Saturday, November 6, 2010

a stunning film

Nancy and I watched "Sophie Scholl" last night, a remarkable film about courage, faith and martyrdom.

Arrested on the 18th of February 1943, 21-year-old Sophie was beheaded four days later. She and her brother Hans, a medical student, were members of The White Rose group based at the University of Munich. The group's first activity had been the distribution of a sermon by August von Galen, the anti-Nazi Catholic bishop of Munster, in which he denounced Hitler’s euthanasia program.

The group managed to publish and widely distribute six leaflets before they were caught. An extract from one leaflet: "Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible of crimes—crimes that infinitely outdistance every human measure—reach the light of day?"

The film focuses on Sophie and Hans from the evening before their arrest until their execution.

It's clear that their religious faith was a key element in their actions.


Monday, November 1, 2010

The Battle of Blair Mountain

When Alex Patico and I were driving from the Patico home in Maryland to Murfreesboro, Tennessee a few weeks ago, we stopped midway in Charleston to visit a friend and spend the night at a bed & breakfast. There we happened to meet a West Virginian who mentioned a significant event in the state’s history, the Battle of Blair Mountain. She referred to it as if you would have to be a piece of driftwood not to know about it. For me, it rang only the faintest of bells. I’ve since had an e-mail from our chance acquaintance with a link to a Wikipedia text about this important confrontation between the owners with their private army and the men who mined the coal. To be a union organizer, or even a union sympathizer, was to invite your own murder. The miners were treated pretty much as slaves, if not worse. During the Battle of Blair Mountain, the US military intervened, dropping bombs.

Elements of this story made their way into the film “Matewan.”


Sunday, October 31, 2010

Thank you, Nancy...

For many people, today is Halloween. For Nancy and me it’s the third anniversary of the relocation of one of her kidney’s into my abdomen where it has dwelt happily an efficiently ever since. Three years! If I had a bottle of champagne in the house, this would be the right day to open it.

My first words today were addressed to the donor: “Thank you, Nancy.”

For nearly two years the backbone of my life in so many ways was the dialysis. Everything had to be arranged around those three weekly sessions of blood filtering. Normally this was at the local hospital, but, if I were traveling, sometimes in hospitals or clinics in other countries: Greece, Spain, Italy, England, France, Canada and the US.

Ever since the transplant, I have felt something like Lazarus after being brought back to life by his friend Jesus three days after being placed in his tomb. Of course I had no real death experience, but kidney illness is, even in these days, a close encounter with death.

In case you have never read it, I recommend something Nancy wrote about deciding to make that donation, “Saying Yes” -- see:


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

the vocational book seller

I have never forgotten a lunch I had many years ago with Alice Mayhew, a vice president of the publisher Simon & Schuster. She told me the main problem publishers faced was “the demise of the vocational book seller.” She defined the vocational book seller as someone who knows and loves books and knows her/his customers, old and young and in-between -- someone who can say to a customer (a person known by name), “I have a book I think you’ll want to read.”

In the years since Alice made this observation, thousands of independent book shops -- the place one found vocational book sellers -- have been forced to close their doors. It’s a story that is part of the plot line in the film “You’ve Got Mail.”

Yet some independent book shops survive. My favorite is Eighth Day Books in Wichita, Kansas, whose founder is Warren Farha, a member of St George Cathedral, the Antiochian parish in that city.

Eighth Day specializes in Christian books. I know of no book shop so likely to have books -- new and used -- of special interest to Orthodox or Catholic Christians.

Eighth Day also occasionally publishes books. The latest is Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology by Fr Andrew Louth (patristic scholar and a member of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship advisory board). It was originally published by Oxford University Press but has been out of print for a long time. Used copies were not easily found.

One of the many pluses of Eighth Day are the helpful descriptions of each title provided on the online catalog. To give an example, here is the entry for the Louth book:

Published twenty-five years ago, Discerning the Mystery is still the finest critique of the Enlightenment's ways of knowing, coupled with a winsome description of a distinctly Christian alternative. Responding to what he sees as a "division and fragmentation" both in theology and the larger culture due to "the one-sided way we have come to seek and recognize truth? manifest in the way in which all concern with truth has been relinquished to the sciences," Louth sets out to describe the source of that fragmentation and to challenge the notion that we must "accept the lot bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment." He carefully reviews central themes of several precursors who have already forged a critique of the epistemological imperialism of the Enlightenment, principally Giambattista Vico, Wilhelm Dilthey, and Hans-Georg Gadamer, who in distinct ways demonstrated the legitimacy of the humanities' unique apprehension of truth. Further relativizing Enlightenment claims, Michael Polanyi proposed that science itself depends on non-empirical elements of investigation for its method to function, what he termed "the tacit dimension." It is here that Louth sees a "pattern underlying the apprehension of truth" that is strikingly similar to that of the Fathers of the Church, who set forth an approach to knowing and experiencing truth that ultimately can be "seen and heard and handled" (1 John 1:1-3), but only by those who reside in the bosom of the Church's tradition and avail themselves of ways of knowing unique to it. Louth's rather brilliant rehabilitation of the Fathers' use of allegory in scriptural interpretation, which interweaves Scripture and tradition seamlessly, illustrates this approach. The matrix of allegory requires and manifests the "tacit dimension" of the guidance of the Spirit, and underlines the theologian's need to hear Him. Or as Evagrios of Pontus might put it, "Knowledge of God--the breast of the Lord. To recline there--the making of a theologian."

I suggest you visit the web site of Eighth Day Books -- -- and bookmark it. You might also want to get a copy of Discerning the Mystery.


Sunday, September 26, 2010

Remembering Ivy

As a boy growing up in Tinton Falls, New Jersey, I added to my dollar-a-week allowance by delivering morning and evening newspapers. My most remarkable customer was Ivy Troutman, who in earlier years had played starring roles in many Broadway productions and also been in at least one silent movie in 1915. A famous beauty in what she referred to as her “salad days,” she was still stunning in her sixties.

In 1951, Ivy purchased a run-down mansion on Newman Springs Road, a short walk from our house. Built in the mid-19th century, shortly after the Civil War, Ivy presided over a restoration that transformed the near-ruin into a palace.

For some reason, she took a special liking to me. The result was that I put Ivy at the end of my newspaper route, as she often invited me to stay for a while. Serving me a small glass of Dubonet (imported from France, but with water added in deference to my age), she often talked about her days as an actress. Her career on stage had stretched from 1904, when she was 21, to 1942.

The First World War took her to Europe to perform for the troops. After the war ended, she joined the colony of American expatriates living in Paris, thus becoming one of the “lost generation,” a term coined by Gertrude Stein (whom Ivy knew but didn’t much like) and popularized by Ernest Hemingway.

Among Hemingway’s best friends was Ivy’s former husband, the artist Waldo Peirce, a fellow American who, along with Hemingway, had been an ambulance driver in France during the war.

During her Paris years, Ivy had been a close friend of  James Joyce. Perhaps the greatest treasure in her treasure-filled house was a copy of the first edition of Joyce’s Ulysses, published by Shakespeare & Company -- Joyce had penciled in corrections on nearly every page. Ivy sometimes went to Manhattan for meetings of the Joyce Society. Its gatherings were on West 47th Street, over the legendary Gotham Book Mart, which later, when I moved to New York, became one of the book stores I visited most often.

Ivy had a breath-taking art collection. I found especially fascinating a small Alexander Calder mobile hanging in the living room and, in a hallway, one of Calder’s large single-line circus drawings.

Occasionally Ivy had parties -- soirees -- for friends living in New York. Though Ivy had a maid, I was asked to put on my Sunday best and serve drinks. The guests were mainly theater people. One of the regular guests was Raymond Burr, eventually to become best known for playing lawyer Perry Mason on a popular TV series.

There were also writers. Ivy introduced me to one of them, Allen Churchill, who at the time was researching a history of New York’s Greenwich Village eventually published as The Improper Bohemians. Meeting an actual author made a huge impression on me.

When I was fifteen, I moved to Hollywood, California, and lost touch with her, but I think of her often with profound gratitude for all the windows she opened in my life and for taking me so much to heart.

The only material gift from her that I still have is a delightful watercolor by Waldo Peirce. Peirce himself is on the left, manfully cutting down a tree, Ivy seductively reclining on the right, and the Maine wilderness, in which Peirce had grown up, in the background. It hangs in our living room.

-- Jim

* * *

Friday, August 20, 2010

Local archeology: unearthing The Sixties

The archeologists have finished their work on the Paardenmarkt here in Alkmaar, having found lots of skeletons, one of them dating back to the Iron Age. Nancy and I have been doing a little archeology of our own right here in our house -- searching in closets and cubby holes for a large jar of peace and protest badges. Some of these date back to that remote, lost-in-the-mist era known as The Sixties, though most are from The Seventies, which was pretty much The Sixties, Part Two.

Our motive for doing so? The mother of our son-in-law Bjorn is turning sixty, an event that will be celebrated tomorrow night at a party near Rotterdam. The party theme? The Sixties! All who are taking part are requested to dress is a Sixty-ish way.

Thanks to our success in finding the elusive jar, Nancy and I will be wearing some of our peace button collection.

