Searching for Kitezh: an interview with Alexander Ogorodnikov

interview by Jim Forest

Alexander Ogorodnikov with Fr Sergie Ovsiannilov, rector of the Russian Orthodox parish of St Nicholas of Myra in Amsterdam (photo: Jim Forest)

Alexander Ogorodnikov was born in 1950. At age 17, he was a lathe operator at a clock factory. Three years later he began philosophy studies at the University of the Urals in Sverdlovsk, only to be expelled in 1971 for “a dissident way of thinking incompatible with the title of the Komsomol member and student.” He then went to Moscow where he studied at the Institute of Cinematography. He founded the Christian Seminar in 1974. From 1978 until 1987 he was a prisoner, finally released at the order of Gorbachev. Since his return to Moscow, he founded the Christian-Democratic Union of Russia and the Christian Mercy Society, a group assisting the hungry and homeless with a special concern for children and adolescents. The following conversation with him was recorded in Amsterdam on 25 April 1999 following the Liturgy at St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church. Alexander began by recalling his time as a prisoner at Perm 36.

Perm 36 was one of the worst prisons in the Soviet Union. Quite a number of famous prisoners were there, Anatoly Schiransky for example.

Why were you regarded as so dangerous?

It goes back to starting the Christian Seminar in the 70’s. Now there is a fresh interest in what happened at that time — last year there was a television program about it. They united participants of the seminary from 20 years ago, when I was jailed and the Seminar was crushed after five years of life. The television producers wanted to see what had happened to us after 20 years — were we still loyal to the ideals of that time? Sadly, we see that many participants got lost in heresy and left the Church. Listening to my old friends, I realize freshly how difficult it is to get rid of the Communist system. Although 1991 was the official end of the Soviet Union, from the moral point of view it still has not ended. I compare it to a corpse which is decomposing and the poison it creates is everywhere. We carry it in ourselves. It is very important to stress this fact because people tend to underestimate it, and to underestimate the tragedy of Russia in this century.

When the Bolsheviks took over, they fought the Church not only because it was an institution of the Czarist regime, but because the Church was storming heaven and they were at war with heaven. Did you know that in 1923 there was really a trial — a revolutionary tribunal that brought God to court? God Himself was tried! Lunacharsky and Trotsky were the two commissars who led the process, and during this process they sentenced God to death. This was not a carnival — it was absolutely serious. God and the Church had to be crushed. In many of his letters Lenin stressed the importance of getting rid of priests. The whole fight against the church and religion was carefully planned and very fierce. In 1932 there was the 17th party congress which not only produced a five-year plan for the economy but a five-year plan for achieving an atheist society. The plan was that by 1935 the last Church would be shut down, and that by 1936 even the word “God” would have disappeared from the language!

I won’t describe for you all the horrors and all the tortures, and how many bishops, priests, monks and ordinary believers were buried alive or killed in other ways. What I want to stress is that to a great extent the Communists succeeded in converting Russia to Communism. And yet for all their success, hundreds of thousands of people defended the Church and became martyrs and the Church was not destroyed. The Church displayed a unique, quiet belief. Many priests went underground. In the 30’s, there were only three bishops still not in prison. Probably in the whole Soviet Union in the 30’s, just before the war, only 50 churches were still open. Thanks to this war, the fate of the Church shifted. People returned to belief. Stalin invited Patriarch Sergei to come from his small house on the edge of Moscow to live in the former embassy of the German Ambassador — one day in a log cabin with no telephone, the next in a mansion in the heart of Moscow. Many churches were re-opened, and two theological schools.

Still, though the church had survived, when I was a boy we had no living contact whatsoever with the church. None. Most of our generation came from atheistic families. One of my grandfathers was a commissar who died for the ideals of the revolution. My other grandfather has a little different story, a different fate. He was an officer in the Czarist army during the First World War. His orderly converted him to Protestantism — it was a kind of very primitive protest belief against the official Orthodox state Church. Later in his life, when he was 37, they tried to arrest my grandfather. By then he was a school director. He was warned by a KGB member and fled into the woods. For two years my mother went into the woods to bring him food unnoticed. Because of that, he survived. Nonetheless, I was raised as a normal Soviet child.

Where was that?

I was born in 1950 in Christopol, a town in the former Kazan government. We were raised in such a way that by the time we were 14 or 15 years old, we were ready to give our lives for Communist ideals. We were convinced that all these churches, which were only attended by old women, would sooner or later disappear together with their babushkas. Yet finally, in our search for true belief — true Truth — we began to understand that Marxism was a lie.

How did you go from being ready to give your life for Communism to seeing Marxism as a lie?

In our school, there was a map of the world with flags marking every new country converted to Communism. We were singing revolutionary Cuban songs, and we were ready to die for Cuba or for any of these countries. How we moved from that attitude to understanding that the Marxist ideology was a lie is something of a mystery. In the beginning it was just a kind of clash with reality, because we looked at real life and saw it didn’t match all those high ideals we were taught. First we thought, “Well, we live in the provinces — maybe it takes a little longer for all these ideals to reach us,” though later, in Moscow, I could see the very same problems. Finally I was expelled from university because of my growing doubts about materialistic ideology.

So little by little people like me became critics of Marxism and of the Soviet system. Protest became a way of life and also a way of survival in the system of lies. Also little by little, through irony and criticism, we ended up in a kind of vacuum — with only criticism and irony, you end up with denying everything. We didn’t actually have any other choice because we hardly had any information. We were boiling in our own soup. Russian literature offered a kind of revelation for us when we came to know it. However you have to understand that the way Russian literature was taught in the schools was so perverted that you came to hate it. But thanks at last to Russian literature, we finally got a little, not understanding, but a feeling that somewhere there is God. Through our searching, we understood that God exists. This literary understanding of God was more abstract, like as creator or creative force or power, a bag of ideas. We had far to go from this abstract idea of the existence of God to finally reach the living Christ.

By the time I had been expelled from the university I was attending in the Urals, I managed to get to Moscow and enter the film institute. It was a kind of miracle that I was accepted. In that period one of my fellow students gave me a copy of the Gospels, though for a long time I didn’t read it. I couldn’t even touch it. The guy I shared my room with kept his money hidden in the Bible because it was a book that nobody dared to touch.

One day, as part of our lessons, we were invited to a hidden place where forbidden films were kept by the film institute. You had to go train to get there.

By this time the New Testament was the only book I possessed I hadn’t read, but that day I had it with me. There on the train and I opened the book and started reading. Immediately I had this very strange feeling. On one side my mind knew or told me that this is just a legend or fairy tale. But from my heart there arose a different feeling that became stronger and stronger that this is actually the truth. I couldn’t rationally understand that feeling. At that moment the conductor came into our carriage. Of course we didn’t have a ticket. We were all protesting students — the film school was more or less the only place where dissent was tolerated. The way we dealt with these situations when we didn’t have a ticket usually was to start arguing with the man, saying things like, “Don’t touch the guy because he is in Nirvana, and if you touch him he will die, and you will be responsible.”

For the first time I did something that rationally I couldn’t understand. I took out my money and wanted to pay. And wanted to pay also the fine for all of us. It was very strange, but I understood that the Gospels had done this to me.

At last we arrived and we walked through the woods towards the restricted cinema, first passing through several security posts. The first film we were shown was “The Gospel According to Saint Matthew.” It was real shock for me. It helped me overcome all my irony and to accept the Savior, Jesus Christ. The background of the film was that Passolini, an Italian Communist, had who stayed some night in some hotel, had the Bible on the bed next to him, read St. Matthew’s Gospel, and decided he wanted to make a film that would simply show every scene from this Gospel. He decided not to use professional actors. He found people on the streets. Jesus Christ was played by a Spanish student he happened to meet. After seeing this film, I couldn’t he silent. I started preaching to my colleagues. They were amazed because I had been such a cynical man, and here I was promoting the film as being the truth.

Thanks to this film, I became a Christian and searched for a Christian way of life. I was a Christian outside the Church. I didn’t know what the Church was. I took my Bible with me and went to look for people thinking similar thoughts. The people I met became the core of that Christian Seminary. This was the summer of 1973. We felt that we were missing something, that there was a mystery hidden somewhere, but we couldn’t touch it. The Church was far from everything we knew, but finally I made a big effort and went to church.

It was a big church near the center of Moscow. I was amazed it was so crowded. It amazed me that so many of those attending the Liturgy were from the intelligencia. Despite there being so many people, I was able to walk toward the altar right through the crowd. A saw a bishop was celebrating. I didn’t understand what exactly was going on. Almost everyone was crying. I couldn’t understand why, but I was also crying. And when the bishop came out to serve communion, a certain power pulled me toward the chalice. It so happens, without thinking about fasting, I hadn’t eaten the whole day. Even the days before, it so happens, I had been fasting. It was by accident. And I received Communion. After that I found out that it was Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, the bishop in London, who gave me communion. He happened to be in Moscow at that moment.

Were you already baptized?

My grandmother had arranged my baptism secretly when I as a child. My father, a Communist, didn’t know.

What happened after your first communion that day in Moscow?

My friends also started going to church and participating in church life. But we encountered a new problem. It seemed to us that the church as an institution was not ready to accept us. The priests were afraid of us, and not only the priests. I went to a church in Kazan and when I entered, an old babushka tried to push me out. She thought that since I was a young man, I must be a representative of the government or the Konsomol [the young Communist association] who had come to provoke them in order to shut down the Church. At that time young people did not go to Church. She was protecting their church against me, or my kind. It was not easy to stay! But when the old women saw that I went to confession and I received communion, they all cried. At the end they all came and they wanted to kiss me and thank me. It was a powerful experience — they saw a new generation coming into the church.

We young people found ourselves in a very complex situation. It was difficult to find a place for ourselves inside the church. There was no living community, and no education. We were trying to find out what were the possibilities, what could we do in this world as Christians, as Orthodox Christians.

In this kind of schizophrenic situation, we could only pray while we were in church, and then it was like leaving our belief in a kind of waiting room. It was difficult for us to understand because the reason we came to church was because it was the truth, but outside the church we had to go on living as Soviet citizens. This being torn apart was very difficult. We came to church because here was the True Light. That’s why we started the Christian Seminar, because we couldn’t live with this church which was silent.

the submerged mystical city of Kitezh; painting by Ilya Glazunov

The Seminar helped us to start a living Christian community, and also to educate us in Orthodox belief. Then we started to travel all over Russia in what we called our search for the invisible town of Kitezh. Kitezh is a fabled place miraculously preserved under the waters of the Svetloyar Lake where the old way of life and worship has continued without pause. According to the legend, occasionally Kitezh rises from the water and appears to the devout. To “search for Kitezh” is a way of speaking in metaphors about the search for holiness. Little by little we were discovering the spiritual life in Russia. It was hidden, but it started to open to us. We didn’t want to remain just a small intellectual circle of Orthodox youth. We found monks and nuns who helped us. Now today we can openly talk about this, how in the Ukraine, at the Pachaiev monastery, they hid us from KGB at a time when the KGB was looking for us. And they helped us with other ways. They gave us money and helped us buy a house for the Seminar. We declared that house to be a kind of free territory, not part of the Soviet Union, a liberated territory. Of course the authorities paid us back and they declared us to be a forbidden zone. We were actually provoked, persecuted.

One day I was called to Moscow by the KGB. Five strong men from the KGB put me in a car and driven out of the city. The car stopped in the middle of the forest and I was thrown out of the car. They put me against the car, and encircled me, holding guns in their hands. At that moment, someone in a black suit came toward us out of the forest, walking in our direction very slowly. And the KGB men opened their circle and stood to the side. The man in black said, “You are free.” But when I tried to get through the circle of the KGB men, they wouldn’t let me pass. So I said to the man in black, “I can’t go, I can’t get out.” He made a gesture, and then I was able to force my way out with my shoulders. And I walked away, all the time waiting for a shot in my back. I didn’t know where I was — a very dark wood.

Then behind me I heard footsteps. The KGB men again surrounded me, one on the left, one on the right, one in front, one in back. They said, me “Now we will look for a place where we can shoot you.” I understood that this is the blind force of evil, which in this world you can never hide from. They brought me to a certain place, then one of them took out his gun and said, “Get down on your knees.” I responded, “I kneel only in front of God.” Then he fired a shot, but over my head. After that he said, “We don’t want any new martyrs.”

After this incident, for a certain time they left the Christian Seminar in peace, but before long once again they were looking for ways to frighten us. There were times when we had to flee over roofs. We had to invent all kinds of conspiracies, not because we were hiding guns or narcotics, but spiritual literature. So we were actually forced to behave in that way.

Yet all this time we were living with the constant feeling of the presence of God. There were many miracles that saved us. But finally there came a moment when I was arrested and was brought to Lubianka, the KGB headquarters in Moscow. They told me, “It is time you put an end to behaving as a hero. You have one month, we give you the possibility to leave, get out.” I said “Why should I leave my country? I was born here, why should I leave?” They started shouting at me, “We give you one month. If you don’t emigrate in that one month, then we will arrest you and you will never get out again, you will die in prison. You will die forgotten and deserted by all.”

In those years it was almost impossible to emigrate. Only 1,500 Jews emigrated in one year. What we understood is that once you were willing to speak, you had to be willing to pay the price. We had to prove that Christianity is not an abstract idea, but that it was real life. And so we decided that I would go to prison. After me 13 others were arrested. There was a kind of systematic arrest of every new leader that came after me. I must say that all of us behaved very bravely in prison. Nobody surrendered.

Before I was imprisoned, I knew that I would have a difficult time in prison — I liked being free, I liked good food, I liked all these things. I was afraid. I thought I would not be able to lead a worthy life in prison. In prison you have constantly to fight for your own rights and for the rights of the other prisoners. But finally when I was imprisoned, I discovered my own depths, and not only inside of myself, but in every man. This was such an elevation, it lifted me spiritually, but also it gave me strength. There are many stories I could tell you, but I’ll tell just one.

This was during my stay at the Habarosk prison. I was being held in a large cell shared with many others. It was the plan of the KGB on this occasion to break me with the help of the real criminals. The door was closed. I heard the lock slam in place, leaving me with about forty men, half naked, all with tattoos.

As I entered the cell, I said, “Peace be with you.” It was strange for them to hear these words — they looked at me in amazement. At that time I did not wear prison clothing — I still had my own clothes. And they said, “Take your clothes off,” and they threw some old rags at my feet, which I had to put on.

I answered, “I can give away my own clothes only to those who really need them, not if you force me to.” They started yelling at me, and they were at the point of violence. The leader of this group, a man sitting on a top bunk, said, “You will be sleeping near the toilets” — the place where the worst criminals sleep, the pederasts. You find this pecking order in every prison. The pederasts are considered subhuman. Most of them are not real criminals, but victims themselves. What happens to them is that they are violated, used sexually as a punishment.

The men in the cell were getting ready to attack me. Then one of them asked me, “You said ‘Peace be with you.’ Are you a Christian?” And I said, “Yes.” He replied, “We heard that if a Christian prays to his God, then a miracle occurs. So please prove to us that you are a Christian and not just somebody trying to make an impression.” In prison it is very important that you take responsibility for everything you say. And I accepted this challenge.

They answered, “We are the scum of the earth, everything is negative as far as we are concerned. We have nothing, not even cigarettes to smoke. And our ears have become thick because of not smoking. So if you really are a Christian, please pray to your God that we get something. Pray to your God that He will bring us something and then we will believe that He exists.”

I said, “I’m convinced that the miracle will happen, but for this we have to pray all together.” That was my condition. I went into the center, or in the middle of the room. And I made them all get up from their beds, because it is our tradition to stand in front of God as a sign of respect. And they all got up. They were all smiling and they thought it was a kind of game, and they would beat me up in the end. So I said, “Please listen carefully to the words of the prayer. And those who are able to, repeat them. And the other who was not able to repeat the words, just listen.” And I started to pray.

After one minute I started to feel by the skin of my back that something was going on. You have to realize that in this atmosphere of hatred and cynicism, and neglect, for the first time these high words of prayer were heard. A devout atmosphere of silence came into the room. And when I ended the prayer, the smiles from their faces had gone, and they were full with a new feeling. It was the first time in their lives that they heard these words, and it probably had touched their hearts. And in this complete silence I showed them with my hands that they could sit down. And at that exact moment, a small window in the door was opened, and cigarettes were thrown through the hole in the door.

Who would believe God can show Himself with cigarettes.

We don’t know His ways. Before the prayer I had told them smoking is a sin, but that God will show this miracle to show His love. Their Creator loves them despite their sins, and because of this love, He will show his miracle even in this way, not withstanding that the behavior is sinful.

I tell you this story just so you will know how my heart was burning when I was in prison. I understood it was not an ordinary imprisonment — it was a kind of mission. And I tried to make something out of this. Finally, when the KGB or authorities understood how dangerous it was to keep me together with other prisoners, I was isolated completely. And then too I understood how wise that was. Because while I was living in the world, my prayer was not strong enough, and I did not have the peace to think. I was very much involved fighting the system, and in a certain sense this influenced my spiritual life. And I understood it was necessary for me to be in isolation. Of course it was very difficult for me — I had no contact with priests, I couldn’t receive communion.

When you say it was necessary, do you mean it was God’s will?

Yes. For instance one day I felt that I absolutely needed to confess, and I started to pray to several saints, and when I directed my words to St. Seraphim, I had this physical feeling that an epitrachelion was touching my head. And literally this heavy feeling was lifted from my heart, and I felt as if I was born again. And I think that I had the strongest experience of gratitude I had during isolation. And that is the reason why sometimes I long to be in isolation again.

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translation from Russian: Kathi Hansen-Love; transcription of the tape: Mitchell Goodman.

