Friday, December 30, 2011

A dream

Grant Wood: Young Corn (1931)
A dream. I am lying on an old gray and white mattress in a large, unfamiliar house. Slowly the mattress rises from the floor and floats through a nearby door, then through other rooms and passageways until reaching a wide, roofed-over veranda. The house reminds me, as I think about it, of a building in Rivendell. We -- the mattress and I -- pass not under but through the roof as easily as light through a window. Below there are green hills dotted with old trees, the hills descending toward an ocean. The colors and contours could be from a Grant Wood painting. The mattress is now quite high up but I feel no anxiety about falling off. The air is comfortable and sweet. Passing over sandy beaches far below, the mattress carries me out over the deep blue water. I admire waves crashing against several small stone islands, too far below for me to hear the impact of water turning white. Now the mattress turns south (I have the feeling of being a passenger simply going where the mattress chooses to go). Soon we're back over land, slowing descending toward a a rural town -- farms, lanes, wooden houses, gardens. Now we're coasting along one of lanes past houses with fences that border their lawns. A woman on one of the porches sees me being carried along by the floating mattress. I see the surprise in her face and wave at her. She waves back. A little further we pass a father and son in a garden between the road and their small house -- the father tries to grab the mattress but his hand seems to pass through the material. All I feel is a kind of ripple. The mattress responds by rising just out of the man's reach. Meanwhile the boy is watching with astonishment. Now we gain altitude -- the town becomes smaller and smaller while the countryside around it expands. And I wake up feeling great joy.

-- Jim

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Pilgrimage to Hell

where the trains entered Birkenau,
but there was no fence in those days 

No one is certain how many died at Auschwitz. Most prisoners were gassed soon after arrival without having been registered, while, for those who were registered, the SS destroyed the bulk of their records before abandoning the camp. But years of research have shown that the figure is not less than 1.1-million people. Even that minimum figure leaves us with a number beyond comprehension. One million plus one-hundred thousand. In the summer months, there are perhaps that many leaves on the trees in the park where I take a walk each morning before starting work. I live in a city of 100,000 people -- thus the number killed equals everyone in this city plus ten more of the same size. But in fact there is no way to envision such a number meaningfully. I cannot take it in.

The way we usually deal with so large a number of human casualties is to focus on just a single face. One face, one story. This is manageable. A single life and death can open a window on a vast crowd.

The most well known face of the Holocaust is Anne Frank, who was fifteen when she and her family arrived at Auschwitz. (Later she was transferred to Bergen-Belsen, where she died.) It is consoling to know that her diary has been read or seen enacted in film or on stage by far more people than died in all the Nazi concentration camps combined. In July 1944, shortly before she and her family were taken away from their hiding place, she wrote in her diary, "I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquillity will return once more."

Or there is the face of Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish scholar and gifted writer who wrote another widely-read diary of life in Amsterdam during the German occupation. She died at Auschwitz on the last day of November 1943. Turning down offers to go into hiding, she explained that she wished to "share her people's fate." The Nazis, she wrote in her diary, “are out to destroy us completely, we must accept that and go on from there. Very well then. I accept it. I work and continue to live with the same conviction and I find life meaningful...”

Or it could be the face of the Edith Stein, a nun with Jewish roots whose life ended on the 9th of August 1942 in a gas chamber at Auschwitz. She had been born in Poland, had lived in Germany and was in a Dutch Carmelite convent at the time of her arrest. “I told our Lord,” she wrote, “that I knew it was His cross that was now being placed upon the Jewish people; that most of them did not understand this, but that those who did would have to take it up willingly in the name of all. I would do that. At the end of the service, I was certain that I had been heard. But what this carrying of the cross was to consist in, that I did not yet know.”

For me, living in the Dutch city of Alkmaar, there is another way of making an intimate connection. On the 5th of March 1942, 213 Alkmaar Jews -- all the local Jews not in hiding -- were gathered at our one synagogue and from there transported, via Amsterdam and Westerbork, to Auschwitz. Only a few survived. (Today, after a 69-year recess, the old Alkmaar synagogue is under reconstruction.)

So many names, so many stories, so many faces to choose from. More than a million.

It had long been a hope of mine to visit this Golgotha of the modern world. Though far from the only one, Auschwitz provides one of the most vivid images of the factory production of dead bodies and of the assembly-line hells that can be created by fear and obedience.

The chance finally came this November, thanks to an invitation to give a lecture at an interfaith conference on peace at the University of Wroclaw in Poland. Appropriately for a pilgrim to a death camp, my topic at the conference was a rescuer -- Saint Maria Skobtsova of Paris, founder of a house of hospitality in Paris who saved the lives of many Jews and others before her arrest. A twentieth-century martyr, her life ended at Ravensbruck concentration camp in Germany.

I was one of three Orthodox Christians from outside Poland who came to the conference. The other two were Metropolitan Kallistos Ware from Oxford, who led our small delegation, and Archimandrite Ignatios Stavropoulos from a monastery near Nefpaktos in Greece.

The day after the conference ended, we drove by car to the camp, now the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. Also with us was Father Vladimir Misijuk, an Orthodox priest who has translated several of Metropolitan Kallistos’s books into Polish, and Dr. Pawel Wroblewski, one of the prime movers behind the peace conference at the University of Wroclaw.

The local weather itself seemed to be in mourning -- chilly, gray, on the edge of foggy. The area for miles and miles around is flat and thinly populated. The town near the camp, Oswiecim, is almost entirely of post-war construction -- the population had been removed by the Germans before construction of the concentration camp was started.

Standing near the camp’s only surviving crematorium, our delegation was met by an historian on the museum staff, Teresa Wontor-Cichy, who led us under the camp’s notorious Arbeit Macht Frei sign -- Labor Brings Freedom. It was here that the famous Auschwitz inmate orchestra played as columns of famished prisoners marched in and out twice a day to their places of labor. The music, Teresa told us, made it easier for the guards to count.

I had imagined Auschwitz-Birkenau as two inter-connected camps, but soon learned that Auschwitz served as the nucleus of forty-five other camps, with nearby Birkenau the point of delivery for the daily trainloads of prisoners, mainly Jews but also Christians, gypsies, homosexuals and political opponents of the Nazis.

In Auschwitz itself, nearly all the buildings had been constructed of brick. It could pass for a solidly-built military post. It would not have been hard to convince a naive visitor, so long as he didn't look behind the wrong doors, that the conditions of life at Auschwitz weren't so bad. Why there was even an orchestra! On the other hand, were a visitor to be taken inside nearly any building, he would have discovered that there are hells in this world worse than any hell he might imagine in the next. For example, there was Block 10 -- the domain of doctors carrying out the most vile medical experiments. One of the physicians, Josef Mengele, became known as the "Angel of Death." Block 11 served as a "prison within the prison." A small court operated here at which many were sentenced to death. The basement cells were for those deprived of all food and water. Among those who died in one such cell, now marked by a tall Paschal candle, was Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan priest who managed to take the place of a Jewish mother. He has since been canonized by the Catholic Church.

We stopped for a time in the yard between Blocks 10 and 11. This had been used as a place of summary execution for those convicted of breaking camp rules. Even a baseless accusation could mean death before a firing squad. Here Metropolitan Kallistos led us in a prayer, long silences between each phrase, both for those who died here and for the guards who had caused so much suffering.

The charts, maps and photos we saw in the various buildings we passed through effectively told the story of the creation and uses of Auschwitz and the surrounding camps, but what made the deepest impression were the many items the SS had failed to destroy as, the Red Army fast approaching, they made their hurried retreat in January 1945. We passed through room after room containing the mute evidence of people who, after stripping naked for a delousing shower (so they were told), were gassed by the hundreds at a time. The lucky ones were those closest to the shower heads -- they died immediately -- while those further away took up to twenty minutes to breathe their last.

Even as they were dying, their possessions were being carefully sorted. We saw a grim mound of reading glasses, thousands upon thousands of shoes, the train tickets more affluent passengers had purchased for the privilege of riding to Auschwitz first or second class instead of traveling in freight cars, countless suitcases bearing names and addresses of the doomed, and finally empty canisters of Zyklon B, the substance from which the lethal cyanide gas was released. We also saw dense piles of hair that had been cut from the bodies of women after being removed from the gas chamber. The hair was for use, Teresa told us, as a commercial component in making textiles.

Our final stop in the original Auschwitz was the camp’s one surviving place of gassing and body burning. It had escaped destruction because, when much larger gas chambers were built at Birkenau, this smaller space had been converted into a bomb shelter. The adjacent two-oven crematorium with its tall square chimney were also left intact.

Birkenau, about a mile away, didn’t bother with brick structures for housing its captives. It was a gridiron of quickly-erected wooden barracks filling a vast area, barrack after barrack as far as the eye could see. Though a small number of barracks survive, in most cases only the foundations remain. The one brick building left standing is at the entrance to Birkenau, a one-storey structure with an observation tower in the center built over a passageway through which trains arrived from every part of Europe. A few hundred yards beyond the station, literally the end of the line, was the area where an SS doctor presided over the selection of those healthy enough to work -- a slow death sentence for most -- while the rest were led away to the nearby gas chamber. About 75 percent were killed on arrival, including mothers and their under-fifteen children.

We visited two barracks, one of them still containing the deep wooden bunks on which inmates -- up to a thousand per barrack -- were stored at night like cigarettes in a carton. There was almost no defense against the elements.

Walking from place to place in the two camps, I felt as if I had turned to wood. Words failed me -- indeed my emotions failed me, and they still do. It’s not possible to respond in word or sentiment in an adequate way. But the awful facts and images are unerasable. Having been there in the flesh, the events that happened in this rural corner of Poland are forever real to me. Any pilgrim to Auschwitz is brought closer to the mainly anonymous people, saints among them, who died here.

One thought kept running through my mind. This human-made hell could never have existed without fear and obedience. Those who ran the camps, from the commandants to the lowest ranking soldier, knew they would themselves be killed if they failed to obey orders. While no doubt some of the staff were already psychopaths, most of those who were assigned here were, at least at the start, ordinary people, probably relieved that they weren’t being sent into combat.

