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Interview with Jim Forest – Work Hard, Pray Hard. by US Catholic Magazine

By editors of US Catholic Magazine

Few have written authoritative biographies of the 20th-century spiritual giants Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker, and Thomas Merton, the celebrated Trappist monk and writer. Fewer still knew them both. But Jim Forest, a former Catholic Worker himself, did, and his unique insight reveals the human side of two figures many Catholics revere as saints, if as yet uncanonized.

Why the interest in these two people, both dead for decades? “Merton is just a perennial, like certain plants that refuse to stop blooming no matter how many years pass,” says Forest of the monk, who died in 1968, but whose writings are still not all published. “There’s a new book by him coming out every year or two.” As for Day, with whom Forest lived as a member of her staff, “Her canonization proceedings have gradually made people more and more curious: Who is this Dorothy Day?”
The close friendship between Day and Merton, rooted in their common commitment to nonviolence and the works of mercy, is a fact known to few of their admirers. At heart, they shared a desire to restore to the church its early refusal of violence for any reason.

“If you were to be baptized in the early centuries, you had to make a commitment not to kill anybody, period,” says Forest. “How did we lose that? Merton and Dorothy were two of the people in the 20th century who helped to unpack those boxes that had been pushed up into the attic.

”Dorothy Day lived in New York City among the poor, and Thomas Merton was a monk in rural Kentucky. How did you come to know them both?

When I first came to the Catholic Worker in 1960, I was still in the Navy. I was 19 years old, working at the U.S. Weather Bureau as a young meteorologist and taking kids to Mass on Sunday from a little institution in Washington where I was volunteering in my spare time. I found copies of Dorothy’s newspaper, The Catholic Worker, in the library at this particular parish, Blessed Sacrament, and became curious about the woman. One weekend I went up from Washington to New York to see what the Catholic Worker was all about.

In New York I was given a bag of mail to take to her in Staten Island. She was sitting there with a letter opener at the end of a table with a half dozen people sitting around. One of the rituals of life, as I discovered, was Dorothy reading the mail aloud to whoever happened to be there and telling stories.

One of the letters was from Thomas Merton, and I was absolutely astounded that Dorothy Day, who was very much “in the world,” was corresponding with Thomas Merton, who had left the world with a resounding slam of the door. Of course, they were both members of the Catholic Church and both writers, but Merton had taken the express train out of New York City for good, and Dorothy lived at its very heart.

Dorothy periodically got arrested; Merton certainly did not. Dorothy was very much under a cloud from the point of view of many Catholics because of her anti-war activities, and Merton was regarded as one of the principal Catholic writers in the world. But if they had been brother and sister they couldn’t have been very much closer.

How would you introduce these two figures to someone who doesn’t know them?I might start with a photo: Dorothy Day between two policemen, awaiting arrest at age 75. It was her last arrest, and you can see that this is a person worth knowing about, somebody who never stopped being disturbed about things that were disturbing, and she did it without hating anybody. She had a gift for seeing injustice and responding without rage but with persistence.

She’s looking at these two policemen like a concerned grandmother of two kids who have their water pistols ready to open fire on grandma—but she’s definitely not in a state of enmity with these two boys and their big guns. In the case of Merton it’s more difficult because monastic life is so removed. The average age of a monk at Merton’s Abbey of Gethsemani now is 70. Today there aren’t a lot of young people thinking of becoming monks, whereas 50 years ago a lot of people were. I remember when I first saw Merton—there were no author photographs on his books, so you had no idea what he looked like—I sort of imagined some skinny person fasting all hours of the day, certainly not a person with a sense of humor. When I actually saw him for the first time in the monastery, he was on the floor with his feet in the air and clutching his tummy, laughing so hard that he was a shade of red.

What was he laughing about?

Merton had invited me to come down to the monastery, and I hitchhiked down because of my economic situation. It was in the middle of winter, 1962, and by the time Bob Wolf, one of my friends at the Catholic Worker, and I arrived, it had been two and a half days of the worst weather I’d ever experienced.

When we finally got to the abbey, we hadn’t had a shower in two and a half days, so we probably had a pretty rich aroma. I had gone into the chapel loft at the monastery to pray, as I was excessively pious in those days. Bob more sensibly had collapsed on his bed in the guest house. Soon I could hear in the distance this funny sound that seemed like laughter but, of course, it couldn’t be laughter because this was a monastery. I followed the noise into Bob’s room, where I found both Merton and Bob laughing. It was, of course, the “Catholic Worker perfume” that had been inhaled by Merton that set him off.