-- Jim

* * *

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

the quick and the dead

Since the end of June, every week day, even in wet weather, archeologists have been hard at work in central Alkmaar looking underneath what for decades was a parking lot and, before that, a horse market. It’s this older role which gives the square its name to this day: the Paardenmarkt. It’s a two- or three-minute walk from our front door.

The archeologists -- most of whom appear to be students -- come both from the University of Leiden and Hollandia, a Dutch archeological research company based in Zaandijk. The project was commissioned by the city of Alkmaar after the decision was made to create a small park where the parking lot had been -- work that would involve disturbing the ground.

I’ve learned some history. Before the horse market, Franciscan friars lived here, members of a community founded in 1448. As they were educators, they must have run a school. Their friary stood on the east side of the square, with a walled cemetery where the digging is now going on.

The Reformation hit the Catholics of Alkmaar with hurricane force. In 1566, there was the “Beeldenstorm” -- the "image storm." Religious paintings were damaged or destroyed and stained glass windows and statues smashed. The only two statues to survive in the town’s cathedral were too high up for the vandals to reach -- no ladders were long enough. Another result of the Reformation, and the nationalism intertwined with it, was that the friars’ chapel was turned into an armory and foundry for making cannons.

In 1573, during the Eighty Years' War, when troops of King Philip II of Spain surrounded the town in an effort to defeat a Protestant-backed Dutch uprising, a small section of the cemetery was used for the burial of victims of the siege. The discovery of the mass grave was headline news throughout the Netherlands. (It was in Alkmaar that the first victory over Philip II occurred, thanks to local farmers breaking dikes, thus flooding the area used by the occupation soldiers.) A lead musket ball was found in one of the skulls, leading to the guess that this victim was Jacob Paulet, shot in the head on the 8th of September 1573 by a Spanish sentry when Paulet took the chance of looking over the wall.

For many people the mass grave -- all those skulls and bones, with their many indications of mortal injuries -- brought the siege of Alkmaar to life. The year 1573 suddenly seemed not so long ago.

In 1574, following withdrawal of the Spanish forces, the six surviving Franciscans were arrested, taken to the town of Enkhuizen and hanged. They are remembered as “The Martyrs of Alkmaar.” The former Franciscan cemetery became a market square and retained that role until the 20th century, when a horse market was less needed than a place to park cars.

The biggest surprise to date, even more than the mass grave, was the discovery three days ago of the remains of someone -- whether man or woman is unknown -- who died about 700 BC. The traces of bone, teeth and spine that are left are hardly more substantial than a shadow. While there has been evidence of human occupation in this part of Holland dating back to 1500 BC, it seems no burial this old has previously been found in this area. The body had been laid on its side with the knees drawn up so that they nearly reach the chin -- an Iron Age grave in the heart of Alkmaar!

Since the digging started, I’ve been spending a little time most days watching the excavation -- the careful removal of sand centimeter by centimeter, the repeated sweeping of each square meter with a metal detector, the regular discovery of skeletons, the making of photos and charts, the gentle freeing of the bones from the earth. (These are to be reburied in the town’s main cemetery.) So far about 150 skeletons have been found.

I’ve saved some of the photos I've taken to this folder:

The present is fascinating, but at times the past can be even more interesting. It’s also quite moving to watch healthy young men and women armed with plastic spoons and soft brushes ever so gently unearthing the long-buried dead.

I’ve been thinking about how a project like this brings into high relief the tremendous importance memory has in our lives -- not only one’s own private memory, but the gradual expansion of memory to take in other lives, including lives and events in the remote past.

If I were a kid watching all this, maybe I would grow up to be an archeologist.

-- Jim

* * *

Monday, July 12, 2010

In praise of Dante

Prodded by a question from a friend who has been looking at the photos I took last month in Tuscany, I asked Harry Isbell, who has translated for Penguin and other publishers some of the Latin classics, if he could unravel the text at the bottom of the Dante portrait by Domenico di Michelino that hangs in the Duomo in Florence. Smaller image above, a high resolution version here:

Harry responded this evening:

In my experience the art historian crowd does tend to gloss over anything that looks like an inscription, even at the risk of abandoning a vital piece of context which can very well illuminate the work at hand. This is no exception.

Every inscription of course is complicated by the fact that the realities of cost always demanded condensation and abbreviation. For this reason it is necessary to begin working with what would appear to be an unshrunken fragment. Voila. The inscription is of a poem, possibly by Michelangelo, though I'm far from sure of that, which reads

Qui caelum cecinit, mediumque imumque tribunal,
Lustravitque animo cuncta poeta suo,
Doctus adest Dantes, sua quem Florentia saepe
sensit consiliis ac pietate patrem.
Nil potuit tanto mors sava nocere poeta
Quem vivum virtus, carmen, imago facit.

Who sang of Heaven, and of the regions twain,
Midway and in the abyss, where souls are judged,
Surveying all in spirit, he is here,
Dante, our master-poet. Florence found
Oft-times in him a father, wise and strong
In his devotion. Death could bring no harm
To such a bard. For him true life have gained
His worth, his verse and this his effigy

The translation considerably more verbose than the original, is by E.H. Plumptre D.D., Dean of Wells and was published in 1899 in his 5 volume work, "Dante: The Divina Commedia and Canzoniere."

Another translation, by Edward Wright in 1730 reads

Behold the poet, who in lofty verse
Heav'n, hell, and purgatory did rehearse;
The learned Dante! whose capacious soul
Survey'd the universe, and knew the whole.
To his own Florence he a father prov'd,
Honour'd for counsel, for religion lov'd.
Death will not hurt so great a bard as he,
Who lives in virtue, verse, and effigy.


Photos of our stay in southern Tuscany:

Siena photos:

Florence photos:

* * *

Friday, June 25, 2010

an image of paradise

Two days ago we returned from a three-week stay in Tuscany. Mainly we were there to work, Nancy on a translation project and me to make headway on the new edition of my biography of Dorothy Day.

The last week we took time to visit Siena (staying in a convent guest house) and then Florence (this time staying in a convent). In both cities we visited churches and museums and saw many icons, mosaics and paintings.

I find this painting is an especially haunting image of the door into paradise: forgiveness. The painting was part of a temporary exhibition -- "The Arts in Siena in the Early Renaissance" -- at Santa Maria della Scala in Siena, an ancient hospital that in recent years has become a museum. Double click on the photo to see, in a larger size, different sorts of reconciliation.

The artist is Giovani di Paolo of Siena. He lived an exceptionally long life -- 1398-1482. This work is dated 1445. It was loaned to the exhibition by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

My set of Siena photos, of which this image is a part, is here:

Photos taken in Florence in the days that followed our stay in Siena:

If you stand even more Tuscany photos, here is a folder from our two-week stay in Poderetto, a hamlet not far from Sovana and Sorano:


Thursday, June 10, 2010

Very quiet days

Our second week in Poderetto.

The best thing about these days in rural Tuscany is that there is no internet connection in the house in which we’re staying. I would be surprised if there are two web-connected households in Poderetto. It’s barely a hamlet, perhaps ten or twelve houses. What matters most here, apart from family, are the olive trees, the grape vines, the farm animals. No shops. There’s a small grocery store in the village of Elmo a few kilometers away. Not far away there is the slightly larger village of Sovana, where we’ve twice gone for pizzas. A little further there is Sorano, a real town, and still further, perhaps fifteen kilometers away, is Pitigliano, the main commercial center of this region, dramatically rising from a steep hilltop.

Mainly we’re here in Poderetto. A quiet life! We’ve done amazingly little actual tourism. I’ve been quickly checking e-mail once a day at the nearby house of our hostess -- and Nancy’s translator colleague -- Diane Webb, opening almost nothing and responding only to a few e-mails, mainly those having to do with our forthcoming stay (the third and final week of our time in Tuscany) at monasteries in Siena (two nights) and then Florence (four nights).

This internet withdrawal has allowed me a kind of attentiveness to writing, revising and expanding my biography of Dorothy Day, still in print but 25 years old, but written when I had no access to Dorothy’s journals and correspondence. As it happens, the one translation of the new edition so far contracted is with an Italian publisher.

I’ve rarely known a similar opportunity for such tight-beam focus on writing, but especially in these years of e-mail. A truly monastic silence. How much more I could have done as I writer if I had been more focused on writing and paid less attention to correspondence!

It’s much the same for Nancy, who is spending most of each day concentrating on a translation project she, Diane and Lynne Richards are doing as a team, the collaborative enterprise that brought us here. (Lynne is staying at Diane’s house -- the “new house” -- just a short walk down the hill.)


Note: Tuscany photos taken so far:

Monday, May 24, 2010

Maria on the Metro

While in Amsterdam to retrieve my lost mobile phone, I happened to meet Maria selling the Daklozekrant ("Homeless Person's Journal") on Metro line 53. Perhaps because Maria has a smile that would light up the darkest night, she has the gift -- in an environment in which any kind of panhandling usually annoys -- to engage in conversation those whom she's inviting to buy the paper. And then there's that astounding wig, a major work of art...

-- Jim

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

"Acts of God"?

