said in huge letters: “If you’re happy being pregnant, fine. If not, call …” A free telephone number followed.

If I were a woman and pregnant, I wondered how likely was it that I would be feeling happy? I might be in the third week of morning sickness. I might have a husband or boyfriend who was depressed or furious at this unplanned disruption of life. I might be facing parents or social workers who cry only at the movies. I might be in debt up to my chin, living in an apartment the size of an cigarette box, with my hopes for the future collapsing into the ashcan.

Yet here I am being told over and over again that happiness is a precondition to motherhood and that pregnancy should only be tolerated in the event the mother is enjoying it. Otherwise call this number. Abortion is only a few stops away.

No Elizabeth to rejoice with Mary. No one to celebrate the miracle of a new life. No one to help a mother-to-be figure out how to keep her child or give it to those who could make the child their own. No one to help her with her fears. No one inviting her to be a conscientious objector to the killing of unborn children. No one suggesting the womb must to be kept safe from violence. No one to help her nurture and give birth to and protect her child. But many offering death.

* * *
I’m not sure when I wrote this. Early 80’s? It was for a journal in Britain.
* * *

Windows to Heaven: Seeing the Beatitudes, part 2

Icons and the Mysteries: Meeting God in the Material World — fourth lecture

Yesterday we got half way up the ladder of the Beatitudes. Let’s continue climbing.

Now we come to the Beatitude of mercy: Risen from the dead are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.

Here we would do well to look at the icon of the Last Judgment, the icon of Christ’s mercy to those who were merciful — but also of the hell we make for ourselves to the extent we reject mercy from our lives. We could spend a great deal of time studying the icon in detail. I cannot think of another icon with so much packed into it: Christ the main figure, the Theotokos on one side, John the Forerunner on the other, apostles in thrones on either side, archangels standing behind them. One tier below there are angels with scrolls, a way of showing that what each person did or failed to do is not forgotten. In that same tier on either side we see people awaiting judgment. There is also the snake-like dragon whose body serves as the pathway to hell. Much to think about! But time factors are such that I will focus on what is most basic in the image. It is a solemn warning the Church places before each of us, an uncomfortable reminder that we are held accountable for our lives. We will be judged. Indeed each day of our lives is a day of judgment. We are likely to be forever where we choose to be today. If you make hellish choices day after day, don’t be surprised if hell becomes your permanent address. Christ has already told us what we will hear at the Last Judgment. It’s rather surprising. We are not asked to recite the Lord Prayer’s or the Creed nor asked how often we attended church services or served on the parish council. We are asked if we loved Christ in the least person.

“Welcome into the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world because I was hungry and you fed me…. I tell you solemnly that what you did to the least person you did to me.” From childhood onward we are told over and over again that God loves us. What does he expect of us? To let the love given to us pass through our lives like water through a canal in order to reach our neighbor, and not only the neighbor we like but the neighbor we don’t like, the neighbor who is an enemy.

But if having been part of the Church isn’t mentioned in what Christ teaches us about the Last Judgment, why bother being in the Church? Because the Church is where we learn to be merciful, where we learn to share with others the mercy we have been given. It is also where we’re able to seek forgiveness when we fail. The Church is a school both of mercy and forgiveness. It makes our lives whole. It gives us the capacity to see Christ in the least person. If we wish to receive Christ in the chalice, St. John Chrysostom said over and over again, we must also meet him naked and hungry outside the church door.

The recently canonized nun St. Maria of Paris — Mother Maria Skobtsova — gives us a dramatic example of what it is like to become a channel of Christ’s mercy.

She was born in 1891 into an aristocratic family in Riga, in those days part of Russia. After a crisis of faith following her father’s early death, she found her way back to belief and became the first woman to study at the St. Petersburg Theological Academy. In the period of impending revolution she joined the Socialist Revolutionary Party, socialists who were not part of Lenin’s party, but when the Bolsheviks overthrew the democratic government in October 1917, she left for her childhood home, Anapa, on the Black Sea coast. There she married an anti-Bolshevik officer, bore two children, and also served as mayor, in the process facing abuse from both the left and the right. Then, in 1923 she joined the throng of refugees uprooted by revolution and civil war and made her circuitous way to France.

In Paris her daughter Nastia died of meningitis, a tragedy that initiated a profound conversion. She emerged from her mourning with a determination to seek “a more authentic and purified life.” She felt she saw a “new road before me and a new meaning in life… to be a mother for all, for all who need maternal care, assistance, or protection.” Immersing herself in efforts to assist destitute Russian refugees, she sought them out in prisons, hospitals, mental asylums, and in the slums. Increasingly she emphasized the religious dimension of this work, the insight that “each person is the very icon of God incarnate in the world.” With this recognition came the need “to accept this awesome revelation of God unconditionally, to venerate the image of God” in her brothers and sisters.

After her marriage ended her bishop urged her to become a nun, but she agreed only when he gave her the assurance that she would be free to develop a new type of monasticism, engaged in the world and marked by the “complete absence of even the subtlest barrier which might separate the heart from the world and its wounds.”

