Review of Merton & Friends

Review for The Catholic Worker

Merton & Friends:
A Joint Biography of Thomas Merton, Robert Lax, and Edward Rice

by James Harford
Continuum, 333 pp, 2006, hardcover, $36

review by Jim Forest

“Tell me what company you keep, and I’ll tell you what you are.” So said Cervantes.

Among Thomas Merton’s closest friends were Bob Lax and Ed Rice. James Harford’s engaging remembrance of this triangle of friends brings to light how much influence they had on each other and how so many others were affected by their friendship.

Merton, Lax and Rice had met each other in 1936 at Columbia University in New York. All three were on the staff of the Jester, an irreverent magazine that had much in common with The New Yorker (on whose staff Lax would later work as poetry editor).

In their Jester days, Rice was the only one of the three who was a Catholic, though Merton was in the thick of a religious quest that culminated in his baptism at nearby Corpus Christi parish in November 1938, with Ed Rice as his god-father and Lax — a Jew — present as a witness. Three years later Merton began monastic life at the Trappist abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky, yet his relationship with both Rice and Lax was to continue both through occasional visits and frequent correspondence.

The most obvious witness to the ties that bound them, and what their shared interests generated, was Jubilee magazine, a monthly journal edited by Ed Rice with collaboration from both Lax and Merton plus a small, committed staff of talented, underpaid colleagues. The first issue appeared in 1953. Jubilee was unparalleled among religious magazines. Unfortunately Jubilee finally drowned in red ink about 1967. Sadly no publication has yet emerged to take its place. If I ever unearth a chest of gold coins buried in our backyard, I’d love to start it up again.

There wasn’t a single issue of Jubilee that failed to be arresting — there were always impressive photo features plus some of the most striking typography of the time. The content was wide ranging — vivid glimpses of church life, portraits of houses of hospitality, profiles and interviews with remarkable people, and well-illustrated articles on liturgy, art and architecture. I doubt anyone involved with the Catholic Worker in those days let an issue of Jubilee go unread. It was a constant voice of encouragement to anyone who was drawn to Christianity’s deeper waters.

I rejoiced several years ago, when visiting St. Bonaventure’s University in Olean, NY, to discover a complete set of back issues of Jubilee in a library room devoted to Merton and Lax. What I had forgotten in the decades since the last Jubilee was mailed out was the consistent interest the magazine took in the Orthodox Church. In the hundred or so issues I looked through, there wasn’t a single issue that didn’t have something in it about eastern Christianity. It might be a photo portrait of life in St. Catherine’s monastery on the Sinai, a collection of stories from the Desert Fathers, or something as small as an ad promoting the sale, by Jubilee, of icon reproductions or recordings of Byzantine or Russian chant.

The exploration of the hundred issues of Jubilee I looked through produced a question I could not answer at the time: What inspired Jubilee’s passionate engagement in what must have seemed to many readers in those days an esoteric form of Christianity? I was aware it had been a special interest of Merton’s. Was Jubilee helping fuel Merton’s interest in the Orthodox Church? Or was it mirroring his interest?

I remember how deeply moved Merton was by a set of photos of life in an Orthodox monastery that appeared in one issue of Jubilee, as I happened to be with him when he was looking through it. One of the photos showed a heavily-bearded Athonite monk who looked older than Abraham. He was standing behind a long battered table in the refectory, while in the background, as I recall, was a huge fresco of the Last Judgement. The monk’s head was bowed slightly. His eyes seemed to contain the cosmos. There was a remarkable vulnerability in his face. “Look at him,” Merton said. “This guy has been kissed by God!”

From Harford’s book, at last I know the answer to my question. It was not just an interest of Merton’s that Jubilee was taking up, but a topic of long-running importance to all three of them. It seems that Rice was first in line. Rice wrote in his journal in 1949, “Ever since I first discovered the Byzantine rite, my head has been filled with the memory of the music and the churches and the people. I want to tell everyone about them, bring everyone to the services… But no one seems to care.”

In fact there were those who did care, among them Lax, who by then had become a Catholic, but with an eastward turn. In time Lax was to make his home in the world of Byzantine Christianity, living a solitary contemplative life in Greece, finally settling on the island of Patmos, location of one of the great Orthodox monasteries.

Merton was another. Doubtless he would have gladly gone with Rice to services at the churches he was attending, but by 1949 he was in his eighth year at the monastery.

A good deal of Harford’s book is devoted to Jubilee and the prophetic role it played during its fourteen years. Among the issues it addressed, one that cost it dearly as many parishes cancelled their bulk orders, was birth control. In 1962, one of the magazine’s writers (Peter White, father of eleven) reported on a survey published in a French Catholic journal on the failure of the Second Vatican Council to address that issue: “Certain kinds of psychic imbalance, or nervous depressions, are frequently the result of pregnancies following one another too rapidly, or of continence heroically practiced…” At the time, for a Catholic publication to address the issue was to take a step onto very thin ice, yet Jubilee returned to it from time to time, never directly criticizing Church teaching, but stressing the damage caused in many marriages by those who attempted to practice what the Church was preaching.

Yet Jubilee was not a voice of opposition so much as a journal searching for what was most vital in Catholic Christianity. It was something of a month-to-month miracle that it managed to carry on as long as it did despite chronic financial difficulties, its work being done in cramped quarters in rooms it rented on Park Avenue South.

In the early sixties I would occasionally drop by at the Jubilee office, at Lax’s invitation. I was part of the New York Catholic Worker community, then on Chrystie Street. Jubilee was within walking distance. Though Lax was often traveling (among other things, from time to time he was part of a circus troupe), he had an small office to himself with a desk and two chairs. Though one of the world’s least chatty persons, Lax was always ready to talk about things he loved. Poetry was at the top of the list. One element in his work in those days was the publication of a poetry broadsheet called Pax, no two issues of which were on the same paper size or using the same format. By this time, with the help of his friend, the artist and designer Emil Antonucci, Lax’s book, Circus of the Sun, had been published and there was even an off-off-Broadway stage production of the poem in one of Manhattan’s smallest theaters. (Happily, Circus of the Sun is now back in print as part of a collection of all Lax’s circus poetry, Circus Days and Nights. This would be one of the books I would keep were my library limited to only ten volumes.)

Besides being a book about Jubilee, Harford provides biographies of all three principals.

The portrait of Merton struck me as the least complete of the three, offering a view of Merton that is most vivid in its treatment of his pre-monastic days. It’s a portrait similar to the one that emerged in Ed Rice’s book, The Man in the Sycamore Tree — “Merton the Original Beat” who somehow landed in a Catholic Trappist monastery but who, in the end, might have been as happy, if not happier, in a Buddhist monastery — not the Merton who said the Mass daily, was devoted to the rosary, and who missed the Latin liturgy even while sympathizing with its translation in modern languages. As Harford knew Merton only through his books and his friendship with Lax and Rice, it’s not surprising that the portraits of Lax and Rice are more compelling.

Rice seems in many ways a tragic figure. He had wanted to be an artist, but this was strongly opposed by his parents. He went to Columbia rather than Harvard because his parents wanted him living not too far away, the better to keep and eye on him. After Columbia, the vision that led to Jubilee gradually took root but it took years to find the backing such a venture required, and in fact Jubilee never stood on strong legs financially. When Jubilee went under in 1967, it was a bitter defeat for Rice. Afterward Rice focused his talents on photography and writing, producing a series of books, at least one of which was a best seller, a much-praised biography of Richard Francis Burton. But Rice seems rarely to have found inner peace in what he was doing. His first marriage ended in divorce, his second was cut short by the death of his wife in an auto accident. He was prone to dramatic mood swings and had long-running acrimonious disputes with various people, including his son. In my own case I recall Rice demanding that all copies of my biography of Merton (Living With Wisdom) be destroyed because the publisher, Orbis Books, had accidentally used a photo of Merton taken by Rice without giving credit. In the end Orbis made a substantial payment for the photo, then pulled it from subsequent printings. I was happy to discover, thanks to the Harford book, that though Rice had been estranged from the Catholic Church for a number of years, toward the end of his life he found his way back, drawing enormous strength from the Eucharist.

Lax emerges as the happiest of the three. His poetry bears witness to the astonishing depth of his contemplative life. He was among the world’s least ambitious people, not at all unhappy to be in the back of the line and last to be waited on. Like many hermits, he was a magnet to many people seeking advice and encouragement, which he provided with the utmost modesty. His retreat to the Greek islands during the second half of his life saved him from far more visitors than would have found their way to him had he stayed in America. A true Franciscan in terms of material needs, he managed to get by on very little money, surviving mainly on the meager income that came to him thanks to his poetry and the occasional readings he gave in the US and more affluent parts of Europe. Many editors of poetry journals had little or no interest in publishing his poetry — too few words per page was a routine complaint — but Lax seemed entirely untroubled. If you liked his poetry, fine, and if you didn’t, that was also fine. Yet he was well published, even if in small editions — in the US by Emil Antonucci’s Journeyman Press, in Europe by Pendo. He was a man at home in silence. He could spend many a quiet hour just watching the light on the water and the coming and going of fishing boats.

Harford’s book is not only about friends but is a testimony to the sacrament of friendship.

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December 29, 2006
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Jim Forest
Kanisstraat 5 / 1811 GJ Alkmaar / The Netherlands
Jim and Nancy Forest web site:
Forest-Flier Editorial Services:
Photo web site:
Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site:
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All is Grace: a Biography of Dorothy Day

by Jim Forest

In these times when social concerns are so important, I cannot fail to mention the Servant of God Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement. Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints….
A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to “dream” of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.
— Pope Francis
speaking before both Houses of Congress in Washington, DC

Can you think of a word that describes a person who devoted much of her life to being with people many of us cross the street to avoid? Who for half a century did her best to make sure they didn’t go hungry or freeze on winter nights? Who went to Mass every day until her legs couldn’t take her that far, at which point Communion was brought to her? Who prayed every day for friend and enemy alike and whose prayers, some are convinced, had miraculous results? Who went to confession every week? Who was devoted to the rosary? Who lived in community with the down-and-out for nearly half-a-century? Whose main goal in life was to follow Christ and to see him in the people around her?

