By Jim Forest
The theme of this retreat is “Hope in Turbulent Times” but, as I think about it, for a great many people the times we’re living in are worse than turbulent — for many they engender hopelessness.
Right now we are surrounded by a ring of crises.
For starters, we’re meeting together on-line rather than face-to-face because this is a time of global pandemic. More than two-million people have died and more are dying every minute of the day.
[1 – climate change graphic: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/50938669996/sizes/o/ ]
In addition there is the environmental crisis with its melting ice caps, its multiplying extinctions, and our awareness of the awful slowness with which we human beings are making necessary changes in how we live on this vulnerable planet.
[2 – refugee crisis photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/50937978773/sizes/h/ ]
There is also the refugee crisis — for political, economic or environmental reasons millions of people are leaving their homelands and being met by walls rather than welcomes.
[3 – Nagasaki photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/49286403353/sizes/l/ ]
All the while there is the constant danger of nuclear war — thousands of nuclear-armed missiles are poised and ready for use.
There is a world-wide political crisis. Donald Trump is only one of many politicians who represent a fascist temptation that is so active a force in so many countries.
[4 – cross & flag graphic: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/50937981173/sizes/m/ ]
One can also speak of a spiritual crisis. Religiously-packaged nationalism is widespread. In many churches in America the cross, far from being a symbol of self-giving love, has been converted unto a flagpole.
One of the darkest signs of the times is the increased frequency of suicide, most notably among young people. Perhaps this particular crisis represents a crisis of meaning triggered in some degree by the cumulative effect of all the other crises.
This is not a complete list of contemporary crises that make hope difficult, but the list at least sketches out why so many of us are dealing with a sense of living in the apocalyptic end times, which, in its secularized form, is a time with no light at the end of the tunnel.
It is not hard to feel hopeless. But what I want to say has to do with hope.
[5 – Dorothy Day photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/50937877278/sizes/l/ ]
Dorothy Day was one of the most hopeful people I’ve ever known. She used to speak matter-of-factly of “the duty of hope.” For her, hope had nothing to do with optimism. Hope was not a mood or a state of mind that arose like a wildflower when spring arrived. Hope was as obligatory as breathing. I think it was from Dorothy that I first heard the proverb, “Even if I knew the world was going to end tomorrow, I would plant an apple tree today.”
In the early Sixties, I was part of the Catholic Worker community in New York and for years after leaving remained close to Dorothy. In recent days I have been thinking about aspects of Dorothy’s approach to daily life, as I witnessed it, that helped keep her in a state of hope.
[6 – Dorothy Day at Mass: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/50937877318/sizes/h/ ]
One of the things that struck me was how disciplined was her spiritual life. Take it away and there is no Dorothy Day as we knew her. Her average day began with attending an early Mass in a neighborhood church. These were not necessarily Masses that were aesthetically wonderful, by the way. For most of her life, they were said hurriedly in barely audible Latin. She devoted time to the rosary at least once a day. Using booklets that had been given to us by Benedictine monks in Minnesota, she took part in daily praying the offices of Prime and Vespers. She kept lists of people, living and dead, for whom she prayed daily, enemies not excluded. She went to confession once a week. You’ll find a vivid description of what confession was like for her in the opening paragraphs of her autobiography, The Long Loneliness. She had no illusions about the serious faults of institutional Catholicism and from time to time put her criticisms in writing, but she was more interested in what was good about the Church than what was wrong with it. Her foundational attitude regarding the Church was gratitude.
[7 – profile view of Dorothy: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/50937877263/sizes/l/ ]
Another thing that surprised me about Dorothy was her appreciative attention to weeds and trees and blades of grass rising out of cracks in the sidewalk. If you read through her columns in the Catholic Worker, from its early years until she was too weak to leave her room on East Third Street, you will notice how often Dorothy took note of plant life. In her last “On Pilgrimage” column, printed in the October 1980 issue, she wrote: “The morning glories are up to the third floor of Maryhouse. I can see them grow each day!” Note the sentence ends not with a period but with an exclamation mark.
Among other things that helped her remain hopeful was music, especially opera. One was well advised not to knock on her door during the Saturday afternoon live broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera. Such music was an immersion in beauty and, as he so often said, quoting Dostoyevsky, “Beauty will save the world.”
[8 – Dostoyevsky portrait: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/50938032348/sizes/l/ ]
There was also the place of books in her life. She returned to the novels of Dostoevsky again and again. So influential was he in shaping Dorothy’s understanding of Christianity that I have come to think of Dostoevsky as a co-founder of the Catholic Worker. But her reading tastes were wide. In one of her last columns, she mentions she was reading a murder mystery, Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers, a favorite author of mine as well.
