“Lord, that I might see”: Henri Nouwen’s Eye for Icons

(for the June 2016 Henri Nouwen conference in Toronto — due to illness I was unable to deliver it)

Henri Nouwen
Henri Nouwen

By Jim Forest

You know the story. A blind man named Bartimaeus encounters Jesus and makes an urgent appeal, “Lord, that I might see.” And Christ grants his wish.

“Lord, that I might see.” So simple, but what a prayer! It’s a prayer for each of us, for which of us can claim not to be blind? Yes, most of us can see. We can admire a painting, take photos, drive a car, even read the small type. But, no matter how eagle-eyed we think we are, there is so much we don’t see. Our eyes are open but most of the time not very widely. How often do we look at another human face and recognize the image of Christ?

One of the remarkable things about Henri Nouwen is how much he saw, how attentively, how thoroughly he saw, how unblind he was.

You probably recall the story of how Henri came to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and, hour after hour, gazed silently at Rembrandt’s painting of the Prodigal Son. His attentiveness so impressed the museum staff that Henri was brought a special chair so he could gaze at the painting more comfortably.

Henri developed a similar eye for icons. One of Henri’s achievements is that he played a significant role within Western Christianity in rediscovering and re-appreciating — perhaps we can say re-seeing — icons, the main art form of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, though for well over a thousand years icons were simply the liturgical art, East and West, of the undivided Church

The main monument to his love of icons that Henri left to us was his book Behold the Beauty of the Lord. This thin volume remains among the best introductions to icons — very accessible, not at all technical, with a directness and sobriety that one can describe as icon-like. With his usual immediacy, Henri explains how first one icon — Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon — and then several others — an icon of Mary holding Christ in her arms; an icon of the face of Christ; and a Pentecost icon — gained a place in his life and what he had learned from long periods of attentive living with them.

We are so used to what we think of as more realistic paintings — paintings that are more cinematic, paintings with a single vantage point and a single light source, paintings that we think of as three-dimensional — that icons often seem to many of us like kindergarten drawings. At one time it was the same for Henri. In the paintings of Rembrandt and Van Gogh, Henri found doors to heaven, but in the case of icons those doors were locked.

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

[screen: Chagall painting]

Marc Chagall Untitled (Still Life with Fruit and Flowers), 1956-1957 Gouache, watercolor, and wax crayons on paper, 705 x 545 Gift of Victor and Anne-Marie Loeb, Bern, Switzerland B02.1630Henri’s sensitivity to the visual arts was a family trait. In the introduction to his book on icons, he recalls a Chagall painting his parents had purchased early in their marriage at a time when Chagall was hardly known — a watercolor of a vase filled with flowers placed on a sunlit window ledge, a simple yet radiant work, one easily recognized as the work of Chagall. (I have no photo of it to share with you but found this somewhat similar nighttime still life.) The painting made one aware not only of color and light and everyday beauty but of God’s silent, radiant life-giving energy. I recall seeing it when Henri brought me to stay with him at his father’s house. There were many other beautiful works of art in the house — the house was a small museum of fine art — but the Chagall watercolor stood out from the rest and still remains a fresh memory. “The flowers of Chagall,” Henri writes in Behold the Beauty of the Lord, “come to mind as I wondered why those four icons have become so important to me.”

The connection doesn’t surprise me. In fact Chagall’s work was deeply influenced by iconography. In some of his paintings the link is made explicit, but it is always there in more subtle ways. Chagall’s work was never held captive by the rules of perspective or the physics of gravity. People and animals fly. Fiddlers play on rooftops. Husbands and wives float in the kitchen. Like an iconographer, Chagall made his canvas a window revealing a hidden world charged with the divine presence. The Chagall painting Henri grew up with helped awaken in him a capacity to appreciate icons and understand their special language.

I remember Henri coming to visit us in the Dutch city of Alkmaar following his first stay at Trosly. He was very excited about the house gift he had brought with him, a print on heavy paper of the Holy Trinity icon. He had purchased it that morning at a religious art shop in Paris. Though he had not yet seen the actual icon — it was in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow — he was confident that the print came as close to the real thing as print technology would allow.

Though I had seen icons from time to time, until that day I confess I had taken little more than an academic interest in them. I was aware of Thomas Merton’s enthusiasm for them — he sometimes had sent me icon post cards — but for me this side of Merton had been hidden in a fog bank. It wasn’t until Henri’s visit that finally I began to see them with an excitement similar to his own.

[screen: Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon]2 Holy Trinity icon - Toronto lecture

I vividly recall Nancy and me sitting at Henri’s side as he explored, with childlike fascination, each detail of the Holy Trinity icon. I think he remarked first on the utterly submissive faces of the three angelic figures, each inclined toward the other, in a silent dialogue of self-giving love — three young beardless figures, so alike, three and yet in such a state of oneness. Such love. Such submissiveness. Henri spoke of their profound stillness, their deep silence, and yet also their warmth and vitality. Then we looked at the colors Andrei Rublev had chosen, though even the best reproduction can only hint at what Rublev had actually achieved, as I was to see for myself not long afterward when I first came to Moscow and visited the Tretyakov Gallery.

This icon, Henri reminded us, has its roots in the story told in Genesis in which Abraham and Sarah, under the oak of Mamre, are visited by angels. Their angelic guests are not the Holy Trinity but — in their oneness-threeness — an angelic revelation of the Trinity. Henri traced the perfect circle that invisibly contains the three angels. Then he traced a cross within the circle and then the triangle it also contained. All this significant geometry reveals the icon’s theology, yet none of it is heavy-handed. Then there was the table around which the three figures were placed — no longer just a plank of wood on which Abraham and Sarah ate their simple meals but transformed into the Eucharistic altar with a golden chalice. Above the three figures were three significant objects: a house with a doorless entrance, a tree, and a mountain. The doorless building, Henri said, is the Church, which one may enter without needing a key. The tree is the Tree of Life and also the Life-giving Cross. The mountain bending toward the angels is both Mount Sinai and the Mount of the Beatitudes.

Henri spoke about the history of this icon, how Rublev had painted it as the principal icon for the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity where the body of St. Sergius of Radonezh had been placed. St. Sergius, one of Russia’s most beloved saints, was a monk, woodworker and toy-maker who, in the 14th Century, founded a monastery in the dense forests north of Moscow. He left no writings. The only words that come down to us from St. Sergius are these: “The contemplation of the Holy Trinity destroys all enmity.” Through this icon, which for centuries was placed a few meters from the entombed body of St. Sergius, Rublev sought to provide an opportunity for the contemplation of the Holy Trinity.

It may have been from Henri that I first heard the comment of one of the martyrs of the Soviet era, the physicist, mathematician, theologian and priest, Pavel Florensky, who wrote: “Because of the absolute beauty of Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon, we know that God exists.” Henri understood this way of thinking — beauty bears witness to the existence of God.

For Henri, the Holy Trinity icon was an icon of “the house of love” — the Church as God intends it to be, the doors of which are never closed. All are invited.

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

Henri proposed a theology of seeing — or gazing. Gazing was the verb he preferred. To really see something beautiful, such as a well-painted icon, so that its beauty becomes a sacramental reality, one has to do much more than glance. For Henri, the icon is the primary visual art of the Church. Nor could icons be divorced from the totality of the Church. The icon becomes a dead plant when it becomes simply a “work of art,” a “collector’s item,” an aesthetic object. For both Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen, icons were intimately connected with eucharistic life and daily prayer, with the Church calendar and its feasts and fasts.

[on screen: Vladimir Mother of God icon]2a Vladimirskaya icon - Toronto lecture

Like the Bible, the icon is a multi-generational creation made by the Church and also guarded by the Church. The icon is a witness to the truths the Church lives by. Each icon has dogmatic content.

For example, as Henri pointed out, any icon of Christ in the arms of his mother reminds us that Jesus took flesh in the flesh of her body. Christ’s bare feet, as seen for example in the Virgin of Vladimir icon, are a reminder that he was fully human, a boy and then a man who walked the same earth that we do. Though shown as an infant in size, he has the proportions of an adult. His clothing is metaphorical — he is dressed as an emperor, a reminder that in reality he rules the cosmos and invites each of us into his kingdom of mercy and love.

[screen: Rublev’s Pantocrator icon]3a Rublev Pantocrator icon - Toronto lecture

It’s quite a different Christ we see in images of the Savior as an adult. Such icons have in common the living memory of Christ’s face as seen by his disciples. Consider the Savior icon done by Rublev, only the face of which survived the iconoclasm of the Soviet period. It was found in a barn and was lucky not to have been used as firewood. As is always the case in icons of Christ, he has brown eyes, long brown hair parted in the center, a closely cropped beard, prominent cheek bones, Semitic features, olive skin, a high forehead. The quiet intensity of his gaze is both startling and challenging. This version of the icon is sometimes described as “Christ the Peacemaker.” It is certainly not a face of condemnation but rather a face of great expectation, a face that challenges. We see Christ’s face, Henri pointed out, as if we had opened a door and found him standing there. It’s remarkably similar to one of the oldest surviving Savior icons, one from the sixth century that is in the safekeeping of the monks of St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Desert.

[screen: Pantocrator icon from of St. Catherine’s Monastery]3b Sinai Pantocrator icon - Toronto lecture

Henri realized that the icon, far from being an artistic image intended to direct our attention away from the world we live in with all its agonies, is a school of active seeing. It helps reshape the way we see and relate to other people. The icon serves as a reminder that each person, no matter how damaged, is a bearer of God’s image and, like those whom we regard as saints, has the capacity to reclaim the lost likeness.

It is one thing to believe intellectually that each person is made in the image of God, no less than Adam and Eve, and yet another to actively seek that image and to relate to the other in ways that bear witness to that awareness. How changed we would be, how changed the world would be, if we saw each other as we really are. But, in glancing at each other, we tend to see the frames, not the paintings.

But not Henri.

[screen: contemporary Pantocrator icon]3c Pantocrator icon - Toronto lecture

Perhaps the most important event in the last phase of Henri’s life was his taking responsibility at Daybreak for Adam Arnett, a young man of twenty-five who could not speak, suffered frequent epileptic seizures and was utterly dependent on help from others. Adam was a person whom many would regard as a first-class case for abortion or, having managed to be born, an excellent candidate for what is euphemistically called “mercy killing.” It was no easy thing for Henri, far from the world’s most practical or physically well coordinated person, a man who had difficulty frying an egg or operating a washing machine, to center his life on attending to Adam’s numerous practical needs. Yet Adam became both physically and spiritually a person at the center of Henri’s life, one of Henri’s most important teachers. As Henri wrote:

“His heart, so transparent, reflected for me not only his person but also the heart of the universe and, indeed, the heart of God. After my many years of studying, reflecting and teaching theology, Adam came into my life, and by his life and his heart he announced to me and summarized all I had ever learned.” [Adam, p 38]

For Henri, Adam was the man of many needs he was but, at the same time, a living icon of Christ.

[screen: Chora Anastasis icon]4 Anastasis icon - Toronto lecture

Speaking of Adam, let’s end with an icon in which both Adam and Eve are portrayed. It’s an image especially linked with Easter — the harrowing of hell. Having died on the Cross, a triumphant and radiant Christ takes charge of the kingdom of death, overthrowing its governor, Satan, binding him in chains and then letting him fall with all his locks and keys into the abyss, while raising the righteous ancestors, first of all Adam and Eve, from their tombs. Amazing! Adam and Eve, the original troublemakers, the refugees from Eden, are the first objects of Christ’s infinite mercy.

The message? There is hope for each of us.

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Holy Disobedience

No!by Jim Forest

“No” is a word we should use more often.

Perhaps the most difficult “no” I ever pronounced happened while I was in the U.S. Navy, stationed in Washington, D.C. Having taken part in a peace demonstration in my free time and out-of-uniform, I quickly found myself in hot water. Afterward I was required to fill out a security form in which I was asked if there were any circumstances in which I might not “perform the duties which you may be called upon to take.” I read the question with dread, realizing that I could not find a way to answer that question honestly in a manner that would be acceptable to the Navy.

Getting back to my base along the Potomac, I went to the Catholic chapel to pray, read the New Testament, and think. Skipping supper, I remained there until at least midnight. For months I had been aware that the serious application of Catholicism’s just war doctrine would condemn any modern war if only because non-combatants had become war’s main casualties. Also how could anyone, Christian or otherwise, in or out of the military, promise automatic obedience to each and every future command? I thought of the many Germans who justified their obedience to demonic demands of the Hitler regime with the words: “I was only following orders.” I thought of Anne Frank and the Holocaust. But at the same time I was anxious about what would happen to me if I failed to commit myself to unqualified obedience. What would my colleagues think? How would they treat me? Finally I composed this paragraph:

“I would have to refuse to obey any order or fulfill any duty which I considered to be immoral, contrary to my conscience or in opposition to the teaching of my Church, as a Catholic. It is highly conceivable that there are duties that would be imposed on me during war time which I could not obey…. I would not assist in any attack or war effort which necessarily involved the death of non-combatants. I would obey no order in conflict with my convictions.”

While my commanding officer was furious, to my relief nearly all my colleagues treated me well, some of them even singing “Ain’t gonna study war no more.” My parish priest backed me up as did a professor of theology at Catholic University. Even my military chaplain, though puzzled, gave his approval, while noting, “I never heard about this sort of thing in seminary.” Within weeks I was granted an early discharge as a conscientious objector and went from the Navy directly to the Catholic Worker community in New York.

How lucky I was! Not many Catholic priests in those days would have been so supportive as the ones I turned to. But just two years later, in 1963, the pope himself, John XXIII, wrote an encyclical, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), in which conscience and disobedience were central topics. It was the first papal encyclical addressed not just to Catholics but to all people of good will.

The primary human right, Pope John pointed out, is the right to life. Without that no other right has any meaning. As no human activity so undermines the right to life as war (with abortion a close second), peacemaking is among the highest and most urgent human callings.

Pope John stressed the role of conscience: “The world’s Creator has stamped our inmost being with an order revealed to us by conscience.” He went on to declare that conscience could not be coerced either in religious matters or the relationship of the person to the state: “A regime which governs solely or mainly by means of threats and intimidation or promises of reward, provides no effective incentive to work for the common good…. Since all people are equal in natural dignity, no one has the capacity to force internal compliance on another. Only God can do that, for God alone scrutinizes and judges the secret counsels of the heart. Hence representatives of the state have no power to bind men in conscience, unless their own authority is tied to God’s authority, and is a participation in it.”