I had a letter today from a friend whose faith has been profoundly shaken by the devastating earthquake in Haiti, an event insurance companies put in the category of “acts of God.” How could God cause so many desperately poor, defenseless people to suffer in this way?

Here is an extract from my response:

So-called “acts of God” -- earthquakes, tidal waves, droughts, floods, etc. -- definitely challenge the idea most of us have of God. What we can know about God is far more limited that what cats can know about people. For many people, the idea is that God runs everything -- from the weather to the stability of the earth. You might call it the “God-as-babysitter” idea.

My own concept of God, inadequate as it is, is quite different. God has given us a very uncertain place to live, and not only does God not protect us from each other (as we see in every war, and see in its most dramatic form in Christ’s crucifixion), but also doesn’t protect us from the unsettled planet that is our home. Among the things that are remarkable about the Christ’s Gospel is that it has to do with how to live in a world that is extremely dangerous, unpredictable and unfair.

I sometimes think about writing a book on various ideas of God that many people embrace but which are profoundly inadequate and which we need to move beyond. Doing so is very scary -- we fear we are losing God altogether -- but all we’re doing is moving into ever-larger rooms. The one constant is that Christ is with us as we make this journey.

It was remarkable to see several news clips made in Haiti after the earthquake in which, to my astonishment, people were singing songs of praise. It is very hard for us to imagine doing the same if we try to project ourselves into similar circumstances. But I think of that attitude -- much rarer in the rich countries than in the poor ones -- when I look at the Haitian wood carving that hangs on the wall in our living room.


(double-click on images to enlarge)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Ultra-Dutch places, a very Dutch art form

One of the advantages of being over 60 in Holland is that every two months I get a free train ride wherever in the country I want to go. This time it wasn't far -- to the town of Monnickendam and the nearby island village of Marken, both in the province we live in, a district called Waterland in North Holland. As the name implies, Monnichendam -- meaning a dam with monks on it -- has monastic origins. (In fact there is no train to these towns, but it's not a long bus ride northeast of Amsterdam's Central Station.)

A folder of photos of these two Dutcher-than-Dutch places is here:

What helped me decide to travel near rather than far was a photo I recently saw of a "gevelsteen" (a facade stone sometimes placed on houses) of a guardian angel holding the house. Inspired work. I'd love to know who carved it. Note that the gevelsteen is replicated in miniature in the angel's arms.

I have a long-running love affair with these remarkable bas reliefs, many of which date back to the 17th century, though it's very much a living art form, as you see in the case of the guardian angel -- an carving just a few years old. A folder devoted only to gevelstenen is here:


Note: Double-click on the photo to see it enlarged.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

thyme on my hands

A favorite saying of my mother was "Time, time, said old King Tut, is something I ain't got nothin' else but." But I was into a different sort of thyme yesterday,thyme that's planted rather than measured, and in two varieties: Thymus Vulgaris (on the left, ordinary thyme, not nearly as vulgar as its Latin name suggests) and Thymus Citriodorus Aureus (thyme that has a slightly lemonly edge). This thymely couple is handily planted just outside our kitchen door.


Friday, March 26, 2010

Thank you, Glenn Beck

I live a sheltered life, that is to say I watch very little TV. Until yesterday I had never heard of Glenn Beck. But when a friend in Kentucky sent me an e-mail asking if I was aware that Dorothy Day had been mentioned on Glenn Beck’s weekly TV show, I got curious. Via YouTube, I quickly discovered that Glenn Beck is more than willing to accuse anyone he doesn’t agree with of being a socialist, a communist, a marxist or a nazi, or even all four.

During his latest Fox News broadcast, Beck made mention of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, best known for its many houses of hospitality for the down-and-out.

It was really an aside. Beck’s agenda was to show that Jim Wallis (editor of Sojourners, a monthly Christian magazine that takes social justice issues seriously) is not the Christian he claims to be but is a socialist-communist-marxist -- just like that socialist-communist-marxist in the White House, Barak Obama.

Here’s how Dorothy Day got into it:

Glenn Beck: “Rev. Wallis told a story a couple years ago about the time he met — apparently Marxists know this person, I've never heard of her — the Marxist Dorothy Day. Listen to this:”


WALLIS: “My Dorothy Day story happened in Chicago. She was just leaving as we were coming on the scene. So we were living in Chicago. So I ran 20 blocks. And in the parlor of the Catholic Worker -- and in walks the great lady. Dorothy wrote a book about her life called "Love is the Measure." But she wasn't ever soft. Very tough. So you're a radical student like me, right? You're a Marxist like me, right? Yes.” (END AUDIO CLIP) [The part of the interview that followed, in which Day and Wallis talk about their conversion to Christianity was left out.]

Before the day is over, I must send Glenn Beck a thank you note. Thanks to his broadcast, sales are likely to pick up for the one book mentioned in his broadcast, “Love is the Measure.” Actually, it’s a biography of Dorothy Day that I wrote. Jim Wallis probably intended to mention Dorothy’s autobiography, “The Long Loneliness.”

But what is most helpful about Glenn Beck’s broadcast is that, among the millions of people who reportedly listen to his programs, there are bound to be a good many who are curious to know just who is this Dorothy Day.

The web being so helpful for quickly finding out whatever you want to know, without too much trouble they will discover that “the Marxist Dorothy Day” Beck referred to is known in the Catholic Church as “Servant of God Dorothy Day.” The title is granted by the Vatican when it officially decides to consider beatification or canonization of a particular person.

The process was begun in 1997 by the late Cardinal John O’Connor, Archbishop of New York. Here are extracts from what he said at the time, speaking from the pulpit of St. Patricks’ Cathedral in New York:

“Dorothy Day saw the world at large turned into a huge commercial marketplace where money means more than anything else. She saw people turned into tools of commerce. She saw the family treated as a marketplace. She reminded us frequently enough that the Church herself could become simply a marketplace. She loved the Church, and she was immensely faithful to the Church. She had no time for those who attacked the Church as such, the Body of Christ. She loved the Holy Father. But she recognized that we poor, weak human beings -- people like you, people like me -- could turn the Church into nothing but a marketplace...

“She had died before I became Archbishop of New York, or I would have called on her immediately upon my arrival. Few people have had such an impact on my life, even though we never met.

“Dorothy Day was born on November 8, 1897, and died November 29, 1980. Hardly a seminarian of my era escaped her influence. Rare was the young priest untouched by her life. Whether or not we honored in our own lives, her passionate commitment to the poor, or followed even distantly in her footsteps, she worried us. That was her gift to us, a gift I still cherish as I try to maneuver my own perilous way among the accouterments and ‘practicalities’ of life as a Cardinal Archbishop of New York...”

Dorothy Day, Cardinal O’Connor noted, had aborted her first child when she was a young woman:

“I wish every woman who has ever suffered an abortion, including perhaps someone or several in this church, would come to know Dorothy Day. Her story was so typical. Made pregnant by a man who insisted she have an abortion, who then abandoned her anyway, she suffered terribly for what she had done, and later pleaded with others not to do the same. But later, too, after becoming a Catholic, she learned the love and mercy of the Lord, and knew she never had to worry about His forgiveness. This is why I never condemn a woman who has had an abortion; I weep with her and ask her to remember Dorothy Day’s sorrow but to know always God's loving mercy and forgiveness....

“Radical though she was, her respect for and commitment and obedience to Church teaching were unswerving. Indeed, those of us who grew up knowing her recognized early in the game that she was a radical precisely because she was a believer, a believer and a practitioner. She, in fact, chided those who wanted to join her in her works of social justice, but who, in her judgment, didn't take the Church seriously enough, and didn't bother about getting to Mass.

“There are those who believe that because she was a protester against some things that people confuse with Americanism itself that [therefore] her cause should not be submitted. I disagree completely with that position. Some believe that her cause should not be initiated because of their contempt for Church processes. They believe that the whole concept of formal canonization is ‘folderol’...

“There are some who believe that Dorothy Day was indeed a living saint, and that the cause of canonization need not therefore be processed. Perhaps. But why does the Church canonize saints? In part so that their person, their works, their lives will become that much better known and that they will encourage others to follow in their footsteps. And, of course, that the Church may say formally and officially: ‘This is sanctity, this is the road to eternal life, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to house the homeless, to love every human person made in the image and likeness of God.’ It is this and nothing else: Our Lord summarized it all -- ‘You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, your whole soul, your whole mind, your whole strength and your neighbor as yourself.’

“I wish I had known Dorothy Day personally. I feel that I know her because of her goodness. But surely, if any woman ever loved God and her neighbor it was Dorothy Day!”

-- Jim Forest

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Saint Gerasimos of the Jordan

Today happens to be the feast of Gerasimos of the Jordan, a saint who rarely feasted.

Among saints remembered for their peaceful relations with dangerous animals, not least is Gerasimos, shown in icons caring for an injured lion.

The story behind the image comes down to us from Saint John Moschos, a monk of Saint Theodosius Monastery near Bethlehem and author of The Spiritual Meadow, a book written in the course of journeys he made in the late sixth and early seventh centuries. This is a collection of stories of monastic saints, mainly desert dwellers, and also an early example of travel writing.

