Becoming Peacemakers, a work in progress

by Jim Forest

two-part lecture for the “Voices for Peace” conference in Toronto 28 April 2018

the images that go with the text are in this folder:

T1 – whole earth photo

Good morning! It’s a big day. We’re gathered together today to talk, think, pray and sing about peacemaking. May our conversations be fruitful.

If you do a lot of thinking on a certain topic — for example war and peace — you tend to translate those thoughts into what you talk about with others, into what you pray and meditate about, into what you read about, and finally into what you do and the way you live. Little by little you cross the border from peace thinker and peace wisher to peace maker. Not that any of us ever fully becomes a peacemaker. It’s always an aspiration — a work in progress. It’s a bridge you’re always crossing without ever arriving at the other side.

T2 – Pogo with sign “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Again and again you crash into the proverb, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Our greedy egos keep getting in the way.

What brought us here today? In my own case, I’ve been thinking about war and peace since I was eight or nine years old. I’m now 76! How surprising it is to have reached such an age. In my twenties I thought it very unlikely that I’d live to be 30. Anticipated cause of death: nuclear war.

Let me tell you about one of the big events of my childhood. It must have been in 1950 or ’51 that two young Japanese women, survivors of the atom bomb that had been dropped on Nagasaki on the 9th of August 1945, arrived in my home town, Red Bank, New Jersey, as house guests of Roger Squire, the local Methodist minister, and his family. A national peace group had arranged for plastic surgeons in New York to treat some of the people who had been burned by the blasts. Thanks to my mother’s occasional attendance at Methodist church services, I saw those two very poised women sitting side-by-side in a pew near the front of the church, their faces hidden behind silk veils.

T3 – Nagasaki ruins

I couldn’t stop staring. Though I had seen a few post-explosion photos of victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, being in sight of these two women brought home to me in a more intimate way than any photograph the human dimension of war, the effects of nuclear weapons, and the fact that the victims of war are rarely those responsible for war. I was also old enough to be aware that taking Japanese victims of America’s atom bombs into one’s home was not something that all Americans would appreciate. In the icy climate of the Cold War, such hospitality required courage. Mr. and Mrs. Squire gave me an early glimpse of what following Christ was all about. They gave witness to the Gospel words, “I was a stranger and you took me in.”

In a sense these two Japanese women were visitors from the future. I was just beginning to read science fiction. The darkest fantasies of science fiction seemed to be unfolding, our world destined to become a radioactive wasteland in which any survivors would envy the dead and most of the achievements of civilization turned to ash and rubble.

T4 – Nevada nuclear bomb test seen from Las Vegas

In the years following my mother’s purchase of our first television set in 1951, one of the occasional “news specials” allowed us to join the live audience witnessing America’s open-air nuclear test explosions. Cameras, television crews, reporters, scientists, observers and military brass were positioned not many miles from the Nevada blast site. Views of the desert test site were interlaced with interviews with generals until the countdown began. Ten nine eight seven six… There was at last the apocalyptic word “zero” followed by a split second of silence, then the screen going white followed by the spectacle of an expanding transparent globe of light and fire that gave birth to a seething column of smoke exploding upward in which a kind of fire never seen before 1945 was rotating within a mushroom cloud.

T5- Nevada nuclear bomb test – blasted house

For one of the tests, buildings had been constructed at varying distances from ground zero, with blast-protected high-speed cameras at strategic points. Soon after the test, television viewers saw in slow motion the blast’s impact on houses not unlike our own. A two-story white clapboard house turned black on its blast-facing side before the shock wave struck. Then the structure, as if made of paper-thin glass, was in a flash turned to fragments while the splinters were catapulted away from ground zero by a wind far beyond hurricane strength.

The nuclear tests were a kind of death notice, a prediction of next week’s weather, an announcement that we were all walking into a blast furnace — not Apocalypse Now but Apocalypse Soon. A popular saying at that grim time was “better dead than red.”

It really is a miracle that we’re here today, survivors of what has almost happened time and again. So many times the world has come within hours and even minutes of nuclear war. To cite just one case, in October 1962, a Russian Navy officer, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov, violating orders and risking his career, if not worse, refused to authorize a Soviet nuclear attack on the USA.

T6 – Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov

The context was the Cuba crisis. Arkhipov was aboard a nuclear-armed Soviet submarine. Three men each had to turn a key. He alone refused to do so. Had he done what the rules obliged him to do, none of us would be here today. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., an advisor to the Kennedy administration, has commented, “This was not only the most dangerous moment of the Cold War. It was the most dangerous moment in human history.” Words cannot express how much we owe to Vasili Arkhipov and others like him who were supposed to turn a key or push the red button but refused to do so.

By the skin of our teeth we have lived with nuclear weapons without their being used in war since 1945 — 73 years. In geological time that’s not even one second, but for human beings 73 years seems close to forever. One begins to get complacent, but complacency about weapons of mass destruction is a dangerous state of mind, like jumping from the top floor of a hundred-story building and thinking half way down that it’s not as dangerous as people say.