A saint.

Can you think of a word that describes a person who refused to pay taxes, didn’t salute the flag, never voted, went to prison time and again for protests against war and social injustice? Who spoke in a plain and often rude way about our “way of life”? Who complained that the Church wasn’t paying enough attention to its own teaching and on occasion compared some of its pastors to sharks?

A troublemaker.

And there you have Dorothy Day in two words: saint and troublemaker.

She was a person of contradictions: activist and contemplative, political radical and a theological conservative. Intending to found a newspaper, The Catholic Worker, she ended up founding a movement. The most important monuments to her are the many houses of hospitality that stretch from San Francisco to Amsterdam, places of welcome for many who have been treated as throwaways, but also centers of work for a nonviolent, sharing society. Dorothy Day continues to open doors for many, in terms of spiritual life, community building, the healing of division, service of the poor, and the renewal of churches.

“All work,” she wrote, “whether building, increasing food production, running credit unions, working in factories that produce for human needs, working in the handicrafts — all these things can come under the heading of the works of mercy, which are the opposite of the works of war.”

Many regard Dorothy Day as one of the saints of our time; at the initiative of the Archdiocese of New York, her official canonization process is now underway. The Vatican has given her the title “Servant of God Dorothy Day.”

All is Grace offers a richly illustrated biography of Dorothy Day. Jim’s earlier biography, Love is the Measure, published several years after Dorothy’s death, is now replaced by this much expanded edition that draws on her letters and journals. The book is now twice the size — 350 pages — and includes more than 250 photos, many never published before.

All is Grace was the title of a book Dorothy intended to write but never finished. One sees her use of the phrase in this passage in one of her “On Pilgrimage” columns from 1954: “Our life of grace and our life of the body goes on beautifully intermingled and harmonious. ‘All is grace,’ as the dying priest whispered to his friend in The Diary of a Country Priest. The Little Flower also said, ‘All is grace’.”

Jim Forest worked with Dorothy Day during the last twenty years of her life.

The publisher is Orbis Books.

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read “Saint Dorothy?”, a chapter from All Is Grace:

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In May 2012, All is Grace was selected as Book of the Year by the Association of Catholic Publishers.

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All is Grace won two Catholic Press Association Awards:

1st place for biography:

“Dorothy Day, the pre-eiminent twentieth century American Catholic social activist, writer, and advocate for the poor, comes to life in this magnificent biography enriched by numerous quotations from her letters and writings. Hundreds of photos put a face on the movement for social justice that lives on in this new century.”

2nd place for design and production:

“A nifty sepia-tone photograph of an older Dorothy Day in her cluttered office graces the cover of this attractive trade paperback book. Hundreds of interesting photographs are reproduced on the 344 pages of this book and they show good tone variations The type selection is excellent and the page designs evidence a lot of carefully planning when various typefaces, body text, and photographs appear on the same page.”

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Dorothy Day’s last arrest, age 74 (photo: Bob Fitch)


All Is Grace: There is much to be gained by studying the lives of great men and women. Human history is adorned by the lives of those able to see beyond themselves, to couple a vision of a better world with the energy and determination to make it happen. Dorothy Day was such a person. Founder of the Catholic Worker Movement and tireless advocate for the poor and oppressed, Day gathered around her people of similar passion and showed that even the least individual can make a difference. Forest … has done an admirable job of documenting Dorothy Day’s remarkable life and career. Day’s outward journey brought her to the far corners of the Earth seeking justice and peace. But it was her inner journey, which taught her “how to see Christ in every person,” that ultimately defined her place in history. The struggle for dignity and equality continues. Day’s life demonstrates that grace abounds in the human spirit, a grace that must define humans’ ultimate destiny.
— Publisher’s Weekly, 14 March 2011

Dorothy Day was one of the most prominent and influential converts to Catholicism in the history of the Catholic community in the United States. I’m reading her excellent biography by Jim Forest, All is Grace, and plan to give copies to friends this Christmas.
— Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York

From the first page of All Is Grace you realize that Jim Forest is a skillful storyteller, brimming with enough detail to be gripping, lively enough never to drag. Alternating between the fascinating facts of Dorothy Day’s life, the world in which it unfolded and the arc of her inner life, we are treated to a story that is part history, part biography and part philosophy. And this seems fitting for a woman who sought to engage the world and all its suffering and beauty…. All Is Grace ceases to be a book just about Dorothy Day and widens to include the growing community, as well as Dorothy’s own growing family….

The gift of this book is the use made of recently published collections edited by Robert Ellsberg, The Duty of Delight, Dorothy Day’s diaries, and All the Way to Heaven, her letters. Jim Forest carefully weaves in these resources and the result is a life’s story told with much depth….

We might be amazed and inspired by what she accomplished, and rightly so. But we should be even more amazed and inspired to learn along the way that there was much sorrow, loneliness and second-guessing. All Is Grace is, at times, heart wrenching in its honesty due to the candor and diligence with which Dorothy recorded and reflected on her life and Jim Forest’s use of these writings….

This warm, engaging account matches tone with content, and like Dorothy did for many a volunteer, “you can glimpse exciting possibilities in yourself you hadn’t seen before.”
— review by Amanda Daloisio for The Catholic Worker (click here for full text of the review)

Our corner bookstore called with our copy of All Is Grace this afternoon. All else has been put aside. “They were of course all intending to be surprised, but their astonishment was beyond their expectations.” [Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice] This will be the indispensable book on Dorothy Day.
— John Williams, Seattle

All Is Grace is a substantially revised and expanded edition of Love Is the Measure, originally published 15 years ago. Founder of the Catholic Worker movement, Dorothy Day is one of this century’s most prophetic voices and has recently been proposed as a candidate for sainthood. The author is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship; his other books include a biography of Thomas Merton.

Drawing from Day’s recently published letters and many other sources, this expanded edition with copious photos and illustrations chronicles in rich detail the life and mission of a social reformer, peace activist and ardent campaigner for social justice. From the turn of the 20th century, it traces her family’s struggles, the evolution of her faith, her writings, her religious and literary “heroes,” her baptism at age 30 and publication of the first issue of The Catholic Worker newspaper in 1933 in downtown New York City. Forest catalogues the many issues taken up in the pages of the Worker: growing racial divides in the United States, Day’s widespread travels, the founding and spread of houses of hospitality, her special relationship with daughter Tamar as “a lonely single parent,” a deepening spiritual life, protests during world wars, arrests and imprisonment, trips to Rome during Vatican II, and life at Maryhouse, up to her death and funeral.

In the book’s postscript entitled “Saint Dorothy?” Forest notes that it was the Claretian religious order that took the first step in promoting recognition of Day’s sanctity. New York’s Cardinal John J. O’Connor, 17 years after her death, launched the actual process of canonization. Finally, in “Dorothy Day: A Personal Remembrance,” the author sheds light on lesser known qualities and daily activities of Day and the importance to her of storytelling, music, beauty, books, the Eucharist, devotion to St. Therese of Lisieux, the darkness following the abortion of her first child, the sacrament of confession, her respect for Christians of other churches, her concern for repairing the schism between the Eastern and Western Christian churches and much more—offering, in effect, a compelling window into the mind, heart and soul of a woman whose life was indeed grace-filled.
— Catholic Book Club Selection, May 2011, America magazine

For many readers, All Is Grace will shed light on many corners of Dorothy’s life about which they knew little or nothing. Her abortion and early relationships with men are honestly but not sensationally sketched here. The turbulence of her daughter’s marriage and the emotional difficulties of her son-in-law David Hennessey as well as Dorothy’s abrasive personality traits, her impatience with those she considered weak in faith, along with other aspects of her character and life — the deep passion of her love for Forster so amply documented in the letters — the full portrait of Dorothy Day here will make some critics think her canonization is inappropriate. Rather, as she says in her own writing, “We are all called to be saints. Sometimes we don’t see them around us, sometimes their sanctity is obscured by the human, but they are there nonetheless.”

In Dorothy’s case, as this magnificent biography reveals, the human neither obscures nor destroys the holiness given by God and incarnated by her — in her weakness, in her courage, in her anxieties and desperation, but also in her discerning vision that we are to be the hands, heart, ears of God in the world. This beautiful biography should be the text assigned in courses where Dorothy’s life and thinking are examined. It should also be the gateway to discovering her as well as a staple for retreats, retreat house libraries, adult education classes in parishes. I believe its amazing portrait of Dorothy will draw readers to her own writings.
— Michael Plekon, Cistercian Studies Quarterly

With All Is Grace, Jim Forest has given us the real Dorothy Day, sensual, confused, hungering, intelligent, radical, and wonderfully graced.
— Ed McCartan

Forest is an accomplished writer and his fluent prose is a pleasure to read…. The accumulation of details and insights in All Is Grace that accrue from Forest’s carefully chosen and illustrative anecdotes weaves a seamless portrait of Day that mirrors her profound incarnational sensibility. Excerpts from her writings reveal the almost palpable delight she took in the physical, sensual world, qualities that infused her distinctive prose style with warmth and clarity. She loved opera (Wagner was her favorite composer) and Russian novelists, especially Dostoevski. She practiced a rigorous voluntary poverty but did not starve her senses. Once, Forest writes, “she discovered chopped onions, herbs and spices in the fruit salad.” “A sacrilege,” she wrote, “to treat food this way. Food should be treated with respect, since Our Lord left himself to us in the guise of food. His disciples knew him in the breaking of bread.”

Day often quoted Dostoevski that “beauty will save the world.” In both its text and in its luminous photographs, All is Grace offers a vivid testimony to Day’s beauty, fidelity and, in the midst of suffering and hardship, a stunning witness of perseverance and hope.
— Rachelle Linnner, Catholic News Service

It is a pleasure to hold and read All Is Grace, Jim Forest’s revised and expanded biography of Dorothy Day. She was a writer, Roman Catholic convert, co-founder of the Catholic Worker in 1933, and editor of a newspaper that served as the organ of this renowned movement for social justice.

