Conscience and War: Saying Yes, Saying No

by Jim Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

[2] For a more detailed biography see:



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

[6] 1 Kings 19:12

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

[8] Romans 8:14-17


[10] Full text of Guadium et spes:

[11] Exodus 1:15-17

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

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

[14] Romans 2:15, RSV

[15] Acts 23:1, RSV

[16] 1 Peter 3:21, RSV

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

[18] Matthew 26:52


[20] Contra Celsum 3,8

[21] See;


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

[24] Protrepticus 10;

[25] Paedogogus 1,12


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

[28] Ibid.; entry for November 11


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

[31] “No Just War in the Fathers”:

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


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: )

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.”

* * *

Lord, that I might see: talk at the bishops’ peace dinner

“I was hungry and you fed me” by the Master of Alkmaar, now in the care of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam

Bishops’ Peace Dinner text / 26 November 2019 / an annual event held in Baltimore and sponsored by the Catholic Peace Fellowship

By Jim Forest

Images referred to are in this album:

[air view of the Abbey of Gethsemani]
One of the significant events of my life was being a participant in a retreat on the spiritual roots of peacemaking and protest hosted by Thomas Merton and held at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky in November 1964. It was a formative event in the founding of the Catholic Peace Fellowship 55 years ago.

[cover of The Seven Storey Mountain]
Only three years earlier I had been pointed in quite a different direction. I was a third class petty officer working with a Navy meteorological unit at the U.S. Weather Bureau just outside Washington, D.C. I was also a recent Catholic convert. One of the books I read in that period of my life was Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. In it he has a lot to say about the formation of his conscience. Regarding the issue of war and killing, he didn’t want to do anything that he couldn’t imagine Christ doing. He wrote to his draft board declaring himself a conscientious objector.

[icon of Christ Pantocrator]
As Merton explained in The Seven Storey Mountain: “[God] was not asking me to judge all the nations of the world or to elucidate all the moral and political motives behind their actions. He was not demanding that I pass some critical decision defining the innocence and guilt of all those concerned in the war. He was asking me to make a Gospel…. He was asking me to do, to the best of my knowledge, what I thought Christ would do…. After all, Christ did say, ‘Whatsoever you have done to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’.”

This line of attending to the Gospel became quite urgent for me personally when I was asked to fill out a form that included a difficult question: Were there any circumstances in which I might not be able to perform the duties which I might be be called upon to take.

[ruins of war — view of Dresden after the fire storm]
I read the question with dread, realizing that I could not find a way to answer honestly in a manner that would not get me into trouble. Getting back to my base on the Potomac, I went to the Catholic chapel to pray, read and think. I must have remained there until midnight. For months I had been aware that the serious application of the Church’s just war doctrine would condemn any modern war, if only because non-combatants had become war’s main casualties.

[photo of Anne Frank]
Also how could any Christian, in or out of the military, promise automatic obedience to each and every future order? I thought of the many Germans who justified their obedience to the demonic demands of the Hitler regime with the words: “I was only following orders.” I thought of Anne Frank and the Holocaust and all the obedient soldiers and police who herded captives into concentration camps and gas chambers. But at the same time I was apprehensive about what would happen to me if I failed to commit myself to unqualified obedience. What would my colleagues think? How would they treat me? I was wading in fear, struggling not to drown in it. Finally I composed this paragraph:

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

[Navy Commander John Marabito]
To make a long story short, thanks to the support of a senior officer in my command, Commander John Marabito, plus several priests —— one in my parish, one a Navy chaplain, one teaching at Catholic University — not many weeks later I was given an early discharge on the basis of conscientious objection. It was the starting point of a vocation in peace work that still goes on.

[cover of The Long Loneliness]
Once out of uniform, my next step was joining the Catholic Worker community in New York. That decision was in part influenced by another book I had read while in the Navy, the autobiography of Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness. Her life found its center point in the same Gospel sentence that so influenced Thomas Merton: “Whatsoever you have done to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”

[photo of Thomas Merton by John Howard Griffin]
The idea of launching the Catholic Peace Fellowship began taking root not long after I joined the Catholic Worker, but it wasn’t until three years later, 1964, that I began collaborating with several friends in actually starting the Catholic Peace Fellowship. One of our key advisors was Thomas Merton.

