Eyes of Compassion: Learning from Thich Nhat Hanh

“This appreciative portrait of a humble, devout leader should hold appeal across spiritual denominations.” — Publishers Weekly

Book: Eyes of Compassion: Learning from Thich Nhat Hanh by Jim Forest

Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the world’s most influential and revered spiritual teachers, but when Jim Forest met him in the mid-1960s, he was a little-known Vietnamese Zen monk touring the United States on behalf of the cause of peace in his homeland. Jim was asked to accompany him on his travels and speaking engagements and later lived with “Thay” (Vietnamese for teacher) in France. An enduring friendship emerged in which Jim learned, through conversations and daily life, about Nhat Hanh’s teachings on “mindfulness,” “interbeing,” and the inner peace that is necessary for promoting world peace. Jim Forest’s intimate portrait, which includes photos and other illustrations, some of them by Thich Nhat Hanh, is a unique introduction to the life and teachings of a modern spiritual master.

“A beautiful door into the life and vision of our friend Thich Nhat Hanh, one of the greatest peacemakers and spiritual teachers in history. This well-told, intimate look into his early life inspires us to deepen in mindfulness and nonviolence, see through the eyes of compassion, and live, like Thay, from now on, in the present moment of peace.”— Rev. John Dear

“Jim Forest, highly regarded Christian peace activist and well-known author, presents Zen Buddhist Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s core spiritual teachings from up close and personal, out of their many years of friendship and collaboration toward building a more peaceful, more compassionate world for all of us.” — Ruben L.F. Habito

“A moving memoir of another, roiling historical era and the influence of a Buddhist monk on a devout Christian, both of whom remain authentic voices for peace rooted in spiritual practice. Theirs are important voices these harsh times. In our harsh times, Jim Forest’s moving memoir of Thich Nhat Hanh is a gentle reminder of more placid ways of effecting change and of the continuing importance of the lives and writing of both men. In prose, poetry, and pictures this important record of a friendship is a gift to those seeking the “moon” of peace to which Thich Nhat Hanh’s and Jim Forest’s lives point. Highly recommended.” — Bonnie Thurston

“This exquisite and surprising book by Jim Forest brings us directly into the whole and remarkable life of the great Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. I read it with deep joy, as Forest’s words made me feel as though I had walked alongside Thay since his early years. It is full of dharma, tenderness, intimacy, and wisdom.” — Roshi Joan Halifax, Abbot, Upaya Zen Center

“Many of the recollections and anecdotes that Jim shares in this memoir are familiar to me, as I was either present at conversations or had similar encounters with Thay’s teaching. Those were rare years, darkened by the war’s ongoing devastation, and yet also blessed by a certain smallness. Thay had not yet become internationally renowned as a Zen teacher. He was, in fact, reluctant to even teach Buddhist practice to Westerners, expressing the thought that people might better benefit by renewing their own ancestral traditions. Yet visitors, Vietnamese as well as French and American, were always reminded to practice mindfulness. The breath, Thay pointed out, is available to everyone from any tradition…. Some of my most enduring memories of that time are when Jim Forest and his family came for visits. There was always thoughtful, serious discussion. But there was also playful teasing, and after we moved to Fontvannes, walks in fields of sunflowers and plucking ears of baby corn in a neighboring farmer’s field to make sweet soup. And singing, always singing.” — Mobi Warren

>> The book includes dozens of previously unpublished photos and drawings, many by Thich Nhat Hanh.

Remembering My Brother: Richard Forest

Dick on the railway 6 Oct 2011
Dick riding the rails — photo by Beth Forest (click on photo to enlarge)

(for a memorial service to be held 26 October 2013)

By Jim Forest

Remembering my brother, I recall a little boy, half-a-head shorter than I was, almost hidden in a cloud of steam while a train pulls into the southbound track of the Red Bank train station just as the sun is setting. It’s sometime in the late 1940s. Dick is gazing up in silent awe at the huge steam engine and the two powerful men who share its cab. Our ears are still echoing with the wailing hoots of the steam whistle that seconds ago announced the train’s impending arrival. Now there’s the shrill noise of the brakes as the tall steel wheels pull the commuter-loaded train to a shuddering halt. No kid at any circus — no saint in the midst of a mystical experience — could be more enthralled than my brother. I’m fascinated too, but my attention is partly held by my steam-wrapped brother who, in his state of pure amazement, is just as astonishing as the train.

At that period of our young lives welcoming the train is a ritual. Dick is probably seven, which makes me eight. Monday through Friday, with our Aunt Douglas, we meet the train that brings our Uncle Bob back from his bank job in Jersey City.

Red Bank Station - JF drawing
Red Bank Station (drawing: Jim Forest, 1966)

My guess is that Dick’s linkage with trains goes back to when he was four and the three of us traveled via the rails from our former home in Denver to Jersey City where we were met by Aunt Douglas and Uncle Bob. It was our move to Mother’s hometown, Red Bank, following her divorce. In fact we must have had some sleep, but I have the impression Dick and I were awake every inch of the way, our noses pressed to the window glass making islands of condensation while watching the ever-changing view: farms, houses, horses, cows, trees, rivers, fields of corn and wheat, gullies, huge clouds, lightning storms, cloudless skies, train stations, blurred villages, fast-passing towns, snap-shot glimpses of people in their homes, all the while the train rushing relentlessly forward, the steel wheels beating a sweet jazzy music out of the tracks. Even long after sunset, it was a constant visual adventure, better than any movie. Is there a finer way to see the world than from a train?

Dick’s marriage to trains took root in childhood and lasted until he breathed his last, seventy years of age. While Dick was allergic to religion, perhaps he wouldn’t object to me saying that he was a devout member of the Church of the Sacred Stream Engine.

Richard Forest - drawing by Jim Forest
Richard Forest in train yard tower (drawing made in 1966 by Jim Forest)

Eventually be became a lawyer and was, by all accounts, an excellent one, but I think the job he had enjoyed most was the one he had before he passed his bar exam — the years when he worked for the railroad running switching towers. When we were both young men, I made a drawing of him in command in one of them. It was an October day in 1966. The tower windows gave a sweeping view of the train yard. Close at hand were the long levers that were used to slide the tracks below us into the right positions as engines and freight cars moved back and forth. It was a demanding job that required being wide awake every minute and which allowed no errors. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man happier in his work.

I never had the chance to see him in court but I have no doubt he was equally at home in that environment. God knows he loved talking about it. As did everyone who knew him, I heard no end of stories from him about many of the cross-examinations he conducted of witnesses who weren’t inclined to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Reviewing the e-mail Dick and I exchanged over the last quarter century, I found one courtroom story of the sort my brother relished. It comes from a U.S. District Court in Texas. Let me share with you the extract from the transcript he forwarded to me:

Lawyer: So, Doctor, you determined that a gunshot wound was the cause of death of the patient?

Doctor: That’s correct.

Lawyer: Did you examine the patient when he came to the emergency room?

Doctor: No, I performed the autopsy.

Lawyer: Okay, were you aware of his vital signs while he was at the hospital?

Doctor: He came into the emergency room in shock and died in the emergency room a short time after arriving.

Lawyer: Did you pronounce him dead at that time?

Doctor: No, I am the pathologist who performed the autopsy. I was not involved with the patient initially.

Lawyer: Well, are you even sure, then, that he died in the emergency room?

Doctor: That is what the records indicate.

Lawyer: But if you weren’t there, how could you have pronounced him dead, having not seen or physically examined the patient at that time?

Doctor: The autopsy showed massive hemorrhage into the chest, and that was the cause of death.

Lawyer: I understand that, but you were not actually present to examine the patient and pronounce him dead, isn’t that right?

Doctor: No, sir, I did not see the patient or actually pronounce him dead, but I did perform an autopsy and right now his brain is in a jar over at the county morgue. As for the rest of the patient, for all I know, he could be out practicing law somewhere.

I only wish I had recorded some of my brother’s accounts of his own courtroom exchanges. Many of them were every bit as funny.

Because I’ve lived in Holland the last 37 years, I saw less of Dick than I would have liked, on average just two of three times a year, but one of the treats for me, when back in the U.S., was asking him about recent courtroom events. It was like turning on a radio and listening to a comedy show with my brother doing all the voices. He was a down-to-earth, no-frills New Jersey boy who could have been part of the cast of “The Sopranos.”

He loved certain movies and television shows. He seemed to have memorized the scripts for many of them. I think his most beloved TV show was the Archie Bunker comedy, “All In The Family.” Even when he was laid low in the hospital, suffering considerable pain and feeling like a prisoner, there were times when he could recite substantial chunks of scripts, and also had a large collection of brief exchanges and one-liners. One of these was Archie Bunker saying, “You’d better start mixing toothpaste with your shampoo. You’re getting a cavity in your brain.” Also from Archie Bunker, “Whatever happened to the good old days when kids was scared to death of their parents?” His favorites films included “The Godfather” and “Doctor Strangelove.” Possibly his favorite line from “Doctor Strangelove” came from President Merkin Muffley as played by Peter Sellers: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room.”

In contrast to our parents, both of whom were passionate social activists, I wouldn’t call my brother a cause-oriented person, though he was sometimes enlisted by our mother to do pro bono work in her battles with local politicians. He hated war and was dead set against capital punishment. One of my treasured memories of Dick is his declining to shake the hand of a certain governor who had authorized a number of executions and who was standing in front of Dick with his hand extended and a smile on his face. My brother said, “Sorry, Governor, but I don’t shake hands that have blood on them.” I’m sure the governor, if he is still alive, thinks about that brief encounter from time to time.

As I mentioned, Dick hated war. He managed to avoid participation in the Vietnam War and spoke out against it with his usual vigor. Yet he loved guns and had a collection of rifles. For much of his adult life, he was a devoted member of the National Rifle Association. For years one of his hobbies was to bait me into ranting against the NRA. Much to his amusement, I always fell for the bait like a bull chasing a red flag. One year I begged him, for the sake of my blood pressure, not to mention the NRA any more. To my astonishment that was the end of our semi-annual argument about guns.

Like so many of us, Dick had a hard time finding the ideal marital partner. At last he met Adele and married her in the spring of 1997. This not only made him a happy man but also greatly lengthened his life. It was Adele who managed to help him lose weight, a thankless job as my brother, when in the presence of food and soft drinks, was a man without brakes who wasn’t notably appreciative of anyone else applying the brakes on his behalf, even though, after his first heart attack, he knew that major weight loss was an absolute necessity. It wasn’t easy, but Adele was persistent. And it worked. My guess is that Adele added a decade to his life.

Let me close by recalling one of my favorite memories of my brother. Nancy and I live on a narrow lane in one of the oldest parts of a small Dutch city named Alkmaar. Not only is there no traffic but not that many people walk by, probably under a fifty a day. As home is our principal work place — I’m a writer, Nancy is a translator — we’re there most of the time. When someone passes by we often notice. During our coffee break one morning 25 years ago we happened to see two people passing by. I said to Nancy, “They look just like Dick and Beth.” She agreed. Neither of the two stopped at our front door, but not long afterward there was a knock. I opened the door and there stood Dick and Beth! It turned out that Dick had made a last-minute decision to ride some trains in Europe and invited Beth to join him. “Sorry to come unannounced,” Dick said. “It was all last-minute. And it’s in secret. You must not tell Mother. She doesn’t know I’m here”

I never did find out why Mother was not to know. Both of us were a great many years past the age when one sought parental permission for any undertaking. It’s one of the family mysteries that will go unanswered.

* * *
text as of 14 October 2013
* * *

Meeting Thomas Merton Face-to-Page and Face-to-Face

Thomas Merton (photo by John Howard Griffin)
Thomas Merton (photo by John Howard Griffin)

a lecture given at Swansea University, Wales, 15 May 2013

by Jim Forest

Let’s start with a simple question: Who was Thomas Merton? I think it is accurate to say that he was the most widely read and best-known Christian monk of the 20th century. It was not a fate he intended. At age 26, when he began his monastic life, he thought he was choosing a path of radical invisibility, one aspect of which was his laying aside all his earlier aspirations as a writer. He had, after all, opted to belong to the most silent — many would say most medieval — of monastic brotherhoods, the Trappists, as the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance is best known. (Given that this lecture is being given in Wales, one other biographical fact to mention is that, via both his parents, he was partly Welsh. It was with his Welsh ancestors that Merton felt a special bond. In his book-length poem, The Geography of Lograire, he speaks of “Wales dark Wales … holy green Wales … father mother Wales.”)

I met Merton face-to-face only twice, first in 1962 and again in 1964, four years before his death. In fact the very first meeting was not face-to-face but face-to-page. I was an eighteen-year-old boy waiting for a bus in Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Terminal. It was 1959 and I was on leave from my Navy posting at the U.S. Weather Bureau. Christmas was a few days away. I was en route to a monastery for a week-long stay. Until that moment, the closest I had come to monastic life was seeing a film called “The Nun’s Story” starring Audrey Hepburn. With a little time on my hands, I was browsing a carousel full of paperback books that was off to one side of the waiting room’s newsstand and discovered a book with an odd title, The Seven Storey Mountain, by Thomas Merton. The name meant nothing to me. It was, the jacket announced, “the autobiography of a young man who led a full and worldly life and then, at the age of 26, entered a Trappist monastery.” There was a quotation on the cover from Evelyn Waugh, who said this book “may well prove to be of permanent interest in the history of religious experience.” Another writer said this was the twentieth-century equivalent of Augustine’s Confessions.

It proved to be a can’t-put-it-down read for me, opening doors that I had never known existed. In the bus going up the Hudson Valley, I can recall occasionally looking up from the text to gaze out the window at the heavy snow that was falling that night. Merton’s story has ever since been linked in my mind with the silent ballet of snowflakes swirling under street lights.

Let me read to you the first sentences:

On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God and yet hating Him; born to love Him, living instead in fear and hopeless self-contradictory hungers. Not many hundreds of miles away from the house where I was born, they were picking up the men who rotted in rainy ditches among the dead horses … in a forest without branches along the river Marne.

It’s a remarkable opening, poetry as prose, with war a major theme. The leitmotif became still more intense in the last decade if his life, making him a man of controversy. In the Spring of 1962, Merton would be forbidden to write about war and peace.

In 1948, the year The Seven Storey Mountain was published, Merton was only 33. His book had been in the shops eleven years when, in its umpteenth printing, it found its way to my hands. And, eleven years on, he himself was in fact quite a different person than the Merton I envisioned on my first reading of his autobiography. The Thomas Merton I imagined had found his true home on the 10th of December 1941, the day he came to stay at the Abbey of Gethsemani, and was as firmly and peacefully rooted there as an oak tree in an ancient forest. He was that blessed man who finds not only faith but the place to live that faith, and though accidentally made famous by a book, was living happily in pre-Renaissance obscurity in rural Kentucky.

I would later discover that the actual Thomas Merton, far from being happily rooted, was in fact as engaged in the modern world as anyone alive and often longed to transplant himself to a poorer, simpler monastic environment. It wasn’t something he mentioned in The Seven Storey Mountain, but he had found sleeping in a crowded Trappist dormitory hard going and often found his monastery factory-like. He had dreams of becoming a hermit, but there was no tradition of solitary life in his order. Trappists lived an intensely communal existence.

In 1959 he made a major effort to get permission to move. His idea was to become a hermit associated with a poorer, more primitive monastery somewhere in Latin America, with Mexico the leading contender. On the 17th of December 1959, just a few days before I began reading The Seven Storey Mountain, he had been on his knees before the Blessed Sacrament opening a letter from Rome that told him, though his request was viewed with sympathy, permission could not be given for him to leave the Abbey of Gethsemani. “They were very sorry,” he noted in his journal later that day. “They wanted the right words to pour balm in certain wounds. But my departure would certainly upset too many people in the Order as well as outside it. They agreed with my superiors that I did not have an eremitical vocation. Therefore what they asked of me was to stay in the monastery where God had put me, and I would find interior solitude.” [The Intimate Merton, p 146] Two cardinals had signed the letter.

