"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

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Wednesday, 13 December 2017


Thanks, once more, to Jim Forest for sending me this article.
Dan Berrigan's poem 'Some'
Jim Forest has just written a biography of a Jesuit priest, Daniel Berrigan, who died last year.
Why would an Orthodox Christian write a biography of a radical Roman Catholic priest, and why would an Orthodox Christian want to read such a thing? Jim Forest himself gives an answer to that specific question here: FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN, SJ: WHY SHOULD AN ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN BE INTERESTED IN HIM? by Jim Forest | 

“And just what is it,” my friend asked, “that was so Christ-revealing about Berrigan’s life?”

When he died last year, age 94, obituaries focused on the anti-war aspects of Berrigan’s life: he was eighteen months in prison for burning draft records in a protest against conscription of the young into the Vietnam War; then there was a later event in which he was one of eight people who hammered on the nose cone of a nuclear-armed missile. No one has kept count of his numerous brief stays in jail for other acts of war protest. He was handcuffed more than a hundred times.

But it raises other wider questions too.

For the last few years the “mainstream” media have focused on the phenomenon of the “religious right”, but fifty years ago the focus was more on the “religious left”, exemplified by people like Daniel Berrigan, protesting against the Vietnam War.

I first learned of Daniel Berrigan in 1969, through a radical Christian magazine called The Catonsville Roadrunner. The magazine was inspired by the actions of Daniel Berrigan and his brother Philip, who with several others had broken into an office containing records of military conscription and publicly burnt them. It became a legendary act of Christian civil disobedience

Ikon magazine cover, designed by Hugh Pawsey,
 my fellow student at St Chad’s College

Jim Forest himself was involved in a similar act of civil disobedience in Milwaukee, for which he was jailed.Those were interesting times, the late 1960s and early 1970s, the age of hippies and moon landings and radical Christian protests. Inspired by The Catonsville Roadrunner I and a group of friends launched our own radical Christian magazine in South Africa, called Ikon.

So I want to turn Jim Forest’s question around. Not “Why should Orthodox Christians be interested in the life of a Jesuit priest like Daniel Berrigan?” but why did so many people involved in the radical Christian scene of the late 1960s become interested in Orthodoxy?

One factor may have been that at that time Orthodoxy was peculiarly powerless.

In 1968 I visited St Sergius Orthodox Church in Paris, and there was a seminary in the crypt of the church where the students lived in humble and primitive conditions — sleeping cubicles separated by threadbare curtains, and an open drain running down the middle of the floor. That, to me, represented the poverty of him who came to be poor among the poor, rather than the power and prestige needed to maintain a religion.

Most of the traditionally Orthodox countries were under communist or Muslim rule, and in those places, Orthodox Christians were treated as second-class citizens, and deprived of civil rights. Many Orthodox Christians in the West were refugees and asylum seekers. or children of refugees and asylum seekers.

Another reason for the attraction of Orthodoxy for radical Christian activists was that Orthodoxy had a firm theological base. In the West, theological liberalism led to political conservatism and vice versa. Theological liberalism was embarked on a project to adapt the Christian faith to the modern world, and that meant adapting Christianity to support the status quo. Radical Christians wanted to change the status quo on earth, so that God’s kingdom would come and God’s will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.

G.K Chesterton said that the modern young man would never change the world, for he would always change his mind. Christians who are always changing their theology will never change the world.

This can be seen in the media expectations of Roman Pope Francis. They are looking to him to bring about change in the Roman Catholic Church. Will he change the theology and bring it up to date? But most of the time they are disappointed, because he criticises the state of the world from the point of view of existing theology — the wars, civil repression and exploitation that continue pretty much as they did in the 1960s.

There is much talk about “progressive” theology and “progressive” politics, but what do we mean by “progress”? As G.K. Chesterton put it, more than a century ago now:

Progress should mean that we are always changing the world to suit the vision. Progress does mean (just now) that we are always changing the vision. It should mean that we are slow but sure in bringing justice and mercy among men: it does mean that we are very swift in doubting the desirability of justice and mercy: a wild page from any Prussian sophist makes men doubt it. Progress should mean that we are always walking towards the New Jerusalem. It does mean that the New Jerusalem is always walking away from us. We are not altering the real to suit the ideal. We are altering the ideal: it is easier.
Silly examples are always simpler; let us suppose a man wanted a particular kind of world; say, a blue world. He would have no cause to complain of the slightness or swiftness of his task; he might toil for a long time at the transformation; he could work away (in every sense) until all was blue. He could have heroic adventures; the putting of the last touches to a blue tiger. He could have fairy dreams; the dawn of a blue moon. But if he worked hard, that high-minded reformer would certainly (from his own point of view) leave the world better and bluer than he found it. If he altered a blade of grass to his favourite colour every day, he would get on slowly. But if he altered his favourite colour every day, he would not get on at all.

And that is why I think that some radical Christian activists have been attracted to Orthodoxy. And that complement’s Jim Forest’s point about why Orthodox Christians should be interested in people like Daniel Berrigan — because people several people who have shared the interests of Daniel Berrigan have also become interested in Orthodoxy. So by all means and read Jim Forest’s book about Daniel Berrigan.

 Family and Friends Remember Father Daniel Berrigan, 

Legendary Antiwar Priest & Poet

part 1
part 2

Bishop Angaelos on the Persecution
of Egyptian Christians and their 
reaction to the murderous violence

From Retaliation to Resurrection

Dorothy Day and the LIGHT FROM THE EAST: Eastern Christianity, Fathers of the Desert, Dostoevsky

