Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Ten things my mother taught me

I’ve made a list of the things my mother taught me. If it had not been for her, I would not have learned these things:

1. How to make do with very little, and not feel sorry for yourself about it.

2. How to make pie crust, spaghetti sauce, roast stuffed turkey, pumpkin pie, apple pie, pecan pie, and generally everything, because she made me feel that cooking is easy.

3. How to sew. How to put together a pattern, to set in sleeves, to put in a zipper, and generally to sew anything, because she made me feel that sewing is easy.

4. How to love poetry: all the Pooh poems, and those from the Golden Book of Favorite poems. And how to read poetry out loud.

5. How to love books. Beautifully made books, with hard covers and good paper, and beautiful illustrations.

6. How to appreciate irony and satire.

7. That it was OK to love classical music, even though no one else in my entire family did.

8. That singing is fun, and dancing, too. And that you can do these things without embarrassment.

9. That art is important.

10. That God is your friend, and that’s all the theology you need to know.

These were hard months for my mother -- being disabled by a major stroke, unable to speak, unable to walk or use her hands very much. Being in a foreign country and in a nursing home where the other residents did not speak her language. But even before that -- just coming here from America, leaving her household behind and her beloved country, and losing her beloved son. She lived for almost two years in that room we all created for her, but the amazing thing was that she did not become depressed, she was not angry at God for arranging her life this way. Instead, she painted pictures -- dozens of them. More pictures than I ever saw her make all the years I was living with her when I was young. Beautiful pictures made with great confidence and joy.

A couple of months ago, a friend of mine at church who knew how difficult it was to live with my mother came up to me with tears in her eyes and said, “You will be so glad you’ve done this.” And she was right. I am so glad we did this. Thanks to everybody. We all did this -- Grandma, too.

Nancy Forest-Flier

(read aloud by Nancy at Lorraine Flier’s funeral December 29, 2009; the photo was taken by Jim 23 May 2008; double-click on the image to see it enlarged)

* * *

Truly the funeral was an event filled with joy, gratitude and peace. The setting was beautiful -- a funeral chapel in Schagen, a small town to the north, with a wall of glass looking out over a frozen pond, a few ducks walking on the ice, reeds the color of wheat, leafless trees, fields glistening with frost.

(photo by Caitlan)

* * *

Saturday, December 26, 2009

a death in the family

Christmas for us this year centered on the death of Nancy’s mother, Lorraine Flier, who passed away peacefully in her sleep Christmas morning at the nearby nursing home, Oudtburgh, where she had lived these past eight months. She was 92.

The nursing home called me at about 9:15 just as we were about to have Christmas breakfast. How could I have known that instead of opening presents I would be picking out a coffin?

By mid-day, a large part of the family had gathered at Oudtburgh, then came back to our home where we had a Christmas meal together.

Lorraine knew she was dying -- only days before she managed to ask Nancy and me if we accepted this. “Yes, of course we do,” we assured her.

One ordinarily wouldn’t want to combine a death in the family with Christmas, but it seemed somehow just the right day for her to slip away, as all of us were planning to go to visit her anyway, as she knew. Nancy had been with her two days before and could see how close death was. She held Lorraine’s hand and Lorraine, though her eyes were closed, was aware enough that Nancy was there to tighten her grip.

We felt a strange mixture of sorrow and relief yesterday. I think Lorraine had been baffled for months that death was so long in coming her way. She couldn’t walk, could barely see, and (since her stroke in March) had a vocabulary of less than fifty words.

Living in Holland hadn’t been easy for her. Moving to any new country is difficult, but when you're 90 and you've just lost a son, it's really tough. We were able to rearrange the house so that she could live on the ground floor, essential as she could only get around by walker. In the time she lived us, almost two years, she spent her days doing jigsaw puzzles, painting, and watching English-language TV. Painting was the most important activity for her prior to her stroke. We kept her supplied with lots of canvases and paints and she made dozens of beautiful paintings, many of them scenes from around Sundance, Wyoming, where she was born. She only lived in Sundance until she was seven, but for her it was always "home."

We’re so very grateful she spent the last part of her life with us. She came to realize for the first time how large a family she had. With Lux’s birth eight months ago, she was overjoyed to become a great-grandmother. (Of all the photos hanging in her room at Oudtburgh, probably the one that was most significant to her was a “four generations” photo -- herself, Nancy, Cait and Lux.)

Her funeral will be on Tuesday morning.

In the Orthodox Church, when someone dies, it is customary to say ”Eternal memory!” Of course it is only God’s memory that is truly eternal. My God receive her into his kingdom.

Jim & Nancy

PS There is a folder of photos of Lorraine plus a number of her paintings in his folder:


* * *

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Rescued by Christmas

“What shall we offer you, O Christ, who for our sake has appeared on earth as man? Every creature made by you offers you thanks. The angels offer you a hymn; the heavens a star; the Magi, gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; the earth, its cave; the wilderness, the manger; and we offer you a virgin mother.” -- from a prayer for the Orthodox Christmas Vespers Service

Many people see Christ as a long-dead, myth-shrouded teacher who lives on only in fading memory, a man “risen from the dead” only in the sense that his teachings have survived. There are scholars busily at work trying to find out which words attributed to Jesus in the New Testament were actually said by him (not many, it turns out). Yet even skeptics celebrate Christmas with a special holiday meal and the exchange of gifts.

The problem of miracles doesn’t intrude, for what could be more normal than birth? If Jesus lived, then he was born, and so, with little or no faith in the rest of Christian doctrine, we can celebrate his birth. Pascha, with its miraculous resurrection from the grave, is more and more lost to us, but at least some of the joy of Christmas remains. Perhaps in the end the Nativity feast will lead us back to faith in all its richness. We will be rescued by Christmas.

The icon of Christ’s Nativity, ancient though it is, takes note of our “modern” problem. There (usually in the lower left hand corner) we find a morose, despondent Joseph listening to a wizened figure who represents what we might call “the voice of unenlightened reason.” What is the old man whispering to Joseph? Something like: “A miracle? Surely you aren’t so foolish as to believe Mary conceived this child without a human father. But if not you, then who was it?” As we read the Gospel passages concerning Joseph, we are repeatedly reminded that he didn’t easily make leaps of faith.

Divine activity intrudes into our lives in such a mundane, physical way. A woman gives birth to a child, as women have been doing since Eve. Joseph has witnessed that birth and there is nothing different about it, unless it be that it occurred in abject circumstances, far from home, in a cave in which animals are kept. Joseph has had his dreams, he has heard angelic voices, he has been reassured in a variety of ways that the child born of Mary is none other than the Awaited One, the Anointed, God’s Son. But belief comes hard. Giving birth is arduous, as we see in Mary’s reclining figure, resting after labor — and so is the labor to believe. Mary has completed this stage of her struggle, but Joseph still grapples with his.

The theme is not only in Joseph’s bewildered face. The rigorous black of the cave of Christ’s birth in the center of the icon represents all human disbelief, all fear, all hopelessness. In the midst of a starless night in the cave of our despair, Christ, “the Sun of Truth,” enters history having been clothed in flesh in Mary’s body. It is just as the Evangelist John said in the beginning of his Gospel: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.”

The Nativity icon is in sharp contrast to the sentimental imagery we are used to in western Christmas art. In the icon there is no charming Bethlehem bathed in the light of the nativity star but only a rugged mountain with a few plants. The austere mountain suggests a hard, unwelcoming world in which survival is a real battle — the world since our expulsion from Paradise.

The most prominent figure in the icon is Mary, framed by the red blanket she is resting on — red: the color of life, the color of blood. Orthodox Christians call her the Theotokos, a Greek word meaning God-bearer or Mother of God. Her quiet but wholehearted assent to the invitation brought to her by the Archangel Gabriel has led her to Bethlehem, making a cave at the edge of a peasant village the center of the universe. He who was distant has come near, first filling her body, now visible in the flesh.

As is usual in iconography, the main event is moved to the foreground, free of its surroundings. So the cave is placed behind rather than around Mary and her child.

The Gospel records that Christ’s birth occurred in a cave that was being used as a stable. In fact the cave still exists in Bethlehem. Countless pilgrims have prayed there over the centuries. But it no longer looks like the cave it was. In the fourth century, at the Emperor Constantine’s order, the cave was transformed into a chapel. At the same time, above the cave, a basilica was built.

We see in the icon that Christ’s birth is not only for us, but for all creation. The donkey and the ox, both gazing at the newborn child, recall the opening verses of the Prophet Isaiah: 'An ox knows its owner and a donkey its master's manger..." They also represent “all creatures great and small,” endangered, punished and exploited by human beings. They too are victims of the Fall. Christ’s Nativity is for them as well as for us.

There is something about the way Mary turns away from her son that makes us aware of a struggle different than Joseph is experiencing. She knows very well her child has no human Father, but is anxious about her child’s future. She can see in the circumstances of his birth that his way of ruling is nothing like the way kings rule. The ruler of all rules from a manger in a stable. His death on the cross will not surprise her. It is implied in his birth.

