Sunday, December 21, 2008

a Christmas letter

December 17, 2008

This afternoon we went out to look for a Christmas tree. We always put this off until the last minute. Christmas creeps up on you so stealthily, after all, that you don’t even realize it’s here until it’s almost too late. And this is Holland, where the big holiday is Sinterklaas, the Feast of St. Nicholas, December 5th, which is a big-time Dutch gift-giving event that is preceded by hectic shopping. By the time Sinterklaas is over the shopkeepers are exhausted, so you don’t get the frantic Christmas rush to remind you that you’d better go out and buy that tree.

Since we don’t have a car, we usually shop for a tree at the stand run by a guy who sells flowers on one of the main shopping streets in Alkmaar, within walking distance of our house. Most of the time this guy has pretty decent trees up until the last few days before Christmas. But not today. Today the trees were all sorry pine specimens that I couldn’t bear to pay good money for. What to do? We didn’t feel like tramping all over town looking for something better. It would take too much time, which is why we put this off in the first place.

For years, Jim and I have been having this low-key dispute over real tree versus artificial. Jim has been pushing for artificial. He’s the one who ends up having to hack off bits of bark to fit the thing into the Christmas tree stand. Artificial trees actually look pretty good, is his argument, and once you have one you can use it over and over again. I’m one of those nostalgic people who thinks that a plastic Christmas tree is just about the worst thing you can consider. It represents everything that our modern world has come to stand for (vacuous falseness, etc.), and besides that, it doesn’t smell like a Christmas tree. It doesn’t smell like anything.

But looking at those pathetic conifers, and then glancing over at the big department store right across the sidewalk where there was a vast assortment of Christmas products just waiting to be bought, I suggested timidly that perhaps an artificial tree wouldn’t be such a bad idea. In ten minutes we were in the V & D Christmas department, deciding whether to get the 150 cm. or the 180 cm. model. It didn’t hurt that they were 50% off.

On the way home, Jim tried to soothe my conscience by explaining that this way no tree will be cut down to decorate our home, we won’t have to water it, and it will last until Russian Orthodox Christmas (January 7) without dropping any needles. So we set it up, covered it with lights, and decorated it with the charming little things we’ve been collecting for these 26 years, and I’ll be darned if it doesn’t look great. (Still doesn’t smell like a Christmas tree, though.)

The moral of the story is this: if you’re the sort of person who could never imagine living with an artificial Christmas tree, imagine it. It’s not so bad! Loosen up! Make room for change! Let it happen.

Life around our artificial Christmas tree is fine. All is well. Jim’s new kidney is taking good care of him, and my lone kidney is being a good sport (probably because its mate is never very far away).

The kids are all doing well. Dan has been nominated the Teacher of the Year at the University of Amsterdam, Wendy is working with Musicians Without Borders and has won a valuable prize to help continue the work they’re doing setting up a Rock Music School in Kosovo, Tom and Kylie are doing well at Nike in Hilversum, Cait and Bjorn were married in May and are now expecting their first baby, a girl, in late April, and Anne has switched schools and is very happy studying art at the Royal Art Academy in The Hague. Ben continues with his home-based business helping people with their computer problems while Amy continues to direct the New Jersey Environmental Federation.

My translation work is going very well.

Jim has had a very productive writing year, with the publication of The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life and new revised editions of Praying with Icons and Living with Wisdom: a Biography of Thomas Merton. Also there was his latest children's book, Silent as a Stone: Mother Maria and the Trash Can Rescue.

My mother Lorraine is still living with us. At age 91 she’s still making beautiful paintings, and Jim has set up a special part of his Flickr site to show them off (

We wish you all a blessed new year. It’s going to be challenging, but we’re not going to go into that except to say that you may end up having to switch to an artificial tree, or to make some kind of change you never thought you’d ever make in your wildest dreams. Be strong and keep on loving. You’re not alone.

Much love,

(with Jim cheering from the side lines)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

New! Improved!

The first copy of the revised edition of Living With Wisdom, my biography of Thomas Merton, arrived in a special delivery packet from Orbis earlier today.

It’s amazing how different a book is when it’s in print. I know the text backwards and forwards and have looked at several PDF files of the book at various stages of its design, including the final layout, yet the end result seems as surprising as a newborn child. (This “child,” however, looks quite a bit different than the last one of the same name — bigger by nearly 50 pages, with many more photos, a better cover, and ivory-colored rather than hospital-white paper.)

Living With Wisdom was first published in 1991 and has gone through at least ten printings since then. It never seemed dated to me, but when an invitation came from Robert Ellsberg, publisher of Orbis Books, to revise it, my positive response wasn’t long in coming. In the past eighteen years, much important Merton material that wasn’t available in 1991 has been released, including all of Merton’s journals plus volume-after-volume of his letters.

While I prefer recommending books by other authors to pushing my own, I can’t help saying I’m hugely pleased with what Orbis has done and hope it will reach many readers.

The official publication date in November 30, but I see the book is already available for pre-order from Amazon. Here’s the web page:

Attached is an extract from the book’s preface, the title of which is “Meeting Merton.”

— Jim

* * *

In December 1961, Merton suggested that perhaps I would like to come to the monastery for a visit. There was never any question in my mind about accepting, but first there was an issue of The Catholic Worker to get ready for publication — I had recently become the paper’s managing editor — and also a night class in English Literature at Hunter College to complete. I put off the trip to Kentucky until the beginning of February 1962.

I had no money for such a journey. Volunteers at the Catholic Worker received room and board plus small change for minor expenses, subway rides and the like. I never dared ask even for a penny, preferring to sell The Catholic Worker on street corners in Greenwich Village, keeping a small portion of the proceeds for my incidental expenses (mainly bread, cheese, orange juice, beer and an occasional book), giving the rest to the community.

Confronted with a nearly empty wallet, I opted to travel by thumb. A companion on
the Catholic Worker staff, Bob Kaye, joined me. Before sunrise one cold winter morning, we loaded up on Italian bread still warm from the oven of the Spring Street bakery and set off.

The going was slow. I recall standing in nighttime sleet at the side of a highway somewhere in Pennsylvania watching cars and trucks rush past, many of them with colorful plastic statues of an open-armed Jesus of the Sacred Heart on the dashboard. Sadly, this image of divine hospitality seemed to have little influence on those at the wheel behind the statue. It took us two-and-a-half exhausting days to travel the thousand miles to the Abbey of Gethsemani.

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

The origin, I discovered, was Bob Kaye’s room. As I opened the door the laughter was still going on, a kind of gale of joy. The major source was the red-faced man lying on the floor, wearing black and white robes and a broad leather belt, his knees in the air, hands clutching his belly. Though the monk was more well-fed than the broomstick thin, fast-chastened Trappist monk I had imagined, I realized instantly that the man on the floor laughing with such abandon must be Thomas Merton. His face reminded me of David Duncan’s photos of Pablo Picasso — a face similarly unfettered in its expressiveness, the eyes bright and quick and sure, suggesting some strange balance between wisdom and mischief. (Merton once remarked that he had the face of a “hillbilly who knows where the still is.”) And the inspiration for the laughter? It proved to be the intensely heady smell of feet that had been kept in shoes all the way from the Lower East Side to Gethsemani and were now out in the open air. If the Catholic Worker had manufactured a perfume, this would have been it.

After that week-long stay at Gethsemani, The Seven Storey Mountain became a new and different book. No wonder that Merton had twice mentioned the films of Charlie Chaplin in its pages. Not only did I become aware that Merton was someone capable of hurricanes of laughter, but I learned that he was far from the only Trappist who knew how to laugh, though no other monk seemed to exhibit this trait quite so readily and explosively as Merton.

The abbot, Dom James, though a most hospitable man, was not initially quite so positive about a visitation of ragged Catholic Workers. In those days most American men were tidily trimmed thanks to frequent haircuts, but, as far as Bob and I were concerned, haircuts were a massive waste of money. Merton apologetically explained that our shaggy hair did not please the abbot. If we were to stay on at the abbey, Dom James insisted we have haircuts. Merton hoped we wouldn’t object. No problem, we replied. On our second morning at the abbey, we took it in turns to sit in a chair in the basement room where the novices changed into their work clothes. (Merton in denims could have been taken for a New York City taxi driver.) The room also served as a barber shop. While the novices stood in a circle laughing, a good deal of hair fell to the concrete floor. Going from one extreme to the other, Bob and I were suddenly nearly as bald as Yul Brinner.