In the fifth century, Gerasimos was abbot of a community of seventy monks who lived in the desert east of Jericho, not far from the River Jordan. (Jericho is in the left background of the icon, the River Jordan in the foreground.) The monks slept on reed mats, had cells without doors, and — apart from common prayer — normally observed silence. Their diet consisted chiefly of water, dates and bread. Gerasimos, in ongoing repentance for having been influenced by the teachings of a heretic in his youth, is said to have eaten even less than the norm.

One day while walking along the Jordan, Gerasimos came upon a lion roaring in agony because of a large splinter imbedded in one paw. Overcome with compassion for the suffering beast, Gerasimos removed the splinter, drained and cleaned the wound, then bound it up, expecting the lion would return to its cave. Instead the lion meekly followed him back to the monastery and became the abbot’s devoted companion.

The community was amazed at the lion’s apparent conversion to a peaceful life. Like the monks, he lived now on bread and vegetables and shared its devotion to the abbot.

The lion was given a special task: guarding the community’s donkey, which was pastured along the Jordan. But one day it happened, while the lion was napping, that the donkey strayed and was stolen by a passing trader. After searching without success, the lion returned to the monastery, its head hanging low. The brothers concluded the lion had been overcome by an instinctual appetite for meat. As a punishment, it was given the donkey’s job: to carry water each day from the river to the monastery in a saddlepack with four earthen jars.

Months later, it happened that the trader was coming along the Jordan with the stolen donkey and three camels. The lion recognized the donkey and roared so loudly that the trader ran away. Taking its rope in his jaws, the lion led the donkey back to the monastery with the camels following behind. The monks realized, to their shame, that they had misjudged the lion. The same day, Gerasimos gave the lion a name: Jordanes.

For five more years, until the abbot’s death, Jordanes was part of the monastic community. When the elder fell asleep in the Lord and was buried, Jordanes lay down on the grave, roaring its grief and beating its head against the ground. Finally Jordanes rolled over and died on the last resting place of Gerasimos.

It is a story that touches the reader intimately, inspiring the hope that the wild beast that still roars within each of us may yet be converted — while the story’s second half suggests that, when falsely accused of having returned to an unconverted life, vindication may finally happen.

The icon of Saint Gerasimos focuses on contact between a monk and a lion – an Eden-like moment before creatures became a threat to each other. By the river of Christ’s baptism, an ancient harmony we associate with Adam and Eve before the Fall is renewed. At least for a moment, enmity is abandoned. A small island of divine peace has been achieved through a merciful action. The icon is an image of peace – man and beast no longer threatening each other’s life.

But is the story true?

Certainly the abbot Gerasimos is real. Many texts refer to him. Soon after his death he was recognized as a saint. The monastery he founded lasted for centuries, a center of spiritual life and a place of pilgrimage. He was one of the great elders of the Desert.

But what about Jordanes? Might the lion be a graphic metaphor for the saint’s ability to convert lion-like people who came to him?

Unlikely stories about saints are not rare. Some are so remarkable – for example Saint Nicholas’s bringing back to life three murdered children who had been hacked to pieces and boiled in a stew pot – that the resurrection of Christ seems a minor miracle in contrast. Yet even the most farfetched legend usually has a basis in the character of the saint: Nicholas was resourceful in his efforts to protect the lives of the defenseless.

Numerous accounts of the lives of saints show their readiness to offer hospitality to beasts.

In the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, one of the most striking stories concerns a wolf. Francis was asked by the people from the town of Gubbio to help them with a wolf that had been killing livestock. Francis set out to meet the wolf, blessed it with the sign of the cross, communicated with it by gesture, and finally led the wolf into the town itself where Francis obliged the people of Gubbio to feed and care for their former enemy. It’s a remarkable, but not impossible, story. In the last century, during restoration work, the bones of a wolf were discovered within Gubbio’s ancient church.

There are reliable reports that both Saint Sergius of Radonezh and Saint Seraphim of Sarov each had friendly relations with a local bear.

It is not unlikely that Jordanes was as real as Gerasimos. He seems to have been a man so Christ-like that fear was burned away.

In fact it has not been rare for saints to show such an example of living in peace with wild creatures, including those that normally make us afraid. The scholar and translator Helen Waddell once assembled a whole collection of such stories: Saints and Beasts. Appropriately, the copy in our house is scarred with tooth marks in it left by a hyperactive puppy who was once part of our household.

Apart from the probable reality of Jordanes, he happens to belong to a species long invested with symbolic meaning. In the Bible, the lion is mainly a symbol of soul-threatening passions and occasionally an emblem of the devil. David said he had been delivered “from the paw of the lion.” (1 Samuel 17:37) The author of Proverbs says a wicked ruler abuses the poor “like a roaring lion and a raging bear.” (Proverbs 28:15) Peter warns Christians: “Be sober and watchful, for you adversary the devil roams about like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8) Here the lion is seen as representing that part of the unredeemed self ruled by instinct, appetite and pride — thus the phrase “a pride of lions.”

In medieval Europe, lions were known only through stories, carvings and manuscript illuminations. A thirteenth century Bestiary now at the Bodleian Library in Oxford starts its catalogue of astonishing creatures with the lion. It is called a beast, says the monastic author, because “where instinct leads them, there they go.” The text adds that the lion “is proud by nature; he will not live with other kinds of beasts in the wild, but like a king disdains the company of the masses.” Yet the author invests the lion with knightly qualities, claiming that lions would rather kill men than women, and attack children “only if they are exceptionally hungry.”

Yet no one approaches even the most well fed lion without caution. From the classical world to our own era, the lion has chiefly been regarded as danger incarnate — a primary example of wild nature “red in tooth and claw.” And yet at times the symbol is transfigured: the lion becomes an image of beauty, grace and courage. In The Narnia Chronicles, C.S. Lewis chose a lion to represent Christ. The huge stone lions on guard outside the main entrance of the New York Public Library seem to have been placed there as guardians of wisdom.

There is still one more wrinkle to the ancient story of Gerasimos and Jordanes. Saint Jerome, the great scholar responsible for the Latin rendering of the Bible, long honored in the west as patron saint of translators, lived for years in a cave near the place of Christ’s Nativity in Bethlehem. Only two day’s walk away was Gerasimos’s monastery. The name of Gerasimos is not very different from Geronimus – Latin for Jerome. Pilgrims from the west connected the story told of Gerasimos with Jerome. Given the fact that Jerome sometimes wrote letters with a lionish bite, perhaps it’s appropriate that Gerasimos’s gentle lion eventually wandered into images of Jerome. It’s rare to find a painting of Jerome in which Jordanes isn’t present.

-- Jim Forest

note: This is a chapter from Praying With Icons, the revised edition, published by Orbis Books. The icon used here is the work of Emilia Clerkx, a member of St Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam. She based it on a similar icon now in the collection of the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. The painting of St. Jerome is attributed to a Follower of Pietro Perugino (1490-1500) and is part of the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Searching for Kitezh: a conversation with Alexander Ogorodnikov

Yesterday the first copies of a book about the life of Russian human rights activist and former Gulag prisoner Alexander Ogorodnikov — Dissident Voor Het Leven by Koenraad De Wolf — was presented to both Alexander and the author at a well-attended press conference at St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam. The publisher is Lannoo.

As Alexander’s name is not widely known outside Russia, perhaps it’s a good moment to reprint an interview with him that was made in 1999 during an earlier visit to Amsterdam.

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Searching for Kitezh: a conversation with Alexander Ogorodnikov
Alexander Ogorodnikov was born in 1950. At age 17, he was a lathe operator at a clock factory. Three years later he began philosophy studies at the University of the Urals in Sverdlovsk, only to be expelled in 1971 for “a dissident way of thinking incompatible with the title of the Komsomol member and student.” He then went to Moscow where he studied at the Institute of Cinematography. He founded the Christian Seminar in 1974. From 1978 until 1987 he was a prisoner, finally released at the order of Gorbachev.

After his return to Moscow, he founded the Christian Democratic Union of Russia and the Christian Mercy Society, a group assisting the hungry and homeless with a special concern for children and adolescents. In 1995, Ogorodnikov set up the “Island of Hope” in Moscow, a center and orphanage for girls, victims of poverty, crime, drug-addiction, parental neglect and extreme abuse.

The following interview with him was recorded in Amsterdam on April 25, 1999, after the Liturgy at St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church.

Alexander began by recalling his time at Perm 36, a notorious camp for dissidents in the Urals near the Siberian border.

-- Jim Forest

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Q: Perm 36 was one of the worst prisons in the Soviet Union. Quite a number of famous prisoners were there, Anatoly Schiransky, for example. Why were you regarded as so dangerous?

It goes back to starting the Christian Seminar in the 70’s. Now there is a fresh interest in what happened at that time — last year there was a television program about it. They united participants of the seminary from 20 years ago, when I was jailed and the Seminar was crushed after five years of life. The television producers wanted to see what had happened to us after 20 years — were we still loyal to the ideals of that time? Sadly, we see that many participants got lost in heresy and left the Church. Listening to my old friends, I realize freshly how difficult it is to get rid of the Communist system. Although 1991 was the official end of the Soviet Union, from the moral point of view it still has not ended. I compare it to a corpse which is decomposing and the poison it creates is everywhere. We carry it in ourselves. It is very important to stress this fact because people tend to underestimate it, and to underestimate the tragedy of Russia in this century.

