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”: www.context.org/iclib/ic03/schweick

[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:https://www.wheeljournal.com.]

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: https://jimandnancyforest.com/2008/09/jagerstatter/

[3] https://jimandnancyforest.com/2011/02/alexander-schmorell-a-witness-in-dark-times/

[4] https://jimandnancyforest.com/2012/02/schmorell-canonization/

[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

[9] http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_cons_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html

[10] Full text of Guadium et spes: http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_cons_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html

[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

[19] http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/didache.html

[20] Contra Celsum 3,8

[21] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contra_Celsum; http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/origen.html

[22] http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/justinmartyr-firstapology.html

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

[24] Protrepticus 10; http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/clement-exhortation.html

[25] Paedogogus 1,12

[26] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apostolic_Tradition

[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

[29] http://www.orthodoxa.org/GB/orthodoxy/canonlaw/canons1erconcileGB.htm

[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; https://incommunion.org/2006/02/19/st-basil-on-war-and-repentance/

[31] “No Just War in the Fathers”: https://incommunion.org/2005/08/02/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

[33] https://incommunion.org/2005/08/03/spiritual-combat-against-war/

Christ’s Attack on Hell

The icon most often displayed in Orthodox churches and homes during the Paschal season portrays Christ’s attack on hell. “You have descended into the abyss of the earth, O Christ,” the Orthodox Church sings at Pascha, “and have broken down the eternal doors which imprison those who are bound, and like Jonah after three days in the whale, You have risen from the tomb.” (see: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/8386667037/ )

In the icon, we see Christ standing on the shattered doors of hell, a kingdom that had been ruled by the prince of darkness, Satan. The figures to the left and right of Christ being raised from their tombs are none other than Adam and Eve, the parents of the human race, while behind them are gathered kings, prophets and other righteous ancestors: David and Solomon, Moses, Daniel, Zechariah and John the Baptist. The scene implies that all who have died were the inmates of this sealed empire. Beneath the gates of hell, we see Satan, warden of hell, plummeting into an abyss of darkness amidst broken locks and useless keys.

The icon provides an image for the most radical reversal one can imagine — the undoing of the kingdom of death, and thus the undoing of all that keeps us in a state of fear. After all, it’s death we fear and spend our lives resisting and delaying. It’s fear of death that stands in the way of actually living. Dig away at other fears and sooner or later we discover the grave. Day by day we come closer to death, traveling at a speed we can only guess. Sooner or later we die. Period. End of story. Whatever delays we manage to arrange, the event is certain. Death has the last word, while the final power of those in charge is the power to kill. Displease the powerful and you may pay with one’s life like so many martyrs.

But in fact Christ’s resurrection, and in its wake our own, is the ultimate surprise ending. The gates that seemed capable of imprisoning the dead throughout eternity are reduced to ruins. Christ — in a radiant robe and surrounded by a mandorla, a symbol of glory and shining truth — arrives among the dead both as conqueror and rescuer. In some versions of the icon, there is a scroll in his left hand. When the inscription is shown, it reads, “The record of Adam is torn up, the power of darkness is shattered.”

Think of the blame that Adam and Eve, our mysterious, mythical ancestors, have been made to bear in many interpretations of the Book of Genesis. The usual conclusion is that all would be well in the world had it not been for their disastrous choices in the Garden of Eden. Behind every child dead of starvation, behind every corpse left on the battlefields, behind every murder and rape, there is that original sin committed by our first parents — a prmary earthquake in the moral order that is still reverberating in every human life.

Surely they are the very last people who could possibly become the object of Christ’s mercy. If anyone belongs in hell, surely it must be Adam and Eve. And yet they are the first people Christ rescues from the tomb.

Adam and Eve — so much like us! We too are constantly drawn to forbidden fruit hanging from the tree of knowledge. We too make dreadful choices. We too are eager to blame others while exonerating ourselves. In fact we live in a culture in which blame has become an industry keeping thousands of lawyers occupied full time, while accusing fingers point toward parents, spouses, teachers, neighbors, pastors, bosses, doctors, Hollywood, the mass media, big business, the government… It’s nothing new. Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the snake.

Yet Adam and Eve are raised by their creator’s hands from their tombs. It is an action of breathtaking love and mercy.

The icon doesn’t explain Christ’s mercy or justify it.

If the radical failure of Adam and Eve in Paradise represents the primary catastrophe in human history, from which all alienation, division and cruelty has its source, surely this image of divine mercy toward them must be a source of consolation to everyone living in hope of God’s mercy. “Delivered from her chains,” comments an ancient Paschal hymn, “Eve cries out in her joy.” And so may we.

It is only after his conquest of hell that Christ returns to his despairing disciples. “When He had freed those who were bound from the beginning of time,” wrote St. John of Damascus, “Christ returned from among the dead, having opened for us the way of resurrection.”

The icon of Christ’s Descent into Hell can be linked with an ongoing pilgrimage to move away from a fear-centered life. We live in what is often a terrifying world. Being fearful is a reasonable state to be in. A great deal of what we see and hear seems to have no other function than to push us deeper into a state of dread.

We can easily get ourselves into a paralyzing state of fear that is truly hellish. The icon reminds us that Christ can enter not just some other hell but the hell we happen to be in, grab us by the hands and lift us out of our tombs.

It’s the pilgrimage of all pilgrimages: being rescued from the kingdom of fear and death by the hands of the risen Christ.