In 1932 she made her monastic profession and became Mother Maria. Rejecting monastic enclosure, she leased a house in Paris with space enough for a chapel, a soup kitchen, and a shelter for destitute refugees. Her “cell” was a cot in the basement beside the boiler.

Her house became a center not only for the works of mercy but for dialogue. While her kitchen was crowded with the “down and out,” the drawing room — and in the summer, the backyard — became a place where some of the leading emigre intellectuals of Paris — people like Nicolae Berdyaev, Fr Serge Bulgakov and Ilya Fondaminsky — debated the relation between faith and the social questions of the day. Out of their discussions a new movement was born, Orthodox Action, committed to realizing the social implications of the gospel. “The meaning of the liturgy must be translated into life,” said Mother Maria. “It is why Christ came into the world and why he gave us our liturgy.”

The German occupation of Paris began in 1940. In the context of Nazi racism, her commitment to seek out and revere each person as an icon of God put her life at risk. Aside from normal hospitality to the poor, she, her chaplain, Father Dimitri Klepinin, her son, Yuri, and all the others working with them did all they could to assist Jews and others under threat from the Nazis. During the fearful days of July 1942, when thousands of Jews were rounded up and brought to a sports stadium not far from Mother Maria’s house of hospitality at 77 rue to Lourmel, Mother Maria succeeded in penetrating the sports stadium and, assisted by garbage collectors, smuggled out Jewish children in garbage bins.

Though aware she was under Gestapo surveillance, she continued her work in behalf of Jews. To give up was out of the question, she told friends. A diary entry from that period of her life reveals the fidelity God had given her: “There is one moment when you start burning with love and you have the inner desire to throw yourself at the feet of some other human being. This one moment is enough. Immediately you know that instead of losing your life, it is being given back to you twofold.”

Finally she, her son Yuri, and Father Dimitri were arrested . They readily admitted the charge of helping Jews elude police roundups — it was nothing more than their Christian duty.

The three were sent to a French concentration camp where Father Dimitri managed to serve the liturgy each day and to begin preparing Yuri for ordination.

In his last letter to friends in Paris, Yuri wrote, “I am absolutely calm, even somewhat proud to share Mama’s fate. I promise you I will bear everything with dignity. Whatever happens, sooner or later we shall all be together. I can say in all honesty that I am not afraid of anything any longer… I ask anyone whom I have hurt in any way to forgive me. Christ be with you!” In December, Father Dimitri and Yuri were transferred to Buchenwald, where both died that winter. Yuri was twenty-four.

Sent to the notorious Ravensbruck women’s concentration camp north of Berlin, Mother Maria managed to survive almost to the war’s end, all the while caring for the bodies and souls of her fellow prisoners. She occasionally traded bread for needle and thread in order to embroider images that gave her strength. Her last work of art was an embroidered icon of Mary, the mother of God, holding the child Jesus, his hands and feet already bearing the wounds of the cross.

On Good Friday, March 31, 1945, with the gunfire of approaching Russian troops audible in the distance, Mother Maria was “selected” for death. According to one witness, she took the place of a Jewish prisoner who was to be sent to the gas chamber and died in her place.

She is a saint who saw life as an opportunity to find the icon of Christ hidden in ordinary people, especially the very poor and persecuted. In a passage from one of her essays 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.”

On the first weekend of May, Mother Maria, her son Yuri, Fr Dimitri and their friend and fellow martyr Ilya Fondaminsky were added to the Church calendar. People and clergy from many countries and jurisdictions came together to celebrate Christ’s victory over evil, fear and death through the witness given by these brave followers of the Gospel.

Let’s step to the next rung: Risen from the dead are the pure in heart for they shall see God.

What is a pure heart? A heart free of possessiveness, a heart capable of mourning, a heart that thirsts for what is right, a merciful heart, a loving heart, an undivided heart, a heart free of distraction, a heart undamaged by lies.

Spiritual virtues that defend the heart are memory, awareness, watchfulness, wakefulness, attention, hope, faith, and love. Opposing purity of heart is lust of any kind — lust for wealth, for recognition, for power, for vengeance, for sexual access to others — whether indulged through action or imagination.

In classical Greek the word for “pure” — katharos — can be applied to anything without taint, stain, blemish, or impurity: a wine that has not been watered down, gold without alloy, fresh spring water clear as air, bread made of the best ingredients, pure beer, good wine. It can also refer to language unpolluted by lies, half-truths and slogans; it can signify a person without vices — an official who would never take a bribe, or a man who is perfectly truthful and straightforward.

In the Old Testament purity had to do primarily with ritual life and its disciplines: foods that could be eaten, or correctly performed ceremonial washings. But in the gospels ritual purity is no longer a pressing issue, though the symbolism of a ritual bath was central to John the Baptist’s call to repentance and was to become the foundational Christian sacrament: baptism.

Christ stresses purity of heart. He compares those who follow the laws of purity but lack mercy with whitewashed tombs: beautiful and clean on the outside but filled with dead bones and the stench of death. A clean body is less important than a clean heart.

