Peter Maurin: Prophet of The Green Revolution

The Forgotten Radical Peter Maurin: Easy Essays from the Catholic Worker

By Peter Maurin, edited by Lincoln Rice / Fordham University Press, 2020

Review by Jim Forest

In bringing out the complete writings of Peter Maurin, editor Lincoln Rice has put Peter Maurin back on the map of people who deserve widespread attention. The timing of the book’s publication is providential. As was the case when the first issue of The Catholic Worker was published, once again we are facing a great depression. It’s a time to rethink the problem of our ultra-urbanized culture in which environment and peace are less important than consumer spending and a militarized economy — a way of life that is in fact a way of death.

While the bulk of Maurin’s “Easy Essays” have been published from time to time in the past, not all of them have previously seen the light of day, nor were his writings annotated. The reader was often left in the dark about obscure names mentioned, books cited, and events referred to. Lincoln Rice has not only provided us with a definitive edition but includes several revealing interviews with Maurin. Rice also provides a compact biography of Maurin and lists the many books he referred to in his writings. Any reader who wants to know more about Maurin has the ideal resource.

Dorothy Day was the driving force in bringing the Catholic Worker movement into being and shaping it, yet there would have been no Catholic Worker had it not been for Peter Maurin. Dorothy Day always regarded him as the Catholic Worker’s co-founder.

The two met in December 1932 after Dorothy Day’s return from reporting on a “hunger march” in Washington, DC. “I am Peter Maurin,” the stranger said in a thick French accent. “George Schuster, editor of Commonweal, told me to look you up.”

“Peter talked as if he were taking up a conversation where it had been left off,” Dorothy recalled in Loaves and Fishes, her history of the Catholic Worker’s first three decades. “There was a gray look about him. He had gray hair, cut short and scrubby, gray eyes, strong features, a pleasant mouth, and short-fingered, broad hands, evidently used to hard work…. He wore the kind of old clothes that have so lost their shape and finish that it’s impossible to tell if they are clean or not.”

Peter chose the occasion to recite one of his “Easy Essays,” as Dorothy’s brother John christened them — a kind of rhythmic, blank-verse poem using repeated words and phrases arranged in short lines. Aware that Dorothy had just returned from Washington, his text was a challenge to her and to all those who believe that it is the task of government to solve our problems. It began:

People go to Washington

asking the government

to solve their economic problems,

while the Federal government

was never intended

to solve men’s economic problems.

Thomas Jefferson says,

“The less government there is,

the better it is.”

If the less government there is,

the better it is,

the best kind of government

is self-government…

Arguing for less government rather than more was an idea completely out of fashion with most of the radicals Dorothy Day knew and whose journals she had often written for and helped edit.

Their first meeting was relatively brief — Dorothy was tired and her daughter Tamar had the measles — but Peter was back the next day, eager to tell her about the three-point program he hoped she would embrace: founding a newspaper “for the clarification of thought,” promoting houses of hospitality for those in need of food and shelter, and organizing farming communities so that both workers and scholars could return to the land. “I did not think,” Dorothy recalled later in life, “that the second two had anything to do with me, but I did know about newspapers.”

While Peter was tireless in expounding his vision and philosophy, he was hesitant to talk about himself. It took years for Dorothy to gather together the main facts of his life. The eldest of twenty-two children, Peter had been born in 1877 into a family of peasant farmers in the French region of Languedoc, not far from Spain. He took pride in having a grandfather who lived to be ninety-four and who had still been working in the fields when he was eighty-five, after which he stayed home making baskets and praying the rosary. At sixteen, Peter entered a Catholic teaching order, the Christian Brothers, with whom he remained for nine years. In 1902, he left the order and became active in Le Sillon (The Furrow), a movement which advocated Christian democracy and which supported cooperatives and unions. But in 1908, with Le Sillon shifting from its early religious focus toward politics, Peter withdrew and soon after joined the stream of emigrants who were leaving France for Canada, where there was no military conscription and land was cheap. For two years, he homesteaded in Saskatchewan, then took whatever work he could find, first in Canada and then in the United States. By the time he met Dorothy, he had dug irrigation ditches, quarried stone, harvested wheat, cut lumber, laid railway tracks, labored in brickyards, steel mills and coal mines. He had been jailed for vagrancy and for “riding the rails.” He had never married. In Chicago, he had supported himself by teaching French and making a good living doing so. It must have been at the end of his Chicago days that he experienced a religious awakening that reoriented his life. In the five-year period leading up to his encounter with Dorothy Day, he had been the handyman at a Catholic boys’ camp, Mount Tremper, in upstate New York in exchange for meals, use of the chaplain’s library, living space in the barn (shared with a horse), and pocket money when needed.

He once confided to Dorothy that, in the rootless decade that preceded his job at the boys’ camp, he had become estranged from the Catholic Church. “Why?” she asked. “Because I was not living as a Catholic should,” Peter replied. “There was a finality about his answer,” Dorothy commented in retelling the story in 1952, “that kept me from questioning further. I understood that his difficulties had not been intellectual but moral…. I could only suppose that he had been living as most men do in their youth, following their own desires.”

By the time Dorothy met him, Peter had not only returned to the Catholic faith but had acquired an ascetic attitude toward both property and money: he had nearly none of either and, like Saint Francis of Assisi, rejoiced in poverty as if it were his bride. His poverty was his freedom. His unencumbered, possession-free life provided him with ample time for study, prayer and meditation, out of which a vision had taken form of a social order “in which it would be easier for men to be good.” He sought a new weaving together of “cult, culture and cultivation,” a synthesis he saw as being “so old that it seems like new.” Cult referred to religion, the foundation of life. Culture arose from religion and meant each person being as an artist or craftsman in his or her field of endeavor. Cultivation meant a life rooted in the land.

As often as his work at the camp allowed, he made his way to New York City. A “flop house” hotel on the Bowery provided austere lodging for forty cents a night. His days were spent either at the New York Public Library or on the streets — often at Union Square — expounding his ideas to anyone who showed a flicker of interest. After all, he reasoned, the way to reach the man on the street is to go to the street. No doubt his accent and threadbare suit convinced many that there was no need to listen. But Peter was a born teacher, lively and good humored, and had little difficulty in finding willing listeners — not only the unemployed and radicals with time on their hands, but bankers and professors.

During the days of Tamar’s recovery and for weeks afterward, Peter was nearly a full-time visitor, offering Dorothy an intensive course on the Church’s role in the world. He was one of the rare Catholics who knew what recent popes had written on pressing social issues, and could even recite by heart significant passages from the encyclicals Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno. He had studied so many authors that people who came to know Peter joked about him being a walking library.

Peter told Dorothy how saints, down through the centuries, had responded in radical ways to the social ills of their day. Emphasizing the “primacy of the spiritual,” Peter wanted Dorothy to acquire a view of life and history that centered on sanctity — to study the past with special attention to the lives of the saints and their impact on the world around them. “It’s better to know the lives of saints,” Peter insisted, “than the lives of kings and generals.” But studying history was also essential: “We must study history,” he said, “in order to find out why things are as they are. In the light of history, we should so work today that things will be different in the future.”

Peter had been praying for a collaborator and was certain Dorothy was the answer to his prayers. Her articles and what others had told him about her, as well as his own immediate impressions, convinced him that Dorothy had the potential of becoming a new Saint Catherine of Siena, the outspoken medieval reformer and peace negotiator who had counseled — and reprimanded — both popes and princes. What Saint Catherine had done in the fourteenth century, Peter believed Dorothy could do in the twentieth. She had the potential, he said, “to move mountains, and have influence on governments, temporal and spiritual.”

“There is no revolution without a theory of revolution,” Peter told Dorothy, quoting Lenin, but what is needed, he went on, is not a bloody “Red Revolution,” such as Lenin’s in Russia, built on mountains of casualties. Killing as a method of social reform only led to the cemetery. What was needed, Peter argued, was a bottom-up, peaceful, “Green Revolution.” For the theory of a Green Revolution to be made known and put into practice, a journal was needed, a radical Catholic paper that would publicize Catholic social teaching and promote the steps that could bring about the peaceful transformation of society. Dorothy, he said, should be the editor of such a publication.

It seemed to Dorothy that, if family roots, life experience and religious conviction had prepared her for anything, it was just such a task. It was obvious that the few Catholic publications willing to publish her writings had no revolutionary vision and no interest in reaching the down-and-out.

“But how are we to start it?” she asked. “I enunciate the principles,” Peter declared. “But where do we get the money?” “In the history of the saints,” Peter answered, “capital is raised by prayer. God sends you what you need when you need it. You will be able to pay the printer. Just read the lives of the saints.”

Dorothy had recently read Sorrow Built a Bridge, a biography of Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne’s daughter. At age forty, she had converted to Catholicism. Abandoning her social position, she rented a three-room tenement flat on the Lower East Side in New York and opened its door to penniless neighbors who were dying of cancer. From her hospitality to the terminally ill had sprung a religious order, the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne. The story of what one woman in the same neighborhood had done only a few decades earlier gave Dorothy courage.

“Why not start a newspaper in the same way?” Dorothy asked herself. “I began to look on my kitchen as an editorial office, my brother as an assistant to write heads and to help with mechanical make-up. Tamar and I could go out to sell papers on the streets!” Editing a Catholic paper that promoted a new social order was a vision Dorothy could not walk away from. “It was impossible to be with a person like Peter without sharing his simple faith that the Lord would provide what was necessary to do His work,” Dorothy wrote in House of Hospitality.

The name Peter proposed for the paper was The Catholic Radical. Radical, he pointed out, came from the Latin word, radix, for root. The radical is someone who doesn’t settle for cosmetic solutions but goes to the root of personal and social problems. Dorothy felt that the name should refer to the class of its hoped-for readers rather than the attitude of its editors and so decided to name it The Catholic Worker. “Man proposes and woman disposes,” Peter responded meekly.

It took several months to move from uncertain interest to actual decisions, but by the spring Dorothy was beginning to envision, then work on the first issue. Peter knew a priest who, he thought, would allow the use of a mimeograph machine to get out the first issue, but nothing came of it, perhaps in part because Dorothy wanted a more enduring journal. She found that the Paulist Press was willing to set type for and print 2,500 copies of a letter-sized eight-page tabloid paper for $57, cash in advance. Dorothy calculated she could pay the bill with recent income from her writing and research work plus delaying payment of her gas and electric bills. “We would sell the paper, I decided, for a cent a copy,” Dorothy recalled, “to make it so cheap that anyone could afford to buy.” (The penny-a-copy price has never changed.)

She plunged into writing the first issue, preparing articles on labor, strikes and unemployment. Her own writing retained its usual highly personal style. In addition she selected six of Peter’s “Easy Essays.” These were an orator’s blend of manifesto and poetry. One of them included in the first issue protested the crippling grip of wealth on the Church:

Christ drove the money changers

            out of the Temple.

            But today nobody dares

            to drive the money lenders

            out of the Temple.

            And nobody dares

            to drive the money lenders

            out of the Temple

            because the money lenders

            have taken a mortgage

            on the Temple.

On the first of May, 1933, the radicals and workers who crowded Union Square to celebrate their revolutionary hopes were the recipients of the first issue. In it Peter Maurin’s name — misspelled Maurain — was listed with Dorothy’s as an editor, but he wasn’t among those distributing the new paper at Union Square. Apart from his own Easy Essays, which filled several columns, he found the new-born Catholic Worker a painful disappointment and had no desire to be considered co-responsible. “It’s everyone’s paper,” he said woefully after looking at the first issue, “and everyone’s paper is no one’s paper.” The “everyone” he referred to was Dorothy Day. It was her voice rather than his that was dominant and that would remain so the rest of her life.

Peter quietly left Dorothy’s apartment, where he had been an almost daily visitor for months. Weeks passed before she saw him again. Dorothy was so caught up with the needs of the infant paper that she may have felt some relief in his absence. Mailing out sample copies to nuns and priests, editors and friends, writing letters begging for support, all the while caring for Tamar, she would not have felt an immediate need for Peter’s indoctrination.

Peter returned while the second issue was being laid out. He had recovered from his initial disappointment and was ready to resume Dorothy’s education. He arrived daily in the mid-afternoon, often stayed until late at night, making his “points” — jabbing the air with his right index finger, an exclamation mark in motion, while Dorothy carried on with her chores and the care of Tamar.

It became clear that Peter’s objection to the first issue wasn’t simply that Dorothy’s voice rather than his own dominated its pages. Though Peter saw it as his role “to enunciate the principles,” Dorothy noted, he was remarkably free of the need for personal recognition and he admired Dorothy’s writing. What he found missing in the paper was a presentation of basic ideas and principles, a coherent strategy for a new social order, which he had hoped the paper would communicate on every page. He felt that Dorothy hadn’t really understood what he had been saying all those weeks. If the first issue were pruned of his Easy Essays and the occasional quotations from the Bible and papal encyclicals, it seemed to him that most of the surviving material — stories about strikes, trials, racism, child labor and economic exploitation — could have been published in any radical publication. As Peter saw it, the first Catholic Worker was simply one more journal of protest, different from others mainly because it was edited by Catholics rather than atheists and had some specifically Christian content.

Peter was a radical out of step with other radicals. He had little interest in protest, which he believed did almost nothing to bring about real change. The old order would die from neglect rather than criticism. He had never joined a union, he told Dorothy, because he didn’t want “to enlarge the proletariat.” What was needed first of all, Peter was convinced, was communicating a vision of a future society alongside an easy-to-grasp program of constructive steps with which to begin realizing elements of the vision — “building a new society within the shell of the old” — in one’s own life.

“Progress” was a word that summed up for many people the popular idea that history inevitably evolves upward, but Peter, like the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, saw too much evidence that civilization was moving downward, from the human to the subhuman, from decentralization to centralization, from freedom to slavery, from the divine to the demonic.

In “Modern Times,” a film released only three years later, Charlie Chaplin converted a similar insight into the image of his silent, benevolent tramp being ingested into the gears of a giant machine. It was machines that were getting better, Peter noticed, not human beings. “History has failed,” he wrote. “There is no such thing as hi§storical progress. The present is not an improvement on the past.” Left-oriented political movements that described themselves as “progressive” were, in Peter’s view, simply attempting to make superficial improvements to structures that were innately destructive. While sympathizing with factory workers striking for better pay and better hours, the basic structures of industrialism, Peter had learned as a factory laborer, were hostile to human beings and to creation itself. Peter saw no point in struggling for minor concessions in places where the work was fundamentally anti-human. He considered assembly lines no less brutalizing than prisons, except that, when the whistle blew, the prisoners of the factory were sent home for the night. It is time, Peter argued, to leave behind time clocks and shift labor and “fire the bosses.”

You didn’t fire the bosses by briefly withholding your labor and closing factories for a week or a month. “Strikes don’t strike me,” Peter said. His solution to industrial ruthlessness, injustice and joblessness was summed up in one sentence: “There is no unemployment on the land.” The Catholic Worker, Peter argued, should stand for a decentralized society, a society of cooperation rather than coercion, with artisans and craftsmen, with small factories that were worker-owned and worker-run. Agricultural communities would be the basic unit in which worker and scholar could both sweat and think together, developing what Peter called a “worker-scholar synthesis.”

Another central concept for Peter was voluntary poverty — a poverty that he distinguished from destitution. To him, voluntary poverty did not mean having nothing but living simply, with less rather than more, sharing rather than hoarding, owning only what was truly needed, “going without luxuries in order to have essentials.” Voluntary poverty enabled the person “with two coats to give one of them to the person with none.” Like Francis of Assisi and many other saints, Peter had been living on less rather than more for years and had found it freeing rather than limiting. He sometimes quoted a passage from Eric Gill’s writings: “The poor man, in the sense of the Gospel, in the meaning of Jesus, is not he who has been robbed but he who has not robbed others…. [The] poor man … is not he who has not been loved, but he who has loved others rather than himself.”

All this, of course, struck many people as utopian — an attractive vision but not something that could happen in the real world. “Utopian” was a word that was often hurled at Peter as if no other response was necessary. Peter Maurin, his critics said, was trying to restore the medieval past. His plan also lacked details or reliance on political structures. As Dorothy noted in The Long Loneliness, “The trouble was that Peter never filled in the chasms, the valleys in leaping from crag to crag of noble thoughts.”

But Peter had a point in noting that capitalist and communist had more in common than they liked to admit: both were looking with a similar uncritical gaze toward a horizon of smokestacks. Both communist and anti-communist were generally city people who liked to get their milk and eggs at a nearby store. Few of them aspired to the plow, the chicken coop, the dawn milking, the midnight calving, and the 365-day work year that the care of livestock and the raising of crops requires.

Following Peter’s return, Dorothy became more open to his critique of assembly-line civilization and his vision of moving toward a post-industrial society. Surely there must be something more to struggle for than improved, unionized or even worker-owned industrialism. Surely community was better than mass society. Surely it was better for children to grow up with space, air, and land — where the main color was green rather than gray. Surely life on the land wasn’t just for our ancestors. And would not a decentralized, farm-centered society provide a better base for a way of life that was shaped by religious faith? Surely others too were longing for a society more congenial to faith, hope and love.

Yet Dorothy’s approach and Peter’s were different, a difference Dorothy attributed in part to what she saw as a basic difference between man and woman. Men, Dorothy felt, tended to be preoccupied with the future and were generally more abstract, more idea driven, more idealistic, while women tended to be more centered in the present, more practical and more rooted, involved as they were, as mothers and grandmothers, with solving the immediate practical problems of running a home and caring for children. Drawing on her own experience, she felt that “woman is saved by child-bearing,” a role which imposes on her “a rule of life which involves others” and through which “she will be saved in spite of herself.” Men didn’t have to be so anchored. “Women think with their whole bodies,” it seemed to Dorothy. “More than men do, women see things as a whole.”

Even so, it was Dorothy, not Peter, who used ideological labels like “pacifist” and “anarchist” in describing herself. Pacifism meant for Dorothy an across-the-board rejection of war — while some wars might have more justification than others, no war was in fact good, no war was just, no war was praiseworthy, every war was a catastrophe. For her the term “anarchist” (literally, a person without a king) meant taking personal responsibility, not expecting the government to solve every problem. As she would later explain to a friend, Rosemary Bannon, her concept of anarchism was “a religious one stemming from the life of Jesus on earth, who came to serve rather than to be served.”

Peter, in contrast, avoided every label except Catholic and one other: “personalist.” A personalist, in Peter’s view, was a person seeking not to reform the state but to reform himself. Unhappy with the world? Then become yourself the person you want others to be. Do yourself what you wish others would do. “Don’t criticize what is not being done,” Peter said over and over again. “See what there is to do, fit yourself to do it, then do it.” (The modern concept of personalism had been developed by the French philosopher, Emmanuel Mounier, whose writings Peter translated and brought into the pages of The Catholic Worker.)

With the second issue of The Catholic Worker, Peter formally withdrew his name as an editor, announcing that henceforth he was responsible only for what he signed himself, yet from that issue onward, the paper as a whole, including Dorothy’s own writing, bore greater evidence of Peter’s influence. This wasn’t, however, at the expense of Dorothy’s preoccupation with the here and now. She continued to identify with anyone who was protesting injustice and struggling for even slight improvements in the existing social order. She continued to side with strikers and union organizers and to approve of much that those on the left were doing, even if they never questioned urbanization or industrialism. But she found ways to articulate a vision of a future with fewer smokestacks and smaller cities.

In the second issue Peter described his program in more detail: his call for discussion and study groups and for the foundation of houses of hospitality and farming communes. In essence, it was a call, he cheerfully admitted, for Christian communism. “I am not afraid of the word communism,” he wrote, but it was not something to be imposed on anyone — a green rather than a red communism. “I am not saying that my program is for everyone. It is for those who choose to embrace it.”

Readers were invited by Peter to the first “round table discussion,” an image suggesting a gathering in which all who take part have equal standing. A $3 deposit had already been paid — $7 was still owed — for a hall on East 4th Street, he announced to his readers. He must have been disappointed when only fifteen people showed up, but an enduring Catholic Worker tradition began that night. At the New York Catholic Worker, rarely has a week passed since then without a weekly public meeting, usually on Friday evenings. A similar practice is followed by many other Catholic Worker communities.

For Peter, teaching was a full-time job, not something to be done just one night a week but at every possible opportunity. By the summer of 1933, the young people drawn to the Catholic Worker began to gather at Dorothy’s apartment, or in the apartment’s backyard, for informal discussions with Peter. Dorothy did not always take part — by now she had a solid grounding in Peter’s ideas and also had work to do preparing the next issue as well as caring for Tamar.

Those participating in these exchanges, of course, had ideas of their own, often at odds with Peter’s. He listened with interest and patience to each person, but if it happened that someone came up with a thought or experience that connected with what he had been saying, Peter would exclaim, like a miner who had found a gold nugget, “See the point! See the point!”

Dorothy regarded Peter as a saint. “There are many saints,” she wrote, “here, there and everywhere and not only the canonized saints that Rome draws to our attention.” In fact saints should be common, she added, for after all, as Saint Paul had written, we are all called to be saints. Peter’s patient and tireless teaching reminded her especially of Saint Paul, “who talked so much that a young man fell off the window seat, out of the open window, and was picked up for dead — Saint Paul had to revive him.” (Acts 20:7-12)

By the fall, it was clear that the new paper, envisioned by Peter but edited with a firm grip by Dorothy, was meeting a real need. Few publications have experienced such rapid growth as did The Catholic Worker in its first year. Within the first six months, the number of copies printed rose from 2,500 to 35,000, thanks not only to many individual subscribers but also to bulk orders from parishes, schools and seminaries. Readers found a voice in The Catholic Worker that was unique among both religious and political journals. There were articles about principles and columns full of news. At the same time, the paper was written with a special intimacy and at-homeness, as if it were a letter between friends. The paper, rooted in a specific city and neighborhood, was full of local smells, sounds and small events that other national papers ignored, yet it appealed to readers living in distant places and different circumstances. Dorothy’s intensely personal approach to journalism was a major factor in the paper’s appeal. “Writing,” she explained in a 1950 column, “is an act of community. It is a letter, it is comforting, consoling, helping, advising on our part as well as asking it on yours. It is part of our human association with each other. It is an expression of our love and concern for each other.”