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O Heavenly King: reflections on purity of heart

chapel at New Skete

(lecture given by Jim Forest at New Skete Monastery in Cambridge, NY on 4 October 2010)

What I would like to do is take a closer look at one of our most-used prayers, “O heavenly king,” giving special attention to the words, “cleanse us from all impurity.” But first please stand up for a moment and let’s say the “O heavenly king” prayer together, using the New Skete translation:

O heavenly king, consoler, spirit of truth, everywhere present and filling all things: treasury of blessings and giver of life, come dwell within us, and cleanse us of every stain, and save our souls, O good one.

Not many words — less than forty. This is one of the oldest Christian prayers. It’s a prayer especially associated with Pentecost — the descent of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, on the Apostles — when at last Christ’s followers understood what they had witnessed and what Christ had prepared for them to do. It’s a prayer most Orthodox Christians know by heart, used in the home even in the shortest offices of morning and evening prayer. It’s also placed at the beginning of the Office of Oblation that precedes the Eucharistic Liturgy. We say and sing the words so often that they recite themselves. I am guessing that all of us who use the prayer have moments when one or another phrase hits us like an arrow shot into the center of our heart. Because it’s aprayer connected with every liturgy as well as morning and evening prayer, it is a prayer of prayers, a prayer that creates community. This is a prayer that puts us all on the same page.

The prayer does two things.

First it expresses the focus of all our prayers. It names names. In addressing the Holy Trinity, we are reminded that the Holy Trinity, the community of three Persons within the One God, is the focus and center of our lives. This is what our Christian lives are all about.

Second, it’s a fervent appeal that sums up all we are seeking. We want God to come and abide in us, to cleanse us from every impurity and to save our souls. It’s a prayer for a deep healing. We cannot cleanse ourselves or save our own souls, not without God’s help.

The first part can be broken down into three points: The first phrase — “O heavenly king, consoler, spirit of truth” — answers the question: Who are we praying to? The second — “everywhere present and filling all things” — answers the question: where are you? The third — “treasury of blessings and giver of life” — answers the questions: what do you do?

The beginning of the prayer reminds us that we are not people lacking a ruler. We have a ruler — a heavenly king — to whom we are uniquely responsible and whose demands on us have absolute priority. God has given us — not laws, in the usual sense — but a few commandments.

For example there is the Sermon on the Mount. It opens with the Beatitudes, which the Russian Church refers to as “the commandments of blessedness.” The Beatitudes are in fact a very brief summary of the Gospel. Each Beatitude has to do with aspects of living a Paschal life — that is a life not shaped by death. One way of reading each Beatitude is to use the phrase “Risen from the dead” at the beginning of each verse — for example, “Risen from the dead are the poor in spirit.”

There is also the command to forgive, and not just once but seventy times seven. Even once is rarely easy.

And there are the paired commandments — to love God (not as easy as it sounds) and to love our neighbor (much harder than it sounds). The commandment to love God is welded to the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. In the Gospel it is made clear that the neighbor referred to is not only a friendly person living next door with whom we sometimes have pleasant conversations and who might even go to the same church we do. The neighbor the commandment refers to is whomever God puts in front of us. We are not talking about relationships of mutual affection but of proximity, however brief, temporary and unsought: the beggar on the street, the atheist who despises Christianity root and branch, the fellow Christian who makes us run for cover, the politician who takes stands we find appalling, the person who just stole my wallet, the wounded stranger lying at the side of the road, the person who threatens my life or the lives of people dear to me.

We have a king and, if we are serious about calling ourselves Christians, we are people attempting to live under his rule. But it’s hard. We are sailors almost always sailing against powerful winds, the winds of our own insecurity, fears and selfishness, the winds of unhealed wounds and bitter memories, the winds of disbelief, the winds of politics, of propaganda, of slogans, of national identity, the winds of what we sense we should say and think in order to get ahead with our lives.

Our king is a heavenly king — a king, that is, not of this world — and yet a king who loves this world, who gives himself for the life of the world, a king who heals the sick of soul and body, a king who feeds the hungry, a king who forgives sins and saves the lives of sinners, a king who weeps, a king who prays for the forgiveness of those who are crucifying him, a king who hides himself in the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the homeless, the sick and the imprisoned, a king who regards our response to the least person as the ultimate criteria of salvation. Not your usual king.

Our king is someone whom we address as “consoler.” In the original Greek text, the word is “parakletos,” which can mean strengthener, advocate, counselor, consoler, encourager, comforter, helper, defender. In fact no single English word is fully adequate. Here at New Skete “consoler” has been chosen. The English word most often used in translation is “comforter,” which comes from a Latin root, “comfortare,” meaning to strengthen. God offers us simultaneously both strength for the struggle and consolation.

On the theme of strength, I often think of a remark made by Father Sergei Ovsiannikov, the rector of my parish in Amsterdam: “It is a question whether a Christian ought to a soldier, but it is obligatory for every Christian to be a warrior.” This is what Christ our King tells us when he says “I come not to bring peace but a sword.” This is not an order for us to go out and buy a sword. He neither possessed or used deadly weapons and reprimanded Peter when he used a sword against one of the people who had come to arrest Jesus. But every word Christ spoke and every action he performed cuts like a sword. Saint Paul describes the ideal Christian as a kind of a soldier who bears only one weapon, “the sword of truth.” In western iconography you can always recognize Paul not only because he is bald but because he carries a sword, a visual metaphor of his wielding the sword of truth. To use a phrase from one of the early theologians, Clement of Alexandria, we belong “to an army that sheds no blood.” We are on a battlefield but we seek no one’s death. We seek only to further our own incomplete conversion and to be made useful to God in the conversion of others.

God’s Holy Spirit is “the Spirit of Truth,” a phrase that often reminds me of the saying, “Speak the truth and shame the devil.” And there is the Russian proverb, “Eat bread and salt and speak the truth.” What a challenge it is to know the truth, speak the truth and to live a truthful life. To speak truthfully is something much more than saying what you sincerely believe on some topic, though that can sometimes be hard enough. Just to know the truth about simple things is not easy. How many innocent people are in prison today for crimes they didn’t commit, found guilty and sentenced because a witness mistakenly identified them as the guilty party. The witness gave his or her testimony in all sincerity but was in error and the wrong person now spends long years in prison as a result. Sincerity does not equal truthfulness. One can be sincerely wrong.

How great a challenge it is to live a life shaped by truth — to long to know the truth and to struggle day after day to free oneself from errors, many of which seem to enter our lives through the air we breathe. Sometimes atheists are braver than believers in this regard. To use the word “comfort” in its modern sense, it isn’t so comfortable living in a universe that has no actual meaning, held together by no glue other than gravity, with your consciousness and being ending forever the moment you die. On the other hand, in our time atheism can also be act of conformity — it is currently fashionable to be an atheist, a way of signaling that you are one of the bright ones — just as in other times it was often nothing more than an act of conformity to be a Christian.

Answering the question “where are you, God?”, we next have the phrase “everywhere present and filling all things.” We might sometimes wish, like Jonah, for God to be anywhere but here, but God cannot be unpresent. Light cannot hide itself in darkness. Even in hell God is not absent — it’s impossible. Hell is what we experience when we attempt to be absent from God, that is not to love. As Bernanos put it, “Hell is not to love anymore.” God is everywhere present. A well-made church does everything possible help make us aware of that presence and open our hearts to it, but God is not less present in your kitchen or in a bus or in prison or in a place where people are enduring torture. And not only is God present but all creation is filled with that presence. We may use what we mine from the earth to make deadly weapons, tools that remind us of hell, but the materials weapons are made from should remind us of God. “All creation sings Your glory,” we say in one of the evening prayers. All that God creates has a sacramental potential for us. All we need to bring to the encounter is a sense of wonder.

Answering the questions “What do you do? How do we know you?”, we address God as the “treasury of blessings and the giver of life.”

Who isn’t interested in treasure? As a boy I used to make treasure maps and imagine myself a pirate. I’ve outgrown that fantasy, but who doesn’t seek a treasure of blessings? Adam may be our legendary forefather, but Aladdin is one of our most popular role models. There must be a magic lantern somewhere, if only I could find it. But the treasury of blessings referred to in this prayer does not require a magic lantern and will not lead anyone to sacks of gold. The blessing referred to here is a life in communion, first of all with God, but also with each other. Connection. What a blessing it is to become capable of seeing the image of God in another human being. The more often it happens, the happier we are. To see God in others helps us to see God. It is a foretaste of heaven. It is being able to love, to experience and share in God’s love for others. The blessing of all blessings is to be aware of God’s presence — not the idea of God being present, but being alive and awake in that presence. Being unable to see the divine presence in others is a kind of blindness, worse than simply not seeing. I remember Dorothy Day saying, “Those who cannot see God in the poor are atheists indeed.”

Only now comes what we are actually asking for in this short prayer: “come and abide in us and cleanse of every impurity and save our souls, O good one.”

One could make a list a mile long of various impurities that most of us struggle with. I want to concentrate on only three: tribalism, fear, and living in a hurry. (I limit myself to three on the advice of Metropolitan Kallistos.)

Tribalism first. One aspect of our damaged human nature is a strong tribal tendency, bringing with it the illusion of separateness. While the life of anyone in this room could be saved by blood donations given by a Latin American Aztec, an Alaskan Inuit or an African Zulu, we prefer to recognize ourselves as chiefly linked with those who share our nationality, language and primary stories, or — when tribalism has a religious character — with those who share a similar ritual life, a similar religious vocabulary. Within our tribal and sub-tribal boundaries, we are willing to make notable sacrifices, even to risk and give our lives if there is no honorable alternative. Yet the tribe excludes far more than it includes. We see ourselves as radically and everlastingly separate from the vast majority, though in reality — if we mean what we’re saying when we pray the “Our Father” — they are our brothers and sisters, equally descended with us from those mysterious first humans we call Adam and Eve, and equally the object of God’s love and mercy. There is a rabbinic commentary that says the reason God made only one Adam and one Eve was that so no one could regard himself as being of higher descent, or being of separate descent.

We even have tribalism in the Orthodox Church. I’ve been in Orthodox churches where the unspoken question was, “Why are you here? Your ancestors did not come from the place where our ancestors were born. You are not welcome.” At a 19th century church council presided over by the Patriarch of Constantinople, the nationalizing or tribalizing of Christianity was called Ethnophyletism — literally “love of the tribe” — and declared a heresy, but it’s a heresy that thrives to this day.

Keeping the “other” at a distance is one of the hardest impurities for God to remove from us because we are so intensely attached to tribal identity. We are reluctant even to recognize the problem.

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

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

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

This insight is put even more simply by one of the saints of the desert, Abba Dorotheos of Gaza; “As you come closer to your neighbor, you come closer to God. As you go further from your neighbor, you go further from God.”

Then let us consider fear, fear being the primary force restraining us from acts of love.

If we would sum up the angelic message in a few words, it would be this: “Be not afraid.” But most of us are polluted by fear, and perhaps never more so than since the two towers of the World Trade Center fell. Back in 2001, many people, including to his credit President Bush, went out of their way to make clear that it wasn’t Muslims who were the enemy, only fanatics who use their religion as an excuse to commit murder. No one was talking in those days about banning Muslim cultural centers or mosques. But recently such things have become burning issues. It’s no longer just the Islamic fanatics who are the problem. For many people it’s Islam itself. For them, every Muslim is under suspicion. You even hear people say Islam is not a religion, it’s an ideology. Some say the Koran has a lot in common with than Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf. While only a few upright citizens want to get rid of freedom of religion as a basic right, there are many people who make clear that it’s not a right they want practiced locally. There are devout Christians who now object to identifying Muslims as descendants of Abraham and “people of the Book,” that is a monotheistic people who have in common with Jews and Christians worship of one God, for in failing to recognize Jesus as more than a prophet, it’s argued, Muslims fail to recognize or worship the true God. One even finds Christians who have decided Islam is the Antichrist. The pope, who used to be cast for that role by generations of anti-Catholics, has now been demoted to a slightly less satanic part because we can only have one Antichrist at a time.

If you want an example of a very different way of relating to Muslims, consider Saint Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai Desert. This is one of the oldest monasteries in the world, a place of uninterrupted prayer and worship since its founding in the sixth century. If you look attentively at photos of the monastery, close to the monastery church you will notice a bright, white tower. This is the minaret of the only mosque  in the world that exists within a monastic enclosure. The Fatimid Mosque, still used by the monks’ Bedouin grounds-keepers and neighbors, was originally a hospice for pilgrims, but in the year 1106, more than nine hundred years ago, was converted to its present use. It must be one of the oldest mosques in the world. No doubt the monk’s hospitality to Muslims helps explain how it survived all these centuries in what became Muslim territory and became the safe harbor for a number of the oldest icons and biblical manuscripts to survive from Christianity’s first millennium. It’s a striking witness to a genuinely Christian response to conflict in a non-fear-driven manner.

Fear drives so many of our choices. In his essay “The Root of War is Fear,” written nearly half a century ago, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton noted that it is not so much the fear people have of each other “as the fear they have of everything. It is not merely that they do not trust one another; they do not even trust themselves…. Only love — which means humility — can exorcize the fear that is at the root of war.” This was an essay which I mailed to my father, a Marxist, who soon after responded with appreciation but said he could not agree. “I greatly respect Thomas Merton and am amazed to see so famous a Catholic priest opposing war, but I have to disagree with his view that the root of war is fear,” he said. “In my opinion, the root of war is bad economics.” Years passed without either of us mentioning Merton’s essay. I only discovered he had continued thinking about it when, a decade later, I received a letter in which he told me, “I still think about what Father Merton said and want you to know that I have come to realize that the root of bad economics is fear.”

Not only war and social injustice but any failure in moral life, private or collective, often has its deepest roots in fear. Fear of rejection by our peers, with all its potentially dire consequences, is an extraordinarily powerful force in life, far more potent for most of us than any commandments of Christ or the witness of the saints.

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

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

My third and last point has to do with the problem of living in a hurry. In our society, at least for those of us living outside a monastic community, this is a major obstacle to the purification of the heart. We’re way too busy. We often feel like prisoners of rush-hour traffic. While busy-ness was sometimes a problem to our ancestors, few of them could imagine a culture living at such high speed as our own, any more than they could imagine the noise levels we take for granted.

I recall an experience I had during the late sixties when I was accompanying Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who was visiting the United States. He was about to give a lecture on the war in Vietnam at the University of Michigan. Waiting for the elevator doors to open, I noticed my brown-robed companion gazing at the electric clock above the elevator doors. Pointing to the clock, he said to me, “You know, Jim, a few hundred years ago it would not have been a clock, it would have been a crucifix.” He was right. The omnipresent clock has become a religious object in our secular world, one so powerful that it could depose another.

I recall a story related in the journal of Daniel Wheeler, a Quaker engineer who had come to Russia from Britain at the time of Tsar Alexander I to take charge of draining swampland in the Ochta region south of St. Petersburg. Several peasants had been sent to his house with an urgent message. They knocked on the door, got no response, and went inside hoping to find the engineer. First things first, however. As Orthodox Christians, they immediately looked for the icon corner in order to say a prayer. In an austere Quaker house, this proved difficult. There was no vigil lamp and nothing looked like an icon. The peasants knew things were different in other countries. What would a British icon look like? The settled on the mantelpiece clock. Standing before it, they crossed themselves, bowed, and were reciting a prayer — perhaps it was “O heavenly king” — when Daniel Wheeler walked in the door.

Were the peasants mistaken? The ticking icon on the mantle or the quartz watch on the wrist may not often be kissed but surely it is devoutly venerated by “advanced” people in our post-Christian world.

I think too of an experiment in the nineteen-sixties at Princeton. A number of theological students were asked to prepare sermons on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. These were to be taped for grading by a professor of homiletics. It seemed an ordinary assignment, but those responsible for the project were not especially interested what the aspiring pastors would say about the parable. Without their knowledge, the students had been divided into three groups. Some were to be called on a certain morning and told that they could come to the taping room any time in the day; others were to be told that they had to be there within the next few hours; and the rest were to be told that an error had been made — they should have been called with their appointment time the day before and they had to come without delay.

The testers had arranged that, as each student arrived at the building where the sermons were being recorded, they would find someone lying on the ground by a bench near the entrance, seemingly unconscious and in need.

What were the results? Barely a third took the time to stop and do anything for the person lying on the ground. Those who did stop, it was discovered, were mainly the ones who had been told they could come any time that day. They felt they had time, and that sense of having time gave them time to be notice and respond — time for a merciful action. They weren’t ruled by deadlines and over-crowded schedules — the constant problem of many people, not least clergy and lawyers, which perhaps is why Jesus cast a priest and Levite in those unfortunate parts in his parable.

In reality everyone has time, indeed nothing has been given us so equally, but people walking side by side on the same street can have a very different sense of time, so that one of them is so preoccupied by a demanding schedule, or worry or fear or plans for the future, that he hardly notices what is immediately at hand, while the next person, even though living a life full of obligations, is very attentive. Each person has freedom — to pause, to listen, to pray, to be late for an appointment, to change direction. The purification of the heart makes us freer, more capable of hearing and seeing those around us and responding to their needs.

How many people have been unable to follow the example of the Good Samaritan because they glanced at their watch and realized they just didn’t have time?

It can be hard work learning how to get off the speedway inside our heads. The late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, who for many years headed the Russian Orthodox Church in Britain, suggested as a basic exercise of spiritual life sitting down and saying to yourself, “I am seated, I am doing nothing, I will be doing nothing for five minutes,” and then relax. One or two minutes is the most you will be able to endure to begin with. Continually throughout this time realize, “I am here in the presence of God, in my own presence and in the presence of all the furniture that is around me, just still, moving nowhere.” There is of course one more thing you must do: you must decide that within these two minutes, five minutes, which you have assigned to learning that the present exists, you will not be pulled out of it by the telephone, by a knock on the door, or by a sudden upsurge of energy that prompts you to do at once what you have left undone for the past ten years. So you settle down and say, “Here I am,” and you are. If you learn to do this at lost moments in your life when you have learned not to fidget inwardly, but to be completely calm and happy, stable and serene, then extend the few minutes to a longer time and then to a little longer still. [The Essence of Prayer; London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1989; pp 181-182. This section of the book was also published separately as School for Prayer.]