Why such stress on the heart in the gospel? In our brain-centered society it ought to surprise us that Christ didn’t say, “How fortunate are the pure in mind,” or better yet, “Blessed are the brilliant in mind.” We are, after all, a people who tend to regard the brain as the core of the self — not the soul or heart. It’s high praise to be described as “bright.” Those recognized as clever have a shot at joining the aristocracy of the intelligent and may find themselves hugely rewarded. No one aspires to be labeled “slow” or “dense.” It is a sign of the poverty of our culture that “stupid” is nearly a curse word or even a license to kill — a pregnant woman who knows she is bearing a child with Down’s syndrome is often urged to have an abortion.

The brain has come up in the world while the heart has been demoted to nothing more than the muscle in charge of pumping blood. But for thousands of years the heart was regarded as far more: the hub of human identity and our capacity to love, the core not only of our physical but of our spiritual life. The heart is where everything in us is held together. The heart was where we encountered God.

We sense a pure heart in the face of any saintly person whether an inspiring grandmother known only to a few or a saint whose icon is found in every parish church.

Consider one of the best loved saints of Russia, Seraphim of Sarov, a contemporary of Tsar Peter the Great, a man as meek as the tsar was mighty. I have never been in a Russian church that did not have Seraphim’s icon.

Seraphim grew up in a merchant family in Kursk and had his first vision of the mother of God when he was nine and in danger of death after a fall from scaffolding. He began monastic life in 1778, when he was nineteen. Years later, after ordination as a priest in 1793, he received permission to live in solitude in a log cabin several miles from his community. It was, he said, his “Holy Land.” Here he maintained a life of prayer, read the Bible, studied texts by and about the saints, tended his garden, chopped wood, and embraced austerities reminiscent of the Desert Fathers. Though he was once nearly beaten to death by three robbers who had heard there was a treasure hidden in his hermitage, he was never attacked by the wild animals he lived among. (When the assailants were later arrested, Seraphim tried to have them excused from their crime.) Visitors sometimes found him sharing his ration of bread with bears, wolves, lizards, and snakes. “How is it,” he was asked, “that you have enough bread in your bag for all of them?” “There is always enough,” Seraphim answered. On another occasion he explained that he, after all, understood fasting but the bear did not.

Late in his life his remote cabin became a place of pilgrimage for a river of people — even Tsar Alexander the First was among his guests.

One of those brought to him was a gravely-ill wealthy landowner. “What, you have come to look upon poor Seraphim?” the hermit asked. After the man explained his condition, Seraphim prayed over him and the man was healed. In his joy he asked Seraphim how he could express his gratitude. Insisting that he had done nothing but pray and that only God can heal, Saint Seraphim advised the rich man to give away everything he possessed, free his serfs, and live in holy poverty. With all this the man complied. Some might regard the man’s embracing of poverty as a greater miracle than the healing of his body.

In talks with visitors Saint Seraphim stressed “the acquisition of the Holy Spirit” in order that the kingdom of God can take possession of the heart. A man of constant prayer and fasting, Seraphim reminded others that ascetic practice was only a means to a greater end: “Prayer, fasting, watching may be good in themselves; yet it is not in these practices alone that the goal of our Christian life is found, though they are necessary means for its attainment. The true goal consists in our acquiring the Holy Spirit of God.” On occasion he put the message even more simply: “Acquire the Spirit of Peace, and thousands around you will be saved.”

At the core of Seraphim’s spiritual life was Christ’s resurrection. In his later years he wore white, the Paschal color, rather than the usual monastic black. No matter what season of the year, he was likely to greet visitors with the Paschal exclamation: “Christ is risen!” Paschal gladness affected even his way of speaking to others — he addressed each of his spiritual children as “my joy.”

When he died in 1833, at age seventy-one, Seraphim was at prayer on his knees before an icon of the mother of God. He had labored long and hard to free himself of all obstacles to God and finally was given a heart so pure that it seems no one can come near him, or kiss his icon, without being drawn toward purity of heart.

Purification of the heart is the endless struggle of seeking a more God-centered life. It is the minute-to-minute discipline of trying to be so aware of God’s presence that the heart has no space for our own worries, ambitions, irritations or attention to appearances. Prayer is essential to this endeavor, whether reciting prayers we know by heart or spontaneous prayer or reading or music or using any of the senses with a heightened awareness of the sacred. Prayer refers to all we do in order to turn our attention toward God.

An essential element in Seraphim’s life was the Jesus Prayer, also known as the Prayer of the Heart. Seraphim taught novices in his care, “Coming or going, sitting or standing, working or in church, let this prayer always be on your lips: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ The whole art [of prayer] is there. With this prayer in your heart you will find inward peace and sobriety of body and soul.” Monastic literature and practice refer to the prayer as being “the whole gospel in one sentence.”