We’ve had more than seven decades without nuclear war but these have not been years of peace — rather years of constant war. I won’t list them — it would take too long, but go to Wikipedia, use the search string “wars since 1945,” and see for yourself.

T7 – Wars-in-progress screen

The wars themselves are countable. What no one has an even approximate count of is how many people have been killed or maimed or mentally and spiritually devastated by all these tidal waves of mass violence. Just to single out one, in the decade-long US-segment of the Vietnam War, 1965-1975, the estimate for the dead alone is three million, the great majority of them non-combatants. For the US segment of the war in Afghanistan, the estimate so far is a million dead. Nor has anyone attempted to calculate the catastrophic environmental impact of all these wars. War and war-related industry has been a huge factor in global warming.

In 1961, when I was nineteen, I was peripherally involved in one of the smaller and briefer wars. At the time I was a third-class petty officer in the US Navy, part of a meteorological unit at the US Weather Service in Suitland, Maryland, just outside Washington, DC.

T8 – JF graduating Navy boot camp May 1959

You see me in uniform the spring day in 1959 that I finished boot camp.

The suite of rooms used by our Navy unit included a small television studio that was directly connected to the War Room of the Pentagon. Twice a day one of the officers, standing before a rotating map, presented an overview of weather news for the northern hemisphere, then answered questions from those at the viewing end. During the late winter and early spring of 1961, I was vaguely aware that the questions often had to do with the weather in and around Cuba. I gave the matter little thought. I failed to sense a political earthquake was about to occur.

Only after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion on the 17th of April 1961 did I connect the dots. Despite the initial denial by President Kennedy that the invasion was a US undertaking —initially it was blamed entirely on unaided Cuban exiles — I knew the Navy had played a role in it, including even my tiny unit. The day and timing of beach landings are best planned with an eye on the weather.

T9 – JF Kennedy

To his credit, within days Kennedy reversed his initial denial, regretting what had happened and admitting that the invasion was planned, organized and funded by the CIA with US military involvement. JFK, only a few months into his presidency, had given the invasion its go-ahead.

In that period of my life I was profoundly naïve about the US role in the world. It never occurred to me that my government would undermine or seek to overthrow other governments. “Regime change” was not part of our political vocabulary. I knew nothing about the US role in arranging regime change in Guatemala, Iran and other countries. For all the nation’s flaws and unsolved problems, for all my ideas of how it could be better, I was passionately proud to be an American.

T10 – JFK – screen shot Bay of Pigs

US culpability for the Bay of Pigs invasion hit me like a torpedo. I felt implicated in a collective sin. When I read in The Washington Post that pacifist groups, including the Catholic Worker, were holding a daily silent protest in front of a CIA building in southwest Washington, I made up my mind to take part. It turned out to be a life-changing decision.

T11 – There is no way to peace graphic

After work and out of uniform, I joined twenty or so people carrying placards that bore such texts as “There is no way to peace — peace is the way” and “Nonviolence or Non-survival.” The climate of the silent protest was prayerful. I had no sense that I was putting myself or my job in the Navy at risk. As I say, I was naïve. Freedom of speech, freedom to dissent and freedom to protest peacefully were principles at the core of American identity. I took it for granted that those rights belonged to everyone, those in military service included.

I noticed several men in gray suits on the other side of a fence methodically taking photos of us — it amused me that they were using cameras with long telephoto lenses. No one in the demonstration would have objected to close-up photos. Any of us would have been quite willing to identify ourselves and explain why we were there.

A few days later I was summoned to the office of Captain Cox, our unit’s commanding officer, and found him so angry that his neck muscles were rigid and his hands shook. He had a hard time assembling a sentence. On his desk was a glossy eight-by-ten photo of the demonstration. I was clearly visible. “Is this you?” he asked. “Yes,” I answered. “How dare you! How dare you give support to enemies of the United States?” “I wasn’t supporting any enemies,” I replied, “I was protesting the invasion of Cuba.” Captain Cox was speechless. Previously he and I had enjoyed an excellent relationship, but after that day the only communication we had was when he handed me a letter from the Office of Naval Intelligence ordering me to report for an interview.

In preparation for that meeting I was required to fill out a security questionnaire. One of the questions was: “Is there any circumstance under which you would deem yourself unable to 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 give an honest answer that would be acceptable to the Navy.

T12 – Jiminy Cricket – conscience be your guide

Getting back to my base along the Potomac, I went to the Catholic chapel to pray, read the New Testament, and think. I must have remained there until 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 noncombatants had become war’s main casualties. Also how could anyone, in or out of the military, promise automatic obedience to each and every future order sight unseen? I thought of the many Germans who justified their obedience to the demonic demands of the Hitler regime with the words: “I was only following orders” or “I was only obeying the law.” I thought of Anne Frank and the Holocaust and all the obedient civilians and soldiers who played a part in herding millions of people to their deaths. But at the same time I was apprehensive 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? I was wading in fear, struggling not to drown in it.

I remembered the simple wisdom of a Russian proverb I had memorized as a child while contemplating the Family of Man photo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York: “Eat bread and salt and speak the truth.”