“By the mid-summer of 1933,” Dorothy recalled, “The Catholic Worker ceased to be just a newspaper but had become the voice of a movement.”

* * *

Jim Forest’s books include All Is Grace: a Biography of Dorothy Day and, most recently, a memoir, Writing Straight With Crooked Lines.

* * *

The Duty of Hope

By Jim Forest

The theme of this retreat is “Hope in Turbulent Times” but, as I think about it, for a great many people the times we’re living in are worse than turbulent — for many they engender hopelessness.

Right now we are surrounded by a ring of crises.

For starters, we’re meeting together on-line rather than face-to-face because this is a time of global pandemic. More than two-million people have died and more are dying every minute of the day.

[1 – climate change graphic: ]

In addition there is the environmental crisis with its melting ice caps, its multiplying extinctions, and our awareness of the awful slowness with which we human beings are making necessary changes in how we live on this vulnerable planet.

[2 – refugee crisis photo:  ]

There is also the refugee crisis — for political, economic or environmental reasons millions of people are leaving their homelands and being met by walls rather than welcomes.

[3 – Nagasaki photo: ]

All the while there is the constant danger of nuclear war — thousands of nuclear-armed missiles are poised and ready for use.

There is a world-wide political crisis. Donald Trump is only one of many politicians who represent a fascist temptation that is so active a force in so many countries.

[4 – cross & flag graphic: ]

One can also speak of a spiritual crisis. Religiously-packaged nationalism is widespread. In many churches in America the cross, far from being a symbol of self-giving love, has been converted unto a flagpole.

One of the darkest signs of the times is the increased frequency of suicide, most notably among young people. Perhaps this particular crisis represents a crisis of meaning triggered   in some degree by the cumulative effect of all the other crises.

This is not a complete list of contemporary crises that make hope difficult, but the list at least sketches out why so many of us are dealing with a sense of living in the apocalyptic end times, which, in its secularized form, is a time with no light at the end of the tunnel.

It is not hard to feel hopeless. But what I want to say has to do with hope.

[5 – Dorothy Day photo: ]

Dorothy Day was one of the most hopeful people I’ve ever known. She used to speak matter-of-factly of “the duty of hope.” For her, hope had nothing to do with optimism. Hope was not a mood or a state of mind that arose like a wildflower when spring arrived. Hope was as obligatory as breathing. I think it was from Dorothy that I first heard the proverb, “Even if I knew the world was going to end tomorrow, I would plant an apple tree today.”

In the early Sixties, I was part of the Catholic Worker community in New York and for years after leaving remained close to Dorothy. In recent days I have been thinking about aspects of Dorothy’s approach to daily life, as I witnessed it, that helped keep her in a state of hope.

[6 – Dorothy Day at Mass: ]

One of the things that struck me was how disciplined was her spiritual life. Take it away and there is no Dorothy Day as we knew her. Her average day began with attending an early Mass in a neighborhood church. These were not necessarily Masses that were aesthetically wonderful, by the way. For most of her life, they were said hurriedly in barely audible Latin. She devoted time to the rosary at least once a day. Using booklets that had been given to us by Benedictine monks in Minnesota, she took part in daily praying the offices of Prime and Vespers. She kept lists of people, living and dead, for whom she prayed daily, enemies not excluded. She went to confession once a week. You’ll find a vivid description of what confession was like for her in the opening paragraphs of her autobiography, The Long Loneliness. She had no illusions about the serious faults of institutional Catholicism and from time to time put her criticisms in writing, but she was more interested in what was good about the Church than what was wrong with it. Her foundational attitude regarding the Church was gratitude.

[7 – profile view of Dorothy: ]

Another thing that surprised me about Dorothy was her appreciative attention to weeds and trees and blades of grass rising out of cracks in the sidewalk. If you read through her columns in the Catholic Worker, from its early years until she was too weak to leave her room on East Third Street, you will notice how often Dorothy took note of plant life. In her last “On Pilgrimage” column, printed in the October 1980 issue, she wrote: “The morning glories are up to the third floor of Maryhouse. I can see them grow each day!” Note the sentence ends not with a period but with an exclamation mark.

Among other things that helped her remain hopeful was music, especially opera. One was well advised not to knock on her door during the Saturday afternoon live broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera. Such music was an immersion in beauty and, as he so often said, quoting Dostoyevsky, “Beauty will save the world.”

[8 – Dostoyevsky portrait: ]

There was also the place of books in her life. She returned to the novels of Dostoevsky again and again. So influential was he in shaping Dorothy’s understanding of  Christianity that I have come to think of Dostoevsky as a co-founder of the Catholic Worker. But her reading tastes were wide. In one of her last columns, she mentions she was reading a murder mystery, Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers, a favorite author of mine as well.

[9 – Dorothy talking with Pat Jordan: ]

It never ceased to amaze me how attentive Dorothy was to people she met over a cup of tea or coffee, whether in the city or at the farm. Though some, if they were aware who she was, were a bit intimidated at first, those she conversed with quickly found themselves at ease. In my first close encounter with her — I was  in the Navy and was not yet nineteen at the time — I found myself telling her about aspects of my family background that I never talked about with anyone. Dorothy was permanently interested in people, young and old. Her interest and attentiveness had nothing to do with social rank. She had a gift for seeing that, no matter how damaged a person might be by life’s hard blows, he or she was truly a bearer of the divine image.

I mention these aspects of Dorothy because it seems to me they help explain why she remained so hopeful. Hope may be a duty but the duty of hope stands on a foundation of prayer, love and gratitude.

[10 – Merton photo: ]

Recalling people who engendered hope, I also think of Thomas Merton, whom I began corresponding with when Dorothy gave me a letter she had just received from him and, to my total astonishment, asked me to answer it. It was a short letter having to do with a poem Merton was submitting for publication in The Catholic Worker. All I had to do was thank Merton and tell him the poem would be in the next issue.

Between the summer of 1961 and his death in December 1968, Merton and I carried on an intense correspondence. Just his side of it takes up more than 50 pages in a collection of Merton’s letters entitled The Hidden Ground of Love.

I want to discuss just one of his letters that played a particularly important part in helping me get through a time of serious discouragement, but first let me give a little background. While at the Catholic Worker, the idea had arisen of starting the Catholic Peace Fellowship, but it took a few years before the idea became a reality. By then the Vietnam War was rapidly expanding. It seemed to several of us — Dan Berrigan, Jim Douglass, Tom Cornell and myself — that it would be helpful if there was a group making known to younger Catholics the option of conscientious objection. It was an option that Pope John XXIII had endorsed in his encyclical Pacem in Terris and which was developed in greater detail in Gaudium et Spes, the last major text issued by the Second Vatican Council. The possibility of being a conscientious objector was official Church teaching, yet it was a well-kept secret. One never heard of conscientious objection from the pulpit or in the classrooms of Catholic schools. We wanted to find ways to let young Catholics know there were alternatives to taking part in war. We also wanted to protest the huge U.S. role in the war in Vietnam.

[11 – photo of Jim Forest & Tom Cornell in the CPF office: ]

We launched the Catholic Peace Fellowship in the fall of 1964, then opened a CPF office in January 1965. Our advisory board included Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day. Within months we published a 32-page booklet with the title “Catholics and Conscientious Objection.” Amazingly it was given a theological green light by the Archdiocese of New York. On the inside cover was the archbishop’s imprimatur, the Latin word for “let it be printed.” God only knows how many doors that imprimatur helped open! Before the war ended in 1975, we had distributed more than 300,000 copies.

The work we were doing made a difference. It helps explain why so many thousands of young Catholics refused military service. We had CPF chapters from Massachusetts to California. The core of our work was draft counseling. At the CPF office in Manhattan, Tom Cornell and I plus several others were counseling on average fifty COs per week, some face-to-face, some by letter, some by phone. Tom and I were giving lectures on war and conscience all over the country.

[12 – Vietnam war photo:  ]

There is a sense in which you could say what we were doing was a great success. But in another sense, like all peace groups, we were a huge failure. Despite the fact that opposition to the war was steadily growing, week-by-week the war was getting worse — troop numbers rising, more and more bombs falling, and ever more casualties, the vast majority of which were civilian. One of the cruelest weapons, “napalm,” had become a new word in many people’s vocabularies. Pictures were being shown on TV of American soldiers using cigarette lighters to set on fire flimsy peasant homes. Air Force general Curtis LeMay was urging the president “to bomb North Vietnam back to the Stone Age.” As far as the White House and Pentagon were concerned, I had the feelings of being no more significant than a flea on an elephant. Only years after the war did we learn the impact of our efforts.

Thinking about living in what seem like a hopeless time, I recall myself early in 1966, age 24, when I was struggling with a hurricane of depression. On the 15th of February, I wrote an anguished letter to Merton as follows:

[13 – another Merton photo: ]

Valentine’s Day has passed but no let up to the war in Vietnam. Love continues to find a different sort of expression there….

I confess to you that I am in a rather bleak mood…. For one thing, I am exhausted with ideological discussions. Earlier today I began to type out a few thoughts on your paper concerning protest…. But the question comes up, as I work on such a statement, Who is listening? Yes, you, for one — you will read my comments, and perhaps in some way they will alter your thoughts on some subject, or strengthen them. Perhaps it will even inspire you to write something. Yet even if you do, who is listening? Your words will be dutifully noted by some … those Christians who care about baptism and membership in the Body of Christ may be influenced by your meditations. But meanwhile murder goes on without interruption. This appalls me to such a degree that I get weary writing it down. Bomb after bomb after bomb slides away from the bomb bays. For every sentence in this letter, a dozen innocents will have died today in Vietnam. The end of the war is beyond imagination.

[14 – bombed VNese town; ]

This morning I wrote a letter to the editor of [a Catholic magazine] in which I explained why a recent editorial … attacking the Catholic Peace Fellowship’s condemnation of the Vietnam war was poorly reasoned and didn’t come to terms with the reality of the situation in Vietnam…. I felt like a man in Germany in the 1930s trying to explain why Jews ought not to be sent to the concentration camps.

It all seems so utterly clear. You do not murder. You do not kill the innocent. You do not treat people like blemishes on the landscape, or communities as parcels of real estate, or nations as squares on a chessboard.

Yet no group seems more distant from these facts than Christian (and Catholic) Americans. I have all but given up talking to Catholic audiences about Christ; I simply talk about justice, raw basic justice. I think I’ve come to understand why natural law made its way into the Church. It was simply an attempt to ask us to be, if not holy, then just. At least that.

How is it that we have become so insensitive to human life, to the wonders of this world we live in, to the mystery within us and around us? And what can we do? What can be done? Who can we become that we are not? What can we undertake that we haven’t?

[15 – B-52 releasing bombs; ]

I do not wish to sound despairing. I have by no means given up on this work of ours. But truly I feel like an ant climbing a cliff, and even worse, for in the distance there seems to be the roar of an avalanche. There is no exit, so I will not bother to look for one. I will continue to work, and there are the saving moments, the saving friendships, the artists, there is in fact the faith.

But I write this thinking perhaps you will have some thoughts which might help. But don’t feel you have to have any. I don’t wish to treat you as a spiritual irrigation system. But your insights have helped me gain perspective at past times.

[16 – Merton teaching: ]

Merton’s reply was the most helpful letter I’ve ever received. His theme was about being hopeful in hopeless times:

Dear Jim,

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

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

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

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

The great thing after all is to live, not to pour out your life in the service of a myth: and we turn the best things into myths. If you can get free from the domination of causes and just serve Christ’s truth, you will be able to do more and will be less crushed by the inevitable disappointments. Because I see nothing whatever in sight but much disappointment, frustration and confusion….

The real hope, then, is not in something we think we can do but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see. If we can do His will, we will be helping in this process. But we will not necessarily know all about it beforehand….[i]


[17 – Merton in shed: ]

In the years following, what became known as “A Letter to a Young Activist” (the headline it was given when published in The Catholic Worker) was often reprinted and translated. It captures the heart of Merton’s advice to anyone in a burned-out state or close to it.

The key sentence was “Do not depend on the hope of results.” But what a challenge that is. Any action one embarks on is undertaken with the hope of positive, tangible results. One must have hope that what you do isn’t a waste of time. But to the extent you depend on some  degree of success, your capacity to persevere is undermined.

In his letter, Merton described peacemaking as “an apostolic work.” Before receiving Merton’s letter it had never occurred to me that peace work is of its nature an apostolic work — quite a dignity but also quite a responsibility. It was not an altogether comforting linkage. Few if any of Christ’s Apostles died of old age.

Merton challenged me “to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.” But it’s not easy getting used to the idea that what you are doing is probably going to crash against a stone wall. The shift from focusing not on quickly measurable results but rather on the value, rightness and truth of the work one is doing requires a major shift of perception.

One of the most helpful aspects of Merton’s letter was his stress on keeping one’s focus on specific people. “The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.” I know that sentence by heart and recite it often. It sums up what might be called incarnational theology. Words and slogans and theories are not nearly as important as how we see and relate to each other — the relationships we build — and not only with friends but with adversaries. In the context of peace work, it suggests getting to know, as best we can, the people and cultures being targeted by our weapons.

“You are fed up with words,” Merton wrote. He was himself, he confessed, “nauseated by ideals and with causes.” Ideas and slogans can so easily get the upper hand that you lose sight of what Merton called “the human dimension.” Of course social movements require words and often use slogans to sum up goals. These have their place, but it’s secondary. In a talk to his student novices, Merton — himself a master of words — once said, “He who follows words is destroyed.” Like arrows, words point but they are not the target. One of Merton’s main contributions to many people who were involved in peace efforts wasn’t his words, however brilliant, but the witness given by his monastic life in which prayer and meditation were integral elements of every activity. Each day had a liturgical and sacramental foundation.

[18 – Merton peace retreat: ]

A major point in his letter was that “the big results are not in your hands or mine, but they suddenly happen … but there is no point in building our lives on this personal satisfaction, which may be denied us and which after all is not that important.” Personal satisfaction is certainly nice but isn’t the goal. Martin Luther King didn’t live to see the realization of his dream. Merton didn’t live to see the end of the war in Vietnam. But it’s not important that we personally get to see the results of our efforts, however worthy our goals may be.

Merton was suggesting what I have come to think of as a cathedral builder’s mentality. Notre Dame cathedral in Paris took nearly two centuries to complete — and now, due to fire, is being rebuilt once again. But even in cases in which construction took less than a century, those who helped lay the foundations of a great cathedral knew they had slight chance of living to see their building roofed. Perhaps they imagined their grandchildren or great-grandchildren might have that satisfaction.

In place of being dominated by causes, Merton advised, all that was needed was just to serve Christ’s truth. It is finally Christ’s truth that matters. Trying to live within Christ’s truth certainly doesn’t mean we will live a life without failure. There is a reason that Christianity’s main symbol is the cross. But it may help prevent frustration and disappointment from becoming despair.

The ultimate hope, Merton concluded, isn’t in something we think we can do but in God who is weaving gold out of the straw of our imperfect efforts, but doing this in ways we cannot see at the time.

[19 – icon of St Silouan: ]

One of the modern Orthodox saints who was admired by both Merton and Dorothy Day was Silouan the Athonite, a Russian peasant who came to the monastic peninsula of Mount Athos as a place of repentance after having very nearly killed a neighbor earlier in his life. He felt it was only by miraculous providence that he had not become a murderer. He famously said, “Keep you mind in hell and despair not.” I suggest it’s a sentence worth memorizing. It can help us remain hopeful in seemingly hopeless times. Yes, we are living in a world that for many people and creatures, ourselves included, is a kind of hell, a world in which there is less and less room in the inn and less and less room at the table, a world that provides many occasions to despair. But in fact every time our heart beats, every time we notice beauty, every time we notice beauty, every time we respond with love rather than fear, that moment becomes a Paschal moment.

[20 – Anastasis icon — Christ freeing the prisoners of hell: ]

There is an icon that presents our situation very accurately. It’s the main Paschal icon of the Orthodox Church. Its subject is the harrowing of hell. It shows Christ, after his crucifixion and before his resurrection, standing on the shattered gates of hell while freeing the parents of the human race, Adam and Eve, from their tombs. Meanwhile defeated Satan, the warden of hell, falls into a starless, bottomless night amidst a shower of broken locks and useless keys. The icon’s message is simple. It may not seem to us in our daily struggles and suffering, but the rule of death is over. “Risen from the dead are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

[21 – whole earth photo: ]

Let me end with a photo of where we live taken on the 11th of July 1969 by an astronaut on his way to the Moon. Hold it in your hearts. We all live at the same address. We’re all in each other’s care.

[1] Letter dated 21 February 1966; full text in my book, The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers (Obis Books).

[i]           Letter to Jim Forest, 21 February 1966; The Hidden Ground of Love, 294-97.

St Seraphim of Sarov

To the degree that love for the Lord warms the human heart, one finds in the Name of Jesus a sweetness that is the source of abiding peace.— Saint Seraphim of Sarov

It was Father Germann, a monk I met in the Russian city of Vladimir in 1987, who introduced me to Saint Seraphim of Sarov. He was showing me the local cathedral, still a museum in those days of Soviet rule. The tourists in the church were startled to see a living monk complete with long hair, full black beard and black monk’s cap — they couldn’t stop staring. It wasn’t only his appearance that attracted attention. He possessed a contagious joy and freedom. I mentioned to him that this church must have wonderful acoustics. Immediately he sang an unrestrained, banner-like, “Amen.” The church reverberated in an astonishing way.

I had traveled enough in Russia to be vaguely aware of Saint Seraphim, the icon of whose compassionate face seemed to grace the walls of every parish church and to have a place in many homes, but Father Germann was the first to tell me the saint’s life story.

“Saint Seraphim helped me to become a believer,” he said. Reaching into his pocket, he showed me a fragment of a large rock on which Saint Seraphim prayed for a thousand days. It was a gift from an old nun who knew a nun who knew a nun who had been in the Diveyevo convent near Sarov, a community closely linked with Saint Seraphim. The saint’s few possessions, among them the heavy cross he wore, were kept in the custody of the sisters at Diveyevo.

Father Germann explained that Seraphim was born in 1759, the son of a builder. He was still a baby when his Father died. His mother took over the business while raising her children. While still a boy, he had what should have been a fatal fall from scaffolding. Miraculously, he was unharmed, an event which prompted a local “holy fool” to say the boy must surely be “one of God’s elect.”

When Seraphim was ten, he had his first vision of the Mother of God. Nine years later he entered monastic life where he began the regular recitation of the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Later, following his ordination as priest in 1793, he was led to seek a hermit’s vocation in the forest, or, as he regarded it, his “Holy Land.” Here he lived alone, devoting himself to prayer, study and tending his small garden, with few aware he was alive apart from the community of nuns living nearby and the wild animals he befriended with gifts of food. The nuns who baked bread for Seraphim admonished him for sharing so much of his bread with a bear. Seraphim explained that, while he understood fasting, bears do not.

During this period of social withdrawal, he was nearly beaten to death by robbers who had heard there was a treasure hidden in his cabin. The injuries he suffered made him walk with a bent back for the rest of his life, a stance occasionally shown in icons. After recovering from his injuries, he spent a thousand days and nights in prayer on a large rock in the forest, sometimes standing, other times kneeling, leaving the rock only for brief periods.

After his long apprenticeship in solitude, people began coming to Staretz[i] Seraphim for confession and advice, a few at first, but finally they came in floods. One of the first pilgrims was a rich man, gravely ill, who was healed by Seraphim, so healed that he gave up all his wealth and embraced holy poverty.

During the last eight years of his life, Saint Seraphim spent many hours each day talking with those in need, some of whom had walked for weeks to reach him. Others came by carriage, among them Tsar Alexander I, who later gave up the throne and lived a pious life in Siberia — some say under the influence of Saint Seraphim.

Among many remarkable stories left to us about Seraphim’s life, one of the most impressive comes from the diary of Nicholas Motovilov, who as a young man came to Sarov seeking advice. At a certain point in their conversation, Seraphim said to his guest, “Look at me.” Motovilov replied, “I am not able, Father, for there is lightning flashing in your eyes. Your face has grown more radiant than the sun and my eyes cannot bear the pain.” The staretz answered, “Do not be afraid, my dear lover of God, you have also now become as radiant as I. You yourself are now in the fullness of the Holy Spirit. Otherwise you would not be able to perceive me in the exact same state.” Saint Seraphim asked him how he felt. “I feel a great calm in my soul, a peace which no words can express,” Motovilov replied. “I feel an amazing happiness.”[ii]

At the heart of Saint Seraphim’s teaching was use of the Jesus Prayer and continuing inner struggle to “acquire the Holy Spirit, the one eternal treasure which will never pass away.” He reassured those who came to him that there is nothing selfish about seeking to save your soul. “Acquire the Spirit of peace and thousands of souls around you will be saved.”

Without a vital spiritual life, he said, we cannot love. “God is fire that warms and kindles the heart and inward parts. And so, if we feel in our hearts coldness, which is from the devil — for the devil is cold — then let us call upon the Lord and He will come and warm our hearts with perfect love not only for Him but for our neighbor as well.”