Why was meeting Merton such a big deal to you?

I can only compare it to meeting someone like Oprah Winfrey today. You could not walk into a bookshop in America then without finding Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. For tens of thousands of people, it was a life-changing book. It’s a perennial bestseller, probably the most important religious autobiography that had been written in 200 or 300 years. It was the beginning of a succession of books by Merton, all of which were automatic bestsellers. Most of the people who read it didn’t become monks. But they did discover a kind of monastic place inside themselves where they could live a more coherent spiritual life. They found a core, a center, an anchor of some kind, and it opened their eyes in ways they hadn’t been opened before.

Was Dorothy Day as well known?

No, but on the other hand you could not walk into a Catholic church in America and not run into somebody who knew about the Catholic Worker. There were Catholic Worker houses of hospitality all over the country. The Catholic Worker newspaper was one of the most widely read Catholic publications in the United States with 100,000 copies printed every month. And once you became interested in Day, you were likely to read her autobiography, The Long Loneliness.
How did Merton and Day become friends?

It was a friendship of letters; they never actually met. Their oldest surviving letter is from December 1956, from Dorothy to Merton. She had received the news that he had offered Christmas Mass for her and the Catholic Worker and wanted him to know that “this has made me very happy indeed.” She goes on to say, “We have had a very beautiful Christmas here and quite a sober and serious one, too. There have been occasions in the past when the entire kitchen force got drunk, which made life complicated, but you must have been holding them up this year. Please continue to do so.” You get a sense of the frankness of their exchanges.
The next letter that escaped the vicissitudes of time is also from Dorothy, from June 1959. It’s a reply to a letter from Merton, and she apologizes for not having answered more quickly and also recalls with gratitude the copies of The Seven Storey Mountain he had sent to her way back in 1948. That might have been the beginning, just Merton sending her a box of books. So Merton’s interest in Dorothy goes back at least to 1948.

Why do you think Merton was interested in Day and the Worker?

The big decision for Merton was whether to be part of Catherine Doherty’s Friendship House in Harlem near Columbia, where he was studying, which was like the Catholic Worker, or to go to Gethsemani and become a monk.

Monastic life tilted heavily toward prayer, and ultimately Merton realized there was just something mysterious in him that pulled him toward that vocation. He didn’t feel it was necessarily as high a vocation as the works of mercy, but it was the one that God was calling him to. But that tension was always there, and he had a sense of gratitude that the Catholic Worker existed. Having a relationship with Dorothy allowed him to be a part of the work he hadn’t been led to do. As he wrote to Dorothy in December 1963, “If there were no Catholic Worker and such forms of witness, I would never have joined the Catholic Church.”

How did they influence each other?

I think Merton probably had less influence on Dorothy than she had on him, actually. Merton was trying very hard to write through the church censors— the abbot-general of his order blocked some of his writings about war and peace, for example. But Merton mainly wanted to reach Catholics who were bewildered by the idea of nonviolent, disarmed life, with works of mercy as a core of Christian life. I think he tried harder than Dorothy to communicate with people who didn’t completely share a pacifist view, and she was impatient with him for doing so.

Dorothy was very outspoken: no footnotes, no commentaries, just bang, there it is. Merton would make a great effort to meet people midway, which I think was one of his talents.

Merton’s voice changed all the time depending who he was talking to. If he was talking to a Quaker, he might use Quaker vocabulary. The same if he was talking to a Muslim. He created spaces in which dialogue occurred that might not happen otherwise. Merton had this facility to study and appreciate radically different points of view and somehow integrate them into his style with some people.

Dorothy didn’t have a vocabulary for talking to Buddhists—she was so Catholic. I can remember having to argue Dorothy into publishing articles by Thomas Merton in The Catholic Worker because he wasn’t taking the pacifist position that Dorothy took. Can you imagine having to convince the editor of The Catholic Worker to publish an article by Thomas Merton? Did he influence her in terms of prayer? Dorothy was there already. She wouldn’t have lasted five years at the Catholic Worker if she didn’t pray.

Of all the people I’ve known in my life, including Thomas Merton, I haven’t known anybody with a more disciplined spiritual life than Dorothy Day: Mass every day, rosary every day, confession every week. A community of Benedictine monks sent us prayer booklets for use during the day at the Worker—lauds, vespers, compline. We used them until they were worn out and then they’d send us more.