[Eric Gill engraving of Christ healing the man born blind]
The retreat in Kentucky began with a welcome from Merton which had its focal point in three Latin words: Domine ut videam! Lord, that I might see! This is Bartimaeus’s desperate appeal to Jesus to heal his blind eyes. These few words are at the heart of every Christian life that attempts to shape itself around the Beatitudes, the eighth of which is “blessed are the peacemakers.”

Peacemaking begins with seeing — seeing what is really going on around us, seeing ourselves in relation to the world we are part of, seeing our lives in the light of the kingdom of God, seeing those who suffer, seeing how interconnected we are, and seeing the image of God not only in friends but in enemies. What we see and what we fail to see defines who we are and how we live our lives. The day-to-day challenge is to be aware of the divine presence in the other, whoever that may be. It’s a struggle not to be blinded by fear.

[Catholic Worker October 1961– top half of page 1]
As Merton wrote in an essay published in The Catholic Worker, “The root of war is fear.”

Blindness is a major topic in the Gospels. It concerns not only those, like Bartimaeus, whose eyes cannot tell the difference between noon and midnight, but all of us. Our constant challenge is to be aware of the divine presence — and at the same time be alert to the demonic, to be able to tell the difference between that which safeguards life and that which destroys life, to mark what reveals the kingdom of God and what obscures it.

[drawing of A.J. Muste]
At the Merton retreat the theme of seeing was dramatized by the presence among us of A.J. Muste, a leading figure in the American peace movement. As a seminary student, Martin Luther King had first learned about the path of nonviolence in a lecture given by A.J. Muste. He later became one of King’s advisers. A.J. had devoted many years of his life to work for nuclear disarmament. Before his death in 1967, he played a pivotal role in efforts to end the Vietnam War.

[fall maple leaf]
But it is not what A.J. talked about during the retreat that I recall most vividly. It was the fact that shortly before coming to Kentucky, A.J. had undergone surgery to remove cataracts from both eyes. At the Abbey of Gethsemani, he was in a constant state of amazement, seeing everything as if he had been given the eyes of Bartimaeus. I have never seen anyone, even Dorothy Day, look at the world around him more attentively, so full of awe and gratitude. No leaf or flash of color went unappreciated. He reminded me of a sentence from G.K. Chesterton: “I am astonished that people are not astonished.” A.J. helped all of us open our eyes a little wider.

[Nagasaki after the nuclear explosion]
One of the topics in our retreat conversations was technology. On the one hand, technology has the potential to solve many problems. I recall how grateful Merton was for the ingenious Coleman lantern that illumined his hermitage. On the other hand, technology can create a hellish darkness. It can destroy whole cities in a blinding nuclear flash while incinerating millions of people.

[Pandora opening the box]
One sentence that stands out in my memory of the retreat is this: “If it can be done it must be done.” Once a technological possibility is envisioned, we are drawn to making the vision real as irresistibly as Pandora was drawn to opening the chest that had served as a prison for all evil spirits. The challenge of being members of a technological society poised on the edge of unprecedented self-inflicted catastrophe is developing a capacity to envision consequences — to foresee, for example, that a nuclear weapon, so long as it exists, is sooner or later likely to be used and when that happens will kill vast numbers of innocent people.

[icon of the Last Supper – the apostles with Christ]
Merton and I carried on a frequent correspondence that began soon after I joined the Catholic Worker and lasted until his death — seven years of letters. In a letter he sent me several years after the retreat, he remarked that peacemaking is in fact an apostolic work — work of the highest order. It means becoming more Christ-like. It’s work that centers on conversion, both my own unfinished conversion and the conversion of others. Drawing on the example of the apostles, we need to keep in mind that no one is converted by anger or contempt or self-righteousness. Only love pries open the doors that enmity locks. In fact to really be effective peace work needs to be animated by love, not love in the sentimental sense but in the sober biblical sense of the word. As St John put it, “Whoever says he loves God but hates his neighbor is a liar.” Another way of putting it is this: Until we love our enemies, we’re not yet Christians.