[“The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life” by Jim Forest, Orbis Books]

* * *

Meeting a Stranger on the Road to Emmaus

By Jim Forest

One of the primary metaphors of pilgrimage is the road to Emmaus. It’s the setting of a resurrection story told by Luke. We meet the risen Christ traveling unrecognized with two disciples as they make their way to Emmaus, a village described as being seven miles — less than a two-hour walk — from Jerusalem.

The two friends are escaping from a tragedy in Jerusalem and perhaps also running from possible personal danger. It wasn’t at all clear that Jesus’ disciples weren’t next in line for punishment. The two were not only mourners, but disillusioned mourners. Jesus had failed to meet their expectations. The person they fervently believed would become the new king of Israel, heir to David’s throne, not only isn’t ruling Israel but is in his grave. The candle of their messianic hopes has been snuffed out. His closest followers were in hiding. Their homeland was still ruled by Romans, undergirded by a second tier of well-rewarded collaborators. The kingdom of God that Jesus had said was already present now seemed infinitely distant.

Conversation would not have been easy. Deep grief is rarely a talkative condition. The words they hewed out of silence were confused, bitter, angry. Their beloved teacher was dead and buried. Everything that mattered had turned to dust. The world had no center. Life’s axis had crumbled. Death once again had proven itself life’s defining event. Existence had no meaning, no pattern. People of virtue perish while their persecutors feast. How could one speak of a merciful and all powerful God? Ruthless power, corruption, betrayal and the triumph of the grave — this was Good Friday’s bitter message.

Walking side by side, breathing dust, the two friends are joined by a stranger who appears without a word of description. He doesn’t impress the two men as being somehow familiar. They fail to notice his wounds. Without apology he joins their conversation. He wonders why they are so downcast. They are amazed at the stranger’s ignorance. One of the men, Cleopas, asks the stranger how is it possible that he doesn’t know what has happened in Jerusalem in recent days. Could anyone share in this particular Passover and be unaware of what happened to Jesus of Nazareth? Only a week ago Jesus had entered the city in triumph, joyful crowds putting palms in his path and shouting hosannas. And now the man who should have redeemed Israel had been condemned by the high priests, renounced by the very crowds that had cheered him, and sentenced to public execution under the authority of Rome’s agent, Pontius Pilate. Finally he had been ritually murdered while soldiers threw dice for his clothing. Jesus’ followers had dared to hope for a miracle even when Jesus was taken away to Golgotha — after all, he had raised Lazarus from death — but the man who had been able to bring others back to life proved powerless to save himself. Yes, the two men had heard the wild tale told earlier in the day by a few grief-stricken women — angels, an empty tomb, Jesus alive again — but truly it was an unbelievably tale.

The stranger listened patiently. At last he responded, “O foolish men, so slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Then, starting with Moses and going on to all the prophets, he explained all the scriptural texts concerning the Messiah.

By this time they had reached the outskirts of Emmaus, apparently the place where the two friends planned to end their journey or at least spend the night. The stranger appeared to be going further, but they were so taken with his authoritative explanations of the prophecies of scripture that they appealed to him to join them for a meal in the local inn. “Stay with us,” they said, “for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.”

Even when they sat down to eat, the stranger was still nameless and unrecognized, yet it was he who presided at the table, taking bread, blessing it, breaking it and giving it to them. It’s at this point in Luke’s Gospel that we get one of the most breathtaking sentences in the New Testament: “And their eyes were opened and they recognized him.”(Luke 24:31)

Perhaps they recognized him because, at last, they noticed his wounds as he blessed and broke the bread.

[extract from The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life by Jim Forest, Orbis Books]

* * *

Re-reading ‘Love in the Ruins’

By Jim Forest

I’ve just finished re-reading Walker Percy’s apocalyptic comedy, Love in the Ruins. It’s one of the books I return to every few years and find even better each time. The story, set in the near future, is more timely, and more prophetic, than it was when the book was first published half-a-century ago.

The novel’s narrator is Dr. Tom More, descendant of St. Thomas More, who is both a physician and a patient at a mental hospital. The reader finds him in a state of ruin following the death from cancer of his daughter Samantha and the collapse of his marriage, his wife having run off with an English new-age guru. As we quickly discover, More has become an alcoholic who has fallen in love with three beautiful women half his age, his assistant Ellen, a no-nonsense Presbyterian, Moira, a cellist, and Lola, on the staff of the Masters-and-Johnson-style Love Clinic. More describes himself as a “bad Catholic” who still believes in God, Jesus and the Catholic Church, but whose chief devotions are to alcohol and sex, with God in last place.

The story is set in the imaginary town of Paradise, Louisiana, whose divisions mirror the splintered state of the “good old USA” — liberals (Leftpapas) fighting it out with conservatives (Knotheads) while black guerrillas (Bantus) wage war with whites of both camps. Meanwhile hippie drop-outs seek refuge in the swamps. Burned-out cars rust in parking lots. Suburban developments lie abandoned while the affluent seek refuge in gated communities. Conservatives suffer from chronic rage and constipation. Liberals suffer from chronic rage and sexual impotence. Each side is convinced of the irredeemability of the other side. Psychologists and proctologists are working full-time.

The Catholic Church has also disintegrated. The Roman Catholic Church has been hijacked by the Knothead right and renamed the American Catholic Church, now headquartered in Cicero, Illinois. Its logo is an image of a suburban house surrounded by a white picket fence. Its calendar includes Property Rights Sunday. The American flag is raised at the consecration of the Host. There is also the Dutch Catholic Church, which believes is social relevance but not in God. The actual Catholic Church is a battered remnant of itself, reduced to holding masses in abandoned service stations.