It’s a simple but not easy exercise, a kind of prayer that is both physical and spiritual, in which we ask God to assist up in the purification of our hearts.

The more engaged we are in the world, the more troubled by the destruction of the environment or the murderous violence or war, of injustice and cruelty, of abortion and other forms of killing, of the decay of civil life occurring in so many places, the more we need to take to heart this kind of subversive advice. Whatever we do that has some value stands on the foundation of prayer and stillness before God. Neglect these foundations and the most well-intentioned efforts are likely to go badly off course. Our work will be as impure as our hearts.

Then what is a pure heart? A heart free of possessiveness, a heart capable of mourning, a heart which thirsts for what is right, a merciful heart, a loving heart, a heart not ruled by passions, an undivided heart, a heart aware of the image of God in others, a heart aware of God’s presence in creation. In the words of Saint Isaac of Syria: “A person is truly pure of heart when he considers all human beings as good and no created thing appears impure or defiled to him.”

Purification of the heart is the lifelong struggle of seeking a more God-centered life, a heart illuminated with the presence of the Holy Trinity. Purification of the heart is the moment-to-moment prayerful discipline of seeking to be so aware of God’s presence that no space is left in the heart for fear, hatred, greed, lust or vengeance. Purification of the heart is the striving to place the mind under the rule of the heart, the mind representing the analytic and organizational aspect of consciousness. A pure heart is a heart through which the mercy of God flows toward others. A pure heart is a heart without contempt, a source of hope and patience and compassion. Those with a pure heart are a source of encouragement to others.

The more pure the heart, taught Saint Isaac, the more aware one becomes of the Creator in creation. Isaac laid great stress on ascetic struggle — prayer, fasting, voluntary poverty, generosity to the poor — as the way to purify the heart. A warrior against passions of the world, this seventh-century bishop was passionate in his love of creation, not only the human being made in God’s image but everything which God has graced with life. “What is purity?” Saint Isaac asked. “It is a heart full of compassion for the whole of created nature … And what is a compassionate heart? …. It is a heart which burns for all creation, for the birds, for the beasts, for the devils, for every creature. When he thinks about them, when he looks at them, his eyes fill with tears. So strong, so violent is his compassion … that his heart breaks when he sees the pain and suffering of the humblest creature. That is why he prays with tears at every moment … for all the enemies of truth and for all who cause him harm, that they may be protected and forgiven. He prays even for serpents in the boundless compassion that wells up in his heart after God’s likeness.”

Let’s finish where we started, by standing and saying the prayer together:

O heavenly king, consoler, spirit of truth, everywhere present and filling all things: treasury of blessings and giver of life, come dwell within us, and cleanse us of every stain, and save our souls, O good one.

* * *

Remaining Christian in a Time of Conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First, let’s think about fear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day: a Special Friendship

Merton statue at Bellarmine University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dorothy Day portrait (by Geoffrey Gneuhs)

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

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

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

A few days into that first encounter with the Catholic Worker, I visited the community’s rural outpost on Staten Island, the Peter Maurin Farm. Crossing the New York Harbor by ferry, I made my way to an old farmhouse on a rural road near the island’s southern tip. In its large, faded dining room, I found half-a-dozen people, Dorothy among them, gathered around a pot of tea at one end of the dining room table. I gave Dorothy a bag of letters addressed to her that had been received in Manhattan. Within minutes, she was reading the letters aloud to all of us.

The only letter I still recall from that day’s reading was one from Thomas Merton. I was amazed. Having read The Seven Storey Mountain, I knew Trappist monks wrote very few letters and that generally these were limited to family members. But here was Merton writing not only to a non-relative but to someone who was as much in the world as he was out of it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jim Forest is the author of All is Grace: a Biography of Dorothy Day ( ) and Living With Wisdom: A Biography of Thomas Merton ( ).

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Peace, Reconciliation and the Radical Outsider: Sergei Hackel Memorial Lecture

Archbishop’s Chapel, Lambeth Palace, London, 4 May 2006

The Fr Sergei Hackel Memorial Lecture

by Jim Forest

Fr Sergei Hackel on the day of the canonization of St Maria Skobtsova and her co-workers at the Cathedral of St Alexander Nevski in Paris. Photo: Jim Forest

Given that we meet in time of war, it is not surprising that the speaker should be asked to address the topic of peace and reconciliation in the light of his religious tradition, but perhaps it is surprising that the role of the radical outsider is included. On the other hand, this is a memorial lecture in honor of Fr Sergei Hackel, a radical outsider if ever there was one — not only a black sheep among white sheep, but a black sheep among black sheep. Fr Sergei was the outsider par excellence: His Russian family was forced into outsiderhood by the Stalin regime. In the late 1920s, they fled St Petersburg for Berlin, where Sergei was born in 1931. With Hitler’s election as chancellor in 1933, dangers similar to those posed by Stalin led the family to move to the Netherlands. Again not many years passed before another move was imposed by the expanding borders of the Third Reich. With his mother, he escaped to Britain as the German Army overran Holland in May 1940, but his father remained behind. Sergei never saw him again.

From an early age Sergei Hackel was an expert outsider, a vocation he retained until his death.

He was not only an outsider, but a man out of step. In Britain, a society that many regard as exceptionally civil, complete with stiff upper lip, Sergei was a man who could easily ignite; anyone who knew him will have a memory or two of Sergei’s volcanic temper. Ignoring the rules of polite society regarding appropriate male attire, he did without ties, a small but telling gesture; ties were useful, he remarked, only if your trousers were falling down and you had misplaced your belt or braces. (For this event, I am wearing the Sergei Hackel Memorial Non-Tie.) In a largely Anglican country, a religious culture with a remarkable ability to adapt, he was Orthodox, a tradition remarkable for its refusal to change with the times. Yet, even in his own church, he was by no means a perfect fit. He was outspoken regarding the failings he perceived in the church he served as priest. In a church in which one can, without great effort, find anti-Semites, he was deeply engaged in campaigning against anti-Semitism, most notably through his active engagement with the Council of Christian and Jews. Also notable was his distress with Christians, Orthodox and otherwise, for their reluctance to see Christ in the poor. This resulted in his close association over many years with St Gregory’s Foundation and other missions reaching out to the hungry, the homeless, the displaced, the abandoned, the poor. Via the Russian Service of the BBC, he was a familiar and trusted voice to countless Russians during and after the Soviet era, carefully avoiding propaganda and the incitement of enmity.

For all his outspokenness, Fr Sergei Hackel, the radical outsider, could be a man of patience and diplomacy. His gentle, reconciling skills, when brought into play, were renowned.

It is no bad thing to be an outsider. The Greek word is xenos, which is part of the Greek word for hospitality is filoxenia, literally, love of the outsider. Cultures still exist in which the outsider, the stranger, the foreigner, the pilgrim is — by divine election — an instant guest. In such places there is no need of a hotel. Hospitality is not only a generic duty but a blessing, and a shared one at that. One can speak of the sacrament, or mystery, of hospitality. The guest is seen potentially as an angel in disguise, like those heaven-sent guests who were welcomed by Abraham and Sarah under the oak of Mamre. There are still societies in which one can experience filoxenia. Russian friends tell me that if you go to the village that lies adjacent to the Monastery of the Caves near the city of Pskov, all you need do to find shelter is knock on any door and say, “Gospodipoi miloi — Lord have mercy.” You will be the well-cared for guest of that household. I can personally vouch for the existence of a similar quality of hospitality in Palestinian villages. Sometimes it even happens in Britain and America, though one must be more cautious in these countries about arriving unannounced and unexpected.

One learns a great deal about a person by taking note of his library. Blok, Akhmatova and Dostoevsky were among the most important authors for Sergei Hackel. Another was Albert Camus. It is Camus’ writings that I want to focus on. In his novels and plays the theme of the outsider, the stranger, the exile is always prominent. Camus’ first novel, published in France during the time of Nazi occupation, had the title (depending on which translation you prefer) The Stranger or The Outsider.

It’s a tale of two murders, with the narrator of the book guilty of the first killing. As we read the book, we soon become aware that the narrator is so minimally socialized as to be nearly autistic. His act of deadly violence is committed on impulse while in a dazed condition brought on by the fierce heat of the Algerian day. He shoots a man who is unknown to him, a stranger who was threatening him with a knife. As is always the case with murder, it’s an ugly crime, yet the killer can never comprehend why society reacts as it does to this event; he was under threat, and, after all, the victim was “only an Arab”. Had a more skillful defense been offered, he would have escaped a guilty verdict on the grounds that he had acted in self-defense. But he is badly defended and unfairly prosecuted. In the trial, the crime is of less consequence than the defendant’s social failings. The accused is condemned to death less for shooting a man than for smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee while on nighttime vigil at the side of his mother’s coffin. He has also failed to have a religious faith or to exhibit regret. Clearly, the prosecutor argues, this man is a criminal type. Even while awaiting his execution, with seemingly endless days to reflect on what he has done, our narrator remains a two-dimensional man, unable to empathize, love, or repent. His chief virtue, one that has cost him dearly, is that he is a man who seems incapable of lying or pretending. A few tears might have saved his life.

It is, as I mentioned, a book about two murders. The second is worse than the first. It is a murder prepared with the utmost premeditation, a judicially-sanctioned murder, a murder that is carried out for “the good of society” and in the name of society. It is cold-blooded murder done cleanly and by the clock, a well-ordered murder with doctor and priest in attendance, a murder arranged by people who, in their domestic lives, may be the soul of kindness. A man’s head is cut off in what is regarded as a socially therapeutic action.

The Outsider was published in 1942. Five years later, Camus’ next novel appeared, The Plague. In it, the reader discovers that Camus was far from finished with the question of the outsider, the exile, the stranger — and not only the stranger from afar; Camus reminds us that it is quite possible to be a stranger even when living in the place where one was born. We also find Camus still wrestling with the issue of capital punishment, and not only when it is carried out by the state, but when committed by revolutionary organizations whose manifestoes call for the creation of a more humane, less murderous society.

Among those we meet in The Plague is Jean Tarrou. He enters the pages very quietly as a man of private means who is newly arrived in the Algerian port city of Oran. He enjoys life’s pleasures without being their slave. His diary, often quoted in The Plague, is striking for its acute insights and observations and also for the author’s compassion. As the people of Oran fall victim to the plague and are forced to isolate themselves from the surrounding world. It is Tarrou, stranger though he is, who organizes a corps of volunteers, the Hygiene Squad, to assist the afflicted and to attend to all the unpleasant, often dangerous, chores imposed by the plague. Each volunteer, of course, stands a good chance of falling victim to the plague himself.

Another key figure in the novel is Bernard Rieux, one of the city’s physicians. He and Tarrou set the highest standard for selfless response to the plague. For the reader, both men are heroes, and all the more impressive for their profound modesty. Yet neither man for a moment regards himself as a hero. In their own eyes, and in Camus’ view, they are simply being decent human beings. Their response to the plague is no more remarkable than that of a teacher before the blackboard explaining that two plus two equals four. They do not regard themselves as exceptional. Neither do they harbor any resentment for those who respond less bravely, try to escape, who make money on the black market, who do little or nothing for those around them. But the two of them give nearly every waking hour in fighting what seems an utterly futile and endless battle. When at last, after many months, the plague lets go of its grip of Oran, they take no credit for having speeded the day when the city gates are re-opened. Though they have been warriors along the lines of St George, they still see the dragon as undefeated. The beast has only gone into temporary retirement. He has not even been scratched by his opponents’ lances.

Many of those who battled the plague are outsiders in one way or another. Tarrou is a recent arrival in the city with no obvious reason to risk his life for his newly acquired neighbors. He seems to have come to Oran more for the sun and beach than the people. Though Dr Rieux is a native of Oran, he seems by temperament to be a man who stands at a slight distance from others. He even takes distance from the book he is writing — only in the final pages does the reader discover that Rieux is the book’s narrator. He has written it in the third person, with himself just one of diary’s participants.

Both Rieux and Tarrou are outsiders in another sense: neither professes the religious faith of their neighbors in Oran. In a town in which most people, however atheistic in their day-to-day behavior, profess belief in God and call themselves Catholic, neither Rieux nor Tarrou is able to make a similar confession. Neither calls himself an atheist, yet they are not believers. When a local Jesuit, Fr Paneloux, preaches that the people of Oran deserve the plague and describes it as harsh but needed medicine, both Rieux and Tarrou find his views deeply repellent. If the God Christians worship is the organizer of plagues, they want nothing to do with Him. They refuse to worship a deity who arranges the agonizing death of even one child. (Eventually the priest throws himself selflessly into work against the plague. Not Camus’s least significant trait is that he doesn’t  see his villains as conversion-proof.)

Late in the book we discover that at the core of Tarrou’s life is a Christian word: saint. In his most intimate conversation with Rieux, Tarrou confesses that he aspires to be “a saint without God.” [p 219]

Tarrou tells Rieux about a pivotal experience in his life when he was seventeen, a story that echoes Camus’ first novel. Tarrou’s father was a prosecutor. Tarrou attended court one day to witness his father in action on the closing day of a murder trial. His father, an entirely decent and caring man at home, becomes, in his blood-red robes, a passionate advocate of the death penalty. Calling on the jury to send the accused to the guillotine, it seems to Tarrou that snakes are gushing from his father’s mouth.

Meanwhile, the man in the dock makes no effort to justify his crime. He is resigned to his grim fate. “The little man of about thirty,” says Tarrou, “with sparse, sandy hair, seemed so eager to confess everything, so genuinely horrified at what he had done and what was going to be done with him, that after a few minutes I had eyes for nothing and nobody else. He looked like a yellow owl scared blind by too much light. His tie was slightly awry, he kept biting his nails, those of one hand only, his right… I needn’t go on, need I? You’ve understood — he was a living human being.”

For Tarrou, until that moment such a person had only been the accused, the defendant, a criminal. He had been a blurry man of inky dots in a newspaper photo, not a human being. Now a revolution occurs in his perceptions. It’s a change of heart which will help shape the remainder of his life. “I can’t say I quite forgot my father,” Tarrou tells Rieux, “but something seemed to grip my vitals at that moment and riveted all my attention on the little man in the dock. I hardly heard what was being said: I only knew that they were set on killing that living man and an uprush of some elemental instinct, like a wave, had swept me to his side.”

Tarrou’s bond with his father, now seen as a man swimming in blood, is irreparably damaged. Not many months pass before Tarrou leaves home, an event that coincides with the day of the condemned man’s execution. A head is separated from a body and a boy is separated from his family.

Tarrou’s struggle with executions has one more crisis. After he leaves home, he is drawn into radical political associations. Not wanting to be part of a social order based on the death sentence, he becomes an agitator, active in movements which, though left unlabeled in The Plague, appear to be some form of socialism or communism. Here too he is faced with the problem of killing, for revolutionaries also pass death sentences. “But I was told,” says Tarrou, “these few deaths were inevitable for the building up of a new world in which murder would cease to be.” Tarrou attempted to embrace such sloganistic thinking but ultimately failed, in part because he was still haunted by “that miserable ‘owl’ in the dock.”

What finally exiles him from revolutionary movements is witnessing an execution.

“Have you ever seen a man shot by a firing squad?” Tarrou asks. “No, of course not. The spectators are hand-picked and it’s like a private party. You need an invitation. The result is that you’ve gleaned your ideas about it from books and pictures. A post, a blindfolded man, some soldiers in the offing. But the real thing isn’t a bit like that. Do you know that the firing squad stands only a yard and a half from the condemned man? Do you know that if the victim took two steps forward his chest would touch the rifles? Do you know that, at this short range, the soldiers concentrate their fire on the region of the heart and their big bullets make a hole into which you could thrust your fist? No, you didn’t know all that. These are things that are never spoken of.”

Camus’ description was not second hand. He had witnessed the execution of Gabriel Peri, the radical journalist, by the Germans in December 1941. The event not only hardened his anti-Nazi convictions but galvanized his horror with the intentional killing of any human being. Until his death, Camus sought a way of life in which one is neither a victim nor an executioner.

It need hardly be said that Fr Sergei Hackel had a similar sensibility. He not only opposed not only capital punishment but the use of murderous methods to advance any social goal. For him a Christian lacking this sensibility had not yet encountered Christ’s Gospel.

I have no idea if Fr Sergei would have identified himself as a pacifist — it’s a question I never asked him. Probably he saw the war against Hitler and the Third Reich as a tragic necessity, yet nonetheless a war in which not all the war crimes were committed by the Nazis. Fr Sergei was a person who could not regard war, even in situations in which it was purely defensive, as anything less than a catastrophe for all involved. It was not only his private view. One notes that the Orthodox Church has never developed a “just war” theory. Fr Sergei was a person who took Christ’s Sermon on the Mount as a baseline for daily life. He saw terms like “just war” and “good war” as oxymorons, having no place in a Christian’s vocabulary. This was part of Sergei’s otherness.

Would that such otherness were less rare. The war-resisting, life-protecting witness given by Christians in the first centuries seems today incomprehensibly remote. Among contemporary Christians, there are not many who, in those moments when one has to choose between the Gospel and what might be described as patriotic duty, will opt for the Gospel. Better to find some way to explain the Gospel in such a way that it aligns Christ’s teaching with the demands of one’s nation. Time and again the cross is made into a flag pole. In every country and culture one finds pastors and theologians who exhibit a great talent for adjusting the Bible to fit the politics and ideologies of the moment. South Africa had its theologians of Apartheid, the United States has had theologians of Manifest Destiny, Nazi Germany had theologians who were rabidly anti-Semitic, and in any country in which slavery existed or thrived as a business, there were theologians who could demonstrate that slavery was God’s will. From the fourth or fifth centuries, there has never been a shortage of bishops and theologians willing to sing the praises of whatever war was underway.