We see that the Christ child’s body is wrapped “in swaddling clothes.” In icons of Christ’s burial, you will see he is wearing similar bands of cloth. We also see them around Lazarus, in the icon of his raising by Christ. In the Nativity icon, the manger looks much like a coffin. In this way, the icon links birth and death. The poet Rilke says we bear our death within us from the moment of birth. The icon of the Nativity says the same. Our life is one piece and its length of much less importance than its purity and truthfulness.

Some versions of the icon show more details, some less.

Normally in the icon we see several angels worshiping God-become-man. Though we ourselves are rarely aware of the presence of angels, they are deeply enmeshed in our history and we know some of them by name. This momentous event is for them as well as us.

Often the icon includes the three wise men who have come from far off, whose close attention to activity in the heavens made them come on pilgrimage in order to pay homage to a king who belongs not to one people, but to all people; not to one age, but to all ages. They represent the world beyond Judaism.

Then there are the shepherds, simple people who have been summoned by angels. Throughout history it has in fact been the simple people who have been most uncompromised in their response to the Gospel, who have not buried God in footnotes. It was not the wise men, but the shepherds who were permitted to hear the choir of angels singing God’s praise.

On the bottom right of the icon often there are one or two midwives washing the newborn baby. The detail is based on apocryphal texts concerning Joseph’s arrangements for the birth. Those who know the Old Testament will recall the disobedience of midwives to the Egyptian Pharaoh; thanks to a brave midwife, Moses was not murdered at birth. In the Nativity icon the midwife’s presence has another still more important function, underscoring Christ’s full participation in human nature.

Iconographers may leave out or alter various details, but always there is a ray of divine light that connects heaven with the baby. The partially revealed circle at the very top of the icon symbolizes God the Father, the small circle within the descending ray represents the Holy Spirit, while the child is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Son. At every turn, from iconography to liturgical text to the physical gesture of crossing oneself, the Church has always sought to confess God in the Holy Trinity.

The symbol is also connected with the star that led the magi to the cave.

Orthodoxy often speaks of Christ in terms of light and this, too, is suggested by the ray connecting heaven to the manger. “Our Savior, the dayspring from on high, has visited us, and we who were in shadow and in darkness have found the truth,” the Church sings on Christmas, the Feast of Christ’s Nativity According to the Flesh.

The iconographic portrayal of Christ’s birth is not without radical social implications. Christ’s birth occurred where it did, we are told by Matthew, “because there was no room in the inn.” He who welcomes all is himself unwelcome. From the moment of his birth, he is something like a refugee, as indeed he soon will be in the very strict sense of the word, fleeing to Egypt with Mary and Joseph, as they seek a safe distance from the murderous Herod. Later in life he will say to his followers, revealing one of the criteria of salvation, “I was homeless and you took me in.”

The icon reminds us that we are saved not by our achievements, but by our participation in the mercy of God — God’s hospitality. If we turn our backs on the homeless and those without the necessities of life, we will end up with nothing more than ideas and slogans and find ourselves lost in the icon’s starless cave.

We return at the end to the two figures at the heart of the icon. Mary, fulfilling Eve’s destiny, has given birth to Jesus Christ, a child who is God incarnate, a child in whom each of us finds our true self, a child who is the measure of all things. It is not the Messiah the Jews of those days expected — or the Christ many Christians of the modern world would have preferred. God, whom we often refer to as all-mighty, reveals himself in poverty and vulnerability. Christmas is a revelation of the self-emptying love of God.

-- from Praying with Icons by Jim Forest (revised edition, 2008, Orbis Book)

[The Nativity plaque is Byzantine, 10th or 11th century. The original is in the collection of the Vatican Museums in Rome. This is a reproduction produced by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.]
* * *

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

a triptych of stamps

This amazing triptych of postage stamps was on an envelope in today's mail -- Bob Hope on the left (the American comedian who seemed never to find a war he didn’t like), the Virgin Mary and Christ Child on the right (icons of peace on earth, good will to the human race), and, between them, an eagle-crowned clock, relentless reporter of the passage of time and stern reminder of mortality.

-- Jim

Friday, November 27, 2009

Remembering dialysis

Today I happened to come upon the attached memo, something I routinely sent out to people who asked about my kidney illness before the transplant took place. The memo evolved during the two-year period I was on dialysis -- this may be the final form of it.


* * *

Kidney illness update (as revised June 28, 2007)

Here are some of the questions friends have asked and brief responses...

>> What is the illness you have?

The gradual failure of my kidneys. Mine still are working, but at only about 9 or 10 percent of normal function.

Since January 2006, I have required dialysis (the filtering of my blood with an artificial kidney).

>> How sick are you?

Quite sick, but I don't feel sick. I'm far from a "worst case" patient. I was fortunate to become aware of the illness much earlier than is the case for many others thanks to blood tests several years ago. Because of early treatment, my kidneys are still working, though at a reduced capacity. My situation is fortunate. For many patients, by the time kidney illness is recognized, kidney function is close to zero. When that happens, daily liquid intake has to be drastically reduced. Patients may feel they're on an endless roller-coaster -- energy one day, following dialysis, then exhausted the next.

>> Is kidney illness painful?

Not really, at least not in my case. The insertion of the two hollow needles into my left arm when I have dialysis is not pain free, but the pain is usually over quickly.

>> What caused the kidney damage?

It's not certain, but most likely it had to do with high blood pressure.

>> Is kidney illness fatal?

Without treatment, indeed. But with dialysis, one can go on for many years, though with gradual deterioration as dialysis doesn't equal having a fully functional kidney. (Not long ago I witnessed a death in the dialysis clinic -- an 83-year-old patient who simply faded out. It seemed he had fallen asleep. As is often the case with dialysis patients, kidney failure was only one of the problems he was facing.)

>> Is there any cure?

Though there is work going on to develop an artificial kidney that can be implanted in the body, none exists so far. Perhaps in another generation?

The only cure to date is a kidney transplant. After many tests, it has been decided that I'm a suitable candidate for a transplant. Unless one find a kidney donor, the average waiting time is 54 months, and it can be as long as 72 months. A transplant can occur much more quickly if a living donor offers a kidney.

>> Do you have a kidney donor in sight?

Nancy is exploring the possibility of donating a kidney. She has had quite a few tests these past half year. So far she appears to be a good match (same blood type, in good physical condition, heart fine, etc.). We know from a renogram that both of her kidneys are working equally well, so that a) she will still have a kidney capable of doing all that it needs to do and b) the one she gives me will also be up to its task in my body. More recently she has had a CAT scan and another round of tissue matching tests.

Here are two web pages about kidney transplants:



>> Is kidney donation a risk to the donor?

While any surgery involves risks, the risks are regarded as slight for kidney donors. People who have given a kidney go on to live normal lives. (One of the early tests for potential donors is a scan to see if you do in fact have two kidneys. Not every one does. One healthy kidney, however, is all you need.)

>> What is hardest about dialysis?

For me, mainly the time it takes -- three sessions a week. Altogether dialysis involves approximately 50 hours a month or 600 hours per year -- about a quarter of my former working time. I normally leave the house about 2:30 and get back home about 6:30, traveling by bike. The hospital is only a kilometer away, so travel time isn't a big factor.

>> Can you travel outside Holland?

Yes, but not easily. I can't go anywhere for more than three days without first arranging dialysis care locally. This turns out to be a very time-consuming process. If the local dialysis clinic has too many patients already, as may easily be the case, they will not accept me. I had a great deal of trouble finding a clinic with space for me in London last May. I ended up in a private clinic that mainly serves wealthy patients from the Middle East. Later the same month, with the help of French friends, I was able to arrange five sessions of dialysis in Perpignan while taking part in a Merton conference in Prades. I've since been on lecture trips in Italy, Canada Spain, the USA, Greece, and -- most recently -- Memphis, Tennessee, for a conference on Thomas Merton.

>> What does a dialysis machine look like?

There's a photo of me hooked up to a dialysis machine at the Alkmaar hospital here:


>> How does a dialysis machine work?

There are drawings with brief explanations on these two web pages:



>> How are the people who take care of you?

I'm impressed with the nurses. All of them are extremely good at what they do and are, no less important, caring, good- humored people. The majority are women but there are also a number of male nurses.

>> Can you write during dialysis?

No. I really have effective use of only my right arm, though, with care, I can do a little with the left hand (the arm connected to the dialysis machine. I'm able to manage books and magazines. Dialysis has become mainly a time of reading. On the occasions when I'm too tired to read, I have a small DVD player and so cnn watch films.

>> Have you written anything about being ill?

I've written a chapter on "The Pilgrimage of Illness" for a book that Orbis will publish later this year ("The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life"). The chapter is posted at:


Please keep us in your prayers.


* * *

photo: A maple leaf that was along my path in at the Antiochian Village in Pennsylvania last month, not quite two years after the kidney transplant.

* * *

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Jerome, patron saints of translators

Due to his having translated the Bible into Latin, St. Jerome (340-420) was recognized by later generations as the patron saint of translators. Few saints have inspired so many paintings, especially during the Renaissance.