After the haircut Merton took me to the abbot’s office. I can no longer recall what the abbot and I talked about — perhaps about my conversion, or community life at the Catholic Worker — but I will never forget the solemn blessing Dom James gave me at the end of our conversation. I knelt on the floor near his desk while he gripped my skull with intensity and prayed over me. He had a steel grip. There was no doubt in my mind I had been seriously blessed. I have ever since had a warm spot in my heart for Dom James, a man who has occasionally been maligned by Merton biographers.

I recall another monk at the monastery who had much less sympathy for me and still less, it seemed, for Merton — or Father Louis, as Merton was known within the community. This was the abbey’s other noted author, Father Raymond Flanagan, whose books were well known to Catholics at the time, though they had never reached the broad audience Merton’s books had.

Merton and I were walking down a basement corridor that linked the guest house kitchen to the basement of the main monastery building. There was a point in the corridor where it made a leftward turn, and standing there, next to a large garbage container, was an older monk who was not so much reading as glaring at the latest Catholic Worker, which he held open at arm’s length as if the paper had an unpleasant smell. There was an article of Merton’s in it, one of his essays about the urgency of taking steps to prevent nuclear war. Father Raymond looked up, saw us coming his way, balled the paper up in his fist, hurled it into the garbage container, and strode away without a word, leaving a trail of smoke.

Once again, Merton’s response was laughter. Then he explained that Father Raymond had never had a high opinion of Merton’s writings and often denounced him at the community’s chapter meetings. “In the early days Father Raymond said I was too detached from the world, and now he thinks I’m not detached enough.” ( The tension between Merton and Father Raymond never abated. Just ten months before his death, Merton recorded in his journal a furious verbal assault by his brother monk, irate about Merton’s opposition to the war in Vietnam.)

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

I recall another evening a day or two later when Merton was not in a hurry. He was in good time for Vespers and already had on the white woolen choir robe the monks wore during winter months while in church. It was an impressive garment, all the more so at close range. I reached out to feel it thickness and density. In a flash Merton slid out of it and placed it over my head. I was astonished at how heavy it was! Once again, Merton laughed. The robe met a practical need, he explained, as it was hardly warmer in the church than it was outside. Without it, the monks would freeze to death.

The guest master knew I was at the monastery at Merton’s invitation and thought I might be able to answer a question which puzzled him, and no doubt many of the monks. “How did Father Louis write all those books?”

I had no idea, no more than he, but I got a glimpse of an answer before my stay was over. A friend at the Catholic Worker had sent a letter to Merton in my care. He urged Merton to leave the monastery and do something “more relevant,” such as join a Catholic Worker community. (Over the years Merton received quite a few letters telling him that he was in the wrong place.) I was a little embarrassed to be delivering such a message.

What is most memorable to me about this particular letter was the experience of watching Merton the writer at work. He had a small office just outside the classroom where he taught the novices. On his desk was a large gray typewriter. He inserted a piece of monastery stationery and wrote a reply that seemed to issue from the typewriter at the speed of light. I had never seen anyone write so quickly, and doing it with four fingers. You will often see a stenographer type at such speed when copying a text, but even in a city news room one rarely sees actual writing at a similar pace.

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

When I first met Merton, more than two years had passed since the Vatican’s denial of his request to move to another monastery where he might live in greater solitude. By the time of my visit, he was able to spend part of his time in a newly built cinderblock building that stood on the edge of the woods about a mile north of the monastery. It had initially been intended as a conference center where Merton could meet with non-Catholic visitors, but he saw it primarily as his hermitage. Merton had lit the first fire in the fireplace several months before, on December 2nd. There was a small bedroom behind the main room. Merton occasionally had permission to stay overnight, but it would not be until the summer of 1965, three years later, that it became his full-time home. At that point he became the first Trappist hermit in modern times.

When I came to visit, the hermitage already had a lived-in look. It was winter so there was no sitting on the porch. We sat inside, regularly adding wood to the blaze in the fireplace. There was a Japanese calendar on the wall with a Zen brush drawing for every month of the year and a black-on-black painting of the cross by Merton’s friend, Ad Reinhart. There was a bookcase and, next to it, a long table that served as a desk placed on the inside of the hermitage’s one large window offering a view of fields and hills. A large timber cross had been built on the lawn. On the table was a portable Swiss-made Hermes typewriter. Off to one side of the hermitage was an outhouse which Merton shared with a black snake, a harmless but impressive creature.

What Merton took the most pleasure in when he showed me the hermitage was a sheet of parchment-like paper tacked to the inside of the closet door in his bedroom — a colorful baroque document such as one finds in shops near the Vatican: a portrait of the pope at the top in an oval with a Latin text below and many decorative swirls. In this case it was made out to “the Hermit Thomas Merton” and was signed by Paul VI.

During that visit, the latest copy of Jubilee arrived. Jubilee was a monthly journal edited by Ed Rice, Merton’s godfather, with the collaboration of a small, committed staff of talented, underpaid colleagues, one of whom was Bob Lax. Merton was among the magazine’s advisors, cheerleaders and notable writers. In the years it existed, 1953 to 1967, Jubilee was unparalleled among religious magazines. There wasn’t a single issue that failed to be arresting — impressive photo features plus some of the most striking typography of the time. The content was wide ranging, with vivid glimpses of church life, portraits of houses of hospitality, profiles and interviews with remarkable people, and well-illustrated articles on liturgy, art and architecture. In that particular issue was a set of photos of life in an Orthodox monastery. One of the photos showed a heavily-bearded Athonite monk who looked older than Abraham. He was standing behind a long battered table in the refectory, while in the background was a huge fresco of the Last Judgement. The monk’s head was bowed slightly. His eyes seemed to contain the cosmos. There was a remarkable vulnerability in his face. “Look at him,” Merton said. “This guy has been kissed by God!”

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

* * *

Saturday, November 15, 2008

a saintly visitor from Spain

At the time of the Calvinist Reformation in Holland, a major effort was made to stamp out the celebration of all the saint-connected festivals To a great extent the reformers succeeded, but two saints proved to be Reformation-proof: St Martin (whose feast is November 11) and St Nicholas (December 6).

The Dutch have an affectionate name for St Nicholas -- Sinterklaas. Every year, on a Saturday in mid-November, he arrives by boat (more or less simultaneously) in all the Dutch cities and some of the larger towns.

Some photos of Sinterklaas' arrival in Alkmaar today are here:

According to the Dutch, Sinterklaas lives in Spain when not making his annual visit to Holland. It's not today's Spain, however, but Moorish Spain -- Spain before the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella. Thus when he arrives, he is accompanied by a crowd of dark-skinned Moorish assistants, each of whom the Dutch call Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), all of them colorfully dressed in medieval clothing. St Nicholas, bishop that he is, wears cope and miter.

In the weeks before St. Nicholas Day, December 6, Sinterklaas goes visiting schools and hospitals, in theory to discover how well-behaved each child has been, though it turns all Dutch children are very upright. Meanwhile bakeries are busy making speculaas (molded spice cookies).

Each evening Dutch children put out their shoes with a wish list and also something for Sinterklaas's horse, usually a carrot. In the days leading up to December 6, each morning children will find Sinterklaas has left a small gift in their shoes: some chocolate or a candy treat, pepernoten (tiny spice cookies).

As it is ancient tradition that feasts begin after sundown the day before the festival, on the evening of December 5th there are family parties at which gifts and surprises are exchanged. Each gift comes from Sinterklaas and includes a poem signed by the saint that may point out the recipient's shortcomings in a teasing way. (A few of the Sinterklaas poems that Anne Frank wrote while in hiding are included in her diary.) A small gift may often be wrapped in a big box that is decorated in such a way that the package itself is a work of art.

When the Dutch founded New Amsterdam, today's New York, Sinterklaas came with them. In time his name was anglicized into Santa Claus.


Friday, November 7, 2008

a pro-lifer who welcomes the Obama presidency

In many situations I’m hesitant to use the term “pro-life” as for a lot of people it really means nothing more than “anti-abortion.” To be pro-life should mean doing all the one can to protect life from the womb to the death bed. It should mean the rejection of killing as a method of solving problems.