In case the reader missed the implications, Pope John pointed out that laws which violate the moral order have no legitimacy and do not merit obedience:

“Governmental authority … derives from God. Consequently, laws and decrees passed in contravention of the moral order, and hence of the divine will, can have no binding force in conscience, since ‘it is right to obey God rather than men.’ … A law which is at variance with reason is to that extent unjust and has no longer the rationale of law. It is rather an act of violence.… Thus any government which refuses to recognize human rights or acts in violation of them, not only fails in its duty; its decrees are wholly lacking in binding force.”

Peacemaking was the encyclical’s core issue. Pope John gave particular attention to dangers posed by weapons of mass destruction, declaring that, in this context, it is absurd to regard war as just:

“People nowadays are becoming more and more convinced that any disputes which may arise between nations must be resolved by negotiation and agreement, and not by recourse to arms…. This conviction owes its origin chiefly to the terrifying destructive force of modern weapons. It arises from fear of the ghastly and catastrophic consequences of their use. Thus, in this age of ours which prides itself on atomic power, it is irrational to believe that war is still an apt means of vindicating violated rights.”

More than half-a-century has passed. Conscientious objection and civil disobedience are not nearly so rare today as they were when Pope John’s encyclical was published. It’s no longer hard to find a priest who will speak up for those whose conscience leads them to say no to war, abortion or unjust social structures.

But saying no to those who can punish the noncompliant will always be hard, all the more when saying no violates a law. It becomes even harder when one feels obliged to commit acts of civil disobedience in order to challenge laws, policies and social structures which threaten life. Not just the law but immense social pressure makes us long to disappear into the crowd. Fear rather than love too often shapes our actions. “The root of war,” Thomas Merton famously observed, “is fear.”

Martin Luther King in jail
Martin Luther King in jail

Each January Americans celebrate as a national holiday the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., a pastor who was no stranger to jail cells. His Letter from Birmingham Jail has become required reading for anyone wanting to understand the civil rights movement. In it he declared: “One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

Conscience-led dissenters are rarely honored in their lifetimes but often are remembered with gratitude later on. Not many years ago a postage stamp was issued bearing the image of Henry David Thoreau, who coined the phrase “civil disobedience” and was jailed for refusing to pay an obligatory war tax. Who knows, perhaps one day we’ll have stamps honoring Dorothy Day, patron saint of no-sayers and jailbirds, and that troublesome Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan, who died just a few months ago after many years of consistent pro-life activity.

One lesson that can be distilled from such lives is very simple: Don’t be bullied or manipulated either into obedience or disobedience. God has given each of us a conscience. Form it well and learn to hear it. No one can hear it for you.

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Jim Forest has been jailed several times for acts of civil disobedience, on one occasion for more than a year after burning draft records as a protest against the Vietnam War. His latest book is The Root of War is Fear: Tomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers. Earlier books include biographies of Thomas Merton (Living With Wisdom) and Dorothy Day (All Is Grace) and Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment.

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For U.S. Catholic / draft as of 21 May 2016
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Nhat Hanh: Seeing with the Eyes of Compassion

Thich Nhat Hanh with my son Daniel, Paris 1974

by Jim Forest

[afterword to the first edition of Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness]

In 1968 I was traveling with Thich Nhat Hanh on a Fellowship of Reconciliation tour during which there were meetings with church and student groups, senators, journalists, professors, business people, and—blessed relief—a few poets. Almost everywhere he went, this brown-robed Buddhist monk from Vietnam (looking many years younger than the man in his forties he was) quickly disarmed those he met.

His gentleness, intelligence, and sanity made it impossible for most who encountered him to hang on to their stereotypes of what the Vietnamese were like. The vast treasury of the Vietnamese and Buddhist past spilled over through his stories and explanations. His interest in Christianity, even his enthusiasm for it, often inspired Christians to shed their condescension toward Nhat Hanh’s own tradition. He was able to help thousands of Americans glimpse the war through the eyes of peasants laboring in rice paddies and raising their children and grandchildren in villages surrounded by ancient groves of bamboo. He awoke the child within the adult as he described the craft of the village kite maker and the sound of the wind instruments these fragile vessels would carry toward the clouds.

After an hour with him, one was haunted with the beauties of Vietnam and filled with anguish at America’s military intervention in the political and cultural tribulations of the Vietnamese people. One was stripped of all the ideological loyalties that justified one party or another in their battles, and felt the horror of the skies raked with bombers, houses and humans burned to ash, children left to face life without the presence and love of their parents and grandparents.

But there was one evening when Nhat Hanh awoke not understanding but rather the rage of one American. Nhat Hanh had been talking in the auditorium of a wealthy Christian church in a St. Louis suburb. As always, he emphasized the need for Americans to stop their bombing and killing in his country. There had been questions and answers when a large man stood up and spoke with searing scorn of the “supposed compassion” of “this Mr. Hanh.”

“If you care so much about your people, Mr. Hanh, why are you here? If you care so much for the people who are wounded, why don’t you spend your time with them?” At this point my recollection of the man’s words is replaced by the memory of the intense anger that overwhelmed me.

When he finished, I looked toward Nhat Hanh in bewilderment. What could he—or anyone—say? The spirit of the war itself had suddenly filled the room, and it seemed hard to breathe.

There was a silence. Then Nhat Hanh began to speak—quietly, with deep calm, indeed with a sense of personal caring for the man who had just damned him. The words seemed like rain falling on fire. “If you want the tree to grow,” he said, “it won’t help to water the leaves. You have to water the roots. Many of the roots of the war are here, in your country. To help the people who are to be bombed, to try to protect them from this suffering, I have to come here.”

The atmosphere in the room was transformed. In the man’s fury we had experienced our own furies; we had seen the world as through a bomb bay. In Nhat Hanh’s response we had experienced an alternate possibility: the possibility (here brought to Christians by a Buddhist and to Americans by an “enemy”) of overcoming hatred with love, of breaking the seemingly endless chain reaction of violence throughout human history.

But after his response, Nhat Hanh whispered something to the chairman and walked quickly from the room. Aware something was wrong, I followed him out. It was a cool, clear night. Nhat Hanh stood on the sidewalk beside the church parking lot. He was struggling for air—like someone who had been deeply underwater and who had barely managed to swim to the surface before gasping for breath. It was several minutes before I dared ask him how he was or what had happened.

Nhat Hanh explained that the man’s comments had been terribly upsetting. He had wanted to respond to him with anger. So he had made himself breathe very deeply and slowly in order to find a way to respond with calm and understanding. But the breathing had been too slow and too deep.

“Why not be angry with him,” I asked. “Even pacifists have a right to be angry.”

“If it were just myself, yes. But I am here to speak for Vietnamese peasants. I have to show them what we can be at our best.”

The moment was an important one in my life, one pondered again and again since then. For one thing, it was the first time that I realized there was a connection between the way one breathes and the way one responds to the world around.

Until the mid-1970s, Nhat Hanh made no attempt to teach Western people any of the skills of meditation—what he calls mindfulness. Only in 1974, first with a few Western friends helping the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation in Paris, later with a group at that city’s Quaker International Center, did he begin to teach meditation. It was in this year that he wrote published The Miracle of Mindfulness, a small manual on meditation.

Nhat Hanh is a poet, Zen Master, and a cochairman of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. In Vietnam, he played a major role in the creation of “engaged Buddhism”—a profound religious renewal rooted in compassion and service out of which emerged countless projects that combined to help the war’s victims with nonviolent opposition to the war itself. For their work, thousands of Buddhists—nuns, monks, and laypeople—were shot or imprisoned.

His work in Vietnam gave birth to several institutions: a small monastery that was an early base of the nonviolent movement, the School of Youth for Social Service, Van Hanh University, and the La Boi Press, one of the principal vehicles for cultural and religious renewal.

Nhat Hanh’s poetry provides the words of many of the most popular songs in contemporary Vietnam, songs of hope surviving grief.

Even in exile, representing overseas the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, he has continued to be a force for nonviolence and reconciliation in his homeland and an organizer of supportive responses from other countries. (His friendship with Martin Luther King Jr. was a factor in Dr. King’s decision to ignore the advice of many colleagues and contributors who opposed his “mixing issues” and to join in the opposition to the Vietnam War. Shortly before his assassination, Dr. King nominated Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Prize for Peace.)

During conversations with Nhat Hanh and his coworkers in Paris, our thoughts turned to the absence of a meditative dimension in much of the American peace movement. Its absence helped explain why so much of the “peace” movement had exhibited such slight and superficial interest in the Buddhists’ nonviolent campaign against the war. The weaponless Buddhists were judged as not truly “political,” as “merely” a religious movement: admirable, unusually courageous when compared to other religious groups, but peripheral.

What American peace activists might learn from their Vietnamese counterparts is that, until there is a more meditative dimension in the peace movement, our perceptions of reality, and thus our ability to help occasion understanding and transformation, will be terribly crippled. Whatever our religious or nonreligious background and vocabulary may be, we will be overlooking something as essential to our lives and work as breath itself.

Breath itself. Breathing. It comes to many as astonishing news that something as simple as attention to breathing has a central part to play in meditation and prayer. It is like a mystery novelist’s idea of hiding the diamonds in the goldfish bowl: too obvious to be noticed. But since the news has made its way past my own barriers of skepticism, there has been no end of confirmations—principally, the confirmation of experience.

The problem with meditation is that the contexts for it are too close at hand. The chances, as Nhat Hanh points out, are scattered everywhere: in the bathtub, at the kitchen sink, on at a cutting board, on a sidewalk or path, on a tenement staircase, on a picket line, at a typewriter … literally anywhere. The moments and places of silence and stillness are wondrous and helpful, but not restricted. The meditative life doesn’t require a secluded, greenhouse existence. (But it does need occasional periods of time, even a whole day of the week, when special attention can be given to becoming more mindful. But then Christians and Jews ought not to be newcomers to the Sabbath.)

To the skeptic, Nhat Hanh’s suggestions will seem quite absurd, the latest card trick dealt out of the ancient deck of mystical doubletalk. But the pacifist affirmation itself—choosing to nurture life and to live without weapons in a murderous world—strikes many as no smaller an absurdity than accepting a world of violence. The way of meditation only carries that personal disarmament we have already begun an essential step deeper: nonviolence not only in the face of governments and corporations and liberation armies but a nonviolent encounter with reality itself.

This is the way to understand a simple truth Nhat Hanh has mentioned elsewhere: “Those who are without compassion cannot see what is seen with the eyes of compassion.” That more inclusive sight makes the small but crucial difference between despair and hope.

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text and photo copyright by Jim Forest

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Daniel Berrigan: The Poet and Priest as Prophet

Dan & Phil Berrigan cover of Time magazine 1971
Dan & Phil Berrigan cover of Time magazine 1971

a chapter from Witness of the Berrigans, edited by Stephen Halpert & Tom Murray (NY: Doubleday, 1972)

By Jim Forest

It was nearly midnight. Dan Berrigan and I, pushed along by a damp wind, were walking back toward the Jesuits’ Manhattan townhouse after a meeting with college students at a West Side hotel.

It must have been a confessional blackness, or some haunting within me pulling introspection toward judgment. Perhaps it was simply the awareness that this friend was also priest.

It wasn’t that Dan’s clothing announced the fact; there were no tipped hats, no Hello-Father exclamations as we walked along. Yet Dan’s priesthood was an unshedable fact, as if there were a cathedral dimension to him, a mysterious projection of there being—in himself—a large, safe, candled place, a kind of border station between our own routinized Flatland and the bottomless but gravity-held universe.

Confession was rare—in the constant raising of theological hemlines, it had become an unfashionable sacrament. Events that had once been seen as morally catastrophic were now often found suitable for a secularized Te Deum. As it was 1965, the Aquarian Age had not yet been announced, but there were multiplying assurances that guilt was as immobilizing to our potential selves as cinder blocks tied to helium-filled balloons. Guilt’s only surviving validity was public: America guilty of war crimes, the Russians guilty of making Stalinism equivalent to revolution, corporations guilty of ripping off the poor and peddling addictions (to consumption rather than heroin), the churches guilty of struggling for life only while it remained in the Eden of the womb, the schools guilty of burying alive the minds of children.

All true. But here was a tide of the obsolescent variety, that guilt knowing gravely the ways in which one’s personal, seemingly apolitical promises are edited down to “for better … for richer … in health … until ….”

Dan listened. Births always hard, my words were coming hard. But he seemed a cheerful midwife. I finished. Except for our stride against the pavement and the wet echo from the streets, we seemed to be a walking Quaker meeting.

“Hey, Jimmy, look at this!” We stopped. I had never been invited to window-shop in any confessional before. We were looking at every sort of sleep gear in a store window in a particularly wealthy zone of the Upper East Side: lace-trimmed, silk and velvet eye masks, pillows with radios inside, another with a tape recorder playing the sounds of rain and water, down-filled pajamas, Swiss-made ear plugs, cashmere slippers, fur-trimmed blankets, satin sheets. Dan was delighted, pointing from item to item. “Look at that, Jimmy! Mink ear muffs!”

The sleep-store window tour was Dan’s comment, I realized, on the confessionless, unexamined life, his particular way, that night, of laughing at the cushioned way-of-death we are patriotically assured is life, the granting of civic virtue to our daily, stand-up sleep. And it was a celebration. “Look, Jimmy!” Which is to say, Jimmy, now you can look, and this is where you were.

“With the authority I have received from the church, in the name of Jesus Christ, I absolve you from all your sins.”

Later we sat in the kitchen in the Jesuit house, laughing in the high-ceilinged space with its faded walls and ancient fixtures, drinking beer and watching the rain fall.

It was in the fall of 1961 that we first met. Dan had come down from Le Moyne in Syracuse and I had come up with Dorothy Day from the Catholic Worker’s house of hospitality near the Bowery; we met at a high-rise apartment in the Columbia University area, our host being William Robert Miller, jazz critic and then editor of the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s pacifist magazine, Fellowship.