In many of them, Jerome is shown as the desert ascetic he was for a significant part of his life. I saw one example of such a painting last month at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC:


The paintings of Jerome in the desert are wonderful and connect with a major part of his life, but my personal favorite is one by Antonello da Messina that hangs at the National Gallery in London.

Da Messina removes Jerome from the wilderness, placing him instead in an academic carrel, putting the stress on Jerome as scholar. It was the scholarly Jerome who became a hero of Christian humanists like Erasmus in 16th century Europe.

There is always a lion in paintings of Jerome. In the example by da Messina, one has to look in the shadows to the right to find him.

In Christian art, there are two sorts of lions, the baptized and the unbaptized. Jerome's lion is in the former category, a pacified lion who has embraced a vegetarian diet.

In fact the lion wandered into paintings of Jerome from the life story of a saint with a similar name, Gerasimos, who was abbot of a monastery along the Jordan River, not far from Jerome's cave in Bethlehem. Here is an example of a Gerasimos icon that's part of our icon corner, with a caption of which explains the lion story:


A comment about the da Messina painting from Nancy:

"This is Jerome of the well-ordered mind. Note that the center of the painting is not Jerome but the open book. Everything around it is peace, harmony and beauty. No street noise outside, no telephone ringing, no postman knocking on the door. All is tranquility, and the work goes on unimpeded. No distractions, no Facebook, no YouTube. Ahh, you can almost feel it. But then again, no wife to talk to, no children, no worldly cares. Just the task at hand, total focus on the work. Is this possible for us, or even desirable? Even writing this e-mail is keeping me from my work..."

We have a print of the da Messina painting that hangs near Nancy's desk. I'm sure she's not the only translator who finds encouragement in having an image of Jerome close to her work place.

-- Jim

note: Wikipedia has a good entry about Jerome: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Jerome

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Two years on...

To celebrate the second anniversary of the kidney transplant (31 October 2007), at breakfast this morning I gave Nancy the new edition of the Van Gogh Letters. Given all the Van Gogh-related translation work that Nancy has done in the past two decades (currently she's working on a book about Van Gogh forgeries), it seemed doubly appropriate. Also the CD of the letters that comes with the set is likely to be a useful resource.

The book had a big launching at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam the day before I flew to the US several weeks ago. Nancy went the next day with Diane Webb, one of the book's three English-language translators. Here's an extract from a letter Nancy sent me that evening:

"What a lovely day! Diane asked if I wanted to go with her to the Van Gogh Museum to see the new exhibition on the letters. She had been there the evening before for the opening (attended by the Queen), but so much else was happening that she didn't actually see the exhibition. She said all she saw was wine and canapes and lots of people. So we spent the rest of the day there. It was fabulous. The exhibition is definitely worth a visit. A selection of Van Gogh's letters are shown in glass cases, with the paintings and drawings he refers to on the walls. Breathtaking. You just can't believe what you're seeing. No catalogue, no matter how good the picture quality, comes close to being face to face with the real thing. And I saw the book -- or should I say books! Diane showed me the whole thing, including the part she did. I have a very serious book lust here. You wouldn't believe how beautiful the design and quality is. A six-volume boxed set. To get a glimpse, check out the museum site: http://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/vgm/index.jsp?page=200942

"The whole thing is copiously illustrated with everything that Vincent refers to in his letters -- his own paintings and sketches and paintings of other artists that he refers to. And the quality is superb. Each of the three translators is being given two copies. When you come back we really should try to see the exhibition."

It's an expensive set of books, but a substantial discount is offered by several online bookshops.

Two years on with Nancy's kidney, I seem more than ever aware of what a miracle it is to be really well, not to say no longer being a prisoner of dialysis.

If you want to take a fresh look at our transplant blog (A Tale of Two Kidneys), it's still up:


Also there is a folder of transplant-related photos here:



* * *

Friday, October 16, 2009

pastoral care of a serial killer

One of the highlights of the current visit to the US was a meeting with a prison chaplain whom I must leave unnamed.

My questions about her work led to the discovery that one of the people in her pastoral care is a convicted serial murderer. I asked many questions about him. He was a male nurse who worked in a number of hospitals and who has freely admitted to ending the lives of many people who were, in fact, already dying. Apparently he couldn't bear to witness the end-of-life suffering of patients he was caring for. For providing pastoral care, the chaplain herself has endured a great deal of harsh criticism, often from her fellow Christians, including threats of attack. (Given the crimes he committed, the man as no right to pastoral care, execution would be too good for him, etc.) At times she has needed police protection -- not that she has ever defended his actions. In fact neither has the man. Police discovered how many were people killed only because, arrested for one death in a "sting operation," he insisted on admitting in detail what he had done with other patients. He pleaded guilty and presented no defense.

Apparently some of the hospitals where he was employed suspected a nurse was in fact giving deadly doses of a heart medication but preferred not to investigate, apprehensive that any investigation would produce results that would result in suits that would cost them dearly.

The man now lives an ascetic life in permanent solitary confinement. His chaplain has helped him develop a somewhat monastic spiritual life with four major elements: the Jesus Prayer, prayer with icons, a rule of daily prayer marked by the seven times during the day when a bell is sounded in the prison, and prayer with the psalms. He is a passionate reader. (It turns out he is one of the readers of my book on praying with icons.) He has also, as a prisoner, become a kidney donor, an act which he was able -- with assistance from his chaplain, prison officials and the doctors who were involved -- to do anonymously. An astonishing story.

You might pray for the man. Let me use a pseudonym. Call him "George the Prisoner" -- God will know who he is.


Saturday, October 3, 2009

The God Problem

In this period, in which a militant form of atheism is once again becoming popular and widespread, it's interesting to see a review in The New York Times of a book (The Case for God) that takes a fresh look at what is meant by the word "God."

I was also happy to see that book's author, Karen Armstrong, draws attention to the "apophatic" approach to God, something familiar to Orthodox Christians but "Greek" -- and Greek it truly is -- to most Christians in the West. (What apparently neither Armstrong nor the reviewer understand is that the apophatic way of seeking God thrives on apparent contradictions -- a God who is both approachable and unapproachable, known and unknown, a God who seems radically absent and God who is in search of us.)

Some of the people I have loved most were (or are) atheists, my parents for starters, at least during the years I was growing up, though they changed their minds later in life.

There are many good reasons for not believing in God. I find atheism often has less to do with certainty that there is no God than with disgust with religion in general (a disgust I often share), or with various forms of Christianity (there are so many), or with appalling things that have been done by people who claim to be Christians, or simply with the fact that so many Christians seem to be far less influenced by Jesus and the Gospels than by the oppressive political and economic structures they happen to be have been born into and passionately support.

When I talk to people who describe themselves as atheists, I sometimes ask them to describe what god it is that they don't believe in. Most of the time I can respond, "I must be an atheist too -- I don't believe in that god either."


note: The photo is of the main staircase of the Bible Museum, housed in a Golden Age house on the Herengracht in Amsterdam.

* * *

New York Times / www.nytimes.com / October 1, 2009

Perpetual Revelations

review by Ross Douthat

* * *
The Case for God
By Karen Armstrong
406 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $27.95
* * *

The Bush era was a difficult time for liberal religion in America. The events of 9/11 were not exactly an advertisement for the compatibility of faith and reason, faith and modernity, or faith and left-of-center politics. Nor was the domestic culture war that blazed up in their wake, which lent a “with us or against us” quality to nearly every God-related controversy. For many liberals, the only choices seemed to be secularism or fundamentalism, the new atheism or the old-time religion, Richard Dawkins or George W. Bush.

But now the wheel has turned, and liberal believers can breathe easier. Bush has retired to Texas, and his successor in the White House is the very model of a modern liberal Christian. Religious conservatism seems diminished and dispirited. The polarizing issues of the moment are health care and deficits, not abstinence education or intelligent design. And the new atheists seem to have temporarily run out of ways to call believers stupid.

The time, in other words, is ripe for a book like “The Case for God,” which wraps a rebuke to the more militant sort of atheism in an engaging survey of Western religious thought. Karen Armstrong, a former nun turned prolific popular historian, wants to rescue the idea of God from its cultured despisers and its more literal-minded adherents alike. To that end, she doesn’t just argue that her preferred approach to religion — which emphasizes the pursuit of an unknowable Deity, rather than the quest for theological correctness — is compatible with a liberal, scientific, technologically advanced society. She argues that it’s actually truer to the ancient traditions of Judaism, Islam and (especially) Christianity than is much of what currently passes for “conservative” religion. And the neglect of these traditions, she suggests, is “one of the reasons why so many Western people find the concept of God so troublesome today.”

Both modern believers and modern atheists, Armstrong contends, have come to understand religion primarily as a set of propositions to be assented to, or a catalog of specific facts about the nature of God, the world and human life. But this approach to piety would be foreign to many premodern religious thinkers, including the greatest minds of the Christian past, from the early Fathers of the Church to medieval eminences like Thomas Aquinas.