Walker Percy, a physician turned philosopher turned novelist, has a theme that in various ways reverberates in all his books but most notably in Love in the Ruins — the “mind-body” problem, the soul divorced from the body resulting in what More/Percy calls the angelism/bestialism of the divided self. More/Percy is at war with a purely materialist understanding of who we are. Physician/philosopher Percy is convinced that human beings are more than chemistry.

Percy blames the philosopher Descartes for converting our self perception of ourselves into a ghost inhabiting a machine. Before Descartes, human reason was seen as an indication that we are made in the image of God. Mind, soul, and body were linked. We humans lived and moved and had our being in a reality that had God at its all-connecting center. After Descartes the world and the cosmos became sourceless, purposeless and meaningless with humanity a temporary accident on an accidental planet. We became adrift of ourselves.

To heal the divided self, Dr. Tom More has come up a handy little device, an Ontological Lapsometer, which he believes can cure humanity’s core problem. With the Lapsometer, he can measure the electro-chemical activity of key areas of the brain to reveal the mental health of the person being tested and, by the application of heavy sodium ions, can correct, at least temporarily, the mental-spiritual imbalances of his patients and even himself. When More bombards areas of his own brain with the proper ions, his indigestion clears up, his feelings of terror vanish and he goes merrily about his work of saving humanity.

The devil himself takes an active interest in More’s Lapsometer and plays a key role in the novel. He appears suddenly at More’s office, announcing, “Art Immelman is the name. Funding is my game.” There is a smell of brimstone in the air. Immelman assures More that he can get government grants and even arrange a Nobel prize for More. All More needs to do is sign over the invention’s control and rights to Immelman.

Unrepented racism is one of the novel’s major topics. Percy/More sees slavery as having doomed the American experiment to failure:

The poor U.S.A.! Even now, late as it is, nobody can really believe that it didn’t work after all. The U.S.A. didn’t work! Is it even possible that from the beginning it never did work? that the thing always had a flaw in it, a place where it would shear, and that all this time we were not really different from Ecuador and Bosnia-Herzegovina, just richer. …. What a bad joke: God saying, here it is, the new Eden, and it is yours because you’re the apple of my eye, because you the lordly Westerners, the fierce Caucasian-Gentile-Visigoths, believed in me and in the outlandish Jewish Event, even though you were nowhere near it and had to hear the news of it from strangers. But you believed it and so I gave it all to you, gave you Israel and Greece and science and art and the lordship of the earth, and finally even gave you the new world that I blessed for you. And all you had to do was pass one little test, which was surely child’s play because you had already passed the big one. One little test: here’s a helpless man in Africa, and all you have to do is not violate him. That’s all. One little test: you flunk! …

* * *
1 April 2020
* * *

Paying the Price of Peace: an interview with Nobel Laureate Betty Williams

In December 1976 Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to prevent a civil war in Norther Ireland. This interview took place in Belfast in the summer of 1977.

In war, the ancient Greek proverb offers, the first casualty is truth. Perhaps hope is second. During recent conversations in Northern Ireland, I was struck again and again at how difficult hope had become. Ideology comes much easier. Whether meeting with a group of paramilitary Republicans in a room dominated by a portrait of Lenin, or meeting with pacifists in a room stocked with the books of Gandhi, there was a similar inability to be hopeful about the future, to imagine some way of getting free of the rituals of war, arrest, torture, moralizing and counter-moralizing. Even among those most active for peace it was clear that the surge of hope born last fall and winter was largely a battered memory at the moment: that sudden, almost miraculous coming together of masses of people, responding to the sudden death of three children, across the ruins and walls and borders of violence, an unrehearsed cry for a community that would no longer allow children to be murdered. Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan had gone into the streets of Andersontown August 10, 1976, the death of the children fresh in their eyes, and declared in rage that the violence must stop, that the death of these children must be the occasion of survival for others. But with the spring came a morning after mood, with the discovery that the new peace movement, like its less dramatic predecessors, was not without its human dimension, the capacity to stumble, to speak too hastily or too often, to make strategic errors, to be somewhat dazzled by the glare of world attention, to occasion personality collisions.

Having little way to evaluate the criticisms, except to recall the similarly dispirited mood in Northern Ireland before August 10 last year, I was glad to have a long visit with Betty Williams. We met together the morning of March 18 in a bare, chilly room in a small building the Peace People share with the Corrymeely project in Belfast. (Corrymeely is a well established center that brings together Protestants and Catholics in a wide variety of ways.) The conversation is well worth sharing. Needless to say, the written word does little justice to the spoken word. At least there is no way to do written justice to the English spoken by the Irish, whatever their political loyalties and passions.
— Jim Forest

Betty Williams: I’m afraid I’m not a very good pacifist. I’ve terribly aggressive tendencies! Not that I could kill anybody. I couldn’t. But when I get kicked, I’ve an awful tendency to kick back.

Jim Forest: Isn’t that known as being human?

BW: Yes, but we mustn’t give in to these urges!

JF: Well, Gandhi always maintained nonviolence requires more discipline and courage than violence.

BW: Ira Sandperl says it as well—and that what we’re trying to become is a nonviolent army. It’s quite true too. You know, we’re playing guerrilla peace over here. It’s quite hard to do. When you get people out on rallies, they do it for emotional reasons. Not because of me. When those babies died in Andersontown, the whole city of Belfast revolted. Everyone was sick—and everyone came out. That brought on the rally phase last year, which was absolutely wonderful. We walked the Shankill, the Falls and everywhere. But that’s very much over now. You can’t recapture it.