Dan was wearing traditional, carefully tailored, dry-cleaned clericals, a small, lean man, short hair, pink skin. He was introduced to us as poet-theologian now founding an “international house” at which students would live in community in preparation for work in America’s economic colonies, particularly in Latin America. Dorothy was introduced, though we all knew, as Catholic Worker founder and presiding abbess of applied Christianity. Some comments were made linking the two with the ecclesiastical thaw that was astonishing the world as Pope John began proving to be something more providential than a pope between popes.

The introductions over, memory is perhaps caricaturing reality in having Dan immediately pull a sheaf of notes from a jacket pocket, proceeding at length to analyze the evolution of Catholic social teaching from scriptural times through the current instant.

Undoubtedly, it was an excellent paper, even suggestive, in style and content, of all that has since become so widely appreciated in Dan. For better or worse, however, honesty requires my admission of boredom. Dorothy, however, was less bored than annoyed. “Just like a priest!” she snapped as we began making our way back to the Lower East Side. “He didn’t leave room for anyone else to talk!”

We didn’t meet again until July of 1964. It was under the auspices of John Heidbrink of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a flamboyant Presbyterian minister more taken with Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, and Dorothy Day than with Calvin, Luther, or Tillich. John had gotten together contributions enough to bring Dan, Catholic lay-theologian Jim Douglass, myself, and a number of others to an international convocation of peace-concerned Christians to be held in Prague, this at a time when the Czechs’ secular aggiornamento seemed to be bringing together the best in religious and socialist thought and lifestyle.

Dan was already in Paris when we arrived, in fact standing in the gilded lobby of the Grand Hotel. The truth is, I didn’t recognize him. The tailored clericals had been replaced with a black cotton turtle neck, trim black chino slacks, a faded green windbreaker jacket, and a share-cropper-made leather tote bag slung over his shoulder (which we later discovered to be a mobile library and wine cellar).

But the transformation of vestments was less striking than that in face and aura. In 1961, despite the years of austerity and struggle, he seemed an unencumbered man, despite everything a well-scrubbed, secure American. Now the face seemed blizzard-worn. The pink had been blown away. It suggested bleached Maine rock, warm in summer, but etched with its experiences of winter. In our fervent embrace, once identities were known, there was also some tangible experience of an esprit that seemed in contrast to the earlier encounter, as if his flesh were now irrigated not with blood but with good French wine.

In fact some survivals had occurred. The Berrigan of 1961 was two or three generations removed from the Berrigan of 1964. Dan’s liturgical innovations (saying parts of the Mass in English well before such was officially authorized) and his militant involvement in the Syracuse civil rights scene (jeopardizing certain local contributions to the university) had caused considerable tension between him and his immediate superiors, a tension that was further irritated when permission could not be obtained for Dan to co-author a book with his Josephite brother, Philip (instead, two books eventually emerged, Philip’s No More Strangers and Dan’s They Call Us Dead Men).

The abuse of authority was such that Dan’s continuity in his Jesuit vocation seemed uncertain to close friends. Thomas Merton felt called upon, in correspondence with Dan, to warn him of the danger that “a violent break with superiors would tend to cast discredit on all the initiatives you have so far taken and render them all suspect as part of a dangerous process leading inevitably to radicalism and defection. If you allow this to happen … you must consider that you are turning adrift those who have begun to follow you and profit by your leadership, and you are also, at the same time, wreaking havoc in the minds of superiors who were perhaps timidly beginning to go along with you.” He urged Dan instead to separate himself from the situation and scout anew “the best Catholic opinion in Europe,” such individuals as Pere Regamey, the Dominican advocate of Gandhian nonviolence.

Dan had asked for, and had received, permission for a sabbatical in Paris, and it was here we found him. The stay included street-searching, river-walking, bread-buying, and there were meetings, particularly with two priest-workers. Impressive men. That they were priests caught me by complete surprise. We were in the Grail house and the smell of paint in the building had led me to assume these two were painters who happened to be taking a break in the room into which we had been ushered. One of them was very brawny, with a butcher’s arms and back, the other lean and quick, with a knife-fighter’s tense alertness. Both were formidable. It required Dan’s introduction for me to absorb the notion that they were priests, but I was again in for a surprise as I assumed they would talk in a gruff way. Instead they were very much like Dan — and, again, like Dan, shattering my stereotypes. The impact such men had had upon Dan was suddenly not academic at all; I had never imagined such a priesthood, never thought such a genuine worker-scholar synthesis (to use the Catholic Worker’s phrase) was possible.

Our last morning we were taken by Dan to breakfast with a crowd of university students who were running a Catholic Worker-style hospitality program in the thirteenth-century crypt of St. Severin Church near Notre Dame in the Latin Quarter of Paris. The church’s ancient cloister was used as a soup-serving area once each day, and the students had created a number of jobs—scrubbing grave markers and stonework was the major employment. Before our breakfast, we trooped into the church and, with Dan as celebrant, proceeded to celebrate a mass in English, my first such experience. Presbyterian John Heidbrink read the Gospel, and everyone—Protestant, Quaker, and Catholic—joined in sharing the consecrated bread and wine, “the living bread which has come down from heaven.” “Taste and see how good the Lord is,” Dan announced with a joyous face.

A.J. Muste has often used the phrase “holy disobedience.” Dan’s mass was such, for we were climbing over several of the fences in canon law, not disrespectfully but in recognition of what seemed a Spirit-warranted exception, the kind of transitional event that is inseparable from the process of making something new. Indeed we walked out of St. Severin’s gothic innards of cool, ancestral stone into the summer light, to see Notre Dame lifting her spires above the green treetops very much as our own spirits had been set to flight by our unanimous breaking of the bread of Christ.

The same day we arrived in Rome, crowding into a Vatican-owned hotel hanging over the Tiber. Over the coming days we had further walks and meetings, one in a regal palace library that had been the study of a Renaissance cardinal. One afternoon we wandered about in the archaeological excavations beneath a church near the Coliseum where water was rushing through stoneworks fitted together since before the angel declared unto Mary. The experience most engraved in memory is a trolley ride to the Vatican during which Dan astounded the Roman citizenry on board by announcing that the least the five or six Americans on board could do for international good will was offer some music, and that, in any event, public transportation required a liberation from its dourness. Dan immediately launched into leading us in Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” (Several years later, Dan began an introduction to a book by Sister Corita Kent with the comment, “The worst thing is an omnivorous solemnity.”)

In the midst of our continuing European explorations, we became increasingly preoccupied with the need to bring together some effort in the United States that could supplement the Catholic Worker’s established witness; there was an obvious need for much more to be done in providing support to Catholic conscientious objectors and draft resisters, and in encouraging nonviolent direct action to impede our society’s more murderous institutions; and more assistance was needed in building up new nonlethal structures. John’s encyclical Pacem in Terris, a revolutionary document, was in our hands, with such appeals from him as, “With all the authority we have received from Jesus Christ, we say, ‘Shun all thought of force!'” A great crossing in Christian consciousness seemed to have occurred, making official the hitherto prophetic recognition that the religious life was one of reconciliation—restoring communion—and that reconciliation presupposed effective response to injustice—an end to unnecessary suffering, if “injustice” is too abstract a word.

Peace, we were saying, is a particularly good word for revolution—if we understand peace well enough to know it is as much verb as noun, something other than a synonym for the passive acceptance of the intolerable.

The motivation was found not only in the issuing of Pacem in Terris but in less encouraging news. America’s involvement in Vietnam was much more on view in the French press than in our own. It was impossible not to realize that, however much competition existed between countries for lead place, America ranked first in disturbing the peace just as it ranked first in nearly every other measurable zone of human effort.

We resolved to found the Catholic Peace Fellowship. At the same time Dan hoped that, on returning to the United States in the fall, he might give at least a day a week to work at the Catholic Worker, with the soup line and the free-clothing room. He wanted to be more a priest-worker himself.

In fact, with his return and his assignment to the editorial staff of Jesuit Missions magazine in New York, the international crisis was such that there was no time left in Dan’s life for help with the soup line. The quicksand of Vietnam—the Land of Burning Children, as Dan would rename that country at Catonsville—was pulling under ever more life, and bringing to a boil all of America’s long-simmering internal difficulties.

We pushed forward with every scrap of energy in us to forge the Catholic Peace Fellowship into a new tool of consciousness-raising—and courage-freeing—in the American religious community. Thomas Merton, Gordon Zahn, and Phil Berrigan joined with us in pooling names and addresses from our various listings, and then along came Tom Cornell and Marty Corbin, both of the Catholic Worker newspaper staff.

a page by Dan from a journal I was keeping in September 1981
a page by Dan from a journal I was keeping in September 1981

We met together often, usually in Dan’s top-floor apartment in a townhouse that had been Emily Post’s at one time. His small room had hardly enough space for bed, desk, file cabinet, books, and electric typewriter, yet it was large enough to be stamped with Dan’s style, any available bit of wall or ceiling being used as area for a continually shifting collage of signs, posters, found objects, photos and postcards, a delicately balanced kaleidoscope that was a form of psychic self-portraiture, more revealing than the shapes of nose and ear. By January of 1965, we had an office about the size of Dan’s room, rented for twenty-five dollars a month from the War Resisters League, and enough to keep first me, and then Tom Cornell as well, going on a subsistence salary of $60 a week. Dan, Phil, and Hermene Evans, who had been on pilgrimage with us in Europe, were largely responsible for the funding.

A ritual of nearly weekly regularity soon emerged—Dan and I, usually joined by Tom Cornell —gathered in Dan’s room, celebrated a simple liturgy of the day, then went on to sort through letters, problems, ideas, and—not least—lunch. The style of our bread-breaking was as simple and graceful in line as a Shaker chair, and quiet enough to keep a silent-meeting Quaker from excessive anxiety. We took our turns reading from a worn paperback edition of the Phillip’s translation of “that old book,” as Thoreau called it. And then silence. Then some reflection, usually initiated by Dan, on the readings, perhaps even another reading—from Neruda or Auden or Peguy or Teilhard or Brecht or Merton. Then a simple canon prayer, most often from the Bible Missal which was then in wide use. Finally, after the unspectacular miracle of consecration, came the sharing in that miracle, and more silence, perhaps some prayer, and a Deo gratias-saying embrace at the end.

Apparently some valiant soul kept a stethoscope to the wall during these liturgical moments, for the day came when I found Dan in considerable depression, having just been told these eucharists were absolutely not allowed. There had, in fact, been a number of mild proddings to the same effect during previous weeks. So we sat forlorn, trying to talk about those things which would have come later on. In the midst of a half-hearted sentence, Dan stood up abruptly, went downstairs, and returned with two slices of rye bread. From its usual place in the file cabinet, a bottle of wine and a glass were removed, the books and papers on the desk-used drawing board pushed back, the bread and wine put in place, the Gospels taken up. Not a word was spoken. I was handed the book and thumbed around for what might be an appropriate reading. We each read and perhaps there was some dialogue. The memories are of silence and hurt and yet a granite-hard determination to go forward with an unpasteurized conscience. At last the bread on its plate was taken in hand, and the glass with its red wine in the other, silence where a canon prayer would ordinarily have been spoken, until a few intense but quiet words were spoken, “Let the Lord make of this what he will.”

And so we ate and drank, and with reverence.

Flak from the authorities was nearly our daily bread those days. Only because of a postal lag—a stop-order from Dan coming too slow in the mail—did his first anti-war speech make it into print in the Catholic Worker of March, 1965.

He had already become, a month earlier, one of many signatories to a “declaration of conscience” pledging “to encourage those who can conscientiously do so to refuse to serve in the Armed Forces.” The declaration urged others “to refuse … to take part in the manufacture or transportation of military equipment, or to work in the fields of military research and weapons development.” Very significantly, as few of the signers have yet proved to take the notion so seriously as Dan, they stated, “We shall encourage the development of nonviolent acts, including acts which involve civil disobedience, in order to stop the flow of American soldiers and munitions to Vietnam.”

He explained his decision to sign the declaration at a rally in New York’s Community Church the night of February 18:

It is astonishing to reflect how in time of war, the word of God tends to become complicated and diffuse. Suddenly, his word has a thousand footnotes, refining, clarifying, explaining away. The powers of the state show a mysterious concern for the integrity of the word of God. They issue their own tracts and texts. Believers must see that the God of all has suddenly taken sides for and against. A universal Love has narrowed itself to accept hate and to command hate. The message of peace is interpreted in favor of nationalism, of the ideologies of the moment, of the frenzies of human causes. The purity and simplicity of the Bible are clouded; it becomes a complicated and even devious thing to be a believer. One must approach God through a thousand others who speak for God, who talk another language than his, who issue commands counter to his commands.

So the question of where believers stand in wartime is of crucial moment, as it could never be in normal times. For in time of war, another god declares himself. His name is total war. He is determined to claim all men and everything that is in man. He claims conscience, consciousness, and community; he claims life and limb. He will have the world devastated, in the image of his own chaos and fury; the destruction of man is his universal and unassailable will.

For those who choose to reject this monstrous idol, there is small space in this world. Total war excommunicates the man of peace. It casts him out of his community, out of the human family, out of his future. It offers him a life of shame and, perhaps, death in disgrace.

Men of maturity and conscience are obliged to judge the actions of their society and to speak up. And where it is necessary, they are obliged to pay the price of their speech, to put their bodies where their words are, to stand in peaceable conflict with the powers of the state…

Our community today is a gathering together of peacemakers. We pray that the God of peace may cleanse us of our will to war, that he may bestow on us some measure of his wisdom and steadfastness in the tasks of peace. We gather, we pray together, and we disperse again, knowing that the work of peace cannot be accomplished in the churches; it can only begin here. The making of peace implies the will to return to our world in love, to stand firm in public, to confront the powers and principalities, to assert in time of war that no government which makes war can govern well; that we ourselves will not submit before a governing hand that would thrust weapons into our hands and command us away from the paths of peace.

Two days later he wrote me, “Probably it would be better if we killed the statement in the Catholic Worker… There is every indication publication of this would only exacerbate things … I suppose there is no restriction on mimeo’ed stuff.” But the letter arrived too late, the speech was in print, and the exacerbations occurred.

On March 5, he wrote, “These are very mysterious and dark waters we are walking. The question is, what next? … But it seems sure now the order is not going to take an all-out fallout position, probably due to many modifying pressures…”

Travels around the country and further writing were increasing his visibility. In editorial attacks on the “declaration of conscience,” with its support of nonviolent resistance, a number of editorial writers were calling for indictment and imprisonment of the signers.