How was Day’s approach to war and peace different from Merton’s? I can remember going with Dorothy one night when she was speaking at New York University on Washington Square. I was impressed by how much hostility there was from some of the students because of her antiwar stance. The Cold War was very cold, and anybody who was seen as a little short on the patriotic side—which meant an uncritical, enthusiastic support of the military activities of the United States government—came under suspicion. One of the students said, “Well, Ms. Day, you talk about loving enemies, but just what would you do if the Russians were to invade?” Dorothy said, “I would love them the same as I love anybody else that comes here. Jesus has said to love your enemies; that’s what I try to do. I would open my arms and do my best to make them feel welcome.”

It was an absolutely scandalous answer, but it was straight out of the New Testament. It was like a lightning bolt, this shocking simplicity of the gospel. Dorothy knew enough by that time to be able to speak that way without apology or embarrassment.
I suppose the young man who asked that question has never forgotten the answer. He probably will come back to it again and again and move from scandal and shock to maybe even thinking she was onto something. It wasn’t just words. Dorothy was in situations time and time again when she was confronted with people who were dangerous, and she did exactly what she hoped to do. She responded to them in a caring, motherly way. How do you think Merton and Day would respond to today’s wars? Dorothy would be doing the kind of things Kathy Kelly of Voices for Creative Nonviolence and other peace activists are doing: going to Iraq, going to Afghanistan, meeting with people, helping them, making known through writing and photography what the world is doing to human beings in these situations.

I saw a picture on a poster in Milwaukee a couple of days ago that peace activists use at a weekly vigil on the Marquette campus. It is an American soldier—helmet, battle fatigues, gun at his side—holding the dead body of a child, the soldier obviously weeping. That’s the kind of imagery we’re not seeing on the front page of any newspapers in America, but that’s the reality of war, and Dorothy would be encouraging young people to bring it out.

One of the things Merton stressed that we’re missing in our discussions of war is what he called the human dimension. We have to try to bring the face of suffering people to the fore and see what we can do to make that suffering happen less often, with less dreadful consequences. You’ve talked about Thomas Merton’s sense of humor. What about Dorothy Day? Was she ever funny?
One of my favorite stories of Dorothy was the moment when a quite well-dressed woman came in to the Worker. She took a diamond ring from her finger and handed it to Dorothy. Why she was moved to do that, I have no idea. Dorothy thanked her politely with no more fuss than she would if the woman had brought a dozen eggs.

A little while later a woman that we didn’t particularly enjoy seeing showed up. I think her name was Catherine, but we called her “the weasel.” She was, as far as we could tell, genetically incapable of saying thank you. Dorothy reached into her pocket and said, “I have something for you”—and gave her the diamond ring.

I don’t know if it was me or somebody else who went to Dorothy afterward and said, “You know, Dorothy, I could have taken that ring up to West 47th Street to the Diamond Exchange, and we could have paid her rent for years to come.” She responded, “Well, if she wants to sell the ring and go to the Bahamas, she can do so. But she might also like to just wear the ring. Do you think God made diamonds just for the rich?”

Despite their differences, how are Day and Merton most similar? You would think that they wouldn’t have much in common, but the more you look the more you see how much they complement each other.

I think they both represent a radical search for a deeply rooted spiritual life that is not separate from the world. We always hear the commandment, “Love God, and love your neighbor,” but one or the other usually takes priority. Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day were both remarkably successful in finding that balance point in terms of their own unique identities. The balance is slightly different, but the scales are very similar, which makes them convincing to us today, each in their own way. USC

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 62 / October 2011

Three days in August

Yeltsin on a tank in front of the Parliament Building on August 19th, 1991

On August 19, 1991, two months after Boris Yeltsin’s election as president of Russia, a junta led by KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov made a nearly-successful effort to suppress the democratic movement that had emerged during the Gorbachev years. The junta announced formation of a “State Emergency Committee” that was “taking supreme power.”

Gorbachev, still president, was under house arrest, but president-elect Yeltsin remained free, having taken refuge in the Russian Parliament, a modern building on the Moskva River known, because of its white tiles,  as “the White House.” First using fax and telephone, then radio and television, Yeltsin summoned the citizens of Moscow to defend democracy. At 1 PM on the day of the coup, Yeltsin stood on one of the tanks the junta had placed around the White House, calling for public resistance. Muscovites streamed by the thousands to the White House, forming a human shield.