Adolf Eichmann, the chief bureaucrat of the Holocaust, claimed that he had no ill feeling against Jews. He did what he did because it was his assigned duty. He was “just following orders.” We have heard the same justifications from everyone involved in all the concentration camps: “I was just following orders.” The same was true of those who created and staffed the Gulag Archipelago or who dropped nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki or who firebombed Tokyo or Dresden or Coventry or London. It remains true of those today whose daily work involves killing. Only psychopaths want to kill. The rest of us are “just following orders,” whether because of a sense of duty or driven by fear of what the consequences would if we dared to say no.

Following orders is made easier by propaganda -- slogans inciting fear and hatred, slogans to kill by. For everyone involved wants to believe that the murderous work he or she is doing serves, at least eventually, some larger good. But underneath it all is fear -- fear of punishment, fear of exclusion, fear of death. Thus we conclude that it’s better to remain alive by becoming a murderer than to die without innocent blood on our hands.

At Auschwitz I kept thinking of Easter, an event which, for Christians at least, ought to equip us not to fear death and no longer to be prisoners of hell. But how rare are the Paschal people.


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Photos of our visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum are here:

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Monday, October 10, 2011

After the War Was Over: Seeing What You’d Rather Not See

My Lai massacre, 16 July 1968
It was in 1975 that the Vietnam War came to an end with the sudden collapse of the South Vietnamese regime. The iconic image of that event was a helicopter taking off from the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon carrying diplomatic and military personnel to safety aboard an offshore aircraft carrier.
The Vietnam War was one of the main events of the Cold War — three decades of combat that began in 1946 with the French attempting to regain their colonies in Southeast Asia. That stage of the war ended in 1954 with French defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. The result was the division of Vietnam into two zones, North and South. As French influence waned in South Vietnam, little by little the US took on the war the French had abandoned. One gets a vivid glimpse of the early stage of American engagement in Graham Greene’s novel “The Quiet American” or the film inspired by the book in which Michael Caine plays a jaded British journalist trying the make sense of what a very quiet American is up to.
The US objective was to prevent the Communist regime in North Vietnam from taking over the South as well. This meant not only taking sides in a civil war but to a great extent covertly creating the Saigon government we were supporting. Does this sound a little like current events in, for example, Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya?
If you have ever been in Washington, DC, perhaps you visited the Vietnam Wall and walked the length of its 58,272 names, all the US service members who died in that war. How many Vietnamese were killed is unknown — estimates range from one-million to more than three-million. For years American bombs rained down on jungles, towns and villages. Many thousands of those bombs carried napalm, a jellified gasoline designed to stick like glue to the body of whoever happens to be nearby when the bomb explodes. Napalm was only one of many varieties of “anti-personnel” weapons that were developed for use in Vietnam — another type exploded thousands of fragments of razor-sharp blades. Every war is hellish, but few have shown less interest in protecting non-combatants. In fact non-combatants became targets. At a place called My Lai, US soldiers methodically killed each and every man, woman, child and infant in the village.
When the US engagement in Vietnam was gathering momentum in the late fifties and early sixties, most Americans thought of it as something necessary to halt the spread of Communism and, shrugging their shoulders, paid little attention. Even if you offered a $20 bill as a reward, you wouldn’t have easily found people on the streets who, shown a map of Asia, could have pointed out the location of Vietnam.
At first it was only American military advisors who were sent, but then came combat troops, a few thousand at first, large numbers before the war ended. As troop levels rose and military conscription was imposed, public interest rose too. You pay a lot of attention to a war in which a family member has been forced to participate. The war became increasingly controversial. Small demonstrations eventually grew into mass events involving tens of thousands — in one 1969 demonstration, two-million protesters clogged the streets of Washington, DC.
Part of the disgust and repugnance that took hold of many Americans was due to the fact that this was the first war Americans were able to watch on television as it was happening. On the one hand there was nothing inspiring about the series of Saigon regimes on whose behalf we were fighting. On the other hand there was the sheer horror of seeing the casualties of the war. Most of the dead were women and children, the aged and sick — the people, that is, who were least able to protect themselves. About ninety percent of Vietnamese casualties were non-combatant.
As time passed and the war got worse, many protesters began to sympathize with the other side — the Vietcong, as they were called, the forces of the National Liberation Front, and North Vietnam as well, for what was a ground war in the South Vietnam was an air war in the North. Before the war ended, a good many American peace activists had been honored guests of the North Vietnamese. They were taken on tours, visited bomb victims in hospitals, met American prisoners of war who assured their visitors they were being well treated (in fact many suffered torture), and took shelter with their hosts when US bombs began to fall on the places they happened to be visiting. Many of them came back to the US with glowing reports of how warmly they had been treated by their hosts.
My own engagement in protest against the war began quite early, July 17, 1963. At lunchtime the day before, two members of the Catholic Worker community, Tom Cornell and Chris Kearns, had demonstrated outside the building in midtown Manhattan where the South Vietnamese Observer to the United Nations had his apartment. Their signs read, "The Catholic Worker Protests US Military Support of Diem Tyranny." Diem was president of South Vietnam at the time. It was the first US protest of Vietnam War. Hearing from Tom that this small action would continue each lunch hour until the 25th, I joined the next day. By the last day, our number had swelled to several hundred and drawn TV news attention.
In 1964, less than a year later, I wrote an article meant to give readers some basic knowledge of Vietnam and its recent history. It wasn’t easy doing the research. At the time there were very few books about Vietnam in the New York Public Library. There were also no privately owned computers and there was no web.
Not many months later I had left my newspaper job and was working full-time for the newly-established Catholic Peace Fellowship, an offshoot of the Catholic Worker. Our work focused mainly on assisting conscientious objectors who were refusing to fight in Vietnam and also making it better known to Catholics that conscientious objection as well as draft resistance was an option.
One of the events that brought Vietnam much closer to me at the personal level was a friendship that developed with a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and poet, Thich Nhat Hanh. In 1967, he asked me to accompany him on his lecture trips in the US. Vietnamese food, music, language and poetry became part of my daily life for weeks on end. I began to understand that the population of Vietnam was not tidily divided between Communists and anti-Communists. There were millions of South Vietnamese in the middle, many of them Buddhists. They identified with neither side and sought what they called a “third way” solution. They suffered a great deal of persecution from the Saigon government. A number of Buddhist monks and nuns gained international attention when they immolated themselves in acts of anti-war protest.
In 1968, I was part of a group of fourteen people, half of them Catholic priests, who filled sacks of key files from Milwaukee’s nine draft boards and burned them, using homemade napalm, in a little park in the center of the city. We were protesting both the war and military conscription. Following our trial, we began serving one-year prison sentences. I look back on it as a kind of sabbatical.
Released from prison in 1970, I renewed my efforts to end the Vietnam War. In 1973, I was appointed editor of Fellowship magazine, the monthly journal of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, America’s oldest and largest peace group. Two years later, it was my joy to edit an issue of the magazine celebrating the end of the war, at the same time raising the question: “And now what?” So much of our energy had been devoted to Vietnam, it wasn’t an easy question to answer.
What I didn’t anticipate was that Vietnam would still hold a major place in my life and in the lives of many others who had welcomed the war’s end.
While I was in France the following summer staying with the small Vietnamese community led by Thich Nhat Hanh, letters smuggled out of Vietnam arrived with the news that the Hanoi government was arresting and jailing not only participants in the former Saigon administration but also Buddhist nuns, monks and lay people who had actively and courageously opposed the war. Also at that time the French journal, Nouvel Observateur, was publishing a series of lengthy reports about post-war Vietnam. The author, Jean Lacouture, was the first western journalist invited into Vietnam by the Hanoi government. He was deeply jarred by some of what he saw, not least by his visits to prison camps. He estimated there were 300,000 prisoners, 100,000 more than Vietnam had admitted. He asked why there were so many? After all, there had only been 35,000 army officers in the forces of the South, and thousands of them had fled Vietnam after the northern victory as did nearly all government officials.
It turned out that many of those imprisoned were people, including Buddhist monks and nuns, who had opposed the war, siding with neither North or South. Those whose lives were centered in their religion rather than in politics, whether Christian or Buddhist, were being singled out, temples and churches closed, publications suppressed, charitable and educational projects locked up.
Thich Nhat Hanh showed me photos of Buddhist nuns and monks who, that past November, had burned themselves to protest government actions along with a letter from the nuns explaining their action. He also had news of the arrest and imprisonment of leaders of the Unified Buddhist Church.
Back in the US, I wrote an article about the reports that had reached Thich Nhat Hanh plus the reports by Jean Lacouture, a name well known and respected in the anti-war movement in the US. Circulating the text in draft to peace movement leaders prior to its publication, I vividly recall a phone call from a colleague who urged me not to publish it. Should it appear in print, he warned me, “it will cost you your career in the peace movement.” My caller was a member of the national staff of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization. Our conversation ended abruptly when he slammed down the receiver at his office in Philadelphia. I was astonished. Why would a peace organization wish to ignore human rights violations, especially in a country in which they had contacts in the government?
The caller’s key word was “career.” Until he called, I had no idea I had a “career,” but I began to realize that even in peace groups one can embrace a careerist mentality.
My article — “Vietnam: Reunification Without Reconciliation” — was in fact published in the October 1975 issue of Fellowship, by which time I was one of several people  (the others included Tom Cornell and Robert Ellsberg) drafting an appeal to the government in Hanoi. Here are the main paragraphs:
“Beginning soon after the victory of North Vietnam and the Provisional Revolutionary Government in the Spring of 1975, and sharply increasing in recent months, reports have reached us indicating grievous and systematic violations of human rights by your government. The evidence is too specific and persuasive for us to ignore.
“Especially with regard to those imprisoned or otherwise detained, in May a Vietnamese official stated that 200,000 were being held in re-education camps. While some respected foreign journalists in Vietnam have estimated 300,000 detainees — the actions of your government constitute a great disappointment to all those who expected not the ‘bloodbath’ so eagerly predicted by the American White House but rather an example of reconciliation built on tolerance. We realize that those held include individuals responsible for aspects of the war and the repressive mechanisms of the former Saigon government. But, having believed your fervent past expressions of commitment to human rights, we are deeply saddened to hear of the arrest and detention of a wide range of persons, including religious, cultural and political figures who opposed the Thieu government despite considerable personal risks… [A list of names was included.]
“Differences among us on what could be hoped for in the revolution’s victory did not in the past hamper our solidarity in opposing America’s intervention. Our agreement, then and now, transcends difference in ideology and analysis, being firmly grounded in our concern for the lives of the Vietnamese people. We have recognized that the credibility of our witness is related to the candor with which we demonstrate our concerns and our commitment to certain ethical precepts regardless of politics…
“We therefore call upon you to honor the concern for human rights which you have expressed both in formal agreements and in countless conversations with peace activists. We call for a complete public accounting of those detained or imprisoned indicating as well, the charges for which they are held. We call on the government of Vietnam to facilitate on-the-spot inspection by the United Nations, Amnesty International or other independent international agencies in order to assure that those in the government’s charge are treated in accord with international covenants regarding human rights. We call on you to release any individuals who are held purely because of their religious or political convictions. We call for government recognition of the right to open and free communication.
“We recall the tragic self-immolation of twelve monks and nuns in Can Tho Province last November 2, protesting administrative orders redefining and drastically restricting their religious practice. We have noted reports that many service projects of the Unified Buddhist Church … including those assisting war orphans, have been closed, their funds frozen and properties confiscated.”
Quite a number of people quickly signed. Just as quickly passionate opposition arose.
Some of the appeal’s opponents were so outraged that they accused me of being a CIA agent. The author of an article in one peace movement publication proposed that I should to be sent to a re-education camp. Another accused me of being a white bourgeois American — which was true except for the adjective “bourgeois.” I was also charged with being a covert anti-Communist. (That reminded me of how, in the fifties, my father had often been accused of being a Communist, except in his case it was true.)
Rational opposition to the appeal largely fell into two categories. Some objected that the reports of human rights violations could not possibly be true. Another group said some of the reports, possibly many of them, might be true, but — given what America as a nation had done to Vietnam — no American, even those who had spent years of their lives opposing the war, had the right to protest what the Vietnamese government was doing.
On the positive side, the appeal was signed by ninety well-known Americans who had struggled to end the war, many of whose names would have been known and respected by leaders of the Hanoi government. We could reasonably hope to be taken seriously.
One of the appeal signers was Joan Baez. She called me one morning to describe the intense pressure she was under to withdraw her signature. It had been exhausting. The night before she had endured a six-hour coast-to-coast phone call from one weighty opponent of the appeal. In addition Joan told me that a distinguished friend, recipient of several peace prizes, had made a personal visit to warn her of Jim Forest’s “possible CIA connections.” Her first response to her guest, she said, was laughter. She then told him, “Jim Forest is much too nice — and much too disorganized — to work for the CIA.” (In fact how does one prove he isn’t working for the CIA? Should you ask the director of the CIA to certify you weren’t an employee? Denial only adds fuel to the fire of suspicion. The only thing you can do is joke about it.)
Joan wanted to assure me that the pressure to withdraw her signature had only made her more determined not to. She said she could hardly imagine what the pressures were on me. Then, to cheer me along, she sang me a song over the phone. Would that I had recorded it.
She also issued a public statement in which she recalled Albert Camus’s comment that justice is the “eternal refugee from the camp of the victor.”
“I have,” she said, “a general expectation that grave injustices will be inflicted upon the defeated after almost any war, and almost certainly after one fought under the banner of revolution. That expectation may be dismissed as undue skepticism or cynicism, as insufficient faith in and reliance upon the goodness inherent in humankind. I would like to be persuaded that this were so and that Vietnam today could be the instrument of my conversion. But the melancholy history of wars and their aftermath, to which recent decades have contributed a possibly undue share, seems not to point in that direction. My own hope is that the injustices that occur will be limited, and finally brought under civilizing control. That is my hope concerning Vietnam.”
What did our controversial appeal achieve? We certainly failed in our main proposal — Vietnam’s camps and prisons were never opened to the Red Cross or Amnesty International. But did we do some degree of good? Governments never acknowledge that appeals or protests have any influence, though occasionally later on we learn the impact was significant. Someone in the government writes a book, an insider makes secret papers public, revelations occur at a hearing or trial. But mainly we never know. Perhaps we made a positive difference for some of the prisoners in Vietnam, perhaps we totally failed. Perhaps we prevented worse from happening. All one can say with certainty is that it was a worthwhile effort.
What did I learn from this event? Here are five lessons:
* There is no peace where there is a systematic violation of basic human rights, beginning with the right to life itself. War of its nature involves a massive violation of human rights.
* Human rights issues can be divisive even in groups that one associates with the protection of human rights. Much of the opposition to the Vietnam War grew out of disgust with the systematic violation of human rights by the Saigon government — imprisonment and torture of dissidents had been commonplace.
* Attention to violations of human rights can severely strain relations not only between governments but between persons and organizations. Whenever we identify with the perpetrator of human rights violations, there is always a temptation to downplay, ignore or even justify violations of human rights. For example, in the 1930s, many on the left were rightly outraged by human rights violations carried out by Nazis and Fascists in Germany, Austria, Italy and Spain, but turned a blind eye to similar actions carried out under the red flag in the Soviet Union. The reverse was true of those on the right.
* Our way of seeing the world around us is often shaped by peer group pressure. Like certain kinds of fish, we humans tend to swim in schools. It happens even to dissidents, who band together in their own smaller schools. If I belong to a group that regards abortion as a human right, the chances are I will adopt that view. If I belong to a group that sees abortion as a violation of human rights, then it’s more than likely I will too. How little independent hard thinking we actually do!
* Last but not least, there is the problem of careerism. Careerism is possible even in idealistic movements. How easy it is for the bottom line in one’s life not to be the search for truth but the search for economic security. We say what our bosses or more powerful colleagues want to hear, and we say it with a smile. We even try to believe what we’re saying.
It’s only graying people who can recall the Vietnam War. It’s in a category of dusty past events that include the Punic Wars and the War of the Roses. Today Vietnam is a tourist destination and a country offering cheap labor to major corporations. But the issues raised both by that war as well as its aftermath remain all too timely. We continue fighting wars that bring us immense shame and cost immense treasure. We continue to pay lip service to human rights while ignoring them when it suits us.