Fr Sergei always sought to align himself with the Gospel rather than to adjust the Gospel to the nearest flag, or any flag.

The person trying to live according to the unabridged Gospel is sailing by to a different compass than the great majority of his neighbors. That compass is one’s faith-shaped conscience. Under no circumstances can a Christian just “go with the flow.” One is forced to live as a stranger and an exile. As St Paul said in his letter to the Hebrews: “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.”

It must have been the theme of strangerhood, pilgrimage and exile which drew Sergei so intensely to Camus’ novels. It also reinforced his aversion to any form of religion which was essentially tribal or nationalistic.

Returning to Camus’ novel, The Plague, it would be a dull reader who failed to see that the plague Camus was writing about was less about an epidemic of fatal illness than a parable about life in the modern world.

Camus’ notebooks indicate that the idea for The Plague began to form in 1941, while France was under occupation. Camus spent the war as part of the French Resistance, one of the editors of the underground journal Combat. During those testing years, he witnessed the countless ways that the great majority of French people made their peace with the occupation, many actively collaborating, some reluctantly, others with enthusiasm. Through most of the war, the Resistance was small. Not until the approaching collapse of the Third Reich was obvious did the ranks of the Resistance suddenly swell — but by then such a step was less an act of courage than of prudence. It would be in one’s interest, after the war, to have been part of the Resistance.

Plague stands for a social order based on killing. In Camus’ novel, it is Tarrou who says, “And thus I came to understand that I … had had plague” — meaning the plague of bloodshed — “through all those long years in which, paradoxically enough, I’d believed with all my soul that I was fighting it. I learned that I had had an indirect hand in the deaths of thousands of people; that I’d even brought about their deaths by approving of acts and principles which could only end that way.” [p 217]

The writings of Thomas Merton in the sixties often address the state of plague we are facing and do so in a way that reveal how much Merton, like Sergei Hackel, had in common with Camus. As Merton wrote in one essay:

The awful problem of our times is not so much the dreams, the monsters, which may take shape and consume us, but the moral paralysis in our own souls which leaves us immobile, inert, passive, tongue-tied, ready and even willing to succumb. The real tragedy is in the cold, silent waters of moral death, which climb imperceptibly within us, blinding conscience, drowning compassion, suffocating faith and extinguishing the Spirit. A progressive deadening of conscience, of judgment and of compassion is the inexorable work of the Cold War [or any social matrix driven by fear and enmity]. [Passion for Peace, p 81]

One might also describe the plague we face as the condition of individualism, separateness, isolation and loneliness that we experience in the quasi-religious, quasi-agnostic modern world.

An obvious contrast between Camus and both Sergei Hackel and Thomas Merton was that one had rejected Christianity while the latter two embraced it, but the difference is less substantial than it appears at first glance. What Camus rejected was a pseudo-Christianity that had become a mechanism for blessing the established order, a religion of accommodation that provides chaplains to witness executions without raising a word of protest. Far from blessing the guillotine or the hangman’s rope, Sergei Hackel represented the Christianity of the early centuries, when one could not be baptized without renouncing bloodshed, whether in war or as a means of punishment, a Christianity of care for the poor, a Christianity of hospitality, mercy and forgiveness. He labored for a Christianity in which sanctity is normal.

“What interests me is how to be a saint,” Tarrou said to Dr. Rieux. “But can one be a saint without God? — that’s the problem, in fact the only problem, I’m up against today.” [p 219]

In Camus’ writings, the question of the post-Christian saint is left unresolved, though we see in his notebooks and correspondence that it remained a burning question. One notes the ongoing dialogue Camus had with various Christians beginning with his encounter with a community of Dominican Friars not long after the war, in which he said “the world of today needs Christians who remain Christians.”

What Camus hoped to find in Christians was the kind of radical social witness that had been so notable in the early Church. At the very least, he hoped that Christians would, if not reduce evil, then not add to it. But he wished for more than that: “Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children. And if you don’t help us, who else in the world can help us do this?” [Resistance, Rebellion and Death, p.73]

It would be impossible to devote a lecture to Sergei Hackel without speaking of a woman whose life and writings he studied carefully and introduced to many others. I am referring, of course, to Mother Maria Skobtsova. We see in her an example of a heroic yet modest Christian response to a world under attack by various ideological and political plagues. She provides a vivid example of what peacemaking, reconciliation and care for the outsider look like.

Born in Russia, she had arrived in Paris as a refugee in 1923. Earlier in her life she had been deeply engaged in the left, never a Marxist, but a dedicated socialist. Regarded with hostility by both the revolutionary Bolsheviks and the counter-revolutionary Whites, she narrowly escaped execution first from one side and then from the other. She decided at last that the only hope of survival for herself and her children was to seek asylum in the west.

Once in Paris, she became active with the Russian Student Christian Movement, an Orthodox association serving Russians living in desperate poverty. Later on, following the death by influenza of one of her children, her life took a deeper turn. The experience of her daughter’s suffering made her “aware of a new and special, broad and all-embracing motherhood.” She felt it as an absolute necessity to seek “a more authentic and purified life.” She saw a “new road” before her, “a new meaning in life, to be a mother for all, for all who need maternal care, assistance, or protection.”

She was fortunate to have a sympathetic bishop. Aware of her determination, he suggested she might become a nun who devoted herself to diaconal service among the very poor. This would be a new form of monastic life, not of seclusion but of immersion in the urban desert. Vested as a nun, Mother Maria opened a house of hospitality for the homeless. Within two years, she was forced by the scale of the need to obtain a larger building at 77 rue de Lourmel in the fifteenth arrondisement. While at the first address she could feed only 25, here she could feed a hundred.

“The way to God lies through love of people,” she wrote in a passage that sums up much of her theology. “At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked, Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked. About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person the Savior says ‘I’: ‘I was hungry and thirsty, I was sick and in prison.’ To think that he puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need…. I always knew it, but now it has somehow penetrated to my sinews. It fills me with awe.”

She put her vision of the Christian vocation even more briefly in this passage: “Each person is the very icon of God incarnate in the world. We must venerate the image of God in each person.”

When the Nazi occupation began in June 1940, Mother Maria had no illusions about what they faced. Never a person to look at the world through rose-colored glasses, she saw the Nazi movement as a “new paganism” bringing in its wake disasters, upheavals, persecutions and wars. It was evil unveiled, the “contaminator of all springs and wells.” As for Hitler, he was “a madman who needs a straight jacket and should be placed in a cork-lined room so that his bestial wailing will not disturb the world at large.”

She and her co-workers soon found that hospitality now meant rescuing Jews. How many they saved only God knows, but it is not a small number.

Jews began to knock on the door asking Father Dimitri Klépinin, the priest who assisted Mother Maria, if he would provide them with baptismal certificates. The answer was always yes. The names of those “baptized” were also duly recorded in his parish register in case there was any cross-checking by the police or Gestapo. In March 1942, the order came from Berlin that the yellow star must be worn by Jews in all the occupied countries.

There were, of course, many Christians who said that such anti-Jewish laws had nothing to do with Christians and that therefore this was not a Christian problem. “There is not only a Jewish question, but a Christian question,” Mother Maria replied. “Don’t you realize that the battle is being waged against Christianity? If we were true Christians we would all wear the Star. The age of confessors has arrived.”

The house at rue de Lourmel was soon bursting with people, many of them Jews. “It is amazing,” Mother Maria remarked, “that the Germans haven’t pounced on us yet.” In the same period, she said if anyone came looking for Jews, she would show them an icon of the Mother of God.

In July 1942 came the mass arrest of 12,884 Jews in Paris. The majority were brought to a sports stadium not far from Rue de Lourmel. Mother Maria had often thought her monastic robes a God-send in aiding her work. Now her nun’s clothing opened the way for her to enter the stadium. Here she worked for three days trying to comfort the prisoners, distributing what food she could bring in, even managing to rescue some of the children by enlisting the aid of garbage collectors and smuggling them out in trash bins.

In February 1943, the long-awaited arrests occurred. Mother Maria was sent to the notorious Ravensbrück concentration camp. Her son, Yuri, and Father Dimitri were sent to a camp named Dora, where they died in 1944.

On the 30th of March 1945, after two years of captivity, Mother Maria was selected for the gas chambers. As it happened, it was Good Friday. She entered eternal life the following day. The shellfire of the approaching Red Army could be heard in the distance.

Controversial in life, Mother Maria remains a subject of contention to this day, a fact which may explain how slow the Orthodox Church was in adding her to the calendar of saints. While clearly she lived a life of heroic virtue and is among the martyrs of the twentieth century, her verbal assaults on nationalistic and self-satisfied forms of religious life still raise the blood pressure of many Orthodox Christians. Mother Maria remains an indictment of any form of Christianity that seeks Christ chiefly inside church buildings.

Unfortunately, Camus and Mother Maria never met, yet Sergei Hackel serves as a link between them. On the one hand Camus’ writings contributed significantly to Sergei’s spiritual and intellectual development. On the other hand, Fr Sergei was among the first in the English-speaking world to become aware of Mother Maria and to see in her one of the most significant models of sanctity to emerge not only in the Orthodox Church but in Christianity as a whole in many a year. He wrote what remains the most complete English-language biography of Mother Maria, Pearl of Great Price. Without doubt, his writings played a significant part in the process that at last resulted in her canonization in Paris in 2004. On the same day, Fr Dimitri Klépinin, Yuri Skobtsov, and another martyred co-worker, Elie Fondaminsky, were also added to the church calendar.

Several bishops and many priests were involved in the canonization service at Vespers that Saturday evening, but visually the most striking was Fr Sergei. Among all the glittering vestments, he was wearing a hand-embroidered vestment of coarse fabric. There’s a story here, I said to myself. After the Sunday morning service, when Nancy and I met him outside the church, he explained that this was a vestment Mother Maria herself had made for Father Dimitri. (Nancy recalled that Mother Maria had on occasion written with disdain about nuns who embroider vestments for the clergy. So much for saintly consistency!)

I asked Fr Sergei if I might take a picture of the vestment. He was only too happy to oblige. You see the photo — the last one I took of Fr Sergei. Then we asked if we could touch the vestment, for it had now dawned on us that this was a relic both of Mother Maria and her martyred co-worker, Fr Dimitri Klépinin.

We asked how he came to have this vestment. He told us how, in 1967, a German film crew had come to Paris to do a film based on his biography of Mother Maria. He had been asked to serve as advisor. At the house on Rue de Lourmel, in a room that once served as the chapel vestry, Fr Sergei discovered some of the vestments Mother Maria had made. Because of moth damage, they were soon to be burned. Instead, at his request, they were entrusted to his care and were subsequently repaired.

It’s a pity Mother Maria never met Camus or read his novels. Had she lived longer, she would have appreciated The Plague, recognizing that at the heart of the story are two people whose response to disaster is an act of self-giving love in which no distinction is made between the worthy and the unworthy, for each and every life is worth saving.

In the lives of Mother Maria and Fr Dimitri, we see the same — unarmed warriors who battled the plague by saving lives, leaders of a community which never locked the door to anyone.

In Fr Sergei Hackel, we find yet another plague fighter. He was a man who broke all the molds: a religious bridge-builder, a broadcaster, a pastor, a missionary, a scholar, a friend, a father, a disturber of the complacent, an ally of the poor, a journalist with an eye for plague-battling saints. He was a polymath whose interests seemed to have no border. He was a man of laughter whose heroes of comedy included Jacques Tati, otherwise known as M. Hulot. He was a linguist equally at home in several languages. A lover of music, he was especially drawn to jazz — among those represented in his musical library were Bessie Smith, Jellyroll Morton, Paul Robeson and Louis Armstrong. He possessed the ability to marry the instinctive, emotional, personal response to an icon, or a Kandinsky, with acute intellectual analysis.

In such a man, we catch a glimpse of Christ’s resurrection.

* * *

Coming to Visit?

Kanisstraat — our house is the third on the right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jim & Nancy Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands

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

page updated 14 May 2018

Between Constantinople and Istanbul

Istanbul faces

This is the journal Nancy and I kept during a ten-day stay in Istanbul in 2003. Some of the photos taken in that period are here:

24 April 2003, Holy Thursday

Are we in Istanbul? Or Constantinople? Winston Churchill had no doubt it was the latter. As he wrote in a memo to the Foreign Office on the 23rd of April 1945: “I do not consider that names that have been familiar for generations in England should be altered in England to study the whims of foreigners living in those parts. Where the name has no particular significance, the local custom should be followed. However, Constantinople should never be abandoned, though for stupid people Istanbul may be written in brackets after it…”

We will however tilt toward the whims of the foreigners living in those parts and opt for Istanbul.

We arrived at Ataturk Airport at about 3:00 and had to pay 10 euros for an entrance visa (while those with US passports are required to pay a whopping $100). Ali Gulkaynak, manager of the Artemis Hotel where we will be staying, was there to meet us. Ali is a friend of Beth Forest, Jim’s niece, who put us in touch with him and spoke of him in glowing terms. Ali drove us back to the hotel in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. Along the way we passed by many kilometers of ancient city wall erected in the age of Emperor Theodosius II (405-450). They withstood many sieges before a breach was made by Crusaders in 1202. In 1261 Constantinople was retaken by the Byzantines, though the city — stripped of every treasure — never recovered from its occupation by the Latins. Then in May 1453 Mehmet the Conqueror smashed though the walls and Byzantium, by then only a shadow of what it had been, gave up the ghost.

The Artemis Hotel proved to be a very attractive place, a modest size, slightly off the streets frequented by tourists. From the terrace on the top of the hotel we had an amazing view — the Blue Mosque with its six minarets above us, the blue Sea of Marmara below. Under the watchful eye of several mothers, children were playing in the street below. We unpacked and freshened up, then went for a walk with Ali.

Our route took us through the Hippodrome, on the north side of the Blue Mosque, where Ali explained the various monuments around which charioteers once raced. First (on the west end) was the column of Constantine Porphyrogenitus, still called the Brazen Column, though the Crusaders stripped its bronze covering eight centuries ago. Next there was the Serpentine Column, made in 479 BC and originally placed in Delphi — one of many ancient monuments Constantine ordered brought to the new capital of the Roman Empire. Then, in the center of the Hippodrome, the most impressive monument of all, an Egyptian obelisk now 3500 years old, selected by Constantine to symbolize where the center of the world was now located. The base set up to hold the obelisk was carved on all sides with images of Constantine presiding at games in the Hippodrome. The stadium itself, said to have held up to 100,000 people, is long gone, though the roadway around the Hippodrome follows the route of the chariots. But many of the treasures that once were here have vanished. These include the famous four bronze horses now at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice.

It was here that the Nika Riot exploded in 532. Before it was over many of city’s buildings were destroyed, including a smaller Hagia Sophia, at the east end of the Hippodrome, and large parts of the Great Palace, where the Blue Mosque now stands. It was here that, when Justinian’s troops struck back at the rioters, 35,000 were killed.

We next walked into the courtyard of the Blue Mosque, an enclosed square of calm and beauty with a fountain in its center. We noticed an old man with a white beard and kindly face, sitting on the steps to one side, knitting. He gave Jim permission to take his photos (Ali acting as translator). Smiling warmly he showed us some of what he had been knitting: a whole cloth bag full of hats and children’s booties. Ali bought a cap.

Then we walked out of the courtyard and there in front of us we saw Hagia Sophia for the first time, a red building made even redder by the setting sun. Breathtaking!

Ali, having to return to the hotel, pointed the way to a money changer on the main avenue — Divanyolou Caddesi — where we exchange euros for Turkish lira. One euro equaled more than 1,700,000 lira. At long last we are millionaires! Afterward we stopped at the small shop of a local art dealer and bought an Islamic miniature of Noah’s Ark ($30). Instead of a halo, a design of red flames surrounds Noah’s head. The background, icon-like, is of gold leaf.

We walked back to the hotel and went across the street to the Marmara Café, which Ali had briefly shown us before we had walked up to the Hippodrome. Exotic, ornately decorated water pipes lined the front window. There was the faint smell of sweet tobacco. It seemed at first to be an all-male hangout, but then we noticed women and children among the clientele. The back part of the café is a broad open porch with a sweeping view of the Sea of Marmara. We had tea while watching a procession of ships, some about to enter the Bosphorus, others exiting.

At about 7:00 our friend Shannon Robinson, just arrived from Albania, was brought over by Ali. She comes from Chicago but for the past five months has been principal of a newly opened primary school in Tirana founded by the Orthodox Church of Albania. She had tea with us, then we all went back to the hotel for a vegetarian supper. We agreed to meet for breakfast at the hotel the next day, then walked the short distance to her hostel, the Sinbad (its slogan: “world peace is inevitable”).

25 April, Good Friday

We had breakfast with Shannon, then walked back to the Hippodrome where we were hounded by postcard sellers and various venders, the first of many similar experiences. We walked through the Blue Mosque courtyard again and went on to Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), the world’s largest building for many centuries and still astonishing both inside and out. It is always a stunning experience to see for the first time something that you have only heard about, and perhaps seen pictures of. We had expected to see a great city edifice engulfed by even bigger modern structures, an anachronism and a mosque to boot, with little bits of the Christian past tucked away in corners. But what we saw was an almost pastoral setting, beautiful gardens and the surrounding waters, no other great buildings except the Blue Mosque, which does not conflict with it or overshadow it, and Hagia Sophia rising brick red and solid out of the earth. Only a little of the church’s mosaic iconography has survived but what remains is profoundly impressive. It is not tucked away in corners; you see it immediately as soon as you walk in. Nancy stood in the doorway and wept.

On the gallery on the west side we found the Pantocrator icon that is so often seen in books and postcards but which, even though so familiar, was surprising in its intensity and freshness. Christ’s eyes have the same authority as his spoken word.