He was an apostle of the way of love and kindness. “You cannot be too gentle, too kind. Shun even to appear harsh in your treatment of each other. Joy, radiant joy, streams from the face of him who gives and kindles joy in the heart of him who receives. All condemnation is from the devil. Never condemn each other. We condemn others only because we shun knowing ourselves. When we gaze at our own failings, we see such a swamp that nothing in another can equal it. That is why we turn away, and make much of the faults of others. Instead of condemning others, strive to reach inner peace. Keep silent, refrain from judgment. This will raise you above the deadly arrows of slander, insult and outrage and will shield your glowing hearts against all evil.”

No matter what season of the year it was, he greeted visitors with the paschal salutation, “Christ is risen!” As another paschal gesture, he always wore a white robe.

Before his death, Saint Seraphim said to the sisters: “My joys, come as often as you can to my grave. Come to me as if I’m alive and tell me everything, and I will always help you.”

On January 2, 1833, Saint Seraphim was found dead in his cell, kneeling with hands crossed before an icon of Mary.

“Saint Seraphim is a unique saint,” Father Germann told me. “In him and his character, in his spirituality, we find the principal Christian characteristics — love for all people without exception, and a readiness to sacrifice. That’s why people love him so much.”

“We live in a time that pays special homage to advanced education and intellectual brilliance,” Father Germann added. “But faith isn’t just for the clever. Seraphim didn’t graduate either from university or seminary. All his ideals were gifts from God revealed through prayer and deeds. And so through Saint Seraphim many different people are drawn to belief — the intellectuals, the simple, and now not only people in the Russian Orthodox Church but other churches.”

“Saint Seraphim is the face of the Church,” said Father Germann.

Living in a period in which iconography had been influenced by western art, old icons of Saint Seraphim often resemble portraits while more recently made icons are usually in the simpler, more symbolic Byzantine style. The one reproduced here, showing Saint Seraphim praying on the rock, was made in 1992 by the iconographer Philip Zimmerman closely following an icon made earlier in the century in France by the monk Gregory Kroug. In all icons of Saint Seraphim, there is a prayer rope in his hands, a reminder of his devotion to the Jesus Prayer.]

 [a chapter from “Praying With Icons” by Jim Forest (Orbis Books)]

[i]. Staretz, the Russian word for elder, has come to mean a person with a rare spiritual authority arising from the inner life of the elder himself, enabling him to provide spiritual direction to many people, even though they may be strangers. Dostoevsky, in The Brothers Karamazov, portrays such a person in the character of Father Zosima.

[ii]. The full text of Motovilov’s conversation with Saint Seraphim, found and published only after Saint Seraphim’s canonization in 1903, is included in A Treasury of Russian Spirituality, compiled and edited by George Fedotov, first published in 1950 by Sheed & Ward and reissued in 1975 by Nordland. I am aware of three biographies of the staretz in English: Saint Seraphim of Sarov by Valentine Zander (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1975); St. Seraphim of Sarov: A Spiritual Biography by Archimandrite Lazarus Moore (Blanco TX: New Sarov Press, 1994); and Flame in the Snow by Iulia de Beausobre (London: Collins, 1945, reissued in as a Fount paperback in 1979). A collection of the saint’s writings has been published in English as the first volume of The Little Russian Philokalia: Saint Seraphim (Platina, CA 96076: Saint Herman of Alaska Monastery Press, 1991).

The Road

by Jim Forest

Consider well the highway, the road by which you went. — Jeremiah 31:21

The road was the most imperative and first of our necessities. It is older than buildings and than wells. — Hillaire Belloc, The Old Road

Now my body seemed to walk itself, the road walking my body. — an American pilgrim recalling his journey to Santiago de Compostela

One could spend long hours making a list of great human achievements, from the wheel to the great cathedrals to the discovery of DNA and the development of computers, and yet leave out one of the important attainments because it is too obvious, too ordinary and too ancient: the road.

Roads are the circulatory system of the human race, and the original information highway. From times long before the written word, roads have linked house to house, town to town and city to city. Without roads there are no communities. Roads not only connect towns but give birth to them. They pass beneath all borders, checkpoints and barriers, connecting not only friend to friend but foe to foe. Far older than passports, the road is an invitation to cross frontiers, urging a start to dialogue and an end to enmity. Each road gives witness to the need we have to be in touch with each other.

There was a time before roads when the world was pure wilderness, but even before Adam and Eve there would have been countless tracks and paths created by animals that moved in packs or herds, following their prey or migrating with the seasons. With the arrival of human beings, many of these pre-human pathways would have become roads for hunters, here and there providing ideal sites for encampments and villages.

Supreme collective endeavor that they are, roads reveal the cultures that made them. Roman roads tend to run straight as Roman laws, but in many cultures roads take many turns as they search out fords, avoid marshes, find higher ground, touch wells and pubs, and seek holy places.

Roads are life giving. They provide the primary infrastructure of social life. Without them, there is no commerce. Without roads and the delivery systems they support, we would starve to death. Even more important than safeguarding weights and measures and punishing those who watered down the beer, it was the primary task of kings and queens to maintain and keep safe the highways.

Human history is the history of roads. Empires have been ranked according to the quality of their highways. Roman highways were so well built that even today, two millennia later, portions of them not only survive but remain in use.

Roads mark the way to safety. Paths tell the traveler how to get round a chasm or find a fording place in the river. They point the way through marshes and around quicksand.

If roads sometimes speed armies on the path of destruction, more often they guide pilgrims toward encounters with the sacred. They connect not only capital cities and great cathedrals but remote churches that house the relics of saints. A saint’s relics have many times widened a road or even created a new one.

Roads not only take us toward each other but, when we need to be rescued from society, they lead us to solitude. The same road that leads to Rome is, in reverse and at its furthest reaches, a route to the desert.

Roads have a sacramental aspect: a road is a visible sign of a hidden unity. Roads are a map of human connectedness.

The road is a primary metaphor. In the Gospel Christ speaks of choosing the narrow path rather than the broad highway. Early Christians called themselves “followers of the way.”

The road has often been a place of religious breakthroughs: Two disciples walked with the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus, unaware of who he was. Later they took the same road back to Jerusalem where they related how Christ revealed himself to them in the breaking of the bread.

Paul — Christianity’s first great pilgrim — encountered Christ on the road to Damascus. Traversing the highways of the Roman Empire, Paul became one of history’s great men of the road.

Old roads still exist, in some cases quite visible and still in use, in some hidden under modern highways, in other cases grassy pathways once again, in places hardly more than faint indentations in the soil.

The old pilgrim road from Winchester to Canterbury is in turn all of these. A road as old as England, some parts are now rarely walked while other sections have become major motorways. Yet, in part thanks to a steady trickle of pilgrims still making their way to the church where St. Thomas Becket was murdered in 1170, the pilgrim path still exists from end to end. In 1904 Hillaire Belloc published his book The Old Road[i] in which he managed to stitch together the road’s fragments into a continuous whole, which he himself walked in one of his many acts of pilgrimage.

One of the pilgrims of recent years, Shirley du Boulay, walked from Winchester to Canterbury in the early nineties and has left us one of the best contemporary memoirs of pilgrimage, The Road to Canterbury. Old roads, she writes

are hallowed by time and the footsteps of men and animals. … We respond to old roads as to old buildings. Even their names — Watling Street, Ermine Street, the Fosse Way, the Maiden Way, Stane Street — echo in the imagination. I remember as a child being told, as we walked the Berkshire Downs, that we were on a Roman Road called Icknield Street. I remember too my pride thereafter in recognizing a long straight road as Roman. … A road does not just appear. It is the fruit of long years of trial and error. It is the supreme collective endeavor, a long experiment in which the individual can only be subsumed.[ii]

It’s a special feeling walking an old road. The pilgrim may see no one else behind or ahead and yet be profoundly aware of not being alone. Hundreds of thousands of others have passed this way, generation after generation. At times the multi-generational river of travelers seems almost visible. If a file of medieval pilgrims were to appear before us on small horses, Chaucer himself among them, it would hardly be surprising.

Among those who walked or rode before us, not all were pilgrims heading toward a shrine. But many were, and even those on more prosaic errands may have traveled with the God-alert attitude of a pilgrim. Many were people aware that each step they took was an act of prayer. Roads that have been intensively used by people at prayer seem afterward to hold a rumor of prayer. The road itself becomes a thin place.

One of the celebrators of the road was the Oxford don, J.R.R. Tolkien, through whom an invented history of Middle Earth made its way into the modern world. Both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are celebrations of roads. For Tolkien it wasn’t roads in the plural but simply The Road, singular. However many intersections, however many forks along the way, however many rarely walked paths reach out from it, all the tracks human beings walk are connected and form a single system, like the body’s capillary system through which a single river of blood makes its way away from the heart to the remotest cell and back again.

Tolkien’s Bilbo sang the song of the road as he made his first step along a path that led at last to the edge of death in his encounter with a dragon. Bilbo’s heir, Frodo, sang it as he stepped out the door of his snug burrow on his way to overthrow a kingdom of evil, though at the time all he was aware of was his hope of delivering a magic ring to a place of safety: Rivendell.

The core text of Tolkien’s tales is Bilbo and Frodo’s song that celebrates stepping out the door into the unknown without the certainty that one will ever see one’s home again.

The Road goes ever on and on

Down from the door where it began.

Now far ahead the Road has gone,

And I must follow, if I can,

Pursuing it with eager feet,

Until it joins some larger way

Where many paths and errands meet.

And whither then? I cannot say.[iii]

>> This is a chapter from The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life (Orbis Books).

[i]           Hillaire Belloc, The Old Road, London: Constable, 1904 (with subsequent printings).

[ii]          Shirley du Boulay, The Road to Canterbury: A Modern Pilgrimage, London: Morehouse Group, 1995.

[iii]         J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, “The Long Expected Party.”

photo caption: A section of General Wade’s Military Road near Melgarve below Corrieyairack Pass. Looking west up towards the hills of Corrieyairack Forest (not wooded). Wikipedia.

Join the Navy and See the World

[extracts from Writing Straight With Crooked Lines: A Memoir]

By Jim Forest

Like many teenagers before me, I found myself gazing at military recruiting posters. “Join the Navy and see the world” was a slogan that had immense appeal. See the world? Yes! The local recruiting office was located in the basement of the Post Office. I went in and loaded up on colorful folders with photos of ships at sea and distant ports of call.

In April 1959, age seventeen, I joined the Navy.

I felt drawn to the sea, and thus to the Navy, much as had been the case with Ishmael in Moby Dick, who “had little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore” and so sought refuge “in the watery part of the world” as a way of coping with “a damp, drizzly November in my soul.”

As things turned out, I was fated to remain on dry land. While in a sailor’s uniform, I never boarded a ship or submarine or even a rowboat. I had joined the Navy to see the world and instead saw a bit of Illinois, a fragment of New Jersey, and a great deal of Washington, DC.

Strangely enough, for someone who has spent his entire post-military life opposing militarization and war, joining the Navy was just what I needed and also excellent preparation for what was yet to come. At that point in my life, the Navy met many needs. To a major degree I was on my own, yet in a stable structure that provided for life’s necessities along with many challenges and much to think about.

My first eight weeks in uniform — June 1st through August 4th, 1959 — were spent at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station (sometimes referred to by its graduates as Great Mistakes Naval Training Station) on the northern outskirts of Chicago and the western shore of Lake Michigan. My head was shaved, I learned to march, make my bed in just the right way, and to peel potatoes with assembly-line efficiency. I became adept at assembling a rifle and hitting the target, at the same time doubting I could ever shoot to kill.

While I can’t claim to have enjoyed boot camp, for me it was mainly an adventure, even a time of occasional mild mischief. For many others it was harder. I recall a few recruits in my barracks who wept themselves to sleep and two sad boys who suffered breakdowns; they were given early discharges and sent home.

I quickly found myself in a slightly responsible position. Despite being a high school dropout, as a result of test scores I was appointed “intelligence officer” of my company. This meant that I had to coach the forty or so young men in the company, especially those who were failing to check the right circle in response to multiple-choice questions that were beamed on a screen in a testing room. The problem was that a number of people in my company were barely literate. In principle the illiterate never get into the Navy in the first place, but clearly some recruiters were willing to cut corners in order to meet their quotas. Ten or twelve men in my company couldn’t answer the questions because they couldn’t read them. Remedial education was not an option — there was no time or material for a literacy program in the evenings.

Under pressure from the first-class petty officer in charge of our company (our performance reflected on him), I came up with a Plan B. It might also have been called Plan Bilko, in honor of Sergeant Bilko, the central figure in a popular fifties TV comedy who cheerfully swindled both his senior officers as well as the Army itself. Before being marched into the room where the closely-monitored tests were given, with a competing company filling alternate rows, I was able to place myself at exactly the right spot in line to sit at a front-row-center desk from which several people seated further back on either side of me could see how I was holding my pencil: if I held it straight up, this meant the answer was A; if I held it horizontally to the left and right, I was signaling the answer was B; if I pointed it forward, check C; while covering the pencil with both hands meant D. Several pre-assigned people who could see my pencil replicated the signal so that everyone in the company, no matter where they were sitting, got the message.

The only problem was that it hadn’t occurred to me that the system would work as well as it did. On the first test we took using my pencil-signaling method, the entire company got a perfect score. Apparently this was unprecedented. An investigation followed. It was finally reluctantly accepted that I, as intelligence officer, had done an amazing job of tutoring the company that week.

Surviving that near disaster put me briefly under a cloud of suspicion but without punishment. I realized I had to create a credible bell curve, high enough to put us ahead of the competing companies in the same week of training, but not so high as to set off another alarm. I assigned a number of mistakes to each person in the company, with only a few getting all the answers correct and with some variation from week to week.

The result was that the competing companies won flags for marching, marksmanship and other competitive achievements, but we got to carry the “I” flag — “I” for intelligence — as we marched down the parade field on the day of graduation while the Navy band played “Anchors Aweigh.” It was our company’s one and only flag, and we felt immensely proud of it even though it had been achieved by cheating. I thought to myself that all’s fair in love and war, and that passing multiple choice military tests fell under the war heading — an exercise in survival in battle. We had played and won a mouse-beats-cat, Tom-and-Jerry game. The officer in charge of our company was delighted we had played it so well.

In fact being integrated into military life involved learning all sorts of tricks, not the least of which was applying a certain brand of underarm deodorant pads to our shoes to obtain the mirror shine required whenever there were inspections.

Our company commander had a way with words. Here is the guidance we were given about the Navy way of taking showers, which each company of recruits did together in one large shower room. “Watch where you put your wash cloth. Do your privates last. I repeat, do your privates last. Otherwise you’ll be giving yourself a blow job by proxy.”

But the most memorable lesson in boot camp wasn’t so funny. During the first week of training, the middle-aged chief petty officer responsible for turning us from kids off the street into spic-and-span sailors who could march in step and change directions in a flash had us stand at attention as he told us, “The Navy owns you. In case you didn’t get that, I’ll say it again. The Navy owns you. For the hard of hearing, let me repeat: The United States Navy owns you. You are the property of the US Navy. You are owned and operated by the Navy. Have I made myself clear? We issue the orders and you obey the orders or there will be hell to pay. Any questions?” There were no questions. It dawned on me that being in the military had a great deal in common with slavery.

True north

When I enlisted, I had signed a contract that guaranteed me, once out of boot camp, a place at the Navy School of Journalism. It turned out that the promise had been a recruiter’s carrot. In the latter weeks of Boot Camp I was told a mistake had been made — I didn’t meet the journalism school’s minimum-age requirement — and therefore I would have to choose a different vocational path. After spending half an hour looking through a catalog of specialized Navy schools, I opted for Weather School. This meant that I would become an “aerographer’s mate” working, either on land or sea, with Navy meteorologists. Was I disappointed? Not at all. By then I had met several Navy journalists stationed at Great Lakes, and I knew that much of the work a military journalist does is filling in the blanks on boiler-plate texts sent to hometown newspapers about how sailor John Jones had been assigned to serve on the USS Coral Sea — basically public relations work promoting the Navy. Meteorology, on the other hand, meant engagement in an important aspect of environmental studies.

In July 1959 I arrived at the Weather School, located on the grounds of the Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey, a place best known as the site of the Hindenburg airship disaster thirty-two years earlier when a huge, swastika-decorated German zeppelin had burst into flames while landing. Thirty-six people died. The base still housed several Navy dirigibles and also served as a training center for parachutists, one of whom died during the months I was there when his chute failed to open.

Far from “seeing the world,” I was less than an hour’s bus ride from Red Bank. But if the location was not exactly exotic, I felt challenged by the studies that awaited me.

Our small school accommodated about forty students for an intense, five-month program. Besides learning the basics of meteorology (what constituted a warm or cold front, the types of clouds and what they indicated, how to read and draw a weather map, how to translate weather data into five-digit groups of standard code, etc.), we were trained in touch-typing and took part in occasional military drills. The day started with inspection, all of us lined up and given a quick once-over. Following breakfast, classes began.

My one and only fistfight occurred on the Lakehurst Naval Base. Early on, a fellow student had borrowed a dollar from me but, despite my sporadic requests, never got around to paying it back. He had the job of distributing the mail, a chore with an ounce of power among people starved for letters from home. Wearing his role as if it were a crown, he was not above delaying delivery of a letter addressed to anyone who annoyed him. Within weeks everyone in our unit came to regard him with loathing.

One morning I demanded the return of my dollar. He looked at me with contempt, reached into his shirt pocket, took out a dollar bill, held it in front of my face, then let it drop to the floor. Leaving the money where it fell, I grabbed him under the arms, lifted him off the floor and hurled him against the nearest wall. It still amazes me to recall how light he felt and how easily I made his body fly across the room. He came back with his fists flying. Far from being alarmed, I rejoiced in the combat, hammering away, hardly aware of the crowd that quickly gathered around us. The fight might well have lasted until one of us had done real harm to the other, but luckily a bell summoned us to inspection. As we stood at attention outside the barracks, I remember taking great pride in his bloodied lip and bruised face. Fortunately, when the inspecting officer noticed the state of his face and asked what had happened, he told the classic prescribed lie — he had tripped on the stairs.

This battle won me a good deal of admiration from my classmates. I was immensely pleased with myself — I sensed I had successfully passed a manhood test. At the same time I was alarmed to discover what strength and deadly will I possessed when my anger was sufficiently aroused, and the exhilaration that battle can awaken. This was a side of myself that I had not previously known about.

Perhaps that encounter with my own violence was a contributing factor in the spiritual awakening that occurred in that period of my life. There had been a great deal of veiled unhappiness and desperate searching that past year, much of it centered on my failed attempt to live with my father. I had dropped out of school, returned for several months to my mother’s home, then — like so many confused kids down through the centuries — plunged into the military. I was now trying to make of myself both a sailor and a weatherman and doing well at both, but finding that neither role gave me a sense of real meaning. I sought deeper waters.

In this searching state of hyper-alertness, that Saturday night I went to see the film that was being screened at the base theater. It happened to be “The Nun’s Story,” in which Audrey Hepburn played the part of a young Belgian woman who embraced monastic life in a Flemish convent but years later, during the German occupation of Belgium, left to join the resistance movement in the uncloistered world. Between these two events the film provided a compelling portrait of a nun’s rigorous religious formation, a later episode in which her obedience was abused by a superior, and a near love affair with a physician working at the same hospital where the Hepburn character was serving as a nurse. It was a complex story that took pre-Vatican II Catholic Christianity, warts as well as bells, quite seriously. Hepburn played the part of someone wholeheartedly attempting to live a Christ-inspired life. At a key moment early on in the film a Gospel text was read aloud: “If you would be perfect, go sell what you have, give it to the poor … and come follow me. “The Nun’s Story” is about one person’s struggle to translate that sentence into her own life.

It’s a bit embarrassing to say one has had a mystical experience, and more embarrassing to say that what set the stage for that experience was a movie. But that’s what happened. I left the theater, went for a walk, and under a clear moonless sky, thick with stars, experienced — how to put it into words? — the presence, the reality, the all-connectingness of God, a God who somehow was aware of me despite my near-nothingness. The old question, “Is there a God?”, evaporated. I would never again begin a prayer, “Oh God, if there is a God…”

Words fail — attempting to describe a mystical encounter is like putting lead boots on a ballerina. I was both absurdly happy and deeply silent. God said not a word, and yet somehow there was an overwhelming sense of being submerged in love, an intimate love and a love that excluded no one and nothing. I had never been so overwhelmed with joy. My compass had been adjusted to true north.

Well after midnight I got back in my bunk, but hardly slept. I thought more about the film and decided that the thing to do when I got out of bed that Sunday morning was to go to Mass at the base’s Catholic chapel. Mass as celebrated in a Gothic Belgian chapel had been one of the beauties of the film. I wanted to take part in the real thing. But the real thing was hugely disappointing. The base chapel resembled a shoebox. The pre-Vatican II liturgy was said by a priest whose unintelligible Latin was whispered at breakneck speed to Mass attenders, mainly women, many of whom appeared to regard Mass as a time for saying the rosary or, in the case of the men who were there, something to be stoically endured from the back of the church. I left at the end with no urge to return the following Sunday.

Yet the sparks ignited during my midnight walk were not put out by the contrast between what Mass can be in Flanders and what, on a US military base and in many parishes, it so often was in 1959.