The next rung up is: “Risen from the dead are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

Now we are very far up the ladder. It is no easy thing to be a peacemaker. It is impossible without all that represented by the lower rungs. Another word for peacemaking is healer. Peacemaking is a healing art. A peacemaker is someone who tries to heal divisions that cut people off from each other and have made them into enemies. It is the restoration of communion with God through the restoration of communion with one’s neighbor.

A few years ago in Moscow I had the opportunity to watch two restorers cleaning a large icon of Saint Nicholas. This too was a work of healing. They estimated the dark panel was three hundred years old. As decades passed and thousands of candles burned before it, the image had become increasingly hidden under smoke-absorbing varnish until the panel was almost black. Using alcohol and balls of cotton, their gentle, painstaking efforts gradually revealed sharp lines and bright colors that brought the icon back to life. I discovered I was witnessing a small resurrection.

People are also icons, but finding the image of God in another person often requires learning to see through a great deal of grime and smokey varnish.

St. John of Kronstadt, who did so much to draw people to receive communion more often, put it in these words: “Never confuse the person, formed in the image of God, with the evil that is in him, because evil is but a chance misfortune, illness, a devilish reverie. But the very essence of the person is the image of God, and this remains in him despite every disfigurement.”

To be a peacemaker requires developing a spiritual life that can discover the image of God even in a very damaged and dangerous person.

I regard the icon of the Great Martyr St. George as an icon of peacemaking.

You know the legend. It concerns a dragon who lived in a lake in the region of Cappadocia, Asia Minor. The terrified local people, all pagans, gradually fed him their children to appease the dragon’s rage. Finally it was the turn of the king’s daughter, Elizabeth, to be sacrificed. She was going toward the lake to meet her doom, when St. George appeared riding a white horse. He prayed to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then transfixed the dragon with his lance, wounding but not killing the beast. Afterward Elizabeth used her belt as a leash to lead the vanquished creature into the city. The dragon followed Elizabeth, says the Legenda Aurea of Blessed James de Voragine, “as if it had been a meek beast.” George was offered a great treasure as his reward but refused it, asking only that the local people, until then pagans, would prepare themselves to be baptized.

This wonderful tale emerged long after George had died a martyr’s death in the 4th Century. The real George battled no dragon and probably had no white horse. It isn’t even certain he was a soldier, though he may well have been and in older icons is shown wearing army clothing. Yet in another sense George and every Christian confessing his faith in a hostile world is battling dragons. George was living in the time of the persecutions of Diocletian and Maximian, when many Christians were being arrested and taken away to torturers and executioners. No one would have condemned him for keeping silent about his faith and hoping the storm would pass. Instead he had the courage to walk into a public square and shout, “All the gentile gods are devils. My God made the heavens and is the true God.” For this he was arrested and put to death. His witness is said to have led to the conversion of many and given courage to others who were already baptized. The dragon George fought against was his own fear and the panic some of those around them must have experienced in that period of many martyrs. But he battled not only fear. The dragon is a symbol of evil.

The icons of St. George slaying the dragon are simple but powerful images of the struggle against evil as well, as the fear that makes us complicit in evil. The white horse St. George rides is a graceful creature as light as air and as fearless as his rider — a symbol of the courage God gives to those willing to receive it. Notice how thin the spear is — nothing like an actual spear but at thin as a pencil. The point is that it is not a weapon in the usual sense. Another significant detail is the way George holds the spear — not tightly grasped but resting lightly in his hand. This means that it is the power of God, not the power of man, that overcomes evil. In many versions of the icon we see the actual nature of the martyr’s weapon in his battle with the dragon of evil — it is the power of the holy and life-giving Cross, the cross piece of which is shown at the top of the spear. There is also the dispassion in George’s face. It shows not a trace of anger, hatred or anxiety. Often the hand of the Savior is extended from heaven in a sign of blessing.

Peacemaking is not simply letting your hand hang by your side and doing no harm to others. It is taking part in the struggle against what St. Paul refers to as the principalities and powers. Indeed it is hard to think of a passage in the New Testament better matched to this icon than this section of St. Pauls’s letter to the Ephesians:

“For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

This is, to use a phrase of Church Father Clement of Alexandria, combat in “an army that sheds no blood.”

Reaching the next rung of the ladder of the Beatitudes does not require a great leap: “Risen from the dead are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me.”

In fact in the icon of St. George we have already reached this rung. George is one of the great number of martyrs from Christianity’s first centuries. In this very ancient example, from St. Catherine’s Monastery, we see him on one side of the Theotokos, the martyr St. Theodore on the other. Even in our own day, it is not uncommon to be punished in some way for attempting to live the Gospel. In our own society it isn’t likely to involve torture and execution, but we might very well be regarded as a bit stupid, naive, out of touch, et cetera. For example, if you were to decide that it is not a Christ-like action to kill an enemy and therefore refused to take part in war, you might under some circumstances be sent to prison. But this is a very mild punishment compared to what Christians have suffered for their faith. Down through the centuries huge numbers of Christians have suffered and millions have died because of their refusal to renounce their faith or for actions taken which were a confession of faith. Such suffering is happening to this day.