And yet the Merton I imagined was not altogether different than the actual Merton. One sees in his journal entry that he read the letter without anger, resentment or the temptation to disobey and walk out. He commented: “The letter was too obvious. It could only be accepted. My first reaction was one of relief that at last the problem had been settled.” He found himself surprised that he felt no disappointment but rather “only joy and emptiness and liberty.” He saw the letter as bearing news of God’s will, which more than anything else was what he was desperate to know. “I accept it fully,” he wrote. “So then what? Nothing. Trees, hills, rain. Prayer much lighter, much freer, more unconcerned. A mountain lifted off my shoulders — a Mexican mountain I myself had chosen.”

Yet even that day he felt the importance of replying to the letter, if only to explain what he understood the hermit’s vocation to be and what drew him in that direction. If he was not to be allowed to become a hermit at another monastery, then perhaps the day might come when there would be a place for solitaries within the Trappist context.

It was thanks to Dorothy Day, leader of the Catholic Worker movement, that I came in closer contact with Merton. I first met Dorothy a few days before Christmas in 1960, just a year after reading The Seven Storey Mountain. Once again I was on leave from my Navy job in Washington, D.C. My first few days were spent at Saint Joseph’s House of Hospitality in Manhattan, but one day I went to the Catholic Worker’s rural outpost on the southern tip of Staten Island, the Peter Maurin Farm. In the large, faded dining room of an old farmhouse, I found half a dozen people gathered around a pot of tea and a pile of mail at one end of a large table. Dorothy Day was reading letters aloud.

The only letter I still recall from that day’s reading was one from Thomas Merton. It amazed me that they were in correspondence. The Merton I had encountered in the pages of The Seven Storey Mountain had withdrawn from “the world” with a slam of the door that was heard around the world, while Dorothy Day was as much in the world as the mayor of New York. Also I recalled Merton’s description in his autobiography of the strict limits Trappists placed on correspondence. I had assumed he wrote to no one outside his family, of which he had practically none as his parents had died in his childhood and his only sibling, John Paul Merton, had been killed in combat in the Second World War. Yet here he was exchanging letters with one of America’s more controversial figures, a women who went to prison from time to time for acts of civil disobedience and who lived in community with people, truly the down-and-out, that most of us try to avoid.

Merton told Dorothy that he was deeply touched by her witness for peace. “You are right going along the lines of satyagraha [Gandhi’s term for nonviolent action; literally the power of truth]. I see no other way…. Nowadays it is no longer a question of who is right but who is at least not criminal …. It has never been more true than now that the world is lost in its own falsity and cannot see true values.”

In this letter, and many similar “Cold War letters” that Merton would write during the last decade of his life, one met a Merton who at first seemed quite different from the Merton of The Seven Storey Mountain, yet in fact the reader looking for a more socially engaged, war-resisting Merton will find much evidence of him in the autobiography.

It was in The Seven Storey Mountain, after all, that he explained why he had decided not to fight in World War II, though he was prepared to do noncombatant service as a medic. In a passage which must have startled many readers of the autobiography, appearing as it did just after the war, he explained:

[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 choice that amounted to an act of love for His truth, His goodness, His charity, His 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.” [SSM, 311-12]

In the same book, Merton had recorded the experience of being a volunteer at a house of hospitality on 135th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem in the months that preceded his choosing the monastic life. He described Harlem as a

divine indictment against New York City and the people who live downtown and make their money downtown.… Here in this huge, dark, steaming slum, hundreds of thousands of Negroes are herded together like cattle, most of them with little to eat and nothing to do. All the senses and imagination and sensibilities and emotions and sorrows and desires and hopes and ideas of a race with vivid feelings and deep emotional reactions are forced in upon themselves, bound inward by an iron ring of frustration: the prejudice that hems them in with its four insurmountable walls. In this huge cauldron of inestimable natural gifts, wisdom, love, music, science, poetry, are stamped down and left to boil … and thousands upon thousands of souls are destroyed. [SSM, 345]

It’s an easy leap from these sentences to his essays about racism written in sixties.

Anguish and rage warm many pages in The Seven Storey Mountain. The distress with structures of violence and social cruelty that is a major theme of his later writings is quite evident in the younger Merton. If there is a difference in later life, it is simply that the older Merton no longer regarded monastic life as a straighter path to heaven. Rather he saw it as a place to which some are called, but in no way a “higher” vocation than any other state in life to which God calls His children. The question is thus not to seek a “best” vocation but rather to seek God’s will, living a Gospel-shaped life in the particular context of one’s own temperament and circumstances. The challenge God gives each of us is not to become a monk but rather to become a saint.

Partly thanks to Merton but mainly thanks to the New Testament, I became a conscientious objector. After receiving an early discharge from the Navy in the early Summer of 1961, I joined the Catholic Worker community in New York City that Dorothy Day had founded in 1933. I thought it might be a stopping point on the way to a monastery.

Dorothy knew of my interest in Merton’s books and the attraction I felt for monastic life. She shared Merton’s letters with me. Then one day she gave me a letter of his to answer — an astonishing request. Merton had sent her a poem, “Chant to Be Used Around a Site for Furnaces,” written in the voice of Rudolf Höss, commandant of Auschwitz, where after the war he was executed by hanging next to the camp’s one surviving gas chamber. Here are the poem’s final lines:

All the while I had obeyed perfectly

So I was hanged in a commanding position with a full view of the site plant and grounds

You smile at my career but you would do as I did if you knew yourself and dared.

In his letter to Dorothy, Merton described writing the poem as “gruesome” work. I wrote to tell Merton of our appreciation of the poem and our plans to publish it in the upcoming issue. It would serve, I said, as The Catholic Worker’s response to the Eichmann trial then going on in Jerusalem.

Not many days later I had a response from Merton. I could not have felt more elated had I received the map revealing the location of pirate gold. In that letter he noted that we live in a time of war and need “to shut up and be humble and stay put and trust in God and hope for a peace that we can use for the good of our souls.”

Though I didn’t fully realize it at the time, that single sentence revealed a great deal about the long-term struggles in which Merton was engaged. I thought what he said was aimed at me (how apt the advice was), but, as was so often the case in his letters, he was addressing himself as well. He had enormous difficulty shutting up, feared he was lacking in humility, and often resisted staying put.

In December 1961, Merton suggested that perhaps I would like to come to the monastery for a visit. There was never any question in my mind about accepting though first there was an issue of The Catholic Worker to get out (I had become the paper’s managing editor). I was able to leave for Kentucky in late-January 1962.

I had no money for such a journey — in the Catholic Worker community one received room and board plus, on request, small change for minor expenses, subway rides and the like. In my own case I never dared ask even for a penny, preferring to sell The Catholic Worker on street corners in Greenwich Village, keeping a small portion of the proceeds for my incidental expenses and giving the rest to the community.

A companion on the Catholic Worker staff, Bob Kaye, joined me. With our nearly empty wallets, we traveled by thumb. Before sunrise one icy morning we loaded up on Italian bread still warm from the oven of the Spring Street bakery and set off. I can still recall standing in nighttime sleet at the side of a highway somewhere in Pennsylvania watching cars and trucks rush past, many of them with colorful plastic statues of an open-armed Jesus of the Sacred Heart on the dashboard. This image of Christ’s hospitality seemed to have little influence on the drivers. It took us two exhausting days to travel the thousand miles to the Abbey of Gethsemani.

But at last we reached the monastery. After the Guest Master showed us our rooms, my first stop was the monastery church. There was a balcony in the church that was connected to the guest house. Surviving such a trip, a prayer of thanksgiving came easily, but my prayer was cut short by the sound of distant laughter so intense and pervasive that I couldn’t resist looking for its source. I hadn’t expected laughter at a penitential Trappist monastery.

The origin, I discovered, was Bob Kaye’s room. As I opened the door the laughter was still going on, a kind of gale of joy. The major source was the red-faced man lying on the floor. He was wearing black-and-white Trappist robes and a broad leather belt, his knees in the air, hands clutching his belly. Though the monk was more well-fed than the fast-chastened Trappist monk I had imagined, I realized instantly that the man on the floor laughing was Thomas Merton. His face reminded me of photos of Pablo Picasso. And the inspiration for the laughter? It proved to be the dense smell of feet kept in shoes all the way from the Lower East Side to Gethsemani — the perfume of the Catholic Worker.

After that week-long stay at Gethsemani, The Seven Storey Mountain became a different book. Having discovered that Merton was capable of hurricanes of laughter, I realized his humor was often on display in his writing, if only one could allow one’s ears to hear it. I also learned that he was far from the only monk who knew how to laugh, though none exhibited the trait with such abandon as Merton.

The abbot, Dom James, though a most hospitable man, was not initially quite so positive about a visitation of young Catholic Workers. In those days most American men had frequent haircuts, but haircuts seemed to Bob and me a massive waste of money. The day after our arrival Merton apologetically explained that our shaggy hair did not please the abbot. If we were to stay on at the abbey, we must have our hair trimmed. A little while later I was sitting in a chair in the basement room where the novices changed into their work clothes; the room also served as a kind of barber shop. While the novices stood in a circle laughing, my hair fell to the concrete floor. Going from one extreme to the other, I was suddenly as bald as Humpty Dumpty

Soon after the haircut Merton took me to the abbot’s office. I can no longer recall what we talked about — perhaps about Dorothy Day and community life at the Catholic Worker — but I will never forget the solemn blessing Dom James gave me at the end of our conversation. I knelt on the floor near his desk while he gripped my skull with intensity while praying over me. His fingerprints may still be there. There was no doubt in my mind I had been seriously blessed. I have ever since had a warm spot in my heart for Dom James, a man who has occasionally been turned into a Darth Vader figure by Merton biographers. Doesn’t every good guy need a bad guy? There is no Robin Hood without the Sheriff of Nottingham.

I recall another monk at the monastery who had much less sympathy for me and still less, it seemed, for Merton — or Father Louis, as Merton was known within the community. This was the abbey’s other noted author, Father Raymond Flanagan, whose books were well known to devout Catholics at the time though they had never reached the broad audience Merton’s books had. Merton and I were walking down a corridor that linked the guest-house kitchen to the basement of the cellar of the main monastery building. There was a point in the corridor where it made a left turn and standing there, next to a large garbage container, was Father Raymond holding a copy of the latest Catholic Worker. Father Raymond was not so much reading as glaring at the paper, which he held open at arm’s length as if it had an unpleasant smell. There was an article of Merton’s in it, one of his essays about the urgency of taking steps to prevent nuclear war. Father Raymond looked up, saw us coming his way, balled the paper up in his fist, hurled into the garbage container, and strode away, leaving a trail of smoke.

Merton’s response was laughter. Then he explained that Father Raymond had never had a high opinion of Merton’s writings and often denounced him at the community’s chapter meetings. “In the early days Father Raymond said I was too detached from the world, and now he thinks I’m not detached enough.” Merton laughed once again.

During that visit I had my first glimpse of Merton’s openness to non-Catholics and, more surprising, to non-Christians. The first evening I was there, there was a hurried knock on the door of my room. Merton was standing there en route to Vespers. He wanted me to have the pile of papers in his hands, a collection of Jewish Hasidic stories that a rabbi had left with him a few days before. “Read these — these are great!” And off he hurried to Vespers without further explanation, leaving me with a collection of amazing tales of Hasidic rabbis in Poland generations before the Holocaust.

I recall another evening a day or two later when Merton was not in a hurry. He was in good time for Vespers and already had on the white woolen choir robe the monks wore during winter months while in church. It was an impressive garment, all the more so at close range. I reached out to feel it thickness and density. In a flash Merton slid out of it and placed it over my head. I was astonished at how heavy it was! Once again, Merton laughed. The robe met a practical need, he explained. It was hardly warmer within the church than it was outside. If you wore only the black and white garments that were standard Trappist attire, you would freeze to death.

The guest master, a monk named Father Francis, knew I was at the monastery at Merton’s invitation and thought I might be able to answer a question which puzzled him and no doubt many of the monks: “How did Father Louis write all those books?” I had no idea, but I got a glimpse of an answer before my stay was over. A friend had sent a letter to Merton in my care. In it he urged Merton to leave the monastery and do something “more relevant,” such as join a Catholic Worker community. (Over the years Merton received quite a few letters telling him that he was in the wrong place, that being a monk was not in fact — at least in the context of the times — a Christian vocation.) What is especially memorable to me about this particular letter was the experience of watching Merton write. He had a small office just outside the classroom where he taught the novices. On his desk was a large grey typewriter. He inserted a piece of monastery stationery and wrote a reply at what seemed to me the speed of light. I had never seen anyone write so quickly. Even in the newsroom of a city newspaper one rarely sees writing at a similar pace.

I wish I had made a copy of his response. I recall that he readily admitted that there was much to reform in monasteries and that monastic life was not a vocation to which God often called His children, yet he gave an explanation of why he thought the monastic life was nonetheless an authentic Christian vocation and how crucial it was for him to remain faithful to what God had called him to. It was a very solid, carefully-reasoned letter filling one side of a sheet of paper and was written in just a few minutes.

When I first met Merton, more than two years had passed since the Vatican’s denial of his request to move to another monastery where he might live in greater solitude. In 1960 plans were made for the construction of a small cinder block building — in principle a conference center where Merton could meet with non-Catholic visitors, but Merton called it his hermitage — on the edge of the woods about a mile from the monastery. By December it was ready for use. There was a small bedroom behind the main room. Merton occasionally had permission to stay overnight, but it would not be until the summer of 1965, four years later, that it became his full-time home. At that point he became the first Trappist hermit of modern times.

By the time I came to visit the hermitage already had a lived-in look. It was winter so there was no sitting on the porch. We were inside, regularly adding wood to the blaze in the fireplace. A Japanese calendar was on the wall with a Zen brush drawing for every month of the year, also one of his friend Ad Reinhart’s black-on-black paintings. Of course there was a bookcase and, next to it, a long table that served as a desk placed on the inside of the hermitage’s one large window. There was a view of fields and hills. A large timber cross had been erected on the lawn. On the table was a sleek Swiss-made Hermes typewriter. Off to one side of the hermitage was an outhouse that Merton shared with a black snake.

The week at the abbey ended abruptly. A telegram for me came from New York with the news that President Kennedy had announced the resumption of atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, thus another escalation of the Cold War and yet another indication that nuclear war might occur in the coming years. Anticipating such a decision, I was part of a group of New Yorkers who had planned to take part in an act of civil disobedience, a sit-in at the entrance to the Manhattan office of the Atomic Energy Commission, the federal agency then responsible for making and testing nuclear weapons. The abbey provided money for our return to New York by bus rather than thumb. Not many days later, now with a slight stubble of hair, I was in a New York City jail known locally as “The Tombs.” (My monastic haircut made me interesting enough to be featured on the front page of one of New York’s daily newspapers the following morning.)

Merton had a part even in that event. A letter from him, sent care of the Catholic Worker, was hand delivered to me during the hour or two that we sat on the chilly pavement awaiting arrest. “I am with you in spirit,” he commented, adding that ordinary people, “the ones who get it in the neck,” certainly don’t want war, yet ironically feel threatened by protests which oppose making weapons of mass destruction and preparations for war. “They do not feel threatened by the bomb,” he went on, “but they feel terribly threatened by some … student carrying a [peace] placard.” He said he would be offering Mass for “all those who are willing to shoulder the great burden of patiently working, praying and sacrificing themselves for peace.”