Dorothy’s compelling story, set in the 1920s through the 1970s, is told through an array of lovely photographs and with her own writings woven into Jim Forest’s insightful reflections and careful documentation of people, places, and events. The book is a rich resource of American history formed from an insurgent perspective, an outcome of this woman’s unswerving journey of faith and her practice of Christian anarchism. But on a personal level, which was her gift to so many of us, this story is inspirational and a call to action concerning the very fate of humanity and creation. In her words, “we are urging revolutionary change,” we are made to think about how we live together and how we treat each other in today’s world.

Dorothy’s life and work show with clarity that she possessed an incredible sensitivity to and delight in the presence of God. Jim Forest brings this out beautifully. We see her celebrate the ordinary in life as wondrous; we sense her intense love of those around her, from early lovers, to friends, co-workers, and family.

Also shared are her profound experiences of grief over the human errors and tragedies of this world. All is Grace includes material from Dorothy’s journals and letters, compiled and edited recently by Robert Ellsberg in The Duty of Delight and All The Way To Heaven. Her writings over many years describe in detail her family life, the challenges of living in community, and the joys and sorrows of meeting the needs of the poor through the works of mercy. Her correspondence and interactions with both people of significance and those of humble stations reveals a person of great kindness and humility herself.

Dorothy consistently set an example for overcoming our class system and the myriad forms of oppression and exclusion by seeing others as miracles or even as the face of Christ. This is indeed a radical message set in the center of a culture of discrimination, wars, and materialism. Yet Dorothy’s mode of indoctrination is always intertwined in great stories of her extensive travels, time in prison, and adventures through retreats and speaking tours. The book captures many of these stories, conveying to the reader the joys, humor, and grim realities of Dorothy’s visits across the United States and to the far reaches of Russia, India, and Africa.

For me, the most poignant selection is the chapter titled “Pregnancy, Faith, and Baptism.” As a woman and mother, Dorothy brings to us her intrinsic human experience of a conversion precipitated through the act of giving birth. “No human creature could receive or contain so vast a flood of love and joy as I often felt after the birth of my child. With this came the need to worship, to adore.” Such words, expressed in her exquisite writing style, are captivating.

The chronological arrangement of All Is Grace provides an easy, in-depth study of Dorothy’s varied life and the history of the Catholic Worker movement. She had a great interest and ability in reaching out to people and connecting with them on a personal level. This comprehensive book, which should bring enthusiasm and hope to our youth, is a fine tribute to Dorothy’s efforts to build community around the world. — Martha Hennessy

Martha Hennessy is a peace activist who lives at the Maryhouse Catholic Worker in New York City. She is a granddaughter of Dorothy Day. Her review was written for Fellowship magazine.

Love is the Measure, Jim Forest’s first book on Dorothy Day was always my favorite biography of Dorothy. A couple of years ago, I was excited when I heard that Forest was doing a re-write of his original book. I was expecting some revisions and a few additional photos but I never expected a total revision and update warranting a new title, All is Grace.

It seems the perspective of additional years of reflection, the opening of the cause for her canonization, and the release of Dorothy’s diaries and letters all impacted a fresh look at her life and Jim Forest so aptly gave us a new view of her remarkable life. It is written with the same personal attention to the details of each important phase of her live as was his first book. Each phase of her life is told like a separate story, written so personally as if he was with her at each step. It is the perfect way to tell the story of her life. Dorothy was fond of telling stories to others, and in my several meetings with her during the summer of 1976, she was more personally interested in my view points, opinions and life experiences than she was in talking about herself….

All is Grace is without question the definitive biography of Day. A bonus being all the photos (200+) that are distributed throughout the book.

— David Mueller (on the book’s Amazon page)

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comments by various reviewers to the earlier edition, Love is the Measure:

This image is a creative work — it’s not likely there will ever be a poster campaign for a biography of Dorothy Day.

Forest finds plenty of events and nuances that other biographers have passed by… Forest provokes both laughter and tears. (The Christian Century)

Forest’s biography of Dorothy Day contains much intimate detail which is not found elsewhere….Hers was an inspiring life that is conveyed to the reader in a clear, concise and organized fashion in this readable and entertaining book. (Catholic New Times)

It is, quite simply, a good story, well told… Jim Forest has done us all a service in telling this story so well… For anyone interested in an accurate and vivid account of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker, this is the book to start with. (Prism)

Only because of Jim Forest’s gift with words have I come to know Dorothy Day. (Quaker Life)

An eminently readable account of the remarkable life of the “Grand Lady”… insightful accounts of her journey, along with graphic descriptions of the political and social climate of the sixties. (Living Prayer)

All is Grace can be purchased via any local bookshop and is also available from Amazon and similar web shops.

The Ladder of the Beatitudes – Blessed are the poor in spirit

Blessed are they who have nothing to lock up.

— Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment

The monks of the Egyptian desert in the fourth century described some who came to visit them as “visitors from Jerusalem,” others as “visitors from Babylon.” It was their way of distinguishing pilgrim from tourist. The tourist is seeking new sights, a glimpse of life in another part of the world, sometimes courting adventure, or perhaps just the experience of an exotic location. The pilgrim is seeking God.

Inside Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher (or Church of the Resurrection, as Orthodox Christians call it), my wife once found herself standing on a borderline between tourists and pilgrims while she was waiting in line to enter the tomb in which Christ was buried. Before her was an American couple who had come as part of a tour but whose guide apparently hadn’t made clear why they were being shown a small chapel under a huge dome in an ancient church. “Maybe it’s where he was born,” the wife said. “No,” said her husband, “that was yesterday, in Bethlehem.” “Oh yes. But then what is it?” Her husband didn’t know. Finally it was their turn to go inside. The wife did what she had seen others ahead of her do — kneel by a stone slab inside the narrow enclosure while her husband took a photograph. But in front of what?

Meanwhile behind Nancy were several older Greek women, all in black, each holding a clutch of candles like a bouquet of flowers, none of them saying a word, tears streaming down their faces. They knew exactly where they were. Behind them, on what was then a small hill just outside the city walls, Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, had been crucified, while in front of them was the actual place where his dead body had been put in a sealed tomb and left under Roman guard, the place where he rose from the dead. They were inching their way toward the Resurrection, history’s central event, the axis on which the church’s calendar turns and with it their own lives.

In the Age of Tourism, how do we become pilgrims?

The answer is the day-by-day practice of poverty of spirit, the first rung of the ladder of the beatitudes. Poverty of spirit is the essential beginning, the context of discipleship. Without it we cannot begin to follow Christ.

What does poverty of spirit mean? It is my awareness that I cannot save myself, that I am basically defenseless, that neither money nor power will spare me from suffering and death, and that no matter what I achieve and acquire in this life, it will be far less than I wanted. Poverty of spirit is my awareness that I need God’s help and mercy more than I need anything else. Poverty of spirit is getting free of the rule of fear, fear being the great force which restrains us from acts of love. Being poor in spirit means letting go of the myth that the more I possess, the happier I’ll be. It is an outlook summed up in a French proverb: “When you die, you carry in your clutched hand only what you gave away.” Poverty of spirit is a letting go of self and of all that keeps you locked in yourself.

“The first beatitude,” comments Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, “stands at the threshold of the Kingdom of God . . . Blessed are those who have understood that they are nothing in themselves, possess nothing that they dare call ‘their own’. If they are ‘something’, it is because they are loved of God and because they know for certain that their worth in God’s eyes can be measured by the humiliation of the Son of God.” [From the foreword of The Wisdom of the Desert, Apophthemegmata Patrum, translated by Benedicta Ward; London: Mowbray, revised edition, 1984, p xiv.]

Poverty of any kind is little praised beyond the Bible.

“Poverty is a great enemy to human happiness,” Samuel Johnson warned James Boswell, “for it certainly destroys liberty, and it makes some virtues impracticable, and others extremely difficult.” Johnson only gives a fine polish to advice which has been handed down for countless generations. In one wing of my family it is summed up in a joke — “Rich or poor, it’s best to have money.”

“What this century worships is wealth,” wrote Oscar Wilde in his play, An Ideal Husband. “The God of this century is wealth. To succeed one must have wealth. At all costs one must have wealth.”

“Food, clothing, fuel, rent, taxes, respectability and children,” George Bernard Shaw has Undershaft declare in his play Major Barbara, “nothing can lift those seven millstones from Man’s neck but money; and the spirit cannot soar until the millstones are lifted.” Shaw’s subject was how unbearably tempting money is even to preachers who sing the praises of poverty.

The first beatitude, pointing as it does in the opposite direction, is a permanent thorn in our sides. For twenty centuries men and women, some of them theologians, have been searching for a loophole.

One of the most popular is simply to bracket the beatitudes, along with anything else in the New Testament which seems impractical, as a “counsel of perfection,” advice for monks and nuns, something for the occasional Saint Francis or Mother Theresa rather than the ordinary person. But if one can be a Christian without taking seriously the teachings or example of Christ, the word “Christian” no longer means “a follower of Christ.”

Another approach has been to spiritualize the text: “Jesus of Nazareth was indifferent to material possessions. He didn’t care whether or not his followers were rich or poor. It simply wasn’t important. Only one thing was important — the person’s attitude.”

This approach at least has the virtue of taking the text seriously even if shifting the stress. After all, Christ speaks of “poverty of spirit.” Clearly attitude matters. The poverty Christ calls blessed is useless if it is resented or hated. The person who is poor but is obsessed with what he wishes he owned has become a billionaire in his fantasy life. He may be poor according to economists, but he isn’t poor in spirit.

But is Jesus neutral to wealth itself and only concerned about one’s attitude toward riches? When you look further in the Gospels to see what else he has to say about money, you find Christ never encourages the pursuit of wealth. Elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount, he teaches, “But seek for yourselves treasure in heaven, where neither moth nor rust corrupt and where thieves do not break in or steal.” (Mt 6:19) On another occasion he warns his disciples that it is “easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven,” only adding the consoling words to his anxious listeners that “anything is possible with God.” (Mt 19:24)

Again and again Saint Matthew, a man who had himself been wealthy, draws attention to those words of Jesus which saved him from devoting his life to acquiring and protecting money.