[9 – Dorothy talking with Pat Jordan: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/50938568041/sizes/l/ ]
It never ceased to amaze me how attentive Dorothy was to people she met over a cup of tea or coffee, whether in the city or at the farm. Though some, if they were aware who she was, were a bit intimidated at first, those she conversed with quickly found themselves at ease. In my first close encounter with her — I was in the Navy and was not yet nineteen at the time — I found myself telling her about aspects of my family background that I never talked about with anyone. Dorothy was permanently interested in people, young and old. Her interest and attentiveness had nothing to do with social rank. She had a gift for seeing that, no matter how damaged a person might be by life’s hard blows, he or she was truly a bearer of the divine image.
I mention these aspects of Dorothy because it seems to me they help explain why she remained so hopeful. Hope may be a duty but the duty of hope stands on a foundation of prayer, love and gratitude.
[10 – Merton photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/2055118984/sizes/h/ ]
Recalling people who engendered hope, I also think of Thomas Merton, whom I began corresponding with when Dorothy gave me a letter she had just received from him and, to my total astonishment, asked me to answer it. It was a short letter having to do with a poem Merton was submitting for publication in The Catholic Worker. All I had to do was thank Merton and tell him the poem would be in the next issue.
Between the summer of 1961 and his death in December 1968, Merton and I carried on an intense correspondence. Just his side of it takes up more than 50 pages in a collection of Merton’s letters entitled The Hidden Ground of Love.
I want to discuss just one of his letters that played a particularly important part in helping me get through a time of serious discouragement, but first let me give a little background. While at the Catholic Worker, the idea had arisen of starting the Catholic Peace Fellowship, but it took a few years before the idea became a reality. By then the Vietnam War was rapidly expanding. It seemed to several of us — Dan Berrigan, Jim Douglass, Tom Cornell and myself — that it would be helpful if there was a group making known to younger Catholics the option of conscientious objection. It was an option that Pope John XXIII had endorsed in his encyclical Pacem in Terris and which was developed in greater detail in Gaudium et Spes, the last major text issued by the Second Vatican Council. The possibility of being a conscientious objector was official Church teaching, yet it was a well-kept secret. One never heard of conscientious objection from the pulpit or in the classrooms of Catholic schools. We wanted to find ways to let young Catholics know there were alternatives to taking part in war. We also wanted to protest the huge U.S. role in the war in Vietnam.
[11 – photo of Jim Forest & Tom Cornell in the CPF office: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/6887873593/sizes/h/ ]
We launched the Catholic Peace Fellowship in the fall of 1964, then opened a CPF office in January 1965. Our advisory board included Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day. Within months we published a 32-page booklet with the title “Catholics and Conscientious Objection.” Amazingly it was given a theological green light by the Archdiocese of New York. On the inside cover was the archbishop’s imprimatur, the Latin word for “let it be printed.” God only knows how many doors that imprimatur helped open! Before the war ended in 1975, we had distributed more than 300,000 copies.
The work we were doing made a difference. It helps explain why so many thousands of young Catholics refused military service. We had CPF chapters from Massachusetts to California. The core of our work was draft counseling. At the CPF office in Manhattan, Tom Cornell and I plus several others were counseling on average fifty COs per week, some face-to-face, some by letter, some by phone. Tom and I were giving lectures on war and conscience all over the country.
[12 – Vietnam war photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/28958526353/sizes/l/ ]
There is a sense in which you could say what we were doing was a great success. But in another sense, like all peace groups, we were a huge failure. Despite the fact that opposition to the war was steadily growing, week-by-week the war was getting worse — troop numbers rising, more and more bombs falling, and ever more casualties, the vast majority of which were civilian. One of the cruelest weapons, “napalm,” had become a new word in many people’s vocabularies. Pictures were being shown on TV of American soldiers using cigarette lighters to set on fire flimsy peasant homes. Air Force general Curtis LeMay was urging the president “to bomb North Vietnam back to the Stone Age.” As far as the White House and Pentagon were concerned, I had the feelings of being no more significant than a flea on an elephant. Only years after the war did we learn the impact of our efforts.
Thinking about living in what seem like a hopeless time, I recall myself early in 1966, age 24, when I was struggling with a hurricane of depression. On the 15th of February, I wrote an anguished letter to Merton as follows:
[13 – another Merton photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/3144384043/sizes/h/ ]
Valentine’s Day has passed but no let up to the war in Vietnam. Love continues to find a different sort of expression there….