I was to meet with Merton face-to-face only one more time. The next occasion was a small retreat of about ten peace activists at the monastery on the spiritual roots of protest in November 1964. On Merton’s part, there was still laughter, but less of it. I remember him best in those days not in his hermitage, though he was actively engaged with the group at every session, but rather walking alone outside the hermitage, pacing back and forth in a state of contemplative absorption so compelling that it brought home to me the gravity of what we were about more than any spoken word.

“By what right do we protest? Against whom or what? For what? How? Why?” These are questions Merton raised and which still haunt me. The whole retreat was more a questioning than an answering experience. Merton impressed on us that protest, however necessary, is a dangerous calling. If it lacks sufficient spiritual maturity, protest can make things even worse.

Part of our discussion was to consider the trajectory of technology in the modern world, technology’s implied credo being summed up in a few apocalyptic words: “If it can be done, it must be done.” In the context of technology, whether on its battlefields or in its almost monastically-sheltered laboratories, the human being, far from being a little less than the angels, is merely a “bio-chemical link” serving as a shaky bridge between the solid-circuit perfection of cybernetic systems and conscience-free computers.

By way of counter-point to man as “bio-chemical link,” we repeatedly turned our attention to a man who was executed in Berlin on August 9, 1943 — Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian Catholic peasant farmer with modest education and a wife and three young daughters to worry about who, despite strong opposition from his pastor and bishop, refused military service in Hitler’s armies. In 2007 he was beatified, but in those days had not yet been assigned a halo. Uncanonized though he was, he impressed us as a saint for our time. We were struck by this isolated peasant’s ability to see clearly what bishops and theologians in the Nazi era didn’t dare see, still less proclaim. We had every reason to expect the same lack of moral leadership from our own Church leadership as the Vietnam War began to unfold. In the years that followed, those of us participating in the retreat all played a significant role in opposing the war in southeast Asia and helped encourage widespread conscientious objection. We dared to envision a Church that would put its weight behind those who refused to wage war and who refused to reduce human being to “bio-chemical links.” “If the Church,” said Merton, “could make its teachings alive to the laity, future Franz Jägerstätters would no longer be in solitude but would be the Church as a whole reasserting the primacy of the spiritual.”

My main contact with Merton was through correspondence. From the end of 1961 until his death seven years later, on average there was a letter or note from him nearly every month. His side of the exchange takes up about fifty pages of a book of Merton’s letters with the title The Hidden Ground of Love. There were also many envelopes containing copies of essays he had written and book-length works such as the manuscripts of Peace in the Post-Christian Era and Cold War Letters, the latter two published only in recent years.

Looking back, I realize Merton became for me what in the Orthodox Church we call a “spiritual father” — someone to whom you open your soul and who in turn can help you stay on the path of the Gospel and help you find your way back to that path when you stray, as I certainly did time and again. If I had understood spiritual fatherhood better, perhaps I would have made better use of his readiness to help me see the way forward and would have made fewer false steps, but even so it was an extraordinarily fruitful relationship.

To give you an example of his guidance, let me share with you a letter he sent me in 1966. The Vietnam War was getting worse by the day and I felt overwhelmed by the failure of all our efforts to end it. Here is what Merton had to say:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enough of this … it is at least a gesture…. I will keep you in my prayers.

What keeps Merton so fresh all these years after his death? Why is he still such a helpful presence in so many lives?

In Thomas Merton we meet a man who spent the greater part of his life trying with all his being to find the truth and to live a truthful life. Though he chose a celibate vocation in an enclosed monastic environment in which sign language was used far more than words, he nonetheless had a voice which reached far beyond the abbey’s borders. With tremendous candor, he exposed through his writings his own struggles and the fact that he was like the rest of us, often wracked with uncertainties and no stranger to the temptations each of us faces. At a time when there was little inter-religious contact, he challenged his readers to seek God not only within their particular community but across national as well as cultural and religious borders. He did this while giving an example of how one could at the same time remain deeply rooted in Christian belief and faith. He was a man of dialogue, as we see in the hundreds of letters he wrote to an astonishing variety of people in all parts of the world, from Boris Pasternak in Soviet Russia, to T.D. Suzuki, the Japanese Zen master.

We also see in him one of the healers of Christian divisions. He did this not by renouncing anything a Catholic Christian would normally believe, but by allowing himself to become aware of anything of value in other parts of the Christian community, whether something as big and deeply rooted as the Orthodox Church or as small as the Shaker movement whose craftsmen made chairs “fit for angels to sit on.”

We see in him a pilgrim. As pilgrims tend to do, he crossed many borders, but the greater part of that journey was lived in a thinly-populated corner of Kentucky. During his 27 years as a monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani, he rarely traveled further than Louisville. For all his temptations to move elsewhere, he remained a member of his particular monastic community from the day he arrived until his dying day. He is a model of uncomfortable stability. His pilgrimage was one that rarely required hiking boots.

Merton gives us a model of someone with an unshakable love not only of Christ but of Christ’s mother and grandmother. Whenever he had a building in need of a dedication, such as his hermitage or other shelters of solitude, it was either to Mary or Anne. In the communion of saints, these two were his permanent patrons. Everything he did or represents is rooted, in part, in his devotion to them.

Sometimes I am asked: Is Thomas Merton a saint? Merton, who wrote unflinchingly  about his sins and failures, would of course say no. No saint sees a halo in the mirror. If you define “saint” as a perfect person, Merton doesn’t qualify, but then by that standard no saint but Mary would be on the church calendar. One must emulate even the holiest life with caution — one can go to hell imitating the sins of the saints. Yet I think the answer is yes. Few people have done so much to help so many find their way toward Christ and a deeper faith. Few people have drawn so many toward the mercy of God.

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text copyright Jim Forest

Jim Forest
Kanisstraat 5 / 1811 GJ Alkmaar / The Netherlands
e-mail: [email protected]
Jim & Nancy Forest web site: www.jimandnancyforest.com
photo web site: www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/sets/
Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site: www.incommunion.org

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Confession: A Primer

by Jim Forest

A young monk said to the great ascetic Abba Sisoes: “Abba, what should I do? I fell.” The elder answered: “Get up!” The monk said: “I got up and I fell again!” The elder replied: “Get up again!” But the young monk asked: “For how long should I get up when I fall?” “Until your death,” answered Abba Sisoes.
—Sayings of the Desert Fathers

“When I went to my first confession,” a friend told me, “tears took the place of the sins I meant to utter. The priest simply told me that it wasn’t necessary to enumerate everything and that it was just vanity to suppose that my personal sins were worse than everyone else’s. Which, by the way, was something of a relief, since it wasn’t possible for me to remember all the sins of my first thirty-odd years of life. It made me think of the way the father received his prodigal son—he didn’t even let his son finish his carefully rehearsed speech. It’s truly amazing.”

Rembrandt-The_return_of_the_prodigal_sonAnother friend told me that he was so worried about all he had to confess that he decided to write them down. “So I made a list of my sins and brought it with me. The priest saw the paper in my hand, took it, looked through the list, tore it up, and gave it back to me. Then he said ‘Kneel down,’ and he absolved me. That was my confession, even though I never said a word! But I felt truly my sins had been torn up and that I was free of them.”

The very word confession makes us nervous, touching as it does all that is hidden in ourselves: lies told, injuries caused, things stolen, friends deceived, people betrayed, promises broken, faith denied—these plus all the smaller actions that reveal the beginnings of sins.

Confession is painful, yet a Christian life without confession is impossible.

Confession is a major theme of the Gospels. Even before Christ began His public ministry, we read in Matthew’s Gospel that John required confession of those who came to him for baptism in the River Jordan for a symbolic act of washing away their sins: “And [they] were baptized by [John] in the Jordan, confessing their sins” (Matthew 3:6).

Then there are those amazing words of Christ to Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). The keys of binding and loosing sins were given not only to one apostle but to all Christ’s disciples, and—in a sacramental sense—to any priest who has his bishop’s blessing to hear confessions.

The Gospel author John warns us not to deceive ourselves: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins” (1 John 1:8, 9).

The sacrament of baptism, the rite of entrance into the Church, has always been linked with repentance. “Repent, and . . . be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins,” Saint Peter preached in Jerusalem, “and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). In the same book we read that “many who had believed came confessing and telling their deeds” (Acts 19:18).

The Prodigal Son

One Gospel story in which we encounter confession is the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32). Here Christ describes a young man so impatient to come into his inheritance and be independent that, in effect, he says to his father, “As far as I’m concerned, you have already died. Give me now what would have come to me after your funeral. I want nothing more to do with you or with this house.”

With Godlike generosity, the father gives what his son asks, though he knows his son well enough to realize that all the boy receives from him might as well be burned in a stove. The boy takes his inheritance and leaves, at last free of parents, free of morals and good behavior, free to do as he pleases.

After wasting his money, he finds himself reduced to feeding the pigs as a farmhand. People he had thought of as friends now sneer. He knows he has renounced the claim to be anyone’s son, yet in his desperation he dares hope his father might at least allow him to return home as a servant. Full of dismay for what he said to his father and what he did with his inheritance, he walks home in his rags, ready to confess his sins, to beg for work and a corner to sleep in. The son cannot imagine the love his father has for him or the fact that, despite all the trouble he caused, he has been desperately missed. Far from being glad to be rid of the boy, the father has gazed day after day in prayer toward the horizon in hope of his son’s return.

“But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him” (v. 20). Had he not been watching, he would not have noticed his child in the distance and realized who it was. Instead of simply standing and waiting for his son to reach the door, he ran to meet him, embracing him, pouring out words of joy and welcome rather than reproof or condemnation.

“And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son’” (v. 21). Here we have the son’s confession compacted into a single sentence. It is the essence of any confession: our return to our Father, who made us and constantly awaits our homecoming.

What Is Sin?

There are countless essays and books that deal with human failings under various labels without once using the three-letter word sin. Actions traditionally regarded as sinful have instead been seen as natural stages in the process of growing up, a result of bad parenting, a consequence of mental illness, an inevitable response to unjust social conditions, or pathological behavior brought on by addiction.

But what if I am more than a robot programmed by my past or my society or my economic status and actually can take a certain amount of credit—or blame—for my actions and inactions? Have I not done things I am deeply ashamed of, would not do again if I could go back in time, and would prefer no one to know about? What makes me so reluctant to call those actions “sins”? Is the word really out of date? Or is the problem that it has too sharp an edge?

The Hebrew verb chata’, “to sin,” like the Greek word hamartia, simply means straying off the path, getting lost, missing the mark. Sin—going off course—can be intentional or unintentional.

The author of the Book of Proverbs lists seven things God hates: “A proud look, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that are swift in running to evil, a false witness who speaks lies, and one who sows discord among brethren” (6:17–19).

Pride is given first place. “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” is another insight in the Book of Proverbs (16:18). In the Garden of Eden, Satan seeks to animate pride in his dialogue with Eve. Eat the forbidden fruit, he tells her, and “you will be like God” (Genesis 3:5).

The craving to be ahead of others, to be more valued than others, to be more highly rewarded than others, to be able to keep others in a state of fear, the inability to admit mistakes or apologize—these are among the symptoms of pride. Pride opens the way for countless other sins: deceit, lies, theft, violence, and all those other actions that destroy community with God and with those around us.

Yet we spend a great deal of our lives trying to convince ourselves and others that what we did really wasn’t that bad or could even be seen as almost good, given the circumstances. Even in confession, many people explain what they did rather than simply admit they did things that require forgiveness. “When I recently happened to confess about fifty people in a typical Orthodox parish in Pennsylvania,” Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote, “not one admitted to having committed any sin whatsoever!”

“We’re capable of doing some rotten things,” the Minnesota storyteller Garrison Keillor notes, “and not all of these things are the result of poor communication. Some are the result of rottenness. People do bad, horrible things. They lie and they cheat and they corrupt the government. They poison the world around us. And when they’re caught they don’t feel remorse—they just go into treatment. They had a nutritional problem or something. They explain what they did—they don’t feel bad about it. There’s no guilt. There’s just psychology.”

For the person who has committed a serious sin, there are two vivid signs—the hope that what one did may never become known, and a gnawing sense of guilt. At least this is the case before the conscience becomes completely numb—which is what happens when patterns of sin become the structure of one’s life to the extent that hell, far from being a possible next-life experience, is where one finds oneself in this life.

It is a striking fact about basic human architecture that we want certain actions to remain secret, not because of modesty, but because there is an unarguable sense of having violated a law more basic than that in any law book—the “law written in [our] hearts” to which St. Paul refers (Romans 2:15). It isn’t simply that we fear punishment. It is that we don’t want to be thought of by others as a person who commits such deeds. One of the main obstacles to going to confession is dismay that someone else will know what I want no one to know.

One of the oddest things about the age we live in is that we are made to feel guilty about feeling guilty. There is a cartoon tacked up in our house in which one prisoner says to another, “Just remember—it’s okay to be guilty, but not okay to feel guilty.”

A sense of guilt—the painful awareness of having committed sins—can be life-renewing. Guilt provides a foothold for contrition, which in turn can motivate confession and repentance. Without guilt, there is no remorse; without remorse, there is no possibility of becoming free of habitual sins.

Yet there are forms of guilt that are dead-end streets. If I feel guilty that I have not managed to become the ideal person I occasionally want to be, or that I imagine others want me to be, that is guilt without a divine reference point. It is simply an irritated me contemplating an irritating me. Christianity is not centered on performance, laws, principles, or the achievement of flawless behavior, but on Christ Himself and on participation in God’s transforming love.

rublev-angels-at-mamre-trinity1When Christ says, “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), he’s not speaking of getting a perfect score on a test, but of being whole, being in a state of communion, participating fully in God’s love. This condition of being is suggested by St. Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity: those three angelic figures silently inclined toward each other around a chalice on a small altar. They symbolize the Holy Trinity: the communion that exists within God—not a closed communion restricted to themselves alone, but an open communion of love, in which we are not only invited but intended to participate.

A blessed guilt is the pain we feel when we realize we have cut ourselves off from that divine communion that irradiates all creation. It is impossible to live in a Godless universe, but easy to be unaware of God’s presence or even to resent it.

It’s a common delusion that one’s sins are private or affect only a few other people. To think our sins, however hidden, don’t affect others is like imagining that a stone thrown into the water won’t generate ripples. As Bishop Kallistos Ware has observed: “There are no entirely private sins. All sins are sins against my neighbor, as well as against God and against myself. Even my most secret thoughts are, in fact, making it more difficult for those around me to follow Christ.”

Far from being hidden, each sin is another crack in the world.

One of the most widely used Orthodox prayers, the Jesus Prayer, is only one sentence long: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Short as it is, many people drawn to it are put off by the last two words. Those who teach the prayer are often asked, “But must I call myself a sinner?” In fact, the ending isn’t essential—the only essential word is “Jesus”—but my difficulty in identifying myself as a sinner reveals a lot. What makes me so reluctant to speak of myself in such plain words? Don’t I do a pretty good job of hiding rather than revealing Christ in my life? Am I not a sinner? To admit that I am provides a starting point.

There are only two possible responses to sin: to justify it, or to repent. Between these two, there is no middle ground.

Justification may be verbal, but mainly it takes the form of repetition: I do again and again the same thing as a way of demonstrating to myself and others that it’s not really a sin, but rather something normal or human or necessary or even good. “Commit a sin twice and it will not seem a crime,” notes a Jewish proverb.

Repentance, on the other hand, is the recognition that I cannot live any more as I have been living, because in living that way I wall myself apart from others and from God. Repentance is a change in direction. Repentance is the door of communion. It is also a sine qua non of forgiveness. Absolution is impossible where there is no repentance.