After several hours in Hagia Sophia, we went for coffee to a nearby café with many colorful lamps hanging from the ceiling, then took a taxi to the Church of the Savior in Chora (Chora meaning “in the fields”). The church originally stood outside the walls that Constantine erected but is just inside Theodosius’ walls. During the time of Crusader rule, it was the only church in Constantinople where Orthodox Christians were not under Roman domination, though in that period the church was in a badly decayed condition. After the Latin defeat Theodore Metochites, then Prime Minister of the Byzantine Empire, used his wealth to subsidize the church’s restoration during what is known as the Byzantine Renaissance. This included not only repairing the building but commissioning mosaics and frescoes, many of which have survived even though the church had been made into a mosque after the Islamic Conquest. Today it is museum.

Chora’s amazing images remain among the most beautiful treasures of iconography to survive the fall of Byzantium. Perhaps the most stunning is the Anastasis icon filling the apse of a funeral chapel on the west side of the church: Christ effortlessly lifting Adam and Eve from their tombs. In another section of the church there is a complex series of mosaics of events leading up to the birth of Mary and finally Christ’s Nativity. Chora alone is reason enough to come to Istanbul.

We had a good vegetarian lunch at a hotel restaurant — the Asitane — next to the church: our first glimpse of a Turkish cuisine of a level we never imagined existed going by our occasional visits to Turkish restaurants in Alkmaar. A place to return to after Pascha.

We took a taxi to the Grand Bazaar and its adjacent book market. The Grand Bazaar is similar to certain districts of Jerusalem’s Old City, including the experience of many offers to stop and have a cup of tea or coffee. Shannon bought a lacquer box for a friend in Tirana.

From the Bazaar we walked on to a city park close to the Hippodrome where a persistent and rather cunning shoeshine boy tried to get money out of us.

We sat for a while in the sun for awhile, then caught a taxi for the Good Friday service at the Orthodox Patriarchate at the Fener. The taxi driver had a great deal of difficulty finding the place, but — after stopping several times for local help — was at last successful. Entrance to the walled compound requires passing through a police guard and metal detector. Tiny though the Greek community is in modern Istanbul, there are still those who seek the expulsion of all Greeks. Bombs have been exploded here in recent years, while a patriarch was once executed by hanging at the compound gate. The church — St. George’s Cathedral — is surprisingly small, considering that it is the home church of the Ecumenical Patriarch. The building dates from 1710: practically new by local standards.

When we arrived, shortly before the Good Friday service started, not many people were yet present but gradually the church filled up until finally there was an overflow in the courtyard. Most of the crowd seemed to be people who had come by bus from Greece. Patriarch Bartholomeos presided, assisted by six bishops. The icon of the body of Christ was a cloth over which was a canopy covered with white flowers. There was no real procession as we know it (such processions not being permitted in Turkey), but the patriarch and bishops carried the cloth down the aisle and into the courtyard, then back in again, and anyone standing near it tried to reach out and touch it.

We stayed at the church for about two hours, then went to a nearby restaurant for a late dinner made up of vegetarian appetizers. By midnight, having taken a taxi to the square in front of Hagia Sophia, we were back at the hotel after walking Shannon to her hostel.

26 April, Holy Saturday

Shannon came over and we walked toward the Topkapi Palace complex whose many buildings fill the eastern heights of the old city just beyond Hagia Sophia, all within its own set of ancient walls. Before entering the gate we walked along the outside of the wall where we noticed a promising café that doubles as a school of traditional crafts — a place to come back to on another day.

Then we walked down a hill along an appealing narrow street and came upon a small gift shop that was remarkable for the simple fact that the owner didn’t hound us. He quietly read his newspaper, leaving us to gaze in the window. His passivity was so refreshing that we went inside to browse. Nancy ended up buying a scarf and a striped cotton shirt. The owner turned out to be Iranian.

We then walked back along the Topkapi wall past a row of well restored Ottoman wooden houses painted in soft colors, then entered the Topkapi gate.

Just inside the entrance is a large park and just to the left stands Hagia Eirene Church, the same age as Hagia Sophia — sixth century. Both the earlier Hagia Sophia and Hagia Eirene were destroyed by fire during the Nika Revolt in 532, and both rebuilt at the orders of Justinian. Hagia Eirene — reconsecrated in 537 — means Holy Peace, but it may be that the name of the church refers to one of the saints of the same name, possibly St. Eirene the Great Martyr, executed in Thessalonika in the early fourth century. We have been told that it’s the one ancient church in Istanbul that was never made into a mosque. After the conquest of 1453 the church was placed behind the wall enclosing Topkapi and was turned into an armory.

Now used occasionally as a concert hall, it is otherwise closed, but our guardian angel came to the rescue. We found the custodian and, in exchange for five million lira (about three euros), we were allowed to enter. For at least an hour we had the vast church to ourselves! In a gallery upstairs we recited some prayers for Holy Saturday and read aloud from the Gospel of Matthew. The church’s main surviving decoration is a large mosaic cross in the apse. The original mosaic icons were destroyed not by Moslems but by Christians in the era of iconoclasm. Below the apse, in what would have been the sanctuary, is a synthronon — several tiers of seats in a half circle around the periphery of the apse. The altar is no more, though one can see stones that once served as the altar’s foundation.

Once outside in the park and on our way to the admission gate, we passed one of the many groups of school children waiting to enter the museum. Throughout our time in Istanbul, we passed such groups, many of them in neat school uniforms, who liked to practice their limited English with us. This group was no different. They called out, “Hello!” and Shannon, ever the school teacher, decided to respond. She stood in front of them and said, “What is your name?” That floored them, but one little boy was able to tell her the answer. She talked with them a bit, and then said, “Now I want you to sing me a song,” so they sang a Turkish song for her.

Near the admission gate, we were accosted by a man who wanted to be our guide. Jim engaged him, but soon after entering we realized this was a mistake. The man talked too fast for us to absorb what he was saying, and we could not walk through the exhibit at our own unhurried pace. A lesson learned. If we are to hire a guide again, it will only be after making sure his pace matches ours. After one part of the exhibit — a collection of ornate carriages used by sultans in days gone by and an exhibition of porcelain — Jim released and paid him, and he went off to find other customers. On our own, we paid a second entrance for the harem quarters and joined a group to see this maze of tiled rooms and pavilions, fountains and ponds, where the sultan and his many women, waited upon by slave eunuchs both black and white, once lived a life one can barely imagine.

We had lunch at the little restaurant on a terrace at the far end of the Topkapi grounds, giving us a broad view of the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and the Mamara Sea, then left, but not before visiting several more buildings along the way, including one that contains relics of Mohammed, and the Treasury with case after case of diamond and ruby-encrusted objects, among which is the dagger that was the thieves’ goal in the film “Topkapi” and the 86 carat “Spoonmaker’s Diamond” (found uncut in a rubbish heap in the 17th century and traded for three spoons before making its way to the sultan’s hands). None of these famous objects stopped us in our tracks; rather, they made us feel relief not to be drawn to such things. But then in one room we came upon a display case like all the rest except the treasures in this case weren’t gems but relics of John the Baptist’s skull and arm, one of the few major relics in Constantinople that escaped removal by the Crusaders but at last found their way to the sultan. We were staggered. Though taking photos in the Treasury is prohibited, Shannon managed to get a photo of the relics with her digital camera. All of us prayed.

We walked back to the hotel by way of the “White Moustache Street” where a young Kurd named Ozgur, who works at the Time Out Restaurant, invited us in to have tea. Something about his shy manner and quiet eyes made us say yes. We had a long talk with him on the rooftop terrace area of the restaurant. When we left, we promised to come back for a meal after Pascha.

Then we walked back to the hotel (and Shannon to her hostel) and took a nap in preparation for the all-night service. We were awakened at 7:30 by Ali, who had decided to take us to dinner at a restaurant near an ancient aqueduct, to the northwest of the Grand Bazaar, in what was a Moslem medreses — a religious school — founded in the 16th century. Much like a cloister, the rooms surround a paved square with a fountain in the center. We hadn’t planned on an evening meal on Holy Saturday but could not say no. It was a wonderful dinner where we sat on cushions on the floor in a small former classroom, leaving our shoes in a box at the doorway. Ali ordered the food, carefully choosing vegetarian dishes. It was all splendid. Our drink is ayran: salted yoghurt thinned with water. As it was a chilly evening, the waiter lit a fire in a little fireplace. Very cozy.

Before coming to Istanbul we had assumed we would attend the All Night Service at St. George Cathedral, but the crowds last night made us instead opt for a service in a parish church, Holy Archangels, in the more “European” part of the city on the other side of the Golden Horn, the parish of an American couple, David and Margo, with whom we have had contact via e-mail, thanks to a mutual friend. They have also invited us for a Paschal meal at their home Sunday afternoon.

Ali drove us to Margo and David’s apartment, and from there, with their three-year-old son, Diedrich, we drove on to Holy Archangels Church, which we found under police guard. The building wasn’t crowded when we arrived, about 10:30, but by 11 it was packed. At the moment of the Paschal proclamation an hour later we were startled by bomb-like explosions in the upper part of the church. It was ear-splitting and disturbing — we thought the church was under attack, but David assured us this was only a Greek custom. A little later we noticed a couple of young men trailing the smell of gunpowder coming downstairs with big smiles on their faces. We stayed for the liturgy, but not many others did. Where there had been two or three hundred people there were perhaps 20 left in the church. One of them, a young woman, seemed to spend most of the liturgy focused on her mobile phone, either exchanging messages or busy with games. Having received a blessing before the service, we were able to receive Communion. Margo told us the local priests do not encourage frequent Communion — normally only four times a year.

It was an interesting experience, but we did not have the great jubilant sense of Pascha that we have in our own parish in Amsterdam. There were no repeated shouts of “Christ is risen,” no repeated singing of the Paschal hymn, no red eggs, no carefully arranged flower decorations. However, when the priest read St. John Chrysostom’s Paschal sermon, we knew what it was even though it was being read in Greek, the language St. John himself would have spoken, and that was very moving indeed.

Finally, at about 2 in the morning, we took a taxi back to the Sultanahmet and got to bed by about 3:00.

Christos anesti! Christ is risen!

27 April – Pascha

We went out for breakfast with Shannon to break the Lenten fast. Shannon, having eaten almost nothing since yesterday afternoon, longed for something resembling an American breakfast, but also didn’t want to spend a lot of money. We searched and searched, asking several people where we could find an American breakfast. One man responded, “But this is Turkey!” Finally we had omelettes at an open-air café called the Dervish near the Blue Mosque.

After breakfast we set off for the Suleymaniye Mosque, widely regarded as Istanbul’s most beautiful mosque. It’s a vast structure that crowns a hill adjacent to Istanbul University just to the northwest of the Grand Bazaar. Along with an associated hospital, school and hospice for travelers, the mosque was built in the 1550s by the famous architect Sinan.

While walking there Jim asked directions of an older man who volunteered to show us the way. We learned he is a Kurdish rug merchant whose home is near the Iraqi border, We stopped for tea at a small street café adjacent to the mosque, inviting the man, Salih Cefin, to sit with us. He accepted, only insisted on paying for the tea, telling us that when he comes to our country we can pay for his tea. After saying goodbye, we entered the mosque, a place as quiet as it is huge. Hundreds of lights are suspended not far above head level giving the impression of a border of light between our ordinary world and the divine presence — something not unlike the iconostasis, except the border here is overhead and horizontal. Like so many mosques in Istanbul, this one clearly drew its architectural inspiration from Hagia Sophia.

Finally we walked around the grounds, then sat in the sun for a while — our first warm day in Istanbul — eating bananas and strawberries that Shannon had just bought from a nearby shop.

Then we headed downhill toward the Galata Bridge, which spans the Golden Horn. On the way Shannon stopped to buy some kebab skewers and paused to see a smaller mosque next to the Spice (or Egyptian) Market while we waited for her in the courtyard of the New Mosque facing the Galata Bridge. The square before the mosque was packed with locals and flocks of birds. Not a tourist group in sight! In fact this part of town is a continuous street market, a micro economy in high gear. Shannon came back and we walked across the bridge, watching the people fishing as we made our way towards the Galata Tower, a massive medieval structure put up in 1348 when the Genoese had this patch of the city — their reward for helping end the Latin occupation. The most direct way to the tower requires climbing a long, steep set of stairs.

This is the city’s Beyoglu district whose main street is the Istiklal Caddesi, where there are many fine bookshops. In one of them Jim found a particular guide book — the Istanbul volume in the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Travel Guide series — he’d been looking for all over the city. We then hailed a taxi and took it to a large modern shopping mall, Akmerkez, near Margo and David’s apartment, a landmark easier for taxi drivers to find than the actual address we were going to. (Ali notes that one need have nothing more than a driving license to drive a taxi in Turkey; no special knowledge of the streets is required. Neither do any drivers we have come upon possess a street atlas.)

The only obvious difference between this shopping mall and similar malls in America is that everyone entering this cavernous building has to be checked as if he were at an airport. The mall has security guards and metal detectors at every entrance. Once admitted we found ourselves in a cathedral of consumer products that’s much more elaborate than anything we’ve seen in the Netherlands. We headed for a supermarket on the third level, as Shannon hoped to find a few things that were unavailable in Tirana, and then called David on Jim’s mobile, who talked us from the mall to their nearby apartment complex.

We found it no easy task getting past the apartment complex’s security guard, a young uniformed woman. Finally Jim called David, who came down to rescue us. Margo and David’s apartment was beautifully decorated for Easter, with an egg tree, carefully laid table and a handsome book of Chora photos that had been opened to the Anastasis icon. There was an older American-Greek couple there, as well as Paul Gikas from the Patriarchate (also American) and his Turkish girlfriend, a beautiful young woman on her way to becoming Orthodox. Diedrich was very happy with all the company and attention.

The meal was exceptional — lamb, spare ribs, chicken, salad, delicious cake. The Turkish wine was excellent. The entire meal was wonderful and the company around the table even better. It was hard to leave, but finally we took a taxi back home and crashed into bed, since our previous night’s sleep had been brief.

28 April, Bright Monday

We agreed with Shannon to do separate things today as this was her last day and she had to find gifts for various people, both relatives and colleagues. We had breakfast, then walked to the outer courtyard of Topkapi Palace. The Archeology Museum was closed but a sarcophagus (early Byzantine?) near the entrance caught our eye with its simple, very sober bas relief of a married couple and their two children. Back in the Topkapi park, we walked over to the executioner’s fountain where swords and hands were washed after beheadings — our joke is that the occasional rude tourist is still dispatched here from time to time. Then we paused to shop in a government-run craft store to buy a few small gifts: a black alabaster cat for Anne, a small copper coffee pot for Cait, a meerschaum pipe for Jim, a leather bag for Nancy. We then went to the café that caught our eye two days earlier, the Cafer Aga Courtyard, in the 16th century a Moslem school, now a school of traditional crafts with an inexpensive restaurant in the center. Our waiter is learning to make marbled paper; he is also a kick-boxer who aspires to Hollywood.

In the afternoon, accepting an invitation from Ali, we drove with him to Eyup, a section of the city on the Golden Horn just beyond the Theodosian walls. After lunch at a beautiful traditional restaurant in which we seem to be the only non-Turks — an inspiring meal — we walked the short distance to the Eyup Mosque, one of the holiest shrines in the Islamic world as one of the principal collaborators of Mohammad is buried there: Eyup Ensari, who took part in the first Moslem siege of Constantinople in the 7th century. When the city finally fell to Mehmet the Conqueror eight centuries later, one of Mehmet’s first actions was find the place where Eyup Ensari was buried and build a mosque and tomb. Most of the people we saw were either locals or pilgrims. There was an intense sense of devotion in the vicinity of the mosque. Both inside and out we were hit by a powerful sense of sacred space. The Dutch and French tour groups that arrived while we were there tended to underscore the inappropriateness of purely secular interest in such an environment. While people nearby were at prayer, the guides were pointing out details in the mosque’s decoration. But soon the two groups were back in their buses and the disruption was over.

We left, deeply moved, and made our way home.

We met Shannon for our last dinner together in Istanbul. We had promised Ozgur that we would have a meal in his restaurant (”If you eat here, you will not be sorry”), and so went to Time Out for a simple meal. Ozgur spent a lot of time with us, talking. He is both shy and eager to talk, an unusual combination. As we left, he asked Jim if we would come back before we left as he wanted to talk to us about something important.
29 April, Bright Tuesday

We had breakfast with Shannon at the Artemis Hotel, then helped get her on the tram to the airport. After seeing her on her way, we stopped at a bookshop and bought Strolling in Istanbul, a thick guide with few pictures but an immense amount of detail, and a well-illustrated Turkish cookbook, as Nancy has taken to Turkish cooking and wants to bring something of Istanbul back to our table in Alkmaar.

Back at the hotel, Ali introduced us to Gabi, his wife, whom he met in Hungary when he had a business there. All four of us drove up the Bosphorus on its European side, stopping at a massive castle built in 1452 by Mahmet II — Rumeli Hisan, also known as the Fortress of Europe — in preparation for the attack on and conquest of Constantinople the following year. Those final months before the city fell its citizens must all have felt like condemned prisoners around whose necks a rope was being slowly tightened. The weakened city fell on the 29th of May after a 54-day siege. Ottoman cannons had carved a huge hole in Theodosius’ walls.

After scaling some of the fortress walls, we drove up to the Bosphorus Bridge and crossed over to the Asian side, driving south with the goal of a late lunch at the Maiden Tower restaurant, a former Istanbul lighthouse which can only be reached by ferry. We then took a much larger ferry that accommodated cars across the Bosphorus to the south shore of the Golden Horn near the Galata Bridge.

