These paragraphs are suggestive. Feel free to propose alternative titles or to suggest other themes. There are different ways of presenting each theme or to connect one with another, depending on the needs and experience of the audience and the time available — an hour, an evening, a day-long seminar, or a weekend retreat.
The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life
In an age of tourism, the great challenge is to see ourselves at a deeper level: the dimension of pilgrimage. Being a pilgrim might involve a journey to distant places associated with God-revealing events at the end of a well-trodden pilgrim path, but it has still more to do with simply living day by day in a God-attentive way. How do we come see one’s life as an opportunity for pilgrimage, whether in places as familiar as your kitchen or walking to Santiago de Compostela? Drawing on the wisdom of the saints and his own wide-ranging travels, Jim Forest talks about both “thin places” and “dark places” that have helped make him a pilgrim, including Jerusalem, Iona, the secret annex of Anne Frank, the experience of illness, the practice of hospitality — occasions of being surprised by grace.
The Pilgrimage of Illness
Any trip has the potential of becoming a pilgrimage. In my own case in recent years, one of the most ordinary pilgrimages has been going to the hospital. A routine blood test indicated my kidneys might not be working as well as they should. Treatment slowed the decline of my kidneys, until (in January 2005) several sessions a week of dialysis became essential. Then in the fall of 2007, thanks to a kidney donation made by my wife, I had a kidney transplant. The operation was successful, but follow-up hospital visits remain a standard part of my life.
I’ve learned that far worse things can happen than being chronically ill. Unlike people burdened with the illusions that come with good health, the sick are well aware that they are unable to survive on their own. We’re intensely conscious of our dependence on the care of others. It’s hard to be seriously ill and not be poor in spirit, the first of Christ’s Beatitudes. Because of that, the sick are by definition on the ladder of the Beatitudes. Each of us may still have quite some climbing still to do, but, thanks to illness, at least we’ve made a start.
In a culture which prizes individuality and independence, most of us are reluctant to realize how much we depend on others, though in reality there has never been a day of our lives when this wasn’t the case. We started that dependence the instant we were conceived and it continues without interruption until we take our last breath. We depended on others for love, for encouragement, for inspiration. We depended on others for food. We depended on others for the words and gestures that make communication possible. We depended on others for all the skills we slowly acquired while growing up. We depended on others for wisdom. And yet for much of our lives we managed to nourish the illusion that we were independent and had the right to pat ourselves on the back for whatever good things came our way. The phrase “thank you,” however often it was said out of social necessity, didn’t necessarily reflect a deeply felt attitude.
Being sick changes that. The words “thank you” begin to rise from the depths of the heart. In the community of the sick, there aren’t many people unaware how much they depend on the care of others, even if they don’t know most of these others by name.
The Ladder of the Beatitudes
If we recognize the last two verses of the Beatitudes as one, we find there are eight Beatitudes, each of them an aspect of being in communion with God, and each of which we are need to think about again and again as we make progress in our lifelong conversion to Christ. They are like rungs on a ladder — each leads to the next and is placed in a particular order. To reach the second step, we need to make the first step. The idea isn’t that I’ll be a peacemaker while somebody else specializes in poverty of spirit or being pure of heart. The presentation of the Beatitudes links text with stories.
Praying with Icons
An icon may seem to the casual viewer as little more than a primitive painting done by anonymous artisans unaware of techniques that can make a flat surface seem three-dimensional. In fact the icon is intentionally two-dimensional, avoiding the rules of perspective in order to reveal through line, color and symbol what is invisible to a camera. While having an illustrative and also theological function, the icon creates a motionless and silent space in which it is easier to pray. For icons to fulfill their function, we have to learn the art of seeing them and understanding the tradition they come from. This talk is an introduction to a tradition of prayer that has deepened the spiritual lives of millions of people. (Slides available.)
Prayer for Busy People
A vital spiritual life involves a deep sense of the sacred, a readiness to forgive, social responsibility, a way of life centered in love, and a daily rhythm of prayer. While the spiritual life has never been easy, living in a society moving at high speed has made it more difficult to find time for prayer and contemplation. It also involves learning to pray. We will be discussing the foundations and traditions of prayer, looking at our daily life to see where unrecognized opportunities for prayer may exist, discussing the Jesus Prayer and use of the prayer rope or rosary, and the creation of a special place for prayer in daily life.