I had a friend in my class, one of my roommates, whom I had noticed reading a Bible that he kept in his locker. He also made use of a copy of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. I told him that I had been baptized in the Episcopal Church five years earlier and was thinking about reconnecting. We talked about the film, which he also had seen. In the weeks that followed he and I managed to find time to have conversations about Christianity, to read some prayers together on a more or less daily basis, and to follow the biblical lectionary. When I told him I would love to visit a monastery, he told me about Holy Cross, a community of Episcopal monks in the Hudson Valley near West Point. Encouraged, I wrote to the prior asking if I might come for a visit at Christmas, after graduating and before reporting for my next assignment. I received a positive response.

Early in our studies we had been asked to fill out a form indicating our three preferred assignments following graduation. At the same time we were told that the better we did with our exams, the better our chance of getting one of our three choices. Hoping I might be stationed in the Mediterranean, I put the Sixth Fleet at the top of my list and studied hard to get grades that would make my wish come true. The result was that I graduated first in my class, but far from being sent to Europe, I received orders to report to a Navy unit that worked at the US Weather Bureau (today the US Weather Service) headquarters in Suitland, Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC.

I was off to meteorology’s Vatican. But first came my visit to Holy Cross Monastery.

A bus ride up the Hudson

Fresh out of the Navy Weather School and following a brief visit with my Red Bank family, I set out to spend Christmas at Holy Cross Monastery. Not the least important part of the journey, it turned out, was waiting at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan for a bus that would take me up the west side of the Hudson River to the town of West Park. With time on my hands, I was browsing a carousel full of paperbacks at the waiting room’s newsstand and came upon a book with an odd title, The Seven Storey Mountain, by Thomas Merton. The author’s name meant nothing to me. It was, the jacket announced, “the autobiography of a young man who led a full and worldly life and then, at the age of 26, entered a Trappist monastery.” There was a quotation from Evelyn Waugh, who said this book “may well prove to be of permanent interest in the history of religious experience.” Another writer compared it to St. Augustine’s Confessions. I cheerfully paid seventy-five cents for a copy.

It proved to be a can’t-put-it-down read for me. In the bus going up the Hudson Valley, I recall occasionally looking up from the text to gaze out the window at the heavy snow that was falling that night. Merton’s life story has ever since been linked in my mind with the silent ballet of snowflakes swirling in cones of light beneath streetlights.

While still in Lakehurst, I had been reading D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which certainly held my eighteen-year-old attention — a long-suppressed book in which love-making was vividly described in almost sacramental terms. In The Seven Storey Mountain I was surprised to discover that Merton, when he was precisely my age and also on the road, in his case in Italy, had also been reading Lawrence. In the shadow of his father’s recent death, he too was on a desperate search, while having no clear idea what it was he was seeking. It was while in Rome that a mosaic icon over an altar in one of the city’s oldest churches triggered in Merton an overwhelming awareness of the presence of God and even the reality of the risen Christ. “For the first time in my whole life,” he wrote, “I began to find out something of who this Person was that men call Christ. It was obscure, but it was a true knowledge of Him. But it was in Rome that my conception of Christ was formed…. It is Christ God, Christ King.”

It was an experience I immediately connected with, having had an equivalent encounter not many weeks before.

Did I get as far as that passage in Merton’s thick book while on the bus? I don’t recall. Perhaps. Certainly I got that far and much further within a day or two of my arrival.

By the time the bus stopped at the monastery gate, the snow was deep. I crunched my way down a buried driveway to the massive oak door of a handsome stone-and-brick building that I could see was linked to a church. I rang the bell but had to wait a bit, as a service was in progress. At last the door swung open revealing an elderly monk in white robes. “Ah, you must be Jim Forest! We were a little worried. Thank heaven the snow didn’t prevent your coming.” Then he led me into the church to take part in what was left of Compline. The monks — there must have been twenty of them — were divided into two groups that faced each other in the choir on either side of the altar and were singing in plainchant. I was overjoyed.

The week passed quickly, during which I took part in all the services, finished reading The Seven Storey Mountain, and was given a rosary by the prior and taught by him how to use it. He also suggested, once I was settled in Washington, that I make contact with the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

I felt so at home at Holy Cross, and at the same time so impressed by Merton’s journey to monastic life, that I began to think this might be the place to come once I was out of the Navy. The fact that it was an Episcopal rather than a Catholic monastery seemed to me of minor importance. I knew nothing about the divisions within the Episcopal Church and hadn’t given any thought to the Anglican Communion’s Thirty-Nine Articles and the fact that Church of England’s roots were in the bedroom of King Henry VIII.

Before leaving I made arrangements to return for Easter.

Navy weatherman

I never “saw the world” while in the Navy, but during the seventeen months that began in January 1960 I had the blessing of seeing a great deal of Washington, D.C. — its museums, libraries and monuments, its churches and cathedrals, its cafés and bookshops plus a few of its jazz nightclubs. I was a frequent visitor to the National Art Gallery.

I also had a fascinating job and liked the people I was working with. Within the vast building that housed the US Weather Bureau, the technology was astonishing. It was as if I had stepped onto the set of a science fiction film. Just one floor below our Navy offices a massive computer was housed within an air-conditioned glass enclosure that, using robot fingers located in an adjacent room, drew graceful isobars on large maps. It was hypnotizing to watch. Images of entire weather systems were made fuzzily visible by cameras placed on early satellites; the first weather satellite, Vanguard 2, had been launched by NASA on February 17, 1959, ten months before my arrival. (Vanguard 2 is still up there and is expected to continue functioning until 2259.) While a full decade would pass before there were photos of the entire earth, meteorologists were among the first who were privileged to see portions of our planet from above the atmosphere.

Adjacent to our suite of offices was a noisy room with sound-absorbing doors and walls in which ranks of automated typewriters churned out up-to-the-minute weather data from hundreds of far-flung locations — temperature, air pressure, humidity, visibility, precipitation, type of precipitation, depth of rainfall, wind speed and direction, cloud cover, cloud types and cloud height — all the fragments of information that, when placed on a map, make possible the creation of a portrait of how things are in the atmosphere at any given moment and provide essential clues in predicting what to anticipate in the hours and days ahead.

One element of our work had an apocalyptic edge. As a training exercise in the meteorological aspects of nuclear war, each week we drew a series of maps predicting fallout patterns at twelve-hour intervals over a three-day period if a twenty-megaton nuclear weapon exploded at noon that day over the center of Washington, DC. It was clear that none of us would be among the survivors.

Despite this doomsday reminder, I enjoyed my work and did well in the Navy. Within a year-and-a-half of enlisting, I had been promoted to third class petty officer, the Navy equivalent of an Army sergeant. I had also gotten a high school equivalency diploma, doing so with such good results that I had to take the test a second time to prove I hadn’t cheated the first time.

There were some funny moments. One of them happened on an overcast day at the end of January 1961 soon after the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. The Navy attaché at the White House called our unit seeking assurance that there would be no rain that afternoon as he was planning to take the president for a ride on the Potomac in an experimental open-top vehicle that floated over water on a cushion of air. The hitch was that the craft didn’t function well in wet weather. Several officers gathered round what was called the Weather Table and, using the latest reports from airports and other weather stations in and around the capital, quickly agreed that there would be no rain before nightfall. With that prediction to relay, the senior officer on duty called the Navy attaché to report the good news. I was close enough to hear laughter on the other end of the line. The attaché asked, “Great! Just one thing. Have you looked out the window?” That was the one source of information that had been neglected. In fact rain was falling over both the White House and the Weather Bureau. It was a cautionary lesson about the blind spots of experts. None of us had looked out the window.

The works of mercy

That first year in Washington was a time of rapid religious evolution as I sought to find my place and direction within the complex world of Christianity.

Soon after arrival in Washington I went to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, as had been recommended by the prior of Holy Cross Monastery, introduced myself to the rector and became active in the parish. In many ways it was similar to a Catholic parish, even having an occasional evening Benediction service for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament: a consecrated wafer set in a sun-like gold monstrance was placed on the altar while those present, on their knees, contemplated this potent sign of God’s presence. Week by week, however, I became aware that, among Episcopal parishes in Washington, St. Paul’s was the sole local bastion of what Episcopalians regarded, often dismissively, as “high church,” in contrast to “middle church” or “low church.” High church was for a minority who were drawn to elaborate eucharistic liturgies and what most Protestants viewed as “empty ritual” — incense, bells, the rosary — things regarded by iconoclastic critics as “Roman” or, still worse, as “papist.”

It struck me that, no matter now hurried Mass might be in many Catholic parishes, each parish was solidly anchored in the Mass. No one spoke of a Catholic parish being “high church” or “low church.” I found myself, somewhat guiltily, slipping into Catholic churches simply to pray. A hallmark of the Catholic Church was that the Blessed Sacrament — the consecrated eucharistic bread — was reserved in a small tabernacle near the altar awaiting anyone who came in. Somehow its presence helped raise the curtains that usually obscure God from consciousness. In that now distant time, during the day and often at night, the doors of Catholic churches always seemed open.

Negative events also played a part in pulling me away from the Episcopal Church. The most consequential was an experience at Holy Cross Monastery during my second visit there at Easter 1960. All went well until the last day, when one of the monks asked to see me in the visiting room. Once the door was shut, he embraced and kissed me with sexual passion, his stubbly unshaven face pressed against mine. I struggled free of his grasp, exited the room, and soon afterward left the monastery in a state of great confusion. Back in Washington, I wrote to the prior, telling him what had happened. His reply wasn’t helpful. He might have pointed out that monks, like everyone else, sometimes suffer severe loneliness and have sexual longings of one sort or another which they sometimes don’t manage very well. I had hoped he would say that steps were being taken to make certain that in the future similar events would not happen to guests like myself. What he wrote instead was that homosexuality was often a sign of a monastic vocation. This wasn’t good news for me — my erotic fantasies were focused on women. After his letter, which said not a word about safeguarding future guests from sexual assault, I had no desire to return. Despite many positive experiences at Holy Cross and much to be thankful for, the milk had been soured. (Of course the same sort of thing could have happened in a Catholic setting, but in my case never did.)

Yet I still had hesitations about becoming Catholic, and so began to explore the varieties of Christianity in Washington, visiting various churches. Among them was a Greek Orthodox cathedral, but I sensed one had best be Greek to be made welcome there. With my positive memories of the black church near our home in Red Bank, several times I attended services at the church on the campus of Howard University, a friendly place with wonderful singing and powerful sermons, but felt that, as a white person, I would always be an outsider. Also, as much as I appreciated the spirited singing and fine preaching, it was too Protestant for me; the center point was the pulpit, not the altar.

For a time I was part of a small Bible study group that met in the apartment of an Episcopal priest whose wife, I discovered after noticing a photo on the wall, was the daughter of Bertrand Russell, British philosopher and prominent atheist. I wondered what the father made of his daughter’s Christian faith. (One of the books I was struggling with at the time was Russell’s History of Western Philosophy.)

As the weeks went by, I came to realize that the Catholic churches in which I so often stopped to pray were places in which I always felt welcomed, both spiritually and intellectually. It was time to knock on the door. One afternoon I rang the rectory doorbell of the parish of St. Thomas Apostle, in northwest Washington, and began a series of weekly meetings with one of the priests who lived there, Father Thomas Duffy. We often had our free-wheeling conversations in a hotel coffee shop across the street. For reading, he gave me an English translation of a recently published German catechism, Life in Christ, which took a thematic route rather than the cut-and dried, question-and-answer) approach of The Baltimore Catechism — “Who made the world? God made the world.” Apart from the fact that I never made sense of what were regarded as the preconditions for a sin to be mortal (does anyone ever achieve full awareness or full intentionality?), nothing we talked about stopped me in my tracks.

During those same months I had come increasingly to realize that a basic element of ordinary Christian life was practicing the works of mercy: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, providing hospitality to the homeless, caring for the sick, visiting the prisoner and burying the dead. When the opportunity arose to do some spare-time work at a home for children whose parents weren’t able to function as such, I volunteered. For about half a year I helped out in a woodworking shop and sometimes took part in the sports program, fracturing my right arm during a baseball game one afternoon while sliding into home base. On Sundays when I wasn’t on duty, I often had the happy chore of accompanying the Catholic children at the institution to Mass at nearby Blessed Sacrament Church.

Blessed Sacrament was an unusual parish that had embraced what was called a “dialogue Mass.” Not just the acolytes assisting the priest at the altar but everyone in the church made the required Latin responses; for example when the priest addressed the congregation with the words “Dominus vobiscum” (the Lord be with you) the whole congregation responded, “Et cum Spiritu tuo” (and with your spirit). Nearly everyone present was engaged in saying and singing the liturgy, not just witnessing it.

The parish had a substantial library on the ground floor of a house next door. It was here, on a table by a window, that I first saw copies of The Catholic Worker, in fact a whole stack of them going back several years. I picked up the issue on top with a mixture of curiosity and caution — the name made me think warily of the Communist paper, The Daily Worker. But looking through the articles and the artwork reassured me. Here was a truly Catholic journal that wove together theology, community and liturgy with the works of mercy, while raising urgent questions about a social order that produced so many marginalized people in desperate need of help. I borrowed the entire stack, took the issues back to my base, and read each one closely.

Several books that I found in the library helped expand my understanding of Christianity — more of Thomas Merton’s writing but also G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man, Dorothy Day’s autobiography The Long Loneliness, and Eric Gill’s Autobiography. In combination with The Seven Storey Mountain, The Long Loneliness opened doors which have helped shape the rest of my life.

The next step was a two-night visit to the Catholic Worker. Sometime in the late summer of 1960, I hitchhiked to Manhattan, at the time not an uncommon way to travel for a young man with very little money in his pocket, and made my way to the address that I had found in the paper. Spring Street turned out to be on the north edge of Little Italy in the Lower East Side and the Catholic Worker dining room and office were located in a loft at the top of a long flight of stairs. My arrival happened to coincide with moving day — I joined a parade of people carrying boxes to the Worker’s new address a few blocks to the east, a dilapidated three-story building at 175 Chrystie Street.

One of the volunteers, Jack Baker, offered me hospitality — floor-space and a thin mattress and blanket near the front window of his two-room-plus-kitchen apartment. An unframed print of a Modigliani nude was tacked on one wall, a face of Christ by Roualt on another. The floor sagged and the air in that old, neglected building left a bitter taste. Jack was part of an outer ring of people who weren’t on the Worker staff but who occasionally helped out. Not long before, Jack explained, he had been a prisoner at Sing Sing Penitentiary. While “behind the walls” he had made contact with the Catholic Worker.

I was deeply impressed by the people I met and what they were doing: their community life, morning and evening pauses for prayer, meals cooked and served for men and women who lived much of their lives on the street, and occasional acts of protest against both racism and preparations for nuclear war. By now it was clear to me that a Christianity that was unresponsive to suffering and injustice was Christian in name only.

Returning to Washington, ideas about my post-Navy future had a new focus. Monastic life still beckoned, but so did the Catholic Worker.

One of my companions in my search was a member of the fulltime staff at the home for children, Jim Durso, a sturdy Italian from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, who possessed a wonderful balance of common sense, good humor, a contagious enthusiasm for “the faith,” a no-bullshit intellect, and an eagerness to serve the community. He had only recently left a Catholic seminary, having realized not long before ordination that the celibate life would be, for him, unbearable.

Nearly every week we managed to have a meal together at which a good deal of beer was drunk while we talked theology, the writings of various Catholic authors, monasticism, the Catholic Worker movement, the classical conditions required for a war to be regarded as just, church history, the Italian-American sub-culture, and whatever else was on our minds. If ever I get access to a time machine, I’d love to go back and listen to one of those sessions of intense dialogue. Our guardian angels must have enjoyed our exchanges.

There was also the friendship with Father Thomas Duffy. After several months of instruction and conversation over many a cup of coffee, on November 26, 1960 he received me, by conditional baptism, into the Catholic Church. Jim Durso was my godfather.

This border-crossing moment was a joyous one for me, though it did cost me some inconvenience. The otherwise hospitable Episcopalian family with whom I had been lodging in a house not far from the National Cathedral, where my host was responsible for maintaining its magnificent organ, wanted no papists under their roof.

I was shown the door.

Conscientious objection

I hadn’t seen it coming, but my relationship with the Navy was fast approaching a crisis. While I was no longer considering a career in uniform and devoting my professional life to meteorology, my intention was to serve out my enlistment contract in the eighteen months remaining. My work involved nothing that needed absolution. Events in Cuba changed all that.

The suite of rooms used by our Navy unit included a small television studio that was connected to the War Room of the Pentagon, officially designated as the National Military Command Center. Standing before a circular, rotating map of the northern hemisphere, twice a day one of the officers would present an overview of world weather developments, then answer questions from those at the viewing end. During the late winter and spring of 1961, I was aware that the questions often had to do with the weather in and around Cuba. Though I had read about the recent Cuban revolution led by Fidel Castro, I gave the matter little thought.

In that same period we had a visit from senior officers of the Organization of American States, each in the gold-braided uniforms of a particular Latin American country. I was given the chore of entering the conference room to bring in coffee from time to time. I became aware that Cuba was an item on their agenda but failed to sense the political earthquake that was about to occur.

On April 13, 1961, 1,400 paramilitaries under CIA direction set sail for Cuba. Two days later, eight CIA-supplied bombers attacked Cuban airfields. The next day the invasion force landed at Playa Girón, the Bay of Pigs. The Cuban army’s counter-offensive, led by Fidel Castro, quickly resulted in a Cuban victory. On April 20, the invaders surrendered.

Only after the failed invasion did I connect the dots. Despite the immediate denial by President Kennedy that the invasion was a US undertaking — initially it was blamed on unaided Cuban exiles — I knew the Navy, and even our tiny unit, had played a role in it. It made sense — the timing of military beach landings is best planned with an eye on the weather. (To his credit, within days Kennedy reversed his initial denial, regretting what had happened and admitting that the invasion was planned, organized and funded by the CIA with US military involvement. He lamented having given the operation its go-ahead.)

I was profoundly naïve about the US role in the world. Despite my parents’ left-wing views, in that period of my life it never occurred to me that my government would seek to overthrow other governments. I knew nothing about the US role in arranging regime change in Guatemala and Iran. Back in 1952, age eleven, I had worn “I Like Ike” buttons in support of Eisenhower’s presidential campaign. After Eisenhower won the election I had sent him a photo of myself proudly holding a paint-by-numbers portrait I had made of him and was thrilled to receive a note of appreciation signed by the president on White House stationery. Eight years later, in 1960, I was strongly in favor of Kennedy’s election. From an apartment just a mile from the capitol building, I had watched his inauguration with pride and soaring expectations. I was deeply stirred when Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” For all the nation’s flaws, past sins and unsolved problems, I was passionately proud to be an American.

US culpability for the Bay of Pigs invasion hit me like a torpedo. I felt implicated in a collective sin. When I read in The Washington Post that a daily silent protest was taking place in front of a CIA building in southwest Washington, and that Catholic Workers were among the participants, I decided to take part. It turned out to be a life-changing event.

After work and out of uniform, I joined twenty or so people carrying placards that bore such texts as “There is no way to peace — peace is the way” and “Nonviolence or Non-survival.” The climate of the silent protest was prayerful. We were on one side of a wrought iron fence, beyond which was a wide green lawn leading up to a mansion that reminded me of the Tara plantation in “Gone with the Wind.” This wasn’t the CIA’s headquarters, but CIA director Allen Dulles plus other senior staff had offices inside. The demonstration was sponsored by the Quaker Peace Center, the War Resisters League and the Committee for Nonviolent Action, with Catholic Worker involvement.

I had no sense that I was putting myself or my job in the Navy at risk. As I say, I was naïve. Freedom of speech, freedom to dissent and freedom to protest peacefully were principles at the core of American identity. I took it for granted that those rights belonged to everyone, those in military service included.

I noticed that two or three men in suits inside the fence were taking photos of us. It amused me that they were using cameras with telephoto lenses. No one in the demonstration would have objected to close-up photos. Any of us would have been quite willing to identify ourselves and explain why we were there.

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

In preparation for that meeting I was required to fill out a detailed security questionnaire. One of the questions was: “Are there any incidents in your life which may reflect on your suitability to perform the duties which you may be called upon to take?”

I read the question with dread, realizing that I could not find a way to answer honestly in a manner that would be acceptable to the Navy. Getting back to the base along the Potomac where I was then living, I went to the Catholic chapel to pray, read the New Testament and think. Skipping supper, I must have remained there until midnight. For months I had been aware that the serious application of Catholicism’s just war doctrine would condemn any modern war, if only because non-combatants had become war’s main casualties. Also how could any Christian, in or out of the military, promise automatic obedience to each and every future order? I thought of the many Germans who justified their obedience to the demonic demands of the Hitler regime with the words: “I was only following orders.” I thought of Anne Frank and the Holocaust and all the obedient soldiers who herded captives into concentration camps and gas chambers. But at the same time I was apprehensive about what would happen to me if I failed to commit myself to unqualified obedience. What would my colleagues think? How would they treat me? I was wading in fear, struggling not to drown in it.

The simple wisdom of a Russian proverb I had encountered as a child while contemplating the Family of Man photo exhibition in New York came to mind: “Eat bread and salt and speak the truth.” It was a relief to realize that my task was simply to tell the truth and let the consequences take care of themselves.

Finally I composed this paragraph:

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

On May 11, I passed through the doors of the Naval Intelligence Service and spent most of the day in a narrow interrogation room being aggressively cross-examined by two Navy officers while magnetic tape traveled from reel to reel through a recorder. It was a scene not unlike ones I had seen in countless crime movies. There was even a large one-way observation mirror built into one wall, though whether anyone was watching from the other side I never discovered.