But the climax of the Beatitudes is not suffering but joy: Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.

This brings us to the Pascal icons. Here are the first human witnesses of the Resurrection, who have come to the tomb to anoint the corpse of Jesus even though they were unsure how they would manage to gain access, as the tomb’s entrance was blocked by a large stone.

Instead they discover an empty tomb, find the abandoned burial clothes, and receive an angelic message: “He is risen.”

Perhaps even more striking is the icon of Christ harrowing Hell. This example is perhaps the best, not to be missed if every you can visit the Church at Chora in Istanbul. Icons often show what the unaided human eye cannot see, in this case Christ’s activity after his own death on the Cross. He is not simply a dead body in the sealed tomb but a warrior who has conquered the kingdom of death. Here see Christ standing on the demolished gates of the underworld, while Satan in chains is falling with his locks and keys into the abyss. Meanwhile Christ raises a man and a woman, Adam and Eve, from their tombs. It is one of the greatest of icons — if ever you visit Istanbul, please be sure to see it. Notice that behind Adam and Eve are those people referred to as “the righteous ancestors” — people who did not know the Gospel but who in various ways prepared the world for the Incarnation. Think of it! Adam and Eve! The two whose calamitous choices in Paradise unleashed the endless avalanche of sin that has troubled the human race down to the present moment. Yet they are first objects of Christ’s mercy in the kingdom of death. It’s a startling icon if you think about it. It’s an icon full of hope for each of us.

If the gospel is true, if the truest thing we can say is that God is love, if following Christ is the sanest and wisest thing we can do in our lives because each step forward brings us closer to the kingdom of God, then we have much to rejoice in. We hear that rejoicing in a vision of Bridget of Kildaire, one of the great saints and mystics of Ireland. She gives us a canticle of salvation which makes a good ending for these four lectures:

I should like a great lake of beer for the King of Kings.
I should like the angels of Heaven to be drinking it through time eternal.
I should like excellent meats of belief and pure piety.
I should like flails of penance at my house.
I should like the men of heaven at my house;
I should like barrels of peace at their disposal;
I should like vessels of charity for distribution;
I should like for them cellars of mercy.
I should like cheerfulness to be in their drinking.
I should like Jesus to be there among them.
I should like the three Marys of illustrious renown to be with us.
I should like the people of heaven, the poor, to be gathered around us from all parts.

Holy Fools

(In a slightly different form, this essay was published in Praying With Icons by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Books in 1997, revised 2008; illustrations and endnotes have been removed.)

But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound those who are mighty.
—1 Corinthians 1:27

Few taunts are sharper than those that call into question someone’s sanity — he’s crazy, he’s a fool, he’s an idiot, he’s out of touch, he’s missing a few nuts and bolts, he isn’t playing with a full deck, there are bats in his belfry. Yet there are saints whose way of life and acts of witness to the Gospel fly in the face of what most of us regard as sanity. The Russian Church has a special word for such saints, yurodivi, meaning Holy Fools or Fools for Christ’s sake. These are people in whom Christ wears the disguise of madness.

While there is much variety among them, Holy Fools are in every case ascetic Christians living well outside the borders of conventional social behavior, including in many cases conventional religious behavior. They are people who in most parts of the developed world would be locked away in asylums or simply ignored until the elements silenced them, after which they would be thrown into unmarked graves.

While this type of saint is chiefly associated with eastern Christianity, the western Church also has its Holy Fools. Perhaps Francis of Assisi is chief among them. Think of him stripping off his clothes and standing naked before the bishop in Assisi’s main square, or preaching to birds, or taming a wolf, or — during the Crusades — walking unarmed across the Egyptian desert into the Sultan’s camp. What at a distance may seem like charming scenes, when placed on the rough surface of actual life, become mad moments indeed.

Perhaps there is a sense in which each and every saint, even those who were towering intellectuals, would be regarded as insane by many in the modern world because of their devotion to a way of life that, apart from the Gospel, was completely senseless. Every saint is troubling. Every saint reveals some of our fears and makes us question our fear-driven choices.

The holy fool is not confined to the calendar of saints. In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, we find a holy fool in Lizaveta, one of the two women murdered by Raskolnikov. She is simple minded but a pure soul, while her killer is a scholar clever enough to devise a philosophical justification for murder. (The name Dostoevsky assigns to his anti-hero, Raskolnikov, means someone cut off from the whole, a man out of communion.)

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

Dostoevsky continues: “How strange these bookish words sounded to him; and here was another new thing: some sort of mysterious get-togethers with Lizaveta — two holy fools.”

“One might well become a holy fool oneself here,” exclaims Raskolnikov. “It’s catching!”

In Leo Tolstoy’s memoir of his childhood, he recalls Grisha, a holy fool who sometimes wandered about his parent’s estate and even into the mansion itself. “He gave little icons to those he took a fancy to,” Tolstoy remembered. Among the local gentry, some regarded Grisha as a pure soul whose presence was a blessing, while others dismissed him as a lazy peasant. “I will only say one thing,” Tolstoy’s mother said at table one night, opposing her husband’s view that Grisha should be put in prison. “It is hard to believe that a man, though he is sixty, goes barefoot summer and winter and always under his clothes wears chains weighing seventy pounds, and who has more than once declined a comfortable life …. it is hard to believe that such a man does all this merely because he is lazy.”