On July 2, Dan, in a letter, reported the news that he was officially persona non grata in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. “I am in New York today, which is to say, I am not in Los Angeles. Which is to say, I was banned from there last week, a call arriving from Sister Corita [Kent] on Saturday with the sad news that the chancery had called and made it evident that I was unwelcome. It seems to me, without undue personal chagrin (I hope I have gotten beyond all that), that there may be a small footnote here for the Catholic community at large. But I leave the decision to you.” He then listed details of the topics he had hoped to discuss at the eight-day seminar at Immaculate Heart College (“on liturgical renewal, on crisis and community, on the beatitudes, the Mystical Body—and necessarily on the moral consequences in race and peace questions”). He went on, “It seems to me that the day when such tactics of intervention can be used undercover ought to be ended, as soon as can be done. At least it may be a service to church renewal to give the public the facts.”

An article Dan had written for the Association for International Development, a small Third World-oriented Catholic service agency, resulted in ties with the Kennedy family and visits with the family of Sargent Shriver, then director of the Peace Corps. Dan had begun the piece with the admission that

I am a member of a deprived and ever impoverished church, a church which is too poor in virtue to become poor in fact, too unsure and unconvinced to preach the gospel with clarity and vision, childishly attached to the bric-a-brac of honors, the double talk of diplomacy, the degrading favors of the rich, the idolatry of structures, the price of place.

I am a member of a deprived nation. I speak here of a moral poverty of the most frightful and pervasive kind. It is a poverty which clings with the grasp of death itself, to material well-being. It clings to its static goods, and fears mightily the winds of revolution. . . .

On October 15, a former LeMoyne student of Dan, shy of public speaking, had reached the decision that he could only offer a symbolic act in representing the Catholic Worker at a demonstration the next day. David Miller, in suit and tie, with close-cropped Nordic hair, stood on a truck in front of the lower Manhattan induction center, pulled out his draft cards and lit them in flame. Such acts had occurred often enough before, very frequently in Catholic Worker hands, but it had only been a few weeks since a furious congressman, seeing such card-burning in a Life magazine photo, had gotten the Congress specifically to outlaw “willful mutilation or destruction” of draft cards. A more general prohibition had previously existed. Even so, David’s act resulted in astonishing international attention.

Neither Dan nor Phil hesitated in leaping forward in articulate defense of David’s act and, for that matter, any form of non-violent resistance to the nation’s military processes.

On November 10, Roger LaPorte, a student and occasional volunteer at the Catholic Worker, sat down on the avenue facing the United Nations, poured kerosene upon himself, and struck a flame. When he died several days later in Bellevue Hospital, the priest who had been with him at the end reported, with tears, “He made the most devout confession I have ever heard.”

The Catholic Peace Fellowship, and Dan personally, refused to characterize Roger’s act as suicide. We saw him not choosing death but trying to make us choose life. He had hoped that, in seeing the routine consequence of war the moral and physical catastrophe of war might be less abstract to Americans. Our failing to see Roger’s act within the simplistic category of suicide brought nearer the noose of bureaucratic ecclesiastical judgment.

During those same days, a new, interfaith peace group was in formation—Clergy Concerned about Vietnam (later Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam)—with Dan, Rabbi Abraham Heschel and Reverend Richard Neuhaus, as co-chairmen. Its first public meeting, in a New York Protestant church, was scheduled to take place on November 30.

On November 16, Dan’s immediate superior, Father James Cotter, walked into Dan’s room saying, “The fat’s in the fire.”

Dan responded, “I haven’t got much fat, and Where’s the fire?”

“You’ve got to go on a trip.”

Dan called me at the CPF office, voice choked, and asked me to come up immediately. The memory now is only of the enormous burden of the decision that had immediately to be made, whether to accept the departure order, or to refuse it. In refusing it, there seemed reason to believe, the Society might not have the courage to overcome archdiocesan pressures for a solution more severe than an exodus order, and that Dan would be found canonically dispensable and dropped overboard by the Jesuits. “After all, we do have to get along with the cardinal,” a Jesuit commented.

My own view was that very little could be gained by resisting the order except divisive controversy in the church regarding the limits of authority; the issues that preoccupied Dan and the rest of us—nonviolent resistance to the war—would be largely ignored. Publicizing the situation, on the other hand, still allowed the issue of authority to be raised, and with it that of conscience, while keeping Dan in formal communion with both the Jesuits and the Church. There might even be some providence in going south for a while.

Without doubt Dan talked with others. It was, and has remained, his style to do hard thinking in a communal context, not turning his conscience over to others for programming but making sure all the possibilities have been explored, and his own leanings adequately tested. Somehow out of all that came the decision to take the one-way ticket.

At the Clergy Concerned meeting November 30, an empty chair on the stage had a sign on it reading, “Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J.”

On December 5, a full-page ad blasting Dan’s removal and with an extended list of prestigious signers, appeared in the New York Times. Editorials criticizing the transfer action appeared in Ave Maria and Commonweal as well as many other periodicals.

The following day the New York chancery office was picketed with such signs as, “St. Paul was a Rebel Too,” “Jesus was Arrested for Stirring Up the People,” “Free the Church from Stalinism,” and “Merry Christmas, Dan, Wherever You Are.”

On December 7, Dan wrote from Ivan Illich’s Centro de Investigaciones Culturales in Cuernavaca, Mexico, that “Letters coming in here, phone calls, and, yesterday, the copy of the National Catholic Reporter make it clear that great things are in the wind. And yet with their cost too. Phil wrote that Tom [Cornell] had been beaten after the Washington march… This is a terrible cost to pay for being a peacemaker, and one never gets to the point of not being appalled by the violence against those he loves… I am going along from day to day here, marveling at the strange ways of Providence… There is nothing to be worried over on my score. According to present reports, I will be going south from here in a week or ten days… Are people in good spirits? We have in a sense been through a lot since Roger’s death, but what a time of strength and joy too! … Mucho love to all…”

From Chile, February 17, as the proliferation of protests regarding Dan’s exile continued, Dan wrote, “A letter from my Provincial assures me I will be welcome back to NY for my work—that was a great relief indeed. I think all the fuss has helped some anchorites come to a better mind and brought a breath of freedom to more priests and laymen.” Characteristically, Dan continues: “Is this so?”

One of the more crushing experiences of the pilgrimage occurred in Rio de Janeiro, when a tropical storm of rare intensity tore into the city. Just after midnight, January 8, “the heavens opened.” The torrent continued through the night and through four days, sweeping the slum favellas of tin and cardboard down the hillsides into, as Dan described it at the Catonsville trial, “a stew of death.” It was, he wrote for his magazine, Jesuit Missions, “as though over the crest of the hills, a gigantic volcano had poured. The people were stricken like Pompeians in their beds, in darkness, without warning… The rickety houses shuddered and collapsed into pitiful matchwood debris, too insubstantial to be called rubble. One hundred and sixty are known dead.”

Recounting the experience at the trial, in an effort to gather those events that had prodded him toward resistance, Judge Thomson interjected, “What? Are you saying that the United States Government caused the flood?” “I think,” Dan answered, “the fact was a bit more subtle than that … [I] was saying, the resources of America, which belong in justice to the poor of the world, are squandered in war and war preparation.”

While in Brazil, news arrived of the death on February 15 of a fellow priest, Camillo Torres, reportedly shot to death by government troops while helping a wounded comrade in the ELN (the Army of National Liberation of Colombia). Again the question was raised: can the price of peacemaking be less than that exacted from those who opt for violent means in responding to injustice?

Dan returned to New York March 8, the one-way ticket now made round-trip, finding Jesuits—including Father Cotter—there to receive him with joy. The office of Jesuit Missions is doubtless still engraved with the celebration it endured.

At a press conference March 11, occasioned by publication of They Call Us Dead Men (essays) and No One Walks Waters (poems), it was made newly clear there would be no trimming of moral canvas. “Our presence in Southeast Asia,” Dan said, “represents a contempt for the rights of innocent individuals and constitutes a continuing divergence for the purposes of destruction of resources that are badly needed in other parts of the world… When I left in November, everything seemed so closed. Now the peace movement has grown in numbers and quality.” Wasting no time in putting his body where his words were, he was in the front ranks of a New York peace march March 30 in company with sixty priests, nuns, rabbis, and ministers, processing from synagogue, to Protestant church, to cathedral, then on to the United Nations.

The following day he was writing the CPF staff, suggesting we think more seriously about priests in the military. “The traditional idea [is] that the state throws bombs with its right hand and with its left calls on priests to succor the troops. But what of Popes John and Paul and the Council?” He suggested we work to open up the issue by getting some article and letters into print.

Yet increasingly Dan was becoming impatient with processions from church to church or new rounds of sparring in the press. In June he was thinking of the potential value of getting some Vietnamese Catholics into the country for a speaking tour.

Something of his mindset comes through in his comments that month on a draft of the CPF fund-appeal letter that he had been working on editorially: “The letter seems to me OK except I miss in it a note of urgency and push which the NY Times gives me each morning, the latest madness saying with a gargoyle grin, What are you going to do with this one, bud? The letter sounds a bit as though we were keeping house in normal times. Ha. Can’t you give … some hint of the wash of suffering the war is bringing home to our doorstep? Give us a bit of anguish, or why talk about hope?”

On the draft itself were penciled such additions or changes as, “You can read the extent of our need in your daily paper. The noise of violence is louder each day. How to declare peace as loudly as our government declares war? … how to raise in the religious community the painful questions the war itself has brought on so urgently, a religious community which has in the past expended far more energy on its internal welfare than on the question of whether and how man is to survive.”

Back in Paris again in October he reported on visits with Archbishop Thomas Roberts and a Mass with Cardinal Beran, long a political prisoner in Eastern Europe; Dan took heart in the use of liturgical symbol: barb wire surrounding a candle in a Jesuit chapel. “The night I arrived [here in Paris] I went to mass at St. Severin & afterward ate … at a little Vietnamese restaurant nearby, a room that somehow seats 12 people by a window where you can lean out & touch the building on the opposite side of the street … Luckily, I was wearing my beret & [my] French is passable so I do not think they knew I was a bomber-member.”

The idea of bringing Vietnamese Catholics to the United States was again raised. The Vietnamese in France “feel that part of our minority status as peace people is due to the massive American ignorance about Vietnam, while France, in spite of all else, always had a Vietnamese community, intermarriage, students here, etc…. Today I meet with priest-workers & friends in another part of town, then on to supper & meeting tomorrow with a French expert on China & his Chinese wife.” Dan’s good humor continued to survive his ever heightening sense of moral crisis. He confessed that part of the charm of France “is being able to move on—the French for a steady diet would be like Martel before breakfast.”

The momentum continued with few breaks and little shift in the style of life, except that a continuing effort was begun to “get under the bombs”—to go to North Vietnam. While in Paris he had gone to see some friends it was hoped could assist in obtaining a visa, but the effort seemed futile.

A letter to a Hiroshima survivor, the Jesuit’s father general, Pedro Arrupe, and then a visit, both undertaken in the hope of his providing more energetic encouragement of the American Jesuit community regarding opposition to the war and action to impede injustice, were successful only in the sense that Dan was given a close hearing. (Arrupe would later visit Dan in prison.)

Close ties had developed with the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, largely a consequence of friendship with Sister Jogues Egan, then president of Marymount Manhattan and later provincial for that region of the society. In June 1967, Dan was invited by the community to lead their retreat (retreat guidance had long been one of Dan’s most persistent activities) at the Benedictine monastery, St. Paul’s, near Newton, New Jersey.

Toward the end of the retreat, several of us from the Catholic Worker and the Catholic Peace Fellowship responded to an invitation to join them for a day, and to celebrate a baptism. The baptism was in the nearby lake; Dan was in a bathing suit, and wore a silver fish as a medal. Later Dan proposed to drive back to the city. “Then we could talk.” He had been on the road a great deal and there had been little chance for the regular closeness of the past. “We could talk—as the chorus girl said to the bishop, combining business with pleasure.”

One of the things we talked about, then and on other days, was whether or not he ought to go to Cornell. He had been invited to come up as an associate director of Cornell United Religious Work. He was torn between that and going south to a largely black campus. Receiving the message that it was more than due for whites to do a little work on whites, the choice was finally made for Cornell.

Arriving in September, it was little more than a month before Dan’s first experience of prison. With a contingent of Cornell students, he was arrested at midnight, October 22, for refusing, as ordered by police, to leave the Pentagon vicinity. He was one of the many thousands that had gathered at the military junction, doubtless bringing to the event more than sympathy with the idea that the five-walled city needed exorcism.

In jail, he records, two reflections occurred:

1. Why was I so long retarded from so crucially formative a happening?
2. What’s the big joke, You there?

In the diary he kept in prison appears the notation, “For the first time I put on the prison blue jeans and denim shirt; a clerical attire I highly recommend for the new church.”

The notation for October 27: “This is the day of Phil’s action in Baltimore. Oremus pro fratribus in periculo.” [Phil and three others had poured blood on draft files in Baltimore.]

Dan left prison the day Phil entered, a new tide free in him, a tormenting tide, for he was beginning to see a new life emerging.

On December 3 he wrote us

The question is whether we are helping people get radical, [whether we are] content to stay small and do things and encourage actions which will be evangelical and identifiable as such. Or are we trying to present an opposite “power” in the image of the opposite number, or at least something “presentable” to large numbers of Catholics, and therefore morally neutral—or liberal— but not radical, [not] at the roots.

All this is very painful to me because it’s so personal; one has experiences, such as the jailing and the threats of jail to those we love; and becomes convinced that equivalent risk is going to be the only source of community worth talking about. And that “expressive” acts such as Phil’s, once they are thoughtful and proceed from a sacrificing heart, must be multiplied. And that the masses may catch up as they wish, or not. But many will; at the invitation of such acts, which are educative in themselves, in the total sense.

…The constituency of those who could stomach us, or even join us, is always ready for anything but the one needful thing; which seems to me pretty much the definition of a liberal anyway. I am trying to say that to be ready with the act that fits the moment, like having an eyeball for a garden or an ear for the Beatles, and then to see or hear, is always in the nature of things something for a few. And that as the need of the time passes from being in public to being locked up against the public and the jailbird sings sweetest of all—who will come along with us then?