Using the word in that sense, I am among the pro-lifers who favored Obama's election and watched with gratitude his fine speech at Grant Park in Chicago after McCain conceded defeat. (Here in Holland watching this life meant being awake a 5 AM, which I was thanks to a toothache.) My happiness was not naive. I know about Obama's pro-choice position and his plans to greatly increase US troop levels in Afghanistan. I fully expect in the coming years that I will passionately disagree with many things the Obama administration does. On the other hand, I expect a presidency that will do more community building, care more about the poor, strengthen relations with allies, listen more carefully to cautions and criticisms, and not engage in a "shoot first, ask questions later" foreign policy.

I think it is not unreasonable to expect that the abortion rate in the US will fall significantly in a way that it didn’t during the past years of the “pro-life” Bush administration. Some of the reasons for that hope are listed on a “Pro-life Pro-Obama” web site:

The site is worth a visit.

In Holland, though abortion is legal, the abortion rate is extremely low (while in Orthodox Greece and Russia it’s very high). There are several reasons for it being low here:

1) There is a good sex education curriculum in the schools. One consequence of this is that there is a much lower rate of unintended pregnancies than in the US.

2) There is strong and effective social support (economic, medical, housing) for women who, without such support, might well see no alterative but abortion.

3) Last but perhaps not least, the pro-life movement here really is pro-life, not simply anti-abortion. It doesn’t aim at shocking anyone nor does it engage in scolding, but rather puts its stress on caring support and encouragement of women who may be seriously considering abortion. The group has the initials VBOK, which means the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children. VBOK posters are regularly displayed at train stations, bus and tram stops throughout the country. (See a photo of one such ad here: .) The photos used on the posters are of young women who clearly are struggling with a hard choice. The images always strike a note of compassion. The text is always the same. The headline on top is “An unwished for pregnancy... What now?” The text at the bottom is: “There is help for both the mother and child.” And then a free phone number one can call any hour of the day or night. I have no doubt these posters have saved many lives of unborn children and also saved many mothers from a lifetime of profound regret and depression.

Perhaps there is something that Americans can be learn from the Dutch model.


Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Pilgrimage of Illness

One of my favorite writers is Flannery O’Connor, who died young, age 39, after years of being hard hit by lupus, the same disease that took her father’s life. Her short stories and novels never fail to surprise. Her letters are also gems -- some of them hilarious, some profound, some both. Eight years before she died, she commented in a letter to a friend, “I have never been anywhere but sick. In a sense sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it’s always a place where there’s no company, where nobody can follow. Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who don’t have it miss one of God’s mercies.”

All of us have been sick at one time or another, in many cases very sick. I am probably not the only one here who lives with a chronic illness. None of us is unaware that we’re on our way to the graveyard and have some suffering, possibly a lot of suffering, to do along the way.

There are various ways of looking at this.

One is to say, “It’s a really bad deal -- I’m only putting up with it because I have to.” And it’s true. It is a bad deal. And we put up with it because, not being suicide-minded, what else can we do?

But there is another way of regarding illness, and that is to notice the fact that our maladies are, as Flannery put it, “more instructive than a long trip to Europe.” Or, as she said to a friend in another letter, “Some kind of loss is usually necessary to turn the mind toward faith. If you're satisfied with what you've got, you're hardly going to look for anything better.”

Maybe due to what Christianity has often called original sin, bitterness comes easy. It may be our default setting. Lot’s wife, we’re told, turned into a pillar of salt. I don’t take that literally -- I think it means that, looking back on the destruction of her home, she became a permanently bitter person. Many people have become pillars of salt.

But we don’t have to turn to salt. Life, including grave illness, can be a pilgrimage: a journey in sacred time to a sacred place.

Pissed off -- or on pilgrimage. You decide.

It’s something like the difference between being interrupted or surprised.

“Interruption” is a word with a sour sound. No one longs for interruptions. You were engaged in doing something -- talking with a friend, reading a book, running an errand, quietly thinking, getting a job done, perhaps even praying -- but were interrupted. Probably you experienced a hot flash of annoyance as a consequence.

“Surprise,” on the other hand, is a word full of promise. “What a surprise,” we say when something unanticipated but welcome occurs: someone you’re glad to see shows up unexpectedly, a nicely wrapped package awaits you when you had no idea it was your anniversary, an item of unforeseen good news comes your way.

Considered with an eye open to providence, many an unwelcome interruption might evolve into a heaven-sent surprise. Whether one looks at the unplanned with an open mind or with brittle resentment reveals a good deal about one’s spiritual condition at that moment. Step by step, the pilgrim is attempting to leave irritation behind and to receive interruptions with a sensitivity to God’s providence. It is a conversion of perception that resembles Christ’s first miracle, turning water into wine at the marriage feast at Cana. What was plain old water somehow is changed to wine worth writing home about. This happens.

In the Gospel Jesus asks the question, “Do figs grow from thistles?” The obvious answer is, “No, thistles grow from thistles.” However the main theme of the Gospel is exactly the opposite. It’s all about conversion. Water to wine. Interruption to surprise. Closed doors to open doors. Enmity to friendship. Vengeance to forgiveness. Violence to nonviolence. Fear to love. Disbelief to faith. A crucified body to a resurrected body.

As St. Paul put it, “They say we are dead and yet we live.”

Conversion is the real pilgrimage. Each pilgrim sets off on his journey in the hope of being a changed person by the time he gets to where he’s going -- someone less quick to take offense, someone more patient, someone better able to respond to the needs of others, someone better able to see the image of God in other people, someone more capable of self-giving love, and someone more able to accept the love and care of others.

I am not only thinking of the sort of pilgrim journey that ends in a far-away holy place. Pilgrimage is not so much where you’re going as how you’re being. It doesn’t necessarily involve travel. You can be a pilgrim while standing at the kitchen sink.

I sometimes think of an evening with Vietnamese friends in a cramped apartment in the outskirts of Paris. At the heart of the community was the poet and Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh. An interesting discussion was going on the living room, but I had been given the task that evening of doing the washing up. The pots, pans and dishes seemed to reach half way to the ceiling on the counter of the sink in that closet-sized kitchen. I felt really annoyed. I was stuck with an infinity of dirty dishes while a great conversation was happening just out of earshot in the living room.

Somehow Nhat Hanh picked up on my irritation. Suddenly he was standing next to me. “Jim,” he asked, “what is the best way to wash the dishes?” I knew I was suddenly facing one of those very tricky Zen questions. I tried to think what would be a good Zen answer, but all I could come up with was, “You should wash the dishes to get them clean.” “No,” said Nhat Hanh. “You should wash the dishes to wash the dishes.” I’ve been mulling over that answer ever since -- more than three decades of mulling.

But what he said next was instantly helpful: “You should wash each dish as if it were the baby Jesus.”

That sentence was a flash of lightning. I still mostly wash the dishes to get them clean, but every now and then I find I am, just for a passing moment, washing the baby Jesus. And when that happens, though I haven’t gone anywhere, it’s something like reaching the Mount of the Beatitudes after a very long walk.

Being sick is a lot harder than washing dishes.

Let me talk a little about my own pilgrimage as a sick person even though I’m not a perfect example. Each person’s encounter with illness is unique. Mine has been far from the worst. But perhaps there are some aspects of my particular pilgrimage with a chronic illness that have some meaning for others.

Back in 2003 routine blood tests that had been arranged by our family doctor suggested that my kidneys might not be working as they should. I was referred to an internist at the local hospital. Following further tests, about a week later the internist, Dr. Bax, told me that my kidneys were failing, that nothing could be done to halt their decline, and that probably within six months I would need to begin dialysis in order to stay alive. “We will be seeing a great deal of each other,” he told me, “for the foreseeable future.”

Dialysis? That was an unfamiliar word and didn’t sound inviting. Dr. Bax explained it meant using an alternate method of filtering the blood when kidney function has either dropped below a minimal level or the kidneys have altogether stopped working, an event which can happen with no advance warning. Without an alternate method of getting rid of the wastes that are filtered out by the kidneys, kidney failure is a death sentence. In every cemetery there are the tombstones of those who died because their kidneys gave out. Even since the development of dialysis in the latter half of the twentieth century, many such deaths still occur.