-- Jim Forest
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text as of 10 October 2011
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For more on this topic, see Jim Finn’s essay, “Fighting Among the Doves”:

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Breathing in the Dead

[written one month after 9-11]

In the early evening, a month and a day after the twin towers of the World Trade Center suddenly became dust and rubble, I gazed down through the window of a small commuter jet slowly descending into Newark Airport, watching Manhattan unfurl north to south.

At the island’s upper end, rising steeply over the Hudson River, there was the dark patch of Fort Tyron Park containing my favorite New York museum, the Cloisters, a healing place that must have cured many people of suicidal thoughts; then the light-pricked darkness of the Upper West Side and Harlem; the long rectangular blackness of Central Park; next, Times Square and the theater district, glowing like a fireplace; then the Empire State Building rising steeply in Midtown, once again the city’s tallest building, its upper tiers illuminated red, white and blue, a nighttime flag in stone; then the smaller, dimly lit structures of Chelsea and Greenwich Village; and finally lower Manhattan and the Financial District with its own collection of skyscrapers, but now a maimed landscape.

It seemed as if a giant meteorite had hit the southern tip of the island, leaving a smoking cavity where the World Trade Center had stood. The klieg-lit crater had become Manhattan’s brightest spot. I knew there were men hard at work in the artificial light, like players in a football stadium, but couldn’t see them. Finally there was Battery Park and the glistening water of the harbor with the Statue of Liberty still holding her golden torch in the sky, still offering her silent greeting to newcomers who had crossed the Atlantic. But it was mainly the wound in Manhattan that held my attention as our plane descended toward Newark.

I had seen the same view twice while in the US in June. Now not only were the city’s most dominant urban landmarks no longer there, but it was a very different America in October.

The September 11 attack had focused on primary symbols of America, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The White House was the probable target of Flight 93, which instead crashed in rural Pennsylvania after passengers battled the hijackers.

When symbols are destroyed, it isn’t surprising that part of the response is also at the level of symbols: the national flag.

America has long been one of the most flag-displaying cultures in the world, but even on the Fourth of July in earlier years I had never seen anything to match the outbreak of flags that greeted me once I was on the ground.

Those first few days in the US were spent in Red Bank, New Jersey, a town linked to New York City by rail. This is where I grew up and is now the home of my oldest son, his wife and their two young children. In the course of a leisurely walk to the center of the town and back, I counted more than two hundred flags, not including flag pins of various kinds that many people were wearing, or the small flags in a park by the river which had become a spontaneous memorial site for local victims of the events of September 11.

More than a hundred people from Red Bank or nearby had been among the three thousands killed when the towers of the World Trade Center imploded. One of the dead had been a passenger on Flight 93. Here, amid many candles, were their photos as well as displays about them — wedding pictures, medals, prayer cards, poems, drawings and quilts. A smaller memorial was set up outside a nearby firehouse. Since September 11, when so many fireman and policemen sacrificed their lives rescuing others, Americans see heroes when they see people in either profession.

Visiting an Orthodox parish in Princeton, I was given a flag pin by a retired black woman whose son had narrowly escaped death at the World Trade Center. For her, she explained, the flag had become a different symbol after September 11 than it had been before. For her, it represented people trying to protect diversity in the face of ideologies that demand uniformity.

But another member of the parish found himself uncomfortable with the flag. “Before the bombing of Afghanistan started, I saw it as a sign of mourning, but now it might be taken to mean that I support the [Afghanistan] war, which is mainly lengthening the list of victims of September 11.”

Traveling across the US giving lectures and leading retreats in seven states, from Massachusetts to California, I became aware of other changes that were not as visual as the flag. There is the much greater care taken in searching passengers at air terminals. (A British bishop, Kallistos Ware, I know was searched with care three times on his way from London to Louisville because, as one searcher confessed, “you look like an imam.”)

I also noted a greater tendency of strangers to talk to each other while waiting for flights. People seemed more inclined to reach out. Perhaps it had to do with the extreme nervousness everyone feels about flying after September 11. Again and again I heard people remark that not since the Wright brothers got the first plane off the ground has it been so safe to fly as it is today, given all the precautions, but now everyone anywhere near an airport feels a certain dread. With passenger traffic down sharply, there are fewer flights, but these tend to leave on time.