The Greek word used for “poor” in the first beatitude — ptochos — refers not just to a person who possesses very little but someone who is destitute. There is a different word — penes — for a person who has the basic necessities: no luxuries, no savings, nothing superfluous, but is not in debt. He lives from the honest work of his hands and enjoys the respect of his neighbors, while a destitute person has been reduced to begging and has, as Jesus said of himself, “no place to lay his head.” (Mt 8:20)

The state of need Christ describes is urgent and absolute, the desperate condition of need of someone at the very bottom. A good translation of the first beatitude into modern English is, “Blessed are the beggars in spirit…”

Does the first beatitude mean that to follow Christ one has to dispossess himself of everything and become voluntarily destitute?

That depends on what God requires. It is a life-by-life question. There is no one-size-fits-all Christian vocation.

Among the saints, one easily finds those who owned close to nothing and would without hesitation give away what little they still possessed.

One of the Egyptian Desert Fathers sold his most precious possession, his Bible, in order to have alms for the poor, explaining, “I have sold the book which told me ‘sell what you have and give it to the poor'” (Mt 19:21). Among the saints there are those who gave away the last stitch of clothing, becoming as naked as Adam and Eve — like Saint Basil, a Holy Fool of Moscow after whom Russia’s most famous cathedral is named. [See chapter on Holy Fools in Praying With Icons by Jim Forest (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997)]

But sanctity is not the sum of the would-be saint’s empty pockets. There have been many whose feats of asceticism were displays more of pride than of poverty of spirit. Early in his monastic life, John the Dwarf announced to a brother that he was going deeper into the Egyptian desert, declaring that from now on he would live like an angel. Several days later, close to starvation, John knocked again on the brother’s door. “Who is there?” asked the brother. “John.” “No, it can’t be John,” said the brother. “John is now an angel — he no longer needs food and shelter.” Only then did he open his door to the chagrined and hungry John. The chastened monk embraced a humbler, more ordinary poverty. [Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert (New York: New Directions, 1961), pp 41-2]

The exterior forms of poverty vary from person to person and even from year to year in a particular life. Neither Christ nor the Apostles went naked — we find Christ without clothing in public only on two occasions in his adult life: his baptism and his crucifixion.

Other than Christ himself, Christ’s mother is the paradigm of poverty of spirit. Her unconditional assent to the will of God is a model for every Christian: “Be it done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). She is quietly present at every step along the way and with the Apostles after Pentecost. At the marriage feast at Cana, after drawing her son’s attention to the fact that there was no more wine, she instructs the servants of the feast, “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:5) This is her advice to all who follow her son. Whenever we defer our will to the will of God, we open ourselves to God’s transforming power, just as she did.

Dorothy Day, a saint of hospitality and a writer who often recommended voluntary poverty to readers of The Catholic Worker, wore hand-me-down suits and struggled to own as little as possible. “Those who cannot see the face of Christ in the poor are atheists indeed,” she often said. She was distressed about the irritation she felt when her books were borrowed and not returned — “I am too attached to my library,” she confessed to me more than once. The impressive thing is that this attachment did not cause her to live a life in which her books would have been less likely to disappear.

Another saint of recent times was the Russian Orthodox nun, Mother Maria Skobtsova, whose house of hospitality in Paris opened its door to anyone in need. Her assistance to Jews during the time of the Nazi occupation led to her arrest and later to death in the gas chamber at the Ravensbrück. She saw each person as “the very icon of God incarnate in the world” and sought “to accept this awesome revelation of God unconditionally, to venerate the image of God” in everyone in need. Her personal possessions fit into one suitcase; her bedroom was a corner in the basement.

Saint Francis of Assisi spoke of having “Sister Poverty” as his bride. “Holy Poverty,” he wrote in his Salutation of the Virtues, “destroys the desire of riches and avarice and the cares of this world.” [Francis and Clare: The Complete Works, translation and introduction by Regis J. Armstrong, O.F.M. Cap., and Ignatius C. Brady, O.F.M. (Ramsey, NJ: Paulist Press, 1982), p 152.] He was convinced that voluntary poverty was the only way to overcome war and give witness to the peace of Christ. His robe — a patchwork quilt of rags — is still preserved at the basilica in Assisi.

Henry David Thoreau was no Christian missionary, but he had a Franciscan sensibility about the problem of wealth. As he wrote in Walden in the chapter on economy: “How many a poor immortal soul have I met well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five feet by forty, its Augean stables never cleansed, and one hundred acres of land, tillage, mowing, pasture, and wood-lot! The portionless, who struggle with no such unnecessary inherited encumbrances, find it labor enough to subdue and cultivate a few cubic feet of flesh.”

Mother Theresa of Calcutta owned two saris, a rosary, a Bible and a few prayer books. We know her not for what she possessed but what she did — the many years she spent creating communities to care for dying people abandoned by others and to give assistance to pregnant women under pressure to abort their unborn children. She regarded the greatest poverty not as something material but as lack of faith and being closed in on oneself.

Far more often than not, saints had little personal property and what they possessed, they held lightly. Yet there are also other saints who, at least for a substantial part of their lives, possessed a great deal and lived in comfort, rarely worrying about a roof over their heads or a pillow under it. As Saint Leo the Great observed: “While it cannot be doubted that poverty of spirit is more easily acquired by the poor than the rich, for submissiveness is the companion of those in want, even in many of the rich is found that spirit which uses its abundance not for the increasing of its pride but on works of mercy, regarding as the highest profit that which it expends in the relief of others’ hardships.” [St. Leo the Great, Homily XCV, “On the Beatitudes.”]

Saint Thomas More, a chancellor of England during the reign of Henry VIII, owned a large and handsome house and was waited on by servants until he was made a prisoner in the Tower of London. Finally he was beheaded for his opposition to the king’s divorce of his first wife. He had been a generous man but not a poor one until poverty and confinement were forced upon him. More’s lively spirit and inner freedom even while a prisoner is revealed in an exchange when More was being tried. Lord Rich said to him, “You know that if you won’t take an oath to the King, then you are going to have to leave behind your lovely home in Chelsea and your wife and your children and it’s only a question of taking an oath, otherwise you will die.” More replied: “I die today, my Lord, and you die tomorrow.”

One of the widely revered saints of the Orthodox Church, Prince Vladimir of Kiev, led the people of early Russia to baptism in the year 988. Before his conversion Vladimir was far from saintly; Saint Nestor, in his Chronicle, described him as a man who had been “insatiable in vice.” The Slavic people regard him as a saint not only for bringing the people of Kiev to the Dnieper River for baptism but because, following his conversion, he himself gave a heroic example of what it meant to follow Christ. He became renowned for his care of the poor, of orphans and the sick. The palace gates were opened to the hungry. He built hospices for the aged. He banned torture and executions. Yet he lived in a palace and dressed like the royalty he was.

Two of his sons, rather than shed the blood of an ambitious brother, chose to die without defending themselves. The young princes, Boris and Gleb, were the first Russians to be recognized as saints. Yet they too had been finely dressed and had known royal comforts.

One could fill a library with books about saints who lived in fine houses and had wine with their meals, and a still larger library with the lives of saints who counted it wealth to sleep on a straw-filled mattress and eat a piece of stale bread from time to time. Their superficial differences are stunning, yet when you look closely at the life of any saint, you discover what they had or didn’t have was part of their particular obedience to Christ. All the saints are linked by poverty of spirit. All the saints lived an ascetic life. All of them approached God in a state of destitution, seeking as a matter of life or death to know God’s will in their lives and to live it, for God not only creates us but gives each of us a unique identity, a unique responsibility, a unique path to follow on the way to heaven. Poverty of spirit — the condition of being a spiritual beggar — is seeking to live God’s will rather than one’s own.

For most of us, our vocational obedience involves responsibility for material objects as well as earning and spending money. The vocation of parenthood involves many years of caring for the lives of children, trying to provide both for their physical and spiritual needs. Few people do not require certain tools, a place to live, and a variety of possessions. If you are a plumber or mechanic, there are tools which are essential to your work. If you are a scholar, you will need a substantial library or access to one. Nor are the possessions we need only connected to our work; they may also be connected to spiritual and intellectual growth.

What is crucial is the way we possess what we possess, the care we take not to let possessions take ownership of our souls, and how we use what we have to express God’s mercy.

The underlying questions are: What is of ultimate significance in our lives? Our own comfort and reputation? Our own importance? Or the love of God and caring for those around us? One way or another, how we relate to material objects reveals who we are, the condition of our soul, and whether we are citizens of heaven or hell.

One of the great saints of the Egyptian desert, Abba Dorotheos, told a story which reveals poverty of spirit in such a way that an Alexandrian of great importance was able to grasp it:

I remember once we had a conversation about humility. One of the notable citizens of the city was amazed on hearing our words that the nearer one draws to God, the more he sees himself to be a sinner. Not understanding, he asked, “How can this be?” I said to him: “Notable citizen, tell me how do you rank yourself in your own city?” He answered: “I regard myself as first in the city.” I say to him, “If you should go to Caesarea, how would you regard yourself there? He answered, “As the least of the civic leaders there.” Then I asked, “And if you should travel to Antioch, how would you regard yourself there?” “There,” he answered, “I would consider myself as one of the common people.” “And if,” I asked, “you should go to Constantinople and approach the Emperor, how would you see yourself there?” And he answered: “Almost as nothing.” Then I answered him, “So it is also with the saints. The nearer they draw to God, the more they see themselves to be sinners.”

…for theirs is the kingdom of heaven

We are joined to one another and to Christ like flour in a loaf.

— Saint John Chrysostom, “On I Corinthians,” XXI, 4

Notice that Christ uses the present tense, not the future — it isn’t “theirs will be the kingdom of heaven” but “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Because of the Jewish aversion to speaking directly of the Creator as God, Saint Matthew consistently uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven.” The other three Gospel authors speak of the “kingdom of God.” The meaning in all four Gospels is the same.)