In Peace Let Us Pray to the Lord
The seventh beatitude is “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Peace is a primary theme of Christian life. It is also central in the Liturgy. In the Orthodox tradition, after the priest announces that “Blessed is the kingdom of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” the very next words are, “In peace let us pray to the Lord.” Peace is the precondition of worship. At the end of the Liturgy, the priest tells us “to depart in peace.” We are to take Christ’s peace into the world, to be ourselves a sign of Christ’s peace among those who, in many cases, hardly know who Christ is. We learn from the Liturgy as from the Gospel that peace is not a principle but it is Christ himself: Christ who heals, Christ who forgives, Christ who reaches out to the very people, if we follow the advice of the world, we should avoid, condemn and hate. But how do we live that peace? What does it mean to practice the beatitude of peacemaking?
Confession: the rediscovery of a lost sacrament
The tradition of confession, once ordinary practice among Christians, fell on hard times in recent centuries but is today making a comeback. While most easily found in the Orthodox Church, Christians in other churches are gradually rediscovering a lost sacrament. Perhaps for the next generation, sacramental confession will not be so rare an event as it is today in the life of an ordinary Christian. But for confession to make sense we need to have a better idea of what the much-avoided word “sin” actually means, and to understand that — while God knows all about our sins long before we confess them — the act of a witnessed confession helps strengthen us in the hidden warfare that goes on in each person’s life.
The purpose of this talk (or, on occasion, series of talks) is to help revive confession where it has been abandoned or neglected, to help those present prepare a better confession, and to help those who hear confessions to better serve as Christ’s witness, taking care not to impede the sacrament’s healing strength. Depending on time available, we can consider what sin really means, preparation for confession, what confession involves, the history of the sacrament, confession’s social context, the role of the priest, the question of finding a good confessor, and what can actually happen in confession.
Cleanse Us from All Impurity
The title comes from a prayer widely used by Orthodox Christians and is linked with the beatitude, “Blessed are the pure in heart.” To be cleansed from all impurity is to be given a pure heart. In our brain-centered society, we ought to be scandalized that Christ didn’t say, “Blessed are the pure in mind,” or better yet, “Blessed are the brilliant in mind.” We are, after all, a people who tend to regard not the heart but the brain as the core of self. It’s high praise to be described as bright. No one aspires to be labeled “slow” or “dense.” But what is a pure heart? A heart free of possessiveness, a heart capable of mourning, a heart which 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 aware of God’s presence in creation. “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….
Treasures of Eastern Christianity
Eastern and western Christianity, though having much in common, in some important respects developed on quite different lines. Easter is to the Orthodox Church what Christmas is in most western churches, a difference which highlights more subtle contrasts. The word “orthodoxy” itself means “right praise,” not “rigid thinking,” the sense the word often has in general western usage. The Orthodox Church in countless ways seeks to strengthen the connection between spiritual and physical activity. It is also the Church that has changed least over the centuries — proof to some that it is a museum Church, confirmation to others that the traditions and resources of Orthodoxy (the Jesus Prayer, prayer with icons, days and seasons of fasting, the “icon” of the church year, etc.) are deep and rich enough not to be swept away by short-lived fads and ideologies. What can we in the west learn from Orthodoxy to deepen our own spiritual lives?
The French poet Leon Bloy wrote: “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” Many people think of mystical experiences — meaning vivid encounters with God — as being granted to the occasional saint who has fasted half way to heaven. Yet there is not a single person whom God doesn’t know intimately and love, nor anyone who hasn’t experienced in some way God’s presence. The only problem is that often we don’t recognize the deeper meaning and significance of those moments — moments in which God gives us a glimpse of our true selves and at the same time places us, even if only for a flash, in a state of communion with all of creation, visible and invisible. Thomas Merton occasionally referred to such moments as “kisses from God.” Ideally, if there is enough time, those present take some time alone to identify an experience of joy in their lives, to try to see God’s presence in that event, and write about it — then come back to share with each other.