Dorothy Day read great literature all of her life and her reading especially included some of the Russian writers, most of all Dostoevsky. Her reading of authors from the East, which she shared with readers of The Catholic Worker, included not only fiction, but theology, monastic writings and history. She knew the monks from St. Procopius Abbey, the Eastern Catholic Benedictine monastery at Lisle, Illinois. The monks, some of whom were from “Belorrusia” as Dorothy spelt it, visited the Worker and gave days of recollection. One of the monks whom Dorothy frequently quoted was Rembert Sorg, OSB, who had written about a theology of work.
Brigid O’Shea Merriman recorded that there were two early mentions of St. Procopius Abbey in The Catholic Worker. In June of 1935 a vocation pamphlet written by Augustine Studeny, OSB, a monk of St. Procopius, was recommended in The Catholic Worker. In 1940 Dorothy mentioned that she had stopped at the Lisle Benedictine abbey in the course of one of her speaking tours (Searching for Christ; the Spirituality of Dorothy Day, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, p. 104).
Dorothy had developed a friendship with Helene Iswolsky, a Russian emigré who had come to know the monks at St. Procopius. The friendship between the two women was natural because of their shared personalist background. Iswolsky was the daughter of the Russian ambassador to France during World War I. Later, in France, she had joined Emmanuel Mounier in his personalist circles after Nicholas Berdyaev had looked her up (they were both Russian emigrés) and invited her to discussion groups at his apartment. It was in France that Iswolsky had become Catholic. (Miller, p. 361). Iswolsky encouraged Dorothy’s interest in St. Procopius and in Eastern liturgy and theology.
Merriman recounts that by 1943 St. Procopius “was well established as an ecumenical center whose special mission was to labor for the reunion of the Eastern (Orthodox) churches with Rome.” She also describes a reprint about St. Procopius in the September issue of The Catholic Worker: “Entitled ‘Slavonic Mission,’ it presented the Benedictine center, with its high school, college, seminary and its work among Slavonic immigrants in the Midwest, as well equipped to foster an understanding of Russian culture. The essay projected the abbey’s hope of sending Benedictines of the Eastern rite as missionaries to Russia as soon as this became feasible” (Merriman, pp. 104-105).
Dorothy had been affiliated with the English Benedictine congregation at Portsmouth, Rhode Island, where Ade Bethune, Catholic Worker artist, was a Benedictine Oblate from around 1942 until at least 1946. She later changed the locus of her affiliation to St. Procopius, and it was on April 26, 1955 that Dorothy became an oblate of the Benedictine Abbey in Lisle, Illinois. (Merriman, 101-104).
In her April 1957 column in The Catholic Worker Dorothy wrote about her profession at St. Procopius:
“Now I am a professed oblate of the St. Procopius family, and have been for the last two years, which means that I am a part of the Benedictine family all over the world, and a member of the Benedictine community at Lisle. Every month a newsletter comes from St. Procopius, from the pen of Fr. Richard, oblate master. My special love for St. Procopius is because its special function is to pray for the reunion of Rome and the Eastern Church. Their monks can offer Mass in the Eastern or Roman rite and when Fr. Chrysostom came to give us retreats at Maryfarm, we sang the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. St. Procopius is also to be the shrine of the Eastern saints in this country.”
Dorothy frequently quoted St. John Chrysostom, one of the Fathers of the Church, in her writings regarding pacifism and regarding the poor. For example, she pointed out in her March 1966 CW column, while reflecting that acts of violence do not solve problems, that St. John Chrysostom says, “in regard to our Lord’s sending us out as sheep among wolves, that if we become wolves ourselves, He is no longer with us.”
The influence of St. Francis on the Catholic Worker was so great that one might have expected Dorothy to become a Third Order Franciscan. The path to her choosing the Benedictines had included her early reading of the novels by Huysmans, one of which, The Oblate, told of the process of becoming a Benedictine lay oblate. Dorothy later also credited her reading about the Desert Fathers as a crucial influence in becoming an oblate. She wrote in the June 1943 CW, “I was converted to being an oblate by reading and re-reading The Desert Fathers.”
Peter Maurin had suggested to Dorothy that she read the Fathers of the Church. Dorothy’s l975 reminiscence indicates an even earlier reference from Anatole France in Thais to the Desert Fathers; Dorothy said about it: “…even in that satire the beauty of the saints shone through” (Merriman, p. 73-74). In her June 1943 column Dorothy wrote about a new book by Helen Waddell, The Fathers of the Desert. (Merriman says that she used the title The Fathers of the Desert, but that it was obvious from the information in that column and in later references that she meant Waddell’s book, The Desert Fathers.) Some of the Desert Fathers can be considered Eastern.
Merriman emphasized that the Desert Fathers had an influence on Dorothy’s spirituality, along with the positive approach of French personalism: “The sure confidence in God’s mercy which found its way into her spirituality was based upon a positive anthropology which runs through the Psalms, through the Christian personalists Mounier and Maritain, and upon the image of mercy presented by the Desert Fathers” (p. 103).
Merriman does not mention another important aspect of Dorothy’s interest in the Desert Fathers, that of their flight from the cities to escape military service. In her column in The Catholic Worker in February 1943 Dorothy emphasized their pacifism, quoting in addition to Waddell’s book, two complete volumes edited by Ernest A. Wallis Budge, keeper of the Assyrian and Egyptian antiquities of the British Museum: “A lot of these Desert Fathers, according to Dr. Budge, fled from the cities to the wilderness to escape military service.” Dorothy related her reading to the times she was living in during World War II, the campaign in Africa and letters from “Catholic Worker Gerry” in Syria saying, “It’s a good time to be reading about the Desert Fathers.”
In the same column Dorothy emphasized how much she had learned from the Desert Fathers about “personalism and communitarianism,” telling about how “Thousands of monasteries began then for people began to live together as well as to seek solitary places.” The monks practiced hospitality. In this context Merriman emphasizes Dorothy’s appreciation for Ephraim the Syrian (c. 306-373), and includes a quote from The Desert Fathers: “He was a quiet scholar, and without fail a man of hospitality to all who came to him. In the crisis of famine which visited his countryside, Ephraim ‘turned man of affairs, building a rough-and-ready hospital of three hundred beds, nursing and feeding those who had any spark of life in them, burying the dead.’ He wore himself out in the exercise of the works of mercy, much as did Dorothy in the twentieth century. Undoubtedly, she was inspired by his example, but also by the content and ardor of the saint’s prayer….” (p. 102).
In The Catholic Worker later in the same year (July-August 1943) Dorothy wrote again about the Desert Fathers and St. Ephraim as she was reflecting after a retreat about how in order to change the social order, one must spend time in prayer, go deeper, and change oneself. She wrote: “The Desert Fathers had these same ideas. When times got so bad (when there was universal conscription, for instance), they retreated by the tens of thousands to the desert wastes to pray, to work, and God knows what the world would have been without them. St. Ephraim came out when there was need and retired again to pray.”
In September Dorothy notified readers of The Catholic Worker that she would be taking a “sabbatical” from the busy Catholic Worker in order to have a time in the “desert” of quiet to pray. However, instead of taking the year she had planned to spend, Dorothy returned to the Worker within six months. Some Catholic Workers and others who knew Dorothy criticized Fr. John Hugo for this decision, only seeing the connection between her absence and his recommendation to “give up the things we love the most.” However, Merriman points out that Dorothy explicitly expressed her desire to have a “desert” experience: “The sabbatical was viewed by her as a desert experience. Her readings then and later included frequent rereadings of The Desert Fathers….” (Merriman, p.102). Another reason for a sabbatical was the closure of so many Catholic Worker houses because of all the young men going off to war.
Dorothy quoted at length from Fr. Rembert Sorg, OSB Eastern Rite, regarding the Desert Fathers and also his pamphlet, Towards a Benedictine Theology of Manual Labor. She noted in the October 1949 CW that the pamphlet could be obtained from St. Procopius Abbey, Benedictine Orient, Lisle, Illinois, adding:
“It is duplicated there for private distribution. All readers of Orate Fratres know Father Rembert himself for his very splendid articles… In the whole study of labor and of work there is usually an acceptance of our capitalistic industrial system and the acceptance of the machine as the means to do away with human labor… But here is a book by Father Sorg which is of exceptional interest to all in the lay apostolate which has more than a philosophy of labor, it has a theology of labor…
“Father Sorg’s treatise goes back to St. Anthony of Egypt who rejoiced in never having been troublesome to anyone else on account of labor of his hands. The great rules of St. Pachomius and St. Basil both called for manual labor. St. Jerome said that the monasteries of Egypt would accept no monks who would not do manual work and in St. Basil the strict rule of manual labor is inculcated…
“Father Sorg’s book is utterly delightful and he has chosen a wealth of quotations from the early Fathers. St. John Chrysostom writes: “The sun being risen, they depart, each one to their work, gathering thence the Lords supply for the needy.” In St. John Chrysostom’s Homilies, “almsgiving is the love of Christ. The manual labor of monks a sacred spiritual thing and a Holy Communion.
“Nowhere have I seen love so in flower, nowhere such quick compassion or hospitality so eager,” says St. Rufinus… ‘It was the custom, not only among these, but among almost all the Egyptian monks, to hire themselves out at harvest time as harvesters; and one among them would earn eighty measures of corn more or less, and offer the greater part of it to the poor so that not only the hungry folk of that countryside were fed, but ships were sent to Alexandria, laden with corn, to be divided among such as were prisoners in jails, or as were foreigners and in need, for there was not enough poverty in Egypt to consume the fruit of their compassion and their lavishness.’