The news that ten of the tanks had gone over to the White House defenders quickly became known “ a defection that encouraged other in the military to side with the democratic movement. Elements of three army divisions sent to storm the White House were now supporting Yeltsin, including the elite Alpha Unit.

Yet the outcome remained in doubt. The junta still had the support of entire armored divisions plus much of the state bureaucracy. If the human shield was attacked, thousands would die.

Part of the credit for preventing a bloodbath that never happened belongs to Patriarch Aleksy, elected in June the year before to lead the Russian Orthodox Church.

One of Yeltsin’s first actions had been to appeal to Aleksy for his support, “The tragic events that have occurred throughout the night have made me turn to you,” Yeltsin said to Aleksy by radio broadcast. “There is lawlessness inside the country “ a group of corrupt Party members has organized an anti-constitutional revolution. Essentially, a state of emergency has been declared inside the country due to the extreme gravity of the situation. The laws and constitution of the USSR and of the sovereign republics of the Union have been grossly violated…

“At this moment of tragedy for our Fatherland, I turn to you, calling on your authority among all religious confessions and believers. The influence of the Church in our society is too great for the Church to stand aside during these events. This duty is directly related to the Church’s mission, to which you have dedicated your life: serving people, caring for their hearts and souls. The Church, which has suffered through the times of totalitarianism, may once again experience disorder and lawlessness.

All believers, the Russian nation, and all Russia await your word!”

Aleksy threw his full weight behind Yeltsin and against the coup.

Father Aleksy

Father Aleksy

As tanks filed into Red Square, Aleksy was on the other side of the Kremlin walls, in the Cathedral of the Assumption, where he was presiding at the liturgy for the Feast of the Transfiguration.

During the service Aleksy made his first gesture of opposition to the coup. In a litany which ordinarily would have included a prayer for the “authorities” and “the army,” he prayed instead “for our country protected by God and its people.” All those present, noting the changed text, instantly understood its meaning. Patriarch Aleksy had sided with Russia’s infant democracy.

The following morning, Aleksy faxed a letter throughout the country challenging the junta’s legality:

“This situation is troubling the consciences of millions of our fellow citizens, who are concerned about the legality of the newly formed State Emergency Committee. … In this connection we declare that it is essential that we hear without delay the voice of President Gorbachev and learn his attitude toward the events that have just taken place.

“We hope that the Supreme Soviet of the USSR will give careful consideration to what has taken place and will take decisive measures to bring about the stabilization of the situation in the country.

“We call upon all parts of the Russian Orthodox Church, the whole of our people, and particularly our army at this critical moment, for our nation to show support and not to permit the shedding of fraternal blood. We raise a heartfelt prayer to our Lord and summon all true believers in our Church to join this prayer, begging Him to dispense peace to the peoples of our land so that they can in future build their homeland in accordance with freedom of choice and the accepted norms of morality and law.”

The words “not to permit the shedding of fraternal blood” were understood by all as an appeal to the army not to obey orders to kill their fellow citizens.

By August 21, most of the coup leaders had fled Moscow. Gorbachev was freed and returned to Moscow. Yeltsin was subsequently hailed by his supporters around the world for rallying mass opposition to the coup. On November 6, 1991, Yeltsin issued a decree banning the Communist Party.

Yeltsin’s role will never be forgotten, and neither should that of Patriarch Aleksy, so often portrayed as a KGB agent.

“ Jim Forest (making use of Russian Orthodoxy Resurgent: Faith and Power in the New Russia by John Garrard & Carol Garrard; Princeton University Press, 2009)

❖

Spring 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 53

A Bishop who Stood in the Way

by Jim Forest

In 1941, after a period of neutrality, Bulgaria allied itself with Nazi Germany. This was a decision partly motivated by the Bulgarian government’s wish to regain neighboring territories that it had lost in previous wars. Early in 1943, the government in Sofia signed a secret agreement with the Nazis to deport 20,000 Jews. The deportations started with Jews in the annexed territories.

Between March 4 and March 11 of that year, soldiers rounded up thousands of Jews and prepared boxcars to take them to the Treblinka extermination camp in occupied Poland, where approximately 850,000 people almost all Jews perished.

Word of the planned deportation leaked out, triggering protests throughout Bulgaria. Opposing the deportation, Vice President of Parliament Dimitar Peshev managed to force its temporary cancellation; but it was only a brief delay.