Few taunts are sharper than those that call into question someone’s sanity or intelligence. Yet in the calendars of the Church both east and west, there are saints whose way of life flies in the face of what most of us regard as sanity. The Orthodox Church refers to them as holy fools, or fools for Christ’s sake. These are people in whom Christ wears the disguise of madness. They are people who in most parts of the developed world would be locked away in asylums or ignored until the elements silenced them. While never harming anyone, holy fools raise their voices against those who lie and cheat and do violence to others, but at the same time they are always ready to embrace these same greedy and ruthless people. They take everyone seriously. For them no one is unimportant. Their dramatic gestures always have to do with revealing the person of Christ and his mercy. Forest describes several holy fools — St. Francis of Assisi, St. Basil of Moscow, St. Xenia of St. Petersburg — and explores the meaning of holy fools for those of us trying hard not to be called foolish or crazy.
Making Friends of Enemies
Jesus insisted on the love of enemies and provided a life-giving witness to what it meant. How do we practice aspect of Jesus’ teaching? Who is my enemy? Whose enemy am I? What does it mean to love, in the sense the word is used in the New Testament? What does it mean to forgive? Can one forgive those who have committed grave crimes and show no sign of repentance? Jim Forest relies on stories that bring principles to life. When there is time for extended group discussion, participants have time to share personal stories about forgiveness and overcoming enmity.
Dorothy Day: Hospitality as a Way of Life
Dorothy Day was a person of startling contradictions: activist and contemplative, a theological conservative and a political radical. Intending to found a newspaper, The Catholic Worker, she ended up founding a movement. A member of a Church that took a leading role in the Cold War, she envisioned it one day becoming a Peace Church. The most extraordinary monuments to her are the hundred houses of hospitality that stretch from Los Angeles to Amsterdam, places of welcome that not only offer a caring response to the homeless and runaways but are centers of work for a nonviolent, sharing society. These would not exist had it not been for Dorothy’s conversion and the Catholic Worker movement which grew out of it. Since her death in 1980, many have come to regard her as one of the saints of our time. She was active in the Third Hour discussion group, which brought Christians from East and West together for dialogue. So deep was her debt to the writing of Dostoevsky, especially The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment, that one can regard Dostoevsky as helping inspire her vocation. The high point of Dorothy Day’s visit to Russia late in her life was to pray at his grave in St. Petersburg (in those days still Leningrad). Forest came to know her in the last 20 years of her life and after her death wrote the biography, Love is the Measure, published by Orbis Books. She continues to open doors for many, in terms of spiritual life, community building, the healing of division, service of the poor, and the renewal of churches.
Thomas Merton: Living with Wisdom
Few writers have touched so many lives as the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. The Seven Storey Mountain, his autobiography, is one of the great conversion stories. His books remain in print in many languages while new books about Merton appear each year. Despite a considerable difference in age, a friendship emerged while Jim was part of the Catholic Worker community that continued until Merton’s death seven year later. Various stresses are possible in the talk depending on the background and special interests of the audience: an overview of his life, the evolution of his understanding of Christianity, his engagement with eastern religions, his involvement in the peace movement, and methods he recommended for prayer and meditation. Merton was Jim’s mentor. During the last seven years of his life, they often corresponded and twice Jim was his guest at the Abbey of Gethsemani. Jim is the author of a biography of Merton, Living With Wisdom, published by Orbis Books.
Thomas Merton: Bridge to the Christian East
For all that has been written about him, it is remarkable how little attention is paid to Merton’s debt to Orthodoxy. From the icons his dying father was drawing when Merton was a teenager to the hand-painted icon Merton had with him at the end of his own life, Merton was profoundly influenced by Eastern Christianity. At the heart of his spiritual life was the Jesus Prayer and the “apophatic” tradition associated with Mount Athos. He became a bridge linking east and west, living reunion in the depths of his spiritual life. What drew him to “the Christ of the icons” in contrast to “the historical Jesus” sought in much of the western Church? What did he learn from eastern Orthodoxy? What doors can his discoveries open for us?
Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers
The key events of Merton’s life were marked by war: He was born in France during the First World War, was nearly killed by young Nazis in Germany in the early 1930s, entered the monastic life just a few weeks after Pearl Harbor, and died in Asia while the Vietnam war was raging. While critical of “all movements and causes,” through frequent letters to peace activists, Jim Forest among them, he played a crucial pastoral role in the peace movement during the Vietnam war. He considered Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, “more my brother than many who are nearer to me in race and nationality.” For his outspoken opposition to war and the arms rare, he was silenced for a time by his superiors but finally was vindicated.
See also “Practical questions…”
Contact Jim Forest at jhforest @gmail.com if you want to set a date or need more information.
page updated December 2007