T13 – bread & salt proverb

Those eight words were a breath of fresh air. It was a relief to realize that my task was simply to tell the truth and let the consequences take care of themselves. Finally I composed this four-sentence 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…. It is highly conceivable that there are duties that would be imposed on me during war time which I could not accept. Though I would participate in the actual and just defense of our country, I would not assist in any attack or war effort which necessarily involved the death of innocent non-combatants. I would obey no order in conflict with my convictions.”

There is no need for me to tell the rest of the story in detail, only to say that not many days later, following a long and threatening interview with two officers of the Naval Intelligence Service, I filed for early discharge on the grounds of conscientious objection to war. In early June my discharge was approved. The day that I was “processed out” I was on my way, at Dorothy Day’s invitation, to become part of the Catholic Worker community in New York — a big step that reshaped the rest of my life. I was happy as a falcon in an updraft. Before sunset that same day, I arrived at 175 Chrystie Street, the location in that period of St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality.

T14 – CW 175 Chrystie Street 1961

I had turned a major corner. I had enjoyed my work in at the Weather Service and had appreciated my Navy co-workers, but I had gotten to the point in my religious awakening of wanting the works of mercy rather that the works of war to shape my life.

One of the results of joining the Catholic Worker was spending the most formative segment of my life participating in a community whose day centered mainly on homeless people.

T15 – Dorothy Day portrait

The leader of the community was Dorothy Day, then in her mid-sixties. I couldn’t have chosen a better mentor. If you haven’t yet done so, I urge you to read her autobiography, The Long Loneliness.

In it she relates how she had been radicalized in her teens mainly thanks to her reading. It was Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, that inspired her, at age fifteen, to explore parts of Chicago that most of her neighbors avoided — the slums surrounding the city’s stockyards and slaughterhouses. The novel’s depiction of filth, violence and corruption in the meat industry so shocked its readers that the book is given credit for Congressional passage of tough meat inspection laws, although Sinclair had hoped to stimulate more profound social change. His intention had been, he said, to expose “the inferno of exploitation” endured by factory workers. “I aimed at the public’s heart,” he commented, “and by accident hit it in the stomach.”

But Sinclair’s book reached Dorothy’s heart. She began taking long walks toward the west side of Chicago where the meat yards were. Pushing her brother in his baby carriage, she walked for miles, exploring “interminable gray streets, fascinating in their dreary sameness, past tavern after tavern, where I envisioned such scenes as the Polish wedding party in Sinclair’s story.”

These walks were Dorothy’s first experience of finding beauty in the midst of urban desolation. “There were tiny flower gardens and vegetable patches in the yards,” she recalled. “Often there were rows of corn, stunted but still recognizable, a few tomato plants, and always the vegetables were bordered by flowers, often grateful marigolds, all sizes and shades with their pungent odor.” The drab streets were transfigured by “the odor of geranium leaves, tomato plants, marigolds; the smell of lumber, of tar, of roasting coffee; the smell of good bread and rolls and coffee cake coming from the small German bakeries. Here was enough beauty to satisfy me.”

Walking such streets, she pondered the poor and the workers and felt “that from then on my life was to be linked to theirs, their interests were to be mine: I had received a call, a vocation, a direction in my life.” Her journey led her to become both a radical journalist and a Catholic. In her mid-thirties she became co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement.

Dorothy touched countless lives, mine among them. For me, she was also the bridge to several other life-shaping relationships. Thanks to Dorothy, I began what became an intense relationship with Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and writer, whose autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, had been a factor in my becoming a conscientious objector.

T16 – Thomas Merton

Within a few months Merton became a kind of spiritual parent. In the seven years I knew him, I visited him twice and he sent me more than 60 letters.

Merton had enormous influence of the way my life and work developed, an influence that continues to this day even though it’s now fifty years since his death. There was no other person with whom I had so frequent a correspondence when I was in my twenties.

T17 – Henri Nouwen

One thing always leads to another. Several years after Merton’s death, I had the blessing of meeting Henri Nouwen, a relationship that grew into a deep friendship that lasted until his death in 1996. That relationship began in 1971, when Henri, at the time a complete stranger, called with the invitation to speak about Merton to his students at Yale. He wanted them not just to read Merton books but have some idea what Merton was like as a person. I began going to Yale every year.

T18 – Dan Berrigan and Jim Forest

Another person I first met thanks to Dorothy was Daniel Berrigan, a poet and Jesuit priest. Toward the end of 1961, Dorothy brought me with her to a small gathering with Dan. Dan was then leading a quiet academic life at a small Jesuit college in upstate New York. One couldn’t have imagined that, before the decade was over, Dan would be one of the most prominent opponents of war, have his face on the cover of Time magazine, and spend several months on the FBI’s ten-most-wanted list! It didn’t happen overnight, but Dan and I became friends and until his death just two years ago. My latest book is a biography of him.

Four mentors. Each of them is an icon of protest but each of them approached protest in quite different ways.