When the Bolsheviks took over, they fought the Church not only because it was an institution of the Czarist regime, but because the Church was storming heaven and they were at war with heaven. Did you know that in 1923 there was really a trial — a revolutionary tribunal that brought God to court? God Himself was tried! Lunacharsky and Trotsky were the two commissars who led the process, and during this process they sentenced God to death. This was not a carnival — it was absolutely serious. God and the Church had to be crushed. In many of his letters Lenin stressed the importance of getting rid of priests. The whole fight against the church and religion was carefully planned and very fierce. In 1932 there was the 17th party congress which not only produced a five-year plan for the economy but a five-year plan for achieving an atheist society. The plan was that by 1935 the last Church would be shut down, and that by 1936 even the word “God” would have disappeared from the language!

I won’t describe for you all the horrors and all the tortures, and how many bishops, priests, monks and ordinary believers were buried alive or killed in other ways. What I want to stress is that to a great extent the Communists succeeded in converting Russia to Communism. And yet for all their success, hundreds of thousands of people defended the Church and became martyrs and the Church was not destroyed. The Church displayed a unique, quiet belief. Many priests went underground. In the 30’s, there were only three bishops still not in prison. Probably in the whole Soviet Union in the 30’s, just before the war, only 50 churches were still open. Thanks to this war, the fate of the Church shifted. People returned to belief. Stalin invited Patriarch Sergei to come from his small house on the edge of Moscow to live in the former embassy of the German Ambassador — one day in a log cabin with no telephone, the next in a mansion in the heart of Moscow. Many churches were re-opened, and two theological schools.

Still, though the church had survived, when I was a boy we had no living contact whatsoever with the church. None. Most of our generation came from atheistic families. One of my grandfathers was a commissar who died for the ideals of the revolution. My other grandfather has a little different story, a different fate. He was an officer in the Czarist army during the First World War. His orderly converted him to Protestantism — it was a kind of very primitive protest belief against the official Orthodox state Church. Later in his life, when he was 37, they tried to arrest my grandfather. By then he was a school director. He was warned by a KGB member and fled into the woods. For two years my mother went into the woods to bring him food unnoticed. Because of that, he survived. Nonetheless, I was raised as a normal Soviet child.

Q: Where was that?

I was born in 1950 in Christopol, a town in the former Kazan government. We were raised in such a way that by the time we were 14 or 15 years old, we were ready to give our lives for Communist ideals. We were convinced that all these churches, which were only attended by old women, would sooner or later disappear together with their babushkas. Yet finally, in our search for true belief — true Truth — we began to understand that Marxism was a lie.

Q: How did you go from being ready to give your life for Communism to seeing Marxism as a lie?

In our school, there was a map of the world with flags marking every new country converted to Communism. We were singing revolutionary Cuban songs, and we were ready to die for Cuba or for any of these countries. How we moved from that attitude to understanding that the Marxist ideology was a lie is something of a mystery. In the beginning it was just a kind of clash with reality, because we looked at real life and saw it didn’t match all those high ideals we were taught. First we thought, “Well, we live in the provinces — maybe it takes a little longer for all these ideals to reach us,” though later, in Moscow, I could see the very same problems. Finally I was expelled from university because of my growing doubts about materialistic ideology.

So little by little people like me became critics of Marxism and of the Soviet system. Protest became a way of life and also a way of survival in the system of lies. Also little by little, through irony and criticism, we ended up in a kind of vacuum — with only criticism and irony, you end up with denying everything. We didn’t actually have any other choice because we hardly had any information. We were boiling in our own soup. Russian literature offered a kind of revelation for us when we came to know it. However you have to understand that the way Russian literature was taught in the schools was so perverted that you came to hate it. But thanks at last to Russian literature, we finally got a little, not understanding, but a feeling that somewhere there is God. Through our searching, we understood that God exists. This literary understanding of God was more abstract, like as creator or creative force or power, a bag of ideas. We had far to go from this abstract idea of the existence of God to finally reach the living Christ.

By the time I had been expelled from the university I was attending in the Urals, I managed to get to Moscow and enter the film institute. It was a kind of miracle that I was accepted. In that period one of my fellow students gave me a copy of the Gospels, though for a long time I didn’t read it. I couldn’t even touch it. The guy I shared my room with kept his money hidden in the Bible because it was a book that nobody dared to touch.

One day, as part of our lessons, we were invited to a hidden place where forbidden films were kept by the film institute. You had to go train to get there.

By this time the New Testament was the only book I possessed I hadn’t read, but that day I had it with me. There on the train and I opened the book and started reading. Immediately I had this very strange feeling. On one side my mind knew or told me that this is just a legend or fairy tale. But from my heart there arose a different feeling that became stronger and stronger that this is actually the truth. I couldn’t rationally understand that feeling. At that moment the conductor came into our carriage. Of course we didn’t have a ticket. We were all protesting students — the film school was more or less the only place where dissent was tolerated. The way we dealt with these situations when we didn’t have a ticket usually was to start arguing with the man, saying things like, “Don’t touch the guy because he is in Nirvana, and if you touch him he will die, and you will be responsible.”

For the first time I did something that rationally I couldn’t understand. I took out my money and wanted to pay. And wanted to pay also the fine for all of us. It was very strange, but I understood that the Gospels had done this to me.

At last we arrived and we walked through the woods towards the restricted cinema, first passing through several security posts. The first film we were shown was “The Gospel According to Saint Matthew.” It was real shock for me. It helped me overcome all my irony and to accept the Savior, Jesus Christ. The background of the film was that Passolini, an Italian Communist, had who stayed some night in some hotel, had the Bible on the bed next to him, read St. Matthew’s Gospel, and decided he wanted to make a film that would simply show every scene from this Gospel. He decided not to use professional actors. He found people on the streets. Jesus Christ was played by a Spanish student he happened to meet. After seeing this film, I couldn’t he silent. I started preaching to my colleagues. They were amazed because I had been such a cynical man, and here I was promoting the film as being the truth.

Thanks to this film, I became a Christian and searched for a Christian way of life. I was a Christian outside the Church. I didn’t know what the Church was. I took my Bible with me and went to look for people thinking similar thoughts. The people I met became the core of that Christian Seminary. This was the summer of 1973. We felt that we were missing something, that there was a mystery hidden somewhere, but we couldn’t touch it. The Church was far from everything we knew, but finally I made a big effort and went to church.

It was a big church near the center of Moscow. I was amazed it was so crowded. It amazed me that so many of those attending the Liturgy were from the intelligentsia. Despite there being so many people, I was able to walk toward the altar right through the crowd. A saw a bishop was celebrating. I didn’t understand what exactly was going on. Almost everyone was crying. I couldn’t understand why, but I was also crying. And when the bishop came out to serve communion, a certain power pulled me toward the chalice. It so happens, without thinking about fasting, I hadn’t eaten the whole day. Even the days before, it so happens, I had been fasting. It was by accident. And I received Communion. After that I found out that it was Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, the bishop in London, who gave me communion. He happened to be in Moscow at that moment.

Q: Were you already baptized?

My grandmother had arranged my baptism secretly when I as a child. My father, a Communist, didn’t know.

Q: What happened after your first communion that day in Moscow?

My friends also started going to church and participating in church life. But we encountered a new problem. It seemed to us that the church as an institution was not ready to accept us. The priests were afraid of us, and not only the priests. I went to a church in Kazan and when I entered, an old babushka tried to push me out. She thought that since I was a young man, I must be a representative of the government or the Konsomol [the young Communist association] who had come to provoke them in order to shut down the Church. At that time young people did not go to Church. She was protecting their church against me, or my kind. It was not easy to stay! But when the old women saw that I went to confession and I received communion, they all cried. At the end they all came and they wanted to kiss me and thank me. It was a powerful experience — they saw a new generation coming into the church.

We young people found ourselves in a very complex situation. It was difficult to find a place for ourselves inside the church. There was no living community, and no education. We were trying to find out what were the possibilities, what could we do in this world as Christians, as Orthodox Christians.

In this kind of schizophrenic situation, we could only pray while we were in church, and then it was like leaving our belief in a kind of waiting room. It was difficult for us to understand because the reason we came to church was because it was the truth, but outside the church we had to go on living as Soviet citizens. This being torn apart was very difficult. We came to church because here was the True Light. That’s why we started the Christian Seminar, because we couldn’t live with this church which was silent.