As St. John Chrysostom said sixteen centuries ago in Antioch:

Repentance opens the heavens, takes us to Paradise, overcomes the devil. Have you sinned? Do not despair! If you sin every day, then offer repentance every day! When there are rotten parts in old houses, we replace the parts with new ones, and we do not stop caring for the houses. In the same way, you should reason for yourself: If today you have defiled yourself with sin, immediately cleanse yourself with repentance.

Confession as a Social Action

It is impossible to imagine a healthy marriage or deep friendship without confession and forgiveness. If we have done something that damages a relationship, confession is essential to its restoration. For the sake of that bond, we confess what we’ve done, we apologize, and we promise not to do it again; then we do everything in our power to keep that promise.

In the context of religious life, confession is what we do to safeguard and renew our relationship with God whenever it is damaged. Confession restores our communion with God and with each other.

It is never easy to admit to doing something we regret and are ashamed of, an act we attempted to keep secret or denied doing or tried to blame on someone else, perhaps arguing—to ourselves as much as to others—that it wasn’t actually a sin at all, or wasn’t nearly as bad as some people might claim. In the hard labor of growing up, one of the most agonizing tasks is becoming capable of saying, “I’m sorry.”

Yet we are designed for confession. Secrets in general are hard to keep, but unconfessed sins not only never go away, but have a way of becoming heavier as time passes—the greater the sin, the heavier the burden. Confession is the only solution.

To understand confession in its sacramental sense, one first has to grapple with a few basic questions: Why is the Church involved in forgiving sins? Is priest-witnessed confession really needed? Why confess at all to any human being? In fact, why bother confessing to God, even without a human witness? If God is really all-knowing, then God knows everything about me already. My sins are known before it even crosses my mind to confess them. Why bother telling God what God already knows?

Yes, truly God knows. My confession can never be as complete or revealing as God’s knowledge of me and of all that needs repairing in my life.

But a related question we need to consider has to do with our basic design as social beings. Why am I so willing to connect with others in every other area of life, yet not in this? Why is it that I look so hard for excuses, even for theological rationales, not to confess? Why do I try so hard to explain away my sins, until I’ve decided either that they’re not so bad, or even that they might be seen as acts of virtue? Why is it that I find it so easy to commit sins, yet am so reluctant, in the presence of another, to admit to having done so?

We are social beings. The individual as autonomous unit is a delusion. The Marlboro Man—the person without community, parents, spouse, or children—exists only on billboards. The individual is someone who has lost a sense of connection to others or attempts to exist in opposition to others—while the person exists in communion with other persons. At a conference of Orthodox Christians in France a few years ago, in a discussion of the problem of individualism, a theologian confessed, “When I am in my car, I am an individual, but when I get out, I am a person again.”

We are social beings. The language we speak connects us to those around us. The food I eat was grown by others. The skills passed on to me have slowly been developed in the course of hundreds of generations. The air I breathe and the water I drink is not for my exclusive use, but has been in many bodies before mine. The place I live, the tools I use, and the paper I write on were made by many hands. I am not my own doctor or dentist. To the extent that I disconnect myself from others, I am in danger. Alone, I die, and soon. To be in communion with others is life.

Because we are social beings, confession in church does not take the place of confession to those we have sinned against. An essential element of confession is doing all I can to set right what I did wrong. If I stole something, it must be returned or paid for. If I lied to anyone, I must tell that person the truth. If I was angry without good reason, I must apologize. I must seek forgiveness not only from God, but from those whom I have wronged or harmed.

We are also verbal beings. Words provide a way of communicating, not only with others, but even with ourselves. The fact that confession is witnessed forces me to put into words all those ways, minor and major, in which I live as if there were no God and no commandment to love. A thought that is concealed has great power over us.

Confessing sins, or even temptations, makes us better able to resist. The underlying principle is described in one of the collections of sayings of the Desert Fathers:

If impure thoughts trouble you, do not hide them, but tell them at once to your spiritual father and condemn them. The more a person conceals his thoughts, the more they multiply and gain strength. But an evil thought, when revealed, is immediately destroyed. If you hide things, they have great power over you, but if you could only speak of them before God, in the presence of another, then they will often wither away, and lose their power.

Confessing to anyone, even a stranger, renews rather than contracts my humanity, even if all I get in return for my confession is the well-worn remark, “Oh, that’s not so bad. After all, you’re only human.” But if I can confess to anyone anywhere, why confess in church in the presence of a priest? It’s not a small question in societies in which the phrase “institutionalized religion” is so often used, the implicit message being that religious institutions necessarily undermine spiritual life.

Confession is a Christian ritual with a communal character. Confession in the church differs from confession in your living room in the same way that getting married in church differs from simply living together. The communal aspect of the event tends to safeguard it, solidify it, and call everyone to account—those doing the ritual, and those witnessing it.

In the social structure of the Church, a huge network of local communities is held together in unity, each community helping the others and all sharing a common task, while each provides a specific place to recognize and bless the main events in life, from birth to burial. Confession is an essential part of that continuum. My confession is an act of reconnection with God and with all the people and creatures who depend on me and have been harmed by my failings, and from whom I have distanced myself through acts of non-communion. The community is represented by the person hearing my confession, an ordained priest delegated to serve as Christ’s witness, who provides guidance and wisdom that helps each penitent overcome attitudes and habits that take us off course, who declares forgiveness and restores us to communion. In this way our repentance is brought into the community that has been damaged by our sins—a private event in a public context.

“It’s a fact,” writes Fr. Thomas Hopko, rector of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, “that we cannot see the true ugliness and hideousness of our sins until we see them in the mind and heart of the other to whom we have confessed.”

A Communion-Centered Life

Attending the liturgy and receiving Communion on Sundays and principal feast days has always been at the heart of Christian life, the event that gives life a eucharistic dimension and center point. But Communion—receiving Christ into ourselves—can never be routine, never something we deserve, no matter what the condition of our life may be. For example, Christ solemnly warns us against approaching the altar if we are in a state of enmity with anyone. He tells us, “Leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:24). In one of the parables, He describes a person who is ejected from the wedding feast because he isn’t wearing a wedding garment. Tattered clothing is a metaphor for living a life that reduces conscience to rags (Matthew 22:1–14).

Receiving Christ in Communion during the liturgy is the keystone of living in communion—with God, with people, and with creation. Christ teaches us that love of God and love of neighbor sum up the Law. One way of describing a serious sin is to say it is any act which breaks our communion with God and with our neighbor.

It is for this reason that examination of conscience—if necessary, going to confession—is part of preparation for Communion. This is an ongoing process of trying to see my life and actions with clarity and honesty—to look at myself, my choices, and my direction as known by God. The examination of conscience is an occasion to recall not only any serious sins committed since my last confession, but even the beginnings of sins.

The word conscience derives from a Greek verb meaning “to have common knowledge” or “to know with” someone, a concept that led to the idea of bearing witness concerning someone, especially oneself. Conscience is an inner faculty that guides us in making choices that align us with God’s will, and that accuses us when we break communion with God and with our neighbor. Conscience is a reflection of the divine image at the core of each person. In The Sacred Gift of Life, Fr. John Breck points out that “the education of conscience is acquired in large measure through immersing ourselves in the ascetic tradition of the Church: its life of prayer, sacramental and liturgical celebration, and scripture study. The education of our conscience also depends upon our acquiring wisdom from those who are more advanced than we are in faith, love, and knowledge of God.”

Conscience is God’s whispering voice within us calling us to a way of life that reveals God’s presence and urges us to refuse actions that destroy community and communion.

Key Elements in Confession

Fr. Alexander Schmemann provided this summary of the three key areas of confession:

Relationship to God: Questions on faith itself, possible doubts or deviations, inattention to prayer, neglect of liturgical life, fasting, etc.

Relationship to one’s neighbor: Basic attitudes of selfishness and self-centeredness, indifference to others, lack of attention, interest, love. All acts of actual offense—envy, gossip, cruelty, etc.—must be mentioned and, if needed, their sinfulness shown to the penitent.

Relationship to one’s self: Sins of the flesh with, as their counterpart, the Christian vision of purity and wholesomeness, respect for the body as an icon of Christ, etc. Abuse of one’s life and resources; absence of any real effort to deepen life; abuse of alcohol or other drugs; cheap idea of “fun,” a life centered on amusement, irresponsibility, neglect of family relations, etc.

Tools of Self-Examination

In the struggle to examine conscience, we have tools that can assist us, resources that help both in the formation and the examination of conscience. Among these are the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, and various prayers, as well as lists of questions written by experienced confessors. In this brief text, we will look at only one of these, the Beatitudes, which provide a brief summary of the Gospel. Each Beatitude reveals an aspect of being in union with God.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Poverty of spirit is my awareness that I need God’s help and mercy more than anything else. It is knowing that I cannot save myself, that neither money nor power will spare me from suffering and death, and that no matter what I achieve and acquire in this life, it will be far less than I want if I let my acquisitive capacity get the upper hand. This is the blessing of knowing that even what I have is not mine. It is living free of the domination of fear. While the exterior forms of poverty vary from person to person and even from year to year in a particular life, depending on one’s vocation and special circumstances, all who live this Beatitude are seeking with heart and soul to live God’s will rather than their own. Christ’s mother is the paradigm of poverty of spirit in her unconditional assent to the will of God: “Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Similarly, at the marriage feast at Cana, she says to those waiting on the tables: “Whatever He says to you, do it” (John 2:5). Whoever lives by these words is poor in spirit.

Questions to consider: We are bombarded by advertisements, constantly reminded of the possibility of having things and of indulging all sorts of curiosities and temptations. The simple goal of poverty of spirit seems more remote than the moons of Neptune. Am I regularly praying that God will give me poverty of spirit? When tempted to buy things I don’t need, do I pray for strength to resist? Do I keep the Church fasts that would help strengthen my capacity to live this Beatitude? Do I really seek to know and embrace God’s will in my life? Am I willing to be seen as odd or stupid by those whose lives are dominated by values that oppose the Beatitudes?

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Mourning is cut from the same cloth as poverty of spirit. Without poverty of spirit, I am forever on guard to keep what I have for myself, and to keep me for myself, or for that small circle of people whom I regard as mine. A consequence of poverty of spirit is becoming vulnerable to the pain and losses of others, not only those whom I happen to know and care for, but also those who are strangers to me. “When we die,” said Saint John Climacus, the seventh-century abbot of Saint Catherine’s Monastery near Mount Sinai, “we will not be criticized for having failed to work miracles. We will not be accused of having failed to be theologians or contemplatives. But we will certainly have to explain to God why we did not mourn unceasingly.”

Questions to consider: Do I weep with those who weep? Have I mourned those in my own family who have died? Do I open my thoughts and feelings to the suffering and losses of others? Do I try to make space in my mind and heart for the calamities in the lives of others who may be far away and neither speak my language nor share my faith?

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Meekness is often confused with weakness, yet a meek person is neither spineless nor cowardly. Understood biblically, meekness is making choices and exercising power with a divine rather than social reference point. Meekness is the essential quality of the human being in relationship to God. Without meekness, we cannot align ourselves with God’s will. In place of humility, we prefer pride—pride in who we are, pride in doing as we please, pride in what we’ve achieved, pride in the national or ethnic group to which we happen to belong. Meekness has nothing to do with blind obedience or social conformity. Meek Christians do not allow themselves to be dragged along by the tides of political power. Such rudderless persons have cut themselves off from their own conscience, God’s voice in their hearts, and thrown away their God-given freedom. Meekness is an attribute of following Christ, no matter what risks are involved.

Questions to consider: When I read the Bible or writings of the saints, do I consider the implications for my own life? When I find what I read at odds with the way I live, do I allow the text to challenge me? Do I pray for God’s guidance? Do I seek help with urgent questions in confession? Do I tend to make choices and adopt ideas that will help me fit into the group I want to be part of? Do I fear the criticism or ridicule of others for my efforts to live a Gospel-centered life? Do I listen to others? Do I tell the truth even in difficult circumstances?

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.

In his teaching about the Last Judgment, Christ speaks of hunger and thirst: “I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink” (Matthew 25:35). Our salvation hinges on our caring for the least person as we would for Christ Himself. To hunger and thirst for something is not a mild desire, but a desperate craving. To hunger and thirst for righteousness means urgently to desire that which is honorable, right, and true. A righteous person is a right-living person, living a moral, blameless life, right with both God and neighbor. A righteous social order would be one in which no one is abandoned or thrown away, in which people live in peace with God, with each other, and with the world God has given us.

Questions to consider: Does it disturb me that I live in a world that in many ways is the opposite of the Kingdom of heaven? When I pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” am I praying that my own life might better reflect God’s priorities? Who is “the least” in my day-to-day world? Do I try to see Christ’s face in him or her?

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

One of the perils of pursuing righteousness is that one can become self-righteous. Thus, the next rung of the ladder of the Beatitudes is the commandment of mercy. This is the quality of self-giving love, of gracious deeds done for those in need. Twice in the Gospels Christ makes His own the words of the Prophet Hosea: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 9:13; 12:7). We witness mercy in event after event in the New Testament account of Christ’s life—forgiving, healing, freeing, correcting, even repairing the wound of a man injured by Peter in his effort to protect Christ, and promising Paradise to the criminal being crucified next to Him.

Again and again Christ declares that those who seek God’s mercy must pardon others. The principle is included in the only prayer Christ taught His disciples: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). He calls on His followers to love their enemies and to pray for them. The moral of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that a neighbor is a person who comes to the aid of a stranger in need (Luke 10:29–37). While He denounces hypocrisy and warns the merciless that they are condemning themselves to hell, in no passage in the Gospel do we hear Christ advocating anyone’s death. At the Last Judgment, Christ receives into the Kingdom of heaven those who were merciful. He is Mercy itself.

Questions to consider: When I see a stranger in need, how do I respond? Is Christ’s mercy evident in my life? Am I willing to extend forgiveness to those who seek it? Am I generous in sharing my time and material possessions with those in need? Do I pray for my enemies? Do I try to assist them if they are in need? Have I been an enemy to anyone?

Mercy is more and more absent even in societies with Christian roots. In the United States, the death penalty has been reinstated in the majority of states and has the fervent support of many Christians. Even in the many countries that have abolished executions, the death penalty is often imposed on unborn children—abortion is hardly regarded as a moral issue. Concerning the sick, aged, and severely handicapped, “mercy killing” and “assisted suicide” are now phrases much in use. To what extent have I been influenced by slogans and ideologies that promote death as a solution and disguise killing as mercy? What am I doing to make my society more welcoming, more caring, more life-protecting?

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

The brain has come up in the world, while the heart has been demoted. The heart used to be widely recognized as the locus of God’s activity within us, the hub of human identity and conscience, linked with our capacity to love, the core not only of physical but also of spiritual life—the ground zero of the human soul. In our brain-centered society, we ought to be surprised that Christ didn’t say, “Blessed are the brilliant in mind.” Instead, He blessed purity of heart.

The Greek word for purity, katharos, means spotless, stainless; intact, unbroken, perfect; free from adulteration or anything that defiles or corrupts. What, then, is a pure heart? A heart free of possessiveness, a heart capable of mourning, a heart that thirsts for what is right, a merciful heart, a loving heart, a heart not ruled by passions, an undivided heart, a heart aware of the image of God in others, a heart drawn to beauty, a heart conscious of God’s presence in creation. A pure heart is a heart without contempt for others. “A person is truly pure of heart when he considers all human beings as good and no created thing appears impure or defiled to him,” wrote Saint Isaac of Syria.