“The third purpose of the monks’ labor was ascetical. “In avoiding the sweat of the face, the drudgery of the thorns and the thistles, all of which are the punishment of sin, and which induce sloth and atrophy, the rich shirk work itself, which is not a punishment of sin, but a glorious pleasurable exercise of human nature’s God-given faculties…
“I could write much more on this whole subject but I am sure that what I have written will induce our friends to write to Father Sorg and get this very inspiring booklet.”
Among other writers on Eastern, and specifically Russian spirituality, Dorothy quoted on several occasions G. P. Fedotov’s Russian Spirituality. In an article on “The Incompatibility of Love and Violence” in the May 1951 CW she related a scene in that book to Peter Maurin’s reaction when some of the intellectuals or people in charge of CW houses acted against principles of the Catholic Worker, his principles:
On two occasions Peter almost left the Catholic Worker which he had founded. Once when some of the young intellectuals wanted to throw out the “dead wood,” “the rotten lumber,” (meaning the poor) and concentrate on the “message,” on propaganda. And once when two of the men who were in charge of the house struck others. In his horror and indignation he spoke strongly. On the first instance he arose from the round table where the discussion was going on and said, “let us go, let us leave this to them,” like the retiring abbot in the writing of G. P. Fedotov’s collection of Russian Spirituality. And on the other occasion he stated strongly that if he ever again saw evidence of violence such as he had just witnessed, he would leave the work.
In January 1954 she mentioned reading Russian Spirituality and Pares’ history of Russia, noting that, “there is something very steadying about reading history to counteract the hysteria of the radio.” Later, in the September 1962 CW, Dorothy referred again to Fedotov’s book in regard to the power of the Holy Name. She wrote:
“Do we believe this, do we believe in the Holy Name and the power of the Holy Name? It was reading the Way of a Pilgrim, published by Harper, and also included in Russian Spirituality by Fedotov, a collection of the writings of the Russian saints, that brought me first to a knowledge of what the Holy Name meant in our lives… Fordham Russian Center has a pamphlet ‘On the Invocation of the Holy Name’ which teaches us to pray without ceasing with every breath we draw, with every beat of our hearts.”
It may have been Helene Iswolsky who introduced Dorothy to the great Russian theologian, Vladimir Solovyov. (Hans Urs von Balthasar later chose him as one of the models in hisThe Glory of the Lord, Vol. III, Lay Styles (Ignatius Press), and John Paul II points to him as one of the sources from which Catholic thought can be enriched in his encyclical Fides et Ratio.). Helene gave talks at the Worker on Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Solovyov, putting together the ideas of these authors. One of the occasions is recounted in “On Pilgrimage,”CW, October 1949:
“The first week in September we had Helene Iswolsky at the farm at Newburgh, giving a course on Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Solovyov, the three great Russians. ‘In a field where poison grows,’ she began her course, ‘you will find its antidote. The same soil produces both.’ She spoke of Solovyov who told of the glories of the Incarnation, and is the link between the east and the west. She spoke of the three great men who emphasized the dignity of the human person. ‘To love Russia,’ Berdyaev said, ‘is the way of the cross.’ These three men wrote of the struggle of man towards God and to all of them the golden key which opened the doors of prisons and led out of darkness was the key of love. To listen to such talks is not only to learn more of Christ, but to learn to love the Russians who are truly Christ-bearers in their sufferings and poverty. The ruthlessness of the revolution, Helene Iswolsky said, was due to the degradation of the human person from which they have suffered for centuries. We hope Miss Iswolsky will give us some more evenings this winter.”
Dorothy especially quoted Solovyov regarding his book, The Meaning of Love. In 1948 she wrote, “Recently I have been reading The Meaning of Love by Solovyov, and he refused to accept the idea, so universally accepted, that love is an illusion, a lure, succumbed to so that the purpose of procreation is fulfilled, and then vanishing” (On Pilgrimage, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1999, p. 199).
Reflecting on the difficulty of continuing to love when the first special emotion and idealization of the loved one has passed, Dorothy looked to Solovyov for insight. She quotes him at length:
“It is well known to everyone that in love there inevitably exists a special idealization of the beloved object, which presents itself to the lover in an entirely different light from that in which outsiders see it. I speak here of light not merely in a metaphorical sense; it is a matter here not only of a special moral and intellectual estimate, but moreover of a special sensuous reception; the lover actually sees, visually received what others do not. And if for him too this light of love quickly fades away, yet does it follow that it was false, that it was only a subjective illusion?
“…The true significance of love consists not in the simple experience of this feeling but what is accomplished by means of it in the work of love.
“For love it is not enough to feel for itself the unconditional significance of the beloved object, but it is necessary effectively to impart or communicate this significance to this object…
“…Each man comprises in himself the image of God. Theoretically and in the abstract, this Divine image is known to us in mind and through mind, but in love it is known in the concrete and in life. And if this revelation of the ideal nature, ordinarily concealed by its material manifestation, is not confined in love to an inward feeling, but at times becomes noticeable also in the sphere of external feelings, then so much greater is the significance we are bound to acknowledge for love as being from the very first the visible restoration of the Divine image in the world of matter….
It may have been exactly the insistence of Solovyov on fostering “an integral world view that would harmonize the heights of theoretical speculation with everyday social and personal need” (Robert F. Slesinski, Communio, Winter 1999, p.778) that drew Dorothy to his ideas. One of the things she frequently mentioned was the desire of Peter Maurin and herself to make a correlation of the material and the spiritual.
In the July/August issue Dorothy shared with the readers of The Catholic Worker that she used materials from both Solovyov and the writings of Chekhov in her talks:
“All winter I had been reading Chekhov, his letters, stories and novelettes and the very basic philosophy of work that he expressed in his plays and stories gave me good ammunition in my talks about man’s necessity to earn his living by the sweat of his brow, not to be a parasite on the social body, but mindful of the common good. I talked too on sex and chastity, and in addition to the Gospel teaching of Jesus, I cited Solovyov’s book, The Meaning of Love….”
Dorothy visited Russia in 1971. She mentioned in her reflections in the November 1971CW Solovyov, “that philosopher of ecumenism, who so influenced Dostoevsky’s thinking,” and noted that Helene Iswolsky was speaking to her as she wrote, commenting: “Solovyov is the prophet of ecumenism, and indeed of everything good in Russia.”
In “On Pilgrimage,” March-April 1978 CW Dorothy mentioned again her friendship with Helene Iswolsky, in some rambling reflections of everyday events. She had been listening to an opera: “Listening to Eugene Onegin being broadcast on radio from the Metropolitan Opera House-delightful, haunting music. This was Helene Iswolsky’s favorite opera as a young girl in Russia, much as my sister’s and mine was La Boheme.”
It was Dostoevsky among the Russian novelists who struck the deepest chord with Dorothy during her adolescence, long before she became a Catholic, as well as throughout her life at the Catholic Worker. William Miller named some of the Russian authors she read in his biography of Dorothy: “She read the novels of Artsybashev, Turgenev, Gorki, Chekhov and above all Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.” Miller especially stressed the influence of Dostoevsky: “She would, in fact, throughout her life, be a passionate devotee of Russian literature, and in time the genius of Dostoevsky recommended itself to her so strongly that his effect on her was oracular and remained so all of her life (Dorothy Day, a Biography,Harper and Row, 1982, p. 36).
In fact, William Miller recounted how Stanley Vishnewski, who spent his life at the Worker, remembered telling another Worker, Gerry Griffin, that “the only way he would ever understand the Catholic Worker was by reading Dostoevsky” (Miller, p. 326). As late as May 1973 Dorothy Day wrote in The Catholic Worker, “I do not think I could have carried on with a loving heart all these years without Dostoevsky’s understanding of poverty, suffering, and drunkenness.”
In The Long Loneliness Dorothy wrote about her early reading of the Russian authors and her trouble in finding Christians who lived the great insights she found there:
“The Russian writers appealed to me too, and I read everything of Dostoevsky, as well as the stories of Gorki and Tolstoy. Both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy made me cling to a faith in God, and yet I could not endure feeling an alien in it. I felt that my faith had nothing in common with that of Christians around me” (The Long Loneliness, HarperSanFrancisco, 1952, 1997, pp. 42-43).
Her writing brings out her passionate response to Dostoevsky: “I could not hear of Sonya’s reading the Gospel to Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment without turning to it myself with love. I could not read Ippolyte’s rejection of his ebbing life and defiance of God in The Idiot without being filled with an immense sense of gratitude to God for life and a desire to make some return” (The Long Loneliness, p. 108).
Miller adds to her quotes from her earlier reading of the great novelist: “The characters, Alyosha and The Idiot, testified to Christ in us. I was moved to the depths of my being by the reading of these books during my early twenties when I, too, was tasting the bitterness and the dregs of life and shuddered at its hardness and cruelty” (Miller, p. 154).
Some of the passages that Dorothy quoted often from Dostoevsky are very well known; many who never read Dostoevsky became familiar with some of the themes of his writings through her. A number of these came from The Brothers Karamazov. She quoted the book so often that sometimes she simply refers to it as The Brothers.