I confess to you that I am in a rather bleak mood…. For one thing, I am exhausted with ideological discussions. Earlier today I began to type out a few thoughts on your paper concerning protest…. But the question comes up, as I work on such a statement, Who is listening? Yes, you, for one — you will read my comments, and perhaps in some way they will alter your thoughts on some subject, or strengthen them. Perhaps it will even inspire you to write something. Yet even if you do, who is listening? Your words will be dutifully noted by some … those Christians who care about baptism and membership in the Body of Christ may be influenced by your meditations. But meanwhile murder goes on without interruption. This appalls me to such a degree that I get weary writing it down. Bomb after bomb after bomb slides away from the bomb bays. For every sentence in this letter, a dozen innocents will have died today in Vietnam. The end of the war is beyond imagination.
[14 – bombed VNese town; https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/50191760817/sizes/l/ ]
This morning I wrote a letter to the editor of [a Catholic magazine] in which I explained why a recent editorial … attacking the Catholic Peace Fellowship’s condemnation of the Vietnam war was poorly reasoned and didn’t come to terms with the reality of the situation in Vietnam…. I felt like a man in Germany in the 1930s trying to explain why Jews ought not to be sent to the concentration camps.
It all seems so utterly clear. You do not murder. You do not kill the innocent. You do not treat people like blemishes on the landscape, or communities as parcels of real estate, or nations as squares on a chessboard.
Yet no group seems more distant from these facts than Christian (and Catholic) Americans. I have all but given up talking to Catholic audiences about Christ; I simply talk about justice, raw basic justice. I think I’ve come to understand why natural law made its way into the Church. It was simply an attempt to ask us to be, if not holy, then just. At least that.
How is it that we have become so insensitive to human life, to the wonders of this world we live in, to the mystery within us and around us? And what can we do? What can be done? Who can we become that we are not? What can we undertake that we haven’t?
[15 – B-52 releasing bombs; https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/50188709051/sizes/o/ ]
I do not wish to sound despairing. I have by no means given up on this work of ours. But truly I feel like an ant climbing a cliff, and even worse, for in the distance there seems to be the roar of an avalanche. There is no exit, so I will not bother to look for one. I will continue to work, and there are the saving moments, the saving friendships, the artists, there is in fact the faith.
But I write this thinking perhaps you will have some thoughts which might help. But don’t feel you have to have any. I don’t wish to treat you as a spiritual irrigation system. But your insights have helped me gain perspective at past times.
[16 – Merton teaching: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/17050815818/sizes/k/ ]
Merton’s reply was the most helpful letter I’ve ever received. His theme was about being hopeful in hopeless times:
Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.
You are fed up with words, and I don’t blame you. I am nauseated by them sometimes. I am also, to tell the truth, nauseated by ideals and with causes. This sounds like heresy, but I think you will understand what I mean. It is so easy to get engrossed with ideas and slogans and myths that in the end one is left holding the bag, empty, with no trace of meaning left in it. And then the temptation is to yell louder than ever in order to make the meaning be there again by magic. Going through this kind of reaction helps you to guard against this. Your system is complaining of too much verbalizing, and it is right.
The big results are not in your hands or mine, but they suddenly happen, and we can share in them; but there is no point in building our lives on this personal satisfaction, which may be denied us and which after all is not that important.
The next step in the process is for you to see that your own thinking about what you are doing is crucially important. You are probably striving to build yourself an identity in your work, out of your work and your witness. You are using it, so to speak, to protect yourself against nothingness, annihilation. That is not the right use of your work. All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love. Think of this more, and gradually you will be free from the need to prove yourself, and you can be more open to the power that will work through you without your knowing it.
The great thing after all is to live, not to pour out your life in the service of a myth: and we turn the best things into myths. If you can get free from the domination of causes and just serve Christ’s truth, you will be able to do more and will be less crushed by the inevitable disappointments. Because I see nothing whatever in sight but much disappointment, frustration and confusion….
The real hope, then, is not in something we think we can do but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see. If we can do His will, we will be helping in this process. But we will not necessarily know all about it beforehand….[i]
[17 – Merton in shed: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/16618373323/sizes/k/ ]
In the years following, what became known as “A Letter to a Young Activist” (the headline it was given when published in The Catholic Worker) was often reprinted and translated. It captures the heart of Merton’s advice to anyone in a burned-out state or close to it.
The key sentence was “Do not depend on the hope of results.” But what a challenge that is. Any action one embarks on is undertaken with the hope of positive, tangible results. One must have hope that what you do isn’t a waste of time. But to the extent you depend on some degree of success, your capacity to persevere is undermined.