During subsequent visits to the hospital, I often had a glimpse into the several wards where patients were undergoing dialysis. Transparent plastic tubes filled with dark red blood ran from the bandaged arms of men and women, sitting in barbershop-like chairs, into machines that looked like props from a Star Wars set. It seemed to me a nightmare vision. Each time I saw what was going on, I hoped against hope that I would not eventually have to join them.

Things moved more slowly than the doctor had estimated -- six months became a year, one year became two. During those two years there had been many prayers, from me and from others, that I might be healed. While not expecting a miracle, I was definitely not opposed to one. Meanwhile I did everything my wife and I plus our friends could think of to stave off dialysis. But at last the day came when the doctor, having reviewed the blood test of the previous day, said dialysis would have to begin tomorrow.

There were days when it seemed to me that prayer had failed. There was no miracle. Though my illness had progressed slowly instead of quickly, I had gotten steadily worse. But actually, as the months passed, I became increasingly aware how much I was helped by prayer, not only my own but still more by all the prayers that were coming my way from friends and even strangers. Such spiritual support, I think, was a major factor in my gradually coming to terms with my illness. I often felt like a sailing ship that was being carried forward by a steady wind of prayer.

I needed that wind of prayer. In my darker moments, and they were many, it seemed to me that I was simply a random victim of rotten luck who was now forced to take a meaningless detour.

Ironically, while feeling sorry for myself, I was hard at work writing a book on pilgrimage -- The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life. Oddly enough, it didn’t occur to me at first that illness is one of the main pilgrim routes.

Sickness is time consuming and also stops you in your tracks. More than ever, my life was anchored in Alkmaar, our small city to the northwest of Amsterdam. If I was to be a pilgrim, it would mainly have to be in our patch of Holland.

Once dialysis began, with its three three-hour sessions each week, travel, though not impossible, was ruled out unless I was willing to go through the extremely complex process of arranging dialysis care wherever I was hoping to go. Book-related lecture trips with many stops, so much a part of my life in the past, were out of the question.

Like any sick person, I had to rethink how to make the best use of each day. My available time for activity outside the hospital had been cut by about fifty hours a month. Where should the adjustments be made? The decisions made involved economies in almost every area of life -- less correspondence, less book work, less walking, less biking, less household work, less time with friends, less recreational time. Only family time and time spent at our parish church in Amsterdam were untrimmed.

Then there was the question of how to make the best use of all those hours each week spent at the hospital. The first solution was to spend much of the time watching films. I had been given a DVD player as a Christmas present just before dialysis began. For the first two or three months, while at the dialysis clinic, I mainly watched films, from old Charlie Chaplain movies to the Harry Potter series, from “Finding Nemo” to “Hamlet.” I would have preferred books, but they seemed ruled out because I didn’t dare move my left arm due to the two long needles inserted in it. One hand was one too few for both holding a book and turning pages. However, as the weeks passed, I found I could, with care, safely shift my left arm a little to the right and make a slight turn of the wrist, with the result that I could hold the left side of a book, using my right hand to turn pages. I felt like a prisoner who had been given permission to work in a garden outside the walls.

From then on, dialysis became a time mainly given over to reading. I can honestly speak of dialysis as having delivered one major blessing. Our library was full of books I had long wished I had time to read, plus many other books I wanted to read again. It had been a long-running if unarticulated prayer that somehow I would find the time. Now, as a dialysis patient, I had acres of time to read and could do so with no sense of neglecting anything else. Some clouds really do have a silver lining.

My reading was far-ranging, from Dostoevsky to Garrison Keillor, from art history to travel books. As I was at work on a book about pilgrimage, many of the books I read were about pilgrimage: journals kept by pilgrims, interviews with pilgrims, books on major centers of pilgrimage, books on the history and theology of pilgrimage.

Ultimately, engaging as the other books were, it was the reading on the theology of pilgrimage that proved the most helpful. It began to dawn on me that illness offers its own pilgrimage route. The more I worked on the book, the clearer it became that the most crucial element in pilgrimage is not walking or biking along traditional pilgrim routes, great blessing that such journeys can be, but is a process of becoming more aware of the presence of God no matter where you are. This could happen just as easily in the most ordinary and familiar location -- home, a supermarket, a parking lot, a park -- as on the way to Jerusalem or Santiago del Compostela. It could even happen in a hospital dialysis ward.

While there is a lot to be said for putting one foot in front of the other while praying your way to notably sacred places, pilgrimage is most of all an attitude toward daily life wherever daily life requires you to be. For those on a quest for the kingdom of God, neither walking shoes nor a passport is required. If you happen to be sick, the best place to meet God is here and now in that sickness.

How funny! I had been writing about pilgrimage without being aware that the situation I so desperately wanted to avoid and whose demands on me I so deeply resented and resisted could do more for me than walking in prayer to Jerusalem.

I recalled a meeting back in the early seventies that my friend Mel Holland had with the Jesuit priest and poet, Dan Berrigan. We were all living in Manhattan in those days. In his first encounter with Mel, Dan immediately noticed Mel’s unhealthy skin color and sunken eyes. Clearly something was seriously amiss. Not bothering with the polite nothings that people so often exchange, Dan’s first words to Mel were, “What’s the matter?” Deciding to respond with the same directness, Mel said, “I’m dying of cancer.” To which Dan replied, without hesitation or embarrassment, and just as briefly, “That must be very exciting.”

Mel later told me how Dan’s few words instantly cleared the dark sky he had been living under since he had been told he had an untreatable cancer and had not more than six months to live. What had until then been a joyless journey on a short road to the cemetery suddenly was transformed into the most engaging pilgrimage of his life. (As it happened, against all medical expectations, Mel’s cancer went into prolonged remission. Mel lived on for some years. He did in fact die young, not of cancer but of smoke inhalation caused by a fire. He did, in fact, die young -- not of cancer, but of smoke inhalation caused by a fire.)

Thanks to dialysis, my kidney illness wasn’t the death sentence it would have been not so many years ago, but I was seriously ill and could anticipate nothing in the future but steady physical decline until the day came when I might get to the point, like many other kidney patients, of saying: “Enough. No more dialysis. Let nature take her course.” (I recall how started I was when I read that the writer James Mitchner reached a point with his kidney illness of deciding enough was eniough. He stopped dialysis and his life ended a week later.)

Yet looking at what was happening through the lens of pilgrimage, I came to understand that worse things could have come my way than having to spend so much of my life in a hospital: a place where nearly everyone is either sick, caring for the sick, or visiting the sick. In brief: holy ground.

God bless everyone with good health, who see doctors rarely and have no prescription medication in their home. Would that I were one of them! But good health is a condition that can give rise to its own illusions. So much is taken for granted. Having been deprived of good health, the sick are well aware that they are unable to survive on their own.

The pilgrimage of illness made me more conscious than ever before of a basic reality in everyone’s life: our profound dependence on the care of others. Raised as I was in a culture which prizes individuality and independence, I was as reluctant to realize just how much I relied on others, though actually there had never been a day of my life when this wasn’t the case. I started that dependence the instant I was conceived and it will continue without interruption until I draw my last breath. I depend on others for love, for encouragement, for inspiration, for food. I depend on others for the words and gestures that make communication possible. I have others to thank for all the skills I acquired while growing up. Whatever wisdom I have is largely borrowed from others. Sickness makes it all but impossible to nourish the illusion of being autonomous and a having a right to whatever good things might come my way.

There is an easily memorized short summary of the Gospel. It’s called the Beatitudes -- ten short sentences placed at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. The verses form a kind of ladder. Illness almost automatically puts you on the first rung of the ladder of the Beatitudes: poverty of spirit.

When everything seems to come easily, as if by right, the phrase “thank you” may not always reflect a deeply felt attitude. Being sick changes that. Gratitude rises 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 we know only a few of them 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. I still find it cheering to recall a young Moslem woman, mop in hand, who always gave me the warmest smile when we happened to pass each other in the hallway. Such a radiant face!

It’s not surprising that my appreciation for all the people involved in health care has grown a great deal these last few years. Directly or indirectly, what all these people are doing day after day is trying to keep those of us in their care alive a little longer and, in the case of those we meet face to face, even trying to raise our spirits in the process.