Whenever I mentioned that I live in Holland, I would be asked why it is that so many people in other countries hate and fear the United States? I responded that, while criticism of various aspects of the US is widespread, Americans should be aware that the shock and grief they experienced on September 11 circled the globe.

Again and again I described the response of the Dutch — how on the day of mourning that stretched across Europe on the 14th of September, everything in Holland came to a dead stop at noon: every truck, train, car and bus pulled over, people stood still wherever they happened to be, transactions ceased in stores and banks, and a deep silence blanketed the land. Though the Dutch put out their flags only two or three times a year, every flag was out that day, all at half mast. Neighbors came to our door to express their condolences as if Nancy and I were local ambassadors of the United States.

In conversations at airports, schools and churches, I became aware of other changes that perhaps are best summed up by noting key words that one hears more often.

The word “war,” heard again and again each day, no longer referred to events in some distant place which many Americans would have difficulty finding on a map, but rather war up close, a war that might at any moment take one’s own life or the lives of family or neighbors, yet not war in any traditional sense. No particular country has attacked the United States. It is a war with people who refuse to name themselves, using methods which make it hard to identify those responsible. The main headlines during my month in America had to do with anthrax. Gas masks and anti-anthrax antibiotics were selling in huge quantities.

Another word I heard day after day was “vulnerability.” Americans were painfully aware that their country is no longer behind impenetrable castle walls. Clearly an enemy doesn’t need an intercontinental ballistic missile — he doesn’t even need a nuclear weapon — to become a formidable adversary to the world’s mightiest power.

One of the words being used far more frequently is “evil.” Though most people have had experiences of doing evil things, and also have been victims of evils of various kinds and degrees, the word “evil” itself was hugely neglected in the past generation or two. We preferred to speak of evil actions in psycho-therapeutic terms.

Inevitably the word “Islam” was being used far more than before September 11. I sensed an embarrassed awareness of how little most people know about Islam, how few and superficial or nonexistent are social contacts with Muslims. We are noticing both our own ignorance and the existence of an invisible wall.

The word “God” is being used far more often by people who don’t often enter places of worship and who think of religion as something for the brainless. It had been an embarrassing word for many people, a word one tried not to use, but the shock of September 11 has made Americans people think again about what life is all about, what is of ultimate significance. Many things Americans regarded as treasures on September 10th seemed like trash on September 12th. Churches couldn’t open their doors wide enough. People who hadn’t been at a church service in a long time were streaming in.

Perhaps the word one hears more than any other when talking about September 11 and its aftermath is “fear.” It is not that Americans were a people without fear before September 11. I wonder if there is another country on earth where there are so many privately owned weapons or so many locks per person? But the concentrated dread many have known since September 11 is of a different magnitude. The sale of hand guns has risen sharply. Stores selling gas masks couldn’t keep up with demand. Practically any product that makes the purchaser feel safer is selling briskly. According to press reports, the sale of tranquilizers, anti-depressants and sleeping potions had risen 40 percent.

While leading a retreat on the Beatitudes at Notre Dame University in Indiana during my last weekend in the US, I talked with a student who belongs to a group of peace activists on campus who have been wearing a T-short with the message “Pray for Peace” while handing out leaflets protesting the war, an activity in the present climate that requires real courage. “I think the bombing going on in Afghanistan right now is in part a political response to a contagion of fear,” he said. “Bombing is the government’s way of reassuring frightened people that we are taking the offensive now, even though it may be a strategy that makes acts of anti-US terrorism even more likely in the future. Bombing says, ‘We are doing something,’ even if the main thing achieved is to draw more Muslims to a pro-Bin Laden attitude.”

Before returning to Holland, I had a meeting in New York with a Greek Orthodox bishop. Taking the train from Red Bank to Penn Station, I walked the several miles to his office on East 74th Street. It was a beautiful fall day, the sky a deep cloudless blue, but every step of the way I was aware that this was not the same Manhattan I had lived in earlier in my life. Flags and signs of mourning seemed to be in every shop and bakery window, every restaurant, every newsstand. Everyone was wearing a flag pin. Faces revealed people still in a stunned condition. But what struck me most of all was the smell permeating the air, a strange burned smell. I recalled a phrase from an essay Dorothy Day had written in August 1945 just days after the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Though living in New York, she was aware that the radioactive dust of those two pulverized cities was being carried by the winds around the globe. She was, she wrote, “breathing in the dead.”

And here in Manhattan, a month after the destruction of the World Trade Center, so was I. All of us were breathing in the dead.

-- Jim Forest

* * *

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

All Is Grace: two more reviews

A publisher once told me, "Writing books is hard -- almost as hard as selling them." One of the chief ways a book gains readers is through reviews. I've been lucky with All Is Grace. There have been at least twenty so far. Here are two of the latest.


PS The most recent spotlight on the book is not in print but was a conversation with Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, recorded earlier today for use on his weekly radio program, "A Conversation with the Archbishop." It should soon be available on Sirius XM Satellite Radio (

* * *

Today's Catholic (San Antonio, TX) / 15 July 2011

All Is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day
by Jim Forest
Orbis Books; 2011, soft cover, 344 pp.; $27.

Reviewed by Carol Baass Sowa

As a young woman, Dorothy Day twice lived with men outside of marriage (obtaining an abortion at the insistence of the first and bearing a child by the second), partied with the likes of Eugene O'Neill and was once employed as secretary to a founder of the American Communist Party.

Hardly appearing a likely candidate for sainthood under the above description, this remarkable 20th century woman's eventual conversion and devotion to the Catholic faith and her intense commitment to the poor and social justice would indeed see her, 17 years after her death in 1980, proposed for sainthood by none other than Cardinal John O'Connor, archbishop of New York. The cause for her beatification and canonization was approved by the Holy See in 2000.

Day herself was uncomfortable with being referred to as a saint during her lifetime. "I don't want to be dismissed that easily," she said. Still, she strongly believed that all are called to be saints, noting, "Sanctity isn't for the few but for the many, not for the exceptional but for the ordinary."

Author Jim Forest, who personally knew and worked with Day, has brought together in "All Is Grace" the various facets of her life to paint a compelling portrait of an ordinary woman who rose to the extraordinary.

Born in Brooklyn to a decidedly anti-Catholic father, a newspaper man whose profession Day would later pursue, her family lived a life of economic ups and downs that took them first to San Francisco, then Chicago. Along the way, Day would stumble onto religious faith, first, through a Methodist family next door and, later, a Chicago neighbor's story of a saint that moved her deeply.

It was through her older brother's job at a newspaper that exposed harsh working conditions that the teenage Day first became acquainted with the American labor movement and the "Left." Her reading would continue to draw her in the direction of the plight of the poor and she would later describe her exploration of the slums of Chicago as her first experience of finding beauty in the midst of desolation. No longer viewing the poor as shiftless, worthless people whose plight was their own fault, her life would become more inextricably linked with theirs as time went by.

In 1914, 17-year-old Dorothy began studies at the University of Illinois. An insatiable reader, she was especially taken with Dostoevsky, as well as other Russian writers, and she eagerly consumed histories of the labor movement. Haunted by the victims of social injustice in the laborers and their families she was surrounded by daily, she grew increasingly disturbed that more was being done to provide relief for the victims of social evils than doing away with the evils themselves.

Two years later she abandoned her schooling to move back to New York, where she found the poverty of New Yorkers even worse than in Chicago. Here she rose through the reporting ranks at various reform-minded publications, beginning with the Socialist daily, The Call, and became involved with ground-breaking social movements of the day, including labor union strikes, socialism, women's suffrage and pacifism.

Later years would find her championing César Chávez and the California grape workers' strike and protesting U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. She would be imprisoned more than once for civil disobedience, the final time as a frail, 75-year-old in 1973.

Day's reading and her renting a room in a devout Catholic household in the 1920s drew her closer to Catholicism, but life and work would take her to New Orleans, then back to Staten Island, before she became fully committed to the faith she would later fiercely defend.

It was the birth of her only child, daughter Tamar, and the desire to have her baptized that brought about Day's own baptism into the church whose practices she had been loosely following for years. Not wanting Tamar to "flounder as I had often floundered," Day would write in later years: "I wanted to believe, and I wanted my child to believe, and if belonging to a church would give her so inestimable a grace as faith in God, and the companionable love of the saints, then the thing to do was to have her baptized a Catholic."

Tamar's father, with whom Day lived for a few years, approved of neither marriage nor religion and they eventually parted ways after her conversion. (In a moving chapter in the book - and in Day's life - she later selflessly nursed, at his entreaty, the woman he had subsequently lived with for several decades, who was dying of cancer.)

Dorothy Day, of course, went on to found the Catholic Worker movement, which would combine her faith with commitment to the poor and social justice. Launched in 1933, in response to the Great Depression and its economic devastation, the movement's publication, The Catholic Worker, was brought about through like-minded Peter Maurin, a French-Canadian immigrant. It was he who convinced Day that what was needed was not a bloody revolution as had taken place in Russia, but a peaceful revolution spurred by a radical Catholic publication that would publicize Catholic social teaching and show how to follow it.

Soon the new publication was attracting the first of what would become veritable legions of volunteers, helping with the paper and with the houses of hospitality known as Catholic Worker Houses which sprang up to feed, house and clothe the homeless and destitute across the nation and beyond. There were also experiments in farming communes.

Espousing voluntary poverty and regarding what little she possessed as being "on loan," Day continued to work tirelessly to bring about the just world she envisioned, one in which all would see the face of Christ in the faces of the poor, the condemned, the marginalized. On the day her soul slipped away, Nov. 29, 1980, she was worrying about the survivors of an earthquake in the mountains of Italy.

When Cardinal O'Connor convened a gathering to discuss the possibility of promoting her for canonization, one of her fellow Catholic Worker staff members perhaps summed it up best. "If Dorothy Day was not a saint," he said, "it is hard to know what meaning that word should have."