It was pure Zen, but Zen for life in time of plague. In fact the Zen spirit was needed, as events were rushing toward us at a pace we hadn’t yet endured.

The preparations for the trial of the Baltimore Four would have been enough to keep all of us fully occupied, but it was at this point that the invitation to North Vietnam at last arrived. With historian Howard Zinn, Dan had been invited to represent the American peace movement in bringing home three captured American flyers. Zinn and Dan left on their journey January 31,1968.

“In Hanoi I think we were the first Americans to undergo an American bombing attack,” he reported during the Catonsville trial. “When the burned draft files were brought into court as evidence, I could not help but recall that I had seen in Hanoi evidence of a very different nature. I saw, not boxes of burned papers—I saw parts of human bodies, preserved in alcohol.”

He returned saying he had “graduated from innocence.”

In April came the trial of the Baltimore Four. Listening to the judge “droning on, angry and fretful,” in the questioning of Phil’s prospective jurors, he recalled in writing how he himself had been safely “tucked away in a seminary in the Maryland hills” following the war with maps and radios, while Phil was in that war, “a soldier’s soldier, decorated and commissioned in the European theater.” He recalled his brother’s “boot camp training” in the ghettos of Washington, New Orleans, and Baltimore, and his later experience at the seminary in New York’s Hudson Valley—the surrounding community “racist to its bones”; and yet there was in Phil, Dan said, no vengefulness, not “even in his dark hours.”

“He was nobody’s fool,” Dan wrote on, “knowing so well through his own suffering the difference between pronunciamentos and performance. The poor, I think, had conferred on him that wisdom which sees through the big talk of little minds … despair is not the word for this man. Indeed, in a time of the breaking of men, is it not strange that one hears, in such lives, in such hands, in a room where justice is corrupted and the innocent are under ordeal, the sound of the breaking of bread?”

With Easter came a new wounding of consciousness, the self-immolation—as with Roger LaPorte—of a high school student in Syracuse. Again, Dan speaking at the trial: “The boy had come to a point of despair about the war. He had gone into the Catholic cathedral, drenched himself with kerosene, and immolated himself in the street. He was still living a month later. I was able to gain access to him. I smelled the odor of burning flesh, and I understood anew what I had seen in North Vietnam. … He died shortly thereafter. I felt my senses had been invaded in a new way … this boy’s death was being multiplied a thousand-fold in the “Land of Burning Children.”

The Catonsville action was already on its tracks, but Dan was not a passenger. Fear has its masks, many of them reasonable enough to keep a Jesuit mind at bay: However heroic resistance might be, does it not, after all, only add new fuel to reaction? Is there not some special value in one brother serving as an unimprisoned voice for the other? Can a frame less rugged than Phil’s endure in prison? (Though when one writer suggested Dan hesitated because he realized he “lacked physical stamina” and was “thin after years of fasting” and was also “prone to pneumonia,” Dan wrote down, “I really have a good deal of stamina; this makes me sound like La Boheme”)

On May 12, Dan sat down with Phil until four in the morning. At the end Phil announced, “Dan’s in.”

In explaining his decision to Father Paul Mayer, former retreat master at St. Paul’s Abbey in New Jersey, later the coordinator of the Catonsville Nine and Milwaukee Fourteen Defense Committees, he said, “They slap me on the back and tell me how great I am—and nothing happens.”

Or as he said during the trial, “I saw suddenly, and it struck with the force of lightning, that my position was false, that I was threatened with verbalizing my moral substance out of existence. I was placing upon young shoulders a filthy burden, the original sin of war. I was asking them to enter a ceremony of death. Although I was too old to carry a draft card, there were other ways of getting in trouble with a state that seemed determined upon multiplying the dead. … So I went to Hanoi, and then to Catonsville, and that is why I am here.”

Until 1968, May 17 was celebrated—if celebrated at all—as the Feast of Sts. Paschal, Ratho, Bruno, and Andrew Abellon. A liturgical calendar recently published by the Free Church in Berkeley (a sub-cultural but doctrinally orthodox Christian community that sees the church “as a party in competition with other parties” whose trouble presently springs from the bureaucrats who “have sold out on the Book’s party line”) lists May 17 as the Feast of the Catonsville Draft-Record Burning.

In the view of theologian James Douglass, it is a date to be kept in company with Jesus’ raid on the money-changers in the Temple courtyard and with Gandhi’s bending down, feloniously as the British court would quickly judge, to lift up a handful of sea salt for which no tax had been paid. In both instances, with extraordinary drama, a route back to ourselves was being demonstrated, for nothing happens—not the draft, not the war, not the schools or supermarkets—unless it is done by ourselves. We become a free people insofar as we dare to act as free persons, though the first to act freely will pay the price of extra wear, very much as does the cutting edge of any axe.

The nine chose to act in daylight and to wait. It could have been done more easily at night and anonymity would have been simply achieved even by amateurs. Yet the easier way would have merely endorsed the fears they chose to disinherit, for themselves, for others. Anonymous action breeds fear—it is, in fact, a dramatic endorsement of the fear that so effectively inhibits others, a declaration that trials and prison are an unendurable consequence. But that is just what wasn’t said. As Dan put it to us in the first formative sessions of the defense committee, “Our defense is simply this: we did it, we are glad we did it, and this is why we did it.”

One summer day between the Catonsville and Milwaukee actions, Linda Henry and I drove up to Dan’s apartment in Ithaca. The door was ajar—no Dan in sight. When we found him and mentioned the unlocked door, he said it was always open. “But won’t someone steal your things?” “If they do that, I suppose they need them.” He wasn’t solemn, but smiling. He busied himself cooking and pouring drinks. The ulcer he had during the months before Catonsville, he reported, had evaporated. “If it starts up again I am going to send the doctor bills to the White House—it is their ulcer, not mine.”

My notebook of the day records, above a drawing of bread crumbs, empty earthen chalice, and a copy of an old resister’s book, Prison Etiquette, “Tales of smoke and drink and friends. ‘It’s not the end, it’s the beginning and the middle I find difficult,’ Dan says.”

From the next day, on the following journal page, there is a drawing of Dan’s office—an American flag hanging from the ceiling, with four words written in large letters across the white stripes


Behind a lamp, on bright felt, toy handcuffs and a plastic billy club were hanging, as well as buttons—the largest one white on blue, proclaiming simply:


It happened this was a button in jeopardy, and so the talk was not entirely cheerful. There seemed considerable reason to believe that a decision had been reached in Rome, involving at least the Jesuit leadership, that Dan had become, in his felony, intolerable cargo. I wrote beneath a quotation from Allen Ginsberg (“Beware of all governments—Russia and the U.S. and China all abhor the blushing peony”) a poem for the day:

a way of saying
(the kingdom of
heaven is inside
of you, is a great
meal, is a mustard
seed, makes everything
brand new)
or one would hope
one would hope
but what is meant
is black beret perhaps
for Dan in Rome an
axe has been dispatched.

In fact the coming attractions proved far less grim, but that wasn’t to be learned for several weeks. Though many Jesuit doors were closed to him (even the society’s own St. Louis University), a Jesuit Committee of Conscience sprang into being, and with surprising speed the executioner’s axe was alchemized to marshmallow. Father Provincial Mitchell, using the theme “Our Brother Is in Need,” joined in efforts to stand by Dan and help in the financial burden of the defense. Where complete rejection had been feared, the final consequence was the first sign of official Jesuit support since Dan’s first entry into the peace movement.

All that has happened since is too widely known to require detailed recitation. There has been a trial, there have been appeals, there were four months in which he was available to nearly everyone but J. Edgar Hoover and his associates, there have been those seventy FBI agents disguised as bird-watchers—in the midst of a storm, no less —who gathered around Bill Stringfellow and Anthony Towne’s house on tiny Block Island where Dan was guest. And there is now the secularized monasticism of prison.

Yet—rightly—the day after Dan’s arrest was marked far less by mourning than with celebration. “DAN BERRIGAN IS FREE,” New York leaflet declared. “Would that more of us were as free of prison as is he.”

As he wrote to relatives from prison, “No point in mourning. Though I did myself, at first. It is dreadful that good friends suffer. But how else will anything get accomplished? We have had years and years trying to find just that other way. And then it came to this. Now my feeling is that, if we entertain regrets, it will be because we did not take it in the neck earlier. But better late than not at all.

“Of course we miss you. But in war people are always separated—and unarmed and killed, and we learn to bear with it. The worst has by no means happened to us—we are clothed and fed and have books, time, freedom to pray. The little we are asked to endure would be considered good fortune by millions of the world’s poor.

“It is in that spirit we try to go forward, to hearten our friends. Certainly for priests and nuns to be jailed is an honor in such days—it will be one of the few honors the Church can point to in years ahead. We are honored to know and love them.”

The question that is woven in and through everything he has said and done, the question still posed, is an invitation to leave the bleachers, to pull away from the television screen, to bury our fears of living an uninsured, nongovernment-inspected life. As he wrote in the meditation for Catonsville:

When, at what point, will you say No to this war?

Words to be read and sung, over and over, aloud and silently, as if it were a mantra.

Or as he put it in on the petals of a paper daisy that has disappeared along the way of prison and pilgrimage:

Don’t be like those humans, the Lord of the flowers said. Don’t give a damn about tomorrow.

* * *

some photos of Dan: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/albums/72157631924014477

Remembering Daniel Berrigan

Dan Berrigan Oct 2011
Dan Berrigan, October 2011 (photo: Jim Forest)

By Jim Forest

News of Dan Berrigan’s death reached me a few hours after he had breathed his last. Age 94, he had patiently awaited the event for several years while living at the Jesuit infirmary at Fordham University in the Bronx, New York.

It happened to be the 30th of April, the Feast of St Catherine of Siena. Not a bad day to be Dan’s last. Like Catherine, he had been a warrior against war. “We do not see how much harm there is to souls and dishonor to God in war,” Catherine declared. On occasions beyond counting, Dan had said much the same both in word and deed. Most famously, in 1968, protesting the Vietnam War, he had been one of nine people (another was his brother Phil) who burned draft records taken from a conscription office in Catonsville, Maryland, an action that put him in prison for two years. Dan said in a statement at the time, “Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise.” The same year Dan traveled to North Vietnam to bring home three U.S. prisoners of war.

After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the Berrigan brothers turned their gaze toward nuclear weapons. In 1980 the two of them plus six friends entered a General Electric plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania and hammered on nuclear weapon nosecones. Their “plowshare” action drew inspiration from the biblical prophet Isaiah: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not raise sword against nation, neither shall they train for war anymore.”

During the trial in 1981 Dan summed up the meaning of the group’s symbolic gesture: “The only message I have to the world is: We are not allowed to kill innocent people. We are not allowed to be complicit in murder. We are not allowed to be silent while preparations for mass murder proceed in our name… It’s terrible for me to live in a time where I have nothing to say to human beings except, ‘Stop killing’. There are other beautiful things that I would love to be saying to people. There are other projects I could be very helpful at. And I can’t do them. I cannot. Because everything is endangered… Our plight is very primitive from a Christian point of view. We are back where we started. Thou shalt not kill. We are not allowed to kill.” After the trial and the appeals that followed, the eight were paroled in consideration of time already served in prison.

Dan was born May 9, 1921, in Virginia, Minnesota, and grew up in Syracuse, New York. Drawn to the Society of Jesus, he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1946 from St. Andrew-on-Hudson, a Jesuit seminary, and a master’s from Woodstock College in 1952, the year of his ordination. He was the author of more than fifty books, fifteen of them poetry. In 1957, Time Without Number won the prestigious Lamont Poetry Prize, awarded by the Academy of American Poets. In addition he had served as chaplain in Manhattan at Saint Rose’s Home and later with cancer and AIDS patients at St. Vincent’s Hospital, experiences described in two of his books, We Die Before We Live and Sorrow Built a Bridge. In Steadfastness of the Saints, he wrote about his travels in Nicaragua and El Salvador where he witnessed the U.S.-assisted wars.

Perhaps Dan’s most notable quality was his immense compassion, which shaped his life one way or another on a daily basis, even late in life when it was a challenge just getting out of bed. I recall Dan once using the phrase “outraged love.” Many people are driven by rage, which rarely does them or anyone much good and often makes things worse. But outraged love is mainly about love. Dan loved his church, his Jesuit community, he even loved America — but there is much in all three zones that is outrageous, and Dan was never able to be silent or passive about our betrayals. This could have made him a ranter but the artist side of Dan always found ways to channel his outrage into one or another form of creativity, whether via poetry or a wide variety of acts of witness. He was also a profoundly pastoral person, the sort of person who visits the sick in the middle of the night and holds the hands of the dying. He was one of the most consistent voices of his generation for nonviolent approaches to change and conflict resolution — in that dimension of his life a spiritual child of Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day. His commitment to life excluded no one, from a child in the womb to a condemned murderer on death row.

* * *

side box:

When a friend dies, memories come to life. I recall an encounter back in the early seventies that my friend Mel Hollander had with Dan. We were all living in Manhattan in those days. One of Dan’s activities was teaching a course at Union Theological Seminary on pastoral care of the dying. Mel, who was expecting to die soon from cancer, decided to take the class.

In his first encounter with Mel, Dan immediately noticed Mel’s unhealthy skin color and sunken eyes. Clearly something was seriously amiss. Not bothering with the polite nothings that people so often exchange, Dan’s first words to Mel were, “What’s the matter?” Deciding to respond with the same directness, Mel said, “I’m dying of cancer.” To which Dan replied, without hesitation or embarrassment, and just as briefly, “That must be very exciting.”

Mel later told me how Dan’s few words instantly cleared the dark sky he had been living under since he been told he had not more than six months to live. What had until then been a joyless journey on a short road to the cemetery suddenly was transformed into the most adventurous pilgrimage of his life.

As it happened, against all medical expectations, Mel’s cancer went into prolonged remission. Mel lived on for some years. He did in fact die young, not of cancer but of smoke inhalation caused by a fire.

Another memory:

In the early seventies the Jesuits had just rented and furnished several floors of an apartment building on West 98th Street. Dan, one of the residents, was showing me around. On one side of a spacious recreation area full of couches and arm chairs a bar had been set up that had been poshly decorated in a style reminiscent of a captain’s stateroom aboard an eighteenth century galleon — brass compasses, fishing nets, old maps, etcetera.