JF: A watershed, really. A thunder shower of feeling.

BW: It was the sickening of the whole city. It was obvious what everyone felt. We simply lifted the lid—and the whole city did the rest. People still feel it. It was the charismatic phase—and now we’re getting zoned down. We’ve deliberately let this movement drop with a clank this past couple of months. Because you have to sort people out—see who really will pay the price of peace—who is going to really work hard for peace.

JF: When you visited Amsterdam recently, you brought forward hostility as well as support. At the rally in the Westerkerk, one man nearly shouted you down.

BW: I could have cried for that man. He had suffered four years in Long Kesh (an infamous prison in Northern Ireland). I don’t think he realized—and many people don’t—that we are against all violence, we don’t give a damn who it comes from. It’s not just the paramilitaries. If the guy wears a uniform, that’s twice as bad. He’s supposed to be an upholder of ‘the rule of law. Imagine that man’s experience in Long Kesh! That poor screaming man. Long Kesh. Every time I pass that place, I cringe. Have you ever seen Long Kesh?

JF: Just yesterday. Cemeteries have a more inviting look.

BW: Doesn’t it make you want to be sick? That place is part of our work. That has got to go off our landscape. Men have got to stop being lifted and stuck in concentration camps. It’s a sin. And army handling! I’ve been lifted by the British army myself—l know exactly what it’s about. I used to say that the Provos (IRA paramilitaries) were scum, may God forgive me. Who are we to call them scum? We created them.

JF: Compassion often seems as selective among pacifists as it is among militarists.

BW: Since the movement started, I’ve had to deal with the children of violence. They are so sad. Sorry, I get emotional about it. I had a young man in my house for two days recently. It blew my mind. Some of the things that kid was telling me, awful ‘things, and it came pouring
out like a river. God help that kid! Seventeen years of age, and he had lived the life of a 60-year-old. By the time ‘t was over I was physically and emotionally drained. I said, “Jesus, forgive us.” Before the movement started, I could have said “Ah, bloody wee ruffian, bloody villain…” Now I can feel only pity and compassion and love for that boy. What we’ve done to him—he’s part of our creation.

JF: I can’t forget a mother I met in Ballymurphv last summer, actually hiding two of her boys, trying to keep them clear of the paramilitaries.

BW: Sure. I’ve got a 13-year-old, almost 14. Not that he would ever get encouragement at home. But it’s so easy to hear it in school. Not to mention other factors. Paul was walking home from school a few weeks ago and an army jeep passed. He didn’t get off the road quite fast enough and a soldier shouted back at him, “Get off the road, you Irish bastard.” He’s my son — and I m a leader of the peace movement—and yet he’s bitter. “Who is he to call me Irish ‘bastard,’’ he says. “I’m Irish and I’m proud of it.” This is the thing that saddens me. People can’t see that we’re against all violence. We have a man working with us now, an ex-Provo, and now he’s up to his eyes in the peace movement. But at the start of this, he thought we were just anti-Provo. When he actually came down to talk about it, he couldn’t believe that this is anti all violence. When you see that slogan up on all the walls, “Brits out, peace in,” you can really understand it—the Ballymurphy and Turf Lodge people who feel that way. The army has committed some atrocities here—they really have. I fully understand why people feel like that. I know what it’s like to have somebody in Long Kesh. I know what it’s like even going in to visit someone—the degradation.

JF: I will never forget a young boy I talked with in Ballymurphy last summer. He described having been made to stand spread-eagled against a wall while an electric heater was put near the back of his legs. It felt to the boy as if his legs were actually roasting, blistering—though in fact the result was more like a sunburn. He wasn’t permitted even to look around at his own burning legs.

BW: How are we going to forget these things? How is it going to pass out of their minds? The psychological damage of the war is dreadful. Again, I think of the man who is now working with us who was so deeply involved in the Provos. He sees the insanity of what the Provisionals are doing now (the assassination of businessmen). He can’t agree with it. Yet he’s still very Republican minded—he’d love to see Ireland united. But it’s a dream he doesn’t think will come about by the gun. You ought to hear some of the things that have happened to him—electric wires against his privates and such things. He just can’t forget that. “Every time I see a soldier,” he says, “my reaction is to kill the bastard. I can’t help it. I’m fighting it, but I can’t help it. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look at a man in uniform and not have that disgusting hate.” And there are thousands of people who have suffered this way. I was talking to a lawyer three weeks ago in Belfast. He was taking a UDA boy to court the next morning. He knew the boy was innocent, I must emphasize that. He knew the confession had been signed “under duress”—which means it was beaten out of him. Now this is a Protestant boy. The lawyer told the boy to plead guilty—because if he pleaded innocent he might do 20 years, but if he pleaded guilty he would only do 10. Now that’s evil. And it’s all part of our work. It hasn’t really hit home for a great many people, the work that we are trying to achieve. But month after month after month we’re going to get more flack as they see we really are against all violence . . . The guy with the gun, the hero. We’ve got to change all that. If even one percent of the world were pacifist, there would never be another war. Just one percent! There would never be another gun carried. Yet here we are, in this green country, with this insane little war.

JF: Though people do seem less romantic about violence these days.

BW: I don’t know. Here we sing songs to men who take lives. Very much a gun culture.
What we Peace People keep saying is that the real hero is the quiet guy the guy who gets out at a rally and shows his face, the guy who gets involved with his next door neighbors, no matter what they believe.

JF: Are you able to be on the streets in the most explosive areas?