Once again, seeing is the challenge. For that to happen, we have to see our neighbor, even if he is someone currently possessed by evil, with God’s eyes rather than our own. God never gives up on any of us.

[Franz Jägerstätter]
One of the people we talked about at the retreat was Franz Jägerstätter, a man not many people had heard of at the time. Gordon Zahn’s book about Jägerstätter, In Solitary Witness, had only just been published. Jägerstätter was an Austrian Catholic farmer who, for his refusal to collaborate with the Nazi regime, was beheaded in Berlin on the 9th of August 1943. Jägerstätter saw with amazing clarity what was going on around him. He was aware of the satanic character of Nazism and spoke out clearly and without fear to both neighbors and strangers about the hellish nature of Hitler’s movement. He paid for his peaceful resistance with his life. Over the years Jägerstätter has come to be recognized as a patron saint of conscientious objectors. A few years ago he was beatified at the cathedral in Linz, Austria, but during Jägerstätter’s lifetime no member of the Austrian or German hierarchy declared that it was a sin to join the Nazi Party or to fight and kill in Hitler’s armies or to have a role in the Nazi concentration camps and the structures which siphoned Jews and others into them. In fact, many bishops were outspoken supporters of Hitler’s wars.

[Franz Jägerstätter – Austrian postage stamp]
A saint like Franz Jägerstätter, his eyes wide open, represents the holy act of saying “no” under certain circumstances: “No, I will not be your obedient killer. No, I will not play it safe. No, I would rather die than join in a parade to hell.”

An item of good news is that Blessed Franz Jägerstätter is now about to become much better known. A film about him, “A Hidden Life,” written and directed by Terrence Malick, is due for release in the coming months. It’s a film not to miss.

[Jim Forest and Tom Cornell in the CPF office in 1966]
The retreat played a major role in shaping the Catholic Peace Fellowship. In January 1965, I became the first person on the staff of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, and soon after was joined by Tom Cornell. Merton was the most renowned member of our advisory board, with Dan Berrigan, another participant in the retreat, becoming in effect our chaplain. Our core work was assisting young Catholics who were seeking recognition as conscientious objectors — people saying no to war and seeking instead to embrace a life shaped by the works of mercy.

[painting: “I was hungry and you fed me”]
To conclude: It all has to do with how we see each other. As Saint John Chrysostom said, “If I do not see Christ in the beggar at the church door, I will not find him in the chalice.”

Domine ut videam. Lord, that I might see!

— Jim Forest

* * *

Thomas Merton on Compassion and peacemaking

photo by Jim Forest: Merton and Dan Berrigan during retreat on ‘the spiritual roots of protest in November 1964

A basic question for those involved in planning protest actions is how to reach and change the minds of those who feel accused, judged and condemned by the protest and react defensively and even angrily if not violently. It was a topic that Thomas Merton wrote to me about of several occasions in the sixties.

Here is an extract from a lecture I gave a few years ago on Merton’s advice to peacemakers.

Jim Forest

* * *

Despite his physical distance from centers of protest activity in the 1960s, Thomas Merton was quite able to relate to those in the thick of protest thanks to his vivid memories of equivalent activities from his student days at Columbia University in New York City. “I have the feeling of being a survivor of the shipwrecked thirties,” he wrote me early in 1963, “one of the few that has kept my original face before this present world was born.”

What he found was often missing among protesters was compassion. Those involved in protests tend to become enraged with those they see as being responsible for injustice and violence and even toward those who uphold the status quo, while at the same time viewing themselves as models of what others should be. But without compassion, Merton pointed out, the protester tends to become more and more centered in anger, becomes a whirlpool of self-righteousness, and even becomes an obstacle to changing the attitudes of others rather than someone who helps open the door to conversion. As he put it in one letter:

“We have to have a deep patient compassion for the fears … and irrational mania of those who hate or condemn us. These are, after all, the ordinary people, the ones who don’t want war, the ones who get it in the neck, the ones who really want to build a decent new world in which there will not be war and starvation.”

Most people, Merton pointed out, are irritated or frightened by agitation even when it protests something — militarism, nuclear weapons, social injustice — which objectively endangers them. As he put it:

“[People] do not feel at all threatened by the bomb … but they feel terribly threatened by some … student carrying a placard.”