On March 10, boxcars were loaded with 8,500 Jews, including 1,500 from the city of Plovdiv. The bishop of Plovdiv, Metropolitan Kirill (later Patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church), along with 300 church members, showed up at the station where the Jews were awaiting transport. Kirill pushed through the SS officers guarding the area his authority and courage were such that no one dared stop him and made his way to the Jews inside the boxcars.

According to some accounts, as he reached them, he shouted a text from the Book of Ruth: “Wherever you go, I will go! Wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your God, my God!”

Kirill whose protest had the blessing of Metropolitan Stephan of Sofia, the highest ranking Bulgarian Church official during the Hitler years opened one of the boxcars in which Jews had been packed like sardines and tried to get inside, but now SS officers stopped him. However, when one door is locked, often another is left open. Kirill next walked to the front of the train, declaring he would lie down on the tracks if the train started to move.

News of Metropolitan Kirill’s act of civil disobedience spread quickly. Some 42 members of Parliament rebelled against the government. Leaders of all the political parties sent protests to the government and the King. The next day the Jews were freed and returned to their homes.

The struggle was not over. On April 15, King Boris arranged a meeting of the Holy Synod at his palace to persuade the bishops to support anti-Jewish policy and the Nazi deportation plans. “After all,” he said, “other countries have dealt the same way with the ‘Jewish Problem’.” He called upon the patriotism of the Church to accept the laws enacted by the Parliament, but his counsel was rejected by Metropolitans Stephan, Kirill and other Synod members.

In May, Sofia’s Jews received deportation orders to the countryside. The Jewish community’s two chief rabbis, Daniel Zion and Asher Hannanel, asked Metropolitan Stephan to shelter them and pleaded for the cancellation of the deportation order. Stephan sent a number of messages to the King, pleading for him to have mercy on the Jews. “Do not persecute,” he wrote, “so that you, yourself, will not be persecuted. The measure you give will be the measure returned to you. I know, Boris, that God in heaven is keeping watch over your actions.”

The sudden death of King Boris in September 1943 stopped the deportation attempts once and for all.

At the beginning of World War II, the Jewish population of Bulgaria was 48,000. At the end it was 50,000, making Bulgaria the only country under Nazi rule to end the war with more Jews than at the beginning.

Metropolitan Stephan entered eternal life in 1957, and Metropolitan Kirill in 1971. In 2003, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem recognized both bishops as Righteous Among the Nations.

❖ Spring 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 53

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A Conversation in Volos about Church and State

by Jim Forest

Fifty Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican and Protestant Christians from Europe and the United States met in Volos, Greece in mid-May for a discussion of “Forgiveness, Peace and Reconciliation.” Our host was Metropolitan Ignatios, the local bishop. The conference was organized by the Volos Academy for Theological Studies.

The most important and difficult issue speakers addressed was the relationship of church and state.

Because of space limitations, I will concentrate here on what the Orthodox speakers had to say.

Among those challenging an uncritical relationship between state and church was Metropolitan Neofytos of Morfou, Cyprus, an island divided between Greeks and Turks for more than three decades. He spoke of the need for self-criticism within the Church as a way of initiating “a process of healing.” This is a question of discovering the truth, however painful, “because only the truth is liberating.”

He described the negative impact of national ideas being transferred from Greece to Cyprus in the sixties. “Belonging to the Greek nation was regarded as equal to or even above being Orthodox. The Church was seen as acting for the splendor of the nation. Faith was regarded not as the path to Christ the Savior but the realization of national ideals. Basic Christian teaching was marginalized. I don’t mean to suggest that the Church should be indifferent to national issues. It has a part to play. We are taught to give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. But in Cyprus we lost the golden balance point. We came to see ourselves primarily as a political organism, with our politicians turning to the Church with the expectation of hearing the correct political words and phrases. There was an absence of forgiveness, an erosion of confession. We made the grave mistake of not praying for the enemy. Indeed there are Orthodox Christians who are scandalized even to be asked to forgive. We lost our way. Christian identity should never to used to divide.”

Dr. Pantelis Kalaitzidis, director of Volos Academy for Theological Studies, argued that wars, even when occurring in the name of religion, “are nothing but a result of the exaltation of collective egoisms. They only witness to the absence of real repentance, the denial of the Cross. Behind any conflict, we can easily discern an idolization of religion, tribe and nation, an odd paganism of earth, soil, homeland or of the ‘God-bearing’ people, of a claim of exclusivity, which is a real temptation.”