* * * / August 4, 2011

5.0 out of 5 stars

A remarkable book about a remarkable life

By George M. Stapleton (Park Forest, IL)

Some years ago I read Robert Coles' Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion. Just a few years ago I read Paul Elie's The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, which interwove the lives of Dorothy, Walker Percy, Thomas Merton and Flannery O'Connor. I also read The Dorothy Day Book edited by M. Quigley and M. Garvey. I found all those books quite enlightening and nourishing. All Is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day, however, leaves me searching for words of praise.

I had read Jim Forest's biography of Thomas Merton, Living With Wisdom, so I knew when starting All Is Grace that I was in for a riveting adventure. By the time I finished this book I felt that I had come to know Dorothy extremely well.

Jim Forest and those who helped him in putting this book together have created something that is definitive and masterly. As he mentions near the end of the book, Dorothy Day is still a person who shakes up the lives of those who get to know her. While I am humbled and put to shame by her life and faith, I rejoice in the knowledge that she existed and lived her life so close to the ideals of the gospels.

* * *

The book's page on the Jim & Nancy site:

* * *

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

66 years since atom bombs fell on Hirohima and Nagasaki

As today is the 66th anniversary of the atom bomb being dropped on Nagasaki, it seems a good moment to share both the article Dorothy Day published in The Catholic Worker shortly afterward and also a short text by Albert Camus published in the French resistance newspaper, Combat, two days after Hiroshima was destroyed.

Not many people at the time wrote with such clarity.

Nagasaki, by the way, was the center of the Catholic Church in Japan.


* * *

The Catholic Worker, September 1945

We Go on Record

By Dorothy Day

Mr. Truman was jubilant. President Truman. True man; what a strange name, come to think of it. We refer to Jesus Christ as true God and true Man. Truman is a true man of his time in that he was jubilant. He was not a son of God, brother of Christ, brother of the Japanese, jubilating as he did. He went from table to table on the cruiser which was bringing him home from the Big Three conference, telling the great news; "jubilant" the newspapers said. Jubilate Deo. We have killed 318,000 Japanese.

That is, we hope we have killed them, the Associated Press, on page one, column one of the Herald Tribune, says. The effect is hoped for, not known. It is to be hoped they are vaporized, our Japanese brothers -- scattered, men, women and babies, to the four winds, over the seven seas. Perhaps we will breathe their dust into our nostrils, feel them in the fog of New York on our faces, feel them in the rain on the hills of Easton.

Jubilate Deo. President Truman was jubilant. We have created. We have created destruction. We have created a new element, called Pluto. Nature had nothing to do with it.

"A cavern below Columbia was the bomb's cradle," born not that men might live, but that men might be killed. Brought into being in a cavern, and then tried in a desert place, in the midst of tempest and lightning, tried out, and then again on the eve of the Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ, on a far off island in the eastern hemisphere, tried out again, this "new weapon which conceivably might wipe out mankind, and perhaps the planet itself."

"Dropped on a town, one bomb would be equivalent to a severe earthquake and would utterly destroy the place. A scientific brain trust has solved the problem of how to confine and release almost unlimited energy. It is impossible yet to measure its effects."

"We have spent two billion on the greatest scientific gamble in history and won," said President Truman jubilantly.

The papers list the scientists (the murderers) who are credited with perfecting this new weapon. One outstanding authority "who earlier had developed a powerful electrical bombardment machine called the cyclotron, was Professor O. E. Lawrence, a Nobel prize winner of the University of California. In the heat of the race to unlock the atom, he built the world's most powerful atom smashing gun, a machine whose electrical projectiles carried charges equivalent to 25,000,000 volts. But such machines were found in the end to be unnecessary. The atom of Uranium-235 was smashed with surprising ease. Science discovered that not sledgehammer blows, but subtle taps from slow traveling neutrons managed more on a tuning technique were all that were needed to disintegrate the Uranium-235 atom."

(Remember the tales we used to hear, that one note of a violin, if that note could be discovered, could collapse the Empire State Building. Remember too, that God's voice was heard not in the great and strong wind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire, but "in the whistling of a gentle air.")

Scientists, army officers, great universities (Notre Dame included), and captains of industry -- all are given credit lines in the press for their work of preparing the bomb -- and other bombs, the President assures us, are in production now.

Great Britain controls the supply of uranium ore, in Canada and Rhodesia. We are making the bombs. This new great force will be used for good, the scientists assured us. And then they wiped out a city of 318,000. This was good. The President was jubilant.

[photo: Nagasaki's Urakami -- St Mary's -- Cathedral was 500 meters from the detonation. The many people in the church were among the 73,884 people killed by the explosion.]

Today's paper with its columns of description of the new era, the atomic era, which this colossal slaughter of the innocents has ushered in, is filled with stories covering every conceivable phase of the new discovery. Pictures of the towns and the industrial plants where the parts are made are spread across the pages. In the forefront of the town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee is a chapel, a large comfortable-looking chapel benignly settled beside the plant. And the scientists making the first tests in the desert prayed, one newspaper account said.

Yes, God is still in the picture. God is not mocked. Today, the day of this so great news, God made a madman dance and talk, who had not spoken for twenty years. God sent a typhoon to damage the carrier Hornet. God permitted a fog to obscure vision and a bomber crashed into the Empire State Building. God permits these things. We have to remember it. We are held in God's hands, all of us, and President Truman too, and these scientists who have created death, but will use it for good. He, God, holds our life and our happiness, our sanity and our health; our lives are in His hands. He is our Creator. Creator.

And as I write, Pigsie, who works in Secaucus, New Jersey, feeding hogs, and cleaning out the excrement of the hogs, who comes in once a month to find beauty and surcease and glamour and glory in the drink of the Bowery, trying to drive the hell and the smell out of his nostrils and his life, sleeps on our doorstep, in this best and most advanced and progressive of all possible worlds. And as I write, our cat, Rainbow, slinks by with a shrill rat in her jaws, out of the kitchen closet here at Mott Street. Here in this greatest of cities which covered the cavern where this stupendous discovery was made, which institutes an era of unbelievable richness and power and glory for man ….

Everyone says, "I wonder what the Pope thinks of it?" How everyone turns to the Vatican for judgement, even though they do not seem to listen to the voice there! But our Lord Himself has already pronounced judgement on the atomic bomb. When James and John (John the beloved) wished to call down fire from heaven on their enemies, Jesus said:

"You know not of what spirit you are. The Son of Man came not to destroy souls but to save." He said also, "What you do unto the least of these my brethren, you do unto me."

* * *

On the Bombing of Hiroshima

by Albert Camus

The world is what it is, which is to say, nothing much. That is what everyone learned yesterday, thanks to the formidable concert of opinion coming from radios, newspapers, and information agencies. Indeed we are told, in the midst of hundreds of enthusiastic commentaries, that any average city can be wiped out by a bomb the size of a football. American, English, and French newspapers are filled with eloquent essays on the future, the past, the inventors, the cost, the peaceful incentives, the military advantages, and even the life-of-its-own character of the atom bomb.

We can sum it up in one sentence: our technical civilization has just reached its greatest level of savagery. We will have to choose, in the more or less near future, between collective suicide and the intelligent use of our scientific conquests.

Meanwhile we think there is something indecent in celebrating a discovery whose use has caused the most formidable rage of destruction ever known to man. What will it bring to a world already given over to all the convulsions of violence, incapable of any control, indifferent to justice and the simple happiness of men - a world where science devotes itself to organized murder?

...Before the terrifying prospects now available to humanity, we see even more clearly that peace is the only goal worth struggling for. There is no longer a prayer but a demand to be made by all peoples to their governments - a demand to choose definitively between hell and reason.

Albert Camus, August 8, 1945 - (On the Bombing of Hiroshima)

* * *

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

the harrowing of hell

Into Hell and Out Again

In this Byzantine-inflected icon
of the Resurrection, the murdered Christ
is still in Hell, the chief issue being

that this Resurrection is of our aged
parents and all their poor relations. We
find Him as we might expect, radiant

in spotless white, standing straight, but leaning
back against the weight of lifting them. Long
tradition has Him standing upon two

crossed boards--the very gates of Hell--and He,
by standing thus, has undone Death by Death,
we say, and saying nearly apprehend.

This all--the lifting of the dead, the death
of Death, His stretching here between two realms--
looks like real work, necessary, not pleasant

but almost matter-of-factly undertaken.
We witness here a little sheepishness
which death has taught both Mom and Dad; they reach

Christ's proffered hands and everything about
their affect speaks centuries of drowning
in that abysmal crypt. Are they quite awake?

Odd--motionless as they must be in our
tableau outside of Time, we almost see
their hurry. And isn't that their shame

which falls away? They have yet to enter bliss,
but they rise up, eager and a little shocked
to find their bodies capable of this.

-- Scott Cairns

[note: the icon is in a chapel of the Church of the Savior at Chora in Istanbul]

* * *

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Saint George & the Dragon

Yesterday I saw the cover art for my fourth children’s book, “Saint George & The Dragon.” It features the most colorful dragon I’ve ever seen, painted by the iconographer Vladislav Andreyev. This is not a dragon to play with! Yet in this profoundly Christian legend the dragon is only wounded by George. After the battle the people in the nearby town, whose children had been his food, are given charge of caring for their former enemy.

Today I have been trying to recall when the writing of this story had its first inspiration and realize it was in July 1987, when Nancy and I were in Russia together -- Nancy’s first visit there.

One of the main events of our days in the Moscow region was driving out to the St. Sergius-Holy Trinity Lavra. Before we finished that visit, we were taken around the monastery’s small museum by a young priest monk, Father Alexei.

Mainly he wanted us to look closely at the icons, one of which was of St. George. He pointed out that the saint’s combat with a dragon was not meant to represent an historical event in George’s life. “The dragon represents evil,” he said. “But the icon makes clear that it isn't George who slays the dragon. If you look closely, you see he isn't really holding the spear, just touching it lightly. It rests in his hand. Also notice the calm dispassion in George’s face. The iconographer makes clear that this is a battle without enmity. Also notice how thin the lance is -- thin as a pencil, not at all suited for combat -- and see the cross at the top. St. George is fighting not with a military weapon but with the holy and life-giving cross. The icon show us that it is only the strength of God that overcomes evil, not our own strength."

An abiding devotion to St. George took root that day -- and this small book had its genesis.


* more about the book...

* a collection of icons, paintings and sculptures of St. George...