Grisha, Lizaveta and Sonya represent the rank-and-file of Russia’s yurodivi, and one still finds them in Russia today. Few such men and women will be canonized, but nonetheless they help save those around them. They are reminders of God’s presence.

St Basil the Blessed, Holy Fool of Moscow

The most famous of Russia’s Holy Fools is Saint Basil the Blessed, after whom the colorful cathedral on Red Square takes its name. In an icon housed in that church, Basil is shown clothed only in his beard and a loin cloth. In the background is the Savior Tower and the churches packed within Moscow’s Kremlin walls. Basil’s hands are raised in prayer toward a small image of Jesus revealed in an opening in the sky. The fool has a meek quality, but a single-minded, intelligent face.

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

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

Basil was one of the few who dared warn Ivan the Terrible that his violent deeds were dooming him to hell.

According to one story, in the midst of Lent, when Orthodox Russians keep a rigorous vegetarian fast, Basil presented the czar with a slab of raw beef, telling him that there was no reason in his case not to eat meat. “Why abstain from meat when you murder men?” Basil asked. Ivan, whose irritated glance was a death sentence to others, is said to have lived in dread of Basil and would allow no harm to be done to him and occasionally even sent gifts to the naked prophet of the streets, but Basil kept none of these for himself. Most that he received he gave to beggars, though in one surprising case a gift of gold from the czar was passed on to a merchant. Others imagined the man was well off, but Basil discerned the man had been ruined and was actually starving, but was too proud to beg.

Once Basil poured vodka on the street, another royal gift; he wanted, he said, to put out the fires of sin.

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

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

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

St Xenia of Petersburg, Holy Fool for Christ

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

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

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

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

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

When she died at the end of the 18th century, age 71, her grave became a place of prayer and pilgrimage and remained so even through the Soviet period, though for several decades the political authorities closed the chapel at her grave site. The official canonization of this Fool for Christ and the re-opening of the chapel over her grave were vivid gestures in the Gorbachev years that the war against religion was truly over in Russia.

Why does the Church occasionally canonize people whose lives are not only at odds with civil society but who often hardly fit ecclesiastical society either? The answer must be that Holy Fools dramatize something about God that most Christians find embarrassing but which we vaguely recognize is crucial information.

It is the special vocation of Holy Fools to live out in a rough, literal, breath-taking way the “hard sayings” of Jesus. Like the Son of Man, they have no place to lay their heads, and, again like him, they live without money in their pockets — thus Jesus, in responding to a question about paying taxes, had no coin of his own with which to display Caesar’s image.

While never harming anyone, Holy Fools often 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. No one, absolutely no one, is unimportant. In fact the only thing always important for them, apart from God and angels, are the people around them, whoever they are, no matter how limited they are. Their dramatic gestures, however shocking, always have to do with revealing the person of Christ and his mercy.

For most people, clothing serves as a message of how high they have risen and how secure — or insecure — they are. Holy Fools wear the wrong clothes, or rags, or even nothing at all. This is a witness that they have nothing to lose. There is nothing to cling to and nothing for anyone to steal.

The Fool for Christ, says Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia, “has no possessions, no family, no position, and so can speak with a prophetic boldness. He cannot be exploited, for he has no ambition; and he fears God alone.”

The rag-dressed (or undressed) Holy Fool is like Issa, the wandering Japanese poet, who enjoyed possessing only what could not be taken away: “The thief left it behind! The moon in the window.” Inevitably, the voluntary destitution and absolute vulnerability of the Holy Fool challenges us with our locks and keys and schemes to outwit destitution, suffering and death.

Holy Fools may be people of ordinary intelligence, or quite brilliant. In the latter case such a follower of Christ may have found his or her path to foolishness as a way of overcoming pride and a need for recognition of intellectual gifts or spiritual attainments. A great scholar of Russian spirituality, George Fedotov, points out that for all who seek mystical heights by following the traditional path of rigorous self-denial, there is always the problem of vainglory, “a great danger for monastic asceticism.” For such people a feigned madness, provoking from many others contempt or vilification, saves them from something worse, being honored. (One thinks of Dorothy Day’s barbed comment: “Don’t call me a saint — I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”)

Clearly Holy Fools challenge an understanding of Christianity, more typical in western than eastern Christianity, that gives the intellectually gifted people a head start not only in economic efforts but spiritual life. But the Gospel and sacramental life aren’t just for the clever. At the Last Judgment we will not be asked how shrewd we were but how merciful. Our academic achievements won’t save us. (In the western Church, beginning in the late Middle Ages, the idea took hold that sacramental life presupposed the life of reason and the ability to explain one’s faith. Thus in the west children below “the age of reason,” along with the deaf, the mute and mentally retarded, were barred from communion, while in the Orthodox Church, infants and children are at the front of the line to receive communion.)