Opposing purity of heart is lust of any kind—for wealth, for recognition, for power, for vengeance, for sexual exploits—whether indulged through action or imagination. Spiritual virtues that defend the heart are memory, awareness, watchfulness, wakefulness, attention, hope, faith, and love. A rule of prayer in daily life helps heal, guard, and unify the heart. “Always keep your mind collected in your heart,” instructed the great teacher of prayer, Saint Theophan the Recluse. The Jesus Prayer—the prayer of the heart—is part of a tradition of spiritual life that helps move the center of consciousness from the mind to the heart. Purification of the heart is the striving to place under the rule of the heart the mind, which represents the analytic and organizational aspect of consciousness. It is the moment-to-moment prayerful discipline of seeking to be so aware of God’s presence that no space is left in the heart for hatred, greed, lust, or vengeance. Purification of the heart is the lifelong struggle of seeking a more God-centered life, a heart illuminated with the presence of the Holy Trinity.

Questions to consider: Do I take care not to read or look at things that stir up lust? Do I avoid using words that soil my mouth? Am I attentive to beauty in people, nature, and the arts? Am I sarcastic about others? Is a rhythm of prayer part of my daily life? Do I prepare carefully for Communion, never taking it for granted? Do I observe fasting days and seasons? Am I aware of and grateful for God’s gifts?

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

Christ is often called the Prince of Peace. His peace is not a passive condition—He blesses the makers of peace. The peacemaker is a person who helps heal damaged relationships. Throughout the Gospel, we see Christ bestowing peace. In His final discourse before His arrest, He says to the Apostles: “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you. . . . Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27). After the Resurrection, he greets his followers with the words, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19). He instructs his followers that, on entering a house, their first action should be the blessing, “Peace to this house” (Luke 10:5).

Christ is at his most paradoxical when he says, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword” (Matthew 10:34; note that a similar passage, Luke 12:51, uses the word “division” rather than “sword”). Those who try to live Christ’s peace may find themselves in trouble, as all those who have died a martyr’s death bear witness. Sadly, for most of us the peace we long for is not the Kingdom of God, but a slightly improved version of the world we already have. We would like to get rid of conflict without eliminating the spiritual and material factors that draw us into conflict. The peacemaker is a person aware that ends never stand apart from means: figs do not grow from thistles; neither is community brought into being by hatred and violence. A peacemaker is aware that all persons, even those who seem to be ruled by evil spirits, are made in the image of God and are capable of change and conversion.

Questions to consider: In my family, in my parish, and among my coworkers, am I guilty of sins which cause or deepen division and conflict? Do I ask forgiveness when I realize I am in the wrong? Or am I always justifying what I do, no matter what pain or harm it causes others? Do I regard it as a waste of time to communicate with opponents? Do I listen with care and respect to those who irritate me? Do I pray for the well-being and salvation of adversaries and enemies? Do I allow what others say or what the press reports to define my attitude toward those whom I have never met? Do I take positive steps to overcome division? Are there people I regard as not bearing God’s image and therefore innately evil?

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

The last rung is where the Beatitudes reach and pass beyond the Cross. “We must carry Christ’s Cross as a crown of glory,” wrote Saint John Chrysostom in the fourth century, “for it is by it that everything that is achieved among us is gained. . . . Whenever you make the sign of the cross on your body, think of what the Cross means and put aside anger and every other passion. Take courage and be free in the soul.”

In the ancient world, Christians were persecuted chiefly because they were regarded as undermining the social order, even though in most respects they were models of civil obedience and good conduct. But Christians abstained from the cult of the deified emperor, would not sacrifice to gods their neighbors venerated, and were notable for their objection to war or bloodshed in any form, whether gladitorial combat or war. It is easy to imagine that a community that lived by such values, however well-behaved, would be regarded as a threat by the government. “Both the Emperor’s commands and those of others in authority must be obeyed if they are not contrary to the God of heaven,” said Saint Euphemia in the year 303, during the reign of Diocletian. “If they are, they must not only be disobeyed; they must be resisted.” Following torture, Saint Euphemia was killed by a bear—the kind of death endured by thousands of Christians well into the fourth century, though the greatest number of Christian martyrs belongs to the twentieth century. In many countries religious persecution continues.

Questions to consider: Does fear play a bigger role in my life than love? Do I hide my faith or live it in a timid, half-hearted way? When I am ordered to do something that conflicts with Christ’s teaching, whom do I obey? Am I aware of those who are suffering for righteousness’ sake in my own country and elsewhere in the world? Am I praying for them? Am I doing anything to help them?

Finding a Confessor

Just as not every doctor is a good physician, not every priest is a good confessor. Sometimes it happens that a priest, however good his qualities in other respects, is a person not well suited for witnessing confessions. While abusive priests are the exception, their existence must be noted. God has given us freedom and provided each person with a conscience. It is not the role of a priest to take the place of conscience or to become anyone’s drill sergeant. A good confessor will help us become better at hearing the voice of conscience and become more free in an increasingly God-centered life.

Fortunately, good confessors are not hard to find. Usually your confessor is the priest who is closest, sees you most often, knows you and the circumstances of your life best: a priest of your parish. Do not be put off by your awareness of what you perceive as his relative youth, his personal shortcomings, or the probability that he possesses no rare spiritual gifts. Keep in mind that each priest goes to confession himself and may have more to confess than you do. You confess, not to him, but to Christ in his presence. He is the witness of your confession. You do not require and will never find a sinless person to be that witness. (The Orthodox Church tries to make this clear by having the penitent face, not the priest, but an icon of Christ.)

What your confessor says by way of advice can be remarkably insightful, or brusque, or seem to you a cliché and not very relevant, yet almost always there will be something helpful if only you are willing to hear it. Sometimes there is a suggestion or insight that becomes a turning point in your life. If he imposes a penance—normally increased prayer, fasting, and acts of mercy—it should be accepted meekly, unless there is something in the penance which seems to you a violation of your conscience or of the teaching of the Church as you understand it.

Don’t imagine that a priest will respect you less for what you reveal to Christ in his presence, or imagine that he is carefully remembering all your sins. “Even a recently ordained priest will quickly find that he cannot remember 99 percent of what people tell him in confession,” one priest told me. He said it is embarrassing to him that people expect him to remember what they told him in an earlier confession. “When they remind me, then sometimes I remember, but without a reminder, usually my mind is a blank. I let the words I listen to pass through me. Also, so much that I hear in one confession is similar to what I hear in other confessions—the confessions blur together. The only sins I easily remember are my own.”

One priest told me of his difficulties meeting the expectations that sometimes become evident in confession. “I am not a psychologist. I have no special gifts. I am just a fellow sinner trying to stay on the path.”

A Russian priest who is spiritual father to many people once told me about the joy he often feels hearing confessions. “It is not that I am glad anyone has sins to confess, but when you come to confession it means these sins are in your past, not your future. Confession marks a turning point, and I am the lucky one who gets to watch people making that turn!”

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confession book coverJim Forest is the author of many books, including Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness, Praying with Icons, Ladder of the Beatitudes, The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life and The Wormwood File: E-Mail from Hell. He is international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship (www.incommunion.org) and an associate editor of its quarterly journal, In Communion. His home is in Alkmaar, the Netherlands. He and his wife Nancy are members of St. Nicholas of Myra Orthodox Church in Amsterdam.

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Standing at the Four Crossroads: Dostoyevsky on Sin and Repentance


by Jim Forest

No writer has explored more carefully than Dostoevsky the way a sin is justified in the doer’s mind before it is committed, the innate human urge to confess afterward, the struggle not to confess, and the healing made possible by confession — all lessons Dostoevsky learned in the crucible of life. A writer whose later work always had a religious core, he had found his way to faith the hard way.

In 1849, the 28-year-old Dostoevsky had been sentenced to death for his radical associations and activities in St. Petersburg. He was standing at the place of execution, in view of the firing squad, when his death sentence was commuted by the tsar. Days later, the hair shaven off one side of his head and wearing a convict’s black-and-white striped uniform, he was sent in chains to Siberia. On his way the wife of another convict managed to give him a copy of the New Testament along with a ten ruble note hidden in the cover. He kept the book with him for the rest of his life.

He spent the first four years “packed like a sardine” inside a vermin-infested prison barrack, a rotting building, stuffy in summer, freezing in winter, a world without any privacy or safety. He wasn’t permitted to write a single letter. Yet there was a certain blessing in his sojourn in the “lower depths,” a term often used by radical Russian intellectuals who contemplated the ordinary people — the narod — from a safe distance. Tolstoy might occasionally labor with his peasants and wear similar clothing, but at night he slept on silk sheets. Dostoevsky lived and slept among some of Russia’s poorest day and night for years. Among the “unfortunate ones,” as Russians often called those in prison, he rethought the foundations of his life.

A religious awakening occurred. He began to consider that the Gospel might be true and that the Church — the guardian of the Gospel — might be something more than a social institution whose main task was blessing the tsar and the activities of the state.

Finally allowed to engage in correspondence in 1854, he related to a friend how he had come to thirst for faith “as withered grass thirsts for water”:

I’m a child of the age, a child of doubt and unbelief, and even, I’m certain, till the day they close the lid of my coffin. What terrible torment this thirst to believe has cost me and is still costing me, the stronger it becomes in my soul, the stronger are the arguments against it. And despite all this God sends me moments of great tranquility, moments during which I love and find I am loved by others. It was during such a moment that I formed within myself a symbol of faith [In Orthodoxy Christianity, the Creed is referred to as “the symbol of faith”; the Greek word “symbol” means “that which brings together.”] in which all is clear and sacred for me. The symbol [creed] is very simple, and here is what it is: to believe that there is nothing more beautiful, more profound, more sympathetic, more reasonable, more courageous, and more perfect than Christ; and there not only isn’t, but I tell myself with a jealous love, there cannot be. More than that — if someone succeeded in proving to me that Christ was outside the truth, and if, indeed, the truth was outside Christ, I would sooner remain with Christ than with the truth. [Selected Letters of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, translated by Andrew MacAndrew, edited by Joseph Frank and David Goldstein, Rutgers University Press, 1987; letter to N.D. Fonvizina, p. 68. One finds a similar passage in a notebook entry written in 1881, the year he died: “I believe in Christ not like a child. My faith came through the crucible of doubts.”]

It is in his Siberian years that the novels of his later life have their roots.

In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky’s central figure is Raskolnikov, a sullen student living in a shabby rented room in St. Petersburg. He regards himself as modern, belonging to a new age in which God and compassion have been banished by science. Penniless, he is obsessed with loathing for a moneylender to whom he is in debt and slowly becomes a murderer in his imagination. It occurs to him that murder is not always regarded as a crime — those who commit crime on a huge scale, people like Napoleon, are regarded as national heroes, benefactors of humanity and giants of history despite the desolation and carnage they instigated. Such supermen, refusing to be shackled by mere morality, “make a new law by transgressing an old one.”

Raskolnikov decides that by killing the moneylender, a selfish old woman whom no one will mourn, he would be saving many families “from destitution, from decay, from ruin, from depravity” while at the same time relieving his own poverty. He imagines that afterwards, liberated from destitution with the money he has obtained from the chest in her bedroom, he will be free to “devote himself to the service of humanity and the common good.” In such a case, he reasons, murder, far from being a sin, would be just and good. “One death for hundreds of lives — it’s simple arithmetic!”

Yet when he commits his carefully-planned and philosophically-justified murder, things do not go entirely as intended. He kills the money-lender but discovers a simple-minded young woman, Lizaveta, has witnessed his deed and so murders her as well so that she cannot testify against him. The hatchet Raskolnikov had hidden in his jacket is now reddened not only with a miser’s blood but also that of a saintly innocent who never harmed or hated anyone. [Dostoevsky identifies Lizaveta as a yurodivi — a Holy Fool or Fool-of-Christ, a kind of saint much loved by many Orthodox Christians.]

He has been clever in committing his crime. No trail of clues connects him to the two dead women. Even so an intuitive policeman, Porfiry Petrovich, finds more and more reasons to regard Raskolnikov as the guilty one. Petrovich sees Raskolnikov’s nearly dead soul — his heart “chafed by theories” — and understands that this young man’s only hope is confession and repentance. He plays a part in rescuing Raskolnikov from the hell into which he has locked himself. Porfiry Petrovich is able to say to Raskolnikov that “God is waiting for you” and to tell him that the suffering he will have to endure as a prisoner can be, after all, a good thing. He points out to Raskolnikov that his crime, terrible as it was, might have been worse: “If you’d come up with a different theory, you might have done something a hundred million times more hideous!” He delays arresting Raskolnikov in the hope that he will “become like a sun” and confess.

But Raskolnikov’s principal rescuer is Sonya, a young woman of deep Christian faith who has become a prostitute for the sake of her impoverished family’s survival. When at last Raskolnikov admits to her his terrible secret, it is Sonya who tells him that his only hope is confession — confession to God, to the police, to a priest, to everyone.

“What to do?” she exclaimed, suddenly jumping up from her place, and her eyes, still full of tears, suddenly flashed. “Stand up!” (She seized him by the shoulder; he rose, looking at her almost in amazement.) “Go now, this minute, stand in the crossroads, bow down, and first kiss the earth you’ve defiled, then bow to the whole world, on all four sides, and say aloud to everyone: ‘I have killed!’ Then God will send you life again. Will you go? Will you?”

Sonya has a copy of the New Testament from which she used to read aloud to Lizaveta. Raskolnikov asks her to read to him from the same book. She turns to the eleventh chapter of John’s Gospel but at first has difficulty making any sound, she is so overcome with emotion. Finally she starts reading: “Now a certain man was sick, named Lazarus, of Bethany …” It is the story of Jesus’ friend who died and four days later, within his tomb, was called back to life. Jesus asks Martha if she believes in the resurrection of the dead. She says she believes her brother will be raised back to life at the end of time. Jesus responds, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Sonya by now is reading with strength her voice, as if she herself were Martha: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God …”

Sonya assures Raskolnikov that his only hope is to confess, accept suffering and thus redeem himself. Otherwise, though outwardly free and part of normal society, his unspeakable secret will cut himself off from everyone around him, even his mother and sister.

Raskolnikov realizes that in confessing the truth to Sonya, a door has opened at least a crack. They sit

side by side, sad and crushed, as if they had been washed up alone on a deserted shore after a storm. He looked at Sonya and felt how much of her love was on him, and, strangely, suddenly felt it heavy and painful to be loved like that. Yes, it was a strange and terrible feeling!

She offers Raskolnikov a small cross that had belonged to the murdered Lizaveta and promises him to share in his suffering and to help him bear his cross. Lizaveta’s cross is a gift he cannot yet accept, nor is he yet capable of surrendering to Sonya’s counsel. In the days that follow he considers escaping to America. At other moments he contemplates suicide. But finally he goes to the police station and confesses the double murder.

The punishment for murder in late-nineteenth century Russia was not execution but imprisonment and hard labor in Siberia. Raskolnikov gets a relatively short sentence — eight years, the length of Dostoevsky’s own period of imprisonment and exile. The judge explains it would have been a longer sentence, but he has taken note of the fact that Raskolnikov made no effort during his trial to excuse himself on the basis of illness or temporary insanity nor ever used any of the stolen money for his own benefit. There was also the factor of several persons testifying on his behalf about ways he had helped them.

Sonya eventually follows him to Siberia, living not far from the prison and doing all she can to help not only Raskolnikov but also other “unfortunate ones.”

It is while in prison, a year after his conviction, that the full horror of his two murders dawns on him. Real repentance begins and with it floods of tears.

In the last paragraph of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov is holding the New Testament in his hands, a book he had been keeping under his pillow but not yet opened.