The cartoon image of heaven — a domain in the clouds whose residents, having retired from earthly existence and having lived more-or-less virtuous lives, are rewarded with white robes, angel wings and golden harps — is almost as uninviting as the usual stereotype of hell: a cavern in a volcano occupied by naked people being tormented by demons. At least this image of hell has a biblical basis: Christ speaks of hell as “an unquenchable fire.” (Mk 9:42) But a heaven of clouds, harps and bathrobes has no connection to the Gospel.

This past summer Nancy and I found vivid imagery of heaven and hell when we camped near the town of Autun in the countryside southwest of Dijon in France. Here, in the 12th century Cathedral of Saint Lazarus, are some of the finest carvings made in the Romanesque era, the work of a man named Giselbertus who left us nothing but his vision of the Gospel. The most impressive carving of all is the large tympanum over the church entrance in which, within a wide half-circle, Giselbertus offers a deeply insightful vision of the Last Judgment.

At the center, far larger than any other figure, is Christ enthroned within an angel-borne oval which gives a symbolic shape to eternity and the kingdom of heaven. His arms are opened in a simple gesture of greeting, as if saying, “Welcome, you blessed of my Father, into the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world…” (Mt 25:34)

The sun and moon are to the right and left of his face, Mary, his mother, is enthroned to one side, while beneath her is a group of Apostles. On the other side there is a large scale on which a man is being weighed while a hideous devil struggles to tilt the scale in hell’s favor. Meanwhile a lithe angel in fluted robes, with the lightest touch, overcomes Satan’s effort.

At the lowest level of the tympanum, beneath Christ’s feet and stretching the full width of the church’s central doors, is a long row of people standing on their coffins, freshly raised from the dead. A sword-bearing angel at the center of the figures looks with sorrow rather than outrage toward the wretched figures on the right whose lives have brought them damnation. Each of the damned seems closed in on himself, fascinated with his own misery. The remarkable thing is that not one of them notices Christ. They didn’t see him in life and don’t see him in the afterlife either.

In contrast, all the saved but one are looking in enraptured amazement toward Christ; the one exception, a child, points at Christ with one hand while telling a guardian angel what he has seen.

The Gospel according to Giselbertus is that we are in heaven whenever we see Christ or are aware of his presence. Heaven is participation in God’s being. It is seeing what has always been close at hand, what was always at the heart of reality, but somehow was barely recognized, glimpsed “as through a glass darkly.” (I Cor 13:12)

We learn from the first beatitude that those whose treasure is God are already within the borders of the kingdom of heaven. “All the way to heaven is heaven,” said the great mystic Saint Catherine of Siena, “because he said, ‘I am the way.'” It is similar to the medieval proverb of pilgrims walking to holy places: “If you do not travel with him whom you seek, you will not find him at the end of your journey.”

“What do you mean when you speak about the kingdom of heaven?” The disciples must often have asked this question because the Gospel is so full of his answers.

Christ responds with parables, one of the longest being about forgiveness. He says, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.” The story centers on a slave who owed the king a fortune, ten thousand talents — a way of saying he owed an unpayable amount; one talent was worth more than a laborer earned in 15 years. The king says he is going to sell the slave along with all his family and possessions, but the slave falls to his knees, begs the king’s patience, and is forgiven his debt. Immediately afterward, the slave encounters a man who owes him a hundred denarii (one denarius was the wage a laborer received for day’s work). The man with the smaller debt begs patience, promising he will repay, but the appeal is refused and the man is sent to prison. Hearing what happened, the king chastises the debtor he had forgiven: “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” The enraged king orders the unforgiving man punished until his own debt is paid. Christ concludes the parable saying, “So my heavenly Father will do to every one of you if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Mt 18:21-35)

It is impossible to miss the point. The kingdom of heaven exists wherever one person forgives another, and not superficially, but “from the heart.” The kingdom of heaven is wherever mercy rules rather than vengeance.

Elsewhere in Saint Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven with a mustard seed. From the smallest of seeds springs up a shrub so big that “birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (Mt 13:31-32) Then comes a similar image: the kingdom of heaven it is “like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” (Mt 13:33)

A tiny seed, a small measure of yeast, a pinch of salt, a spark of light in the darkness — tiny things are capable of vast expansion and a transforming effect.

Christ says the kingdom of heaven is like “a treasure hidden in a field” for which the joyful finder sells everything in order to own that field.” (Mt 13:43) Or it is like “a pearl of great value” for which one would sell everything in order to obtain it. (Mt 13:44) The awareness of God’s presence is “the buried treasure” and “the pearl of great price.” We enter the kingdom of heaven when nothing is more important than the absolute beauty of God.

In another parable from Saint Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus teaches that the “kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seeds in his field, but while everyone was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat.” The owner of the field orders his workers to leave the weeds alone so that they will not accidentally uproot any of the wheat, instructing them to wait until the harvest, then separate the weeds and burn them. (Mt 13:24-30) Later he uses a similar metaphor — the kingdom of heaven is like “a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind.” Only after catching them are those worth keeping separated from those which are worthless. (Mt 13:34) Both metaphors focus on God’s patience, letting weeds grow with wheat in the field and gathering every sort of fish in the same net. We are living in the kingdom of God when we respect the lives of those around us no matter what they are like.

Drawing on a range of simple images, Jesus teaches his disciples that we enter the kingdom of heaven when we allow God’s forgiveness, patience and mercy to shape our response to others. The kingdom of heaven exists when we refuse to destroy or punish, leaving punishment to God at the Last Judgment.

In Saint Luke’s Gospel, a group of Pharisees asks Jesus when the kingdom of God is coming. He responds, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For in fact the kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17:20-21) Saint Paul says something similar in his letter the Colossian Church: “The Father has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.” (Col 1:13) The kingdom of God is simply life in Christ — not a concept of Christ or trying to live according to principles we think of as Christian, but living in his presence, being aware of him in the things and people which surround us, no matter where we are. We understand that our obedience is to Christ and that all other demands made on our lives and resources are to be respected only if they are not in conflict with the commandments of Christ.

There is a story told by the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko that gives us a glimpse of a sudden experience of the kingdom of heaven — in Russia, in the midst of war, with Stalin ruling from the Kremlin, and Hitler’s armies pushing eastward.

In 1944, Yevtushenko’s mother took him from Siberia to Moscow. They were in the huge crowd which witnessed a procession of twenty-thousand German prisoners of war being marched across Red Square.

Yevtushenko recalls in his autobiography:

The pavements swarmed with onlookers, cordoned off by soldiers and police. The crowd was mostly women — Russian women with hands roughened by hard work, lips untouched by lipstick, and with thin hunched shoulders which had borne half of the burden of the war. Every one of them must have had a father or a husband, a brother or a son killed by the Germans. They gazed with hatred in the direction from which the column was to appear.

At last we saw it. The generals marched at the head, massive chins stuck out, lips folded disdainfully, their whole demeanor meant to show superiority over their plebeian victors. “They smell of perfume, the bastards,” someone in the crowd said with hatred. The women were clenching their fists. The soldiers and policemen had all they could do to hold them back.

All at once something happened to them. They saw German soldiers, thin, unshaven, wearing dirty blood-stained bandages, hobbling on crutches or leaning on the shoulders of their comrades; the soldiers walked with their heads down. The street became dead silent — the only sound was the shuffling of boots and the thumping of crutches.

Then I saw an elderly woman in broken-down boots push herself forward and touch a policeman’s shoulder, saying, “Let me through.” There must have been something about her which made him step aside. She went up to the column, took from inside her coat something wrapped in a colored handkerchief and unfolded it. It was a crust of black bread. She pushed it awkwardly into the pocket of a soldier, so exhausted that he was tottering on his feet. And now from every side women were running toward the soldiers, pushing into their hands bread, cigarettes, whatever they had. The soldiers were no longer enemies. They were people.”

[Yevgeny Yevtushenko, A Precocious Autobiography (New York: Dutton, 1963).]

This is the sort of story most history books pass over — miraculous moments when enmity is replaced by mercy, compassion opens the way to actions of healing and forgiveness, and plain poverty becomes poverty of spirit. The gesture of a single old woman broke through what Saint Paul describes as “the dividing wall of enmity.” (Eph 2:14) Her eyes had been opened to see suffering German boys rather than murderous Nazi soldiers. Her response was to give away what little she had, a carefully saved piece of black bread. Afterward was she surprised by what she did and the flood of gifts others had made in the wake of her small gesture of love? It was a moment when the kingdom of heaven flooded across Red Square.

[This is an extract from The Ladder of the Beatitudes by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Books, 1999; not to be published without the author’s permission]

The Ladder of the Beatitudes

The Ladder of the Beatitudes received the first place award in the category book on spirituality from the Catholic Press Association. The citation reads:

“This is a remarkable blending of Western and Eastern traditions about the Beatitudes and a contemporary update of their relevance. one beatitude leads to the next, and together they constitute a summary of everything that follows in Matthew’s gospel even to the passion and resurrection. It is a truly magnificent tool to use in meditation on the deepest meanings of the Scriptures as related to our daily lives. The book’s notes manifest the rich array of witnesses to the beatitudes over the centuries and today.”

Here are a few chapters:

Introduction by Fr. Spiridon Vasilakos to the Greek edition of “Ladder of the Beatitudes” published in Athens by Porphyra Editions (2016):

Along the passage-ways of a large bookshop, the books are divided into various categories: poetry, philosophy, literature, theology, history…. but when a book actually gets into your hands, it somehow eludes the label it has been given by virtue of its content … it rises to another level of classification.