BW: Just three weeks ago I was knocking on doors again in Andersontown. I don’t want people to think that all I do now is to fly to Holland! On a street of 69 houses, only two doors were slammed in my face.

JF: And how did the others react?

BW: “Christ don’t let them see you! Come in—they’ll kill you.” Fear. Dreadful to see the fear in their eyes. It makes me think of the Berlin Wall. Did you ever see the crosses along it? I’ve got a big lump of the Berlin Wall from the eastern sector. I managed to get a guard who spoke a little English. I said to him, “Give me a piece of the wall.” “Oh nein, nein, nein,” he said. And I said, “Oh, ja, ja, ja. It’s terrible that wall! That wall is awful.” He was smiling at me and asked, “Where are you from?” Ireland, I said, “Northern Ireland.” “Ahhh,” he said. Finally he offered me a little lump of the bottom but I said, “No, off the top, please.” And he did. He got me a lump off the top. How do human beings evolve to do these things? Building these walls? Killing? Almighty God left a message. “My peace I give to you . . .”

JF: How much does religious faith enter into this work, this life for you?

BW: Well, I couldn’t do what I’m doing without prayer. You may laugh, but i count a great deal on Mary to keep an eye out for us. I know what I can get out of my son, just by nudging him! It’s a very simplistic belief, I know, but I think Our Lady can give us a great hand.

My own background is very mixed. My grandfather was Jewish and my grandmother was Protestant. My father was Protestant, my mother was Catholic. And I’ve married an English Methodist! But I’m very like my grandfather, more than anybody. I look around at this cock-eyed, up-side-down world, this rotten world. It’s what we’ve done. How can anybody blame these atrocities on Almighty God? That’s why we came out strongly against the bishops a few weeks ago. They don’t stand up in the pulpits and they don’t say that war’s wrong—and they don’t say that God wouldn’t do it. They’re afraid of losing their congregations. They lack moral leadership. Because God wouldn’t do these things. He wouldn’t.

JF: Yet I’m amazed at the changes that have occurred in the Catholic Church just in the last decade.

BW: Not here and this is where we need it. Here in the war zones the churches are packed every week, yet the diocese is a disgrace, I don’t care who likes it. People say if you knock the bishops, you knock the faith. I love my faith. There’s not a faith I love more, having been through all the phases of it I enjoy my sacraments. I need them. Not that I’m holier-than-thou. I love a drink and I take a smoke and I can swear with the best of them. I’m just not holier-than-thou. But Once I get into the church and receive my sacraments, that’s my week. If I can go every day, I do it. Because I need them. I need God. Far more than He needs me! You know? It’s a very simple belief, but it’s true. I’m glad all this has happened to me, and yet I sometimes say, “God, why did you pick on me? You changed my whole life. Do you realize that?” We have our up days and our down days, but God’s got to be behind us.

You know, when Mairead and I speak, beforehand we put our hands together in television stations and everywhere—and close our eyes and say, “Almighty God come upon us and use us for Thy mighty purposes.” People must think we’re absolutely queer! That’s before
we say a word.

Sometimes God’s terribly devious! You know, I went through this awful phase many years ago of non-belief. We all do this, I think. Total non-belief. I had lost five babies and then I had my daughter. I was very ill after she was born and was in the intensive care unit under heavy sedation with sleeping drugs. My baby wasn’t supposed to live I woke up in the middle of the night. I know you won’t believe this, but it’s God’s gospel truth. I definitely was not dreaming. A voice said to me, “Mrs Williams, nursery sister wants you.” And shook me. “Nursery sister wants you.”

And I got up sort of hazy like that. I was definitely spoken to and I was shook. I put my two legs over the side of the bed and I removed the drip from my arm. There was a very strange blue light in the room. I got up out of bed and made my way down. Nursery sister was standing over my daughter, my Deborah. I said to her, “What’s wrong? You sent for me.” “Mrs. Williams, get back to bed! I didn’t send for you at all.”

Now that’s my experience with Almighty God. My baby was dying, but my daughter lived that night. When that happened, I just could not be the same and have that non-belief. My daughter lived that night, you know? So if you’re picked out, you have to do His work. You know? He gave me the thing I wanted most dear—He gave me my little girl. He woke me up. It happened to me. My baby lived. I don’t care whether you believe it or not. And that was my sort—well, not “saved” or “see the light” or that sort of thing. I’m not the sort to see any lights! That’s my experience of God. Waking me up that night. She lived. And there she is now, a beautiful six-year-old. You know? I’m very lucky. I think we’ll make it here. It’s going to be long, hard work. But we’ll make it. He’ll see that we do.

[published in the October-November 1977 issue of The Catholic Worker]

* * *

Writing Straight With Crooked Lines: A Memoir

Jim Forest has spent a lifetime in the cause of peace and reconciliation. In this memoir he traces his story through his intimate encounters with some of the great peacemakers of our time, including Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Daniel Berrigan, Henri Nouwen, and Thich Nhat Hanh. The son of ardent Communists, his remarkable journey led to his enlistment in the Navy, and then his discharge as a conscientious objector following his conversion to Catholicism. From the Catholic Worker in New York he went on to play a key role in mobilizing religious protest against the Vietnam War and served a year in prison for his role in destroying draft records in Milwaukee. But his journey continued, including extensive travels in Russia in the last years of the USSR, his reception into the Orthodox Church, and his work as the author of over a dozen books on spirituality and peacemaking.