* * *

Here is the entry about that day at the lavra that was published back in 1988 in Pilgrim to the Russian Church:

The most memorable part of our visit was the time we had with a young monk named Father Alexei. He spoke to us chiefly about the vital importance of mystical union with God through Christ: that it is possible, that it is worth one's total efforts, one's life, that indeed life is empty and pointless without it, and that it only happens within the community of faith, the Church.

"This Lavra is the center of the Russian Orthodox Church, and St. Sergius is the heart of the Lavra," Fr. Alexei said in welcoming us. "His heart encompasses the whole world."

As we stood before a model of the Roman catacombs where Christians worshiped during times of persecution, Fr. Alexei asked, "What caused this obedience to Christ? What caused believers to risk their lives but never to threaten anyone and never to defend themselves? The Christians could have taken up arms but instead they gave up their lives. They had the strength of obedience to Christ. Obedience is of the utmost importance, even obedience to death. They gave witness -- the Greek word for witness is martyr -- with their own blood."

As we stood before the oldest icon in the seminary collection, dating from the Ninth Century, he said: "Icons also are witnesses to Christ. It has been said that the fact that there is a Holy Trinity icon painted by Rublev is proof of the existence of God. Without communion with God, such an icon cannot be made. Without God we are not capable of such beauty. A lesser beauty has its roots in a greater beauty.

"Culture is based on cult. Culture forms us. In the Russian icon, the Russian recognizes his own culture, his self, because it is the Russian vision of God, something absolute. It comes from union with God. Western art is a big step down from this. It mirrors the culture only as an image of people removed from union with God. The state of the soul is reflected in what one paints and what one wants to look at.

"God teaches us how to get in contact with each other and how to treat the world. A useful way to understand our relationship to God and to each other is to picture God as the center of a wheel with ourselves at various points on the radii. As we approach God, the center, we approach each other, and as we move away from the center, we move away from each other. You cannot approach God without approaching others also. God asks us to love our enemies. That's difficult! But it is the way of perfection. We are called to achieve it. Someone isn't a saint because of his high morality but because of his communion with God. It is out of that communion with God that a saint loves his enemy. He cannot do otherwise. Love of enemies can occur only with love of God. The two happen simultaneously.

"Christ didn't say thinking is the way. He said love is the way. But sometimes it looks like madness. You have heard about the Holy Fools, the Fools for Christ. Some of the saints intentionally put on the mask of madness. Under their rags they often wear a heavy metal cross. Without a purified heart this wouldn't be possible. It is done to achieve the gift of humility without which it is impossible to love anyone.

"It is said that one of the Fools for Christ was taken into heaven where he saw many saints but not the Mother of God. He asked the angel guiding him where she was. 'She is on the sinful earth helping humanity.' He realized that the saints can enjoy all the gifts of paradise but they continue to be with us in our suffering.

"There are 700 basic models of icons, and far more models of sanctity. But in each case the perfected Christian has not achieved perfection through his own good works, but by faith, which can come only through the sacraments, only through the Church. We cannot be saved alone. We must be part of a community."

Looking at a fifteenth century icon of St. George slaying the dragon. Fr. Alexei pointed out that the saint’s combat with a dragon was not meant to represent an historical event in George’s life. “The dragon represents evil,” he said. “But the icon makes clear that it isn't George who slays the dragon. If you look closely, you see he isn't really holding the spear, just touching it lightly. It rests in his hand. Also notice the calm dispassion in George’s face. The iconographer makes clear that this is a battle without enmity. Also notice how thin the lance is -- thin as a pencil, not at all suited for combat -- and see the cross at the top. St. George is fighting not with a military weapon but with the holy and life-giving cross. The icon show us that it is only the strength of God that overcomes evil, not our own strength."

St. Paul, in a nearby icon, is shown holding the Bible with a powerful grip. "You see him full of life, ready to sacrifice himself. You feel his anguished love of his brothers and sisters so profound that he was prepared to be separated from Christ if that would draw others closer. The Bible is shown in reverse perspective. The Bible is smaller for the person standing in front of the icon than it is for St. Paul. You realize that you are only at the beginning of the road of faith. It is only in deeds for God's sake that we start on the way to God."

We stood before the relics of St. Sergius: two chalices made of wood, several small icons, one of his sandals, a tool he used in making wooden toys. (Zagorsk is still renowned for its wooden toys.)

Fr. Alexei said that there are still experiences at the Lavra of people encountering St. Sergius. "In one case a pilgrim came from a remote part of the country and had made no arrangements to stay anywhere for the night. It began to rain. An old man came up to him and asked, 'Why are you standing in the rain? Please join me.' They walked for fifteen minutes to a little cabin. The old man gave his guest bread and water and a bench to lay on. When the man woke in the morning, the cabin was gone. The pilgrim discovered he was under a for tree. He told the monks what had happened. They knew that once again St. Sergius himself had cared for another pilgrim."

We eagerly listened to everything Fr. Alexei said, like hungry people being fed. We could sense his excitement and the mounting enthusiasm he felt as he shared more and more with us. Finally, when we parted, he thanked us for our attentiveness, and said, "I think one day you will become naturalized Russian citizens."

[The prophecy has yet to be fulfilled, but in 1988 we became “naturalized citizens” of the Russian Orthodox Church.]

Fr. Alexei spoke so intently and with such clear devotion and intelligence that even our translator, Vasili, was impressed, "old hard-boiled egg though I am."

* * *

Friday, April 1, 2011

Close encounters with Einstein

One of the golden moments of my childhood was, while in Princeton to have lunch with a cousin, my mother, brother and I happened to see Albert Einstein walking down the street toward us. There was no mistaking him -- Einstein looked exactly like Einstein. He also seemed very approachable, though I was too surprised to actually go up to him and say hello.

What would I have said? Maybe, “Mister Einstein, you look just like all the photos of you!”

And no doubt he would have replied to eight-year-old me, “That’s because E equals m c squared.”

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Sharing this story with my friend Ken Curtin, he responded with another:

Legend says Einstein was once asked by a cocktail party hostess to explain his famous theory of relativity. He allegedly answered with an allegory thus:

Once I was walking with a blind friend and mentioned that I would like a glass of milk. He said, "Glass I know, but what is milk?" I said "Milk is a white liquid." He said,"Lliquid I know, but what is white?" I said "White is the color of a swan's feathers." He said, "Feathers I know, but what is a swan?" I said, "A swan is a bird with a crooked neck." He said "Neck I know, but what is crooked?" I took his arm and said, "This is straight," and, bending it, said,"This is crooked." "OHHH!" my friend said, "Now I understand what milk is!"

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To which one might add: "Now I know what milk is, but what is understanding?"


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Thursday, February 17, 2011

A little family history

I got a query this morning from my 13-year-old grandson Zackary Forest in Red Bank, New Jersey:

I have a question for you, grandpa. In history class we were talking about an explorer named Henry Hudson. I told my dad about it and he said that one of my ancestors was the navigator, his last name was Hendrickson. I told my history teacher about it and he didn't quite believe me. I searched it on the Internet and found nothing, I looked through some books and again, nothing, so now it comes down to you. Was my dad just playing a joke on me or was one of my ancestors the person that led Henry Hudson into the Hudson River for the 1st time?

My response:

Your dad is right -- one of your ancestors is Hendrick Hendrickson (then spelled Hendricksen), who was Henry Hudson’s navigator on the 1609 voyage of the Half Moon that sailed up the river that is now named after Henry Hudson. It was a Dutch ship -- its actual name was Halve Maan. Hudson and his navigator were trying to find “the Northwest Passage” -- a hoped-for shortcut to the Pacific.

Hendrick Hendricksen (perhaps the navigator, perhaps his son) was one of the early settlers of Manhattan. On a Dutch map made in 1660 -- attached is a copy -- you’ll see where he and his family -- your ancestors -- lived. map. It was right at the southeast corner of Wall Street -- that’s where the town wall was located in those days -- and Broadway, then named Breed Straat. In the 1660 map the house is on plot 7 in block B. Above is a copy of the map as drawn by Peter Spier for his book “Nieuw Amsterdam.” He copied it from the original, which I think is in the care of the New York Historical Society. You’ll find a picture of it on the web right here:

And here’s one of the illustrations from the Peter Spier book. It will give you an idea of what New Amsterdam looked like in the mid-1600s.

There is a really amazing high-resolution panoramic view of New Amsterdam in those days here:

One last thing. It seems the Hendricksons mainly settled in New Jersey. One of the family homes is now a museum -- the Holmes-Hendrickson House. Photo below. It’s near Red Bank, in Holmdel, at 62 Longstreet Road -- a brick farmhouse that was built in 1754, 22 years before the Declaration of Independence was written. The house is now in the care of the Monmouth County Historical Association. According to Association’s web site, you can visit May through September on Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 1 to 4 pm. Maybe we can all go for a visit there when I come to visit in May?

Your great-grandmother, Marguerite, was a Hendrickson. That was her last name until she married and she still used it as a middle name throughout her life. It was from her, when I was about your age, that I learned the things that are in this letter. My middle name, by the way, is Hendrickson.

Papa Jim

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And now this addendum from the family historian, Caitlan:

Hi Zackary,

I've been interested in history and genealogy for a long time and have done some research. One of the problems here is that the manifest of the Half Moon (the list of who was on the ship) was sent back to Holland after its voyage and it was lost, so it's very hard to prove who was on the boat. Except for the obvious Mr Hudson, of course.

But Hendrik Hendricksen can be found on old maps of New Amsterdam, or at least his house can. The map Papa Jim sent you is based on a map called the Castello Plan, drawn in 1660 by a man named Jacques Cortelyou (see It is accompanied by an index called the Nicasius de Sille list (don't ask me why) and this shows that Hendrik Hendricksen purchased Block B plot #6 in 1660. (The numbering used here is different from the Spiers map, so the plot Papa Jim mentioned is probably the right one.) You can find the Nicasius de Sille list here:

Russell Shorto wrote a very interesting book about New Amsterdam called Island at the Center of the World. You might try reading that some time. It has lots of juicy stories about the people who discovered and lived in New Amsterdam, including Henry Hudson himself, who apparently was NOT a nice man. (If I remember correctly, his crew got so fed up with him they stuck him in a dinghy when they were on a voyage somewhere in Canada's Hudson Bay and he was never heard from again!)