When you try putting Jim Forest’s book “The Ladder of the Beatitudes” into a category, you will certainly have difficulty, because it forces you to undertake the spiritual labor of categorizing the state of your own life. At the beginning you may have a sense of where you are; you can see the four walls and the solid roof. But if you abandon the dimension of eternity, and the freedom that goes with obeying the will of God, then you will soon be trapped in the narrow space of surrender to your own selfishness. In this unhappy state you knock desperately on the walls of your cell. And most cases, your “fall” begins at that very point. The ladder of ascent is based on the word of God which is the only solid spiritual ground. The truth of God liberates man. But your small, dark dwelling-place has been constructed out of “anti-Beatitude” — from the sort of building blocks that are to be found in worldly neighborhoods, and not on the Way which is Christ. Selfishness is fashioned from these worldly materials: greed, indifference, refusal to repent, anger, injustice, pollution of the soul, rancor, envy.

cover of the Greek edition of “Ladder of the Beatitudes”

The book you are holding will tear down the walls of these anti-Beatitudes with the power of love and the freedom of the Word of God. It opens up the roof, just as happened with the paralyzed man in the Gospel and removes whatever hid the heavens from your sight. It sets up the base of a ladder of ascent in your life and points towards Christ, who is on the final step and on every step. The true Christ, not the philosopher, the teacher, the social reformer. It shows you the Christ who is your God … and yourself as the object of His teaching, His thirst, His agony, His cross, His spear, His tomb, His love.

Jim Forest does not write, he travels. As you open the “Ladder” you can feel yourself being pushed. You are grabbed and taken on a unique journey. Every word of the book is a step. Every passage is a journey through the air.

It takes you from the holy city of Jerusalem to the one, holy, Triune God. From the “happiness” of acquiring material possessions and physical pleasures to the true blessedness of participating in the life of God. From luxury to the true wealth which is divinity. From the tale of a dry fragment of black bread which a Russian grandmother, in her blessed misery, slipped into the pocket of her enemy, a starving German soldier, to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

From the first step which consists of knowing your inability to be saved without His mercy you find yourself on the threshold of the kingdom, and you will wish, yearn for and desire the Jesus who even today is being stoned to death with public statements, books, research, studies and whom people are trying to kill off with greater skill than the Romans managed with the Cross. Yes, you will seek him. You will search for the Christ who is eternally condemned to death because, as you ascend the ladder, He will put your death to death and release you from all the bonds which your egoism ruthlessly manipulates.

My wish is for you, reader, to ascend as you read this book.

— Fr. Spiridon Vasilakos [English translation by Bruce Clark]


Those who valued Jim Forest’s earlier writings, his studies of Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day, or his more recent book, Praying with Icons, will not be disappointed in this latest contribution, an exposition of the meaning of the Beatitudes.

From the beginning, Forest insists that this whole series of sayings belongs together, and has a common end and purpose. With their powerful paradoxes about the blessedness of poverty, hunger and grief, all the Beatitudes are showing us the same thing: the way towards living our life in God, and finding the joy in his kingdom here and now.

Forest illuminates the words of the Gospel from other places in the New Testament and from the sayings of the Old Testament prophets. He also illuminates them with the help of the saints, of both East and West, Seraphim of Sarov and Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day and Maria Skobtsova.

In view of his own long connection with the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, it is not surprising that Forest is particularly incisive in his comments on “the peacemakers”. He makes use of the example of St Francis himself, and of the life of a contemporary Franciscan sister working in Las Vegas and witnessing for peace. Here, as throughout the book, one finds a particular strength in Forest’s writing, which comes from his knowing both Eastern and Western Christendom from the inside. He is able to show us the way in which the two traditions, with their different experiences, can strengthen and support one another.

This is not exactly a comfortable book. “Each of the Beatitudes has to do with dying to self.., not out of self-hatred or a collapse of self-esteem, but because there is no other way to love God and neighbour.”

It is through this dying that the joy and peace of the kingdom can be known in the reality of daily life, and in the discovery of what it means to love God and our neighbour as our self.
— A. M Alichin
professor at the University of Wales, Bangor
Church Times

I’m teaching church school this year. Our first weeks were blocked out for a unit on “saints,” which I agreed to plan. Our priest had the inspired idea of using the Beatitudes as our framework, looking at one each week and also telling the stories of saints that “fit.” Looking for help, I bought The Ladder of the Beatitudes and have just started reading it – just got through the chapters on “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” I am so grateful to have found it, and not just in my role as church school teacher. This is what I need now.

My only problem is that now I want to quote Jim’s book to everyone, and I have other work I must attend to … but I will be giving this book to others and quoting snippets in spite of myself.

Blessed are the poor in spirit! That’s our starting point, isn’t it? I think I’ve been there, if only for fleeting moments.
Julianne Tarsey
member of an Orthodox parish in Minnesota

Visit the book’s page on Amazon>

The Ladder of the Beatitudes is published by Orbis Books:

Orbis Books
Maryknoll, NY 10545
fax 914: 945-0670
free phone for book orders: 1-800-258-5838
e-mail: [email protected]

* * *

Confession: Doorway of Forgiveness – The Son Who Returns

The parable of the Prodigal Son forms the main part of the fifteenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel. Few New Testament stories include so much detail. It’s a parable not only about a particular father and son who lived two thousand years ago but about anyone urgently in need of forgiveness and love — a story about confession, pardon, and the healing of shattered relationships.

There was a man who had two sons; and the younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.”

Christ describes a young man so impatient to come into his inheritance and be independent that in effect he says to his father, “As far as I’m concerned, you’re already dead. Give me now what would have come to me after your funeral. I want nothing more to do with you or with this house.” We can only guess what prefaces the story. Perhaps the younger son saw his father as too strict or his home life too confining, too dull. Perhaps he felt less loved than his older brother who seemed always to be a model of good behavior.

Most of us need only to look in the mirror to catch a glimpse of younger brother: someone in a hurry to have what he wants and ready to neglect, even despise, those whom God intends him to love — parents, brothers and sisters, friends, neighbors, strangers, enemies. The young man of Christ’s story is me.

And he divided his living between them.

With God-like generosity, the father agrees to do what his son asks, though he knows his son well enough to realize that all that the boy receives might as well be burned in the kitchen stove. The boy takes his inheritance and leaves, intending never to return. With money in his pocket, he is at last free of parents, free of his brother, free of domestic morals and good behavior, free of boredom, free to do as he pleases. He is unable to imagine how short-lived his adventure will be, how quickly the money will be spent, or to conceive that not a single person who enjoys the company of a reckless spender will want to see him once he is penniless, or in what loneliness and misery he will eventually find himself.

Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living. And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. He would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything.

This was a story first told to Jews — thus there was a special poignancy in the detail about the boy being so cut off from his own people that he lived with pigs and ate their food. Jews regard swine as too filthy to raise or eat.

But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.'” And he arose and came to his father.

Near starvation, he finally realizes what a hell he has made for himself. Every door is locked against him. People he had thought of as friends sneer at him. He has made himself filthy in body and soul. He knows he has renounced the claim to be anyone’s son, yet in his desperation and misery dares hope his father might at least allow him to return home as a servant. Full of dismay for what he said to his father and what he did with his inheritance, he walks home in his rags, ready to confess his sins, to beg for work, and to ask for a corner to sleep in.

But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.

The son cannot imagine the love his father has for him or the fact that, despite all the trouble he caused, he has been desperately missed. Far from being glad to be rid of the boy, the father has gazed day after day in prayer toward the horizon in hope of his son’s return. Had he not been watching he would not have noticed his child in the distance and realized who it was. Instead of simply standing and waiting for him to reach the door, he ran to meet him, embracing his child, pouring out words of joy and welcome rather than reproof or condemnation.

And the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”

This is the son’s confession compacted into a single sentence. It is the essence of any confession.

The moment of confession and reunion is what Rembrandt focused on in an etching he made in 1636. The father enfolds his son in much the way an Orthodox priest bends over a person who has completed his confession. The father’s right arm gently rests on his son’s back while his left hand supports his son’s clasped hands. The arrangement of the father’s feet suggests the act of having run toward his child. His face radiates compassion, forgiveness, and anguish for all his son has suffered. While the ravaged face of the kneeling son is marked with the hard times he has known, most of all we see his grief, remorse, and appeal for forgiveness. His hands are clasped in a gesture of urgent prayer. He cannot comprehend his father’s joy.

But the father said to his servants, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” And they began to make merry.

In a stairway to the right two servants are bringing shoes and fresh clothing, though one of them turns his face aside, perhaps in aversion to the boy’s smell. A maid, having pushed open a shuttered window, gazes with amazement at the miracle of reconciliation. Beneath her, Rembrandt has arranged father and son in the form of a triangle, a traditional symbol of the Holy Trinity. The restoration of mutual love between parent and child is an image of the restoration of communion for each repentant person with God. This moment of repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation is also the theme of a huge painting by Rembrandt that now hangs in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and is reproduced on this book’s cover.

The story has another layer not hinted at in the etching: the resentment of an older brother.

Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant. And he said to him, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.” But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, “Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!” And he said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.”

Hatred can burn hottest within a family. Siblings often bitterly resent each other. The first murder — the first war — involved the sons of Adam and Eve: Cain and Abel. The older brother in Christ’s parable of the Prodigal Son, while no killer, represents those who take pride in their obedience and good behavior but who fall prey to self-righteousness. The “good boy” arrives home from a day of labor to discover a celebration under way, his unmissed brother at its center, and refuses to take part. Why such joy and honor for someone whom he thought he had seen the last of and whom he regards as worse than a thief? His father has to reassure his older son that his love for him is as great as for his younger son. “Your brother has risen from the grave,” he explains. “Now you must rise with him.” It was as hard for the older brother to welcome the younger as it was for the younger to come home in rags and failure.

At a recent conference on confession in Oxford, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, a former physician who now heads the Russian Orthodox Church in Britain, spoke about the Prodigal Son. “This parable is the same experience we have in confession,” he said. “God longs for our return. He cries over our betrayals of him and of ourselves. At the moment we reappear, he rushes to greet us. We discover that we are longed for, we are awaited, we are loved even in our sinfulness, loved with a love that never diminishes, something other than the quiet and peaceful love the father has for the son who has never done wrong. We are met by a father who opens his arms, who is not a judge but a savior.”