T19 – photo of Dorothy’s last arrest

Dorothy’s acts of civil disobedience were simplicity itself — such quiet gestures as sitting on a park bench when law required her to be elsewhere, or taking part with farmworkers in a demonstration that police regarded as illegal.

T20 – nuclear submarine

For Henri, not at all a protester by nature, his going to Selma, Alabama to join in a dangerous protest against racism or quietly standing outside a plant where nuclear-missile-bearing submarines were being made were significant, even brave, acts of witness even, though no civil disobedience was involved.

T21 – Catonsville Nine

In contrast, there was Dan’s theatrical approach — setting draft records set on fire, battering the cones of nuclear missiles with hammers — in which serious jail time was an almost certain consequence.

T21a – Merton & Dan together Nov 1964

Thomas Merton, on the other hand, committed no acts of civil disobedience and spent not a single night of his life in a prison cell, but through his writing  changed the way countless people viewed the world and what it meant to be a human being and a Christian.

The differences among these four remarkable persons remind us that each peacemaker is unique. Each makes a transformative use of his or her temperament, talents, vocation, background and circumstances. Expand the circle of models wider and instance by instance our understanding of peacemaking expands with it. Who is a peacemaker? Anyone who is acting peaceably to protect life and the environment.

T21b – high school dropout cartoon

Let me conclude my part of this morning’s session by confessing my academic shortcomings. I never got past my junior year in high school. The only institution of higher learning I’ve graduated from was the Navy Weather School. It was my intention to get an undergraduate degree — I was all set to attend Berea College in Kentucky — but attending to the war in Vietnam seemed more urgent. I sometimes claim to be a permanent undergraduate at Dorothy Day University but you will not find its address even with the most thorough google search. I sometimes regret that I never had time to attend a university with its own campus and library but I recover quickly from that disappointment, for what God has given me has been attendance of a different sort of academy, an athenaeum of mentors. I’ve benefitted from more than four members of its faculty, not only Dorothy Day, Merton, Henri Nouwen and Dan Berrigan, but these are the four I want to concentrate on today.

There’s an afternoon session coming up in which I hope to talk about seven things I learned from these four remarkable peacemakers.

T22 – whole earth photo

* * * * * * *

Second session…

Start with T22 – whole earth photo

Good afternoon!

Now allow me to shift gears. Instead of talking more about personal events that made the themes of this conference so central in my life, let me instead tell you about what I learned from these four mentors: Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen and Daniel Berrigan.

Let’s start with love:

At the absolute core of Christ’s teaching is the commandment to love God and to love our neighbor, not one or the other but both, with the understanding that our neighbor is whoever is standing in front of us, and that sometimes turns out to be our enemy — someone we would rather avoid, maybe someone we even wish were dead.

T23 – Christ icon

All the people who have helped me see the way ahead in my own life put great stress on love, with a special emphasis on love of enemies.

The key word is love.

“Peacemaking is the work of love,” as Henri put it very simply.

To understand love of others, including love of irritating neighbors and dangerous adversaries and politicians who make our blood boil, you first need to unsentimentalize the word. You have to understand love in its biblical meaning. For Jesus love is not a feeling. Love is not an inebriating emotional high or rejoicing in an intense romantic relationship. Love is how you relate to others, no matter how you happen to be feeling at a particular moment. You don’t stop caring for others  that is, doing what you can to help keep them alive  because you’re tired or don’t feel like it or are having a bad day.

T24 – parent with crying child

Think of an exhausted parent awoken at three in the morning by a crying infant who, even after being held and fed, its diaper changed, carried and stroked and rocked and sung to, refuses to stop crying. It’s not a time when one feels grateful for the child or glad to be a parent. Ignoring irritated feelings, you do what is needed and do it gently and patiently. This is an image of actual love.

Love can get you into serious trouble. One of the profoundly radical ideas that all four of my mentors had in common was that, if you want to work at being a Christian and taking up Christ’s commandment to love, for starters it means not killing anyone, enemies included, and not even in your heart-of-hearts wishing them dead.

T25 – Bethlehem Christmas card

Jesus was not a romantic. He didn’t live in a Christmas-card world. He did not look at the world through rose-colored glasses. He did not lead an insulated life. He was no stranger to enmity. Probably there was no Jew in those days who hadn’t seem a naked man nailed to a cross and slowly dying. From his birth onward, Jesus lived a life of daily proximity to mortal enemies, yet he never threatened or endangered anyone’s life. But that doesn’t mean he was passive.

T26 – Jesus chasing moneychangers out of the Temple

For example he once chased moneychangers out of the Temple in Jerusalem, but the only person’s life he put at risk in doing so was his own. If you see Christ as giving clues regarding the sort of person you would like to become, then not only will you not kill anyone but you will seriously try to love them and even be prepared to die for them. One of Dan Berrigan’s most striking declarations was: “If you want to be a Christian, you had better look good on wood.”

Love doesn’t exclude outrage. Love and outrage are sometimes as woven together as a strand of DNA. Dan’s many acts of civil disobedience were animated by, as he put it “outraged love.” For Dan “outrage” was an adjective; the key word was “love.” Love opens the way for conversion. But outrage without love is a blind alley.