Dr. Vletsis Athanasios spoke of the problem “of unrepented sins committed collectively by Orthodox people, or even the failure to identify sins we have committed. The illumination of memory is needed. Otherwise we are doomed to persist in committing past sins.”

In a lecture on the Orthodox view of human rights, Fr. Emmanuel Clapsis of Holy Cross Greek School of Theology in Boston, pointed out that, while “Orthodox Christianity does not have a complete system of understanding the human person … It is wrong to assume that the ethos of Orthodoxy does not permit the development of human rights sensitivities and advocacy. Quite the contrary, the Orthodox view of human dignity supports the idea of human rights. The possibility for a greater sensitivity and advocacy of human rights issues by the Orthodox churches is highly probable since under the pressure of historic challenges people often find new meaning in traditional ideas.”

Dr. Athanasios Papathanasiou, editor of the quarterly journal Synaxis, published in Athens, spoke about war in the Orthodox tradition. “It is interesting to see how the tension between the historic necessity and the gospel criteria is depicted in the canons of the Orthodox Church,” he said. “I believe that the Church does not represent a compact body with a common view and unanimity throughout history. It is always formed by several trends, with various sensibilities and priorities; trends which are often in agreement, divergence or even in conflict.” Thus one finds, even among the Church Fathers, a range of views about war.

Dr. Petros Vassiliadis, professor at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, agreed that the religious factors have been a driving force in nearly every war. “All the shortcomings of Christianity,” he said, “are rooted in bad Christology. I have problems whenever we absolutize our own mission.”

Fr. Zivko Panev, professor at the St. Serge Institute in Paris, discussed the influence of the state on church life in Serbia following the restoration of the Serbian patriarchate, with the consequence that “national identity merged with church identify.” In fact, many Serbs who would identify themselves as Orthodox don’t believe what the Church teaches. Some are even convinced atheists. The problem in Serbia is made more complex because of an “idealization of religion that followed the collapse of communist ideology, with the Church perceived as being the principal guardian of national identity.”

Dr. Alexei Bodrov, director of St. Andrew’s Biblical Theological Institute in Moscow, spoke of various problems in Russia. These include the “traditional lack of tolerance – in principle we have tolerance, in practice we do not. There is still widespread anti-Semitism. Even the concept of human rights is regarded as highly suspect, having a much lower priority than state or national interest. There is in Russia today a highly politicized Orthodoxy that has little in common with Christian Orthodoxy. One notes the many ties between church and the military, church and police, church and other state bodies. This is partly due to Orthodoxy being made to take the place of Marxist ideology following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet though a high percentage of Russians identify themselves as Orthodox, in fact less than four percent occasionally take part in church services.”

Fr. Vassilios Thermes, an Orthodox priest and psychiatrist living in Athens, said “there is no greater sin than war with its violence, hatred, cruelty, murder and fanaticism. Any kind of violence and hostility is an assault on the Holy Spirit. Who are the peacemakers that Christ calls on his followers to become? They are the ones that help us to overcome hatred. Each peacemaker is a carrier of the Holy Trinity. He is a child of God because he imitates God. You cannot convey to others what you don’t have.”

My own lecture emphasized the importance of the Church recovering the memory of its own resistance to violence in the early centuries of Christianity. “We Orthodox certainly have remembered how the early Church celebrated the liturgy. To the astonishment of other Christians, we are happy to stand in the church for very extended periods. But sadly we have forgotten a great deal of the social teaching and practice of the early Church and have become deaf to much that the saints had to say.”

* * *

from the Summer 2007 issue of In Communion / IC 46

* * *

The Pilgrimage of Illness

by Jim Forest

Any trip, even a small journey from one prosaic location to another, has the potential to become a pilgrimage.

In my own case during these last few years, the most common of pilgrimages has been going from our house to the local hospital, a five-minute bicycle ride from our front door. I make that small pilgrimage three times a week, normally on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

It’s a journey that began several years ago when a routine blood test revealed that the creatinine level in my blood was higher than it should be. Our family doctor referred me for further tests to a specialist at the hospital. More tests made it clear that my kidneys were gradually failing, probably due to damage caused by high blood pressure. Sometime in the not-distant future, the doctor said, I would need to make use of an artificial kidney machine in order to stay alive.