Compassion was again stressed by Merton during a small retreat for peacemakers that he hosted in November 1964. He raised a provocative question: “By what right to we protest?” It wasn’t a question I had ever before considered. I was born into a family in which protest was a normal activity. While not by nature a person drawn to protest, as a young adult I found myself seeing protest as an unfortunate necessity. I could not watch preparations for nuclear war and fail to raise a dissenting voice or refuse to participate in actions of resistance. To protest was a duty, period. But by raising the “by what right” question, Merton forced me to consider that protest, if it is to have any hope of constructive impact on others, has to be undertaken not only with great care but with a genuine sympathy for those who object to one’s protest, who feel threatened and angered by it, who regard you as a traitor. After all, what we are seeking is not just to make some noise but to help others think freshly about our social order and the direction we’re going.

When compassion and love are absent, Merton insisted, actions that are superficially nonviolent tend to mask deep hostility, contempt and the desire to defeat and humiliate an opponent. As he wrote in one of his most profound and insightful letters:

“One of the problematic questions about nonviolence is the inevitable involvement of hidden aggressions and provocations. I think this is especially true when there are … elements that are not spiritually developed. It is an enormously subtle question, but we have to consider the fact that, in its provocative aspect, nonviolence may tend to harden opposition and confirm people in their righteous blindness. It may even in some cases separate men out and drive them in the other direction, away from us and away from peace. This of course may be (as it was with the prophets) part of God’s plan. A clear separation of antagonists…. [But we must] always direct our action toward opening people’s eyes to the truth, and if they are blinded, we must try to be sure we did nothing specifically to blind them.

“Yet there is that danger: the danger one observes subtly in tight groups like families and monastic communities, where the martyr for the right sometimes thrives on making his persecutors terribly and visibly wrong. He can drive them in desperation to be wrong, to seek refuge in the wrong, to seek refuge in violence…. In our acceptance of vulnerability … we play [on the guilt of the opponent]. There is no finer torment. This is one of the enormous problems of our time … all this guilt and nothing to do about it except finally to explode and blow it all out in hatreds — race hatreds, political hatreds, war hatreds. We, the righteous, are dangerous people in such a situation…. We have got to be aware of the awful sharpness of truth when it is used as a weapon, and since it can be the deadliest weapon, we must take care that we don’t kill more than falsehood with it. In fact, we must be careful how we “use” truth, for we are ideally the instruments of truth and not the other way around.”

Merton noticed that peace activists sometimes identify too much with sectarian ideologies or with particular political parties. In his view peace activity should communicate liberating possibilities to others, left, right and center. As he put it to me in one letter:

“It seems to me that the basic problem is not political, it is apolitical and human. One of the most important things is to keep cutting deliberately through political lines and barriers and emphasizing the fact that these are largely fabrications and that there is another dimension, a genuine reality, totally opposed to the fictions of politics: the human dimension which politics pretends to arrogate entirely [to itself]…. This is the necessary first step along the long way … of purifying, humanizing and somehow illuminating politics.”

One more aspect that Merton helped me understand, the role of prayer:

We are, as Christians, commanded to love our opponents, adversaries and enemies and to pray for them. For many people today, Donald Trump is at the top of our enemies list. But how many Christians who are at odds with Trump’s policies and methods in fact pray for him? Prayer is an essential first step in the path of loving enemies.

Many American Christians regard Trump with loathing but would rather jump off a cliff than pray for him. But the moment one begins to pray for people we resist praying for, a border within ourselves is crossed. We may see no change in the adversary for whom we are praying, but at the very least we begin to see a change in ourselves.

The person we hate needs to be seen through the lens of compassion. In the case of Trump, hating him will certainly not generate a force that leads to constructive change either in him or in his supporters.

My own take on Trump is that he probably has experienced little if any real love from infancy onward. Like so many children of the ultra-wealthy, he was, and remains, a rich orphan. Add him to your prayer list.

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An essay that includes much more from Merton on this topic:

Thomas Merton: Peacemaker in a Time of War

For an in-depth treatment, see my book, “The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers”:

The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers

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18 November 2019