Less well known even to those who love Dorothy Day’s writing is her emphasis on the passages from The Brothers Karamazov on monasticism, and even on fasting. Her interest in monasticism and in profound spirituality is reflected in her choice of this passage to present to readers as a model. In her book On Pilgrimage, she declares that on fasting she will not quote Father Lacouture or Father Hugo (her retreat masters), but rather the monk, Father Zossima:
‘”The world says, You have desires, and so satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the most rich and powerful. Don’t be afraid of satisfying them and even multiply your desires… I knew one “champion of freedom” who told me himself that, when he was deprived of tobacco in prison, he was so wretched at the privation that he almost went and betrayed his cause for the sake of getting tobacco again! And such a man says, “I am fighting for the cause of humanity.”
”How can such a one fight, what is he fit for? He is capable perhaps of some action quickly over, but he cannot hold out long. And it is no wonder that the people instead of gaining freedom have sunk to slavery and instead of serving the cause of brotherly love and the union of humanity have fallen on the contrary, into dissension and isolation. The monastic way is different. Obedience, fasting and prayer are laughed at, yet only through them lies the way to real, true freedom'” (Dorothy Day, On Pilgrimage, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1999, pp. 102-103).
In February 1942 when Dorothy was under attack for her pacifist stand, she spoke of love, the love of Christ which was so different from the starving of whole populations or the bombardment of open cities. She insisted that “love is not killing, it is the laying down of one’s life for one’s friend.” And then she quoted at length from Dostoevsky’s monk, Fr. Zossima. She said she quoted him because the accusation “holier than thou” was also made against the Catholic Workers, who must, like everyone else, admit guilt, participation in the social order which had resulted in the monstrous crime of war.
“Hear Fr. Zossima, in the Brothers Karamazov: ‘Love one another, Fathers,’ he said, speaking to his monks. ‘Love God’s people. Because we have come here and shut ourselves within these walls, we are no holier than those that are outside, but on the contrary, from the very fact of coming here, each of us has confessed to himself that he is worse than others, than all men on earth… And the longer the monk lives in his seclusion, the more keenly he must recognize that. Else he would have no reason to come here.
‘When he realizes that he is not only worse than others, but that he is responsible to all men for all and everything, for all human sins, national and individual, only then the aim of our seclusion is attained. For know, dear ones, that every one of us is undoubtedly responsible for all men and everything on earth, not merely through the general sinfulness of creation, but each one personally for all mankind and every individual man. For monks are not a special sort of man, but only what all men ought to be. Only through that knowledge, our heart grows soft with infinite, universal, inexhaustible love. Then every one of you will have the power to win over the whole world by love and to wash away the sins of the world with your tears… Each of you keep watch over your heart and confess your sins to yourself unceasingly… Hate not the atheists, the teachers of evil, the materialists, and I mean not only the good ones-for there are many good ones among them, especially in our day-hate not even the wickedness. Remember them in your prayers thus: Save, O Lord, all those who have none to pray for them, save too all those who will not pray. And add, it is not in pride that I make this prayer, O Lord, for I am lower than all men…'”
One of the best known quotes from Dorothy Day is, “All my life I have been haunted by God.” Those who see the play written and presented about her called Haunted by God may not know that the quote comes from Dostoevsky’s The Possessed.
In the book she wrote about her conversion, From Union Square to Rome, Dorothy reflects on her reading of Dostoevsky and shares some passages:
Through those years I read all of Dostoevsky’s novels and it was, as Berdyaev says, a profound spiritual experience. The scene in Crime and Punishment where the young prostitute reads from The New Testament to Raskolnikov, sensing sin more profound than her own, which weighed upon him; that story The Honest Thief; those passages in The Brothers Karamazov; the sayings of Father Zossima, Mitya’s conversion in jail, the very legend of the Grand Inquisitor, all this helped to lead me on…”
This reflection includes an unforgettable story:
“Do you remember that little story that Grushenka tells in The Brothers Karamazov? “Once upon a time there was a peasant woman, and a very wicked woman she was. And she died and did not leave a single good deed behind. The devils caught her and plunged her into a lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers he could remember to tell God. ‘She once pulled up an onion in her garden,’ said he, and gave it to a beggar woman. And God answered, ‘You take that onion then, hold it out to her on the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you pull her out of the lake, let her come to Paradise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.’ The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her. ‘Come,” said he, “catch hold and I’ll pull you out.’ And he began cautiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her out when the other sinners in the lake, seeing how she was being drawn out, began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with her. But she was a very wicked woman and she began kicking them. ‘I’m to be pulled out, not you. It’s my onion, not yours.’ As soon as she said that, the onion broke. And the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day. So the angel wept and went away.'”
Dorothy added her comment, “Sometimes in thinking and wondering at God’s goodness to me, I have thought that it was because I gave away an onion. Because I sincerely loved His poor, He taught me to know Him. And when I think of the little I ever did, I am filled with hope and love for all those others devoted to the cause of social justice” (Robert Ellsberg, ed., Selected Writings of Dorothy Day, 1983, 1992, pp. 5-6).
Later references to the onion story include Dorothy’s article, “Love is the Measure,” in the June 1946 CW, where she faces the host of problems in the world and how a person can respond to them, how it might be possible to make a better world. Her solution includes giving away an onion:
“What we would like to do is change the world-make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And to a certain extent, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, of the poor, of the destitute-the rights of the worthy and the unworthy poor in other words, we can to a certain extent change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever widening circle will reach around the world. We can give away an onion.”
In May 1939 Dorothy wrote a reflection called: “Hell is Not to Love Any More.” Dorothy sometimes quoted Bernanos when she mentioned this phrase; it appears in The Diary of a Country Priest. Miller points out that the original source for this line is Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: “Fathers and teachers,” says Dostoevsky’s Father Zossima in a conversation with his fellow monks just before his death, ‘What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love'” (Miller, p. 326).
Her serious study of Dostoevsky is clear from Miller’s commentary: “In September she noted that she had just finished Dostoevsky’s The Raw Youth. She made a brief comment: “Many of the ideas of The Possessed and The Brothers [Karamozov] are in that early novel. Versiloff a more mature Stavragin, Berdyaev said. I wish I had his [Berdyaev’s] book on Dostoevsky. I have only a defective copy with 50 pages missing” (Miller, p. 334). Another example of her awareness of intellectual currents of thought, especially as regarding Dostoevsky, appeared in her October 1953 “On Pilgrimage” column where she brought to readers’ attention “Henri de Lubac’s (S.J.) The Drama of Atheist Humanism which treats of the writings of Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, Comte and the answer which Dostoevsky gives to their disbelief.”
In concrete situations, Dorothy’s reflections included Dostoevky’s characters and their experiences. For example, when Peter Maurin was beginning to become ill and was not able to think so clearly and the noise in the house, the constant talking by guests with their problems was overwhelming to him. He was unable to think, but he never complained. Miller shows how Dorothy relates this to her reading:
Thinking of Peter, Dorothy then thought of Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin, who, like Maurin, “is described as entirely passive, [who] willingly accepts suffering, is easily put upon, answers offense by begging forgiveness, and exaggerates the good in others while constantly overlooking evil.” Dostoevsky, she said, described this “submissiveness” as “the most fearful force that can exist in the world” (Miller, p. 373). She referred in May 1974 to the character of Myshkin, especially in terms of the term “Holy Fools,” which she said had a “special significance in Russian literature and is used to describe Myshkin in The Idiot, a truly Christ-like figure.
Dorothy noted here as she had on other occasions that so many at the Catholic Worker considered “holy fools in the eyes of our friends and readers.” However, in this column she mentioned how it was used again in relation to Solzhenitsyn in an article in Newsweek.
Through many of Dorothy’s experiences she was able to relate to Dostoevsky. Having been jailed on several occasions for her principles, she understood the despair and suffering of prisoners and the difficulty of maintaining one’s faith and hope in prison. She quoted Dostoevsky in the September 1940 CW as saying in several of his books that “it is possible for a man to lead a perfect life even in jail.” In January 1974 she said she had a “goodly selection of books about prisons and prisoners, beginning with Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead.”
In difficult time Dorothy often remembered the scene of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov. She included that scene in a recommended reading list in her early book, House of Hospitality. In that same book in chapter nine she described how she felt low and oppressed about discouraged Catholic Workers who were weary of the idea of freedom and personal responsibility. She related this problem to the passage: “Today I just happened to light on Dostoevsky’s ‘Grand Inquisitor’ which was most apropos. Freedom–how men hate and chafe under it, how unhappy they are with it.”
Reflecting on the worst violence of war, Dorothy turned to the Grand Inquisitor scene. In the March 1966 CW, during the Vietnam War she wrote,