“How do we live an honest life in such a dishonest world? With humor and pathos, Jim Forest answers that question in an extraordinary and deeply personal memoir. Through his life-long nonviolent commitment to world peace and justice, he shows how the crooked lines lead straight to a simple truth: If what we believe is not costly, we are left to question its value.” –Martin Sheen

“Jim, my brother in nonviolent arms, writes beautifully about his dedication to truth, love, and activism.” — Joan Baez

“A beautiful, heartfelt and inspiring memoir from one of the most significant Christian peacemakers and spiritual writers of our time.”—James Martin, SJ, author, Jesus: A Pilgrimage

“Jim Forest’s record of an exceptional life of witness and discipleship is a unique record of both activism and deep spiritual discovery. It is a precious testament to a whole age of generous and risky Christian radicalism – and as such it is water in our contemporary wilderness.”— Rowan Williams

“Jim Forest is a gifted story teller and what stories he has to tell! His story, like ours, is the journey of the peacemaker in a world of war, which is never a straight line, but more like a zig-zag journey from peace to peace.”—Rev. John Dear, activist and author of Living Peace

“Forest is in a class by himself. His memoir could well inspire in a new generation an emulation for contemplation in action inspired by the memoirs of his mentors Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day.”—Jonathan Montaldo, editor of Thomas Merton’s Choosing to Love the World

Jim Forest will have you engaged from the first paragraph of this compelling book. It is not only a spiritual memoir, but the story of our country and the world in the tumultuous 20th century.”— Judith Valente, former PBS-TV journalist and author

Jim Forest is most often recognized through his fruitful friendships with and biographies of some of the most influential Catholic leaders of the 20th century: Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton and Daniel Berrigan, S.J. Now the subject is himself, and it is Forest’s own fascinating life, bolstered by his association with a colorful cast of radical characters, that makes this autobiography an engrossing read…. The emphasis on “becoming” is useful for understanding Forest’s book, which portrays a man moving ever toward something, becoming someone new through interactions with his friends, his mentors and his faith.— Ryan Di Corpo, America magazine

Jim Forest is the author of many books, including All is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day, Living with Wisdom: A Life of Thomas Merton, At Play in the Lions’ Den: A Biography and Memoir of Daniel Berrigan, The Ladder of the Beatitudes and Praying with Icons (all Orbis Books). He lives in Alkmaar, the Netherlands. The publisher is Orbis Books.

Things I Learned from Fr Sergei Oviannikov

By Jim Forest

One of the many things Fr Sergei and I had in common is that we had both been in prison, in my case in America back in the late sixties for an act of protest against the Vietnam War, in his case in 1973 for acts of disobedience while he was in the Soviet army.

In a conversation Nancy and I had with Fr Sergei at our home in the summer of 2017, he recalled that his first few weeks as a prisoner were not difficult. “I was with other people and we had good discussions,” he said, “but when we walked to work together, we were followed by a soldier with a machine gun. That was not so pleasant!”

But in that period he learned an important lesson. “I realized that we are always being followed by such a soldier even when we were living our ordinary lives, only usually he is invisible. In normal life you don’t see him, but somewhere inside of you he is controlling what you think and what you say, controlling your behavior. You become your own guard, your own censor. You learn to follow the rules of the system.”

What, we asked him, is the system attempting to achieve? His answer: it is intended to keep us in a state of fear.

“I shared this thought with another prisoner,” Fr Sergei recalled. “He told one of the jail administrators what I had said and this resulted in my being put in solitary confinement. I was there three months. This was hard. You can do nothing. You cannot really sleep — the floor is wet. You cannot read — there are no books. You cannot write — no paper, no pencil. You have four walls and that’s it. Light comes in but the window is too high to look through it. All you can do is think.”

But trying to think proved not so easy. He crashed into a stone wall within himself.

“I realized I didn’t know how to think. I had the idea that thinking is an easy thing. I used to be a physicist so I thought about physics, about laws of physics, about formulas. But after a few days, perhaps a week, these topics were exhausted. Finished! Then you have to really think, but I didn’t know how. Then something happened. I began to think about freedom. What happened next is very difficult to describe. Maybe I can say there was a kind of light. I heard the words ‘freedom is in God.’ But — a big but — I knew nothing about God! I didn’t believe in God!”

At this point in our conversation, Fr Sergei laughed. In fact all three of us were laughing. How do you find freedom is in God if all your life you have been taught that God is a fairy story?

“But it seems God believed in me,” Fr Sergei continued. “I experienced joy. Only much later did I realize that it is comparable only to one thing, the joy you experience on the night of Pascha — Easter night. Finally I came to realize that the state you enter on Pascha night is intended to be the natural state of the human being. In fact many people experience this joy at the all-night Pascha service.”

Fr Sergei had his first experience of Paschal joy while in solitary confinement, a situation that makes one think of the tomb in which the body of Christ was placed after his crucifixion.

And what is Paschal joy? Really it is indescribable, Fr Sergei said, but one of the main hallmarks is that you are instantly freed from an inner prison that has held you captive since childhood, a state of fear which is so normal, so ordinary, that you become aware of it only when you are doing something of moral value but which , if you dare to do it, may well get you into serious trouble.”

“In that cell I lost my fear,” said Fr Sergei. “I realized if they sent me to a labor camp with a long sentence it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because I was free. Of course gradually I came to realize freedom is not just given — you have to take responsibility for it. You have to do something about it every moment of your life.”

This event within a small prison cell in a military prison was the most important border crossing in Fr Sergei’s adult life.

Once out of prison and back in civilian life he managed to get a Bible — not easy in those days — and began to read the Gospel. “This was the real beginning of my life,” he told us. And then he began his search to find his place in Christianity, which was not easy. “It was the beginning of the seventies,” he said. “Not many churches were open and churches were watched closely.”