He took the book out mechanically. It belonged to her, it was the same one from which she had read to him about the raising of Lazarus. At the beginning of his hard labor he had thought she would hound him with religion, would be forever talking about the Gospels and forcing books on him. But to his greatest amazement, she never once spoke of it, never once even offered him the Gospels. He had asked her for it himself … and she had silently brought him the book. He had not even opened it yet. Nor did he open it now, but a thought flashed in him: “Can her convictions not be my convictions now?”

While compressing a large and complex novel into a few pages oversimplifies the spiritual struggle at the heart of the book, even told in brief one can understand how Sonya’s wisdom and love are enough to bring about Raskolnikov’s conversion. More than any other person, she helps him understand that there is no alternative to confession and repentance. With these the doors of the kingdom of God can open even for a man in prison who has committed one of the worst of sins. For the first time since childhood, Raskolnikov experiences inner freedom even though he has seven more years to serve.

The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky’s last novel, provides the author with another opportunity to explore the themes of sin and repentance, doing so on an even larger canvas than Crime and Punishment. Again the pivotal event is murder — an act of patricide by one of the sons of Fyodor Karamazov, a jeering, cynical man of unbridled lust and greed.

What we are starkly confronted with in the Karamazov brothers are very different human types.

There is Alyosha, the youngest, who has miraculously emerged from the moral squalor of his father’s home with a purity of heart and compelling directness most people relinquish in adolescence. This is due in great measure to vivid memories of his mother, who before her early death held him in her arms before her icon of the Mother of God and the Christ Child, praying with tears for Alyosha’s protection.

In the period described in the novel, Alyosha has become a novice at the local monastery, assigned to care for Father Zosima, a saintly monk who hears the confessions of countless pilgrims. The Christ-like Alyosha is able to visit his father and listen to him ridicule Christianity in general and monastic life in particular without rising to the bait. He is one of the rarities in the human race who has no need to defend himself or his faith. [The figure of Fr. Zosima was inspired in part by Father Amvrosi, a monk at the Optina Monastery, confessor to countless people. Dostoevsky had gone to see him in 1878 when grieving the death of his two-and-a-half year old son, Aleksei. Amvrosi was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1988. Another model for Zosima was a bishop of the eighteenth century: St. Tikhon of Zadonsk.]

Then there is Ivan Karamazov with his diamond-hard intellect, a scholar with acute but abstracted analytical powers, who seems to be seeing the earth and its people not from where he stands but as if he were watching by telescope from the moon. He is an expert on religion, especially Orthodox Christianity, and his widely-read essays are even admired by the monks at the local monastery. They assume he is an believer, yet in fact Ivan is an atheist, rejecting God so long as there is a single child suffering from incurable illness. He is the sort of atheist who is so obsessed with the God to whom he objects and revolts against that he is as God-haunted as the devout Alyosha. For Ivan, God is a problem of the mind, for Alyosha a presence in the heart. Alienated Ivan is among those laying the foundations for the terrifying revolution to come only a few decades later — one of those idealists who hope, as Father Zosima says, “to make a just order for themselves but, having rejected Christ, will end by drenching the earth with blood.” [p 318]

In the eldest brother, Dimitri, we meet a poetic, impulsive young man who has inherited his father’s sensuality but not his greed or cunning. He is passionately in love with Grushenka, a capricious and manipulative local beauty — a woman who has also caught the eye of the elder Karamazov, so that we find father and son competing with each other for her attention, with father having the advantage of wealth, the son the advantage of youth. Dimitri is an image of the tragic sinner Christ loves and readily forgives in response to the tiniest gesture of repentance. He is someone who might bathe Christ’s feet with his tears. “Lord, I am loathsome,” Dimitri cries out, “but I love you! If you send me to hell, even there will I love you.” [p 412]

Finally there is a fourth son, Smerdyakov, son of a simple-minded girl who hardly knew her name, fathered by Fyodor Karamazov when he happened upon Lizaveta one night and raped her. He never confessed his deed and thus never acknowledged Smerdyakov as his son, but following Lizaveta’s death in childbirth, allowed his servant Grigory and his wife to care for the boy, who grew up to become another of his father’s servants. The bitter and withdrawn Smerdyakov has known even less love than the legitimate sons of Karamazov.

By the time the elder Karamazov is murdered, we know the brothers well enough to understand that each of them except Alyosha had a homicidal motive, and understand why it is that even Alyosha feels implicated in his father’s murder, for he has learned from Fr. Zosima that “each is guilty of everything before everyone, and I most of all.”

Finally Dimitri is accused and arrested on the basis of circumstantial evidence. “I am not guilty of my father’s blood,” declares Dimitri when charged, yet he concedes his arrest is just spiritually. “I accept punishment not because I killed him, but because I wanted to kill him, and might well have killed him…” [p. 509] Only later does it become clear who really committed the act and how cunningly it was planned.

The reader also comes to understand that Ivan, though he did not commit the murder, is the crime’s intellectual author. It was Ivan who convinced the murderer that, as there is no God, there is no sin. Now he discovers that ideology can be as deadly as an axe.

In one of the pivotal moments in the book, we find Alyosha talking with Ivan, now on the verge of madness, about the huge guilt he senses has taken hold of Ivan. Alyosha suddenly turns to Ivan and says: “It was not you who killed father … You’ve accused yourself and confessed to yourself that you and you alone are the murderer. But it was not you who killed him, you are mistaken, the murderer was not you, do you hear, it was not you! God has sent me to tell you that.”

Alyosha does not mean that Ivan is blameless of their father’s death. In assuring Ivan that it was “not you,” Alyosha wants his brother to understand that what he has done was the result of a demonic spirit at work within him rather an action of his essential self. Should Ivan confuse the evil he has done with his deepest self, he will have damned himself and may never find his way out of the despair that results. Alyosha’s message is a desperate effort to save Ivan’s sanity and soul.

Demonic possession was a theme that Dostoevsky explored in Demons, sometimes translated as The Possessed, yet in this novel we meet no demons as such — only people possessed by radical ideas and ideologies. Demons become visible, writes Dostoevsky translator Richard Pevear, “only in distortions of the human image, the human countenance, and their force is measurable only by the degree of the distortion.” [from the foreword to the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation of Demons: Knopf, 1994]

The demons in Dostoevsky’s novels operate via all the isms that flooded across Russia in the nineteenth century: idealism, rationalism, empiricism, materialism, utilitarianism, positivism, anarchism, socialism, and, common to them all, nihilism and atheism. Demons — invisible spirits serving Satan, the father of lies — discovered many nineteenth century intellectuals were more vulnerable to idealistic theories and slogans than to wealth or other traditional temptations that had worked so well with their parents. Evil ideologies invade a person, pervert him, gradually driving him to crime, insanity or both.”It was not you who ate the idea,” says one of one of the novel’s principal figures, Pyotr Verkhovensky, “but the idea ate you.”

“If we call Satan the father of lies, I think we begin to understand that evil is rooted in untruth, denial of the Truth, in deception, and that here is where we find the skin next to the skin of our sin,” writes my friend Alice Carter:

Denial of Christ is denial of Truth, to deny His Resurrection propels us into sin — sin which is the only response to seeing death as the end. If death is the end, attention to my biological needs is my first priority: my needs over everyone else. Any injustice, any crime can be tolerated and is really unavoidable, in this perception. My survival is first. The end justifies the means. And in a world without God, as Dostoevsky tells us, anything is possible, everything is permitted. What can prevent our murderous actions from overwhelming and destroying the earth?

Dostoevsky was no Manichean envisioning God and Satan as equally-matched warring twins. His experiences while a prisoner had shown him that evil was not on an equal footing with good, that demons are capable only of destruction, not creation. Made in God’s image as we are, evil can never be the essence of any person, even the most damaged, the most sinful, the most possessed. However weakened by habitual sin, each person retains to his last breath the freedom to turn from evil, to confess and repent. “Never confuse the person, formed in the image of God, with the evil that is in him, because evil is but a chance misfortune, illness, a devilish reverie,” said Dostoevsky’s contemporary, St. John of Kronstadt. “But the very essence of the person is the image of God, and this remains in him despite every disfigurement.”

Coping with disaster in his own life, Dostoevsky had come to realize that God is both our private salvation and the only source of social cohesion. We live a different life if we know we are made by God, bear the Divine image, and that each of us — and all of us — is accountable to God. To deny God is a form of suicide and at the same time the cause of social disintegration and mass murder.

In place of demonic ideas and ideologies, there is the reality of God’s creation and of the person. There is the saving mystery of beauty. Thus we find Dostoevsky’s heroes in sacramental moments kissing the earth and watering it with their tears. This is what Sonya proposed Raskolnikov do at the four crossroads and is what happened to Alyosha after the death of his saintly mentor, Fr. Zosima:

He did not stop on the porch, either, but went quickly down the steps. Filled with rapture, his soul yearned for freedom, space, vastness. Over him the heavenly dome, full of quiet, shining stars, hung boundlessly. From the zenith to the horizon the still-dim Milky Way stretched its double strand. Night, fresh and quiet, almost unstirring, enveloped the earth. The white towers and golden domes of the church gleamed in the sapphire sky. The luxuriant autumn flowers in the flowerbeds near the house had fallen asleep until morning. The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the mystery of the earth touched the mystery of the stars … Alyosha stood gazing and suddenly, as if he had been cut down, threw himself to the earth.

He did not know why he was embracing it, he did not try to understand why he longed irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss all of it, but he was kissing it, weeping, sobbing, and watering it with his tears, and he vowed ecstatically to love it, to love it unto ages of ages. “Water the earth with the tears of your joy, and love those tears…,” rang his soul. What was he weeping for? Oh, in his rapture he wept even for the stars that shone on him from the abyss, and “he was not ashamed of this ecstasy.” It was as if threads from all those innumerable worlds of God all came together in his soul, and it was trembling all over, “touching other worlds.” He wanted to forgive everyone and for everything, and to ask forgiveness, oh, not for himself! but for all and for everything, “as others are asking for me,” rang in his soul. [p. 362]

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a chapter from Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness by Jim Forest (Orbis Books)

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The Thanatos Syndrome: Walker Percy's final novel

Commonweal / November 1987

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The Thanatos Syndrome
by Walker Percy
Farrar Straus Giroux, New York. 1987, 372 pp
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reviewed by Jim Forest

Walker Percy is southern and Catholic, Kurt Vonnegut northern and secular, not minor differences, but perhaps they recognize each other as relatives. Both are inclined to use comedy, at times the slapstick variety, in order to talk about some of the unfunniest subjects in the world, like war, euthanasia, abortion, and other justifications we cook up for killing one another.

Percy’s hero in this book, as in his earlier novel, Love in the Ruins, is Dr. Thomas More, resident of a rural Louisiana parish (what we Yankees call a county) and a direct descendant of St. Thomas More. Like his ancestor, he has been a prisoner, but for selling amphetamines to truckers rather than for acts of fidelity to conscience. Also like his ancestor, he is a Catholic, except in the current generation, things being what they are, More’s connection to his Church is threadbare. Still there is a bit of religious glue holding body and soul together. Tom More isn’t able to make himself comfortable with the contemporary mercies that pave the way to the gas chamber and the abortorium.

In The Thanatos Syndrome we encounter a few psychiatrists who makes heaps of money running the Qualitarian Center, where the old and/or feeble-minded are provided with Death with Dignity. In their spare time, using a federal grant, the clever doctors are in the midst of a local experiment that they regard as the best idea since fluoride in toothpaste. While sticking to bottled water for themselves, they are lacing the parish water supply with a substance (borrowed from a nearby nuclear generator) that knocks out the part of the brain that makes people dangerous and miserable. Violent crime has evaporated in the area effected. Black prisoners are singing the old spirituals as they cheerfully pick cotton on the local prison farm. Sexual-transmitted diseases have practically disappeared. No more AIDS, no more herpes.

At first glance it looks like the doctors have found a chemical method to mass produce the lifestyle of the saints. People drinking the local water aren’t inclined to do the sorts of things that make headlines in The National Enquirer.

But not quite. It turns out that adults who drink too much of the local water find that the ideal sex-partners are children.

The part of the brain made dormant also happens to be where the soul and conscience hang out. It is the patch that has most to do with creativity, verbal skills, and what makes us who we are. Those drinking the local water are better at telling you exactly where St. Louis is than in making a sentence that includes a subject, verb and object. They are a whiz at bridge but incapable of theology.

Percy links what is now happening in manipulative medical technology in the US and what was going on with psychiatry in Germany from the twenties until the collapse of the Nazis, at the same time pointing out that you don’t have to like Hitler (the German shrinks didn’t) to end up doing some of the worst things that happened in Hitler’s Germany.

Percy integrates a steady stream of observation about the American Way of Life and what is like living in “the Age of Not Knowing What to Do.” For example here is Tom More reflecting about a patient who, before the local water ironed out all depression and anxiety, felt like a failure:

“What is failure? Failure is what people do ninety-nine percent of the time. Even in the movies: ninety-nine outtakes for one print. But in the movies they don’t show the failures. What you see are the takes that work. So it looks as if every action, even going crazy, is carried off in a proper, rounded- off way. It looks as if real failure is unspeakable. TV has screwed up millions of people with their little rounded-off stories. Because that is not the way life is. Life is fits and starts, mostly fits.”

Percy continues his assessment of contemporary American Catholicism that began in Love in the Ruins. Fr. Kev Kevin, the former director of the Love Clinic, has abandoned the controls of the Orgasmatron computer and given up the priesthood as well. He is “into Hinduism,” has married a former Maryknoll nun who is taking up witchcraft, and together they run a marriage encounter center in a rehabilitated stable.

In The Thanatos Syndrome we meet a very different kind of priest: Fr. Simon Smith, a modern stylite, fasting atop a fire-watch tower as the book begins. People consider him crazy as a loon. Maybe he is, but he’s a saint as well. His “confession” is the keystone of the novel. Here we discover that his vocation is an on-going penitential work having chiefly to do with the devastation his father helped bring about in Europe — he is the son of one of the liberal German physicians (anti-Nazis one and all) whose work to “relieve suffering” via euthanasia helped prepare the way for the Holocaust.

Father Smith’s big discovery in life was that “the only people I got along with were bums, outcasts, pariahs, family skeletons, and the dying.” It isn’t a boast. “I don’t know about Mother Teresa, but I [did what I did] because I liked it, not for love of the wretched … dying people were the only people I could stand. They were my kind … Dying people, suffering people, don’t lie.”

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Remembering Ivy Troutman

by Jim Forest

Ivy Troutman (photo courtesy of the New York City Public Library)

As a boy growing up in Tinton Falls, New Jersey, I added to my dollar-a-week allowance by delivering morning and evening newspapers. My most remarkable customer was Ivy Troutman, who in earlier years had played starring roles in many Broadway plays and also, in 1915, been in at least one silent movie. A famous beauty in what she referred to as her “salad days,” she was still stunning in her sixties.

In 1951, Ivy purchased a run-down mansion on Newman Springs Road, a short walk from our house. Built in the mid-19th century, shortly after the Civil War, Ivy presided over a restoration that transformed the near-ruin into a palace.

For some reason, she took a special liking to me. The result was that I put Ivy at the end of my newspaper route, as she often invited me to stay for a while. Serving me a small glass of Dubonet (imported from France, but with water added in deference to my age), she often talked about her days as an actress. Her career on stage had stretched from 1904, when she was 21, to 1942.

The First World War took her to Europe to perform for the troops. After the war ended, she joined the colony of American expatriates living in Paris, thus becoming one of the “lost generation,” a term coined by Gertrude Stein (whom Ivy knew but didn’t much like) and popularized by Ernest Hemingway.

Among Hemingway’s best friends was Ivy’s former husband, the artist Waldo Peirce, a fellow American who, along with Hemingway, had been an ambulance driver in France during the war.