“Of course, there were, and always will be, great gaps in my understanding of such questions as the problem of evil in the world and God’s permission of it. I cringe still at Ivan Karamazov’s portrayal of ‘a God that permits’ the torture of children, such torture as is going on today in the burning alive of babies in Vietnam. Theologians debate situation ethics and the new morality (leaving out of account the problem of means and ends) while the screams of the flaming human torches, civilians and soldiers, rise high to heaven. The only conclusion I have ever been able to reach is that we must pray to God to increase our faith, a faith without which one cannot love or hope. ‘Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief.'”
Her own identification as a writer with Dostoevsky is apparent in the chapter in her book,Loaves and Fishes, “The Insulted and the Injured.” It begins:
“Last week, stopping to browse as I passed a second-hand bookstore on Fourth Avenue I came across a battered old copy of Dostoevsky’s The Insulted and the Injured, a story which I had not read for many years. It was only twenty-five cents. I got it, and started reading it that very evening.
“It is the story of a young author-it might be Dostoevsky himself-of the success of his first book, and of how he read it aloud to his foster father. The father said, “It’s simply a little story, but it wrings your heart. What’s happening all around you grows easier to understand and to remember, and you learn that the most downtrodden, humblest man is a man, too, and a brother.” I thought as I read these words, “That is why I write” (Loaves and Fishes, Orbis Books, 1963, 1997, p. 75).
A few of the lines which Dorothy quoted frequently from Dostoevsky are sometimes attributed to her instead of to the great Russian author. One of these is “The World will be Saved by Beauty.” Her January 1973 “On Pilgrimage” column explains the deeper meaning of the phrase and why she quoted it so frequently:
“Beauty will save the world,” Dostoevsky wrote. I just looked up this quotation in Konstantin Mochulsky’s Dostoevsky, His Life and Work…In a paragraph on page 224, in speaking of art, Dostoevsky is quoted as saying, “It has its own integral organic life and it answers man’s innate need of beauty without which, perhaps he might not want to live upon earth.”
When a man is in discord with reality, conflict…the thirst for beauty and harmony appears in him with its greatest force. Art is useful here because it pours in energy, sustains the forces, strengthens our feeling of life… Man accepts beauty without any conditions and so, simply because it is beauty, with veneration he bows down before it, not asking why it is useful and what one can buy with it… Beauty is more useful than the simply useful, for it is the ultimate goal of being. On this height, the way of art meets with the way of religion…
It was Jack English [Catholic Worker from Cleveland] who, in one of his letters from the Trappist Monastery in Georgia, wrote to me that line from Dostoevsky’s notebook, ‘Beauty will save the world.’
Dorothy’s reflections on beauty and Dostoevsky’s phrase on other occasions included her appreciation of the beauty of nature and her ability to see beauty even in those who were suffering. In the September 1974 CW she wrote:
The world will be saved by beauty, Dostoevsky wrote, and Solzhenitsyn quoted it in his Nobel talk. I look back on my childhood and remember beauty. The smell of sweet clover in a vacant lot, a hopeful clump of grass growing up through the cracks of a city pavement. A feather dropped from some pigeon. A stalking cat. Ruskin wrote of “the duty of delight,” and told us to lift up our heads and see the cloud formations in the sky. I have seen sunrises at the foot of a New York street, coming up over the East River. I have always found a strange beauty in the suffering faces which surround us in the city. Black, brown and grey heads bent over those bowls of food, that so necessary food which is always there at St. Joseph’s House on First St., prepared each morning by Ed Forand or some of the young volunteers. We all enter into the act of hospitality, one way or another. So many of those who come in to eat return to serve, to become part of the “family.”
Dorothy was sometimes able to create beauty in simplicity and even poverty and appreciated the gift of others who did so. She told the story of what happened when one family joined a Catholic Worker farm and destroyed the beauty in the name of looking poor:
Another family moving in with us, on one of our Catholic Worker farms, felt that the beautifying which had made the farmhouse and its surroundings a charming spot was not consistent with a profession of poverty. They broke up the rustic benches and fence, built by one of the men from the Bowery who had stayed with us, and used them for firewood. The garden surrounding the statue of the Blessed Virgin, where we used to say the rosary, was trampled down and made into a woodyard filled with chips and scraps left from the axe which chopped the family wood. It was the same with the house: the curtains were taken down, the floor remained bare, there were no pictures-the place became a scene of stark poverty, and a visiting bishop was appalled at the “poverty.” It had looked quite comfortable before, and one did not think of the crowded bedrooms or the outhouse down the hill, or the outdoor cistern and well where water had to be pumped and put on the wood stove in the kitchen to heat. Not all these hardships were evident. (Dorothy Day, “Reflections During Advent, Part Two: The Meaning of Poverty,” Ave Maria, December 3, 1966, p. 21).
Peter Maurin’s program had three aspects: cult, culture and cultivation. The culture part was related to many aspects of culture, including beauty and to folk art, expressions of the exuberance and joy and thankfulness for life. The Catholic Worker Houses of Hospitality were not all works of mercy and worship, important as these were. Worship (cult) was complemented at times by “culture.” In an article on “Education and Work” in the September 1953 CW Dorothy wrote:
If we had this good foundation of productive work, culture would grow from it. Folk songs, folk art, folk dancing, are expression of the exuberance and joy and thankfulness for life. Cultivation and culture are based on Cult, which is our Holy Faith.
We have had two and three Masses a day at Peter Maurin farm for the past month. There is the rosary, prime, compline, vespers at Maryfarm. There is culture, which is the drawing which little Mac Smith does, and all the children love to do, and the reading and the listening to music, and the making of it. At Maryfarm Hector Black gave us a wonderful concert this summer on our old piano which he tuned. At Peter Maurin farm, we all joined in singing, Michael with Russian songs, Fr. Wencelaus with Polish, Stanley with Lithuanian, Fr. Pinet and the three seminarians who were visiting with French songs, and the Smith children with calypso!
A reflection on beauty which illustrates this theme so well was written by Dorothy in her “On Pilgrimage” column in the February 1955 CW:
“There is a poor little church down in that section, a frame building and painted a bright swampy green. It was light and warm inside and had the feeling of a much loved place. There was a shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe and no matter how garish the decorations, this presentation of Our Lady is always of unutterable beauty. She is the patroness of the Americas and I love to visit her in the shrines, and make special requests there. They are usually in the neighborhoods of the poor.”
In the midst of busy houses of hospitality, Dorothy sometimes found time to listen to beautiful music. In the October 1945 CW she described one such occasion:
“I went out to the kitchen to make fudge…Gerry wanted to mail it to Jack Thornton for Christmas and the package had to get off before Monday and there was no time Friday or Saturday. . . we listened to the symphony while the fudge, made of brown sugar and milk, boiled on the stove. The symphony was Tschaikovsky’s Fifth, the Pathetique, the same one my brother and I listened to while we waited for his wife to have her first baby. Such music to accompany our thoughts of life and death.”
A passage from Dostoevsky which has become closely associated with Dorothy because she quoted it so often comes from The Brothers Karamazov. A society woman goes to Fr. Zossima to speak about her lack of faith and how to achieve immortality. The woman says she likes to love, but wants an immediate reward. Fr. Zossima’s response is, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” This phrase sustained Workers through difficult moments in Houses of Hospitality when the problems were overwhelming and guests were often anything but grateful. The rush of romantic emotion often associated with helping the poor faded after a few days or weeks in a House of Hospitality and Workers had to be sustained by something much deeper. In the postcript to The Long Loneliness, Dorothy wrote: “…the final word is love. At times it has been, in the words of Father Zossima, a harsh and dreadful thing, and our very faith in love has been tried through fire” (The Long Loneliness, p. 285).
In her Spring Appeal in the April 1958 CW Dorothy explained how it was possible to go on even when love in practice might be harsh and dreadful:
“We are called to be saints, St. Paul said, and Peter Maurin called on us to make that kind of society where it was easier for men to be saints. Nothing less will work. Nothing less is powerful enough to combat war and the all-encroaching state.
“To be a saint is to be a lover, ready to leave all, to give all. Dostoevsky said that love in practice was a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams, but if ‘we see only Jesus’ in all who come to us: the lame, the halt and the blind, who come to help and to ask for help, then it is easier.”
Writing in the Houston Catholic Worker about Dorothy Day and Dostoevsky in September-October 1966, Joe Peabody described very well the attitude toward the poor in both the Catholic Worker Movement and in Dostoevsky: “The same respectful, yet realistic, attitude toward people is implied in the Catholic worker philosophy. Neither tries to unravel the mystery of God’s presence in the poor. Neither idealizes them. But both realize that the poor are icons of Jesus.”
Writing late in her life on May Day of 1976 Dorothy reflected on the beginnings of the Catholic Worker movement, the philosophers with whom Peter kept the Workers in touch, and the suffering of the poor served by the Catholic Worker. Again, she brought in the famous phrase from The Brothers Karamazov:
“Sometimes life is so hard, we foolishly look upon ourselves as martyrs, because it is almost as though we were literally sharing in the sufferings of those we serve. It is good to remember to clutch to our aching hearts those sayings of Fr. Zossima–‘Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.'”
Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XX, No. 3, May-June 2000.