One clear sign of how free of fear Fr Sergei had become was his engagement in a movement that called itself the Christian Seminar. It had informal groups both in Leningrad and Moscow. Mostly composed of students, participants debated scripture, theology and church history, and not just from Orthodox sources. Not everyone involved became a believer and still fewer embraced Orthodox Christianity, but Fr Sergei was one of them. Another who did so was Alexander Ogorodnikov, a prisoner at the notorious Perm 36 from 1978 until 1987. He has come to visit our parish several times.

After six years at the Physics Institute in Leningrad, in 1980 Fr Sergei began theological studies at the seminary in Leningrad. Ten years later he was ordained a priest by his spiritual father, Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, in London. From London he came to Amsterdam.

Anyone who was active in this parish in the years Fr Sergei was serving here will have his or her own memories of what he was like — advice given in confession, conversations they had with him, stories and jokes he told, encouragement he gave. Probably everyone will remember what he said in some of his sermons.

One of his frequent themes in sermons was freedom — svoboda. It was a rare sermon in which that word did not find a place.

“Freedom is such an important topic,” he told Nancy and me. “Freedom is what we lost in the Garden of Eden. It’s at the center of the story of Adam and Eve. After eating the forbidden fruit they tried to hide from God. God said to Adam, ‘Where are you?’ And Adam responded, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden and I was afraid.’ This is the first time in the Bible we hear about fear. In place of freedom Adam and Eve got fear. Human nature was damaged. All of us are damaged. We are not born in freedom but there is the chance to find the way to freedom. We have to pass through the difficulties of life, but the chance is quite big. We have somehow to be reborn in freedom. Christ is awaiting our freedom. Christ wants only free people. Of course he accepts many other people too, but he wants free people.”

At the end of that conversation, Fr Sergei reminded us that Christ is often described as a physician. “Perhaps the most important thing he does is heal the heart and open our eyes,” he said. “One consequence is that we become capable of seeing beauty. We must open our eyes, but not only our eyes. We must enlarge our hearts. Otherwise we see beauty only partially or not at all. If the heart is too narrow, the beauty that we see will seem ugly. What you see depends on you — on you and your spiritual condition.”

It is two years since Fr Sergei’s death but our memories of him help keep him present. May he help us overcome all the fears that constrain our love for each other, blind us to the beauty that surrounds us, and keep us from becoming free people.

* * *
12 January 2020
* * *

Thomas Merton’s Last Three Days

This is an extract from the revised edition of Living With Wisdom, a biography of Thomas Merton written by Jim Forest and published by Orbis Books. Footnotes have been removed.

On December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Merton made his last journal entry. He was off to say Mass at the Church of Saint Louis, whose name had become his in Trappist life, then to have lunch at the Apostolic Delegation before going to the Sawang Kaniwat (Red Cross) Conference Center.

The meeting place was at Samutprakan, 29 miles south of Bangkok. Merton arrived in the afternoon and was housed on the ground floor of Cottage Two. The conference began the next day with a welcoming address from the Supreme Patriarch of Thai Buddhism. Events of the day included an evening discussion on marriage and celibacy.

Few of the monks got much sleep that night. A chorus of cats had come out to sing the night office on nearby roofs. Following crescendos of cat howling, those in adjacent rooms heard Merton’s laughter.

Merton’s paper, “Marxism and Monastic Perspectives,” was presented the next morning. Merton, under orders from his abbot to avoid the press, was made nervous by Dutch and Italian television crews which had turned up to film his lecture.

One of the crucial issues confronting the monk, Merton pointed out, is what his position is and how he identifies himself in a world of revolution. This wasn’t simply a matter of how to survive an enemy who is intent on either destroying religion or converting those of religious convictions to atheism. Rather, it was a matter of understanding, beyond present models of Marxism and monasticism, the fundamental points of similarity and difference.

He recognized significant similarities. The monk, after all, “is essentially someone who takes up a critical attitude toward the world and its structures … [saying] that the claims of the world are fraudulent.” In addition, both monk and Marxist share the idea that each should give according to his capacity and receive according to his need. But while the Marxist gives primary emphasis to the material and economic structures of life, seeing religious approaches as empty mystification, the monk is committed to bringing about a human transformation that begins at the level of consciousness.

“Instead of starting with matter itself and then moving up to a new structure, in which man will automatically develop a new consciousness, the traditional religions begin with the consciousness of the individual seeking to transform and liberate the truth in each person, with the idea that it will then communicate itself to others.”

This is emphatically the vocation of the monk “who seeks full realization … [and] has come to experience the ground of his own being in such a way that he knows the secret of liberation and can somehow or other communicate it to others.” At the deepest level, the monk is teaching others how to live by love. For Christians, this is the discovery of Christ dwelling in all others.

Only with such love, Merton went on, is it possible to realize the economic ideal of each giving according to his ability and receiving according to his need. But in actuality many Christians, including those in monastic communities, have not reached this level of love and realization. They have burdened their lives with too many false needs and these have blocked the way to full realization, the monk’s only reason for being.

Merton told a story he had heard from Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche of a Buddhist abbot fleeing from his Tibetan monastery before the advance of Chinese Communist troops. He encountered another monk leading a train of twenty-five yaks loaded with the treasures of the monastery and “essential” provisions. The abbot chose not to stay with the treasure or the treasurer; traveling light, he managed to cross the border into India, destitute but alive. The yak-tending monk, chained to his treasure, was overtaken by the soldiers and was never heard of again.