These and other thinkers, she writes, understood faith primarily as a practice, rather than as a system — not as “something that people thought but something they did.” Their God was not a being to be defined or a proposition to be tested, but an ultimate reality to be approached through myth, ritual and “apophatic” theology, which practices “a deliberate and principled reticence about God and/or the sacred” and emphasizes what we can’t know about the divine. And their religion was a set of skills, rather than a list of unalterable teachings — a “knack,” as the Taoists have it, for navigating the mysteries of human existence.

It’s a knack, Armstrong argues, that the Christian West has largely lost, and the rise of modern science is to blame. Not because science and religion are unalterably opposed, but because religious thinkers succumbed to a fatal case of science envy.

Instead of providing the usual portrait of empiricism triumphing over superstition, Armstrong depicts an extended seduction in which believers were persuaded to embrace the “natural theology” of Isaac Newton and William Paley, which seemed to provide scientific warrant for a belief in a creator God. Convinced that “the natural laws that scientists had discovered in the universe were tangible demonstrations of God’s providential care,” Western Christians abandoned the apophatic, mythic approach to faith in favor of a pseudo-scientific rigor — and then had nowhere to turn when Darwin’s theory of evolution arrived on the scene.

An Aquinas or an Augustine would have been unfazed by the idea of evolution. But their modern successors had convinced themselves that religious truth was a literal, all-or-nothing affair, in which doctrines were the equivalent of scientific precepts, and sacred texts needed to coincide exactly with the natural sciences. The resulting crisis produced the confusions of our own day, in which biblical literalists labor to reconcile the words of Genesis with the existence of the dinosaurs, while atheists ridicule Scripture for its failure to resemble a science textbook.

To escape this pointless debate, Armstrong counsels atheists to recognize that theism isn’t a rival scientific theory, and that it is “no use magisterially weighing up the teachings of religion to judge their truth or falsehood before embarking on a religious way of life. You will discover their truth — or lack of it — only if you translate these doctrines into ritual or ethical action.” Believers, meanwhile, are urged to recover the wisdom of their forebears, who understood that “revealed truth was symbolic, that Scripture could not be interpreted literally” and that “revelation was not an event that had happened once in the distant past but was an ongoing, creative process that required human ingenuity.”

This is an eloquent case for the ancient roots of the liberal approach to faith, and my summary does not do justice to its subtleties. But it deserves to be heavily qualified. Armstrong concedes that the religious story she’s telling highlights only a particular trend within monotheistic faith. The casual reader, however, would be forgiven for thinking that the leading lights of pre-modern Christianity were essentially liberal Episcopalians avant la lettre.

In reality, these Christian sages were fiercely dogmatic by any modern standard. They were not fundamentalists, reading every line of Scripture literally, and they were, as Armstrong says, “inventive, fearless and confident in their interpretation of faith.” But their inventiveness was grounded in shared doctrines and constrained by shared assumptions. Their theology was reticent in its claims about the ultimate nature of God but very specific about how God had revealed himself on earth. It’s true that Augustine, for instance, did not interpret the early books of Genesis literally. But he certainly endorsed a literal reading of Jesus’ resurrection — and he wouldn’t have been much of a Christian theologian if he hadn’t.

Which is to say that it’s considerably more difficult than Armstrong allows to separate thought from action, teaching from conduct, and dogma from practice in religious history. The dogmas tend to sustain the practices, and vice versa. It’s possible to gain some sort of “knack” for a religion without believing that all its dogmas are literally true: a spiritually inclined person can no doubt draw nourishment from the Roman Catholic Mass without believing that the Eucharist literally becomes the body and blood of Christ. But without the doctrine of transubstantiation, the Mass would not exist to provide that nourishment. Not every churchgoer will share Flannery O’Connor’s opinion that if the Eucharist is “a symbol, to hell with it.” But the Catholic faith has endured for 2,000 years because of Flannery O’Connors, not Karen Armstrongs.

This explains why liberal religion tends to be parasitic on more dogmatic forms of faith, which create and sustain the practices that the liberal believer picks and chooses from, reads symbolically and reinterprets for a more enlightened age. Such spiritual dilettant-ism has its charms, but it lacks the sturdy appeal of Western monotheism, which has always offered not only myth and ritual and symbolism (the pagans had those bases covered), but also scandalously literal claims — that the Jews really are God’s chosen people; that Christ really did rise from the dead; and that however much the author of the universe may surpass our understanding, we can live in hope that he loves the world enough to save it, and us, from the annihilating power of death.

Such literalism can be taken too far, and “The Case for God” argues, convincingly, that it needs to coexist with more mythic, mystic and philosophical forms of faith. Most people, though, are not mystics and philosophers, and they are hungry for myths that are not only resonant but true. Apophatic religion may be the most rigorous way to go in search of an elusive God. But for most believers, it will remain a poor substitute for the idea that God has come in search of us.

* * *
Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist for The Times.
* * *

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Mary Travers, rest in peace

We heard the news this morning of the death last night of Mary Travers, age 72.

Mary's straight blond hair once inspired Nancy to iron hers straight. There must have been many young women in the late 60s who did the same: the much sought after Mary Travers look.

I doubt anyone in the English-speaking world got through the 60s without getting to know by heart some of the songs recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary: If I Had a Hammer, 500 Miles, Puff the Magic Dragon, Blowin' in the Wind, The Great Mandala, In the Early Morning Rain, Leaving on a Jet Plane...

Nancy and I spent lunchtime today listening to a best-of Peter, Paul and Mary CD. It brought tears to my eyes. There is an earnest innocence and deep purity in their voices that many these days would probably regard as naive.

I recall Peter and Paul visiting the office of the Catholic Peace Fellowship on 5 Beekman Street in Lower Manhattan back in 65 or 66 when Tom Cornell and I were CPF’s co-secretaries. Would that I could remember what we talked about -- probably our work to assist conscientious objectors.

Tom just sent me a note reminding me that they arrived in a red sports car which they parked on the street below (no doubt illegally, as in that part of town, half a block from City Hall, it was easier to find the Holy Grail than a legal parking place).

Then there was the evening when I went with a friend to see “Godspell” (it opened that night) at a small Off Broadway theater in Greenwich Village -- the part of New York where Mary Travers grew up -- and found that we were sitting just a few seats behind all three of them. We had a great time. Between acts the cast served wine to all who had turned out.

Songs and their singers can make a difference. We owe a debt to Mary Travers.


PS Take a moment and visit the Peter, Paul & Mary web site: http://www.peterpaulandmary.com/

Friday, September 11, 2009

Four hundred years ago

Here’s a watercolor of Manhattan as it appeared from the Brooklyn side of the East River in 1665. One of the treasures of the Royal Library in The Hague, it’s now on exhibition in New York.

Members of my family were among the inhabitants at the time, but I know little about them. My mother wasn’t the sort of person to devote much time to chronicling the family tree – she was far more interested in current events and her current or forthcoming battles with the Powers That Be. Because I was curious about the centuries-old wooden shoe that had come down to us over the generations, she did occasionally say a little bit about the Dutch side of the family. Mother’s maiden name was Hendrickson. She was a direct descendant of Hendrick Hendrickson who, so mother had been told by her father, was an Utrecht-born navigator who had piloted the Dutch East India ship “Halve Maen” – Half Moon – which was captained by Henry Hudson. The ship entered New York Harbor 400 years ago today: 11 September 1609.

Hudson was the polar opposite of a likeable man, which perhaps was a factor in explaining why Hendrick Hendrickson became part of the first generation of non-native settlers in Manhattan.

There is a famous map of which gives a bird’s eye view of the town on the southern tip of Manhattan, Nieuw Amsterdam, each house clearly drawn and numbered, with a listing on the side giving the names of the occupants. Hendrick Hendrickson’s house was at the north end of Breedtstraat (literally, Broad Street, today’s Broadway), just inside town wall, Wall Street, as it is today.

I would love one day to find out how much of the family story is legend, how much of it is true. Perhaps I will find a book about Hudson’s 1609 voyage with details about the crew of the Half Moon. Who was Hendrick Hendrickson? Was he really Henry Hudson’s navigator?

The one major relic of the family past in that era is a 17th century New Jersey farm house, the Hendrickson House, now a beautifully restored museum run by the Monmouth County Historical Society.

-- Jim

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Memories of the (almost) end of the world

In a letter just received, my friend Mark Farrington told me his one memory of the Cuban Missile Crisis:

“I was weeks away from my third birthday. My only recollection was seeing my mother, in the basement, storing dry and canned goods in a cardboard box. We had just moved to a house in North Syracuse, NY, within two miles of the commercial airport, and a mile from Hancock Air Force Base, one of the main strategic targets of the Eastern Seaboard. Thunderbird jets would fly over all the time, their barrier-breaking sound immediately distinguishable from ordinary airplanes. Even as a very little kid, one knew enough to not stand close to any window panes during those "flyover" moments. This wasn't necessarily "traumatic" – one just got used to it.

“In the 1980s I asked Mom about the ‘cardboard box’ thing, wondering what she had been up to. ‘That was during the Cuban Missile Crisis,’ she explained. ‘We thought that would protect against radiation’.”

A potent memory – a child’s innocent glimpse of his mom’s preparations for the end of the world.

Mark asked about my own memories of the day the Cuban Missile Crisis was most threatening, October 27, 1962.