They are professional life-savers, a heroic work, yet do not 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 unclogging a stopped-up sink. (Yes, there are those for whom health work seems to be nothing more than a job, and not one they especially like doing or have a talent for. But my experience suggests that they are the exception rather than the rule. Much depends on the esprit de corps of the hospital or clinic in which they work.)

At the end of a session of dialysis, I would sometimes say to the nurses who helped me that day, “Thanks for saving my life.” They often look surprised to hear such a declaration. Generally people are too polite to express appreciation so plainly, though anyone with a chronic illness knows he or she is living on borrowed time.

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 most hospitals attempt to restrict visits to predetermined hours that pose the least inconvenience for staff, in practice visitors arrive and depart throughout the day and, in many hospitals, are only told to come back later if their timing is especially bad. 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 under this very roof. Though hospitals are not the healthiest places to be, crowds of people each day manage to overcome their hesitations, even their fears, 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.

On the pilgrimage of illness, I came to appreciate better what a healing work it is to visit the sick -- as crucial and powerful an action 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.”

There was hardly a visit to the hospital when I wasn’t reminded the journey being made by others was often far harder than mine, and more difficult to bear -- children who are gravely ill, people in great pain and distress, faces collapsing with discouragement and grief. There is nothing I can do but silently pray, but prayer too may be an achievement in the face of the overwhelming powerlessness one sometimes feels when witnessing 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. During a session of dialysis one day I happened to witness a frail man in his eighties die 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. Countless thousands of people lie buried along the great pilgrimage routes.

In my own case, though I got a letter recently that began “Dead Jim,” I haven’t taken my last breath yet. But it will happen.

In fact, within the community of the sick, I’m one of the lucky ones. Not very long ago, I would have died of kidney illness. Today it’s treatable. It’s possible to live a long and, for many, a full life on dialysis. It is also an illness that, for many patients, can be reversed by a kidney transplant. Assuming the transplant is successful, dialysis is no longer needed.

This is what happened in my case. There’s no need to tell that story in detail, only to say that after not quite two years of dialysis, one of my wife’s kidneys made the journey from her body to mine where is has been living happily ever since. It’s now nearly a year since I made the last of those three-times weekly trips to the dialysis clinic. I still spent a lot of time at the hospital, but now it’s usually less than a day a month. I take a good many pills each day to prevent my body from rejecting the kidney Nancy gave me and also to make sure that my third kidney stays in good health. Frequent blood tests continue. Would that I had a euro, or even a dollar, for every vial of blood removed from my right arm.

I’m a hospital patient for life, and heavily medicated for the duration, but, thanks to my wife, sickness currently involves a lot less of my time. I can do things I couldn’t do not so long ago. I can travel without having to work out medical care along the route. I have more energy. I don’t have to sleep so long at night. I don’t need a daily nap. I can be more productive as a writer. I do lot of walking and biking. All this is a kind of miracle. I feel a bit like Lazarus pulled out of his tomb. Of course Lazarus will in time get sick and die once again, but he has had a preview of life after death and, as a consequence, has a different take on the gift of life.

I am one of the fortunate ones, if only temporarily. But I remain one of those people whose life and way of seeing has been reshaped by illness. What you learn as a sick person you don’t unlearn. I am better acquainted with mortality. I know the days I am now living are pure gift. I have a closer bond both with Christ’s crucifixion and his resurrection.

I owe a lot to sickness.

I remain on pilgrimage.

* * *

This is draft of a talk to be given October 14, 2008, at the St. Agnes Spiritual Life Center, San Francisco

For details about Jim’s kidney transplant, see the online journal — A Tale of Two Kidneys:

* * *

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Church and State in the Russia-Georgia Conflict

The recent Georgia-Russia mini-war in and around South Ossetia was definitely not a religious war, but serves as a reminder that religious identity doesn't even come in third place when issues of national identity are at issue. While the battle raged, the majority of participants -- and casualties -- were Christians on both sides.

In both countries, the Orthodox Church -- in practice, though not officially -- functions as the national church. Russia has an icon of St. George at the center of its national coat of arms; the average Russian atheist regards himself as an Orthodox atheist. Georgia prides itself on having adopted Christianity in the 4th century, six centuries before the baptism of Russia.

No matter how borderless Christianity is in theory ("neither east nor west, neither Greek nor Jew"), in practice national borders are as substantial as cathedral walls.

The Orthodox churches in Russia and Georgia -- led by Patriarch Alexei in Moscow and Patriarch Ilya in Tbilisi -- are no exception. It's rare for either church to stand in opposition to its government. The Russian Orthodox Church has been especially notable for being quick to bless Russia's military -- and has been all but silent in voicing criticism about Russian actions, no matter how brutal. Patriarch Ilya also has been equally silent about post-Soviet Georgia's deepening association with the United States and the US-sponsored military buildup that has resulted.

Thus it has been a surprise to note the efforts made by the leaders of both churches first to prevent the recent war and then, their efforts having failed, to speed its end.

Ilya seems to have been the one who took the first step. In April he sent a letter to Alexei in which he noted the potential "role and authority of our churches to prevent the escalation of tensions and help restore good bilateral relations."

While Alexei's response has not been made public, is likely that he intervened with Russia's president and prime minister (he is on close terms with both Medvedev and Putin) in hopes of encouraging renewed diplomatic efforts to prevent conflict.

But when Georgia's military bombarded Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, on the night of August 8, hopes to prevent war were shattered. (What lay behind Georgia's action is baffling. It was something like Connecticut opening fire on New York. The Russians had already made clear what would happen in such a case. Georgia's small army hadn't a chance against Russian forces. Was President Saakashvili imagining that America, his military sponsor, would join the battle? Had he even been encouraged to open fire? I'd love to know.)

What is remarkable in the context of the days that followed was Patriarch Alexei making a public appeal to the Russian state to declare a cease fire.

"Today blood is being shed and people being killed in South Ossetia," he said, "and my heart deeply laments over it. Orthodox Christians are among those who have raised their hands against each other. Orthodox people, called by the Lord to live in fraternity and love, confront each other."

In a sermon given in Tbilisi two days later, Patriarch Ilya said that "one thing concerns us very deeply -- that Orthodox Russians are bombing Orthodox Georgians."

Note that when Alexei made his appeal, he was definitely not acting as the Russian government's amen chorus. At the time, Russia's leaders were strongly resisting international pressure for a cease fire. It seems likely Russia was hoping, war having begun after years of tension, to seize the moment to bring South Ossetia, bitterly with odds with Georgia for many years, into actual rather than ex officio inclusion in Russia -- a goal Russia is still pursuing, but at present without warfare with Georgia.

Will the two churches make more vigorous efforts to prevent renewed conflict? And if so how? How willing are the two churches to prevent the cross from being used as a flag pole?

-- Jim Forest

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Hell Hole

By lucky chance, a few days ago I came upon an etching -- “The Hell Hole” by John Sloan -- of the back room of a pub at 6th Avenue and 4th Street in Greenwich Village. One of its patrons in the period the etching was made -- it is dated 1917 -- was a very young Dorothy Day (she turned 20 on November 17). Another was the playwright, Eugene O'Neill. According to Sloan's notes, O'Neill is the figure in the upper right. (I wonder who the woman is at the same table? It doesn't look at all like Dorothy.)

The pub was officially named Wallace’s, after its owner, a one-time prize fighter, but its patrons had given it several nick-names: the Hell Hole, the Bucket of Blood and the Golden Swan. The last name, the one Dorothy used in writing The Long Loneliness, was due to a gilded swan that was hung over saloon’s front door. For quite a number of writers and radicals of the day, it was a place of refuge. It must have been one of the principal watering holes for the left-wing journalists Dorothy was working with in those day.

Today the southeast corner of the intersection of 4th Street and 6th Avenue, where the pub was located, has become a small park known affectionately in the neighborhood as the Golden Swan Park. The pub received another sort of immortality as a consequence of O'Neill using it as the setting for his play, The Iceman Cometh.