I was presented with two choices: “cooperate” or be sent to the brig, the Navy term for prison. “Cooperate” meant not only answering questions about the demonstration I had taken part in — I was more than willing to explain what I knew about it and why I was there — but to become active with groups that organized such protests and report what I heard and observed to the Naval Intelligence Service. My family was also on the agenda. Many of the questions put to me centered on my Communist father. The word “spy” wasn’t used, but it was clear that this was what I was being invited to become. Otherwise the brig. “If it’s one or the other,” I said, “I’ll take the brig.” I was surprised how easily the declaration exited my mouth. The fear that I had been struggling to keep at bay evaporated. It helped me to recall that my father had been imprisoned and not only survived the experience but enjoyed telling stories about it.

Only later did I realize that what exactly I would be charged with wasn’t explained. In fact, so far as I was aware, there were no Navy regulations that I had violated, nor was I told of any. Nevertheless I took their threats seriously, having no idea what might be possible. My attempt to explain my religious motives and Catholic teaching regarding war seemed to baffle the interrogators, who may well have been Catholic themselves. They seemed convinced that only those driven by left-wing ideology would take part in such activities. “Can you name one Catholic bishop who agrees with you?” they asked. “Any bishop,” I replied, “can tell you about the Church’s just war requirements.”

All in all it was a nightmarish encounter, but at the end of the day, having rejected their proposal “to cooperate,” I told them I would apply for an early discharge as a conscientious objector. I was asked to put in writing what I had said and agreed to do so, as long as I could make a carbon. I still have my copy, all twelve pages. I left the Naval Intelligence Service building feeling stronger and freer than when I had walked in.

I was amazingly fortunate. The next morning I discovered that the director of a Quaker-linked group called the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, George Willoughby, was speaking that night at the Quaker Meeting House in Washington. I attended his lecture and talked with him afterward. He told me chapter and verse what the Navy’s regulations were regarding early discharge for conscientious objectors. My parish priest, Father Thomas Duffy, a graduate of the Vatican’s prestigious North American College in Rome, wrote a letter testifying that I was active in his parish, was a member of the parish choir, and affirming that one could be both a faithful Catholic and a conscientious objector. On a visit to the Catholic Worker in New York, I had learned from Dorothy Day that there was a theologian on the faculty of Catholic University in Washington, Father Robert Hovda, who had himself been a conscientious objector before entering the seminary. Using university stationery, Fr. Hovda wrote a supportive letter for inclusion with my application for discharge. He also loaned me several books that treated war from a theological perspective. Even my military chaplain, though bewildered that I had such “an unusual conscience,” backed me up, crediting his support to a street-corner encounter he had had many years earlier with Catholic Worker co-founder Peter Maurin.

Significant support also came from within my unit, most notably from my executive officer, Commander John Marabito, a devout Catholic who had almost been ordained a priest but instead opted for marriage and ended up with a career in the Navy. “Jim, I know you’re sincere,” he told me, “but I have to tell you I never heard a word about conscientious objection during the years I was in seminary. Can you give me anything to read that would help me understand your views from a Catholic point of view?” Providentially I had with me one of the books Father Robert Hovda had loaned me, War and Christianity Today, and gave it to him, explaining that the author, Franziscus Stratmann, was a German Dominican priest who had been condemned to death by Hitler’s regime for his anti-war activity but managed to escape into Switzerland and survived the Nazi period.

The next morning, while having a quick breakfast in the Weather Bureau cafeteria, I noticed Commander Marabito approaching my table, a broad smile on his face and his right hand extended. He shook my hand vigorously while saying, “Jim, I read the book last night and I just want you to know I’m proud of you, very proud, and I will back you up.” Which he did. Given the ire of Captain Cox, who regarded me as having betrayed both him personally as well as the nation, I’ve often wondered if Commander Marabito sacrificed promotion to captain as a result of his support. Captain Cox may have seen to it that his executive officer paid a higher price than I did.

Originally worried about the possible hostility I might face within my unit, I was astonished at how much support I received from my colleagues. While a few superficial relationships went into the deep-freeze, the rest of my co-workers remained friendly. Working one night in the enclosure where our unit received and sent weather data, Captain Cox paid an unexpected visit. As he stepped into the code room, he found all four or five of us singing the black spiritual, “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More.” We stopped instantly but there was no taking back what he had heard.

There was one other official expression of military backing for my discharge, though its author was hostile to my views. I was sent to the Pentagon for an interview with a Navy psychiatrist. Arriving at his office, instead of saluting him I made the mistake of reaching out to shake his hand. He refused a handshake — the border between officer and enlisted man had to be maintained. The meeting that followed was chilly. All I can now recall about it are two sentences from the report he filed: “Forest admits to having had nightmares as a child…. It is recommended that he be discharged from the Navy as expeditiously as possible.”

In June the discharge was approved. Within a day of permission being given, I was “processed out” and was on my way, at Dorothy Day’s invitation, to become part of the Catholic Worker community at St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality in New York.

* * *

Refusing to Take Shelter

By Jim Forest

[an extract from All Is Grace,  a biography of Dorothy Day (Orbis Books) / the photo was taken in City Hall Park in 1955]

In the spring of 1955, the press reported that a civil defense drill, “Operation Alert,” was scheduled for June 15. The news came with a warning: anyone refusing to take shelter — going into subways or basements, crouching in designated hallways or under desks in schoolrooms — risked up to a year in prison plus a $500 fine. The message underlying the drill was that, should nuclear war occur, if the right steps were taken beforehand, many could survive. A national shelter industry sprang to life despite warnings from those familiar with the effects of nuclear explosions that all the average buyer could reasonably hope to obtain for his investment was a larger-than-average coffin, while those who did survive underground confinement would find themselves in a radioactive wasteland better suited to insect than human life. One peace group, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, responded by launching a “Shelters for the Shelterless” campaign, as a result of which thousands of small houses were built for homeless people in India. The same group printed a sign which families brave enough to risk being called “Communist dupes” put on their front doors:

THIS HOUSE HAS NO FALLOUT SHELTER. Peace is our only protection.

News of preparations for New York City’s first air raid drill caught Ammon Hennacy’s eye. He proposed to those at the Catholic Worker house and to other pacifists in New York that this was a foolish law that was well worth breaking. On June 15, Dorothy, Ammon and twenty-seven others met in met in the park in front of City Hall in lower Manhattan. “In the name of Jesus, who is God, who is Love, we will not obey this order to pretend, to evacuate, to hide,” a Catholic Worker leaflet declared. “We will not be drilled into fear. We do not have faith in God if we depend upon the Atom Bomb.” When the air raid sirens began to wail, cars and buses pulled to the curb and New Yorkers drained into cellars and subway stations. Within minutes, New York, playing war rather than business, seemed like a ghost town — except at City Hall Park, where Dorothy and the other pacifists (not only from the Catholic Worker but from the War Resisters League and the Fellowship of Reconciliation) stayed where they were, looking more like picnickers than protesters. While cameras filmed their quiet witness, police escorted ten of the lawbreakers into vans and drove them off.

“As 679 warning sirens wailed,” The New York Sun reported the next day, “millions of New Yorkers took shelter in the city’s greatest air raid drill — an exercise marred only by 29 arrests and, in spots, by errors, lethargy and defiance, but hailed nonetheless as a ‘complete success’ by authorities. An imaginary H-bomb fell at the corner of North 7th Street and Kent Avenue in Brooklyn, ‘wiping out’ vast areas of the city and claiming 2,991,185 ‘fatalities.’ Another 1,776,899 men, women and children were listed as ‘injured’ as imaginary flames roared through the area. Robert Condon, [New York] City Civil Defense Director, called the drill ‘a complete success as far as public reaction goes.’”

To most Americans, the handful of people who had openly refused to take shelter must have seemed out of touch with reality. Not only is the law the law, but surely such drills were only for everyone’s ultimate safety? The Russians were ruthless atheists, people with no principles and no respect for human life, and now they were armed with nuclear weapons. Was it not common sense to try to save as many lives as possible in the event of war?

This was not Dorothy’s view of what was going on. She saw such rehearsals as making nuclear war seem survivable and winnable and therefore not an option to be rejected. For her, refusing to take shelter was also “an act of penance” undertaken by an American whose country “had been the first to drop the atom bomb and to make the hydrogen bomb.”

At eleven o’clock that night the ten in the group who had been arrested appeared in night court. One of them, the actress Judith Malina, laughed out loud in the courtroom as the bailiff mispronounced prisoners’ names. When the judge summoned her to the bench for making the disturbance, Judith explained that she was giddy because she hadn’t had anything to eat all day. He asked if she had ever been in a mental institution. “No,” she replied, “have you?” Those in the courtroom laughed, but not the judge, who ordered that Judith be taken for observation at the Bellevue psychiatric ward. For the others he set $1,500 bail, a sum associated with crimes far more serious than sitting quietly on park benches. (“Well, it was a serious crime,” said one member of the Catholic Worker community. “We were defying the White House. We were defying the Pentagon. We were defying the governor. We were defying the national mood. We were defying the habit of war. We were refusing to get ready for war.”)

Dorothy and the others refused to provide bail, but after twenty-four hours were sent home without sentence or fine by a friendlier judge. “All we got was a slap on the wrist,” one of them said. But even a day in jail had given Dorothy time to kneel on the floor of her cell — “a bare, stark cell that would outdo the Carmelites in austerity” — and “thank God for the opportunity to be there, to be so stripped of all that the earth holds dear, to share in some way the life of prisoners, guilty and innocent, all over the world.”

A year later, the drill was repeated, as was the protest, this time in Washington Square Park. This time the demonstrators were ordered to pay a fine or serve five days in jail. (One of those who opted for the fine was David Caplan, a physicist, who tried to convince the judge that civil defense preparations in a prime-target city like New York were dishonest: one would need to be far deeper — not in a subway tunnel just under the street — to have any hope of survival.)

Dorothy chose jail. The poor couldn’t pay fines, she said, which was one of the reasons the jails were full of the poor. Also, Jesus had said, “I was a prisoner and you came to be with me.”

Dorothy was jailed again in 1957. By then her disobedience seemed a kind of annual urban ritual, like painting a green stripe down Fifth Avenue on Saint Patrick’s Day. In a leaflet, Dorothy sought to explain the Catholic Worker’s small act of witness: “We know what we are in for, the risk we run in openly setting ourselves against this most powerful country in the world. It is a tiny Christian gesture, the gesture of a David against a Goliath in an infinitesimal way. We do not wish to be defiant, we do not wish to antagonize. We love our country and are only saddened to see its great virtues matched by equally great faults. We are a part of it, we are responsible too. With this small gesture we want to atone in some small measure for what we did in Hiroshima, and what we are still doing by the manufacture and testing of such weapons.”

The press, in greater numbers than ever, came to watch the pacifists get loaded into paddy wagons, not at City Hall Park this time but on Chrystie Street, the Catholic Worker’s own neighborhood. The judge, a Catholic, advised Dorothy to read the Bible and said that those who disobeyed the civil defense laws were a “heartless bunch of individuals who breathe contempt.” He imposed a thirty-day sentence.

Putting Dorothy Day in jail was akin to throwing a rabbit into the briar patch. “It is good to be here, Lord,” Dorothy wrote from her cell in the Women’s House of Detention in Greenwich Village, not far from the saloon where, in earlier times, she had spent many an hour with Eugene O’Neill. “We were, frankly, hoping for jail,” Dorothy admitted to readers of The Catholic Worker. Being in jail, one could come closer to real poverty. “Then we would not be running a house of hospitality, we would not be dispensing food and clothing, we would not be ministering to the destitute, but we would be truly one of them.”

Her month-long jail stay was a shocking, grinding experience — “crushing, numbing and painful at the same time.” It wasn’t just the abrasive, sack-like clothing, the constant assault of the mind by noise, the small and crowded cells, or the sexual harassment being suffered by so many of the younger inmates. What was most difficult was the deep sadness and despair that filled the prison. So many prisoners could look toward the future only with dread.

Dorothy left prison in a state of mental, physical and even spiritual exhaustion, she told her readers, yet grateful for the experience and ready to face the same consequences again next year. “It is a gesture, perhaps, but a necessary one. Silence means consent, and we cannot consent to the militarization of our country without protest. Since we believe that air raid drills are part of a calculated plan to inspire fear of the enemy, instead of the love which Jesus Christ told us we should feel, we must protest these drills. It is an opportunity to show we mean what we write when we repeat over and over that we are put here on this earth to love God and our neighbor.”

The longer jail term made Dorothy think again of the need for a completely different response from society to those convicted of crimes. She had witnessed the ways in which prisons damage those who live or work in them, making many inmates only more angry and dangerous than they were before, while reducing others to an awful, passive brokenness, and harming the guards as well. Would not much more be accomplished in small, more homelike settings in which prisoners were recognized as persons of value and promise? In prison, staff was mainly hired to guard inmates, “not to love them.” She envisioned rural centers at which the inmates raised much of their own food, baked their own bread, milked cows, tended chickens, engaged in creative activity and shared responsibility for the institution so that it wasn’t a static environment but was, “in its own way, a community.” Prison as it exists, she found, was the opposite of community. The prisoner is simply an object which can be stripped and searched in the crudest possible ways — in the case of women prisoners, “even to the tearing of tissues so that bleeding results.”

Why, she asked, were Christians so blind to Christ’s presence in the people it locked away and regarded without compassion? “Christ is with us today, not only in the Blessed Sacrament and where two or three are gathered together in His Name, but also in the poor. And who could be poorer and more destitute in body and soul than these companions of ours in prison?”

In 1958, Dorothy and Ammon, with seven others, again stayed above ground as an imaginary nuclear explosion occurred above New York. This time the judge suspended sentence. In 1959 there were fourteen. Ammon, Dorothy, and her friend and co-worker Deane Mower were sentenced to fifteen days in jail. The judge was a kindly man, but found that they were failing to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. “Caesar has been getting too much around here,” Ammon replied. “Someone has to stand up for God.”

For Dorothy, among the benefits of taking part in an act of civil disobedience was the opportunity it gave for practicing one of the most neglected of the works of mercy, visiting the prisoner, and doing so not just for a short time but for days on end, and not as a visitor but as a fellow-prisoner.

In the diary entries she kept while back at the Women’s House of Detention that spring, Dorothy reflected on the struggle it is “trying to see Christ in our sisters and loving them in their suffering… [In doing so,] we are not oblivious to their faults, their sins. This is true love because primarily we love them because Jesus loved them — He came to call sinners, to find the lost sheep…. [Many of them] are beautiful, young, tall, of good carriage, strong, graceful, etc. [Here in jail they] are also sober. Outside, stupefied with drugs or ugly with drink, they would be hard to love. They showed [Deane Mower and me] pictures of their children and their faces were alive with love and longing. Afterwards, they lay sorrowful on their beds. But many times too they were triggered by some affront or injustice, screaming or flaring into temper or foul language, and their rage was such that others kept silent until their mutterings died down like the thunder of a summer storm. Arguments, shouting, cursing, laughter. Some nights the arguments on the ward were hideous, sometimes there was wild gaiety, and most vulgar humor.”

Imprisonment confronted Dorothy not only with the clandestine sexual activity that occurred among her fellow prisoners in the shadows of jail, but made her reflect on her own sexual past. “I felt myself assaulted by memories of my own sex life, my life with Forster, of the sins of my past life,” she wrote “I suddenly realized that this was in the air and if I, a woman of 61, felt this at a time of life where … temptations are of the mind more than of the flesh, how much more so in these young ones, whose flesh must cry out fiercely for consummation and fruition.”

One of the early hints that the sixties were going to be very different than the fifties was the crowd that gathered with Dorothy in front of City Hall on May 3, 1960. When the air raid sirens howled, five hundred stood in the park and another five hundred on the sidewalks across the street. Laughter greeted police orders to take shelter. In the arrests that followed, it seemed obvious they were under orders not to arrest Dorothy Day. The twenty-five who were arrested were punished with five-day sentences. This time the demonstrators were no longer a subject for editorial ridicule. The New York World Telegram said that the war drills were “an exercise in futility.” Civil defense would work, the paper added, only if “the enemy’s plan is to drop marshmallow puffs.” An article in The New York Post was headlined, “Laughter in the Park.” Clearly the politicians were increasingly uncomfortable with this annual spectacle. Being scolded is one thing, being laughed at another.

The following spring a good two thousand people gathered in cheerful disobedience at City Hall Park. The police arrested a symbolic forty. The protest was not only in front of the mayor’s office. All over New York there were individuals and groups refusing to take shelter. The air raid sirens seemed to call people onto the streets rather than underneath them. For Civil Defense officials and politicians, it was a stunning defeat. Not only in New York but elsewhere in America, there were no more compulsory drills. (It happened that Dorothy missed the final round; at the time she was traveling in the Southwest on a speaking trip.)

While the New York press gathered annually to watch Dorothy and others sitting quietly on park benches during air raid drills, no journalist had been present to witness an act of unauthorized sitting on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. On December 1, 1955, Mrs. Rosa Parks, a seamstress and a devout Christian much respected in Montgomery’s black community, declined to give up her seat to a white man in a segregated bus in which blacks were required to sit in the back. Tired from her day of work and tried of all the rituals of racism, she stayed where she was. The driver summoned a policeman, a man who seemed embarrassed at the job which had come to him. “Why didn’t you stand up?” he asked Mrs. Parks. “I don’t think I should have to,” she replied. “Why do you push us around?” “I don’t know,” said the policeman, “but the law’s the law, and you are under arrest.” He drove Mrs. Parks to the jail, where she was then locked up. “I don’t recall being extremely frightened,” she said afterward, “but I felt very much annoyed and inconvenienced because I had hoped to go home and get my dinner, and do whatever else I had to do for the evening. But now here I was sitting in jail and couldn’t get home.”

I Had a Dream

By Jim Forest

[clipped from Writing Straight With Crooked Lines]

In 1967, with the war in Vietnam getting worse by the day and civilian casualties mounting steadily, I had a soul-changing dream that helped me overcome the bitter tide that was rising within me. At the time, anti-war demonstrations were turning in a hate-driven, self-righteous direction, with President Lyndon Johnson the focal-point of growing rage. Protesters in front of the White House were often chanting such mantras as “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” Crude caricatures of Johnson were being carried in parades. Writing about it in a letter to Merton, I added:

“’Nor do I want to sound self-righteous about the problem, for it afflicts me too. For a while I had a photo of the president at the center of the dartboard that hung on the kitchen wall and found it amusing to throw darts at the image. No more. The other night I had a dream about getting on a public bus and discovering LBJ was one of the passengers and that there was an empty seat next to him. I sat down and introduced myself and we got into a conversation about the war. We didn’t agree — he said the same kinds of things that I had heard him say at press conferences — but it was a real if troubled human exchange. Then, at his suggestion, we got off the bus and went for a walk in the countryside, at this point saying nothing. Gazing downward, I watched our shoes as we kicked up the golden fall leaves that were thick on the ground. We were both silent, just the sound of our shoes plowing the leaves. At that point I woke up and the dream ended. I got out of bed, my mind momentarily blank, and stepped into the kitchen, where I saw the dartboard. The photo of Johnson looked like it had been sprayed with bullets. I just made it back to the bed, collapsed and wept. I felt like a murderer. So you see I’m not talking about problems others have but my own problem, my own sin.”

That dream marked a turn. Whatever I might do about peacemaking in the years to come, it had better not be fueled by hatred and dartboard fantasies of homicide.

* * *

Praying for Enemies

by Jim Forest

“But I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”[1] In a single sentence Jesus links love of enemies with prayer for them. In fact prayer is the essential first step without which love of enemies would be hardly possible.

If we have any interest in attempting to love our enemies, a necessary starting point is to admit we have enemies and, insofar as we can, to be able to identify them by name. Once I have admitted to myself that I have enemies, I have a starting point. Until then, the Gospel commandment to love one’s enemies and pray for them is a dead letter.

Situations of enmity exist in everyone’s daily life: at home, at work, at school, between neighbors. If you have teenage kids, surely you’ve experienced them looking at you with eyes that explode with hatred, an animosity that could well be mirrored in your own eyes. Pick up a newspaper — page after page contains vivid reminders of how much enmity and violence surrounds us. In the same pages we see what the cost is in suffering, despair and death. You find conflict even in monasteries. I once watched two young Benedictine novices silently battle with each other by arranging and rearranging the salt-and-pepper shakers that stood on the refectory table between them. Those small containers became warring chess pieces.

We don’t need to travel far to find adversarial relationships, yet most of us are reluctant to use the word “enemy” in describing people who are part of our daily lives.

I have an exercise for you. You’ll need a piece of paper and something to write with.

Stop for a few minutes and think about people you know who make you feel anger or fear, persons you dislike and whose company you avoid, individuals in your family, neighborhood, workplace or church whom it distresses you to see, individuals who have hurt you or hurt those in your care. Think of politicians whose words and policies outrage you. Think of people you would prefer not to pray for. People you find outrageous.

Also think about groups or categories of people you think of by national, racial, political or religious label. Think of people who are the current or potential targets of weapons and armies that in some way you support, passively or actively, willingly or unwillingly, through your work, political alignments, payment of taxes or other activities.

As names occur to you, pause to write them down. Do so even if you think the word “enemy” is too strong. In instances in which you haven’t got a name, use a label.

Okay, now you have a first-draft of a prayer list. Try to refer to it on a daily basis.

Look again at what you have written down. Think about each name or label.

In each case, picture an individual face or, in the case of labels, an appropriate image. Give yourself at least a minute for each name or label.