That evening we had a light supper at the café near the southwestern edge of the Hippodrome after a young man belonging to the owner’s family came out and gave us his pitch. We went in and had kebabs. Afterward our host sat with us, ordering coffee and baklava as his treat, and told us about what a special restaurant this is. He pointed to a monument by the restaurant entrance that was erected in remembrance of victims of terrorism. His brother was among those who were killed. His father is a political journalist. Everyone working at the restaurant is a member of the family. Our host had studied architecture but now wants to be more politically involved. His family borrowed money from all over to buy the restaurant.

30 April, Bright Wednesday

We found a fruit and vegetable street market had been set up along the White Moustache Street. On each stand the display of vegetables was a work of art. Then we went to the Museum of Archeology, an amazing collection of ancient pieces beautifully lit and exhibited. The sarcophagi from Sidon were especially amazing, so perfectly preserved, and the large Byzantine collection was also extremely good.

We had tea in the museum’s tea garden, then walked to the crafts center near Hagia Sophia where our kick-boxer waiter, Josh, served us and gave us a piece of marbled paper he had made himself.

On the way back to the hotel we stopped at a Ministry of Culture shop and bought a silver spoon as a baptismal present for Alexander Bakker, Jim’s latest god-son. His baptism will be this Sunday. From there we headed for the Museum of Mosaics just behind the Blue Mosque where the Great Palace had stood in the Byzantine era. Along the way we stopped to admire a large pilaf platter, beautifully painted. The shop owner came out and offered to sell it for 37 euros, too good a price to refuse. We took it, and the man wrapped it up in bubble wrap for us.

Then we walked to the Museum of Mosaics and admired the beautifully preserved mosaics that had graced the imperial palace. It was thanks to Harry and Lyn Isbell that we had put this on the “must see” list. Harry had written: “It’s amazing what can happen when good taste meets up with unlimited money. Though the mosaics are huge, as would befit an Imperator Deluxe, the museum and its capacity are quite small because one views them from a narrow catwalk built over and around the edges.”

We next walked to the nearby Time Out restaurant for talk with Ozgur over tea — he wanted to discuss his struggle with depression — and then walked back through the street market, where Jim bought prayer beads made of green stone (just over one euro). We went back to the hotel, then spent some time at the Marmara Café where we had apple tea, tried a water pipe (very cool and mild, with an apple flavor), and wrote postcards.

The day ended with dinner at Ali and Gabi’s home. The main dish was some delicious and spicy Hungarian goulash that Gabi had cooked herself. Ali’s business partner was there as well, and a young woman who is a friend of theirs and also works in the hotel business.

1 May, Bright Thursday

Jim’s day started with a long taxi drive to a post office building that handles packages — he had to pick up copies of his Albania book that had been sent by the World Council of Churches. Fortunately one of the hotel staff came with him to help or Jim would still be waiting at one of the many windows to obtain yet another stamp on yet another form. If this is a typical experience of Turkish bureaucracy, one feels immense compassion for the Turkish people. Apart from the time in the taxi, it took about an hour to receive the box of books. There was a 10-million lira payment to be made (about six euros), and the taxi fare coming and going was 20-million. All for eight copies of a book that we had hoped to have waiting for us at the hotel on arrival in Istanbul so that Shannon could take them back to Albania. Now the books will fly back with us to Holland. Mailing anything more substantial than a letter from Istanbul is out of the question.

We walked to the Spice Market where we purchased of Iranian saffron, sweet paprika, cardamon, sumak, dried apple (for making apple tea), and a pound of Turkish delight, then walked across the Galata Bridge, this time on the lower level, where which is filled with shops and fish restaurants. Rather than climb the hill on the other side we took the Tünel (one of Europe’s earliest subways), then took the tram to Taksim Square (full of police because of May Day demonstrations in the area). From there we walked back more or less the same route but with numerous detours, among them a nice visit to the Armenian Church — Holy Trinity — where we were given a warm welcome by a church official complete with tea. We had a light lunch in a restaurant in the Cicik Pasaji; stopped in at the Robinson Crusoe bookshop where we bought a Turkish-language Amsterdam guide book for Ali and Gabi (to make more real our invitation to them to come stay with us sometime in the future) and a copy of Hamlet for Ozgur. We had a first-rate cappuccino at the Pera Palas Hotel (built in 1892 to receive passengers of the Orient Express) but had no encounter with Agatha Chrystie or Graham Greene. It was at the Pera Palas in 1926 that Chrystie started writing Murder on the Orient Express.

We then went down hill on foot from the Galata Tower, walking back across the bridge but this time on the lower southern side, pausing occasionally to watch the many ferries and smaller boats and also admire the many fish restaurants.

Having been at the Pera Palas, we stopped briefly at the train station which is the departure point for the Orient Express, lately revived, Ali tells us. Then another walk through the Topkapi grounds followed by a brief pause at the Time Out Restaurant to give Ozgur his Hamlet. We had a cup of tea with Ali and Gabi on the Artemis roof, giving them both the Amsterdam guide book and Jim’s Albania book, then went out to supper with Ali and Gabi at the Asitane restaurant next to the Chora Church — at last they were our guests…

2 May, Bright Friday

We woke early and taxied to the ferry in time to catch the 9:15 ferry for passage to the Princes Islands in the Sea of Marmara. The weather was sunny and cool, but it promised to be perfect weather for a day outdoors. We passed the three smaller islands and after about an hour and fifteen minutes got off at the largest — Buyukada — once a place of semi-imprisonment in Byzantine times for princes and princesses who had fallen out of the emperor’s good will. More recently Leon Trotsky, on the run from Stalin, lived for five years in one of the island’s finest mansions — from Bolshevik terrorism to luxurious exile! There are at least two monasteries on the island.

We bought a map of the island at a shop on the quay as well as a cloth hat for Jim and stopped for cappuccino (not nearly Pera Palas quality). We decided to go to St. George’s Monastery in the south end of the island, going part of the way by horse-drawn carriage and walking the rest of the way. There are no cars permitted on the island, except for service vehicles like ambulances and police cars and a few small delivery trucks. The main road is filled with these horse-drawn carriages, quite colorful and fun. As we drove along we were passed by a carriage carrying four young people, the elderly driver tearing down the road and urging his horses on at a gallop. The kids in the carriage seemed delighted, but it was way too fast for such a road and such a vehicle. (A few hundred meters further we came upon an accident — the galloping carriage had lost a wheel, both horses were lying on their sides, the four kids were walking around dazed, and the driver had a gash on his cheek and looked very disoriented. Our driver stopped and helped get the horses up and pull the wrecked carriage out of the road. An ambulance soon arrived to take the driver away.)

St George monastery from the air

We passed many beautiful old wooden houses, some nicely restored, some showing signs of great wealth, some urgently in need of restoration. The island is covered with beautiful trees and seems almost Caribbean.

We finally arrived at the beginning of the road up to the monastery. It wasn’t clear from the map, but this is a long uphill climb on a cobblestone path. We started up and noticed that all along the path there were pieces of fabric and napkins tied to the branches of bushes lining the pathway, and lots of thread running along the path. It reminded Jim of the prayer flags in Tibet. We saw this all the way up the mountain. We also came across a chain of marching caterpillars trying to cross the path, one after the other front to back, as if they were physically connected. Quite amazing.

The view was wonderful, and there were several places along the way where you could sit and rest. Finally we reached the top, but unfortunately the church was locked. We discovered a back corner of the monastery where many people had lit candles. When we arrived, some older Turkish women were there clearly at prayer, hands together, palms up — one of those instances where Muslims worship at Christian shrines. On one side of the monastery a large family gathering was underway around a long table. Behind the monastery we found a small café where we shared a bottle of beer and sat in the shade, admiring the scenery and resting. Then we walked to the place where the candles were — many were lit — and lit two ourselves, praying. Then we walked back down the hill and took another carriage back to the village.

image of St George on the side of the monastery

A member of the staff at the Artemis Hotel had told us to look for the Milano restaurant for lunch, and we found it — one of the several restaurants all lined up along the water’s edge running south from the boat dock. Sitting right on the waterside, we had an exceptional lunch of grilled bluefish. Then we walked around the village a bit, making our way to the boat landing, found an ice cream stand whose homemade product was astonishingly good, bought return tickets and took the 3:35 boat back to the city. It was 5:20 by the time we got back, and we walked to the hotel to rest.

At 8:00 Ali called us to let us know that he and Gabi were taking us to “Istanbul’s best restaurant.” We took a taxi to a kebab shop in Sultanahmet just a little way down the street from one of the city’s oldest mosques, where we were met by Ali’s partner, Metin Sidirtmac. To enter, you had to walk down a couple of steps. It was a single small room with a grill built into the wall. There was a counter and a table where the cooks — father and son — were preparing kebabs. Two round knee-high tables for provided for customers. We sat on little reed-seated stools. There were photos on the wall from the town where Ali grew up — Gaziantep — which was where the owner also came from. Jim told Ali if we had to find this place, looking only for Istanbul’s best restaurant, he would have walked past it several times without imagining this was it.

The cook was making kebabs on a charcoal oven in the wall. Ali told us he trims all the fat off the meat so it’s very lean, and took us outside to show us where the fatty scraps had been left for the street cats. The cook makes kebabs from lamb chunks and a kind of sausage meat, nicely spiced. In a few minutes he brought our meal to the table — a huge tray with long oval sheets of bread on the bottom, covered by the two kinds of kebabs plus grilled eggplant, onions, garlic, tomatoes and peppers. You tear off a piece of bread, arrange all these things inside, roll it up and eat it. Because you’re sitting so low, it’s easy to sort of hunker over your meal without too much mess. We drank ayran (the standard Turkish drink of yogurt, water and salt), which was perfect with the spicy food. There was also water at the table. The forks were plastic — there’s no place to wash dishes. The owner and his son were busy making more vegetables and kebab and a wonderful salad of chopped tomatoes, parsley and onions with sumak sprinkled over them. He made this on a big thick chopping block that had been used so much it had a well in the center. His knife was a big cleaver. The atmosphere in the place was great.

Ali asked them to play a particular CD of a famous Turkish poet and singer — also from Gaziantep — who had recently died. One of the songs he was singing was a song demanding that America leave Turkey alone. The guys at the next table smiled at us, and we just smiled back, fully agreeing that the world has had more than enough empires.

After a huge meal we walked back to the hotel, passing Constantine’s Column on the way, 35 meters high, standing next to a tram stop. In the fourth century it was the pedestal — at the time even higher — of a large bronze statue of Constantine but this is long gone.

Back at the hotel we sat in the lobby and drank some wine, then Ali suggested we go up on the roof terrace. His partner brought a bottle of Hungarian wine — Black Bull — he had hidden away for a special event and we sat around a table under the stars, watching dozens of birds circle around the lights of the Blue Mosque, drinking wine and telling stories, until about 11:30. Our last night in Istanbul. Perfect.

3 May, Bright Saturday

After packing there was time to visit the Blue Mosque — we had walked past it time and again but never entered — followed by a final cup of tea at the Marmara Café. Then off in Ali’s car to the airport…

* * *

addendum re St George Monastery

April 12, 2011

Muslims Who Venerate Saint George

by William Gourlay / Eureka Street

On an island known to the Greeks as Prinkipo, Ayshe Özakcam spends six months of the year attending a small stall beside a steep cobbled path. She sells home-grown plums, and apples, which she peels and quarters deftly with a sharp knife, to pilgrims passing en route to the Orthodox Church of Ayios Giorgios (St George) on the summit of the island.

What is intriguing about this is not that Ayshe ekes out a living by selling apples, or that she sits all day in the full glare of the Mediterranean sun, but that she is a Muslim, that the island is off the coast of Istanbul, the great Turkish metropolis, and that the majority of visitors to the Orthodox church are in fact Ayshe’s fellow Turks.

Ayshe sees nothing remarkable in this. She doesn’t appear to dwell on the faith or motivations of those puffing past her up the hill. When I ask her who the most common visitors are here she can’t answer definitively. ‘Greek, Turks,’ she shrugs. ‘Everybody!’

On the day of my visit, in late summer, she may not be far wrong. On the island (called Büyükada by the Turks), I encounter well-healed Istanbul locals, Turkish matriarchs in headscarves and dour gabardines, a black-garbed Greek widow, and a gaggle of Iranian tourists who offer around pistachios.

But the busiest day of the year is St George’s Day, April 23, when Turks come by the thousands, taking advantage of the fact that the date coincides with a national public holiday, Independence Day. Crowding onto ferries in Istanbul, they arrive on Büyükada early in the morning, Muslim pilgrims en route to a Greek Orthodox church to ask favours of St George.

‘The path to the monastery is packed with bodies,’ recalls long-term Turkish resident and journalist Pat Yale of her visit on St George’s Day last year. A festive air reigns. At the base of the hill pilgrims buy charms and trinkets designated for whatever they may be praying for: health, love, marriage, children. ‘People unspool cotton along the lower slopes,’ says Pat, ‘and some hand out cubes of sugar.’

These are Muslim customs; cotton threads in white, red or green signify wishes for peace, love or money; the sharing of sugar and sweets is characteristic of Turkish hospitality and communal gaiety.

At the top of the hill pilgrims bustle forward to be allowed into the church in small groups where, with hands upturned in an attitude of prayer, they pass slowly before Greek icons and place handwritten entreaties to St George in a wish box. Outside again they form an orderly queue to be blessed by an Orthodox priest and then proceed on their way.

But aren’t the Greeks and Turks mortal enemies? Isn’t their mutual antagonism prima facie evidence of the ‘clash of civilisations’, the incompatibility of Muslim and Christian cultures? On the face of this, perhaps not. No one is sure when the Muslim practice of venerating St George began, but it is well documented.

In the early 1900s, Edith Durham encountered Albanian Sufis who observed St George’s feast day. In his much-lauded travelogue, From the Holy Mountain, William Dalrymple tells of Palestinian Muslims crowding into a musty Church of St George near Jerusalem. These are just a few of countless instances of Muslim-Christian symbiosis throughout the Balkans and the Levant.

After enjoying one of Ayshe’s tart apples, I continue up the path towards the church, enjoying sweeping views of the Sea of Marmara and the Asian and European shores of Istanbul. Along the route, remnant cotton threads linger on the trunks of scrubby oak and pine trees, and votive rags flutter from the branches of wild olives.

The church itself is not of architectural note, but it too offers panoramic views. Nearby the Turks have, perhaps inevitably, built a teahouse and restaurant. The site seems quintessentially Mediterranean to me, combining the Greek genius for building places of worship in remote locales with the Turkish predilection for tea and other such sedate pleasures in picturesque landscapes.

A Turkish teahouse abutting a Greek church, and Muslim pilgrims receiving blessing from Orthodox priests strike me as powerful evidence that civilisations do not inevitably clash, that where faiths meet the result need not be a tussle whereby one must cancel the other out. Through long interaction and mutual respect, cultures can fuse and meld, adopting and adapting from each other.

St George, the ‘warrior saint’, may be puzzled by all of this. Known for smiting the dragon he offered inspiration to belligerent Crusaders, but for countless years on Büyükada he has brought members of different faiths together. On April 23rd, as at many times during the year, their prayers in different languages will again intermingle and rise heavenwards.

* * *

Thomas Merton: a poster boy?

Often works of biography reveal more about the author than about his subject. Mark Shaw’s recent book about Thomas Merton strikes me as a case in point. Here is the review I wrote for the Winter issue of The Merton Seasonal.


* * *

Beneath the Mask of Holiness:
Thomas Merton and the Forbidden Love Affair That Set Him Free

by Mark Shaw
Palgrave Macmillan, 256 pages, $27

review by Jim Forest

While still a young, aspiring writer who had not yet set his sights on becoming a monk, Merton lamented his latest rejection letter in a journal entry with which any writer can identity: “Other people’s bad books get published,” he noted in his journal. “Why can’t my bad book get published?” Mark Shaw has much to celebrate. Despite (or perhaps because of) his purple prose style and sensationalist approach to the life of Thomas Merton, his particular bad book has gotten published.

The book centers on what Shaw presents as shocking revelations of closely-guarded secrets. The reader learns that, while a college student in England, Merton had a sexual liaison that resulted in the birth of an out-of-wedlock child; and then later in life, long after becoming a monk, fell in love with a nurse he met while recovering from surgery.

Is there anyone with the remotest interest in Merton’s life who is unaware of Mark Shaw’s headline news? Soon after Merton’s death in 1968, his friend Ed Rice became the first to write, in The Man in the Sycamore Tree, about Merton fathering a child while at Clare College, Cambridge. No subsequent biographer has ignored the event. As for his affair with the nurse when he was 50, it was first described a quarter century ago by Michael Mott in The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton. It is now more than a decade since Merton’s journals about the affair, included in Learning to Love, were published.

Shaw is indignant that Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, published in 1948, referred in only “watered down” terms to the more serious sins he committed before he became a monk. This is nothing less than intentional misrepresentation, Shaw asserts, “the result of a concerted effort to disguise a tormented sinner as some sort of plastic saint rehabilitated through monastic practices.” (21) The real Merton was transformed into a Catholic “poster boy.” (p vii)

Continuing in the same vein, Shaw sees the lack of detail as nothing less that the result of “a quiet conspiracy, a cover up, if you will, by not only Merton, but also the Catholic Church hierarchy stretching from the United States to the Vatican, Abbot Frederic Dunne [Merton’s abbot when he wrote the book], Merton’s literary agent, and his publisher, none of whom did anything other than promote the book as factual even though critical parts did not disclose the whole truth. Strict censorship, in effect, issued a restraining order on Merton’s true story, omitting crucial information about him, and readers were hoodwinked and misled into believing that while Merton may have been a sinner prior to entering Gethsemani, he was not ‘that bad’ a sinner.” (21)

Thus the book’s title: Beneath the Mask of Holiness. Shaw sees “holiness” as a disguise that the Catholic Church and the Trappist Order managed to squeeze Merton into. But, thanks to his affair in 1965, Merton finally discovered what life was all about and thus was no longer “a schizophrenic persona, passive on the outside while pangs of anguish and fear patrolled within him.” (9)

If such over-heated sentences appeal to you, either for content or prose style, I urge you to rush out and buy a copy. Otherwise save your time and money for a better book.