“If this is the holy poverty,” said Dan, “bring on the holy chastity.”

— Jim Forest

4 May 2016 / for The Tablet (London)

* * *

Jim Forest worked closely with Dan Berrigan for more than fifty years. In 1964, they were co-founders of the Catholic Peace Fellowship. Forest is the author of biographies of Thomas Merton (Living With Wisdom) and of Dorothy Day (All Is Grace). His latest book is Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment.

* * *

The “Our” in the Our Father

Savior (by Konstantin)By Jim Forest

Every word in the “Our Father” is a deep well. Just consider the very first word in the prayer: “our”. Not my Father and not your Father but our Father. Our. Think about the implications. The context is a question in which the disciples ask Jesus how to pray. Jesus responds by teaching us this most basic prayer, the first word of which embraces everyone. No one is excluded.

There is no private, one-on-one relationship with our Creator. What a challenge! Too often I see myself, my needs and my wants as having absolute priority. My view is the view that matters. The word “my” has priority over “our.”

But my salvation depends on my conversion from me to us — that is loving my neighbor in the same way that I love God. Who is my neighbor? Whoever happens to be standing in front of me, friend or adversary.

“What you do to the least person,” Jesus says in his teaching about the Last Judgment, “you do to me.”

In a section of The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky relates the story about a me-first woman who is almost saved by an onion. Merciless and selfish person that she was throughout her life, when she died she went to hell. You could say  that hell was her ambition. In her selfish actions she had chosen hell day after day for many years. Yet even after her death, her guardian angel sought to save her and so approached the Savior, saying a mistake had been made: “Don’t you remember? Olga once gave an onion to a beggar.” What the angel left unsaid was that the onion had started to rot and that it wasn’t so much given as thrown at the beggar. The Savior said, “You are right. I bless you to pull her out of hell with that onion.” So the angel flew into the twilight of hell — all those people at once so close to each other and yet so far apart — and there was the selfish woman, glaring at her neighbors. The angel extended the onion toward her and began to pull her out of hell with it. Others saw what was happening, saw the angel’s strength, and saw their chance. They grabbed the woman’s legs and so were being lifted with her, a ribbon of people being drawn out of hell by a powerful angel and just one onion. Only the woman, in death as well as life, had never wanted company. She began kicking, yelling at her uninvited guests, “Just for me! Just for me!” The angel wept. These three merciless words, “just for me,” are hell itself. And so the onion became rotten and the woman and all the others attached to her fell back into the disconnection — the me-ness — of hell.

Our Father…

* * *
written for Lorraine Kisly
text as of 25 April 2016
* * *

The Other Side of Silence

Road to Emmaus covera chapter from The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life

by Jim Forest

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.
— George Eliot, Middlemarch

There are times when good words are to be left unsaid out of esteem for silence.
— St. Benedict, The Holy Rule

We cannot find God in noise or agitation. Nature: trees, flowers, and grass grow in silence. The stars, the moon, and the sun move in silence.
— Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Voices. Voices. Listen, my heart, as only
saints have listened: until the gigantic call lifted them
off the ground; yet they kept on, impossibly,
kneeling and didn’t notice at all:
so complete was their listening. Not that you could endure
God’s voice — far from it. But listen to the voice of the wind
and the ceaseless message that forms itself out of silence.
— Rainer Maria Rilke, “Duino Elegies”

One of the hallmarks of pilgrimage is an attitude of silence and attentive listening, a state of being for which few of us are well equipped. We have been shaped by a society in which noise is normal and its absence disorienting.

If our medieval ancestors were to visit us, perhaps the biggest single shock that the world of the third millennium would pose for them would be the unrelenting noise that most of us endure. The noise of traffic. The noise of sirens. The noise of jet planes overhead. The noise of television and radio. The noise of machinery. The noise of over-loud conversation. The canned music pumped out of loudspeakers in so many stores. The thin ghostly sounds emitted by earphones. The noises made by mobile phones as they announce incoming calls, followed by the noise of one-way conversations.

We live in a world of noise in which millions of people have not only acclimated themselves to noise but become sound addicts. Many of us depend on continuous noise. For almost any urban person, silence is a stunning experience. For many, it’s frightening. We all know people who keep a radio, television, or music player on continuously. I recall a friend in New York who lost his job as a radio announcer on a popular station for broadcasting ten seconds of silence. His station manager said that, more than anything else, their audience depended on the station to provide constant sound. Even one second of silence meant listener distress and an urgent search for sound on another station.

Part of the asceticism of being a pilgrim is to search out places that encourage inner quietness and contemplative listening: churches, concerts, plays, museums, woods and parks, remote places, wilderness areas, monasteries, beaches and deserts.

Silence is not silent. It is more than the absence of noise. If you manage to escape the cacophony of urban life, you quickly discover that nature isn’t silent. There is a torrent of sound even at midnight on the driest, most remote desert: breezes scraping the sand, the tireless conversation of insects, the tidal sound of one’s own breathing, the drumming of one’s heart, the roar of being. What a pilgrim’s walk can provide is the silence that comes from doing without sound-generating devices, being attentive rather than speaking, praying rather than engaging in chatter. So long as our heart keeps beating, we will never hear absolute silence, but by avoiding distractions and listening to what remains, we discover that the door to silence is everywhere, even in Times Square and Piccadilly Circus. To listen is always an act of being silent.

Yet finding places of relative silence can help a pilgrim discover inner silence. As the poet Bob Lax, who in his later years made his home on the quiet Greek island of Patmos, once put it in a letter to a friend:

The thing to do with nature … is to listen to it, and watch it, and look deep into its eyes in a sense, as though you were listening to and watching a friend, not just hearing the words or even just watching the gestures but trying to guess, or get a sense, or share the spirit underneath it, trying to listen (if this isn’t too fancy) to the silence under the sound and trying to get an idea (not starting with any preconceived formulation) of what kind of silence it is.[i]

There are as many kinds of silence as there are varieties of ice. Some forms of silence are of God’s own making. Others are hostile to the spiritual life. Starting at the icy end of the spectrum, here’s my list:

Deadly silence: This is the almost murderous silence of people who refuse to speak to a spouse, a parent, a child or a neighbor: silence used as a weapon, silence meant to annihilate. One often witnesses it in teenagers in that period when nearly everything a parent says or does inspires homicidal glares. Not everyone outgrows it. Many a marriage has died of deadly silences.

Guilty silence: In which our failure to speak makes us silent collaborators in injustice or cruelty.

Ominous silence: This is the intimidating, belittling silence of a teacher or boss waiting for you to respond to a question they know you cannot — or dare not — answer.

Proud silence: This is the malignant silence of the person who regards himself as too important to speak to lesser mortals, at the same time communicating the message that the other, being so insignificant, had best shut up.

Anxious silence: This is the silence of fear, the silence of the paralyzed tongue. You are in the presence of someone with power over you and find yourself made dumb. Or you are face-to-face with someone famous and find your tongue has turned to wood.

Awkward silence: This is the strained, embarrassed silence of being with strangers and not having a clue what to say.

Graveyard silence: A silence in which nothing makes as much noise as your own heart beat. There is also the silence of the tomb, where every conversation has been interrupted by terror, calamity, or death.

Meek silence: This is the silence of respect, modesty and humility. It’s not bad advice to keep silent unless what you have to say is more interesting than silence.

Dumbfounded silence: This is the silence of awe — an awareness of the presence of God, of fathomless mystery, of the unspeakably beautiful.

Consoling silence: Faced with suffering or bereavement, words seem both inadequate and profane. What one has to say is best said with the eyes, tears, and mute gestures.

Enamored silence: The silence of love. No words seem equal to what you want to say. Each word or phrase you think of saying sounds like the dull noise of counterfeit coins.

Prayerful silence: This is a silence attentive to God’s presence, a human silence that participates in the divine silence. It is a silence that marks many experienced pilgrims.

Last but not least, evangelical silence: The Greek word for the Gospel is evangelion — good news. There are times when silence is better than words in communicating the truths that are ultimately beyond the reach of words. In a world of constant noise and endless verbal disputes, silence can sometimes communicate truths that are beyond assertion and argument.

An story of evangelical silence: Archbishop Theophilus of Alexandria, one of the principal cities of the ancient world, once traveled to the monastic colony at Skete in the Egyptian desert. The younger monks were distressed that their elder, Abbot Pambo, had nothing to say to their august and powerful visitor. “Say a word or two to the bishop,” they urged him, “that his soul may be edified in this place.” Abbot Pambo replied: “If he is not edified by my silence, there is no hope that he will be edified by my words.”[ii]

One can imagine that Archbishop Theophilus, a man who had heard endless words from the many people courting his attention, returned to Alexandria shaken by his encounter with a community of men who had completely resigned from chatter. The monks made no effort to convince him of anything or win any favors. For the length of his stay, their august guest was simply a fellow Christian who, in a climate of silence, found himself freed from the heavy burden of being an Important Person with all the words and gestures that importance involves. He was a visitor in a household of tranquil prayer. The monks bathed him in their own quietness.

One of the early saints who emphasized the place of silence in spiritual life was St. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, who died as a martyr late in the first century. In a letter written shortly before his death, he said:

He who possesses in truth the word of Jesus can hear even its silence.[iii]

Far from being a God who insists on being heard, overpowering the noise of the world with a heavenly roar, our creator seems chiefly to speak to us so quietly that the normal environment for hearing is inner silence. The prophet Elijah experienced God’s voice as being like a whisper. Elijah was hiding in a cave near what later became the city of Haifa. God made himself known to Elijah not in a rock-shattering wind, or in an earthquake, or in fire and lightning, but in “a still small voice.” (1 Kings 19:11-12)

The benefits of silence were stressed by St. Anthony the Great, the founder of desert monasticism. He wrote:

When you lie down on your bed, remember with thanksgiving the blessings and providence of God. Thereupon, filled with good thoughts, you will rejoice in spirit and the sleep of your body will mean sobriety of the soul; the closing of your eyes a true acknowledging of God, and your silence, brimming with awareness of all that is good, will wholeheartedly and with all its strength glorify almighty God, so that praise will rise to the heavens from your heart.

Another desert saint, John Climacus, a sixth century abbot of St. Catherine’s Monastery in the barren wilderness of Sinai, stressed the role of silence in prayer in his guidebook to the spiritual life, The Ladder of Divine Ascent:

Intelligent silence is the mother of prayer, freedom from bondage, custodian of zeal, a guard on our thoughts, a watch on our enemies, a prison of mourning, a friend of tears, a sure recollection of death, a painter of punishment, a concern with judgment, servant of anguish, foe of license, a companion of stillness, the opponent of dogmatism, a growth of knowledge, a hand to shape contemplation, hidden progress, the secret journey upward.[iv]

Silence is not something that can be measured with scientific instruments nor does it exclude all conversation. Spoken words can communicate divine silence just as silence can be a voice of enmity. As another of the great desert saints, Abba Poemen the Shepherd, said:

One man seems silent of speech, but is condemning other people within his heart — he is really talking incessantly. Another man seems to talk all day, yet keeps his silence, for he always speaks in a way that is useful to his hearers.

No community of people is more aware than poets of the limitations of words. In a letter to a younger poet, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote:

Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe. Most experiences are unsayable. They happen in a space that no word has ever entered…[v]

Silence is an essential dimension of icons, which serve as wordless translations of the Gospel. It’s part of what distinguishes iconography from ordinary painting. Just as many paintings create an illusion of three dimensions, so can an artist suggest sound, even an eruption of noise. Stand attentively before a painting of a great battle done by a skilled artist and you can hear the explosions, the clash of weapons, the cries of wounded soldiers. Stand before an icon and you find yourself enveloped in deep silence, a silence that seems to contain the breath of the Holy Spirit. Take enough time and a good icon will help quiet your mind. As you move beyond intellectual exploration of an icon’s content, it may awaken a longing to pray. It may even assist you in resolving a problem you have been struggling with.

As Thomas Merton wrote to his Greek friend, Marco Pallis, thanking him for the gift of a hand-painted icon:

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

Merton brought an icon with him on what proved to be his final journey, his pilgrimage to Asia in 1968. Though traveling light, like so many pilgrims before him, he regarded an icon as essential baggage. He knew from repeated experience that icons radiate a “Thaboric” light — an intimation of the uncreated light the three apostles experienced on Galilee’s Mount Thabor when the transfigured Christ silently revealed to them his divinity.

Merton’s journey in the final weeks of his life was a time of silence and prayer, except in those brief periods when he was in conversation, and even then, prayer shaped the conversations. How appropriate that the few material possessions shipped back with his body included his beloved icon of Christ and his mother. “Traveling” icons — small icons mounted on cardboard or a thin piece of wood, or relief icons cast from bronze or some other metal — are part of the pilgrim tradition.

A pilgrimage without prayer is no pilgrimage at all. There is no prayer without silent, attentive listening. The invitational silence of an icon helps the pilgrim to keep praying. Place an icon next to your bed at night. In the daytime be aware of it in your pocket or backpack. It provides a quiet but insistent reminder of what the journey is all about.

Pilgrimage is an hour-by-hour school of inner listening that combines movement with seeing, attentiveness and prayer. Whether on the way to the market or on the way to Jerusalem, you see whatever there is to see: other people, traffic, garbage, flowers, weeds, wildlife, the natural world. You hear all the sounds the world around you is pronouncing: bird songs, the wind, cars, buses, trucks, planes overhead, the conversation of people along the way, the sound of your feet on various surfaces. Little that you see will imprint itself as a long-term memory. Most that you hear will come in one ear and go out the other. Mainly what we see and hear as pilgrims passes through us like light passing through glass, yet to pay attention is to be in a moment-to-moment state of communion.

Prayer, too, is rarely remembered. It is the unusual event, not the routine, that carves a place in memory. Prayer, to the extent that it becomes ordinary, is no more memorable than breathing.

I recall a conversation about silence with our daughter Wendy when she was four or five years old. She said, “You know what those little sounds are that you hear when you’re all alone?”

“What sounds?” I asked.

“You know, those sounds you hear when you’re alone.”

“What’s that, Wendy?” I replied.

“That’s God,” she said.

* * *

[i] Letter to Jubilee magazine staff, quoted by Jim Harford in his book Merton and Friends; New York: Continuum, 2006, p 105-6.

[ii] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, Benedicta Ward, translator and editor, London: Mowbray; Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications; p 81.