"Kitezh" by Ilya Glazunov
The Seminar helped us to start a living Christian community, and also to educate us in Orthodox belief. Then we started to travel all over Russia in what we called our search for the invisible town of Kitezh. Kitezh is a fabled place miraculously preserved under the waters of the Svetloyar Lake where the old way of life and worship has continued without pause. According to the legend, occasionally Kitezh rises from the water and appears to the devout. To “search for Kitezh” is a way of speaking in metaphors about the search for holiness. Little by little we were discovering the spiritual life in Russia. It was hidden, but it started to open to us. We didn’t want to remain just a small intellectual circle of Orthodox youth. We found monks and nuns who helped us. Now today we can openly talk about this, how in the Ukraine, at the Pachaiev monastery, they hid us from KGB at a time when the KGB was looking for us. And they helped us with other ways. They gave us money and helped us buy a house for the Seminar. We declared that house to be a kind of free territory, not part of the Soviet Union, a liberated territory. Of course the authorities paid us back and they declared us to be a forbidden zone. We were actually provoked, persecuted.

One day I was called to Moscow by the KGB. Five strong men from the KGB put me in a car and driven out of the city. The car stopped in the middle of the forest and I was thrown out of the car. They put me against the car, and encircled me, holding guns in their hands. At that moment, someone in a black suit came toward us out of the forest, walking in our direction very slowly. And the KGB men opened their circle and stood to the side. The man in black said, “You are free.” But when I tried to get through the circle of the KGB men, they wouldn’t let me pass. So I said to the man in black, “I can’t go, I can’t get out.” He made a gesture, and then I was able to force my way out with my shoulders. And I walked away, all the time waiting for a shot in my back. I didn’t know where I was — a very dark wood.

Then behind me I heard footsteps. The KGB men again surrounded me, one on the left, one on the right, one in front, one in back. They said, me “Now we will look for a place where we can shoot you.” I understood that this is the blind force of evil, which in this world you can never hide from. They brought me to a certain place, then one of them took out his gun and said, “Get down on your knees.” I responded, “I kneel only in front of God.” Then he fired a shot, but over my head. After that he said, “We don’t want any new martyrs.”

After this incident, for a certain time they left the Christian Seminar in peace, but before long once again they were looking for ways to frighten us. There were times when we had to flee over roofs. We had to invent all kinds of conspiracies, not because we were hiding guns or narcotics, but spiritual literature. So we were actually forced to behave in that way.

Yet all this time we were living with the constant feeling of the presence of God. There were many miracles that saved us. But finally there came a moment when I was arrested and was brought to Lubianka, the KGB headquarters in Moscow. They told me, “It is time you put an end to behaving as a hero. You have one month, we give you the possibility to leave, get out.” I said “Why should I leave my country? I was born here, why should I leave?” They started shouting at me, “We give you one month. If you don’t emigrate in that one month, then we will arrest you and you will never get out again, you will die in prison. You will die forgotten and deserted by all.”

In those years it was almost impossible to emigrate. Only 1,500 Jews emigrated in one year. What we understood is that once you were willing to speak, you had to be willing to pay the price. We had to prove that Christianity is not an abstract idea, but that it was real life. And so we decided that I would go to prison. After me 13 others were arrested. There was a kind of systematic arrest of every new leader that came after me. I must say that all of us behaved very bravely in prison. Nobody surrendered.

Before I was imprisoned, I knew that I would have a difficult time in prison — I liked being free, I liked good food, I liked all these things. I was afraid. I thought I would not be able to lead a worthy life in prison. In prison you have constantly to fight for your own rights and for the rights of the other prisoners. But finally when I was imprisoned, I discovered my own depths, and not only inside of myself, but in every man. This was such an elevation, it lifted me spiritually, but also it gave me strength. There are many stories I could tell you, but I’ll tell just one.

This was during my stay at the Habarosk prison. I was being held in a large cell shared with many others. It was the plan of the KGB on this occasion to break me with the help of the real criminals. The door was closed. I heard the lock slam in place, leaving me with about forty men, half naked, all with tattoos.

As I entered the cell, I said, “Peace be with you.” It was strange for them to hear these words — they looked at me in amazement. At that time I did not wear prison clothing — I still had my own clothes. And they said, “Take your clothes off,” and they threw some old rags at my feet, which I had to put on.

I answered, “I can give away my own clothes only to those who really need them, not if you force me to.” They started yelling at me, and they were at the point of violence. The leader of this group, a man sitting on a top bunk, said, “You will be sleeping near the toilets” — the place where the worst criminals sleep, the pederasts. You find this pecking order in every prison. The pederasts are considered subhuman. Most of them are not real criminals, but victims themselves. What happens to them is that they are violated, used sexually as a punishment.

The men in the cell were getting ready to attack me. Then one of them asked me, “You said ‘Peace be with you.’ Are you a Christian?” And I said, “Yes.” He replied, “We heard that if a Christian prays to his God, then a miracle occurs. So please prove to us that you are a Christian and not just somebody trying to make an impression.” In prison it is very important that you take responsibility for everything you say. And I accepted this challenge.

They answered, “We are the scum of the earth, everything is negative as far as we are concerned. We have nothing, not even cigarettes to smoke. And our ears have become thick because of not smoking. So if you really are a Christian, please pray to your God that we get something. Pray to your God that He will bring us something and then we will believe that He exists.”

I said, “I’m convinced that the miracle will happen, but for this we have to pray all together.” That was my condition. I went into the center, or in the middle of the room. And I made them all get up from their beds, because it is our tradition to stand in front of God as a sign of respect. And they all got up. They were all smiling and they thought it was a kind of game, and they would beat me up in the end. So I said, “Please listen carefully to the words of the prayer. And those who are able to, repeat them. And the other who was not able to repeat the words, just listen.” And I started to pray.

After one minute I started to feel by the skin of my back that something was going on. You have to realize that in this atmosphere of hatred and cynicism, and neglect, for the first time these high words of prayer were heard. A devout atmosphere of silence came into the room. And when I ended the prayer, the smiles from their faces had gone, and they were full with a new feeling. It was the first time in their lives that they heard these words, and it probably had touched their hearts. And in this complete silence I showed them with my hands that they could sit down. And at that exact moment, a small window in the door was opened, and cigarettes were thrown through the hole in the door.

Q: Who would believe God can show Himself with cigarettes!

We don’t know His ways. Before the prayer I had told them smoking is a sin, but that God will show this miracle to show His love. Their Creator loves them despite their sins, and because of this love, He will show his miracle even in this way, not withstanding that the behavior is sinful.

I tell you this story just so you will know how my heart was burning when I was in prison. I understood it was not an ordinary imprisonment — it was a kind of mission. And I tried to make something out of this. Finally, when the KGB or authorities understood how dangerous it was to keep me together with other prisoners, I was isolated completely. And then too I understood how wise that was. Because while I was living in the world, my prayer was not strong enough, and I did not have the peace to think. I was very much involved fighting the system, and in a certain sense this influenced my spiritual life. And I understood it was necessary for me to be in isolation. Of course it was very difficult for me — I had no contact with priests, I couldn’t receive communion.

Q: When you say it was necessary, do you mean it was God’s will?

Yes. For instance one day I felt that I absolutely needed to confess, and I started to pray to several saints, and when I directed my words to St. Seraphim, I had this physical feeling that an epitrachelion was touching my head. And literally this heavy feeling was lifted from my heart, and I felt as if I was born again. And I think that I had the strongest experience of gratitude I had during isolation. And that is the reason why sometimes I long to be in isolation again.

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translation from Russian: Kathi Hansen-Love; transcription of the recording: Mitchell Goodman.

The photo of Alexander (with the rector of our parish, Fr. Sergei Ovsiannikov) was taken on the 3rd of March 2010.

The painting of the mystical city of Kitezh submerged beneath the water with a modern city on the shore is by Ilya Glazunov.

Double click on either image to see it enlarged.

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from the Fall 1999 issue of In Communion, the quarterly journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship:

Photos of the book's presentation are posted here:

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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Becoming the Gospel

This was written for the Sourozh Diocesan Conference that met in Oxford in May 2004, less than a year after the death of Metropolitan Anthony. In the end, I presented instead a paper that focused on five newly canonized saints, including Mother Maria of Paris. See:

Still, as I read the text again nearly six years later, it seems worth preserving and sharing as a personal reflection on the life of someone who profoundly influenced a great many people, myself among them, and to whom many credit their conversion to Christ.

* * *

Becoming the Gospel:
Remembering Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

by Jim Forest

When a founder dies, people wonder if the structures he or she created can possibly survive in the founder’s absence. The question arises even in the case of ecclesiastical structures. In the last year of Metropolitan Anthony’s life, deep cracks appeared within the Diocese of Sourozh that made the question all too real for many of us. There were letters, floods of e-mail, petitions, articles in the secular press, loud arguments between members of the diocese, the exchange of furious glances, and at least one instance of physical violence. All of us lost sleep. No doubt all of us prayed for God’s help. We don’t yet know if this is entirely behind us. In any event, we are like survivors of an earthquake who can no longer feel complacent about the earth beneath our feet.

The tribulations within the diocese remind me of my travels in India twenty years or so ago during which I visited many of Gandhi’s followers. At that time I was General Secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, a movement that promotes nonviolent approaches to overcoming injustice and preventing war. Gandhi is, of course, someone very interesting for anyone concerned about effective alternatives to violence. Getting around mainly by rail, in the course of several weeks I spent a good deal of time with many people who had worked closely with Gandhi, from the Prime Minister of that time to people involved in a wide range of national and local projects.