Insofar as you are able, consider in each case how the enmity began. Consider incidents or reasons that explain or justify your feelings. Consider ways in which the enmity involved has shaped, limited, damaged or endangered your life or the lives of people dear to you.

Next step. Try and take the point of view of those you have listed. Are they actually your enemies? Or might it be truer to say you’re their enemy? Or is it half-and-half? In either case, what have you done or failed to do that might explain or justify their hostility?

Now a potentially embarrassing question: You’re a Christian. Christ has told you to pray for your enemies. When have you prayed for any of the people on your list? Regularly? Occasionally? Rarely? Never?

Have you searched for points of common ground and possible agreement? Have you allowed yourself to be aware of qualities that are admirable in those you have listed or have you preferred to see only what, from your perspective, is flawed in them?

Consider what might happen to you, to others, if this enmity continues: separation, divorce, court battles, children caught in the crossfire, shattered friendships, division in your parish, division among co-workers, misery in the work place, loss of employment…

In the case of differences between nations, think of ways in which you participate in enmities that, if they worsen, could explode into war. In a world in which there are thousands of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, consider what war might mean in the worst case. Are you doing anything that might make war less likely or helping bring to an end a war in progress?

Prayer that doesn’t influence your own actions means little. Why should God pay attention to a prayer that has little or no influence on your own behavior? What steps have you taken to change relationships with those on your list? Have you talked to others who might help or intervene in a constructive way? Can you imagine what you could do that might help bring to an end any of the enmities you have listed. What can you do that might help convert enmity to friendship?

The Church, in recognizing saints, places before us many models of sanctity — people who, in a wide variety of ways, also had to deal with enemies. By taking time to study the lives of particular saints, we are likely to find helpful models.

Here’s an example. One of the masters of the spiritual life in the past century was Saint Silouan the Athonite, an uneducated Russian peasant who was born in 1866 and died in 1938. In his youth he was an immensely strong man who had a volcanic temper. During a feast day celebrating the patron saint of his village, he was playing a concertina when two brothers, both cobblers, began to tease him. The older of the brothers tried to snatch the concertina from Silouan and a fight broke out between them.

“At first I thought of giving in to the fellow,” Silouan told another monk later in his life, “but then I was ashamed at how the girls would laugh at me, so I gave him a great hard blow in the chest. His body shot away and he fell backwards with a heavy thud in the middle of the road. Froth and blood trickled from his mouth. All the onlookers were horrified. So was I. ‘I’ve killed him,’ I thought, and stood rooted to the spot. For a long time the cobbler lay where he was. It was over half an hour before he could rise to his feet. With difficulty they got him home, where he was bad for a couple of months, but he didn’t die.”[2]

For the rest of his life Silouan felt that there was only the slightest difference between himself and a murderer. He had yielded to a murderous impulse. It was only by chance that his powerful blow hadn’t been deadly. Perhaps it’s not surprising that, as time passed, he found himself drawn towards a life of prayer and penance. After becoming a monk on Mount Athos, a Greek peninsula dotted with monasteries that juts into the Aegean Sea, he thought long and hard about violence and its causes, in the course of which he developed a profound sense of human inter-connectedness. He realized that “through Christ’s love, everyone is made an inseparable part of our own, eternal existence … for the Son of Man has taken within himself all mankind.”

One need not be a contemplative monk in a remote monastery to be overwhelmed by a sense of human inter-connection. I often think of the astronauts who participated in the first moon landing in July 1969. As he looked through a window in his spacecraft, one of them, Russell Schweickart, was able to put into words a similar sense of human oneness that hit him:

You see the Earth not as something big … [but] as a small thing out there. And the contrast between that bright blue and white Christmas tree ornament and the black sky, that infinite universe, really comes through, and the size of it, the significance of it. It is so small and fragile and such a precious little spot in that universe that you can block it out with your thumb, and you realize that on that small spot, that little blue and white thing, is everything that means anything to you — all of history, and music and poetry and art and death and birth and love, all the tears, joy, games, all of it on that little spot out there that you can cover with your thumb. And you realize from that perspective that you’ve changed, that there’s something new there, that the relationship is no longer what it was.[3]

Saint Silouan had no spaceship window and probably could not have imagined anyone flying to the moon, but the life of prayer provided him with the same discovery: there is one Earth, the borders drawn on maps are invisible to the birds that fly over them, we really are God’s children, it really is one human family, and in God’s eyes the earth is no bigger than a kitchen table.

Little by little Silouan came to the realization that love of enemies is not simply an option of Christian life, a possibility that few will attempt and fewer still achieve, but is “the central criterion of true faith and of real communion with God, the lover of souls, the lover of humankind.” Or, as he said on other occasions, “No one has ever known God without having loved his enemies.”

There is nothing new in this. The Gospel author Saint John said the same: “Whoever says he loves God but hates his neighbor is a liar.”[4] Could anyone say it more simply or more plainly? Hatred of anyone blockades communion with God.

But without prayer for enemies we are ill prepared to love them. There is no starting point. Prayer itself is an act of relationship. The moment I pray for someone, however reluctantly, I establish an intimate connection with that person. Even the smallest act of caring that prayer involves is a major step toward love, an act of participating in God’s love for that person. Prayer gives us a point of access to God’s love for those we would otherwise regard with disinterest, irritation, fear or active hostility.

If love of enemies begins with prayer for them, it may be that we need to think freshly about the nature of prayer.

Among books that have helped me in the endless struggle to become more compassionate, collections of photos such as The Family of Man have been of special value. Meditating on images in The Face of Prayer, I was impressed by the comments of the photographer, Abraham Menashe:

Prayer is a deeply personal act through which we commune, petition, reach out, and give thanks…. Prayer is present in all aspects of life…. When we attend to prayer, its nature becomes known to us. We take refuge in stillness, and in our most naked state become receptive to a life force that nourishes, heals, and makes us whole again. To the extent that we have the courage to seek moments of solitude and listen to our inner voice, we will be guided by a light that lives in us. We will come to know a love that does not disappoint — peace the world does not offer.[5]

Prayer is something that reveals itself only through prayer. Like the taste of an orange, we can know it only from the inside. As Menashe put it, “When we attend to prayer, its nature becomes known to us.”

While the recitation of sacred texts is important in every religious tradition, an early discovery each person makes is that, while words help, prayer is far more than reciting words. It often involves no words at all, only an attentive silence.

Prayer is placing ourselves in the presence of God — so easy to say but often so hard to do. The mystery we identify as “God” is more than a word and no definition of God (creator, sustainer, savior, ground of being, higher power, lover of humankind) is adequate. Biblical and theological texts depend on metaphors, the essential verbal tool for touching the borders of the unexplainable.

One of the metaphors for God used by Saint Symeon the New Theologian[6] was water:

God can be known to us in the same way that a man can see an endless ocean while standing at the shore at night and holding only a dimly lit candle. Do you think he can see much? In fact very little, almost nothing. Even so, he can see the water very well. He knows there is a vast ocean before him, the limits of which he cannot perceive. The same is true of our knowledge of God.[7]

Yet an ocean is less than a drop of water compared to God. Many metaphors are helpful, no metaphor is adequate. God is simultaneously both close and distant, both merciful and demanding, both just and forgiving, father but also mother, ever new yet ageless, unchanging and yet the fountainhead of change, a God both of deserts and waterfalls. Words and images can only help in our pilgrimage toward God. “He who follows words is destroyed,” Thomas Merton told the novices in his care.

Using another metaphor, we might think of God as a weaver, in fact the weaver. All creation, from the book in your hand to the most remote galaxy, is part of that endless and ongoing weaving. You and I are part of the fabric and so are our enemies. To approach God is to discover connections, including the ways that I and my enemy are bound together like crisscrossing threads in the same tapestry. The moment we turn toward God the weaver, we turn toward a divine love that connects everyone, whether a nun caring for a dying beggar or a psychopath who has just raped and murdered a stranger. This is the economy of grace that Christ is describing when he speaks of rain and sunlight being given to all, not just the virtuous. We are part of an inter-connected human unity in which our worst enemy also exists. This doesn’t mean that God is indifferent to the sins we or our enemies commit, but we are nonetheless objects of God’s life-giving love and benefit from the divine hope that we might yet become what God intended us to become.

A starting point in prayer is being honest with God: presenting ourselves as we are, not as we wish we were or as we think God wants us to be, not dressing up for God but standing before God as naked as Adam and Eve. As a passage in the Philokalia (a venerable Orthodox collection of texts on prayer and other aspects of Christian life) puts it:

If we truly wish to please God and to be friends with the most blessed of friendships, let us present our spirit naked to God. Let us not draw into it anything of this present world — no art, no thought, no reasoning, no self-justification — even though we should possess all the wisdom of this world.[8]

If we’re going to present our spirits naked to God, there is no need to pretend to God that we love an enemy in an affectionate sense. Better to communicate our actual feelings. Perhaps something like this:

God, you must know I can’t stand [the name of whomever you are at enmity with]. I often wish him dead or at least wish he were miserable and far away. But I pray for him because you commanded me to pray for my enemies. Personally I don’t actually want to do it but I do want to be one of your disciples and I am trying to be obedient to your words. Help me to see him as you see him. Let me glimpse your image in him. May I live in such a way that both of us can lay aside our hostility and forgive each other. May I at least not be an obstacle to his salvation. I admit I find it hard to want anything good for him — help me to want it, help me to pray for him.

The simplest of prayers can also be used. You may find it helpful to recite the Jesus Prayer — “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me” — or a variation of it: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on [the name of someone on your enemies list].”

By the way, be patient. Expect no quick results or even slow results. You may pray for years for a person or group and see no changes at all, at least none that you were hoping for. (In fact prayer for a change even in one’s own behavior requires persistence.) In prayer for an enemy, at the very least there is a change in you — the creation of a bond of care for the other.

We are told by Christ to pray for our enemies, but prayer itself can be difficult. No matter what its focus, prayer sometimes reminds us of the undercurrent of our own religious doubts. Among the prayers in the Gospel for which I have a particular gratitude is this one: “Lord, I believe — help my unbelief.”[9] The man who first said that at least had the advantage of standing face-to-face with Jesus. We live twenty centuries later, in a time when who Jesus was has become the subject of countless books about the “historical Jesus,” books whose authors rarely agree with each other. Some even dismiss the Jesus of the New Testament as a legend or invention. Among authors who admit he must have existed, some regard Jesus as a vagabond rabbi who was executed for his radical ideas and was resurrected only in the sense that his stories and teachings survived and became the basis for a new religion.

Many writers have vandalized the Jesus of the Gospels. The most successful recent revision of Jesus’ life is Dan Brown’s novel, The DaVinci Code, in which we find a cloak-and-dagger Catholic Church that has spent twenty centuries using any means necessary to suppress the fact that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and became a father, numbering the kings of medieval France among his descendants. (Not much of an achievement.) Brown’s book has sold millions of copies and was made into a big-budget film. Sadly, many have taken the author’s bogus history seriously.

On top of all the misinformation about Jesus, for many people the word “God” is far from easy to use. Pronouncing these three letters produces a sound that is often without content rather than a bridge into the depthless reality of a mysterious creator “in whom we live and move and have our being.”[10] The word “God,” so often ill-treated and carelessly used, can also trigger recollections of the grave sins committed in God’s name by people in responsible positions in religious structures: inquisitions, torture, heretics burned, Crusades and other religious wars, priests and nuns who abused children, bishops who protected child-abusers, etc. Christians have often betrayed Christ’s most basic teachings. It can be an ongoing struggle to develop a sense of God that isn’t stained by ecclesiastical abuses of the word “God.”

Yet so much draws us toward the God who, as one prayer used throughout the Orthodox Church reminds us, “is everywhere present, filling all things, the treasury of blessings and the giver of life.”[11] Beauty itself opens a door toward heaven. All beauty, from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic, bears witness to God. At the base of our souls is a tilt toward God. Saint Augustine was right in proclaiming, “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”[12]

To pray whole-heartedly can become the most vital force in life, not only empowering us in countless ways, but, like an underground spring flowing through hidden channels, reaching others, including those we view as enemies.

In praying for enemies, we are not hurling holy thoughts at them or petitioning God to make them into copies of ourselves. Rather we are bringing our enemies into that part of ourselves which is deepest and most vulnerable. We are begging God for the good of those whom, at other times, we wished ill or wished to harm. In praying for enemies, we are asking God to use us for the well-being of those we fear.

At the same time, we are asking to see ourselves as we are seen by those who fear us, so that we can see enmity not only from our side but from the other side, for we not only have enemies — we are enemies. We would do well to pray not only for the conversion of our adversaries but for our own conversion. We ourselves may be harder to convert than our adversaries. The most needed conversion may be my own.

[This is a chapter from Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Books.]

[1] Matthew 5:44

[2] Archimandrite Sophrony, Saint Silouan the Athonite (Essex: Monastery of St. John he Baptist, 1991), 14-15.

[3] Russell Schweickhart, “No Frames, No Boundaries”:

[4] 1 John 4:20

[5] Abraham Menashe, The Face of Prayer (New York: Knopf, 1980)

[6] Symeon the New Theologian (949–1022) is one of three saints of the Orthodox Church to have been given the title of Theologian; the others are Saint John the Evangelist and Saint Gregory Nazianzen. Born in Galatia and educated at Constantinople, Symeon became abbot of the monastery of Saint Mamas. “Theologian” was not applied to Symeon in the modern academic sense of theological scholarship, but to recognize someone who spoke from personal experience of God. One of his principal teachings was that humans could and should experience theoria — literally “contemplation,” or direct experience of God.

[7] Saint Symeon the New Theologian, Oration 61, Works, quoted in Leonid Ouspensky, Theology of the Icon, Vol. 1 (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1992), 33.

[8] Saint John of Karpathos, from section 49 of “For the Encouragement of the Monks in India,” included in The Philokalia: The Complete Text, compiled by Saint Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St Makarios of Corinth, Volume One, p 309-10 (London: Faber & Faber, 1979).

[9] Mark 9:24

[10] Acts 17:28

[11] The full text of the prayer: “Oh Heavenly King, the comforter, the spirit of truth, who is everywhere present, filling all things, the treasury of blessings and the giver of life, come and abide in us and cleanse us from every impurity and save, oh gracious one, our souls.”

[12] Confessions, Book I.

Contemplation and Resistance: A Dialogue Between Thich Nhat Hanh and Daniel Berrigan

Source: WIN magazine, vol ix, nr 17, June 4, 1973, pp. 4-10

What follows is the slightly edited transcript of a conversation recorded in Paris January 4 between Thich Nhat Hanh and Daniel Berrigan, the one a Buddhist monk and Zen master, the other a Catholic priest well known for animosity to draft records and for failing to report for imprisonment on schedule.

The conversation occurred in the midst of the American Christmas bombing offensive; the cease-fire hopes that had flourished for months seemed shattered in the ruins of Bach Mai hospital in Hanoi. Dan arrived in Paris less than two weeks after his brother’s release from prison and after extensive involvement in a vigil against the renewal of the war that occurred on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York (the Cardinal was away at the time visiting troops).

Through their poetry and their shared commitment in nonviolence, the two had known each other for some years, but the experience of living, talking and cooking together for several days, particularly at such a discouraging moment in time, seemed to make possible a kind of understanding and rapport of a very rare order. Finally it seemed it could do no violence to their fragile exchange to turn on the tape recorder.

A great deal is missing from the transcription — not in words but most of all in the silences between them. Between Dan’s opening comments and Nhat Hanh’s first response was a silence that seemed ten minutes long, a complete stillness in which it was easy to hear the slight noise of the Sony tape recorder. Silence remained enough a part of the conversation to make of both of them honorary Quakers or Trappists or similar sorts of heretics in this noisy, clock-centered world.

A note about Thich Nhat Hanh: He is chief of the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation, a group established in Paris by the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam to represent the Church and its membership during the course of the peace negotiations. In effect the delegation represents the nonviolent movement of Vietnam, which is largely Buddhist in its composition.  Nhat Hanh is one of the principal living poets of his country as well as the author of numerous books on Buddhism and Zen. Among the WIN articles that touch on the Vietnamese pacifist movement and Thich Nhat Hanh are “Buddhism’s Quiet Search for Peace” (9/15/72) and “Only the Rice Loves You” (12/15/72). The Unicorn Press (Box 1469, Santa Barbara, Calif. 93102) has published a collection of his war-related poetry called The Cry of Vietnam as well as some of his other writings in various issues of their annual journal, Unicorn. The Hoa Binh Press (Cathedral of St. John the Divine, 1047 Amsterdam Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10025) has published a play-meditation by Nhat Hanh called The Path of Return Continues the Journey, translated and with drawings by Vo-Dinh and with an introduction by Dan Berrigan. (If funds can be raised, the Hoa Binh Press will publish a book of Nhat Hanh’s called Keys to Zen, written for Western readers, this fall. Ed Guinan of the Community for Creative Nonviolence has included a chapter by Nhat Hanh, “Love in Action,” in a newly-published anthology called Peace and Nonviolence (The Paulist Press, Paramus, N.J., $4.50). And finally, there is a  book of Nhat Hanh’s called Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire (Hill & Wang, N.Y.) that I believe is still in print.                                                  —JIM FOREST

DAN BERRIGAN:  We are sitting in seriousness, very quiet in spirit, thinking of all our friends across the world and wondering perhaps if we could take up themes like the meaning of a movement which will have some roots, tradition, staying power and especially what it means to have a movement which is not just driven mad by politics and tending toward violence. We’ve all seen too much of that. But in many ways the Buddhist and Christian traditions can meet around these great themes of compassion, a sense of one another, and also a different sense of time, perhaps, a longer, deeper sense of time.

When we were in prison I believe we had a very different sense of time, too. It was closer maybe to the truth.

NHAT HANH: We tend to imagine that the lifetime of a person is something like using your pen in order to draw a line across a sheet of paper. A person appears on this earth and lives and dies. And we may think of the life of a person just like a line we trace across a sheet of paper. But I think that is not true. The life of a person is not confined to anything like a line you draw, because being alive you do not go in one direction — direction of the right side of a piece of paper, but you go also in other directions. So the image of that line crossing the sheet of paper is not correct. It goes in all directions. Not only four or eight, or 16, but many, many. So if we can see through to that reality, our notion of time will change. That is why in meditation you can feel that you are not traveling in time but we are, we are in eternity. We are not caught by death, by change. A few moments of being alive in that state of mind is a very good opportunity for self purification. Not only will it affect our being, but of course it affects our action — our non-action.

DAN: Part of the difficulty it seems to me is determining the right action and the right moment, or the time for non-action. And yet for most of our people this is a question that never really arises except through political discussion. And I think it is part of the larger difficulty with life itself which has to do with the question of why live and why grant life, and why not cut off life…and why is life valuable. And once that is placed in question, once the value of life is not deeply understood as beyond discussion — then it seems to me it is impossible to act rightly. It’s as though one were to say, since we’ve put everything in question, the question of how to live from day to day becomes grievous, almost impossible to deal with. And since it is impossible to deal with the question, one evades it and after a while it’s “too much”, and so one finds ways of not dealing with it. From day to day. By drugs or despair, or, as they say, cop outs — various kinds — including religious kinds, too. So one gives up on the struggle to find the norm of existence which will allow one to stay with the struggle for a long, long time. For all his lifetime. And within that lifetime, to be harmful to no one, including oneself. It seems to me to require a very deep, deep life in God, and constant discipline of appetite and senses and curiosity and perception of events and politics, all of this. And for this our culture has not prepared us, as we understand now after ten years of the Vietnam War. The people who can attain this sense of life are very rare. We may think at times that we have religious revivals or that people are following one way or another way or seeking a deeper meaning that the culture allows. But most of it ends nowhere — ends nowhere. So in our culture the religious feeling or discovery most often tends to be another way of avoiding the grievous questions of life. People go to church to forget, and others stay away from the church to forget. And no other solution helps!

NHAT HANH: They want to forget because they are tired. They have no courage to face the daily serious problems. Maybe first they start by courageously facing these problems. But they cannot stand the struggle for a long time. That is why they try to forget. And the problem is how to make ourselves strong enough in order to be able to bear these problems and not escape them. In that respect I think (according to my experience) it is not the quantity of action that is important but the quality. When I feel that I am serene, calm, happy, I am sure that whatever I do will result in good fruit. But sometimes problems present themselves to me with such intensity that I feel I cannot deal with them at the same time. A common example of this is that we read newspapers every day and follow every detail and spend a lot of time doing that. But from time to time we stop reading … we find ourselves in a situation where we cannot read these papers. Sometimes for three months! And after these three months we read a paper and find that not much has changed. Our not reading the paper for three months didn’t do much damage to us.  So maybe because we are invaded by events and problems — all of them urgent — we find we aren’t strong enough to withstand them. So maybe some arrangement is needed so that we can nourish ourselves with a spiritual dimension — vitalities — so that we can be more effective. Less problems, more effectiveness.

DAN: It seems to me this is one way of trying to put the great, great difficulty of our culture, which of course is so terrifying in the world, as we learned from the Vietnam War. But at the other end of our culture it is all this youth and good will and striving which is quite a mix, as we learned from very harsh experience over ten years. To bear with the dislocation of one’s life and court rooms, and long trials, and prison, and underground, and separation from one’s family and friends; the bearing of all this is the real ingredient of change.  But we learned that to be able to do these things is very rare. Some of us were generally despised by the others in ’65, ’66. To be non-violent was foolish, it wasn’t fashionable. To stand trial and to go to prison was absurd. This was not the movement; the movement was to take revenge and to be violent and to take up arms. And we saw all of that come and go. Our group, the Catholic resisters and other friends went through all this; we lost the respect of many young people. And then it all came back! We’re in the second turn of the cycle, the second decade now. ’70 opens another kind of understanding; they have seen everything else disappear and we are the only ones who are still there. In late December of ’72 after the bombing was going on for ten days, in all of New York City we were the only ones who were standing. We and the young people who had been in prison were the only ones who were still there saying no, saying no, talking to people and preparing literature and still hopeful — still a sign of hope. I guess this is not much, but it’s something: a way of trying to declare that you cannot imitate your enemy and turn into a friend. And that when you imitate the enemy you become the enemy too. So if you’re going to be violent in some movement you might just as well join the army and kill the Vietnamese — because it all comes to the same thing. But this is very difficult for us Americans to understand.