Despite the burst of recognition that had come in 1916 with the opening of his first play, Bound East for Cardiff, O’Neill was depressed and drinking heavily in the winter of 1917. His affair with Louise Bryant had recently ended with her departure for Moscow, where she joined John Reed and wrote about the Russian Revolution. (The O'Neill-Bryant-Reed story is well told cinematically in a film, The Reds.)

When Dorothy returned to New York from her arrest and imprisonment in Washington (she was one of the suffragettes who picketed the White House November 10th; the group was released by presidential pardon 18 days later), she met O’Neill at the Golden Swan. Friendship struck up between the two so readily that it seemed to his friends that Dorothy might fill the space left by Louise Bryant. Though O’Neill was nine years older, the two had made some similar choices: both had dropped out of college; both had become reporters; both were attempting to make their living as writers; both were drawn to outcasts.

They also had in common an itchy, hesitantly confessed awareness of the presence of God. Agnes Boulton, who was then sharing a Village apartment with Dorothy and who later married O’Neill, quickly realized that Dorothy was subject to “sudden and unexplainable impulses” which drew her “into any nearby Catholic church” -- a religious longing similar to O’Neill’s.

Agnes Boulton recalled Dorothy joining O’Neill at a Village restaurant one night, accompanied by her two seedy, tough, middle-aged men whom she had found on the icy steps of St. Joseph’s Church and brought along to thaw out. Dorothy ordered three rye whiskeys and proceeded to sing the tragic ballad of “Frankie and Johnny.”

Dorothy also occasionally sang at the Golden Swan. Agnes recalled how fascinated O’Neill was at such moments, “moving slowly around, his dark eyes alive and pleased, admiring Dorothy’s strange almost staccato singing.” Agnes also found Dorothy impressive. “I saw at once that this girl was a personality, an unusual one.” Dorothy’s face, she said, was especially attractive in candlelight, which “brought out the long classic line of her jaw and the ends of her tousled hair.”

O’Neill enjoyed reciting poetry, and the poem Dorothy best loved him to repeat was Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven” which described God’s tireless pursuit of each person’s soul:

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days,
I fled Him down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind...

O’Neill would recite the whole of the poem, sitting across from Dorothy, “looking dour and black,” Dorothy remembered, “his head sunk on his chest,” sighing out the words:

And now my heart is as a broken fount,
Wherein tear-drippings stagnate...

Her own loneliness for God often drew Dorothy into St. Joseph’s Church on Sixth Avenue where she experienced a kind of at-homeness and consolation. While she knew very little about Catholic belief, she felt some comfort being in a place set aside for prayer. It was reassuring to be among people who came in for some quiet minutes, their heads bowed toward the consecrated bread hidden beyond the altar that in some mysterious way had been made one with Christ.

It’s a story I told when I wrote my biography of Dorothy, Love is the Measure, but at that time I knew very little about the Golden Swan (or Wallace’s, the Hell Hole, the Bucket of Blood). I’m delighted that the Sloan etching makes that time in Dorothy’s life a little easier to visualize and hope it can be used in the revised edition of Love is the Measure that I expect to start work on later this year.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Rome of the Martyrs

We're starting our pilgrimage journal with an account of pilgrimage.

At the end of May and the first eleven days of June, we were in Rome. The trip was partly to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary and partly to rejoice in the success of the kidney transplant eight months earlier. We did all this by taking part in a small pilgrimage group organized by the Canadian Thomas Merton Society.

Merton was in Rome only briefly, but it holds an important place in his life. He had come to Rome in 1933, when he was eighteen. At first he was mainly bored -- as would be the case with a great many eighteen-year-olds. But his discovery of one of the city's more ancient churches and its mosaic iconography -- the basilica of Sts Cosmas and Damian -- on the edge of the Forum -- astonished and challenged him to such an extent that he began searching out similar churches, of which there are many in Rome. This quest proved to be a turning in his life. It was in Rome that he first wondered what it might be like to be both a Christian and even a monk.

The following essay is about only one of the churches Merton visited, San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura. A folder of photos relating to that church are here:

The full set of photos taken during our days in Rome are posted here:

The Rome of the Martyrs

[H]ow to compare the Rome of the Caesars with the Rome of the martyrs… I was entering a city that had been transformed by the Cross.
--Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (p 106)

The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.
-- Tertullian (155-222 AD)

“Look to your left, look to your right, and try to enjoy.” Nancy and I heard this brief instruction from a fast-moving guide leading a dazed tour group through one of the long galleries of the Vatican Museums. If those in her charge had time to look on either side, at that moment they would have had a blurred glimpse of colorful frescoed maps of various cities and regions of Italy, including two views of the entire Italian peninsula in the days when much of Italy was under papal rule.

Luckily, two weeks in Rome gives time to move slowly. We not only looked to our left and looked to our right but ahead and behind and up and down, more often than not doing so slowly or not moving at all.

What touched us most deeply was a consequence of visiting ancient churches founded on places where martyrs of the early church were either killed or buried. Some of their names are familiar to any Christian — Paul and Peter, Stephen, Cosmas and Damien, Laurence, Agnes, Theodore, Cecilia — while others are hardly known (for example the sisters Prassede and Pudenziana). All these names and others daily took on greater significance.

In Rome, the only ancient churches not named after martyrs are those dedicated to Mary. Each of the martyr-linked churches is a place for passing on memories and stories of those who lives inspired the conversions of many others, not only in ancient times but today as well. Such churches serve as points of access to what might have seemed the remote past, but then suddenly becomes part of the present day. This happened to us. We left Rome with a far more acute and intimate sense of connection not only with the martyrs of the early church who are remembered by name, but with a deepened sense of being linked to the many thousands, though now forgotten, who are part of what St. Paul called “the cloud of witnesses.”

To write about all the churches we visited would require either a book-length text that might take a year to write, or a something brief but no more interesting than a catalogue. Instead I’ll focus on the church we visited on June 10th, our last full day in Rome, the Basilica of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura (St Laurence Outside the Walls).

All over the world there are churches that bear Laurence’s name (including the medieval cathedral a hundred meters from our house in Alkmaar, Holland), but this particular church to the northeast of the center of Rome is the first and oldest.

It was about a three- or four-kilometer walk from the convent hospice on the Via Cavour where we were staying. Setting off after breakfast, we walked past the nearby Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, then down a boulevard of shops and street venders that led to a neighborhood park, then up a side street to a tunnel that allowed us to pass under the tracks that lead to Rome’s main train station, Termini, then through a gate took us outside the Aurelian Wall, the barrier that enclosed the city’s seven hills, protecting Rome from barbarian invaders. Finally we were walking along one of the old roads connecting Rome with the world beyond, the Via Tiburtina. A few hundred years ago, we would have been passing not apartment buildings, shops, cafes and bus stops, but enjoying the open air of the Italian countryside. Now it’s a densely populated area. After a fifteen-minute walk, we found ourselves standing before the gates of the Campo Verano, Rome’s biggest cemetery and also the place where San Lorenzo’s was built.

Not at first seeing the church, we entered the cemetery, thinking the church must be somewhere within. Instead we spent half an hour or more looking at gravestones. The ones that we were most drawn to were decorated with photos of people who had died in the nineteenth century — usually colored ovals, an elderly matriarch in one, an equally aged patriarch in the other, and carved in the stone not only particular names but again and again the word “Famiglia” — family. Old graves or new, the cemetery seemed more than anything a monument to families, though there were also numerous indications of those families being Catholic (crucifixes and images of the Madonna). There were also monuments dating from the Italian equivalent of the Victorian era whose main message was one of intense sentimentality. On one elaborate gravestone there was a carving not only of grandma’s face peering out (no longer ruling the family — at least not from this world, though who knows what influence she still has) but of two children, a grandson with clasped hands and a distressed eyes looking at grandma’s determined face, while his younger sister, stricken with grief, sits to the other side, looking away.

This place of burial is older than the church we had come to visit. It started out as an extensive ancient catacomb, far beneath our feet. It was here in the year 258 that the roasted body of Laurence was brought, carried by a procession of Christians who followed more or less the same route we had just walked. His body was placed in a narrow niche along one of the underground passageways, then walled in with mortar and an inscription made, probably on that day just his name plus the word “sanctissimi” — most holy — done quickly in red lead paint applied with a brush. Only later on was the marble sarcophagus provided that the pilgrim approaching the saint’s relics sees today.