There is also a project going on that might be worth checking out called the New Netherlands Project; that might be fun. (

One more thing: there is an audio walking tour of lower Manhattan that you might want to look into, called the New Amsterdam Trail. It takes you by all the interesting 17th century sites and tells you all about them. Maybe that's another thing you can do with Papa Jim when he comes to visit in May? (Also, if you could remind him to pick me up a few bags of chocolate chips, I would be eternally grateful.)


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Friday, January 14, 2011

good guys in a place for bad guys

From a letter in which a friend in Maryland relates how she explained to her son why Jim Forest once spent a year in prison:

"On another note, I was giving Matthew a bath today and suddenly he asked me why our friend Jim Forest went to jail. The kid has a mind like a steel trap, forgets nothing. He specifically wanted to know why, if you are a good guy, you went to jail if that's a place for bad, we had a long conversation and I made it as simple as I could given his age. I explained that you were trying to do something good, work for peace and protect young men from having to go to war, but you broke the law doing it... I gave an example of someone breaking into a store to get food for their kids if they had no money or help. Their intent was good, to feed their hungry kids, but in breaking the law, they might have to go to jail as a consequence....I did tell him that it's usually the bad guys who continue to break the law and do things that hurt others, like killing people, that stay in jail for a long time....and I told him that there are very few of those."

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Care to know more about the Milwaukee 14, the event that resulted in my prison sabbatical? See:

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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Sr. Rosemary Lynch, a peacemaker beloved by many

Rosemary Lynch, a Franciscan nun beloved by many, died the day before yesterday (January 9) at a hospital in Las Vegas, Nevada, four days after having been hit by a car. She was 93.

After retiring from work at the Franciscan headquarters in Rome, Rosemary accepted an assignment in Las Vegas working with refugees and the poor. Once there, she quickly became deeply engaged in organizing resistance to nuclear weapons and war, as a result of which she became a co-founder of Nevada Desert Experience. Over the years, she was often arrested at the Nevada nuclear test site for participation in nonviolent acts of civil disobedience. (In the photo, above, taken last August, she is the person in the broad-brimmed hat behind the banner.)

I came to know her in 1985 when we co-taught a course at the Ecumenical Institute at Tantur, on the road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

I included some of my Rosemary stories in Ladder of the Beatitudes. Here are extracts in which she figures.


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(From Ladder of the Beatitudes by Jim Forest, Orbis Books)

.... One of St. Francis's efforts as a peacemaker concerns Gubbio, a town north of Assisi. The people of Gubbio were troubled by a huge wolf that attacked not only animals but people, so that the men had to arm themselves before going outside the town walls. They felt as if Gubbio were under siege.

Francis decided to help, though the local people, fearing for his life, tried to dissuade him. What chance could an unarmed man have against a wild animal with no conscience? But according to the Fioretti, the principal collection of stories of the saint's life, Francis placed his hope in the Lord Jesus Christ, master of all creatures. Protected neither by shield or helmet, only arming himself with the sign of the Cross, he bravely set out of the town with his companion, putting his faith in the Lord who makes those who believe in him walk without injury on an asp . . . and trample not merely on a wolf but even a lion and a dragon.

Some local peasants followed the two brothers, keeping a safe distance. Finally the wolf saw Francis and came running, as if to attack him. The story continues:

"The saint made the sign of the Cross, and the power of God . . . stopped the wolf, making it slow town and close its cruel mouth. Then Francis called to it, 'Brother Wolf, in the name of Jesus Christ, I order you not to hurt me or anyone.'

The wolf then came close to Francis, lowered its head and then lay down at his feet as though it had become a lamb. Francis then censured the wolf for its former cruelties, especially for killing human beings made in the image of God, thus making a whole town into its deadly enemy.

"But, Brother Wolf, I want to make peace between you and them, so that they will not be harmed by you any more, and after they have forgiven you your past crimes, neither men nor dogs will pursue you anymore."

The wolf responded with gestures of submission "showing that it willingly accepted what the saint had said and would observe it."

Francis promised the wolf that the people of Gubbio would henceforth "give you food every day as long as you shall live, so that you will never again suffer hunger." In return, the wolf had to give up attacking both animal and man. "And as Saint Francis held out his hand to receive the pledge, the wolf also raised its front paw and meekly and gently put it in Saint Francis's hand as a sign that it had given its pledge."

Francis led the wolf back into Gubbio, where the people of the town met them in the market square. Here Francis preached a sermon in which he said calamities were permitted by God because of our sins and that the fires of hell are far worse than the jaws of a wolf, which can only kill the body. He called on the people to do penance in order to be "free from the wolf in this world and from the devouring fire of hell in the next world." He assured them that the wolf standing at his side would now live in peace with them, but that they were obliged to feed him every day. He pledged himself as "bondsman for Brother Wolf."

After living peacefully within the walls of Gubbio for two years, "the wolf grew old and died, and the people were sorry, because whenever it went through the town, its peaceful kindness and patience reminded them of the virtues and holiness of Saint Francis."

Is it possible that the story is true? Or is the wolf a storyteller's metaphor for violent men? While the story works on both levels, there is reason to believe there was indeed a wolf of Gubbio. A Franciscan friend, Sister Rosemary Lynch, tells me that during restoration work the bones of a wolf were found buried within the church in Gubbio. ...

When I think of people I have known personally who in various ways have shown a similar love and courage, a similar commitment to conversion, one of the people who springs to mind is Sister Rosemary Lynch. Now in her eighties, she has been a Franciscan since she was seventeen. She and another Franciscan, Sister Klaryta Antoszewska, live in Las Vegas. Their Las Vegas isn't the familiar gambler's mecca of bright lights and roulette wheels but of people who clean hotel rooms, work in laundries, clear tables, and wash dishes.

Those who meet Rosemary are impressed with her radiant smile and the interest she takes in others, no matter how minor their position in life. She tends to call people "Honey." Though she is preoccupied with some of the most troubling problems in the world, I have rarely met anyone over the age of ten so free of anxiety, a trait she credits to her parents. She recalls that, as a child, she misunderstood the words of a certain hymn. "The hymn started off, 'O Lord, I am not worthy,' but for years I thought the words were, 'O Lord, I am not worried!' And actually, in our home, that was our attitude toward the Lord and toward life. We weren't worried -- not about the Lord or anything else."

Saint Francis inspired her from an early age. "He was almost a member of my family. In our home we had an understanding of that marvelous universality, that cosmic love, that integrity of creation that are at the heart of Saint Francis. While we didn't fully understand how radical Francis was and what a reformation he started, in our home Francis hadn't landed in the bird bath."

In 1985, when Rosemary and I were teaching a course entitled "Making Peace, Serving Peace" at the Ecumenical Institute near Jerusalem, I asked her if seventeen hadn't been too young an age to commit herself to a religious community.

"Not at all," she assured me. "In those days we started just about everything younger. We took responsibility in our teens. It's a pity that nowadays we seem to be developing a culture of permanent immaturity, permanent dependency. You find university students who haven't the remotest idea what they want to do with their life. But when I was young, people had a goal that they were going toward. And this is what you still find among the refugee children."

Rosemary says the most important educational experience in her life began in 1960 when she was elected to serve at her congregation's headquarters in Rome, her home for sixteen years. "That's where I lived, but actually I was traveling a lot, months at a time. I would be visiting the different places where our sisters were working -- Europe, North America, Mexico, Africa, and Southeast Asia. I began to look at the world with different eyes. One of the life-changing events was my first encounter with starvation. I happened to be in Tanzania during a drought. For the first time I was surrounded by starving children. It was a conversion experience -- the realization that things were terribly out of place in the world. For months afterward I could hardly enter a store in the consumer society of Rome and see all those nonessentials and all the people buying them. I wanted to scream out loud, 'Doesn't anyone know that I saw a child die of hunger -- and you are buying false eyelashes!'"

Rosemary and Klaryta's work in Las Vegas centers on refugees, immigrant families, prisoners, and peace.

"We try to do these things on two levels, to combine immediate, necessary work in the community and work to change structures that cause suffering. Working with refugees, we have tried to change the notion of the State Welfare Board, which was denying refugees financial help. Visiting prisoners, we have worked for a pre-trial release program. Working for peace, we not only try to get rid of nuclear weapons but also to help victims of Nevada's many nuclear tests. We don't want just to apply band-aids, but neither do we want to lose contact with people by becoming too abstract."

In the years when nuclear weapons were still being tested in mine shafts beneath the desert, Rosemary spent hundreds of hours standing in prayer on a highway adjacent to the nuclear test site and many more hours meeting with test-site employees. She helped initiate Desert Witness, which each Lent brought thousands of people to fast and pray at the nuclear test site until the explosions finally stopped. Time and again she crossed the property line and was arrested.

Despite her many arrests, Sister Rosemary won the respect of people who were among the most law-abiding citizens. In 1985 the governor of Nevada and the mayor of Las Vegas honored her with an officially proclaimed Rosemary Lynch Day. (However, not all the responses to Rosemary's efforts were so appreciative. In February 1988, following another arrest at the nuclear test site, she lost her job with a social service agency. "I have observed that the more deeply a person enters into this endeavor of peace-serving," she wrote the agency's director, "the more the cost of discipleship goes up. For me to abandon my hours of prayer and fasting in the desert would be a betrayal of my own conscience.")

Rosemary sees her peace activities as a continuation of the renewal of Christianity associated with Saint Francis. "Not only were the brothers and sisters forbidden to have weapons or to use them for any reason," she often explains, "but so were the lay people who followed the rule he wrote for those living a family life."

In 1989 she and several co-workers decided to focus more intensively on nonviolence as a means of personal and social transformation, founding a group that took its name from a phrase often used by Saint Francis: Pace e Bene (peace and goodness). "Even if nuclear weapons were abolished," Rosemary points out, "unless we defuse the bombs in our own hearts, the human family is quite capable of finding other even worse means of destroying life."

The refugees Klaryta and Rosemary received in the days when the United States was geared for war with the Soviet Union was a young Russian couple and their son. They had been given permission to leave because they had Jewish family backgrounds, though they were not active in synagogue or church.