NHAT HANH: And yet that is the most basic problem. I see in your action and in the actions of friends of yours that movement toward awakening. And I think that is most important. Because the problem is to work toward that kind of awakening, and then everything will follow. If people are not awake, then you cannot do anything. The problem is not the one force opposing another force to gain ground on this earth, but the problem is awakening — opposing forgetfulness — which is the fruit of many sins, many crimes. People who kill people, who commit crimes do so not necessarily because they are cruel or evil by nature, but because they forget. They are not conscious of what is going on around them — and even inside themselves. So I can describe the type of movement I see in your action. It can be called an action toward the awakening of the consciousness, the heart of man.

DAN: I hope so. I think back to what you spoke of earlier, that kind of frenzy for events, starvation for news day after day. People want to absorb this incredible chaos and bloodletting and violence. And that is what induces forgetfulness, even though it pretends to awaken. The ideal person (according to this scheme) is one who knows all the events and reads all the papers. And yet very often he is the one who is least conscious of what is really happening to people, and least conscious of himself.

NHAT HANH: That is very true. Because someone might read the papers because he cannot stand just being somewhere, not doing anything. So he is not eager to be aware of what is going on, but wants to fill himself with something so that he does not face that emptiness, that loneliness in himself.

DAN: It’s interesting, too, the connection between machinery and consciousness in this regard. The machine in the West offers an omnivorous metaphor, an example of how human beings should act — efficiency, and results, and impact and all such obsessions of consciousness. In all this, the difference between the effective machine and the consciousness of a human being  just gets lost. The two tend, in effect, to merge.  So after a while, as we learned in the last decade, those who have authority in the government have no other way of experiencing their consciousness except through the machine, that is, the bomb. The only way of being in authority in the world is to have command of a machine, which is to say, have command over life and death. And there comes to be no difference between the launching of the bombs as an ordinary method of consciousness and the consciousness itself.  So to reverse all that, to find ways of reversing all that, or as we said in Catonsville, of saying no to all that, is a very grievous and difficult thing. I can’t really express how the machine has won over consciousness and claimed it — captivated it — until (as Ellul says) the “order of necessity” is in command. We believe that “violence is not necessary.”  But from the point of view of metaphysics, violence is the only thing necessary. Violence is the order of necessity itself. And to step aside from necessity into freedom is to step into non-violence — because that is the only way of freedom.

NHAT HANH: Violence destroys consciousness.

DAN: Yes, but that presupposes a sense of inwardness — a sense of oneself — because the machine is totally outside itself. The machine has no consciousness at all and destroys consciousness to the degree that it wins. Someone said recently that sanity is right conduct in the world. But this is only one way of putting it, because sanity is also right conduct in oneself. And requires an inside and outside both — a rhythm set up.

NHAT HANH: The machine of violence destroys consciousness because it creates fear, it creates despair, it creates all sorts of feelings and sentiments that destroy the human being. And nonviolent action, of course, should oppose the machine of violence, and by that same reason it has to oppose any thought, any feeling that condones the use of this machine.

DAN: So in a time when a machine is claiming its victories over men and women, it seems to me that contemplation becomes a form of resistance — and should lead to resistance in the world. And this to the point where one cannot claim he is in touch with God, and still is neutral toward the machine, toward the death of people. I mention this because this also is not clear, and in the derangement of our culture we see that people move toward contemplation in despair — even though unrecognized. They meditate as a way of becoming neutral — to put a guard between themselves and the horror around them, instead of allowing them to give themselves to people and to hope, instead of presenting something different, something new, to suffering people. We have a terrible kind of drug called “contemplation”. The practitioners may call themselves Jesus freaks or followers of Krishna or Buddha; they may wear robes of some kind, be in the street, and beg, and pray, and live in communes, but they care nothing about the war. Nothing about the war. And they talk somewhat like Billy Graham; “Jesus saves”. That is to say: it’s not necessary to do anything. So they become another resource of the culture instead of a resource against the culture.

NHAT HANH: Also on the subject of meditation, I think most of us have been touched profoundly by our situation, the reality in which we live, and many of us need a kind of healing. A number of people, including myself and many of my friends — we need a little bit of time, of space, of privacy, of meditation, in order to heal the wound that is very deep in ourselves. That does not mean that if sometimes I am absorbed in looking at a cloud and not thinking about Vietnam, that does not mean that I don’t care. But I need the cloud to heal me and my deep wounds. Many of us are wounded, and we understand and support each other in our need for healing.

DAN: I used to think in prison that to write poetry or to read poetry together was resistance. They were trying to make it impossible for anybody to feel good about things, about nature, about himself. It was very strange. But we found ways of expressing the fact that one could grow in prison — or could deepen his life in prison. On Sunday we would gather and read poetry, which we had written or read during the week. And we’d discuss that. Most of the prisoners wouldn’t understand. “How can people do this?” “Why are they so foolish?”… because everybody was so sad and down and complaining and circling his little cage of private sorrow and loss and anger. And here we were, reading poetry. It was a deep way of saying that we were not who they thought we were. And we were not what they were trying to make us into. And we were going our own way, we had our own community; we had something left over for one another. There were a hundred ways of making this known.

But when I came out of prison it seemed to me very important that one realize that the same struggle went on and that life outside was draining one, too — of any poetic sense, of any gift to others — and that this never stops. So that to look at the cloud is still a way of resisting. Another way.

NHAT HANH: Our Vietnamese friends have recently been discussing the death of Thich Thanh Van, the director of Youth for Social Service in Vietnam, who was killed in action. You know, my friends disagree as to how Thich Thanh Van will be after death. One friend said, “Well, he has been too long in this world and he has done his best to show his concern to his fellow humans — so I hope that he will be in the land of Buddha now, and flower.” But another friend disagrees. He said, “I don’t think that Thich Thanh Van will enjoy sitting on a lotus flower near the Buddha. I think that he will be back here — in this very land in order to continue.”

In Buddhism we talk of reincarnation, but this discussion has a more poetic than theological nature. Another friend said Thich Thanh Van is not one. He is neither one nor many. Not one, or two or three; he will be back in this land, but not in the form of one person. He may be in the form of a tree that would grow on this destroyed land despite the chemical poisons. He may be a bird. He may be present among us right at this minute.

So this kind of discussion went on concerning the coming back of Thich Thanh Van. It was very interesting.

I was a teacher of Thich Thanh Van when he was very young. And many of my young students of many years ago have died in the war. It’s unbelievable to think that I’m still here, that I’m still alive. They died at the age of 20, 25, 28 — and I’m 46, and I’m still here, alive. It seems to me something very absurd.

One day I came to the office in Paris by subway and suddenly I touched the seat in the subway to check it, to see whether it is real or not. I did it almost unconsciously. I touched it, I felt it, to be sure that it is hard, that it is real. And it felt hard, it felt wooden all right — but I was still not sure that it was real. I know at that moment I was not alive, because I did not feel reality. So that night I thought more about it and remembered that earlier that morning I had seen a picture in the International Herald Tribune — a picture of young Vietnamese who lay dead beside each other. Young Vietnamese of both camps. They were about 15 or 16 years old. And the picture showed them lying very quietly beside each other. No quarrel, no fighting, no noise. Absolute silence.  That’s what I see. And I ask myself if these young boys have really seen what life is. Have they been able to feel the fact that they are there in this life — the consciousness of being alive or not.  I thought of myself. Many times I felt myself lost in life. I was not really alive. And yet I have had a chance, through meditation to understand these things.

How could these people feel that they had been alive even once during their 14, 15 years? That is what brought me to touch the seat in the subway.

I confess that if I think too much about Vietnam, I will die. I cannot stand it. That means I am still not strong enough to face reality 24 hours a day.

DAN: This is all of us, though in varying degrees. Just before I came to Paris, we lost our dear friend Rabbi Heschel, who was with us in the beginning and who was going to meet with Philip and me about a trip to the Pope over the war question. One hour before we were to meet, his daughter called and said, “We just found my father dead.” I rushed over and there he was, very gently sleeping. I thought that he had died very nobly because the spiritual meaning of his death was that he was a casualty of the peace — not the war, but of the peace — and that he died of grief. He died of his tremendous anguish which I think a religious Jew is so capable of, someone who prays and believes so deeply. Since I came out of jail we had extraordinary exchanges about faith and about peace. One of his last efforts was to welcome Philip out of jail. He made that long trip, though he was very ill. I have since thought how few in our country have had the privilege of dying so completely a peacemaker as that man. There are many worse ways of dying than the way he died. Because I think he was one who knew, as you say, what it was to live. It is a very strange paradox, but I think that he knew so deeply what it was to live that he died of it. He died of his sense of life. And that was a resistance, too.

NHAT HANH: One of the things I have thought very much about is the notion of the effectiveness of nonviolent action. Perhaps some studies should be done concerning that problem — how it is that one action may have a decisive effect only 2,000 years later. At the time of Jesus nobody could predict the impact of Jesus in the 20th century. Many people blamed him and misunderstood him in his lifetime. The same thing has happened with other great human beings in our history. That is why — concerning the problem of effectiveness — we should open a kind of perspective, by study, by meditation, by other means, in order to show ourselves and our friends that our action will surely bear fruit. As for me, I have the conviction that not a single act of ours will fail to bear fruit in the future. Even so, in the nonviolent life (I almost said movement! — but movement is smaller than life) so in our nonviolent life many times I get discouraged. I have to confess it. But when the fruit of a person’s action became clear, I was encouraged again. I think all of us have had such experiences. This is why I believe that if each of us possessed that conviction — that any action in the right direction and rooted in humaneness will bear fruit — then I think we will have enough patience, tenacity, and perseverance to go on with our nonviolent life, our nonviolent movement.

It is easy to say this, but it is less easy to practice! And we need, very much need the support of our friends. Even one friend in the most difficult periods. You see, at the time when you are very discouraged and a young man comes and asks you how hopeful is the perspective of peace, you cannot tell him that you are completely discouraged.  That would kill him. So you kind of tell him a lie. You say, “Don’t be discouraged — I am not discouraged.” That is a lie all right. A real lie. But you are forced by this situation to tell the young man that you are not discouraged. Especially when he has committed the error of believing in you as a friend and as an elder.

DAN: The one question these days in the U.S., you know, among good people is, “What can we do; where can we go; how can we pick things up; how can we move?” The unspoken part of that question is a sort of depression, discouragement of spirit. And sometimes you can’t say anything by way of answer. You can’t say; we should do this, we should do that. That’s no answer. Because that gets nowhere. We’ve tried all this you know. I find the best thing you can say is to suggest something about the Vietnamese people. One says, “Well, I don’t know what one can do and I’m not here to give answers or provide tactics, but I can suggest that if the Vietnamese people can keep going, so can we. And if they can suffer this way, we can suffer a little — which is nothing compared with what they are enduring. And in that way you get a better perspective maybe — for people.”

You know, this isn’t much! Very little. It’s something we are going to have to deal with for a very long time. My own feeling is very strong that it will be important for the people who have been through the rigors — some rigors — of the past, like prison or whatever — that they must show that this can be borne with — that this small possibility can be tolerated. We’ll have to show that kind of steadiness of spirit that you speak of. And perhaps sometimes it’s necessary almost to be harsh with people and to say, “Did you ever think that the despair you speak of is a luxury, that it keeps us from doing real work? And that some of us don’t have time for it? And our discipline forbids it?”

People get very uneasy with this. But I think for us — this is not to speak for the Vietnamese people at all — but for us there is a great deal of self-indulgence in this despairing talk. It doesn’t come about in the people who have gone through a great deal. It comes about in those who have gone through very little. Usually! Those who have been through something in America are able to keep going pretty well. Which is not to say you don’t have very bad times. But it’s very interesting to analyze the people for whom peace or normalcy are quite unexamined — they’re the ones who are most subject to despair. That is to say they really look forward to the end of the war as a way of regaining everything they’ve always had. And the only real meaning of the war for them is that their ordinary comfort and well-being are interfered with. It is not that people are suffering or that people are dying, but that their good life is being interrupted.

Something has happened to interfere with their good life, their success, their uninterrupted comfort. To help them deepen a sense of what is really happening is a very slow thing, you know. For instance, the kind of people who passed us by the thousands on Fifth Avenue last week. For them it was faintly annoying that we were standing on the steps of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral with signs saying, “It is criminal to keep silent in times like these.” That was an interruption of their shopping, their dreams, their illusions about life, their well-being, all the rest. You could see their anger was not about the war. Their anger was that we were standing there.

But for us to stand there was so little a thing! This is what you do! You try to do something and be modest about it.

NHAT HANH: This is the work of awakening people, a work that is important. For despair is very bad. You see…sometimes there is something very close to despair, but it is not despair yet. When first we heard of the bombing of Vietnam and the destruction of Hanoi and the Bach Mai Hospital and things like that, we were so discouraged. After so much hope — then this. All of a sudden you get a kind of feeling that is very close to despair. The effect of that feeling is that you weep, and you want to turn to America to say something in anger, like “You are barbarous!” But is it good to say so? Is it good to say something in anger? This is not a profitable action. But the appropriate thing is to write to friends over there and to say, “We are suffering; we are weeping.” That is the only thing we feel we can do in a situation like that — and that is more important than to issue a communiqué saying that you condemn the bombing. That is the kind of thing you should do, too, though we have done many things like that.  But as you said, we cannot afford to be discouraged. Discouragement causes big casualties in our life, our movement — so we stand against it and continue. It’s the only way.

JIM:  Dan pointed out that many people in the American movement come to a stage of near despair. And sometimes the only factor that makes it possible to keep from complete despair is our perception of the Vietnamese people. I myself am oftentimes nourished by memories of experiences with you, Nhat Hanh. I’m getting my hope from you; I’m getting my hope from certain Vietnamese efforts, in a sense from all Vietnamese efforts. But where do you get your hope from?

NHAT HANH: Before I say something about that, I will say something about our fellow countrymen in North Vietnam. They always say that they are ready to go on — but of course they feel like us. They suffer very much. They are human beings. And they wish the war to stop as soon as possible. Just like us. But in their position they have to say what they have been saying. So it is necessary to see in them human beings, complete human beings like us.

The way I tell that young fellow that I am not discouraged — it is the same problem. Of course, we hope, we have hope all the time. Because the moment you lose all hope, you die. It’s very simple. You die. You die right away. You might kill yourself or you might not — but you die right away. Now for the last ten years I have always hoped that the war would end in the next few months. I have never thought that the war would be prolonged for more than six months. Because that idea would kill me. In that kind of suffering situation, you hear many rumors about a possible cease-fire, a possible settlement. And you believe them with all your force and strength. And you are ready to believe the most absurd rumor about peace.

I remember in one conversation saying, maybe there is no hope. It’s illusion. Maybe we are clinging to illusion to live. Perhaps we should discuss whether there is a difference in nature between hope and illusion. We aspire for peace — do we live in illusion? And those who are conducting the war — maybe they are living in an illusion too, otherwise how could they give us such a war? They must think that they are doing something good, something that we need. And their conviction is so strong that even if we have cried out for ten years, it is not enough. They are not able to listen, to understand. So the problem of illusion, I think, is another dimension of our problem.

DAN: Maybe it’s not even to the point to draw very clear lines between hope and illusion except in a broad sense. An illusion, it seems to me, can never lead one to a long term courageous dedication to people — whereas if one’s life is hopeful it can. There are certain questions like that I don’t even feel like getting precise about because it won’t help me. There are many illusions in my life, absurd illusions, and yet they are mixed up with something no so bad, you know! So I feel, well, try it all!

Whereas I know that those who claim authority over us are ruled by the kind of illusions that are lethal, absolutely deadly. Illusions about power and ego and blood and superiority and racism and violence — all that terrible mix that produces the machine. But that has nothing to do with me or my friends.

Let me give you an example of an illusion that I refuse to give up. I just like it too much. When I was in prison I had an illusion — just before I went, but stronger in prison — that my order, the Jesuits, were changing in a very good way. Especially the younger people. I thought that they were becoming much more conscious and passionate about war. And then I came out and found almost nothing. Very little. And I found hundreds who were unchanged.

Part of what I am trying to grope toward in my case is the difference between being in a family and being outside a family. When you’re outside the family you can judge the family very harshly, perhaps even very accurately, I don’t know — but when you’re within the family you feel very differently. You feel that even illusion is better than divorce. I have another feeling too: one is not ruled so much by the question of needing something. It’s a question of where you go. And there are not many places to go which would be equal to one’s own tradition, one’s own background.

NHAT HANH: I understand that quite well, perhaps because of the same kind of experience. If you cut yourself off from something — a tradition, a community — the hope of things will be lost. Right at that moment. So it is not a problem of a word or a term — it is the problem of life. And that problem of being simultaneously inside and outside yourself is a very wonderful idea. Not an idea, but a way of life, a way that can retain one’s self and the link between one’s self and the other part of one’s self.

DAN: This was very much a part of the style of Merton — the inside/outside. And it had very rich consequences, I think. For him and for others. He used to say that he would never become a monk again, but now that he was a monk that he would be a monk. Absolutely. Yes.

JIM:  A man playing hide and seek with tradition.

NHAT HANH: Anyway, being a monk or not being a monk — that is not the problem. The problem is the way you are a monk or the way you are a non-monk. I think if we greet events that way, we can master the situation.

In China they tell the story of a man who suddenly lost his horse. He was sad and he wept about it. But a few days later the horse returned with another horse. So the man was now very happy. His loss turns out to be lucky. But the next day his son tried out the new horse and fell and broke one leg. So now it is not good luck anymore, but bad luck. So he deserts the other horse and takes his son to the hospital and is content with what he has. So they say, if you greet events with a calm mind, then you can make the most of these events for the sake of your happiness. That’s not me, but the Chinese! (Laughter)    END

[With thanks to Anne Fullerton for transcribing this text from a fuzzy PDF scan of the Win article.]

Conscience and War: Saying Yes, Saying No

by Jim Forest

[written for the journal The Wheel and published in the Spring-Summer 2020 issue. See:]

Terrence Malick’s new film, A Hidden Life, is closely based on the life of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer who was beheaded in Berlin in 1943 for refusing to make an oath of allegiance to Hitler or serve in the armies of the Third Reich. For Jägerstätter, his conscience became his cross. Malick vividly portrays all that Jägerstätter had to leave behind in bearing that cross: his beloved wife, their three daughters, his fields, his neighbors, his village, his beautiful world. Jägerstätter’s letters to his wife, extracts of which are over-voiced in the film, reveal a man who struggled to find a way to survive Hitler’s regime without betraying his faith or ignoring his conscience.[1] His conscience had few allies. We see both his pastor and his bishop attempting to convince him that God would not judge him for submitting to conscription even if the war it served was unjust. Jägerstätter was assured that God would judge the sinful ruler, not his obedient subjects. The message was in dubio pro auctoritate — “in uncertain matters, defer to the authorities.” This was the standard guidance that had been given to Catholics in regard to participation in war for fifteen hundred years. Much the same would have been said by Orthodox pastors. Partly thanks to the case of Franz Jägerstätter, Catholic teaching regarding war, conscience and obedience was radically revised at the Second Vatican Council in 1965. In 2007 Jägerstätter was beatified.[2]

A similar witness was given in the same period by Alexander Schmorell, an Orthodox Christian and medical student who was one of the founders of the “White Rose,” a group made up of German university students who clandestinely distributed anti-Nazi leaflets. Schmorell too was executed in 1943.[3] In 2012 he was formally added to the Orthodox Church’s calendar of saints at services in the Cathedral of the New Martyrs and Confessors in Munich, a church that is only a short walk from Schmorell’s grave and within sight of the prison where he was beheaded. An icon inside the church shows Schmorell holding a scroll with three sentences taken from his last letter to his parents: “This difficult ‘misfortune’ was necessary to put me on the right road, and therefore was no misfortune at all…. What did I know until now about belief, about a true and deep belief, about the truth, the last and only truth, about God? Never forget God!”[4]

But how few were the German and Austrian Christians who refused to take part in Hitler’s wars or who undertook acts of resistance! Though several church leaders denounced Nazi ideology and anti-Semitism, none dared to declare Hitler’s wars were unjust or warned that it would be sinful for a Christian to take part in them.[5] The few Christians of the Third Reich who refused military service did so without the support of their bishops. For the vast majority, conscience seems to have been hibernating.

What do we mean by conscience? Until the nineteenth century, there was no Hebrew word for conscience, though such metaphors as “the still small voice” heard by the prophet Elijah are descriptive of conscience.[6] The prophets, from Moses to John the Baptist, who habitually stood up to kings, were themselves voices of conscience before the word “conscience” emerged.