In Laurence’s day, the bodies of most Romans would have been burned and their ashes placed in urns, but the Christians opted for burial. In Rome, partly thanks to geological factors, almost all Christian burials were in catacombs — a less costly and more democratic option, both of which greatly appealed to the Church at that time. The catacombs — narrow passageways craved out of soft tufa stone with shallow niches, six or seven stacked one above the other — could be extended horizontally, and also be extended downward, gallery beneath gallery. Many thousands were buried in a single catacomb.

By the end of the second century AD, the Church in Rome had founded burial societies in order to be sure that even the poorest baptized person would be properly buried in one of the many catacombs that existed outside the city walls. Rank was of no consequence. In the catacomb of St. Callisto, a few kilometers outside the city walls to the southeast along the Appian Way, six popes and many martyrs were entombed among thousands of ordinary people, many of them children.

By accident, we had approached the Basilica of San Lorenzo in what probably is the correct way, not going directly to the church, as we had intended, but first wandering among the countless people of Rome who had either been buried in the catacombs or, after the late-fourth century, when catacombs had become places of pilgrimage rather than of burial, been lowered into graves dug from the surface.

Having had our fill of gravestones, at last we found our way to the basilica. It proved to be a surprisingly simple structure. Most ancient Roman churches have been modified and embellished over the centuries by popes, cardinals and wealthy benefactors: side altars added, gilded ceilings created, up-to-date art substituted for old, unfashionable art. The many churches the lily had not only been gilded but regilded, then regilded yet again. The basic shape of the church was usually retained but simplicity had been replaced by complexity, austerity by lavish displays of wealth.

But here at the Basilica of San Lorenzo, a small miracle had occurred. Both inside and out, no overlays or major renovations had been made — no decorative overlays for the facade, no elaborate, gilded ceiling, no cherubs, none of the theatrical interventions of the counter-reformation or baroque periods.

Probably all this is thanks to its providential location as a church outside the city walls in what was for most of its history a rural area. When the population of post-imperial Rome plummeted to just a few thousand people, the monastery of San Lorenzo (now a Franciscan friary) remained active but isolated. No wealthy philanthropist ever bothered to “improve” the church. The result is perhaps the most unspoiled ancient building in Christian Rome, though a few churches inside the walls — such as Santa Sabina, San Clemente, Ss. Cosmo e Damiano and Santa Prassede — come close.

Under a tiled roof held up by six tall pillars, the visitor steps down a meter or so below ground level into a spacious porch built in the thirteenth century. On the inner wall of the porch, access to the church is provided by smaller doors to the left and right plus a large entrance in the center that is guarded at floor level by two Romanesque stone lions, neither of whom seem on their way to baptism. One has a child in its claws, the other a lamb — graphic images of the world which condemned people like Laurence to death. One is reminded of a passage in one of the letters of Peter: “Brethren, be sober and watchful. Your adversary, the devil, like a roaring lion, goes about seeking to devour you. Resist him strong in the faith” (Note that not all lions are seeking someone to devour. Inside the church, close to the altar, there is another pair, but these seem to have taken the New Testament to heart. Their eyes are deeply thoughtful and, in the case of the lion on the left, meek and compassionate.)

The main event on the church porch isn’t its pair of lions but the frescoes, those concerning Stephen, the first Christian martyr, on one side, and Laurence one the other. (Stephen relics were brought to this church in the seventh century, at the time when Palagius II was pope.)

One can almost see the crowds of people who have gathered on this porch down through the centuries listening to those who knew the stories the frescos illustrate. No doubt the stories were recited unhurriedly and passionately, and with great attention to every detail in each fresco. Thus actual entry into the church was proceeded by a visual and verbal immersion in the lives, deaths and burials of the two great saints. (Fifteen years ago, when our daughter Anne was ten and we were all visiting a cathedral in Palermo, she called a similar set of linked images “the first comic book.”)

Sadly, these days it must be rare for visitors to hear such recitations, but if one knows at least the bare bones of the stories, a visitor fill in many of the blanks by “reading” these panels in sequence.

The Stephen narrative is on the left side of the porch, with his stoning in Jerusalem part of the top row. Other panels portray the later bringing to Rome of the body of Stephen in order to place it side-by-side with another deacon and martyr, Laurence.

On the right hand side of the door, the subject is Laurence, a Roman who received his religious instruction in preparation for baptism from Archdeacon Sixtus, later Pope Sixtus II. When Sixtus became Bishop of Rome in 257, he ordained Laurence a deacon (from the Greek word for servant), entrusting him with administration of the material goods of the local church and, still more important, care of the poor.

In a panel that shows Lawrence washing the feet of a poor man, it is striking that Laurence concentrates his attention not on the man’s feet that he is washing so gently, but on the man’s face, in whom no doubt he recognizes Christ.

Other panels focus on the persecution initiated by the Emperor Valerian in 258. As a result, many Christians were put to death, while Christians belonging to the nobility or the Roman Senate were deprived of their goods and exiled. Among the first victims of this persecution was Laurence’s mentor, Pope St Sixtus II, who was beheaded on August 6.

One of the early accounts of Laurence’s life was told by St Ambrose of Milan. Laurence, he related, met Pope Sixtus on his way to his execution and asked him, “Where are you going, dear father, without your son? Where are you hurrying off to without your deacon? Before you never mounted the altar of sacrifice without your servant, and now you wish to do it without me?” Pope Sixtus responded, “After three days you will follow me”.

Following the death of Pope Sixtus II, the prefect of Rome demanded that Lawrence turn over the riches of the Church — meaning it chalices, candlesticks and anything else of monetary value. Laurence asked for three days to gather together the church’s treasure, during which time he worked swiftly to distribute as much church property to the poor as was possible in order as to prevent its being seized by the government. Then, on the third day, he presented himself to the prefect, bring no gold or silver but the poor, whom he assembled in ranks — the crippled, the blind, the suffering, the widows and orphans, all of whom were cared for by the Church. “These were the true treasures of the Church,” he told the prefect. “In its poor, the Church is truly rich, far richer than your emperor.”

It was this act of defiance that led directly to Laurence’s martyrdom. The prefect told the young deacon that not only would he follow the path of martyrdom as Pope Sixtus had done, but in his case, it would be “a death by inches.”

Lawrence, bound to the grill of an iron outdoor stove, was roasted over a low fire. During his torture, Lawrence is said to have told his executioner, “I am already roasted on one side. If you would have me well cooked, it is time to turn me on the other side.” Laurence’s final prayer was for the conversion of Rome.

Later that day, as the porch panels relate iconographically, Laurence was buried in a section of catacomb under what later became the Basilica of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura.

The panels also display the impact of Laurence’s death on the people of Rome. According to Prudentius, Laurence’s martyrdom and his patient endurance of torture had immense impact on the people of Rome, high and low, and in fact marked a decisive moment, Church Father Prudentius declares, “in the death of idolatry in Rome.” The catacomb in which Laurence was buried immediately became a place of pilgrimage. People who had been indifferent to Christianity, or hostile to it, were among those now praying with tears at the saint’s tomb.

Though not at San Lorenzo’s, at many other ancient churches in Rome we heard visitors and their guides expressing skepticism about the traditional stories and legends of saint’s lives and relics. In fact it’s hard to know what today could be regarded by a detached scholar as “actual history” regarding the narratives that come down to us about many of the saints. No doubt some of the stories are indeed legends, in the sense of being non-historical stories that compact events or portray a saint’s particular traits in high relief or even pure invention. Yet even the most incredible stories reveal in a memorable way something of the actual character and courage of a particular saint.

For example, while it is unlikely that the fourth-century bishop, St. Nicholas, reassembled the bodies of several murdered and dismembered children whose remain as were being cooked in a huge cauldron and brought them back to life, what is made clear in the tale is that St. Nicholas was fearless in his efforts to protect the lives of others, and perhaps most of all children. This trait stands behind the modern link of St Nicholas with gifts to children. Nicholas is also the patron saint of sailors. Bishop as he was of a port city, Myra in Asia Minor, he must have has a special care for sailors nor is it surprising that many of them credited his prayers of their behalf with saving their ships during great storms.