The main event, as the day began, was deciding to go to work rather than call in sick. At the time I was a journalist on the staff of a Manhattan-based weekly magazine. “Sick in what way,” I would have been asked. This would have meant explaining that all of us had a really good chance of being converted to radioactive dust before the day was over.

In my office on Madison Avenue, we did hardly any work that day. We were mainly engaged in nonstop listening to the radio. Then, late in the day, came the news that Khrushchev had announced that the Soviet government had issued an order for dismantling its Cuba-based nuclear weapons. The missiles and their warheads were to be put back in their crates and returned to the Soviet Union.

I am sure ours was far from the only office which greeted the news with applause. One of my colleagues went out and bought a bottle of wine – or was it vodka?

At the end of the day, I took the ferry back to Staten Island with a deep sense of being a survivor. No doubt everyone on the ferry boat felt the same way.

(We didn’t yet know that Kennedy had made a pledge, overruling the advice of the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, not to invade Cuba, nor did anyone beyond Kennedy’s inner circle know of the promise made to Khrushchev to pull US missiles away from the Soviet border with Turkey. The more hidden side of the story is told in Jim Douglass’s book, JFK and the Unspeakable.)

A related memory takes me back maybe a year earlier to a test of New York city’s air raid sirens. I was at the Catholic Worker, alone on the top floor of our modest three-storey building on Chrystie Street, when the sirens began shrieking. I suppose there had been a notice about the test in the newspapers, but I hadn’t been reading them and took the noise to be a summons to take shelter – nuclear missiles were on their way and would shortly be exploding.

I saw no point in taking cover and so decided to experience my last few minutes of life standing at the large plate glass window that looked out over the forlorn neighborhood we were part of. There was not a soul to be seen, not a car or truck in motion. I think I prayed – perhaps the rosary?

Then a lone man in sandals – maybe in his late 20s, lean, short-cropped beard, wearing faded dungarees and an old cotton shirt that wasn’t tucked in – strolled by, calm as a hiker in a national park, paying no attention to the sirens. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He had passed our building and was about to vanish from my line of vision when he turned his head, gazed directly at me, smiled and waved, then walked on. I was astonished. It seemed to me I had seen Jesus and Jesus had seen me. I had felt a deep calm through those few minutes, but, by the times the sirens stopped, I was light years beyond calm.

I opened a window and looked down the street to see where the man had gone, but there wasn’t a soul to be seen.

* * *
icon: The face of Christ, possibly the oldest surviving image of Christ, is at the Monastery of Saint Catherine in the Sinai Desert.
* * *

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The whole Earth in a prison cell

Attached is a reflection by A.O. Scott not only on the moon landing, whose 40th anniversary is six days away, but on the late Sixties.

It’s a good piece and rings bells for me, but my own take on the moon landing is a bit different than that of A.O. Scott or the other authors he quotes in his New York Times article.

Most people at the time saw the moon landing on television. In my case, I listened to it happening via a pair of low-tech earphones made available to me by the State of Wisconsin. I was in a narrow cell at Waupun State Prison.

Prison had become my temporary home due to an act of protest against the Vietnam War – I was one of 14 people who burned files of Milwaukee’s nine draft boards. Now I was in the early weeks of serving a two-year sentence – in fact one year, given the “good behavior” factor.

My new address was the sort of grim maximum-security prison you see in old James Cagney movies – tier upon tier of cells, each of them 14 bars wide, reached via steel stairways and narrow catwalks. It was a place that seemed black-and white even when seen in color.

It was perhaps more exciting to listen to the moon landing than to see the event on TV. Radio’s advantage has always been to enlist one’s own imagination for all the visual effects. I had plenty of props for my imagination already, after seeing approximately every science fiction film made in the Fifties and having read many volumes of science fiction. Lots of si-fi book covers were embedded in memory.

It was astounding to imagine human beings crossing that dry and airless sea of space, landing, then actually standing – then walking – on the Moon’s low-gravity, dusty surface.

But the main impact of the event came in the days that followed as newspapers and magazines made their way to me full of photos taken by the astronauts in the course of their journey. The whole Earth as seen by human eyes. The Earth rising like a blue marble over the airless horizon of the lifeless Moon.

Then came the biggest surprise of all: a packet from NASA arriving from one of the astronauts containing an actual 8-1/2 x 11 inch color photo of the Earth. I doubt if the photo had reached the White House much faster than it reached my prison. (The same image was to appear a few months later on the cover of National Geographic Magazine, but even there didn’t have the richness of color and detail the actual photo had.)

How did this remarkable photo come to me? There was no letter in the envelop. I could only guess.

The Milwaukee 14 trial had received a great deal of press attention, including many articles in The New York Times and later a lengthy essay in The New York Review of Books. Apparently something I had said during our trial had been read by one of the astronauts and lingered in his memory during the trip to the Moon and back. His sending me a photo of our astonishingly beautiful borderless planet was – perhaps – his way of saying thank you.

The prison administration made it difficult for me to receive the photo – it hadn’t been sent by an “authorised correspondent.” But at last it was delivered to my cell and for the rest of my time in prison it hung on the concrete wall, a kind of icon that I often contemplated: this magnificent fragment of creation that God has given us to share, and in which we are called to love and protect each other.

The giver of the photo was a longtime military officer and I was an anti-war protester locked up in a small cell in middle America. How good it was to feel the bond between us.


Addendum added six days later: I wonder if it was Neil Armstrong who sent the photo? A news item found this morning makes clear that Armstrong looks back on the Apollo program as a contribution to war prevention.

Speaking at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, on the eve of the 40th anniversary of his becoming the first person to set foot on the moon, Neil Armstrong, 78, said that he and the two other Apollo 11 crew members recognized that what for them had been a daring mission in space also may have helped reduce hostilities between the Soviet Union and the United States.

"The space race faded away," said Armstrong. "It was the ultimate peaceful competition. I'll not assert that it was a diversion which prevented a war. Nevertheless it was a diversion. It allowed both sides to take the high road with the objectives of science, learning and exploration. Eventually it provided a mechanism for engendering cooperation between former adversaries.”

When I shared this posting with Tom Cornell, he responded: "I wouldn't be surprised if it was Neil Armstrong who sent you the Earth photo. You remember that he stood next to Dorothy Day when they were among a small grouping selected from the 2,500 or so delegates in Rome attending the Third Catholic Lay Congress to receive Communion from the hand of Pope Paul VI. Armstrong, by the way, was born in Rome. When asked how that came about he replied that his mother was there at the time."

* * *

Note: The photo I received is shown above.

* * *

New York Times / www.nytimes.com / July 13, 2009

That One Small Step Is Still Hard to Measure

By A. O. Scott

At the end of the first chapter of John Updike’s “Rabbit Redux,” the title character, a fictional Pennsylvania everyman whose given name is Harry Angstrom, tunes in, like millions of his nonfictional fellow citizens, to watch the Moon landing on television.

Even though the Apollo 11 mission casts a long metaphorical shadow over the book, the second in what would ultimately become a quartet of novels about Rabbit, Rabbit’s experience of the epochal event of July 20, 1969, is curiously equivocal and detached.

It’s not clear what’s going on. On his parents’ television, he sees that “a man in clumsy silhouette has interposed himself among these abstract shadows and glare. An Armstrong, but not Jack. He says something about ‘steps’ that a crackle keeps Rabbit from understanding.

“Electronic letters travelling sideways spell out MAN IS ON THE MOON.”

But the true significance of those words escapes poor Rabbit. “I don’t know,” he says to his ailing mother. “I know it’s happened, but I don’t feel anything yet.”

What was he meant to feel? Was this a small step or a giant step, and in what direction? Perhaps because of the Moon landing’s hybrid nature — it was at once a science project and a media spectacle, an expression of apolitical idealism and an act of national self-assertion, a fact and a symbol — this happening was both dramatic and a bit puzzling, even opaque.

Its historical scale and cultural impact were hard, especially in the moment and its immediate aftermath, to assess. Nothing like this had ever been done before, but what did it mean? What did it change?

Like much else that took place in the summer of 1969, the Moon shot felt like both an apotheosis and an anticlimax, and perhaps, even to Americans with grander imaginations than Rabbit’s, like not much at all.

The mood of the moment, as it survives in the literary and cultural record, was Utopian and apocalyptic — yes, 1969 was the year of Woodstock and “Easy Rider” and the Manson family murders, of the Days of Rage and the Chicago 8 conspiracy trial — but also weary, anxious and confused.

For Rabbit Angstrom, the summer and early autumn of ’69 (rendered by Updike, writing a year later, in present tense) represent a period of personal and domestic chaos, of wild exploration and near catastrophe. The fracture and tumult he experiences are intimations of a wider social breakdown masquerading, at times, as a cosmic rebirth.

Rabbit, like America, emerges from the ’60s neither ruined nor transformed, but rather weary and shaken. The last word of the book is a fretful question, the kind you might hear, or ask, in the wake of a terrible accident: “O.K.?”