The coining of a single word for conscience — syneidesis — had to wait for the Greek philosophers. Syneidesis means to know within one’s own mind, to have inward moral knowledge of right or wrong, the capacity to apply general principles of moral judgment to particular cases. Adapted into Latin, it became conscientia. “The Greek term,” comments patristics scholar Fr. Andrew Louth, “has a wider meaning than in English, covering not only conscience but consciousness, and even conscientiousness. As a moral term, it seems to mean, primarily, the process of coming to a decision (bringing considerations together, precisely con-knowing), and that is what the Western notion of conscience typically meant, a faculty of moral judgment. In the modern period (eighteenth century onwards) it acquires another sense, that of a moral sense, that is personal, individual, and not to be reduced to moral judgment: this is part of a general shift in intellectual consciousness … an indefinable sense of moral conviction.”[7]

Perhaps the most complete modern definition of conscience is found in The Constitution of the Church in the Modern World issued in 1965 by the Second Vatican Council:

“In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart more specifically: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged.[8] Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of man. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor. In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution of the numerous problems which arise in the lives of individuals and from social relationships. Hence, the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from individual ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares little for truth and goodness, or for conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.” (Gaudium et Spes, section 16)[9]

The same Council document sees as its focal point “man himself, whole and entire, body and soul, heart and conscience, mind and will.” Those who “willfully shut out God from their hearts and try to dodge religious questions are not following the dictates of their consciences, and hence are not free of blame.” A healthy conscience draws us “to make ourselves the neighbor of every person without exception and of actively helping him when he comes across our path.” In extreme situations, the text continues, the refusal to obey invalid laws and orders is not only necessary but laudable: “The council wishes, above all things else, to recall the permanent binding force of universal natural law and its all-embracing principles. Man’s conscience itself gives ever more emphatic voice to these principles. Therefore, actions which deliberately conflict with these same principles, as well as orders commanding such actions, are criminal and blind obedience cannot excuse those who yield to them. The most infamous among these are actions designed for the methodical extermination of an entire people, nation or ethnic minority. Such actions must be vehemently condemned as horrendous crimes. The courage of those who fearlessly and openly resist those who issue such commands merits supreme commendation.” In the same section of the text, the Council endorsed conscientious objection: “It seems right that laws make humane provisions for the case of those who, for reasons of conscience, refuse to bear arms, provided that they agree to serve the human community in some other way.”[79][10]

“Conscientious objector” is a modern term that only came into widespread use during the First World War, but if the label is understood to refer to anyone who refuses to obey a command which he or she regards as a violation of religious obligations, we can find many thousands of conscientious objectors down through the centuries. One can be a conscientious objector not only to war but any other life-terminating activity society may seek to impose on the individual person, including refusal to assist in abortions, euthanasia or capital punishment. The refusal by early Christians to make sacrifices or offer incense to pagan deities can be described as acts of conscientious objection.

Understood in that sense, the first conscientious objectors to be mentioned in the Bible — see the Book of Exodus — were two midwives in Egypt, Shifrah and Puah, who ignored Pharaoh’s order to kill any sons born of Hebrew women. “But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live.”[11] And thus the baby Moses was saved.

The first conscientious objector to appear in European literature is another woman, Antigone, protagonist of Sophocles’ play that bears her name. It was written in Athens four centuries before the birth of Christ. Ignoring the command of her father, King Creon, that the body of her dead brother Polynices be left unburied outside the city gates as food for vultures, Antigone buries Polynices herself. Like the Hebrew midwives, she is guided by an inner voice so compelling that she is willing to risk execution. Creon commands a sentry, on pain of death, to find the as yet unidentified guilty party. “By Zeus I swear,” the king warns the sentry, “except you find and bring before my presence the very man who carried out this lawless burial, death for your punishment shall not suffice. Hanged on a cross alive, you first shall make confession of this outrage.” A chorus then sings the praises of the king and the rule of law: “If he honors the laws of the land, and reveres the Gods of the State, proudly his city shall stand; but a cityless outcast is the person bold in his pride who from the path of right departs.” When Creon learns that it is his own daughter who is guilty of the burial, he is shaken but unbending about her punishment. Antigone is walled inside a cave to die of starvation. Then a repentant Creon has a change of heart and reopens the cave to free his daughter, but he is too late — Antigone has hanged herself. Her death in turn triggers the suicides of her sister and brother. The tragedy ends with Creon in a state of desolation. Conscience is at the heart of Sophocles’ drama — Creon whose conscience has been suffocated by pride, and Antigone whose conscience burned like a bonfire.

Centuries before the birth of Christ, the Greeks were thinking a great deal about conscience. Obedient to his God-channeling inner voice, his daimon, Socrates preferred to drink deadly hemlock rather than adjust his thinking to the requirements of his fellow Athenians.[12]

Inspired by Socrates, conscience — syneidesis— became a key word in the vocabulary of the Stoic philosophers. They saw conscience as the key to the inner person, conscience transforming morality from mere conformity to valid laws to a virtue that cleanses the heart. A vital conscience reveals that human beings possess a spark of divinity that distinguishes them from animals. One of the late Stoics, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, wrote that conscience is the human capacity “to move from one unselfish action to another with God in mind. Only there, delight and stillness … the only rewards of our existence here are an unstained character and unselfish acts.”[13]

Was St. Paul influenced by the Stoics? Very likely. It is striking how often he makes use of the word syneidesis — twenty-five times. For example he refers to the law “written on our hearts … to which conscience also bears witness.”[14] Syneidesis is also used in Acts: “Paul looked straight at the Sanhedrin and said, ‘My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day.’”[15] St. Peter referred to syneidesis three times, in the last instance describing baptism “as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”[16] In the account of the adulterous woman whose life is saved by the intervention of Jesus, the word is also found in some but not all early manuscripts of St. John’s Gospel: “[Jesus] said unto [those poised to kill her], he that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. And  they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest even unto the last and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.”[17]

For the emerging communities of Christians, conscience was not only the law written in all human hearts, but refers to a way of living shaped by Christ’s teaching and example. A Christian was someone following Christ not only through intellectual assent but as the guide of one’s daily life.

Reading the martyrologies of the early Church, we see that many became martyrs for actions that, in today’s terminology, would be described as conscientious objection and civil disobedience. One of the challenges Christians faced concerned any form of killing human beings. Their model was Jesus, who took part in no wars, blessed no wars, and killed no one. The only one of his disciples to shed anyone’s blood was Peter, injuring the ear of one of the people who had come to arrest Jesus. Peter was immediately admonished by Jesus, “Put away your sword, for whoever lives by the sword will perish by the sword.”[18] Christ’s last miracle before his crucifixion was to heal the sentry’s wound. In the early Church, Christ’s disarming words to Peter — “put away your sword” — were understood as being addressed to every Christian.

In the Church’s first four centuries, Christians were known, indeed notorious, for their refusal to take part in war.

The Didache, a text most scholars date about 100 AD, demands of those preparing for baptism, “You shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born… You shall not take evil counsel against your neighbor. You shall not hate any person.”[19]

In a widely-circulated criticism of Christians written in the second century by the Roman philosopher Celsus, Christians were sharply condemned for what today would be called conscientious objection. “If all men were to do as you,” wrote Celsus, “there would be nothing to prevent the Emperor from being left in utter solitude, and with the desertion of his forces, the Empire would fall into the hands of the most lawless barbarians.” Defending the nonviolence of the Christian community, in the following century the theologian Origen of Alexandria responded to Celsus’s critique, “Christians have been taught not to defend themselves against their enemies; and because they have kept the laws that command gentleness and love of man, they have received from God that which they would not have achieved if they were permitted to make war, though they might have been quite able to do so.”[20] The Christian refusal of military service, Origen argued, does not indicate indifference to social responsibility, but rather is a response to enmity at the spiritual and transcendent level: “The more devout the individual, the more effective he is in helping the Emperor, more so than the soldiers who go into the lines and kill all the enemy troops they can … The greatest warfare, in other words, is not with human enemies but with those spiritual forces which make men into enemies.”[21]

In the same period the Great Martyr St. Justin wrote along similar lines: “We who were filled with war and mutual slaughter and every wickedness have each of us in all the world changed our weapons of war … swords into plows and spears into pruning hooks.” (Dialogue with Trypho, 110) Elsewhere he  wrote, “We who formerly murdered one another now not only do not make war upon our enemies but, that we may not lie or deceive our judges, we gladly die confessing Christ.” (First Apology, 39)[22]

Writing late in the second century, Clement of Alexandria described the church as “an army which sheds no blood.”[23] “If you enroll as one of God’s people, heaven is your country and God your lawgiver. And what are His laws? You shall not kill. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. To him that strikes you on the one cheek, turn to him the other also.”[24] “In peace, not in war, we are trained.”[25]

In the Apostolic Tradition, attributed to Hippolytus of Rome and apparently written in the mid-third century, the renunciation of killing is a precondition of baptism: “A soldier under authority shall not kill a man. If he is ordered to, he shall not carry out the order, nor shall he take the oath. If he is unwilling, let him be rejected. He who has the power of the sword or is a magistrate of a city who wears the purple, let him cease or be rejected. Catechumens or believers, who want to become soldiers, should be rejected, because they have despised God.” (Canon XVI: On professions)[26]

In narratives of martyrs of the early Church, some concern those who refused military service. One of the most detailed accounts concerns a young North African, St. Maximilian of Theveste, who was put on trial in 295. Maximilian told the proconsul Dion, “I cannot serve because I am a Christian. It is a sin.” “Serve, or you will die,” said the proconsul. “I shall not serve,” responded Maximilian. “You may cut off my head, I will not serve this world, but only my God.” “You must serve,” said Dion, “otherwise you will die miserably.” “I shall not perish,” said Maximilian. “My name is already before the Lord. I may not serve.” Dion said, “Have regard for your youth and serve. This is what a young man should do.” “My service is for my Lord,” Maximilian replied. “I cannot serve the world. I have already told you: I am a Christian.” Dion pointed out, “In the sacred bodyguard of our Lords [the emperors] Diocletian and Maximian, Constantinus and Maximus, there are soldiers who are Christians, and they serve.” Maxmilian replied, “They know what is best for them. But I am a Christian and I cannot do wrong.” He was executed by sword.[27]

St. Martin of Tours, born only twenty-one years after the execution of St. Maximilian, is another saint especially linked with conscientious objection. Martin was the son of a tribune in the Imperial Horse Guard. When only ten, in the year 316, Martin had been drawn to Christ and, despite paternal opposition, became a catechumen. Christianity was at this time no longer illegal, but was far from being the dominant religion. At about the age of twenty, on the eve of a battle at Worms, St. Martin’s company was called to appear before Emperor Julian to receive a bounty. Refusing to accept it, Martin explained to Julian, “Up to now I have served you as a soldier. Now let me serve Christ. Give the bounty to these others — they are going to fight, but I am a soldier of Christ and it is not lawful for me to fight.” The emperor accused him of cowardice, to which Martin replied that, in the name of Christ, he was prepared to face the enemy on the following day, alone and unarmed. His superiors planned to take him up on the offer, but the Gauls sued for peace and the battle never occurred. Martin was discharged, after which he became a monk.[28]

Conscientious objection was, in Christianity’s early centuries, something normal. Why did conscientious objection not remain the Christian norm? Why is it surprising, even disturbing,  for us to hear that it ever was the norm?

In the year 313 the co-emperors Constantine and Licinius issued the Edict of Milan, with the consequence that it was no longer a crime to be a Christian. The first age of martyrdom was over. Relations between Church and state began to warm. The emperor, historically the arch-enemy of the Church, now became its protector and patron. Monumental church buildings were erected with imperial financial assistance. In 380, during the reign of Theodosius I, less than half a century after Constantine’s death, Christianity was proclaimed the official religion of the Roman Empire. Far from being persecuted, Christians were favored by the state. Baptism, once a dangerous choice, was now advantageous. No longer was the Church only concerned with a kingdom not of this world; now it was seen as the emperor’s partner in maintaining the kingdoms of this world. “When church and state dance,” goes the proverb, “the state takes the lead.”

Christian attitudes toward relations with Caesar gradually took a new direction, yet remarkably the Church still maintained a profoundly critical attitude regarding military service and participation in war. The bishops present at the First Ecumenical Council, held at Nicea in the year 325 in the presence of Constantine, declared, “As many as were called by grace, and displayed the first zeal, having cast aside their military belts, but afterwards returned, like dogs, to their own vomit, so that some have regained their military stations; let these, after they have passed the space of three years as hearers, be for ten years prostrators. [Hearers and prostrators are categories of penitents who can be present, like catechumens, for the Liturgy of the Word, but excluded from the Eucharistic Liturgy.] But in all these cases it is necessary to examine well into their purpose and what their repentance appears to be like. For as many as give evidence of their conversions by deeds, and not pretense, with fear, and tears, and perseverance, and good works, when they have fulfilled their appointed time as hearers, may properly communicate in prayers; and after that the bishop may determine yet more favorably concerning them. But those who take the matter with indifference, and who think the form of not entering the Church is sufficient for their conversion, must fulfil the whole time.” (Canon XII)[29]

Christians had once been notable for their abstention from war, but by the fifth century they were found in every military rank. Even so, Church canons still required soldiers not to kill. Periods of penitential exclusion from communion were imposed on those who had killed in combat. For example, St. Basil the Great suggested a three-year fast from the eucharist for those who had ended lives on the battlefield .[30]

It wasn’t until late in the fourth century that the theological foundations permitting participation in war by lay Christian men were developed by St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo in North Africa. While maintaining the traditional view that the individual Christian is barred from using deadly violence in self-defense, he contended that defending one’s community was a different matter. Augustine argued that not to resort to armed defense in the face of invasion would be sinful.

Augustine’s writings, all in Latin, circulated widely in the West but had little impact in the Greek-speaking Church in the East. Language was gradually dividing Christians, culminating at last in the Great Schism of 1054. This linguistic division may account for the fact that Augustine’s just war theory was little known and never embraced by the Orthodox Church. Even in the case of warding off invaders, war was never seen as something which could be described as “just,” still less as “holy.” In situations where there seemed to be no alternative to violent defense, war was regarded as an evil, albeit a lesser evil, as inevitably war involves killing and the commission of other grave sins. For this reason clergy were and still are forbidden by Church canons to be combatants in war — even to kill another person in self-defense or by accident bars a person from serving at the altar. (One finds Orthodox priests who do not drive a car because of the danger of accidentally causing someone’s death.)

After searching through patristic sources and Byzantine military manuals for texts concerning war, Fr. Stanley Harakas, long-time professor of Orthodox Theology at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Massachusetts, noted: “I found an amazing consistency in the almost totally negative moral assessment of war coupled with an admission that war may be necessary under certain circumstances to protect the innocent and to limit even greater evils. In this framework, war may be an unavoidable alternative, but it nevertheless remains an evil. Virtually absent in the tradition is any mention of a ‘just’ war, much less a ‘good’ war. The tradition also precludes the possibility of a crusade. For the Eastern Orthodox tradition … war can be seen only as a ‘necessary evil,’ with all the difficulty and imprecision such a designation carries.” Harakas discovered what he referred to as “the stratification of pacifism” in the Church. The discipline of not killing others under any circumstances, applied to all baptized Christians in the early Church, in time came to be required only of those serving at the altar and iconographers.[31]

The question arises: If war is seen in the Orthodox Church as an innately sinful endeavor, even in the case of fighting off invaders, how is it that there are “soldier saints” on the Church calendar? One such convert, the Great Martyr George, has become the best known of these. In icons we are used to seeing St. George wearing armor and battling a dragon. George lived in the time of the persecutions of the emperors Diocletian and Maximian (303-311), when many Christians were taken away to slave labor, torture and execution. George had the courage to walk into a public square and announce, “All the heathen gods are devils. My God made the heavens and is the true God.” For this he was arrested, tortured and put to death.[32] His witness is said to have led to the conversion of many and to have given renewed courage to others already baptized. The icon of St. George and the dragon, though non-historical, is a treasure chest of appropriate symbols. The “dragon” George fought against was his own fear as he confronted the demands of his rulers to renounce his Christian faith. The white horse St. George rides represents God-given courage. The pencil-thin, cross-topped lance that rests lightly in his open hand represents the power of God. George’s passion-free face shows not a trace of anger, hatred, fear or anxiety.

While there is no record of St. George having taken part in war, one does find saints in the church calendar whose life stories include combat on the battlefield. In the Orthodox Church, one of the best known of these is St. Alexander Nevsky, a prince of Novgorod. In his early life he led successful military campaigns. Russians still commemorate his victory against the Teutonic Knights on the ice of Lake Chud in 1242. However, when we study Russian history, we meet not only a warrior but the person Alexander Nevsky later became. Exchanging his armor for the robe of a diplomat, Prince Alexander succeeded in normalizing relations with Khan Batu, saving Russia from a war it could not win and winning concessions protecting Church life. Finally he retired from both military and diplomatic roles to put on monastic robes and led a penitential life. After he died, the people of Russia remembered him as the prince-warrior who became a peacemaker and, in the end, embraced the ascetic life of a monk. It was as a monk that he was shown in early icons. It was only in the time of Czar Peter the Great that icons of the prince-turned-monk were revised so that he was shown dressed as a warrior rather than a monk. “In this way,” noted the Russian biblical scholar, Fr. Georgi Chistyakov, “a monastic saint was made into a Russian version of Mars, the god of war, whose worship is connected with the cult of arms. The modification of the icon was pure paganism, Orthodox only in its form, a slander against the saint himself.”[33]

Like Alexander Nevsky, at some time in their lives many saints were soldiers whose acts of courage and endurance on the battlefield still excite admiration. Nonetheless, no one has ever been canonized for his military skills, heroism in battle, or achievements in war.

The problem of nationalism: To consider the question of why conscientious objection to war has become so exceptional requires considering the ways nationalism shapes our self-perception and may damage or silence conscience. Often we are more defined by national rather than religious identity.

It is not possible to assign a date to the emergence of nationalism as a popular ideology. Certainly it was a major factor in the European reformation movements of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the nineteenth century nationalism emerged with vigor in many countries as well as former countries that had been swallowed up by their more powerful neighbors — Ireland, Wales and Scotland by England, Serbia and Greece by the Ottoman Empire, etc. For many, nationalism meant the recovery of linguistic and cultural life as well as at least some degree of political and religious autonomy. In a country like the United States, nationalism was a means of creating a unifying bond between people whose roots were in numerous other countries.

Nationalism posed, and still poises, a huge challenge to Christians. Am I first of all a member of the nation into which I happened to be born or am I first of all a member of the borderless Body of Christ into which I was baptized? If the state orders me to act in one way and Christ’s Gospel in another, which has priority? Am I even capable of recognizing that there might be a conflict between God and country? It can be an agonizing dilemma. The state has at its disposal extremely powerful persuasive methods of winning submission. If these fail, it has the power to punish. One also risks the censure of family, friends, neighbors, co-workers and even of fellow Christians.

We are easily influenced by the society and times in which we live, not only by nationalism, in the sense of unswerving devotion to a particular nation, but also by the ideologies the nation promotes. Had I been a German in the Hitler years, I would have been under immense social pressure to greet my neighbor with a raised right hand and the words, “Heil Hitler!” Had I been a Russian in the Lenin and Stalin years, I might have succumbed to atheist propaganda and been someone destroying icons rather than reverencing them. Had I been born in a slave-owning society and been among those benefiting from such cheap labor, the arguments (some of them biblical) in favor of slavery might have seemed convincing. Had I been a white South African in the apartheid years, going along with apartheid would have been much easier than opposing it. When all my neighbors display the national flag, dare I not do the same?

Nothing is more personal than conscience, which always draws one closer to the Ten Commandments and the Sermon the Mount. Were I to pay closer attention to the whispering of my own conscience, what tough questions might I be challenged by?

* * *

Jim Forest is international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. An author, his many books include Praying with Icons, Ladder of the Beatitudes, Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness and The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life. His autobiography, Writing Straight With Crooked Lines, was published by Orbis Books in April.

* * *

[1] Franz Jägerstätter: Letters and Writings from Prison, ed. Erna Putz; Orbis Books, 2009.

[2] For a more detailed biography see:



[5] See German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars: A Study in Social Control by Gordon Zahn, University of Note Dame Press.

[6] 1 Kings 19:12

[7] Letter to the author, 11 January 2010.

[8] Romans 8:14-17


[10] Full text of Guadium et spes:

[11] Exodus 1:15-17

[12] Socrates described his daimon, his “divine sign,” as never telling him what to do, but instructing him what not to do, warding him off from unwise actions. His pupil, Plato, wrote along similar lines: “I have a divine sign [daimonion] from the god which … began when I was a child. It is a voice, and whenever it speaks it turns me away from something I am about to do, but it never turns me towards anything.” (Plato’s Apology, 31c)

[13] Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. Gregory Hays (trans); Weidenfeld and & Nicolson. London. 2003 pp 70, 75.

[14] Romans 2:15, RSV

[15] Acts 23:1, RSV

[16] 1 Peter 3:21, RSV

[17] John 8:7-9, Authorized Version

[18] Matthew 26:52


[20] Contra Celsum 3,8

[21] See;


[23] Protrepticus 11,116 (translation by Thomas Merton)

[24] Protrepticus 10;

[25] Paedogogus 1,12


[27] Butler’s Lives of the Saints, ed. Herbert Thurston and Donald Attwater (New York: Kenedy & Sons, 1963 edition); entry for March 12

[28] Ibid.; entry for November 11


[30] For the Peace from Above: An Orthodox Resource Book on War, Peace and Nationalism, revised edition, ed. Hildo Bos and Jim Forest, Orthodox Research Institute, 2011; p 50-1;

[31] “No Just War in the Fathers”:

[32] Butler’s Lives of the Saints, ed. Herbert Thurston and Donald Attwater (New York: Kenedy & Sons, 1963 edition); entry for April 23