In their outlandish behavior, Holy Fools pose the question: are we keeping heaven at a distance by clinging to the good regard of others, prudence, and what those around us regard as “sanity”? The Holy Fools shout out with their mad words and deeds that to seek God is not necessarily the same thing as to seek sanity.

We need to think long and hard about sanity, a word most of us cling to with a steel grip. Does fear of being regarded by others as insane confine me in a cage of “responsible” behavior that limits my freedom and cripples my ability to love? And is it in fact such a wonderful thing to be regarded as sane? After all, the chief administrator of the Holocaust, Adolph Eichmann, was declared “quite sane” by the psychiatrists who examined him before his trial in Jerusalem. Surely the same psychiatrists would have found Saint Basil, Saint Theodore and Saint Xenia all insane — and Saint Francis, and that most revered of all mad men, the Son of Man, the Savior, Jesus of Nazareth.

Henry David Thoreau, by no means the most conventional man of his time, lamented on his death bed, “What demon possessed me that I behaved so well.” He would have taken comfort in Holy Fools. They remind us of a deeper sanity that is sometimes hidden beneath apparent lunacy: the treasure of a God-centered life.

Holy Fools like Saint Xenia are God-obsessed people who throw into the bonfire anything that gets in the way or leads them down blind alleys. But where does their path actually lead them? It is easier to say where they are not headed and what they are not taking with them than to describe where they are going. One can use a phrase like “the kingdom of God” but this reveals no more about what it is to live in the Holy Spirit than a dictionary entry on oranges reveals about the taste of an orange.

But were at least some of the Holy Fools, after all, not crazy? The answer must be: maybe so. While the Fools for Christ who have been canonized are regarded by the Church as having worn madness as a mask, in fact no one knows how much a mask it really was, only that Christ shone through their lives. As Fedotov says, for most Russian people, “the difficulty [confronting many others] does not exist. Sincere [lunacy] or feigned, a madman with religious charisma … is always a saint, perhaps the most beloved saint in Russia.”

return to Praying With Icons index page

Praying With Icons: St. George the Dragon Slayer

extract from Praying With Icons by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Book, 1997, revised 2008; endnotes have been removed

According to legend, a dragon lived in a lake in the region of Cappadocia in Asia Minor. To subdue his rage, the local people sacrificed their children to him. They were chosen by lot. At last it was the turn of the king’s daughter, Elizabeth, to be sacrificed. She was going toward the lake to meet her doom, when a Christian knight, Saint George, appeared on the scene. After praying to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, George wounded the dragon with his lance. Afterward Elizabeth led the vanquished creature into the city. The monster followed Elizabeth, says the Legenda Aurea of Blessed James de Voragine, “as if it had been a meek beast.” Rejecting a reward of gold, George called on the local people to be baptized.

The legend of the brave knight on a white horse who rescued a princess bears the imprint of the actual practice in many ancient cultures of sacrificing children to blood-thirsty deities. Christian missionaries revealed God as loving and merciful rather than an ominous tyrant who had to be appeased by killing.

This wonderful tale of a saint battling a dragon came centuries after the actual George had died a martyr’s death. The “dragon” George fought against was fear of the emperor. Living in the time of the persecutions of Diocletian and Maximian, when many Christians were being arrested and taken away to torturers and executioners, George had the courage to walk into a public square and shout, “All the gentile gods are devils. My God made the heavens and is the true God.” For this he was arrested, tortured, and put to death. His witness is said to have led to the conversion of many and to have given courage to others who were already baptized.

Like Nicholas of Myra, Saint George is a deliverer of prisoners and protector of the poor. Perhaps because his name means “husbandman,” he is also the patron of agriculture, herds, flocks and shepherds.

The icons of Saint George battling the dragon are simple but powerful images of the struggle against fear and evil, symbolized by the dragon. The graceful white horse George rides represents the strength and courage God gives to those who bear witness. The thin cross-topped lance the saint holds is not tightly grasped but rests lightly in his hand — meaning that it is the power of God, not the power of man, that overcomes evil. George’s face shows not a trace of anger, hatred or anxiety. Often the hand of the Savior is extended from heaven in a sign of blessing.

return to Praying With Icons index page

Praying With Icons: The Transfiguration Icon

extract from Praying With Icons by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Book, 1997, revised 2008; endnotes have been removed

Just as the Lord’s body was glorified when he went up the mountain and was transfigured into the glory of God and into infinite light, so the saints’ bodies also are glorified and shine as lightning.
—Saint Macarius, The Homilies

God became man that we might be made God.
—a saying of Saint Irenaeus, Saint Athanasius, Saint Gregory of Nazianzen, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, and other Fathers of the Church

During the several years of his public ministry, little by little Jesus revealed his divinity to his followers. The apostles witnessed not only many miracles but even his ability to calm a storm. Yet only three of his closest followers were permitted to see the glory of his divinity. Jesus brought Peter, James and John to a high place. While praying, the apostles saw Jesus in conversation with the lawgiver Moses and the prophet Elias. Christ’s clothing became “dazzling white” and his face “shone like the sun.”