And Rabbit was hardly alone. Norman Mailer found himself in a similar mood. Mailer, in his journalistic fantasia “Of a Fire on the Moon,” calls himself Aquarius, but this adoption of the cosmic idiom of the counterculture is more ironic than ecstatic. Instead of standing at the threshold of a New Age, Mailer, dutifully reporting on the Apollo project from the ground, feels himself to be slouching toward a historical denouement.

As the launching date approached, “Aquarius was in a depression,” Mailer wrote, “which would not lift for the rest of the summer, a curious depression full of fevers, forebodings and a general sense that the century was done — that it had ended in the summer of 1969.”

And in the book, Mailer’s hunt for celestial metaphors comes up a bit short, as the great renegade existential explorer of American letters discovers that the conquest of space is being planned and conducted by scientists, bureaucrats and other practical-minded, down-to-earth squares.

Looking at contemporary literary and cultural responses to the Moon landing, like Mailer’s and Updike’s, you find amazement accompanied — and often trumped — by disillusionment.

In “Coming Apart,” his “informal history” of the ’60s (published in 1971), William O’Neill concludes a chapter on the space program on a downbeat, deflating note. In O’Neill’s account, the great triumph of the Apollo project was, at best, a Pyrrhic victory, the consecration of “a monument to the vanity of public men and the avarice of contractors. This made it a good symbol of the sixties.”

Maybe, but of course there was more to the ’60s — and to the space program — than hollow vanity and empty spectacle. If the meaning of the Moon landing as a singular event was hard for writers and their alter egos to discern, that may be because it had already been so thoroughly anticipated, realized in a way that mere reality could not quite match.

John F. Kennedy’s vow, at the start of the decade, to put a man on the Moon by the end had unleashed not only the ambitions of contractors and technicians, but also the imaginations of filmmakers and television writers, who exploited the visionary dimensions of Kennedy’s promise even as NASA scientists and astronauts were sweating the details.

Two examples, now canonical, stand out. The first, “Star Trek,” with its Kennedyesque “final frontier” rhetoric and its spirit of earnest, can-do liberalism, has become a staple of popular culture, so frequently parodied and reinvented that its boldness is easy to forget.

But whereas the science-fiction projections of the ’50s tended to focus on the threat of alien invasion and planetary destruction, and to give expression to a panoply of cold war fears, “Star Trek” celebrated humanism, problem solving and curiosity. Not for nothing was the starship named Enterprise.

And that starship was, above all, an allegorical space, rich with meanings and lessons and food for thought. But the wonkiness of “Star Trek,” which ended its run about six weeks after Neil Armstrong’s Moon walk, was nothing compared with the tripped-out sublimity of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” released in 1968.

In that film, the human adventure beyond Earth — to the Moon and toward Jupiter — brought about a whole new stage in the evolution of consciousness, a fulfillment, transcendence and wholesale alteration of human possibility.

Which did not quite happen when the actual lunar module touched down in the dust. Nor, for that matter, did the Woodstock music festival usher in a new age of peace, love and liberation.

The tendency, endemic to the times, toward the overhyping of singular events and the drastic heightening of expectations may have made the disappointments registered by Rabbit and Aquarius inevitable. And in the years after 1969, public and governmental support for the space program waned.

But the trip to the Moon — which was after all envisioned in 1902 by Georges Méliès, in one of earliest works of cinema — would blossom as a cultural touchstone in unexpected ways. The absence of feeling, the dearth of meaning, that accompanied the widespread awe and wonder guaranteed as much.

Popular culture abhors a vacuum, and for 40 years the empty places beyond our atmosphere have been overrun with stories, fables, parodies, franchises and expressions of pure kitsch. When Neil Armstrong’s likeness became a logo for MTV, it was less the corruption of something noble than the putting to use of an available and recognizable image, and the fulfillment of a possibility that had been there all along.

When I was in grade school, a mural in my classroom spelled out consequential dates in history: Oct. 11, 1492; July 4, 1776; and July 20, 1969, just a few years before. That, a teacher explained, was when “we walked on the Moon.”

But of course, “we” didn’t walk on the Moon. “We” were, like Rabbit and Aquarius, sitting at home, scribbling in our notebooks or, most likely, watching television while something happened to us that we are still trying to figure out.

* * *

Thursday, June 18, 2009

large gifts to unlikely recipients

This story of St Aidan came my way from Frans Zoer of the Amsterdam Catholic Worker community.

“He [King Oswin] had given to Bishop Aidan a very faire and proper gelding ... to passe over waters and ditches, or when any other necessitie constrained. It fortuned shortly after, a certaine poore weake man met the Bishop, riding on his gelding, and craved an almes of him. The Bishop as he was a passing pitefull man and a very father to needy persons, [alighted] and gave the poore man the gelding, gorgeously trapped as he was. The King hearing after hereof, talked of it with the Bishop, as they were entering the palace to dinner, and saied, What meaned you, my Lord, to give awaie to the beggar that faire gelding which we gave you for your own use? Have we no other horses of lesse price ... to bestowe upon the poore, but that you must give awaie that princely horse? To whom the Bishop answered, Why talketh your Grace thus? Is that broode of the mare dearer in your sight than that son of God, the poore man? Which being said they entered for to dine. The Bishop took his place appointed, but the King would stand a while by the fire ... where musing with himself upon the wordes which the Bishop had spoken, suddenly put off his sword and came in great haste to the Bishop, falling downe at his feete, and beseeching him not to be displeased with him for the wordes he had spoken, saying he would never ... measure any more hereafter what or how much he should bestow of his goods upon the sonnes of God, the poore.” (From a chapter on St. Aidan and his royal friends, St. Oswald & St. Oswin, in “A Procession of Saints” by James Brodrick, SJ (London 1949), twelve stories on English and Irish saints, p. 109- 110.)

St Aidan and St Oswin lived in the seventh century. Their lives are known from Bede’s writings. Brodrick is quoting Bede from the translation made by Thomas Stapleton in 1565.

Frans recognized in this ancient story a similar one related in Love is the Measure, my biography of Dorothy Day:

“From time to time Dorothy was able to set a stunning example of giving away what was given to the Catholic Worker. Another story told by Tom Cornell recalls a well-dressed woman who visited the Worker house one day and gave Dorothy a diamond ring. Dorothy thanked the visitor, slipped the ring in her pocket, and later in the day gave it to an old woman who lived alone and often ate her meals at St. Joseph’s. One of the staff protested to Dorothy that the ring could better have been sold at the Diamond Exchange and the money used to pay the woman’s rent for a year. Dorothy replied that the woman had her dignity and could do as she liked with the ring. She could sell it for rent money or take a trip to the Bahamas. Or she could enjoy having a diamond ring on her hand just like the woman who had brought it to the Worker. ‘Do you suppose,’ Dorothy asked, ‘that God created diamonds only for the rich?’”


* * *

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Some thoughts about prayer

Yesterday I had a letter from a teacher friend about an experience she had of praying for a student who had been very angry with her for a grade she had given him plus some feedback she given him that he didn’t agree with. Though the student wasn’t her enemy, he seemed to regard her as his enemy. Recalling Christ’s advice about praying for enemies, she decided to begin praying for her student. The next few weeks in the classroom were difficult – his anger was obvious. “But God gave me an incredible amount of compassion for him,” she told me, “and also showed me that I should have communicated with him more sensitively. One day he came back to class to pick something after the other students were gone. He was obviously not feeling well, so I just said that I was sorry and hoped he would be feeling better soon. He then began to cry. We talked for about an hour. He shared many things with me including his rejection of the God he was brought up to believe in – the angry, wrathful one. I mainly listened, but also shared a little of my own journey.”

My friend ended up giving him a book that she thought might help (Mountain of Silence). They’ve had more conversations. Things have changed dramatically, not only in the classroom, but in the student’s life and faith.

It’s distressing to recall how many times in my life I have failed to pray, or have even refused to pray, for people who ought to have been high on my prayer list.

It was Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, who first impressed upon me the significance of praying for others. She carefully kept lists of people she had been asked to pray for, or felt she had a duty to pray for.

In the period I was closest to her – she was then in her early sixties – I became aware that she spent a good deal of time every day on her knees praying. One afternoon I looked in the prayer books she left on the bench of the chapel at the Catholic Worker farm and discovered page after page of names, all written in her careful italic script, of people, living and dead, for whom she was praying. She prayed as if lives depended on it. The physician Robert Coles, of the Harvard Medical School, credited Dorothy’s prayers with the miraculous cure of his wife, who had been dying of cancer and suddenly recovered.

Dorothy also kept a list of people who had committed suicide and prayed for them daily. I once asked her, “But isn’t it too late?” “With God there is no time,” she responded. She went on to say how a lot can happen in a person’s thoughts between initiating an action that will result in death and death itself – that even the tiny fraction of a second that passes between pulling a trigger and the bullet striking the brain might, in the infinity of time that exists deep within us, be time enough for regretting what it was now too late to stop, and to cry out for God’s mercy.

This attentive praying for others, including many people for whom she probably felt no love at all (love in the emotional sense of the word), was one of the aspects of Dorothy that startled and challenged me. Not that I was very quick to pick on her example – it took years before I started keeping my own prayer lists. Now Nancy and I normally make use of our prayer lists before going to bed.