In the case of Laurence, did he actually ask to be turned over so that he might be better cooked? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But what is obvious not only from the story but from the impact Laurence had on the Romans of his day is that, both in the way he lived and the way he died, he gave so remarkable a witness to his faith in the risen Christ that it touched Romans in an extraordinary way and indeed contributed to the conversion of a many people from every class. For eighteen centuries, even in the long period when Rome was little more than a village, the tomb of St Laurence has been a place of pilgrimage. (Remarkably, Laurence and Stephen’s relics are among the few that were never transferred inside the city walls even at times when the city was under siege.)

Having done our best to decipher the porch frescoes, we entered the church.

It’s a breathtaking view that must stop most visitors, perhaps even most tour guides, in their tracks. The space is deep, quiet, austere and multi-layered, a place unlike any other we have ever seen. While we had been in many beautiful churches in Rome, none made us move so slowly and quietly as this one. The space seems just a deep breath away from heaven.

The oldest part of the basilica, the section at the far end, was built in the seventh century by Pope Palagius II. It replaces another structure built in the fourth century with the support of the first emperor to respect Christianity, Constantine the Great. Though Constantine was not himself baptized until he lay on his deathbed, beginning in 313, with publication of the Edict of Milan, he had made Christianity a privileged rather than persecuted religion.

Digging into a hillside, the seventh-century church was built so that Laurence’s catacomb tomb would be immediately beneath the church’s altar, with steps leading down to the crypt beneath so that pilgrims could pray in the very place where Laurence’s body was placed on the day of his martyrdom.

Later, in the thirteenth century, another church (the one with the porch) was built adjacent to the old one. In time the two buildings were unified, creating the single large building that exists to this day (though parts of the building and its monastic cloister had to be restored due to damage caused by allied bombs in July 1943).

The building is something like a Russian matriushka toy — a doll within a doll within a doll within a doll. At the its core is the altar and the relics beneath. Standing around and over the altar is a ciborium — a stone canopy supported by columns. The most famous of Rome’s ciboriums, made by Bernini in the seventeenth century, rises monumentally over the altar in St. Peter’s Basilica. The one at San Lorenzo’s is smaller and lighter, not at all a triumphal monument but a delicate structure that serves as an airy border marking the heart of sacred space. The four columns of purple marble are said to have been part of a similar ciborium that stood over the altar of the fourth-century church Constantine had sponsored.

On three sides of the sanctuary are two deep galleries, one above the other, through which light filters from windows that are out of sight. Above the upper gallery, just beneath the low-pitched roof, is a row of arched windows containing a pattern of small circles filled with light-bearing selenite. (The same material is used in a similar way at the fourth-century Basilica of Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill.)

Crossing the border from the thirteenth-century area of the church to the part built in the seventh century, the visitor passes under an arch on the altar side of which is a mosaic spanning the width of the church. As is the case with nearly all the church mosaics of the early centuries, Christ is in the center with saints on either side. In some of these, Christ is standing, but in this instance he is seated on a blue globe that represents the whole of creation. His right hand is raised in a gesture of blessing while the left holds a thin staff which, when looked at closely, proves to be a cross. On his left and right, again following the pattern of other ancient churches in Rome, are Peter and Paul — Peter (also holding a cross) with his familiar dense, close-cropped grey hair and beard, and Paul, bearded but nearly bald, with a scroll in his left hand representing the many letters he sent to local churches. To Peter’s left is Laurence, also holding a cross, and next to him, but without a halo, Pope Pelagius, holding a model of the seventh century church. On the other side, to the right of Paul, is the proto-martyr Stephen, and then, on the far right, Hippolytus, shown holding a golden crown. While there are various saints named Hippolytus, this is probably the Roman army officer named in “The Acts of St Laurence” who had been assigned to guard Laurence while he awaited execution and who, soon afterward, was converted to Christianity and died as a martyr.

As is always the case with iconography, there is a deep quietness and stillness about the mosaic. It seems to exist in a place where all means of measuring time have vanished or have no meaning, suggesting “is-ness” rather then temporality. The background of the mosaic is gold, symbol of the eternity and the kingdom of God.

The altar end of the church is higher than the thirteenth-century nave. Steps take the visitor up into the area surrounding the altar, while a narrower set of steps lead down into the small chapel-like space beneath the altar where the relics of Stephen and Laurence are located. In earlier times, from dawn till nightfall, there must have been a continuous ribbon of pilgrims walking slowly around the wrought iron enclosure that surrounds the relics, each visitor briefly touching the sarcophagus and the red cloth that is laid across its open top, each touch a gesture of prayer. Perhaps the most common prayer made by all these pilgrims was the appeal that, when the time comes in one’s life to lay a bed of fire, to do so as Laurence did — or, when rocks fell on one like rain as they did on Stephen, to die forgiving those who threw them and to hope one’s death might help bring others to conversion. (Such things happen. The Apostle Paul, as a young man, was present at the stoning of Stephen. In the porch fresco of Stephen’s stoning, Paul is standing to the left, not hurling a stone but his right arm extended in what appears to be a gesture of approval.)

We were fortunate to be in the church at such a quiet time of day. Later on in the morning, after we had spent time in the monastery cloister adjacent to the church, we came back inside to discover a well-attended funeral in progress, probably the first of several that would occur that day, given that the church is surrounded on three sides by Rome’s largest cemetery.

Some churches help one pray while others seem to make prayer more difficult. The basilica of San Lorenzo was one of those churches in which it seemed impossible not to pray.

For us, being at the church forged a much deeper sense of connection with both Stephen and Laurence. Much the same had happened to us in the other martyr-associated churches in Rome.

Thanks to one of our several guidebooks, later in the day we realized that the place of Laurence’s actual death was on Via Panisperna, just around the corner from our hospice. Late in the evening, we decided to walk along Via Panisperna to see if one of the several churches we had passed by time and again wasn’t built where Laurence had been martyred. The answer, of course, is yes, there is such a church. It was closed, but we stood at the locked gate, looking across a stone-paved courtyard with the church on the far side. It didn’t seem important that we were unable to go inside. It was blessing enough to be where we stood -- and where Laurence died.

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Photo: A view of the interior of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura.

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For those inclined to do more reading, here are a few titles:

The Companion Guide to Rome
by Georgina Masson
Companion Guides / Harper Collins

Perhaps the best single guidebook to Rome. While not the book to choose for visual content, the text is outstanding. The book has been around for a long time (the edition we used is the sixth revision, published in 1980) and continues to be updated and revised by John Fort and kept in print even though Georgina Masson herself has since died.

Ancient Churches of Rome: From the Fourth to the Seventh Century
by Hugo Bradenburg
Brepols Publishers, Turnhout, Belgium, 2004

This is an expensive but extraordinary (and magnificently illustrated) book that would be essential for anyone with a special interest in Rome’s oldest churches.

The Geometry of Love: Space, Time, Mystery and Meaning in an Ordinary Church
by Margaret Visser
North Point Press, 2000

This is about the church of Saint Agnes Outside the Walls in Rome. We learned about this book from Patricia Burton, who writes: “Visser explores the meaning and symbolism of quite ordinary things, and presents it in an informative, un-stuffy way, thereby often awakening us to how much we take for granted or simply don’t see. In this case she walks through an ‘ordinary church’ and gives its meaning at each step.” Use the “look inside” features on the book’s Amazon page to read the book’s very engaging opening pages:

But you may well prefer to buy a used copy via Abebooks — $5 instead of $50.

The Christian Catacombs of Rome: History, Decoration, Inscriptions
by Vincenzo Fiocchi Nicolai, Fabrizio Bisconti and Danilo Mazzoleni
Schnell & Steiner, Regensburg, Germany, second edition 2002

Probably this is the best study now available of the catacombs of Rome. It includes a great many well reproduced color photos plus many maps and drawings. The authors are members of the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archeology.

Eyewitness Travel: Rome
published by Dorling Kinderly

This is a sturdily-made 450-page guide to Rome updated annually. It offers lots of photos, cross-sections and maps, short but useful entries on nearly all the places a visitor might wish to see plus details about how to get there and opening times, plus practical information about how to get around by bus, tram and metro, how to avoid being pickpocketed (but also what to do if it happens), how to find medical help if needed, etc., etc.

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The Wikipedia entry about the church of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura is here:

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