He noted too how much each of us resembles the son who took his inheritance and squandered it. “We are no different. All the time we take from God all that he would give, all that we want, and use it according to our own tastes. God gives us life. How do we use it? Occasionally we may think: ‘Wasn’t it kind of him to give me so many things that I want. It was God’s — now it is mine.’ Of course we don’t dare to actually say it. We say it not directly but indirectly. It is a sin against God, a turning away that is more horrible than denying him. We cross the river from God’s realm to Satan’s, where life is more interesting. We leave God to cry over our betrayal. This is sin: turning our back on God for more interesting things. We turn our back on God — God who loved us into existence at risk to himself. We say to God, ‘You are not interesting enough.’ Still, we turn to him occasionally, for he is the provider. We demand more of our inheritance. We sin against God by discarding and despising his gifts. We sin against God in the way we treat people. Yet everyone is loved, loved to the measure of Christ’s death on the cross. He descends into hell for us, to find us even there.”

Confession: Doorway of Forgiveness – Introduction

The tradition of confession, once common practice among Christians, fell on hard times but is today making a comeback. While confession is most easily found in the Orthodox Church, Catholics are increasingly finding their way back to this ancient practice. In Protestant churches various forms of spiritual guidance and counseling are on the rise, perhaps paving the way for the recovery of a lost sacrament. It seems likely that in another generation sacramental confession will not be so rare an event as it is today in the life of an ordinary Christian.

The purpose of this small book is to help revive confession where it has been abandoned or neglected, to help the reader prepare a better confession, and to help those who hear confessions better serve as Christ’s witness, taking care not to impede the sacrament’s healing strength. It is written by an Orthodox Christian who hopes it will be beneficial not only to Orthodox readers but also to Catholic and Protestant Christians.

Perhaps it is useful to say something about what led me to write a book on confession and what gives the book a broad Christian focus.

Growing up on the edge of a New Jersey town, Red Bank, my scattered childhood encounters with Christianity were chiefly with various forms of Protestantism in which sacramental confession didn’t exist. Confession was among the “Romish” rituals long since rejected by those churches which had freed themselves from “the corruptions of Catholicism,” a phrase that was not uncommon among Protestants in those days of religious cold war. In anti-Catholic remarks I occasionally heard, confession was described as a way Catholic priests deprived those who entered confessionals of their freedom. My Uncle Charles, who believed the Catholic clergy longed to resume the torture and burning of heretics, was convinced that confession was too easy: “It’s the usual Catholic hocus pocus. You just confess what you did and you’re in the clear to do it again and again and again.” I heard from Protestants, “If you have something to confess, confess it to God directly, and God will forgive you. No priest is needed.” (Yet later in life I came to know Protestants, some of them pastors, who were deeply burdened with the memory of past sins, had yet to experience God’s forgiveness, and wished this dimension of sacramental life had not been thrown away in the age of Reformation. Truly it was a case of throwing out the baby with the bath water.)

When Protestant friends invited me to their churches, I went quite willingly but was disinclined to memorize the Ten Commandments and found sermons infinitely boring. Sometimes I enjoyed the singing but too often churches seemed like classrooms without blackboards. It was only when I was invited by a classmate to an Episcopal church at which there was a communion service every Sunday that I found myself powerfully drawn to Christianity. While I would walk a mile out of my way to avoid a sermon, a sacrament-centered form of Christianity drew me with the force of gravity. It was in this old church, where soldiers wounded in the Revolutionary War had bled and died, that I was baptized at the age of twelve. The priest, Fr. Levan, gave me a special gift that day, an ancient Byzantine coin, on one side of which was impressed the icon of Christ’s haloed face — my first encounter with the imagery of the Orthodox Church.

So far as I was aware, there was no practice of confession within the parish, but in other respects it was a very traditional form of Christianity I encountered at Christ Episcopal Church in the village of Shrewsbury just south of Red Bank. Thanks to the parish priest, I was made conscious of Christianity’s origins in the eastern Mediterranean. It was in this solidly American Protestant community that I learned fragments of Greek, understanding that “Eucharist” meant “thanksgiving,” “liturgy” meant “public work,” and “Kyrie eleison” meant “Lord, have mercy.”

That first period of church involvement lasted little more than a year. The main part of my teenage years was spent outside churches with no thought of sacraments or interest in the Bible. In my adolescent mind, Christianity became something for children and unadventurous adults. Nature was sacrament enough. Having moved to California, I took to the coastline and the mountains, biking and climbing during vacations, doing odd jobs, often sleeping under the stars. If there is a God, I thought, I will search for him by myself in the wilderness.

Later, out of high school and in the Navy, stationed in Washington, D.C., my religious search brought me back to Christianity. For half a year I was part of an Episcopal parish though visiting not only other Protestant churches but various Catholic churches as well. Having found myself most challenged both intellectually and spiritually by the Catholic Church, I started a course of instruction and in November 1960 became a Catholic, at the same time going to confession for the first time. Confession has ever since been an ordinary — but never easy — part of my life.

Two decades later, then living in Europe, my work took me to Moscow for a small theological conference hosted by the Russian Orthodox Church. In those days, the Soviet Union was showing no signs of giving up the ghost. The “iron curtain” was very solid and Communist symbols and slogans rarely out of sight once behind the curtain. While for twenty years I had occasionally read books and magazine articles about the Orthodox Church, the last thing I expected was that I was heading toward a life-changing encounter with Orthodox Christianity.

According to all I had read, the Orthodox Church in Russia was an ever-shrinking band of unlettered old women. True, old women were the majority in the church, but what old women! It was chiefly thanks to them that my vague interest in “Eastern” Christianity abruptly became far more intense. Attending the liturgy in one of Moscow’s few open churches, I was overwhelmed by the climate of prayer generated by the worshipers — in my experience, only the black church in America came close. Seven years and many trips later, my wife and I were received into the Orthodox Church at a parish in Amsterdam, St. Nicholas of Myra.

I wasn’t a “convert,” I explained to bewildered Catholic friends at the time. I was only changing my address. The main event, my conversion to Christ, had started much earlier in my life. But nowhere else in Christianity had I experienced such depth and fervor of eucharistic life, such an intensity of prayer, such continuity of teaching, such a healthy capacity to resist passing ideological and theological fashions. For all of Orthodoxy’s shortcomings — its “national churches,” its jurisdictional rivalries, the inattention of so many Orthodox Christians to urgent social issues — I found it impossible not to be part of the Orthodox Church. Yet I felt and still feel a strong bond with the Catholic Church and a connection with anyone, no matter what his or her church, who is trying to follow Christ.

More than two-thirds of my life have now been spent in churches in which confession is recognized as a sacrament, even though in the Catholic Church it has been a sacrament in decline for the past quarter century, at least in North America and Western Europe.

In Holland, my home since 1977, I have yet to find a Catholic parish where confession is a visible part of church life. A few years ago I visited a large Catholic church near Utrecht erected in the fifties, a period of optimism about the community’s future sacramental needs. Six confessionals had been built into its brick walls, but it had been years since a priest had sat in any of them. Each was being used as a closet — cleaning supplies in two of them, Mass booklets in another, candles in the next, assorted odds and ends in the last two, including a discarded Sacred Heart of Jesus statue.

One Dutch Catholic priest who avidly hoped for the sacrament’s revival was the late Henri Nouwen, whom I had come to know when he was teaching at Yale. While in the Netherlands for a family visit in the early eighties, he took me one weekday morning to meet an elderly priest whom Henri admired both for his translations of the writings of Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross and because he was a good confessor. After being introduced in the church sacristy, I left the two of them alone so that Henri could make his confession. Half an hour later Henri reappeared, telling me with dismay that this was the first time in seven years that anyone had come to the pastor for such a purpose. “Can you imagine? Here is a man with a vocation not only to be a channel of God’s forgiveness but also to give spiritual direction and wisdom. But no one wants it. It is like a town with a beautiful fountain that everyone ignores.” I had rarely heard such grief in Henri’s voice.

Yet even today there are Catholic churches with confessionals very much in use. Because my work often took me to London, in the years before becoming Orthodox I confessed regularly at that city’s main Catholic church, Westminster Cathedral. Once, while in Rome for a meeting with Pope John Paul in 1980, I confessed at St. Peter’s in one of the many confessionals in the back of that vast church. Last summer, while in England for an ecumenical conference, I visited a large and thriving parish in Birmingham, the Oratory, founded in the nineteenth century by Cardinal John Henry Newman. Here there were half-a-dozen confessionals standing ready for use. (Among those who attended Mass and went to confession at the Oratory in an earlier time was J.R.R. Tolkien when he was growing up. His Lord of the Rings trilogy has at its core one hobbit’s struggle not to let temptation get the upper hand, a theme not unfamiliar to anyone going to confession.)

The vitality of confession in the Orthodox Church was not a decisive factor in my becoming Orthodox, yet I was always inspired when watching people confess in Orthodox parishes: priest and penitent standing before an icon of Christ, the person confessing toward the icon rather than the priest.

I was gradually to learn that the tradition of confession in the Orthodox Church was not only superficially different — standing rather than kneeling, in public view rather than hidden — but there is often a difference in emphasis. The geography of the ritual helped make it clear it was Christ who was being addressed by the person confessing and that the priest was chiefly a witness. There was a sense of familial intimacy in the closeness of penitent and priest standing so close to each other. Earlier in my life I had understood confession mainly as the listing of sins of which I was guilty. In the Orthodox Church I encountered a different emphasis: an attempt to identify what I had done that broke communion with God and my neighbor. It was a lesson I might have learned as a Catholic but I hadn’t.

Little by little I came to better understand the great care one often notices in Orthodox parishes as believers prepare to receive communion — the awareness that communion with Christ requires being in a state of communion with those around us, and that it is a sin to go to the chalice if you are in a state of enmity.

Confession in One Parish

Orthodox parishes being relatively few in Holland and many of us living some distance away from our parish church, I am among those who go to confession before the liturgy on Sunday mornings rather than after Vespers Saturday night.