We live in a time when there is far more outrage than love. So many zones in social media are sewers of outrage.

T27 – social media

But love clears the air.

“Our job,” Merton wrote, “is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business. What we are asked to do is to love and this love will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy, if anything can.”

Second point — War is a disease that thrives on death:

The real enemy we’re up against, as St Paul stresses in his letter to the Ephesians, isn’t flesh and blood and can’t be killed with weapons that shed blood. Our real enemy isn’t a particular person or group of people but structures and ideologies that inspire deadly violence, with war itself at the top of the list.

T28 – Catholic Worker front page Oct 1961

In “The Root of War Is Fear,” an essay published in the October 1961 issue of The Catholic Worker, Thomas Merton saw Christians as playing an important role in seeking alternatives to war. At the time, nuclear war seemed around the corner, something that could happen today or tomorrow.

“The duty of the Christian in this crisis,” Merton wrote, “is to strive with all his power and intelligence, with his faith, his hope in Christ, and love for God and man, to do the one task which God has imposed upon us in the world today. That task is to work for the total abolition of war. There can be no question that unless war is abolished the world will remain constantly in a state of madness and desperation in which, because of the immense destructive power of modern weapons, the danger of catastrophe will be imminent and probable at every moment everywhere. Unless we set ourselves immediately to this task, both as individuals and in our political and religious groups, we tend by our very passivity and fatalism to cooperate with the destructive forces that are leading inexorably to war.”

T29 – Dr Strangelove – the War Room

Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film, “Doctor Strangelove, Or How I Learned Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” was a black comedy that was probably a factor in preventing nuclear war in those days.

Merton, Dorothy Day and Dan Berrigan helped me realize that war itself is the main enemy of the human race and of the planet we live on. Peacemakers are engaged in a war against war, with the goal not that war should be made less frequent or less murderous or more humane but that war should be eliminated. War should be made unthinkable. Otherwise all of us are losers. As Merton put it, “There is only one winner in war. The winner is war itself. Not truth, not justice, not liberty, not morality. These are the vanquished.”

Third point — we need to use nonviolent methods:

Seeking a nonviolent future, of necessity the means we use are nonviolent for the methods we use define the ends we achieve. If you plant poison ivy you don’t get a harvest of strawberries. We battle evil as best we can, using nonviolent methods rather than copying the deadly methods of our enemies. As Dr King said, “Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the person who wields it. It is a sword that heals.”

T30 – ML King at March on Washington

“What are we to do?” was the core question Merton raised in the pages of The Catholic Worker. In his essay “The Root of War is Fear,” he argued that the Church “must lead the way on the road to the nonviolent settlement of difficulties and toward the gradual abolition of war as the way of settling international or civil disputes. Christians must become active in every possible way, mobilizing all their resources for the fight against war. First of all there is much to be studied, much to be learned. Peace is to be preached, nonviolence is to be explained as a practical method…. Prayer and sacrifice must be used as the most effective spiritual weapons in the war against war, and like all weapons, they must be used with deliberate aim: not just with a vague aspiration for peace and security, but against violence and war. This implies that we are also willing to sacrifice and restrain our own instinct for violence and aggressiveness in our relations with other people…. [The abolition of war] is the great Christian task of our time. Everything else is secondary, for the survival of the human race itself depends upon it. We must at least face this responsibility and do something about it.”

Let’s quietly just take a look at a few images of nonviolent resistance….

T31 – man vs tanks

Sometimes it’s a brave spontaneous action — a Chinese man with a shopping bag stopping a column of tanks.

T32 – nonviolent protest – civil rights picket line

Or it’s a carefully planned demonstration like this picket line against segregation

T33 – nonviolent protest – flowers in gun barrel

Or a symbolic gesture, like this university student putting a flower in a soldier’s rifle barrel.

T34 – Standing Rock

Or not just gathering for a day or two but living on threatened land.

We could spend the day looking at countless similar photos. Nonviolent action is not only changing history but changing us.

Unlikely people often play key roles in history. Thomas Merton, who became one of the most articulate advocates of nonviolence, had become a monk in December 1941 just as many others, his brother John Paul among them, were putting on military uniforms. Merton, who in his early days of monastic life thought he was saying goodbye to the world and all its madnesses, came to see his life as a monk as an ongoing act of implicit nonviolent protest.

T35 – Merton walking the woods

Far from being an escape from the world, Merton wrote, it was through fidelity to his monastic vocation that he was able to take his true part “in all the struggles and sufferings of the world. To adopt a life that is essentially non-assertive, a nonviolent life of humility and peace, is in itself a statement of one’s position…. It is my intention to make my entire life a rejection of, a protest against the crimes and injustices of war and political tyranny which threaten to destroy the whole race of man and the world with him…. By my monastic life and vows I am saying no to all the concentration camps, the aerial bombardments, the staged political trials, the judicial murders, the racial injustices, the economic tyrannies, and the whole socio-economic apparatus which seems geared for nothing but global destruction in spite of all its fair words in favor of peace. I make monastic silence a protest against the lies of politicians, propagandists and agitators, and when I speak it is to deny that my faith and my Church can ever seriously be aligned with these forces of injustice and destruction.”

