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:

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:

[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."


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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.


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

Jim & Nancy

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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.


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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.


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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

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