During her Paris years, Ivy had been a close friend of James Joyce. Perhaps the greatest treasure in her treasure-filled house was a copy of the first edition of Joyce’s Ulysses, published by Shakespeare & Company — Joyce had penciled in corrections on nearly every page. Ivy sometimes went to Manhattan for meetings of the Joyce Society. Its gatherings were on West 47th Street, over the legendary Gotham Book Mart, which later, when I moved to New York, became one of the book stores I visited most often.

Ivy had a breath-taking art collection. I found especially fascinating a small Alexander Calder mobile hanging in the living room and, in a hallway, one of Calder’s large single-line circus drawings.

Occasionally Ivy had parties — soirees — for friends living in New York. Though Ivy had a maid, I was asked to put on my Sunday best and serve drinks. The guests were mainly theater people. One of the regular guests was Raymond Burr, eventually to become best known for playing lawyer Perry Mason on a popular TV series.

There were also writers. Ivy introduced me to one of them, Allen Churchill, who at the time was researching a history of New York’s Greenwich Village eventually published as The Improper Bohemians. Meeting an actual author made a huge impression on me.

When I was fifteen, I moved to Hollywood, California, and lost touch with her, but I think of her often with profound gratitude for all the windows she opened in my life and for taking me so much to heart.

Waldo Peirce – Ivy Troutman & himself in Maine

The only material gift from her that I still have is a delightful watercolor by Waldo Peirce. Peirce himself is on the left, manfully cutting down a tree, Ivy seductively reclining on the right, and the Maine wilderness, in which Peirce had grown up, in the background. It hangs in our living room.

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Mazes & Labyrinths

the maze at Chartres
by Jim Forest

Life is a maze in which we take the wrong turn before we have learnt to walk. — Cyril Connolly

What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again? — G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

What we call the beginning is often the end, and to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from. — T.S. Eliot

The Archangel Michael, as Henry Adams observed, loves heights.  Fortress-like churches dedicated to the heavenly warrior have often been built on forbidding pinnacles of rock. The most famous, Mont-Saint-Michel, is poised atop a dagger of stone on the tidal flatland just off the southwest coast of Normandy near the border of Brittany. When the tide is up, the abbey is like a magnificent ship anchored offshore. Both location and architecture suggest a readiness to withstand the sieges of armies and the elements. The fortifications may have helped ward off Vikings, but have also made it a major attraction for tourists and pilgrims.

The Virgin Mary seems to prefer more vulnerable locations. In her case, rarely do any remarkable obstacles impede the pilgrim’s way. Take the example of the Cathedral of Our Lady at Chartres, one of the most important centers of pilgrimage in Europe, whose town is set amidst a vast moat of wheat fields.

There has been a church in Chartres dedicated to Christ’s mother at least since the fourth century, when St. Adventinus was the local bishop. Stonemasons have labored on the site again and again. Work on the main part of the present church began in 1194 after a fire destroyed a smaller cathedral. Thanks in large measure to the many thousands of pilgrims who came annually to make a gift of their labor, most of the construction was finished by 1230. The cathedral at Chartres is not only a goal of pilgrimage, but a work of pilgrimage.

These days most pilgrims arrive in Chartres by train, car or bicycle, but even in secular, post-modern Europe there are those who still make the journey on foot. No matter what their mode of travel, pilgrims look eagerly toward the horizon waiting for the grey profile of the cathedral to rise above the grain. For those traveling in groups, there is often a spire-spotting contest. When we were traveling by rented car on our last visit to Chartres, our daughter Anne won a coin for being first to spot those two arrow-sharp towers.

Approaching Chartres through the wide plain of surrounding fields, the hill on which the town and cathedral are built gradually reveals itself. From every vantage point, the cathedral dominates the view, its two great towers rising heavenward from the heart of the town. The cathedral’s spires have a magnetic strength, compelling the pilgrim to make no other stop before reaching the church and entering the western doors — the Royal Portal — that stand between the towers.

Stepping inside the church, the pilgrim stands within in an immense enclosure that seems to be an entrance point to the kingdom of God. The immense, softly-lit, column-lined space is a domain in which ordinary time hardly exists and doesn’t matter. One’s first impression is of a tremendous silence, even among whispered conversations or a softly chanted Mass. The 176 windows — among the best preserved medieval glass the world possesses — are a Bible written in fragments of colored glass. Red and blue are the most dominant: the colors of ice and fire. Others play supporting roles: deep forest green, pale lilac, lemon yellow; all enhanced by ebony lines glazed to the glass to provide image details and the black tracery of lead connecting the pieces.

Those who are drawn to Chartres, whether they see themselves as pilgrims or simply as tourists, often spend many hours “reading” the windows panel by panel and derive the satisfaction of breaking a code as they work out the meaning of each. Camping of the edge of town as our family did during our last visit to Chartres, we stopped one morning at a local camera shop to buy a pair of binoculars, eager to get closer to the glass. We wondered if our ancestors, who read less or not at all, might not have had better eyes for distance vision and thus found it easier to decipher the glasswork.

The windows are a kind of giant puzzle for the eyes and mind. Little by little one sees how all the panels connect — how the story in one panel is threaded to the next, each window in dialogue with its neighbors.

“It’s a giant comic book,” our daughter Anne commented. She was right, so long as one understands “comic” not as a synonym for funny, but in the sense of Dante’s divine comedy.

At the heart of the cathedral, as in every church with a eucharistic tradition, is its main altar. Each altar is a center of the universe. Each altar is a table of divine hospitality. The altar is a place where a frequent miracle occurs — bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. Christ is both hidden and revealed in the most basic of foods.

At the foot of the central aisle that leads toward the main altar is a treasure that visitors often walk over without noticing: a circular maze. It’s the cathedral’s most abstract work of art and the only one designed as much for the feet as for the eye. The mosaic maze is more than thirteen yards from edge to edge, the width of the pillar-bordered avenue that leads to the altar.

Unlike the labyrinth in ancient Crete, where the hero Theseus conquered the Minotaur and cleverly found his way out by following the thread given him by Ariadne, the maze at Chartres is not life-threatening. Its “walls,” traced in black stone, rise only in the imagination. The unicursal path of white stone has no blind alleys, traps, pits, dead ends or secret chambers. If you wish, there is nothing to stop you from walking straight to the center without bothering to follow the path, but something deeply rooted in human nature makes even the casual visitor carefully follow the white track, treating the black lines as impassable barriers. An occasional pilgrim makes the journey on penitential knees, but the majority walk upright. Either way, it’s a reassuring experience. While there are many twists and turns, with the pilgrim often being led away from his goal, whoever stays on the path ultimately reaches the center.

The unicursal journey, with all its detours, condenses the lifelong quest to achieve union with God. It’s a simple model of each person’s journey of faith. The destination at the center represents the most holy of pilgrimage goals: Jerusalem.

Even if the pilgrim cannot lose his way in the Chartres maze, what appears at first glance to be a simple walk within a circle shows itself to be the way of the cross. The path’s many turnings occur around a cruciform pattern. The maze entrance — symbolic of baptism — seems to lead directly to the center but abruptly branches off to the left. Then, where the left arm of the cross would be, the path doubles back, soon returning the walker to the path heading toward the center, but instead only grazes the innermost circle before going outward again. One reaches the maze’s center point — Jerusalem with its empty tomb — only after making a grand tour of the entire circle, with all its sudden turns, a process achieved simply by carefully placing one foot in front of the other, staying on the path, making turns that form the pattern of the life-giving cross.

The maze at Chartres is circular. The circle — a line without beginning or end — is a symbol of eternity. The same symbol is used in Christian iconography to form the halo, the sign that someone has become whole: a new person transformed in Christ-revealing, self-giving love and, united with Christ, now experiencing eternal life.

The circular, cross-containing maze is a simple map of the path to sanctity, a wordless image of the New Testament. Its message: Follow the path of the gospel, and the mercy of God will finally bring you to the heavenly Jerusalem, the kingdom of God, no matter how many turns you make along the way or how many times your goal may seem to recede. Along the way you will discover, and even carry, the cross; but the cross contains the resurrection — life with Christ and all the saints in the new Jerusalem.

[This is a chapter from The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life, published by Orbis Books. For more information about this and other of Jim’s books, see https://www.jimandnancyforest.com/books/]

Two days with Patriarch Kirill before he was patriarch

Patriarch Kirill

Patriarch Kirill, presiding bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church, has been trashed in many columns, editorials, news reports and blog postings lately, portrayed as corrupt, vengeful, un-Christian, President Putin’s dance partner, etc. Few of those making these and similar charges seem to have met him or even to know much about Russia or the Orthodox Church.

I don’t want to argue that there is nothing about Patriarch Kirill to criticize (which of us is above criticism?), but I do want to share a few memories of him that go back to the summer of 1987, when Nancy and I were his guests in Smolensk for two days. At the time he was both Bishop of Smolensk and rector of the Theological Academy in Leningrad, as the city was still named in those Soviet days. At the time I was writing a book published the following year as Pilgrim to the Russian Church. Here are extracts from the book’s Smolensk pages.

— Jim Forest, August 2012

Smolensk, Sunday, July 26, 1987:

Smolensk, “the key and gate of Russia,” is the most western of ancient Russian cities. On the north end of the River Dnieper, it is at the source of the water

highway that leads past Kiev to the Black Sea.

Father Victor, a quiet young priest, met us when the train pulled into the station at dawn. After checking into the hotel and having a brief rest, we went to Holy Liturgy at the Cathedral of the Assumption, the principal Smolensk landmark, a five-domed green and white building standing at the top of a steep hill in the center of the city. Inside the cathedral is a mammoth, heavily gilded iconostasis from the Eighteenth Century that includes not only icons but statues. There is also a baroque pulpit, not an element of Russian church architecture until the time of Peter the Great.

Archbishop Kirill was presiding, a man in his forties, among the youngest bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church. He has a greying black beard and a clear, direct manner. For ten years before coming to Smolensk he was rector of the Leningrad Theological Academy where he is credited with many of the innovations that happened there, including the introduction of women students.

While he stood in the center of the church with his arms outstretched, attendants vested him. It as though he were no longer himself, but a moving, praying, singing part of the liturgy, all connected with the church, the icons, the music, the incense, the Eucharist.

The church was crowded. There were the usual deeply pious old women, among them one woman on her knees at the front rail, eyes fixed on an icon, crossing herself and bowing over and over again. Russian tourists moved in and out, watching rather than participating. Despite the almost continuous motion among the people and the clergy, and the constant music from the choirs, there was a powerful sense of attentiveness and stillness.

No one hushed the children in the church. They obviously enjoyed being there. We noticed a priest and his family in a vacant choir stall. One daughter looked to be twelve and her little sister about four. The older sister was holding the little one up on the rail and they were hugging and stroking each other. All the while, the older girl joined in singing the words to all the prayers and hymns.

The day’s Gospel was the story of Jesus healing two blind men. A sermon followed by Archbishop Kirill. As he began to speak, the congregation gathered around him, standing with their hands relaxed at their sides, completely attentive.

“Our Savior said to the blind men, ‘Do you believe I can heal you?’ They said, ‘Yes, Lord.’ And then he healed their blindness.

“This story makes me wonder about wonders. A wonder is something that surprises. It goes past the border of usual experience. We see wonders and we call them miracles. But there are people who reject the possibility of miracles or anything that goes beyond their own experiences. They say, ‘It cannot be.’

“What the Church teaches is that wonders are special expressions of the love and power of God. When we experience or contemplate wonders, they inspire wonder in us.

“St. Augustine says that the normal growing of wheat is akin to the multiplication of loaves. So much of the beauty of the natural world awakens wonder: sky, sun, plants, water. ‘Look at these things,’ says St. Augustine, ‘and see that they are beautiful. Their beauty is their confession of God.’

“Most wonders stand on laws that are the foundation of the world, in which everything is developed. And isn’t this too a wonder? When God does things beyond our understanding, even then he is acting within the laws of the universe.

“Not to see beauty, not to be aware of wonders — this is to be blind and deaf. The French scientist Pasteur said that the more we contemplate the world, the more we are filled with wonder.

“Some people can see wonders, some not. Why? What makes it possible to become aware of the actions of God in the world? Do we need special education? Some special wisdom? No, dear brothers and sisters, the Gospel shows us otherwise. Christ said to the two blind men, ‘Do you believe I can heal you?’ Only when they confess that they do believe does he heal them.

“They were healed, but there were even at that time people who were not moved to wonder by what he did. There were those who said, ‘Jesus casts out devils only because he is the prince of devils.’ What he does, they said, isn’t a miracle. It is magic. And so they dismissed what Jesus did.

“Faith is the condition of wonder, not the other way around. Perhaps here at this moment there could be a miracle. Even then there would be people present who would leave saying, ‘Yes, there was something strange, something we need to clarify.’ In fact we find in the press stories about events for which there seems to be no natural explanation. But this doesn’t mean people reading these stories are led to faith. Miracles don’t give birth to faith. Perhaps that is why Our Lord in this Gospel forbids people to publicize what he did for the blind men. The news would add nothing to people’s faith. It was not with wonders but with his words that he tried to soften people’s hearts. A heart filled with love and faith can distinguish good and evil. The believer can cross any boundary with God.

“Love is the power of God. May God help all believers to be attentive to the wonders that, because of God’s love, fill the whole universe.”

The congregation replied, “God save you!”

While the Liturgy was going on, Vasili left us for about a half hour. When he returned he said that another priest had been giving a talk in the back of the church on such topics as the reception of communion, marriage and mutual help.

At communion, the children came first — all the children, beginning with babies, held in the arms of their parents or other adult friends. The first in line was the twelve-year-old girl, holding up her little sister to receive the Eucharist. Communion is administered with a spoon while an attendant holds a napkin under the chin of the person receiving. [.…]

 Smolensk, July 27:

After a morning of being rained on in the countryside, we visited Archbishop Kirill. He lives in a small house with a view of the Assumption Cathedral. The dining room table was laid with candies, cookies, and a delicious cake. Coffee, tea and vodka were served.

I asked why so few adults had received communion at the Liturgy yesterday. “Yes, it is still very few, but more than used to come. Now it can be fifty on a Sunday when it used to be not more than five. Things change, but slowly. Before the Revolution, it was common for people to receive communion only twice a year. People were overwhelmed by their sense of unworthiness. Patriarch Pimen has made a call to believers to receive communion as often as possible and this appeal is being heard. But with this there has to be a process of religious education. We try to offer that in the church and actually prefer doing it there. We would rather not have something like that happen in a school classroom. Part of the process of religious education in our diocese is to have a priest on duty throughout the day in the cathedral where they can answer questions. We find that if one person asks a question, immediately others gather and you have a group discussion.”

Archbishop Kirill is a member of the Executive Committee of the World Council of Churches. “I got into the ecumenical movement as a ‘youth.’ It was the sixties, a decade when everyone was bowing their heads to the young people. The experiences that opened to me through the World Council of Churches have made me realize that the ecumenical movement and work for the renewal of humanity and peace are profoundly linked to each other. What enthusiasm there was for Christian unity sixty years ago! Not that I was there, but what a spirit of youth, power, and passion there is in papers presented at early ecumenical conferences. They are filled with both joy and pain, with longing for unity and sorrow for division.”

Nancy commented on how much more vital churches are in the Soviet Union than in Holland. “The problem in the west is not organized atheism but secularism and the consumer psychology. But we may face the same thing in a few years, so we watch anxiously what the church does in the west as this may help us. But perhaps we also have something to offer the church in the west, some encouragement, some lessons. It is important to know something of the church that exists in the first socialist state.”

I asked about the tendency for more young people to become active believers.