Dialysis was something I passionately wanted to avoid. During the thirty months that followed diagnosis, I faithfully took all the medication my doctor prescribed, but I also looked into alternative treatments. My diet changed. I also found a local acupuncturist who made no promises but said acupuncture might help. As a result I spent many hours with needles placed in various areas of my body, from feet to ears. This therapy may have been a factor in retarding the progression of the disease, but tests showed that my kidney efficiency continued to decline.

I often prayed for a healing miracle, and many prayed for me. For several years I have been on a list of people for whom our parish prays at each and every liturgy. The fact that there has been no miracle is disappointing, and yet I have felt greatly helped by the prayer. I think it was a major factor in my gradually coming to terms with my illness, an inner shift that happened quite slowly. It may well have been the prayer of others that helped me realize I was on a pilgrimage. For the better part of three years, even while writing a book on pilgrimage, I’m embarrassed to say such a thought never crossed my mind.

In that period of regular hospital visits and frequent blood tests, far from seeing myself on a pilgrim’s path leading more and more deeply into the kingdom of God, it seemed to me that I was simply a victim of rotten luck. Each trip to the hospital was a painful reminder of a dark, confining future that was relentlessly coming my way. While I rejoiced each time my doctor told me that dialysis wasn’t yet needed, it was joy with a shadow, as he also made me aware that month by month my creatinine level was slowly but steadily rising, a sure sign of kidney failure. Whatever prayer, changed diet and acupuncture were achieving, at the very best the progress of my illness was simply being slowed.

During each visit to the hospital, I had a glimpse into the several wards where other patients were undergoing dialysis. It seemed to me a nightmare vision. Transparent plastic tubes filled with dark red blood ran from the bandaged arms of men and women into machines that looked like props from Star Wars. I hoped against hope that I would not eventually have to join them.

And yet I have. A year ago, soon after returning from a Christmas visit with my oldest son, his wife and two of our grandchildren in America, my doctor looked at the latest blood test results, then called the dialysis unit to make an appointment for me to start dialysis the next day.

What I had desperately hoped to avoid is now normal. I now spend nearly twelve hours a week – fifty hours a month, six hundred a year – at the dialysis clinic. Dialysis is part of the core structure of each week. Blood-filled plastic tubes now link my arm to a dialysis machine. Nurses that I saw caring for others now care for me. People who were unenviable strangers, dialysis patients, now are people I know by name. The “other” now includes me. We’re all in the same boat.

I’ve had to rethink how best to use my available work time. My work time has been radically cut. This has not been easy.

Yet there are significant pluses to report. It finally dawned on me that the hospital I dreaded visiting is actually holy ground. My main pilgrimage these days is the unprayed-for blessing of regularly going to a place where nearly everyone is sick, caring for the sick, or visiting the sick.

I’ve discovered 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 to do, but, thanks to illness, at least we’ve made a start. We’re on the first rung.

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 of how much they depend on the care of others, even if most of them are people we don’t even know by name. It’s not only dependence on the doctors and nurses who directly care for us, but all those who have such unheralded tasks as doing laboratory analyses in rooms we never enter or people quietly keeping the hospital clean.

Directly or indirectly, what all these people are doing day after day is trying to keep us alive a little longer and, in the case of those we meet face to face, even trying to keep our spirits up in the process. They are professional life-savers, yet none see themselves as heroes. They do what they do with the matter-of-factness of a teacher writing 2 + 2 = 4 on a classroom blackboard or a plumber repairing a stopped-up sink. Yes, there are those for whom hospital work seems to be just a job, and perhaps not one they especially like doing; but my experience suggests such people form a small minority.

At the end of a session of dialysis, I sometimes say to the nurses who helped me that day, “Thank you for saving my life.” They always look surprised to hear such a declaration. Generally people are too polite to express appreciation that plainly, though anyone with a chronic illness knows he or she is living on borrowed time. Every dialysis patient knows that he or she, without dialysis, wouldn’t have long to live. The writer James Mitchner’s life ended a week after he decided to stop dialysis.

It’s not only the professional care-givers who make a hospital holy ground, but also those who visit the sick. Though the regulations in many hospitals attempt to restrict visits to predetermined hours that pose the least inconvenience for staff, in practice we find visitors arriving and departing throughout the day and rarely being told to go away. Typically they arrive carrying flowers, though some bring books, magazines, chocolates, juice, balloons, music or all sorts of others things they hope will communicate their love and give the patient a little extra energy for coping with illness.