Epistle to the Ephesians, Chapter XV: Exhortation to confess Christ by silence as well as speech. See the online collection of writings of the Apostolic Fathers: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.v.ii.i.html.

[iv] The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 11: On Talkativeness and Silence; Paulist Press, p 158.

[v] Ranier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, letter one; translation by Stephen Mitchell; New York: Modern Library, 2001, p 4.

[vi] Thomas Merton, The Hidden Ground of Love, pp 473-74. In Living With Wisdom: A Biography of Thomas Merton (Jim Forest, Orbis Books), there is a chapter on “Merton and the Christ of the Byzantine Icons.”

Bob Lax’s Circus of the Spirit

Bob Lax
Bob Lax

The Catholic Worker / January-February 2016

Bob Lax’s Circus of the Spirit

Review by Jim Forest

Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax

By Michael McGregor
Fordham University Press, 2015, 472 pages, hardcover, $35

In The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton recounted his memories of Bob Lax during their student years together at Columbia University. Lax was “a gentle prophet” who seemed to be meditating “on some impenetrable woe,” a born contemplative who could “curl his long legs all around a chair, in seven different ways, while he was trying to find the right word with which to begin.” Lax possessed “a natural, instinctive spirituality, a kind of inborn direction to the living God.” Lax saw Americans as a people “longing to do good but not knowing how,” waiting for the day when they could turn on the radio “and somebody will start telling them what they have really been wanting to hear and needing to know…. somebody who is capable of telling them of the love of God in language that will no longer sound hackneyed or crazy.” As Michael McGregor relates in this hard-to-put-down biography, in the course of Lax’s long life he became a quiet voice telling his readers about the love of God in language that is never hackneyed or crazy but is lean, surprising and drawn from deep wells.

It happens that Pure Act appears just as a 136-page anthology of Lax’s poetry and journal writing has been published by Templegate: In the Beginning was Love. The editor is my friend Steve Georgiou, who, like McGregor, also knew Lax in his later years and whose vocation as teacher was given its shape in large measure thanks to his mentor on Patmos.

Lax was one of the several friends who witnessed Merton’s baptism and it was Lax who, as the two of them were walking along Sixth Avenue not long afterward, asked Merton what he wanted to become. For Lax, the question wasn’t so much what to become as who to become. It was obvious to both of them that “Thomas Merton the well-known writer” or “Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of Freshman English” were not good enough answers. “I don’t know,” Merton finally said. “I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.”

“What do you mean,” Lax responded, “you want to be a good Catholic?” Merton was silent — he hadn’t figured that out yet. “What you should say,” Lax went on, “is that you want to be a saint.” That struck Merton as impossible. “How do you expect me to become a saint?” “By wanting to,” said Lax. “I can’t be a saint,” Merton replied with conviction. To be a saint, he imagined, would require a magnitude of renunciation that was light years beyond him. But Lax pressed on. “All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don’t you believe God will make you what He created you to be, if you will consent to let Him do it? All you have to do is desire it.”

It is not stretching the truth to say that both Lax and Merton spent the rest of their lives attempting to become the persons God created them to be — not aiming for capital S sainthood, complete with holy cards and a niche on the church calendar, but run-of-the-mill saints who have a talent for disappearing.

I met Lax at the Catholic Worker in Manhattan in 1961 and found him to be as lean as an exclamation mark, as tentative as a question mark and quiet as a comma. He occasionally came down for Friday night meetings and one evening read aloud some of the amazing poetry that eventually became part of his most treasured book, Circus of the Sun (now the first section of Circus Days and Nights). His circus poetry has ever since been a special love of mine, joyfully re-read more or less annually.

The Catholic Worker was a natural place for Lax to be. He had an affinity for the marginal and for those drawn to them. Earlier in his life he had been part of the community at Friendship House in Harlem. One winter Lax and Tom Cornell shared a $28-a-month apartment on Avenue A that seemed even colder inside than it was outside.

Another aspect of Lax’s affinity for the Catholic Worker was that he was a pacifist and had been one since his student days. Lax was one of those people who would far prefer to die than to end anyone’s life. When draft registration began shortly before the US entered World War II, both Lax and Merton declared themselves conscientious objectors. “Why,” Lax joked, “should I kill strangers when I have been so shy and polite about not killing unpleasant acquaintances?”

In that period of his life when our paths first crossed, Lax was editor-at-large of Jubilee magazine, an eye-opening, photo-intensive Catholic monthly that took an interest in people, places and topics widely ignored by the Catholic press as a whole: eastern Christianity, the works of mercy, lay communities, Christian art and artists, Church life in Europe, Asia and Latin America… No issue of Jubilee was ugly or boring, each issue a voyage of discovery.

One of the joys of life at that time was occasionally walking up to the Jubilee office and having a visit with Lax in his small white-washed cubicle that had, now that I think of it, something of a Greek look about it.

It was no surprise when not long afterward Lax made Greece his home, first Kalymnos beginning in 1964, an isle then famous for its sponge divers, and a decade later the monastic island of Patmos, where he remained until shortly before his death in 2000. By then Lax was something of a hermit, if one understands that many hermits are, as Merton was, intensely social people whose doors open both to friends and strangers nearly every day. But, apart from the cats who found Lax to be a good provider, Lax preferred to live alone.

Lax was born in Olean, New York in 1915 into a Jewish immigrant family. His remarkable mother, Betty, was both a founder of the local synagogue and a member of the Methodist and Presbyterian choirs, a combination that anticipated the wide spiritual reach of her son. During the Depression, Lax enrolled at Columbia where he formed life-shaping friendships with Merton and Ed Rice (later to found Jubilee), the poet Mark Van Doren (one of his professors) and radical abstract artist Ad Reinhardt. Lax also met his first holy man, a Hindu monk named Brahmachari who seemed far less interested in converting Christians to Hinduism than in converting Christians to Christianity. (It was thanks to Brahmachari’s influence that Merton read Augustine’s Confessions and Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ.)

Lax was eventually to give up much that his talents, education and background equipped him to do, but in the years following graduation from Columbia he was on the staff of The New Yorker (where some of his early poetry was published), wrote film reviews for Time, and endured a period of script-writing in Hollywood. What he mainly learned in those years was how unhappy he could be attempting to be someone he was not.

The circus had been where he got the clearest glimpse of who he really was. While at The New Yorker he had met the Cristianis, a renowned family of acrobats. The poems knit together in Circus of the Sun were mainly works that had grown out of traveling with their small circus when it was on tour in western Canada. Joining in, Lax proved to be a natural clown.

While not drawn to a fulltime circus life, he was attracted to walking the high wire of voluntary poverty while gradually learning to write a lean poetry which in many cases was a trickle of slim words or thinner syllables cascading down the page. It was a poetry of contemplation in which the word “you” may mean yourself or God or the secret places where the one disappears into the other.

Michael McGregor — who knew Lax well — has written a book I’ve waited a long time to read. It’s a story with many surprises and much beauty. McGregor has the biographer’s gift of not only keeping careful track of Lax’s long pilgrimage, both physically and spiritually, but of bringing the reader into a space in which Lax is permanently alive and well. It’s a luminous story told with love and skill.

* * *








— Bob Lax
Circus Days and Nights
Overlook Press, p 110

* * *

Getting Into the Stream: a visit with Thich Nhat Hanh in Fontvannes

Thich Nhat Hanh 1974 Paris (Jim Forest)
Thich Nhat Hanh, summer 1976 (photo: Jim Forest)

by Jim Forest

Doing some tidying up of papers yesterday, I came upon a copy of a letter I sent forty years ago to the staff of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in Nyack, New York. At the time I was editor of Fellowship, a monthly magazine of peacemaking published by the FOR.

June 9, 1976 / Fontvannes, near Troyes in France

Dear co-workers in Nyack:

Let me try to bring you up to date on the visit with our friends at Fontvannes.

The three principal residents here, Nhat Hanh, Phuong and Sudarat (the last a spirited young Thai woman who is preparing for work in Thailand similar in character to what the School of Youth for Social Service was doing in Vietnam), have an extremely solid communal life and one which, at the same time, seems unbelievably productive not only in the quality of the work but also in the quantity. They demonstrate well that time put into developing the human dimensions of common life and work pays off in what they, as a group, are able to accomplish. The cheerful name they have given the community is The Sweet Potatoes—Les Patates Douces.

The work is of several kinds. There is an extensive garden — and it is the primary source of the vegetables we eat. There is at least a large head of lettuce at both the afternoon and evening meals each day. And such lettuce! I’ve never eaten its equal. Remarkable. And there are carrots, onions, cabbage, various herbs, spinach, tomatoes, etc. But it all takes a good deal of time, mainly Thay’s time. (“Thay” is the Vietnamese word for teacher and is what Nhat Hanh is normally called within the community.) It‘s eye-stopping to notice him in the garden, often wearing an enormous Mexican sombrero, a startling substitute for the conical hat farmworkers wear in Asia, but it serves the same purpose quite well. His garden work is more demanding than it might otherwise be as Europe is suffering a very dry year; for England, the Herald Tribune reports, it is the worst drought in four centuries. Thus Thay was out last night, under the half moon at 1 a.m., watering the plants. He was very pleased when we saw him on waking this morning, because, he reported, the water pressure was so much stronger in the middle of the night than it is during the day. Besides the watering, there is the work of keeping the soil soft and comfortable for the roots. The soil here, even in more generous weather, is a challenge as it is mostly clay and seems generally of a mood to become hard as clay in a kiln. (When I’m back I can show you the blisters turned callouses on my hands, mute evidence.)

There is also the work of building the house. This dwelling was a barely habitable ruin when they first found it but for that reason it was extremely cheap, along with its (I would estimate) half acre of land on a steep bit of hillside. Bit by bit they have done remarkable things with it. No longer do mice run over one’s sleeping bag at night. The floors are no longer earth but cement, and now over that there is linoleum, and over other parts, in Vietnamese fashion, raised platforms covered either with bamboo mats or rugs. Though it isn’t needed during these August-like days, the fireplace is fixed and works well. There is a very beautiful meditation room with a small altar over which a photograph of a Quan Yin statue hangs (Quan Yin is the Bodhisattva who personifies compassion). An adjacent former stable, rather small, has been renovated and now serves both as a printing shop and as a room for Thay. That is to say, in one corner there is a bed and along one wall there are bookshelves. But the main impression the room gives is of a very crammed print shop — a press as one goes in, large and new, great quantities of paper, a large iron paper trimmer that looks like an old Franklin press, a device for making plates for the press, and an old but hard-working typesetting machine; and in between all these things, stacks of pages waiting to be collated, books under weights while the glue dries, and old yogurt jars now serving as glue jars, with tooth brushes sticking out of them which are used in applying the glue.

At the other end of the house is a kitchen and bathroom added two years ago. These adjacent rooms have a flat roof, unlike the very steep tiled roof over the rest of the house. In the attic they have, last year, divided the space into several rooms but it provides little protection from extreme temperatures.

And now there is another addition under construction, a large rectangular space out from the kitchen. Two of the villagers, and sometimes more, are up helping with this as their time allows, and Thay and Sudarat were at it bright and early this morning. Sudarat is particularly excited about the project because she wants to be able to build houses in Thailand. She has quickly become skilled in basic masonry. The new space will hold tools and equipment, provide storage space for paper and the books they are printing—and space, too, for one of their cottage industries: making maysing, a traditional Vietnamese candy, produced mainly in Hue, and beloved by Vietnamese in a special way. (When our artist friend Vo-Dinh received a box, we learned, he was so delighted and so overcome with nostalgia that he could barely bring himself to let anyone else in his family share it!) Once or twice a month they make another batch, singing as it is made. And in each small box they insert an explanation about maysing, telling the story of how they sing while making the candy and why the “company name” they have chosen for maysing is La Maison de la Demi-Sourire (the House of the Half Smile), the half smile being an element of the community’s meditative practice.

They encourage the maysing eater to read Nhat Hanh’s manual on meditation, The Miracle of Being Awake. So, a la Gandhi, they turn even these small projects of self-support into vehicles of teaching. (In a more subtle way, there is teaching on the box itself: a Vietnamese color woodcut of a fish leaping above the water and gazing at the reflection of the moon in the water. The image is really like a zen koan, a seemingly unanswerable question that draws the one who struggles with it toward enlightenment. Not exactly a Tide detergent box!)

But the main project here is the La Boi Press. La Boi: The Vietnamese words for the type of leaf on which the teachings of the Buddha were first written down. The La Boi Press has actually been twice-founded. La Boi was first begun by Thay in Saigon. It was one of the principal elements of the movement for socially-oriented Buddhist renewal that Nhat Hanh and Phuong have been so important a part of. Almost all of Thay’s books have been published in Vietnam by La Boi, sometimes, however, under pseudonyms, particularly since the banning of his writings by the Thieu government. But—in the ironies of “liberation” — the La Boi Press itself has been banned by the revolutionaries and apparently all its books were burned in those great bonfires of “corrupt” texts that were translated into smoke last year. One of the books to be thus recycled was the just-published first Vietnamese edition of The Miracle of Being Awake. [The English-language trade edition has the title The Miracle of Mindfulness.] Only today is the Vietnamese text again in print. A few feet from where I sit the glue is drying on the spines of the first few copies.

Their publication technology is, by any standard, labor intensive. Books are normally printed on very large sheets, 32 pages to each side of a sheet, then machine folded and trimmed into 64-page signatures, then the signatures machine collated and bound, a very rapid process in which the considerable expense involved is a result of costly equipment, the high salaries paid to those skilled in using such equipment, and, not least, the profit of the company. Here the main expense is time. Phuong sets the type and makes the plates for the press. Thay prints on the letter-size stationary the machine is designed to handle — two pages to a side. With its 120 pages, the Vietnamese edition of Miracle requires 60 plates and 60 passes through the press. To print 350 copies, Thay was at the press for much of the last two days. But printing is really the easier part of the process. Collating the sheets by hand comes next — 60 piles of sheets are put in available spaces on the floor. Then in groups of five or six copies, the backs of the books are scored with a hack saw, a rather demanding physical labor, but the groves add considerably to the holding strength of the glue. And then the gluing of the pages, the addition of the cover for each book, and finally the trimming.