“Certainly there is an encouraging influx of young people right now but we have to be careful not to limit our perception of who is a believer by only noticing who is standing in the church. The process of coming to belief is very complex. We are aware that many people are believers in their world outlook even though they rarely go to church. The tip of the iceberg are the people you see in church, and that tip creates the image. These are people permanently in church, often retired people, mainly elderly women. But the iceberg is one object, not two, even though most of it cannot be seen. Also that babushka that looks older than the world — in fact she is younger than the Revolution. She never attended a church school. She memorized no catechism. As a young woman she never went into a church. But sometime in her life she became part of the visible church. There is always a large group of believers who are struggling with this decision, and slowly, as they become older, they begin attending church. The invisible part of the church is much younger, but today they more quickly become part of the visible church. They aren’t waiting for retirement. The democratic events now going on in our country help this process. We see more and more people coming who never came before, never showed any sign of belief. Now they want to belong to the church. It seems like a fresh development, something completely new, but actually it has deep roots.”

Toward the end of the conversation, Archbishop Kirill said, “Jim, I am disappointed. There is one question every journalist asks but you haven’t asked it.”

“What question is that?”

“How many of the people in church are actual believers?”

“All right, your Grace — one last question: How many people are actual believers.”

“I’m glad you asked. My answer is I don’t know. Yesterday you saw quite a lot of people in the church. You might say that some of them were just tourists. I don’t think more than twenty percent of the people were crossing themselves. Many of the women weren’t wearing scarfs. But a lot of those who seem to be just watching are on the border of belief. They don’t stand there for two hours just because it is a beautiful old building. Something draws them. They are not practicing believers, but they are there. But what about those who crossed themselves? Can we say they are believers? It may be that they were just conforming to norms of church behavior. Who can say who is a believer and who is not? We don’t know. Nobody knows. God knows.”

We said good-bye and hurried to catch the train to Minsk.

(from Pilgrim to the Russian Church by Jim Forest, Crossroads Books, New York, 1988)

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A Canonization in Munich: Saint Alexander Schmorell

by Jim Forest

Saints come in many sizes and varieties, ranging from kings to beggars, surgeons to street sweepers, scholars to the illiterate, the extraordinary to the unnoticed. Some never marry, some are the parents of large families. Some die in bed in their old age, others die early in life at the hands of executioners. There are millions of saints — heaven is crowded — but relatively few of heaven’s population have been formally canonized. The vast majority are rank-and-file saints, an inspiration to those who knew them, but never placed by name on the church calendar.

Reporting on canonizations, journalists often say that so-and-so was “made a saint” today at such-and-such location, but in fact the Church does not make saints. Canonization is merely an act of carefully considered recognition that a particular person became a saint in his lifetime and is unquestionably among the blessed and thus in no need of our prayers for his forgiveness and salvation. The saints who are singled out for special recognition are mentioned at the Liturgy on a particular day every year, some locally or nationally, others in churches around the world. They are also depicted in icons in both churches and homes.

What is it that makes the Church occasionally canonize a particular saint? In many cases it has to do with some remarkable quality or achievement — their exceptional impact on other lives. The memory of their works and lives needs to be passed on from generation to generation in order to encourage others to follow in their footsteps. It is one of the ways the Church declares, “This is sanctity. This is the path to eternal life.”

Cathedral of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia

The majority of those canonized are martyrs. One of these — Alexander Schmorell — was added to the church calendar this past weekend. His canonization took place at the Cathedral of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia, a church in Munich not far from Schmorell’s grave. On the far side of the cemetery, at Stadelheim Prison, Schmorell was beheaded on 13 July 1943. He was only 25 at the time. He was an Orthodox Christian who had put his life at risk by being part of a anti-Nazi resistance group.

The canonization got underway on Saturday afternoon, February 3, as people began to gather in the church. Aware that the reporters and cameramen present would need certain photos before the ceremonies started, Fr. Nikolai Artemoff, dean of the cathedral, brought out the icon of Alexander Schmorell in anticipation of its formal presentation later in the day. Many photos were taken, a pre-canonization ceremony that would not have been imagined in earlier centuries. The icon showed Alexander Schmorell as the tall, brown-haired young man he was, wearing the white robe of a physician with a Red Cross arm band (he had been a medical student at Munich’s Maximilian University), his left hand raised in a gesture of greeting, the other holding a blood-red cross plus a white rose. He is standing against a pure gold background representing eternity and the kingdom of God.

As Father Nikolai explained to the journalists, the white rose in his hand symbolizes the White Rose group Schmorell co-founded with Hans Scholl in the spring of 1942. Before the arrests began the following February, the group succeeded — assisted by friends in many German and Austrian cities and towns — in widely distributing a series of six anti-Nazi leaflets. All six members of the core group were guillotined. (The story is powerfully told in an the Oscar-nominated film, “Sophie Scholl – The Final Days,” much of which was photographed in Munich.)

Press photos taken and interviews completed, at about 4 PM a procession of about two hundred people set out led by a cross bearer. Behind the cross were six bishops: Archbishop Mark (who leads the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia in Germany), Metropolitan Valentin of Orenburg (the Russian city where Schmorell was born), Metropolitan Onufriy of Czernowitz in Ukraine, Archbishop Feofan of Berlin, Bishop Michael of Geneva, and Bishop Agapit of Stuttgart. How many priests? I lost count.

The frigid air was challenging — it was about 15 degrees below zero Centigrade (5 degrees Fahrenheit), with snow and ice on the ground. Though the cemetery, Perlacher Forst, was just across the street, its entrance was several hundred meters away. Once inside the gate, we wound our way through tombstone-lined paths, first stopping to pray at the graves of Hans and Sophie School, the brother and sister who were the first to be executed from the White Rose group, and Christoph Probst, beheaded the same day — 22 February 1943. Here three tall black crosses stand side by side, a single cross piece linking the crosses over the Scholl graves. Sophie, the one woman in the White Rose inner circle, and the youngest, was 21 when she was killed. Today many German streets and squares are named in honor of Sophie and Hans Scholl, Alexander Schmorell, Christoph Probst and others executed for their part in the White Rose. Hans and Sophie came from a closely-knit Lutheran family. Christoph Probst was baptized in the Catholic Church a day before his execution.

Archpriest Nikolai Artemoff placing a candle of the grave of St Alexander Schmorell

The procession than continued to Alexander Schmorell’s resting place, not far away. A bouquet of white roses was resting against the rough surface of the tombstone and more flowers heaped over the grave. Embedded in the stone was a bronze Russian Orthodox crucifix. Memorial prayers — a panikhida — was sung, concluding with the melodic two-word chant, Vyechnaya Pamyat (eternal memory), sung repeatedly by all present. Every year there has been a panikhida sung at this grave on the 13th of July, the anniversary of Schmorell’s death, but this was the final panikhida. Now that he has been officially glorified, future services at his grave no longer have a penitential character.

The high point of the day came during the Saturday evening Vigil, which began at 5 PM and lasted three-and-a-half hours, by which time an almost full moon was shining through the windows. In the middle of the service, several icon stands were placed in the center of the church with candle stands behind. At least a hundred candles were lit, forming a curtain of light. Finally a procession of bishops, clergy and altar servers poured out of the sanctuary carrying an icon of Saint Alexander Schmorell followed by another icon crowded with images of New Martyrs of the twentieth century. Next came a huge silver-bound Gospel book, a copy that had been a gift from Russia’s last czar, Nicholas II, to Russian Orthodox Christians in Germany. The two icons and the Gospel book were solemnly placed side by side on the stands, then incensed. Finally everyone in the church, beginning with the six bishops, venerated the icon of the newly recognized saint.

“When they brought out the icon,” Nancy told me later that night, “it was such a climax, with the servers holding all those fans over the icons and the choir singing with such exaltation. It was as it there were neon arrows pointing at the icon of Alexander Schmorell and saying, ‘This is what really matters.’ It’s the Church pulling out all the stops. They couldn’t do more to make you look in that direction and feel the importance, the challenge, of this brave life. You couldn’t not get it. This is what the Church does in interpreting human events and letting us know what’s truly valuable. This is something that requires all the ceremony the Church is capable of. But it’s not ceremony for its own sake. It’s all meant to confront us with the inner meaning of a young man putting his head on the chopping block. The canonization ceremony pulls you out of ordinary time and confronts you with the message: consider this life and let it influence your own.”

At the Liturgy the following morning, the church was even more crowded than it had been for the Vigil. We were jammed together like cigarettes in a carton — it was challenging to make the sign of the cross without grazing your neighbors with your elbows. Perhaps as many people were present as would fill the church for the All-Night Easter service. (Also present on Sunday– given a special chair placed at the right end of the iconostasis — was Bishop Engelbert Siebler, representing the Catholic Archdiocese of Munich.)

In the Orthodox Church every Sunday is regarded as a little Easter, but rarely have I experienced so intense a paschal radiance. Resurrection was at the heart of Father Nikolai’s sermon, delivered just before communion. He reminded us that the name the White Rose group adopted for itself had been proposed by Alexander Schmorell. His suggestion came from a story in the novel The Brothers Karamazov, written by Schmorell’s most beloved author, Dostoevsky. In one chapter Christ comes back to earth, “softly, unobserved, and yet, strange to say, every one recognized Him.” He is suddenly present among the many people in Seville’s cathedral square, a place were the pavement is still warm from the burning of a hundred heretics. Responding to a mother’s desperate appeal, Christ raises from the dead a young girl whose open coffin was being carried across the square on its way to the cemetery. Flowers have been laid on her body. “The procession halts, the coffin is laid on the steps at [Christ’s] feet. He looks with compassion, and His lips softly pronounce the words, ‘Maiden, arise!’ and she arises. The little girl sits up in the coffin and looks round, smiling with wide-open wondering eyes, holding a bunch of white roses they had put in her hand.” This merciful action completed, he is recognized by the Grand Inquisitor, who orders Christ’s arrest.

The white rose is a paschal symbol, a sign of the victory of life over death.

That Alexander Schmorell would one day be canonized at this cathedral had been evident for years. He is shown among of a row of twenty-two martyrs of the twentieth-century included in an icon that has long been part of the cathedral’s iconostasis. After the Liturgy and the emptying out of the church, I went to look more carefully at that older icon. Schmorell is easily picked out — there he is, in the first row, third from the right, wearing a white robe. What is remarkable is that, within the group, he alone group has no halo, for at the time the icon was painted canonization was only anticipated. In one hand he holds a thin cross, in the other a scroll with these words 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!!”

One can imagine future icons of Saint Alexander of Munich will often use the same text while other iconographers may decide to use his last words, spoken to his lawyer as he was being taken to the guillotine: “I’m convinced that my life has to end now, early as it seems, because I have fulfilled my life’s mission. I wouldn’t know what else I have to do on this earth.”

In a time when fear is being sold every minute of the day, every day of the year — where would the “war on terror” be were we not prisoners of fear? — the pilgrimage to Munich to honor a saint who had freed himself from the tyranny of fear gave me an injection of pure courage.

(report written 9 February 2012)

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Extracts from Fr Nikolai Artemoff’s sermon:

Holy New Martyrs are glorified by the Church because, in the particular circumstances of their own times, they bore a clear witness to Christ and in so doing sacrificed their own lives. On July 13, 1943 Alexander Schmorell was executed by means of the guillotine in Munich’s Stadelheim Prison. On Sunday (in Russian, the “day of resurrection”) the 5th of February 2012, he shall take his place among the band of New Martyrs of Russia, to whom this cathedral church is dedicated.

The death of a martyr is always comprised of both the love for Christ as well as, through this love, the exposure of wickedness of evildoers in this world, and therefore also those who pave the way for Satan and his complict servant, the antichrist.

Alexander Schmorell’s favorite book was The Brothers Karamazov, from which the name “White Rose” hails, as a symbol of purity and resurrection (as evidenced in the resurrection of the girl at the appearance of Christ in Seville at the beginning of the “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor”). The path of Alexander Schmorell led from religious instruction which he received from priests in Munich, to the contribution of an Orthodox worldview via F.M. Dostoevsky in the catagorical repudiation of both regimes, enemies of man and idols that they have become of the “Fueher”, Hitler, as well as of Stalin, both nationalist and socialist. The “White Rose” considered Nazi rule as anti-Christian, but for Alexander Schmorell, no less anti-Christian was the regime in which his beloved was enslaved — Bolshevism. “I admit to my love of Russia without reservation. Therefore I also stand in opposition to Bolshevism.”

The last flyer of the White Rose primarily authored by Alexander Schmorell (Nr. IV) witnesses to his concept of the spiritual dimensions of this struggle in the name of God and his Son, Christ. He wrote:

“When he [that is, Hitler] blasphemously uses the name of the Almighty, he means the power of evil, the fallen angel, Satan. His mouth is the foul-smelling maw of Hell, and his might is at bottom accursed. True, we must conduct a struggle against the National Socialist terrorist state with rational means; but whoever today still doubts the reality, the existence of demonic powers, has failed by a wide margin to understand the metaphysical background of this war. Behind the concrete, the visible events, behind all objective, logical considerations, we find the irrational element: The struggle against the demon, against the servants of the Antichrist. Everywhere and at all times demons have been lurking in the dark, waiting for the moment when man is weak; when of his own volition he leaves his place in the order of Creation as founded for him by God in freedom; when he yields to the force of evil, separates himself from the powers of a higher order; and after voluntarily taking the first step, he is driven on to the next and the next at a furiously accelerating rate. Everywhere and at all times of greatest trial men have appeared, prophets and saints who cherished their freedom, who preached the One God and who with His help brought the people to a reversal of their downward course. Man is free, to be sure, but without the true God he is defenseless against the principle of evil. He is a like rudderless ship, at the mercy of the storm, an infant without his mother, a cloud dissolving into thin air.

“I ask you, you as a Christian wrestling for the preservation of your greatest treasure, whether you hesitate, whether you incline toward intrigue, calculation, or procrastination in the hope that someone else will raise his arm in your defense? Has God not given you the strength, the will to fight? […] Though we know that National Socialist power must be broken by military means, we are trying to achieve a renewal from within of the severely wounded German spirit.”

(with thanks to Katja Yurschak for the translation of Fr. Nikolai’s words)

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Hymns sung at the glorification of Saint Alexander of Munich (annual commemoration day July 13):

Troparion, tone 4:

Today a light adorns our glorious city, / having within it your holy relics, O Holy Martyr Alexander; / for which sake pray to Christ God / that He deliver us from all tribulations, / for gathered together in love we celebrate your radiant memory / imitating your bravery, / standing against the godless powers and enemies.

Kontakion, tone 4:

From your mother you did inherit the love of Christ, / and through the love of your care-giver you were nourished in the fear of God, O all-glorious one, / to Whom you did give thyself, O all-honorable Alexander, / and you diligently pray with the angels. / Entreat on behalf of all who honor your memory a forgiveness of their sins.

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A section of the web site of the Cathedral of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia is devoted to St Alexander Schmorell, with texts both in Russian and German:

A biographical essay (“Alexander Schmorell: a Witness in Dark Times”) is here: www.jimandnancyforest.com/2011/02/02/alexander-schmorell-a-witness-in-dark-times/

Russian translation of “Alexander Schmorell: a Witness in Dark Times”: http://www.sobor.de/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=272:alexander-schmorell-a-witness-in-dark-times&catid=79:alexander-schmorell-verherrlichung&Itemid=109&lang=ru

An English translation of Schmorell’s letters from prison:

A set of photos of the canonization:

A set of photos having to do of the White Rose:

Wikipedia entry about the White Rose:

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Jim Forest is international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship — www.incommunion.org — and is the author of many books — see: https://www.jimandnancyforest.com/books/ . He belongs to St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam and lives in Alkmaar, the Netherlands.

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