T36 – Selma march

In slow steps, Henri Nouwen and Dan Berrigan had also decided on nonviolence both as a way of life and a method of combatting social evils. In 1965 Henri and Dan, both as yet strangers to each other and both in the early stages of social engagement, put their lives on the line by going to Selma, Alabama, to join Martin Luther King and eight thousand others in crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, its pavement still bloodstained from the police attack on civil rights demonstrators just two weeks before.

T37 – Dorothy at the park bench sit-in

Dorothy Day, on the other hand, was first drawn to raise a dissenting voice while still in her teens. She was nineteen when she was jailed after taking part in a votes-for-women action in front of the White House and was involved in many acts of nonviolent protest in the decades that followed. My personal favorite action of hers was a quiet gesture made in Manhattan in 1955 when, with a few pacifist friends, she sat on a park bench in front of City Hall rather than participate, as required by law, in a civil defense drill in which the city came to a standstill while everyone was obliged to seek shelter — in subway stations, under classroom desks, in basements — from an imaginary Soviet nuclear attack. A Catholic Worker leaflet declared, “We will not be drilled into fear.” Dorothy saw such rehearsals as making nuclear war seem survivable and even winnable. For her, refusing to take shelter was also “an act of penance” undertaken by an American whose country “had been the first to drop the atom bomb and to make the hydrogen bomb.” From 1961 to 1962, after which no more such drills occurred, Dorothy was repeatedly arrested and jailed for refusing to take shelter. The judge in one instance, himself a Catholic, advised Dorothy to read the Bible. Imposing a thirty-day sentence, he said that those who disobeyed the law were a “heartless bunch of individuals who breathe contempt.”

T38 – napalmed child Vietnam

Thirty days in jail isn’t that much. Nonviolent actions can sometimes be more dramatic and risk greater penalties. Dan Berrigan is best remembered for being one of nine people who burned draft records — files his brother Phil referred to as “death certificates” — as a protest against the Vietnam War and forced participation in it. America’s young men were being given the option of going to war or going to prison. In the course of his long life — he died only two years ago, age 94 — Dan wrote about sixty books of prose and poetry, but his single most famous piece of writing is a two-page text he composed to explain their action. It begins, “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. For we are sick at heart. Our hearts give us no rest for thinking of the Land of Burning Children…”

My fourth point — the importance of prayer:

Another core element in the life of my principal mentors was the role of prayer in their lives.

At the Catholic Worker we paused several times each day to pray together using booklets that has been given to us by a Benedictine monastery. Priests such as Dan Berrigan celebrated Mass for the community. Henri celebrated Mass in his apartment and, when students and friends came for a social gathering, started it off with prayer.

One of the Sioux participants in the long-running Standing Rock protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline emphasized how essential prayer was to their activities, adding, “Prayers don’t work in the sense that what you ask for will just be given to you, but when you pray for something, all the tools you need will be presented to you.”

T39 – Rembrandt Emmaus etching

In his etching of the risen Christ being recognized as he breaks bread in the village of Emmaus, Rembrandt makes prayer almost visible.

In his book Peacework, Henri sees prayer as an essential element in the life of any peacemaker. “Prayer,” he writes, “is entering into communion with the One who molded our being in our mother’s womb with love and only love. There, in that first love, lies our true self, a self not made up of the rejections and acceptances of those with whom we live, but solidly rooted in the One who called us into existence. In the house of God we were created. To that house we are called to return. Prayer is the act of returning…. Only by opening ourselves to the language and way of prayer can we cope with the interruptions, demands, and ordinary tasks of life without becoming fragmented and resentful. Prayer — [that is] living in the presence of God — is the most radical peace action we can imagine.”

T40 – bread for the eucharist

Among the great joys of friendship with Dan Berrigan was joining him in the celebration of the Mass. His small apartment became a chapel. The style of our bread-breaking was as simple and graceful in line as a Shaker chair. A prayer for forgiveness was followed by intercession for friends who were ill or in difficulty. Those taking part took turns reading the appointed texts for the day plus perhaps a supplementary reading from a more-or-less modern source. After the readings, silence. Then some reflection on the readings. More silence. Then a simple canon prayer, the prayer of consecration. More silence. Finally, after the unspectacular miracle of consecration, came the sharing in that quiet miracle, and more silence, perhaps some more prayer, and an embrace at the end. Everything we achieved in our struggles to help build a less violent world was founded on this eucharistic bedrock.

I have nearly identical memories of time spent with Henri. I recall the pile of small prayer books behind a chair in his living room at New Haven, ready to distribute when friends assembled. Every social gathering he hosted began with prayer.