It’s holy work, and often done despite a temptation not to be there. Hospitals, after all, are places exploding with reminders about human mortality. The most death-denying person knows that every day there are people breathing their last in this building. Also hospitals are obviously not the healthiest places to be in. Yet crowds of people each day manage to overcome their hesitation, even their fear, and cross the border. After all, it’s not easy to communicate the bond of love while physically avoiding the person you love. Greeting cards and phone calls aren’t bad, but they can never equal the reality of being there.

Visiting is a healing work as crucial and powerful as what the doctors and nurses are doing. There is nothing more healing than love. Love can be expressed far more openly by the visitor than the health-care professional. Whether visitors sit silently or talk non-stop, they manifest how much the sick person they are visiting matters to them. Whoever visits the sick is a pilgrim, for they are meeting not only someone familiar but Christ as well. It was he who said, “I was sick and you visited me.”

In my own case, I’m one of the lucky ones within the community of the sick. Kidney illness is certainly inconvenient, and it’s not painless being jabbed in the arm with two hollow needles several times each week. On the other hand, neither the illness itself nor dialysis (once you’re connected to the machine) is painful. Kidney illness has become treatable. You can live a long and full life on dialysis. You can even travel, though it’s not easy as one would like setting up appointments for care at places you might wish to visit. You might even be one of the lucky ones who eventually gets a transplant and no longer needs dialysis.

But in the meantime. As is the case with many diseases, dialysis is not without rewards. If you happen to love books, it’s an illness that gives you the possibility of hours of quiet reading time each week. In my life, that qualifies as an answered prayer. Prefer watching TV? Normally I don’t, but there’s a TV close at hand should I find myself too tired to read and yet unwilling to take a nap. I happened to catch an excellent program on monastic life the other day.

The pilgrimages of illness being made by others are often far harder than mine, or more difficult to bear. In other sections of the hospital I sometimes encounter children who are gravely ill. I often see people who are in great pain and distress. I see faces collapsing with discouragement and grief. There is usually nothing at all I can do but silently pray, which may in fact be an achievement in the face of the overwhelming powerlessness I sometimes feel when I witness what other people are up against. Prayer seems so meager a response – in moments of doubt, just another form of nothing. But not to pray is itself a kind of dying.

Being among the sick is being among those who include the dying. Just a few days ago, a frail dialysis patient in his eighties died before my eyes. I thought he had dozed off. So did the nurses. But at the end of his session, when a nurse attempted to wake him up, it was discovered he had quietly left this world. His pilgrimage was ended.

In fact pilgrimage historically was, among other things, a dress rehearsal for dying.

What better death is there than to die on pilgrimage? As each year many pilgrims die of accidents and illnesses, every pilgrim route acquires memorials to those whose lives were completed along the way. Among the monuments one finds on the way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain is a pilgrim’s staff with a rusting bicycle set in a concrete pedestal, its front wheel raised toward heaven. The German who had been riding it died of a heart attack in El Acebo. Later on, an Irish pilgrim happened to find a bouquet of flowers along the roadside, picked it up, but found it awkward to carry. When she came upon the bicycle monument, she left the flowers there, realizing that, like the German biker, she “did not want to spend the last days or months of her life dying in bed.”

I recall a priest Nancy and I met at a Russian Orthodox church in Jerusalem twenty years ago who showed us a remarkable scrapbook nearly a century old – fading photos of Russian pilgrims coming in their thousands to the Holy Land until such journeys were made impossible, first by the world war that broke out in 1914 and then by the draconian restrictions imposed by the Soviet regime after 1917. He pointed out that many of the pilgrims we saw in the photos had buried others who died along the way, and that many more died either in Jerusalem or on the way back home.

“A pilgrim leaving Russia in those days never assumed he would return alive the way a tourist does these days,” he said. “They said goodbye as if for the last time, as indeed was often the case. But this thought did not disturb them. They saw it as a blessing to die on pilgrimage, and especially to die in the city where Jesus rose from the dead.”

Whoever is on the pilgrimage of illness cannot help but be more aware of last things than many others, but the job of the pilgrim is not dying but living. As St. Ireneaus, one of the theologians of the second century, said, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.”

Even if it is a life of confined borders, it is no less a life.

Jim Forest is editor of In Communion. His essay on illness is a chapter from The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life, to be published by Orbis Books in August. A children’s book, Silent as a Stone: Mother Maria of Paris and the Trash Can Rescue, is being published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press in July.