"The man was a sculptor and graphics artist," Rosemary recalled, "the woman a restorer of icons and an illustrator of children's books -- skills not in demand in Las Vegas! In the man's case it seemed Sister Klaryta was lucky -- she found him a job in a graphics studio, but all we could get for the woman was a job as a 'bus person,' clearing tables in a casino restaurant. It was a humiliating job for a sensitive woman and skilled artist. She accepted it, but it was very hard.

"We had found them a small apartment, but they often knocked on our door. We would make a pot of good strong tea and talk for hours. For both husband and wife it soon became obvious that they couldn't continue with their jobs. It turned out that this 'art studio' wanted the husband to make posters for pornographic movies. But for him art is a sacred thing. This violated the nature of his being. We told him he had to stop.

"In his wife's case, the crisis was caused by a state law requiring that bread left on the table must be thrown out, even if no one has touched it. She came home one night completely broken, in tears, saying, 'They make me throw away the body of Christ!'

"That night I finally understood something basic in Slavic culture. They understand that all bread is holy, all bread is linked to the body of Jesus, not only bread consecrated on the altar. I'm sure our ancestors knew this too, but in the degenerate society that we now have, we no longer see this. We can easily throw bread into the garbage. But our friend could no longer violate her heart and her spirit by throwing away bread. So we told her, 'You have to stop immediately.' And she did. Finally Klaryta arranged for the family to go to New York, where there is a large Russian community and a much better chance to work as artists and icon restorers. It has never been very happy for them, but at least it's better than it was."

Rosemary regards her activities not as making peace but being in "the service of peace." As she says, "None of us can make peace. Peace is God's gift. But we can serve God's peace."

Nuclear weapons and warfare were not at all in her thoughts when she moved to Las Vegas. "But in Nevada, where so many nuclear weapons have exploded, you can't not think about what a nuclear war would mean. Thank God so far there has been no World War III, but we have many victims of the preparations for World War III. They are all around us. Some are the people working at the testing site, where the cancer rate is much higher than the national average. Many employees have been radiated in nuclear accidents. In addition there are all those soldiers who were close to ground zero when there were above-ground tests. Many have died already, and many have had defective children -- the greatest sorrow. There are also the 'down-wind victims' who were in the path of fallout clouds."

Rosemary's focus has always been on people, not weapons. "Of course we hope our efforts make it more likely that the day will come when there will be no more testing and no nuclear weapons, but what we are doing has another, deeper meaning -- the recognition that we too, not only those making and testing weapons, are in need of conversion. Our motto has always been, 'Convert!' What we are doing concerns conversion. We need to convert our own hearts. As long as the bombs are exploding in our hearts, we have little hope of even understanding what is going on in the world around us. We hope not only for our own conversion but for a conversion that will lead our whole society in a new direction. The desert is a place linked to conversion. The desert has always been the classical place of spiritual solitude. The prophets of old searched for the voice of God in the desert. This is true for us too. So we go out to the desert to fast and pray. In the winter it is often windy and frigid, but in the warmer seasons it comes to life. You should see the desert at Easter time!"

Rosemary has developed a profound sympathy for those who work at the test site, many of whom she has come to know personally. "They are hostages of the bomb, just as we are," she comments. "Many friendships have taken root, especially with guards and police. Many people working at the site wave to us. I remember one worker who brought us a box of fresh donuts. He said, 'I may be on the other side, but I have to admire your perseverance.' Sometimes I am asked to help with very complex personal and family problems. There are people involved with nuclear weapons who have called me late at night with some personal crisis they needed to discuss. I have had sheriffs and military officers cry on my shoulder."

"Isn't there the danger of abusing people's vulnerability in such situations?" I asked. She told me, "I never say to them, 'You should quit.' I don't have the right. This is something you have to come to on your own. With the economic situation in the country so bad, many are glad to have a job, no matter what it is. Even so, some have left the test site, even at the cost of a lot of personal and family sacrifice."

When I asked how she justified breaking the law, she responded: "The real evil is perfecting methods of killing people and destroying God's creation. Breaking a trespass law -- crossing a white line in a road miles from the test site -- respects the essence of civil law and is obedience to the higher law. Sometimes the law needs help. Of course, you have to have a certain amount of openness and patience with people who don't see this and you must be willing to go to jail, which gives you a chance to 'visit the prisoner,' as Christ told us to do. But civil disobedience isn't for everyone. It is a call, a vocation. I would never say to anyone, 'You should do this.' But I ask others to respect the force of conscience that compels us who commit civil disobedience.

"We always practice openness with the police and everyone concerned about what we are doing. One consequence of this is that the police have always been gentle and courteous with us. They have even had a sense of the joy of the occasion. They try not to hurt us when they put on the handcuffs. They assist us getting into the police buses. It's remarkable."

Rosemary urges those who commit acts of disobedience to respect those who may feel threatened or be inconvenienced by such actions and to carefully avoid sarcasm, abrasive words, or rude gestures. "It is our policy never to have the kind of blockade where people go limp and thereby compel the police to have to carry us away. We don't want to call forth hostility in other people. Sometimes people kneel down in the roads to pray. Sometimes we hold up the cross. But when they ask us to stand up, we do so."

I asked Rosemary what she had learned from her years of talking to people whose life's work is linked to weapons. She responded:

"The main thing is not to fear approaching anyone. We need to learn to approach those whom we or others regard as our enemies, whether people in another country or the White House or people anywhere in positions of political or religious leadership -- people who have authority and power which could be used for the welfare of the human family. We need to think about the manner in which we approach them. If we can possibly imbibe a little of the spirit of Saint Francis, it will help. He always approached his opponents -- even a wolf -- in humility but also perfectly confident that he should go. He had a very great simplicity, something that we tend to lack today. We are far too complicated. We need to approach those we are trained to hate or resent or fear, and to do it on a very human level, in a loving way, seeing them, as Francis saw the sultan, as a brother given to him by God. If we can do that, what can we not accomplish?"66

What is striking about a person like Rosemary is the modesty and kindness that marks her efforts as a "servant of Christ's peace." She seeks nothing for herself, not even recognition, and is embarrassed on those occasions when she is singled out for attention. She is not undertaking such activities because they are good deeds or a credit to her or to her religious community, but because she has been drawn deeply into God's love and as a consequence sees everyone, even the most difficult or dangerous person, as a child of God, someone beloved of God, someone made in the image of God -- even if the likeness is damaged or almost completely hidden.

How desperately we need people like Rosemary, and not only in places where wars are being fought or planned or where weapons are being perfected, but wherever people are targeted, whether in the womb before birth or at any stage along the way. We need servants of peace in our communities, work places, homes, and parishes.

And who is the peacemaker who is needed? It is each of us. The beatitude of peacemaking is part of ordinary Christian life in all its daily-ness.

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Las Vegas Review-journal / January 11, 2011 | 12:00 A.m.

Longtime Peace Advocate Dies after Being Struck by Car

By Mike Blasky

Ever since she was a child, Sister Rosemary Lynch took comfort in daily morning walks.

She maintained her routine when she moved to Las Vegas in the late '70s. Friends and colleagues said she liked to explore her community and examine all its nooks and secrets up close.

On Wednesday, the 93-year-old Franciscan sister and longtime peace advocate was struck by a vehicle while taking one of those walks. She died Sunday night at Nathan Adelson Hospice.

"She loved her walks. She did it for exercise and health reasons, but it was more than just that," said Peter Ediger, Las Vegas office manager of international organization Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service, which Sister Lynch co-founded in 1989. "It was a walking meditation."

Sister Klaryta Antoszewska, 78, first met Lynch in Rome in 1962, she said. They reunited in 1968 or 1969, and lived together until Sunday.

She was with Lynch on Wednesday on her last walk, when a "young kid" in a cul-de-sac backed into the women in a central Las Vegas neighborhood, Antoszewska said. Lynch fell and cracked her head on the sidewalk.

She was taken to Valley View Hospital and Medical Center, and her kidneys failed over the weekend. She was placed in hospice care Sunday and died that night.

Las Vegas police are investigating the incident and have not released details.

Lynch was an uncommonly forgiving woman who would have never blamed anyone for the accident, Antoszewska said. "She would not have any kind of negative feeling toward him (the driver of the car)," she said. "Everything was forgiven on the spot."

Lynch was born in Phoenix in 1917. It was here that she would ride her bicycle to the edge of town and walk in the desert. According to a church biography, she also fell in love with the Franciscan parish she attended. In 1932, she joined the Sisters of St. Francis of Penace and Christian Charity, where she taught grade school.

In 1960, she was sent to Rome by her local congregation, where she became part of the central leadership team and remained for more than 15 years. During that time, she made visits to her congregation's provinces around the world, including Indonesia, Mexico and Africa. "The exposure to the other cultures and countries makes you more sensitive and understanding and ready to help," said Antoszewska. "She always said, 'Never judge, because we don't know what's going on inside of someone else.'?"

When she settled in Las Vegas in 1977, she quickly became an advocate against testing nuclear weapons in the Nevada desert.

She'd often walk into the desert and pray, sometimes with a friend, but often alone. She believed that bombs were the common enemy of all mankind, she often said.

Despite her views, she became friends with Nevada Test Site workers, who could not resist her passion, Ediger said.

"They differed with her on the issues, but they recognized and appreciated her spirit very much," he said.

Sister Antoszewska said everyone touched by Lynch's hand remembered her.

Lynch still received letters and pictures from families of students she taught more than 50 years ago, she said.

"They would send boxes of pictures of kids and she wouldn't even know who they belonged to sometimes," said Antoszewska. "But she kept every picture."

As she approached her 90th birthday, she told Review-Journal columnist John L. Smith that she still spoke five languages and had forgotten several others with the passage of time. And she talked optimistically of the people of Las Vegas.

"There are so many good, well-meaning people here," she told him. "There are people who don't have very much but are willing to share. There are beautiful and authentic people who, somehow or another, managed to gravitate together. There are thousands of sturdy people who are doing their best in a culture that's not very encouraging. That's kind of how I look at it."

A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. Jan. 23 at Saint James the Apostle Catholic Church, at 1920 N. Martin Luther King Blvd.

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