One day while in Delhi, I went to visit the house where Gandhi had been staying as guest the final days of his life and discovered the house and its grounds were being occupied by film-makers with a large crowd of extras. Richard Attenborough was directing his movie about Gandhi and had reached the point in the production schedule of reenacting Gandhi’s assassination.

As perhaps you recall, a fellow Hindu had decided that Gandhi was a mortal enemy of authentic Hinduism and made it his personal duty to kill him. Gandhi was unarmed and had no bodyguards. While walking through a crowd of admirers, he made an easy target.

In the course of my travels in India, I came to see that not only had Gandhi died that day but unity among those who had worked closely with him also began to die. Today in India there are various movements that in one way or another bear witness to Gandhi’s values and ideas, all of them doing work of value, yet one can easily find Gandhians who have nothing good to say about other Gandhians. Though Gandhi remains a national icon, his face on stamps and coins, his statue in many places, the sad fact is that many Gandhians hardly speak to each other.

My travels among Gandhians in India reminded me of the fragmented state of Christianity and, when you think of it, also the state of the Orthodox Church. Though thank God the Orthodox Church still holds together, there has been prolonged tension between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Patriarchate of Constantinople. We also have lately had a period when Church in Greece and the Patriarch of Constantinople were not on speaking terms. Various rows boil hotly in other parts of the Church.

How will we in the Diocese of Sourozh fare in the absence of Metropolitan Anthony?

Of course, as he would insist, the situation is fundamentally different. Gandhi was a leader of a social movement that was largely his own invention. Metropolitan Anthony would remind us that he was never the basis of unity, only someone who, as bishop, attempted to be a guardian of unity. Whatever unity we have, he would remind us, is in Christ. No matter whom we lose, no matter how huge a role a particular person may have played in our lives, we have not and cannot lose Christ. Whatever we have lost, we have not lost the Gospel. We have not lost the Creed. We have not lost the saints, the calendar, the Ecumenical Councils, the writings of the Church Fathers.

For Metropolitan Anthony, the Gospel was the guidebook to life in the kingdom of God. On at least one occasion he said: “We should try to live in such a way that if the Gospels were lost, they could be re-written by looking at us.”

Perhaps this one sentence sums up all he hoped be bring about: to inspire us to live in such a way that the Gospel appears not only in what we say but is shown in who we are, what we choose, in our readiness to love, our willingness to forgive, in all our attempts to let God’s mercy become visible in our lives.

Perhaps it was from Metropolitan Anthony that I heard a haunting quotation which I believe was attributed to St John Chrysostom: “In order for Christ to appear, the priest must disappear.”

Whatever the source, these words suit Vladica Anthony. There was a transparency about him. He was someone through whom Christ shined — not each and every moment, but very often. He was never a person eager to be honored, praised or showered with medals. He was not at all offended if you failed to kiss his hand or make other normal gestures of respect with which Orthodox Christians greet a bishop. He was as careless about personal attention as he was about his wardrobe. The last time I was him, I noticed he was wearing a well-used black sports jacket and a battered pair of running shoes — not usual clerical attire. His black robe was faded and frayed. Indeed nothing he wore seemed fresh off the rack. When he spoke about confession in this room four years ago, he wore what looked liked a fisherman’s sweater. I know nothing of the economic details of his life, but watching from a distance, it always seemed to me that here was a man fully embracing the poverty of the first Beatitude, both in the sense of not having what isn’t needed and in the sense of preferring to give rather than receive. He saw both inward and outward poverty as gifts of freedom. As he said in an interview:

“To be poor financially is in a way much easier than to be poor inwardly, to have no attachments. This is very difficult to learn and something which happens gradually, from year to year. You really learn to value things, to look at people and see the radiant beauty which they possess — without the desire to possess them. To pluck a flower means to take possession of it, and it also means to kill it.”

Seeking to preserve rather than destroy all that is beautiful is surely a primary aspect of becoming the Gospel. It is giving a living witness to the Beatitudes, starting with the first: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

“Blessed” is not a word one finds in headlines nor does it often appear in conversation. What does it mean? It’s harder to translate it into words used in everyday life than to see what “blessed” looks like in a saintly life. Still, given the key passages in which we find, “blessed” is a word worth thinking about.

“Blessed” — the word chosen by the English translators of the Authorized Version in the seventeenth century — means “something consecrated to or belonging to God.” In St. Jerome’s translation of the Greek New Testament, the Latin word beatus was used — “happy, fortunate, blissful.” Beatitude is bliss. But neither “blessed” nor beatus seems quite equal to what we find in the Greek New Testament, where each Beatitude begins with the word makarios. In classical Greek makar was a condition associated with the immortal gods. Kari means “fate” or “death,” but given a negative prefix the word means “being deathless, no longer subject to fate.” Being deathless was a condition both inaccessible and longed for by mortals. It was because of their immortality that the gods were the blessed ones.

In Christian use, makarios came to mean sharing in the life of God, the ultimate joy, a happiness without the fault lines of chance running through it. There is no higher gift. We are not simply capable of an abstract awareness that God exists, an infinitely remote Being whom we can faintly glimpse through an intellectual telescope. In the kingdom of God, the blessing extended to us is nothing less than participation in the communion of the Holy Trinity. It is being received into God’s immortality. It is being blessed with qualities that seem humanly impossible.

Understood in this way, the word “blessed” might be translated “freed from death” or “risen from the dead.” To be blessed is to participate in Christ’s resurrection. Risen from the dead are the poor in spirit. Risen from the dead are they who mourn. Risen from the dead are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Risen from the dead are the merciful. Risen from the dead are the pure of heart. Risen from the dead are the peacemakers. Risen from the dead are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.

To be risen from the dead is not simply a condition of the life to come. It has to do with our lives here and now. St Paul said, “They call us dead men and yet we live.” This is to say that our lives can and should already be a witness to Christ’s resurrection. To live a life saturated with the resurrection is to become the Gospel.

But in what is often called “the real world,” it’s no rare achievement to in a state of semi-death long before burial — to be a person who hardly hears, who hardly sees, who barely loves, who refuses to forgive, who struggles to possess rather than share, who is indifferent to God, a person for whom worship is a waste of time.

In Vladica Anthony we saw a person fully alive — and anyone fully alive, as St Irenaeus of Lyons said, is the glory of God. Vladica Anthony was fully alive even though he had grown up in exile, endured great suffering, lived through a world war in which vast numbers of innocent people died, lived under military occupation for five years, suffered chronic back pain, and made himself deeply vulnerable to the physical and spiritual pain of others.

I think of other some of the other ways that he gave an example of what it is to become the Gospel.

One of the most difficult demands Christ makes on his followers is the love of enemies. Understood biblically, love is not a matter of sentimentality but of actual care for the life of another human being whom we are inclined to hate, wouldn’t mind seeing dead, and under certain circumstances would be willing to kill.

While one finds many examples of such surprising, unexpected love in Vladica Anthony, for me among the most compelling was his determination, as a young physician working in a French hospital during the Second World War, to save the finger of a wounded German soldier. Here is the way he spoke of it in the interview made by Timothy Wilson:

“In the hospital where I was working as a war surgeon, a German came in once with one finger smashed by a bullet. The head surgeon came round and looked at the finger and said ‘Take it off’. That was a very quick and easy decision — it would take only five minutes to do. Then the German said, ‘Is there anyone here who can speak German?’ I spoke with the man and discovered that he was a watchmaker and if his finger was removed he would probably never be able to work again. So we spent five weeks treating his smashed finger and he was able to leave the hospital with five fingers instead of only four. From this I learnt that the fact that he was a watchmaker was as important as anything else. I would say that I learnt to put human concerns first.”

Even in times of peace — as we might use the word when we mean “a time without war” — it is no easy thing to see a person as another human being rather than a being who is first of all the bearer of a nationality, or a person who is first of all defined according to his social role — in this case a soldier of an occupation army. And here was a young physician being disobedient. He had been told by a supervising doctor to do one thing — amputate a finger — and instead he did another: saving a man’s hand and with it the man’s vocation. In such a choice one becomes the Gospel. The action is a translation of the text commanding love of one’s enemies but also to the summons to place human needs before rules that are indifferent to life: “The Sabbath is for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

As one of those persons in whom the content of the Gospel could be guessed simply by observing him, Vladica Anthony gave an tireless example of what Alexander Schmemann recognized as the most essential human attribute: the capacity to worship. The human being, Schmemann said, is not simply homo sapiens but homo adorans.

What is most dangerous about the decayed culture we live in is its marginalization or active dismissal of worship. In consumer societies, worship falls into the category of hobbies. But for Vladica Anthony, as for any disciple of Christ, it is at the center of being. It is at the core of love, not only love of God but love of a child, love of a spouse or love of a friend. Love is worship. Worship is love.

Love is also gratitude. I have never forgotten Vladica Anthony’s response to a question he was asked during a workshop at this conference a few years ago. Someone wanted to know if he had advice about how to become humble. “Humility is too high a goal,” he replied. “Humility is very difficult. But perhaps you could aim for the halfway house of gratitude.”

Gratitude is a component of all worship. Gratitude is part of becoming the Gospel.