The World will be saved by Beauty

The Life of Dorothy Day: Robert Ellsberg Extended Interview

Robert Ellsberg Keynote "Dorothy Day For Today"

Tuesday, 12 December 2017


mosaic at the church of Sts Cosmas & Damian in Rome

At different periods of my life, Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen were spiritual parents to me. Both were excellent confessors and counsellors. Both made it possible for me to share parts of myself that were painful, awkward and embarrassing. Each helped me survive hard times and survive close encounters with despair. So I say at the beginning that whatever light I can shine on them is not the result simply of studying their writing, identifying major themes, trying to see where their thoughts converge or diverge, or analyzing them as if I were studying them through a telescope. They were both people who played — indeed still play — a significant role in my life.

For all their differences, they had a great deal in common. Both were Europeans who made their home in North America. Both lived a life that centred in the Eucharist. Both were Catholic priests. Both were deeply responsive to the suffering of others. Both were involved in opposition to war, racism and social injustice, for which they were sometimes regarded as liberals or even radicals, yet both took a dim view of popular political ideologies, for which they were sometimes regarded as conservatives. Liberal? Conservative? Neither label fits.

Both were restless, searching men.

Thomas Merton entered the limelight after the publication of his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. In it, he recounts one of the hardest decisions he faced as a young man — whether to become a monk or to be a full-time member of a community of hospitality, Friendship House, in Harlem. He had been volunteering at Friendship House while teaching at St. Bonaventure’s University. Even after deciding on the monastic path, a part of Merton continued to feel a powerful connection with those who centred themselves in the works of mercy, especially the Catholic Worker movement that Dorothy Day had founded.

Once grafted into monastic life at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, he seemed to say there was no better place on earth to be than his contemplative outpost in rural Kentucky. But in fact it wasn’t easy for him to maintain stability. Some of Merton’s letters in later years almost catch fire with complaints about the shortcoming of life in his chosen monastery. On several occasions, Merton sought permission to leave Gethsemani with the idea of sharing in the life of a poorer, smaller, more primitive monastery either in Latin America or some other part of the world. Yet one of the remarkable achievements of his life was how steadfast he was in his monastic; he remained a monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani from 1941 until his death his in 1968. Still, there was a basic restlessness. It is somehow appropriate that he should die while on pilgrimage on the other side of the planet while attending a monastic conference in Thailand after weeks of travel in India and Sri Lanka.

Henri had no monastic vows to limit his travels nor was his bishop in Utrecht inclined to rein him in. His restlessness brought him from Holland to America. He taught at Notre Dame, then Yale, then Harvard, but could not bring himself to stay at any of these distinguished institutions. Searching for community, he was for an extended period a temporary brother at a Trappist monastery, but found monastic life, though it helped clear his mind and re-center him, wasn’t what he was searching for. He had a sabbatical in Latin America and for a time thought he was perhaps called to remain there, but then decided this also wasn’t his calling. He finally found a home for himself not in academia or monastic life but with the L’Arche community in Canada — not among the best and the brightest but the mentally disadvantaged plus their downwardly-mobile assistants. But even there he was often on the move.

Like Merton, Henri died while traveling — two heart attacks in his homeland, Holland, while en route to Russia where he intended to make a film about Rembrandt’s painting of the Return of the Prodigal Son.

There are still other Merton-Nouwen similarities:

Both Merton and Nouwen produced a flood of books, many of which refuse to go out-of-print. Few writers on religious life have been so widely read or so often translated into other languages as these two. Thanks to their writings, both still have a huge influence on the lives of many people decades after their deaths. Both had a remarkable gift for communicating to others the fact that to follow Christ is a journey of endless pilgrimage.

Both of them died relatively young. Merton age 53, Henri at 64.

Another commonality: They had a shared appreciation of the Orthodox Church and deep distress regarding the Great Schism. Both felt that the healing of East-West divisions within Christianity could be assisted by a process of East-West integration in one’s spiritual life. As Merton put this in one of his journal-based books, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:

If I can unite in myself the thought and devotion of Eastern and Western Christen-dom, the Greek and the Latin Fathers, the Russian and the Spanish mystics, I can prepare in myself the reunion of divided Chris¬tians. From that secret and unspoken unity in myself can eventually come a visible and manifest unity of all Christians. If we want to bring together what is divided, we cannot do so by imposing one division upon the other. If we do this, the union is not Christian. It is political and doomed to furth¬er conflict. We must contain all the divided worlds in ourselves and transcend them in Christ.
Both of them had a perceptive appreciation of icons as focal points of prayer and contemplation and as non-verbal theological declarations. It’s this commonality I’d like to focus on today. Merton and Nouwen have played a major role in this quiet movement of rediscovering icons and their role both in private and communal prayer. It is partly thanks to the two of them that, in recent years, one often finds icons — an art form chiefly associated with Orthodox Christianity — in Catholic and even Protestant churches as well as in retreat centers, monasteries, homes and offices.

Before going further, let me explain how these two gifted men enter my life.

My contact with Merton started in the summer of 1961 not long after I had been granted an early discharge from the U.S. Navy as a conscientious objector and had joined the Catholic Worker community in New York City, a house of hospitality mainly for homeless street people. At the time I had the idea that the Catholic Worker would be a way station en route to the monastery, a vocational aspiration that had been in part nurtured by reading Merton’s autobiography.

I was astonished to discover that Dorothy Day, leader of the Catholic Worker, was one of Merton’s correspondents. Aware I was a Merton reader, she shared with me his letters to her. It was Dorothy who urged me, indeed instructed me, to write to Merton. To my surprise, he responded. The first letter led to many more. From 1961 until his death in 1968 I wrote to Merton often, and he to me, perhaps on average a letter per month in both directions. In The Hidden Ground of Love, an anthology of Merton letters, his letters to me take up sixty pages. There were not only letters from him, but cards and copies of manuscripts. There were also occasional packages — I recall a box of monastery-made cheese with a gift card signed “Uncle Louie and the boys.” (In monastic life, Merton was Father Louis.) I also had two visits with Merton at the monastery, one early in 1962, another late in 1964.

It was Merton who introduced me to icons. In the summer or fall of 1962 a postcard came, the image side of which I look back on as quite significant but at the time I regarded in vaguely negative terms: a photo of a medieval Russian icon — Mary with the child Jesus in her arms. Jesus, though infant-sized, looked more like a miniature man. It seemed to me formal, lifeless and somehow even flatter than the postcard that bore the image. Compared to the masterpieces of the Renaissance, this sort of painting seemed to me, at best, something left over from the kindergarten of art history. Years later, when I had reason to make a complete set of photocopies of all Merton’s notes and letters to me, I didn’t bother to photocopy the image side of this or any of the other icon postcards he had sent me. I assumed that Merton had no more taste for this kind of primitive Christian art than I did. I imagined some donor had given the monastery a box of icon postcards which Merton was using in the spirit of voluntary poverty.

It was only years after his death, in writing a biography of Merton, Living With Wisdom, that it finally dawned on me how crucial a role icons had played in Merton’s life and conversion and realized that no one could have been happier in sending an icon photo to friends than Merton.

In fact I should have been aware of this side of Merton even before I knew him personally. It’s something he writes about in The Seven Storey Mountain, when he describes one of the catastrophes of his unsettled childhood, his father’s death when Tom was a student at Oakham, a residential high school in rural England. Owen Merton, on the edge of significant recogniton as an artist, was suffering from a brain tumor that produced a large lump on his head that made him unable to speak. Tom, fifteen years old, would occasionally go down to London and sit in anguished silence next to his father’s bed in Middlesex Hospital. Gazing into his father’s eyes, he must have thought with bitterness of his mother’s death from cancer ten years earlier.

Merton could see no meaning in what was happening to his father, whose misshapen head seemed to him like “a raw wound for which there was no adequate relief.” Now on the verge of becoming an orphan, he responded with anger to the religious platitudes he heard from the chaplain of his public school, Oakham. Clearly there was no “loving God.” Clearly life had no meaning. His patents’ fate was proof of that. “You had to take it like an animal,” he wrote in his autobiography. The only lesson he could draw from his parents’ fate was to avoid as much pain as possible and take what pleasure you could out of life. At chapel services at his school, Merton would no longer join in reciting the Creed. “I believe in nothing” was his anti-creed at this point in his life.

Yet Owen Merton had another view of his own suffering which he managed to communicate to his son through drawings, the only “last word” he could manage in his silenced condition. Shortly before Owen’s death, Tom came to see his father in his hospital room and, to his bewilderment, found the bed littered with drawings of “Byzantine-looking saints with beards and great halos.” In a word, drawings of icons. The younger Merton didn’t know what to make of them. He had no eye for icons at the time. He then regarded Byzantine art, he confessed in an unpublished autobiographical novel, The Labyrinth, as “clumsy and ugly and brutally stupid.”

Owen Merton died early in January 1931, days before Tom’s sixteenth birthday. Two years passed. In 1933, having finished his studies at Oakham and with more than half a year to fill before entering Clare College in Cambridge in September, Merton set off for an extended European holiday, a one man Grand Tour with an extended visit to Italy the main event. He hiked along the Mediterranean coast of France, then took the train into Italy: first Genoa, then Florence, finally Rome.