When Jesus gave his challenging command about loving one’s enemies, he said, at the same time and in the same sentence, to pray for them. Who are the enemies for whom we should be praying? The word “enemies” comes from the Latin word, inamicus, which simply means non-friend – people whom one would love never to see of hear of again or whose death probably wouldn’t grieve us.

I’ve found that in some cases it helps to write out a special prayer for a person one has very urgent needs or from whom I am seriously estranged – for that person’s healing, well-being, recovery of love, recovery of faith, etc – and use it two or three times a day.

I’ve often struggled with the very basic question of why we need to ask God for anything? Doesn’t God know our needs far better than we do? What need can God possibly have for appeals from me? And yet it seems, precisely because God isn’t a Calvinist and isn’t working from a script in which the future is foreordained, that prayers do matter. In any event, praying for anyone creates new threads of connection, new spaces, new possibilities.

– Jim

note: The photo was taken after a Vespers service at St Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam.

* * *

Ten Dimensions

A few days ago, a member of our extended family sent us these links to an interesting short film on YouTube:

part 1) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JkxieS-6WuA

part 2) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ySBaYMESb8o

It’s called “Imagining the tenth dimension,” and it’s a simple explanation for non-scientists of the various physical dimensions of the universe, starting with a single one-dimensional point. I find this is one of those places where science and Christianity intersect. It’s also one of those opportunities to talk to a non-religious person about why you happen to be religious. So I sent him this mail:

Jim shared with me the YouTube link you sent about imagining the tenth dimension. Thanks so much. This kind of thing has always been fascinating to me, and you may be surprised to hear that it's one of the reasons why Christianity is so fascinating to me. Setting aside everything negative or repugnant you've ever heard about Christianity, one thing that is very interesting (particularly in Orthodox Christianity) is the concept of infinity. In Orthodox theology, God exists in infinity. There's a standard Orthodox prayer in which God is described as "who art everywhere present and fillest all things." This is religious language, I know, but when I watched the YouTube thing I thought about it immediately. Since God is by definition beyond our comprehension, we've come up with a way of trying to understand him, and that is trying to imagine him as being three persons in one, three at the same time (three dimensional?), which in theology is called the Trinity. The Trinity is an ancient concept, and maybe now, with this idea of ten dimensions, we would have to change it. But it does suggest a fully dimensional being.

When religious people try to come into contact with God, they can only do it by meeting him in his infinite-ness. This is what prayer is. To non-religious people, prayer sometimes sounds pretty silly, but to deeply religious people it's almost like the diagrams on the YouTube thing, folding the dimensions over on each other.

I'm not going to go any further, because this is starting to sound preachy, and I don't want to be preachy! But I thought you might like to know how this struck me.

It's also very interesting that the priest of our church is a physicist. Another friend of ours in church is a particle physicist working at Delft University (he's also Russian). I really believe science and religion have a lot in common and can really inform each other in important ways.

– Nancy

Re the photo: this is a Hubble view of deep space sent to us by the friend who sent us the link to the Ten Dimensions film.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

from war games to peace games

One of our recent visitors was Steve Jacobs, who arrived at our house wearing a t-shirt with the question: “Who would Jesus bomb?”

Steve is one of the founders of St Francis House of Hospitality in Columbia, Missouri. He had come to this side of the Atlantic to take part in the annual European Catholic Worker gathering.

One of the things we talked about is a possible response to an annual military welcome-house at a Missouri army base. The event features a big tent in which kids are invited to play computer war games. It’s very popular.

An idea that emerged in our conversation is the possibility of setting up a peace games tent outside the base where, using borrowed laptop computers, kids (and parents) could play peace games.

Even if no peace game sells nearly as well as various war games, I was pleased to find that there are a lot of peace games out there. Searching this string

computer games peacemaking

pulls up a great many hits.

Steve says there is not enough lead time this year to set up a peace games tent. Even so, it maybe that a folder could be produced that focuses on the issues raised by the war games tent.

I got to thinking about the creation of a hand-out. Possible headline:

Not all computer games are about killing people.”

A draft opening to the text:

“Today our kids are being invited by the military to play war games – games that make killing people seem like a fun thing to do. The truth is every act of killing is a tragedy, not only for victims and their families, but for all the soldiers who come home burdened with memories of killing real people. In many cases the hidden scars left by war never heal. That’s a big part of the reason why so many returning soldiers can’t hold down jobs, keep their families together, become homeless, turn to drugs, and even take their own lives.

“Do we want war look like a game to our kids?

“Did you know that there are computer games that challenge kids – and their parents – to learn the skills of peacemaking?....”

Something on those lines. Steve is a musician and song writer. If he takes this on, he’ll do a great job of it.

On this theme, Alex Patico wrote me yesterday:

>> Someone actually has devised a computer game called Peacemaker which focuses on Israel/Palestine. I had actually thought of trying to interest him in collaborating on one that would treat the US-Iran relationship in the same fashion. This was Eric Brown (graduate of Washington University and Carnegie-Mellon), who co-founded ImpactGames. He did his game in conjunction with Arun Gandhi of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Non-Violence. <<


Note: That glass of Tongerlo beer in Steve’s hand was brewed at Tongerlo Abbey not far from Antwerp. On YouTube there's a clip of Steve singing one of his songs: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7TFINHRLIuc

Sunday, May 24, 2009

On love and marriage

A few days ago I posted to some friends a short extract from Thomas Merton’s essay, “Love and Need.” a chapter in one of his less widely read books, Love and Living:

“Our philosophy of life is not something we create all by ourselves out of nothing. Our ways of thinking, even our attitudes toward ourselves, are more and more determined from the outside. Even our love tends to fit ready-made forms. We consciously or unconsciously tailor our notions of love according to patterns we are exposed to day after day....

“Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another. We do not discover the secret of our lives merely by study and calculation in our own isolated meditations. The meaning of our life is a secret that has to be revealed to us in love, by the one we love.

“[In our society] Love is regarded as a deal. The deal presupposes that we all have needs which have to be fulfilled by means of exchange. In order to make a deal you have to appear in the market with a worthwhile product, or if the product is worthless, you can get by if you dress it up in a good-looking package. We unconsciously think of ourselves as objects for sale on the market. We want to be wanted. We want to attract customers. We want to look like the kind of product that makes money. Hence we waste a great deal of time modeling ourselves on the images presented to us by an affluent marketing society.

“In doing this we come to consider ourselves and others not as persons but as products, as ‘goods,’ or in other words, as packages. We appraise one another commercially. We size each other up and make deals with a view to our own profit. We do not give ourselves in love, we make a deal that will enhance our own product, and therefore no deal is final. Our eye is already on the next deal, and this next deal need not necessarily be with the same customer. Life is more interesting when you make a lot of deals with a lot of new customers.

“This view, which equates lovemaking with salesmanship and love with a glamorous package, is based on the idea of love as a mechanism of instinctive needs. We are biological machines endowed with certain urges that require fulfillment. If we are smart. We can exploit and manipulate in ourselves and in others....

“The trouble with this commercialized idea of love is that it diverts your attention more and more from the essentials to the accessories of love. You are no longer able to really love the other person, for you become obsessed with the effectiveness of your own package, your own product, your own market value.”

The night before last Nancy was reading Merton’s essay and was so struck by this passage (seen in context above) that she paused to read it aloud:

“We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another. We do not discover the secret of our lives merely by study and calculation in our own isolated meditations. The meaning of our life is a secret that has to be revealed to us in love, by the one we love.”

Beautiful and true. But how often in marriage husbands and wives fail to see each other but instead see false selves that one or both have created as an adaptation to the other. It’s possible to be married yet never really see one’s partner, or oneself.

I’ve often thought how difficult it is to see oneself – perhaps impossible. The non-seeing of self is one of Walker Percy’s recurrent themes in both his novels and essays. God sees us perfectly and those who know us see us to some imperfect extent, some more clearly, some less or some not at all. It is only with God’s love that we really see another person. Merton mentions this basic truth this in a letter to Dorothy Day: “Persons are not known by intellect alone, not by principles alone, but only by love. It is when we love the other ... that we obtain from God the key to an understanding of who he is, and who we are. It is only this realization that can open to us the real nature of our duty, and of right action.” [Living With Wisdom, pp 170-1]

Ideally in a relationship of love, as fear diminishes, there is the gradual falling away of the costumes we’ve put on out of our own insecurity as a means of self-defense. In a healthy relationship, the true self gradually becomes stronger and more daring – and then a gradual disrobing occurs until the couple find themselves in a state of Eden-like “nakedness” – a state of being without costumes or masks.

But in so many marriages this never happens. We never reach the state of being in communion with each other – rather live in a state of disconnection, where at best we collaborate on practical matters but without the dimension of love.

-- Jim

More on this topic: See Nancy's essay, "Marriage and Hospitality: http://incommunion.org/forest-flier/nancysessays/hospitality/

[The icon is of Saints Anne and Joachim, the parents of Mary, and has the title "The Conception of the Theotokos." As an image of marital love, it is an icon often given to a newly married couple.]