In Vladica Anthony, we could see this quality not only in the way he served at the altar — absolutely calm, very attentive, not at all a prisoner of time — but in the way he paid attention to other people, whether well known to him or never met before. It could be a bit unnerving to be looked at so closely, to be listened to so attentively, to experience such undivided concentration, to be seen in so radical and pure a way. It’s not something we’re used to nor afterward can ever forget. We had often heard we were bearers of the divine image but in encounters with Vladica Anthony, one experienced it in his face.

The experience of being the object of such undivided attention was at one with his theology of the mystery of the human person. In a lecture on “The True Worth of Man” that he presented in the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford in 1967, Vladica Anthony explained:

“For centuries … within the Church we have tried to make our God as great as we could, by making man small. This can be seen even in works of art in which the Lord Jesus Christ is represented great and his creatures very small indeed at his feet. The intention was to show how great God was, and yet it has resulted in the false, mistaken, almost blasphemous view that man is small, or in the denial of this God who treats men as though they were of no value. And these two reactions are equally wrong. The one belongs to people who claim to be children of God, God’s own chosen people, who are the Church. They have managed by doing this to make themselves as small as the image they have of men, and their communities as small and lacking in scope and greatness as their constitutive parts. The other attitude we find outside the Church, among the agnostics, the rationalists and the atheists; and we are responsible for these two attitudes and we shall be accountable for both in history and at the day of judgment. And yet this is not the vision of God about man…. When we try to understand the value which God himself attaches to man we see that we are bought at a high price, that the value which God attaches to man is all the life and all the death, the tragic death, of the Only-begotten Son upon the Cross. This is what God thinks of man, of his friend, created by him in order to be his companion of eternity.”

In his lecture, he went on to tell the story of the Prodigal Son. Did he ever speak for more than ten minutes without telling at least one story, either a biblical story or a story that in some way drew one’s attention to the Gospel? To be a living translation of the Gospel implies a reliance on stories. The Gospel is an anthology of stories and Vladica Anthony was a teller of stories second to none, stories told with tremendous immediacy, even urgency, as if our lives depended on them.

He spoke with authority. Perhaps there were occasions when it was otherwise, but I never saw him speak from a written text, though clearly he was following a line of thought he had mapped out beforehand, inserting stories as needed to make his points more vivid. It is a Gospel method of discourse.

In the course of time one would hear certain stories over and over and yet they never became stale because he was not simply reciting a script from memory but always renewing each story, seeing in it something new, some that deserved special attention.

Christ was always his main theme — a Christ who not an abstract figure but someone who seemed better known to him than he knew himself.

One of his often-told stories concerned the turning point in his own life — how he had met Christ, truly met him, as a skeptical young man who had decided to read Mark’s Gospel rather than another Gospel because none was so short as Mark and he wanted to get it over with.

Here is how he put it in on one occasion:

“While I was reading the beginning of St. Mark’s Gospel, before I reached the third chapter, I suddenly became aware that on the other side of my desk there was a presence. And the certainty was so strong that it was Christ standing there that it has never left me. This was the real turning point. Because Christ was alive and I had been in his presence I could say with certainty that what the Gospel said about the crucifixion of the prophet of Galilee was true, and the centurion was right when he said, ‘Truly he is the Son of God’. It was in the light of the Resurrection that I could read with certainty the story of the Gospel, knowing that everything was true in it because the impossible event of the Resurrection was to me more certain than any event of history. History I had to believe, the Resurrection I knew for a fact. I did not discover, as you see, the Gospel beginning with its first message of the Annunciation, and it did not unfold for me as a story which one can believe or disbelieve. It began as an event that left all problems of disbelief behind because it was a direct and personal experience…. I became absolutely certain within myself that Christ is alive and that certain things existed. I didn’t have all the answers, but having touched that experience, I was certain that ahead of me there were answers, visions, possibilities. This is what I mean by faith — not doubting in the sense of being in confusion and perplexity, but doubting in order to discover the reality of the life, the kind of doubt that makes you want to question and discover more, that makes you want to explore.”

Even his autobiographical stories drew one to the Gospel. But mainly he told stories that came directly from the Gospel. He returned again and again to parables which, however familiar they were, however often we had heard them explained in sermons, somehow seemed new texts when he talked about them. I felt I wasn’t listening to an expert of Christianity, of which there are too many in the world, but a simply a Christian — or something even more remarkable, an actual witness to the events recounted in Gospel.

When I hear the term applied to certain saints “Equal to the Apostles,” I immediately think of him. Yes, there are those who, despite the centuries that separate them from the New Testament world, somehow speak of those events as witnesses. Most of all, Metropolitan Anthony was a witness of the resurrection.

He stressed that the Gospel is not something unreachable or impractical. The Gospel is not at an idealistic document. The good news of the Gospel is that the Kingdom of God is something we can experience not after death but in the present. The Church equips us for such a life.

Let me stress that Metropolitan Anthony did not see the Gospel as an idealistic text — another utopian manifesto, another ideology about creating a splendid future through hellish methods. Rather he saw the Gospel as an entirely practical way of life. The requirements of a God-centered life are not out of anyone’s reach. It may seem like hard work to forgive “seventy times seven” but in reality it is much harder to withhold forgiveness. It is like carrying a tower of bricks. Love of enemies may seem humanly impossible — love in the sense of seeking the health and salvation of the other — but when we see what happens when enmity is allowed to grow unchecked, the avalanche of horrors that such enmity eventually produces, and the cost in suffering and death, then we begin to understand why Christ calls on his followers to renounce judgments and hatred and call no one a fool. It is a difficult path but in fact, in the end, much less difficult than the alternative.

When I think of Vladica Anthony’s impact in my own life, one aspect of it was to help free me from the grip of idealistic ideologies.

He knew my work and something of my writings and was aware that I at times referred to myself as a pacifist. I soon discovered that he had a strong aversion to the word “pacifist,” not only because it sounded like “passive-ist,” but because of unpleasant encounters he had experienced with self-righteous people who loudly proclaimed their renunciation of violence and were quick to denounce those who failed to share their ideology.

He told me the story of an encounter he had during a retreat for university students. “After my first address one of them asked me for permission to leave because I was not a pacifist.” “Are you one?” Vladica Anthony responded. “Yes,” said the young man. “What would you do,” Metropolitan Anthony asked, “if you came into this room and found a man about to rape your girl friend?” “I would try to get him to desist from his intention!” the man replied. “And if he proceeded, before your own eyes, to rape her?” “I would pray to God to prevent it.” “And if God did not intervene, and the man raped your girl friend and walked out contentedly, what would you do?” “I would ask God who has brought light out of darkness to bring good out of evil.”

Metropolitan Anthony responded: “If I was your girl friend I would look for another boy friend.”

One cannot be passive in the face of evil. Under certain circumstances each of us is called, as we see in the St George icon, to battle the dragon — and yet no human being is a dragon; at worst a human being is a slave of dragons. This is what is means to practice the Gospel of peace: to fight the dragon without despising the dragon’s slaves, all the time seeking their conversion. Vladica Anthony reminded me in one letter that each of us is called to be “a man — or woman — of peace,” which meant, he explained, a person “ready to work for the reconciliation of those who have grown apart or turned away from one another in enmity.”

It might be that in some circumstances there was no alternative to violence — he saw the war against Nazism as a lesser evil — but we were never allowed, even in wartime, to lose sight of the image of God in the other even if the other has become slave to a dragon.

Because he saw the image of God in a German soldier, he was able to save a watchmaker’s hand and — who knows? — perhaps his soul as well.

One final point about how we see in Metropolitan Anthony what it means to become to Gospel. He was a shepherd of the local Church in a way that welcomed people and cared for them no matter what their mother tongue, culture or citizenship. In a Church that is sometimes a prisoner of national identities, he struggled to build a diocese not only that made space under one roof for different languages of worship but that would as much as possible resemble what one would have found in the early Church — neither Jewish nor Greek, rich nor poor, male or female, but a people who had become one in Christ, association in which each person mattered and all voices could be heard: a church not of rulers and ruled but a eucharistic community of sobornost.

Let me conclude by quoting what Vladica Anthony said while in Russia not quite four years ago, when the 40th anniversary of his consecration as a bishop was being celebrated:

“Some [of my fellow Russians] never understood why I lived in [England]. I remember a man with whom I was in the lift in Russia. He asked me questions about myself, and when he learnt that I lived in London he looked at me and said, ‘Are you a complete idiot? You live abroad when you could live at home?’ It had been my dream to live in Russia. But Providence decided otherwise. It was impossible in the beginning, when I might have done it, because I had no responsibility for the parish. But, it became possible when suddenly I felt, ‘I am responsible for people. I cannot abandon them. They trust me, I trust them unreservedly, we are gradually growing into being a true community, a real church in the image of the Early Church, when people of all nationalities, all languages, all mentalities, all classes, gathered together, united only by one thing: their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.’ And this is what I had dreamt of achieving and tried to do in [my adopted country] in the course of now almost 50 years of ministry and 40 years of episcopal service.”

And in this, too, Vladica Anthony became the Gospel.

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