As is the Orthodox custom, confession usually occurs in a corner of the church not far from the altar. There is a narrow tilted stand on which are placed a New Testament and a cross. On the wall over the stand, illuminated by the flickering light of a lampada (an oil lamp), is an icon of Christ the Savior. Those wanting to confess stand in line, leaving enough space at the front so that the person confessing has a degree of privacy. While confession is going on, normally a reader recites psalms and prayers in the center of the church, thus preventing confessions from being audible.

Often the first person in line is Zacharia, a large, round-faced Ethiopian woman of a grandmotherly age with a faded cross tattooed on her forehead. The priest receives her, as he does all penitents, by reciting words that remind her that he is only a witness to the confession about to be made and that it is Christ the physician, invisibly present, who heals and forgives. Zacharia speaks little Dutch, still less English, and not a word of Russian, Greek, or German — thus no language that any of our priests understands. It doesn’t matter. She stands before the icon of Christ, her upraised hands rising and falling rhythmically, relating in her incomprehensible mother tongue whatever is burdening her. As the priest grasps not a word of what she is saying, he does nothing more than quietly recite the Jesus Prayer until Zacharia is finished. Then she kneels down while he places the lower part of his priestly stole over her head and recites the words of absolution: “May our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, by the grace and compassion of his love for man, pardon all your faults, child Zacharia, and I, the unworthy priest __________, by his authority given me, pardon and absolve you of all your sins: in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

With these last words, he traces the sign of the cross on the head of this African woman who misses the liturgy only if ill. Then Zacharia rises, turns to face him, and receives a final blessing before the next person comes forward and the confessions continue.

Those in the line are men and women in approximately equal numbers. They come in all ages and sizes, from children to the aged. The only difference from the first confession is that in most cases the priest understands the language being spoken and thus can ask the occasional question and offer words of advice or encouragement before giving absolution.

There are those who whisper so quietly that probably the priest can hardly hear them, others who speak so loudly that those standing nearby are likely to murmur aloud their own prayers so as not to overhear what is being confessed. Some confess at length, some briefly. Some confess with their hands hanging at their sides while the hands of others articulate as much as words all that is being said. Occasionally the penitent weeps more than speaks, confessing mainly in tears. The sobs travel from one side of the church to the other and for some in the church prove contagious, one grief awakening others. With those whose pain is overwhelming, the priest often rests a reassuring hand on their shoulder.

Parents often bring infants and children with them when they confess. On a recent Sunday I noticed Fr. Sergei Ovsiannikov, rector of our parish, hearing a young mother’s confession while holding her baby in his arms.

The frequency of confession varies dramatically from person to person. A few confess almost each week, some once a month, still others a few times in the course of a year. Only a small portion of the parish confesses on a given weekend. Even so, it is a big job for our priests. On Sunday mornings, one or two of them will be hearing confessions beginning about twenty minutes before the service begins, with one of them sometimes still hearing confessions through the first half of the liturgy, until it is nearly time for communion. It’s not the ideal practice for confession to occur during the liturgy, but with many people coming long distances and sometimes experiencing delays along the way, the priests do their best to open the pathway to communion.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels a warm breeze entering the church from the corner where confessions are going on.

This is a scene repeated in Orthodox churches around the world, though details in practice vary from nation to nation. The Slavic wing of the Orthodox Church — our parish is linked to the Church in Russia — is noted for frequency of confession, the Greek wing less so, yet periodic confession is seen as an essential element of sacramental life even in those churches where it is less commonly used.

A Word of Thanks

Every book is a work of community. My thanks to all who read parts of the manuscript along the way and whose comments helped make it better, especially Barbara Allaire, Fr. Lawrence Barriger, Fr. Ted Bobosh, Alice Carter, Tom Cornell, Fr. Yves Dubois, Sr. Nonna Harrison, Ioana Novac, Fr. Sergei Ovsiannikov, Fr. Pat Reardon, Fr. Michael Plekon, Karen Rae Keck, Shannon Robinson, Daniel Scuiry, Michael Sersch, Deacon John Sewter, Fr. James Silver, Nilus Stryker, Sue Talley, Mary Taylor, Fr. Steve Tsichlis, Fr. John Udies, Fr. Alexis Vinogradov, Bishop Kallistos Ware, and Renee Zitzloff. I wish I could place a copy of this book in the hands of the late Henri Nouwen, from whom I learned a great deal about confession. He would be pleased to see that Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son painting graces the cover of this book as it did one of his last books, The Return of the Prodigal Son. Finally, a word of profound appreciation to my editor and friend, Robert Ellsberg, and equally to my wife, Nancy. Without them this book would never have reached your hands.

Hoping that one day there will be a revised edition of this book, I invite any who read it to send me, care of the publisher or via e-mail, any suggestions, insights, or criticisms with regard to this book and also to share stories or experiences of confession that might be useful to others. In the case of private experiences of confession, names will not be published.

Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness

by Jim Forest; Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books; 174 pp, $15ISBN 1570753865

Once a defining feature of Christian life, the practice of confession was abandoned by many people in the last few decades of the twentieth century, but now is coming back to life with the recognition that, without an acknowledgment of sin and the longing for forgiveness and reconciliation, the Gospel makes little sense. In Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness, Jim Forest offers a moving and helpful reappraisal of this neglected sacrament, drawing on history, scripture, the lives of the saints and a wealth of personal stories.

“The best single book I have seen on a sacrament which is widely misunderstood. In this accessible and very helpful book, Forest places the sacrament of reconciliation solidly at the center of Christian tradition. I can imagine no better introduction.”

]- Fr. John Garvey
author of Orthodoxy for the Non-Orthodox

“The mysteries of repentance, confession and forgiveness are at the core of Christianity. Jim Forest retrieves these powers for us at a time when confession and forgiveness are as necessary as air and water are for humankind to survive. Confession is a treasure to mine and practice.”

— Megan McKenna
author of Prophets

Jim Forest opens his new book with the following tale. It seems that a young priest in the feel-good 1970s was so taken with the latest bestseller I’m Okay, You’re Okay that he gave it a rave review in one of his sermons. Afterwards, an old parishioner acknowledged that the book was probably a good one, but added this: “I kept thinking of Christ on the Cross saying to those who were watching him die, ‘If everybody’s okay, what in blazes am I doing up here?'”

This wonderful story sets the stage for Forest’s wide-ranging reflections on confession. He isn’t content merely to examine confession as a sacrament. Instead, he correctly sees confession as a magnet that pulls together such topics as human nature, sin, individual integrity, community, and spiritual wholeness. Confession is more than just whispering a few faults into a priest’s ear. It’s an opportunity for renewal and rebirth, because one can only begin to heal if one first acknowledges that something’s broken. Defiant refusal to acknowledge individual guilt is bad enough; psycho-babbled insousiance is worse. Jim Forest does an especially good job of persuading us of the importance of honestly facing ourselves and God.

Along the way, he gives a short history of confession, reflects on several scriptural stories in which confession is illuminated (my favorite is his discussion of Mark’s account of the paralytic who was healed), includes a discussion of Dostoevsky on the need for reconciliation (to my mind, a gem-like essay in its own right), discusses some concrete tips for preparing for confession or self-examen and selecting a confessor, and closes with an interesting chapter of reflections on confession from clergy and laypeople. All in all, a remarkable book.

— Kerry Walters, on the web site

Here are a few chapters from Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness:

Confession: Doorway to Forgivness is published by Orbis Books.

Orbis Books
Maryknoll, NY 10545

free phone for book orders: 1-800-258-5838

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The Wormwood File: E-Mail from Hell

by Jim Forest

Sixty years ago, C.S. Lewis’ book, The Screwtape Letters, was published in England: an exchange of letters between a senior and junior demon. It appeared in a world in which participation in church life was society’s default setting.

Six decades later a fresh exchange of demonic correspondence, this time in the form of e-mail, has come to light: The Wormwood File. In Wormwood’s advice to Greasebeek, we discover that today’s demons are preoccupied with a new set of issues: New Age movements, war, abortion, pornography, the internet, a culture of self-affirmation. Yet a tempter’s goals haven’t changed since the days of the Garden of Eden.

The Wormwood File is a deadly serious exchange — with a humorous twist.

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 Discovering Wormwood – introduction to the book’s Romanian translation

Click here to read the introduction and Wormwood’s first two letters.

* * *

At the end of C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters (1941), the recipient of those missives on the art of temptation, the junior demon Wormwood, was in a pickle — indeed, might become a pickle, so to speak, for his uncle-advisor’s hellish delectation. Forest reveals that Wormwood survived and now advises yet-more-junior tempters, including one Greasebeek, whose first case is the subject of these e-mails. The “client” is a young married man who, when the correspondence begins, has bought a Gregorian chant CD. Not to worry, says Wormwood; most who buy such things “barely listen to what is being sung” and even “give up on Christianity simply because the music in actual churches doesn’t measure up.” Besides, the client disfavors “organized religion”: “What a useful phrase that’s been!” Wormwood crows. But, as in Lewis’ classic, things go from bad to better for the client. As they do, Wormwood’s comments on both contemporary spiritual fashions and age-old temptations illuminate by contrast the strengths of orthodox Christian belief. The Wormwood File is a worthy sequel to a perdurable popular-theology masterpiece.
— Booklist review by Ray Olson

The Wormwood File is a heavenly work by a helluva author! Not so much a treatise on temptation as an epistolary novel, it does what C.S. Lewis and others have done; that’s to say, describe the stalking of a soul by a satanic predator, but in a satiric way. Upon reading the novel, one can’t help but look over one’s shoulder, for, as Scripture tells us, we’re next on the list. Read now, laugh now, but also repent now!

—William Griffin, author of C.S. Lewis: Spirituality for Mere Christians

Relevant, up to date temptations and timely demonic advice. From the firewalls of hell, an insiders’ peak at demonic correspondence revealing the other side of allurements by Screwtape’s up-and-coming nephew. The Wormwood File captures the playful spirit of C.S. Lewis with modern temptations, postmodern issues, and new age dangers. Great satire!

— Michael J. Christensen, author, C.S. Lewis on Scripture

Available from many book shops as well as from the publisher, Orbis Books, on the Orbis web site.

Also from Amazon.

ISBN 157075554X