T41 – Dorothy Day in prayer

I have never known anyone more disciplined in her spiritual life than Dorothy Day — daily Mass, daily rosary, times of private prayer and intercession each day, weekly confession. How often I saw her on her knees at a nearby parish church or at the chapel at the Catholic Worker farm. I noticed that while praying she often consulted pieces of paper that were tucked into her prayer book. One afternoon, Dorothy having been summoned from the Catholic Worker farm chapel for an urgent phone call, I opened the prayer book she had left on the bench and discovered page after page of names, all written in her careful script, of people, living and dead, for whom she was praying every day. It seemed to me Dorothy prayed as if lives depended on it, and no doubt some did. The physician Robert Coles of the Harvard Medical School credited Dorothy’s prayers with the miraculous cure of his wife. She had been dying of cancer but — to his astonishment and to the bewilderment of her physicians — she recovered. He credited Dorothy for what seemed to him a miracle.

Fifth point — compassion:

When I think back on the huge peace movement that emerged during the Vietnam War, the last period of sustained massive multi-national protest against racism and war, there was a great deal we got right but also some negatives. One of our major problems was a widespread lack of compassion toward our adversaries.

T43 – Vietnam war protest in DC in 1969

My wife recalls a huge demonstration in Washington, DC, in November 1969, the one time in her life that she got tear-gassed. I wasn’t there — I was in prison at the time — but the vivid stories she tells make me feel as if I were present. Hundreds of thousands of protesters, many of them students, brought the city to a standstill. Nixon himself, from the basement of the White House, directed the club-fisted response of the police and the National Guard. It was a great demonstration, an event dramatizing a gap between generations that was widening day by day. The only problem was the climate of derision toward the war’s supporters. One of the popular chants that day was aimed at Vice President Spiro Agnew — “Shave and a haircut, shampoo! Spiro Agnew, fuck you!” The chant was funny for those who sympathized. The only problem was that rude chants like that thickened the walls between the war’s opponents and all those people, millions of them, who had voted for Nixon and Agnew.

Self-righteousness and contempt — these are problems every dissident movement has to struggle with. Are we trying to change people’s minds or, by ridiculing them, to harden them in their anger-driven sentiments?

The problem becomes even more immediate when we look at social media today — or in fact what is often anti-social media in which words and slogans are exchanged like hand grenades. How often what might have become dialogue is instead trashing and shaming each other. The results of such exchanges are never healing or mind-changing.

Merton focused on temptations and spiritual problems that people like myself — people in mass movements — have to struggle with. There is always the danger in any movement, he wrote, of its participants becoming zealots, thus losing contact with their conscience and their own perceptions and instead being carried along by group-defined attitudes and ideology in which critical thought is supplanted by slogans, rhetoric and peer group pressure.

If the flattening influence of slogans and ideology was one problem, Merton found that the absence of compassion crippled many protest actions. Those involved in protest tend to become enraged with those they see as being responsible for injustice and violence and even toward those who uphold the status quo. Without compassion, Merton pointed out, the protester tends to become more and more driven by anger and, far from contributing to anyone’s conversion, can easily become an obstacle to changing the attitudes of others.

T44 – protester offering flower to soldier at anti-war demo

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

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

Without love, especially love of opponents and enemies, no profound transformation ? neither personal nor social ? can occur. As Merton put it in a letter to Dorothy Day, “Persons are not known by intellect alone, not by principles alone, but only by love. It is when we love the other, the enemy, that we obtain from God the key to an understanding of who he is, and who we are. It is only this realization that can open to us the real nature of our duty, and of right action.”

T45 – Peacework book cover

Henri thought along parallel lines. As he wrote in his book Peacework: “I have become increasingly aware of the temptation to focus more on issues than on people. But when our peace work is primarily issue-oriented it easily loses heart and becomes cold, calculating, and very impersonal. When we fight for issues and no longer see concrete people with their unique personalities and histories, competition will dominate compassion and winning the issue may mean losing the people. There are endless problems in the world — poverty, oppression, exploitation, corruption — that urgently beg for solutions. But people are not problems. They smile and cry, work and play, struggle and celebrate. They have names and faces to be remembered.”

Sixth point — seeing:

If anyone was a teacher of seeing it was Henri Nouwen. Henri was one of the people — Merton and Dorothy were others — who opened my eyes to icons, Christianity’s primary art form in the Church, east and west, during the first fourteen or fifteen centuries, and still the main art form of eastern Christianity. As a young adult I had viewed icons simply as the church’s kindergarten art, not to be compared with the masterpieces of the Renaissance. Slowly I began to realize that icons are a school of seeing.

T46 – Rublev Holy Trinity icon

A turning point in my appreciation of icons was the gift Henri gave Nancy and me when we were married — a reproduction of the so-called “Holy Trinity” icon painted by the monk Andrei Rublev in the sixteenth century.