Once in Rome, a Baedeker guidebook in hand, he spent days following the main tourist track, but the big attractions, from the Roman Forum to St. Peter’s Basilica, left him either yawning or annoyed. The architecture, statuary and painting of the Roman Empire, the Renaissance and the Counter-Reformation struck him as vapid and melodramatic. “It was so evident, merely from the masses of stone and brick that still represented the palaces and temples and baths, that imperial Rome must have been one of the most revolting and ugly and depressing cities the world has ever seen,” Merton wrote in The Seven Storey Mountain. It seemed to him that the best one could say of ancient Rome was that it would have been an ideal set for a Cecil B. DeMille film epic with a cast of thousands.

Perhaps we would never have heard of Thomas Merton had it not been for what happened when he made his way from the guidebook’s four-star attractions to those with three or two stars, or even one, and thus came to know some of Rome’s most ancient churches — Cosmas and Damian, San Clemente, Santa Sabina, Santa Maria Maggiore, the Lateran, Santa Costanza, Santa Maria in Trastevere, San Prassede and others. These moved him in an unexpected and extraordinary way. On the walls of many of these churches he was meeting his father’s deathbed drawings.

These were all churches of sober architecture whose main decorations were mosaic icons, images of profound stillness, bold lines, vibrant colors and quiet intensity that have little in common with the more theatrical art that was eventually to take over in Rome. They house some of the best surviving examples of the art of Christianity’s first millennium. In Santa Maria Maggiore, two lengthy tiers of mosaic icons date from the fifth century.

Merton’s first such encounter with ancient Christian art was with a fresco in a ruined chapel. Later he discovered a large mosaic over the altar at Cosmas and Damian of Christ coming in judgment with a fiery glow in the clouds beneath his feet against a vivid blue background. This was not at all the gravity-free, effete Jesus that he had so often encountered in art of the baroque period down to the Pre-Raphaelites.

“I was fascinated by these Byzantine mosaics,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I began to haunt the churches where they were to be found, and, as an indirect consequence, all the other churches that were more or less of the same period. And thus without knowing anything about it, I became a pilgrim.”

The excited memory of those days of eager discovery was still fresh when he was writing The Seven Storey Mountain fifteen years later:

What a thing it was to come upon the genius of an art full of spiritual vitality and earnestness and power — an art that was tremendously serious and alive and eloquent and urgent in all that it had to say …. [an art] without pretentiousness, without fakery, that had nothing theatrical about it. Its solemnity was made all the more astounding by its simplicity … and by its subservience to higher ends, architectural, liturgical and spiritual ends which I could not even begin to understand, but which I could not avoid guessing, since the nature of the mosaics themselves and their position and everything about them proclaimed it aloud.
Through these icons, he began to understand, not simply who Christ was but to experience who Christ is. In this crucial section of his autobiography, the crescendo come in two intense paragraphs that read more like a litany than ordinary prose:

And now for the first time in my whole life I began to find out something of whom this Person was that men call Christ. It was obscure but it was a true knowledge of Him, in some sense, truer than I know and truer than I would admit. But it was in Rome that my conception of Christ was formed. It was there I first saw Him, Whom I now serve as my King, and Who owns and rules my life.

It is the Christ of the Apocalypse, the Christ of the Martyrs, the Christ of the Fathers. It is the Christ of Saint John, and of Saint Paul, and of St. Augustine and St. Jerome and all the Fathers — and of the Desert Fathers. It is Christ God, Christ King.
The intensity of the experiences reflected in this powerful litany may be due in part to the fact that Merton was alone in Rome. There is something about solitary, unmediated, face-to-face contact that can increase one’s vulnerability to a work of art. There is no schedule to keep, no guide or professor to explain, no bus to board in fifteen minutes, no idle chatter with people more interested in menus than mosaics.

Eager to decipher the iconographic images that so arrested his eyes, Merton put aside the D.H. Lawrence novels that had weighed down his rucksack and bought a Bible. “I read more and more of the Gospels,” he recalled, “and my love for the old churches and their mosaics grew from day to day.”

The attraction of icons wasn’t simply due to Merton’s newly-gained appreciation of the aesthetics of iconography but to a profound sense of peace he experienced within the walls of churches graced with such imagery. He had, he said, “a deep and strong conviction that I belonged there.”

Merton desperately wanted to pray, to light a candle, to kneel down, to pray with his body as well as his mind, but found the prospect of publicly kneeling in a church alarming and, even worse, embarrassing. Finally one morning he climbed to the top of the Aventine Hill on the east side of the Tiber, crowned by the fifth century church of Santa Sabina, one of the oldest and least spoiled churches in Rome. Once inside, he found he could no longer play the guidebook-studying tourist. “Although the church was almost empty,” he later wrote, “I walked across the stone floor mortally afraid that a poor devout old Italian woman was following me with suspicious eyes.” He knelt down at the altar rail and, with tears, recited the Our Father over and over again.

At age eighteen, Merton had undergone, without realizing exactly what it was, a mystical experience: that is an encounter with the living Christ. From that moment he had something against which to measure everything, whether himself or religious art or the Church in history. He knew what was phony, not because of some theory but because of an experience of Christ that, in his case, had been mediated through iconography.

The pilgrimage that followed was nothing like an arrow’s direct flight to faith, baptism and the Church. The coming winter at Clare College was to prove a disastrous time in his life, the “nadir of winter darkness,” as he put it in Seven Storey Mountain. He did more drinking than studying and seems to have fathered an illegitimate child. His guardian in London wanted no further responsibility for Owen Merton’s wayward son and sent him packing to his grandparents in America.

Four years after arriving in New York, while a student at Columbia, Merton was received into the Catholic Church. Three years later, in December 1941, he arrived at the Trappist monastic community of the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Yet his encounter with icons was far from finished.

Of the many books Merton wrote during his years at the Abbey of Gethsemani, it is striking to discover that only one of them got as far as being set in type and yet wasn’t published. The title was Art and Worship. It was to have gone to press in 1959. The galleys sheets survive at the Thomas Merton Center in Louisville. Unfortunately his publisher had second thoughts about the project, fearing the book would damage Merton’s reputation.

What Merton had hoped to do with his small book was to sensitize his readers to an appreciation of iconography, a tradition which in the West, at least, had been abandoned since the Renaissance and was all but forgotten. “It is the task of the iconographer,” he declared in Art and Worship, “to open our eyes to the actual presence of the Kingdom in the world, and to remind us that though we see nothing of its splendid liturgy, we are, if we believe in Christ the Redeemer, in fact living and worshipping as ‘fellow citizens of the angels and saints, built upon the chief cornerstone with Christ’.”

An art expert who had read galleys of the book convinced the publisher that such an opinion was disconcertingly dated. The iconoclastic Sixties were about to unfold, but even in the Fifties nothing could have been more out-of-fashion than icons.

Merton reluctantly gave up on the book, yet he was never weaned of his love of this art form. Occasionally he returned to the topic of icons in letters. Only months before his death, he was in correspondence about icons with a Quaker friend, June Yungblut, in Atlanta. He confessed to her that books which presented Jesus as simply one of history’s prophetic figures left him cold. He was, he wrote to her, “hung up in a very traditional Christology.” He had no interest in a Christ who was merely a great teacher who possessed “a little flash of the light.” His Christ, he told her, was “the Christ of the Byzantine icons.”

June was puzzled. In a letter sent to her in March 1968, Merton explained what he meant by the “Christ of the Byzantine icons.” The whole tradition of iconography, he said,

represents a traditional experience formulated in a theology of light, the icon being a kind of sacramental medium for the illumination and awareness of the glory of Christ within us. … What one ‘sees’ in prayer before an icon is not an external representation of a historical person, but an interior presence in light, which is the glory of the transfigured Christ, the experience of which is transmitted in faith from generation to generation by those who have “seen,” from the Apostles on down. … So when I say that my Christ is the Christ of the icons, I mean that he is reached not through any scientific study but through direct faith and the mediation of the liturgy, art, worship, prayer, theology of light, etc., that is all bound up with the Russian and Greek tradition.
We come upon a final clue to the place icons had in his inner life when we consider the short list of personal effects that were returned with his body when it was flown back to the monastery from Thailand. Among the items was “1 Small Icon on Wood of Virgin and Child.”

Now what about the place of icons in the life of Henri Nouwen?