Saturday, May 9, 2009

four generations

Four generations together -- Lorraine, age 92, the oldest, Lux, age 2-1/2 weeks, the youngest, with Nancy (59) and Cait (32) in between. Bjorn and I also took part. The photo was taken earlier today at Oudtburgh, the nursing home where Lorraine is now living.

I don't think I've ever seen Lorraine so happy. Since her stroke she has had access only to a few words and only occasionally has been able to put together whole sentences. Today she managed to say, "That's a beautiful baby" and "I think you have a wonderful family."


* * *

Several of the residents living in Lorraine's part of the nursing home stopped to admire Lux. It's interesting how babies can break down barriers. Lorraine has been the "foreign" lady in the nursing home -- she only understands English and she can't speak very well at all. Suddenly now she's a real person, with a family and a beautiful great-granddaughter. The same thing happened to me when I moved to the Netherlands in 1982. When Anne was born in 1983, the neighbors suddenly recognized me as a real person and not just a foreign import.


* * *

More photos are in the "four generations" folder at this URL:


Jim & Nancy

* * *

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Zen lessons

A Christian friend in Thailand, Lance Woodruff, sent the following question:

Jim, as one of Thomas Merton’s biographers, do you have questions or comments which come to mind as a Christian encounters the sacred in other religions? Have you received insight or inspiration from Buddhism or other religions which you might share with me?

Here is the main part of my response:

In my own life, a close relationship with Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, has been an immense blessing.

In that regard, Thomas Merton set a good example for me. There was never any question in his mind about how much we Christians have to learn from others of any of the principal (and often some of the minor) religious traditions. Merton had a particular affinity for Buddhism, but also had important relationships with Jews, Hindus, and at least one Moslem of the Sufi tradition. (One might add, in a time when inter-Christian dialogue was exceptional, he had close ties with both Orthodox and Protestant Christians.)

Here is an extract from my biography of Merton, Living With Wisdom, about the meeting Merton had with Nhat Hanh in 1965:

Merton immediately recognized Nhat Hanh as someone very like himself. It was like meeting Chuang Tzu in the flesh. As the two monks talked, the different religious systems in which they were formed provided bridges toward each other. “Thich Nhat Hanh is my brother,” Merton wrote soon afterward. “He is more my brother than many who are nearer to me in race and nationality, because he and I see things exactly the same way.”

When Merton asked Nhat Hanh what the war was doing to Vietnam, the Buddhist said simply, “Everything is destroyed.” This, Merton said to the monks at his Sunday lecture, was truly a monk’s answer, revealing the essence without wasting a word.

Merton described the rigorous formation of Buddhist monks in Vietnam and the fact that instruction in meditation doesn’t begin early. “Before you can learn to meditate,” he said, quoting Nhat Hanh, “you have to learn how to close the door.” The monks laughed; they were used to the reverberation of slamming doors as latecomers raced to church.

Here’s a Nhat Hanh story I told in The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life:

... It was from Thich Nhat Hanh that I first became aware of walking as an opportunity to repair the damaged connection between the physical and the spiritual.

In the late sixties, he asked me to accompany him on his lecture trips in the United States. He spoke to audiences about Vietnamese culture and what the war looked like to ordinary Vietnamese people. At times he also spoke about the monastic vocation and meditation.

In conversation, Nhat Hanh sometimes spoke of the importance of what he called “mindful breathing,” a phrase that seemed quite odd to me at first. Yet I was aware that his walking was somehow different than mine and could imagine this might have something to do with his way of breathing. Even if we were late for an appointment, he walked in an attentive, unhurried way.

It wasn’t until we climbed the steps to my sixth floor apartment in Manhattan that I began to take his example to heart. Though in my late twenties and very fit, I was out of breath by the time I reached my front door. Nhat Hanh, on the other hand, seemed rested. I asked him how he did that. “You have to learn how to breathe while you walk,” he replied. “Let’s go back to the bottom and walk up again. I will show you how to breathe while climbing stairs.” On the way back up, he quietly described how he was breathing. It wasn’t a difficult lesson. Linking slow, attentive breaths with taking the stairs made an astonishing difference. The climb took one or two minutes longer, but when I reached my door I found myself refreshed instead of depleted.

In the seventies, I spent time in France with Nhat Hanh on a yearly basis. He was better known then -- his home had become for many people a center of pilgrimage. One of the things I found him teaching was his method of attentive walking. Once a day, all his guests would set off in a silent procession led by him. The walk was prefaced with his advice that we practice slow, mindful breathing while at the same time being aware of each footstep, seeing each moment of contact between foot and earth as a prayer for peace. We went single file, moving slowly, deeply aware of the texture of the earth and grass, the scent of the air, the movement of leaves in the trees, the sound of insects and birds. Many times as I walked I was reminded of the words of Jesus: “You must be like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Such attentive walking was a return to the hyper-alertness of childhood.

Mindful breathing connected with mindful walking gradually becomes normal. It is then a small step to connect walking and breathing with prayer.

In correspondence with a friend, I was recently reminded of this one:

I recall going with Nhat Hanh and Phuong to one of the Paris airports to pick up a volunteer who was arriving from America. On the way back, the volunteer stressed how dedicated a vegetarian she was and how good it was to be with people who were such committed vegetarians. Passing by a poelier in Paris, Nhat Hanh asked Phuong to stop. He went inside and bought a chicken, which we ate that night for supper at our apartment in Sceaux. It’s the only time I know of when Nhat Hanh ate meat.

Finally, here’s a story Nhat Hanh tells about me in one of his books, The Miracle of Mindfulness:

I have a close friend named Jim Forest. ... Last winter, Jim came to visit. I usually wash the dishes after we've finished the evening meal, before sitting down and drinking tea with everyone else. One night, Jim asked if he might do the dishes. I said, "Go ahead, but if you wash the dishes you must know the way to wash them." Jim replied, "Come on, you think I don't know how to wash the dishes?" I answered, "There are two ways to was the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes to wash the dishes." Jim was delighted and said, "I choose the second way -- to wash the dishes to wash the dishes." From then on, Jim knew how to wash the dishes. I transferred the "responsibility" to him for an entire week.

If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not "washing the dishes to wash the dishes." What's more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact, we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can't wash the dishes, the chances are we won't be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.

One important sentence Nhat Hanh left out of his account is this: "When you wash the dishes, wash each dish as if it were the baby Jesus.” A very important sentence in my life! I learned from those few words not only something about the potential sacramentality of dirty dishes but of anything we touch and also how times of irritation can easily be transformed into times of meditation and prayer.

I could tell stories about ways Nhat Hanh has influenced my life from now until the next year and perhaps have a few still to tell, but for today this is all I have time for.


* * *

Here’s a story that Nancy tells about her first encounter with Nhat Hanh.

My first Zen lesson

I came to the Netherlands in April of 1982 with my daughter Caitlan, who was five years old at the time. Jim and I were married shortly after that. We had been friends for many years in the US. Both of us worked together at the headquarters of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in Nyack, New York, and Jim move to Holland in 1977 to serve as general secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR). We had kept in touch during those five years. Jim was Cait’s godfather.

Shortly after I had moved here, Jim told me Thich Nhat Hanh would be coming to Alkmaar to visit. I had never met Nhat Hanh, but of course I had heard a great deal about him, and I knew how close Jim and Nhat Hanh had been over the years. Jim said Nhat Hanh would be coming to our house, and that the IFOR staff would be coming over as well to meet with him.

It was a beautiful day in May. First the staff arrived and took seats in our living room, then Nhat Hanh himself arrived, dressed in his brown robe. A hush fell over the staff members, and everyone was apparently in awe of this man. I remember feeling nervous that he was coming to our house, nervous about hosting this event. After he had sat down a sort of Zen silence fell on the room. It was hard for me to tell what to make of the atmosphere in the living room that day, but it made me uncomfortable.

In the meantime, Cait, who had just been given her first bicycle and was practicing riding it in the parking lot behind our house, kept running in to tell me how far she was advancing. So you have this room full of awestruck adults sitting there with what appeared to me glazed looks on their faces, and my little daughter running in, breathless with excitement.

After Nhat Hanh finished speaking with the staff, Jim came up to me and told me he had invited him to dinner. This was a little more than I could handle. I went into the kitchen at the back of the house and started chopping vegetables. I remember feeling that I really had to get out of that living room, that there was something definitely weird about what was going on there. It didn’t feel genuine, while the vegetables were certain genuine and so was Cait.

After a few minutes, Nhat Hanh came into the kitchen and, almost effortlessly, started helping me with the vegetables. I think he just started talking to me in the most ordinary way. He ended up telling me how to make rice balls -- how to grind the sesame seeds in a coffee grinder, to make the balls with sticky rice and to roll them in the ground sesame seeds. It was lots of fun and I remember laughing with him. The artificial Zen atmosphere was completely absent. Cait kept coming in, and Nhat Hanh was delighted with her.

This was my first Zen lesson.


* * *
note: The photo of Nhat Hanh is one I took is Paris in 1975. It is copyrighted and may not be used without written permission.
-- Jim Forest

* * *