For the three witnesses, this was the fulfillment of a promise Jesus had made not long before: “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.” (Mt 16:28)

For pilgrims in Galilee, Mount Tabor — a steep conical hill that rises to nearly 600 meters — is an essential stop. It is one of the oldest places of Christian worship. In 326, Saint Helena arranged the construction of a church commemorating the Transfiguration. Since then, several churches have stood on the spot, the most recent erected less than a century ago.

From Luke’s Gospel, we know what Jesus, Moses and Elias were discussing as they stood side by side: the events that were soon to occur in Jerusalem. In preparation for Jesus’s impending arrest, torture and execution, the three were given a brief experience of the Christ who would rise from the tomb.

As Moses and Elias were leaving, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three booths, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elias.” Then a radiant cloud overshadowed them. The terrified disciples heard the voice of God the Father saying, “This is my beloved son, my chosen. Listen to him!” In Matthew’s account, after the Transfiguration Christ said to the three, “Rise, and have no fear.”

Later in his life, Peter would declare, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eye witnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father… we heard the voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.”

Having been a witness to the Transfiguration, it is no wonder that light plays such a vital role in Peter’s testimony about the Lord. The prophetic word, he wrote in the same letter, is like a “shining lamp in a dark place until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

The Transfiguration icon is a stark realization of the story. We see Christ in white robes on the height of a mountain. Iconographers have used different methods to represent symbolically the uncreated light of divinity or, as Saint John of Damascus expressed it, “the splendor of the divine nature.” The usual iconographic device is a mandorla surrounding Christ’s body with three concentric circles pierced by knife-sharp rays of gold or white. What actually was seen by the three witnesses could never be painted. Any artistic attempt at photographic realism would only mask the event.

“The light which illumined the apostles,” Leonid Ouspensky observed, “was not something sensible, but on the other hand it is equally false to see in it an intelligible reality, which could be called ‘light’ only metaphorically. The divine light is neither material nor spiritual, for it transcends the order of the created…. [It] has no beginning and no end.”

The light that the apostles experienced on Mount Tabor, wrote Saint Gregory Palamas, one of Christianity’s great mystics, “had no beginning and no end. It remained uncircumscribed and imperceptible to the senses although it was contemplated by the apostles’ eyes…. By a transformation of their senses, the Lord’s disciples passed from the flesh to the Spirit.” Elsewhere Saint Gregory notes that: “Whoever participates in the divine energies … in a sense himself becomes light. He is united to the light and with the light, he sees what remains hidden to those who do not have the grace. He goes beyond the physical senses and everything that is known [by the human mind].”

The Transfiguration, like Christ’s Baptism, is a revelation of who Christ is — so much more than a prophet, as the disciples at first had perceived. It was also a revelation of the Holy Trinity. We hear the voice of the Father and see the light of the Holy Spirit and the blinding face of the Son. “Today on Tabor in the manifestation of your light, O Lord,” the Orthodox Church sings on August 6, the Feast of the Transfiguration, “your light unaltered from the light of the unbegotten Father, we have seen the Father as light, and the Spirit as light, guiding with light the whole creation.”

In the icon, Moses, carrying the tablets of the law, stands on the right, Elias on the left. Their presence bears witness that Jesus is the Expected One, the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. Also they each had previously experienced the divine presence: Moses in a thick cloud on top of Mount Sinai, Elias on Mount Carmel where God spoke to him in a whisper.

In the lower tier of the icon are the prostrate disciples, Peter, James and John. Their locations vary in different versions of the icon as do their physical attitudes, but Peter can be recognized with his short beard and thick, curly hair, and John from his red robe. Often Peter is kneeling, John thrown backward, and James shielding himself.

The icon is not only about something that once happened on top of Mount Tabor or even about the identity of Christ. It also concerns human destiny, our resurrection and eventual participation in the wholeness of Christ. We will be able to see each other as being made in the image and likeness of God. We too will be transfigured.

Through Christ we become one with God. The Greek word is theosis; in English, deification. “God’s incarnation opens the way to man’s deification,” explains Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia. “To be deified is, more specifically, to be ‘christified’: the divine likeness that we are called to attain is the likeness of Christ. We are intended, said Saint Peter, ‘to become sharers in the divine nature’.”

If you have ever listened to Handel’s oratorio, Messiah, you will remember his musical setting of the words of Saint Paul: “Behold, I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet….And the dead shall be raised incorruptible … and this mortal must put on immortality.”

We can hardly begin to imagine what we will look like to each other, how razor sharp the edges of existence will become, though it occasionally happens in this life that our eyes are briefly opened and we are truly awake, seeing things with an intensity which we tend to describe as blinding — transfigured moments of heightened awareness. Thomas Merton sometimes spoke of these life-defining flashes as “kisses from God.”

return to Praying With Icons index page