I vividly recall sitting at Henri’s side as he explored, with childlike enthusiasm, the icon’s every detail. It was, he explained, inspired by Abraham and Sara’s hospitality to the mysterious guests they received under the oak of Mamre, a story told in Genesis. Throughout the Genesis account, the three angelic guests act in perfect unity and speak with one voice. They are both guests, plural, and also guest, singular; they are both one and three. It’s the first biblical hint of the Holy Trinity. Henri remarked on the utterly submissive, sister-like faces of the three angelic figures, each inclined toward the other in a silent dialogue of self-giving love. He commented on their profound stillness, yet their warmth and vitality. Then we looked at the colors Andrei Rublev had chosen, though I later discovered that even the best reproduction can only hint at what Rublev had actually achieved, as I was to see for myself when I first visited the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Henri traced the circle of perfect unity that subtly, invisibly contains the three angels. Then he traced a cross within the circle and then the trinitarian triangle it also contained. All this quiet geometry reveals key elements of the icon’s theology, yet none of it is heavy-handed. Then there is the table around which the three figures are placed — the eucharistic altar with golden chalice. Above the three figures are three objects: a house with an open door, a tree, and a mountain. The open-doored building on the upper left is both the Church and a house of hospitality. For Henri the Holy Trinity icon was an icon of “the house of love” — the Church as God intends it to be, the doors of which are never closed and which have no locks. The tree in the center is the Tree of Life and also the Life-giving Cross. The mountain is the both Mount Sinai and the Mount of the Beatitudes. Really seeing the icon reveals the communion of love which is at the heart of God’s unity.

T47 – Van Gogh – Night Café

I also recall being with Henri at the art museum at Yale and looking with him at a Van Gogh painting, “The Night Café,” a place he frequented in Arles. Henri’s acute attentiveness to this study of nightlife in a small town was contagious. He was so open to the painting, so wide-eyed, that he made me look at it more slowly. The painting’s beauty became a sacramental reality. But to get to that graced place one has to do much more than glance.

For Henri one of life’s most important questions was: “What do we really choose to see?” Who we see and who we fail to see marks the border of both our spiritual and political life.

T48 – refugee children

In his book Behold the Beauty of the Lord, Henri stresses that it is a matter of enormous importance what we look at and how we look at it. He writes:

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

T49 – beggar

Henri proposed a theology of seeing, or of gazing. Gazing was the verb he preferred. To really see something, to see with deep attentiveness, to become aware of its mystery and beauty — this puts it in a truly awake state. This is most important when we are looking at a human face. It is not that often that we really look at each other. Henri appreciated what St John Chrysostom said in a sermon on the eucharist: “If you fail to recognize Christ in the beggar outside the church, you will not find him in the chalice.”

T50 – slums lower east side

Dorothy Day also had a talent for seeing what many others overlooked. I recall an experience I had with Dorothy when she was in her early sixties.  Her knees were troubling her — she was having increasing trouble climbing the five flights to her apartment on Spring Street. A small apartment in a similar tenement on Ridge Street was rented for her. It was only one flight up but was in appalling condition. A friend and I went down to clean and paint the two rooms. We dragged box after box of debris down to the street, many layers of wallpaper and linoleum and lots of trash, including what seemed to us a hideous painting of the Holy Family — Mary, Joseph and Jesus rendered in a few bright colors against a grey background on a piece of plywood. We shook our heads, deposited it in the rubbish along the curb, and went back to our labor. Not long after Dorothy arrived, the painting in hand. “Look what I found! The Holy Family! It’s a providential sign, a blessing.” She put it on the mantle of the apartment’s bricked-up fireplace. Looking at it again, this time I saw it was a work of love. While this primitive icon was no masterpiece, the ardent faith of its maker shined through. It had a certain beauty. But I wouldn’t have seen it if Dorothy hadn’t seen it first.

T51 – Christ of the breadlines – Eichenberg

Dorothy’s view was no longer that of so many people she knew who regarded the poor as shiftless and worthless, whose sufferings were no one’s fault but their own. Walking such streets as a fifteen-year-old, she pondered the poor and the workers and felt “that from then on my life was to be linked to theirs, their interests were to be mine: I had received a call, a vocation, a direction in my life.”

A seventh and final point. Let me say something about detachment:

Ironically, the harder we try to be effective in our work, the more important it becomes not to over-identify ourselves with our work and its achievements.

T52 – cathedral construction

You need a cathedral builder’s frame of mind. Churches like Notre Dame and Chartres took a long time to build. The first generation saw little more than the laying of the foundations. Sometimes there were fires or towers collapsed and much of the work had to be done over. It was the grandchildren or great grandchildren who got to take part in constructing the roof.

Here’s how Merton put it in a letter to me, written at a time when he was aware I was on the edge of total burn-out:

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

T53 – medieval image of cathedral construction

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

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

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

T54 – whole earth photo

Summing up, Merton added:

“The great thing after all is to live, not to pour out your life in the service of a myth: and we turn the best things into myths. If you can get free from the domination of causes and just serve Christ’s truth, you will be able to do more and will be less crushed by the inevitable disappointments. Because I see nothing whatever in sight but much disappointment, frustration and confusion …. The real hope, then, is not in something we think we can do but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see. If we can do His will, we will be helping in this process. But we will not necessarily know all about it beforehand….”

To which I can only add, “Amen.”

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