Perhaps it’s not entirely accidental that the reader is reminded of Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code, populated by evil Catholics whose goal in life is to conceal the truth. In Shaw’s book, Merton is assigned the starring role in an anti-Catholic tract. (In the book’s last chapter, Shaw speculates that Merton may have been murdered, in which case “the logical suspects would be directives hired by the Catholic Church hierarchy, who were afraid of a scandal if Merton were to return to his lover or leave Gethsemani.” [213-4])

If you want to know about actual Merton’s life, including those events that he brought to confession, read Merton himself or one of his less conspiracy-minded biographers.

Regarding his year at Cambridge, Merton asked aloud in The Seven Storey Mountain, “Shall I wake up the dirty ghosts under the trees of the Backs and out beyond the Clare New Building and in some rooms down on Chesterton Road?” He decided to let the ghosts slumber. “There would certainly be no point whatever in embarrassing other people with the revelation of so much cheap sentimentality mixed up with even cheaper sin,” as he put it in an earlier draft of the autobiography. It was characteristic of Merton to take pains not to embarrass others.

What Merton makes crystal clear in The Seven Storey Mountain, as published, is that it was a hellish interval in his life, “an incoherent riot of undirected passion,” as he put it — a time of “beer, bewilderment and sorrow,” in the words of his friend, Bob Lax. “I had fallen through the surface of old England,” Merton wrote, “into the hell, the vacuum and the horror that London was nursing in her avaricious heart.” He remembers reading Freud, Jung, and Adler, struggling to understand “the mysteries of sex-repression.”

Though clearly something dreadful occurred, the reader was left guessing exactly what actually happened — something to do with the mysteries of sex-repression, clearly, but what? On the other hand, what Merton shared with his readers is a great deal more than is provided by most authors of autobiographies. In Charlie Chaplin’s autobiography, to give one typical example, Chaplin simply skipped over some of the more painful or humiliating moments in his life, while inventing or radically revising others.

For all its sorrows, Merton’s year at Cambridge wasn’t a total loss. Perhaps the high point was Professor Edward Bullough’s class on Dante. Canto by canto, Merton read his way to the frozen core of hell, finally ascending through purgatory toward the bliss of heaven, a “slow and majestic progress of … myths and symbols.” It was purgatory’s seven storey mountain that provided Merton with the metaphor for his autobiography.

While Shaw provides a compact if voyeuristic chronicle of how Merton fell in love with a young nurse and what occurred between them in the weeks that followed, by far the best and most vivid and three-dimensional account of the same story is related by Merton himself in Learning to Love. Here the reader gets both a day-by-day history of what happened as well as a poignant account of his struggle to make sense of what all this meant, his justifications side-by-side with his self-recriminations. Here one can also can read about the very human community Merton was a part of and his frustrations with his abbot, James Fox – and then hear him express his gratitude for both.

Unfortunately, Shaw seems to have no understanding of or sympathy with Merton’s basic choices: to become a Christian, to be baptized in the Catholic Church, and then to embrace monastic life in a penitential order. It was ultimately because of Merton’s renewed realization that he had a monastic vocation, not a vocation to marriage, that made him end the affair.

It wasn’t, in my opinion, Merton’s finest hour. Many priests suffer from extreme loneliness and have affairs which, in most cases, end as Merton’s did. I have known several women at the other end of similar stories who felt abandoned, suffered from a deep sense of rejection for years afterward, and even wrestled with thoughts of suicide. The fact that this particular story involves Thomas Merton doesn’t make it better and mean that, thanks to the special magic of the Merton factor, it became an encounter sprinkled with pixie dust for the young woman who so desperately loved him.

“God writes straight with crooked lines,” says a Portugese proverb. After the affair, Merton realized he needed not only a hermitage but also vital relationship with several Kentucky families he had begun to know. Never a hard-hearted man, he became even more compassionate. One hopes the nurse he loved was also able to make good use of the intense relationship she had with Merton in that period of her life. (In the past, biographers have shielded her identity, either using the initial “M,” as Merton did in his journals, or her first name, Margie. To his shame, Shaw reveals her family name.)

One could write much more about Shaw’s book and its thesis that it was only thanks to his affair that the true Merton at last emerged from hiding rather than remaining a masked counterfeit coined by the Catholic Church. But then I would have to discuss every chapter, the reading of which is a penance I leave only to those who find ordinary penances inadequate.

The Way of the Holy Fools

St Basil the Blessed, Holy Fool of Moscow

[a talk given at the Center for Spiritual Development in Orange, California, 18 October 2008]

by Jim Forest

In the Beatitudes, Jesus blessed the pure of heart, but — let’s be frank — this is now out of date. But what can one expect of so old a book? Jesus didn’t even use e-mail. What Jesus should have said is, “Blessed are the clever of mind. Blessed are the smart.” This would suit us much better. The heart has gone down in the world while the brain has ascended.

The result of this shift is that few taunts are sharper than those which call into question someone’s intelligence and still more his sanity: “He’s crazy. He’s a fool. He’s an idiot. He’s out of touch. He’s missing a few nuts and bolts. He isn’t playing with a full deck. There are some bulbs missing in the marquee. There are bats in his belfry.”

Yet there are saints whose acts of witness to the Gospel fly in the face of what most of us regard as sanity. The Russian Church has a special word for such saints, yurodivi, meaning holy fools or, as it’s sometimes put, Fools for Christ’s sake. These are wild souls whose odd behavior many people would regard as madness.

In Leo Tolstoy’s memoir of his childhood, he fondly recalls Grisha, a holy fool who sometimes wandered about his parent’s estate and even came into the mansion itself without knocking on the door. “He gave little icons to those he took a fancy to,” Tolstoy remembered.

Among the local gentry, some regarded Grisha as a pure soul whose presence was a blessing. Others, including Tolstoy’s father, dismissed Grisha as a lazy peasant. “I will only say one thing,” Tolstoy’s mother said at table one night, opposing her husband’s view that Grisha should be put in prison. “It is hard to believe that a man, though he is sixty, goes barefoot summer and winter and always under his clothes wears chains weighing seventy pounds, and who has more than once declined a comfortable life …. It is hard to believe that such a man does all this merely because he is lazy.”

We meet two other holy fools in Dostoevsky’s novel, Crime and Punishment.

First there is Lizaveta, one of the women murdered by Raskolnikov. Lizaveta is a simple-minded young woman who has an absolutely pure soul. She regards no one with enmity and is loved by many.

What a contrast she is to Raskolnikov, who kills Lizaveta simply because she has the misfortune to witness his murder of a money-lender. Raskolnikov is a bitter young scholar who has lost his Christian faith. The name Dostoevsky assigned to his anti-hero is based on the Russian verb meaning “to cut off” or “slice,” as in cutting a slice from a loaf of bread. Raskolnikov’s name suggests that he is a person cut off from the whole, a man who has broken communion with others. He has convinced himself that certain people — the clever, the brilliant, the born leaders — are not subject to the same pedestrian moral code imposed on ordinary people. For such people, for someone like himself, good can be achieved through evil means.

Dostoevsky’s other holy fool is Sonya, ultimately Raskolnikov’s rescuer, who has been pressed into prostitution for the sake of her impoverished family. Sonya is the novel’s heroine.

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

Dostoevsky comments: “How strange these bookish words sounded to [Raskolnikov]; and here was another new thing: [Sonya’s] mysterious get-togethers with Lizaveta — two holy fools.”

“One might well become a holy fool oneself here,” exclaims Raskolnikov. “It’s catching!” [The translation is from Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation.]

Grisha, Lizaveta and Sonya represent the rank-and-file of Russia’s yurodivi. Few such men and women are canonized, just as few of the saints we happen to meet in life are canonized, but nonetheless they inspire and even give new direction to many of those around them. In their unconventional ways of life, they are surprising reminders of God’s presence.

While there is great variety among them, holy fools in every case are ascetic Christians living well outside the borders of ordinary social behavior, including conventional religious behavior. They are people who in many countries would be locked away in asylums or simply ignored until the elements silenced them, after which they would be thrown into unmarked graves.

While this type of saint is chiefly associated with Eastern Christianity, the Western Church also has an impressive supply of holy fools, even if it rarely applies to them a label suggesting foolishness.

St Francis of Assisi
St. Francis of Assisi is chief among the holy fools of the west. Think of him stripping off his clothes and standing naked before the bishop in Assisi’s main square, or preaching to birds, or taming a wolf, or during the Crusades walking unarmed across the Egyptian desert into the Sultan’s camp where he had every reason to expect his own death. What at first may seem like charming scenes, when placed on the rough surface of actual life, become mad moments indeed.

The most famous of Russia’s holy fools was a Muscovite, St. Basil the Blessed, after whom the colorful cathedral on Red Square takes its name. In an ancient icon housed in that church, Basil is shown clothed only in a lengthy beard. In the background is the Kremlin’s Savior Tower. Basil’s hands are raised in prayer toward a small image of Jesus revealed in an opening in the sky. Basil the holy fool has a meek quality but also a single-minded, intelligent face.

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

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

Basil, a contemporary of Tsar Ivan the Terrible, was one of the few who dared warn the tsar that his violent deeds were dooming him to hell. According to one story, in the midst of Lent, when Russians keep a rigorous vegetarian fast, Basil presented the tsar with a slab of raw beef, telling him that there was no reason in his case not to eat meat. “Why abstain from meat,” asked Basil, “when you murder men?”

Ivan, whose irritated glance was a death sentence to others, is said to have lived in dread of Basil. He would allow no harm to be done to him and occasionally even sent gifts to the naked prophet of the streets, but Basil kept none of these for himself. Most that he received he gave to beggars, though in one surprising instance a gift of gold from the tsar was passed on to a merchant, a man others imagined was well off, but whom Basil knew had been ruined and was actually starving while maintaining a facade of wealth. Once Basil poured vodka on the street, another royal gift. He wanted, he said, to put out the fires of sin.

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

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

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

St Xenia of Petersburg, Holy Fool for Christ

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


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

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

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

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

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

Why does the Church occasionally canonize people whose lives are not only completely at odds with civil society but who often barely fit ecclesiastical society either?

The answer must be that holy fools dramatize something about God that most Christians find embarrassing but which we vaguely recognize is crucial information.

Perhaps there is a sense in which each and every saint, even those who were scholars and whom we might regard as paragons of sanity, would be regarded as foolish, if not insane, by many in the modern world because of their devotion to a way of life that is completely senseless if viewed apart from the Gospel. Most saints embrace poverty. None are careerists. Every saint is troubling. Every saint reveals some of our fears and makes us question our fear-driven choices.

It is the special vocation of holy fools to live out, in a rough, literal, breath-taking way, the “hard sayings” of Jesus. Like the Son of Man, they often have no place to lay their heads, and, again like him, they live with empty pockets (thus Jesus, in responding to a question about paying taxes, had no coin of his own with which to display Caesar’s image; he had to borrow a coin from the man asking the question).

While never harming anyone, many holy fools raise their voices against those who lie and cheat and do violence to others, but at the same time they are always ready to embrace these same greedy and ruthless people. They take everyone seriously. In their eyes, absolutely no one is unimportant. In fact, the only thing always important for them, apart from God, are the people around them, whoever they are, no matter how limited or damaged they may be. Their dramatic gestures, however shocking, always have to do with revealing the person of Christ and his mercy.

For most people, clothing serves as a message of how high they have risen and how secure — or insecure — they are. holy fools wear the wrong clothes, or rags, or perhaps nothing at all. This is a witness that they have nothing to lose. There is nothing to cling to and nothing for anyone to steal. The Fool for Christ, says Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, “has no possessions, no family, no position, and so can speak with a prophetic boldness. He cannot be exploited, for he has no ambition; and he fears God alone.”

The rag-dressed (or sometimes undressed) holy fool resembles Issa, the wandering Japanese poet who lived 200 years ago. Issa enjoyed possessing only what could not be taken away. In one tiny poem. He declares:

The thief left it behind
The moon in the window.

You can strip a house bare, right down to the wallpaper, even burn it to the ground, but the cosmos remains.

Inevitably, the voluntary destitution and absolute vulnerability of the holy fool challenges us with our locks and keys and schemes to outwit destitution, suffering and death.

While some holy fools may be people of lesser intelligence, this is the exception rather than the rule. Some were regarded as quite brilliant in their earlier life, but were led to wear the disguise of foolishness as a way of overcoming pride and a need for recognition of intellectual gifts or spiritual attainments.

A noted scholar of Russian spirituality, George Fedotov, pointed out that for all who seek mystical heights by following the traditional path of rigorous self-denial, there is always the problem of vainglory, “a great danger for monastic asceticism.” For such people a feigned madness, provoking from many others contempt or vilification, saves them from something worse: being honored.

One thinks of Dorothy Day’s famous comment: “Don’t call me a saint — I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” Nothing made her more uncomfortable than recognition.

Clearly, holy fools challenge an understanding of Christianity, more typical in Western than Eastern Christianity, that gives the intellectually gifted people a head start not only in economic efforts but spiritual life. But the Gospel and sacramental life aren’t just for smart people. At the Last Judgment we will not be asked how clever we were, or how highly regarded and successful, but how merciful. Our academic ability won’t save us.

It is revealing to note that, in Western Christianity, the idea gradually took hold that participation in eucharistic life presupposed having reached “the age of reason” and the communicant had the ability to understand and explain his or her faith. I would guess this practice goes back at least to the Reformation. Thus in the West children below “the age of reason” — seven or eight years old — have long been barred from receiving communion. It is quite the opposite in the Orthodox Church, where, following baptism, the younger the child, the closer he or she is to the front of the communion line. (From an Orthodox Christian point of view, it is far from certain that anyone, even the most brilliant, ever reaches the age when the primary mysteries of existence can be understood or explained. In the Orthodox Church, the sacraments are referred to as the Mysteries.)

In their outlandish behavior, holy fools pose a question each of us needs to consider: Are we keeping heaven at a distance by clinging to the good regard of others and what those around us regard as “sanity”?

What is generally regarded as sanity may have little or nothing to do with holiness. The psychiatrists who examined Adolph Eichmann, the chief administrator of Hitler’s extermination camps, was found to be “perfectly sane.” This led Thomas Merton to write an essay in which he made this comment:

The sanity of Eichmann is disturbing. We equate sanity with a sense of justice, with humaneness, with prudence, with the capacity to love and understand other people. We rely on the sane people of the world to preserve it from barbarism, madness, destruction. And now it begins to dawn on us that it is precisely the sane ones who are the most dangerous. It is the sane ones, the well-adapted ones, who can without qualms and without nausea aim the missiles and press the buttons that will initiate the great festival of destruction that they, the sane ones, have prepared…. No one suspects the sane, and the sane ones will have perfectly good reasons, logical, well-adjusted reasons, for firing the shot. They will be obeying sane orders that have come sanely down the chain of command.” [Raids on the Unspeakable (New York: New Directions, 1966), pp 45-53.]

Surely the same psychiatrists who interviewed Eichmann would have found St. Basil the Blessed, St. Xenia of Petersburg and St. Francis all insane. And what would they conclude about that most revered of all mad men, Jesus of Nazareth, who foolishly went to Jerusalem well aware that, as surely as apples fall to the ground, he would be led to the cross and die one of Rome’s most painful and humiliating deaths?

The holy fools shout out with their mad words and deeds that to seek God is not necessarily the same thing as to seek sanity.

We need to think more critically about sanity, a word most of us cling to with a steel grip. I am not recommending any of us should embrace madness, but I do ask the question whether fear of being regarded by others as less than sensible confines me in a cage of “responsible” behavior that limits my freedom and cripples my ability to love?

Henry David Thoreau was by no means the most conventional man of his time. There must have been those who questioned his sanity. He lost a teaching job because of his refusal to whip disobedient children. One of his gestures, an act of protest against the Mexican-American War, was to spend a night in jail for refusing to pay a tax. For two years he lived alone in a tiny cabin next to Walden Pond. How astonished Thoreau would be to discover that his face eventually landed on a U.S. postage stamp! He lamented on his death bed, “What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?”

Thoreau would have felt a bond with holy fools, those men and women who remind us of a deeper sanity that is sometimes hidden beneath apparent lunacy: the treasure of a God-centered life.

Holy fools like St. Basil, St. Xenia and St. Francis are God-obsessed people who throw into the bonfire anything that gets in the way or leads them down blind alleys.

But where does their path actually lead them? It is easier to say where they are not headed and what they are not taking with them than to describe where they are going. One can use a phrase like “the kingdom of God.” but this reveals no more about what it is to live in the Holy Spirit than a dictionary entry on oranges reveals about the taste of an orange.

Still there is the question: Were at least some of the holy fools, after all, not crazy? The answer must be maybe so. While the Fools for Christ who have been canonized are regarded by the Church as having worn madness as a mask, in fact no one knows how much a mask it really was, only that Christ shone brightly through their lives.

For most Russian people, as the scholar Fedotov pointed out, “the difficulty [confronting many others] does not exist. Sincere [lunacy] or feigned, a madman with religious charisma … is always a saint, perhaps the most beloved saint in Russia.”

As Paul wrote to the newly-founded church in Corinth: “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound those who are mighty.” (1 Cor 1:27)

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This text is an expanded version of a chapter in Jim Forest’s book, Praying with Icons (Orbis).