First, an icon-related aside: A few days after his death, I learned from his brother Laurens that, while on his final trip, Henri had been reading page proofs of a book of mine, Praying With Icons. A friend teased me that my writing had done Henri in, but then kidly reassured me that it was Henri’s ultra-vulnerable heart that was to blame. “If anyone had a heart that wasn’t made of stainless steel,” she said, “it was Henri Nouwen.”

Henri managed not only to write but to publish a book on icons that Merton would have loved: Behold the Beauty of the Lord. This thin volume remains among the best introductions to icons — very accessible, not at all technical, with a directness and sobriety that one can only describe as icon-like. With his usual immediacy, Henri explains how one icon and then several others gained a place in his life. He shares with his readers what he had so far learned from long periods of living with four of them: St. Andrei Rublev’s “Holy Trinity” icon, an icon of Mary holding the Christ child in her arms, an icon of the face of Christ (also by Rublev), and finally an icon of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles at Pentecost.

Of course, Henri had seen icons in art history books, museums, churches and monasteries many times, but it wasn’t until his first visit to the L’Arche community in Trosly, France, in 1983 that he began to see icons with wide-open eyes. Barbara Swanekamp, assistant to L’Arche founder Jean Vanier, had put a reproduction of Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity on the table of the room where Henri would be staying. “After gazing for many weeks at the icon,” Henri noted in Behold the Beauty of the Lord, “I felt a deep urge to write down what I had gradually learned to see.”

Those of you who knew Henri or are familiar with him through his books know that he was profoundly sensitive to the visual arts. It was a family trait. In the introduction to his book on icons, he remembers a Chagall painting his parents had purchased in Paris early in their marriage when Chagall was little known — a watercolor of a vase filled with flowers placed on a sunlit window ledge, a simple yet radiant work that made one aware of God’s silent energy. I recall seeing it when Henri brought me with him to stay overnight at his father’s house. There were many other beautiful works of art in the house — the house was a small museum of fine art — but the Chagall watercolor stood out from the rest and still remains a fresh memory. “The flowers of Chagall,” Henri writes, “come to mind as I wondered why those four icons have become so important to me.”

The connection doesn’t surprise me. Chagall was deeply influenced by iconography. In some of his paintings the link is explicit, but it is always there in more subtle ways. Chagall was never a slave to the rules of perspective or to the physics of gravity in his work. People and animals fly. Fiddlers play on rooftops. Husbands and wives embrace while floating in the kitchen. There is no vanishing point. Like an iconographer, Chagall made his canvases windows opening onto the invisible world and the life of the soul. It may be that the Chagall painting Henri grew up with helped awaken in him a capacity to appreciate icons and understand their special language.

I remember Henri coming to visit us in Holland following his stay at Trosly, a year or two before publication of Behold the Beauty of the Lord. He was very excited about the gift he had brought with him, a reproduction of the Holy Trinity icon he had purchased that morning at a shop in Paris. Though he had not yet seen the actual icon — it is in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow — yet he was confidant that the print came as close to the real thing as print technology would allow.

Though I had seen icons from time to time, no icons or icon prints were hanging in our house. Until that day I had taken only a meager interest in them. I hadn’t yet written Living With Wisdom, still less Praying With Icons. Merton’s enthusiasm for icons was still a mystery to me. It wasn’t until Henri’s visit that finally I began to see them with a similar excitement.

I vividly recall sitting at Henri’s side as he explored, with childlike enthusiasm, every detail of the Holy Trinity icon. It was, he explained, inspired by Abraham and Sara’s hospitality to the mysterious guests they received under the oak of Mamre, a story told in Genesis. Throughout the Genesis account, the three angelic guests act in perfect unity and speak with one voice. They are both guests, plural, and also a guest, singular; they are both one and three. It’s the first biblical hint of the Holy Trinity. Henri remarked on the utterly submissive, sister-like faces of the three angelic figures, each inclined toward the other in a silent dialogue of self-giving love. He commented on their profound stillness, yet their warmth and vitality. Then we looked at the colours Andrei Rublev had chosen, though I later discovered that even the best reproduction can only hint at what Rublev had actually achieved, as I was to see for myself not long afterwards when I first visited the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. The colours are thinly layered — their transparency cannot be reproduced in photography. Henri traced the circle of perfect unity that subtly, invisibly contains the three angels. Then he traced a cross within the circle and then the trinitarian triangle it also contained. All this quiet geometry reveals key elements of the icon’s theology, yet none of it is heavy-handed. Then there is the table around which the three figures are placed — the eucharistic altar with a golden chalice. Above the three figures are three objects: a house with an open door, a tree, and a mountain. The open-doored building on the upper left is both the Church and a house of hospitality. For Henri, the Holy Trinity icon was an icon of “the house of love” — the Church as God intends it to be, the doors of which are never close and which need no locks. The tree in the centre is the Tree of Life and also the Life-giving Cross. The mountain is the both Mount Sinai and the Mount of the Beatitudes.

Henri also spoke about the history of the icon, how Rublev had painted it as the principal icon for the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity at a monastery north of Moscow where the body of one of Russia’s most beloved saints, St. Sergius of Radonezh, had been placed. St. Sergius was a monk, woodworker and toymaker who lived in the 14th Century. He left no writings. The only words that come down to us from St. Sergius are these: “The contemplation of the Holy Trinity destroys all enmity.” Through this icon, placed in a iconostasis adjacent to the resting place of St. Sergius, Rublev sought to provide the opportunity for the contemplation of the Holy Trinity.

It may have been from Henri that I first heard the comment of one of the martyrs of the Soviet era, the physicist, mathematician, theologian and priest, Pavel Florensky, who wrote: “Because of the absolute beauty of Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon, we know that God exists.” Henri understood this way of thinking — beauty bears witness to the existence of God. Again and again, he found works of art that were windows to heaven. One thinks of the place in Henri’s life of Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son and many paintings by Van Gogh.

Henri linked his response to icons with the question: “What do we really choose to see?” In Behold the Beauty of the Lord, Henri stresses that it is a matter of enormous importance what we look it and how we look at it. He writes:

It makes a great difference whether we see a flower or a snake, a gentle smile or menacing teeth, a dancing couple or a hostile crowd. We do have a choice. Just as we are responsible for what we eat, so we are responsible for what we see. It is easy to become a victim of the vast array of visual stimuli surrounding us. The “powers and principalities” control many of our daily images. Posters, billboards, television, videos, movies and store windows continuously assault our eyes and inscribe their images upon our memories. We do not have to be passive victims of a world that wants to entertain and distract us. We can make decisions and choices. A spiritual life in the midst of our energy-draining society requires us to take conscious steps to safeguard that inner space where we can keep our eyes fixed on the beauty of the Lord.
Henri proposed a theology of seeing, or gazing, the verb he preferred. To really see something beautiful, such as a well-painted icon, so that its beauty becomes a sacramental reality, one has to do much more than a glance.

For both Merton and Nouwen, the icon is the primary visual art of the Church. Nor could they see icons as meaningful apart from the Church. The icon becomes a rootless plant when it becomes simply a “work of art,” a “collector’s item,” an aesthetic object. For both Merton and Nouwen, icons were intimately connected with eucharistic life and daily prayer. They saw icons as aids to prayer.

In both their lives there was a realization that the icon, far from being merely an artistic image that directs our attention away from the world we live in with all its agonies, is a school of seeing. It is meant to help reshape the way we see and relate to other people. The icon — the Greek word for image — is a reminder that each person, no matter how damaged in his or her life, is a bearer of God’s image and, like those whom we regard as saints, has the potential to reclaim the lost likeness.

It is one thing to believe intellectually that each person is made in the image of God, no less than Adam and Eve, and yet another to actively seek that image and to relate to the other in ways that bear witness to that awareness. It’s the most basic and challenging task that’s given to us. Each of us is an icon — each of us bears the image, the icon, of God, even if we hide it well. Nothing is more basic than the connection between spiritual life and our response to our neighbor, even when that neighbor is an enemy. If the burning of icons and the vandalizing of mosaics distresses us, how much more should be horror-struck at the destruction of human beings, icons bearers made by God?

Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton: two contemplative men with a great deal in common. Both were explorers of eastern Christianity. Both were drawn to icons both on wood and in flesh. Both never ceased trying to open their eyes a little bit wider. May they encourage us to do the same.
A Call to Conference.
"Nouwen, Merton, and the discipline and language of spirituality."
by Fr Ron Rolheiser

Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen
Western Explorers of the Christian East
by Jim Forest

Pure and Fresh Seeing: Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton as Sacred Disrupters
by Michael Higgins

The Home Where I Have Never Been: 
The Restless Journeys of Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen
by Robert Ellsberg

western theology looks east

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