In his letter, Merton described peacemaking as “an apostolic work.” Before receiving Merton’s letter it had never occurred to me that peace work is of its nature an apostolic work — quite a dignity but also quite a responsibility. It was not an altogether comforting linkage. Few if any of Christ’s Apostles died of old age.
Merton challenged me “to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.” But it’s not easy getting used to the idea that what you are doing is probably going to crash against a stone wall. The shift from focusing not on quickly measurable results but rather on the value, rightness and truth of the work one is doing requires a major shift of perception.
One of the most helpful aspects of Merton’s letter was his stress on keeping one’s focus on 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.” I know that sentence by heart and recite it often. It sums up what might be called incarnational theology. Words and slogans and theories are not nearly as important as how we see and relate to each other — the relationships we build — and not only with friends but with adversaries. In the context of peace work, it suggests getting to know, as best we can, the people and cultures being targeted by our weapons.
“You are fed up with words,” Merton wrote. He was himself, he confessed, “nauseated by ideals and with causes.” Ideas and slogans can so easily get the upper hand that you lose sight of what Merton called “the human dimension.” Of course social movements require words and often use slogans to sum up goals. These have their place, but it’s secondary. In a talk to his student novices, Merton — himself a master of words — once said, “He who follows words is destroyed.” Like arrows, words point but they are not the target. One of Merton’s main contributions to many people who were involved in peace efforts wasn’t his words, however brilliant, but the witness given by his monastic life in which prayer and meditation were integral elements of every activity. Each day had a liturgical and sacramental foundation.
[18 – Merton peace retreat: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/48243562091/sizes/k/ ]
A major point in his letter was that “the big results are not in your hands or mine, but they suddenly happen … 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.” Personal satisfaction is certainly nice but isn’t the goal. Martin Luther King didn’t live to see the realization of his dream. Merton didn’t live to see the end of the war in Vietnam. But it’s not important that we personally get to see the results of our efforts, however worthy our goals may be.
Merton was suggesting what I have come to think of as a cathedral builder’s mentality. Notre Dame cathedral in Paris took nearly two centuries to complete — and now, due to fire, is being rebuilt once again. But even in cases in which construction took less than a century, those who helped lay the foundations of a great cathedral knew they had slight chance of living to see their building roofed. Perhaps they imagined their grandchildren or great-grandchildren might have that satisfaction.
In place of being dominated by causes, Merton advised, all that was needed was just to serve Christ’s truth. It is finally Christ’s truth that matters. Trying to live within Christ’s truth certainly doesn’t mean we will live a life without failure. There is a reason that Christianity’s main symbol is the cross. But it may help prevent frustration and disappointment from becoming despair.
The ultimate hope, Merton concluded, isn’t in something we think we can do but in God who is weaving gold out of the straw of our imperfect efforts, but doing this in ways we cannot see at the time.
[19 – icon of St Silouan: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/50937889653/sizes/z/ ]
One of the modern Orthodox saints who was admired by both Merton and Dorothy Day was Silouan the Athonite, a Russian peasant who came to the monastic peninsula of Mount Athos as a place of repentance after having very nearly killed a neighbor earlier in his life. He felt it was only by miraculous providence that he had not become a murderer. He famously said, “Keep you mind in hell and despair not.” I suggest it’s a sentence worth memorizing. It can help us remain hopeful in seemingly hopeless times. Yes, we are living in a world that for many people and creatures, ourselves included, is a kind of hell, a world in which there is less and less room in the inn and less and less room at the table, a world that provides many occasions to despair. But in fact every time our heart beats, every time we notice beauty, every time we notice beauty, every time we respond with love rather than fear, that moment becomes a Paschal moment.
[20 – Anastasis icon — Christ freeing the prisoners of hell: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/8386667037/sizes/l/ ]
There is an icon that presents our situation very accurately. It’s the main Paschal icon of the Orthodox Church. Its subject is the harrowing of hell. It shows Christ, after his crucifixion and before his resurrection, standing on the shattered gates of hell while freeing the parents of the human race, Adam and Eve, from their tombs. Meanwhile defeated Satan, the warden of hell, falls into a starless, bottomless night amidst a shower of broken locks and useless keys. The icon’s message is simple. It may not seem to us in our daily struggles and suffering, but the rule of death is over. “Risen from the dead are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
[21 – whole earth photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/32802208118/sizes/l/ ]
Let me end with a photo of where we live taken on the 11th of July 1969 by an astronaut on his way to the Moon. Hold it in your hearts. We all live at the same address. We’re all in each other’s care.
 Letter dated 21 February 1966; full text in my book, The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers (Obis Books).
[i] Letter to Jim Forest, 21 February 1966; The Hidden Ground of Love, 294-97.