But the final results are very attractive and the monetary expense very little. With their extremely limited financial means, the community is able to produce a durable, presentable product. In six months time, they have established a book list of fifteen titles, an extraordinary accomplishment for three persons with many other tasks.

first English-language edition; the title of the trade edition is "The Miracle of Mindfulness"
first English-language edition; the title of the trade edition is “The Miracle of Mindfulness”

What they are accomplishing with this immense physical labor is really of immeasurable importance. In Vietnam itself, doubtless, there are already various underground presses struggling against enormous odds to keep open some channels of uncensored communication, but it seems wildly unlikely that anyone is able to do much there at present to keep the literary or religious heritage alive. Of course it is still only a slight hope that some of the books printed here in France will find their way to Vietnam, at least for some time. The censorship of mail in and out of the country appears to be extremely rigorous. As the official cultural publication for all of Vietnam, Van Boa Nghe Thuat, published in Hanoi, says in the first issue of 1976, the “new colonialists” (that is, the Americans) made “use of religion” as a weapon, spreading “pessimistic thought” as a principal political force. “The reactionary anti-Communist band, disguised as religious people, work actively in the cultural field, using such slogans as ‘actualized religion,’ ‘bringing religion to life,’ ‘the religion of the poor,’ ‘using love to overcome hatred’ — all key points in the machinery of neo-colonialist culture … adapting religion to the American puppet policy.” Which is to say, the place of religion in the post neo-colonialist Vietnam will be to stick strictly to “cultic activities” — ceremonies inside religious buildings. Thus no books about “engaged Buddhism.” Nothing critical of the society. Doubtless if some Buddhist group emerges who will be seen as “patriotic”, that is, fully supportive of the government, they will be free to publish their support as much as they want. Only cheerleaders allowed.

I cannot help but write of the situation with bitterness. As Jean Lacouture, Le Monde‘s Vietnam correspondent and for so long one of the most enthusiastic journalistic voices of support for the Vietnamese revolution, says in his most recent reports from Vietnam, “one cannot speak so well of the victors as those who struggled for victory.” For while the Vietnamese government never ceases to reaffirm its commitment to reconciliation and national accord, in reality no one is allowed a public voice or a public role or access to a printing press who hasn’t proven to be completely loyal to the government and its ideology.

from the first English-language edition of "The Miracle of Being Awake"
from the first English-language edition of “The Miracle of Being Awake”
It is interesting to note that the new La Boi Press here in the French countryside, despite its editors’ deep anguish with the suppression of the religious press in Vietnam and the destruction of many literary as well as religious works, is not publishing anything critical of the Vietnamese government. They are enlivened with the hope that, over an extended period of time, their publishing work will not only be useful and encouraging to other Vietnamese exiles but that a respect toward the work will emerge from the Vietnamese government as it realizes, at last, the constructive and reconciling purpose of the project.

At times the hopes that Thay and Phuong express seem to me terribly naive. What is happening in Vietnam has happened in too many other countries. In the name of the people and of national security, governments both of the left and the right have restricted religion to the narrowest and most ineffectual roles, not hesitating to oppress and imprison those religious activists who, like Gandhi, insist that there is not and can never be a wall between religion and politics, in the sense of public life. But the only kind of politics that is welcomed from religious quarters is obedience. Vietnam, in this area as in so many others, seems no different than Chile, the Soviet Union, China or Brazil.

On the other hand, Thay and Phuong’s almost miraculous ability to remain hopeful even in the most hopeless situations makes me think again about what Jesus said about “the mustard seed” of faith: the tiniest seed becoming so large a plant, the smallest bit of genuine faith being able to move mountainous obstacles. Not that faith is magical, as if one with faith can order the universe around. But, in faith, one enters into a dialog with creation itself, in the way that Abraham is shown conversing with God, arguing, even bargaining, for the sparing of the city. So perhaps, in the mustard seed of the hope that surrounds me here, in that faith they have in the possibility of adversaries being slowly transformed, I am seeing something that is far rarer in the world than thousand carat diamonds, the kind of transforming faith that does move impossible loads, that does “shift mountains.” It’s a quality, I realize, that we desperately need in our own peace movement, in which so many of us act for peace but do so in a kind of sour obedience to values we are certain will never be accepted by anyone else. We seem, at times, to be perversely nourished by bad news and by rejection, in a cantankerous, Jonah-like way, not bargaining with God for the city’s salvation and transformation but egging on God’s wrath. But that quality, so familiar to me in the American dissident scene, is completely absent here.

On Friday Phuong goes into Paris in response to an invitation received earlier this week to discuss “national affairs” with the Vietnamese ambassador. She has no idea what has prompted the invitation, but goes in the hope that, at last, there will be news that the Buddhists will be allowed to renew their interrupted work with Vietnamese orphans and their adopted parents. Perhaps she even harbors the hope that she and Thay will be allowed to return home, an immensely unlikely prospect given the number of persons (like the novelist Doan Quoc Sy, one of the more recently arrested in Saigon) who are of similar convictions and who are now among the estimated 300,000 (this figure from various sources, including Jean Lacouture and the Agence France Presse) “students” being “re-educated” in Vietnam. But whatever her hopes are, she prepares for the encounter in a way very expressive of the atmosphere of the community. She plans to bring with her a newly-printed copy of Phep La Cua Su Tinh Thuc — The Miracle of Being Awake. And she is considering, as well, a gift of Vietnamese herbs, grown in the garden from seeds sent here by Buddhist monks in Vietnam. I try to imagine meeting in a similar spirit with some of the Americans officials who have imprisoned me and my friends.

What makes all this possible — their ability to work so well and so productively without the deterioration of community, their ability to function so creatively and hopefully — is clearly the meditative element in their lives. The method of their meditation practice is the subject of Thay’s book, The Miracle of Being Awake.

Usually, the community has tea together at about 10:30 at night and then starts sitting in a room lit by a single candle at 11. The sitting lasts about 40 minutes, beginning with Thay’s quiet chanting alternating with the ringing of a very sonorous bell and ending with a silent walk inside the house when it’s too dark or cold, but outside when the moon is bright and the air comfortable, as it was last night.

Thay says that meditative sitting ought to leave the individual feeling very deeply refreshed, if he or she sits comfortably and quietly follows the body’s breathing, not being attached to passing thoughts or moods. I was so exhausted last night, and suffering a headache after leaning over this typewriter yesterday writing the first two pages of this letter, that I was somewhat amazed with myself for joining in the meditation period. I was tempted to lie down.

I think what drew me to try, despite everything, was Thay’s explaining to me the last part of a poem he wrote several years ago and which I helped to translate into English while with him in Paris during the summer of 1972. The poem is called “Getting Into the Stream”:

Each monk has a corner of the mat
a place to sit
for meditation.
There, monk, sit still on it.
The spinning earth carries us all along.

The place you sit is like a seat on a second class train.
A monk will eventually get off at his station
and his place will be dusted for another.

How long is the monk to sit in the lotus position
at his corner of the mat?
Sit still on it anyway. .
Sit as if you will never give it up,
as if there is no station to arrive at.
The engine with its flames will carry you along.

Each monk will sit in the lotus position
at his corner of the mat.
The monk will sit like an ancient enormous mountain.
The mountain is still there
but like the monk is on the turning earth.
This train of ours
this fire-filled engine
is hurrying ahead.

This morning
the monk sits as usual
on his corner of the mat
but he grins.
“I shall not sit here forever,”
he tells himself.
“When the train arrives at the station
I will be elsewhere —
a corner of the mat
or an armful of grass
I am sitting down
just one more time.

Last night, over tea, keeping as still as possible so as not to jar my headache, Thay explained that enlightenment is irrevocably initiated when, in Buddhist terms, you “get into the stream.” For the Buddha, the endpoint of being carried along in the stream, finally to the point of being beyond birth and death, came when he decided that he would sit one more time and, even should he die and rot on the spot, not get up again until, as Thay says, “he got it.” A buffalo boy saw him getting ready to sit and was filled with awe at the Buddha’s beauty. He gave the Buddha the gift of a handful of grass. It was on that grass, the Buddha sat through the night. On seeing the morning star before dawn the next day, his illumination occurred, the point that Buddhists describe as “no return” was reached.

Meditation in the community is approached with that sort of life-and-death seriousness. It isn’t something that should be done whenever there is some extra time. It has priority over meals and over every aspect of work.

So I too sat with the community last night, worn out, and got up an hour later feeling as if I had been thirsty and had been drinking from a mountain stream. Thoughts had come and gone during the time. I had frequently strayed into mental noise and the mind’s calendar and its bulletin board department, yet I found myself letting go of the mental habits quietly and calmly each time I realized what I had drifted back to. Certain thoughts and reflections seemed to drift by. I noticed them, sometimes looking at them closely as at a postcard. Some were interesting and helpful. I let them all go by. When the meditation bell rang it seemed much too soon. I wanted to keep sitting. But we walked out into the garden, each following a different path, feeling the bricks of the pathway, enjoying the grass pushing up through the crevices, seeing the moonlight on the lettuce. I found myself silently singing a Gregorian alleluia verse.

It is in this element of the community’s life that its spirit is renewed. And my guess is that no element of life is more necessary for peacemakers in general — and nothing so undervalued by us, nothing more likely to be seen as a kind of luxury or pious affectation. But without it, here at least, not only the work but the hope that work expresses would be inconceivable. It would fail because they are dragged back, nearly each day, by so much very painful news. Not only are they no more welcome in “liberated” Saigon — now Ho Chi Minh City — than they were welcome in Thieu’s Saigon, but it is just as painful to bear the news of imprisonment and suppression after the American withdrawal and the collapse of the Thieu’s regime. And it is painful to see the collapse of the values in whose name the revolution was fought, albeit a familiar pattern in other societies. So many people dared hope that this revolution would be different, that these victors would do something unique in history and allow, within a revolutionary society, a space for diversity.

But I see even now I speak in too despairing a way. I am reminded by the hope that nourished these “sweet potatoes” that, even now, in the spiritual resources that evolved in Vietnam in the midst of its long agony of occupation and war, that there are many others like these few, that they are similarly nourished in their inner life, even in prison and “re-education” camps, and that they will quietly but stubbornly — like Phuong, with gifts in hand — make themselves felt in the future of Vietnam, and perhaps, I can’t help but hope, where we live as well.

Much love,


* * *

other Nhat Hanh-related links:

Only the Rice Loves You

Learning from Thich Nhat Hanh



Love of Enemies sermon

Jim preaching 18 Oct 2015 (trimmed)(I was asked to give a sermon on the Gospel text of the day — Luke 6:27-36 — in our parish in Amsterdam on 20 October 2015.)

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Every saying and every parable of the Gospels is both good news and difficult news.

The good news is that Jesus Christ assures us that God is not the emperor of hell but the lover of mankind — that God is merciful — and that God is eager to forgive.

The difficult news is that God calls on us, we who dare to call ourselves Christians, to be loving and merciful.

Love is not easy. Love challenges us to shift our attention from ourselves and our own needs and appetites to the needs of the other, and not just the other who loves us back and will answer gift with gift, but the other who is threatening and even hostile.

We are called by our Savior not just to love our friends — even that can often be hard — but to love our enemies. “Love your enemies,” Christ commands. “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” His words could not be plainer.

But what is love?

One thing we learn from the Gospels is that love is quite different than what is described in popular music. There is a Hebrew word for love in the biblical sense of the word: chesed. It means self-giving love. The primary religious symbol of chesed — of self-giving love — is the cross, the holy and life-giving cross.

An image of self-giving love is a parent holding a crying child in the middle of the night.

The exhausted parent does not appreciate being woken up by an unhappy baby — one is not always glad to be a mother or father at three in the morning — but nonetheless the parent gets out of bed, offers the baby a breast or a bottle, pats and stokes the infant’s back, sings lullabies, walks back and forth, prays for the child. It may take a long time. It’s hard work but it must be done.

Love is like that: you do for the other what you would wish to be done for yourself if the roles were reversed.

Love is not a comfortable feeling or a cheerful sentiment. Love is the good that God does for us and the good we do, in imitation of God, to each other.

Are there people I am not obliged to love? The short answer is no. We are told to love God with our whole heart and soul and our neighbor as our self. Who is my neighbor? My neighbor is whomever God has put in front of me, friendly or unfriendly.

When Jesus is asked the question, “Who is my neighbor,” he answers with a story of a badly injured man being helped by a stranger, someone who can even be called his enemy. In today’s terms it would be the story of the Good Moslem.

What is an enemy? Or better to ask: Who is an enemy?

An enemy is anyone we fear, try to avoid, don’t want to help, whose bad fortune doesn’t distress us, whose needs and problems we feel have nothing to do with us.

Praying for enemies opens the door to doing good to them. Let’s do it.

Let me offer a suggestion. Make a list of people you would rather not pray for — call it your Enemies List — and make it a discipline of your life to pray for them at least once every day. Pray that you can relate to them in such a way that Christ and his Gospel become visible to them.

It was Metropolitan Anthony, the spiritual father of this parish, who used to say: “We should try to live in such a way that if the Gospels were lost, they could be re-written by looking at us.”

Let me finish with a simple story. This happened in Novgorod in 1987.

I was at work on a book about the Russian Orthodox Church that was published in 1988, the year the church in Ukraine and Russia celebrated the 1000-year anniversary of the baptism of the people of Kiev in the Dnieper River.

Mikhail Gorbachev, then in his second year as Soviet head of state, had brought religious persecution to a halt. Ruined churches and monasteries were being given back. I was fortunate enough to be a witness to what was truly a miracle.

That evening I was having supper with a local priest named Father Mikhail. I asked him, “Aren’t you surprised?”

”Not at all,” he replied. “All believers have been praying for this every day of our lives. We knew God would answer our prayer, only we did not know when. I am only surprised that our prayer has been answered while I am still alive.”

I thought of all the countless people who had been shot or were taken to labor camps where they froze to death or died of exhaustion or disease.

“Still,” I said, “surely you must hate those who caused so much suffering and who killed so many people.”

Father Mikhail gave me an answer that I did not expect. “Christ doesn’t hate them,” he said. ‘Why should I? How will they find the way to belief unless we love them? And if I refuse to love them, I too am not a believer.”

If we fail to love our enemies, we are not yet Christians. We are only people who have heard the words of Jesus and ignored them:

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

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But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again. And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven. Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.
–Gospel of Luke 6:27-36

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