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Jim Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands
e-mail: jhforest /at/
Jim & Nancy Forest web site:
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The “Other” as Icon

lecture by Jim Forest for the June 2002 conference of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship at St. Tikhon’s Monastery, South Canaan, Pennsylvania

a beggar prays for help

You’re walking down a street and see a man in stained clothing sitting on the pavement, a paper coffee cup in front of him. As you pass by, he asks if you could contribute something toward his next meal. Though unshaven and in need of a shower, he’s young and muscular, apparently healthy and capable of working. You’ve just walked past a dozen help wanted signs. What thoughts pass through your mind? How do you respond?

As the sun is setting you notice several teen-agers down the street, speaking abusively in voices that can be heard 50 yards away. They seem to be looking for trouble. What do you think and feel as you look at them? Do you continue on the same path or find an alternate route? How do you respond?

You turn on the news and hear a report concerning the murder of a young woman. There’s a photo of her taken from her high school year book — a beautiful face and bright smile, a face full of life and promise. She is like one of your own children. Based on information from witnesses, a drawing of a man seen running from the crime scene is shown along with a telephone number you should call if you have seen anyone resembling the suspect. You are warned not to approach him as he is regarded as armed and dangerous. The drawing lingers in your mind — an ominous, large-jawed face with narrow, staring eyes. What are your thoughts about the man being sought? How do you respond?

That evening you happen to see a TV news report about a man on death row who is less than twelve hours away from his execution. Years ago, it is explained, he murdered an elderly couple after breaking into their home. There is live reportage of a prayer vigil outside the prison — people carrying candles and signs with such messages as “Thou shalt not kill” and “Why do we kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong?” Nearby are another group, among them some of the relatives of the murder victims who approve of the execution and speak of it as bringing about a long-sought “closure.” “The man’s got what’s coming to him,” says one of them. There’s an interview taped earlier in the day with the man himself — frightened, bewildered, sorry for what he did, though he has only a hazy memory of the event itself. He blames the murders on his former drug addiction. A nun is interviewed who has visited the condemned man him from time to time. We hear her appeal to the governor not to allow the execution, which she describes as “ritual murder.” Finally there’s an interview with the governor. He says he cannot put himself above the jury that found the man guilty or the board that reviewed the case and affirmed its conclusion. His heart goes out not to the killer but to all the poeople forever wounded by these terrible murders. He says the execution will occur on schedule.

Listening to all these voices, what are your thoughts? With whose views do you identify? For whom, if anyone, are you praying? How do you respond?

Now think of September 11 — what happened that day in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania and what we have since learned regarding the people who carried out those actions, the people who planned them, and those who died as a result — policemen, firemen, office workers, pilots, stewardesses, airplane passengers, Pentagon staff, government workers — thousands of lives snuffed out, children orphaned, men and women suddenly without their spouses: mass murder done by people who see themselves as agents of God’s wrath.

What do we think of those who carried out these actions? Those who planned them? What do you think should be done about such people? Does this pose a challenge of any kind to you personally? Does it have anything to do with your spiritual life? With your parish? How do you respond?

I mention all these situations and raise these questions to try to make more real — and more troubling — the word “other,” though in fact the word is much larger than what is suggested by my short litany of grim situations and dangerous people. Far from being a stranger, the “other” is often a spouse, a parent, one’s own child (whether born or unborn), one’s neighbors, co-workers, colleagues. It can be the angry driver in car just behind yours, the salesman who sold you shoddy goods, or the man in the Oval Office.

The “other” is anyone, whether for occasional seconds or uninterrupted decades, whom I feel as being remote from myself — a human being, yes, but not someone with whom I seek communion.

Let’s think for a moment about two of my favorite people, Adam and Eve, the first human beings, the common ancestors of each and every person we will ever meet. As the story is related in Genesis, they began as a single being. It is only when Adam — the original anthropos — feels lonely and envies the two-ness of all other creatures that God puts him in a state of deep sleep and then pulls the body of Eve out of Adam’s body. At this moment Adam becomes male, Eve female — two words that have no meaning except in the context of the other. The scene of the dividing of anthropos into male and female is shown in countless iconographic images that decorate ancient churches, a visual exploration of the mystery of being human: one becomes two, and each longs for the other; each is incomplete without the other. Two strive to become one. And from acts of healing their otherness, children are born: new others.

But first the Fall intervenes — that rupturing of the womb-like effortless communion that existed in the first days of human existence. Adam and Eve’s communion with the other is damaged. They became aware of being naked and find themselves ashamed of their condition. After failing in their attempt to hide from God, they then seek to shift the blame for eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge. “It is the because of the wife whom you gave me,” says Adam, both blaming Eve and blaming God for making the mistake of creating her. Eve, for her part, blames not herself but the fast-talking serpent. It’s the start of human estrangement and all consequent patterns of blaming: not my fault, but yours! The other is to blame.

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

We can imagine that Adam and Eve did not at first fully realize the consequences of their act of rejection — rejection of God’s command, then rejection of each other in their blaming the other rather than taking responsibility and repenting for their own sin.

Next comes the calamity of murder among their own children. Cain and Abel are divided by enmity. Brother becomes “other.” Love turns to envy, envy to hatred, hatred to violence, until Abel lies dead on the ground, a casualty of the first war.

And yet we are not condemned to enmity. Adam and Eve did not abandon each other after the Fall but lived in partnership and probably also in shared in repentance. They become the fountainhead of the human race.

Despite the sin they committed and all its consequences down through the centuries, the Church does not regard them as damned. It is Adam and Eve we see in the most impressive of Paschal icons, Christ harrowing hell. In my favorite version, from the Chora church in Constantinople, we see Christ simultaneously lifting both Adam and Eve from their tombs in the kingdom of death. They are equally objects of his mercy, and together recover their original oneness in Christ who made them and whose image they bear.

Here, in the opening chapter of Genesis, where we meet Adam and Eve, we come upon the first use in the Bible of the word “image” — ikon, in Greek.

Genesis was a text of special importance to Christian theologians of the early centuries and thus the subject of numerous Patristic commentaries. In Genesis the Fathers discovered the opening chords of central themes of the New Testament. In the creation narrative we see the work of the Logos, he who is himself the Alpha: the Word who is the beginning. We begin to meet the Creator in his creation, the Word in what comes into being by being spoken. Adam both resembles and prefigures Christ, the second Adam; Mary is prefigured in Eve, a new Eve in whom the ever-existing Divine Logos becomes incarnate; we see the Holy and Lifegiving Cross prefigured in the Tree of Life. The very sentence that declares humankind is made God’s image is also the first revelation of the Holy Trinity: “Let us make man according to our image and likeness…” (Genesis 1:26, translation from the Septuagint) Later in Genesis, there are the mysterious angelic figures, both one and three, who visit Abraham and Sarah under the oak of Mamre.

Think about the passage: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man [anthropos] according to our image and likeness and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created man in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

There is much to ponder in these two verses, several major themes, but today our concentration will be on the topic of image and likeness, going on from there to the problem and challenge of otherness.

This pair of verses, writes Andrew Louth, professor of Patristic and Byzantine studies and editor of a collection of patristic commentaries on the first eleven chapters of Genesis, “are perhaps the verses of the Old Testament most commented upon by the Fathers. The doctrine of man’s creation in the image of God is the foundation of patristic anthropology. The mention of his likeness to God points to the destiny of his sanctification and glorification.” [Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Genesis 1-12, Andrew Louth, ed; InterVaristy Press, 2001]

We know from the opening words of John’s Gospel that Christ is the Logos, the Word, and we know from Paul that Christ is also icon: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” (Col. 1:15) These key words — logos and ikon — illuminate each other.

Late in the second century, Clement of Alexandria commented: “For ‘the image of God’ is his Word … and an image of the Word is the true man, that is, the mind in Man, who on this account is said to be created ‘in the image’ of God and ‘in his likeness,’ because through his understanding heart he is made like the divine Word or Reason [Logos], and so rational [logikos].” (ACCS, Genesis, p 29) Another of the Fathers, Marcus Victorinus, remarks that in fact only Christ is the image of God, but mankind is made according to his image: we are the image of the image.

The patristic authors make a distinction between image and likeness. Even after the Fall, the image remains in each of us, albeit concealed to various degrees like a buried coin, but the likeness is lost and can only be recovered by ascetic effort and the grace of God. This is why, in Slavonic, the Church speaks of monastic saints as prebodobni, the root meaning of which is “a person who has recovered the divine likeness.”

Diadochus of Photice wrote: “All men are made in God’s image, but to be in his likeness is granted only to those who through great love have brought their own freedom into subjection to God. For only when we do not belong to ourselves do we become like him who, through great love, has reconciled us to himself.” (“On Spiritual Perfection; ACCS, p 30)

He says not love but “great love.” What is meant by that? I think of a Dutch friend of mine who as a young man fell in love with a woman living in Denmark. Penniless student that he was in those postwar years, he had no money to travel to Denmark by train to visit her so instead, during study breaks, would go by bicycle, peddling all the way across the Netherlands, along the coast of northern Germany, then finally up most of the length of Denmark. It took days of biking, sometimes in rain. Was it hard, I asked him. No, he said. “Even when there was a strong wind against me, there was a stronger wind inside me.” It was the wind of great love.

Gregory of Nyssa also comments on the words image and likeness. “We possess the one by creation.” he writes. “The other we acquire by free will.” God has given us the power to achieve the likeness, he stresses. “If the Creator had given you everything, how would the kingdom of heaven have been opened for you? But it is proper that one part is given you, while the other has been left incomplete. This is so that you might complete it yourself and might be worthy of the reward which comes from God.” (“On the Origin of Man”; ACCS, p 33)

In the same essay, Gregory remarks that being made in the image of God, the universal King, means that we participate “from the beginning [in God’s] royal nature,” but in place of the purple robes worn by earthly kings, the human being is intended to be clothed with virtue. His scepter in his endowment with blessed immortality. He wears not a crown of gems but of justice. Becoming the kings and queens God intended is our task in life. As Gregory says, “One who is made in the image of God has the task of becoming who he is.” (ACCS, p 35)

Speaking about Adam and Eve and their descendants at a conference last month in Oxford, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom said that “as man — in the sense of anthropos — matures, he becomes more and more what he is called to be.”

At least this possibility exists. We see it clearly in those people we recognize as saints — not limiting it to people on the Church calendar, though certainly such heroes of faith play a strengthening role in our lives, but also those hardly-known people who are canonized only in our own memories and who help day after day ignite sparks of courage in us. When I was interviewing Russians who had become believers at a time when life in the Church offered troubles rather than rewards, time and again I was told stories about a grandparent, most often a grandmother. She was the one who arranged baptisms, told Bible stories to the children she cared for, taught prayers, and crossed herself at any significant moment. These were the stubborn old ladies who never surrendered to Lenin, Stalin or Brezhnev. I began to think there ought to be an icon called “Saint Grandmother.”

But saints of any kind are rare. If we happen to know even one personally, we are blessed. What happens far more often is that we meet people in whom the image of God has become increasingly hidden while the likeness of God is incomprehensibly remote. The image of God that was so easy to glimpse in the child has been all but obliterated in the adult. One can say even of the person in whom the image and likeness of God is most concealed that he remains an icon, but, as Metropolitan Anthony Bloom puts it, an icon that is very badly damaged.

It often happens that we become aware of how damaged the human icon is when we regard the other. While we may have a hard time finding anything in our own lives that requires confession and repentance, we can easily draft confessions for others, and not just the cheat, the wife beater, the thief, the rapist or the murderer, but rank-and-file friends, even those whom we love or used to love. We see the faults of the other with amazing clarity. Somehow our own faults, regarded from the inside, turn out not to be so problematic.

Our struggle — nothing less than the struggle to remain whole and in communion — is to seek to discover in the other the image of God and thus to respond to that person in a way that bears witness to this deeper reality — or, if we are unable to find any trace of the divine image, to respond to the other with faith that the image is there. We believe this even when it seems obvious that the person is better connected to hell than to heaven.

“Never confuse the person, formed in the image of God,” said St. John of Kronstadt, “with the evil that is in him, because evil is but a chance misfortune, illness, a devilish reverie. But the very essence of the person is the image of God, and this remains in him despite every disfigurement.”

This is not at all a naive or romantic way of thinking. It’s profoundly realistic. We are not looking at ourselves or anyone with rose-colored glasses. It is like Dostoevsky’s view of Ivan Karamazov, who bears part of the blame for his father’s murder and sees himself as damned. “It was not you who killed father,” Alyosha insists. “You’ve accused yourself and confessed to yourself that you and you alone are the murderer. But it was not you who killed him, you are mistaken, the murderer was not you, do you hear, it was not you! God has sent me to tell you that.”

Alyosha does not mean that Ivan is innocent. Rather Alyosha wants Ivan to understand that what he has done was the result of a demonic spirit at work within him rather an action of his essential self, a self that bears the indestructible divine image. Should Ivan confuse the evil he has done with his deepest self, he will have condemned himself to hell and may never find his way out of the despair that results. Alyosha’s message is a desperate effort to save Ivan’s sanity and soul and to protect him from suicidal temptations. His message to Ivan is that no matter what sins you have committed, no matter how badly you have disfigured yourself, it is impossible to step beyond God’s mercy, if only we seek it — and if only we help the other seek it when we see him on the edge of the abyss.

It is when we perceive the other is a threat or when that person has in fact done something terrible — that it becomes most difficult to be aware of the other as icon.

These are the kinds of situations sketched out at the beginning, each of them all too familiar, none the stuff of fantasy, and how hard pressed we are by them: all those situations where the other is either an irritation or a menace or an adversary or a full-blown an enemy who threatens our lives or the lives of people whom we do our best to protect.

What do we do about the other when he is a potential or actual hazard? There are no simple solutions for what the Christian can do in the face of danger, no tidy ideologies we can turn to, but there are basic attitudes we can strive for, most of all a conversion of heart. This is a conversion in which we try to respond to the threatening or dangerous other with the consciousness that in reality we are related, that we both descend from Adam and Eve, that we both bear the divine image, and that not only has he done of good job of hiding that image, but so have I.

Conversion is what we seek — my own conversion, first of all, which in turn might help the process of conversion go further in others. It’s a lifelong process. We never are fully converted. Personally, I expect to be hard at work on my conversion as I take my last breath.

At the heart of conversion is prayer. Similarly, at the heart of my relationship with the other is prayer. Christ does not simply say that we must love our enemies but that we must pray for them. In fact it is only prayer that makes love of enemies possible. If I refuse to pray for someone, it is absurd to speak of loving him. But the moment I start praying for another human being, praying against the grain of my own enmity, the relationship between us changes.

A simple example. We live in a society in which, for many people, the unborn child has become an enemy, an enemy in the sense of being regarded as a threat. The unplanned other derails my ideas about the future and thus becomes the enemy of all that I was planning. That enmity is now socially endorsed. It’s now perfectly acceptable to kill the child so long he or she hasn’t yet been born. But if I as a mother, even though in a state of dread about what the birth of this child might mean in my life, the plans I might have to delay or abandon, start to pray for this unborn stranger, this other who is within my own body, our relationship instantly changes. The more I pray for this intimate other, the less likely it is that I can even think about arranging its death. It is finally prayer that saves the child’s life. Prayer is a bonding with the other. Prayer brings about conversion. Prayer often prevents killing.

Consider a group of people standing near an abortion clinic whose presence is first of all a prayer and whose actions and verbal expressions communicate their prayer and compare this with a group of people standing near an abortion clinic who radiating anger, hatred, self-righteousness and contempt. There is an entirely different energy in prayer, something analogous to sunlight.

Prayer alone is often not enough, but I cannot think of a situation of fear, division or conflict in which prayer is of no value or a waste of time. Prayer can change the climate of what we do in an intangible but decisive, life-changing way.

Think back to September 11 and consider all the prayer that occurred on doomed flight 93. Thanks to passenger resistance, a plane that might have destroyed the White House or some other public building instead made a crater near Shanksville in rural Pennsylvania. Lives were lost but many lives were also saved. It was all done in a burst of courage sustained by prayer. Hardly a person who had any contact with that flight — as we know from the various conversations by mobile phone — has not mentioned the intense prayer going both on board the plane and among people on the ground following its progress and aware it had been hijacked.

In all the situations I described at the beginning of this talk, there is not one in which prayer would not help us respond in unanticipated ways, with greater wisdom and with less fear.

Think about the beggar I described. When you meet him, as surely you will, pray that such an able-bodied young man might want to work and succeed in finding a job, overcoming whatever problems there are in his life which have made him into a beggar. You might even find yourself talking to him. Who knows what might come from a few caring words that have their roots in prayer?

In the United States, we are also going to be faced again and again with the issue of people condemned to death after having been found guilt of murder. Sometimes their convictions will be a tragic error but in others cases they are guilty as charged. The one action we can engage in which will help everyone involved is to pray for them. Pray for those on death row. Pray for those harmed by them. Pray for those whose lives have been scarred by their violence. Pray for those who guard them. Pray for those who defend them in court and also for those who prosecute them. Pray for those seeking to prevent their execution. Pray for those who want the execution to go forward. Pray for those possessed by a spirit of vengeance. Pray for the governor who has to decide what to do when he alone can block an execution. Involve your parish in your prayers. Out of such prayers it’s likely that ideas for certain actions may emerge — actions more likely to achieve some good if they are rooted in prayer. A different kind of communication and activity happens if it has a foundation of prayer.

The very fact of seeing the other as icon draws us to prayer. The fact of linking ourselves to another person through prayer makes it more and more possible to perceive the divine image in him and, at the same time, for the divine image to become less hidden in his life.

Never forget that our salvation is linked to the other. There is no path to heaven except through others. This is the mystery of marriage. This is also what Christ tells us so clearly when he speaks of the Last Judgment: what we do the least person, we do to him; what we fail to do to the least person, we fail to do to him. In the icon of the angelic figures who represent the Holy Trinity, each figure contemplates the other. It is an icon of perfect listening, an icon of seamless communion. The Holy Trinity is communion that both safeguards and transcends otherness. To regain likeness to God is to regain communion with the other.

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