“We can ask ourselves,” Merton said, “if we are planning for the next twenty years to be traveling with a train of yaks.” Monasticism, after all, is not architecture or clothing or even rules of life. It is “total inner transformation. Let the yaks take care of themselves.” The monastic life thrives whenever there is a person “giving some kind of direction and instruction to a small group attempting to love God and reach union with him.”

Authentic monasticism cannot be extinguished. “It is imperishable. It represents an instinct of the human heart, and it represents a charism given by God to man. It cannot be rooted out, because it does not depend on man. It does not depend on cultural factors, and it does not depend on sociological or psychological factors. It is something much deeper.”

Finishing the talk, Merton suggested putting off questions until the evening session. He concluded with the words, “So I will disappear,” adding the suggestion that everyone have a Coke.

At about 3 p.m., Father François de Grunne, who had a room near Merton’s, heard a cry and what sounded like someone falling. He knocked on Merton’s door but there was no response. Shortly before 4 o’clock Father de Grunne came down again to get the cottage key from Merton and to reassure himself that nothing was the matter. When there was no answer he looked through the louvers in the upper part of the door and saw Merton lying on the terrazzo floor. A standing fan had fallen on top of him. Father de Grunne tried to open the door but it was locked. With the help of others, the door was opened.

There was a smell of burned flesh. Merton, clearly dead, was lying on his back with the five-foot fan diagonally across his body. Dom Odo Haas, Abbot of Waekwan, tried to lift it and received an electric shock that jerked him sideways, holding him fast to the shaft of the fan until Father Celestine Say pulled the plug.

A long, raw third-degree burn about a hand’s width ran along the right side of Merton’s body almost to the groin. There were no marks on his hands. His face was bluish-red, eyes and mouth half open. There had been bleeding from the back of the head. The priests gave Merton absolution, then Dom Odo went to get the Abbot Primate of the Benedictines, Dom Rembert Weakland, who gave Merton extreme unction. A doctor arrived, Mother Edeltrud Weist, prioress of Taegu Convent in Korea. She checked for pulse and eye reaction to light. A police test of the fan showed that a “defective electric cord was installed inside its stand…. The flow of electricity was strong enough to cause the death of a person if he touched the metal part.”

After Merton’s body was released to Dom Weakland, it was washed, then taken to the chapel. There was a prayer vigil throughout the night at the side of the body.

The next day Merton’s body was taken to the United States Air Force Base in Bangkok and from there flown back to the United States in company with dead bodies of Americans killed in Vietnam. From Oakland, California, it continued by civilian carrier, at last reaching the Abbey of Gethsemani the afternoon of December 17.

The monks at the abbey had been informed of the death by Dom Flavian during their mid-day meal on December 10. In the days that followed, The Seven Storey Mountain was read aloud during meals in the refectory. “Some of us saw a considerable irony in fact that the refectory reader was Father Raymond Flanagan,” recalls Father Patrick Reardon, then a member of the community, “who had been carrying on a running feud with Father Louis for about as long as any of us could remember.”

One of the brothers drove a truck out to the hermitage of Dom James Fox to bring him back for the funeral. Dom James remarked that Merton “now knows more theology than any of us.” The brother responded, “Well, Reverend Father, he always did.”

Dom Flavian and Father John Eudes Bamberger identified the body at the undertakers in New Haven, where the casket was briefly opened. “I readily identified the body though it was already bloated and swollen considerably,” Father John Eudes wrote. “There was no doubt it was Father Louis.”

The casket arrived at the monastery only a couple of hours before the afternoon funeral Mass and was placed in the abbey basilica. Father Timothy Kelly, later to succeed Dom Flavian as abbot, and Father Patrick Reardon prayed the psalms over the body for the hour or more prior to the funeral.

The funeral Mass was composed by Father Chrysogonus Waddell. On the cover of the Liturgy booklet was a text from The Sign of Jonas: “I have always overshadowed Jonas with My Mercy…. Have you lost sight of me Jonas My Child? Mercy within mercy within mercy.”

Part of the Book of Jonah was read aloud. At the end of the Mass, there was a reading from The Seven Storey Mountain, concluding with the book’s prophetic final sentence, “That you may become the brother of God and learn to know the Christ of the burnt men.”

His brother monks buried Merton in their small cemetery next to the abbey church. Normally Trappists were buried without a casket. Merton was one of two exceptions. The other had been Dom Frederick Dunne, the abbot who had received Merton in 1941 and encouraged him to write. Dom Frederick had also died while traveling.

“A whole bunch of us grabbed shovels to fill in Father Louis’s grave at the end of the service,” Father Patrick recalled. “I remember Father Raymond going at it with the gusto he brought to every enterprise. Toward the end of the burial, it began to rain, so we were quite damp when we returned to the church.”

With the body came an official declaration of Merton’s effects, appraised in dollars. The items listed included these five:

1 Timex Watch $10.00
1 Pair Dark Glasses in Tortoise Frames Nil
1 Cistercian Leather Bound Breviary Nil
1 Rosary (broken) Nil
1 Small Icon on Wood of Virgin and Child Nil

There was also the memory of Merton’s last words. Following the morning conference, Father de Grunne told Merton that a nun in the audience was annoyed that Merton had said nothing about converting people.

“What we are asked to do at present,” Merton responded, “is not so much to speak of Christ as to let him live in us so that people may find him by feeling how he lives in us.”

The icon Merton had with him contains its own last words, silent on one side, and on the back a brief extract from the Philokalia, written in Greek in Merton’s hand:

“If we wish to please the true 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.”

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